Saturday, October 11, 2008

Pretty Like Us - Carol Lynch Williams

From the very first novel I read by author Carol Lynch Williams, I have been a huge fan of both the author and her works. That’s why I was excited to not only read her latest novel, Pretty Like Us, but also to have the opportunity to interview her.

Pretty Like Us is the story of two girls—Beauty McElwrath and Alane Shriver. Beauty, a painfully shy sixth-grader, lives in a small town in Florida with her mother and grandmother, both strong-minded single women. Beauty wants to come out of her shell and make friends, but her efforts have always resulted in teasing from the other kids at school. The fact that her mother is dating her teacher doesn’t help matters at all, and Beauty is certain she is destined to always be a social outcast.

Then Alane moves into town. Before the girl even arrives in class, Beauty’s teacher has asked the students to be kind to the new girl who suffers from a rare disease known as progreria, an aging disease. When Beauty first sees Alane, she thinks there has been a mistake. Surely this is Alane’s grandmother, not the girl herself. No one in sixth grade could look that old.

But it is Alane, and she sits right next to Beauty. Just what Beauty thinks she doesn’t need to help her get over her shyness and absence of friends, until she starts to discover that beauty of often more than skin deep, and true friendship sometimes comes in odd packages.

This is truly a must read book for girls. Those who are shy will relate to Beauty, just as those who see themselves as different will relate to both girls. All girls have felt concern over being accepted at some time in their life, and Beauty and Alane’s story will not only let them see themselves, but will also give them lots of laughs along the way.

I'm always fascinated by the names Carol Lynch Williams gives her characters because they are truly unique, so I asked her where they come from. “There’s almost always a name in a book that I’ve written that belongs to a person I know,” she says. “For me, it’s a way to say I love that individual. In Pretty Like Us I had decided I would name one of the character’s after my very good friend Alane Ferguson. She’s a fellow writer—a mystery writer—and a terrific person. It turned out that Alane’s name actually means beautiful one—and so it fits right into plot of my novel. And by the way—Beauty’s name started out Grace Beauty. When I sold Pretty Like Us, I also sold a series another writer friend and I wrote with characters named George and Gracie. And you guessed it. I know someone named Grace—that’s my youngest daughter’s middle name!”

I was also interested in Carol’s choice of using Progeria in a middle grade novel. The disease is so rare, I didn’t know how kids would relate to it. “When I was young,” she said, “I met a girl who may have had Progeria. She was nearly blind and looked old—way too old to be ten or eleven. I haven’t forgotten how that little girl pulled out a magnifying glass to read. I was struck right in the heart at that moment. I still remember the incident—everything that was going on at the time. The event remained with me for many years, as well as wondering how this girl existed when children can be so cruel. So I did what writers do, I wrote about her.”

Like all good writers, Carol knew she had to do more than just create a story; she also had an obligation to make the story ring true. “Rather than just seeing the physical differences, I hope people see the similarities they have with these individuals. Like Alane wanting to be a writer, children with Progeria have goals and dreams, too. They are loved and when they die, they are missed.”

I wondered about the prognosis of children who suffer from Progeria, and Carol tells me, “At this point, the disease is always fatal, though children might live longer than twelve or thirteen years old. But there is good news—scientists have found the link between those with Progeria recently. This was hard to do because there are so few cases in the world at the same time. Many times, a child will die very young. You can ‘meet’ some wonderful families with children who have Progeria by researching on the web, like I did.”

Anyone who has ever tried to write a story knows that some parts come easy, and others are really hard. Carol says, “This novel came to me in spurts—based on several true events. There was the young girl I met when I was younger, but this story is also inspired by a woman I met at a local university, who at 45 was a grandmother already—and by a tornado in Texas. The hardest part about writing Pretty Like Us was that when I drafted this book the first time there were actually two stories in one. Once I was able to separate them, and make them both distinct, I was able to sell them both.”

When it comes to writing, Carol is an expert and a great teacher. I was curious about where she starts. “I almost always start stories with a character and an incident,” she explains. “So I kind of have this core knowledge of them as I tell the story. But my characters begin to come to life for me as I write and rewrite, as I discover who they are and what makes them tick. I’m usually exploring main characters even after many rewrites. Rarely does a character spring fully formed from my head—though there is the core of that “person.” And she’s usually interesting enough that I want to follow her for 150 or so pages.”

