Monday, May 31, 2010

Achieving the Impossible--One Step at a Time

Internal conflict! Turmoil! Dramatic questions! (Will she achieve her goal or won’t she?) Physical challenges to be met along the way! All the ingredients of our novels, right? Perhaps. But it was also what I was personally wrestling with when presented with the opportunity for one of the writerly brass rings—a book tour. Every writer dreams of it, and every introvert dreads it (instant internal conflict!) But I not only survived my first book tour, I turned it into a chance to force myself to develop skills I'd been previously lacking, and I thought I’d share some of the strategies I discovered that made this possible. The bad news, it is long, Dear Reader. The good news? I’ve learned how to do page cuts on Blogger!

Come on, admit it. When you first begin to dream of being an author, your dreams include book signings with long lines of adoring fans who cannot wait to read YOUR book, going on a book tour to meet all those said fans, and generally having the Red Carpet rolled out for you. But mostly it’s a nice safe dream, not something you actually have to cope with. So imagine my combination of surprise, thrill, and a teensy bit of angst when my publisher mentioned they wanted to send me on a small east coast book tour. But this was a dream, I reminded myself! A huge sign of support on my publisher’s part! It was one of the brass rings of publishing! Needless to say, that teensy bit of Angst was beat into submission by Surprise and Thrill.

Until the tour drew closer. Then Angst reared its ugly head as I realized just how few tools I had in my Coping With Book Tours Toolbox. I set out to find a few more.

The things I was most nervous about:

  1. Speaking effectively in front of an audience
  2. Making conversation (I’m horrible at small talk—especially when I’m feeling the pressure to be “on” like at parties or booksignings or that sort of thing)
  3. The logistics of travel (I have a fair amount in common with poor Nathaniel Fludd, I am not the most intrepid of travelers, however I do love HAVING traveled, so there’s another juicy internal conflict to add to the mix.)

I discovered the answer to all of these problems was preparation. It was pretty much that simple. But it was also a form of preparation I haven’t really done before.

My husband had bought a little book called, With Winning In Mind, by Lanny R. Bassham, who was the gold medal winner in 1976 Olympic International Rifle Shooting. When the book first arrived, I glanced through it and quickly realized that these tactics might help me with my upcoming book tour.

One thing the author talked about was practicing concepts with our conscious minds until they become part of our subconscious process. If our conscious thoughts focus on the outcome, our performance will suffer. We need to trust our subconscious to guide our performance. Since this is completely in line with how I think of writing and craft, it absolutely spoke to me as a viable strategy in public speaking as well.

The next thing the author talked about was an epiphany for me. He said that our performance will never exceed our self-image, our mental picture of ourselves, which is comprised of our mental habits and attitudes. It’s very similar to what Maggie Stiefvater talked about here. This author broke it down into teachable, accomplishable steps on how to achieve that ground shift in self-image.

With this advice in mind, I approached my preparation somewhat differently. I got my presentation finalized a good three weeks before I was set to travel. Then I practiced it twice a day, in its entirety, without notes. This was golden. By the time I was ready to leave on my book tour, I knew this stuff inside out and backwards. Not only that, because I’d practiced without notes for so long, I’d already flubbed the lines numerous times and practiced bringing things back on track, or redirecting the talk back to where I needed it to be. So not only had I practiced the speech, but I’d practiced my mistakes as well, so they had no power to fluster me.

A second part of this was to overcome a terrible habit of mine: I write a talk or presentation, practice it for a week, then inevitably at the last minute—usually the night before the talk—get cold feet and change the entire thing. But because practice was such a core part of this new approach, I would not let myself do that, no matter how strong the urge.

The third vital component was changing my mental picture of myself from someone who is not good at this sort of thing to someone who was good at this sort of thing. Luckily, I’ve had a few positive experiences in the last couple of years working in my comfort zones—workshops and school visits—so I had some small successes on which to build. He talks about affirmations, something I’ve never really done, but he has a very specific formula that he recommends. I’m not going to share it here since it is part of the core of his book, but I will share my own affirmation with you so you can see how I replaced my own bad mental habits with new ones. (This is a trifle embarrassing, sharing this, but for my fellow Violets I will suck. it. up.)

