New Voice: Chris Rylander on The Fourth Stall

Chris Rylander is the first-time author of The Fourth Stall (Walden Pond Press/HarperCollins, 2011). From the promotional copy:

Do you need something? Mac can get it for you. It’s what he does—he and his best friend and business manager, Vince. Their methods might sometimes run afoul of the law—or at least the school code of conduct—but if you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can pay him, Mac is on your side. His office is located in the east wing boys’ bathroom, fourth stall from the high window. And business is booming.

Or at least it was until this particular Monday. It starts with a third grader in need of protection. And before this ordeal is over, it’s going to involve a legendary high school crime boss named Staples, an intramural gambling ring, a graffiti ninja, the nine most dangerous bullies in school, and the first Chicago Cubs World Series game in almost seventy years. And that’s just the beginning.

Mac and Vince soon realize that the trouble with solving everyone else’s problems is that there’s no one left to solve yours.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid meets “The Sopranos” in this laugh-a-minute mystery from an exciting new talent.

Are you a plotter or a plunger? Do you outline first, write to explore, or engage some combination of the two? Where do you go from there? What about this approach appeals to you? What advice do you have for writers struggling with plot?

At first, I’m definitely a plunger. (Ha ha, I just reread that, and I never thought I’d ever write that sentence.) Anyway, most of my stories and manuscripts have started with either the opening sentence or just the barest hint of an idea. And then I kind of “wing it” from there.

However, as I move further and further into the story, I typically do start to make more and more notes to myself, and by the time I’m roughly halfway through the story, I have developed an outline of sorts for the rest of it.

What appeals to me is the idea that I can start any story I want whenever I want without having to do any “work” beforehand. I feel like this really keeps ideas flowing, this feeling that I don’t ever have to adhere to any set outline or ideas.

Like, my debut, The Fourth Stall, started with a simple first few sentences that I thought were cool, and after page one, I had absolutely no idea what kind of story I was going to write or who the characters would be or anything, and that’s what appeals to me. The constant idea that I can do whatever I want in my stories.

I sort of view writing as the truest form of freedom that we have, in that you really can create whatever and whomever you want anytime you want and those things you create can do whatever you want them to.

It’s almost kind of starting to sound creepy to me when I describe it this way, but it’s that idea that I think can really help anyone struggling with plot.

Just keep reminding yourself: I can do whatever I want; it’s my story… so if you’re stuck, then unstick yourself. You’re the only one with control and power within your own story to do so! (I so wish that unstick was really a word, it would be a fine word, it really would.)

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you find the voice of your first person protagonist? Did you do character exercises? Did you make an effort to listen to how young people talk? Did you free your inner kid or adolescent? And, if it seemed to come by magic, how would you suggest others tap into that power in their own writing?

I’ve always found that my voice for middle grade and young adult writing has come pretty naturally. And I feel like it’s always been my biggest asset. Because an editor or agent can help you with your plot, or your characters, or your structure, or even help you find your theme or heart of your story. But it’s much harder for them to help you find your “voice.” Which has been great for me since I needed a lot of help in all of the other areas, being that I don’t have an English degree and didn’t take any creative writing or English classes in college outside the minimum requirements.

To find my voice, really all I did was tap into my inner kid, which was easy for me since I still feel like a 12-year old most of the time.

I was only 23 when I started The Fourth Stall, and I grew up in the video-game age. So I feel like I already had a pretty strong connection to modern kids. I still love to do all things that most kids do: play video games; play and watch sports; watch movies; download tons of music, etc.

I mean, at risk of sounding completely immature, I’ll admit that I even still have a Nerf gun collection! So finding my voice was as easy, writing what entertained me. I thought back to what I would have found fun as a kid, which is more or less the same stuff that I find fun today. So that really helped, I think.

Also, I think another key is to let go of your filters. I don’t mean to just start cursing like a grizzled gold prospector, but so much of growing up and becoming adult involves censoring your imagination and personality more and more as you get older. There are a bevy of social rules that we’re always expected to follow, and as you enter the workplace there’s that ultimate kill-joy of “professionalism” hanging over our heads at all times.

But when you’re writing for kids, you really need to let all of that go. Be weird. Be crazy. Have fun. Just let everything you’ve been holding back at those formal dinner parties or work meetings or on the bus or wherever, just let all of that go when you’re writing. I think tapping into your “unfiltered” personality is one way of finding your true writing voice.

The Fourth Stall Blog Tour

2 thoughts on “New Voice: Chris Rylander on The Fourth Stall

  1. Chris Rylander is hilarious! I did an interview with him for my blog and I could not stop laughing at his answers. I just picked up The Fourth Stall and look forward to reading it soon.

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