I’m excited to announce the upcoming launch of my NEW children’s picture book, Yazzy’s Amazing Yarn.
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!
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.
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!
Milestone alert! I recently celebrated my FIFTIETH school author visit! I’ve delivered my presentation so many times, I can practically do it in my sleep. Nevertheless, every visit feels fun and special. There’s always something new and different that comes up, which means no two visits are ever alike.
Take, for example, that one student who asked, “Why don’t you have a body guard since you’re supposedly so famous?” And the time an honest child informed me that I look older in person than I do in my poster’s marketing photo. Oh, and the really bold kid who wanted me to sign his forehead!
Those are some funny examples, but there are tender moments, too. “I can’t wait to go home and write a book” is a frequent and favorite comment I receive at most every school visit. The girls often tell me they love my necklace (it’s a little blue car charm) or that they love my dog (Cricket is featured in my presentation). I’ve even had some sad comments, like when a child comes up to tell me that he/she doesn’t have a mother (that has happened) or that their father passed away (that has happened, too). When that occurs, I know to just give the child a big hug. Silly, sweet, or sad—I cherish all of these experiences.
Reaching my 50th school visit felt important, so I decided to ring it in with STYLE! Houston’s amazing Ridgemont Elementary School in Fort Bend ISD was the school that happened to be my special fiftieth, and I invited not one but TWO art cars. Art car driver Elizabeth Burnham brought her purple furry “Penelope,” and Jada August brought her new painted art car called “Dragonfly Whimzee.” The kids LOVED them!
I also created a huge gift basket as a door prize (something I’ve never before done for a school visit). I filled it with numerous autographed books, candles, artwork, trinkets and chocolate—I mean, who doesn’t like chocolate? P.E. Coach Jessica Edwards was the lucky winner, and she made my day when she said, “Omg, I never win anything! Thank you!” Then she quickly took off to lock it up in her office for safekeeping, lol!
And finally, I gifted the school with an oversized custom drawing by my amazing illustrator, Bill Megenhardt. He drew Ridgemont’s roadrunner as he thought it might look in an art car parade! The students, faculty and staff went crazy for Bill’s creative rendition, which will forever hang in their library.
My 50th school visit at Ridgemont was a good day, and it reminded me of comedienne Molly Shannon as the infamous Sally O’Malley on Saturday Night Live: “I’m fifty! And I like to kick, stretch and kick! I’m fifty!” And that’s how I really feel … kicking my heels up (literally) each time I book another school visit … and streeeeeeetching myself to get outside of my comfort zone.
I can’t wait until the day that I get to post about my 100th school visit … stay tuned! And I hope you all keep kicking & stretching along with me.
~ Be amazing!
It’s never easy to travel out of town for a school or book engagement. I have to consider mileage/gas costs, hotel rates, meals, and other logistics. But when I was invited to feature my children’s book at the 13th Annual Texas Word Wrangler Festival—benefiting the Giddings Public Library and Cultural Center—I had to say YES! This resulted in a two-hour drive, a two-night stay … and a lot of fun. Arthur Zarr’s Amazing Art Car loves a good road trip!
The first stop was an author visit where I spoke to third graders at Giddings Elementary School. I gave four presentations back-to-back, and after the last talk the teachers said they were having so much fun they didn’t want to leave! So, I stayed a bit longer, answering the many hilarious questions that the students had for me. It was AMAZING!
My second school visit took me to a beautiful facility with the most gorgeous cemetery nestled in a secluded, rural area. There, I gave two presentations for K-5th graders at St. Paul Serbin Lutheran School, and the kindergartners presented me with a stack of colorful, beautiful artwork. I love receiving handmade drawings such as this, and I’ll keep them forever.
The next day was full of book sales at the library. School after school poured through the doors as students were brought by the busload for field trips to meet the authors. The children lined up for autographs, bookmarks and books. I signed one girl’s book and wrote “Be Amazing!”—as I always do—and she nudged her friend, whispering, “Can you beeee-lieeeeve it? She wrote ‘Be Amazing’ in my book!” My feet were aching but my heart was full!
