Ryan Dalton is the author of three YA novels, the Time Shift trilogy: The Year of Lightning (2016), The Black Tempest (2017), and The Genesis Flame (2018). He recently agreed to answer questions for ARHtistic License.
You appeared at Phoenix Fan Fusion this year. (Cool!)
RD-Yes, I was the moderator team manager for a number of years, and it was a great team to work with. When I got my first book deal and started moving in that direction, they were so nice and welcomed me back as an author guest, so I’ve been coming back as an author for a few years now. I’ll come back every year for as many years as they’d like to have me.
You’re a trained singer!
RD-I really enjoy music. It’s actually a huge part of my writing process. Putting together a story project’s soundtrack is a big milestone and really helps me start nailing the tone. I often come up with entire scenes just based on hearing an inspiring piece at the right time. I took vocal training for fun, never really intending for it to be profession, but continue to love singing whenever I can.
Do you ever do karaoke? What’s your go-to song? What style do you like best? Show tunes? Pop? Jazz?
RD-Yes, I love to sing. My training was centered around stage and show tunes, so I have a special love for those. My favorite character to sing is probably Javert from Les Miserables. When I karaoke, though, it depends on the mood. Sometimes I’ll go with a blues tone like from Kenny Wayne Shepherd, or I’ll go with Shinedown to really rock out. Other times I want something lighter and I’ll sing something like The Fray. If I’m feeling nostalgic, I’ll usually rock “Don’t You Forget About Me” by Simple Minds. If I’m in more of a classical mood, I’ll go toward something from Josh Groban or a song from Phantom. Jason Mraz’s music is great for vocal warmups. Kind of like writing, my musical interests are many and varied.
Your books have a lot going on: teenage twin protagonists, villains from the ancient past, villains from the future. How would you characterize your books? Science fiction? Thrillers?
RD-Yeah, I threw many things that I love into these books, so they’re sci-fi but with other influences woven throughout. Lightning is a mystery, Tempest is a fantasy, and Genesis is a war epic, but they’re all sci-fi and they have common thematic and stylistic threads that bind them together. They each have scary moments, funny moments, hopefully touching moments, and I wanted the team dynamic to shine through everything else. The characters were always what mattered most to me. I’ve never wanted to write just one thing, and I suppose this series really demonstrates that.
You’ve written screenplays. (Did you write anything I might have seen?) Have you ever thought about adapting your novels for the big screen?
RD-I love writing scripts. Plotting and dialogue are strengths of mine, and the script format really plays to those strengths, so it’s super fun whenever I get to write one. Most of what I wrote were short format for little films that didn’t end up getting made, so I wouldn’t say my screenplay experience is illustrious or anything, haha. Working with Legible Scrawl, a collective of writers and actors, I’ve also written some fan scripts for live table reads. I’ve often been told my writing style is very cinematic, so I think the Time Shift Trilogy would lend itself well to screen adaptation, though probably more like a Netflix limited series than a film trilogy. [ARHtistic License: Netflix, are you reading this???] If someone ever wanted to make them, I would totally be down for it, and I would definitely ask to take first crack at the scripts. Then it would be awesome to collaborate with, and learn from, a more experienced screenwriter on subsequent drafts.
If the Time Shift trilogy became movies, who would you like to portray Malcolm and Valentine?
RD-I typically cast all of my characters, which makes it easier for me to envision them and describe how they move, how they speak, etc. Since I started writing this series nearly a decade ago, the people I envisioned would have definitely aged out of these teenage roles now. However, at the time I created them, I envisioned Danielle Panabaker as Valentine and Emile Hirsch as Malcolm.
How do you go about mapping out your stories?
RD-I’m a heavy outliner. I typically start with a story concept and build that into a loose collection of ideas. When that feels like it’s grown into something I want to pursue, I brainstorm and let my mind wander through possibilities of where the story might go, what the world might be like, what kind of characters we could end up following. I write those ideas down, and when I get enough of them, I start organizing them into a timeline. That’s when the concepts and the flow of the story start to solidify and move toward what they’re ultimately going to become. The world and the characters grow in tandem with one another and the individual plot and character development points start coming into focus and arranging into a logical order. Once I have a solid timeline, my next outline is a close-up snapshot of each major plot point, which includes a supporting outline dedicated to character arcs. When that’s done, I’m usually ready to start writing, but the outlining isn’t quite done. At that point, I do a beat-by-beat outline of between one and three chapters at a time, often including dialogue. When that’s done, I’ll go back and write those one to three chapters. If anything about my plan ends up changing as I write those chapters, I make sure those changes reflect in the higher-level outlines before diving into the details and writing the next chapters. I imagine this all sounds super overwhelming from the outside, but it feels like a natural part of my process. I write my best and most confident work when I know where the story is going. At the same time, I’m always open to better ideas if they present themselves while I’m writing (and this happens surprisingly often, considering how much I outline, haha).
Do you ever do school visits? What are your presentations like?
RD-I love doing school and library visits, they’re so much fun. It’s great getting to meet young readers and encourage their love of books from an early age. As for what I talk about, I generally leave it up to teachers or librarians what they want the students to learn. I can talk in general about what it’s like to write and be an author, or if it’s a group that wants to dive deeper, I can talk about any number of specific aspects of the writing craft. Sometimes I’ll make the visit a workshop, using audience suggestions to create and outline a brand new story right there in the room, and then breaking down the writing techniques I used to turn their suggestions into a story. I always leave room at the end for questions so the students can ask anything they want, and that’s my favorite part. Never know what they’re going to say!
