Editor’s Note: I’m pleased to feature this interview with author duo Sean Platt and David Wright as part of the Winning Edits Expert Interview Series.
Sean and David are the co-authors of Yesterday’s Gone, a post-apocalyptic thriller delivered in an irresistible serialized format, like a high-drama TV series or comic.
Thank you both for joining us.
Matt Gartland: Emotional storytelling is at the heart of Yesterday’s Gone. What stories from your life, past and present, inspired this type of narrative?
David Wright: I love stories where you feel what the character feels, and that’s what we try to do with the different points-of-view in Yesterday’s Gone.
For fiction to work, you have to feel something for the characters.
I first learned this, oddly enough, as a child while reading old hardcover Peanuts treasuries at my grandmother’s house.
While I liked the individual comic strips, I loved the running storylines even more. I remember getting a tingle when I realized that a particular story was going to play out for more than a few days. The Peanuts strips, especially in the 60s and 70s, which these treasuries had collected, were full of real emotional stuff: fear, fitting in, alienation, unrequited love, all powerful things fit neatly into four panels a day.
When I read these stories, I was transported to a magical place. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do with my writing (and before that, my comics): to carry people some place magical. That begins with caring about the characters, even the ones you hate.
Sean Platt: Emotional writing is my favorite type of writing, period.
I love writing when I know people are going to feel my words, and that they’ll resonate with them even after the page is finished. So it isn’t so much specific stories of life as it is just living life in general, observing the world around me and then reporting it as I see it.
My fiction is highly influenced by the films I’ve seen throughout my lifetime, just as much as the experiences I’ve lived. Storytelling resonates with me when I believe the characters. Emotion is core to that.
For example, I love Spielberg’s work.
Spielberg is remarkable at crafting amazingly articulate action scenes. But his best moments make you feel what it’s like to be in the mind of an ordinary man in an extraordinary circumstance. Whether that means dealing with approaching aliens in Close Encounters, assassinations in Munich, or the end of the world as we know it in War of the Worlds, emotional connection is everything to the narrative.
MG: How has the serialized nature of Yesterday’s Gone challenged your storytelling abilities? And how have those experiences changed you as writers?
SP: There are so many characters in Yesterday’s Gone, it isn’t always easy to know which is the BEST possible path for our story to take. Because, really, we could take it anywhere. Our job is to keep things forever entertaining for our readers, while consistently giving answers to the story threads they’ve been wondering about and introducing new questions to ponder.
And no matter what, we must always keep the story interesting.
Building the anticipation from week to week, without ever resorting to cheap tricks, can be challenging. But it is also infinitely rewarding, and I feel as though the things we’re learning now will stay with us as storytellers forever.
This series has also served as proof that this sort of schedule can be maintained, both for us as writers and for our audience of readers. We can produce an episode each week, and as long as we’re consistent, we will have readers waiting to buy.
I’m often asked how we are able to produce an abundance of quality work at the speed we do. That question is its own answer.
I believe we are able to create an abundance of quality work because of the speed with which we do it.
The serialized nature of our story teaches us, week by week, to write fast and create the sort of stories our readers can’t get enough of. We are growing stronger as writers by the week.
DW: Because there’s such a large cast, you want to give everyone their fair share of story, and not rush through anything.
There’s also the challenge of mixing the stories just right. An action-heavy chapter here, a thoughtful chapter there, followed by something with a bit of both, and maybe some humor thrown in.
You want to set it up in a way that gives each scene the most impact without forcing stuff. For instance, we don’t want to change the story just because we had an action scene in the last chapter. So there’s a blend that requires some thought and experimentation to get right.
A couple of other challenges are opening and ending the stories. Working up to a great cliffhanger can be tricky. You don’t want to be cheap, and have something totally unbelievable happen, and then just dismiss it in the next episode. The events have to have real impact and be believable in the world they exist in.
As for how it’s changed me, I’d say it’s taught me how to adapt more quickly to changing storylines, which is a good thing.
MG: What worked well and not co-writing a series together? From those lessons learned, what teachings can you share with other writers who aspire to co-author a series?
DW: Yesterday’s Gone has been a more fluid process than anything else Sean and I have worked on. I feel we really hit our creative stride here! The only problem, if you can call it that, is that Sean works much faster than I do. Lightning quick. We wrote ourselves into an almost impossibly tight schedule because we wanted to release new episodes each week.
