Archives: I Am Writing

My First Podcast! Thank you, Dan Blank!

Celebrating my fiftieth school visit in October was a milestone that made me want to do cartwheels (if I still can?). I wrote a fun blog about it that you can READ HERE, and it was an amazing feeling to treat the school, Ridgemont Elementary of Houston, to a number of surprises that I had up my sleeve.

One surprise that I did not plan for or expect to receive was a PODCAST! After I posted a photo of myself holding two large gold FIVE-O balloons on Instagram, I almost immediately received a text from Dan Blank. He said he was fascinated that although my children’s book, Arthur Zarr’s Amazing Art Car, came out awhile ago (in 2016), he was impressed that I’d done such a good job of making it relevant. Of showing up. Of forging meaningful connections around it. WOW! That made my day! Dan then asked what I had learned along the way and what value I had realized from it. We chatted, and he said he’d like to feature me on his podcast.

Our interview is titled “Keeping a Book Alive (and selling thousands of copies) Two Years After Lauch” … and I love how it turned out. Hopefully you will, too. Here is a LINK  to listen. It’s about 34 minutes long, so grab a cup of coffee and a cookie before you click play. 😉

Let me rewind a bit to tell you who Dan is, in case you don’t know. Dan Blank is the founder of WE GROW MEDIA, and he helps writers and creative professionals share their stories and connect with their audience. He has collaborated with thousands of people via consulting, workshops, and courses. Additionally, he’s worked with amazing organizations such as Penguin Random House, Hachette Book Group, Sesame Workshop, Workman Publishing, J. Walter Thompson, Abrams Books, Writers House, The Kenyon Review, Writer’s Digest, Library Journal, and many others.

Dan also facilitates the Creative Shift Mastermind, which I was fortunate enough to participate in twice. When you sign up for his Mastermind course, you join Dan and approximately ten other writers to find more time to create, hone your creative process, reach readers, and get accountability. The next session begins January 1, 2019, and you can sign up for it HERE!

Pick up your own copy of BE THE GATEWAY by Dan Blank. I loved this book!

Finally, Dan is the author of BE THE GATEWAY: A Practical Guide to Sharing Your Creative Work and Engaging an Audience. It’s available on Amazon, and HERE IS A LINK TO BUY IT. If you prefer Barnes & Noble, you can FOLLOW THIS LINK and order a copy. I purchased the book as soon as it came out, and several nuggets of wisdom jumped out at me. Like this, where Dan writes: “Be the gateway. Instead of framing the value of your work by how it performs in the market, you define it by how other people experience the world through your creative work—the stories and experiences you share, and the topics you talk about.” AND this statement resonated with me, too: “Reframe success so it isn’t about seeking validation from massive audiences, but rather how you reach one person.”

I also appreciate Dan’s suggestion that to find success, creative professionals must hone in on what matters more than anything else. Find the core part of what matters to you most. Don’t seek quick validation. Think about what you would fight to NOT lose. Dan continues:

“This is why millions of ‘clever ideas’ sit on hard drives, in the bottom of someone’s desk drawer and in the back of someone’s mind, never seeing the light of day. It is the reason why when someone has a huge smash hit with an idea, thousands of others say, ‘I thought of that years ago.’ Why did this one person succeed? Because they believed in it more. It was more core to their personal narrative of what mattered, and where they could devote their time, energy, and money. The person who succeeded waded through risk long after you would have said, ‘This is crazy … I’m not wading any further into this.'”

I talk about this very thing in Dan’s podcast. About how when I got the idea to write Arthur Zarr’s Amazing Art Car, it was a dream that grabbed me. A creative passion that I didn’t let go of—not for a minute—until I was holding the beautiful book in my hands. And since art often imitates life (or maybe, according to Oscar Wilde, it’s the other way around), my fictional character, Arthur Zarr, did the same thing. He didn’t know he was going to build an art car that day when he first glued an acorn to the front of his vehicle. It was just a snippet of an idea. An idea as small as the very acorn itself. But that idea grew and grew into an amazing art car, and as a result, Arthur made friends and found his community—his tribe—along the way. Here’s a quick link to buy ARTHUR ZARR’S AMAZING ART CAR.

My children’s picture book was released in 2016 and is still thriving!

And like my imaginary Arthur Zarr, I’ve found my tribe, too. Amazing friends I met through Dan’s Creative Shift Mastermind—Teri Case, Lisa Sinicki, Amanda Toler Woodward, Rupert Davies-Cooke, and Brian Joyner. People I met online or in person through various writing groups—Ellen Leventhal, Noelle Shawa, Rachel Kosoy, Ellen Rothberg, Lynn Abrams, Allison Zapata, and Shelley Kinder. Those I met in the trenches of book creation—Bill Megenhardt, Emily Calimlim, Paige Duke, Sheri Jacobs, Scott Sinnet, and Mackie Bushong. The many teachers and librarians who have supported me by inviting me to speak at their schools. Old friends I’ve known for years who share my passion for books and writing—Laura Holman-Byrne, Mary Ann Van Osdell, Pat and John Graham (Hi, Mom & Dad!), and so many others. And of course, I can’t forget ALL my fantastic new art car friends!