What is your day job?
RD-Being an author is my day job. 🙂 That’s one of the reasons I moved out here to Missouri. At the end of 2017, I was finally at a point where I could leave the corporate world behind and dive head-first into writing as a career. Leaving the big city for a while made the transition easier financially. I could not be happier with the change, and I sympathize with all aspiring authors that still struggle with a day job they find unfulfilling. For over a decade I worked a corporate career that paid well but didn’t offer much in the way of satisfaction. At least, not the kind of satisfaction I was looking for. I remember when I turned in my notice, my boss (who was always very supportive of my writing, which was super refreshing) wished me well and said that it had always been obvious where my heart really was. I should send that guy a book, haha.
What types of books do you like to read? Which authors do you admire?
RD-I try to read books from just about every genre. Whatever genre an author writes, they can always learn good writing lessons from other genres, and I think it’s fun to mix the styles. My all-time favorite book is The Count of Monte Cristo, and my second favorite is The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway. I’m a huge fan of Abigail Johnson and Tom Leveen’s contemporary YA books. After Zero by Christina Collins and The Zanna Function by Daniel Wheatley are my most recent MG favorites. James Islington’s The Shadow of What Was Lost brought some interesting ideas into adult fantasy, and Brandon Sanderson’s new sci-fi Skyward is one of the biggest thrill rides I’ve read in quite a while.
What is the most difficult part of writing a book? What is the most fun part of writing a book?
RD-For me, the toughest parts are the in-between moments. When I finish a first draft, I take a 2-4 week break from the book, which allows me to come back to it with fresh eyes for the next draft. Waiting is really hard. 🙂 So I use that time to occupy myself with other ideas I’ve been toying with. Then, when the book is ready for beta readers after a few drafts, it’s pure agony to send them the story and wait for their feedback. I’m typically pretty confident in my writing, but every stray self-doubt and insecurity rises up when I’m waiting to hear if they liked it. The most fun parts are the initial stages of development when bursts of inspiration help me build a story or a character, and the points where characters are finally face to face and talking to each other. That’s when they start to reveal who they are, and it’s a thrill when they become real people.
What sort of research did you have to do for your Time Shift books? Do you have a science background?
RD-I’m a science geek with no formal scientific training. 🙂 I would describe my trilogy as science fantasy since it involves time manipulation, but I still wanted to use actual science as a foundation where I could. I studied how lightning and other weather patterns work, since they play a heavy thematic part in all three books. I read about basic quantum theory, what we know and don’t know about gravity, and the general theory of relativity. These books were a great excuse to read up on things I was interested in anyway.
How do you go about world building?
RD-I typically start with the story concept. As that’s developing, I start thinking about what kind of world would need to exist for this story to happen. How far away from our world does it need to be? What’s the same, what’s different, and how big are those differences? For example, the Time Shift Trilogy’s world is quite similar to ours in many ways. It’s not until the big stuff happens that we realize there’s much more going on under the surface. My next projects are similar in that way – the worlds share many commonalities with ours, but they’re skewed enough to accommodate the fantastic elements. I’m toying with ideas for future projects that will require more complete construction of new worlds, and it’s been daunting but also really fun and rewarding to create the pieces of those worlds and put them together.
Do you have an agent? Who is your agent, and how did you connect?
RD-Last year I signed with Tricia Skinner of Fuse Literary. She is made of pure awesome. We get along amazingly well, and she continues proving herself to be the perfect partner for me. We connected through the querying process. I always wanted an agent, and although I ended up selling the Time Shift Trilogy on my own, I knew I’d go back to querying. Last year I wrote Remember Me, Archie, a middle grade about a boy whose grandfather is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, so the boy creates shared fantasy worlds for them to have adventures, as an attempt to bring back in his grandfather’s memories. After The Year of Lightning got so many agent rejections, it was refreshing for Archie to receive a few offers of representation, and Tricia immediately stood out to me. She’s everything I hoped for in a partner.
You’ve written comedy. Do you have a funny story about any of your books or about the writing process?
RD-I mostly like to write in public places like coffee shops (cliche, I know, but they’re awesome). However, I’ve learned the hard way not to write the intense scenes in public because I make faces and emote along with what’s happening. Fight scene? Angry faces, flinching at particularly hard hits, rocking out to heavy music. Sad scene? Sad faces, sniffling, teary eyes, all while sipping a festive coffee drink as college students work on their homework around me. I got enough weird looks that I now save those scenes for night writing at home. Also, I have one true story that I want to incorporate into a book somehow. A number of family members have read my books, and many them are book geeks, so I end up getting insightful feedback from them. I have one relative, though, who would otherwise never read the kind of books I write. This is not a problem for me at all, but they insisted on reading the books. I imagine this was to be supportive, which is super nice, but they’re reading the books very slowly because they aren’t all that interested, and now whenever we meet, I get to hear about how the books aren’t their thing. I continue imploring them, “Please stop reading the books, you’re clearly not enjoying them.” But they insist on soldiering forward. So while the support is appreciated, I’d rather they just move on and read what they like and then we don’t have to talk about this anymore, haha.