This year, it was Alan Bourgeois’s idea to add a new Saturday event to the festival, complete with food trucks, snow cones, cotton candy, kiddie train rides, a jumpy-bouncy house, and MORE book sales. Alan is founder of the Texas Association of Authors and is a long-time supporter of the Texas Word Wrangler Festival; his efforts helped the library create what we all hope will be a new Saturday tradition. I invited Randy Blair to bring his art car, “A Little Bit of Nonsense,” to the festival, allowing visitors to see and touch a REAL art car up close. Randy and his car were a hit!
One of the best results of this weekend event was rubbing elbows with the other featured authors. I met so many smart, creative professionals, and it was wonderful to exchange ideas and knowledge. It was an amazing weekend full of irreplaceable moments, and I’m glad I was welcomed and honored by the warmth of the people of Giddings, Texas.
Cick here to see the WORD WRANGLER festival website.
Below I’ll post as many photos as I can of these talented writers who were in attendance with me.
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 Car. I wrote a blog about it.
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.
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!]
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!”
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.”
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. 😉
Have you ever been an inspiroror? Are you unsure what one is? Well, my almost-nine-year-old niece Marie seems to know. We share the exact same February birthday along with an affinity for writing stories. A few months ago, when Marie’s mom attended Back-to-School Night, she spotted this and texted it to me:
Come on! It would be hard to feel rejected after that kind of praise. Marie loves me; she was spot-on drawing my poofy brown hair and art car t-shirt. And after seeing this mini-article she wrote, I was motivated to write my own blog post (this one!) after a long dry spell.
Inspiroror-ation comes from unexpected places. I’ve never drawn a comic strip, but in October, I was motivated by the morning news of all things. I watched Chris Cuomo and Carol Costello on CNN as they reported on several random stories. My brain strung them all together, and I drew a cartoon to illustrate what the news felt like that day.
I’m not going to post my lame drawing, because I prefer to avoid politics. Plus, it’s just really embarrassingly bad! At the time, I thought it was the CNN anchors that inspired me, but I now believe it was one of my writer friends, Lisa Sinicki. Lisa is a public relations professional in Atlanta, and author of My Mother Served Gouda When Company Came: Scenes from a cheese-lover’s life. You can find it on Amazon.
We became friends through an online Mastermind facilitated by Dan Blank, founder of WE GROW MEDIA. Lisa and I, along with a few others from that Mastermind group, have kept in touch and continue to support each other. Lisa draws playful cartoons, which she regularly posts in her newsletter. I recommend you buy Lisa’s cheese book (it’s gouda!) on Amazon and that you subscribe to her newsletter: Queen of the Chronic Overthinkers.
One of Lisa’s recent comics called “A Visit From the Idea Fairy” had my husband and I cracking up. I wrote to tell her the good news: “Lisa, it made us spit soda out of our noses! Someone needs to buy them!” She replied that she submitted some of her cartoons to The New Yorker: “I sent a couple of early one-panel things that got rejected. I recently sent in five better ones. I imagine that IF I keep submitting eventually something will stick.” I admire Lisa’s positivity, because I’m sure she’s much like me and other creative professionals who struggle to stay confident in the face of rejection.
For me, I think it was a large dose of false confidence that propelled me into action on my CNN/Lisa-Sinicki-inspired comic-strip-drawing day. I finished my masterpiece, and I should have quietly filed it away; instead, I sent it to The New Yorker. Wait, what? Yeah, I did. I guess I wanted to be like my inspiroror—Lisa! Then, I waited. And waited. And then, I got rejected!
Are you familiar with a site called SUBMITTABLE? It’s an app where writers and artists can submit their works for possible publication. Check it out and you’ll find yourself going down a literary rabbit hole. Before I could mutter “submittable,” The New Yorker rejected my first-ever political cartoon. Undeterred, I submitted a few writing samples to other publications. As a result, an online site called Parent Co. accepted my personal essay called “If These Scars Could Talk.” It was published on Nov. 4, 2017 as a part of their November writer’s contest based on the word prompt: gratitude. YOU CAN READ IT HERE!
ME: I’m on a roll!
