Archives: Tips For Writers

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!

 

Amazing Author #1: TERI CASE

 

My friend, Teri Case

Picking up on an fun idea that I’ve seen on other websites, I decided to start a periodic column on my blog called the “Amazing Authors Series.” I didn’t even have to ponder who I would feature first—I knew. TERI CASE is a witty, smart, talented writer I met in an online Mastermind course in 2016. After chatting through that Slack group for awhile, we eventually became friends beyond the course. I’ve never met Teri in person, but not for a lack of trying. We planned to meet for a cup of coffee last year when I was visiting New York with my family (Teri lives a train ride away from where I was staying); alas, an unexpected blizzard prevented her from traveling to the Big Apple. Maybe next time!

Teri and I share texts, emails and the occasional phone call to bounce ideas off each other and discuss our various book projects. I’ve served as a beta reader on two of her novels; she has done the same for me. It’s invaluable to have a colleague who enjoys brainstorming (ad nauseam, lol) about the same topics that I like. I highly recommend you find a Teri Case ♡ if you don’t already have one! Read her interview below, and perhaps you’ll order a copy of her moving, raw, powerful, debut novel Tiger Drive. It’s a wonderful vacation read; I couldn’t put it down! It’s also recommended for book clubs, and Teri will Skype into your book club, schedules permitting.

Tiger Drive is available on Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Q: What genre of books do you write?

  • Literary Fiction

Q: Do you write anything besides books?

I write a (mostly) weekly newsletter called Vitality Stories where I share a variety of stories, experiences, Dear Me letters, and updates on my current projects.

Q: What did you like to read as a child?

  • Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder;
  • My dad’s True Crime Magazines (I wish I were kidding);
  • I’m not sure if schools still do this, but when I was in elementary school, we’d get a Scholastic order form each month to order books (and kitten or puppy posters). I always got to buy a book to read. I wish I could remember all the titles;
  • I loved Choose Your Own Adventure books, too.

Q: What jobs have you had?

  • I was the youngest assistant manager ever at Round Table Pizza in high school;
  • I witnessed weddings for the Justice of the Peace in Carson City, Nevada, for four years, three Saturdays a month. I made $5 per wedding (and the judge always bought me lunch);
  • I worked as a cocktail waitress for one summer to catch up on bills—the hardest job I’ve ever had to be sure;
  • I held a variety of secretarial jobs at the University of Nevada, Reno, both as a student worker and as a full-time employee after I graduated;
  • I once assisted a CFO at a luggage and leather goods company. The owner was paranoid, so our office was in a warehouse with no windows because the owner was afraid of snipers and assassins;
  • I was a credit manager for an outdoor apparel company;
  • I was a c-level executive assistant in the biotech industry for decades;
  • And now, I’m an author!

Q: Is writing your full-time job or part-time passion? In other words, do you have a day job?

Writing has been a full-time job for the past four years (though I’m hard pressed to prove my productivity looking back on it—you’d think I’d have four books published by now. Egad!).

Q: How long have you been a writer?

I wrote my first book in the third grade. It was about a Native American boy named Andy who had a pear-shaped head. All the kids picked on him for the shape of his head. I wrote my second book thirty-two years ago. I was fifteen, and it was a teen romance. I entered it in a contest with Seventeen magazine. I punched three holes in the margin and bound it with light blue yarn. I didn’t win.

Q: Do you have an agent? Do you think it is important to have one?

I do not have an agent because it’s not important for me to have one. I think whether or not an author needs an agent is a highly subjective decision and influenced by the individual’s goals, capabilities, and resources, as well as the specific project.

Q: Did you publish through the traditional route or self-publish? Any thoughts you’d like to share about this?

I chose to self-publish Tiger Drive based on my goals, capabilities, and resources. I have no regrets. In fact, I am going to self-publish my second book, In the Doghouse, as well.

Tiger Drive comes in two different cover choices. So, I bought both! Decisions, decisions.

