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.”

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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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Tucson Festival of Books Wrap Up

Nancy Turner speaking at the Tucson Festival of Books

Nancy Turner speaking at the Tucson Festival of Books

Indulge me. I just have to do the blogging equivalent of going “squeeee!” A few last comments about my fabulous weekend at the Tucson Festival of Books.

I already blogged about one Must Do on my list, and that was the panels about censorship and edgy YA literature, both with Laurie Halse Anderson. The other Must Do on my list was listening to Nancy Turner speak.

She’s the author of one of my favorite books, These Is My Words. I adore this book. I’m not a big re-reader, but I’ve read These Is My Words at least five times. Sarah Agnes Prine has to be my favorite female character ever. She has such fantastic spunk, but it’s not overdone like some of the “tough female” characters we’ve seen so much they’ve become stereotypical. Sarah is full of humility, fight, humor, and down-to-earth wisdom. Through trials and triumphs, through loss and love, Sarah is always real.

My well-loved copy of These Is My Words traveled with me to Tucson and came back with Nancy’s signature:

Donna Cook signed books Nancy Turner Laurie Halse Anderson

The three books I got signed at the Tucson Festival of Books: My Name is Resolute and These Is My Words, both by Nancy Turner, and The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson.

The inscription on These Is My Words is a line from the book that makes me want to cry, but I won’t spoil it for you by saying what it is. Cuz you’re going to go read the book, right? :)

In spite of the extremely limited amount of space in my carry-on bag, after hearing Nancy talk about her new release, My Name is Resolute, I just had to buy a copy and have her sign that one, too.

Then I had to be really obnoxious and ask for a photo with her.

Nancy Turner and me! Yay!

Nancy Turner and me! Yay!

I couldn’t resist. I mean, look how adorable she is! Of course, I realize I don’t really know her, but she strikes me as a classy lady. In any event, I admire the heck out of her and I’m so grateful for her wonderful books.

My only regret in the book-signing department is the fact that I didn’t take Speak with me. I was seriously cramped for space on the way there (I had a few of my own books in tow). I figured I’d bring Laurie’s new book to read on the plane, so getting her signature on that one would be good enough. But I really wish I’d brought Speak. I loved that book so much and it wouldn’t have taken up that much room. I only had to sit on one side of my suitcase in order to zip it up, which means there was enough room for her book on the other side.

Ah well.

For a completely random change of subject, here’s a pic of my Sunday lunch:

Mozzerella Tomato Foccaccia sandwich at Tucson Festival of Books author Donna Cook

That right there is a fresh mozzarella and tomato sandwich on herbed Focaccia bread and it was delish! If you ever get a chance to pay Beyond Bread a visit, take a bite for me.

Saturday night I did a signing at the Latter Day Cottage there in Tucson. The owner’s daughter is a young, aspiring writer and enthusiastically filling notebook after notebook with her stories. We had fun chatting about books and writing. When she grows up and becomes a famous writer, I hope she remembers me. ;)

I have a pic of the two of us I’d love to share, cuz she’s so darned cute, but I don’t know her folks’ policy on posting pics of their children, so I’ll keep it for myself. But take my word for it, she’s a cutie patootie.

My turn in the Author’s Pavilion was at the very end of the Festival. I had fun signing books and meeting readers. But when my time was up, the Festival was pretty much over. It was so sad. I’d had such a lovely weekend, surrounded by fellow book enthusiasts and fantastic writers. And it was over.

I decided to soak up the last bit of atmosphere by relaxing in the food court and enjoying the creamiest sea salt caramel gelato I’ve ever had. I was going to take a picture of it, but wasn’t fast enough:

gelato at Tucson Festival of Books author Donna Cook

And that was my sun-soaked, literary-laced, taste bud-tantalizing weekend at the Tucson Festival of Books.

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Don’t Tell Me What NOT to Read

Panel with Laurie Halse Anderson Matt de la Pena Chris Crutcher at Tucson Festival of Books 2014

The highlight of my experience at the 2014 Tucson Festival of Books was two panels, both with Laurie Halse Anderson. The first was “Don’t Tell Me What NOT to Read: Teens and Censorship.” The second was “Edgy YA: Confronting Difficult Decisions.” Not surprisingly, the topic of censorship came up in the second panel as well.

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Laurie Halse Anderson, in case you didn’t know, is the author of Speak, Wintergirls, and others. She’s tackled tough topics such as date rape, eating disorders, academic pressure, and (in her latest) PTSD.