What are you passionate about? What creative push are you focused on today? Whatever it is … Be Amazing!

 

Will the REAL Mr. Newland Please Stand Up?

If you’re near my age (55), you probably watched that television game show, TO TELL THE TRUTH, which aired from about 1956 to 1978. On the show, four celebrity panelists were presented with three contestants. The challenge was to identify which contestant accurately matched up with the unusual occupation or experience that was read aloud by the host. Two challengers were lying; one was telling the truth. At the end, the legitimate person stood up.

A recent experience has had me thinking about that show all week. It started with an idea that’s been buzzing around in my brain for a middle grade book—you know, lots of chapters, aimed at readers age 8-12. I’ve already written the first book in what I hope might turn into a children’s series, and I secretly refer to it as The Bee Book (not the real title). I’m currently querying agents with that manuscript in hopes of getting on the path to publication. I’ll blog about the query experience later!

I’m now working on an outline so that I can draft what I’ll call Bee Book Two. The second book is going to require a good bit of research because it covers a scientific topic that’s outside my area of expertise. I needed to interview someone who specializes in astronomy, and I remembered my son took that class last year at his high school. I emailed Will’s former teacher—Jimmy Newland—and asked if I could talk to him in person about a potential book idea. He was happy to help, and we set up an appointment. Mr. Newland asked me to show up at a specific time, on a specific day, and told me he was in Room 186 of the school’s science wing.

Punctual as ever, I showed up, walked into the classroom, smiled. I think I even waved at him, chirping, “Hello!” The teacher replied, “Hi!” I explained, “I’m Will Nickell’s mom.” He said, “Cool, give me five minutes. I just need to start these kids on a makeup test.” I waited until he was free, and he then said, “So what’s up? What can I do for you?” I proceeded to tell him about my book idea, and he got animated. “This is good,” he said, “and it’s definitely a real-world plausible story idea. This could work!” I was excited by HIS excitement. It was contagious. He gave me lots of ideas, pointers, and recommendations. I took notes. I thanked him for his help and left.

Feeling pumped about the experience, I texted my son: “Hey! I just met Mr. Newland and he loved my book idea. He was so helpful!”

After a while Will texted me back: “When did you see him?”

ME: “Today! He was great! And he gave me so much info!”

WILL: “Umm, I just went by to say hello to Mr. Newland. He said you were a no-show.”

ME (annoyed): “Nope, I was there. He was great! So helpful!”

WILL: “When? Today? Where did you go? What room?”

ME (exasperated): “No worries. Let’s just talk after school.”

When I picked Will up from school, he peppered me with questions. “Exactly which guy did you talk to, Mom?” I went through the details again, explaining that I met Mr. Newland in Room 186, he loved my idea, blah-blah-blah. Not letting it drop, Will said, “Mom, did he have on a red shirt? Because Mr. Newland is wearing a red shirt today.” Confused, I admitted that the man I had spoken to wore a blue sweater. Not red.

This was NOT the REAL Mr. Newland!

Will (laughing at me) Googled a photo of Mr. Newland, and turned his phone screen toward me: “Is THIS who you talked to today? Because THIS is actually Mr. Newland.” Alas, it was not. I wasn’t sure who I had interviewed! I quickly opened my laptop and emailed Mr. Newland: “I was there today, but apparently I met with some random teacher who was not you. But he was very helpful and knew a lot about astronomy! LOL!” The red-shirted Mr. Newland wrote me right back: “I’m curious who this person was. That’s a very good story though. Let’s try again Monday.”

Round Two. I returned to the high school, went to the science wing and realized my mistake. On the prior visit, I had accidentally entered Room 185. This time, I made sure to go to the correct room (186, doh!). The good news is that the REAL Mr. Newland liked my story idea, too … just as much as the “fake” Mr. Newland did! Halfway through my premise he said, “I’m already excited about this.” He gave me names of three experts for me to interview as part of my research; I took more notes. He encouraged me to proceed, saying, “You’ve definitely got a great idea.”

I eventually figured out who the teacher in the blue sweater was—another legit science teacher who does, indeed, know plenty about astronomy. He didn’t deliberately pose as Mr. Newland; in his defense, he had no idea why I was there, but he chose to be nice and helpful. And come to think of it, he never actually SAID his name. (I’m sure he was scratching his head later: “Who was that mom and why was she bothering me!?”)

