Archives: Contests & Awards

I’m Grateful For My Opportunities

This furry, long-eared pink guy looks a lot like my DAD!

This Thanksgiving season, I’ve been thinking about what I’m grateful for. Like many, I would put HEALTH at the top of the list. Not just my own health (which is pretty good, knock on wood), but also that of my large family. My mother had a rather serious health issue this year, as did my youngest sister; thankfully, they have both navigated the road to recovery and are doing fine. My father—at age 82—has a full-time career running a non-profit organization, does part-time ministry volunteer work, and is also working on a PhD in mind-body medicine. Talk about good health … WOW! Dad is truly the energizer bunny! The rest of my family is healthy, too, as are my four children and my husband. I’m grateful.

This job became a two-for-one: it resulted in a book AND a thesis!

Beyond health, I’m grateful for OPPORTUNITIES. I’ve always been a writer. Every job I’ve ever had throughout my career has been as a writer: newspaper journalist, magazine contributor, public relations professional, etc. About seven years ago, I relaunched my writing career when I was hired to research and write the 60-year history of the Institute for Spirituality and Health in Houston’s Texas Medical Center. The result was Uniting Faith, Medicine and Healthcare, a nonfiction book that ISH uses as a communications and development tool. The book also became the foundation of my thesis project, earning me a Master of Arts from LSU-Shreveport in 2013. You can read more about the Institute and their mission here:

Me with Bonnie Blue in front of her amazing art car: Women That Rock.

That freelance job for the Institute opened up my mind to different writing styles, and I bubbled with ideas for children’s books. I launched my first book for kids—Arthur Zarr’s Amazing Art Car—in 2016, and the following year, it was awarded first place by the Texas Association of Authors in the category of Picture Books. My story even inspired the Northeast Louisiana Children’s Museum to create a permanent art car exhibit. Many OPPORTUNITIES opened up for me, and I became an elementary school speaker. I’ve now presented at more than 70 schools, spreading my artsy message about reading, writing and creativity to thousands of children. I also met dozens of creative individuals who enjoy the art car lifestyle; they join me at my school visits, bringing smiles wherever they go.

YAZZY’S AMAZING YARN is available through my author’s website, at several Houston stores, and on Amazon.

My second picture book, Yazzy’s Amazing Yarn, launched in August 2019 and is a playful story about a girl who “yarn bombs” her neighborhood park. It was named a finalist in the 2019 Best Book Awards by the American Book Fest in the category of children’s hardcover fiction picture books. The contest yielded over 2,000 entries from mainstream and independent publishers, which were then narrowed down to some 400 winners and finalists. Reader’s Favorite gave YAZZY a coveted top five-star review. Also, my illustrator, Emily Calimlim, won a diversity scholarship at the SCBWI-Houston conference this year and was named Most Promising Portfolio for 2019. I feel lucky to be in Emily’s talented sphere! Check out the winner and other finalists in my category for the 2019 BEST BOOK AWARD here:

“Yazzy’s Amazing Yarn is a yarn-tastic story that will motivate young readers to be creative and bring color into all aspects of their lives.” — READERS’ FAVORITE FIVE-STAR REVIEW

Other writing OPPORTUNITIES this year include:

  • In June, I was recognized as a finalist in the Writer’s League of Texas 2019 Manuscript Contest for a middle grade work-in-progress;
  • In November, I attended the 2019 Better Books writing workshop in Petaluma, California, which gave me the chance to meet agents, editors, and other talented authors;
  • In October, I had a productive weekend at the SCBWI-North Texas Novel Retreat in Waxahachie, Texas, allowing me to get one-on-one advice from an agent;
  • At the September SCBWI-Houston annual conference, I received critiques from some top editors in the kid-lit world, which improved my work-in-progress;
  • My local writer’s critique group added some new members, creating lasting friendships and valuable feedback on my current manuscript.

Right now, I’m trying to carve out time to write. I’ve garnered some publication interest in a middle grade novel I’m writing, so my goal is to complete it by early 2020. I’ll keep you posted on my efforts!

Meanwhile … what are you thankful for? And remember to BE AMAZING!

