Interview with Madeline Dyer for UNTAMED

Madeline Dyer’s recently released debut UNTAMED, is a YA dystopian sci-fi that fans of DIVERGENT and THE HUNGER GAMES can really sink their teeth into! It tells the tale of Seven, one of the last Untamed humans left in the world.

            As one of the last Untamed humans left in the world, Seven’s life has always been controlled by tight rules. Stay away from the Enhanced. Don’t question your leader. And, most importantly, never switch sides—because once you’re Enhanced there’s no going back. Even if you have become the perfect human being.
          But after a disastrous raid on an Enhanced city, Seven soon finds herself in her enemy’s power. Realizing it’s only a matter of time before she too develops a taste for the chemical augmenters responsible for the erosion of humanity, Seven knows she must act quickly if she’s to escape and save her family from the same fate.
          Yet, as one of the most powerful Seers that the Untamed and Enhanced have ever known, Seven quickly discovers that she alone holds the key to the survival of only one race. But things aren’t clear-cut anymore, and with Seven now questioning the very beliefs she was raised on, she knows she has an important choice to make. One that has two very different outcomes.
         Seven must choose wisely whose side she joins, for the War of Humanity is underway, and Death never takes kindly to traitors.

 Madeline Dyer is a young writer—she’s only 20 years old, so look out writing world…this is one to watch! She’s a fan of writing quickly, and says she wrote the first draft of UNTAMED during NaNoWriMo one year. I was recently lucky enough to chat with Madeline about her book, and her writing. (I must admit, I edited her answers to account for space here, but she had such deep insight into each of her answers, I wish I could have printed her responses in their entirety!)

GG: Thanks for taking time out of your hectic life right now to answer some questions, Madeline! Let's start out with a few basics. UNTAMED is a dystopian with sci-fi elements added to the mix. Dystopian is a tough sell right now, as the market has been flooded with it since the likes of THE HUNGER GAMES and DIVERGENT, etc.  UNTAMED had to really stand out in the mix! Did you start writing this when the genre was popular, or was it simply a story that had to be told?

MD: Well, I wrote the first draft of UNTAMED during June 2013, when I was eighteen. I think it took me around twenty-four days. I didn’t set out to write a book that would fit into a popular, successful market trend. I wrote UNTAMED because I wanted to write about a terrifying dystopian future, and after some research and inspiration I decided that I wanted this dystopian future to explore human nature, family loyalty and the notion of ‘doing the right thing’ when doing the wrong thing is so much easier. It was a story that I just really wanted to tell—the characters demanded it—and if someone wanted to publish it, then that was a bonus.

I got lots of replies saying that editors loved the unique premise, loved my writing style, but dystopian fiction was a tough sell at the moment, and the market, like you said, was flooded. A lot of editors said they couldn’t take a risk with a dystopian novel from an unknown author. In November 2013, an editor gave me some suggestions for revisions that could make my book a lot stronger, and even more unique. I worked on these suggestions, and developed UNTAMED even further with some new ideas I had. A couple of months later, after querying this new, updated version, four publishers offered on UNTAMED, and at the end of June 2014, when I was nineteen, I signed a contract with Prizm Books.

Fast forward a year, and UNTAMED has just been released—and YA dystopian fiction is bigger than ever. There are literally thousands of YA dystopian novels competing against each other, which obviously makes it harder to find a unique idea for such a novel. But, even with this market being so crowded, I’m still writing dystopian fiction. UNTAMED is the first in a series, and I’m also working on rough outlines for an adult dystopian novel, and a YA dystopian trilogy.

GG: Your bio mentions you love writing during NaNoWriMo. A book in 30 days is not something I can do. How do you manage to stay so focused?

MD: Yes, I’m a massive fan of hammering out those first drafts as quickly as possible! I’ve found that I work best if I concentrate on writing a first draft in around a month, then I can spend the following months carrying out the research, rewriting, revising and editing, once I already know the rough ‘shape’ of the manuscript. I think the most words I’ve managed in a month is 90,000—and I was very sleep-deprived too!

Writing the first draft quickly allows me to get properly into characters’ heads, to live in their world, and really experience what they do. I think that’s important. I need to be absorbed by it all, if I want my readers to choose to live in this world, temporarily, with me.

I’ve also found I work well when I have a deadline (such as the end of the month), and a nice little graph that keep track of my word count! There is pressure, yes, but it’s a good kind of pressure. Motivational pressure, and I know that at the end, I’ll have a first draft. A very badly written first draft, albeit, with plenty of plot holes and loads more work that needs to be done on it. But if I haven’t got a complete bad draft to start with, I haven’t got anything to make better.

