Wednesday, 18 July 2012

How to become a successful author

by Nick Graham

On Saturday, 30th June, popular author Ellen Renner gave a talk and ran a workshop in the Memorial Library as part of the Portsmouth Festivities. I was lucky enough to attend both of these events.

During the morning, Ellen gave a talk about two of the books she has written. The first book she talked about was called Castle of Shadows. This was her debut book and was published in 2010. It is very hard to get your first book published, as most publishers will want to look at any previous books you have had published and how much money they have made. However, there is another way in; Ellen entered Castle of Shadows into the WOW-factor competition for unpublished books. This was a large gamble because, when she entered the competition, she had only written 50 pages of the book. Only the first few pages were needed for this stage of the competition, but, if she made it through to the next stage, she would need to have a finished copy of the book. She managed to be long-listed, meaning that she had to write the whole book in just a few weeks! Fortunately she managed to finish with nearly a week to spare. She then went on to win the competition and the book was later published by Orchard Books.

Ellen Renner gained inspiration for her book from several different areas, including real life and current affairs, as well as art and other literature.  The book was written just after the end of the war in Iraq, and contains a weapon of mass destruction. It also features a very dodgy Prime Minister! The main inspiration for the book was a piece of art, which featured a king dangling from a trapeze to place a card on top of a massive card castle. She used her chain of thoughts stemming from the picture to gain inspiration for her story. Her chain of thoughts went roughly like this:

King → Kingdom → If the King isn’t running the kingdom, who is? → politics → dodgy Prime Minister.

The story is based on an alternative history, very similar to early Victorian Britain, just after the end of the Industrial Revolution. The king also has a daughter called Charlie (11 years old), whose mother disappeared years before. At the start of the book, Charlie finally finds a clue about why her mother disappeared, and becomes determined to find out more. There is also a secondary villain in the form of the housekeeper, who has a henchman (the night watchman, called Watch) armed with a gun, the only person in the whole of the castle to own one. As in every good mystery story, the hero has to have a sidekick, this time the gardener’s boy, called Tobias. Castle of Shadows is a high-paced adventure story packed with mysteries and secrets, originally written for readers aged 9-12 years, although it can be enjoyed by readers of all ages due to the many complex layers within the story.

Ellen also talked about another, called City of Thieves. This is the sequel to Castle of Shadows, and is about Tobias and his dark secret, which is revealed near the end of Castle of Shadows. This book was also published in 2010 by Orchard Books.

During the afternoon, Ellen Renner ran a workshop to help aspiring young writers, orientated on how to write good stories. She talked about essential points to do with each section of writing. Here are some of Ellen's tips and guidelines: 



Plot:
1.    Start with a character that has a problem.
2.    Then make the problem worse.
3.    Carry on doing this.
4.    Eventually make the problem seemingly impossible to solve.
5.    Get the character to solve the problem in a totally unforeseen way.

You can also start with a character that has a perfect life, then tear it apart with a massive problem. In other words: make a character that people will like, then make his or her life hell!
Beginnings:
When writing a book, the beginning is what will probably make or break your story. If you have a bad beginning, then people will simply put down the book or not buy it. Also, when an agent is told to see if a book is worth publishing, they may just read the first couple of pages. Therefore you need to do quite a few things as soon as possible: reveal your character, then either give them a problem, ask them a question or complicate an existing conflict. You should also give the reader a sense of time and place. But, most importantly, HOOK THE READER!

Middles:
When writing the middle of your story, remember cause and effect – do not make your character do something if it does not have any effects later in the story. Do not deviate – don’t wander off the main plot. This will lose any momentum the story has gained so far. Try and keep going in a straight line from one event to the next.

Endings:
When finishing a story, there are several dangers to avoid. These are:
·   Dead end – if your hero has not changed in some way, either emotionally or physically, then there is no point to your story.
·   Speed demon – don’t rush the end of a story; it will ruin any good story and will not satisfy the reader.
·   Coincidences – never let your character’s problem be solved by a coincidence, no matter how attractive and easy the idea may seem. Always solve the problem ‘on stage’.
·   Rescue – never let someone else save your hero from the problem, or solve it for him. The hero must save himself at the end of the book, or there will be no point to the story.

Characters:
·  Characters have to be larger than life – they must have extraordinary courage, determination or other mental or physical attributes – an ordinary person will not work.
·  As a writer you need to know what it is that your character wants. You should then do what he wants, but not in an obvious way.

Other tips:
When writing any type of story, there will be certain things that you have to remember:
·      Give readers an experience that they will never normally have in the real world.
·      Create memorable characters.
·      Great stories need to contain great events.
·      A story always needs conflict.
·      Real life is chaotic.

When writing a story that is set in a fictional world you need to make that world seem real and effortless.

Fiction is not life – stories are about understanding life.


Ellen Renner
After the workshop, I was able to briefly interview Ellen. Here are some of the facts that I discovered:

·      She was born and lived in America for all of her childhood.
·      She was inspired to become an author when her 4th grade teacher read Charlotte’s Web to the class.
·      She always liked writing small stories with illustrations.
·      She took art and creative writing at university in the USA.
·      One of her favourite classical writers is Charles Dickens and her favourite book for adults is Great Expectations.
·      She came to England to see all the places described in Dickens’ books and never left.
·      Her favourite children’s book is Howell’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, who is also one of her favourite authors.
·      Her favourite living author is Philip Reeve, and her favourite book by him is Mortal Engines. She really enjoyed Fever Crumb as well, which is a prequel to the Mortal Engines series.
·      She also like the Abhorsen series by Garth Nix.
·      She wants to write a third book to follow Castle of Shadows and City of Thieves during 2013, if she has time.

Her strongest advice to aspiring writers is this:  
“Aim high, write the best story you can and always entertain yourself.”

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