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.

Ruthless.

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?

dublin-bikes_small

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.”

But.

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?

Yes.

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

Nashua's-Choice-Ebook

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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Give Me 10 Minutes and I’ll Make You a MS Word Track Changes Pro

In my work as an editor, I often run into authors who aren’t familiar with the MS Word Track Changes feature. It’s easy to learn, even for the technologically challenged.

Rather than divide this tutorial into parts, which seems common, I put everything you need to know into one, short 10 minute video. I don’t get into all the little quirks of Track Changes, just the basics.

At the end I share a pretty handy tip you may like if you work with large documents, even if you’re NOT using the Track Changes feature.

What you’ll learn:

  • Tracking changes
  • Adding and deleting comments
  • Accepting and rejecting changes
  • Navigating comments
  • Different viewing options
  • A quick tip if you’re working with large documents

Check it out:

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How Offering My Book in Print Yielded 4 Surprising Results

Gift of the Phoenix fantasy books on a shelf

When I first published my fantasy novel, Gift of the Phoenix, I almost didn’t offer it in paperback. I knew as an Indie author I wouldn’t have national distribution in book stores. I figured most of my sales would be digital. After all, we’re in the middle of the e-book publishing revolution, are we not?

But I wanted copies for myself, my kids, my parents. People like that. And I wanted readers who preferred print to be able to get it that way.

Little did I know how critical offering those paperbacks would become to my career.

Here are 4 benefits I didn’t expect:

1. More Opportunities to Connect with Readers

I’ve done book signings in Idaho, Utah, and Arizona. I’ve signed my books at regional events and national fantasy conventions.

My print book has found loyal readership outside the Amazon e-book paradigm. And there is no underestimating the value of a loyal reader.

Also, it’s just plain fun. I love talking to readers. I love the energy at the conventions. All experiences I would have missed out on.

2. Timely Encouragement

In the beginning, while I struggled to figure out online marketing and had lackluster e-book sales to prove it, I would have been tempted to quit.

Over and over, the following things kept me going:

A real live person, standing in front of me, reading the back of my book, then looking at me with excitement. “Oooh! Sounds interesting!”

Someone coming to a signing just to tell me how much they loved the book.

Significant sales at nearly every event.

These are the kind of things that kept me going. When I wondered if my book was any good, these face-to-face experiences helped me feel I had something worth fighting for.

3. Market Research

Aside from seeing the positive reactions to the cover and the back-of-the-book blurb, I was able to test the reaction to the cover for the next book before it even releases.

My husband, Kevin McCain, happens to be a professional artist and illustrator. He created my amazing Phoenix (I hear kudos to the illustrator at every event).

While I was signing print books at fantasy conventions this summer, dear hubby sat in my booth and worked on the illustration for the next book.

I got a live, unfiltered view of readers’ reactions to the illustration. Their enthusiasm assured me that this cover will do what I need it to do. There’s no better market research than that.

4. Significantly More Sales

Almost EIGHTY PERCENT of my sales are in paperback.

That’s huge.

That’s 80% more readers than I would have had if I had decided publishing print books was a waste of time. My book being read by an actual reader is, after all, the entire point.

Which leads me to…

5. Bonus Result Number Five

My book has made its way into libraries. It’s difficult to calculate the effect of this, but I can tell you that the local libraries, at least, often have a waiting list for my book.

I totally dig that.

Those paperback copies are pulling their weight and finding readers.

I didn’t foresee any of this, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt grateful for that decision to offer my book in print. The book industry is tough, no matter how you look at it. Interacting with readers at shows and signings has been absolutely invaluable.

If you’re one of those readers, I give you a wink and a smile.

Thank you.

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The Goal-Setting Question You Don’t Want to Forget to Ask

As you write down your goals, keep this in mind.

As you write down your goals, don’t forget to keep this in mind.

‘Tis the season for goal setting… and goal forgetting. Lured by the fresh promise of a new year, many of us set our goals with hope. And then hope we don’t screw it up.

Even if we start out strong, so many of our goals fall by the wayside.

Why is this?

Well, there are all kinds of hurdles we may fail to overcome. I won’t try to list them all. But there’s one hurdle I think we sometimes create for ourselves from the get go. One hurdle which, if eliminated, would drastically increase our goal-setting success.

The Goal-Setting Guideline We All Know

But first, for my own sake if not for yours, I’ll briefly review the golden standard for goal setting: S.M.A.R.T. goals.

You’ve probably seen this before. It stands for

Specific

Measureable

Attainable

Realistic

Timely

These are the elements we want in our goals. If we say, “I want to lose weight,” that’s not a S.M.A.R.T. goal. It’s rather vague and wishy washy.

