'SYLO': DJ MacHale interview
If you’re a fan of The Maze Runner and Alex Rider, you might want to pick up SYLO by best-selling author and former TV writer DJ MacHale. The new young-adult series-starter from the author of the Pendragon books follows 14-year-old Tucker Pierce, whose small town is invaded by a secret branch of the U.S. military called SYLO. The book promises a fast-paced read and a huge cliff-hanger. Read on for a Q&A with MacHale about the difference between writing books and TV shows.
How did you come up with the idea for SYLO?
My stories usually come from a series of ideas that bounce around loosely in my head until a few intersect and then VOILA! Story. In this case, I wanted to write a story about a guy who, like so many people, is perfectly happy with being mediocre. He has no great aspiration to make his mark on the world. His greatest goal is to live a comfortable, simple life in his small home town. I then wanted a conflict to arise that would drag him out of his comfort zone, test him, and force him to rise to the occasion in ways he never thought possible. That conflict is all about the setting. It’s a beautiful (fictional) island off the coast of Maine that is inexplicably invaded by a mysterious branch of the U.S. Navy called SYLO. They quarantine the island so that nobody can land or leave. Of course, as with all good mystery/adventures there’s more going on than first meets the eye, and that’s the third idea that took root. It’s the question of why this is all happening. That’s something I can’t talk about here because it’s a huge spoiler and the theme of the trilogy. Those three ingredients were shaken liberally and brought together to produce SYLO.
How did being a TV writer inform the way you plotted the novel?
While TV and books are two totally different animals, in one way they are becoming maddeningly similar. With TV, thumbs are always on the remote control. If a show doesn’t grab your attention in a few seconds…CLICK! You’re gone. That’s why with television it’s important to grab a viewer’s attention with something compelling right up front and hope that it’s enough to get them to put the remote down. It’s not much different trying to get and hold the attention of young readers. You have to spark their curiosity in the first line, then the first paragraph and certainly the first chapter. If not, the book will get tossed. Using a TV term, I often write a “cold open” with my books. Since I write adventure stories it’s usually an action scene that is not only exciting, but will give the reader a taste of what’s in store. With SYLO, I did that twice! There are “cold opens” in both of the first two chapters. The hope is that once a reader is hooked, they will then allow the author to slow it down a bit and take the time to set the characters and the story. To be honest I don’t like to have to do that, but it has become necessary. I once read a review that a young person wrote of one of my books. It went something like: “This book was really slow to get started…but after the first ten pages it really took off.” Ten pages? Really? In that case I almost lost a reader because they weren’t engaged in the first minute of reading. It’s unfortunate, but a fact of life now.
What do you prefer about writing books over for TV, and vice versa?
Writing books is about freedom. It’s me and my imagination. There is no budget. There is no running time and no commercial breaks. I cast whomever I want. Notes come from people who actually know how to make a story work … and respect the fact that I might not agree with them. Egos don’t come in to play. For someone who loves to tell stories, it doesn’t get any better than that. On the other hand, working with a talented cast and crew is also very rewarding and a whole lot of fun. I miss that. As a writer/director, creating a scene or even a small moment that works on screen is incredibly satisfying. Also, taking something from your imagination and making it real, at least on screen, is nothing short of magical. Both formats have their positives and negatives, but either way it’s a great way to make a living.
What can you tell me about movie interest in SYLO?
Right now I’m in negotiations with a studio for the rights. We’ve put together a package with an incredible production company along with a writer and director who are perfect for the project. Of course I can’t mention any names because everyone is negotiating and nothing is final, but if it comes together we’ve got a real shot at making this happen. Stay tuned.
What are you reading/recommending now?
Oddly, I don’t often read the kind of books that I write. It’s tough to take off my writer’s hat because I know, and see, all the tricks so I can’t get lost in the story. That’s why I tend to read non-fiction. I’ve recently read Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and Into The Wild. Both gripping stories of human courage and frailty. I loved James Bradley’s Flyboys and Flags of our Fathers. He writes history like a fiction writer, making it hard to put down. Also Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. It’s the story of a local hero whose inspiring odyssey of survival during World War II probably wouldn’t have been published if it had been conceived of as fiction. It’s an incredible, true story.