How to Tell if You are Really a Cat Person

Kittens on lap

My new writing helpers for Timber Howligan Book 2, junior secret agents Roddy and Sasha

Timber Howligan Secret Agent Cat is a book about saving animals, and I have celebrated that in many ways. When I finished my first draft, I went to the local animal shelter and adopted two cats. They were on sale, real cheap-$1 each! Since then I’ve paid thousands of dollars in vet bills for them, so the lesson here might be “you get what you pay for.” One came with the equivalent of “cat herpes virus,” which he spread to the other in the form of corneal ulcerations—now they get medicine every day in their wet food. They other has bladder stones and low-motility, so he has a special diet and is an all-around special needs kitties. But, you know, they’re great cats—very cuddly!

When I published Timber Howligan, I dedicated all the proceeds to the animal rescue organization Alley Cat Allies, and have been able to donate over $100 this year. Then, possibly because I needed motivation on Timber Howligan Book 2, possibly because I really am a Crazy Cat Lady, or possibly because my daughter asked me to, I decided we could foster kittens.

What better way to save lots of animals, I thought?

We’ve got a great home for it. We have an extra bedroom where we can quarantine new kittens. We have kids and cats and dogs so we can attest that the animals get along with EVERYONE. And we understand that foster cats are only here temporarily, until they find their forever homes.

Right? Right?

The first pair of foster cats came and went. I staged a photo shoot. I wrote GREAT copy. Man, can I sell kittens. They were in and out within two weeks. Barely time to notice that Binx had a rash—no problem, he came with it, his owner said it was getting better, right?

Then another pair came into our lives, and everything fell apart. Because these were the BEST kittens in the world. They like to play. They like to snuggle. They like people, cats, and dogs. They almost had a home…and then the guy found out he had to pay for them. So we came back from Christmas break, and joy joy, the kittens are still here, still as cute as can be, and my husband says, “Wow, if I’d met these kittens first, I’d be a cat person.” And I swear he starts to think… “We’re inevitably going to end up adopting some of these cats, and these sure are better than the cats we already have.”

And I’m thinking, that’s not how fostering works.

But I got over-ruled, because these are the best kittens in the world.

So we adopt the kittens, and I’m thinking we can just foster the next pair and I can sell THOSE. Because I really like selling kittens. It’s kind of fun.

Then I find out I have ringworm. Remember Binx’s rash?

Fact: Ringworm is not fun. Fact: Ringworm is very contagious.

So my quarantine bedroom is now taken over by my special needs kitty, because he got ringworm, probably from me. And if you read about how to disinfect a house after a ringworm infestation, the take-home message is, you might as well use Napalm. Either that or bathe your cats twice a week, bleach every surface, vacuum, and then throw out your vacuum cleaner.

I like the website that say “this is a minor skin infection, here’s this cream” better, but which one do you believe?

Fact: I will most often pick the option that does not involve bathing cats.

In the mean time, the rest of us are healthy (so far), and I’m getting lots of inspiration from my new writing routine, which involves letting the junior secret agent cats sit in my lap while I work on the sequel. We have five cats. Six litter boxes. And an entire room quarantined due to fungal infection.

I may….MAY….have carried this cat thing a bit too far.

But when I finish the sequel, I’ll just have to start volunteering AT the shelter. That’s the solution….

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I HAVE MADE IT AS AN AUTHOR

You can’t tell by book sales. I’m not on the best-seller lists. I’m still able to safely walk through airports without being flagged for autographs.

But the other day I walked into my eight-year old daughter’s class (I was there to volunteer as a writing coach), and I had to wait. I was happy to wait, because Read-Aloud had gone late, and no one wants to interrupt Read-Aloud. Especially WHEN THEY ARE READING YOUR BOOK.

Can Stephen King say that? Has he ever walked into an elementary classroom and watched a whole room of children laugh at his words? Has he waited breathlessly while they try to guess whether Cleo is helping Timber or leading him into a trap, as one child so astutely summarized? (Wise students of literature, these third graders are.) I think not.

I have arrived.

"Fortunately, she was the kind of lady who liked to go first. She hopped in and nipped at a string attached to a single bulb. The pathetic incandescence did little to reassure Timber, especially when he could now see spiders crawling the walls. And . . ."

“Fortunately, she was the kind of lady who liked to go first. She hopped in and nipped at a string attached to a single bulb. The pathetic incandescence did little to reassure Timber, especially when he could now see spiders crawling the walls. And . . .”

Do Reading Logs Make Reading Horrible? Here’s a Handy Short-cut!

