…had nothing to do with the two seminars I conducted.
But let me back up a smidge. Bay to Ocean is a one-day writers conference held by the Eastern Shore Writers Association every March. BTO has been going strong for 21 years, and somewhere north of 150 people show up for it each time.
After attending several times and getting to know some of the usual presenters and volunteers, I was invited to give not one, but two hour-long seminars.
“Tenets of Technical Writing”
Despite having last taught tech writing 20 years ago, when I thought I wanted to be a college professor, I was confident about putting together a presentation in it. After all, it was my first job when I started with the federal government, and though my position titles have changed, tech writing’s still a big part of my duties.
Not to mention, I was sure that I had kept all my lesson plans and materials from the mid ‘90’s. All I had to do, I thought, was update them here and there as I transcribed them into PowerPoint, and I’d be rockin’ in the USA.
Yeah…except that somewhere along the line, I apparently thought that I would never again need said lesson plans and materials, and they had Gone The Way Of All Things. Did I mention that I discovered this about a week before the conference?
Nothing to do but grit my teeth and create a seminar from scratch. In addition to condensing a semester-long course into an hour, I had to look up current labor rates, employment trends, etc. for tech writers. Thank the gods we have this Information Superhighway thing to help, not like when I first started teaching back during the Clinton administration….
After spending many, many hours putting together my presentation, I recorded myself rehearsing it, and it was wretched. Fumbling for words, way too many “umm’s” and “uhh’s,” repeating myself, lame attempts at humor, not nailing the crucial points—listening to that was worse than eating a mop bucket of slugs. I wrote a script for it, all 40+ slides of it, and rehearsed it again. Much better.
Putting On a Show, Take 1
The tech writing seminar was the first one I presented that day. I told what tech writing is, what it isn’t, why someone would want to get into it (TL/DR answer: $), and how much it pays (anywhere from $45K to $100K+ in the Washington, DC area).The heart of the presentation was the eight core tenets that I believe are the key to success in tech writing:
- Put your readers first
- Show readers where you’re taking them
- Make it easy to read and understand
- Put the important information first
- Tell the truth—don’t mislead
- Use active voice, not passive
- Use graphics
- Manage time [deadlines/other assignments], space [for print publications], and people [editors/approvers]
I ended the seminar with a tech writing exercise. I gave the attendees five minutes to draft the instructions for making a peanut butter sandwich. Then I asked one brave soul to read aloud their instructions step by step while I attempted to follow them. Fortunately, the lady who volunteered to share hers had been paying attention and had put some effort into it, so I was able to make the sandwich without making a mess or anyone getting hurt.
I was a little nervous at the beginning of the presentation, but once I warmed up, it went along well. The only bummer was that a mere seven people show up, but I was told there were some very popular seminars going on at the same time, so my presentation was like one of those TV shows other stations run during the Super Bowl.
Putting On a Show, Take 2
I had thought that my tech writing seminar would be the more attended of the two I was doing, but the inverse was true. Twenty people came to my presentation on hand-selling books, almost filling the room.
This seminar expounds on what I’ve discussed here and here, and I’ve presented it live before, so I was very familiar with it and comfortable giving it.
The highlights of the presentation were: 1) the section for introverts/the shy; and 2) my “one-spoonful-at-a-time” soft-sell approach.
For the former, I energize and empower writers who feel like they can’t interact for hours with the public. One of the tidbits I give them is to think of their writing as a gift to others, which award-winning author John C. Wright asserts so beautifully:
For the latter, about my technique for selling books, I suggest to my students that rather than give a scripted hard sell, which sounds artificial and turns off many people (myself included), that they engage potential buyers in a directed conversation.
“Directed,” in that, yes, you steer them, if you can, into buying books, but that’s not where the emphasis is. The emphasis is on establishing a relationship and selling one’s self as an author, so as to build, person by person, a loyal and fervent fan base, which will produce lasting interest and sales.
But the Best Thing ‘Bout BTO…
…was what I learned from master writer Robert Bidinotto in his seminar on “Targeting Your Readers to Maximize Sales.” In the presentation (which you can find here), Robert discusses “positioning” and “branding.”
Positioning is about getting your books into the appropriate categories of genres and sub-genres, so that fans of those can find your books. Branding is about attracting and keeping readers by being authentic to one’s self, and thus being different from other authors. Or, as Robert puts it:
True fans don’t love your books because they fit some demographic profile of age, race, sex, location, education, etc. True fans buy and read your books because they identify with you, your “voice,” what you believe.
Robert asked each of us at the seminar:
What is your purpose, belief, cause—the reason why you are motivated to write what you write? That is your “why.” Your goal is not to target everyone. Your goal is to target those readers who already believe what you believe.
Your target readers are those who connect emotionally with your worldview and values, like what you like, believe what you believe. To reach them, you must communicate your “why.”
When Robert said this, something went off in my head. Since I started publishing, I had prided myself on writing fiction that was different from the typical young adult sci-fi/ fantasy you find in the chain bookstores. Something other than Harry Potter and Hunger Games and Twilight, and all their many, many copycats.
And while it has been and is still true that my books aren’t like anyone else’s, I’ve realized that it’s not novelty of characters and plot that inspires me. Despite what I may have been telling myself for a long time, I don’t stay up late tapping on a keyboard because I’m trying to come up with something no one else has (an impossible task, anyway).
No, come to find out, what motivates me is expressing emotions through my fiction—and it’s that emotion that, for most of my reviewers and fans, has been the element that’s hooked them. I haven’t had many people tell me they enjoyed Lost Dogs because of its premise (dogs struggling to survive after humans have vanished from Earth). But they have told me they enjoyed Lost Dogs because of how it made them feel:
I loved all the characters
I felt that this must be what it’s like to be a dog
This book made me laugh
This book made me cry
After hearing Robert’s presentation and coming to my epiphany, I know I need to change a few things about how I present my books to readers. I don’t know exactly what shape those efforts will take, but I hope you’ll stick around to see.
I’ll publish my next novel, This Wasted Land, this year (hopefully sooner rather than later), and if you’re looking for a YA fantasy story that will make you feel, TWL is definitely it.
Kenton Kilgore is the author of Lost Dogs, the story of a German Shepherd and a Beagle-mix who survive the end of the human world, only to find that their struggles have just begun. He also wrote Dragontamer’s Daughters, (like Little House on the Prairie…with dragons) based on Navajo culture and belief. With Patrick Eibel, he created Our Wild Place, a children’s book about the joy to be found in exploring Nature.
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