Donna Cooner is a YA author whose novels powerfully portray the lives of contemporary teens. She lives in Colorado.
Donna Cooner’s writes YA, in a contemporary/realistic vein. She is the author of SKINNY, CAN’T LOOK AWAY and WORTHY, all published by Scholastic.
She holds a Doctorate in Education and is Director of the School of Teacher Education and Principal Preparation at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado. She has also published 17 picture and board books for children—all in the mass market or religious market and has also written children’s TV shows for PBS.
She blogs at www.donnacooner.com.
When and how did you start writing?
My father was a school teacher and my mom was a school secretary. The idea of becoming a writer was never a career option. Mostly I wanted to be a marine biologist, but you can't do that very well if you get motion sickness at the drop of a hat, so I became a teacher and then, eventually, a teacher of teachers. But all along the way I wrote stories. Not for money. Just because.
I wrote them on notebook paper tucked away in dresser drawers, in journals with bright blue pens, and finally on computers in a file labeled "writing." And something strange happened. I learned I could make money with what I wrote. It was such an alien concept. You make up something in your head and people pay you for it. My first experience with being ‘paid’ for my writing was when I won the local newspaper contest for a Father's Day essay. I was eight and I won a clock radio (remember those?). It was very cool.
Later...much later...I found myself writing for PBS and making a lot of money (at least it was for me) with what I made up in my head. Teaching at the university and still writing on the ‘side’, I was the only one writing for the television show that wasn't a full time writer. I just couldn't make the leap. All of my childhood values of job security and common sense were screaming at me to not give up the day job as a teacher.
I read hundreds, maybe thousands, of picture books in my former life as a kindergarten teacher. When Halloween candy was coursing through their tiny veins, or the firemen had just brought the huge red truck with sirens to the school that morning, or when no classroom management strategy worked, I could always count on a picture book to calm the savage beasts (otherwise known as cute little five year olds). In only a couple of pages of a classic picture book like P. D. Eastman’s ARE YOU MY MOTHER? or Judith Viorst’s ALEXANDER AND THE TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY or Bill Martin’s BROWN BEAR, BROWN BEAR, I’d have all thirty three sitting, listening and reciting along. All it took was the magic of a picture book. I loved picture books. No really. They saved me. As a 20 year old teacher teaching all alone in the basement of a 100 year old school, I LOVED picture books. I loved them all (and I have the insurance rider on my picture book collection to prove it), but I especially loved the repetitive, patterned text that had my five year old audience chiming in at every page turn. So that’s exactly the kind of book I started writing and publishing.
Can you remember the first book that made an impact on you? Who were your childhood storytelling heroes?
The first books I remember reading were by Dr. Seuss. I could read them independently using the short rhyming words as predictable cues. Learning to read before entering school, I quickly became a library addict. I read everything I could get my hands on including the CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, A WRINKLE IN TIME, and ANNE OF GREEN GABLES to name a few.
When I was a little older, my family spent one week a summer at a lake house in the hill country outside of Austin. My aunt, uncle and cousins would go too, and the two families would crowd into the house for a week of boating, water skiing, swimming and hiking. Much to my older sister's frustration, my week was also full of reading. I couldn't wait to explore the uncensored bookcases full of paperback novels left by previous vacationers. There were so many books (and authors) I had never seen on the children's shelves of the library. It was a whole new world and was in direct conflict with the ‘real’ world outside. My sister tried every guilt trick she could think of to get me to put the books down. The conversation usually ended with her storming off to ‘have fun without me’. Within minutes, I was already back in the worlds created by authors like Agatha Christie, Daphne DuMaurier, Victoria Holt, and John Le Carre. Don't worry. I didn't stay inside and read for my WHOLE vacation (although I'm sure my sister would claim otherwise). I swam and boated and water skied, but the struggle between the ‘head’ world vs. the ‘real’ world has continued throughout my life.
Can you talk us through your career so far? What were the key moments?
After publishing over twenty picture books with mass market and regional publishers, I stopped writing for children to focus all my efforts on writing for tenure at a research university. I was granted tenure, but longed to write something a little more creative than ‘The applied multiple regression correlation of the blahblahblah’ and ‘Complexity arises in the behavioral sciences when one departs from the orthogonality of factors in the blahblahblah’.
I was also facing a life event that was incomprehensible. My beloved mother had been diagnosed with stage four cancer. There was no stage five. I spent a great deal of time in hospitals and doctor’s offices trying not to think of the unthinkable, that my mother could actually die. I saw family after family torn apart by the diagnosis that someone-child, mother, father, grandparent- was facing cancer, and slowly I started to write about it. This new stuff definitely wasn't picture book material, and I had lost most of my connections to the children's book publishing world during my time away from the business.