I don’t know about your school, but my kids’ school is pretty cool. If my kid wants to take his shoes off and run around in his socks, he can. If my daughter needs to chew gum because it keeps her from chewing her hair, no problem. I walk into the lobby, and I’m surrounded by children’s art, friendly faces, and good vibes. For the first four years, the only homework is “read to your child thirty minutes at night.” School rocks.

Except for reading logs.

Now, just to be fair, I know that teachers are just trying to hold kids accountable. And some kids embrace these with vigor, charting their hours read with enthusiasm. I admit, I might have been one of those children—I keep lists for everything. Food shopping? I’ve got a separate list for each grocery store. I’ve charted our kilowatt hours and carbon footprint for five years running. Packing for trips? Don’t get me started—there’s a whole spreadsheet. OK, so a five line reading log would not have been a hurdle.

But reading logs totally suck the life out of reading for my kids.

My son loves reading. I can’t get him to STOP reading at night. “Just one more chapter” is the most common phrase heard in our household after dark. But next to trying to get him to WAKE UP in the morning, getting him to fill out his reading log is the thing I nag him most about.

So if your child is like mine, I’ve prepared a handy PRE-FILLED READING LOG! As an example, I’ve used TIMBER HOWLIGAN, SECRET AGENT CAT! (Don’t have the book? No problem! I would never advocate using a homework crutch for a book your child has never read. The book is available HERE!) This won’t solve all your problems. But it might get you through one week, and if you’re like me, you’ll take that!

reading-log

Use this handy, pre-filled reading log to get you through a difficult week!

You might notice certain key phrases that may be of use to your child on future reading logs, such as “I wonder if . . .” and “My favorite part . . . ” and “A lot of things go wrong, but (main character) saves the day.” Feel free to re-use these as often as needed. And if your child grows up to be a double-agent, don’t blame me.

Does Timber Howligan pass the Bechdel test?

I believe in equal opportunity reading. Having both a boy and a girl, I’ve seen some differences in their preferences for certain kinds of stories…they’re gender differences, but is that a bad thing? When my daughter wants to fill her shelves with Fancy Nancy and Pinkalicious, I don’t make a big deal out of it. I know she equally enjoys Captain Underpants. My son will read anything, including The Princess in Black and Zita the Spacegirl, but he really enjoys Diary of a Wimpy Kid, an all boy story if there ever was one.

It’s all good…as long as they’re reading. Right?

Then, along came the Bechdel Test. According to Wikipedia:

The Bechdel test (/ˈbɛkdəl/ bek-dəl) is a short test that is used as a way “to call attention to gender inequality”, and to assert that women are under-represented in films due to sexism. It was introduced in Alison Bechdel‘s comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. In a 1985 strip titled “The Rule”, an unnamed female character says that she only goes to a movie if it satisfies the following requirements:

  1. The movie has to have at least two women in it,
  2. who talk to each other,
  3. about something besides a man.

Okay, so it turns out the Bechdel test is not new. It’s been around for thirty years. Named after graphic artist Alison Bechdel, the “test” originally appeared in her graphic comic Dykes to Watch Out For. But I’ve heard of it a lot more lately, probably because the only comic I read when I was twelve-years old was Garfield, when I still thought a “dyke” was a large wall in Holland:

Bechdel

As a woman, and as a writer, I get it. I get why the test is important, why we should pay attention to it. The test sounds so simple, yet only about half of Hollywood’s movies pass it, and half of those because the women talk about marriage or babies (source: Wikipedia quoting writer Charles Stross, unverified). I totally agree that we want to give our daughters better models of what it means to be woman.

Then I went and wrote a story where the first female character of note doesn’t show up until half way through the book. Granted, when she does, she’s awesome. She’s a bit haughty, but that has more to do with being a cat than any inherent character flaw. But I’m sad to say that Timber Howligan absolutely flunks the Bechedel test. There are more than two female characters, and they’re all named. But they don’t talk to each other, unless you count a brief interaction between a dog owner and her slobbery companion. (This conversation, for what it’s worth, is not about a man.)

Of course there’s an opposite imbalance in children’s literature: More middle-grade books tend to be aimed at girls, more girls read than boys, especially as they enter their teenage years. There are whole websites devoted just to getting guys reading. Did this influence my decision to write a humorous middle grade action adventure that boys might like? No, I just like writing about secret agent cats. At the same time, the story wouldn’t have felt right without a few girls to balance things.

So it comes back to this: Is a good story a good story, no matter what? I say a cat who fights to save the day, surrounded by his friends—male or female—is totally someone to rally behind. Let’s not pick him apart because he’s got too many guys in his life, or because he’s not an equal opportunity hero. Especially, let’s not assume that girls only like reading “girl” stories or boys like reading “boy” stories.