Joining Laurie on the first panel was Chris Crutcher and Matt de la Peña. They’ve all written books that have been banned in various places and for various reason. On the second panel: Bill Konigsberg, Erin Lange, and Nicole McInnes. I hadn’t heard of any of these authors before, but some of them have books that sound interesting that I’d like to check out.

It’s no secret that our country has a long, inglorious history of banning books. Here’s just a taste of some classic books that are frequently on the hit list:

To Kill a Mockingbird
The Great Gatsby
1984
Animal Farm
As I Lay Dying
A Separate Peace
The Lord of the Rings

(To see more, go to the American Library Association’s list of Frequently Challenged Books.)

Why might books like these be banned? Well, I think Chris Crutcher summed it up nicely:

“When adults read something that makes them feel uneasy, they tend to think kids shouldn’t read it.”

I suspect these are the adults that want their kids to grow up thinking the world is nothing but puppy dogs and rainbows. There are people who want to believe that themselves, even though they’re adults and know better. Of course, people are free to think what they want and are free to decide what they do and do not want to be exposed to. I limit my news watching for that very reason. (Also, because mainstream news is irritating and leaves me feeling less informed, not more informed. But I digress.)

Laurie Halse Anderson has a different take on the reasons behind censorship. Given her vast experience in this area (almost every book of hers has been banned somewhere), she probably knows more about it than I do.

She said, “Censorship is a knee-jerk reaction to fear.” She said when talking to people about a book they want to ban, if we can “give them enough respect to understand what they’re afraid of, then there’s some possibility for growth.”

I respect her level-headedness about it. Chris Crutcher, who draws the inspiration for many of his stories from his years working as a counselor to children, wasn’t nearly so diplomatic and had no trouble saying so. I understand that, too.

Laurie noted that censorship can come from the right or the left. In her experience, books that contain topics about sexuality tend to get banned by individuals on the right, because they often don’t know how to talk to their kids about sexuality. Her book about eating disorders was banned by groups on the left, which she feels is because people on the left tend to not know how to talk to their kids about eating disorders.

I don’t know enough about it to know whether or not her assessment is accurate, but I thought it was an interesting point of view. And it was interesting to learn about books being banned by groups on the left, because you don’t usually hear about that.

All of the members of the panel on censorship expressed great admiration for the teachers, librarians, and school administrators who fight on behalf of banned books. Often, they’re putting their jobs (and therefore, their families) at risk.

Matt de la Peña spoke about visiting a school that wanted to ban his book Mexican White Boy. He ended up donating his honorarium in support of the cause, which drew him a round of applause from the audience. He talked about how it’s hard to get congratulated for what he does to defend his own banned books, when at the end of the day he goes back to his life while the teachers and librarians continue the fight, not knowing if doing so will cost them their jobs.

Along these lines, Laurie noted it’s important to let communities work things out for themselves, and only come and offer support if that’s what’s wanted. Sometimes people don’t want an outsider coming in and telling them what to do in their schools.

This entire panel really inspired me. Some of my favorite books are those that deal with heavy subjects, and are aimed at kids or young adults. (I talked more about that in my post leading up to the TFOB.) I appreciated books like this as a child, too.

I think books like this show respect to kids, because the truth is, they live in the real world just like we do. They have problems and challenges just like we do. Some of them have problems so severe it chills the blood. Books and stories have always been a way for people to better understand problems, emotions, and the human condition. Don’t our children deserve the opportunity to use stories in the same way?

When asked if banning is ever justified, Chris Crutcher gave a resounding, “No.” Then he said, “I can’t think of anything that isn’t better talked about than not talked about. These aren’t adult issues, they’re human issues, and they start when we’re kids.”

Laurie agreed. She said, “The worst thing you can do to any problem is not discuss it.”

Another great quote from Laurie: “We write resilience literature. We write books that give children strength.”

Laurie pointed out that when children read books about difficult subjects, that can be a great way to open discussion between children and parents. That’s a great opportunity to discuss with our kids our thoughts on all these things. She said, “Literature is how we pass on morality and guidance. We can’t withhold that from our children.”

Along those lines, in the second panel, Bill Konigsberg said, “Just because you read a book doesn’t mean you have to agree with it.” And of course, that’s true.