P.S. I can’t close this newsletter without patting my friend TERI CASE on the back! She WON in the Fiction Cross-Genre category in the American Book Fest 2019 Best Book Awards for her novel: In the Doghouse: A Couple’s Breakup from Their Dog’s Point of View. This book makes a fun holiday gift or book club read! You can learn more about Teri and her books here:

Happy Drops of Validation

In the deep sea of rejection that writing often brings, it sure is nice to get a bit of occasional validation. I’ve been querying literary agents; I’ve received nibbles here and there, a few requests, but no official bites yet. No contract. So, imagine my surprise when I received an email last week saying I was a finalist in a writing contest.

I can’t wait to wear my ribbon-adorned badge in June! 😉

I entered my unpublished work-in-progress, A Night Without Light, in the Writers’ League of Texas 2019 Manuscript Contest, and I was named one of the finalists in the middle grade category. Congratulations to the tip-top winner in our section, Jennifer Voigt Kaplan of New Jersey, and to the other three finalists! As part of this win, I’ll get a special ribbon on my badge noting me as a MG finalist at the WLT Agents and Editors Conference. That’s right … you heard me … RIBBON POWER! I shall wield a heavy ribbon-esque sword this summer, and I can’t wait.

I smile when I read or write middle grade fiction!

Middle Grade is a genre of writing for children ages 8-12, and as Buddy the Elf would say, “It’s my favorite!” It can be tricky to write because there is such a wide range of reading and maturity levels in this age group. Adolescence is hovering in their future, but they still have an adorable innocence that makes these books so fun to write. The WLT manuscript win doesn’t mean my story will be published — not by a long shot — but it’s a small step in the right direction.

One of my Houston critique partners refers to these kind of honors as “multipliers” — i.e., accolades that help open doors. I love that term (thanks, Sylvia!), and I plan to seek out more such gate passages! And speaking of my critique group, we’ve begun to overflow with validation. Two of my partners were recently signed by agents and another received an R&R, which means an agent asked her to revise and resubmit her manuscript. The support we give each other is priceless, and I’m so grateful to my team (you know who you are).

Tiger Drive, by award-winning author Teri Case.

The drops of validation sometimes take the form of a big bucket! Take it from my author publisher friend, Teri Case. She was named the GOLD winner in the IBPA Benjamin Franklin Award in the Popular Fiction category for her breakout novel, Tiger Drive. Quite validating when you consider that Tiger Drive was initially rejected by a few agents; Teri rewrote the book some thirteen times before it became a reality. It must be “lucky 13” because I love the story which is based on a family full of secrets and four people who want to matter.

“A superb choice… ” —Kirkus Reviews

Teri is prolific! She launched her second novel, In the Doghouse: A Couple’s Breakup from Their Dog’s Point of View, on April 16, 2019. A big turnabout from her first novel, this one is based on a dog named Skip and how he helps his master (Lucy) navigate heartbreak as a pack. In the fall, Teri will have the first book of a “cozy” mystery series available with co-author, Lisa Manterfield, and her third book, Imogene, will be released in 2020.

I love a quote from Teri, who sums up this sense of affirmation so wisely: “Every day, over 1,000 self-published books are added to Amazon and mostly from people who aren’t career authors, who aren’t concerned about quality writing or appreciating the value of a reader’s precious time and money. I have to fight the stereotypes that everyday self-publishers create. Winning the Gold Benjamin Franklin Award for ‘excellence in content and design’ has been validating because it recognizes that I am a career author. And the award sends a signal to readers, librarians, and booksellers that I can rise above the noise and will continue to do so.”

Why thank you, Neil Patrick Harris!

Pay attention to your drops of validation, however they might arrive.

And don’t forget to BE AMAZING!

Be an Inspiroror!

Have you ever been an inspiroror? Are you unsure what one is? Well, my almost-nine-year-old niece Marie seems to know. We share the exact same February birthday along with an affinity for writing stories. A few months ago, when Marie’s mom attended Back-to-School Night, she spotted this and texted it to me:

“My aunt Cathy is the writer of: the art car. She is an inspiroror. I love love her, and her writeing.” — Marie.

Come on!  It would be hard to feel rejected after that kind of praise. Marie loves me; she was spot-on drawing my poofy brown hair and art car t-shirt. And after seeing this mini-article she wrote, I was motivated to write my own blog post (this one!) after a long dry spell.

Inspiroror-ation comes from unexpected places. I’ve never drawn a comic strip, but in October, I was motivated by the morning news of all things. I watched Chris Cuomo and Carol Costello on CNN as they reported on several random stories. My brain strung them all together, and I drew a cartoon to illustrate what the news felt like that day.

