Sunday, 28 March 2010

Interview with a Debut Author: ELLEN RENNER

Hi Ellen and welcome. 
Would you like to tell us a bit about yourself?

Hi Tracy. Thanks for inviting me.

I’m an American ex-pat; I’ve been in England since the 1990s. I live in Devon with my husband and son in a very old and crumbling house which we are renovating.

My main obsession other than writing is fencing. I’ve been fencing for about a year and a half now but finding enough time to train is hard. It’s a great stress reliever because you can’t think about anything else while you’re doing it. I studied painting and still enjoy drawing; I spin, weave and knit when I have the time. I used to play the violin, but I’ve got a touch of RSI from too much typing, and my bowing arm isn’t up to it. (I fence left-handed now, which isn’t the reason I’m so bad, but it’s a good excuse.)

As a family, we love island holidays. My husband went camping as a teenager on the Scillies and we’ve been going back there regularly since we were married, although we know Alderney pretty well too and would like to get up to the Orkneys soon. These are the best times of my life: when the three of us are free of work and school for a whole fortnight, walking and cycling and picking blackberries, with the sea all around and air so clear it shines.


"No clue about why the Queen vanished had ever been found. Until now..."

The day Charlie discovers a scrap of paper that could solve the dark mystery of her mother's disappearance, her world changes. Forever.
Charlie and her friend, Toby, must race against time on a dangerous mission to uncover the sinister truth. But in this shadowy world of secrets and lies, there is more to fear than they can possibly imagine...

What inspired you to write CASTLE OF SHADOWS?
One day an image popped into my head, that of a king dangling upside down from scaffolding, building an enormous castle out of playing cards. I have no idea where it came from. So I had a motif, and I invented a situation and characters to go with it. The plot followed.

CASTLE OF SHADOWS was the winner of the Cornerstones 2007 Wow Factor competition could you tell us about your journey from winning until publication?

The book was actually written for that competition. A writing buddy encouraged me to enter, even though I was only about fifty pages into the first draft. I decided to be brave and go for it, figuring I wouldn’t make the longlist but writing like mad in case by some miracle I did. The deadlines were a strong incentive! When I won, I thought Cornerstones would work with me on a rewrite before subbing to an agent, but Helen Corner sent the book straight off to Rosemary Canter. To my amazement, Rosemary signed me on the basis of that initial draft. I did the first rewrite for her and she submitted to publishers in January 2008. I was signed by Orchard in March.

I did a bit more work on the book while waiting in the editorial queue. By the time I met with my editors at Orchard, Kirsty Skidmore and Sarah Lilly, it was almost there, but I knew there was still a problem with pacing. Orchard have been fantastic to work with from start to finish, and the editorial process was highly supportive. In addition, Lee Weatherly, whom I’d met through Cornerstones, kindly offered to read it and was extremely helpful in pinpointing problem areas. Once all this input had helped identify the structural issues, I set to work to find a solution. In the end, I threw away half the book and rewrote it. It meant cutting some of my favourite scenes, but it was a good decision because when I finished I knew I’d made the book as strong as I could. It’s a complicated plot and there’s also the issue of backstory and prefiguring things to come in the quartet. I learnt a tremendous amount in that rewrite.

How long did it take you from initial inspiration to finally achieving the publication deal?

About a year and a half.

CASTLE OF SHADOWS is set in a fictional historical country but did you do any historical research to help create your world? If so, do you enjoy this part of the writing process and were you influenced by a particular historical period?

The joy of alternative worlds is that you can do as little or much research as you feel the story needs. I researched quite a lot of science for the book and the sequels. The bits about atmospheric and pneumatic railways are based on fact. Brunel built the only working atmospheric railway in Britain in the 1830s near where I live in Devon. It ran for a year but failed ultimately because vulcanised rubber wasn’t invented until ten years later. If that timing had been reversed, steam might never have become the dominant technology.

The 1830s and 40s were a fascinating period full of economic and political upheaval and huge technological and social changes. I love the period, and doing research generally. But it can be seductive, so you have to limit yourself or you’d never get the writing done.

You trained as a painter and your writing is highly visual, do you think your training helps you create each scene in such vivid detail?

I think it’s the other way round. I studied art because I had a strong visual sense. The trick with writing for this age is to use just enough detail but not so much that you slow the pace. I have to beware getting carried away by images. I tend to overwrite and have to prune. But I do love visual, sensory writing.

CASTLE OF SHADOWS is to be followed by its sequel, CITY OF THIEVES. How many books do you hope to write following the adventures of Charlie and Toby?
The story will take four books to be told in full. Whether or not I get to write the entire quartet depends on the success of the first two.

Before achieving the book deal did you have further adventures in mind or did you have to think about the sequels from scratch?

