Measuring Success: Beyond the Numbers

Success.Every month, I submit a report to my managers with information about outreach events and meetings I attended, professional development, and programs I facilitated. These reports are largely about numbers — how many LEUs (Library Education Units) I earned for attending a webinar, how many presentations I made to how many students on a school visit, how many hours I spent on a special project. But those numbers often don’t tell the whole story.

For instance, at an open mic night last week, I had three attendees. One wanted to perform, but was too shy until I made a deal with him: I’ll sing first if you sing second. So we both sang for the two other teens, who are regulars at teen programs. After he rapped for us, the shy performer asked if he could bring his own music next time, instead of doing a karaoke rap to a YouTube video. We talked a bit about the raps he writes before he had to leave. On paper, my program with three attendees may not look like a huge success, but it gave me a chance to connect with a teen, and gave him a chance to share something he’s passionate about.

Those numbers also don’t show the relationships I’ve built with teachers, or the students who pull me aside after I’ve talked to their classes to rave about favorite books. They don’t show the times I’ve helped people apply for jobs, find obscure recipes, learn how to train their new puppies. Numbers are great, but they shouldn’t be our only measure of success.

How do you measure success? Have you ever had a program that looked like a flop on paper but went really well?

Genre Lessons: Women’s Fiction

Woman reading.I belong to a librarian book club that reads a different genre every month to improve our reader’s advisory skills. The idea is to get us better-acquainted with the types of books we may not normally read. In addition to improving my recommendations, I’m also studying these books from a writer’s perspective. Just because I don’t write a certain genre doesn’t mean I can’t learn from those who do. If you want to see other posts in this series, check out the “genre lessons” tag.

This month we’re reading women’s fiction. If you asked me what genre I read the least, it would be women’s fiction. There are a lot of excellent women’s fiction writers out there (a few of my friends among them), but it’s not the type of story I typically look for. Women’s fiction and romance tend to be predictable — you may not be able to guess every turn the plot takes, but you always know the couple will end up together. I don’t see this is a fault; in these genres, it’s intentional. It’s what the reader wants. They may want to be surprised by a twist, but they expect a Happily Ever After.

But here’s the thing: having a predictable plot gave me ample room to explore the different beats of the plot. There were conflicts in each protagonist’s work life. There was a secret that threatened to ruin everything. There was an antagonist ex-fiance, a climax, a dark moment when it looked like the relationship was over, and an engagement at the end. If, like me, beat sheets make you cringe, women’s fiction is a good genre to work on breaking down the plot of a story.

Another thing about great women’s fiction: setting. The book I read was basically a love letter to Milwaukee, where it’s set. I’ve never been to Milwaukee, but now I have a loose map of the city in my head, and I’d love to visit for one of their cultural festivals! Perhaps in part because there’s less room for the plot to meander, women’s fiction has ample opportunities to develop rich settings. And the way the characters describe their settings speaks volumes about who they are.

Have you read any women’s fiction recently? What writing lessons did you learn?

Letting story ideas marinate

Swordfish marinating.Sometimes, I’ll get a great idea for a story that will have me making excited, almost-feverish notes, whether it’s Saturday afternoon or four a.m. Sunday night. The idea will consume me for a few hours. But after that initial burst, the idea often loses momentum.

For me, the key is to let the idea marinate. I don’t make detailed outlines, but I’ll jot down key plot points and character traits. After I’ve done a bit of brainstorming, I need to step back and let the idea marinate in my subconscious, soaking up spices — a subplot here, a plot twist there — until the story is ready to cook. Some writers get ideas fully-formed, like someone’s handed them a box from one of those meal delivery services. I have to measure the spices myself, decide which ones to keep and which belong in another dish, and give the whole thing time to simmer.

If your ideas need to marinate, like mine, you may find it helpful to do writing prompts or exercises while you wait. Try experimenting with a new format or genre. Take a long walk and let your mind wander, or take a day trip for a change of scenery. One day you’ll go back to that idea and realize you’re ready to cook up a new story.

Do you have to let your ideas marinate? What helps you prepare to write something new?

What happens when you let teens take ownership of a program

Kendamas.A few of of my regular teens are really into Kendama. After school, there’s almost always at least one person practicing Kendama in the Teen Room. A few months ago, one of the teens on the advisory board asked if we could hold a Kendama tournament.

I had no idea how to run a Kendama tournament, but luckily, he did. One we picked a date for the program, he came up with the trick lists for the beginner, intermediate, and advanced competitions, and helped me get in touch with someone in our community who’d run a tournament last year. He gave me ideas for mini-games to play in between each division competition. He volunteered as a judge, and helped me find other volunteers to judge.

