I love public speaking. I’ve done it many times, not only as an author, but during my previous life in public policy.
But I’m scared to death of having to write a speech. The only thing I can attribute this fear to is my dislike of plotting.
I don’t plot. I don’t plot my books, I don’t plot out my life. I have a vague sense of my career goals just like I have a vague sense of what’s going to happen in my stories. Why plan it all out? As Stephen King says in his book ON WRITING, “Why be such a control freak?”
While I can appreciate and learn from Alex Sokoloff’s fabulous and informative presentations on story structure-and I really love reading craft-related writing books-when if comes to my own writing, I can’t shape it into a structure beforehand. The story comes out one word at a time, and I learn about my characters and what’s happening in the plot pretty much as I write.
Most writers are rather middle-of-the-road when it comes to plotting. They have a rough outline, maybe a few key plot points, perhaps a couple paragraphs about the main characters. They might not have a clear roadmap, but they know the general direction they’re headed and have all the major intersections and turns identified.
Extreme plotters need to start with a detailed outline. They can’t even get behind the wheel unless they know where they’re going, how they are going to get there, and every gas station, restaurant, and hotel on the way. They often have spreadsheets, a detailed scene-by-scene written outline, and sometimes even character charts. They’ll know not only where they are going, but where they’ve been. They can’t even type CHAPTER ONE until that map is complete, and they keep their GPS open and functioning all the time.
I jump into the car, turn the ignition and start driving. Sometimes I go too slow and push myself to speed up; other times I’m in a race for the finish line and have to force myself to slow down. Sometimes I go down the wrong road and have to make a 180; sometimes I go down the wrong side street and find myself in a dark alley with no way out – but then there’s a Dumpster and I jump on it. Pull myself up on a ledge, throw myself onto the fire escape, climb up, leap into an open window and I have no idea where I’m headed, but the journey is more fun than terrifying. (Though there’s a lot of fear as well.)
When I present a writing workshop, I never go in over-prepared. In fact, I rarely go in with more than a couple of bullet points. Every time I give a workshop, it’s completely different-even if it’s the same material I’ve discussed before. That keeps it fun and interesting for me.
Workshops are interactive. They’re personal. I can read expressions in the audience, their body language, figure out whether I’m failing dismally or they’re interested. I ask questions of the audience, try to gauge what they want, play off their questions to me. I’m spontaneous and go off on wild tangents with stories that somewhat relate to the subject. But in the end, they seem to go pretty well-so for me, it works. And they came to my workshop because they wanted to be there. It’s not like I chained them to their chair, right?
But a year ago, I committed to something I’ve never done before. I’m giving the closing speech at the Emerald City Writers Conference in Seattle on Sunday. Speech. Speech implies a plan, words written done on paper that I will read or memorize and quote. Right? This isn’t a toast at a wedding where everyone taps on their champagne glasses and shouts, “Speech! Speech!” and expect you to be spontaneous. This is more like being the pastor and reading correctly from the book otherwise the couple might not actually be married during the reception . . .
I wasn’t worried about this until recently. In fact, I had no intention of writing an actual speech. I figured sure, I needed more than five bullet points–maybe ten–and a couple writing quotes that I can extrapolate on and relate to the writing life. I said as much to my friend Margie Lawson, a fantastic speaker and terrific teacher.
She looked at me and said, “You need a theme.”
I stared blankly. “Theme? What’s a theme? I don’t have themes.”
She laughed. She thought I was joking. “Sure you do. All your books have themes. A speech is no different.”
My books have themes? Really? “They do?”
“Of course they do.” Her smile faltered. I knew that she’d read at least some of my books because she’s used them in her writing classes. So if she thought I had a theme, wow. She probably knew what a theme was. She probably knew what my theme was.
The Merriam Webster dictionary defines theme as: 1 a: a subject or topic of discourse or of artistic representation
Well. Duh. Who needs a word for it? Of course I have a theme. Once I get to the end of the book, I know what it is. Sort of. If put on the spot. With a knife to my throat. Sure. I got it.