I’m a slow plotter, a bit less daring than Sean. I need to make sure everything lines up with the master plan, and make sure we don’t write ourselves into a corner we can’t get out of.
As far as advice, I would say don’t have ego about what you’ve written.
Be open to changes from your co-writer, don’t get attached to an idea when a better one will serve the story better. In short, STORY is the number one factor in all decisions. Does this work for the story? If not, cut it out. We have a remarkably ego-free relationship, which is key.
Second, I would say realize what kind of writer you are, and set realistic writing goals, knowing your strengths and weaknesses.
SP: Pretty much everything has worked well collaborating on Yesterday’s Gone.
David and I have a remarkably fluid, creative and collaborative relationship. Dave is unafraid to tell me when something I write sucks, which is uber important to me considering the speed at which I write. I’m rather unafraid to get that first draft out there, which means I sometimes fly too fast. Dave does a great job of reining me in, refining my instincts, and helping me grow as a writer.
The big thing I think we’ve both learned, and a big take away for other writers wanting to co-author a series, is that Yesterday’s Gone has taught us what we’re both best at. David is an excellent plotter, and I’m great at getting his story beats down, and polishing the language so it has a unified rhythm.
If you’re working with another writer, you must know your strengths so you can lean into them. Dave and I are ridiculously excited about our follow-up to Yesterday’s Gone, which we’ll be starting soon, since we can take the lessons we learned from our first series and apply them directly to our second.
MG: What do you foresee the future to have in store for storytellers given all that’s occurring in the publishing industry?
SP: I believe the biggest change will be a narrowing gap between reader and writer.
Readers expect more from writers these days. Dave and I have developed a tremendous bond with our readers, one that is enriching by the week.
The biggest fans of Yesterday’s Gone sign up to be one of our “Goners.” Goners get special freebies and extra attention. We love our readers and are lucky to have a way to communicate with them so directly.
This type of communication is something we learned how to do as a result of our three years spent online, running our blogs and being active participants in social media. And it’s an area where the big publishers right now are running way behind.
This is just getting started. Readers will continue to expect more from their stories, both on the page and away from it.
I also believe reader devices will innovate in amazing ways, empowering producers to develop new ways to tell old stories, ways that right now we can barely imagine.
And I think that must start with a universal format.
The “Blu-Ray versus HDTV” tug-of-war we have going on right now between Sony’s e-reader, B&N’s Nook, Apple’s iPad and Amazon’s Kindle is ridiculous and creates a poor experience for the reader. That means we all lose.
I’m sure it’s just a waiting game until everything evens out, just like with all the format wars before. And I really hope it’s not like video games, where separate consoles persist regardless.
DW: I’m not sure what is in store. Here are a few things I’d like to see, though…
Universal eBook format across all devices. Readers shouldn’t be limited to buying from particular places for particular devices. Books you buy on one device should be transferable to another, and you should be able to buy from whomever you want.
I’m not sure if that’s economically viable for companies, but as a reader, it makes the most sense.
I’d also like to see ways you can subscribe to an author’s series (or serialized books) so you can buy once, or buy a subscription, and get each book as it comes out, without the hassle of having to go look for the next one.
Another thing I’d love to see is more interaction with readers in the books themselves. Not in the story, but perhaps at the end, a way to include questions and answers. I see eBooks going forward as dynamic, ever-changing texts with lots of room for innovation.
MG: What’s the #1 piece of actionable advice you give to writers who want to improve their storytelling talent?
SP: Stop waiting for permission and start writing now.
Every day you don’t write is a day you will never get a chance to write again.
Read as much as you can, as a reader and as a writer. Watch as many movies as possible, plus scripted television, so you can grow as a writer by learning from the examples of others.
But most of all, start today!
DW: Write and read a lot. Learn by doing and following examples you see in great writing. As you write more, you begin to see more in writing: what the writer is doing, trying to do, etc. You can appreciate others’ writing a bit differently, and learn from it.
Second, get a great editor. Seriously, it makes all the difference in the world! (Matt is our editor on Yesterday’s Gone: Season Two, and I love what he’s done! Especially under such insanely tight deadlines!)
Images provided by and used with permission from the interviewees.