This week on the Writer’s Way podcast, we talk to Dennis Mathew about how he started as a speech pathologist, which inspired him to eventually become a children’s author. Part of his writing business includes school visits, which we’ll hear all about!
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Laurie: Hello writers, welcome back to the Writer’s Way podcast. I’m here today with the fabulous Dennis Mathew. Thank you so much for joining me today. You have all kinds of trophies back there.
Dennis: Yeah. I feel like this office is a time capsule because… For a little bit…We are [inaudible] this house.
So everything that you see behind me is pictures and accolades from childhood up until now that my parent parents have gathered over the years and they were all in boxes. So they needed needed to be put up somewhere and it’s right behind me.
Laurie: It’s the wall of fame.
Dennis: I might do what you’re doing. Yeah, I might do what you’re doing, have a green screen so I can have like the Alps or whatever behind me. You know what I mean?
Laurie: Well, yeah. I’m going to change it with the weather or I’m going to make my own Wall of Fame and just make up some stuff.
Dennis: Yeah, there you go right on.
A Little Bit About Dennis
Laurie: Awesome. So Dennis you have a couple of books out and I love your background. You were a speech pathologist.
Dennis: Yeah so…
Laurie: So just share with us sort of the journey how you started.
Dennis: So I was born in the United Arab Emirates. That’s in the Middle East. Did all of my elementary and middle school in Abu Dhabi, which is the capital of the United Arab Emirates. Then did my high school in South India. Came to the US for college in 2000 and parked in Edmond, Oklahoma. So my background went to the University of Central Oklahoma and got my bachelor’s and Master’s in Speech Pathology.
I want to say about when I started working in the schools as a speech pathologist is kind of when the children’s book author bug kind of, you know, got a hold of me, but I never realized. You know, the dream did not come into fruition so to speak tell about this last December. So the idea was kind of dormant in my mind and I was just brainstorming for the right concept for a book but there was also the fear of the unknown in terms of you know, okay.
Inspiration to Write His Book
Dennis: I want to write a book. What’s next? Because anytime I spoke to anybody that was in the field or any, you know raw research. I did on Google there was always the animal of the elephant in the room so to speak of you know, the publisher then you got to find the illustrator. And it was never you know, I just didn’t know where to start and so to me I want to say what after I so I got married and then I moved to the Boston area about four years ago.
And there was a few months in that four-year window where I was unemployed and so had a lot of free time on my hands. I found myself – I hate being bored. I have to keep busy. And so I you know kind of skipped the everything has to feel right to start something phase and I just said okay. I’m just gonna open my laptop and just start typing and so I had a concept that I was kind of brewing on and it’s Bello the Cello now an award-winning book, but I just decided to sit down and just start typing just the initial thought was going to start a story.
It’s going to have a beginning a middle and then just you know, it did not have to look right or feel cute or whatever. So I just put it on script put it on a laptop on a Word document and then again got on Google and started searching writing coach because I had no background in writing whatsoever.
8 Months Later!
Dennis: So it was just a lot of you know, figuring things out on my own and call it Divine Providence, but all the doors that I knocked on were the right doors and what – eight months later? Here we are. And my second book’s also out.
Laurie: Oh cool, two in eight months.
Dennis: Say what now?
Laurie: Two books in eight months.
Dennis: Yeah, so I feel like once once I kind of cracked open the door of ideas then everything started speak speaking to me. Like I could be in the kitchen and a coffee cup would talk to me. Not literally not literally not…
Laurie: [Laughter] Thanks for clarifying. Yeah.
Dennis: I’m not crazy yet.
Laurie: I know exactly what you mean because my I have three kids and all these quirky things they do. You know, I’m I’m like, you know, keep it going. I think …
Bello the Cello
Dennis: I think so. I think yeah, I think it was the melding of two roles in the sense of being a speech pathologist for 12 years in elementary schools in two different parts of the country in New England and in Oklahoma City. And seeing kiddos seeing children from all different backgrounds socioeconomic, ethnic, whatever right just seeing their day-to-day struggles and I saw a parallel between you know, looking at just mere objects in a room and just wondering what if they were animated and had the feelings of the children that I come across in schools?
