How to Tell If Your First Novel is Your Practice Novel

toddler walking

One negative side effect from the self-publishing revolution is the tendency of aspiring novelists to rush their development process. They put books out too quickly. They don’t understand where they really are in their development and think that because they can put a book out there that they should put a book out there.

As both a writer and an editor, I’ve encountered many writers who think they’re ready for publication, when they’re not even close. They’re not bad writers. They’re just still learning.

Unfortunately, when disillusionment sets in and these developing writers discover there’s much more work they need to do before they’re writing at a professional level, they feel discouraged.

Sometimes, very discouraged.

This is hard for me to witness and I do my best to root it out, because this discouragement is unnecessary at best and detrimental at worst. Sometimes new writers can feel like they’re failing, when really, they’re just learning.

And what in the heck is wrong with learning?

Does the toddler feel like a failure because he hasn’t mastered walking yet? Does the adult watching think the toddler will never learn to walk? Of course not. Because learning how to walk involves falling. And practice. And time. It just does.

No one really freaks out about this because we’ve all been there and we all get it. This is how you learn to walk. It’s not a big deal.

It’s worth noting that the toddler doesn’t freak out because he’s too young for the emotional baggage we adults tend to carry. He doesn’t look at all the adults walking around him and feel discouraged because he isn’t walking yet. No. He looks at the adults walking around him and feels inspired to learn how to do it himself.

And he does.

Eventually he’s not only walking, he’s running, skipping, climbing, and dancing.

Learning to write a novel is no different. It’s beneficial for developing writers to understand that learning to write a novel is a long process. It takes a lot of practice. That’s not a bad thing. It’s just the way of things.

For that reason, your first finished novel may end up being your practice novel. Your dry run. The first full-length manuscript that allowed you to stretch those legs and see what it’s like to walk all those miles.

This is where you learn the lay of the land and get a better feel for those big storytelling elements unique to the novel.

There will be missteps and stumbles and wrong turns and dead ends. It’s your first novel. It’s pretty much going to suck. (No offense.)

“But what about all those great first novels out there?” you ask?

Well, chances are it wasn’t really the first novel the writer wrote. Just the first one published.

For those books that truly are the writer’s first novel, consider this. That writer probably took that first draft of their very first novel and revised over and over and over again.

And over and over and over.

They’re basically putting two or three novels’ worth of effort into that one book. (Patrick Rothfuss’ beautiful first novel, The Name of the Wind, is an excellent example of this.)

Writers who work a first novel over and over do so because their story is really important to them. It speaks to something in their soul. They’re willing to learn and grow as they work on this single book. But remember, that act of revising a manuscript over and over again is practice.

You don’t get out of it just because you’re deciding to put it all into one story.

But your first novel may have a different fate. Many people write the first draft of their first book, revise for a time (if at all), and then put it aside. It gets consigned to the drawer. That is not necessarily a bad thing.

If you know your book is not ready for publication and you’re just not feeling the love any more, it’s okay to put it away so you can work on something new. The time you spent on that book was not wasted.

You will be able to apply everything you learned and put those skills to use for your next book. Gift of the Phoenix is my first published novel, but it was not my first book. My first book was a disaster. It was boring. Oh my gosh, was it ever boring.

By the time I was a few chapters into the second draft, I realized I didn’t really like the story. I didn’t want to continue working on it. Those are excellent reasons to put a manuscript aside.

However that first book was very important to my growth and development as a writer. I could not have written Gift of the Phoenix unless I had written the other novel first.

So, how do you know if your first novel is something you should continue to work on or if it’s earned its place as your practice novel?

No one can definitively answer that question for you. You have to make that decision for yourself. But here are some questions to consider as you try to figure things out:

  • Are you still excited about your vision for your story?
  • Are you willing to put in the work necessary to get your story where it needs to be?
  • If you’re thinking you want to stick with it, why do you want to do so? Is it because you think that’s what you’re supposed to do? Because you’ll be a failure if you don’t? Because time is passing you by and the self-publishing revolution is going on without you and if you don’t get your novel done NOW it’s all a horrible travesty? Or because you love the story you’re trying to tell?
  • If you’re thinking of abandoning the story, is it because you really don’t love the story, or is it because you fear you don’t have what it takes to make it work?
  • What does your gut tell you? (If fear, discouragement, or a tendency to compare yourselves to other people is ruling your gut, you may need to disregard this question.)

No pressure. Seriously. If you make the wrong decision you can always unmake it.

You might think you need to keep going, then work on your story for a while before you realize, “Yep, I hate this story. I’m done.” Nothing lost. You’ll learn something from the experience, I bet.

Or you might decide to start something new only to end up returning to your first book because it keeps calling to you and you still long for it.

My parting advice is this: RELAX. Breathe.

It’s okay.

Enjoy what you’re doing. Be patient with yourself. Give yourself plenty of time to learn.

It’s okay.

Also this… one day you’ll be walking and running and jumping and those toddler years will be far behind you. Have faith. You’ll get there.

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Showing vs. Telling – When It’s Okay to Tell

bird word cage showing vs telling

We’ve all heard the rule: “Show Don’t Tell.” Sometimes newer writers get confused about this rule. They’ll read a novel and see an instance of telling. The new writer thinks, “But this author was telling. Why can she get away with it?”