But if we say, “I want to lose a pound a week over the next 10 weeks, which I will do by consuming no more than 30 grams of fat a day and going for a 20-minute walk five days a week,” now we’re getting somewhere.

But I didn’t come here to write about S.M.A.R.T. goals. You probably already know about them, and if you don’t, you’ve probably already Googled it to find out.

I want to talk about the questions we ask ourselves when we set goals, and the one question we often fail to ask.

The Goal-Setting Questions We Often Ask

What do I want to accomplish this year?

What do I want my future to look like?

How do I want things to be better?

What did I fail to do last year that I want to do this year?

What’s the most important thing on my bucket list?

These are excellent questions. These are the kind of questions that help us build the life we want, rather than letting the current of life take us wherever it wishes. This is how we turn dreams into reality.

Many of my past accomplishments came about because I asked these kinds of questions.

The One Question We Often Forget to Ask

What do I want my life to look like right now?

This isn’t, what do I wish my life looked like right now. As in, I wished I were more fit… better off financially… the world’s greatest bocce player. Whatever. Those are still goals for our future.

But what about our goals for today? This very day.

Let me explain with a personal example.

If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you may suspect I’m an A-type personality. And you’d be right. I love to set goals. I love lists. I love the challenge of accomplishing something I wasn’t sure I could accomplish.

I’m also a dreamer. I dream big. I envision a certain kind of life and rather than wistfully pine for it, I ask myself, how can I get there?

For the past six years or so, I have been (and will always be) a recovering codependent. For those of you who think codependents need other people, I’ll clear things up for you. You can be contentedly single and still be codependent.

Codependents tend to be the strong ones. The little go-getters of the world. We get things done and we get them done in a hurry.

But we also tend to overschedule, overcommit, neglect ourselves, struggle with boundaries, torture ourselves with perfectionist ideals, and… well, I could go on for some time. There’s a mighty long list of dysfunctions common among codependents.

Once you really know what it is, you’ll see it everywhere. Many codependents have no idea they have this problem. For years, I had no idea either.

So, tuck that little factoid about me into the back of your brain.

This year, as I set to setting goals for 2015, my little A-type self started quivering with anticipation. I started envisioning all the grand things I’d do this year. Aside from the obvious book-writing goals, there are all kinds of things I’d love to do on the editing and teaching side of things.

They went on the list.

Then there were the usual new year’s resolutions. I’d like to get back in shape, get back to dancing, eat better.

I’d like to read more books, spend more time with my kids (who are growing up at an alarming rate), and build up my savings account.

All worthwhile goals.

Next, I pulled out my calendar and started working on the specific and measurable aspects of these goals.

It did not take long to realize something. In order to accomplish all these goals, there was one goal I’d have to scrap. One goal I didn’t mention in the list above.

It goes something like this:

“Be mentally and emotionally healthy.”

I suppose I could phrase it, “Continue to be mentally and emotionally healthy,” but codependency is (literally) a type of addiction. And like most addicts, regardless of how many sober days you have behind you, you always start each day from the beginning.

So, what does “be mentally and emotionally healthy” look like, for me, if rephrased the S.M.A.R.T. way?

In part, it means not overscheduling myself; leaving time for my children, my spouse, and myself every day; accepting the limitations of what I can reasonably accomplish in a year, let alone in a day; and scheduling time to breathe. Every day.

Among authors, it isn’t difficult to find examples of people who work day and night week after week, and month after month, in order to build their career more quickly. I sometimes see this held up as a worthy example to follow.

And because the end result is so enticing, that pathway is sometimes tempting.

Isn’t this true for so many of our goals? We want that final destination. That’s where we focus our attention and our desires. As a result, we sometimes fail to consider what getting there will really mean. We fail to recognize that the path we claim we want to follow has more hurdles than we’re truly, honestly willing to climb over the mere course of a year.

We set ourselves up for failure before we’ve even begun.

Thus the question, what do I want my life to look like right now?

How much of today am I willing to sacrifice for the sake of tomorrow?

There’s no right answer to that question. It will depend on the individual and our individual circumstances, which change from month to month and year to year.

My answer to that question may very well be different ten years from now, when my children are out of the house.

It may have been different right now, if my children hadn’t already lived through some difficult years and I didn’t want to give them more difficult years for the sake of accelerating the pace of my personal accomplishments.

It may have been different if, over the past three years, I have not lived with an acute sense of my own mortality. There are no guarantees in life. None.

I’m 41. I might be at the half way point. Or I might be far closer to the end than I imagine.

If I knew I only had a year to live, would I spend it working night and day? No. No, I would not.

Of course, I don’t have any idea how long I have to live, and the notion of living each day as if it were your last is kind of misguided. Can we really spend each day saying good bye to all our loved ones? Spending our last dimes on a trip to Italy? (Cuz if I’m ever told I have six months left to live, my butt is on a plane to Italy for sure.)