The tournament was awesome. The best part wasn’t the competition itself, though; it was watching all these teens who were passionate about something come together, give each other tips, cheer each other on, and build off of one another. Their enthusiasm was infectious. And it was awesome to see all these amazingly talented teens showing off their skills.

Another cool thing about the tournament: about two-thirds of the competitors were teens I’d never seen before. The teens who helped plan this event were the ones who spread the word and brought new people to the library. Will all of them become regulars at teen programs? No. But maybe a few will start coming to other teen events, or hanging out in the Teen Room practicing Kendama after school.

So, if you have teens who are interested in programs around something you don’t know a lot about, see if they’d like to plan an event. You know your teens; if they can handle the responsibility, it can be truly amazing to see what they do when given the chance. And you might just learn a thing or two about their passion; I bought myself a Kendama because it looked so fun, and I plan to be able to get through the entire beginner’s trick list by the time we hold our next tournament!

Have you let your teens plan any programs at your library? How did it go?

How to be a Camp NaNoWriMo Cheerleader

Camp NaNoWriMo.Happy April! This month, writers all across the globe are challenging themselves to write a book in thirty days. I think of Camp NaNoWriMo (which takes place in April and July each year) as the underappreciated sibling of November’s NaNoWriMo. Writers work just as hard in Camp NaNo, but it’s far less recognized than the big event in November.

I think the lack of recognition for Camp NaNoWriMo means campers need even more cheerleading from friends and family. I’m not doing Camp NaNo (I thought about it, but I’m revising at the moment), but I know several writers who are. If a writer in your life is sweating through Camp NaNo this month, here are some things you can do to help them reach their goals.

  1. Cheer them on! Check in with an email or text every so often. When they reach daily/weekly goals, celebrate with them! (This can be as simple as tweeting “Great job” or sharing a funny video as a reward for reaching a goal.)
  2. If the writer has kids/siblings/elderly parents they take care of, offer to help with caretaker duties for a few hours.
  3. Make or bring them dinner. Fast drafting takes a lot of energy, and it’s really easy to lose track of time when you’re trying to write thousands of words a day. Having a night where you don’t have to think about dinner would be a huge help.
  4. Ask them how they’re doing. Some writers like to talk about their works in progress; others hate it. By asking an open question like, “How’s everything going?” you can invite them to discuss their work without making them feel forced to come up with a pitch on the spot.
  5. If they want to talk about their book, listen! If they’re stuck on something and want to talk through it, offer to be a sounding board.

There are plenty of other ways to cheer on your writing buddies, but these are the top five things my writing friends and I like to do for each other when one of us is fast-drafting.

Are you doing Camp NaNoWriMo? If so, how is everything going?

Please, call me out!

Bullhorn.In the last few years, calls for diversity in both writing and publishing have gained more and more attention. We still have a long way to go in terms of representation, but I find the current dialog encouraging. Something I’ve seen on the rise recently (or at least getting more widespread attention recently) is readers discussing books with representation they find problematic. A disappointing, though not surprising, result of this is backlash against the readers who call out problematic books.

There have been so many cases recently. A reader points out a harmful depiction of a character’s race, gender identity, mental illness, etc. The author responds with public claims that they’re being attacked. Friends of the author gang up on the reader and cry bully, sometimes without even seeing the original review or statement that “attacked” the author.

I applaud authors who try to write diverse characters respectfully. Those who do their research, who learn about the cultures and experiences they’re trying to represent, who work with readers who share their characters’ identities, are doing some great work. And even they get it wrong sometimes.

I am a cisgendered heterosexual white woman from a middle-class background, and not all of my characters are cis hetero white women. I do a lot of research, and I do my best to listen to members of the communities my characters belong to. And I know I won’t get everything right. First of all, there’s no universal Black/Latinx/trans/Deaf/etc. experience, so different readers from those communities may respond differently to my characters. But, as a writer, I’m writing for my readers. Especially my Black/Latinx/trans/Deaf/etc. readers.

So if I write something that hurts those readers, I want to know. I want to know as soon as possible, because I don’t ever want to do it again. And if you call me out in private, I’ll publicly share what you found harmful or problematic, so other writers can learn from my mistakes, and so readers can hear me say, “I got this wrong, I’m sorry, and I’ll do my best to do better.”

