From Writing to Teaching: How Did THAT Happen?
By J. Michael Squatrito, Jr.
As a young writer I had a great idea for a storyline and, after years of turmoil and struggle, I eventually wrote the first book in my Overlords fantasy series. As of today, I have three self-published novels and I’m working on the fourth and final(?) installment. My literary journey has taken me to places I never dreamed that I would go – from individual book signings and mass author events, to local library and school visits, regional conferences and Comic Cons, and more than enough radio and TV appearances. I’m even the Vice-President of the Association of Rhode Island Authors! However, all of this started with an idea for a book and blossomed into a business.
Why am I telling you this? It’s because I believe there’s more than a writer in all of us. Specifically, teaching what you know to others. You might not feel like you know as much as say, Stephen King, but you know more than you give yourself credit for. I learned early on that my fantasy novels would resonate with a certain niche of readers, most of them being elementary school children and young adults (YA). I never dreamed that I could actually reach the kids, though. I made many visits to local schools during their reading weeks or Meet the Author events, explaining the finer points of character development, settings, plot points, etc. However, I found that many of the students saw me as just another adult coming to their school to lecture them about a topic they could care less about. I knew that had to change. After discussing this very thing to a fellow writer (at a horror conference, fittingly) I formulated something more of an activity than a lecture. I dubbed my new idea a Monster Creation Session and the beast was born, no pun intended!
This is how it works: I talk with the school teacher before my visit, asking her to split the class into five equal groups with each one having a designated artist. I ask for a white board and markers for myself, and art paper, crayons, and colored pencils for each table. That’s it. When the students get to the session, they see the paper and writing utensils and know something out of the ordinary is about to happen. With my six-foot tall orange dragon-face banner to the side of me, I let them know who I am, what I’ve written, and a little bit about writing. After ten minutes or so, which I believe is the make or break point with children, I declare, “Who wants to make monsters?!?!?” This starts the “controlled” frenzy.
First, we use the white board to create the protagonist’s character sheet. Taking suggestions from the students, they decide if their hero is a human, an elf, a dragon, etc., whether it’s male or female (a hot button topic), its physical characteristics, and any special capabilities. Then, I select a table to draw this character, along with two sidekicks. From there, the next table creates the antagonist along with two minions, another table dreams up the world they all live in, the next assigns the weapons and battle armor for the characters, and the last equip them with all of the magical items their hearts desire. As you can well imagine, the activity gets quite loud as the students brainstorm and interact with each other. Finally, after a raucous thirty minutes of creation, each group comes to the head of the class to present their drawings, explaining the reasons for what they created. After an hour, the students are energized and leave the session with wide smiles and thoughts of their own stories swirling in their heads. The teachers are usually speechless and now tend to invite me to their schools on Fridays before vacation weeks!
I’d like to also make an important point about the value of your time. Visiting schools and libraries are a great way to give back to the community, however all of your knowledge should not always be free. All the schools I’ve visited have allowed me to sell books to the students, which helps spread the word about my book series as well as helping my bottom line. Furthermore, I do charge for most of my visits (figure about $5/student, capping at $350 for a visit), but I also hold some sessions for free. Paid gigs should be part of your business portfolio, right up there with book sales. I also hold workshops and give presentations at libraries and community centers, which are paid appearances as well. Teachers and librarians tend to know a lot of people in their respective networks, and word of mouth goes a long way in getting more business.
In conclusion, I like to say that I’m taking the gifts that God gave me and paying it forward. Teaching the kids has made me feel like more than just an author and allows me to give back to the community. You should also consider paying it forward with your own stories, be it fantasy or other genres. If visiting schools is not your thing, consider libraries, book clubs, nursing homes, or veterans homes. Not only do you pass along your knowledge, you also get your name out into the community, which can lead to more paid appearances. Like I said at the beginning of this piece, you know more than you think you know.
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Mike has been writing The Overlords series for over twenty years. Currently, he lives in Tiverton, RI with his wife Lea, and their children, Devin and Samantha. Mike speaks at middle and high schools, colleges, local libraries, and writer’s groups where his sincere hope is to inspire everyone he meets to be creative and follow their dreams. He also is the Vice President of the Association of Rhode Island Authors (ARIA).
When not working on the Overlords series, Mike is very active in fitness and sports. He continues to play baseball where he’s a knuckleball pitcher for the Narragansett Brewers that won the 2008 and 2014 National Championships in Phoenix, AZ. He also runs 4 to 5 miles on a regular basis, does interval weight and cardio training, and takes Vinyasa yoga classes twice a week. Did we mention that he is an engineer, too, working on Homeland Defense projects? You can find the books from The Overlords series on his website. Mike’s also on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Excellent piece, Mike! Your hands on activity in classrooms is totally in sync with today’s best practices in education.