An Author’s Adventures in Skype

Okay, this is pretty terrifying in a Mothra kind of way . . .
Yes, that’s my giant gob projected on a viewing screen. The picture was taken during a recent Skype visit. Quick, here’s a couple of other shots:
I’m still in the early stages of figuring out this Skype business. I’m not even sure how I feel about it yet, or whether I can (or should) fit them into my schedule. That said: It is undeniably cool to connect with kids from far-away places, schools I’d never visit if not for this amazing technology. So I’m leaning yes.
And it is amazing, as tired and cliched as that word sounds. Suddenly we’re looking at each other, waving, laughing, talking, snorting. It’s craziness and I think students really do feel a thrill.
The photos are from my first-ever Skype visit. Since I didn’t know what I was doing, just fumbling around, I didn’t charge a fee. And I still don’t. Though that might change down the road if I decide to pursue this in any kind of organized fashion. The visit was a result of an enterprising teacher, Tyler Samler, who reached out to me after reading Bystander with his class. We decided on a 20-minute Q and A session. I enjoyed it, despite having to comb my hair. However, I found it difficult to read the audience. In person I’m pretty good at glancing around the room, recognizing when I’ve got their full attention or when, perhaps, it’s slipping away. With Skype, I was less certain. Hopefully I’ll get better at that with practice.
Tyler wrote to me after the session:
The Skype session was awesome!  You’ve acquired some life long fans here at Hyde Park Elementary School. After the session we went around and had each student give imput and share their opinions.  It was a really good response. They enjoyed your sense of humor and your kindness. I think they were greatly enriched to have this opportunity. You’re a wonderful storyteller!
Thank you so much.
NOTE: I reached out to gifted author (and swell all-around person) Mitali Perkins for advice on Skyping and she directed me to author/teacher Kate Messner, because “Kate is the real expert.” After a few seconds digging, I found this excellent blog post by Kate, which is a pretty good primer on Skyping from both the school and author perspective. If you’re a teacher, you should check it out.
For authors, Darcy Pattison wrote an impressive primer. She offers a lot of great tips, from lighting, to looking at the camera, all the way to suggestions for bathroom breaks. Darcy thinks of everything. The truth is, I would have never dreamed of putting on lipstick if it weren’t for Darcy.
Really. I mean it. I just have naturally rosy lips.


  1. Congrats, Jimmy, and yea to Darcy. The best set of tips ever.

    A couple of years ago I did an unusual Skype conference — I was IN the classroom with the kids, and we Skyped-in my editors. I learned a LOT, just by seeing what they did, how they came across, and how the kids reacted.

    Lighting is huge. You don’t want to look like you’re in a dungeon (not enough light), or flattened by light in an interrogation cell (too much directly on your face), or a silhouette (too much backlight).

    One other thing is the angle of the webcam. If possible, elevate the laptop so you’re looking straight ahead, as opposed to looking down — (1) you seem less imperious, more accessible, and (2) the kids are not looking at your ceiling as a backdrop.

    Also, think about what’s behind you. They’re going to be looking at that as much as your face. It should be pleasant, neutral, not distracting. (I saw one author do a Skype session with a huge chandelier in the background, and daylight streaming through an glass kitchen door to the right. If the aliens in the yard weren’t going to attack, the fixture would fall on him/her!)

    Props are amazing. Hold something up to the camera, and it creates a rush of adrenalin. If their attention is flagging, they perk right up.

    But the most important thing, I think, is looking at the camera. At first you feel like an idiot, because you THINK you’re not looking at the kids, but it’s the opposite: by looking into the cam, you create the illusion of eye contact with them — and it makes a HUGE difference. If you look at the screen, it looks vaguely zombiesque. It’s like talking to someone who’s looking at your clavicle!

  2. jimmy says:

    Thanks for that follow-up, Peter, author of books in the “39 Clues” series and many more. Those are some tips I will definitely use. It’s so good to have a friend with theater experience. (Llittle known fact: Peter starred in the original version of “A Chorus Line” on Broadway. For real.)

    But you forgot one important thing.

    What shade of lipstick do you recommend? Concerned authors want to know.

  3. Oxford wine, of course.

    And thanks for the nice words, Jimmy. (But it was “They’re Playing Our Song.” If you ever saw me dance, you’d know it couldn’t have been “A Chorus Line.” And no, I won’t dance, don’t ask me.)

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