For Writers

Put down those arms… and strike a pose!

So, yesterday I did something kind of fun — I finally got an official “author chickenauthorsheadshot.”

I know, I probably should have done this a couple of years ago. But I’m weirdly superstitious at times. And I never really wanted to get one until I actually needed it.

(As it turns out, this may not be the best strategy. Especially when your agent asks for a high res photo and the only recent ones you have are your Facebook profile pictures and a collection of selfies from the Pitbull concert you went to Saturday.)

Luckily, my very talented photographer friend Jennifer Smetek was available on short notice (and also kindly didn’t insist I pose with a pimp cane).

Instead, she had the cool idea to do our photo shoot at the Workhouse Arts Center, a former prison site in Lorton, Virginia. Lots of neat distressed brick, overgrown vines, inmate-painted murals, etc., to use as backdrops. I’d highly recommend it. (Heck, even if you don’t need a headshot, it’s worth checking out — in addition to now housing dozens of working artists, the site has a fascinating history, including the (in)famous imprisonment and force-feeding of more than 70 hunger-striking suffragists in the early 1900s.)

Anyway, after spending an hour and a half posing all over the former prison grounds (and thankfully not getting kicked out… or jailed), I made a few stray observations about what to do should you ever find yourself standing awkwardly in front of a camera:

  • Put your arms down… Yeah, it’s really hard to know what to do with your hands when there’s a camera in your face. I found myself desperate for some pockets to stuff mine in. Or maybe just the opportunity to detach my arms for a few minutes. They felt weirdly in the way. All. The. Time. I spent a lot of time swinging them around like a monkey until I settled on crossing them, keeping them at my sides or putting them behind my back. Having something to lean on helps, too. But for Pete’s sake, don’t look like you’re trying to flap yourself airborne.
  • Put your true self forward. Me — I cannot pull off a serious face. At. All. While some people look great all thoughtful and brooding, I look like I just sat in something cold and wet. Or was given a very uncomfortable wedgie. I’m going to stick with smiling because I don’t look like a serial killer that way. Or, at least I look like a very nice one. Do what makes you comfortable.
  • Photo editing software is AWESOME. I know, I know — it’s really annoying when magazines photoshop a model’s arms right off (although, now that I think about it, maybe they were swinging them like monkeys…). But seriously, I don’t want to add a “thigh gap.” And I don’t need to look like Jennifer Lawrence (though that would be nice). Really, I just want to look like my best self. Not the one that’s been drinking too much coffee and hasn’t slept more than five hours a night for a week. A good photographer can do this without making you look like someone your own mother wouldn’t recognize.
  • Have fun! The best pictures we got were the ones where I was relaxed (and smiling and not flapping my arms). It may have taken a little while — poor Jenn probably had to discard the first 100 shots. But hey, that’s the beauty of digital.

Jan Edit 5095 CroppedNow that the pictures are done, I’m not really sure what I was waiting for. It’s kind of nice to have a professional portrait. So if you haven’t had yours done, go for it! And in case you’re curious, here’s how mine turned out. I may not be JLaw, but I’m happy… At least my arms aren’t waving around and I’m smiling. Really, all that’s missing are some laser beams and a cat and it would be perfect… 🙂


Reaching a Middle Grade Audience

z Middle Grade Book PileThe internet constantly buzzes with news of book launches, making it hard to keep track of all of them. So how can you show the world that your book has arrived? I’ve heard so many authors say that it’s easier to reach readers of young adult novels online, but middle grade authors often need to reach out to the gatekeepers—people like teachers, media specialists, and parents who help put great books into the hands of readers around the ages of eight through twelve.

Here are some tips that might help you figure out what to do (and what to avoid).

* Spreading the word on established blogs can really help! If you’re doing a launch blitz, try not to have similar-sounding interviews flooding the internet. Do your best to give something unique and interesting each time. Dig deeper than just facts about your book, show how it’s connected to your heart and your life. Don’t just think about yourself and your book when replying…try to share something that will appeal to potential readers as well.

* Holding a giveaway is a wonderful way to reach potential readers, and I’ve seen how much word about a book can spread when people shout out about a giveaway. Plus, I always feel better about sharing a link for a giveaway on places like Twitter and Facebook instead of just announcing that a friend has a great new book out—then I’m helping both the author and the people who read my post.

