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Tell Me - Dylan Birtolo

(Crossposted from Jennifer Brozek)

Dylan is one of the first authors I met at a convention that I rejected. It was my nightmare come true. However, ever the professional, Dylan was happy, pleasant, and enthusiastic. We talked, we became friends. I published him. Eventually, I co-wrote an RPG piece with him. It's been a pleasure to see him grow as an author.

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Evolving My Technique

I’ve been writing stories for as long as I can remember. Heck, I still have the first story that I ever wrote. It was back in third grade when we had to write a one-page story in cursive writing with one inch margins drawn on the page. My story was nineteen pages. I still have it on very yellowed and slightly crispy paper. And no, you can’t read it, at least not yet.

The point is that even back then, I knew that I liked telling stories and that it was something that was going to stick with me for my entire life. I have spent time working on all sorts of different mediums, whether that is role playing, being on stage, or good old fashioned prose writing. When I was first starting as a writer, one of the things that I learned very quickly was that everyone’s process was different. If you asked ten different writers how they went about putting words on paper, you would get ten different answers. For me, I loved the thrill of not knowing what was going to happen next.

For my stories, and indeed my first novel, I would start with a premise, solidly defined characters, a vague idea of where the story might go, and then I sat down to start typing. I would just let the words flow. It goes without saying that I would need to go back and clean it up, but for that first draft, that was how I wrote – completely by the seat of my pants. Half of the time I was surprised with the turns that the stories would take, and that was part of the excitement of telling the story. I liked thinking on my feet. (Side note – is it any surprise that I prefer improv over memorized lines when on stage? I didn’t think so.)

I can even remember having arguments with people in online writing groups about it. One person was adamant that you needed to plan a story before you wrote it. That you needed to iron out all of the details and have them scoped out before you ever put a word on the page. In my (slightly more) stubborn youth, we butted heads a lot. He would show me examples of stories that OBVIOUSLY had to be planned ahead of time to orchestrate the finale and the payoff. I would show him my writing and point out that I never planned a single plot.

It didn’t help that I was not the best writer at the time.

It was many years before I planned my first story. It was a short story for an anthology released almost ten years ago now. I wanted to put a twist in the end, but in order for the twist to pay off, I needed to seed the story the right way. If I just smacked the reader with it out of the blue, it would not carry any weight. At best, it would be confusing. At worse, it would be completely nonsensical. So I planned the story. Not a lot, but I took a couple of notes about small clues I needed to lay down on the way to that pay off.

Now I am a big planner. This was very clear when I went back to rewrite The Shadow Chaser. The first edition of that book wasn’t planned. Now that I was going to be making a trilogy, I wanted to lay down the seeds for fruit that wouldn’t come to fruition until the third book. I knew where I was going and I wanted to lay down the pieces that would make the payoff that much more rewarding in the end.

I liken it to stage fighting. I have spent several years training how to fight with weapons, and I can do improv fights if I need to where not a single blow is choreographed. Depending on my partner, we might even make the fight look good while only being slightly more dangerous than a choreographed fight. But on the other hand we have something that is choreographed, something that we have spent weeks and months refining and practicing, ironing out all of the little hiccups and rough spots. That fight? That fight is always going to look faster, flashier, and better. It will have a much larger pay off than an improvisational combat for the audience.

I’m not saying that you need to plan. You need to find what works for you. And at first, what worked for me was putting the words down as fast as they could come. Now I like to plan. I opened up my toolbox to this idea and pulled in a new tool, one that I like to use to create better stories. I am still convinced I plan less than most writers I’ve talked to. I like that thrill too much. But, just a bit of planning does let me sprinkle those seeds and care for them.

My process evolved. I added something to my toolbox and made it my own, and I think that’s how we become better artists, whatever our medium of choice is.

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Dylan Birtolo resides in the Pacific Northwest where he spends his time as a writer, a gamer, and a professional sword-swinger. His thoughts are filled with shape shifters, mythological demons, and epic battles. He’s published a few fantasy novels and several short stories. He trains with the Seattle Knights, an acting troop that focuses on stage combat, and has performed in live shows, videos, and movies. He jousts, and yes, the armor is real - it weighs over 100 pounds. You can read more about him and his works at dylanbirtolo.com or follow his twitter at @DylanBirtolo.