The answer is twofold.

1. There are no hard and fast rules of writing.

You can do whatever you want so long as it works. What do I mean by “works”? I mean that whatever you’re doing is effective for the reader.

It’s common for new writers to break rules because it suits them. But it doesn’t work for the reader. Experienced writers know how to break rules for effect. Their rule-breaking benefits the story and the reader.

So that’s the first thing.

2. Telling can be effective.

First of all, let’s be clear. More often than not, telling is NOT your best tool, especially when in the hands of developing writers. However, sometimes it works (for the reader), and that’s when it’s okay to use it. When you see an example of telling in a story, ask yourself two things: does this work and if so, why?

For an example, let’s look at The Hunger Games. We don’t have to look far to find an instance of telling. There’s one on the very first page. When talking about the cat, Katniss says, “He hates me.”


If I were looking at a manuscript, and the only thing the author said about this character’s relationship about the cat was, “He hates me,” I’d likely scribble in the margin, “Show don’t tell.”

But in this case it works. Why?

Sometimes new writers will answer something along the lines of, “Because the author is famous and she can do what she wants.” It can feel that way sometimes, and there are definitely cases of famous writers who get lazy with their writing because the books will sell regardless, but that’s not the case here.

Let me give you the entire paragraph so you can evaluate things. Ask yourself, why does this instance of telling work?

Sitting at Prim’s knees, guarding her, is the world’s ugliest cat. Mashed-in nose, half of one ear missing, eyes the color of rotting squash. Prim named him Buttercup, insisting that his muddy yellow coat matched the bright flower. He hates me. Or at least distrusts me. Even though it was years ago, I think he still remembers how I tried to drown him in a bucket when Prim brought him home. Scrawny kitten, belly swollen with worms, crawling with fleas. The last thing I needed was another mouth to feed. But Prim begged so hard, cried even, I had to let him stay. It turned out okay. My mother got rid of the vermin and he’s a born mouser. Even catches the occasional rat. Sometimes, when I clean a kill, I feed Buttercup the entrails. He has stopped hissing at me.

Entrails. No hissing. This is the closest we will ever come to love.

You probably noticed that this instance of telling is surrounded by lots of showing. She doesn’t just say, “He hates me.” She gives us all kinds of details that illustrate the nature of their relationship, from “eyes the color of rotting squash” to hissing and entrails.

This paragraph does what all great storytelling does: it immerses us in the world and in the character’s mind and heart. We don’t just want to read about something. We want to experience something. We want to feel like we are there. We want to feel what the character feels.

That is why showing is so frequently used. It’s a fantastic way to immerse the reader in a story and in a character.

So, is the above instance of telling acceptable merely because it’s surrounded by showing? Is that how the author can “get away with it?” Like dirt you don’t notice because it’s been swept under the rug?

No. Telling often does more than just convey the bald facts. (In this case, “He hates me.”) In fact, telling rarely even does that. We do NOT know the cat hates her because she says so. We know, we believe, the cat hates her because she’s illustrated it with all her lovely “showing” details.

So why bother to tell us the cat hates her at all?

Because inserting “He hates me” gives us some character voice. It reveals that she is self-reflective, which is highly desirable in a protagonist. Sometimes we want to understand what a character is thinking and we want to hear their voice. Saying “He hates me” does that. It wasn’t the only way to give us a sense of the character’s voice and thoughts, but it was an effective way.

So telling, at it’s best, is multi-layered. We learn something not just about the cat, but about Katniss. The author wasn’t being lazy. Telling, in this case, was effective for the reader.

Let’s look at another example, this one from the beginning of The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

This book is a series of letters. This, by itself, is an advanced structure that is hard to pull off. Wallflower is a great book to study if you’re interested in writing a story in the form of letters.

In the first letter, the protagonist, “Charlie,” is addressing an unnamed person. He’s writing to this person anonymously. We’re given the impression that this letter serves as a safe place for him to share his thoughts. Charlie describes losing a friend to suicide, and the fallout that followed: how he, his family, and the school responded. We’re introduced to his family and learn his Aunt Helen, “my favorite person in the whole world,” lived with them during the last few years of her life.

The first letter concludes with this: “The reason I wrote this letter is because I start high school tomorrow and I am really afraid of going.”

Now, he is afraid of going. We believe that. But, like the cat hating Katniss, we learn more than the bald facts. More than his mere fear of going to high school. We sense there is far more going on inside this kid. More than he’s saying. More than he even knows himself. Which, of course, is the point of the whole novel.

This telling does more than tell.

There are many reasons why telling can be just as effective as showing. This is by no means an exhaustive list of when telling can work and what you (and your reader) might get out of telling instead of showing. Next time you come across telling in a story, ask yourself “Does it work?” and if so, “Why does it work?”

You will gain a better understanding of showing and telling and when to use each tool.

If you have other examples of effective use of telling, please share in the comments. :)

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The Pros and Cons of Critique Groups

Writing critique group

There’s some debate about the merit of critique groups, especially for novelists aspiring to write at a professional level. Some people are eager advocates of critique groups; others have added critique groups to the “don’t waste your time” list.

I am neither a critique group proponent nor opponent. Whether or not I recommend joining a critique group to a particular writer depends on the situation.

Here are some things to consider if you’re deciding whether or not to join one yourself.


