Interview with Dylan Birtolo, author of The Shadow Chaser.
What drew you to Speculative Fiction?
In all honesty, I have to blame this on my parents. I grew up in a home where science fiction and fantasy were everywhere. Heck, the first stories that I remember my parents reading to me as a child were the Chronicles of Narnia. It fed my imagination when I was young and I’ve always had an overactive imagination. That just helped give it shape and a playground to run amok in. There is something fascinating about those two words “what if” that just entertains me.
Was there a reason you started writing?
I think that I started writing when I realized that it gave me even more freedom than reading a book. Sure, reading a book was a great way to escape, but a lot of times I would want things to end a different way or would want some different element pulled into the fantasy world. It just clicked that if I wrote the stories, I could do anything I wanted. And then there was the idea that I could share it with other people, and create a world for their imaginations to run wild in. It was just too much to pass up.
Where do you get your ideas?
All over. My mind wanders a lot when I am not actively engaged in something and sometimes I will be walking down the street when I will see something that will trigger an idea. Like if someone is jogging with their dog I suddenly might start thinking about what if the dog was the one in charge taking the human for a walk, or something like that? I also tend to get a lot of ideas from my martial arts. I like to write combat, and most of my stories have a lot of combat in it. One of the exercises that we do is shadow sparring, where you imagine fighting multiple opponents. It is inevitable that I will be doing this and then start adding in other fantastical details, like telekinesis or energy shields and the like. I can’t help it – I just pull in these ideas. Those usually blossom into a world or into a character, and then that becomes something I want to right about. So what will start as a random thought will grow into a universe where I might want to tell a story.
Now if I have to write for a specific anthology with a specific theme, I usually mull the theme over in my head for a few days, trying to think of a twist to it that I can add. I want to put in something unique. It doesn’t necessarily have to be “the big twist” at the end of the story. For example, I was invited to submit to an anthology about time travelers. I wanted to do something different, so I thought “what if there was a time traveler, but he could only go back in time for fractions of a second? What would he do with this? What COULD he do?” And the story evolved from there.
What's your current writing process? Outliner/Pantser, when, do you play music? pen/paper or keyboard/ink? any rituals? Etc
I definitely have my rituals. I have one notebook which I use for every story I am about to start writing. When I am in the planning stages, that is the extent of my ritual. I don’t so much like music, but it doesn’t bother me either. The thing is, I never know when the idea will hit me. As I said, my mind wanders a lot. So I have the notebook and a pen with me at all times. That way when the idea does hit, I can write some notes and sketch out the storyline. I will do this until I have a pretty good idea of the story scene-by-scene.
After that, it becomes a bit more ritualistic. I always write on the computer and always in the same font and format. The interesting part is that this is not the font or format I want to submit a story in. But, it is what I am used to and what I like, so I keep it even though it means more work on the back end. I play (either on headphones of my speakers) one of two playlists. Each one runs for about 4 to 5 hours. I usually alternate between the two and will skip to certain sections in the playlist if I need a specific type of music to fit the scene. And once the writing starts, it HAS to be on the computer. I simply cannot write fast enough with pen and paper to keep up with my brain. Heck, sometimes I have trouble typing fast enough.
How did you get started with AIP?
I got started with AIP because I met Jennifer Brozek several years ago. She was actually the first person to buy a piece of short fiction from me and publish it. That was for the Edge of Propinquity, before AIP existed. When I decided that I wanted to run a Kickstarter project for my novels, I needed to get a publisher to buy into the project and back it provided enough funds were raised. Naturally, I approached Jennifer to see if AIP would be interested. She is an amazing editor and has excellent business savvy, so I knew it would be a good choice for me if they would be up for it. Thankfully, they said they were and that’s what started our working together.
Talk some about the Sheynan series.
The Sheynan series is a collection of books set in the modern day, but with a twist. As you’ve learned by now, I like twists. There are a bunch of people who exist that can change into an animal form. But they keep their existence hidden from the rest of humanity. It was important for me to make the stories seem realistic. I tried to create it in such a way that it might seem like these people do really exist and it isn’t pure fantasy, because I think it is more fun that way. So I spent a lot of time thinking about things like how they would hide their identity, what steps would they take to keep it a secret, what resources would they need at their disposal to keep from being discovered, and so on. I wanted to make it believable enough that someone might just wonder “what if…”
As for the individual books, they follow a young man who has the very rare ability to shift into any animal. Needless to say, this makes him a very valuable ally or asset depending on who you talk to. I don’t want to spoil too much, but basically he is a normal guy living a somewhat normal life who gets put into this crazy world and realizes that nothing is going to be the same again. This trilogy is about him, and the evolution he goes through. At the end of each novel, he is substantially different than he was at the beginning.
You mentioned before that you practice and teach martial arts (and joust- so cool!) Did that make the action scenes easier for you to write?
Most definitely. I have always been good at writing action scenes. Most of my early stories were almost exclusively action and fighting because I knew it was my strength. I think a lot of that comes from my experience. I know techniques and I know weaponry and can pull that in to make the fights a little more believable. You would be surprised at how much a little bit of believability makes any scene that much stronger.
What are you working on now?
Currently, I just finished up the rewrite for The Bringer of War, the second novel in the trilogy. While I am waiting for the editor to get back to me on that draft, I am working on a couple of short stories for anthologies I was invited to submit to. I am also plotting out the third book in the series since that one will be brand new and is not just a rewrite. I have the general outline completed but need to compose my scene by scene layout. And at the same time – because you can never have too many irons in the fire – I have a classical sword and sorcery novel on hold. The Sheynan trilogy comes first, but I am antsy to get back to this other new novel I have partly completed.
Best and worst advice you've received or heard about writing.
The best advice I ever received was on how to know you’re a writer. You’re a writer and you should be if you have these story ideas clawing through your head and you feel like you need to get them out. If you don’t have that level of passion, and that need to tell a story, you should seriously consider if professional writing is for you. Because it will take that level of drive.
The worst advice I ever heard was that you need to write and publish four books a year to make a living off of writing. Whether or not that is true, I think it is horrible advice because it takes what should be, in my opinion, a very creative and enjoyable process, and breaks it down into a “realistic day job”. Now, I realize that sometimes people need a reality check, especially about how hard it is to make a living as a writer. And I fully admit that I don’t know how close to true that statement is because I’ve never been just a fiction writer for a living. But, even just hearing it put a bad taste in my mouth.
Any last words?
Enjoy what you do. There’s this other piece of advice that isn’t specifically related to writing that I absolutely love. Two people are having a conversation and one asks “What’s the purpose of life?” and the other responds “To live.” Yes, that can be viewed as a smart ass comment, or can seem very shallow. But, I think there is a much deeper truth to that. Living is going to be different things for different people. For me, a large part of it is telling stories, and hearing or reading other people’s stories. That’s why I do it, and I think it is something important to keep in mind. To pull it back to writing – the minute you start writing for someone else, or start writing for a specific goal or “market” other than something you enjoy creating, nine times out of ten that’s the moment you are going to lose the reader.