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September 25, 2009

C. K. Kelly Martin: The Deep End of the Ocean

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Though now the author of two books, I KNOW IT'S OVER and ONE LONELY DEGREE, writing teen fiction hasn't always come easily to today's guest blogger, C. K. Kelly Martin. Below, she describes her rocky start in penning her first YA novel and shares a poignant scene from Alice Sebold's THE LOVELY BONES that completely changed her approach to creating characters.


When I started writing my first YA novel ten years ago (an as yet unpublished book then titled The Start of Something) I didn’t think it would be difficult. It’s not that I believed it would be especially easy either --- obviously it would be time-consuming and require discipline --- but I didn’t have a clear idea of what I was trying to accomplish, aside from getting words down on the page. With such an unambitious goal in mind, no wonder I didn’t feel daunted.

Having just become hooked on reruns of "Party of Five," the idea of writing about young people (something I’d never considered before) suddenly seemed immensely appealing. I came up with a storyline and teenage characters to go along with it and eventually The Start of Something was 51,000 words. I sent query letters out and tried to find an agent to represent it, but somewhere along the line I discovered the book wasn’t what I wanted it to be. In fact, it was just a skeleton, a bare-bones telling of events about people who weren’t anyone in particular.

I said jump and the characters obeyed. Blindly and blandly. They had no personalities of their own and therefore no way of fighting me and trying to exert their own influence. They would’ve done anything I’d suggested, whenever I’d wanted it and in exactly the manner I’d planned, and that, I came to realize, was not what I wanted after all.

How did I come to this realization? By becoming conscious of what impressed me as a reader. I read a ton of contemporary YA and adult literary novels and noticed that the books I liked best featured three-dimensional characters who helped shaped the course of events in the book and were not simply jogged through them with the author cracking a whip behind them. In particular, I remember an example from THE LOVELY BONES that helped wake me up. Halfway through chapter three there’s a flashback during which main character Susie remembers seeing her mother, early one morning, sitting quietly alone in the backyard. Susie thinks, “She had a stare that stretched to infinity. She was, in that moment, not my mother but something separate from me.” Susie snaps a covert picture and sure enough, when the roll’s developed, she finds a different person in that first image to the subsequent ones where she had become aware of Susie’s presence and changed back into her mother. As Susie examines the first photograph she thinks, “My mother’s eyes were oceans, and inside them was loss.”

I was startled by the truthfulness of this scene that had so much to say, not just about Susie’s mother, but Susie herself (not everyone would be as observant as she is here) and the complicated nature of life. I realized --- not in just the moment when I read this scene but in a lot of other similar "aha!" moments reading books with well-drawn, lifelike characters --- that I wanted to write novels where the characters were king; I wanted to find the deep end of the ocean in all of them. I realized that even the simplest things the characters would do or say should be guided by their experiences and personalities, and that most of the things I’d had in mind for the characters in The Start of Something, once I’d truly filled in their personalities so that they weren’t just my puppets anymore, wouldn’t happen the way I’d planned, if they’d even happen at all.

I kept the character names and the fact that I wanted it to be a book about first love, and tried to let the characters themselves take care of everything else. At first they were reluctant to take the reins and let me push them around a little, but the more I worked on their personalities (uncovering details about what makes them uniquely themselves), the more confident they became until they were clearly in charge and it almost seemed that they only needed me to transcribe their story.

These days, when I’m writing a book and feel a character actively resist something in the plot, I know I’ve steered them wrong and that I should stop and listen to what they’re telling me. Just because I want a character to run away from home, for example, doesn’t mean this is what they would actually do. They know best how they would react to situations and it’s my job to find out. That’s more difficult than just pushing a given character through a course of events you’ve decided upon, but ultimately so much more rewarding.

-- C. K. Kelly Martin