I’m not going to post my lame drawing, because I prefer to avoid politics. Plus, it’s just really embarrassingly bad! At the time, I thought it was the CNN anchors that inspired me, but I now believe it was one of my writer friends, Lisa Sinicki. Lisa is a public relations professional in Atlanta, and author of My Mother Served Gouda When Company Came: Scenes from a cheese-lover’s life. You can find it on Amazon.

We became friends through an online Mastermind facilitated by Dan Blank, founder of WE GROW MEDIA. Lisa and I, along with a few others from that Mastermind group, have kept in touch and continue to support each other. Lisa draws playful cartoons, which she regularly posts in her newsletter. I recommend you buy Lisa’s cheese book (it’s gouda!) on Amazon and that you subscribe to her newsletter: Queen of the Chronic Overthinkers.

One of Lisa’s recent comics called “A Visit From the Idea Fairy” had my husband and I cracking up. I wrote to tell her the good news: “Lisa, it made us spit soda out of our noses! Someone needs to buy them!” She replied that she submitted some of her cartoons to The New Yorker: “I sent a couple of early one-panel things that got rejected. I recently sent in five better ones. I imagine that IF I keep submitting eventually something will stick.” I admire Lisa’s positivity, because I’m sure she’s much like me and other creative professionals who struggle to stay confident in the face of rejection.

For me, I think it was a large dose of false confidence that propelled me into action on my CNN/Lisa-Sinicki-inspired comic-strip-drawing day. I finished my masterpiece, and I should have quietly filed it away; instead, I sent it to The New Yorker. Wait, what? Yeah, I did. I guess I wanted to be like my inspiroror—Lisa! Then, I waited. And waited. And then, I got rejected!

Are you familiar with a site called SUBMITTABLE? It’s an app where writers and artists can submit their works for possible publication. Check it out and you’ll find yourself going down a literary rabbit hole. Before I could mutter “submittable,” The New Yorker rejected my first-ever political cartoon. Undeterred, I submitted a few writing samples to other publications. As a result, an online site called Parent Co. accepted my personal essay called “If These Scars Could Talk.” It was published on Nov. 4, 2017 as a part of their November writer’s contest based on the word prompt: gratitude. YOU CAN READ IT HERE!

ME:  I’m on a roll!

That thinking led me to submit some more. I’ve had a short story called “Yellow” sitting in my computer for about a year. I sent it out to a few publications, and an online literary magazine called STORGY accepted it (to be published on Feb. 16). In both instances, I chose to adopt Lisa Sinicki’s mantra: “If I keep submitting, eventually something will stick.” (This should be a meme for creative professionals).

“Arthur Zarr’s Amazing Art Car” is my first children’s book.

My first—and last!!—political cartoon wasn’t published in The New Yorker, and I don’t know what sort of response I’ll get for my short-story “Yellow” once it appears on STORGY. But some positive wins have happened since I launched my children’s book last year. Arthur Zarr’s Amazing Art Car was awarded first place by the Texas Association of Authors in the category of Children’s Picture Book—All Ages for 2017. I’ve also spoken/presented at more than 35 elementary schools since launching my book. And the biggest win happens at that sweet moment when a student tells me, “You inspired me! I can’t wait to get home and write my own book.”

So, who is your inspiroror? Are you inspiroror-ing anyone? And as always, Be Amazing!

Happy birthday to us!

Halloweensie Writing Contest

Susanna Leonard Hill’s 7th annual Halloweensie Writing Contest has arrived! The rules are as follows: Write a 100-word Halloween story appropriate for children 12 and under, using the words candy corn, monster, and shadow. (Candy corn is counted as one word).  So here goes:

POOR TERRENCE (100 words)   

Terrence was terrible,

as everyone knew.

He stomped on toys,

he kicked with his shoe.

“You’re such a monster!”

His classmates would shout,

“You ruin all our playthings,

you should be thrown out!”

When Halloween came,

Terrence snatched their candy.

He hid in the shadows,

he scared Sue and Randy!

“You’re always so mean,”

the children cried.

“You ate all our candy corn!”

“Be nice!” Teacher sighed.

The day after Halloween,

Terrence tried to do better.

He stopped kicking and stomping,

wrote an apology letter:

“I’m sorry for being

a candy corn robber!

Let’s be friends,

or I’ll give you a clobber!”