Q: What can you tell me about your most recent book or project?

Tiger Drive is about four members in a white trash family trying to break the mindset and habits of generations to change their futures and to prove they matter (February 2018 release). I’m super proud of the novel and some of the reviews have made me cry happy tears.

I’m currently editing my second novel, In the Doghouse, but I’m not ready to share the premise yet. I’m afraid someone will beat me to the idea (laughs out loud, maniacally). People usually respond to this fear with, “Only you can write the story your way.” But sometimes a story’s premise is different enough that it would be a challenge to have more than one book out at a time with the same premise, and that’s how I feel about my latest project. But I promise to share more as soon as possible.

Q: Now’s your chance to brag a little … anything you want to add?

Writing Tiger Drive inspired the Tiger Drive Scholarship for high school students who want to reach, learn, and grow beyond their familiar environment by pursuing a college education. So far, eight scholarships have been awarded and a few of the recipients made the Dean’s List their first year in college.  [Cathey’s Note: I love contributing to Teri’s scholarship program. Here’s some information about donating.]

Q: What advice do you have for other writers?

Dear Writers:

To break a writing rule and use a worn-out cliché, there is no time like the present. In fact, there is no time except the present. Sit your butt down, turn on a timer for twenty minutes each day, and write.

Love,

Teri

Q: Do you have any pets?

I currently don’t have any pets because my partner and I travel (and move) a lot, and I’d hate to leave them behind. Growing up, I had a dog, Marie, who lived to be thirteen; she died just six months after my father passed away. As an adult, I had a wonderful Labrador-mix, Kimo, for thirteen years. I lost him in a breakup, and in hindsight, losing him was the hardest part about the breakup. But it was the right choice and he lived four more very happy years without me.

Q: Would you mind giving us the LINKS to your social media? 

https://www.tericase.com

Instagram: @TeriLCase

Facebook: TeriCase_Author

Twitter: @tericase_author

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.

Hey, Bill Joyce: Nice Job!

Me with Bill Joyce, getting a few of my favorite books signed.

Me with Bill Joyce, getting a few of my favorite books signed.

“I highly recommend winning an Oscar… it’s just really fun,” joked Bill Joyce. I’ve repeated his words to many friends after hearing Joyce speak at the 2016 Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference in February. A crowd of 1,151 attendees devoured every detail of his speech, titled “Books are Like the Ice Cream Sandwich: How New Technology Doesn’t Change Much of Anything but it’s all Kinda Cool.” We laughed along with him as he described his whimsical approach to publishing, producing, writing, illustrating, and all the other projects his team develops at Moonbot Studios.

“A book is like an ice cream sandwich, it has a hard outside, and the good stuff is in the middle”—Bill Joyce

Joyce described what it was like when he and Brandon Oldenburg won “Best Animated Short Film” at the 84th Academy Awards (Feb. 2012) for The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. From wearing tuxedos made by Dickies (that was an amusing tale) to hearing the phrase “nice job” from the likes of George Clooney and Meryl Streep, all in all, Joyce insisted that winning an Oscar “was just really fun.” Before that Oscar win, the film had also won numerous film festivals, including “Best Animated Short” at the Austin Film Festival, Cinequest Film Festival, and Cleveland International Film Festival (to name a few).

Joyce wrote his winning story on a flight to visit his friend, Bill Morris, a “crusty old guy” who was ill. Morris was a longtime children’s books publisher at HarperCollins and Joyce’s mentor. Joyce read that early draft of the story to Morris, the muse for his book about Morris Lessmore (a play on words that referenced Morris’ diminutive size). The man who Joyce fondly refers to as “a three-martini lunch kind of guy” died two days later. Although Morris never saw Joyce’s team create the award-winning book, or the award-winning app, or the award-winning movie, he lives on in that inspiration. The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore is a story of people who devote their lives to books and books that return the favor; it’s a poignant, humorous allegory about the curative powers of story. You can hear Bill Joyce talk about Morris here.

