Carol Lynch Williams

The Haven – Carol Lynch Williams

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The Haven Carol Lynch WilliamsTeenager Shiloh lives at Haven Hospital and Halls where she and others like her are protected from the dangers of the world. They are Terminals and one day they will die from the Disease, but the Hospital keeps them protected, happy, and healthy for as long as they can.  While Shiloh realizes that her world is different than that of the Whole, she struggles to deal with her friend Amelia’s new outlook of their stay in the Hospital and their ability to one day be Whole.

This easily could have been yet another dystopian YA novel, but it manages to elevate itself above the tropes and cliches that have begun to litter the book stores’ shelves.  There are hallmarks of the genre – regimented schedules, little free agency or choice, and a repressive regime.  However, The Haven manages to be creepy and thrilling in its short 200 + pages, and Williams manages to yet again provide deep, well-rounded characters with fewer words.  Watching Shiloh and her transition as she begins to listen to Amelia, for instance, is fascinating as she fights the change and yet fights for her personal change as well.  Not since Matched have I seen a character who felt so realistic for having been raised in their society.

I did feel that the beginning of the book took some getting used to to really understand what was going on, and once the reveal came I had already begun to guess at what the twist to Shiloh’s story might be.  That does not lessen the reveal in any way, though.  I loved seeing how Williams took an idea that is not new and yet made it completely her own, original, and utterly terrifying in how easily we could slip into that way of thinking in the near future.

That is perhaps what is most chilling about The Haven – the realism.  While I do not want to give away the end of Shiloh’s story, Williams manages to bring up some complicated moral issues and questions that are possibly in the immediate future for the human race.  And once we begin to chip at those walls, how far will we go for our own selfish interests?

If you are looking for a new dystopian YA thriller that doesn’t involve love triangles, battles, or the tired plot lines from other books, give The Haven a read.  It’s fast-paced enough that you won’t be able to put it down until you’re done.

Rating: 8/10

Read The Haven: A Novel

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Writing Excercises From Carol Lynch Williams

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I don’t know about you, but I am in a personal writing slump.  I have all of these great ideas (or what sound like great ideas to me) floating around in my head, but I always think, “Oh, I can start on that tomorrow.”  Well, no more!  And what better way to jump start some great writing then with writing exercises?  These are from Carol Lynch Williams, one of the most talented YA literary writers out there, and an excellent writing instructor.  Seriously, take a class with her and you would see.  She consistently gave the best free-writing exercises and doles them out for free on her and author Ann Dee Candee’s blog, Throwing Up Words.  Each Thursday she writes a Three Things Thursday post, usually featuring some great, insightful writing exercises to help you hone in on your main character, plot, and setting.  Below are some of my favorites from the past year. (Also, check out her list of Whys and Whats to really help you zero in on your book and its focus.) (Read either The Chosen One or Waiting to understand Carol’s brilliance.)

Writing Exercises Carol Lynch Williams

Plain text version:

  1. For the next few hours, view the work you do – whatever it may be – as the main character in your novel. How do you and your character see things differently? The same? How does this inform your writing?
  2. Using your senses, describe where you are now.  What about where your character is? It’s not a bad idea to use ALL of the senses (yes, all five!) while writing.
  3. When your character daydreams, what are her thoughts?  What is her biggest and best dream for herself?
  4. Look at five best sellers that are not up to snuff in plot and writing.  How would you change them and make them work?
  5. Look at the climax of your novel.  If you tell the climax (which should be about one chapter) in half that amount of space, what would you get rid of?  Try this exercise and see how this works for you.  Keep only the best words, the strongest words.  Make sure what you save moves the story forward to the end.  Keep what is essential.  Rewrite to make this work.

Waiting – Carol Lynch Williams

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There are few books that I cannot walk away from until I am finished.  Few stories that capture my attention and linger with me even when I have put it down and walked away.  Carol’s novels often do this to me, and her newest book Waiting is no exception.

Waitingdoes not have an elaborate plot, and never relies on such devices as arenas, explosions, or vampires.  Instead, in her masterful way, Williams tells a simple and heartbreaking story about London.  London’s brother Zach died several months before, and still she struggles to move past his death, to accept that he is gone.  Her mother no longer speaks to her and her father is increasingly distant.  In a time when they should be striving to be closer as a family, they are falling apart.  Things start to change when the new girl at school hoists her friendship upon London, and her ex-boyfriend begs for her to spend time with him, to talk to him.  As London comes out of her grief-stricken fog, she admits to herself and others what she wants, what she needs from her family.  She demands to have things change, to be recognized as the child that still lives.

