Guest Post: Carol Lynch Williams on Writing Craft, Perseverance & Writing Life

By Carol Lynch Williams

I’ve always been a writer.

The first thing I wrote, and produced, was a play. There were two members of the cast (myself and my younger sister), and one member in the audience. My grandmother, Nana.

I don’t think I was much more than seven years old.

Still, I composed a musical score. (I could sing it for you right now. Interested?) My four-year-old sister walked out of a coat closet, dressed in a nightie of my grandmother’s, singing “One more for the road, big boy.”

I played an adult male, sitting at a bar, drinking myself into a stupor. When my sister danced back into the closet (still singing, by the way), I wept.

The play lasted about two minutes. Two minutes too long.

At the end, my grandmother, who never once smiled but watched in all seriousness, clapped and clapped for my sister and me. Nana loved it.

It’s no surprise to me that I was writing and producing plays at a young age. My whole family, we were storytellers. Every family reunion had us all gathered together, singing, eating and listening to stories. There was lot of laughter, a lot of love.

And it helped that my mother was a writer.

I can remember standing next to her while she typed page after page of manuscript on an electric typewriter. It seemed the keys spoke. That stack of paper was at least six feet tall. (I remember the name of her first book. It was “All of the Rivers Run into the Sea.”) Mom read every page to me, out loud, and I told her what I liked and didn’t like. It was my first unpaid editing job!

Random House, 1962

Mom handed my sister and me The Greats to read. By the time I was sixteen, I had read almost all of Steinbeck, Faulkner, Welty, Twain, a little Hemingway and I’d listened to Mom rave about O’Connor.

(One of the best things a writer can do is read the best books available. William Faulkner said to read everything, good and bad, but I think bad writing is easy to imitate and I would avoid that while I’m learning to compose. Yes! I just argued with William Faulkner!)

I continued to write and produce plays (less singing, more murder). Eventually, I moved on to writing poetry. (Oh, the poetry. That awful, awful poetry.) Then short stories. And, finally, I wrote for middle grade readers.

I wanted to be a writer. And I was gonna go for it.

(Once I determined I was going to be a writer, every job I took from that point on had to have writing time for me. I wrote scenes on packing boxes when I worked at the Borden’s Ice Cream plant in Orlando. Or on napkins when I had a break at the McDonald’s in Sanford. Why? Writers write.)

A lot of what I wrote was based on true life. Stories my mother told me about when she was young. Things my mother did with her sisters.

“No really,” Mother told me when I was about fourteen and needed a story idea. “Peeing in the middle of the road on a full-moon night makes warts go away.”

I believed Mom because my nana bought all her grandchildren’s warts. Two-three cents a piece. And they (the warts, not the grandchildren) went away.

(Listen to everyone. In a restaurant? Listen to the boy who’s declaring his undying love to the girl across the table from him. Listen to the mother screaming at her kids in Wal-Mart. Listen to your family and the stories of your history. Listen to your neighbors, best friends, cousins, teachers. There are stories waiting for you, begging for you to pluck them up and use them as your own–with your twists and voice and love and plots.)

My first novel was published in 1993.

When I was sixteen, I took a story or two to the creative writing class at the local college. My teacher, Bruce Aufhammer, believed I had talent. It was in those classes that I wrote more than half of the chapters that would wind up in Kelly and Me (Delacorte).

It took me ages to gain up the courage to even try to submit the book. I was terribly shy. Very private. I wasn’t sure what to do. And anyway, never sending a book in meant never getting a rejection.

My next creative writing teacher, Louise Plummer, encouraged me to send my collection of loosely connected short stories to writing contest that she had won honorable mention in.

I pulled up the rules to the Delacorte First Young Adult Novel writing contest.

I paused. I hadn’t written a young adult novel. My book was a middle grade, full of peeing in the road at midnight on a full moon (see above) and running from werewolves and stealing cars.

I stared off into space, thinking, and came up with a solution. Easy peasy. I changed the ages of my two characters from ten and eleven to thirteen and fourteen. Ta da! I had myself a YA novel!

And then, because the rules said I needed to have at least a hundred pages of a completed manuscript, and I only had 94, I increased the font size to fourteen point and sent in my novel. (Wow! That is a lot of numbers!)

Much to my surprise, a few months later, I got a telephone call from an editor at Bantam Doubleday Dell. Her name was Mary Cash. She told me she had read my book and that while it hadn’t won the contest, she wanted to publish it.

“All it needs,” she said, “are couple of changes.”

Are you kidding? I thought. I’ll do just about anything.