Just like Morris’s smallness was good, so, too, is the smallness of Shreveport, Louisiana. Joyce hails from the same hometown as I, and while he has stayed there throughout his life, I moved from Shreveport to Houston about 20 years ago. (Fun Fact: We graduated from the same C.E. Byrd High School and were taught by the same journalism teacher, Mrs. Maredia Bowdon). I agree with his love of Shreveport when he says, “small is good.” Sometimes the anonymity I feel in Houston is comforting, but I often long for the ability to walk into a restaurant or store, knowing I will see someone I know. Shreveport reminds me of a rendition of the theme song from the 1980s television sitcom, Cheers, “Where everybody knows your name.” I miss that.

While I left Shreveport to marry my love (aka/hubby, Kevin), Joyce stayed and became a cherished jewel in a small city that knows how to love their gems. He helped put our town on the map—a place now known for its stronghold in the film industry, primarily due to the tax incentives Louisiana offers producers and production companies.

When he comes up with ideas, Joyce explained that he always thinks of the book first. I agree with his reference to books as being “the most artful and interactive way to tell a story.” Producers or investors sometimes push for the interactive nature of apps, but Joyce said he feels almost incredulous, saying, “What the hell do you think happens when you open a book?” And books even work better, he said: “They don’t break, they’re portable, and you can even drop them in water without creating too much damage.” So he thinks of the book first, usually (well, always).

In the case of Morris Lessmore, the tablet (iPad) had just come out. Joyce’s team knew if they could be the first to release a beautiful story app, they’d get noticed. They also took full advantage of the lack of a gutter that the app offered (that large split between two pages that all illustrators hate!). So, they put the app out, and one famous guy tweeted about the app, and Moonbot received four million hits in three hours, thus dragging Joyce away from his swimming pool and back to the office. [He never told us at that SCBWI conference who the famous guy was, but apparently he had something to do with Facebook!].

Moonbot’s app became the #1 selling app in the world. That app was the same basic story as the book, but emphasized in a different way. Same thing with the movie—it was the same story, but silent (all visual, no words). So, the book was about to come out, the app went to #1, and the film won an Oscar (Remember the tuxedos by Dickies!). “The app paid for the short film because it did so well,” Joyce explained.

Although Joyce never wanted to run a company or be a boss, opening Moonbot Studios in Shreveport, Louisiana has been an uphill ride that is still going places as the first major animation studio in Louisiana. Beginning with four employees in 2009, the company has grown to a staff of about 60—all committed to his company goal of “never doing anything that’s crummy.” Despite not wanting to be a boss, Joyce said, “I’ve done more books in the last five years than in the 20 years previous.”  (Here is a LINK TO MOONBOT Studios if you want to learn more.)

Final words that day in New York from Joyce: “You don’t need an investor; you need a few compatriots and [you need to] collaborate. Collaboration is critical for writers, who usually spend their time at a desk alone with their laptop, typewriter and paper.” So, he said, “Go talk to people.”

Next up for Joyce is Ollie’s Odyssey, his children’s novel set to launch in April. That and his continuing path as a purveyor of whimsy, to which I say, “Nice job, Bill Joyce!”

Cathey’s Disclaimer: My background in journalism makes me committed to accuracy. I was taking copious notes during Bill Joyce’s talk at the New York SCBWI conference, while laughing the whole time (he was hilarious). So, I apologize if any quotes are off, but I think I did a good job sharing this shining moment. After his speech, all of us kept saying, “I could listen to Bill talk all day long.” 

Hey, NYC! I’m Back In Black!

I wore a loose-fitting, hot pink shorts set with white tennis shoes. It was May of 1999, and it was my first trip to New York City. Oh, and I was six months pregnant! If you know anything about NYC, it’s that the locals tend to wear a lot of black. Sure, they might experiment with color a bit during Fashion Week. But fuchsia maternity shorts with a coordinating top? Unlikely. Regardless, I thought my matchy-match pink outfit from A Pea in the Pod seemed appropriate for a scorching hot day touring the Big Apple.

macaulay

Pretty much me in New York in 1999.