New writers always want advice about where to start. Carol says, “Write, write, write. And read, read, read. Join a critique group that will help you improve as a writer. Don’t believe what you have written has come from God—and know that your words can be changed if they aren’t working.”

If there were one thing she would advise the newly published, something she wishes she had known with her own first book, it would be, “A good book needs to have some push—or marketing— behind it, and that won’t come from the publisher. There are lots of good books out there that never get the marketing they need. We, as writers, need to help our books along. But, we as writers tend to be quiet and reserved. We don’t all know how to promote ourselves!”

Taking her own advice about reading, Carol is an avid reader. “When I was a kid,” she says, “I was reading adult novels. It wasn’t until I realized I was a mid-grade/young adult author that I started reading books for younger readers. So from 12 on I read the greats—like John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Mark Twain, Flannery O’Connor, and Eudora Welty. Before that I read a lot of poetry (my mother was an English major—and became an English teacher!) and non-fiction. I am still fascinated by bees and the parts of flowers. I do remember being about 10 and being thrilled when I found out that L. Frank Baum had written an entire series based on The Wizard of Oz.”

Carol says she hopes readers find her books fun, and I believe they do. “Many times my books have characters experiencing tough situations—and living though them—mostly,” she says. “Books are a great way for readers to do something they’ve never done before. Another reason to read my novels is because Jim Jacobs—one of the men who’s helped shaped children literature—says I have a true middle grade voice. So there.”

And I’ll add my vote to that comment as well. Carol truly does have a great talent for finding the true voice of middle grade characters and bringing them to life in a funny, interesting, and believable way that will touch reader’s hearts and their funny bones as well.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Farworld: Water Keep by J. Scott Savage

Six years ago a new member joined my writer’s critique group. Back then his name was Jeff Savage, and he only had one published book, Cutting Edge from Covenant Books. I’ll admit, I gave him a hard time on that one. It was a great story, but there were things about the writing that just bugged me, and if anyone has been a regular reader of my columns and reviews, you’ll know when something bugs me, I’m sure to let people know.

Today I’m happy to say, that Jeff’s (okay, J. Scott’s for this one) writing has improved, and his storytelling has become spectacular (listen to the jealousy and pride in my voice). Many a night I have come home from a late meeting of critique and not been able to sleep because of some scary scene that Jeff read from his latest horror novel, or I’ve found myself jumping at some noise because his latest Shandra Covington book had me seeing the boogie man around every corner.

This time though, we didn’t really have to worry about bad things that go bump in the night—well, there is the Thrathkin S’Bae, Bonesplitter, and the Dark Circle, but Kyja and Marcus can handle them. After all, this is young adult fantasy, and like Harry Potter and his friends, these two likable protagonists should be able to handle anything, especially since we know there are more books to come in this five book series.

Farworld is the story of a girl, Kyja, who wishes she had the use of magic in a world filled with spells, charms, and potions; and Marcus, a crippled boy who escapes his cruel surroundings by dreaming about another world. Together they take on the Dark Circle, prepared to keep Master Therapass’s secret and protect Farworld, while seeking the Elementals, and convince them to open a draft between the both worlds that will save both the children’s lives.

Because I know Jeff so well–and because I didn’t want to embarrass him too badly—I’ve asked him a few questions to let all of you know more about both his book and its author.

1. You know all your readers love that little ishkabiddle. What is your take on the reason why and why was that single scene at the beginning so surprising to you?

Well first of all, the ishkabiddle was a last minute throw-in. It was originally just a rabbit. But I needed the reader to understand we were not on Earth. But I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that the ishkabiddle became such a hit. One of the first rules of writing a thriller is to put an innocent in peril. And what is more innocent than a funny mother animal with cool little spinning thingies that come out of her feelers?

2. I've always wondered, did you write about the scenes where Marcus is being bullied so clearly because you were the bully or the recipient as a child?