To tell the truth, it was affirming to get a thumbs-up from not one but two smart astronomy teachers. And next time I’ll double-check the classroom number a little more closely.

Now I’m off to outline this new book.

—Bee Amazing. 😉

 

 

 

What Triggers the Story Ideas?

https://storgy.com/2018/02/16/yellow-by-cathey-nickell/

I’ve only written one short story, and a London-based online site called STORGY Magazine recently published it. Here’s  a link to “Yellow,” which was inspired by something my father said in passing one day. Dad was looking at a brochure for a company that offered time-shares on a yacht; he thought it looked fun and showed my mother. Practical Mom was NOT interested, and Dad’s short-lived boat-dream faded soon thereafter.

When I got home from visiting them, I couldn’t shake this idea that was forming about couples and how they reach decisions. Whose career comes first? How are financial decisions made? Does one person get their way more than the other? I sat down and wrote “Yellow.” It has nothing to do with my parents, but Dad’s yacht-brochure-peruse triggered in me a creative moment. A short story was born.

Another time I was driving my son, Will, to school in our SUV. I was joking about the many (18+ and counting!) bumper stickers I have on it; he began to tease me, saying, “No one cares about your bumper stickers, Mom.” I dropped Will off at school, and my brain was on fire the whole drive home. I went inside, ignored the pile of tasks I needed to tend to, and instead pecked out the first draft of what would eventually become my first children’s book: Arthur Zarr’s Amazing Art CarI wrote a blog about it.

Where it all began!

I’m currently working on my second book—a middle grade story based on a unique experience that happened when I was in the third grade growing up in Shreveport, Louisiana. I’m not ready to share the exact premise yet, but the idea came from a real-life occurrence. For now, I’ll refer to it by a code name—The Bee Book—that perhaps will make sense … someday! The initial idea to write about my childhood mishap came to me in 1989. I had been out of college for four years and was working as a Publications Director for a medical clinic/surgery center. Before work one morning, I read an article about actress Ally Sheedy. I learned that while at New York’s Bank Street School, 12-year-old Ally wrote about a mythical encounter between Queen Elizabeth I and an inquisitive mouse. The result, She Was Nice to Mice, was published in 1975 by McGraw-Hill and became a bestseller.

Children’s book author, Tara Lazar, posted a photo of “nice mice” on Instagram, and I commented.

I was 26 years old when I read about Ally. I remember thinking, Wow! Ally Sheedy was born in 1962, so she is only one year older than me. And she has already written a published book. If she was able to do that at the age of 12, then why can’t I do the same thing now? [As you’ll see in the screenshots, I’m not the only person who felt this way. Tara Lazar has a very similar memory!]

Tara’s response made me laugh! We think alike.

I also liked the rhyming style of Ally’s book title, and the name for my future book popped into my mind. I knew what I wanted to write and what it would be called. I arrived at the clinic, did my regular work, and patiently waited for my lunch break. During that one-hour time slot, instead of eating, I typed out five single-spaced pages on green copier paper I had swiped from the office supply closet. This was before computers were commonplace, so I used one of the office’s IBM Selectric typewriters. I later transferred it to a word processor, and I still have the 3.5-inch floppy disk! Those original five green pages became the first draft of The Bee Book (remember, that’s merely a code name, not my real working title). It wasn’t even a middle grade chapter book at the time. It was simply a clever turn of phrase, a few funny references … but an original story for children, nonetheless. I filed it away. And there it sat for about twenty-five more years!

Fast forward to 2015. I was working on Arthur Zarr’s Amazing Art Car, and my creative juices were awakened during that project. I was frequently thinking of new story ideas, jotting them down in a notebook. That’s when I remembered The Bee Book, which was still tucked away in a file cabinet. I hadn’t seen it since 1989, and when I pulled out those old green sheets, I laughed at how truly bad it was! My writing has improved over the years, I thought with relief. As terrible as it was, I realized that I held in my hands a craptastic outline of what might possibly become my first middle grade children’s book.

Using that outline, I spent about three months writing the 23,000-word document of The Bee Book. I took my Mac Air everywhere and wrote every chance I could: early mornings before my family woke up; in the SUV (the one with the 18+ bumper stickers!) while sitting in the after-school carpool line; at Starbucks when I was able to sneak away from my other responsibilities; in a comfy living room chair while my kids sat next to me watching a movie; anywhere, anytime. Sometimes my husband would hear me laughing and would ask why, and I’d answer, “Because this story I’m writing is really funny!”

A must-read for writers!

Last weekend, I spent a Saturday afternoon reading Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way To Success, by K.M. Weiland. It’s a great book, and I highlighted something every few pages. One of my favorite passages was in Chapter One, where she discusses how both sides of our brain divvy up the necessary responsibilities of creating a story. Conception—that first spark of a story idea—is a deeply right-brain activity, Weiland writes. Then, “outlining is where the left brain gets its first crack at the story,” she continues. “Writing the story is an intensely right-brain experience … Revising brings the process full circle by once again imposing left-brain rationality onto the creativity of the first draft.”