  • Participating in a critique group can help you establish discipline as you learn to produce work regularly and revise diligently.
  • Regularly submitting your writing for critique can help you learn how to emotionally detach from your work. This is absolutely essential if you want to improve your story. You must learn how to dispassionately evaluate your own work so it can get better.
  • If you approach things correctly, you’ll learn how to check your ego at the door, and see constructive criticism as helpful instead of as an attack.
  • You can learn from the successes and failures of other stories presented in your group, and apply those lessons to your own writing.
  • As you provide feedback to others, you can learn how to look closely at a manuscript, and how to articulate what’s working and what isn’t.
  • Critique groups can be a good way to progress as a newbie. If you’re still working on the basics, a good group (approached with the right attitude) can act as an incubator for new writers.
  • Good groups offer camaraderie and support.


  • Any critique group is only as strong as its strongest member. If everyone in the group is a beginning writer, you may get helpful advice, but you will not be able to depend on feedback from the group to make a manuscript ready for an agent or publication.
  • You may be subject to poor behavior from other members. Snarkiness, competitiveness, and lack of commitment to the group are all problems you may see from others. (Good groups do not tolerate this behavior.)
  • Bad advice. New writers are especially susceptible to this. The group may be able to successfully identify a problem in your manuscript, but their proposed solutions may not be valid, or just may not be right for you and your story. (The up side to this is you’ll eventually learn to inoculate yourself against bad advice. Experience in critique groups is one way to learn if you’re rejecting advice out of hand due to pride, fear, or ignorance, or because it’s truly bad advice.)
  • False sense of success. This is a particular hazard of many online groups, which tend to be populated with very new and/or teen writers. It is common to see members gush over a story that’s very poorly written. This is a huge disservice to everyone involved, particularly the author.
  • For logistical reasons, critique groups are better suited to polishing short stories than novels. Groups can, and do, critique novels, but usually only a chapter at a time. How long will it take a group to read your entire novel at that pace?
  • Because you’ll be critiquing the work of other members, there can sometimes be a significant time investment to be part of the group. Depending on your situation, this may be a prohibitive factor.

Take these issues into consideration when deciding whether or not to join a critique group. Ask yourself what you’re trying to get out of it, and what you’re willing to give.

Often, critique groups are an important part of the learning process for new writers. Beginning writers who are struggling with such basics as dialogue, description, characterization, and effective scene building, can make a lot of progress working with a good group. Aspiring novelists may not be able to put their entire novel through a group, but they can still work on improving these basic skills by submitting a chapter at a time.

If you’re working on a novel and struggling with plot, pacing, and overall structure, your critique group will be very limited in what they can do for you. Unless you have a group willing to read your entire manuscript in short order, you will need to find other ways to master these larger elements of the novel.

If your goal is to get your manuscript ready for publication, keep in mind what I said earlier. Any critique group is only as strong as it’s strongest member. If you don’t have members writing at a professional level, don’t be surprised that they’re unable to help you get your story to that level either.

HOWEVER, even if your end goal is publication, if you’re a new writer and haven’t mastered the basics I mentioned above, a critique group can be a helpful intermediate step.

So how about you? What do you think are the pros and cons of critique groups?

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5 Ways to Banish Writer’s Block


I don’t really believe in writer’s block. Perhaps it’s the words I quibble with. “Writer’s block” makes it sound like some unsolvable problem. Some uncontrollable thing that’s happened to us.

Really, “writer’s block” is the term we tend to use if we’re feeling stuck, fearful, or uninspired.

The key word in that sentence is “feeling.” There’s some emotion we’re letting get in the way of doing our work.

That’s different from having a writing problem that needs solving. Sometimes we know how a story begins and how it ends, but don’t quite know what happens in the middle. Or we might have knots in our plot we need to untangle. Again, these are things we can iron out so long as we buckle down and get to work. (See my posts about fixing that messy middle or how to fix the 5 most common plotting mistakes.)

No, sometimes we just “feel” like we can’t write.

Here are 5 easy ways to beat writer’s block.

Feed the Well

Sometimes we draw from the creative well but don’t do enough to fill it up. Do some research. Look at books that inspire you (mythology books inspire me). Look at art. Watch a travel video. Do whatever it is that makes you feel inspired. Or try something new altogether. Be adventurous and playful.

But don’t get sucked into the vortex of endless research and Internet surfing. (Not that I’ve ever been guilty of such a sin. *cough*) Try giving yourself a time limit on your imagination-boosting romp and top it off with some writing. It doesn’t even have to be your work in progress. If it is your work in progress, it doesn’t have to be the meat and potatoes of it. Do background work on minor characters and places. Work on a subplot. Just work on something.

Change it Up

Our brains are remarkably efficient machines that get bored pretty easily. If you usually write (or try to write, or think about writing) in one place, write somewhere else. Take your laptop or notebook to the park, to the coffee shop, to the airport, to the mall, to your back patio. Even writing at your kitchen table can get your juices flowing if it’s not what you would normally do.

Doing something different stimulates your mind.

It tends to make us feel bold, too. That’s always a good thing when you’ve got a pen in hand.

Build Your Bag of Tricks

If I’m not quite feeling in the mood to write, I’ve noticed little things can turn that around. I might open up the blinds to let in the sunshine. I might turn on some of my favorite writing music. Try little tricks like this and pay attention to what works.