I was bullied like you wouldn’t believe. But that’s probably what pushed me into reading, which in turn pushed me into writing. So, thanks—jerks! Plus I got some good advice on the initial dialog for an amazing writer who shall remained unnamed. Lu Ann.

3. You're committed to a five book series, and I would imagine Shadow Mountain intends that to extend over a period of five years. How do you, as an author, think you will be able to keep your momentum going for the series? Do you plan to write more than one "episode" each year or to wait and write them a book (and a publication year) at a time?

I will write more than one book a year, but not in this series. For me, at least, the story needs to stay fresh. When I’m writing a book, it’s the coolest story ever. But it’s hard to keep that enthusiasm once you are done writing. I’d hate to write all five books now and be bored out of my skull with the series by the time the last book comes out. The nice thing about this series is there is a clear progression in my mind. I know about the cool things that will build in each book. It’s not like, “Sammy goes to school,” “Sammy makes a friend,” “Sammy goes to prison.”

4. I hear you're planning a nationwide motor home book tour. That says to me you're planning to make enough money to pay for the gas (tee hee!) What fabulous cities do you plan to visit and will the school and bookstore visits also allow you enough time for sight-seeing?

Well. It can’t happen until book two at the earliest, and probably book three. But my wife and I would like to take our youngest boys on an RV tour of all 48 states. I would do school tours three days a week. We’d travel one day and week. And the rest of the time would be spent exploring this amazing country. I think it would be a one-in-a-lifetime chance for all of us.

5. I know you well enough to know you write fast and frequent, what do you plan to work on to keep your writing habit flowing freely between the segments of Farworld?

Yeah. I’m the ADHD author. I’ve got tons of other ideas. I’ll still keep my mystery series going, of course. But I’m also really excited about a series where a hit man/PI gets sent to hell and has to earn his way out. Kind of an urban fantasy with cool magic and weapons.

6. You've had a successful run as an author in a local niche market. What changes---both positive and negative---do you anticipate as you move into the national fantasy arena?

From a positive side, suddenly the whole world is your oyster. It’s great to be a bale to drop into a bookstore in Boston and say, “So do you have my book on order?” I even had a book ordered from Amazon.UK the other day. How cool is that? Plus I really like hearing from people who have never read a book by me before. I think it’s the truest test of whether your writing is any good when someone just picks your book off a shelf with no idea of who you are. On the other side of the coin, you’re swimming in deep water now. You can’t just be as good as the other regional authors. You’ve got to be as good as the big boys and girls or people will not try you again. It’s a challenge, but I think every author wants a chance to compete with the best.

7. What are five pieces of advice you've learned from other authors that you wish you had listened to more carefully?

I actually listen pretty carefully. I value the insights of other authors a lot. The problem is I didn’t really talk to any authors before writing my first book. But here are some good pieces of advice I’ve received:

★ Don’t quit your day job.
★ Find a good critique group.
★ Understand what each POV buys you and choose carefully.
★ Write for kids instead of to kids.
★ Don’t use back and that so much.

8. What are five pieces of advice you'd now share with other authors, now that you're among the ranks of those publishing?

Other than the whole SASE and prologue debates?

★ Don’t waste the first page. That’s where you win or lose your readers.
★ Avoid flashbacks unless they are absolutely vital.
★ Don’t break the rules of good writing unless you really understand them. (The first time you think you understand them, you don’t.)
★ Write because you love to, not to be published. That way, you’ll enjoy writing no matter what, and when you do get published it will be icing on the cake.
★ Don’t ask for feedback on your writing unless you are prepared to throw out anything and everything that doesn’t work. A good writer learns not to be defensive.

9. How does your wife really feel about you hanging out with the "Ladies of Wednesday night"?

Well at first, she was a little jealous about me spending one night a week with six beautiful women. But once she met them and saw that they are great people, she was totally cool with it. Plus I’m not real fond of pizza so she and the kids make that their pizza night.

10. Come on, we all know there's one question you've been dying to answer, but that none of us have been astute enough yet to ask you. What is it? And what would be your answer?

Hmm. How about, “Did you ever take a girl on such an incredibly creative date that even after she got married she said it was the best date she ever went on?” Answer yes. “Did she kiss you good night?” Nope. She totally blew me off.