My 8-year-old niece Meghan also critiqued my middle grade story.

I’ve revised The Bee Book many times, and I think I’m on Draft #5 or so! I’ve had it critiqued by fellow writers, and it has gone through several beta readers and a proofreader. I hope to start querying agents soon, but I don’t know if The Bee Book will catch anyone’s interest. I think if it’s ever published, I’ll repay my former boss by giving him five pieces of green paper like the ones I stole from his office in 1989. I owe him that much, right? But since I was working at my father’s medical clinic at the time, I don’t think Dad will mind. 😉

—Be amazing.

Art Car vs. Artcar

Two amazing things happened this week. Well, a lot more than that, but here are two I want to mention. First, a reporter from the Houston Chronicle called to interview me about my new picture book! Apparently there will be an article in their weekly Community section. I’ll post it as soon as it’s out. A photographer is dropping by this afternoon to take my picture … wow!

Secondly, a writer named Paul McCrae posted a review of my book on his website called Artcar Nation. You can read Paul’s review here.  I was flattered by his positive words, especially because he had a right to be skeptical. After all, I don’t drive an art car. Who is this random person sending me a children’s book about an art car? he must have thought. But what I want the art car aficionados to understand is that while they express themselves through their decked-out cars, I express myself by writing (regardless of the topic). Either way, each of us believes in and is proud of what we are creating.

IMG_5058I’ve also made some new friends during this process of launching my book. Like Randy Blair–a fantastic Texas chef/caterer as well as art car driver of “A Little Bit of Nonsense” (pictured here alongside my SUV!). Randy also sells handmade jewelry, is father to a whole bunch of kids (I forget how many!), and a loving husband (he brags about his beautiful wife a LOT!). You can read about Randy Blair’s art car here!

I also had the pleasure of meeting Rev. Bryan Taylor, a former president of the Houston Art Car Klub. He drives a Santa Claus art car (SantaCar MKIV); I’ve seen it around Houston but, until today, I had not yet snapped a photograph of it. Now I have! Bryan says that I’ve misspelled ART CAR. He IMG_5200explains in a recent email, “Congratulations, Cathey. From what I have seen posted by the community on FB the last few days, you have a winner on your hands. I see one small typo that is very common. You see, Cathey, artcar is ONE word.  Not two, as it is a compound word made up of two separate individual words that, upon being combined, create something new and unique; and if that ain’t a description of artcars, then I do not know what is. More importantly, unless we begin spelling it correctly, it will not get entered into the dictionary, which is a goal of mine to help get accomplished before I drive up to the Big Recycling Center in the sky.”

Well, Bryan, I don’t know if it’s one word or two, but I do know that I like art cars (aka artcars), and I am happy that this particular book idea popped into my brain last year! Otherwise, I would have never met you, Rev. Bryan Taylor; or my illustrator, Bill Megenhardt; or chef Randy Blair; or Sue Shefman, the owner of the hippo car named Cheerio; or Lennie Henry at the Orange Show; or Alicia Duplan at the Art Car Museum; or the fun people at City ArtWorks; or Stephanie Walton at Wilchester Elementary School; or Kristin and Laurie, the librarians at St. Mark’s Episcopal School; or Ellen Leventhal/Sheri Bernstein/Toby Haberkorn, and all the other Houston authors I’ve met through this process; or Mitch and Eduardo, my website gurus. There are too many new friends to name here, especially since I have a Houston Chronicle photo shoot to get ready for! But all of you know who you are.

And if it wasn’t for my wacky art car book idea, I wouldn’t have met Mr. Arthur Zarr, for that matter, and he’s quite special to me.   — Be Amazing!

It’s been an AMAZING week!

Plenty of AMAZING news this week … My book is live on Amazon!

http://amzn.to/1S0kce7

And since I’m the distributor, it’s also aArthurZarr_BookCovervailable for purchase directly from me through my website. Go to www.catheynickell.com and you should see the PayPal “Buy Now” button under my BOOKS tab.

It doesn’t matter to me which way you purchase … Amazon or PayPal.  Either way is AMAZING!

I’ve showcased my book at a recent “Art of Conversation” luncheon hosted by City ArkWorks. It will also be showcased this week at the 34th Annual Gala for the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art. Lots of cool stuff going on.

