With the recently released The Insurrection, his third and final book in the Initiation trilogy, Chris Babu is set to move onto other projects. But what do we know about this YA dystopian author? I was lucky enough to get the chance to interview Babu and was intrigued to learn more about his inspiration and ideas for future projects.
How do you develop your plot and characters? Are the characters based on people you know?
How much time do you have? (Ha). As a reader, I’m often frustrated by books that are heavy on description and light on story, regardless of the beauty of the prose. It’s driven me to write plot-centric fiction that moves and comes together in interesting ways. This requires outlining and adherence to story structure, which sounds boring, but it allows me to control the pacing, and to ensure the story is always ratcheting up in intensity and suspense.
I can plant seeds to set up twists that only I know are coming (really important for plotting, because is there anything worse than a predictable story?) and can scatter seemingly innocuous clues which become hugely relevant later. The opening scene of The Initiation contains details that may seem trivial at first but have massive ramifications two books later in The Insurrection, and you can only pull off stuff like that with a lot of planning. I will know the story’s major moments and usually the ending before I start writing, although I allow for spontaneous creativity too.
Of course, action without great characters is meaningless, as anyone who’s ever watched a forgettable “action” movie knows. Most of my characters are indeed loosely based on people I know, because it’s one of the easiest ways to make them believable. One of the wonderful aspects of creative writing is leaning on our own life experiences, which has the effect of making our stories uniquely ours. Basing my fictional characters on friends is also like the greatest inside joke of all time!
Have you always been drawn to the struggles of humans overcoming harsh natural environments as well as solving very complex puzzles?
Watching characters overcome challenges in fiction gives us hope that we can do the same in our own lives, which, in my opinion, is central to why we read in the first place. Dystopias are like “conflict” on steroids. It’s somewhat counterintuitive that people enjoy reading (and writing) about these horrible worlds in which everyone is suffering. Like, don’t we get enough of that in real life?
But that’s precisely the point.
Among other things, dystopias show us that no matter how nightmarish our environment might get, the human spirit always finds a way to endure, and that message can be very reassuring, especially as our world starts to feel more dystopian.
As far as puzzles, I’ve always loved them. Many people associate puzzles such as brainteasers with math, and as thus tend to shy away from them based on prior negative experiences. But there is a very specific joy that derives from so
lving a puzzle, and it’s why crosswords and Sodoku are so popular. Part of the inspiration behind The Initiation was to encourage the reader to experience the gratification of solving complex puzzles. Problem solving is a major theme throughout the trilogy.
What made you write about a dystopian America full of secrets and overcontrolling leadership?
There’s been a palpable rise in authoritarianism around the globe, and despite the strength of our democracy, the idea that it could happen here isn’t so farfetched. Authoritarianism often emerges slowly, bolstered by propaganda. Freedom and human rights are not cut but eroded, which can make the changes subtle and easy to miss. Catastrophes (and certainly apocalypses!) are notorious for prompting discrete losses of freedoms under the veil of safety and security, which is something we saw in America after 9/11 with the Patriot Act.
The characters in The Initiation find themselves in an unrecognizable America. It’s a three-book journey, but The Insurrection is a story that is largely about how to reclaim our freedom if we were to suddenly find it ripped away.
How long does it take you to write a book?
With three finished books under my belt now, I have good data on this! It takes me about a year—three months from idea to a full outline, three months to write, and six months of revising and editing, and that’s working on it every day. Then, of course, it’s at least another year to publish.
After all that, people may end up hating it! There’s a saying (unknown source) that writing a book is like telling a joke and having to wait two years to find out whether it was funny or not.
What is the most difficult part of writing for you? (Finishing a book, reading bad reviews, finding time to write, etc)
Since you brought it up, at the beginning it was, in fact, the negative reviews, which I think is pretty common. Every author thinks his/her book is amazing and it can be quite a punch in the gut when someone hates it, particularly because hardcore book reviewers can be ruthless! The fear of being judged, or making yourself vulnerable before the world, is what keeps many writers from publishing their work. The reviews don’t get any easier to read because it’s impossible not to take them personally, but if you have stories to tell, the judgment comes with the territory.
I write full time, write every day, and love everything about the process of writing, so I don’t find anything about the act of writing to be difficult. Composing a great story, one that’s so complex it requires 400 pages to tell, is incredibly tough though, because it requires such clarity of thought and precision of language. Spinning a tale that’s original in some way, touches readers emotionally, makes them think, and keeps them glued to the pages is really challenging, which is why there are many good books but few truly great ones. I’m a student of the craft, constantly reading writing blogs, and learning new techniques so I’m always improving, all while knowing that the path to becoming a great writer is on a mountain with no summit.
Which authors do you think influenced your writing the most?
In terms of style, I like to believe I have my own, but if there’s one author whose style I find myself emulating the most it’s Rick Riordan. I love everything about the way he writes, from his pacing and storytelling to his sentence structure and word choice. There’s a beauty in the simplicity of his prose and that’s what I strive for, versus a lot of YA these days that’s exceptionally ornate and lush.
With respect to mood, and grabbing a reader, it’s Stephen King all day. And of course, regarding my series, I pay homage to the titans of modern YA dystopia—Margaret Atwood, Lois Lowry, Suzanne Collins, Veronica Roth, and James Dashner to name a few.
Do you plan on writing another series now that The Initiation trilogy is finished?
I’m nearly finished with a new YA novel and this one will be a standalone. What I love about a series is getting to know the characters through multiple books, watching them evolve, and accompanying them on several distinct but related adventures. As an author, a series is an appealing way to build up a dedicated readership, with people eagerly awaiting your next release, and it allows you to write more books without having to worldbuild or create new characters again.
The flip side is that marketing a “book three” is hard, because getting pre-release reviews requires someone to read three books, and only those consumers who have read the earlier books are likely to buy it. So, an unfortunate (yet expected) consequence of writing a series is a natural pattern of declining sales. I’m simplifying here, but if ten people read book one and eight like it, then eight will buy book two, and six will like it, etc.
My new novel (yet to be titled) is a YA paranormal thriller about psychic ability, which was inspired by my haunted house. Yep, you read that right. I live in a home built in 1895 and we definitely have a ghost.
What tips do you have for young people hoping to become writers?
The standard advice is to “read a lot and write every day” and while I agree, it’s so ubiquitous as to be kind of useless. I would say the most important thing is to believe in yourself.
Before I started writing seriously, I couldn’t imagine writing a novel. I wasn’t an English major (I was a math major), never worked in publishing, and didn’t have any experience. But if you want something badly enough and are willing to put in the work, the world is your oyster.
Experts will tell you it’s nearly impossible to write a book and get it published, so don’t bother. Ignore them!
While there is endless rejection along the way, and it’s easy to feel like a fraud, people write books, get signed by agents, and score publishing contracts every single day. There’s no reason you can’t too.
The key though is doing the work, because the idea of being a writer is romantic, and we never see the thousands of hours of blood, sweat, and tears poured in behind the scenes. It takes time and patience, and the best way to soldier on is to fall in love with the process of writing—the drafting, the editing, etc.—not just the end result. I might spend two hours rewriting one sentence, but when I finally get it right? It’s not unlike the joy of solving a puzzle. Ironically, if you can fall in love with the process and let go of the finished product, you’re much more likely to produce something really special.