I didn’t set out to write a series. The advice I kept hearing was that publishers prefer stand-alones for this age group. But half-way through Castle, I had the story for City of Thieves in my head nagging to come out. I finished the first draft of Castle and sent it off to the Cornerstones competition. Then I sat down and speed-wrote City of Thieves in about six weeks. I wanted to get it done before finding out the results of the competition, in case I was so demoralised I couldn’t write it afterwards. Also, I just couldn’t let go of the characters. City wrote itself. It has a compelling storyline and the plot simply revealed itself as I wrote. It was magical; almost like the story was telling itself. I don’t expect it to happen like that again.

Rewrites and Revisions: How much did you have to do throughout the writing of CASTLE OF SHADOWS?

The book went through about four rewrites, but it was the last one I’m really proud of. Throwing away half the book and knitting in the new sections so it appeared seamless was the biggest writing challenge I’d ever set myself.

CASTLE OF SHADOWS is your debut novel. Was it your first attempt at writing a novel or do you have other manuscripts hiding away?

I’ve got plenty of ancient projects hidden away. Most will stay hidden, although there’s a few I might go back to some day. But as soon as I’ve finished the quartet I have a couple of new ideas at the front of the queue, one for 10+ again, one for teen. I’m very excited by both of them and can’t wait to get started.

How long have you been pursuing your writing ambitions and what have you done along the way to improve your writing?
I’ve been writing ever since primary school, but I had a lot of other interests. I wanted to do too many things, and it took me a long time to accept the fact that I couldn’t do it all and had to choose. I don’t do much painting now, or any music, which is a regret. I bought myself a nice sketchbook recently to encourage myself to draw in spare moments.

As for working to improve as a writer, I did a creative writing degree in the States at the same time as my painting degree, but I’m not sure how useful it was. I was too young and, again, spreading myself too thin. Obviously, reading the sort of books you want to write is important. As is actually doing the writing and making yourself finish things. But it’s essential to get good feedback.

Joining SCBWI was the best thing I ever did. The one on one’s with editors at the annual conference proved invaluable. You can learn a lot in fifteen minutes with a professional. I also joined my local writers’ group, which is a good one. And I read lots of books on writing. Finding a writing buddy or two is important; again, SCBWI is good for that.

Do you plan your stories in advance, or do they happen on the page?

I don’t plan in detail. I haven’t the patience for it. I write to tell myself a story; plotting out every chapter and scene in advance would make it mechanical and boring. My stories are character driven. I need to know my characters well enough to become them as I write. I always have a beginning and an end and some of the key plot points along the way. Then I see what happens. Sometimes it’s a total surprise. But at the same time, I am pretty good at following the through-line. Stories have a natural shape to them.

Did achieving a book deal change the way you approach your writing? 

Inevitably. Once you have a book deal, you are in a collaborative process. The book isn’t just yours anymore. It belongs to lots of people and you have a professional responsibility towards them. My agent took a chance on me. Orchard have taken a chance on me. I feel a huge sense of responsibility not to let them down. Publishing is a tough world, and publishers have to make money to stay in business. My job is to make my work as commercially viable as possible while still staying true to my story. I also have to get out there and promote now, and that eats up time which would previously have been spent writing. So there’s a lot more pressure. Also, your work life is suddenly subject to the publishing schedule. You can wait months for editorial input and then have to race to get your revision done. That’s just the way it is. Fortunately, I seem to respond well to deadlines. As long as the domestic side is going okay.

Before achieving publication did you have to deal with rejection along the way? How did it feel to finally secure the publishing deal?

I’m a perfectionist. I’ve had very little rejection because I wasn’t sending stuff out. I knew it wasn’t ready, but I felt I was starting to get close to writing to a publishable standard when the Cornerstones thing came along. Most of my rejections came from the illustration submissions I was doing at the same time. I’d still love to illustrate; especially black and white. I love drawing. I’m using my own illustrations of the Castle of Shadows characters on my website.

What made you think ‘I want to write for children?’ Is it a genre you enjoy reading?

I read little else these days. Sometime in my thirties, after I was married but before my son came along, I realised I should stop messing around trying to write ‘literary’ fiction and write what I enjoyed reading most. Which is 8/9+ children’s fiction. I love Diana Wynne Jones, Margaret Mahy, Joan Aiken, Susan Cooper, Leo Garfield, Philippa Pearce. Moving along a generation, I enjoy reading David Almond, Geraldine McCaughrean, Sally Gardner, Philip Reeve, Garth Nix, Jonathan Stroud and the wise and wonderful Terry Pratchett.

Do you use your own children or any others as a ‘sounding board’ for your books?

Castle is dedicated to my son and his best mate, who were in year six at the time, so just the right age. They were my first readers. Their enthusiasm helped my confidence tremendously.

Which authors/stories did you enjoy reading as a child/teenager? How do you think they compare to the children’s/YA novels available today? What do you think children of today want to read?

