Baby Boomer Cat Michaels Shares Advice for Aspiring Children’s Authors
Do any of you baby boomers dream about becoming a children’s author? Whether you want to write a book for friends or family or make it a profession, baby boomer and author/blogger Cat Michaels is here to help.
After logging more than two decades supporting students from kindergarten to college with learning disabilities and Asperger’s syndrome, Cat began using her experience to write books for beginning and reluctant readers during retirement.
In my interview with Cat, she shares her wisdom and experience, along with some valuable links for aspiring authors. As a fellow author I can tell you – her advice is spot on!
Without further ado, here is her interview:
Did you always dream of becoming an author one day?
I’ve been a reader and scribbler forever, Julie. I penned my first story in fourth grade, a tale about two girls traveling in a wagon train across the old-timey American west. As a teen, I spilled angst and uncertainty in my journals. As an adult, I churned out press releases, staff newsletters, and customer magazine articles for a high-tech firm. Later, I was a writing coach at a community college who supported students with learning disabilities and Asperger’s.
The transition from dreaming to doing hit me three decades ago. I was wracking my brain to find birthday presents for my then-young nieces and nephews. (We lived states away, so I wanted something special for long-distance bonding.) I decided to pen kooky stories featuring the birthday child.
The recent explosion of technology and self-publishing tools provided the nudge I needed. I dusted off a few family stories, and they led to my chapter books and Sweet T Tale series for early and reluctant readers. I love the freedom and creativity of being an Indie author!
How do you bring back memories of what it feels like to be a child?
Hmmmm. It’s a combination of imagination, observation, and exploring what interests kids today. I search through photos or flip through my journals to recall feelings of the past.
But it’s not all about writing from memories.
When I visit schools, I talk to kids and ask for feedback on my writing ideas. Youngsters today aren’t that different from kids of the Boomer generation. Both care about siblings, friends, family, school, pets, etc., BUT 21st-century kids have a slew of tech gadgets I never imagined growing up in an age of clunky black phones with wires (gasp!) and TVs looking like giant toasters <winking here>.
What advice do you have for others who are older but want to write for children?
There’s an important distinction between writing for family and writing for a wide audience. In the former, print on demand (POD) publishers, like Amazon’s Create Space and Lulu, provide low-cost ways to create lovely books for your immediate circle.
Don’t fret if you aren’t comfortable composing on a computer. You can write your tale long hand and recruit a friend or family member to prepare what your POD publisher requires. (Hint: look for a tech-savvy Millennial!)
And you needn’t be an illustrator, either. You and your tech guru can incorporate family photographs, use illustrations drawn by your young artists, or find free and low-cost images or art online at places like Pixabay or Shutterstock.
On the other hand, if your dream is to publish a book for readers beyond family, I won’t sugarcoat how hard it is to succeed in today’s competitive Kid Lit market.
Not impossible. But writing for children isn’t a walk-in-the-park, skipping-along, tra-la kind of fun. It’s really hard work!
Be ready for a huge learning curve on the long road it takes to establish yourself as a traditionally published or indie author. The Children’s Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) is the perfect place to start. This international professional organization offers helpful advice and tools, and you can meet other kid lit folk at regional conferences. Most SCBWI chapters also have robust social media communities for ongoing conversation and support.
I see you grimacing there behind your computer screen!
Yep. Today’s authors must have a social media presence PLUS establish authentic connections with readers months (often years) before any book launch. Not just indie authors. Agents tell me they will not even consider previously published authors unless writers have established websites and social media platforms.
Best to start with a single platform where your readers hang out….perhaps Facebook, since that behemoth is where most people are. (btw… since kids under 13-years old shouldn’t be on social media or do financial transactions, I look for platforms reaching those who purchase books for children, like parents, teachers, librarians, grandparents, etc.)
It was overwhelming at first. I had nothing, – zero, zip, nada – when I started.
I slowly assembled an author website and Facebook page. Because I love tech, I taught myself how to create these things. Many authors recruit family members or hire someone from the huge cottage industry, like Upwork or Fiverr that supports writers. (Caveat: please be sure anyone you hire is legit, and you get the quality you pay for. It shouldn’t cost a fortune, either.)
The good news: my fourth book was way easier to launch than my first because of what I learned in 48 months AND the amazing support from writers and readers I’ve met along the way. (In fact, Julie was one of my first cyber pals. We connected through an author-networking event in LinkedIn. I was so impressed with her warm introduction that I reached out to “talk” more, and we’ve been cyberpals ever since!)
So, be prepared for a long haul as a children’s author. But that’s the norm. You’ll get there! And please add me as one of your kid lit writerly connections on your journey <waving at you here>.
What inspired you to help students with learning disabilities from kindergarten to college for more than two decades and how was this integrated in your current book?
I come from a family of three generations of educators, so helping others learn is baked into my DNA.
I watched children and adults with learning challenges work twice as hard to succeed. They were ostracized for being perceived as slow. Bullied for riding the ‘short’ bus to school or getting lost on the way to class. The intelligence is there, but quirky wiring in their brain frustrates and trips them up.
I admire this determination and want to make learning easier (maybe even fun!) for all kids. For example, my young protagonist, Sweet T, is on a mission to protect fragile sea turtle nests in Sweet T and the Turtle Team, and she befriends Billy, a boy with a secret. T can’t figure out why he’s nice one moment and grumpy the next. She’s also puzzled when he refuses to read the Turtle Team Guide and help her monitor sea turtle nests. Can’t say more — S*P*O*I*L*E*R*S. (If you’d like to preview my book and watch a video trailer on my website, I bet you’ll guess Billy’s secret, too!)
How can boomers who want to write incorporate life experiences in their writing?
It’s all about writing what you know and what you love, and then looking for that golden intersection where your interests sync up with your readers’. What do they want to know about? Be entertained by? How can you bring your experience and passion to the page in a way that captivates your audience?
For instance, I grew up along coastal Connecticut and love the ocean. Each of my books contains elements plucked from childhood or interaction with wee ones: magical aquariums, the illness of a beloved grandparent, or beachy settings featuring skimboards and sea turtles. My characters are also a mash up designed for today’s Gen-1 reader, so it’s a mingling of past and present.
At what age did you publish your first book?
I published my first book in 2013, leaving the 9-5 grind after more than two decades to become an authorprenuer. To be honest, Julie, I stopped counting birthdays long ago. My neighbor turned 49 a while ago. We both liked that age and decided to hang out there for a spell <chuckling here>.
What advice would you give other boomers who want to achieve their goals and dreams?
Ah, this calls for a proper think and soul searching. How much time and capitol do you want to invest in your dream? Is it a hobby? More of a re-careering to generate income?
Whatever direction you decide, do your research and take baby steps testing the new path, but never go it alone.
You need friends and family to support you. When you run into roadblocks or want to get better at your new craft, it’s beyond helpful to have others walking with you. Plus, there’s great joy when you pay it forward to those coming behind.
It comes down to getting out of your comfort zone and stretching your wings. Mercy, I laugh now, but I was terrified posting my first blog! Scared nobody would read it. Scared somebody would read it. Scared I embarrassed myself. There’s nothing like the rush knowing you accomplished something that once felt impossible!
And remember: it’s okay to walk away if you discover different dreams. Just make sure you have fun along the way and go after them!