I like the Bechdel test and the fact that it raises awareness to gender inequality in movies and books. But it’s not the only way, or even the most important way, to judge a book.

(The other way would be by its cover. Don’t you like this cover?)

 Front-Cover-(smaller)

Timber Howligan First Month Update: Success!

Self-publishing is a business, so here’s the accounting: I promised to donate any proceeds to charity, the animal rescue organization Alley Cat Allies.

Here’s what Timber earned in his first month out in the world:

$4.07 from CreateSpace (11 copies)

$11.87 from Draft2Digital (5 copies)

$85.70 from paperbacks I sold directly (28 copies, including 12 to my mother, who made an extra $20 donation. This might have been out of the goodness of her heart or a math error and knowing her, could have been either…I’ll assume the best. Thanks, Mom!)

That makes just over $100 to donate! Not bad for a cat who only recently learned how to use an iPad.

Screenshot 2015-07-03 15.07.11

They are not kidding about the “wealth of information” part…beware becoming part of their email list. Good thing I REALLY like cats.

I’m not going to get much into the nitty-gritty business details, except to say that you might notice I made less royalties on CreateSpace (paperback sales, mostly) than Draft2Digital. However, if I’d raised the paperback price to $12 or $13, the royalties might be more—it’s all about how you price your books in the self-publishing world. So I still think CreateSpace is a pretty good deal, I just didn’t take full advantage of it by raising my price. Not that I don’t think authors deserve to make every cent they manage to earn on their hard won literary sweat and tears, and not that I don’t think my book is awesome, but I’m not bold enough to put my first offering out there at the same price as something by someone who’s been doing this professionally for thirty years.

Some might not call a first month’s tally of less than 50 books sold a “success,” but I’m actually very happy. First, I’m DONE. Getting this book ready for publication happened to coincide with my children’s last few weeks of school—what the eff was I thinking? So while I was pulling together class projects, class gifts, and generally overdoing things in my usual style, I was trying to figure out how to put together an ebook with illustrations (Note To Self: do NOT leave this until the last minute), maniacally fix every last typo, and still put dinner on the table every night.

Some things slipped through the cracks. I did not win a lot of “warm fuzzy spouse” points during those last hectic days. My husband did not put it so gently.

But he DID read the book, and he laughed his…butt off. So that is the SECOND reason I call this release a success: I have fans! Not all of them are related to me. At least two friends have texted me to let me know their kids were engrossed in the book, and one was already asking for a sequel. That’s kind of cool.

The most important reason Timber Howligan is a success is that feeling you get when you know you’ve finished something big, something that will last. This is a book that will be on my children’s shelves for years. You can drive your kids to school every day, feed them dinner every night, and they will forget it by morning. But write them a book, and they will remember it forever—forever! Ha! Parenting subterfuge at its finest!

Day before publication

Yesterday my husband came up with a really good idea for marketing Timber Howligan. “You should partner with Animal Rescue Societies, and get them to sell the book to raise money.”

What I should have said was, “That’s a great idea, honey. Thanks for thinking of ways to help out. In a few months, once the book has had some time to gather reviews, maybe I’ll investigate how to make that happen.”

Instead, I went, “BLAAAAAGH!” Which was better than what I was screaming on the inside: “I don’t know how to do that! Does that involve actual phone calls? Isn’t sending all the money to Alley Cat Allies good enough? I want to hide under a rock.”

All in all, I don’t think I’m doing too bad, considering I’m less than twenty-four hours before my stated publication goal. The ebook is ready to go—it will be available on iBooks and Nook. I don’t think Amazon will have Timber Howligan by tomorrow, but that’s my own fault—I fixed another typo, and didn’t realize there would be a several day delay between when I approved the proof and when the book became available. Oops.

I keep having to remind myself: I’m doing this because I like making things, and now I know how to make a book. (Though I STILL don’t know how to get it available for pre-order on Amazon. That befuddles me.) This week I’ve gotten a crash course in self-publishing: like how to edit an epub in Sigil and how to create a GoodReads author account. I even set up PayPal so I could sell signed copies—I already have one request! This week would have been a lot less stressful if I’d done all this ahead of time, but I’m kind of making this up as I go along. Until the book was finished, it was hard to see everything else that needed to be done.

On the bright side, getting Timber Howligan Secret Agent Cat ready for publication has already accomplished my main goal: I’ve gotten out Book Two from its dusty shelf in my office. I wrote it two years ago, a crazy first draft with a wild cast of characters. It’s going to be really fun once I figure out how to pull it all together. I can’t wait!