Not many writers can accomplish what Williams does so effortlessly.  She makes her characters come alive, makes them live and breathe and demand your attention. Waiting is written in an almost poetic, short style (I suppose you would call them prose poems, but I just thought of them as thoughts embodied on the page).  This easy style combined with London’s strong character creates a depth almost too painful to read.  London pulls you in and will not let go.  Even now as I have finished the book, I am wanting to know more, wanting to read more about London, about her new-found strength, about the life that she will get to live.

Even the small side characters who make up London’s growing network of friends feel so complete that they are almost real people.  This includes London’s former best friend Lauren (known as Queen Suck Face much of the book) who you discover has trouble connecting with London now because she misses Zach so much.  This incredible emotional depth resonates from the page, dragging you in, making you forget that you are not really in London’s head.

While I love the big-action books that include a good fight against injustice or travels to magical worlds, Williams is the epitome of what a good author should be.  Her stories may be small, but they are real, full, and transport you. Waiting carves out a small piece of a teenage girl’s heartbreak and allows you to feel with her, to journey with her, and to grow with her.  There are no magic fixes for the pain that London feels, but Williams is adept at making you root for her to move past the pain and begin to live, even if it is just within the page.

Rating: 10/10

Absence Explained – Terrible Excuses Included

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I have been missing from the blog0sphere  for nearly a month.  That is not like me, I know.  Two weeks, sure, when I get busy.  But a month?  And tweeting has taken a major hit as well.  I want to start out by saying – sorry.  Unless you could care less that I’ve been gone, or haven’t noticed, then it’s business as usual.

I feel a little life update is in order to explain that month away.  First, a date is set for myself and the Scottish fiance to become the newlyweds. Hurray!  We were trying to go about this the best way possible, which meant immigration paperwork before a wedding so we don’t get penalized later.  The process has been long and hard, and a lot of waiting, but we are sort of nearing an end.  Well, one end.  Marrying someone from another country basically means there will be no end to your paperwork. We actually found out about a month ago, which means the recent weeks have been filled with wedding planning.

Another hurdle in my life was my participation in a writing contest, thrown by the amazing Carol Lynch Williams and Ann Dee Ellis over at Throwing Up Words.  The prize is 5 pages read by an agent (I am on the Play at Home side), and it involves weekly challenges that must be completed within a ridiculously short time period, and then voted on towards the end of the week.  That has consumed by Mondays through Wednesdays for several weeks now. (Last week I won for the week! It was a dystopian challenge and my entry is below).

Last weekend, my family and I traveled to San Antonio to watch my brother graduate from Air Force Basic Training (AFBMT).  It didn’t really affect my reading other than the fact that I cannot read in the car without getting motion sick.  I just wanted a space to brag that he was an Honor Graduate (top 10% of that graduating class), his flight (group) was a Warrior Flight (had to score over 170), the Honor Flight (top scoring flight), and they achieved Academic Excellence (highest academic scores).  His next step is technical school, and he will actually graduate two days before the wedding, which means my entire family will be there after all!  Ok, bragging over.  The resultant car ride did afford me the opportunity to watch season one ofDownton Abbey in its entirety.  Holy cow that’s a good show.

I suppose those are all of the excuses I can come up with for the moment.  I do promise to be a bit better about blogging more often, even if it is not quite as often as I would like.  Seriously, someone pay me money to read and review books already.

As promised, here is my dystopian entry for the writing contest:

Cold.  The world is always cold.

Some would say it is my fault the world is cold.  You see, it is not cold for everyone.  It is cold for those, like me, who disobey.  We are put outside to work as punishment for misbehaving.

I am always outside, always chopping the frozen trees, gathering ice, or trying to catch the few animals that remain above ground.  We do not need the trees for fuel, because we have other forms of energy below.  We do not need to gather ice, as we can make it below.  Animals are bred below for food, and those that we catch are never eaten.  Our punishments are practices in futility.

My crime is always speech.  I am outspoken, and that is not allowed.  Being outspoken is what created the ice age.  Being outspoken is not living as one with your fellows below the ground.  Being outspoken will cause you to stand outside in the cold that creates a silence like death.  Being outspoken means you are alone except for others who have done wrong.

I stand a few feet away, staring at the entrance to Below that is hidden amongst the ice trees.  It looks like a round slab of stone, resting on the ground, but even through the fog my breath creates I can see the flaws in its supposed natural design.

In my punishment, I have seen stones, real stones, and they are not like these.  They are rough and jagged, with an imperfection that is beautiful.  I am like those stones.  I am imperfect.  I am rough.  I am not a clone like most Below.  I even gave myself a name, not a number.  In my head, I am Fria.  Not 3542.