My illustrator, Bill Megenhardt, will join me this coming Saturday to autograph and sell books. We’ll be at the Wilchester Elementary “Holiday in the Park” Arts Market, from 10: a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Nov. 7, 2015, at 13618 St. Mary’s Lane, Houston, Texas, 77043. It’s an awesome event, which benefits her art class as well as a school Art Show in February. Stephanie Walton is an art teacher I met on Facebook, and she’s the person who developed this fun sales marketplace. Stephanie is an inventive educator who uses art cars to teach creativity to her students. What a concept!

https://www.facebook.com/MrsWaltonsArtCar

If you know what an art car is, I’m confident that you’ll enjoy Arthur Zarr’s story. And if you’ve never heard of art cars, you might like learning about this artistic expression. If you do purchase my picture book, please post a review on Amazon. Thank you!

While you’re at it, how about “liking” my Arthur Zarr on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/ArthurZarrsAmazingArtCar

Tip of the day: Be like Arthur Zarr & Be Amazing!

Arthur Zarr is Born!

My first children’s book, Arthur Zarr’s Amazing Art Car, has arrived!

IMG_4950A few silly bumper stickers triggered the concept for my new picture book. Nothing big. Just a twinkling of an idea that started small but took flight. And for my book’s main character, Arthur Zarr, it all began with an acorn that fell from a tree.

The costs that my book project incurred started off small, too. However, the expenses quickly grew, and while I don’t want to discourage anyone from self-publishing, I’ll be frank. It’s expensive to develop a hardcover book with dust jacket, complete with hand-drawn illustrations and Smythe-sewn binding! But my goal was to create a professional-looking book—one that could hold its own next to those developed by big publishing houses. So, I had to be willing to make a financial investment. I’m glad I did. (Note: e-books and print-on-demand books are considerably less expensive, but I had other plans in mind).

After a long ride from Canada, the books arrived this week. Like any proud mother, I can only see perfection when I look at my new baby. It will soon launch on Amazon (today, I mailed cases of books to three different Amazon Fulfillment Centers!), as well as Barnes and Noble, independent bookstores, gift shops, schools, libraries, my website, etc. Give me a few days, and it will be available for purchase by next week(Update 2018: My book is selling well and still available on AMAZON!).

Amazon!If you know what an art car is, I’m confident that you’ll enjoy Arthur Zarr’s story. And if you’ve never heard of art cars, you might like learning about this artistic expression. If you check out my picture book, I’d be so honored if you’d please post a review on Amazon. While you’re at it, how about “liking” my Arthur Zarr on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/ArthurZarrsAmazingArtCar

 

 

Am I a Legitimate Author?

“Can you help me get my book published?”

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked that question… it wouldn’t make me a millionaire, but I bet it would buy me a few tanks of gas. It’s funny, because a big-name publisher has not published my work. Nor a small publisher. Still though, it seems that some are noting my humble progress, and they’re asking how I’ve done it.

You’ve heard the well-known quote: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.” Well, I’ve discovered that “getting my book published” and “getting on Amazon” takes a lot more than practice.

ISH-BOOKI have two books under my belt. The first—a historical nonfiction—was published in 2012, with a revision and second printing in 2015. Uniting Faith, Medicine and Healthcare: A 60-Year History of the Institute For Spirituality and Health at the Texas Medical Center was the result of a freelance writing job. A Houston non-profit organization, called the Institute for Spirituality and Health, hired me to conduct interviews, research their annals, and develop a cohesive, historical chronicle of their years from 1955 to 2015.

The Institute project was unique because (1) I was well paid to write the book, and (2) the Institute funded all production costs to publish it. So, from a financial standpoint, I didn’t have to front the required capital. I didn’t take on any risk, other than my reputation as a writer. Since we chose to self-publish, I was able to skip the process of finding an agent, editor, or publishing house. I understood the publication process, thanks to my former years as a journalist and public relations professional.

ArthurZarr_My second book—a children’s picture book—has been an altogether different endeavor. In January of 2014, I came home from carpooling my son to school with a book idea. I sat down at my computer and created Arthur Zarr’s Amazing Art Car. I wrote the first draft in one sitting that took up most of my day. I felt it was an original story, and, after some research, I discovered that it would be the first children’s picture book on the topic of art cars. This led me to various appointments where I discussed my idea with smart, creative people. I considered self-publishing, and most everyone I talked to encouraged me to move forward with this idea.

The problem was that I wanted to feel legitimate. To me, that meant finding a “real publisher” or an agent. I couldn’t shake the notion that I wouldn’t be taken seriously if I self-published. Anyone can self-publish a book, was the nagging thought in my head. I discovered a small publisher that accepted non-agented work, and I mailed my manuscript off. I waited. And waited. After two months, I emailed the editor there, and she surprised me by writing back, saying that she was eager to read my story and would soon get back to me. I waited some more. And waited.

“PLAN B” IS SOMETIMES BETTER THAN “PLAN A”…

I never heard from that small publishing house. Looking back, I’m glad they didn’t respond. Undeterred, the months I spent waiting on that publisher’s call gave me time to develop a new plan. Ten months had passed since writing that first draft of Arthur Zarr’s Amazing Art Car. By this time, I had revised it dozens of times. I felt even more attached to my character and the dream of seeing Arthur come to life. I hired a local children’s book illustrator, and the real work began.