That thinking led me to submit some more. I’ve had a short story called “Yellow” sitting in my computer for about a year. I sent it out to a few publications, and an online literary magazine called STORGY accepted it (to be published on Feb. 16). In both instances, I chose to adopt Lisa Sinicki’s mantra: “If I keep submitting, eventually something will stick.” (This should be a meme for creative professionals).
My first—and last!!—political cartoon wasn’t published in The New Yorker, and I don’t know what sort of response I’ll get for my short-story “Yellow” once it appears on STORGY. But some positive wins have happened since I launched my children’s book last year. Arthur Zarr’s Amazing Art Car was awarded first place by the Texas Association of Authors in the category of Children’s Picture Book—All Ages for 2017. I’ve also spoken/presented at more than 35 elementary schools since launching my book. And the biggest win happens at that sweet moment when a student tells me, “You inspired me! I can’t wait to get home and write my own book.”
So, who is your inspiroror? Are you inspiroror-ing anyone? And as always, Be Amazing!
Can you believe it? My book, Arthur Zarr’s Amazing Art Car, has taken me on the road to speak to children at schools around the country! To date, I’ve spoken at some 38 schools in my hometown of Houston; in Shreveport & Monroe, Louisiana; in Atlanta, Georgia; and in Austin, Texas.
Most recently, I was invited to travel to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and I spent a beautiful morning speaking to students at Bess T. Shepherd Elementary School. Three art car drivers joined us at my school visit: Isaac Cohen (Houston), Wendy Tippens (Tennessee), and Paulette Perlman (Florida). And the presentation wouldn’t have been complete without the talent of my amazing illustrator, Bill Megenhardt. Together, I think all of us delivered a visit that the students will remember for a long time. And that’s not all—several other art car drivers visited a few more schools around town: Jewelz Cody, Bonnie Blue, Ted Mangum, and a few others (I’ll try to find out their names to add them later!).
We were IN THE NEWS throughout the Chattanooga weekend, starting with an article published in The Chattanoogan— Read the article here! What’s more, News 12 (WDEF-TV, David Moore) was on hand to film the school event, and the children were excited to meet a real author, a real illustrator, and to view the art cars up close and personal. Click the words “ART CARAVAN” below to see the televised feature!
I also had the pleasure of meeting the dynamic Kate Warren, executive director of Art 120, a seven-year-old non-profit organization created to enrich Chattanooga and its surrounding community through the creation, education, and celebration of STE(A)M-based learning. Kate explains, “About 32 of our 42 elementary schools in Chattanooga do not even have art programs, so our organization raises funds to bring art to the schools.” Read more on what ART 120 is doing by clicking this link!
Kate is the mastermind behind the Scenic City Art Car Weekend, which she brought to her town about six years ago. This year, more than a dozen art cars showed up from around the country, bringing a weekend of inspiration to the city. Perhaps you’ll consider a DONATION to Art 120 to help support the amazing work they’re doing for school children in Chattanooga. Every $5 donation brings art to a child, and Kate’s passion for her mission is contagious. (I hope you catch it!)
The cherry on top of my stay in Chattanooga was a book signing at Barnes and Noble (thank you, Kelly Flemings). It was a great weekend full of fantastic art cars, hometown charm, delicious food, interesting sites, and a whole bunch of new friends. I enjoyed my visit so much, and I hope you’ll read more about the creative, important work of Art 120 through the links I’ve posted here.
Be like these guys—be amazing!
It was my first book signing for my children’s book, Arthur Zarr’s Amazing Art Car. I was terrified. Which was kind of silly, because all I had to do was set up a table at an elementary school holiday market. Nevertheless, I felt nervous and unsure. So, I did what any mature author would do … I begged my mother to be my sidekick!
As Mom and I parked in the school’s unloading area, I was surprised to see an artcar in the lot. It was covered with every glass object, trinket and phrase you can imagine, and I’ve since learned that it’s called “A Little Bit of Nonsense.” Mom helped me lug my case of books inside, and the first person we met was a 6-foot-4 bald man wearing tie-dyed clothes and antlers on his hat!
