Guest Post: 3 Things Editors Can Do For You That You Can’t Do Yourself

Welcome fellow writer and comrade, A.B. Michaels. Her first novel, The Art of Love, released to enthusiastic reviews and her second novel, Sinner’s Grove, is forthcoming. She’s here today to share her thoughts on editors and why every writer needs one.

Guest post by A.B. Michaels

Are you a great writer? Fine. I believe it. You still need an editor.

Listening to a panel of literary agents last spring, I was struck by the contrary advice they gave on the topic of when to submit your work to an agent for possible representation. One of the agents said, “The time to start looking is when your work is the very best it can possibly be.” The other agents agreed. Not ten minutes later, the subject of editors came up, and the agents all agreed they’d prefer not to see work that’s been seen by an editor. Their message was, “How would we know what was your work and what was the editor’s work?”

Huh? To me that’s a contradiction in terms: no one’s writing is the best it can be without being seen by an editor of some kind. No one’s.

All modesty aside, I think I’m a decent wordsmith. I’ve written in many different forms, from commercial to literary, and I think it’s fair to say I can string sentences together fairly well. I’ve received good reviews for my debut romance novel, The Art of Love. But there’s no question about it: I still need an editor.

Editors can do three things for you that you can’t do for yourself:

  1. They can point out weak points that you were aware of but hoped against hope that no one would notice.
  2. They can bring to light and give suggestions about problems you’ve recognized in your work, but for whatever reason (probably because you’re too close to it), you can’t figure out how to fix.
  3. They can really drive you crazy by bringing up problems you never even saw, but realized, after seeing it through their eyes, that they’re absolutely right.

TheArtOfLove_Front-small (2)During that panel discussion, I noticed that when the agents talked about not needing an editor, a lot of the attendees breathed a sigh of relief. Because let’s face it, professional editors cost money. In fact, I would venture to say that in the world of Indie publishing (assuming a Print On Demand, or POD production model), editing is the most expensive part of the process, right up there with having a cover professionally designed with original art. No wonder a lot of writers skip it, thinking, for example, that a friend’s read or a critique group is enough to get the job done.

But having a friend or your critique group do the job of a professional editor is asking an awful lot of them. Even if they have the editorial skills to analyze your work, it’s not what they’re geared to do, and frankly, you shouldn’t ask them to do it. So if you can’t afford a bona fide editor, here are some suggestions:

  1. Take on some extra work, if possible, to pay for one.
  2. Raise money through a crowd funding source (e.g. Kickstarter) to pay for one, or
  3. Look for a special person who:
  • reads a ton
  • knows the genre you’re writing in really well
  • has an excellent sense of what works and what doesn’t in good fiction
  • is willing to be totally honest with you (in a nice way, of course)
  • understands that you’re asking for editorial advice, not a rewrite from them, and
  • has the time—lots of it—to dig into your project and help you out.

If you are lucky enough to find someone like that, my advice would be to keep him or her happy by supplying them with legal substances they can’t live without, like homemade chocolate chip cookies!

One more thought about editors. In the olden days of traditional publishing, if a writer showed promise but was “rough around the edges,” he or she would work with an editor —extensively—before one word got published. Even the literary icons of today, when they first started out, had to run the gauntlet of the editorial staff.

These days, I don’t know how it works at the top of the heap. How extensive an edit does Stephen King go through, or Nora Roberts, or John Sandford, or Lee Child? Some would say, whatever it is, it isn’t enough. Because, as I said, it doesn’t matter how good you are, or how good the reading public says you are—you still need an editor to help you present the very best writing you can.

A native of northern California, AB Michaels authorA.B. Michaels holds master’s degrees in history and broadcasting, and worked for many years in the public relations and marketing fields.  She currently lives in Boise, Idaho with her husband and two furry “sons” who don’t seem to realize they’re just dogs.  The Art of Love, her first novel, is a prequel to her upcoming contemporary romantic suspense series, “Sinner’s Grove.” To learn more about “Sinner’s Grove,” please visit the author’s website at www.abmichaels.com or connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest.

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Stop Telling People to Write Strong Female Characters

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Kameron Hurley wrote an enjoyable and thought-provoking blog post about challenging the false narrative of women in history and literature and what we writers need to do about it.*

I read articles like this with mixed emotions. On the one hand, it’s important to be educated about the false ideas created by narratives (both real and fictional) that portray women in a stereotypical and/or belittling manner. Or leave women out of the story all together. As far as we’ve come, we still have a long way to go.

However, I start to get twitchy when discussions of this nature turn, inevitably, into a directive. A suggestion about what I ought to be writing.

Here’s the first thing: no one gets to tell me what I should write. Not the oppressive male. Not the liberating female. Not the publishers. Not the market. No one.

I don’t mean this to sound like a rant against Kameron Hurley. It isn’t. Her article was well articulated and informative and I’m glad to have read it. I’m glad she wrote it. It’s a heartfelt, legitimate call to action.

And based on some of the tropes apparently littering the fantasy landscape (sex slaves? rape? gendered slurs?) and the authors who can’t seem to get past them, articles like Hurleys are clearly needed.

But just because women have fought in nearly every military resistance you can think of, doesn’t mean women haven’t also freely chosen to stay home and raise their children. Just because women shouldn’t be defined solely by their connection to another person (“She’s Joe’s wife!”) doesn’t mean women don’t seek and enjoy romantic relationships. It’s okay to write about any or all of those things.

I reject the idea that in order to break the stereotype we must reflect only the antithesis of that stereotype.