UPDATE: I didn’t win anything for this entry, but it was a lot of fun to write. — Be Amazing

The Love-a-lots!

Illustration (just for fun!) by Cathey Graham Nickell … with a little bit of tracing involved.

It’s that time of year! Time for Susanna Leonard Hill’s 6th Annual Holiday Contest. The rules this year are fun: Write a children’s holiday story using the basic format/concept of “The Twelve Days Of Christmas,” not to exceed 300 words.

The story can be poetry or prose, silly or serious or sweet, religious or not, based on Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or whatever else one might celebrate. Once it’s written, the contestants are asked to post it on their website.

In February of this year, my “Valentiny” story (which had a 214-word limit)—called “Kandie’s Kiss”—won second place!

I don’t know if I’ll get to keep my fancy crown or not, but here goes! Happy Holidays!


(300 words)

Dearest Santa Claus,

We are a warm and lovely pair

With lots of love to give.

If only we had children,

We’d have new reason to live!


It’s been our Christmas yearning

As long as we recall.

Alas, we are still childless;

Perhaps our wish is too tall?

            Signed, Mr. and Mrs. Love-a-lot

On the first day of Christmas,

Santa answered their request.

He brought the Love-a-lots a girl,

Who had no house to rest.

On the second day of Christmas,

Santa brought one more.

A boy with sun-tanned skin,

Who’d never had a home before.

On the third day of Christmas,

Santa knew what to deliver.

Twin orphans from afar,

Their excitement all aquiver.

“Oh, my!” exclaimed the couple,

Their emotions were quite sappy.

“Three boys and one girl!

We’re finally feeling happy!”

But that wasn’t all, you see,

For Santa had a plan.

On the fourth day of Christmas,

He added six more to the clan!

The ten children bonded,

As they studied, ate and played.

They came from different countries,

Each skin a different shade.

It wasn’t long before the neighbors

Began their talk and whispers:

“Those Love-a-lots are such a mess,

Too many brothers and sisters!”

And so to show the busybodies

Their thoughts were quite outlandish,

Santa delivered two more darlings,

On days five and six with brandish.

“We love our growing family,”

Mrs. Love-a-lot said caringly.

“But twelve children are enough,

We’re getting by so sparingly.”

When Santa Claus heard her words,

He tied packages tight with twine

And delivered toys, clothes and extra beds

On days seven, eight and nine.

The neighbors’ hearts began to thaw,

They took sweet treats off the shelf

And dispensed them to the Love-a-lots

On days tenth, eleventh and twelfth.

Thank you, dear Santa!

From all the Love-a-lots!

UPDATE:  Alas, no prizes for my entry, but the challenge was good writing practice! — Be Amazing

For Me, Second Place is the New First

ValentinyHave you ever come in second place, but still felt like a #1 winner? I have. Quite recently. Last week, I was chatting with a fellow writer friend, and she told me about a fun “Valentiny” contest she had entered. It was hosted by kid-lit author SUSANNA LEONARD HILL, and I couldn’t resist. The challenge was to write a short, 214-word children’s story about a grumpy Valentine. I immediately had an idea, churned it out, and posted it on the contest site within hours. A few days later, I was surprised to discover I was one of the 12 top finalists! What’s more, Susanna reported that she had received 154 entries—her largest contest turnout to date. Her team narrowed all the entries down to 12, and she then opened it up to public voting.

On the morning of Friday, Feb. 26, I discovered that I had won second place! For me, this was a FIRST in so many ways. I had never entered a short story competition before (or any writing contest, for that matter), and I placed second place. It feels great. CLICK THIS LINK to read my entry, called “Kandie’s Kiss,” told from the point-of-view of a heart-shaped piece of candy. The winning story, written by Dawn Young, is a tale called GRUMPY BEAR’S VALENTINE. I don’t mind coming in second behind Dawn, because she wrote an adorable piece, and there’s plenty of Valentine love to go around!