“I’m Randy Blair,” he said, walking over for a handshake. “I have a very hot wife, wanna see?” He opened up his wallet to show off a photograph, and a huge orange flame snapped out. Ha! That’s how I discovered that—in addition to decorating and driving one of the most spectacular artcars I’ve ever seen—Randy also does magic tricks. And he makes and sells jewelry. And he’s a chef. And he runs his own private catering business, “Five Loaves and Two Fish Catering.” And he’s a father to five kids, a husband to Wanda, a cancer survivor.
Randy Blair is a big tall bundle of interesting! But that day, he was the person who made me feel comfortable about selling my new artcar book. He was my first buyer that morning, too. He bought a copy and stepped back over to his own sales booth to read it alone. I had no idea what he thought of it, and his opinion mattered to me. Not only was he a REAL artcar driver, but also he was the FIRST “cartist” I’d ever met in person.
After awhile, Randy came back over. “You know what? You wrote my life story! I’m just like Arthur Zarr!” He went on to explain that (like my Arthur) he never intended to build an artcar, but it accidentally evolved over time. For some 20 years, Randy was a chef in corporate America, forced to wear a required, conservative, plain uniform. In 2001, he started his own catering business, which allowed him a new level of freedom. “I’ve always been very creative and very visual, and it started seeping into other areas of my life,” Randy says.
Take his vehicle, for instance. Randy’s first artcar was an old green Honda CRV. He decorated the interior dashboard and let people sign the roof of the car with markers. Soon after, he bought a pair of crazy tie-dyed chef pants that he wore with his white jacket. Over time, Randy’s plain chef’s coat was replaced with a colorful one dyed by Don Bingham, owner of Tribal Grounds in Houston. “First my car started changing, then my clothes started changing,” Randy laughs.
When the aging Honda’s engine finally died, Randy bought a brand-new candy-apple red Toyota Yaris. (I’ve always thought that artists had to buy an old jalopy as a base to build an artcar. Wrong!) Immediately after buying the Yaris, Randy started decorating the interior, and—like my book’s character, Arthur Zarr—he began to get noticed. “People would tell me, ‘Your car is so cool on the inside!’” Friends recommended he enter it in the Art Car Parade; so, he showed photos of it to some folks at The Orange Show—the group that hosts Houston’s Art Car Parade each year—and the rest is history.
Like Arthur Zarr, Randy knew his car needed more oomph to be ready for the parade. He bought a kiln and started making “fused dichroic glass” as a hobby. These colorful, shiny objects made their way to the outside of his Yaris. By the time he drove it in the 2009 Art Car Parade, the exterior was completely covered with objects. That first year, Randy won first place for daily driver and first place for participant’s choice. The following year, he won both categories again. And just like my Arthur (and me!), Randy made a whole bunch of new friends along the way.
Randy’s “A Little Bit of Nonsense” artcar now has multiple layers and significant height to it. He drives it daily because he loves making people happy. He says viewers often ask him if the weighty objects affect the mileage he gets per gallon of gas. He answers, “It doesn’t matter how much weight I’m adding, because I’m getting 10,000 smiles per gallon!” Those smiles are addictive, he tells me, and it’s why he keeps driving his artcar.
I agree with a phrase that’s printed on Randy’s car that says, “The sweetest fruit is at the end of the skinniest branch.” I had to get out of my comfort zone to reach my fruit. To write and publish my children’s book. To put myself out there. To risk rejection. When I speak to students at elementary schools, when I sign books for children, or when I see someone smile at my book cover—I know it was worth climbing out on that bendy limb.
Note to my favorite book reviewer, Paul McRae: Yes, I spelled artcar as one word. For you. 🙂
This week—May 3, 2016 to be exact—marks the six-month anniversary of the launch date of my children’s picture book, Arthur Zarr’s Amazing Art Car. I thought it might be interesting to celebrate the occasion with a breakdown of numbers and other fun facts.
- 783 = total number of books sold so far
- 100 = number of books donated to schools, libraries, and contest winners
- 95 = number of books purchased by customers online through Amazon.com
- 40 = number of pounds that each case of books weighs
- 41 = number of readers who posted five-star reviews on Amazon
- 1 = number of times I’ve been interviewed on a NPR station (Thanks, Kate Archer Kent, formerly of Red River Radio!)
- 8 = number of newspaper or magazine articles about my book
- 5 = number of schools I’ve presented to
- 1,000,0005 = number of schools I wish I could present to!