When I hear people talking about writing strong female characters, the editor in me cries out, “Shouldn’t ALL our characters be strong?”

By strong I mean fully-developed human beings with strengths and weaknesses who experience the full range of human want and desire. Our characters can want to conquer their little corner of the world (whether that means slaying dragons or rising to the top of the corporate ladder) AND want fulfilling romantic relationships or better relationships with their children. Male and female both.

Including characteristics and plot elements that happen to look stereotypical is not necessarily a betrayal to womankind and feminist objectives.

Because the reality is, we humans are many things. We are husbands and wives, sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, friends and foe. But we are also just US. In spite of our many relationships with other people we also have that core element of SELF. This is what is lacking in the stereotyped female roles. It isn’t that it’s incorrect to portray women as wives and mothers, because many (not all, obviously) women are those things. It’s when we are reduced in our identity to ONLY that. Ditto when the anti-stereotype, kick-ass female warrior arrives on stage; her identity is stripped down to one lone element.

That is not reality. Nobody is just one thing.

I don’t purposefully write strong female characters. I strive to write strong characters, period.

My fantasy novel Gift of the Phoenix (and its follow-up, which is still in progress) has a huge cast of major characters, about evenly divided between genders. There is variety and depth among them all. Because there’s no one way for a woman to be. And no one way for a man to be.

I strive to write human beings in a way that feels real and genuine to me. If Kameron Hurley were evaluating my characters and plot lines, she would find all kinds of things to celebrate, alongside other things that look suspiciously like a stereotype.

Kind of like the world we actually live in.

*Just as an FYI, I discovered her article via John Ward, who shared it on Google+. This generated a lot of interesting discussion in the comments (both on his share and on the blog with her article). I commented on his share. I shared the article and added a few thoughts of my own. I subsequently decided I wanted to address the issue on my own blog, and freely borrowed from my own comments for the bulk of this post. :)
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Robin William’s Death Took Me Back Three Years

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I found out about Robin William’s passing when I saw #RIPRobinWilliams trending on Twitter. One Google search and 5 seconds later I learned it was by suicide. This while surrounded by my boys who lost their father to suicide nearly 3 years ago (it’ll be three years in 8 days).

I thought about Robin Williams suffering to that degree and I thought about my former husband and the secret torment of his own mind. Hand over my heart, mouth hanging open, I stared at the computer screen just trying to process it all.

I said something about it on Facebook and Twitter. I shared a couple of dedicatory photos already springing up online. It’s what we do these days, isn’t it?

My children, thank God, didn’t seem upset by the news. My middle child gave me a hug and I held it together long enough to put them to bed. Then I retired to my room, sat in a corner, and cried.

I knew it wasn’t just for Robin Williams, as heartbreaking as that is all by itself. It was more than that. It was for my former husband. It was for the tragedy of suicide in general. It was for the tragedy of mental illness and how helpless people can feel against it sometimes. I was weeping for the cruel reality that even someone who could give us the kind of performance Robin Williams gave us in Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting (and so many others), could later come to feel so trapped in the deep dark of his mind that he thought death was the only pathway to relief.

Mental health has come a long way since the time of the asylums. We understand more about it. There are more treatment options. There is more respect for the rights of those who suffer from mental illness. Yet. Our mental healthcare system is woefully lacking in so many ways. And often the more severe the symptoms and/or illness, the less professionals are able to help in any substantial way. The safety nets for suicidal individuals (and their families) are full of gaping holes.

There’s still so much we don’t understand about mental illness, and those gaps in our knowledge directly affect our ability to offer real, lasting relief to the victims of mental illness.

As I sat on the floor thinking about Robin Williams, my former husband, and the millions of people who suffer from severe depression, I thought, “Please hurry.”

Please hurry.

They’ll find a cure eventually, won’t they? At some point in the future, someone, or some combination of someones, will figure out how to really help the kind of people who are, far too often, beyond our reach.

Please hurry.

Tragedies like these break so many hearts.

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The 4 People Every Writer Needs

We writers can be a solitary lot, but if you’re going to undertake something as daunting as writing a novel (let alone building a viable writing career), you need a solid team to back you up. I’m not talking about your cover designer or marketing guru. Those are people you need after the next Great American Novel is finished. I’m talking about the four people every writer needs to get from beginning to end with their sanity (mostly) intact.

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Number one. The cheerleader.

This is the person you go to when you need support. This is a person who will always tell you you’re brilliant and amazing and the best writer ever. Well, they don’t need to think you’re the best writer ever but this person needs to think that you’re the cat’s meow.

When you’re doubting your abilities or having a rough writing day sometimes you just need someone to give you a lift. Sometimes before you can give your manuscript to the person who will, in all likelihood, tear it to shreds you need to give it to someone who’s going to tell you what a great job you did.

Chances are good your cheerleader is your mother or your best friend or your spouse. A cheerleader is important and great to have, but don’t confuse them with the other members on your team.

eye-catcher

Number two. The eagle eye.

This is the person you go to when you need to know whether or not your story is actually working. This person will tell you what’s great and they will just as easily tell you what’s not great.

This is the person who is able to analyze plot, structure, character development, bad narration, brilliant imagery, and anything else that might be in your story. This is the person you go to because you want your story to be the best you can possibly make it. This is not the person you go to when what you need to hear is what a wonderful writer you are. That’s what the cheerleader is for. Your eagle eye is a vital part of your team. She will make sure that your story is doing what you really want it to do.

Chances are your eagle eye is your editor. If not, this person should be just as qualified.

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Number three. Partner in crime.