Maybe that’s where the fear comes in that Laurie was talking about. Maybe some people are afraid their children will read books and develop opinions that differ from that of their parents. Of course, kids will do that anyway, and that’s okay. We don’t need to control their thoughts and opinions. We really don’t.

I think literature is a great way to empower and educate readers of all ages. Sometimes it can give us a chance to understand other points of view, and thereby better understand ourselves.

Just as readers read to figure things out, writers do the same. Matt de la Peña said, “Writers write to figure out what they think about things.”

As I mentioned in an earlier post (which I linked above), one of my primary purposes for attending these panels was because I’d like to write these kinds of books in the future. I still have some fantasy books in the queue (and I do adore fantasy) but I have some more hard-hitting ideas germinating as well.

I’ll admit, I’m intimidated by my own story ideas. I came to these panels hoping for some guidance. I was not disappointed.

Matt said that when writing books for kids, there should be “no teaching. No preaching. No agenda. The job of the writer is not to diagnose the character, but just list the symptoms.” He also said not to approach it as an adult looking back. Be more immediate.

Chris said the pacing of YA literature may need to move a little faster, but really, a good story is just a good story.

When responding to a question about “categorizing” YA literature, Laurie said, “There are only two categories of books. Books that suck and books that don’t suck.”

Hilarious. I loved it.

I had the opportunity to ask a question, so I asked Laurie how she researches her subject matter so she’s able to give it the immediacy and genuineness necessary for someone going through it to feel like it really speaks to them.

She said to throw out any preconceived notions you might have. Ask a lot of questions and keep your mouth shut. In the end, we’re not that different as human beings. We operate from two poles, fear or joy. The rest is just details. Do the research.

I thought this was a great answer. It made me realize that, in terms of the writing process, these stories are no different from any other story. As writers we draw on our own experiences, we imagine what it would be like to be someone else or to be in a certain situation, and we give as much reality to that imagined story as we can.

I mean, after all, it’s not like I’ve ever cast a spell with a staff, but I don’t have any qualms about imagining what that’s like and writing it down anyway.

But, for me, the difference between writing about magic and writing about child abuse, is no one can say to me, “Oh no, I’m sorry, you got that completely wrong. THIS is what it’s actually like to cast a spell.”

I would hate to get things wrong about something like child abuse. But it’s more than that. I’ve learned the hard way that there are certain experiences you don’t really understand unless you’ve gone through it.

But. That’s what storytelling is for. Because stories can help us understand what something is like, even if we’ve never gone through it.

Erin Lange, from the second panel, said something I really needed to hear. She said, “You can still use your imagination and humanity to relate, even if you haven’t been through something that dark.”

Something about her saying this gave me permission to tell the stories I want to tell. Even if I’m not sure I’m ready to tell it.

Matt said, “Sometimes you have to take on a book that takes you out of your comfort zone. Take risks. If your reader feels too comfortable, you’re in trouble.”

I’ve learned enough to know that the fear of the blank page is always lurking around somewhere. Katherine Paterson, author of dozens of children’s books, many of them award-winning, said that with each new book she starts, she always gets to a point where she wonders if she knows how to write a book.

I read that interview with her years ago and I’ve never forgotten it.

Chris echoed this sentiment when he said, regarding the writing process, “It will always be scary.”

The reason why writers will always struggle with fear? Laurie put it well when she said, “No matter how many books you’ve written, you’ve never written this one.”

True that.

Why am I so drawn to difficult stories, particularly those aimed at our children? I suspect it has something to do with this…

In the second panel, Laurie was talking about the role these books play in our lives. Honestly, I don’t remember very well what lead up to this statement, but this is what struck me so soundly. She said, “All of us know that broken adult.”

I thought, “I am that broken adult.”

And I want to speak to the child I was then. I want to tell that story, and others like it.

So, it will be a while, but be on the lookout. At some point in the future, I’ll be bringing my readers a different kind of story than what they’ve seen from me before. I have no idea how that will be received. Regardless, at some point I will just have to take that leap into the dark.

Laurie signing my book. Yay!

Laurie signing my book. Yay!

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Viewing My Hometown Through a Stranger’s Eyes

phoenix arizona

I had a strange experience flying into Phoenix the other day. I was coming from Boise, on my way to the Tucson Festival of Books. We’d moved to Boise two and a half years ago, after nearly a lifetime of living in the Phoenix area. As much as I love living in Boise (who would’ve guessed?) I was looking forward to a brief furlough in my hometown.