I rocked the East Coast book tour. I like how being a comfortable, confident speaker allowed me to connect with my audience and make them glad they came to see me. They left feeling they had a great time and were entertained and felt they learned something new. My publisher is thrilled with the bookseller feedback. I wrote a kick ass presentation with interesting visuals that spoke to kids and adults alike. I practiced it twice a day until I knew it front and back. I used my energy and love of subject matter to pull the audience in. I rocked the East Coast book tour.

You can see how that affirmation details the steps required to affect the outcome I wanted, and I think that is what makes this affirmation more powerful than others. The thing is, everything in that affirmation came true. It was a huge success, even the couple of times when there was low turnout.

My next hurdle was trying to get a handle on small talk: It is something I dread, something I flounder with. I am excellent at deep, involved, personal conversations about ideas and feelings and that sort of thing, but small talk tends to confound me. Again, the coping strategy was preparation. And relying on my strengths.

Dear Readers, I researched small talk. ☺

I know! How much research geekery can one person hold, right? But it worked. I made up a list of a dozen questions or so that I could ask booksellers and readers (luckily I’d just gone through a solid reading period so I had a lot of new reads under my belt). I also did a little research on some of the people I knew I was going to meet and saw what their blogs, websites, and interests were, then made sure I had a handful of questions about each. It totally worked; I was able to make small talk the entire time. ☺

And lastly, I’m going to talk very briefly about the rigors of travel, not because it’s particularly relevant to introverts, but because the solution I discovered might be. I read a blog entry on The Moody Muses a few weeks ago by Cathryn Perry on a book called, The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron. Intrigued, I bought the book and lo and behold, it held a few answers for me. (And possibly for YOU. The author talks about how 15% or so of the population are HSP, and I am willing to bet that a high percentage of those are also INFJs. Since I know a lot of our readers are INFJs, I’m sharing this here.)

Now let me stress, this isn’t an “Oh, I’m so sensitive,” in a braggish, superior way. Rather, it is an acknowledgment that some people have more highly sensitive nervous systems and it can be easy to misread the signals that nervous system sends out. It was a total lightbulb moment for me.

The reason it was such an epiphany was that I was able to re-interpret my own physiological response to new situations and environments as just that, physiological. In the past, I had always assumed they were an emotional response. Huge difference!

If my pulse kicks up a bit and I breath a little faster, I’ve always assumed I’m nervous or anxious—two emotional responses. But in fact, it is simply my body responding to crowds or the loud noise of the airport or physical novelty of the situation. That small piece of information radically shifted how I perceived things. By reminding myself that my body was just responding to stimuli, I was able to reduce any feelings of anxiety to almost non-existent.

So these are the steps that helped me radically alter the way I viewed and responded to what in the past has been a huge source of angst. And really, don’t you think that was lovely of the Universe to line up so many important lessons right when I needed them most? Yeah, I love when that happens.

Of all the lessons learned, probably the biggest one is this: We are not static beings. Our strengths and weaknesses are not set in stone. We can grow and change and learn to adapt to whatever is required of us. Especially if we want it badly enough.


I would also like to announce our winner from last week's contest: Nancy Ancowitz! Nancy, please email Mary and she will get that Indie Next book of your choice out to you!


TerryLynnJohnson said...

I completely ate up this whole post. Thanks so much for putting the time in to include all the details. I'm begining to get anxious for my own book tour, so this was wonderful. And congrats on your book tour!

Kaylie said...

Thanks for being courageous enough to suck it up and share your research geekery. I think so often we assume that social skills and presentation skills are attributes we're either born with or not. But you shot that one down. Thanks for showing us that you can learn and practice people skills and even get good at them by working at it.

tanita davis said...