This is the person you talk to about all your hopes and dreams. This is the person who encourages you when the going gets rough and you really need someone to tell you to keep going. This is the one you can talk to about your marketing plan and story ideas and anything else that has to do with making your dreams come true.

This person could be your spouse, another writer, another creative person, or maybe all three. In my case this is my spouse. I’m a writer; he’s an artist. Together we dream big, we work hard, and we lift each other up through the rough spots. When necessary, we give a kind but firm kick in the pants. We make sure that no matter what we don’t give up.

duckling

Number four. Your fellow odd ducks.

We writers can be a strange bunch. Sometimes it’s hard for other people to really understand us. It’s even harder to find people who are willing to talk about the intricacies of writing a story or getting a sentence just right. Writers do well to have at least a couple other friends who are also writers.

These are people who aren’t going to get bored if you’re talking about character arcs or the writing process or that amazing writing blog. These are the people who aren’t going to give you the glazed-eye-look when you start talking about word count and metaphors and the story ideas you haven’t written yet. Birds of a feather flock together. Find your flock and stick with your fellow birds.

Do you have these people in your life? If not do you wish you did? Who else is important in the life of a writer?

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Heaven on Earth

Oahu Hawaii Beach

This summer, before my family and I went to Hawaii for the first time, I tried to make sure I didn’t experience the kind of letdown that comes from unrealistic expectations. I knew Hawaii was supposed to be amazing and I expected to have a good time, but I figured it wouldn’t be all that much better than any of our other trips.

Shows what I know.

Hawaii was pure heaven on earth. Now I know why people spend so much money and so much time just to get there. Worth every penny. Worth every minute.

We went to Oahu and stayed with my brother-in-law and his family on the windward (i.e. green) side of the island. Just driving from the airport to his house took my breath away.

Mountains in Oahu

That’s the view from the freaking highway. Crazy.

(Did I mention I’m from the low deserts of Arizona? I live in Idaho now, where we have a lot more green, but this crazy Hawaii kind of green just astonishes me. I’m thinking I would totally dig a trip to Ireland.)

Anyway, of course we had to do all the touristy things. We went to Pearl Harbor:

USS Arizona Pearl Harbor

The Polynesian Cultural Center (if you go, do yourself a favor and catch the night show):

Canoe parade at Polynesian Cultural Center

Canoe parade

I loved the Tahiti dance so much I took a video:

Don’t you think I need to learn how to dance like that? Course, I may not pull it off with the same effect, but you know…

We saw the LDS Temple:

LDS Hawaii temple

The Japanese Buddhist Byodo-In Temple:

Byodo-In Temple Oahu

This place was incredible. I would show you more pictures but I swore I would keep pics to a minimum on the blog and not be one of those people who bores everyone to death with hundreds of vacation pictures. (Unless you’re family, in which case you’re fair game.)

We did the snorkeling thing a couple of times, including at Hanauma Bay:

Donna Cook and Kevin McCain at Hanuama Bay Hawaii

Now, you should know, I have a thing about water. I love the water. I love being in and near water. But I don’t like putting my head in the water. Or being dunked. Or in general not having control when I’m in the water. It’s a little strange and I haven’t quite figured out what’s behind it.

Anyway, I wasn’t sure how I’d do with the snorkeling thing. It took me a bit to get used to it, but once I did, I loved it. On our first snorkeling trip (on the sandbar at Kane’ohe Bay) I actually got brave enough to go out into deeper water and was rewarded with a swim with a sea turtle. So. Amazing.

My dear hubby, on the other hand, has a shark phobia.

He doesn’t call it a phobia. He calls it a rational fear of dangerous creatures. He’s informed me (a number of times) that shallow water doesn’t necessarily protect you because bull sharks love to attack in as little as 12 inches of water.

I didn’t have to look up that little factoid. I’ve heard it enough to know. (Though, I haven’t Googled to verify.)

Before we left I did Google “Hanauma Bay shark attacks” and found out there has never been a shark attack at Hanauma Bay. That made no never mind to my husband. He told me he’d still be perfectly happy hanging out on the beach with the kiddos.

Guess who snorkeled more than anyone else the entire trip?

That’s right. Kevin did. I was so proud of him. And proud of myself too. :)

In between all this touristy type stuff, we went to the beach. Several beaches. And this, my friends, is where Hawaii won my heart:

Bellows beach Oahu Hawaii

Flower on the beach Oahu Hawaii

Footprints in the sand beach Oahu Hawaii

Private beach in Oahu Hawaii

My family in Oahu

I’m coming dangerously close to becoming that relative with too many vacation photos aren’t I?

We were there 10 days. By day 7 I started to understand something about myself. I thought (and I know this sounds corny), “The ocean feeds my soul.”

Now, I’ve always known I love the ocean. I’ve been to SoCal many a time and the beach is always the highlight.

But I’ve never been to beaches like this, where the water is the perfect temperature so stepping into the ocean feels like stepping into an embrace. I’ve never lived in the ocean day after day like that. I thought about going home to Boise (which I’ve always loved) and was dismayed to think about being surrounded by so much land, so far from the warm waters that gave me such a deep sense of joy.

Am I waxing poetic? I don’t mean to be. It’s truly how I felt.

Part of me is still in Hawaii. The rest of me longs to be there.

When we got back I was telling a friend about the trip. She used to live in Hawaii and has been to every island. She loves Oahu, but it’s her least favorite island.

Least favorite.

What are the other ones like???

Someday I hope to find out for myself. :)

P.S. If you’re interested, feel free to check out my video of sea turtles playing in the waves.