And so that’s that’s kind of how my mind is started operating in once once Bello came to real life or became a real reality, then it was just easy for the next book and the concept for the next book and the next book to start of you know flowing out. So right now in the germinal stages I have about seven to eight different concepts in development. But yeah once Bello came out and the sales took off teachers and families across the country embraced Bello and then it was just a matter of getting the next book out. So I currently have two out. And I have the third one in the script is almost ready to go. So.
Laurie: Fantastic. Congratulations. That’s so exciting.
Being a Full Time Children’s Author
Laurie: So in eight months, you’ve gotten awards and people have gotten behind you. And you said you do this full time.
Dennis: I yeah I’m taking another another risk because I kind of you know discernment and just instinct tells me.
I tend to not do anything, you know half-hearted. And when there’s an adventure waiting for me, I want to just dive all in and I’m also you know putting feelers out there. You know, my wife’s a great discerner/litmus test for me and then I’ve got a support system of family and friends advice I trust. And you know before I press play on something daring and bold I always, you know pitch because I I realize that I don’t have all the answers to life and existence as it is.
So I always kind of rely on the collective intellect of wiser people around me. So, you know so far. Yeah so far I have my wife’s blessing and so it’s a big one for me so things I mean doors are opening for me, so I’ll be leaving for California on Friday. I’ve got quite a bit of travel nationwide coming up with Bello the cello. Yeah.
School Visits and Other Events
Laurie: Where are you talking at schools? Or what are you doing?
Dennis: Yep, so I’m doing book festivals, conventions, schools, California, the Boston area, Illinois, New York, Michigan, a lot of school visits here in my home state of Oklahoma.
Laurie: Can you share a bit about how you like people are always wanting to sort of break into that aspect of the business. So, can you share about how that started? Do you just email everybody?
Dennis: I mean, you know friends who are watching, you know, listening to you watching you always feel free to I’ll share my Twitter handle with you.
Yeah and the website as well always feel free to reach out to me but a lot of it I had to kind of bite the bullet and figure out on my own. And what I mean by that is it takes like with everything else a lot of trial and error so my journey started with you know, literally opening the laptop up, searching writing coach, a company out of New York just popped up as one of the top links.
Write By Night
Dennis: I didn’t know anything about them. But I want to say was called Write By Night is the the name of the company but I just clicked on the link saw phone number pick my cell phone up just called the number and I was just somebody answered and I was like, hey, this is Dennis from Boston. Call so random, you know, I want to be a writer.
I have no background in it. And so the lady I spoke with said “all right, let me match you up with a editor/publisher.” And so obviously when it comes to publishing you have your big dogs that kind of are you know on this that own the block so to speak right? Yeah your traditional approach approach of sending a manuscript in, hoping for the best.
And that’s that has a lot of waiting game with it, but are but there are a lot of independent publishers out there that are looking for authors and I got connected with Nick Courtright who’s with Atmosphere Press out of Austin, Texas and and we hit it off right away. We had a great chemistry right away.
Creating Bello the Cello
Dennis: So I sent a script in to him. And I was always scared, you know, there’s always that fear of okay and knowing nothing I had the fear of I’m going to just email the script away to this person who I’ve never met never, you know, and this day of like internet fraud whatever I had no idea. There was there was this like, okay cross my fingers and say all my prayers and hope everything works out and he ended up being a great contact.
He got in touch with me right away. We started editing the script and I realize my little children’s book, my first swing at it had like 600 words. So he was like, okay, that’s that’s a bit chunky bit meaty for a children’s book. And so we went through it. We had a lot of Skype conferences Skype conversations, and he we trimmed it down trimmed it down to we thought was a good bite size for a children’s book.
Then through a mutual friend met a couple of illustrators that I thought were a good fit for Bello’s story and they were also very very cooperative in terms of letting me chime in on what the character should look like and what the story ark should look like and I had some really unique concepts in what I saw in my mind’s eye. For example, Bello is part of a classroom that is very magical. There are moving colors on the wall and things of that nature and so the words described it.
Working with the Illustrator
Dennis: But how were the pictures going to grasp it? Through a lot of back and forth, so many conversations. Me being in Boston, my illustrators being in Oklahoma trying to convey a concept that they had not seen in a children’s book before. I always have to explain it in terms of something that was already relevant in their world.