Authors, we need to be more open to criticism, especially when it comes to matters of representation. Good intentions are great, but if I step on your foot, whether I intended to do so or not, your foot still hurts. If I’m a decent human being, I won’t gather my friends and demand you stop crying and suck it up because I didn’t mean to hurt you. I’ll apologize and be more careful of where I step in the future.

Good representation can save lives. And bad representation can really, really harm our teens. Here’s just one story, but there are many, many others. Follow awesome people like L.L. McKinneyJustina Ireland, and Debbie Reese and you’ll see what I mean. Listen. Learn.

And if you’re called out, don’t attack the reader who’s trying to save other readers from getting hurt. Apologize, and do better next time.

Readers, if I step on your foot, please tell me.

Organizing a prom dress giveaway

Project Fairy Godmother Prom Dress Giveaway.This month I organized the First Annual Project Fairy Godmother Prom Dress Giveaway at my library. I was overwhelmed and humbled by the positive community response — when we put out a call for donations, over 300 dresses came in, and the event was shared both in person and on Facebook and Twitter many, many times! This was truly a group effort, and I could not have done it without the help of many people. If you think an event like this would be good for your community, and have questions for me, please don’t hesitate to get in touch! And if you want another perspective, check out this blog post by the extraordinary Regina Townsend that gave me the idea for this program.

November/December

I started planning for our mid-March event in November. The first thing I had to do was make sure we had a place to store donated dresses. Thankfully, we have a lot of storage space in our basement, and were able to lay down plastic sheets so the dresses (stored in garment bags) would not get dusty. I also reached out to co-workers and community members to see if anyone had clothing racks we could borrow to store donations and display them the day of the event. Thankfully, word of the program spread to someone who suggested we talk to Community Hospital, who let us borrow some clothing racks that they use for their Coats for Caring program in the fall.

January

We began collecting donations just after New Years’ and continued up until the day before the event. Next year, I plan to give myself at least a week between accepting the last donations and holding the program. I was fortunate that Circulation and Maintenance staff were extremely helpful in collecting and storing donations. We collected dresses and prom-related accessories, including shoes, purses, jewelry, and shawls.

I also reached out to local businesses that provided prom-related services, to ask if they would be willing to donate anything. One local salon offered discount coupons, and another donated gift baskets to be raffled off. A local jewelry salesperson also donated a few pairs of earrings and rings. Finally, a staff member’s wife who does alterations volunteered to do free alterations at the event.

February

Promotion, promotion, promotion! I continued collecting donations, and advertised the event everywhere I could think of. In addition to the library’s social media, I sent flyers to my contacts at the local high schools, and our Marketing Coordinator promoted the program on the local radio station. The local paper contacted me and ran a front-page article about the event, which really helped spread the word. I’m also fortunate to have the student body president of the public high school on our Teen Advisory Board. He reads the announcements every day, and talked up the program in the weeks leading up to it.

I also started getting dresses cleaned in February. A local dry cleaner offered us a significant discount on cleanings, and was even kind enough to drop off clean dresses and pick up the next round of gowns at the library. They expressed interest in partnering with us again next year, and I look forward to working with them!

Finally, I arranged for a mix of staff and volunteers to help with the event.

March

I continued to promote the program and collect donations. Our Maintenance manager helped come up with a setup for the program room and built temporary changing rooms in the most impressive transformation of a storage room I’ve ever seen.

The day before, a volunteer and I spent the whole day sorting dresses by size, then by color within each size. I would not have finished on time without this volunteer’s help. As it is, we started at noon on a Saturday, and even with the help of two volunteers we were still getting things ready at 11:58. Next year, I’ll give myself an extra day to set up.

On the day of the event, I had volunteers working the “checkout” (all we asked was to see a high school ID), tracking how many dresses were given away (30 total) and what schools the shoppers came from; returning dresses that didn’t fit to their racks; helping girls as “personal shoppers”; and staffing the accessory tables.

We also had a red carpet and a photo booth just outside the program room. I’m debating whether to have these again next year or not; if I do, I think I’ll try to get the photo booth inside the program room, because no one really took pictures in their dresses. We also had giant thank you cards for our local partners for shoppers to sign as they left.

In all, this program was a lot of fun, and I consider it a big success for our first year. Working in a community where seventy percent of our students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, my goal with this event was to help our teens have a memorable prom without their having to stress over how to afford a dress. I look forward to hosting this event for many years to come.

Got questions about the Project Fairy Godmother Prom Dress Giveaway? Thinking of hosting your own giveaway? Let me know in the comments!