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Phoenix Comicon Wrap-Up

Donna Cook booth at Phoenix Comicon

Since I’m knee deep in revisions on the next book, all while being on a multi-week, multi-destination vaction with my family, I will have to keep this brief. However. Can I just take the time to say the Phoenix Comicon was fabulous?

Fab. U. Lous.

I’d never been to a Con before and didn’t know what to expect, other than (as some would say) a bunch of “freaks and geeks.” Well if that’s so, I’m a freak and geek at heart I’ve decided. I had a blast chatting with fellow fantasy fans, checking out all the fun costumes, AND selling lots of books to boot.

Kevin also got to work on the cover concept for the sequel, tentatively titled The Lost Branch.

What think ye?

Dear hubby pretended to be miffed with my constant picture taking.

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LOL.

One of my new readers has such a cool name I asked permission to use it in a book. I’m actually so taken with her altogether that I think I need to develop an entire character based on her.

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Isn’t she adorable?

One of the highlights of the trip was meeting Patrick Rothfuss. I managed not to go all geeky fan girl on him, but believe me, I let it all out once I got back to my booth. I was in a glow for the rest of the afternoon.

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In the end, the event was such a success I’ve added a few more conventions to my schedule this year. Check it out on the events tab.

Meanwhile, I’m feeling inspired. I’m seriously pondering creating a costume from my book. I saw some amazing fairy outfits. Aradia perhaps? I wonder where I could find a wig with long silver hair. :)

Happy summer everyone!

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Is There One Right Way to Be a Mother?

My mother teaching me how to make her famous apple pie.

My mother teaching me how to make her famous apple pie.

As part of a project she’s doing, my dear friend asked me to share my thoughts on what I think are important attributes for being a mother. It was actually nice to reflect on this on Mother’s Day. I thought I’d share what I wrote, and ask, what do YOU think are important attributes for being a mother.

(As a side note, this friend and I are both members of the same church, so some of my comments reflect that, but I think the underlying concepts are true for mothers of all faiths or mothers of no faith. My atheist parents still taught me to be a moral person, after all.)

Here’s what I had to say:

Hmmm, I think my answer to this changes the longer I’m a mother.

I think the most important thing is to love our kids and make sure they know it. That softens the fact that we’re not perfect and will make mistakes. And everybody needs that unconditional love. Probably the best thing we can do for our kids is give them a sense of self-worth. That will soften the fact that they’re not perfect either and will make mistakes too.

Obviously we care for our kids in very “mundane” but important ways: we feed them, clothe them, bathe them (or, as they get older, make sure they’re bathing themselves). We drive them around, run errands for things they need, pick up after them (or, as they get older, engage in the not-so-pleasant task of teaching them to do such things for themselves).

There’s not a lot of glamor to this part of the job, but we sacrifice a lot of our time and personal desires to make sure it all happens. While the percentage of mothers who neglect their children is small, the effects of neglect on those poor kids underscores the importance and value of a mother who’s willing to fill a bottle, wipe a dirty face, and tie a little pair of shoes.

We also offer moral guidance. We help our children learn right from wrong, we teach them how to treat others and how to treat themselves, we give them standards for living an upright life. I think this includes everything from “work hard” to “know God.”

For members of the Church, moral guidance includes following the commandment in Doctrine and Covenants to teach our children the truths of the Gospel. We take them to Church, we pray together and read the scriptures together at home, we set a good example, we show them what it means to have faith, we take advantage of impromptu opportunities to bare genuine testimony of what the gospel has done for us in our own lives. We live our beliefs; we share those beliefs with our children. We present the truth to them as best as we can.

That commandment to teach our children the truths of the Gospel does not, however, include deciding for them what they will believe. I think people get confused by this sometimes. I’m sure this is easy for me to say since I haven’t been faced with a child wanting to leave the Church yet, but I see a lot of panic when this happens to others, often accompanied by lots of words and actions designed to help that child see the error of their ways. Obviously we want our kids to embrace what we feel is true, but I think it’s a mistake to try to control that choice in someone else, including our own children.

My mother never told me what to believe or tried to dissuade me from joining the Church, even though she doesn’t believe it herself. I’ve always admired her for that, and been grateful for it. It was MY decision to make, not hers. My father, on the other hand, was mortified to be losing his daughter to the Mormons and gave me a 2-hour lecture telling me all the horrible things about the Church. It took me years to forgive him, not because of what he said about the Church but because of what his actions said about ME. He didn’t trust me to make a decision that belongs solely to me.

God Himself says that decision belongs solely to me. And I think as members of the Church, we can trust God to love and care for our children and help them gain testimonies of their own, even if their path getting there takes a little longer. Although, if our children are doing something immoral, that’s different. If my kids chose to do drugs, steal, beat their wives, etc, etc, they will hear me roar no matter how old they are. But. Genuinely not believing the doctrines of the Church is not the same as immorality, and I think it’s important we respect our children’s right to decide for themselves what they believe.

I’m obviously getting on my soapbox here, but I think in general it’s important that as parents we try to understand what decisions we get to make for our kids and what decisions we don’t. It’s just a simple matter of respecting them as fellow human beings. We set rules in our homes, and that’s appropriate. I tell my kids the same thing my dad used to tell me: “This isn’t a democracy, it’s a benevolent dictatorship.” But the older they get the more they will become their own people and make their own decisions.