My constant narrative of “anyone can self-publish a book” wasn’t true. Producing my picture book has been a daily job that has required thousands of hours of proofreading, researching, learning, creating business/marketing plans, conducting cost comparisons, etc. I studied the basics of web design, blogging, social media, and building an author platform.

Self-publishing is hard work that’s not for the faint of heart or for the faint of wallet. In addition to the costs incurred in publishing a book, I’ve also taken courses, attended conferences, joined organizations, listened to webinars, and bought numerous industry books. Producing a hardcover picture book complete with dust jacket is an expensive endeavor with no promise of reimbursement through possible sales.

DARE TO SHARE…

But something special happened to me during the process of creating and producing Arthur Zarr’s Amazing Art Car. I grew in terms of creativity, productivity, and confidence. I’m not sure how, but I whittled out time to write a middle grade book that is currently in the rewrite phase (and that I might produce next). I revised the non-fiction book for the Institute for Spirituality and Health, and I produced its second printing. I completed my thesis and earned a master’s degree. I served as a paid consultant on a book project for another non-profit Houston organization. I helped a new acquaintance self-publish her book of poetry called Conscious Transformations: Within Me, Within You (by Marla Maharaj, for sale on Amazon). I assisted my parents as they sold their home and moved into a new house. I was a friend, a mother, a stepmother, a daughter, a sister, and a wife.

At first, I was afraid to put my writing, my books, and my ideas out into the world with no assurance of acceptance or appreciation. But as the inspiring author Brené Brown says, I think I’m “daring greatly!” I feel like a legitimate author. I can’t wait to open that first case of books in two weeks. Loveable Arthur is almost here!

My Picture Book Got a Crew Cut

I wrote my first picture book. I brought the manuscript to a conference hosted by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, held in Houston this past April. And I felt pretty darn good about my creation. I’d already spent months making adjustments and changes, rearranging sentences and paragraphs. I’d shown it to several friends and family members. I’d consulted with a few fellow writers. It’s a clean document, I thought. It’s pretty much done.

I knew I wanted to self-publish Arthur Zarr’s Amazing Art Car. I had already published a nonfiction history book through a freelance writing job. So, I knew the procedures of obtaining my ISBN, barcode, copyright, graphic designer, and printer. And I was confident that the text for my picture book was ready. I’d hired an illustrator, and he was busy drawing. I felt good about where my book stood at that point.

Fast forward to the end of Day Number One of the SCBWI conference. Wow. As I drove home, I reflected on what I had learned over the past eight hours. Much of it, I knew. Things like, trim the fat. Make every word count. Don’t use adverbs. Show, don’t tell! Show, don’t tell! Show, don’t tell! (We heard that one a LOT).

I heard some other information, too. One speaker emphasized, “It all begins with strong verbs.” He also said, “The adjective is the enemy of the noun.” By that he meant, don’t say “an enormous house” when you can say “a mansion.” An agent stressed, “Is your manuscript as polished as possible?” Another agent encouraged, “Trust the reader.” And in every talk, the editors stressed: Rewrite. Rewrite. Rewrite.

Arthur1-page-trimmedI came home and read my picture book with a fresh set of eyes. I tried to think like an agent or editor. I rewrote. Again. And again. And again. I’m including one page of my text to demonstrate what I did. I cut my manuscript. After one enlightening day at a SCBWI conference, I deleted 612 words from my story!

For a moment, self-doubt got the best of me. I’m untalented. I’m afraid. My ideas are lame. I have no business trying to self-publish a children’s book. But then I remembered something else I heard that day at the SCBWI conference: “Everyone gets rejected.” And, “Nothing succeeds like failing; because if you’re failing, that means you are trying.”

So, I flipped my thoughts and looked at my book-scalping experience as a success. I also hired a copy editor, and that—in addition to the fee to attend the SCBWI conference—was the best money I’ve spent while developing my picture book.

