Sunday, September 10, 2017

Ben "Narwal King" Clanton's "Characters and Questions"

Ben Clanton is a universal person. There are some things in life that are universal. Like unicorns. Everyone loves unicorns. It's true. I dare you to name one person who doesn't like unicorns, you can't can you? What's better than a unicorn? A narwal. Often narwhals are called "the unicorn of the sea. I think unicorns should be call the narwhal of the land. (I'm going to start a petition for this.)

Ben Clanton's universiality (that's a word, right) brings people all over the world together. The personality in his stories is warm and friendly. His narwhals are of the non-staby variety. Ben is here today to talk about character driven stories. I hope that he forgives me for this absolutely silly and senseless introduction!

Be sure to check the end of this post for a PRIZE!

Ben's books include:
"Narwhal: Unicorn of the Sea" (A Narwhal and Jelly Book #1)"Super Narwhal and Jelly Jolt" (A Narwhal and Jelly Book #2)
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Characters and Questions:

I tried reading one of my first attempts at writing a "children's book" earlier today. I stopped after the first hundred words. Yep, that bad. At the time (around 9 years ago) I thought my first manuscripts were brilliant masterpieces. I felt sure that they would all become bestselling and award-winning books. It took awhile but eventually I came to see that they just weren't very good. I could list off a whole bunch of reasons why, but one reason in particular stands out. My first manuscripts were message-driven. I set out when writing each one with a very specific idea of what I wanted kids to learn from it. The result, super didactic rubbish. Or at least mostly so! I'm sure I could find some little gems buried within my early manuscripts if I tried hard enough, but I think I'm going to spare myself the agony. I won't say a message-driven book can't be good. Just because it doesn't work for me doesn't mean it can't work for someone else, but as I have continued to grow as an author/illustrator I've become increasingly convinced that good work doesn't result from thinking for your audience.

Eventually, after reading more picture books (oodles more!) and writing and creating more stories myself, I shifted from message-driven to primarily plot-driven writing. I would have an idea that I thought particularly clever or interesting and a story would begin to form in my mind centered around key plot moments that had to do with that initial inspiration. I then would often struggle with having the characters fit within that plot. One of my books that I'm most proud of, IT CAME IN THE MAIL, started out as very much a plot-driven story. I knew I wanted a kid to encounter a magic mailbox and get gobs of cool stuff . . . too much stuff. I also was convinced the book needed to end with the reader receiving something from the mailbox. IT CAME IN THE MAIL ended up taking me longer to make than any of my other books so far because it was so plot-driven. It wasn't until I paid more attention to the characters that I ended up with a book I could be happy with.

My process now is much more character-driven. Whenever I visit schools I always note two main ingredients for my books: characters and questions. I find that I can discover everything I need for a story with those two things. This is especially true for my most popular book, NARWHAL: UNICORN OF THE SEA! That book's origin starts with when I came across another book, POLAR OBSESSION by Paul Nicklen which has some extraordinary photographs in it and quite a few of those photos of a creature - that five years ago I hadn't heard of before. I couldn't believe such a creature as a narwhal actually existed. They seemed too fantastic to be real! I knew right away that I wanted to make a book with a narwhal in it. So I started drawing narwhals. Lots and lots of them! I'd fill pages with them. Initially when trying to find a story for one of these narwhals I went with the plot-driven method. I decided there should be an epic storm in which a little narwhal gets separated from its pod. That attempt didn't go so well. I had no idea who that little narwhal was! But then one day when standing in line for ice cream and breathing in the smell of freshly made waffle cones (that have a rather horn-like shape) it struck me that Narwhal should be as sweet and fantastic as ice cream. I then began to ask Narwhal questions. What does he like to do? Eat? Favorite word? How did he feel about mustaches? Capes? Asking these questions opened a flood gate. I had one story idea after another. I still am asking questions!

I mocked-up three of my favorite Narwhal stories straight away and sent them to my amazing agent Marietta Zacker. She thought they had promise and so submitted. It wasn't long before I started getting back pretty much the same answer from all the publishers: "these characters are great but the stories seem thin (a.k.a. light on plot)." And it was true! Yet any attempt to make or force a more involved plot line on any of the Narwhal stories wouldn't work. At that time, it was just a gut feeling for me. I liked the lightness of the stories and something thicker/heavier felt off/stifling. I believe now this is because the story arc needed to match with the main character. Narwhal is fun, happy-go-lucky, and a bit odd. The narratives I find work best for Narwhal match his temperament.

