Lucy Ivison & Tom Ellen’s advice for authors and schools on organising events (YLLP Toolkit series)

Thank you so much for Lucy Ivison and Tom Ellen for being part of our Year-Long Legacy Programme series and kindly answering all sorts of questions about doing events are authors and, in Lucy’s case, also as a librarian. Tons of brilliant advice – and of course plenty of unexpected laughs too.

Find the other posts in the YLLP Toolkit series via the YLLP Events & Toolkit tab in the YA Shot menu. The series includes a Q&A with author and teacher Emma Carroll, a Q&A with the wonderful Tim Bowler, and Hillingdon Borough Libraries’ Rosemary Marchant.


Can you give an example of how you’ve used Lobsters as the basis for an event? How do you pick what to focus on? How do you transform themes/topics/ideas into exercises or activities?

Lobsters has some fairly explicit stuff in it (for a YA novel), so we tend to use that a lot in terms of our events: what can/can’t you say in YA? Problems with censorship in YA? Why it’s good to tell it like it is in YA? And so on. We also use the fact that we wrote it as a pair quite a lot – so we’ll talk about our relationship and friendship and how we ended up writing together – the pros and cons of writing in a team. In terms of workshops/exercises, we use the fact that Lobsters has plenty of embarrassing/cringeworthy moments in it. So, we’ll ask the groups to think of the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to them, and then try to write it in the form of a short story.

Lucy teaches creative writing so we also run workshops based around humour and voice. How do you make a voice authentic? What makes something funny? We then do ‘most awkward moment ever’ life writing and get everyone to share their cringe-worthy moments and have a giggle.

Tom, what are your Top 5 Tips for successful events as an author?

  1. PREPARE! Make sure you know exactly what topics will be discussed (in some cases, the chairperson will also send specific questions you’ll be asked, which is great). This means you don’t feel daunted – unless there’s a real curveball…
  2. MEMORISE SOME BULLET POINTS. Think of four or five (or however many) important points that you’d like to make during the event. You don’t have to memorise whole sentences etc, as that sounds clunky and robotic, but just get into your head five bulletpoints (themes/arguments/whatever) that you know you can talk about confidently, and at length. That way, you’ll never feel as if you have nothing to say.
  1. MAKE IT FUN. One of the best events we’ve done was the YALC ‘Bringing Sexy Back’ panel earlier this year, because it managed to combine some serious, sometimes quite dark, discussion with straight-up silly, fun stuff that got the audience laughing. It’s good to remember that a lot of author events can be quite earnest, so even if your particular panel is a serious one (‘How to get published’, say), it’s still good to try and keep it light, and make people laugh, too. Sitting in stony silence for 45mins-1hour is never that fun for the audience…
  2. CHECK YOUR TECH! If you have any technical equipment in your event, make sure to run through it properly with the tech person/people beforehand. At the first event we ever did – at Hay Festival – we had a Powerpoint presentation that we were using, and the first slide had a video in it. We’d checked it once before starting, and it seemed OK, but when we actually tried to play it in front of the audience, it just crashed. Not ideal. We both flailed for a few minutes, embarrassed, and finally got back on track, but it was not how we wanted our very first event to start! You’ve got so much else to worry about, don’t add tech problems to your list.
  3. READ YOUR CO-PANELLISTS’ WORK! If you’re on a panel with other authors, make sure to read the book they’re promoting first! This is not just down to basic politeness, but it always makes for a more lively event if the panellists know each others’ work, and can reference it in the discussion.

Lucy, what are your Top 5 Tips for successful events as a librarian?

I book around 8 author events a year at school. My main tips would be

  • Reach for the stars! I have asked authors that I never in a million years thought would say yes and they have responded saying they would love to come. I emailed David Walliams earlier this year and his team responded saying that if they could make it work this year they would love it to happen. You just never know…
  • Prep the kids! Get as many of the author’s titles in as possible and do a hard sell to get the kids to read as much as possible. You might not get everyone reading, but a few keen beans in the room can make all the difference.
  • Send a letter home so that the author has as much chance as possible of making sales. Kids who originally say they don’t want a book, often end up mad for one, so try and prepare parents etc for this eventuality.
  • Make it a party! A bun break for Murder Most Unladylike with lots of cakes etc or a space themed afternoon for Phoenix. Be creative and the kids will be excited and on form.
  • As a librarian who attends lots of author events I would say remember that librarians are not the evil gatekeepers we are often made out to be. We love books and hate the censoring old bat label we are often forced to wear. We are all on the same side!


What are the pros and cons of working as a team for events? What advice do you have for authors who want to try pairing up for workshop events and talks (as opposed to panels)?

