When professional cat writers get together, certain conventions of the English language go out the window. At the Cat Writers Association Annual Conference, you don't say perfect, but “purrfect.” Memories are “meow-mories.” Newcomers are “kittens.” Old-timers who have attended the conference for the past 19 years of its existence are “nine-lifers.”
But don't be fooled by the fluffy lingo. Cat writing is not for the faint of heart.
There's the pay, for starters. “Our cats work for kibble; so do we,” says veteran cat journalist Sandy Robins. The trick, she has discovered, is finding a way to relate everything back to cats. Are you traveling? Try a piece on cat statues around the world. Forgot your alarm clock? “Well, our cats are our alarm clocks.”
Even the simplest of time pegs — autumn — can be leveraged for cat relevancy. How many college students take their pets with them to school, for instance. Or how about a pet anxiety piece: empty nest syndrome, as experienced by your cat.
The savvy cat writer doesn't automatically discount publications outside her field. “Car Wash magazine. You think they'd have nothing to do with cats,” Robins says. “But they may be interested in a piece on traveling with cats. Where do you strap a cat's carrier in the car so the cat doesn't fly out the vehicle?”
“It's possible to make a living as a cat writer, but it's not easy,” blogger Stephanie Harwin admits. Two years ago, she turned her cat-blogging hobby into a full-time job. She now runs the blog Catsparella, which covers feline aspects of pop culture.
Cat writing isn't lucrative, she says, but it can be glamorous. As a finalist for Purina's Cat Chow correspondent gig, the company flew her from her home in New Jersey to the set of a Fancy Feast commercial in Hollywood. They put her up at a swanky Beverly Hills hotel, all expenses paid.
Today, Harwin is back in Southern California on her own dime, at the Renaissance Los Angeles Airport Hotel, where the conference is taking place. She's waiting for the “Herding Your Creative Cats” workshop to begin (“Do you find your brain running in circles so you can't sit down and get to work? Do you have so many ideas you can't get started on any of them?… Here's help!”). Harwin is here primarily to network, even though at 31 she is decades younger than most of the other attendees. “It's a small community. It's not like I know a lot of cat writers. Most people think I'm crazy.”
At last year's gala dinner, she adds, “There was singing.”
What kind of singing?
“Like, from Cats, the musical.” The women wore sequins. They rewrote gospel hymns into cat lyrics. The editor of Cat Fancy sang “Memory.” The author of Chicken Soup for the Cat Lover's Soul sang a song from Carousel, “If I Loved You,” recast as if sung from the perspective of a stray cat.
The obstacles to cat writing are legion. “Do you have voices in your head that stop you?” instructor Barbara Stretton asks. “It's called an inner critic.” It can be your parent, your teacher, your friend, your cat. “I thought of it for a long time as my mother,” Stretton says. To her dying day, Stretton's mother didn't understand the cat-writing life. Be a nurse. Be a doctor, Mom urged.
Stretton chose her own path. She's now the author of hardboiled cat detective novels such as The Case of the Purloined Persian. But she was well into her 30s before she published her first book.
As proof of her long-simmering creativity, she passes around a tiny comic book she drew when she was so young, she couldn't even spell her name correctly.
Stretton once read that it helps to draw a picture of your inner critic. So she drew a picture of a sheep … that looked like her mother.
The true inner critic, of course, isn't your mother but yourself. When this realization sets in, it helps, Stretton says, to remember F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote, “In a real dark night of the soul, it's always 3 o'clock in the morning.”
In the fluorescent light of the hallway, it's 1:30 in the afternoon. A writer has just brought in a cat, a Turkish Van mix named Zeki. The cat is passed into the arms of Dusty Rainbolt, the writer who fostered her. “Oh honey,” says Rainbolt says, eyes closed in ecstasy. Zeki, who now helps teach a pet first-aid course, was rescued after someone knifed her in the back. “They were trying to skin her,” Rainbolt explains.
A small crowd is gathering now. They take turns snapping photos of the cat, with the cat, of each other with the cat.
There are many in this crowd who have more to say about cats than will fit in a one-page magazine piece. They have entire Russian novels in them. To these aspiring authors, Lonnie Hull Dupont, the whip-smart acquisitions editor for the Revell division of Baker Publishing Group, offers advice: It is not enough to write a book whose main premise is, “Yeah, the cat's cool. It's pretty.” It needs to have “a second energy.” It needs to be, “This cat saved my family. This cat saved me from divorce. This cat is a peacemaker.”
But don't overdo the schmaltz. And for God's sakes, don't force your beliefs on other people. As an example, Dupont offers up a story about one of her authors, Don Piper, who wrote the Christian memoir 90 Minutes in Heaven, which has sold 5 million copies. In it, Piper talks about what he supposedly saw in Heaven after a semi hit his car and he was pronounced dead.
Now, Dupont is both a Christian and a cat lover. She's read her Bible. The Book of Revelations says there will be horses at the apocalypse. “Horses? That means there will be stables. And that means they'll need mousers,” she reasons.
When she and Dupont recently had dinner, she asked him, “Do people ever ask you if you saw your pets in Heaven?” Yes, people do ask, he told her, and no, he did not see his pets there. But — and here's the moral of the story — he doesn't tell his readers that. It wouldn't be good for marketing.
Ultimately, if you've got the writing chops, you needn't necessarily identify as a cat writer per se to be published in the cat world's top-flight magazines. One of Cat Fancy's writers was 12 years old. “We published the piece and didn't know,” editor in chief Susan Logan says at the editors' panel. They've gotten amazing query letters from prison, she says, though they decided not to proceed to assignment because of the inmate's violent background.
In any case, be prepared for a brutal selection process. Cat Fancy's managing editor reads all queries and highlights the subject line for Logan, who camps out at her desk with a stack of them, going “No, no, no, no, no, yes, maybe.” She can tell very fast what will work and what won't.
“We've made 'litterbox' one word, by the way,” she adds, and her audience sighs with deep satisfaction, as if a long-standing itch has finally been scratched.