Archives: #middlegrade

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!

Happy Drops of Validation

In the deep sea of rejection that writing often brings, it sure is nice to get a bit of occasional validation. I’ve been querying literary agents; I’ve received nibbles here and there, a few requests, but no official bites yet. No contract. So, imagine my surprise when I received an email last week saying I was a finalist in a writing contest.

I can’t wait to wear my ribbon-adorned badge in June! 😉

I entered my unpublished work-in-progress, A Night Without Light, in the Writers’ League of Texas 2019 Manuscript Contest, and I was named one of the finalists in the middle grade category. Congratulations to the tip-top winner in our section, Jennifer Voigt Kaplan of New Jersey, and to the other three finalists! As part of this win, I’ll get a special ribbon on my badge noting me as a MG finalist at the WLT Agents and Editors Conference. That’s right … you heard me … RIBBON POWER! I shall wield a heavy ribbon-esque sword this summer, and I can’t wait.

I smile when I read or write middle grade fiction!

Middle Grade is a genre of writing for children ages 8-12, and as Buddy the Elf would say, “It’s my favorite!” It can be tricky to write because there is such a wide range of reading and maturity levels in this age group. Adolescence is hovering in their future, but they still have an adorable innocence that makes these books so fun to write. The WLT manuscript win doesn’t mean my story will be published — not by a long shot — but it’s a small step in the right direction.

One of my Houston critique partners refers to these kind of honors as “multipliers” — i.e., accolades that help open doors. I love that term (thanks, Sylvia!), and I plan to seek out more such gate passages! And speaking of my critique group, we’ve begun to overflow with validation. Two of my partners were recently signed by agents and another received an R&R, which means an agent asked her to revise and resubmit her manuscript. The support we give each other is priceless, and I’m so grateful to my team (you know who you are).

Tiger Drive, by award-winning author Teri Case.

The drops of validation sometimes take the form of a big bucket! Take it from my author publisher friend, Teri Case. She was named the GOLD winner in the IBPA Benjamin Franklin Award in the Popular Fiction category for her breakout novel, Tiger Drive. Quite validating when you consider that Tiger Drive was initially rejected by a few agents; Teri rewrote the book some thirteen times before it became a reality. It must be “lucky 13” because I love the story which is based on a family full of secrets and four people who want to matter.

“A superb choice… ” —Kirkus Reviews

Teri is prolific! She launched her second novel, In the Doghouse: A Couple’s Breakup from Their Dog’s Point of View, on April 16, 2019. A big turnabout from her first novel, this one is based on a dog named Skip and how he helps his master (Lucy) navigate heartbreak as a pack. In the fall, Teri will have the first book of a “cozy” mystery series available with co-author, Lisa Manterfield, and her third book, Imogene, will be released in 2020.

I love a quote from Teri, who sums up this sense of affirmation so wisely: “Every day, over 1,000 self-published books are added to Amazon and mostly from people who aren’t career authors, who aren’t concerned about quality writing or appreciating the value of a reader’s precious time and money. I have to fight the stereotypes that everyday self-publishers create. Winning the Gold Benjamin Franklin Award for ‘excellence in content and design’ has been validating because it recognizes that I am a career author. And the award sends a signal to readers, librarians, and booksellers that I can rise above the noise and will continue to do so.”

Why thank you, Neil Patrick Harris!

Pay attention to your drops of validation, however they might arrive.

And don’t forget to BE AMAZING!

Will the REAL Mr. Newland Please Stand Up?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was NOT the REAL Mr. Newland!

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

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

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

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

Now I’m off to outline this new book.

—Bee Amazing. 😉

What Triggers the Story Ideas?

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

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

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

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

Where it all began!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A must-read for writers!

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

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

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

—Be amazing.

© 2020 Cathey Graham Nickell