I knew I needed a new creative writing start so I submitted twenty pages of my first attempt at a novel to participate in the critique groups for a local writing conference, but had little more than that completed. My biggest hope for the weekend was that I would be motivated to finish the book. Both critique groups that weekend were thoughtful, tough and encouraging. More importantly, both resulted in a better manuscript. I certainly left with the desire to finish my book, but I also left with amazing connections. I followed that up, about six months later, by attending another writing conference in California.
The critique groups were again small, intense and focused. One of those groups was made up of four other writers who were all just beginning to query agents. We kept in touch and that small critique group became the YAMuses (www.yamuses.blogspot.com). I might never have met them if not for that conference, and I thank my stars every day for their support and encouragement. Nobody understands this frustrating, exhilarating world like they do. That amazing group cheered me on to finish the manuscript for SKINNY. I connected with Sarah Davies, and Greenhouse Literary offered representation in May, 2011. It was a huge turning point in my career. After that, everything exploded (in a totally good way). Within a few months, I sold SKINNY to Scholastic (US) and Egmont (UK).
Describe your writing day. Where do you write? How do you organise your time? Where do you look for inspiration?
Not long ago my horoscope said, ‘Puttering around is part of your creative process. So don’t fret if it takes you a few hours of wandering from room to room to get comfortable. This is just what you do before you finally settle into work.’
I’m not a big follower of horoscopes, but I couldn’t have described my writing process any better. I putter around. I wander around from room to room-like the Facebook room and the Twitter room and the email room-before I finally settle in to actually write. The puttering around also involves cleaning the vents in the laundry room, taking bubble baths, drinking lattes, and staring at people in the coffee shop. Some days I avoid the blank page with almost any distraction. I also don’t write every day. There I said it. I write in chunks of time when I can squeeze it in between a full time job and everything else in life.
I've always thought a writer's life SHOULD be like this-wake up, do some Yoga, fix a cup of tea, settle in to my special writing place with my cat curled quietly in my lap and my dog snuggled in at my feet. I type out pages and pages of new words onto the blank screen and then break for lunch.
Unfortunately, the TRUE story of my day is more like this-I wake up late for work, grab a Lean Cuisine on the way out the door, think about my story in the car, have a budget meeting at 9, a dissertation defense at 10, a disgruntled student at 11 and Lean Cuisine at 12. And so it goes until I get home around six and try to write something before bedtime while I dodge the cat on my desk (see picture) and pull the new lab puppy (goat) off the dining room table.
There's also a secret, hidden part of my own personal writing process that I don't like to admit or talk about. I'd much rather write about all my successful writing strategies and plot devices, but I've learned from many, many past experiences that it is an integral part of the process and I can't avoid it.
Ok, so I here I go... *standing up*
'Hello, my name is Donna and I'm a procrastinator.'
It's been four days since my last writing session (wait, I think I'm getting that confused with confession). Anyway, here's what it looks like and maybe someone out there can relate: Today is Saturday and I have time to write. Ahhhh...sitting down in front of the computer. Open manuscript? Not yet. Open facebook. Read. Post. Open twitter. Read. Open online news. Check email. Check celebrity fashions. Nice shoes. Shop for shoes online. Now, I'm ready to open the manuscript and get down to business. Cat jumps on desk. I tell cat to get down. Cat doesn't (repeat several times). Pet cat. Notice cat hair on shirt. I should really wash that. Do a load of laundry. Ok, back in front of the computer. Open manuscript! Look at word count. I need more words. Plot out wordcount on calendar beside my desk. Look at screen. Time for lunch. Ok, back in front of the computer. Now, I'm really doing it. Write a sentence. Read the sentence. Change the sentence. This is going sooooooo sllllloooooowwwwly. You know what would help? Listening to music. Go on ITunes. Look for song that I can't remember the title for... email fellow muse for title. Get title. Download song. Listen. Perfect. It'd sound even better with some good speakers. Shop for speakers online. They'll come in the mail in a week or so. I should check the mail. Walk to mailbox. Sun feels really good...warm. Sit outside and promise God I'll go inside and write when the sun goes behind that cloud over there. Ok, I'm back. So is all of this bad for the process or just part of it? Who knows? Maybe, I'm not procrastinating. Maybe, it's something different. I just know that so far it works for me.
Are there any tips you could give aspiring writers who are looking to get published?
Attend a Conference. I encourage any aspiring writer to go to a quality writer's conference that includes critiques with editors and agents. Almost all my big breaks happened as a direct result of attending a conference. At the actual time I attended each of these conferences, I had no idea what would evolve, but I was open to making those contacts and putting myself, and my writing, out there. I hate mingling. My basic introverted personality screams out in horror at the idea BUT if there if ever a time to meet and greet, it's at a writing conference. Writing is an incredibly solitary endeavor most of the time, but conferences remind me that personal connections in this business are so important. I'm always a bit amazed at how one connection, leads to another, leads to another. Yes, you need the writing to back it up, but face to face time is critical, too.