- 1,400 = approximate number of children who have heard/seen my presentation
- 5,000 = number of giveaway bookmarks I ordered
- 10 = number of Indie book shops and other stores that sell my book
- 23 = number of states my book buyers come from
- 21 = number of months it took me to write and publish my book
- 29 = number of art car parades Houston has hosted since 1987
- 1 = number of art car exhibits inspired by my book so far (Thanks, Northeast Louisiana Children’s Museum and Melissa Saye!)
- 1 = number of bearded men driving a Santa Claus car I’ve met (Hi, Bryan Taylor!)
- Countless = number of art car daily drivers and other new friends I’ve met as a result of writing this book.
- Canada = country where my book was printed
- Venezuela = purchase made from the farthest away
- Roswell, New Mexico = most interesting city represented by a buyer (Hmm, aliens?)
- Patsy Stamps Graham = name of person who thinks she bought the first copy of my book (Thanks, Mom!)
- John Cooper = name of person who actually bought the first copy (Sorry, Mom, but I’m finally admitting that he beat you to it!)
- Connie May Bingham = name of person who made the first online Amazon purchase
- Jason Rounds = friend who drove the farthest to attend a book signing event (Jason and his daughter drove 1 hour from Texarkana to Shreveport). Two of my relatives, Shawna and Amanda Cotten, did the same!
THANK YOU, to Bill Megenhardt, for your amazing illustrations and wonderful collaboration. And, THANK YOU, to everyone out there who helped make my publishing success possible. I appreciate every book purchase, every Facebook like or share, every re-tweeted Twitter message, and every friend or stranger who showed up at a book signing event. I appreciate all the creative art car artists who have welcomed me into their fold.
The thing I’m the most proud of is that Arthur Zarr’s Amazing Art Car has inspired so many children to open up their imagination in countless ways. I remember the boy from a Houston school who said, “Mrs. Nickell, I went straight home after your talk and wrote and drew my very own art car book.” I feel like I’ve left a small mark on the world, and it’s been a life-changing experience for me.
Be like Arthur Zarr … be amazing!
I remember a story I overheard or saw on television as a child when I was about ten years old. It was the 1970s, before lasers were available to remove tattoos. The story I heard was about a woman who wanted a heart-shaped tattoo removed from her derrière. Apparently the doctor incised the heart tattoo and stitched up the wound. The scar that the excision left was in the shape of a capital letter Y. I remember thinking to myself, “She better marry someone whose name starts with a Y, otherwise her husband might get jealous!” Something about that heart-turned-into-a-Y-shaped-scar always intrigued me. That woman had a story to tell!
At age nine, I earned my own first noticeable scars when I broke my femur. My parents bought a small Suzuki motorcycle, and they’d take us kids out for rides on a piece of country property that our family owned. I was too young to ride the motorcycle alone, so I climbed on the back and hung on behind one of my father’s friends. It was an accident; Emile certainly didn’t want me to get hurt. But, a piece of barbed wire was dangling in our path, and it snared the wheel, yanking the bike onto my leg. I still remember the pain and the long drive to the hospital. The orthopedic surgeon inserted a metal pin through my leg to set me up for traction. After six weeks in the hospital, six weeks at home in a body cast, and several weeks on crutches, my femur finally healed. Over 40 years later, I still think about that accident whenever I see the small scars on either side of my right leg where the pin was.
SCARS = EXPERIENCES:
Most of us don’t like scars. Right? If you Google the word “scar,” numerous plastic surgery and dermatology websites for scar removal pop up. Apparently there’s a lot of money to be made in getting rid of our scars. Everyone wants beautiful, flawless skin that’s free of freckles, moles and wrinkles. But, if you think about it, scars equate to experiences. Every scar has a story. Without my stories—and my scars—who would I be? The memory of spending much of third grade in traction has stayed with me all these years. I remember feeling trapped in the body cast (i.e., itches I couldn’t scratch, places I couldn’t go, embarrassing moments I couldn’t escape). I remember being afraid to have the cast removed, because it kept me safely cocooned for so long. Later, my broken femur story inspired a college English essay, and the professor cited it to the class as “an example of an A+ paper.” My broken leg also led me to draft a children’s chapter book based on the experience (yet to be published).
