Network News, Featuring Ellen Renner South West Network

Ellen Renner on SCBWI and the writing life - in conversation with Lesley Moss
Ellen Renner has been a South West Network Organiser for SCBWI_BI since 2006. She talks to Joint Organiser Lesley Moss about volunteering for SCBWI, her writing career, and her latest book.
 Ellen was born in the USA, but came to England in her twenties, married here, and now lives in an old house in Devon with her husband and son. She originally trained as a painter and surrounds herself with sketches of her characters as she writes. She spins wool as well as stories, knitting and weaving when time allows. She plays the violin, fences (badly!) and collects teapots and motorcycles.
 Her first book, CASTLE OF SHADOWS, won the Cornerstones Wow Factor Competition, the 2010 North East Book Award and was chosen for both the Independent and London Times summer reading lists and, along with the sequel CITY OF THIEVES, was included on The Times list of best children's books of 2010.

Ellen, you’re a multi-published author – how do you fit in volunteering for SCBWI_BI as well?
That's right: start with the tricky question! I wasn't published when I first volunteered. My life went crazy in 2010/11 after CASTLE OF SHADOWS and CITY OF THIEVES came out. I was headhunted to write a series for OUP (THE FLIP FLOP CLUB, as Ellen Richardson). Working with OUP and Working Partners was a totally brilliant experience: I loved the collaborative process, but it was hectic because I was doing a lot of school visits as well as beginning my own next 'big idea'. When the final OUP ms went off, an editor came fishing. Within a few weeks there was a UK auction for two books based on a concept and twenty thousand words. Exciting but scary.
At times, volunteering has had to take a back seat to writing: I've written six books for publication in two-and-a-half years. The fact is, once you have a contract, deadlines can be brutal, especially with the self-promotion side added in. I'm not a born organiser (cue ribald laughter from friends and family) but I enjoy sharing some of the editing and writing skills I've learned working in the industry.

Why did you volunteer for SCBWI?
I wanted to pay back a little of what SCBWI-BI has done for me: given me support and friends, along with the information and tools to understand what it takes to write professionally. SCBWI provides a unique service to aspiring writers/illustrators. Also you make very good buddies in SCBWI.

What kind of events did you put on in the SW in the beginning?
I hosted a critique group and I put on creative writing workshops. The Exeter Write-ins we developed together recently are great fun! Y

You and I met first at a SCBWI_BI conference in 2006. And in 2010 you invited me to be Joint Organiser. We’re based in Exeter, where for me, the best thing has been meeting other lovely SCBWI members. An amazing range of life and writer/illustrator experience passes through the group, with a dedicated core and occasional visitors. What have you enjoyed about volunteering for SCBWI?
Oh definitely: the people you meet! And hearing about the things they're working on. Sometimes I want to be an editor just so I can work on some of these exciting ideas! And talking to other people about their work somehow inspires you to push yourself further with your own. It can revive your interest in the whole process. Writing is hard work, especially if you're always trying to take it to the next level.

Our Exeter Write-Ins (writers / illustrators meet in a café and work / exchange news / eat cake / critique) sprang from our discussion with author Lucy Jones, our socials organiser, author and film maker Yona Wiseman, and author Amelia Mansfield – we wanted to meet, but everyone had work to get on with. How well do Write-ins work for you?
Really well. I get quite a lot done - as long as the chatting doesn't go on too long, which is always the danger, as we enjoy the social side. It is good to get out of your normal writing environment and go to a gathering dedicated to what we're all trying to accomplish. It gives our work its appropriate weight somehow. Writers and illustrators can feel quite isolated and it's a joy to talk to like minded people. Family and friends may love (or tolerate) our obsessions, but only other writers/illustrators understand.
A Write-in with Ellen and Lesley
 Yona Wiseman at a recent Scrawl/Sketchcrawl
Exeter has become a supportive network, with people travelling in from far afield at times. In the last few years we have offered Meet-ups, Write-ins – with some informal critiquing - Sketch/Scrawl Crawls, support at book launches, and Seasonal Socials. And we plan to have Edit-ins to follow Write-ins. But the SW is a large network area – what would you say to those too far away to travel to Exeter?
The Write-ins and Scrawl Crawls are great, and I have great hopes of the Edit-ins. The size of the SW region is something I've struggled to deal with over the years. There isn't an easy answer other than to encourage people in places such as Bristol to be self-starting and organise their own meet-ups. But it does take one or two people to step forward, set the ball rolling and keep it rolling. And as I know only too well: everyone is busy.

And finally, we’ve all been inspired by your publishing success and benefited from your experience and industry knowledge during our Write-in chats. Can you tell us anything about your next book, or is it all hush-hush?
I'm very excited about the two books being published next year in the UK by Hot Key Books: TRIBUTE in March 2014 and the sequel, OUTCASTE, following in August. The TRIBUTE books are my first foray into YA fantasy and explore themes very close to my heart: power; politics; war; technology and how it drives social structure. The books are about empathy, and what happens when the ability to feel empathy is short-circuited because of tribalism. 
 TRIBUTE is dark: the inciting incident is told in flashback – a nine year old child is murdered for the crime of literacy in a world where only the magical ruling elite are allowed knowledge. It's not all gloom and doom however: there is a love story, which I found the most challenging part to write, to the great amusement of one of my writing buddies, Sharon Jones, who is disgustingly good at it! She tells me I've pulled it off though, so I'll have to believe her. 
This is the first time I've sold a book based on a concept, and I will admit to trepidation about editorial input from the publisher at that delicate first draft stage. I needn't have worried: my editor, Sara O'Connor, is totally brilliant (as is her maternity leave replacement, Jenny Jacoby) and her guidance has been invaluable. 
 For me, entertaining the reader is paramount. I write to ask questions of myself and the reader – fantasy is the perfect form for exploring issues in our own society – but I never forget that story is everything. My ambition is to transport readers to new places and create characters and worlds that live on in the imagination. I'm delighted to announce that the TRIBUTE books have recently sold at auction in Germany. They'll be published by DTV Junior in 2015 as lead titles.

Thank you, Ellen – it’s been great to share part of your journey. Good luck with Tribute!
Exeter Write-ins will begin again in the autumn. And we are very excited to be hosting a masterclass with an experienced visiting editor in October. Please contact for details or visit your Ning group. 

Lesley Moss joined SCBWI in 2003 and over several years has volunteered for SCBWI as SW Joint Network Organiser, e-critique group moderator for Picturebook Too!  and the Poetry e-critique group, which became (run by Maureen Lynas). She writes 8-12 fiction, picture books and funny verse. She originally studied art and design and spent some years in community arts, including a spell as a mime animateur, working creatively with children of all ages, and much more. But her first love is writing. 


  1. Really great piece on Volunteering for SCBWI and Being in the South West!
    Thank you very much Ellen and Lesley

  2. Yes, as Jan says, a really great piece. Thank you both.
    Having recently attended my first local event I can certainly testify to the warm welcome afforded by the SCBWI SW network. Not to mention the inspiring conversation and lovely lunch!

  3. Thanks, Jan and Jennifer! Jennifer, we look forward to your 'book birthday!'

  4. Great to hear about your region and always great to hear about new Ellen Renner books!


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