Give Yourself a Pep Talk

What we say to ourselves matters. Pay attention to that inner dialogue.

If I’m feeling off for some reason, sometimes I simply tell myself, “You can do it.” I remind myself that difficult emotions are just part of the writer’s life, even for those highly successful authors. Feeling those emotions are not a reason to give in to them. Feelings are just feelings.

Write Anyway

If you ignore everything else on this list, don’t ignore this.

This is the one thing that works even when it’s the only thing you do.

Write. Anyway.

Get those words down. Push forward. It doesn’t have to be perfect (which is a good thing, because it won’t be). It doesn’t have to be anything you keep. It only has to be words on paper. That’s it.

This is the best technique if your trouble is fear.

Fear tends to be strongest right before you begin. So, begin.

So next time you think you have writer’s block, try a tip on this list. Or try all of them. You may find the cure.

What tricks do you have for beating writer’s block?

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My Dysfunctional Loyalty to Books and a Resolution to be Ruthless

Books on my nightstand

I have a problem.

I’ve been aware of it for a while, and have tried to correct it on my own to no avail.

I’m hoping a public confession will help.

My piles of books tend to get out of control. I recently whittled the number of books on my nightstand from 17 to seven.

That’s not the confession. I’m a writer. Not only am I entitled to decorate my home with piles of books, it’s practically in the job description.

No, it’s something else. The other night I sat on the edge of my bed and realized something. Of the seven books piled on my nightstand, I’m not particularly interested in reading any of them. It’s possible I’m just not in the mood for those exact books at this exact moment. That does happen.

But there’s something else going on.

I bought every single book on reputation alone. I purchased The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaman without cracking the cover. Ditto for Cutting for Stone and A Prayer for Owen Meany.

I bought them because they sounded interesting, but also because so many people loved them. I figured I would love them too. But it’s more than that. So many people have read these books, I felt out of the loop. Like, I was being ignorant about something important.

You would think I’d know better, but that’s the honest truth.

I’ve stalled half way through each of these three books, but can’t seem to fully abandon them. (I haven’t started the others yet.)

So here’s the problem. I absolutely HATE to abandon a book once I’ve started it. I’ll avoid it, sure. I’ll let it sit on my nightstand for months before I finally force feed myself the rest of the story, or pick up another book “temporarily,” promising myself I’ll finish the other book eventually.

It’s not for the first time that I have partially-read books piled on my nightstand as monuments to my obstinacy, carrying all the requisite weight of an obligation.

Some of these started-but-did-not-finish books have migrated to the shelves in our library, where they haunt me from a new location.

It’s times like this I feel like a high school kid, instead of a mature something-year-old woman. (Must I say how old? Isn’t it enough that I said “mature”?)

I know people abandon books all the time. I see their “Did not finish” shelves on Goodreads, bulging with an impressive number of books they tossed aside guilt free.

I admire those shelves and those readers.

Why do I find it so hard to similarly stock my own “thank you but no thank you” shelf of books?

The truth is, for one reason or another, I’m reading these books because I think I’m supposed to. If I don’t like them, well, something must be wrong with me. Or I’m being impatient and need to hang on to see if it will get better. Or it starts out awesome and then takes a nose dive (I’m talking to you, Cutting for Stone). Or the author wrote another book I loved and I feel I have to like this one (even though I don’t). Or it’s written by a local author I want to support.

Or, or, or.

Or, I’m just a dysfunctional lunatic.

That is always an option.

It’s this sort of dysfunctional thinking that so frustratingly hangs on from my younger years. Why do I care what I’m “supposed” to read? Where am I getting this notion to start with? Is anyone but me keeping track of what I read and measuring it against some invisible literary yardstick?

No. Of course not.

Aside from just being a stupid sort of thing to put myself through, this behavior also severely hampers the number of books I’m able to read in my very limited free time. That bothers me as much as anything else. I know how quickly I can read a book when everything clicks. (A few days instead of a few months.)

How many more books could I read each year if I read only the books that grab me??

Some of  my favorite books are in my office, on a shelf of honor.

Some of my favorite books are in my office, on a shelf of honor.

Why is it so hard for me to let go of the books I really don’t want to read?

I’m reminded of the pressure I felt to write “literary” and “important” things when I was in college. There was no room for genre work. Least of all fantasy, I can promise you that.

It took me years to gather the courage to say, “I’ll write what I like, thank you very much, and I don’t give a rat’s @$$ what my professors would have to say about it.”

It’s been pretty awesome too.

So, I feel I need to gather a similar kind of courage now. To read what I want. ONLY what I want. To be ruthless about abandoning books that just aren’t cutting it for me.


That’s not a word that describes me very often. (Which may be part of my problem.) But, sometimes, being ruthless is exactly what’s called for.

(I realize some people will scratch their heads that I’m using the word “ruthless” to describe the simple act of abandoning a book. I can only ask you to be patient with my little quirks.)

So, today I am here to publicly declare some new rules for myself. Let’s call them…

My Ruthless Rules of Reading.

1. Date before marrying.
Read the first several pages of a book before buying it. Only buy if I’m captivated.

2. Be the executioner.
If I’m thinking about abandoning a book, that means something. I never had such scandalous thoughts about the books on my shelf of honor.

