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a year of school visits and promotion ahead for these books, publication day marked the end of my personal journey from unpublished to published writer.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?