I’ve been riding around on huge puffy white cloud all week. There’s something validating about being recognized with a title (2nd Place Winner!) and a prize (I’m waiting to find out what I won, but the various gifts were all incredible). As the saying goes, “winning isn’t everything;” but this nod in my direction made me realize how important it is to HAVE FUN with my writing career. It’s easy to get bogged down with the marketing, research, phone calls, scheduling, and never-ending to-do lists. This cute little Valentine’s Day contest—or as Susanna Hill calls it, “The First Annual Pretty Much World Famous Valentiny Writing Contest!!!”—makes me think I just might know how to write a little bit after all, despite my frequent worries to the contrary.

goodreads logoA few other amazing numerical things happened this week.  I promoted a Goodreads book giveaway, offering five autographed copies of my new children’s book, Arthur Zarr’s Amazing Art Car, in a free drawing. Well, I was blown away to hear from Goodreads that in just one week, 687 members signed up, all hoping for a free copy of my book. I wish I could send one to everyone, but there are only five winners who will soon receive their free book. Congratulations to Robert from Missouri, Rebecca from Indiana, Tee from Missouri, Linda from North Carolina, and Angela from all the way up in Canada. And thanks to everyone out there who signed up for the drawing. It warmed my heart that my book cover caught the attention of so many readers. Or maybe they just like FREE stuff; which is fine, because I’m kind of like that, too.

IMG_6098I’m also lucky enough to have a few Author Visits at schools around Houston.  I’ll be the Grand Marshall at the St. Mark’s Episcopal School Mini-Art Car Parade in April. (My sister, Ginger, has jokingly recommended that I start calling myself “The Grand Poobah” from now on). I’ll be the keynote speaker at The Kinkaid School at their 4th Annual Art Car Parade Assembly. I’m also visiting The Grace School, Poe Elementary School, and a few others that will be confirmed soon.

Final bit of excitement: I’ll be part of a book blogging tour from March 7-16, hosted by Lone Star Literary Life. CLICK HERE TO READ THE FULL REVIEW BY LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE. More details on the book tour in my next blog. A few years ago, I would have never predicted that I’d be involved in school visits, art car parades, and Valentiny writing contests. I’m having so much fun! I hope you are able to carve out time to do that which brings you joy, too.   — Be Amazing

Teensy Weensy Valentiny Writing Fun!

Although I’ve seen her children’s books, I never came across author Susanna Leonard Hill’s website until today. I didn’t know what I was missing, and now I’m hooked! A friend told me about an intriguing writing contest, which led me to Susanna’s blog. The instructions were to write no more than 214 words about a grumpy Valentine experience! It had to show grumpiness and had to be appropriate for children. Unable to resist such a clever challenge, I put a little (pardon the pun) something together. Do you get it? Why Susanna chose that specific word length?

IMG_5928I showed my story to my mother (aka/Biggest Fan), and she said, “So clever! I was right there in the bowl!” This will make more sense once you read my teensy tale. Mom and Dad both said some other glowing things about how amazing I am, but I’ll leave all that out since they’re rather biased. I’ve never written anything so short, but it was fun! I encourage all my writer friends to try something like this. It made me chuckle and stretched my keyboarding fingers and squishy brain a bit. I mean, my two sisters (Hi, Margaret and Ginger!) will be the first ones to tell you that I’m terrible at math! But, hey, I can count to 214. 😉  Here’s my entry. Feel free to comment or read it to your kiddos. Happy Valentine’s Day! ♥

KANDIE’S KISS (214 words) – by Cathey Graham Nickell

Kandie buried herself as deep as possible. She wiggled and squirmed until she was hidden by her heart-shaped friends.

What kind of Valentine’s Day surprise am I? Kandie scowled from the bottom of the bowl. She peeked out. That just made her even crankier.  

“I’m all wrong!” she wailed, eyeing the other sweets. “How can you smile and feel sugary at a time like this?!”

Old Man Tart chuckled from across the way, “What’s yer bellyaching about?”

“You all have such beautiful words. I’m a fructose failure,” Kandie sulked.

She had a point. Old Man Tart’s tummy boldly stated: HUG ME! Pinky’s bragged: TOO CUTE! Why, Honey’s phrase even proposed: MARRY ME!

Kandie glanced down irritably at her own letters. “HISS ME? Seriously. HISS ME?” she pouted. “Someone at the factory cannot spell! Whoever heard of a candy heart that says HISS ME? I’ll never find a Valentine! No one will want me!”

Old Man Tart waited for her to finish complaining. He cleared his throat and said, “A wise person once said there is someone for everyone. Kandie, I’m sure you’ll find your match.”

I should try to be optimistic, Kandie thought, scooting back to the top of the bowl. And the first person she spotted was Gummy Snake smiling shyly at her.

UPDATE: Amazingly, I won second place in this writing contest!

© 2024 Cathey Graham Nickell