In the meantime, I should probably be figuring out how to get Book One up on Amazon…but at least tomorrow, you can get it on iBook and Nook. Maybe I will throw a “post-release” party in a few weeks 🙂

Screenshot 2015-06-11 11.04.43

Less than a week–publication date June 12th!

Less than a week until Timber Howligan’s publication date (June 12th! June 12th!)! You may wonder what the penultimate week in a self-published author’s life looks like. This is my basement, where I set up shop…

IMG_3326

Screenprinting t-shirts.

Yes, that’s right. My kids just finished their last week of school, so one batch of t-shirts was for the Maker Team. Another was a class gift for my son’s fourth grade teacher. Home screenprinting is lots of fun—it’s messy and creative and full of hours of nitpicky frustration, just like writing except it ruins your favorite clothes.

For those who are interested, here’s a more useful description of the self-publishing process. This list might reveal my naiveté, especially when it comes to marketing—a social media hound I am not. But these are the general steps I’ve gone through. Keep in mind this list is out there in more generic forms in other venues, and this particular list reflects my goals: to have fun, and to create a product I’m proud of.

1. Write book/edit book. I hired professional editors—one for content, and another for copy editing at a later stage. You can find editors through professional associations (e.g. SCBWI), word of mouth, and I can’t say enough good things about selfpublishingreview.com—they have so many good resources for the independent publisher, including a version of this checklist.

2. Book cover design. I used friends, but there are many professional resources, for example at selfpublishingreview.com. I also hired an illustrator, because this was a children’s novel. The cover was worth all the money I spent–I could not have come up with something this cool on my own:

Front Cover (final)

3. ISBN number from Bowker. As far as I can tell, the consensus is that you should splurge for 10 (1 costs $125, 10 cost $295). The print and ebook versions each need their own ISBN, so you’re already in it for two if you plan to publish both. Don’t bother to pay for the barcode, because there are plenty of barcode generators out there (including CreateSpace, who will generate one for you).

4. Register book title with http://www.bowkerlink.com after assigning ISBN—you should know things like when your book is being published, the list price, etc. This is a later step.

5. Not every independent publisher does this, but I registered my own Sole Proprietorship with my home county’s Register of Deeds. I am Lionheart Press. I did this so I could legitimately put a publishing company on the title page and back cover of my book. Also, once you register a business name, you get cool things in the mail—like an offer for a free “Square” doodad, so I can take credit card sales. How cool is that?

6. Pick an interior design—I bought a template from BookDesignTemplates.com and found it very easy to use; worth the ~$30. The separate ebook template was only $10. Splurging for a professional interior design template sets things like margins, headers, page numbers, blank pages, etc. You can customize it as desired. This is what it ended up looking like:

Screenshot 2015-06-06 15.15.43

7. Format book, format ebook—very very different processes. Much more to it than slapping text in a template. I spent one day fixing ellipses, because they didn’t come over the right way from Scrivener. You can hire people to do this for you too.

8. Marketing….On this I am not an expert, as anyone who follows me on Twitter can tell. But my son’s friends bug me every time they see me about when the book is coming out, so I must be doing something right. The most important thing is, don’t skip this step. Know what your book is about and be able to rattle off the blurb in your sleep. Have the one sentence cocktail party summary flow smoothly from your lips whenever anyone asks “So what’s your book about?” And don’t call it “My book.” Plug it by its title relentlessly. “Timber Howligan is about a cat who always wanted to be a secret agent, but when he finally gets a chance, everything goes wrong…it’s kind of like James Bond meets Garfield.”

9. Redesign my website: I made www.timberhowligan.com a static page, where the ebook will be available for free, because I believe that once you’ve paid for the text, you deserve it in electronic format also. These are the kinds of things I have the power to do as an independent author. I also had to change the name of this website to http://www.hjfrederick.com, because I promised Heather Vogel Frederick, author of Spy Mice, that I wouldn’t use my full name when I published Timber Howligan, Secret Agent Cat. What are the odds that two Heather Frederick’s would write about the secret world of spy mammals?

10. Pick a platform—CreateSpace versus LightningSource? Draft2Digital? Smashwords? All will get you where you want to go. I picked CreateSpace for print, and I’m still evaluating options for the ebook. I’m strongly considering Draft2Digital based on what I’ve read and heard. Kind of have to make that decision…today.

11. Print proof—do not skip this step if you are doing a print version of your book. Nothing substitutes for seeing what the reader will see. I printed extras to hand out to beta readers, because maybe they will catch something I didn’t. Also, my son didn’t want to wait until June 12th–he’s been reading the proof copy, and he’s figured out I’ll let him stay up waaaaay past his bedtime if he’s reading Timber Howligan.

12. Publish! Celebrate! Tell yourself this is fun. Now it’s time to go write the next book.