I’ve flown in and out of Sky Harbor airport countless times. I know Phoenix from the sky nearly as well as I know it from the ground.

That didn’t stop me from being stunned at the sight of it.

The airplane was in its descent. I’d located the downtown area but we were still high enough that the buildings were pretty tiny.

Then I looked around. The city went on and on as far as the eye could see. In every direction. As high as we were, I couldn’t see the end of it.

As if I’d never seen that city before in my life, I thought, “This place is massive.”

Leaning nearer my little window on the plane, I gawked at my hometown. After only two years in Idaho’s modest capital city, I was looking at the city I’d known for decades with a stranger’s eyes.

Has this ever happened to you? Have you ever looked at something you’ve seen a hundred times before and thought, “What in the heck?”

For me it was like being a whole other person, even if only for just a few minutes.

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Studio C – Storybook Cafe

My stepdaughters introduced me to this video. Ah, now my secret is out!

I love the Calvin and Hobbes reference, the similarities between Star Wars and Harry Potter, and the dig at Twilight. Too funny.

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New Speed Reading App – Do We Really Want to Read 1000 Words per Minute?

Spritz Reading App

Bring on another change that has the potential to revolutionize the information age and the way we read. But is it for the better?

A company named Spritz has spent three years developing a new app, one that allows you to read up to 1000 words per minute (the national average is 220). An Elite Daily article has three demos you can try at 250, 350, and 500 WPM. The title of the article? “This Insane New App Will Allow You to Read Novels in Under 90 Minutes.”

I sincerely hope that’s not the goal.

Now first, let me say, this is pretty cool technology. The Spritz developers, Frank Waldman and Maik Maurer, have harnessed and streamlined the mind’s ability to read words on sight. Words are presented on screen, one after another flashcard style, with each word aligning in such a way that your mind can process words and sentences more quickly than when reading left to right.

This would have come in handy just yesterday. I spent more time than I meant to reading a 12,000 blog post about Amazon’s long and controversial history in the book industry. (To give you a comparison, this blog post you’re reading is just 650 words.)

Apps like Spritz are perfect for consuming that kind of information.

But novels? Beach reads, maybe. Maybe.

As a novelist, and as a reader, I can’t imagine trying to take in a book at the rate of 1000 WPM. Writers craft scenes so they speed up when appropriate (an action scene, or near the climax of the book, for example) and slow down when appropriate (a character has a moment of revelation, perhaps).

An app like Spritz dictates the speed at which you read, instead of allowing the cadence of language to do its job. Rhythm is an important part of storytelling. We even have a  separate term for it when you’re talking about the rhythm of an entire novel: pacing.

Along with plot, pacing is one of the more difficult things for new writers to master. And their books fail when plot or pacing is off.

The entire experience of an otherwise good story can be ruined by poor pacing.

Please, oh please, don’t read my novel using Spritz. I beg you.

But I digress.

What about non-fiction? Doesn’t Spritz sound ideal for those purposes? I realize the answer may very well be: it depends. It depends on what you’re reading and depends on the person reading it.

As for this person? My first reaction to Spritz was a combination of awe and dread.

Reading and comprehending words is only one part of reading. Pondering what you’re reading is the other part. Will this app just drag people along through a text without giving them the opportunity to think about what they’re reading? Will it have the same hypnotic effect that television and social media have? Is that really what we want?

I can see how Spritz would be great for straightforward information gathering, but if you’re reading something like Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, how much are you going to get out of it at 1000 WPM?

The developers are also pitching the idea that we can, for example, read long Facebook posts in a matter of seconds. As if we need to shorten our attention spans even further. As if the Internet and social media experience isn’t already so over-stimulating that we don’t see half of what’s on the screen to start with. As if we already aren’t in too much of a freaking hurry.

We’ve yet to see just how Spritz will play out and how far it will reach into our daily lives. I suspect that, like most technology, it will be a double-edged sword.

It will be one more thing that we, as the human users of technology, will need to master. Rather than letting the technology be masters of us.

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Tucson Festival of Books, Here I Come

tucsonfestivalofbooks.org

I’ve been invited to the Author’s Pavilion at the 2014 The Tucson Festival of Books. Oh yeah. I can’t wait! The TFOB is a literary feast and I am preparing to gorge.

Now, technically this is a business trip. I’ll be signing Gift of the Phoenix in the West Author Pavilion on Sunday, March 16 from 2-4. I’m excited to meet new readers and talk books. Info is right HERE.