* Keep your website up to date. Let people know the story behind your stories. Give them a glimpse of yourself, and let them know about any upcoming appearances and how they can get a signed copy or bookplate. I’ve seen some authors work with an Indie bookstore, where people can order a copy that they’ll sign before it’s shipped out. Try to include fun activities on your website, and link to sites your audience and/or the gatekeepers will enjoy. One of my main characters loves cupcakes, so I plan to create a Pinterest board full of great cupcake recipes on it. Laurie Friedman, author of the Mallory and April Sinclair series, has done a wonderful job setting up her Pinterest boards.  She created a board for each series, plus boards that are just for teachers, classroom reading spaces, young authors corner, etc.

* Try to speak at conferences, bookstores, libraries, and schools. Many authors offer short Skype visits for free, and I think that’s a wonderful opportunity to help out a school or other organization while also spreading the word about your book.

* Visuals can be a huge asset to an author’s website and can draw more people to it when shared online. Create an amazing book trailer, and post other videos that could interest readers.

* Include teacher’s/reading group guides on your website and bookmarks. I posted helpful tips for creating guides a couple months ago. Click here to read that post. Speaking of bookmarks, it’s great to have handouts like that with more info about your book/s, your website, and links to teacher’s guides or other book related activities.

* Team up with other authors and form a group blog that provides a constant stream of helpful information, or consider starting a marketing group. I’ve seen writers with similar types of books team up for book tours, and it seems like they attract more attention than most authors can on their own.

* Make it easy for people to contact you for potential interviews or author visits. Some websites make me feel like I’m navigating through a maze filled with dead ends while trying to contact an author I’d like to interview for our site.

* I absolutely love SCBWI (the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), and think it is a huge asset. I’m the SCBWI FL Newsletter Editor, and am always surprised when people don’t let me know about their great news. I love shouting it out to our members! If you aren’t involved in your local group, definitely check it out. In addition to local events, they probably have some kind of newsletter, too. Even though the info goes to other authors and illustrators, most of them are avid readers and some may have children who would enjoy your books. Plus, quite a few teachers and media specialists are writers, too! And the amount of support and friendship you can find with people who ‘get it’ is priceless.

Z Middle Grade Books and Ruby* My teen girls laughed when they caught me doing a photo shoot…of middle grade novels. I told them it was for my Mixed-Up Files post, but they didn’t see the point of photographing a pile of books by themselves, and helped me pose one of our dogs into the shot. It made me realize how much I love seeing pictures of children and animals reading books—so you can share photos or video clips of that online, too!


Here are some promotional red flags

* BUY MY BOOK!!!! Seeing blatant self-promotion always makes me shudder. When someone is obviously on a social network site for the purpose of selling a book, it often has the opposite effect. Don’t send a promotional link to your book thinly veiled as a thank you for following or friending you on a site. And don’t blitz people with a link to buy your book or news about it multiple times an hour on places like Twitter or Facebook. You want people to smile when they see your cover…not cringe.

* The same is true of forums. Don’t be a drive-by poster who only hops onto a forum to promote a book, then disappear until it’s time to promote the next book. Interact with other forum participants—share some of your knowledge to help them, ask questions, shout out congratulations and send some support to those going through a rough time. If you want people to be happy to celebrate your good news, you need to be there for them, too.

* When sharing news about your book, don’t make it sound like a formal press release. You’ve worked hard to get your book published! Share your genuine thoughts and enthusiasm throughout your publication journey. Even better, reach out and help others. If you learned some tricks while creating a book trailer, share them. And if you win an award or get an amazing review, don’t just post a general statement and link all over the internet—let us experience the moment with you. Shannon Hitchcock did a fantastic job when she blogged about how she discovered that her middle grade novel, The Ballad of Jessie Pearl, won the 2014 SCBWI Crystal Kite Award. What she wrote was personal, and it made me laugh, smile, and cheer for her.

I’d love to know what you believe works and what to avoid while trying to reach potential readers for middle grade novels.

