Monday, 6 September 2010

Following My Characters: A Debut's Journey by Ellen Renner

2010 has been my debut year. My first book, Castle of Shadows came out in January and in August the sequel, City of Thieves, was published. Although I have a year of school visits and promotion ahead for these books, publication day marked the end of my personal journey from unpublished to published writer. August 5th , City’s official birthday, was also a day of letting go.
As Keren David remarked in her lovely post of a few days ago, publishing a book does rather feel like letting your child venture unprotected into a large and scary world. Keren and I have been shadowing each other this entire year, with our first and second books coming out within weeks of each other. I would love to get together with her soon and compare notes.
In what I’m sure is a familiar story, my work/life balance went crazy as I struggled to manage the conflicting demands of family, work, finding writing time, building an on-line presence and doing school visits. I also learnt that it’s possible to stand in the children’s department of Waterstones wearing a jolly ‘I’m a writer’ badge on my jacket and a fixed smile on my face and talk to complete strangers about my books. My family has probably suffered most (apart from those innocent shoppers in Waterstones!). I’m not a natural multi-tasker, and even my best friends would never use ‘Ellen Renner’ and ‘well-organised’ in the same sentence.
I’ve been pleased to find that some of the things I was most worried about aren’t problems at all: I love school and library visits. Talking with the children about my books is fun as well as a privilege; but what I find most rewarding is working with them on their own writing. I’ve also learnt that, not only can I write to deadlines, but that I enjoy doing so. Another tremendously positive thing has been meeting other children’s writers in person and online, and discovering how supportive and generous they are.
I’ve discovered quite a lot of things about myself as a writer, as I begin to explore my own strengths and weaknesses in a more focused way. One of those things is that I’m almost totally at the mercy of my characters. Character-driven takes on new meaning here. I never intended to write a series: Castle of Shadows was meant to be a stand alone. But then I fell in love with one of my characters, Tobias Petch. The more I found out about him, the more I knew I had to write his story.
Because characters nag you. They get in your head and won’t leave until you do them justice. As a writer, my characters drive the rest – plot, theme, the story itself. I don’t plot in detail before writing a first draft. I couldn’t (disorganised, remember?). Also, I’m intuitive. I trust my story-telling instinct to pretty much keep the narrative on track; and anyway, that’s what rewrites are for.
I think there are two basic kinds of writers: the intellectually-driven and the emotionally-driven. It’s all about getting the balance right because you need both. I don’t think it matters which comes first as you write; they are different ways of undertaking the same journey. Some writers plot intensively before digging into a first draft, using their intellect to sort the framework, then colouring in that framework and building characters.
I work the other way round, although the intellectual side of plotting, pacing, point-of-view, and theme is just as important to me. But I need the characters first: that emotional intuitive connection. It almost certainly means I have to do more rewrites than someone who plots it all out first; but on the positive side, my characters might lead me on a journey of discovery to places I hadn’t envisioned going. Sort of like the journey I’ve had this first, amazing, debut year.
The question I’d like to end this rather rambling post with is: how do you other writers work? Does character come first for you, or plot? And do you think it matters?


Anne Cassidy said...

Or does the money come first?

Keren David said...

Ellen,we have even more in common than I realised! With me the situation comes first, then it's characters all the way. And I find it impossible to plot things out too much beforehand.
I love Tobias Petch too!

Savita Kalhan said...

I agree with Keren that Tobias is a wonderful character! I've just bought a copy of Castle of Shadows for my niece because I know she'll love it!
For me, the character and situation go hand in hand, and the plot unfolds itself later.

adele said...

It's usually the place for me....or the situation in the place, if you see what I mean. But character next, for sure and plot...well,I'm very bad at plotting and find I have to have at least a skeletal plot before I dare embark on anything. With my adult novels, I've had to present a synopsis, which I HATED doing but which sure made the writing a lot easier. It was like following a recipe in a way, though still of course, like in cookery, there was room for on the spot improvisational changes! Lovely post, Ellen. I'm looking forward to reading the new book. And very sorry to hear of your sadness today.

Katherine Roberts said...

Ellen, congrats on surviving your first year as an author!

Your question is something I'm only just starting to think about now, ten years after my first book was published, having started my series of blog posts about writing the Great Horse (over at Reclusive Muse). I think so far I've just written my books and stories by instinct and not really thought about character, plot, etc. But now I am making myself really pick apart what I do in an attempt to aim it better at the market in future. As Anne said, the money has to come into it somewhere... and instinct doesn't pay the bills these days, it seems.

Sue Purkiss said...

I thought when I first read your post, Ellen, that character comes first for me; but thinking about it, that's not quite right; as with Adele, it's a situation or an idea. Then the characters, and then, much too far behind, the plot. I feel bad aout this, and I strongly suspect life would be a lot easier if I moved plot further up the list.

And money, Anne? Wouldn't it be nice if it formed a more significant part of the mix!

Leila said...

I think my ideas come from situation first, or perhaps atmosphere - as in, I know if it's going to be a Hitchcock, or a Spielberg, or a Wilder! Then character, then plot. I'm currently writing something very plot driven, but trying to have strong characters who see and filter the plot. It's quite tough.

Penny Dolan said...

I think my answer would be a bit of both. I usually "see" a half-visualised image of something interesting happening, maybe with shadowy glimpse of the character though that is mostly in terms of what they might be feeling. Good question, Ellen.

catdownunder said...

I have not had a book published but a recent short-story literally just happened and I have no idea how. On the other hand the book I have written had one character a young friend describled entirely accurately as 'a little bit her and a little bit me and a little bit imaginary'. I think characters come in all sorts of ways and that they then shape the writing.

Miriam Halahmy said...

I tend to follow the What if? path. Something comes up for me and then if the story is going to develop I need at least two clear characters to start things moving forward. Of course what is the most interesting thing about this post and the excellent comments, is how everyone works so differently. But that is another whole post in itself!

Miriam Halahmy said...

I tend to follow the What if? path. Something comes up for me and then if the story is going to develop I need at least two clear characters to start things moving forward. Of course what is the most interesting thing about this post and the excellent comments, is how everyone works so differently. But that is another whole post in itself!

Linda Strachan said...

I have had the idea sparked by a situation or an atmospheric place but more and more I find that characters have started to take over from the start. The plot, for me, evolves form the characters and the situation.
In Dead boy Talking it was the main character who grabbed the story and ran with it. I could hear his voice and it all stemmed from there.

I was amused by an interviewer I heard on TV the other day asking a writer why she got so emotionally attached to her characters, because they were 'just characters in a book, after all'.
It seemed such a silly thing to say. But perhaps for those who don't write it can be difficult to understand how much inside the characters you need to become, if your characters are to engage the reader and seem real at all.