My freshman has decided that when he graduates he’s going to take a year off of school, get a job and an apartment, serve a mission at 19, then start college. Because I think he’s at risk of not wanting to go back to school once he takes a break from it, I’m not crazy about that plan. I think in situations like this it’s okay to share our “wisdom” about things–I’ve told him that sometimes it’s hard to go back once you take that break–but I kept it short and sweet and wasn’t trying to change his mind and I’m not harping on it either. I told him it’s his choice and I really do feel that way. When he’s a senior and ready to really act on his decisions (if those decisions are still the same), I’ll probably share my thoughts about it again, because those words may mean more to him when he’s older than they do now, but really it’s up to him. And I’ll support him if that’s what he chooses, even though it’s not what I would have done myself.

As I’ve thought about other attributes that are important for mothers, I realize that after a certain point it’s really going to vary depending on the mother. I’ve given this some thought before, because you know I often struggle to feel like I’m a good mom. (That drives Kevin crazy because he thinks I’m a great mom and can’t understand why I don’t see that myself. So he gives me lots and lots of positive reinforcement, which I appreciate.) Anyway, I think being a mom is like any other calling in the Church. When I was YW pres, I had a firm testimony that the Lord called me to that position when He did because those girls needed what I had to offer at that time. When they needed something different, something I wouldn’t be able to offer, He’d call someone else who could provide that. So, uncharacteristically, I didn’t suffer due to comparing myself to others. I felt confident that it was my strengths the girls needed, and the Lord would make up for my weaknesses some other way. Either by helping me be better, or by providing the girls with those things through someone else, like my excellent first counselor.

I think being a mom is the same, and I’ve shared this with my kids. I’m not perfect and I make all kinds of mistakes, but the Lord isn’t asking me to be a perfect mom. He’s just asking ME to be a mom to THESE kids, and I think since He threw us all together, what I have to offer them must be what they need. And anything else they need but don’t get from me, He’ll either put someone in their life to give that to them, or He’ll help me grow and be better. I think both things happen and that’s okay. So, I try to think about my personal strengths. I’m good at being straight with my kids and having rather grown up conversations with them. I have no trouble talking to them about difficult topics and I think they’re good at talking to me too. I’m not as consistent with discipline as I’d like to be, and I work on that, but I’m good at showing love and affection. I’m not good at making sure they follow that chore chart to the letter week after week, but I’m good at teaching them independence. My freshman is in charge of one dinner a week so he can learn how to cook, and they’ve been in charge of their own laundry for years. I figure it all balances out in the end. And I’m lucky that they’re good boys in spite of my shortcomings. So I do try to do better, but I also try to recognize my own strengths and trust that those are enough.

Me and my mother. Yes, I really did have that Irish red hair when I was little. :)

Me and my mother. Yes, I really did have that Irish red hair when I was little. :)

I also have gotten better at recognizing that what’s good in my family isn’t necessarily what’s good in other families, and vice versa. For example, it took my stepdaughters awhile to get used to the fact that we don’t make lunch for the whole family like we do for dinner. That’s not due to laziness, but a conscious decision I made years ago after watching some kids struggle to do something as simple as pour themselves a glass of juice or make themselves a sandwich. I want my kids to have independence, so they take care of their own breakfasts and lunches. They’re old enough and I think that’s a valuable skill. The girls’ mother makes lunch for everyone as a gesture of love, which is how the girls receive it, and which I think has just as much value. I don’t think their mother has to do it the way I do it to teach the girls independence, nor do I think I have to do it the way she does it to show my kids love. I used to lament the fact that kids don’t come with instruction manuals, but now I think that’s a good thing. There’s more than one good and right way to raise a child. I’m better at hearing stories of mothers over the pulpit without feeling inferior/superior if I do things differently.

So to sum this all up in a list of attributes important for being a mother? Good mothers are loving, selfless, wise, respectful, courageous, forgiving, faithful, and humble.

Happy Mother’s Day!

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5 Plotting Mistakes Aspiring Writers Make (and How to Avoid Them)

donna cook editor typewriter

While there are plenty of ways a story can go sideways, in my work as a fiction editor I’ve noticed there are certain problems that tend to crop up again and again. With aspiring writers who haven’t been writing long, I’m not surprised to see problems like those listed below. This is not a bad thing. It’s just part of the learning process. I made plenty of these mistakes when I was a young writer, too. Of course, even experienced writers can slip up in a big way. So whether you’re a new writer or you’ve been around for a while, check your manuscript against the following list to see how it stacks up. If your manuscript is faulty somewhere, don’t be discouraged. Revision is a powerful and beautiful thing.

So, in that spirit, here are the top five plotting mistakes aspiring authors make.

1. The Plot is Too Predictable

This may seem like an obvious pothole to avoid, but it happens often enough to mention here.

When I read the premise of a story, or the first few chapters, I don’t want to feel like I know what’s going to happen for the rest of the book. Now, new writers may get confused by this because they know certain story types have certain expectations. In the standard romance, the guy will get the girl. In a murder mystery, the detective will solve the case. In an action thriller, the hero will emerge triumphant. So, in the loosest sense, yes, I can pick up some stories and be able to predict very general things about the ending.

However, while I may have read a detective story before, I haven’t read your detective story and I want to be surprised by how it plays out. Otherwise, I’m bored. I feel like I’m wasting my time.

This may or may not be a problem in your book, but I’ll forewarn you, the author usually has no idea their plot is predictable.

Of course a good editor or excellent beta readers can help, but how can you self-diagnose this problem? Well, that gets a little tricky.

Think back to the creation of your plot. Were you ever surprised by a turn of events? Did your story take a direction you didn’t expect?

If not, that might be a problem. If you’re not surprised, why would your reader be?