I acquired other scars over the years, too. There’s a small one on my knee from a cut I received in a high school car accident. I think of my friend Linda when I see that scar, because she was in the car with me. The car was totaled, but Linda and I were okay. In adulthood, two cesarean section deliveries left a thin zipper across my lower abdomen. My sons are the result of those childbirth experiences, and the scars remind me of bringing Mason (25) and Will (16) into the world. There’s also the one on my back where I had a benign skin cancer removed. The basal cell carcinoma was likely the result of childhood sunburns, and that scar brings back memories of a particularly hot family beach trip to Corpus Christie, Texas one summer.
EXPERIENCES = GROWTH:
My most recent scar is fresh! Still healing. It runs up the back of my ankle, due to having a ruptured Achilles tendon surgically repaired two weeks ago. I was on a snow skiing vacation in Telluride, Colorado for Spring Break. I guess I was skiing to the right while a young man turned too fast to the left. Our skis crossed, and I flew out of control into some trees. It was a frightening experience, and I immediately felt intense heat throughout my ankle. I thought it was another broken leg bone, but I was wrong. It turned out to be a 6.5-centimeter tear in my Achilles tendon requiring immediate surgery.
This latest injury has left me dependent on family and friends. I cannot do much for myself, and it’s important to keep the foot elevated to prevent swelling. Since it’s my right foot, I can’t drive a car for a few months. I’m fortunate to have a husband, sons, parents, sisters, and friends who don’t mind taking care of me. I dislike being dependent on them, but I’m learning that the Beatles were right when they sang, “I get by with a little help from my friends.”
My scars aren’t so bad. They tell a story. They’re a literal skin road map of life that allows me to retrace my varied experiences. They reveal a sense of adventure. The scars also point out that I might be a bit clumsy! I don’t know yet what my new ankle scar looks like, but I’ll find out in a few days when the doctor unwraps the soft cast. I’ll laugh if it’s shaped like a capital letter Y.
Tell me about your scars!
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.
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.
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.
I have a long-standing relationship with beer. Okay, that didn’t come out right. I mean, I enjoy an occasional beer, but that’s not the point. The point is that autographed copies of my new book, Arthur Zarr’s Amazing Art Car, are available for purchase at the Beer Can House in Houston, Texas. If you don’t know about this delightful and iconic Houston site, you’re in for a treat. First, though, let’s get back to my relationship with beer.
Margy Mae Stephenson Stamps was my darling grandmother, and her eight grandchildren called her “Ma.” Born July 25, 1915, I remember how Ma liked to brag about her Leo zodiac sign. And the Leo description fit her to a tee: “Charismatic and positive-thinking, they attract not only an abundance of friends and opportunities, but manage to survive life’s stormy times with style and good humor.” Ma had a playfulness about her, despite having experienced her share of hardship. She told us stories of going through the Great Depression, and of taking care of her two younger brothers when her mother fell ill. I also knew she had tragically lost her husband—my grandfather, Dobie Stamps—when she was just 48 years old. But you wouldn’t have known it, because she remained witty, spirited, hard working, loyal, and loving until she passed away in 1994 when I was age 31.
Ma liked her beer. Schlitz beer. My parents didn’t drink, and, growing up, we never had much, if any, alcohol in our home. So, as a child, it tantalized me that my petite, respectable grandmother drank a beer each day. How fantastically scandalous, I thought! Her affinity for a can of beer, coupled with her trendy style (think fashionable jeans instead of shapeless “grandmotherly” dresses), made her the coolest granny ever, in my eyes. In my youth, I wrote and illustrated hand-made books at a prolific rate. My heroine, Ma, was often the front-and-center theme of my childhood creations. This photograph is one of many silly examples in which I demonstrated Ma’s cool-factor in the form of literature and art (written by me at about age 8 or 9).
