Okay. SO. At SCBWI, when I was chatting with Morgan Shamy, she was hanging with Ryan Dalton who is SO many kinds of hilarious that he's just fun to be around. And he told me about his MG, and I'm like - hey... (thinks to herself that it sounds cool and that she doesn't want to wait for him to find rep and a publisher to read this awesome-sounding book) If you need another reader, let me know :-D
And he did!
And I read it!
And it was fab!
And then I was asking him how long it took him to put it all together because it's this crazy, complicated plot, and he starts telling me about all the ways he outlines, and since I'm a hardcore pantser, I was sort of...stunned...
So. I asked him to explain himself a little better.
Who are you?
Ryan Dalton, writer of sci-fi novel The Year of Lightning, and writer for the sci-fi strategy game Exile Sun. Occasionally, I’m also Batman.
I know! My cool status just went WAY up, b/c I'm sorta friends with an occasional Batman.
Have you always been a plotting writer?
Not always. I’ve been writing in various forms since I was eight years old, and I don’t know many eight-year-old plotters. I’d get an idea, and I’d just run with it. The first real “book” I tried to write (I was twelve or thirteen at the time) was about a superhero fighting an invasion of alien robots, and the “plot” was mostly just cool battles and the hero mooning over a girl when he wasn’t involved in said cool battles.
Sounds awesome, Ry... ;-)
As I got older and began to actually study the craft, my story ideas became more intricate and my casts of characters grew larger. At that point, it just made sense to start planning ahead if I was going to successfully build the kind of stories I love to read.
He has a big cast in The Year of Lightning, and I know them all. Not easy.
How do you start?
With The Year of Lightning, I started with an image that became one of the central themes of the book – an abandoned house with no doors, and then someone sees a face in the window. I liked the creepy/mysterious feeling surrounding that image, so I brainstormed about how it could figure into a novel. The questions “WHY?” and “HOW?” are perhaps my most important writing tools, because they help me build the world around the main idea. Why would someone build a house like that? Why would someone be inside it? How did they get in there, and are they able to leave? Why would teenagers decide to get involved?
Did the rest of you get chills when he talked about the house with no doors? Seriously. Very cool.
I pondered a thousand questions like this and wrote down theories for how I might answer them. That led to ideas for specific scenes. It also introduced me to the characters, because some of the questions concerned what type of people could become involved in something so crazy. This part of the process jumped around a lot, not following any particular pattern. When I finally cracked the core concept of the story, when I had a grasp on the characters and their basic arc, that’s when I started outlining for real.
What I think is cool is that even in my contemp plots, I start out in MUCH the same way.
At what point do your characters become real? When you first begin plotting? Or after you start writing?
The characters develop along with the plot. By the time I sit down to write, I know them decently well. It’s not until I start writing dialogue, though, that they truly reveal themselves. Of all the things I write, dialogue has always been my favorite. Whether it’s witty banter, dark confessions, or tense confrontations, nothing thrills me more than to put characters in a room and watch what happens. It’s at this point that the characters stop being plot elements and start being real people that can override my plans and directly affect the story. INTERRUPTING HERE B/C I LOVE THIS I had several scenes in The Year of Lightning change drastically because the characters would not do what I’d planned for them to do.
Although I’m mainly a sci-fi writer, I know eventually I’ll write a book that’s more contemporary and dialogue-heavy, like a teen version of Before Sunrise.
Do you do any writing before you mark up the main plot points?
Yes, inspiration for a scene or a character can strike at any point. When that happens, I stop what I’m doing and write for as long as the ideas are flowing. These rarely end up being full, completed scenes, but I’ll often end up with scene portions or important insight into the plot/characterization.
I totally do this. I've found my starting point from scenes just like this when I get an itch to write something while thinking about how the story will unfold or when working on something completely different.
So, really, my method is a bit of an amalgam. I write freestyle as well as outline. Though I’d classify myself as more of an outliner, creation can happen at any point in the process. I try not to impose too many rules on myself.
Can you give us a brief rundown of what kinds of outlines you use?
With The Year of Lightning, two of my office walls became a sticky note timeline. I wrote a major plot point or character moment on each sticky, then placed them where I thought they should go on the timeline. Then I would stand back and examine the timeline as a whole (there were probably about a hundred stickies when I was finished), letting the story wash over me and run through my mind’s eye. With this method, I could feel the flow of the whole book. I could see gaps in the story where I needed more action or explanation, spots where I needed more character breakthroughs, and I identified existing plot points that needed to be moved to different places in the timeline.
Another advantage to this method was that, if later on I came up with something new or found a better way to accomplish a story element, I could just change the sticky notes that applied. It was much easier to look down the timeline and see everything that a change would affect.
I did something vaguely similar to this with Insight, but AFTER I wrote the book...
I'd think it would be easier before...
SO. There's Ryan. Now y'all can pop on over to his blog and say hello :-D