Do you have plot twists? Several of them? We banish predictable storylines with plot twists. When devising such twists, keep in mind, they do more than just surprise us. Plot twists serve to advance the storyline and increase the tension and stakes. They have consequences that reach forward into your story. They should make the reader think, “Wow. Now what?”

When brainstorming plot twists (or just plot in general), ask yourself a lot of “What if” questions. Ponder how you can make things more difficult for your character. Come up with several ideas, because your first few are likely to be predictable.

How do you know if you’re on the right track? If you come up with a complication for your plot, then think to yourself, “I have no idea how my characters are going to get out of this,” that’s good! That’s what you want. If the solution isn’t immediately obvious to you, chances are good it won’t be immediately obvious to your reader either.

Don’t be afraid to paint yourself into a corner. Find a creative way out and you just might have a workable plot twist.

2. The Protagonist Is Too Perfect and/or the Antagonist Is Too Weak

This may seem like a characterization mistake, and it is. But it’s also a plotting mistake. Why? Aside from the fact that perfect protagonists are boring and hard to relate to, if your protagonist is too perfect, you’re severely limiting the potential of your plot.

If your character is already perfect, the events of the plot will have no impact on your character. In which case, why are we reading your story? But if, for example, your character is immature and self-centered, key points in your plot will have that much more impact if they cause your character to grow and change.

There are a couple of things that may cause a writer to create a protagonist that’s too perfect. One is being too nice; the writer does not want to cause their beloved character too much suffering. It seems easier to create a character than can easily deal with any problem that comes their way. These characters are wickedly smart, excellent fighters, rich, dashing, beautiful, blah, blah, blah. Now, of course you can have characters that are any of these things, but be sure you throw in some frailties or we won’t believe your character is real. Even worse, watching your character come out of any difficulty with ease will bore us to tears. (See #5 on this list.)

The other reason authors create protagonists that are too perfect is because the writer is living out a personal fantasy through their story. The author wants to be liked, praised, successful, and just plain awesome, and lives that fantasy vicariously through a protagonist who’s too perfect. Hey, who doesn’t want that fantasy? And there can be a certain element of that in our stories. Often the heroes and heroines in stories are larger than life. That’s actually a really good thing. But again, that has to be balanced with reality. NO ONE is perfect, so when we come across characters that are too perfect it doesn’t seem real. We can’t relate to them. As much as we may want to be liked, praised, successful, and just plain awesome, we also know what it’s like to be hated, criticized, failures, and…well, you get the idea.

Think about your closest friends. Are they perfect? No? Think back to when your friendship with someone changed from acquaintance to close confidant. Was it when either or both of you opened up about a problem or fear? When we trust someone with the weaker parts of ourselves, and they do the same, it establishes trust, compassion, and a completely different kind of bond. We care in a whole new way.

Give us the chance to have that kind of bond with your characters and your plot will have zing.

3. The Story Objective Is Not Clear

If your antagonist isn’t a significant challenge to your protagonist, we aren’t going to care about your plot. Because the challenges in your plot will be too easily solved and therefore boring, boring, boring.

Sometimes problematic stories seem to be a string of one event after another, without any central driving force. It all starts to feel random. Like we’re all just wandering around in this world without knowing why we care about what’s going on.

When I read stories like this, I often ask myself, “What is this story about? What’s the point? What are the characters trying to do?”

Yes, there are lots of things going on in your story, and that’s great. But these events should all be pieces of a greater whole. I should know relatively early on what the objective of the story is going to be.

Defeat He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named. (Harry Potter)

Get back home to Kansas. (Wizard of Oz)

Save Wilbur from being slaughtered. (Charlotte’s Web)

Climb out of poverty by any means necessary. (Gone With the Wind)

If your story is character driven, rather than plot driven, as readers we may solidify the story by saying what your story is about.

It’s about four sisters growing up in New England in the 1800s. (Little Women)

It’s about the life and art of Michelangelo. (The Agony and the Ecstasy)

It’s about the relationship between a woman and her husband who spontaneously, helplessly time travels. (The Time Traveler’s Wife)

If you’re going to write a character-driven story, of course your character needs to be compelling (see #2). Also, and back to the point of this list, your character should still face plot-twists and surprises. In Little Women, Jo expected to go to France but her younger sister Amy got to go instead. How Jo faced this challenge furthered the overall focus of the story, which was about Jo growing up.

4. The Stakes Are Too Low

Here’s the best way to guard against this error. Ask yourself, if my protagonist fails, so what? If the answer is, nothing much, you have a problem. The answer to the so what question needs to be significant.

If Frodo and his band cannot destroy the One Ring, the entire world will be subjected to horrible evil.

That’s a pretty big consequence. Of course, the consequences in your story don’t have to be “the world will come to an end” or “my character will DIE.” Yes, that can be the consequence, but it doesn’t have to be.

It’s okay if failure just means the end of the world to your character.

Consider just about any romance. If the guy doesn’t get the girl, it’s not the end of the world in a literal sense. However, if he really loves this girl, if he desperately loves this girl, then we know losing her will be devastating. Assuming you’ve made him a character we care deeply about, we will want him to succeed. You will have a plot with stakes that matter.

5. The Author Rescues the Protagonist Too Quickly

Again, sometimes the author is just too nice to the protagonist. We may like things to work out quickly and smoothly in real life, but in fiction? We crave conflict. We crave nail-biting, gut-wrenching, heart-stopping conflict.

I have no idea why we find this so entertaining. But we do.

So, give us conflict. Plenty of it. As the story progresses, stack those conflicts higher and higher. Raise the stakes until we just can’t stand it anymore. Then raise them further.

