When I was six, my mom’s best friend paid me five dollars if I could be quiet for five minutes. In eighth grade I was voted Most Talkative. The senior prediction in my high school yearbook? “Allison Turner will be silent for ten consecutive minutes.”
Public speaking has never been difficult for me. My thirteen year old daughter points out that in the five minutes it takes for the grocery clerk to ring up $300 worth of food, I can fill him or her in with not only the highlights of the week for me and all my kids, but the upcoming highlights–while also finding out what their plans are for the rest of the week. In school, I regularly participated in conversations. (I’m thrilled that my oldest daughter has inherited the opinionated gene from both her father and mother, and when she voices her opinion the murmurs in the classroom are, “Don’t go against Katie, she’s going to win the debate.”) And my five-year-old son will proudly proclaim to everyone he meets that he is, in fact, five; that his brother plays football and his sister plays soccer, and his oldest sister Katie is going to get her drivers license “really soon.”
I particularly love workshops because preparation is minimal. I talk about something I know, have a couple bullet points in case I freeze, take cues from the audience, and engage in lots of Q&A. I love panels, especially small panels with two or three people. Why? Because if they are people you know well and are comfortable with, you can play off each other. Toni and I have done a couple workshops together and they have been a blast and I think well received by the audience. We did one at RWA called “Smart Women, Short Skirts” with SMP guru Matthew Shear and our agent Kim Whalen. The topic? Strong female characters.
[As an aside, I proposed a similar workshop for ThrillerFest. It, too, was lots of fun and I thought well-received by the audience–I had a terrific panel of people, including my buddy James Rollins and debut author Sophie Littlefield who was hilarious–but to be honest? The title they chose lacked . . . something. The organizers wanted all the titles to be in the form of a question–Jeopardy anyone?–and called it: “Should Women Be on Top?” Ahem. I preferred my original title.]
Last year, I gave my first real speech at the Emerald City Writers Conference in Washington. I like speaking; I don’t like writing speeches. I figured I could wing it–have some bullet points and just go with the flow. Unfortunately, others chastised me not writing a speech or even a theme, so during the flight I began to panic. I wrote a damn speech . . . sort of. But it didn’t sound like me. (I know, that sounds weird. But it sounded like what I thought a speech should sound like–and it was way too formal.) So I kept tweaking it and messing with it and came up with something so-so- . . . but when I gave the speech, I realized it wasn’t working–it was all out of order. So I went off on a tangent and basically winged it, but I was so tied to that damn speech I kept trying to get back to it and grew flustered.
[ASIDE: This is one of the many reasons I don’t plot and I don’t write a detailed synopsis–only the bare minimum necessary when either 1) I need to get paid on proposal or 2) the copy department needs something to write back cover copy. But if I write a long, detailed synopsis, I keep thinking I have to get back to it or something’s wrong, even when I consciously try to forget about it, it’s there gnawing at the back of my brain.]
While the speech wasn’t the worst thing on the planet, I wasn’t too pleased. I decided never to give a speech again. Problem solved, right?
Not quite. I’d already agreed to speak at the New Jersey Romance Writers conference. And that’s now only two weeks away.
I’m speaking at the lunch. I think they expect me to be motivational, or smart, or witty, or all of the above. (Lord, help me. Seriously.) It’s a speech, not a conversation. I can’t do Q&A with the audience, however much I would like to. And I probably need a damn theme that runs through the entire speech, or some such nonsense like that.
I’m presenting two workshops at the conference, and those I’m not sweating. One is my Breaking Rules workshop which I always have fun presenting (almost as much fun as my “No Plotters Allowed” workshop.) The other is on romantic suspense with the fantastic Mariah Stewart (my mom just read her last book, ACTS OF MERCY, and said it was absolutely fantastic.)
So I’m good with those. I even have notes from previous workshops so if I get stuck I have something to refer to.
But the speech?
An idea–could I possibly call it a theme?–came to me after reading a message from a new RWA member who’s recently joined one of the multitude of loops I’m on. She wrote something like, “I’m so excited to find other writers who also hear the voices of their characters and would rather write than eat! I’m so happy that I’m normal.”
This is nothing new. I’ve heard a variation on this statement for years. Writers popping in, relieved that they are “normal” when they thought they were weird or no one understood them. Thrilled to be in a group of people who understand and accept them.
My theme? “You’re not normal. And why would you want to be normal anyway?”
Okay, maybe that’s not a theme per se, but it’s a place for me to start.
I haven’t written the speech yet, though I will. Because I don’t want that icky feeling of failure that I had last year at the other conference.
But I HAVE started “talking out” my speech, alone, in the car, driving to pick up whoever needs picking up. I’m sort of working it through in my head, very similar to how I think through complex plot points trying to figure out what the heck is going on in my book and how to solve problems my characters have created. So I’m getting comfortable with the idea. And if the speech is any good in written form, I’ll post it here in two weeks, the day after I present it.
I don’t think I’m normal. I don’t think most writers are normal. Thank God. Normal is boring. It’s bland. It has no color. We’re all kind of freaky, and we should be pleased we’re not like anyone else.
I was talking to an FBI Agent who said that the dinner conversations with his family generally relate to his work, and that his kids will often bring up current crimes to discuss. A medical scientist I recently met shared that her conversations often get macabre and she doesn’t think twice about it since she socializes with people in her field, but sometimes when she ventures out she’s noticed perplexed expressions when she talks about her business. When I viewed an autopsy last year, I finally understood what it meant to “compartmentalize” violence and look at death objectively in order to learn the truth.
Writers tend to think of about things a little differently than most people, and crime writers are often thinking about murder.
Case in point. One day, I was driving my daughter home from practice. It was late afternoon, but not dark enough for headlights. On the side of the road was a large dark green garbage bag filled with . . . something. The way it was positioned, partly obscured by the shadows of the vineyards, coupled with the size and shape and I immediately thought it looks like there’s a body inside.
As I thought it, my daughter said, “That looks like a body.” Then she added, “Do you want to pull over and check?”
Shortly thereafter, my husband and I went to a private home for dinner with a small group of people, including my husband’s boss and his wife. His wife is a fan, and she asked me about my latest book and research. Talking about research is one of my favorite things to do. But I realized that maybe telling her about the decomposing body I saw during my morgue trip–the one that was found underwater and gave me a great visual for PLAYING DEAD–wasn’t appropriate dinner table conversation.
So . . . wish me luck and help me out. Do you have any stories illustrating how you’re not normal? Any fun writer–or reader–anecdotes that I can use (with credit!) in my speech? Do you think you’re normal and I’m the one off the deep end?