“These two girls are far too old to be doing the crazy things they’re doing. Would you mind changing their ages? Making them a little younger?”

“Of course not,” I said. “How about if I make them ten and eleven?”

And so it began.

My first book came out in 1993, my next in 1995, my third in 1997. It was this book, The True Colors of Caitlynne Jackson (Delacorte), that Mary felt would change my writing career. This was a story of a young girl and her sister who lived on a lake in Florida with their mom who was mentally ill.

The book was based very loosely on my own life. I used a line (“Maybe if you weren’t so dirty, people would be your friend.”) that someone said to me on the bus. I used our tiny, rented log cabin. And, eventually, my play-watching grandmother became a character in this novel.

(Write about the people you love [or hate]. If we fictionalize them–using their important parts, we can develop real people in our characters. My grandmother has showed up in nearly every book I’ve written, as well as my best high school friend Vickie [or Vikki or Vicky or Vicki]. I use my own daughters’ names. I borrow bits of real people. Why? Because I know their quirks. No one stays exactly the way they are when I’m finished writing. The characters become their own living, breathing selves. But if I start out a scene with a grandmother who’s a smoker, who makes biscuits from a can and syrup with sugar and water, well, I’ve pulled from true life and bits from my grandmother and my heart is laced into the words. If you write with heart, you connect to readers.)

I remember being so excited when True Colors was mentioned in an article with Norma Fox Mazer’s novel When She Was Good (Arthur A. Levine, 1997).

(Years later I had the opportunity to hear Ms. Mazer read from her novel The Missing Girl (Harper, 2010). She was soft-spoken and she had me at hello with those opening lines. I was in awe.  Anytime you have a chance to listen to a writer read from their work, go. You learn stage presence, how to make a story work, how to read in front of people and capture them. You learn to ‘leave listeners wanting more.’ You can even learn from what you think of as failures. For example⁠—don’t just read description! Don’t go on too long. You probably aren’t as interesting as you think you.)

When my second book was getting ready to come out (Adeline Street (Delacorte, 1995)), a friend of mine asked me if I would like to write a series of historical books for little girls, not unlike the American Girl series, but for Latter-day Saint children. I was all for it. That series (Latter-day Daughters (Aspen Books)) ended with twenty books, ten from my friend and ten from me.

So there! I was living the life I had always wanted. First, I was a mother. A mother of little girls that I homeschooled. Creative, hilarious, beautiful children. And I was a writer.

I was doing the very job I had dreamed of and worked for. Creating new worlds. Playing with style and topic and structure and voice. I was writing myself into corners and learning about life and death and reading and being in love with words and my girls and the books I was writing and pushing myself and lying awake at night waiting for solutions while I nursed new baby daughters.

I wrote books for the national market and I wrote books for the local LDS market as well. By 2001, I had more than 18 books published. I’d been nominated for some nice awards. I had an agent.

Something weird happened as I wrote. I became more bold. I looked more deeply into my own life. I wrote books I never thought I’d write. Dreamed dreams that ended up novels (twice). And I walked closer to a darker place I’d never gone before.

I’d written about everything from losing a sister to an aneurysm all the way to writing a story about a young girl who wanted to be a writer but couldn’t quite formulate a sentence well to writing about a girl separated from her parents during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

(Write what moves you. The bits and pieces that influence you because you’ve been there or experienced something, will influence your reader. Just like you will never be the same, neither will they. Write what you love. Write what you hate. Tell the truth. Your truth. Your character’s truth. No matter what you work on, make sure you always have an emotional connection to the words. If you do, your readers will change, too. And that, my friends, is power.)

All those books sold. But the darker, harder looks at sexual abuse and child abuse and mental illness were rejected. Still I wrote and rewrote and rerewrote them.

National September 11 Memorial & Museum

One early September, my husband called from Texas. One of my girls answered the phone. She came to me and said, “Mom, Dad said turn on the TV. And he said don’t be afraid.”

That morning, thousands of miles away, I watched two New York towers billowing flames and smoke crumble to the ground. I listened to the reports about D.C. and a plane brought down by the passengers. I cried with most of the world.

I sunk into a deep depression. When I finally went for help, the medicine I was given made it so I couldn’t write. I couldn’t feel. For more than a year I struggled to make words work. But I wrote.

Then the marketplace changed. And I found, I didn’t quite fit in. So began a very long seven years where I couldn’t sell a book. Not one. Not in the national market. Not in the LDS marketplace either. I was devastated.

I was doing all the right things. I had started a very popular week-long writing conference in 1999 with a couple of professors at BYU. Writing and illustrating for Young Readers was slowly growing.