For example, the pattern in the classrooms that you’re seeing in Bello the Cello. I likened it to back in the day, I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Windows Media Player that they had. When you pop the CD in, Windows Media Player would throw these moving patterns on a screen inside.
To tell one of my illustrators “do you remember?” Thankfully we were both in the same age bracket so I could say “remember back in the day, moving patterns, Windows Media Player?” That’s when the switch went on for her and she was like “Yeah. I know what you’re talking about. That’s what you want on the wall.” I was like not exactly that, but something like it. It was a lot of that. A lot of flexibility, a lot of giving in and meeting in the middle. But that takes willingness to be okay with failing a lot and not giving up.
Being a new author, in your mind’s eye when you write something, it’s perfect. It’s 100, it’s ready to go. But then you expose it to the thought processes of other intellectual people, they disagree. So you do a lot of bumping into or clashing into ideas and you have to be okay with that. Swallowing my pride was something I had to be okay with from the very get go. I think you become a better student of the process.
More About School Visits and Other Events
Dennis: I do a lot of, as you can see I talk a lot. Bear with me.
Laurie: So you’re doing book festivals and children’s schools and festival. What else did you say or did I get it? Festivals and school visits?
Dennis: And then conventions as well. So tomorrow I’ll be at tomorrow be at what’s called Encyclomedia here in Oklahoma City where it’s a convention hosted by the Oklahoma Technological Association and I got a last-minute invite to come and share Bello at the convention. So it’s basically going to be it’s the hangout spot for all the Librarians in the state of Oklahoma like Encyclomedia is where they…
Yeah, Encyclomedia is where they go to see or the or the new Authors kind of doing the Oklahoma circuit so to speak and so very fortunate to be picked to go and kind of talk about my books there because Oklahoma’s… Go ahead. Sorry.
Laurie: Oh, sorry. I was just gonna ask so you you print in bulk to do these visits and the festivals.
Dennis: Yeah, so.
The Book Printing Process
Laurie: Where do you get your books printed?
Dennis: So right now there again, my publisher handles that but I think he has a working relationship with Ingram. And so what I yeah, so he and I worked together to you know, edit my script. He also puts it in a book format, installs it on Amazon and Barnes and Noble and all that good stuff.
So once the script is done, I hand it off to my illustrator. My illustrator, you know does does does what they do and then when they have a finished product they bring back that file. I guess it’s called the InDesign file or whatever with all the pictures that are all good to go. We bring it back to the conversation table and my publisher essentially puts it in book format.
Like, you know a lot with Bello the Cello. I realized that there was a lot of empty space between words and images so we had to do a lot of like fillers and so my publisher was good about doing that stuff and yeah.
Laurie: Does your publisher line up the festivals and school visits for you? Or is that all on you?
Dennis: I do all that by myself. And I prefer it be that way because I love making grassroots connections with the recipient of my books at the end. But that’s just my personality. I know there are a lot of authors at out there that just want to write it and then let an agent or publicist or whatever get it out there, which is great. But I like pounding the pavement, so to speak. Like picking up the phone, make the call, speaking to superintendents and principals or teachers because of my experience in the classroom for 12 years. This is my way of serving the world of education without actually being in a classroom from 9 to 5.
I feel like our teachers are some of the hardest hardest workers out there. Educating our children, preparing them for the future, and I feel for them and my heart goes out to them for the kind of work that they do. this is my way of serving them and and today’s kiddos in the classroom. Writing to inform the current issues that our children face today in story form.
So I love having the hundreds and thousands of conversations with teachers who are in the classroom, these decision makers that say, “Yeah. We looked at your book. We love it. Why don’t you come into our school and you know do your thing?”
Laurie: Oh, that’s so good to hear and people who are educators or working in the classroom.
You know, you see it. You see it firsthand. You see what’s going on with the kids and what we’re dealing with.
How do you craft your school visit?
Laurie: When you craft your school visit, like I spoke recently to another author who does a lot of school visits, and it sounds like he really puts on a great show. He has their interest right away.
Do you speak to the whole school or do you try to do a grade at a time? And do you have a fantastic presentation or is it more like classroom sit and read a book and answer questions.