11. Tell everyone one more time, just how important was I to the final process of your getting this book published and in having such great discussion questions at the end.

I hereby testify that without Lu Ann’s incredibleness Farworld would never have happened!!

And without Jeff (Scott) as a member of my writing group, I wouldn’t have gotten as far myself as a writer or an editor. I think you’ll all love Farworld, and I hope everyone who reads this book goes out and buys a copy. Of course, maybe I am biased. (Having my name in the Acknowledgment section of a nationally published book is a little heady—see page 419.) But it sure is nice to see such a nice guy make it good in the book market.

If you’d like to know more about Jeff, or just hear what his voice sounds like, listen to the podcast I did with him Saturday, April 28, 2007, by going to my blog for that day titled “It's a Techno-World, After All!” and clicking on the podcast icon.

If you'd like to win an advanced reader's copy (ARC) of Farworld, listen to the podcast and correctly answer this question in a reply to this post on either of my blogs. He gives the answer during the podcast, so only that answer will do. I'll draw a winner from all correct answers on Tuesday, September 9, 2008. Good luck.

The trivia question is: "What is one of Jeff's favorite things to do?"

To buy a copy of Farworld, visit here:

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The 13th Reality: The Journal of Curious Letters - James Dashner

Looking for a new fantasy series that will make you laugh, while taking you places you never knew were possible? Then The 13th Reality series will be the books for you. Atticus Higginbottom —Tick—just can't get past being a nerd. Of course, wearing a knitted scarf to cover a birthmark doesn't help his image either. But once the mysterious letters from M.G. begin to arrive, Tick's skills at deciphering riddles and Internet research come in handy. Being friends with his dad doesn't hurt either, especially when they travel together to Alaska—a dangerous trip for them both. Despite the fact Tick can't quite figure out the required magic words, he will not burn his letter and quit. Soon he is attacked by evil creatures, meets Mothball and Rutger, and finds two other kids also solving the clues. The question is—will they all figure out everything in time?

Fantasy or not, Dashner has set his book in reality, researching both quantum physics and locations for this first book in the series. “I had never been to the place in which it begins, Deer Park, Washington,” he says. Perhaps influenced by his own favorite series, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen R. Donaldson, Dashner allows himself, and his main character, to delve into the alternate worlds that Thomas Covenant dared not believe in, despite the fact he suddenly found himself there to fight for that land, and to be the reincarnation of its greatest hero, and The 13th Reality Book 2 will be no different. James adds, “The Hunt for Dark Infinity is in the editing stage. It was a lot of fun for me because I was mostly done with the setup. It jumps right into action and other alternate realities.”

Readers should pick up The Journal of Curious Letters because, as Dashner himself states, it is “unique, fast-paced, full of riddles and plot twists, some humor, kick-butt ending. I'm biased, however! It has gotten some excellent reviews from the likes of Kirkus and the Chicago Sun-Times.” And also excellent reviews from the students of Payson Jr. High School who read it this year in their 7th and 9th grade English classes. As a matter of fact, many of those students also got to read the early draft of The Hunt for Dark Infinity and are now anxious for James to write Book 3.

The 13th Reality
is not the first book James Dashner has published. An earlier series, The Jimmy Fincher Saga is also still available from Cedar Fort. But Dashner feels he has grown as a writer since he published his very first book. “Hopefully I'm a much better writer now, and boy would I love to give my first four books a nice revision—all the technical writing skills I’ve learned since then.”

As most writers know, not every book that is written actually gets published. When asked about his unpublished novels, James says, “There are only two, and one is undergoing a major rewrite while my agent tries to sell it on proposal. This one—The Maze Runner—is at ten publishers as we speak. Keep those fingers crossed! The other one, I doubt it. In fact, I've cannibalized it for other ideas, not the least of which is the name used in The 13th Reality: Atticus Higginbottom.”

But how can budding authors break into the business? James says, “Practice. Write a lot. No matter how bad it comes out, keep writing. Also, attend every writer's conference you can possibly afford to. The things you learn and the networking you accomplish are invaluable.” Speaking of networking and getting people to know about your book, he adds that “networking is by far the best route to go. You need to get to those conferences and meet agents and editors face-to-face.” Advice that couldn’t be more true if you want to be a writer.