I'm both envious and impressed. Wow.

Good, good, good point about reinterpreting the body's physiological response. Every time my heart rate kicks up, I assume I am a bare half-step from a full-out panic attack, and retreat accordingly -- even when there's really nowhere to go. I guess we forget that we are, at core, little creatures in a petri dish, acting and reacting according to what's going on around us, and not everything is necessarily a class A disaster.

I honestly do not think that I could do a book tour - and fortunately, no one is asking me to! But I am going to hang on to this and reread it for the ALA interactions I have to do this month, and hope that I can do my own small talk research.

Reading does help.
You help, muchly.

R.L. LaFevers said...

Oh wow, I'm SO relieved you guys got something out of it. I was suffering from Poster's Remorse and thinking I had given waaaay too many details and was boring people to death. :-)

TerryLynn, best of luck with your upcoming tour! I can't recommend this approach highly enough.

You're so welcome, Kaylie. You make such an excellent point--that these skills are not only inherent, they can absolutely be learned!

Tanita, that physiological thing was HUGE for me. HUGE. Like you I always assumed I was one step away from a full on panic attack. But now that I know that it's physiological, I can assess my emotional state as a separate thing from my physical state. And I love the reminder of how much we share with little creatures in a petri dish. LOVE that. Good luck at ALA!

Becky Levine said...

Robin, thanks so much for this post! I'm actually okay with the presentation and talking with people afterward, but that SMALL TALK!! And it's coming up for me with a couple of conferences in the fall. I am SO going to research it. And probably get those books. Whew. Feeling better already.

kathrynjankowski said...

Thank you for an inspiring and honest post. Yes, it is wondrous when the Universe provides the answers at just the right time.
I can't wait to read Elaine Aron's book.

Tabitha said...

What a fabulous post!! I am equal parts terrified and thrilled at the idea of a book tour, and small talk is definitely my achilles' heel. The research you did is pure genius, and I'm going to eventually borrow your tactic. Thanks so much for sharing!!

Mary Hershey said...

Wow, Robin! This is so great! Thanks for all the sharing that you've done here. I know that can be a bit scary. I loved the affirmation and all the practicing you did. I can't agree more. It is essential to have your material down flat. You should be able to do it frontwards, backwards, and inside out. That is so important to your confidence.

You forgot to mention the padded hangars at the Fancy Nancy Hotel in Boston!! Violets, they had little beads on them to keep your straps from falling off! Make sure you request those when you go on tour.


Deborah Bates Cavitt said...

Thanks for this post. I totally needed every bit of it. You helped me so much. Now to get a book written so I can be on a book tour or school visit.

Boni Ashburn said...

Fantastic, Robin :) So much useful information in here and I'm SO glad it was a great success for you!! Your next time out will be even better now that you have that confidence built up- it really does keep getting easier and easier the more you do it. So so true :)

Ruth Donnelly said...

What a wonderfully inspiring, honest, and helpful post! Thanks so much for sharing your strategies. And congratulations on the success of your book tour!

Carrie Harris said...

I know how nerve-wracking it must have been to post this...but I'm so glad you did. It's getting bookmarked; I hope I have the occasion to revisit this some time in the future!

Nancy Ancowitz said...

Thank you for this inspiring post, Robin! Beautifully put! So much of what you said resonated with me and I like how you concluded with a reminder of how we can always change and grow and learn if we want something badly enough. Congratulations on your book tour!

writerjenn said...

Violets can do anything. :-)

Jan Markley said...

Lots of good advice! thanks!

Kimberley Griffiths Little said...

Wow, what a fabulous post, Robin. THANK YOU, THANK YOU for taking the time to write all these details and sharing them. Such great advice!

Laura Resau said...

Wonderful, wonderful post! Thanks for being so honest and taking the time to share what you've learned... I'm taking it all to heart!

R.L. LaFevers said...

Wow, thank you all for your words of support and I am BEYOND thrilled that some of you found something useful in there!