I'll spare you all the details, but years after coming across Paul Nicklen's book I eventually found that a combination of Narwhal stories when put loosely together worked really well, or at least I liked the result. Publishers were wary of the unique format that resulted though. The Narwhal (and Jelly!) books are a bit of a hybrid of a graphic-novel and a picture book. And the target audience-??? But Tundra Books and Tara Walker ended up deciding to take a chance on it! I'm happy to report that there will be quite a few more Narwhal and Jelly books. And that has been one of the other results of the character-driven method for me: I end up coming up with OODLES more stories. I find my characters usually have more than one story to tell and often quite a few more. But I can't force a plot or story upon them. I can't make Narwhal act in a way Narwhal wouldn't act. I can't make Jelly act in a way Jelly wouldn't act. Instead I ask what they would do if a certain problem arose or what sort of adventure they might like to have. Waffles and weird awesomeness are usually the answer!

TIP: These blank books on barebooks.com are brilliant for creating dummies! No, I'm not getting paid to promote them. I just happen to think their blank books are super useful!

Thanks for inviting me to share, Dani! Happy book making to all!

@%@%@%@%@%

PRIZE!


One lucky winner will win a blank book (Like the ones from barebooks.com) and a copy of Narwal by Ben Clanton!

Please comment on this post to win this prize.

22 comments:

  1. Sometimes its the simpliest of things that are the hardest to see... I also muddle through numerous message driven stories before finally defining my plot. Now I understand why I strugglle, I don't know my characters well enough to tell their story. Thank you, now I a much better starting point... Great article, it definitely spoke to me!

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  2. Ben, your illustrations are delightful. I'm sure children would like to copy them.

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  3. I love Ben's work! So clever and charming.

    Dani - you've read Jessie Sima's "Not Quite Narwhal", right? The whole thing is about unicorns of the sea and land narwhals πŸ˜ŠπŸ¦„

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  4. You are brilliant, Ben! I love that waffles and awesome weirdness are key ingredients in your thinking.

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  5. Thank you, Ben! Your illustrations are adorable! :-)

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  6. Thank you for sharing Ben. This is great info on characters. I love IT CAME IN THE MAIL! :)

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  7. Great insight and thoughts on character. Thanks.

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  8. Ben's Narwhal books are super adorable! Thanks for the reminder to focus on character. I'll check out the barebooks books!

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  9. Ack I often suffer from message driven stories too. Can't seem to get rid of them. Thanks for the post and sharing your cute illustrations!

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  10. Thank you for sharing, Ben. I agree with everything here. I tend to be plot driven, but when I do find a great character, the possibilities open up.

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  11. We're doing a UNIhorn library session this Spring with kiddos, featuring your book. Can't wait. I know they will love it!

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  12. What a great post! Thank you, Dani and Ben. I can so relate to trying to force characters into plots with messages. This post suggests a different way which I can see might result in a more authentic story. Looking forward to trying to learn from Ben's process! --Lisa

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  13. your characters just pulled me in- they are a wonderful marriage of simplicity and perfect detail!

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  14. This is a really interesting approach to writing stories and I love your narwhal character. Thanks for sharing some of your experiences!

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  15. It Came in the Mail is one of my favorites, and Narwhal is so cute. Your character development is definitely helpful to study. Thanks!

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  16. So much great content in this post - thanks Dani and Ben! Love this: "good work doesn't result from thinking for your audience." And I love asking my characters questions to deepen my connection to them and create a stronger story!

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  17. Thanks for the reminder to focus on character vs. being message driven. Definitely something I struggle with as I try to create layers in my stories. I love all the sea creature sketches, btw! They are so fun and lively!

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  18. This was a much-needed message not to focus so much on the message in my stories! This is especially timely for me, as I'm struggling to finish a manuscript and have so many messages that it's overwhelming. I'm going to see what feels more organic and let the story flow rather than stuff a bunch of important points in there. i love that you went "by feel" with what kinds of stories your characters want to tell. Thank you for this post!

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  19. Loved reading this, Ben. Loved being able to watch your process when I was lucky enough to be in a critique group with you. Wonderful work! Keep those books coming.

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  20. I don't like unicorns. Nah. Just kidding. I LOVE unicorns! And narwhals. And jelly. ....and jellyfish. And marshmallows - just saying. Fun post. I struggle with character driven stories. Maybe this will help.

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  21. Ben this post is invaluable. I think maybe your old issue is mine-time to focus on character!

    PS I have yet to truly make a dummy, but I know I need to-these blank books are calling my name!

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  22. Oh my goodness, I can't tell you how much my daughter and I love Narwhal (and Jelly)! It's so fun to hear your journey to publishing them, and I am excited to take your advice on starting with a fun character and asking questions of them. Such a great, great post! Thank you Ben and Dani!!! (and those blank books ARE awesome - thanks for that, too!)

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