3. Get over yourself.
No one on earth gives a crap what I’m reading. If I don’t like what I’m reading, what’s the point?

Books I've abandoned

Abandoned books awaiting the hangman’s noose…

I just went to my library and removed every book I’ve started but did not finish. There’s really only a couple I still want to read. One is O Pioneers! by Willa Cather. I remember liking it, but I think I had several books going at that time and just didn’t finish it. I’ll pick that one up again.

I bought I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak at his recent signing. I started reading it in the line and just haven’t been back to it.

The rest are not calling to me. Even though Kate DiCamillo is one of my favorite authors and I could probably finish Flora and Ulysses in a couple hours, it’s really not geared for adults and I’m not interested.

There, I said it.

Nancy Turner wrote one of my favorite books ever, These Is My Words. The memory of meeting her still makes me all giddy. But the opening chapter of My Name is Resolute was a disappointing mess. I may read one more chapter to be sure, but if it doesn’t grab me, I’m done.

I felt obligated to like Walden, and read quite a bit of it, but I really can’t read one more word of that self-absorbed book. Can’t. Do. It.

I won’t go on. You probably don’t care about my reasons for abandoning these various books. *I* barely care.

But this is what I will do….

I just went to my Goodreads account. Turns out I do have an “abandoned” shelf. Who knew? I forgot all about it. It only had 3 books. Now it has 16. Boo-yeah.

Most of those books are now in a box sitting in the basement.

I feel awesome. Ruthless.

Next up? Tackling the books I’ve purchased but haven’t even started yet…

Books I haven't started yet

I’d love to hear any reading-related confessions you’d like to share.

Thanks for listening…

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5 Great Quotes from an Evening with Markus Zusak

Book Thief Reading Event Donna Cook

I recently had the privilege of attending The Cabin’s Readings and Conversations with Markus Zusak. The Book Thief is one of my favorite novels. One of those rare books that’s brilliant AND tells a compelling story (versus the kind of novel so caught up in its own brilliance, it completely forgets to tell an actual story). Including Max’s illustrations in the book was a stroke of pure genius.

Of course, Markus Zusak would not define it that way.

But it was. Genius.

As you may imagine, I had high hopes for the evening before it even began. Zusak did not disappoint. He’s a pretty down-to-earth guy, but he radiated an aura of wisdom in spite of himself. Of course, I was there both as a reader and as a writer. He didn’t spout any of the pretentious BS you sometimes hear from top writers. In spite of his success, I felt he understood the struggles of writing–of being a writer–along with the joys and quiet fulfillment.

He told a hilarious story of revenge on his older brother. It was such a fantastic, vivid story, I wanted to go home and share it with my boys. But I don’t want to give my youngest any devious ideas. Maybe when they’re older.

Zusak spoke about writing and answered questions. I jotted down all my favorite bits and will share them with you shortly.

Afterward the huge crowd filed out of the ballroom and lined up to get their books signed. I wasn’t at the end of the line, but I wasn’t far from it. The beginning of the line, however, was up and around the corner, out of sight. I’m not good at estimating distances, but the front of the line must have been over a hundred feet in front of me.

After 45 minutes, I moved about six feet.

At this point, it’s around 10 o’clock at night and I’m doing the math. Waiting in line for hours + the alarm going off at 6 am + total exhaustion = zero probability of successfully editing any client work the next day.

I headed to the front of the line to see what was up. Maybe he took a 30 minute break for dinner before he started signing? I spoke to the attendants and learned that, no, he’d been signing this whole time. His contracts specifically state that he will not be rushed with his fans.

“Good guy,” I thought. “Dang it.” Why couldn’t he be quick with everyone else then take his time with me? ;)

As much as I wanted to talk to him, there was no way I could stay.

At a nearby table, our fabulous local bookseller, Rediscovered Books, had a display of Zusak books for sale. This table had been busy prior to the event but everyone who was going to buy a book had done so by now. I spotted the owner, Bruce DeLaney, and decided to say hello before I left. He was the first brick and mortar to carry my book and has been a staunch supporter of my book and my career. I’m always up for a chat with Bruce.

We talked about what a wonderful evening it had been, then when I told him I had to head on home, he offered to get my books signed for me. I did hesitate for a moment. But just for a moment. It was completely awesome. One more reason Bruce rocks.

I picked up my books the next week:

The incredibly awesome signature of Markus Zusak on my tattered first edition paperback.

The incredibly awesome signature of Markus Zusak on my tattered first edition paperback.

When I picked up my book, Bruce said they were there until TWO in the MORNING. And Zusak had a 6 am flight.

That’s dedication.

He sets a good example for all of us.

Finally, as promised, my five favorite quotes from the evening.

1. The Thing That Matters Most

Given that The Book Thief takes place in Nazi Germany, is narrated by death, and nearly everyone dies at the end, Markus Zusak thought this book would “sink and disappear without a trace.”

But that’s not the quote. This is:

“I didn’t write a book that meant something to me. I wrote a book that meant everything to me. If you can do that once in your career, you’re doing okay.”

2. On That Monster We Call “Failure”

“Don’t be afraid to fail. I fail every single day when I write. It’s never good in the beginning.”

3. On What to Write

When he was younger, Markus Zusak enjoyed athletics. He ran a race and came in 6th place. Afterwards, he went to his father and said, “I thought I won.”