Mindy Alyse Weiss writes humorous middle grade novels with heart and quirky picture books. She’s constantly inspired by her two daughters, an adventurous Bullmasador adopted from The Humane Society, and an adorable Beagle/Pointer mix who was rescued from the Everglades. Visit Mindy’s TwitterFacebook, or blog to read more about her writing life, conference experiences, and writing tips.

The Power of Group Author Events

In April, my second middle grade novel, The Summer I Saved the World…in 65 Days, came out. A few months before my “book birthday,” I had a moment of panic. Actually, several moments of panic. I was going to have to leave my writerly cave at some point, wasn’t I? I was going to have to put on actual clothing and go out into the world. I was going to have to PROMOTE. The word that strikes fear in many writers I know. Some authors say they LOVE promotion but I question their sanity.

All joking aside (sort of), many authors aren’t very comfortable switching from writing mode to publicity mode. We’re much more comfortable in our made-up worlds where our characters can do anything we want them to do. And of course we can do this while wearing pajamas, so all the better.

pajamasBut as I’m sure you know, both online and in-person promotion are pretty much a necessity in today’s author world. And so is the worry that comes along with it. The basic nightmare of sitting at an autograph table, Sharpie in hand, waiting for people to show up. (Besides your relatives.)

Amie Borst’s post yesterday outlined numerous opportunities available for authors to promote their work, and I’d like to expand on one of those ideas — bookstore visits.

At an Illinois SCBWI writer’s conference last fall, I started chatting with author Kate Hannigan, who had a middle grade book, Cupcake Cousins, coming out about the same time as my novel. We discovered that we shared the same publicity worries, and after we were done with our little therapy session, Kate came up with the brilliant idea of joining forces with other middle grade authors and doing group bookstore events this spring.

Out of our discussion that November day, Middle Grade in the Midwest was born. Energizer Bunny that she is, Kate put together a group of middle grade authors including Amy Timberlake, Wendy McClure, Crystal Chan, Emily Ecton, Liesl Shurtliff and me — all of us live in the Chicago area — and we began approaching Indie bookstores. Not only were they thrilled to host us, we learned that there truly is strength in numbers.

After our first event at Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville, Illinois last week, we agreed that group author events are not only a great idea for pulling in attendees, they’re also way more fun! During our panel discussion, we were able to interact and bounce questions off each other, and this gave our talk more depth and insight. There weren’t any awkward silences because one of us always had something to share.The event was productive, energizing, and inspiring — both for the attendees and the authors.

And, I remembered what I always take away after I spend time with middle grade authors — they’re pretty much the nicest people on the planet. Many of the writing crises that I think happen only to me were echoed among our group. It’s always comforting to hear that other authors write terrible first drafts, think they’re never going to write another book, and question every single plot turn.

Anderson's 2

From left: Liesl Shurtliff, Kate Hannigan, Crystal Chan, Anderson’s Jenny Gerard, Michele Weber Hurwitz, Anderson’s Anne Swanson, Emily Ecton, and Wendy McClure.

So here are some of our tips for lining up group author events:

1. Contact the bookstores at least 3-4 months in advance with a succinct email. Create and attach an online “flier” with author bios and book covers. We began contacting bookstores in January for our May events.

2. Brainstorm with the bookstore the best time and day to pull in the intended audience, and be flexible with scheduling. We had so many email threads going back and forth, Kate actually created an Excel document to keep track of everyone’s schedules. It’s a good idea to have a point person who’s the master scheduler and all-around organizer.

3. Plan to meet for lunch or dinner! Sharing a meal before the event breaks the ice if some of the authors haven’t met.

4. Provide the bookstore with author website links, author and book cover photos, and contact information. Help them out as much as possible!

5. Promote the event on your own social media, and tag the other authors as well.

Later this month, we’re visiting the Book Cellar in Chicago, The Book Stall in Winnetka, Illinois, the Lake Forest Bookstore in Illinois, and doing a panel discussion at Chicago’s Printer’s Row event as well. Thank you to all of these fabulous Indie bookstores that have graciously agreed to host our Middle Grade in the Midwest group.


Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of The Summer I Saved the World…in 65 Days and Calli Be Gold, both from Wendy Lamb Books/Random House. Visit her at and on Twitter @MicheleWHurwitz.