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….

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!

One Bite at a Time

“I can’t wait until June.” My son’s friend came up to me at lunch today and spoke these words, rousing me from the Good Part of my book. I was supervising the class of fourth graders, who usually talked amongst themselves, played cards, or otherwise stayed occupied with age-appropriate activities. It was an easy gig.

I raised my head, expecting her to say something about the end of school—still eight weeks away. If I were a kid, that’s what I’d be looking forward to. “Hmm? Why’s that?”

“That’s when Timber Howligan comes out!”

Instant panic! I’m only half way through edits, and still have a cover to design. I’m researching the American Humane Society. I’m at least a month behind on blog posts. I’ve been trying really hard not to think about that looming deadline. The last thing I want is to be reminded about all the work I have to do. And at the same time—“That’s really sweet,” I told her. Because it was.

“Have you been working on it?”

“Yes! Yes, of course I have.” I hoped I sounded confident. I didn’t want to turn off one of my only fans. “I’ll keep you posted.”

She bounced off toward her friends, satisfied.

Lately it’s been hard to get back into a writing routine, but that’s one reason I gave myself a deadline—and announced it. When I picked June as the publication date, back in December, it sounded so far away. Plenty of time! Over the past month, as the weather’s gotten warmer and summer has seemed suddenly closer, I’ve done absolutely nothing.

I know a writer writes. I know nothing is supposed to get between me and my craft, or my Muse will stomp off in a huff. I know anything I say is just an excuse. But we took a two week vacation with my family, and you know what? I needed that vacation. So did my family—and my kids needed me. I brought my laptop, I wrote some almost every day, but finding protected time to edit and revise my novel? Nope, that didn’t happen at the beach.

Then we got home, and my cat died. Not in an all of a sudden, over and done with kind of way. More a prolonged kitty hospice kind of thing. It is unbelievable how much time nursing a geriatric, terminally ill cat takes. Not everyone could afford to make that choice, but I did—with a lot of help from her vet—and we made her last week very comfortable.

By the time I picked up my novel again, I felt like another person. I’ve read at least a dozen books since I last worked on it. I’ve stared death in the eyes, watched it come in the middle of the night, breath by breath, and leave nothing behind at the end but a peaceful sigh.

I’m learning not to rush. Deadlines are good—they make things happen. But taking time off to renew myself was good, too. It’s important to write, but it’s also important to have something to write about.

Now I’m back, and I have to remind myself that everything will get done eventually. My husband calls it “eating the elephant,” usually in regards to his big work projects. You can’t possibly eat a giant pachyderm all at once, you have to do it a bite at a time. The same is true for writing a novel, especially if you then decide to take the leap and self-publish it. In the past week, I edited seven chapters and finished a blog post—that’s at least an ear, maybe half a trunk, don’t you think?

It takes a certain kind of bravery to write…

I wrote this the other day when I was feeling dejected. (The book I’m in the middle of tearing apart and putting together is Timber Howligan Book Two. Book One hasn’t even been published yet.)

My solution to the revision blues? NaNoWriMo. Today I finished Chapter One of Timber Howligan Book Three. I realize at the end of the month I will have yet another novel that needs, you guessed it, revision. But this month? I’m just going to write. Writing is THAT MUCH MORE FUN than revision.
———————————————————————————————————————————————

Image

Artwork by Ava Byroads

It takes a certain kind of bravery to write. To open oneself, dig out the words, and lay them out to dry, like underwear on a line. Glaring. Full of holes. Pinned by nothing but flimsy hopes and rusting plastic clips, against the winds of others’ curiosity.

Even worse, against their indifference.

All the writing blogs, all the founts of inspiration, everywhere you turn, there’s chin-up advice about writing. Word counts. Butt-in-chair time. Two pages a day makes a novel in a year. Etc. Well, guess what: Writing is easy. It’s a walk through the metaphorical rose garden, a lark through the loosestrife, a dance in the daisies, compared to revision.

It should come as no surprise to anyone who has done this before that the process includes self-doubt. And yet, when the doubts came, I was surprised. (This should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me.)

With doubt, came paralysis. I froze, and I drowned. I’m not good enough, and I’ll never be. Worse, I stopped wanting to be. I regretted the time already wasted. All those hours, poured into a project no one will ever read. (Except, a voice whispered, your son…who loved it. And begged for more.)

Thousands of words written and erased, only to leave the book’s soul stranded between revisions…better to abandon it, than break it even more. (Unless, a voice whispered, you tackle it once more, and find the true story. It’s in there. It always has been.)

Easier not to try, than to try and fail, or face rejection. (But you know, the voice whispered, that each rejection has made you try harder. Only you can give this story life. You are its God. How can you forsake it?)

Oh, you had to invoke the deity argument! Fine, I’ll keep at it. I’m too far committed not to. I’m not a quitter. I’ve got a picture of Timber Howligan, tall and proud, staring at me from my desktop now. His green eyes are challenging me, every day. If he’s strong enough to tackle the life of a secret agent cat, I can tell his story with all the heart and honesty he lived it with. It’s a simple tale of friendship, bravery, and one cat discovering he can be more than he thought he could be. The words are there.

I just need to rip myself open and find them.