I had that pregnancy glow. As I walked down Lexington Avenue, a passerby looked me straight in the eye. He pointed a finger at me and loudly said, “Hey Cutie… ” For a split second, I puffed up from the compliment and flashed a smile, about to respond with a polite Texan “hello.” No time for me to reply, however, as he instantly finished his sentence with “ …Roly Poly!” True story. He was thigh-slapping and laughing as he continued on, still muttering, “roly poly.” I stood there open-mouthed, gasping like Macaulay Culkin in the movie Home Alone.

“HEY CUTIE… ROLY POLY!”  —Mr. Manhattan

That’s how I first learned I don’t always fit in. That guy? He fit in. He was in the inner circle of NYC. He knew stuff. He knew where he was going and what to wear (black!). To be sure, I probably looked like a ridiculous pink balloon. But did Mr. Manhattan have to point it out? Did he have to remind me that I didn’t belong?

Sixteen years after that wardrobe malfunction, I found myself on a flight heading back to New York. Once again, I was nervous about not fitting in. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) was hosting its Winter Conference, and I didn’t want to miss the workshops and faculty lineup. One draw was the keynote speaker: Oscar-winner/writer/illustrator/creator and fellow Shreveporter, William Joyce. Also, Jacquelyn Mitchard, Rainbow Rowell, Rita Williams-Garcia, and Gary D. Schmidt. I was nervous about going alone, but most of my friends are uninterested in an assemblage of over 1,500 writers who want to talk about books. My husband, Kevin, who is always game for a trip to New York, offered to accompany me; but I knew I’d be booked in meetings all day. So, I went alone.

On the plane, I thought about my fear of not fitting in with the other writers I’d be meeting in New York—many of whom had agents and/or contracts with Big Six publishing houses. Doesn’t everyone feel like this now and then? I remembered my mother’s reassurances when I was a teenager: “Cathey, when you find yourself nervous about tackling a new experience, just remember that everyone else in the room feels the exact same way. Once you understand that, your fears will dissolve.” I decided I would walk into every conference situation with that thought in mind: I’m not the only one here who is nervous and full of self-doubt.

IMG_5977

Fitting in better in black, February of 2016.

Fortunately, our SCBWI Houston regional chapter helped us out by putting the local attendees in touch with one another in advance. There were about ten of us going from Houston, and we created a group text so that we could meet up once we arrived at the Grand Central Station hotel. I don’t suffer from a diagnosable social phobia, but I really hate going to an event and not seeing a single familiar face. Thanks to that group text, however, I had an immediate circle of friends with whom I could sit, dine, compare notes, and hang out. From the minute I arrived, a tribe of creative, like-minded colleagues surrounded me.

The February 2016 SCBWI Conference in New York was inspirational, and I’m glad I didn’t cancel my registration. I took notes, developed ideas, made friends, networked, exchanged contact information, got autographs from a few famous authors, and learned about the publishing industry. I felt okay. I fit in. And this time, I wore black.

 

 

 

An Amazing Book Review & Why This Matters

lonestarLone Star Literary Life is a superb organization I discovered while producing and marketing my new children’s picture book, Arthur Zarr’s Amazing Art Car. This group connects readers with Texas writers and Texas books. I recently submitted my book to them for a review, and what I got in return is wonderful.  CLICK HERE TO READ THE FULL REVIEW BY LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE.  It was published in their Jan. 31, 2016 online newsletter, and I’ll clarify that I paid for this professional review. Some people don’t even realize paid reviews exist, but they do! It’s not always recommended for self-publishers, but in this case, it was part of my specific marketing plan. I was delighted that they praised my illustrator, Bill Megenhardt, for his original, crosshatched, hand-drawn technique.