But, even if you’re just a reader looking for a book that is fun, exciting, and appropriate for both you and your family, The 13th Reality: The Journal of Curious Letters is the book for you.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

A classic novel set during the Depression, this is the story of the South, told through the eyes of eight-year-old Scout Finch, which brings to the forefront the issues of racism, class divisions, and the fairness of the judicial systems.

The story opens the summer before Scout starts school when Scout, her brother Jem, and Dill Harris, a boy who spends the summers with his aunt in Maycomb, find all sorts of fun during the hot summer days. Their biggest goal—get a look at Boo Radley, the local bogeyman, who is their neighbor. When their father, Atticus Finch, is called upon to defend Tom Robinson, a young black man accused of raping Mayella Ewell, the daughter of a drunk and violent white farmer, the aging children begin to understand the reality of their lives in a small town, including knowing the truth about Boo.

This is one classic you will not want to miss, the novel is definitely one of the best ever written by an America author.

Montmorency thief liar gentleman? By Eleanor Updale

While serving time in a London cell block, career criminal Montmorency and his severe wounds attract the attention of a brilliant young doctor named Robert Farcett. A series of operations by the doctor convert the thief into more of a living illustration than a man with feelings.

Brought before large groups of people by the doctor to show off his fine work and discovery about the human body, Montmorency overhears many interesting conversations which eventually lead him to the information he will need to survive once he is released from prison, and allows him to hatch his idea for new thievery by using the underground sewer system in London. But in the vein of Jekyll and Hyde, Montmorency quickly realizes he must have two separate and distinct personas if he is to survive. Therefore, Scarper is given to a life of thievery, lies, and scavaging the sewers, and Mr. Montmorency is born to a life of aristocracy, affluence, and the social world of Victorian London.

I read this book aloud to a class of 9th graders, and although they were hooked at the beginning, the story became too slow for them to listen to. Several students finished the book on their own and liked it that way. There are some rather interesting descriptions of what can be found in the London sewers that readers might want to be forewarned about.

Keturah and Lord Death by Martine Leavitt

Keturah is a storyteller, and she promises one of magic and love, daring and death, one to comfort the heart and the truest ending of any she has ever told. This story is her own quest to discover true love.

Keturah is drawn into the woods to see the famed hart which has evaded death from skilled hunters. Soon she is lost, and as three days pass, she knows her fate is sealed. But she still has a story to tell and shares one so compelling that Lord Death wants to know more, granting her another day to find true love, before he comes again.

In the style of Shannon Hale (River Secrets) or Mette Harrison (The Princess and the Hound) Leavitt delivers a retold tale with a twist. This novel will engage older adolescents who love stories like Cinderella but want things to work out in a darker way.

Last Shot by John Feinstein

Stevie Thomas is thrilled when he wins a trip to New Orleans and the basketball play-offs to cover the games as a student newspaper reporter. The only problem with the trip is that he has to work with the other contest winner, Susan Carol Anderson. Not only is she a girl, but she also is a fan of Duke University, the arch-rival of Stevie’s own favorite Philadelphia team, St. Joe’s.

Things heat up for the cub reporters when they overhear a conversation between star player Chip Graber and a suspicious-looking man in a charcoal gray suit. Immediately, Stevie and Susan Carol know what the conversation means—Chip Graber is being blackmailed, and the kids know they are the only ones who can help the superstar ballplayer at this stage of the game.

An interesting story, mixed with the knowledge of basketball and the play-offs, kept this book an interesting read. There was one instance of strong language.

Squashed by Joan Bauer

When Ellie sets out to do something, she intends to do it in a big way. And big is exactly what she needs if she intends to win the pumpkin growing contest at the Rock River Pumpkin Weigh-In. Only 200 pounds more to go and she thinks she’ll have it, if she can protect her giant squash from pumpkin thieves.

Of course, growing that pumpkin is not her only challenge. For her life to be perfect, Ellie wants to have a better relationship with both her dad and Wes, the cute new guy at school, while dropping a few pounds of her own.

Be ready to laugh right out loud.