To me, theme is like branding. I have no idea what my “brand” is. I’ve taken FOUR online or workshop classes about branding and still have no idea how to define my brand. When told one instructor that my brand was dark romantic thrillers, she informed me that was my genre, not my brand.
Getting back to Margie . . . so I need a theme. She gave me one (thank you!) She said because I was the closing speaker, I should be motivational, to rally the troops so-to-speak, to send them forth into the world to write!
Great! I had a theme, I was done. I could motivate. I motivate my kids to clean their rooms.
“Clean your room and we’ll go out for ice cream.”
“Clean your room or no video games (or cell phone or television or computer, depending on the kid) for a week.”
The room gets clean. I know how to motivate!
But that wasn’t enough for Margie.
“You have to write a speech.”
“That sounds like plotting.”
“It’s not plotting. It’s writing a speech.”
“I don’t plot.”
“It’s a speech.”
A close version of this conversation took place in June. I’ve been stressed ever since.
Except for a short time during the RWA conference. I gave a speech to the Kiss of Death chapter (those of us writing romantic suspense.) It was a speech. I had five bullet points, no written or practiced speech. It went well, I’ve been told. (Unless they were being kind because I know 1001 ways to kill people. But I’ve never done it personally.)
Then I heard the incomparable Victoria Alexander speak at the luncheon and I knew I could never do that. She was funny, poignant, poised, perfect.
On the Levy bus tour I shared my fear with my good friend Roxanne St. Claire (at least, she was my good friend until she said . . . )
“You have to write a speech.”
“What’s your theme?”
Aw! That I knew. Margie had given it to me in Colorado. “To motivate.”
She looked at me strangely. That was a theme, I assured her. Something positive and uplifting.
“Okay,” she said. “Write your motivational speech. Edit it. Read it out loud over and over and over until you know it so well you don’t even need to look at it. You’ll be great. Just practice, time it, and then print it out in large font in case you need to look down for a moment to figure out where you are. But you’ll know it so well you won’t even need to look down, as long as you practice.”
“I don’t have the time.” I wasn’t joking.
“I promise you’ll do great if you follow this formula. You’ll do as good as Victoria Alexander. Trust me. She wrote that speech and practiced it.”
And I knew that was true, because I talked to friends of hers who told me they listened to her read the speech over the phone the night before she gave it.
I began to stress again. Not a little tickle of doubt, but brain-numbing panic.
I started my June 09 book last week. It’s been slow going-I wrote and deleted the first chapter four times, but I think I have it down. At least, the opening paragraphs are strong and I’m finally starting in the right place. But I know that part of the reason I’ve been struggling is because I’m scared about the speech I haven’t written.
I need to write it.
I don’t want to write it.
I want to wing it.
Two people I like and trust told me I can’t wing it.
Ironically, I’m not scared of speaking. I stood up at Thrillerfest in July and winged my way through the Awards Ceremony with only the names of my judges that I had torn off a printed email. But I’m scared of writing a speech.
So I’ve decided to do something in between winging and rehearsing. It’s the only way I can keep my sanity, and finish my book by deadline. I spent yesterday pouring over my favorite craft books and pulling out quotes that are motivational and uplifting. I printed out all my motivational lectures from online workshops I’ve given over the last couple of years. I put everything into a folder, stuck it in my laptop case, and am forgetting about it. When I’m on the plane Friday afternoon, I’ll take everything out and (shiver) write talking points. I think I even have a theme, something a bit more focused than “to motivate.” I’m going to talk about fear. I think. At least, that’s the direction the quotes I’m pulling are sending me.
Might have something to do with the fact that I’m scared myself, but I’m still going to Seattle and speaking in front of 250 people.
Because that’s what professionals do. We acknowledge the fear, toss back a shot of tequila (or smoke or pray or all of the above), and perform.
How do you handle your fears?