Make peace with the fact that your character is going to suffer. You can still make it all well in the end (or not, according to your pleasure). And you will want to give your character (and your reader) breaks in the action; this is called pacing and is a whole other topic. But in general, put your character through a challenge that’s worth telling.

If I came up to you and said, “When I went to check out at the grocery store, there was a huge line with at least ten people in it. I couldn’t believe I’d have to wait so long. But two other lines opened up and I got out quickly.”

You’d be like, “Uh, okay.”

Who cares? So what? Why did you just waste my time with that pointless story?

A story without meaning and consequence is boring in five minutes. Imagine it in 10 hours, which is how long it takes to read the average novel.

Don’t send in the clerks to rescue your character so quickly. We want to see your character struggle against the challenges that arise. The more difficult things get, the more your character has to work to make things right, the more satisfying it will be for us in the end.

And that’s exactly what you want at the end of your novel. Happy readers.

So, give us a character we care about, take us on a ride full of twists and turns and surprises, make sure we know what your story is about, and make it a story that matters.

Happy writing.

This article originally appeared as a guest post on Stacy Ennis’ fabulous blog. Go check her out.

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Giveaway and Blog Tour Highlights

Donna Cook and Kevin McCain with Gift of the Phoenix

I just wrapped up a massive 39-stop blog tour, coordinated by Kathy over at I Am a Reader. As part of the tour, she created a giveaway for a $25 Amazon Gift Card. The giveaway doesn’t end until April 30, 2014, so there’s still time to jump on board that train. Click on any of the links below to enter and good luck!

Highlights of the tour:

An interview with tour host I Am a Reader. Among other things, you can find out which book I wish I’d written, how I react to a bad review, and my biggest challenge as a writer (which I think is actually a challenge for a lot of people, regardless of profession). Plus, find out what my kryptonite would be if I were a superhero.

My favorite part of Ashi’s review over at Desirable Reads? “I was halfway through the book and I stopped, realizing the end was near and I wanted it to go on forever!” Yay! Thank you! :)

A four-star review from The Story Goes… wherein she declares the book “pretty freakin awesome,” gives a detailed list of her pros and cons, and says its good for fans of fantasy, fans of Falling Kingdoms, and fans of Cinda Williams Chima. (Warrier Heir is now on my TBR pile!) :)

A review by Dawn at Bound 4 Escape: “I definitely recommend this book for anyone who enjoys the fantasy genre, especially epics.” And a 4-star review at readalot, who starts by saying, “Gift of the Phoenix is a long fantasy book. That I did not want to stop reading,” and ends by saying, “I would read more from Donna Cook in the future.” I truly appreciate all these reviews. :)

Fantasy Book Lane was one of several blogs to put up a spotlight about the book. Her blog header is so cool I want to write a short story about it. Go check it out. :)

I got to meet another local writer. Charissa, one of the blog hosts who spotlighted the book, is from the Boise area and a new member of the Idaho Writers Guild (which I belong to as well). We had fun chatting in the comments and I’m looking forward to meeting her in person. :)

I wrote a guest post for Fiction Inspired by Life, and talk about how I graduated from college with a degree in creative writing then didn’t write a thing for 10 years. Find out what got me writing again.

If you’re interested in the creative process, my interview with Michael is a good one to read. Also: find out what makes my perfectionist tic kick in.

Learn the Top Ten Things I Love About Being an Author over at the Chosen By You Book Club. (Reason #1: I get to listen to the voices in my head and no one tries to prescribe me medication.)

Find out the one book I would require high school seniors to read in my interview with Cuzinlogic.

Most Popular Excerpt:

Bloggers had a choice of four excerpts of the book to share on their blog. All of the excerpts appeared on one blog or another, but this one was the runaway favorite:

The man’s eyes narrowed and he leaned in. “Have you ever seen the waters swallow an island?”

“What?” Nicolai asked.

He pointed to what Nicolai knew to be the Pearl and Crescent Islands, only a few miles out from the coast. They were uninhabitable rock for the most part, notable only because one island was shaped like a crescent moon while the other circular shaped island sat within its gulf. Only Nicolai didn’t see two islands. He saw only the crescent-shaped island.

“What happened?” Nicolai asked.

“I’ll tell you what happened. The Pearl is gone! Sank right into the sea it did!”

Nicolai tried to imagine an island in the cove of Crescent Island’s bay, then tried to imagine that island sinking into the sea.

“My brother says a monster ate it!” the little girl said.

Her mother hushed her. “Don’t listen to his tales.”

“It was an earthquake,” the first man said kindly, bending his reddened face down to her. He put his hands together and slid them back and forth. “The earth shook under the water and made the water come sloshing up over the edge. Just like shaking a cup.” She looked at him skeptically. Nicolai gathered she thought a monster sounded more credible.

“It wasn’t a monster,” said a frail voice. They all looked around to see a withered woman resting on a bench next to the wall. “It wasn’t an earthquake either. What took that island was the same thing that made it.”

Amazon * Barnes & Noble * Kobo * Book Depository

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On Sand Dunes, Perseverance, and Dodging the Heart Attack Bullet

Bruno Sand Dunes

My son taught me a lesson the other day.

During Spring Break, we took the kids on a day trip to the Bruno Sand Dunes. About an hour and a half outside of Boise, the Bruno Sand Dunes State Park has a few picnic areas, a pond, an observatory, and (you guessed it) lots of sand dunes.

Within minutes of getting out of the van, one of the kids pointed to the highest dune in the park and said, “Let’s climb that one.”

I did, in fact, see people at the top of that dune. Teeny, tiny people. In spite of the obvious answer, I asked, “Can you climb that?”