Ma would have been 100 this year, and I find it fitting that my children’s book is being sold at the Beer Can House gift shop. Does that sound like an odd location to sell a children’s book? Well, it’s not! The Beer Can House is a beloved Houston attraction that draws thousands of children and adults each year. John Milkovisch, a retired upholsterer for the Southern Pacific Railroad, started his project in 1968 when he began inlaying thousands of marbles, rocks, and metal pieces into concrete and redwood to form unique landscaping features. Next, Milkovisch began to add flattened aluminum beer cans to the sides of the house itself—a process that he perfected over the next 18-plus years. I’ve read that Ripley’s Believe It or Not! estimates that over 50,000 cans adorn this must-see monument to recycling.
In 2009, six years before I wrote or even thought of the idea for Arthur Zarr’s Amazing Art Car, I took my youngest son Will—who was then age 9—to visit the Beer Can House. I wanted him to learn about outsider art, and this was one of our many stops throughout Houston on what I dubbed our “art crawl.” I can’t remember if we saw any Schlitz cans nailed to the house, but it is reported that Milkovisch said his favorite beer was “whatever’s on special.” That sounds like something Ma would say, too. If she were still alive, I know she would get such a kick out of seeing my book on sale at the Beer Can House.
Are you still wondering why my picture book is being sold at the Beer Can House, of all places? Well, the restoration of this home is an ongoing project of the The Orange Show Center for Visionary Art—the same organization that hosts the annual ART CAR PARADE. So, that’s the connection! The Beer Can House is open most Saturdays and Sundays from 12-5 p.m. and is located at 222 Malone Street in Houston.
Admission is only five dollars, and kids 12 and under are free; and the fun memories of your visit are also free! While you’re at it, perhaps you’ll buy a copy of Arthur Zarr’s Amazing Art Car. Your purchase there will support the endeavors of the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art, which is a 501(c)3 publicly funded non-profit organization.
Note: Arthur Zarr’s Amazing Art Car is also available for sale at The Orange Show’s main office, located at 2402 Munger, Houston, Texas. Check with them for hours of operation.
You can buy the book through other means as well, and I don’t mean to exclude all my other wonderful sales outlets. But today’s blog is dedicated to the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art. And to beer. And to Ma. ♥
Did I mention that my book cover WON a Facebook contest in October? A site called Promoting Picture Books ran a fun contest, and my cover of Arthur Zarr’s Amazing Art Car won! Thanks goes to my amazing illustrator, Bill Megenhardt, who designed the vibrant image on the front of the book and throughout all the inside pages!
My new picture book also was featured at the Wilchester Elementary Arts Market, where I had a booth and sold books. Bill was on hand to draw some adorable on-the-spot artwork for the kids! An art teacher at Wilchester, Stephanie Walton, made it all possible! She will also present my book at a workshop this week at the Texas Art Education Association (TAEA) Art Teacher’s Conference, held in Galveston. She helps other teachers learn how to incorporate art cars into their classroom lesson plans. She rocks! Thanks for handing out my bookmarks and flyers at the conference, Stephanie!
St. Mark’s Episcopal School welcomed me on Nov. 10 for an Author’s Visit. I had a great time talking to the kids in multiple grades about “Amazing Book Ideas: Where do they come from?” They were a fantastic bunch, were super attentive, and asked great questions. Thank you, St. Mark’s, for making me feel comfortable the first time I presented at a school. (Two of my nieces attend this precious school, which made the day even more special for me).
You’ll never believe what this Saturday Nov. 14 is … that’s right, it’s WORLD ARTCAR DAY 2015 Houston! Who knew there was a whole day set aside to celebrate these rolling works of art? The Houston Art Car Museum will have a mini-art car making workshop from 12:00 noon until 3:00 pm. Each child will get a toy car and all the paint, glue and accessories they need to create their very own miniature art car. On hand will be local art cars of the Houston Art Car Klub. Check it out here!
If I think of anything else going on, I’ll update the post. For now, I think this is plenty. It’s been a busy launch week, but lots of fun!
Plenty of AMAZING news this week … My book is live on Amazon!
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!
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!
My first children’s book, Arthur Zarr’s Amazing Art Car, has arrived!
A 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!).
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
“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.
I 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.
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!
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.
I 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.
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.
See, 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
Completing my thesis—and thus wrapping up my graduate degree—was one of those items I was determined to check off my bucket 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?