Archives: #middlegrade

Will the REAL Mr. Newland Please Stand Up?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was NOT the REAL Mr. Newland!

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

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

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

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

Now I’m off to outline this new book.

—Bee Amazing. 😉

 

 

 

What Triggers the Story Ideas?

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

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

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

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

Where it all began!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A must-read for writers!

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

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

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

—Be amazing.

© 2018 Cathey Graham Nickell