There has to be a balance between working for our future and living life right now.

As I realized my little codependent shadow self had popped up and written this overly ambitious list of goals for 2015, my sober self started crossing things off.

There are other years to accomplish some of those things. And if it turns out there aren’t, well, I will cherish those close to me as much as I am able.

Today.

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The One Thing That Matters About Whoopi and Rosie’s Argument About Racism on The View

There’s an awful lot of fuss about Whoopi Goldberg and Rosie O’Donnell’s recent “heated” argument about racism on The View.

Too bad everyone’s fussing about the wrong thing.

Before I go on, let me state a couple things for the sake of clarity. I don’t watch the View with any regularity. I’ve seen the occasional clip and that’s about it. I don’t follow celebrity news and spats. I see the trash rag headlines in the grocery store and catch bits on the radio, but in general I don’t really care what all the celebrities are up to.

And, to my detriment, I don’t follow the news very well in general. Between my inclination to internalize the world’s woes to the point that I can’t sleep (seriously) and the inevitable irritation that accompanies almost any news broadcast because 90% of what they’re covering is neither informative nor relevant, I tend to just tune it out. The resulting ignorance about current issues is a problem I haven’t figured out how to solve, but that’s another topic for another post.

Back to the View. While listening to the radio this morning, I heard about Goldberg and O’Donnell’s latest argument. The DJs played a clip of the worst part. They talked about how horrible it is that these ladies can’t get along and have a respectful conversation instead of shouting at each other. I gathered this was not the first time these two have gone at it.

Naturally, I thought this might be a lighthearted thing to Tweet about. Something I could make a little quip about. Hollywood drama.

That’s what everyone’s talking about isn’t it? The drama.

Drama, drama, drama.

I Googled it, read 3 or 4 articles about it, and watched a long clip of the discussion. Well before Whoopi and Rosie’s yelling match.

(Here’s a good-sized clip if you’d care to watch it:)

When I finally saw the clip for myself, what I found was an interesting discussion about all the various elements of racism and discrimination and ignorance that plague our country.

The fact that things got heated isn’t what interests me. I mean, first of all, we’re talking about a show designed to facilitate debate. People disagreed with one another?? Shocking!

Second, the subject is racism. A hot button topic like religion, politics, and poverty. Racism is one of the ugliest aspects of America’s past and present. A complicated issue that Americans of every color are struggling to resolve.

I wish this overblown celebrity spat was doing more to prompt an intelligent discussion of the issue at hand.

I wish more people were taking into consideration the various points discussed. I loved Laverne Cox’s intelligent remarks about implicit bias.

As I listened to the discussion, I thought one of the things going on was a debate on linguistics. Is the definition of racism limited to the perpetrator’s desire to harm, as Whoopi implies, or is it simply prejudging a person based on color, as other panelists suggested?

I think Whoopi was trying to say there’s a difference between wanting to shoot a person of color and assuming they’re there to park your car. I agree. Both situations are horrible, obviously. But it seemed to me she was saying we need to measure our responses to these different kinds of situations. I do think there’s wisdom in that.

However. That implicit bias Cox mentions is the common denominator in those two situations, and that is a problem we must continue to address.

racial-segregation-67692_640 (2)

Near the end, as things really heated up between Whoopi and Rosie, Whoopi pretty much said you can’t be white and know what racism is. But, based on her earlier comments about “white people that get it” and her reaction when people come up her asking, “Is that racism?”–her reply was, “I don’t know!”–I suspect she was caught up in the heat of the moment.

Do you have to be a person of color to know what racism is, or did Whoopi maybe mean a white person in America may not know how racism feels? For a lot of white Americans, that’s true. Perhaps not all, but I sure don’t know from personal experience what it’s like to be a victim of racism.

(Though, that doesn’t mean I can’t do my level best to try to understand, and it doesn’t stop me from being outraged by the racism that freaking STILL exists in this country. Nor does lack of personal experience automatically make one racist or apathetic.)

A man may not know what it’s like to give birth, but he knows what pregnancy IS. Heck a WOMAN who’s never given birth doesn’t know what it’s like. How could they?? And even women who have given birth really only know what that experience was like for them.

Obviously racism and giving birth are two completely different subjects. I’m not comparing them.

What I am saying is all the millions of people living in this country, regardless of color, have different experiences with and opinions about racism and if we want to continue to make progress toward eradicating it, we need to consider what people are saying.

I thought the women on the View brought up some excellent points. It was a good discussion.

It would be great if more people were talking about that instead of petty celebrity drama.

Then again, maybe I’m expecting too much from articles reporting about a television show.

What do you think?

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