If you’re a writer, don’t be afraid to give your manuscript a serious haircut. Who knows? Maybe crew cuts are back in style.

https://www.facebook.com/ArthurZarrsAmazingArtCar

My Old SUV Inspired a Picture Book

I remember the playful statement I made to my teenage son last year on the way to his school. “Will, I need to be a polite driver and obey the laws of the road, because my car is so incredibly recognizable. Other drivers notice me, you know.” Will’s response? Eye roll, wrapped in a deadpan reaction, surrounded by mockery. “Uh, no, Mom, no one ever notices you. No one. And they definitely don’t pay attention your car.” We both laughed and went back to listening to our favorite morning drive radio show.

suvSee, I’ve spent many years braving the freeways of Houston during rush hour while chauffeuring my kids to school. What you don’t know about me is that I like to cover the back of my SUV with meaningful bumper stickers. There’s one from my alma mater, Baylor University. Will’s school, Bellaire High. Katie’s college, Southern Methodist in Dallas. Pamela’s law school at the University of Texas in Austin. Mason’s college, University of St. Thomas. Then there are my declarative stickers: I ♥ Telluride, I ♥ My Havanese, and Do What You Like/Like What You Do! The bumper stickers have become a running joke with my friends and family. But you can’t blame me for trying to make my car seem a little less ordinary than the plain, whitish-bronze, 2003 SUV that it is.

I teased Will that morning about having a memorable car that everyone notices. He bantered back that no one would ever notice me. It was a simple joke, but it got me thinking. What else—besides bumper stickers—makes a vehicle stand out? What makes a car memorable? My own questions triggered me to contemplate art cars. Art cars are pretty darn memorable, I thought. By the time I had finished my morning carpool, the idea for Arthur Zarr’s Amazing Art Car was born. And even though I’m not an illustrator, I knew it would somehow become a picture book.

  • DO A BIT OF RESEARCH!

I wondered. Has anyone already written a story like this? Are there books available for children that describe art cars? I visited bookstores and libraries, and I researched the topic. I found several interesting photographic art car books for adults. But no colorful children’s books. No imaginative made-up stories. I asked around, and I was surprised that many people don’t even know what art cars are.

It seems that most residents in and around Houston know about art cars, because Houston is home of the country’s first and largest annual art car parade (now in it’s 29th year). But most of my friends and relatives outside of Houston have never seen or heard of an art car. This discovery made me want to write and publish my story even more. I couldn’t wait to see the Arthur Zarr of my imagination come to life.

I rushed home from my library/bookstore quest to write. The story is set in a small, imaginary town, where Arthur Zarr is a quiet man with few friends. His life is rather plain, and his car is plain, too. But not for long! Arthur gets a creative idea to add everyday objects to his car’s exterior. People in his community start noticing him for the first time. Neighbors and other bystanders join Arthur by adding their own artistic flair to his car. Soon, he becomes a contender in the town’s Art Car Parade. Arthur Zarr finds happiness and makes friends by building an amazing art car.

  • BE SURE TO COLLABORATE!

All this, just from a silly conversation about my bumper stickers! My husband read the manuscript first, and he liked it. His enthusiasm gave me the confidence to continue to pursue the project. Friends and family encouraged me to self-publish, but I needed objective advice. A local advertising guru agreed to a gratis consult. He listened to my idea, and he said the same thing: go home and self-publish your book. He said something else that stuck with me: “Start talking about your book, Cathey. I’ve seen ideas die on the vine simply because someone was afraid to talk about it. Start talking about your book. Start collaborating.”

I had already written and self-published a nonfiction history book, but never a picture book. I asked around and made a few calls, which led me to a handful of illustrator options. I narrowed the list down to Bill Megenhardt, an experienced Houston children’s book illustrator with great references. His services weren’t exactly inexpensive, but he wasn’t the most expensive either. It was manageable. The illustration and print costs are not small, so this is a serious venture for me. But as my bumper sticker advises, I’m doing what I like and liking what I do! If all goes as planned, the book will be ready by November.

Listen to that kernel of inspiration that might be tickling the back of your mind. Pay attention to the silly stuff you joke about with friends or family. You never know, an object as ordinary as a 12-year-old SUV covered with bumper stickers might be all it takes to trigger your next project. And, like Arthur Zarr, maybe you’ll build something as amazing as an art car.

Hey, how about “liking” my creative guy, Arthur Zarr, on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/ArthurZarrsAmazingArtCar

How I Wrote a Thesis and a Book… At the Same Time!

Completing my thesis—and thus wrapping up my graduate degree—was one of those items I was determined to check off my buthesisblogcket list. But I had gotten remarried, and my new husband and I were trying to blend our family of three children. Then, I had another baby. Life’s circumstances pushed my thesis goal to the back burner. Sixteen years later, I was still writing at the top of my bucket list: “Finish Master of Liberal Arts degree.”

In the mid-90s, I enjoyed a dream job as the public information officer for a university in Louisiana. Prior to that, I had done public relations work in the healthcare industry. So, working with professors in an academic environment was a new adventure. The politics and flavor of campus life fascinated me, and I wanted to soak in all my new workplace had to offer. When I discovered that full-time employees were allowed to take classes at no expense, I was first in line to register. I was a single, working-mother in my late 20s, so the words “free tuition” sounded like winning the lottery.

TIP #1: IT’S NORMAL FOR YOUR ENGINE TO STALL!

