Archives: #betterbooks19

Writing a Novel During a Pandemic

On Leap Year weekend this past February, I had no way to predict that it would be my last time to hang out face-to-face with my family for a long while. We were all in Baton Rouge, celebrating my nephew’s wedding. Stephen’s last name—Knight—set the tone for the evening with an “Oh, What a Knight” theme, based on the 1975 Four Seasons hit, “December 1963/Oh, What a Night.” And indeed, it was a fantastic night (aka/Knight).

Stephen and Paige KNIGHT, sealing it with a kiss. Credit: The Roberts Photo/Andy Roberts.

I mean, how does one plan an outdoor wedding and pull it off without a hitch? Stephen and Paige did just that. The weather was gorgeous, not a cloud in the sky, and an acoustic guitar player set a natural mood for the breezy ceremony. We ate Louisiana cuisine—yum!—and danced all night (aka/Knight) to the Groove Factor Band. [By the way, hire them if you are planning a wedding or event… they’re amazing!]

It was a beautiful weekend, watching this young couple start their lives and future together. We all hugged and said our goodbyes, and my husband and I returned to Houston. Within the next few days and weeks, news of the coronavirus pandemic began ramping up. Sure, I had heard way back in January that it was declared a global health emergency, but I was still feeling safely insulated in Texas. In mid-February, for instance, the virus was given a name, Covid-19, but I wasn’t worried yet. Ignorance is bliss, as the poet Thomas Gray wrote.

By the end of March, however, stock markets had plunged, U.S. schools and businesses shuttered their doors, and stay-home directives were in place. New terminology like “social distancing” and “flatten the curve” and “relief bill” and “Zoom meetings” and “are you essential?” would become the norm. But back on that gorgeous Southern evening of February 29th, the Grahams and Knights and other wedding friends were leap-year dancing. Mask-free, glove-free… FREE. Before all the international debates began—should we close down, should we not, and what the heck is Sweden doing???—we were dancing our hearts out. Oh, what a night (aka/Knight).

Oh, what a neon-filled KNIGHT!
Credit: The Roberts Photo/Andy Roberts.

I came home from the wedding with a renewed dream and goal: finish my novel. It’s a middle-grade story that I got the inkling of an idea for in early 2018, or maybe even sooner. The details percolated in my brain for months, until I finally put pen to paper towards the end of the year… well, fingers to keyboard. Middle Grade (not to be mistaken with middle schoolers) is the name of a children’s literature genre for kids ages 8-12. Some people loosely call them chapter books, but that’s actually the name of yet another genre. Not confusing at all, right? HA!

My MG novel’s working title includes the word “Night”—which is kind of coincidentally cool, considering the awesome night theme I’ve got going here (aka/Knight). I’m not ready to publicly reveal the premise or theme of the story just yet, but I’m very excited about it. I wrote about a third of the novel during those early months, but then life got in the way, causing me to set it aside for way too long. I attended a fantastic small-group writer’s conference in September 2019, called Better Books, set at the beautiful EarthRise Retreat Center in Petaluma California. There, I received critical feedback on my very-rough draft from professional agents and fellow writers, and I flew back to Houston with a fervor to finish my novel. I knew I needed accountability, so, through a company called Author Accelerator, I hired a writing coach to help guide my plot and scenes and to push me on my deadlines. Thank you, Jen Braaskma for being the best writing coach I could ever hope for; and thank you, Jennie Nash, for having the vision to create Author Accelerator. You are both amazing.

When people were asked to self-isolate for the greater good, I decided to make my time at home count. I set up a makeshift office in my dining room—the one spot where I can best see people walking and biking along my beautiful tree-lined street. And I started writing. Writing. Writing. Writing. For me, it’s an urge I can’t escape… a muse who never leaves me… an inexhaustible source of magic. (Not to sound dramatic, lol!) And so, there I found myself, every day, at my laptop writing during a pandemic.

My Post-it Note writing view of late.

Fingers crossed, I should finish this manuscript in June. Then, I’ll show it to my critique partners and beta readers… as well as to my hubby, best friends and close family (simply because I enjoy hearing their biased praise about how awesome I am—they love me far too much to be purely objective). After that, I’ll likely send it off to a particular editor who, at that conference in Petaluma, asked to see it upon completion. [Dream Big!]

Like so many, I haven’t hugged my parents in well over two months, preferring instead to visit in front-yard chairs spaced six feet apart. I haven’t had a haircut, haven’t eaten with friends at a restaurant, and haven’t bought groceries without a healthy dollop of hand-sanitizer at the ready. And like you, I’ve worried ad nauseam about the millions of Americans who filed for unemployment, about bankrupted businesses, about all the children, about our leaders, about our front-line healthcare professionals, and about the death toll. I’ve struggled with a daily mental ping-pong tournament as to what I personally believe to be the right course of action.

My dear friend Tammy Kic has sewn and given away (for free!) over 1,120 masks, to date. She’s been donating the monetary tips people give her, raising over $1,000 (and counting) for The Star of Hope homeless shelter in Houston. She’s amazing, and I love my fabric heart mask. 🙂

But despite everything, I feel accomplished. I’ll have something to show for this emotionally heavy period in history… the time in my life that the world shut down.

The words to that happy, vibrant song keep echoing in my mind and heart:

Oh, what a night

Why’d it take so long to see the light?

Seemed so wrong, but now it seems so right

… Sweet surrender, what a night (aka/Knight).

BE AMAZING!

I’m Grateful For My Opportunities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other writing OPPORTUNITIES this year include:

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

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

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

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

© 2020 Cathey Graham Nickell
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