I turn my back to the entrance and walk, ice crunching under my feet.  The steam my breath creates floats in front of me, guiding me to my usual spot where I wait out the six hours of my punishment.

But today, someone is already in my place.  I know it is that boy.  The boy who angered me into being outspoken.  I hate that boy.

Characters Make the Story

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This entire post originally was conceived a few weeks ago, when I was talking with friends.  And then I started to think about it some more as I’ve read a few books (Night Circus and the soon-to-be-reviewed The Borrower especially).  I began to think about why characters are so important in the making of a good novel, and why some novels fail to stick the landing when their characters fail.

Perhaps one of the most important things is that the character changes.  Let’s create a fictional character (kind of ironic since all characters are fictional) and call her Sally.  If Sally were to sit back and let all of the action happen to her, and not react at all, it would make for a very boring novel.  She could be assailed with vampires, werewolves, zombies, and monsters calling at her door, but if she sits and lets everything happen with no change, that’s boring.  She does not grow and consequently neither does her story.  Without change, we read a straight line.  But with some sort of change, small or not, we are given the tiniest bit of visual interest.  With more change and reactions, Sally begins to become real.

Scottish philosopher David Hume best described a human’s unwitting need to change:

I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind that they are nothing but a bundle or collections of different perceptions which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity and are in a perpetual flux and movement.  Our eyes cannot turn in their sockets without varying their perceptions.  Our thoughts are still more variable.  And all our other senses and powers contribute to this change.

Basically, Hume is saying that with each moment that passes, we change who we are.  These changes may not be drastic, and most will pass without our even recognizing the change.  But if we as humans change with every passing second, then those characters who do not seem more aloof and unrealistic.  They are not only unexciting, but also without the grounding realism that modern readers look for, even if they are reading fantasy.

This is one reason I liked books such as The Hunger Games, Matched, and The Chosen One.  Our three protagonists (Katniss, Cassia, and Kyra [the choosing of three protagonists with hard K sound-names was just noticed and unintentional]) have to deal with three very different worlds.  Each girl was raised knowing that their lives would turn out one way, and each found a way to strive for more, but mostly to change their circumstances.  Katniss begins the series hard and closed to anything save for her sister.  By the end, she has let herself feel more than she ever imagined.  Cassia dutifully followed in the steps of the Society, but begins to question her freedoms.  She takes small steps throughout the novel to get to the end, but they are vital to the large leap she will inevitably take.  Kyra opens the novel knowing that her world needs to change, but too afraid to take the necessary steps.  But her awareness leads her to the goal of escape, no matter how bittersweet.  Each girl began the novel in one place, and ended it somewhere else.  Katniss perhaps changed the least, but her changes felt deeper and resonated just as strongly with the reader.

I would say another important aspect for Sally is that she must feel real.  Sally cannot be perfect, in other words.  No one would want to read her story because no one would relate to her.  It is ok to have an aspirational character, but even Gandalf and Aragorn had their flaws.  Flaws ground the character much like their progression does.  No human is perfect, even if we feel that we are at times.  And if we are writing and reading stories about humans (or elves or vampires or fae or shape shifters), then we as humans want to see a bit of ourselves in them.  I mentioned in my review of Night Circus that the story would have been far stronger with stronger characters.  I did not feel much sympathy for Celia or for Marco simply because they were hard for me to relate to (dangling preposition!).  After all their trials, they still felt distant and rather the same as they started.  This was also the problem with The Iron Witch.  Donna never felt like she got it, whatever lesson she was supposed to learn.  And even after all the things she saw, I wasn’t sure she had made any change to herself.

The only passive character that ever worked (of the books I’ve read) was Shadow in American Gods.  He might be passive for about 80% of the novel, but he makes a lot of waves after he has shaken himself awake.  It only works because Shadow has just lost his wife and been released from prison.  His passivity fits with a man who is grieving and relearning how to choose for himself.  And yet, even Shadow changes in the end.

If you have a villain in your story, it is also good practice to have him be not wholly bad.  Wholly bad villains simply feel like a caricature.  After all, even the mean, nastly old lady down the street probably gives old clothes to the homeless or bakes for her grandkids.  Just as Sally can’t be all good, neither can Jafar (I know, I know) be all bad.  Heck, even Voldemort wasn’t completely evil.  After all, he agreed to save Lily Potter because Snape was in love with her.  Sure, Voldy killed her in the end, but he was willing to spare the life if it had been more convenient. (This was the only redeeming quality I could come up with, however.  And Jo Rowling is about the only author I know who can get away with this evil of a villain and still have it feel real.  Comment if you can think of other good qualities for poor Voldy.)