By taking night courses after work and some during my lunch hour, I eventually finished the required credits for a Master of Liberal Arts degree. The only thing I lacked to graduate was writing a thesis. That’s where I stalled. I had heard from my professors that the M.L.A. degree at this particular university was considered a “low-completer” program. Meaning, students usually finished the classes but often didn’t graduate due to the daunting thesis requirement.

That will never be me, I thought. I’d be a fool not to finish a graduate program that doesn’t even charge me tuition. I’m a writer. This will be a snap.

But that was me. I was a “low-completer.” I had a million excuses… I moved to another state. I got remarried. I had a baby. I can’t think of a thesis topic. Working long-distance with my professors will be difficult. Too much time has passed (16 years!). The Graduate Council probably won’t readmit me into the program.

Plus, that requirement of a thesis paper being “original research” stumped me even more. I had, of course, written numerous news releases, brochures, newsletters, articles and research papers. The thesis, however, was a whole different beast. All my insecurities about writing crept to the surface.

Tip #2: START SAYING YES!

 One day, I got a bucket-list-changing phone call from my father. He’s the President/CEO of a non-profit organization in Houston, and he wanted me to research and write its rich sixty-year history. The Institute for Spirituality and Health has been around for six decades, but no one had ever compiled their unique story into one cohesive document. He thought of his daughter (me!) and made the call.

I wanted to get back into writing. I wanted something to call my own. Something that didn’t involve kids, carpooling, or running a home. Something creative. I also saw a chance to finish my graduate degree at the same time. I knew that if the university’s Graduate Council would agree, I could kill two birds with one stone. So I immediately answered, “yes.”

Tip #3: DON’T EVER THINK YOU’VE MISSED THE BOAT!

 Even though I hadn’t spoken to her in many years, I got up the nerve to call one of my former graduate school professors. The first surprise was that she remembered me. The second surprise was that she liked my thesis idea. She asked me to petition the Graduate Council in writing. I did, and my research topic was accepted! I was readmitted back into the program, my lengthy time-lapse forgiven. She even agreed to serve as one of my committee readers, along with two others.

I spent many months conducting one-on-one oral history interviews with longtime supporters of the Institute for Spirituality and Health. Some of the interviewees were in their 90s, so my work mattered. I was helping to preserve history by writing down their memories. I dissected my notes to find a perfect quote here and there. I spent tedious hours every day, searching through sixty-year’s worth of board minutes, newsletters, hand-written letters, special event programs, books, and other documents.

The hard work paid off. I compiled the first chronological historical record of the organization’s years from 1955 to 2015. It was original, never-before-written research. The graduate committee approved my thesis document, and my defense was accepted. I earned my master’s degree.

TIP #4: BE A HIGH-COMPLETER!

 The Institute had a modest financial budget for the history book, but it was enough. I hired a graphic designer and chose Lightning Source/Ingram Spark as our printing company. The result: “Uniting Faith, Medicine and Healthcare: A 60-Year History of the Institute for Spirituality and Health at the Texas Medical Center” was released in May 2015 to coincide with the organization’s sixtieth anniversary.

The 120-page book is available for purchase online through Amazon and/or Barnes and Noble. The softcover (ISBN: 978-0-692-42612-8) is $12.00, and the hardcover version (ISBN: 978-0-692-42613-5) is $18.00. All proceeds benefit the Institute for Spirituality and Health, which depends on contributions from the community to achieve ongoing success.

I don’t profit financially from sales of the Institute’s history book. But I profit in other ways. I feel like a “high-completer” now. My bucket list is a little shorter, too. Working on my thesis and the ensuing book brought me back to life. I haven’t stopped writing since, and I continue to develop other book projects. Next up is my first children’s picture book called, “Arthur Zarr’s Amazing Art Car,” which I hope to launch in November 2015.

What’s on your bucket list?

 

 

Cathey’s First Blog

Hi guys! I’m a big fan of actress Valerie Harper. Like so many teenage girls, I identified with Rhoda Morgenstern on the 1970s Mary Tyler Moore Show. I love something Valerie said once, “Don’t let your fear today rob you of a fun life.” Since Valerie’s been battling cancer for about five years, I figure she’s an expert at making each day count. That’s the kind of person I strive to be.

I write in a bright sunny office at my home here in Texas. My workspace features a large cork board that’s covered with inspirational notes and pictures. Pretty much anything that interests me goes on the board. On one scrap of torn paper, next to Valerie’s quote, I jotted down another phrase I like: “The ability to grow is directly related to the amount of insecurity you are able to take in your life.” I guess that means I need to do things that make me anxious! That’s how I approach my new writing career… It’s a little scary when I think about the possibility of failure, but that’s not going to stop me.

Be tenacious and determined!

Thanks for reading my first post. Hopefully I’ll get better as I go.

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© 2018 Cathey Graham Nickell