GG: Being a Canadian, I sometimes find it challenging to navigate the world of books in an American market. You’re from the U.K. Did you see this as a stumbling block, or something which pushed you to work harder?

MD: Hmmm. I never really thought of myself as actively seeking publication in an American market. I just wrote the story that I wanted, and queried it with the publishers who I thought would be the best fit after carrying out much research. Most of them just happened to be in America, and the publisher who I went with is in the US. I don’t think being from the UK has put me at any sort of disadvantage at all, especially with the power of the Internet.

GG: Okay, I mentioned that you’re only 20 years old. This business is hard enough for those of us who have…er….older, tougher skin. Do you find you have an easier time connecting with your YA characters because you’re close to their age and remember how it feels?

MD: I’m not sure that my age does influence my work that much—except that I have less life experience than other writers who are older. I’m just really drawn to the YA genre, and although I’ve also written a manuscript for adults, I still want to write for teenagers. There’s something special about those years. I guess we’ll see if in ten years’ time I’m still writing young adult novels, or whether my narrators have aged with me. I personally think I’ll be writing a mixture. After all, I’ve written a manuscript where the narrator was seven years older than I was at the time of writing, and currently, I’m working on book 2 of the Untamed Series, and the narrator is three years younger than me. It all depends on who the characters are when they come to me. I don’t set out to make characters who are the same age as me, I set out to make characters who are real to me. And I do think there needs to be a mixture of ages in each book. One thing that makes a book’s plot seem unreal to me is if all the characters are exactly the same age, particularly if they’re young.

GG: UNTAMED has a really strong female lead in Seven. How similar are you to her?

MD:  You know what? I’m so pleased with just how much feedback I’ve received, stating what a ‘strong’ character readers see Seven as. Although I wanted her to be strong and confident, I also wanted her to be human. There have been too many books I’ve read where the teenage narrator is so strong and confident and knows exactly what to do all the time, that he or she just doesn’t come across as a real person. When writing Seven, I focused on her flaws, gave her wobbly self-confidence (because, let’s face it, people do doubt themselves and their decisions in real life, and they do this a lot of the time, even if they don’t admit it), and I concentrated on her loyalty to her family. Too often, I think that’s missing from books. Particularly if there’s a love story in there too—it seems that you either get one or the other, that you can’t have both. I wanted Seven to seem like a real person that you could go out and meet any day of the week. And that meant finding the balance between flaws and strengths, and examining her loyalty to her family, as well as the start of a romantic relationship. (And that’s another thing that I wanted to do: slowly set up the basis for a relationship, rather than this whole ‘love at first sight’ thing which seems so popular at the moment, but unrealistic—sure, there’s lust at first sight, but is it really love?)

Yes, Seven makes mistakes. Huge mistakes. But life is about making mistakes, and characters need to make mistakes. Everyone does. And Seven learns from her mistakes, just as we learn from ours. I think that makes her strong.  At the same time as exploring Seven’s flaws, I also wanted to show how her confidence grows, because most people do get more confident as they get older, especially if they’ve survived tough situations.

In terms of how similar she is to me, I think there is a sort of ‘echoed’, distorted resemblance: like Seven, I’m an introvert and I do doubt myself and play over conversations in my head countless times. My family is also really important to me, as is Seven’s to her. But I think that’s where the comparison ends really—unfortunately, unlike Seven, I can’t see the future, and I’m not an expert with guns (though I’ve learnt a lot from my research!). I think I trust myself to make decisions more than Seven does, and I’m not as hard on myself as she is if something goes wrong. Seven bottles a lot more stuff up inside her than I do; I talk to people about how I’m feeling, she doesn’t.

I think it’s like that with all my characters: there’s always going to be a small part of them that could be me, and I think that’s the case with all writers. After all, we’ve got to sort of be able to identify with at least one aspect of a character to relate to them and believe that they’re real. But I see all my characters as completely separate people to me, separate entities. I know what they like, what they don’t like, how they’d react to different situations, what their flaws and strengths are. And because Seven feels real to me—and I can see she’s strong, even though she doesn’t check all the stereotypical boxes for ‘strength’—I think that makes it easier for readers to believe in her too. I’ve tried to present her as a real person who’s human and makes mistakes, not an idealized version of a someone who we all want to be.

Thank you so much for interviewing me—these questions were fabulous!

Madeline, we’re so glad you could come and talk with us today at the YA Buccaneers, and we wish you great success with UNTAMED, and the follow up books in the series! I know I’m looking forward to read the next one…..

Madeline Dyer is the author of Untamed, a YA dystopian fantasy novel from Prizm Books (May 2015). She is currently working on book two in the Untamed Series, as well as a new dystopian trilogy for adults. Aside from writing, Madeline enjoys reading, painting, and inline skating.