His father said, “I thought you did too, but you didn’t win it by enough. You have to win by so much they can’t take it away from you.”

According to Zusak, “winning” at writing is the same. Speaking of The Book Thief, he said he tried to “write a book that only I could write. It’s so much my book, I know no one else could have written it.”

4. Problem or Opportunity?

He talked about some of the problems he encountered writing The Book Thief. It was fun listening to his process, because it rang a lot of bells for me, as I’m sure it did for other writers in the room.

Then he threw out this little nugget:

“All the best ideas come from problems.”

I don’t know about “all,” but that’s been my experience too. Problems force us to get creative. Don’t shy away from them. Solve them, and see what comes of them.

5. What He’d Say to His 19-Year-Old Self

“Don’t worry so much. It’s going to be okay.”

Good advice for us all…


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Do You Make These Mistakes When Naming Characters?


We authors have to work hard to make our stories transcend the words on the page and become tangible entities in the reader’s mind. There are, frankly, a lot of ways to screw this up.

Today we’ll talk about one of them. Namely, naming characters.

There are a few character naming mistakes I see over and over again. Fortunately, they’re easy to correct.

Pitfalls to Avoid

1. Characters with nearly identical names

One guy is named Tom and the other is named Tim. And I’m supposed to keep the two straight. Or Don and Dan. Or Sophie and Sophia.

Don’t do this. Just, don’t. It’s too easy for readers to get confused and frustrated. Those two emotions are guaranteed to break the storytelling spell.

2. Too many names that start with the same letter

This mistake is closely related to the first.

I’ve noticed some authors tend to favor a certain style of name, or names that begin with certain letters. This tendency is usually subconscious. Without meaning to, or realizing it’s a problem, authors will have Lucy, Lilian, Layla, Leah, and Lauren all in the same book.

This is highly likely to confuse your readers. Please don’t do this.

3. Too many name variations and/or nicknames for minor characters

Dr. Thomas Markson makes his cameo appearance at the cocktail party in chapter two. As he joins a group of three or four other characters, a dialogue ensues. Some characters don’t know him well, so they address him in the manner he was introduced (“Dr. Markson.”). One character is more casual, and calls him Thomas. Someone else calls him Tom. One character is a childhood friend and calls him “Slim.”

This all happens within half a page. Dr. Thomas (Tom) (Slim) Markson exits stage right and we never see him again.

Why are we being asked to sort through all these names for such a minor character?

Keep it simple.

And save nicknames for characters who count.

How to do it Right

Remember, all you’re doing is trying to make it easy for your readers to remember who these characters are. To reduce the possibility of confusion.

Now, if you’re writing a novel (or worse, a series) with several characters, you’re obviously going to have some names that start with the same letter. Here’s how to make it easier on your readers.

1. Use opposing genders.

If you have a male character named Corey and a female character named Cora, readers are less likely to mix them up.

Though, I’d argue that they’re still too similar. Which brings me to tip #2.

2. Make names visually and auditorily different

Corey and Cora have the same first three letters. Visually, they look almost the same. They sound similar too.

Someone reading quickly (either because they skim by default or because they’re so enraptured with your story they can’t devour it fast enough) might accidentally read (and think) Corey when you wrote Cora.

So. Make them even more different.

Alter the beginning (and perhaps ending) letters. Give one name a few more syllables than the other.

I couldn’t say for sure, but I doubt anyone has ever confused Harry with Hermione.

3. Use context to your advantage.

Let’s say your protagonist is named Justin and we’re about half way through the book. We know Justin. We love Justin. We’re desperately hoping Justin succeeds in doing…. well, whatever it is he’s hoping to succeed in doing. Let’s say he’s trying to win back his true love, Katrina.

Enter a character who’s clearly a minor consideration. Perhaps it’s the FedEx man who delivers Justin’s surprise package to Katrina’s apartment. Perhaps it’s the IT guy fixing her computer at work. Perhaps it’s her best friend’s five-year old son who makes an appearance in the story just long enough for us to go, “Aww, isn’t he cute?”

Whatever. The point is, this character’s name is Jack.

Justin. Jack. Two characters that start with J.

Uh-oh, right?

No. Because one is the protagonist and one is a very minor character. Also, the roles of that minor character are such that we’re unlikely to get confused. Our hero isn’t a FedEx man, he’s a career surfer. He’s not an IT guy. He barely knows how to use his Smart phone.

And he’s definitely not five.

Plus, our protagonist doesn’t share the scene with our “J”-named minor character, so there’s even less chance of confusion.

What if the character is minor and DOES share the scene with the protagonist?

He’s the doorman who lets Justin into his ex-girlfriend’s building. The bartender who tells him he’s had enough to drink. The old man at the bus stop who’s on his way to see his dying wife in the hospital and prompts Justin to think about what really matters in life.

If we name any of these dudes Jack, could a reader in a hurry accidentally get confused? Maybe, maybe not. But why risk it for a minor character whose name doesn’t really matter all that much?

Call him Toby and be done with it.

4. Make names distinctive

Let’s say you have two characters with names that begin with the same letter, and they do share scenes. They’re both secondary characters, so we see them more than once. Neither has the memory-enhancing distinction of being the protagonist, nor the glossed-over feel of a very minor character.