There were a few books that made a memorable impact in primary school, like Charlotte’s Web and Johnny Tremain. But I just read everything I could get my hands on. I had read my way through the primary school library by fourth grade and they had to let me into the junior high library next door. I read everything from the Nancy Drew and Trixie Beldon mysteries to Dickens and Jane Austen. I loved Mary Stewart and Mary Renault, T.H. White and the Alice books. I was keen to read the classics and was hugely embarrassed one day when I got an overdue notice for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales during my year nine maths class. The teacher thought it was highly amusing that the shyest girl in school should be reading this racy stuff. I didn’t find it nearly so funny at the time!

I grew up in Missouri and didn’t discover the classic English children’s writers (people like Joan Aiken, Philippa Pearce, Penelopes Lively and Farmer, Nina Bawden, John Gordon, Alan Garner, Susan Cooper) until I was an adult and had moved to England. But the greatest revelation was finding Diana Wynne Jones. Her books, more than any other, made me want to write for children.

Children’s/YA novels today are more commercial, less literary. The pace is quicker, sometimes to the point of breathlessness. And although there is more variety of genre than twenty or thirty years ago, realistic, beautifully written, emotionally resonant stories about growing up are seldom published nowadays – something like Philippa Pearce’s The Way to Sattin Shore, for instance. I would love to see writing of that sort being published again, even though it’s the sort of thing I could never write myself.

As for what children (and adults) want to read – that doesn’t change: a cracking story. Also, it’s important to remember that one of the chief functions of storytelling is to let us experience imaginatively the worst life can throw at us and to overcome it. The monster must always be defeated. I’m not talking happy endings, just resolution, forward movement, growth. That totemic victory can provide the strength with which to face reality. Children (and adults) want to finish a book feeling enlarged, not diminished.

Amanda Craig has written a wonderful review of CASTLE OF SHADOWS in the Times how does it feel to have your debut novel reviewed in such a well-respected column?

It feels fantastic. It’s the sort of thing you dream about but don’t expect. It’s an affirmation which even I, at my most neurotic, can’t ignore. I always see where I fall short; I’m my own harshest critic. The boost to my confidence has been tremendous.

Ellen's Book Launch

Words of wisdom and advice to any aspiring writer?

Entertain yourself first, because if you aren’t totally engaged with your story, no one else will be. Be ambitious for your writing: don’t settle and don’t be timid. Write the best story you can right now; next year you’ll write a better one. There’s no end to the journey, no point at which you can say, ‘I’ve made it.’ There will always the next challenge and the need to grow and to write better.

Seek out criticism. Prune your work ruthlessly. Learn to love rewriting – that’s where the craft is, and craft is important. Learn the rules first; after you’ve mastered them you can decide when to break them.

If you do want to be published, be aware that even if you succeed, you very probably won’t earn a living at it; that one publishing deal doesn’t guarantee a second; and that you won’t have reached nirvana. The goalposts move, that’s all. On the other hand, the tantalising possibility exists that children (and adults) might read your book and fall in love with your characters, be surprised and entertained by your plot twists, slip into the world you’ve created and not want to leave.

Any other comments/observations/general mind-blowing information you‘d like to add?

Most people who work in the industry do it for love. And most of them are extremely nice people. They do want to find good writers; but it’s your job to get yourself to a publishable standard. Even then, you have to get the right manuscript on the right desk at the right moment, which can take years. So it’s a combination of bloody-minded persistence, determination and luck. If you’re good enough and you stick at it, you probably will be published eventually.

Editor, Sarah Lilly, explains why Castle of Shadows excited her when it was submitted to Orchard Books by Ellen's agent, Rosemary Canter of United Agents:

I think we realised quite quickly after Ellen’s manuscript landed in our inboxes that here was something very exciting indeed. I remember ducking into my then boss’s office to see how far she’d read, and exchanging a look of glee as we agreed it was a very special book! And then we were over the moon when we heard the news that we could publish it.

Castle of Shadows is a master class in storytelling: Ellen weaves a fabulous yarn, full of page-turning twists and turns, but also full of depth and real emotion. Her characters leap from the page, fully-formed, so that you can’t help but get completely caught up in what’s happening to them. Ellen is a children’s writer of rare talent and Orchard are very proud to publish her.

And if you read Castle of Shadows and are as mesmerised as we were, just wait for the sequel, City of Thieves – it’s fantastic!

Ellen is represented by Rosemary Canter of United Agents


kathryn evans said...

Great interview, great book and Ellen, we all know that left-handed fencers have a distinct advantage....;O)

Nick Cross said...

Brilliant - well done Ellen.

Being currently in the position of having thrown away half my book and now trying to rewrite it, I'm glad to know that there's a way out at the other end!


Luisa Plaja said...

Castle of Shadows is a wonderful book, and I certainly slipped into the world of Quale as I read. Thank you for this fascinating interview!

SarwatC said...

Excellent interview and it's great to see how Ellen's journey's brought her here. I remember when she was anounced the winner of the Cornerstones competition and it doesn't seem that long ago!

Dulcinea Norton-Smith said...

As usual a great interview. I am far too addicted to your blog.

I can't wait to read the book and (as you knoe Tracy) I do love reading a success story - it gives me hope.

Heading over to Amazon now!

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