Dennis: It’s all of the above. I don’t have my magical show yet. But I will say the idea is brewing in my head.
It’s coming. Because I feel like these ideas just evolve over time. And so now you first have piece A and then you kind of start building because I’m brand new to this. I think…
Laurie: Yeah, you really are.
Dennis: Yeah. And so pieces are coming along and the more I can see in my mind’s eye, so to speak, then I can kind of start bringing it into reality. But in terms of a formula for a visit, I first and foremost ask the school, what works best for your school or district or whatever. So for example, I have an elementary that I’ll be going to, they have over a thousand kids just between Pre-K and kindergarten.
Laurie: Oh my goodness!
Dennis: So yeah, in a school like that, if I am to go classroom to classroom to classroom, I’d be there for a whole week.
Laurie: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
Dennis: So essentially, schools like that they all say, do an assembly. And that works for me. Now there I’m also going to schools where the entire district has 600 kids.
It’s Not About Me!
Dennis: And so you have you know, those elementary schools are tiny and I can spend an entire day there. So I don’t have a one size fits all kind of approach. I don’t make it about, as cliche as well as it may sound yes, when I’m doing an author visit, you’re the guest there, but I don’t when I go there it’s not about me.
Like I try to see what the needs of the school are and then best fit that what they already have going on. I don’t want to come in with something brand-new and because again, like I said, teachers have enough to deal with from start from the start of the day to the end of the day. They’ve got. You know curriculum demands, they’ve got special schedules, lunch schedules 20 minutes to eat if that, and you know, I don’t want to come in and throw one more little wrinkle into their day as it is.
So I always ask schools, you know, do what you’re already doing and see where I can come and just best serve you guys best fit in so that’s that’s my approach.
Laurie: That is really smart because you’re right. Number one key skills in a teacher is flexibility. I taught for 10 years. So I get what you’re…
Dennis: Oh cool.
Dennis: So you know we’re talking about.
Start Somewhere and Take Small Risks!
Laurie: If you had one piece of advice you would give to somebody in your shoes, maybe a year or two ago, with ideas brewing, what would that piece of advice be?
Dennis: Start somewhere. I think one of the one of the biggest mistakes, and me, I feel like everything has a time. Bello came out when it was supposed to come out. But it seems kind of shocking to me that a little idea could stayed dormant in my mind for 10 years. I didn’t start because I wanted the perfect idea for my mind and maybe that was meant to be for Bello. But my biggest advice would be start somewhere.
Don’t be afraid to start. A lot of friends reach out to me and say “what’s the first thing I can do?” I always tell them grab a pen, open a journal, start writing. Or just open a Word document and start typing what what you already see in your mind’s eye. You can always go and edit, in the day of technology you can go back and change anything you wrote, but start somewhere.
That’s what I tell my aspiring authors. And don’t be afraid to take risks. You don’t have to start taking big risks from the very beginning, but start with small risks and see what the returns are. And if you’re not getting the returns you’re expecting, always rely on the collective intellect of the people around you.
And seek out the wisdom of people who know better around you, like with anything else in life.
Laurie: I love that. That’s great advice. Your network can really make or break you – I think sometimes – maybe not break you, but it can really help, right?
How to Find Dennis
Laurie: So I’d love it if you could share where people could get in touch with you or follow you or find you. I just recently did an episode on Twitter.
So everybody’s jumping on Twitter now.
Dennis: Yeah, I feel like I’m so late to the Twitter party. But oh, yeah. Yeah, you know, I tell ya find me on Twitter, please. I feel I used to be all about Facebook, but I think I’ve maxed out my friends list now. I’m so Facebook is kind of ceasing to be the best way to get ahold of me.
But Twitter please my handle is @storiesbyDennis @storiesbyDennis. And then my website is booksbyDennis.com. So those are two great places.
Laurie: I’ll put those in the show notes and links to your books. They sound fantastic and you sound like you really have, you know, your finger on the pulse of…
Dennis: Here they are!
Laurie: Love it. Love it. Thank you. Thank you so much for chatting with me today. I really appreciate it, and I hope people find you on Twitter.
Dennis: Thanks for having me on your show. I really appreciate it.
Laurie: You are welcome. See you.
Dennis: Alright. Take care. Bye