The pros are definitely that we’re already friends, and we know each other well, so we can make jokes easily between each other, or gently poke fun at each other, and that usually goes down well with the audience. It’s also a very useful memory aide to have someone else up there with you who can steer you back onto the right track if you lose track of what you’re talking about! We’d advise authors pairing up for workshop events to make sure they know each other well (and, ideally, are friends), as this will make for a much more comfortable, fun-to-watch and easy-flowing discussion.

What can authors and librarians do to ensure that events have a legacy of inspiration and aspiration?

Book groups so people can meet up and talk about the books they read as a result of the event.

Lesson based work, especially at Primary level or if the issues raised fed into the PSHE curriculum for certain year groups.

Feedback from the author to the school and vice versa so the next event is even more brilliant. A follow up workshop with the author if budget allows!

Authors sometimes encourage the kids to send them reviews etc that that get posted on their website etc and I think that works really well.


How can schools and libraries fund author events? What other creative ways are there to give students as many opportunities to be inspired about reading, creative writing and careers in the Arts as possible?

Private schools pairing up with state schools for book week and author events. Especially further up the key stages where running smaller events for sixth form, for example, might seem like a waste of budget compared to a whole-school junior school event, but if a few sixth forms came together it would definitely be worth it.

Creative writing workshops run by authors, especially for the older years.


What could parents do to support teens’ reading and their engagement with libraries?

Let them read whatever they like. I often get parents trying to control what their teens read and that is the worst thing you could possibly do. You might have loved certain books as a teenager but that doesn’t mean that they will love them too. If they want to read something you perceive as ‘trash’ then just let them. Re-reading Twilight 25 times never hurt anyone. They are reading, they are day-dreaming, they are making reading part of their everyday life so let them be!


Are there things that community and school libraries could be doing to work more effectively together?

Definitely. This is an area where we could do so much better. If you are a school librarian invite your local librarians to your events. I think school cluster groups could also join forces with local cluster groups which doesn’t seem to happen much.


What are your Top 5 Tips for making sure events are inclusive?

Don’t presume anything. You have no idea what is going on in the heads of anyone in the room so be mindful of that when you are speaking.

Don’t make the event just about English / books / writing etc. Draw in the other topics / themes of the book to get kids who aren’t into books but might be into the topics the books focuses on. Holly Bourne for example has a massive draw because kids who haven’t read her books are really interested in the issues she discusses.

Draw the audience in. Encourage question-taking throughout and say ‘if you disagree with what I’m saying then holler, let’s all talk about everything together’.

Make time at the end for the quieter members of the audience to come up and chat to the author. This is SO SO important as often shyer kids are desperate to ask a question but they just don’t have the guts to put their hand up.


What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given about doing events?

Mega cringe but just be yourself and don’t worry if you say something wrong or don’t answer the question properly or don’t hear the question or get confused or whatever. If you are having fun then the vibe will be fun and people will enjoy it. Me and Tom often disagree on stage and at first we tried to stop ourselves saying what we were thinking out loud, but now we just let it all out!


How do you deal with your nerves?

I (Tom) get very, very nervous before events… To be honest, I don’t really deal with my nerves – I just sit there getting more and more nervous until we go on stage… But in a weird way, I think it’s good to be nervous, as it means you’re really focusing and trying hard. I’d find it odd not to be nervous before an event, as it would sort of mean that you didn’t care.

I (Lucy) mostly deal with my own nerves by trying to calm Tom down.


What’s your funniest (or most cringe-worthy) event story?

Mine (Tom) is not so much funny as just very embarrassing… Me and Lucy were doing a workshop at Hay Festival, and we’d asked the audience (mostly teens) to write about their most embarrassing experience. A few of them were very keen to get up and read their stories out, but a few were too shy. Lucy asked one girl if she wanted to read hers and she said no, so Lucy suggested that I read it out in front of everyone. The girl agreed, so I took her paper and started reading. Bearing in mind that most of the previous stories had been about funny-quirky-upbeat kind of embarrassing moments, I started reading in an upbeat, funny tone of voice. However, it soon became clear that the story was quite dark, and was about this girl struggling at school and not wanting to do PE because she was afraid other girls would laugh at her. So, I very quickly had to change my tone to one more suitable… That was embarrassing, but actually I spoke to the girl afterwards who seemed really pleased that I’d read it out, and said she wanted it read out but she didn’t have the nerve to do it. So hopefully it was ok!

For me (Lucy), when I said ‘Fish up her minge’ at YALC. I saw about 50 people pick their phone up and instantly regretted it!


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