To recap:  Sally needs to learn something or to change in some little way;  Sally also needs to have flaws;  Sally cannot be passive in her own story; Jafar cannot be totally evil.  If the protagonist is flat, there is not much there to see or read.

 

Miles From Ordinary – Carol Lynch Williams

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I’ve debated about doing an author spotlight on Carol, or just doing a book spotlight.  I’m going to kind of make this both.  While I will be focusing on the one novel, I am going to stray a bit from topic.

Carol (who I do know personally, so calling her by her first name is not pretentious) is a fantastic YA writer.  [No, I will not only review YA.  I do have the tendency to get into a groove of sorts and then have troubles breaking away from that groove.  This is evidenced by my fascination to constantly listen to one album over and over again.  But this is all beside the point.]  Some of you might have heard of Carol in connection with the fabulously wrenching The Chosen One, a story of a young girl growing up in a polygamous cult.  I actually bribed Carol into giving me an ARC (Advanced Reader’s Copy) a couple months before it was published, and it was one of the few novels I literally could not put down.  I think I even forgot to eat, instead devouring her words within a matter of hours.  So my devotion to Carol is not because she is an amazing woman and teacher, but also because she is the most phenomenal writer.

In Miles From Ordinary, we are introduced to Lacey, a recent eighth-grade graduate who longs for normalcy.  Her mother is ill, and Lacey only wants a little break from caring for her mother.  Having managed to get her mother a job at the local Winn-Dixie, Lacey has volunteered her time at the local library, and could not be more thrilled.  She dreams of the days to herself, not having to worry about her mother being haunted by dead Grandaddy, not having to wonder if her mom will stockpile more food, or close all the windows to keep the demons out.  On the bus ride, Lacey meets Aaron,  a boy from her class, and starts to wonder if just maybe she could have some friends this summer.  When Lacey goes back to collect her mother from her job, she discovers that her mother quit after only an hour of work.  Aaron and Lacey set out to find her mother, and with Aaron providing new perspective into her life, Lacey begins to see just how little she can do for her Momma.

Carol does tend to deal with some of the more difficult subjects, and that could make a few readers reluctant to pick up her novels.  Do pick them up.  Just because a novel is dark or emotional does not mean that it is inappropriate in any way (EW addressed this just a couple months ago).  What Carol does so well, and has done through all of her books, is communicate hope.  I do not think I have ever read another author more capable of expressing hope so delicately.  It is never overdone or unrealistic, instead, it seeps out through the little things.  In MFO, it is through Lacey’s desires to have a friend, a commodity she has never truly experienced because of her mother’s illness.  Lacey’s wants seem so pure and innocent, and yet her doubts and fears mirror those of every other girl her age.  Even though she faces some incredible challenges, she never loses hope that it will be better, that her Momma will get better with just a little help.

You see this same hope in Glimpse, a novel written in verse.  But most of all, it radiates in The Chosen One, a much bolder novel than either Glimpse or Miles From Ordinary.  Kyra, the main character, recognizes that something is wrong in her community, she knows she wants to change it, but there is a hesitation to do anything about it because she loves her many siblings, her mothers, and especially her father.  She is one among many, but it is her hope for a better kind of life that leads her to her actions throughout the novel.

MFO also demonstrates another bit of Carol’s genius:  narration.  There are many writers who are very talented with dialogue (I have always felt my own was a little stilted), or those that are masters of the narration.  What makes Carol so unique is that every bit of narration feels like it could be spoken to you by Lacey.  It is hard to really master the character enough to keep the voice consistent – to make it really sound like they are telling you the story (especially if it is written in first-person).  Because the narration is seamless with Lacey’s own dialogue, you lose yourself in the book, and it begins to feel as if Lacey herself is sitting next to you, telling you her sad story.  This skill makes the book more real, more haunting, and provides a much deeper connection between the reader and the character.  Although you might find Lacey’s Floridian drawl a bit much, it opens you up more than if the narration had been presented more off-hand.

I always get excited when Carol publishes a new book, because I always know I will enjoy it.  I cannot wait to read her Damned Dystopian (or DD as she calls it.  Maybe I have buttered her up enough with this post to get an ARC when the time comes?)  Her characters hold onto you, grab at you, and demand your attention.  Carol is the master of melancholy tinged with hope, and that is why her books resonate with her readers.  She does not ever allow them to wallow in despair, as so many other authors would do.  Instead, they always seem to pick themselves up and keep going, showing the teen readers the determination needed for life, whether or not your Momma still talks to your dead Grandaddy.