However, even though I’m going as a writer, it’s the reader in me that’s really excited. I mean, have you seen the line up of authors? Do you know who’s going to be there?

More than I can list. Here’s the delectable smorgasbord of treats the Tucson Festival of Books is offering up. And that’s just the presenting authors. There’s also other author activities (that’s where you’ll find me) and entertainment. Not to mention vendor booths and food and sidewalks packed with fellow book lovers

Tucson Festival of Books crowds

Are you pricing flights to Tucson yet? If you need me to sweeten the pot any further, it’s a sunny 75 degrees in Tucson as I write this. I’m just sayin….

When TFOB released the schedule of presenting authors, I curled up with a notebook and gleefully wrote down all the options that interested me, hoping my slot at the Author’s Pavilion on Sunday wouldn’t interfere with anyone I really wanted to see.

It was like picking out truffles at my favorite local chocolate shop. It was like shopping with someone else’s money. It was like 75 degrees at the beginning of March. Pure bliss.

Then I realized that in order to see every author I want to see and attend every panel topic that interests me, I need at least two more clones of myself. And all I did was look at the presenting authors, never mind everything else going on.

So… I’m still figuring things out. Here’s what I know I’m doing FOR SURE:

One or both of the panels with Laurie Halse Anderson, author of Speak. Her new release, The Impossible Knife of Memory, is on my nightstand and is next up on my list of books to read.

I’m drawn to her kind of YA fiction. Serious fiction. Similar books I love include The Book Thief, Fangirl, Bridge to Terabithia (technically a children’s book, but still), The Fault in Our Stars, The Giver, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (another brilliant childrens book)… you get the idea.

There may be a sub-genre these books fit into, but I don’t know what it is. I simply classify them as brilliant and hard hitting. Put those two elements together, gear them for children or young adults, and I am in love. In fact, this is the kind of fiction I may explore when I’ve finished writing a few key fantasy novels in my head, but that’s a topic for another post.

Anyway, Laurie is on two panels, both on Saturday. One is titled “Don’t Tell Me What NOT to Read,” and the other “Edgy YA – Confronting Difficult Decisions.” I want to attend them both. And probably will.

My other FOR SURE item on the agenda is a Sunday panel with Nancy Turner. She wrote These is My Words, one of my favorite books and one of the few I’ve re-read more than twice.

My real dilemma comes during the Saturday 10am slot. Here’s what I want to attend:

“Rise of the Machines” with Kristen Lamb. A fellow author turned me on to Kristen’s book, which is about how authors can navigate social media and the Internet revolution without losing their souls. If only I’d discovered her book six months ago, I would have been spared the little breakdown that lead to my rant on social media. I’ve only read a few dozen pages of Kristen’s book and I’m already in love. It’d be great to see her in person.

“Building a Mythology,” a panel with Brandon Sanderson. This is right up my alley and it’d be interesting to see what the big-hitters have to say on the matter.

“Conform or Resist: The Giver Quartet” with Lois Lowry. You did see The Giver in my list up there, right? You do see how this all fits in with the panels I want to attend with Laurie, don’t you? I would say to myself, “Self, you don’t need to attend THREE panels on the same general topic, do you? Mix it up a bit!” But this is a direction I can see myself going as a writer. I want to soak it all up and let things germinate in the back of my mind while I continue to work on my fantasy (which I also adore). And how many other chances will I get to see a legend like Lois Lowry??

All three of these things happen at 10 am on Saturday. I have a feeling I’ll be making that decision at the last minute.

Rebecca Eaton, of Masterpiece fame, will also give a few presentations, one of which is all about Downton Abbey.

downton-abbey-season-4

Have I blogged about Downton Abbey yet? No? Well, it’s only a matter of time. Until then, if you’re a Downton Abbey fan and hang out on Twitter, you’ll see my comments about it over there.

So, yeah, with all this cool stuff going on I tend to forget I get to participate as an author. Which will be amazing.

Know what else is going to be amazing? The post-Festival lounging by the pool. I selected my hotel based almost solely on it’s free Wifi and amazing pool. It’s true.

So, if you’re in the area or heading to Tucson just for the event, stop by and say hello at the Pavilion on Sunday. We can talk books and authors and get all giddy fangirl about Laurie and Lois and Nancy.

Or whoever it is you’re there to see. :)

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