“Mr. Zarr grows from his grisaille existence into a citizen of a diverse, polychromed neighborhood.” – Lone Star Literary Life book review.

READER REVIEWS ARE IMPORTANT. Why? I’ve been researching this topic for a long time, and here’s what I’ve learned. For all authors—but especially for indie authors like myself—reader reviews are vital to the success of our books. I’m not talking about paid reviews; I’m referring to a non-paid review from someone who read the book. Positive reviews can increase sales, increase visibility, grow an author’s newsletter, increase social media engagements, and much more. For example, HERE’S ANOTHER POSITIVE REVIEW I received by Paul McRae of Artcar Nation, a spectacular website dedicated to art cars. I didn’t pay for Paul’s glowing words, and I’m so grateful to him for the publicity. I wrote a fun blog about it, too.

Reader reviews help get the word out and can create a buzz about a particular book. They also give potential buyers an idea as to what the book is about, which in turn might generate sales. Reviews can influence contagious behavior. I learned in my college marketing classes that it’s psychological. When products appear to sell a lot, they go on to sell even more. People want to know why something is popular, and they’re often willing to buy it to find out.

There are also these mysterious processes that create suggestions on Amazon such as, “You might also enjoy this.” I’m still learning how these algorithms work. I’ve read that I need at least ten reviews on Amazon so that my book might pop up with “also bought” and “you might also like” phrases. At the time of writing this post, I have received 23 Amazon reviews in two months—all of which are positive. This brings up another issue: apparently it could look “fishy” if all my reviews have the highest five-star ratings. Readers might not trust the reviews if every single one is glowing, and I’ve heard it might help to have a few negative ones.  Well, please don’t go post an unenthusiastic review! I’m quite sure those will arrive organically over time, because no book is universally loved by everyone.

So sales are one thing, but there’s another reason why I might need favorable reviews from some respected groups like Kirkus and Publishers Weekly. I’m trying to submit my book for a few different publishing awards, and some of these contests require favorable reviews from specific key sources to even be considered. Many of these professional reviews cost money, however, and authors should cautiously weigh the cost vs. return on investment.

THE PROBLEM is obtaining enough non-paid reader reviews. I would never stoop so low as to pay for a reader review on Amazon or Goodreads; plus, it’s considered unethical, so don’t go down that path! Authors run the gamut from gently suggesting to outright begging everyone they know for reviews. It only takes a few minutes, but getting someone to actually sit down and write a review is not easy. I’m batting about 10:1. Meaning, for every ten people I’ve asked to write a review, I’ve gotten about one person to follow through. I’m not complaining; just stressing how hard it is to get book reviews. I don’t plead; I ask once and leave it at that. If you want to learn more, you can google “Why Book Reviews are Important,” and you will discover a wealth of information.

To those dedicated individuals who posted honest reviews about my book: Thank You! I sincerely appreciate the time it took for you to sit down and finish this task. I don’t take it for granted, and I am grateful to my two dozen or so reviewers (with that number growing, I hope). If you’re reading this blog and haven’t written a review yet, please do so. I know your time is valuable, but it matters so much!

In case you’re not sure, I’ll explain here, “How to Post a Review on Amazon.” It’s easy:

  • log into your Amazon.com account as usual;
  • in the search bar, type Arthur Zarr’s Amazing Art Car;
  • click the book title to get onto my book page;
  • scroll down to the Customer Reviews area;
  • click the white rectangular box that says “Write a Customer Review;”
  • choose a number of stars, hopefully 4 or 5;
  • begin writing your review in the available box;
  • even a few positive words will help, it does not have to be long and complex;
  • give your review a title in the next box;
  • in the upper right corner of this page you can even change “Your Public Name;”
  • don’t forget to hit SUBMIT!

Thank you so much, and I hope you enjoy the attached book review by Lone Star Literary Life as much as I did!  Here’s another link for you to read the whole review.

 

 

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?

 

 

© 2018 Cathey Graham Nickell