Make the names distinctive from one another.

Fish vs. Fernando

While you’re at it, make your characters distinctive.

A scrawny boy nicknamed Fish who tromps around in cutoffs and has a mop of dirty blonde hair is not likely to be confused with the elderly Spanish-speaking neighbor named Fernando.

Do you see how this is different from your tall, dark and handsome protagonist named Ned and his tall, dark and handsome friend and co-worker named Nathan?

Help a reader out.

Avoid these character naming pitfalls and we’ll thank you for it.


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Do You REALLY Have to Write Every Day?

Smoking praying mantis

Some habits are worth breaking.

We’ve all heard the advice: write every day. Heck, I’ve repeated that advice. But I’ll be honest. I don’t write every single day. And I’m past thinking you need to.

I know I’m not alone. I can affirm there are successful, accomplished writers who don’t write every day. If that’s the case why do we so often hear this advice?

And why do I still think it’s good advice?

Because writing every day for a sustained period of time (months, at minimum) will disabuse you of the following fallacies:

1. “I have to be in the mood to write.”

Um. No. You don’t.

You really, really don’t.

What you do need to do is sit yourself down and write with enough regularity that you thoroughly understand how writing cold can rapidly morph into writing hot.

Not in the mood? Writing a little something is a good way to get in the mood. Then, lucky you, you’re in the perfect position to take advantage of being in the mood to write because, guess what? You’re already writing. Not watching TV. Not surfing the Internet. Not reorganizing your closet.

In order to understand this concept well enough to act on it, you may need to experience the phenomenon of “writing to get in the mood to write” over and over and over again.

Committing to a daily writing regimen will teach you that lesson much more quickly.

2. “I’m not a good writer.”

My husband’s an artist (as those of you familiar with my cover illustration will know) and, in addition to painting for galleries, he teaches art classes. There are a couple of stories he likes to tell his beginning students.

If you utter the phrase, “I’m not good at drawing,” this is my husband’s response: “First create a hundred drawings, then we’ll talk about whether you’re any good at it.”

Drawing is a learned skill. Hundreds of years ago, before we started revering the aura of artists, they were considered tradesmen. Like bricklayers. They went through years of training and apprenticeships until, through the power of practice and experience, they became masters.

It’s no different for writing. You want to write a novel? Great. Get to work. And don’t knock yourself down by comparing yourself to the masters when you’re still in training. There’s nothing wrong with being an apprentice. We all have to start somewhere.

Relax. Practice. Allow yourself to make mistakes in your stories. It’s how you learn. Identify weaknesses and figure out how to do it better.

And kick your ego to the curb. It’ll only get in the way. Don’t write to get praise or to prove something. Focus on the story and learning how to make it work.

If you’re writing every day, you will be making steady progress toward the day when you can say, “Hey! I’m a pretty good writer!”

3. “I don’t have time to write.”

I hear ya. I really do. Right now I have several major editing projects which are, of necessity, completely taking over my work hours. That includes my writing hours. Between that and normal business and family demands, there are days when I truly don’t have 10 minutes to spare.

I’ve been working on The Lost Branch for a year and it’s still not done.

From last October until early January, I had the kind of overload that made me say, “I can’t wait until my surgery so I’ll have some time to rest.”


Because I’ve practiced daily writing (oh yes I have, and it is a glorious, glorious thing) I know the difference between truly not having any free time to write at all, and just needing to make writing a higher priority on a busy schedule.

For the next several months, I know there will be days when I will not have 10 minutes to spare. Legitimately. But I also know there will be days when I can take advantage of whatever free time I have. It may mostly be on the weekends, and will probably be 30 minutes here and a couple of hours there.

So here is where I need to make that commitment and get in the mental mindset that will help me make the most of the time I do have. If I schedule what I can and keep my manuscript handy for unexpected opportunities, those little moments will add up. Come summer, I’ll be further along than I am now.

Daily writing, even if it’s just 10 minutes a day, will teach you that you do have time to write a book. It may not seem like much, but if you write just one page a day, at the end of a year you’ll have a book.

How does that compare to what you’ll have if you do nothing?

4. “I have to write every day.”

Wait a minute.

Weren’t these supposed to be fallacies? Weren’t we writing every day to disprove this list of fallacies?

Writing every day will prove… I don’t have to write every day?


Once you’ve learned from experience that being disciplined enough to write every day combats our excuses to avoid writing, you will be able to legitimately identify when you need a break from writing.

You may be burned out and need to refuel.

You may be facing a life circumstance of some sort that legitimately puts writing on pause. (And because you’ve learned how to write every day, you recognize it as a “pause” and not a “stop.”)

You may have a cyclical creative cycle, and because you’ve spent months or years striving to be disciplined with your writing, you’ve learned when to crack the whip and when to back off.

Writing every day gives you the chance to better know yourself as a writer. There’s really no down side to that.

In conclusion…

Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. Seriously, seriously tried it.

Your efforts will pay dividends.

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Nashua’s Choice Novella


Some of you have already read this short novella, but as I’ve done very little with this story in terms of promotion, most of my fans know nothing about it.

If you’ve read Gift of the Phoenix, you know Nashua as the old woman who delivers the stones to the Three. But she wasn’t always an old woman, and when the Phoenix came to her, it changed her world and her life forever. This is her story. She has a beautiful new cover thanks to Bookfly Design. He did for Nashua what I could never have done myself.