My 14-year-old son, Jack, said he’d climbed it when he was there with the scouts.

Well, if he could do it. “Let’s try,” I said. “Why not?”

Why not, indeed.

It took a bit of walking along a trail to get to the dune in question.

Trail to the tallest sand dune

We followed the winding trail through bare trees, most of which didn’t have their spring buds yet. We took small detours on tiny dunes, skirted the glassy pond, and scooped up handfuls of the softest, finest sand I’d ever touched.

View from the base of the sand dune. We'd walked from the side of the pond.

View from the base of the sand dune. We’d walked from the side of the pond.

Once we reached the base of that big ol’ dune, we started to climb. Did I mention these things are sand dunes? As in, you’re sinking with every step you take. Every. Freaking. Step.

And you know, that dune looked a lot bigger once I started trying to climb it.

Off go the children, bounding ahead. Dear hubby and I took it slow and steady. The farther along we went, the slower our pace became. I had been prepared for a workout, but about a quarter of the way up the dune my heart was beating so hard I started to wonder if this was such a good idea. I’ve heard of out-of-shape people giving themselves a heart attack because they get the idea to do some big thing, like climb 15 flights of stairs or walk across Spain or whatever.

I looked up to the top of the sand dune, felt my heart flailing painfully against my ribcage, and decided a rest would be a good idea right about now. I sat on the cool sand and prayed I wouldn’t have a heart attack.

After a few minutes my heart was back to its old, non-threatening self. I looked up and saw our kids, steadily making progress up the dune.

Climbing the sand dune

I got up, brushed the sand from my rear, and started to climb. It wasn’t terribly long before my heart protested and I had to sit again.

And so it went.

I’d wear myself out, sit and rest, get to feeling better, look to the top and my kids (almost there), and think, “Just a little farther.”

I’d figured out pretty quickly that it’s easier to step in the footprints of those who’d gone before. Less sinking. But even the trails of footprints were nebulous, disappearing suddenly and leaving me to plow my own way through the ever-shifting sand.

As my husband, Kevin, and I worked our way up the dune, I worried about his heart too. The kids reached the top, the older ones walking along the ridge, proving they’d made it to the top with energy to spare.

Jack at the top

If I make it to the top, I thought, I’m just going to collapse.

About three-quarters of the way up that giant sand dune, hubby and I sat down and I thought, “That’s it. I’m not going any farther. This is good enough.”

Thoroughly spent, I decided to enjoy the view.

Near the top of the sand dune

Half-hearted rain clouds spread across the sky, reflected in the pond below. I was higher than the top of all the other sand dunes and could see the rocky and scrub-brush bespotted landscape stretch far into the horizon. Even without getting to the top, the view was magnificent.

The kids played at the top. Jack had walked along the peak and been partially down and back up again a few times. Kevin lounged on the soft sand next to me, looking perfectly relaxed and content.

I was too. Until I wasn’t.

After a few minutes, I stood and started climbing. I couldn’t help it. I wanted to get as close to the top as I could.

Jack called down to me. “Mom, do you want to get to the top?”

Without looking up or stopping, I called, “Yes.”

And down he came. My son, who I once carried everywhere he needed to go, came to my side and held his arm out to me. And I took it.

Jack helping me up

With his strength and support, the climb grew easier. Step after step, I felt his arm lift me higher and higher.

I was reminded of the day, many months ago, when Jack and I stood in our living room back to back, and discovered he was finally, officially taller than me.

The declaration had brought a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes. My emotion had surprised me. As much as I love my children, I’ve never been sappy about milestones. I didn’t cry when my kids went off to kindergarten; I was always excited for them and the new adventures they were about to have.

But my first-born son growing taller than me gave weight to the reality that he’s growing up, and will one day be a man.

This moment on the sand dune was like that. But instead of realizing that my son is growing up, I realized he is growing up well.

Soon he walked in front of me, giving me easier places to step by stomping his feet firmly on the sand. He even thought to take small steps.

Then, at last, I made it. I was there. Right at the top. There was no more climbing to do.

I sat at the peak, lightened by my sense of accomplishment–I did it!–and swelling with gratitude–I never would have done it without Jack’s help.

In all honesty, the view from the top didn’t look significantly different than it had 20 feet down. But it felt different. And I was able to see something I couldn’t before–the view to the other side.

View on the other side

See the sea of tumbleweeds in the depression below? I loved that just because it was an unexpected sight.

My husband, not willing to be the only one who didn’t make it to the top, pressed on and soon joined us. There we all were together, at the top of the highest sand dune in sight.

At the top

We felt a few threatening drops of rain and the wind grew chilly as the sun dipped closer to the horizon. Still we sat, Enjoying the view. Reveling in our accomplishments.

I thought about some of the other goals I’m working toward, not the least of which is getting my book in front of more readers.

I’ve often said having a career in writing is like constantly climbing mountains. And it is. Writing a book is the first mountain. Making that book great is the second. Getting it published: climbing a mountain. Building your author platform and marketing: climbing a mountain. Balancing all that while writing the next book: climbing a mountain.

Enjoying the journey while you’re trying not to die of a heart attack: climbing a mountain.

But here’s the lesson my son taught me: we don’t do it alone. More than that, we can’t do it alone. I really don’t think I would have reached the top of that sand dune without my son’s help.

I also don’t think he would have offered if I hadn’t been so persistent in the first place.

What mountains are you trying to climb? What is your vision of the “top” that keeps you going? Who are your helpers? Is there ever a time when three-quarters of the way really is enough?

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