Today's guest for the WHAT is Randy Ribay, debut author of the contemporary YA novel AN INFINITE NUMBER OF PARALLEL UNIVERSES (Merit Press, October 2015). He's also a book reviewer & blogger for THE HORN BOOK and a high school English teacher. He can be found in Camden, NJ walking his dog-children, gaming, or making lightsaber sound effects with his mouth.
Ideas for our books can come from just about anywhere, and sometimes even we can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. Did you have a specific origin point for your book?
I began with some vague shape of the kind of story I knew I wanted to tell. When I started writing AN INFINITE NUMBER OF PARALLEL UNIVERSES, I was coming off of writing a post-apocalyptic zombie novel (that nobody will ever read!). I like mixing things up, so I knew I wanted to go in the opposite direction and try something realistic. From there, I knew I wanted to tell the story of a nerdy kid. And as I started writing his story and building his world, I became interested in his friends and their stories. That’s how I ended up deciding to ignore every piece of writing advice ever about how to structure a story.
Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?
I’m a diverse person who has lived a diverse life. Having been starved for literature that reflected my world as a child, I knew I wanted to my characters to convey a variety of experiences. So even though I was writing about a group of nerdy friends (who found each other by playing Dungeons & Dragons), I did not want them all to be the same type of nerd with the same background and the same struggles. So I began by creating my characters, and once I knew them, I gave them each a problem they needed overcome that would be true to their character. And once they each had a problem, I gave the group a problem that they would have to collectively resolve. I wrote to help them solve those problems.
Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?
My plot(s) kept changing right up to the final draft. Given the unique structure of my story (four parallel storylines that eventually converge), I constantly struggled with making sure that the individual plots intertwined sufficiently to necessitate that they be told jointly. On top of that, I had to ensure that the larger arc would help resolves the individual arcs. This, or course, made revision a…challenge. Every time I altered a plot point in one section, I had to then go and change every other section. Good times.
Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?
It took me a long time to start writing because I always felt like the first thing I wrote had to be a complete masterpiece. However, once I finally realized that that was bullshit (can I curse here?), I was actually able to write. Since then I’ve been able to find new ideas all around me. A lot of the times I’ll begin with an image—usually something I see in my daily life—and simply wonder about the story behind the image.
How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?
In between novels, I’ll do a stint of short stories. And I’ll basically keep writing short stories until something sticks, until I get to that point where I can’t stop thinking about one of the stories and its characters. So even though I always have a few bouncing around my head, it’s the one I’m most curious about that I’ll expand simply because I feel like there’s more story that I want to uncover.
Given the choice of losing your feet or your hands, what goes?
Feet, hands down (see what I did there?). My hands help me write, type, make omelets, play video games, pet puppies, build sandcastles, etc. My feet get me from point A to point B. Sometimes they kick things. I feel like they could be replaced with wheels or robot spider legs or a jet pack, and things would work out. Maybe I could even get stilts and finally be taller than Mindy McGinnis.