Why haven’t I talked much about this story?

Well, Nashua kind of snuck up on me. She’s different. Her story is different. While Gift of the Phoenix appeals to fantasy fans of both genders, from teens to adults, Nashua’s Choice will (I suspect) be different.

The power of her story lies within her own heart.

This is not the action-packed adventure you find in Gift of the Phoenix.

It is a story of wonder and heartbreak and incredible courage.

I imagine it will appeal more to my adult readers, though if any of you teens pick it up and enjoy it, I’d love to hear about that.

For all of these reasons I’ve let her sit in the back, unnoticed and unsung. But the truth is, I have a special place in my heart for Nashua and her story. I absolutely love it.

I’ve decided she deserves her own set of wings.

Below is an excerpt. If you decide to read the rest, I thank you for welcoming Nashua into your life.

The stone amphitheater, draped in magical vines and drenched in sunshine, reverberates with the Song of Strength. Few citizens have come for the song today. Nashua finds it difficult to sing with her usual care, distracted by anticipation. There will be no evening songs today, just this last midday song. They will spend the rest of the day gathering, preparing, expecting, celebrating. After centuries of waiting, there are only a few hours to go. The Phoenix is coming at last.

Her enchanted pewter horn necklace offers its last as Nashua finishes the song. The vibrating pulse of the amphitheater stills and the magic disappears into the air like a feathered whiff of smoke. It lingers in the heart of the listeners though. They slowly gather themselves and filter out of the opening to the rear. Nashua follows them into the cobbled courtyard. Citizens are filing out of the amphitheaters for the Song of Comfort, the Song of Patience, the Song of Openness, and all the rest. Nashua, like the other Chanters, stays by the entrance to her amphitheater while she waits for the courtyard to clear.

People slowly make their way through the Great Gate, on their way back to their homes in the city or perhaps in the nearby hills. A few recognize one another and stop to visit quietly. Fountains and flowering bushes lend to the tranquility of this place. Nashua usually enjoys this moment, watching the faces of their patrons and seeing the inner glow that comes from what they’ve just experienced. So unlike the heavy expressions frequently seen before the songs begin. This day is different however. This day Nashua is in a hurry. She checks the sky. The sun is still rising but nearing its crest. How long this day has been! It seems the sun will never set. Perhaps she needs the Song of Patience herself.

Villaciti Cantori is a sprawling, walled compound which the city people call “little village of songbirds.” The Chanters themselves are fond of this nickname. Visitors to the little village enter through the Great Gate which opens directly onto the Courtyard of Songs and its magical amphitheaters. Some visitors have cause to go through the Courtyard and up the broad steps to Marion Hall where they find their business in one of the offices or the library or perhaps the Assembly Room where the Chanters gather morning and night. The Courtyard of Songs and, to a lesser degree, Marion Hall, are the public venues of the little village. The rear entrance of Marion Hall opens to the rest, the private part. Here are smaller courtyards, community gardens, many modest residencies, and the slightly larger residencies of the Head of the Cantori Branch and his Apprentices. Within the grounds they have a granary, a mill, a poultry shed, and a small pottery house. A few minor gates along the side and rear of the compound lead to the city or to the mountain road or to the Realm of the Phoenix.

Only a few people remain in the Courtyard of Songs. Nashua is tempted to hurry them along, but she stays in position, waiting like everyone else.

Apprentice Terridon comes down the front steps of Marion Hall and stands still. He meets her eyes, but instead of giving her the usual playful expression, he is sober. She gives him a questioning look. He shakes his head, Not now, and fixes his attention on the Courtyard. He is waiting for their guests to leave as well, but for a different reason. Something is wrong.

Find Nashua’s Choice on Amazon and elsewhere.

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Quilting, Art, and Other Glorious Uses of Time

From the Beginning Drawing class with Kevin McCain

From the Beginning Drawing class with instructor (and my husband!) Kevin McCain

Back in the day, I had more free time than I do now.

Before raising three kids, running a business, and writing novels, I occasionally took time out to draw, quilt, relax, play.

Well, I still take time out to relax and play. But it’s been a mighty long time since I’ve started any kind of creative project that takes more than an hour or so to complete.

(And I can’t think of anything fun that take less than an hour to complete.)

Tulip watercolor in progress 1 by Donna Cook

Tulip watercolor in progress 2 by Donna Cook

Tulip watercolor in progress 3 by Donna Cook

Tulip watercolor in progress 4 by Donna Cook

I’ve had to put these kinds of things I’ve put on *pause.*

That’s okay.

One of these days, life will ease up a bit and I can play with the art supplies I still keep nearby (at least I can enjoy looking at them right? Who doesn’t like looking at art supplies?).

I can take advantage of the fact that my husband teaches freaking amazing art classes and finally move beyond Beginning Drawing 1 (which I’ve taken twice).

I might even pull out the quilt I started years ago and finish piecing the top together.

Quilt top by Donna Cook

There’s nothing grand about any of these ambitions.

I’m not drawing or painting or quilting at a professional level, but that’s not really the goal. In fact, that’s part of the charm.

There is something sweet about doing something just because you like it.

No other reason at all. Just that.

Am I alone in this?

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