I was writing every day. And reading every day. As a homeschooling family, books were our lives. My friend, Vivian Milius, was the librarian at our little city. I remember when she said to me, “Carol, you can check out 99 books on every library card you have.”

She and I looked at each other. “Most of your girls are old enough for library cards of their own.”

My eyes grew huge and, from that point on, we carried boxes into the library. The girls and I would read at least a hundred titles every few days. Many of those were non-fiction, early readers, chapter books, things I read out loud.

Once I said to my gals, “Hey, I have a short novel about a man who wants to own a farm with lots of rabbits. He wants to live off the fat of the land. Want to hear it?”

“Bunnies?” one of my daughters said.

“Sure,” I said. “And mice!”

Well. They weren’t thrilled with that book’s ending nor were they thrilled when I read them the short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” [by Flannery O’Conner (1953)]. And “The Lottery” [by Shirley Jackson (1948)]? They appreciate it all now, I’m sure.

“We always know,” one of my daughters said, “what kind of book it is by your tone of voice.”

Dang it!

Years went by. Every morning I wrote for at least an hour a day. One new chapter. Revising. I went off the antidepressant. My words and feelings came back. I kept working on WIFYR. Kept teaching my creative writing classes at the local university.

(Writers write. Period. And they read. Period.)

The question came back over and over. Would I ever sell a book again?

Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier

I was with my fourth agent, Stephen Fraser at the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency, when I began to consider going to school. I don’t have an undergraduate degree, but somebody had told me about an MFA program that might be interested in taking me on even though I didn’t have professional schooling. Vermont College had a program on writing for children and adolescents.

Because I was afraid, I waited two years to apply. I was sure I wouldn’t be able to write the critical work that needed to be done and I would have to leave my home. If you read Cynthia’s blog, you know the program as she teaches there. It is a low-residency. But it meant leaving my girls for 20-plus days every year.

I am such a homebody. This plays into one of the reasons why I write. I don’t want to get up and get dressed and be fancy-schmancy. I want to wander around in my pajamas and wonder what the world is like in the different places I’m creating. I want to pile books around me and my children. I want to read until it’s time to jump up and make dinner. I want to wander the library, crawling on my hands and knees if necessary, picking out the very best books.

The chances Vermont College would take me without an undergraduate degree was low. But I tried. I wrote a critical essay! I sent in a packet! I was accepted!

The very day I was accepted into the VC MFA program, my agent sold a book for me to Peachtree. Then he sold a nonfiction book to Gibbs Smith. I was writing again. And publishing.

Every book I wrote during that seven-year dry spell, Steve sold. Every book I wrote and finished during school? Steve sold all those books, too. I was doing it again! I was doing what I loved!

I’ve written about sexual abuse, modern-day polygamy, another mentally ill mother. I’ve written about death and dying and loss and family. And I even wrote a ghost story. Two of them, as a matter of fact.

Remember this: Good writing looks easy. That has always been my goal, to be the best writer I could be. I want every novel I write, whether it’s published or not, to be the best book possible. The best I can put out at that time.

Rick Walton

Publishing is hard. The market is always changing.

My best friend, Rick Walton, who died a couple of years back from an aggressive brain tumor, learned how to change and make himself work in a market that wasn’t always taking picture books.

By the time he died, he had more than a hundred books written and published. One came out after his death.

He was an example to me, the way he was a chameleon. So, now, I’m trying to be a chameleon, too.

I mentor students privately (if you’re interested in my four-month long program, email me at and I will send you details).

I’m stretching into new writing arenas (I just finished a book that was a movie first. It’s called Once I Was a Beehive (2018) and was published by a small house called Mirror Press).

I’m looking at ghost writing. Looking at helping a couple of people with their memoirs. Writing fiction with friends.

And of course, I’m writing my own fiction.

Words have been a beautiful part of my life. It was a gift from God, I feel, this being able to write books for kids and teens.

There will always be struggles. That’s life.

But if I’m lucky, I’ll write until I can write no more.

That’s what we do, huh?

Writers? We write.

Cynsational Notes

Carol Lynch Williams, who grew up in Florida and now lives in Utah, is an award-winning novelist with seven children of her own, including six daughters.

She has an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College, and won the prestigious PEN/Phyllis Naylor Working Writer Fellowship.

The Chosen One (Griffin, 2009) was named one of the ALA’s Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers and Best Books for Young Adult Readers; it won the Whitney and the Association of Mormon Letters awards for the best young adult novel of the year; and was featured on numerous lists of recommended YA fiction. Visit Throwing Up Words.