Be kind. There was a woman at one of the critique groups at a recent conference who had left her toddler alone for the first time to come and read aloud her picture book manuscript. She was nervous, teary eyed, and terrified at being critiqued for the first time by an agent and eight other writers. It didn't matter how good the story was, she needed some plain, old fashioned kindness. There was a time I needed that kindness and I hope I never forget what that felt like.
Laugh. This is a tough business and it isn't getting easier. The good news? Children's writers are funny. When I'm with them I laugh a LOT and that is always a good thing.
Find a support group that serves as a team. When the team wins, you win. My blogging group, the YAMuses, have an amazing success story and we celebrate every tidbit of positive news. A good writers’ group should function like that - supportive, challenging and focused toward the success of all. I’ve been involved in groups in the past where it was apparent that some participants had absolutely no desire to help anyone else in the group. They just wanted their moment in the spotlight. You can’t have a softball team full of fantastic catchers-you need every position to play their unique best. My writing group also serves as critical beta readers. The feedback I receive contradicts, encourages, challenges and expands what is already on the page.
Keep 'Normal' People Around: I'm lucky to have wonderful writing buddies who understand the process and the desire for a saleable writing product, but, just as importantly, I also have people who have absolutely no clue what it's like to try to write and publish a novel. ( In fact, most of the people around me fall into this latter category--Thank God). When they do find out about my secret other life, they ask me questions like how? and why? Sometimes I know the answers. Sometimes not. They like to bring it up at cocktail parties and work meetings. They pull me out as an instant curiosity when the conversation dwindles, then everyone looks at me with brows furrowed like I'm the nearly extinct Purple Painted Geko of Timbuktu. Once discovered, I catch them narrowing their eyes at me, wondering if something they just said or did will end up in a chapter somewhere for strangers to read. I hate to tell them (and I usually don't), but it just might.
Can you describe three aspects of writing craft that have been most important as you’ve developed as an author?
Take Risks. I think my best writing is often the pieces that are closest to my deepest fears and heartaches. When readers relate to my writing, it is often when I take the biggest risks to share those deepest hurts. And that's when I'm inspired as well. But that kind of inspiration isn't easy. It's putting those deepest emotions right out into a very public world. Hearing how complete strangers connect with the story of SKINNY is inspirational at the deepest level. After all, isn't that what we are all hoping to do? Connect? But those seeds of inspiration for writing, and hopefully what ultimately inspires readers, means risk. We have to challenge ourselves to give characters our deepest held private emotions and then trust it'll be okay.
Do Your Research. Seriously, research is one of the BEST THINGS EVER about being a writer. It's an open ended adventure down a road to discover new plot twists, specific details and unusual characters. You may eventually get to Oz (and finishing the WIP), but you'll definitely discover a few tangent poppy fields along the way. Research on a writing project allows me to become a 'pseudo expert' on anything and everything that interests me. It's the total excuse for attention issues, but you might be surprised what people will tell you when you lead with, 'I'm writing a book and was just wondering what it's like to be a ... fireman...or bartender...or cab driver...or tight rope walker'.
Nail Down the Character Detail. I sort of knew what my characters looked like, but I needed more detail and specificity. One reader's comment about my main character was, 'but what does she LOOK like?' and, when I thought about that question, I honestly didn't know. I also needed consistency with my character descriptions. On page 11, the best friend has blue eyes, but on page 58, she has brown eyes. So, off to the store I went for glue sticks, post it notes, poster board, and teen magazines. I selected pictures to represent all my major and minor characters, and created a Character Board for my desk. Now, I double check every name with the board to make sure the descriptions of each character is richly described and consistent throughout.
Which favourite authors would you invite to a dinner party?
Judy Blume - Who knows more about children's books? I heard her speak at a conference this summer, and I was in awe. She's gracious and smart and beautiful. I could barely stammer out a hello when I saw her later in the hotel coffee shop. Book Royalty.
Stephen King- I liked his book on craft, but I also love the way his mind works. He takes the usual and turns it into the unusual, and even bizarre. That creative twist is fascinating, and often horrifying.
Suzanne Collins - I'm a huge HUNGER GAMES fan. I would love to ask her about her publishing journey and her creative process.
Harper Lee – I just reread TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD for about the hundredth time. It never gets old. Of course, I’m intrigued by her personal story as well.
Pat Conroy - I grew up on the Gulf Coast of Mexico and was so moved by the opening chapter of PRINCE OF TIDES. Pat Conroy’s books are all about setting to me and the southern feel of his writing voice is completely addictive.
What fictional character do you wish you’d invented?
I love Junie B. Jones. Having taught that age for years, I totally relate to her humor. Even as an adult, I think the books are laugh out funny. Barbara Park creates a character that is delightfully revealed through every line of dialogue and action. Studying those little chapter books is a great exercise for any writer on how to develop character voice through showing and not telling.