By David Seaman | Echo
Chandler Birch ('14) graduated from Taylor's professional writing program and recently won an inaugural student novel writing contest for Simon451, a brand-new imprint of book publishing giant Simon & Schuster focusing on science fiction and fantasy. Birch's novel "Ashes" has a speculated release date for next fall and will be published in e-book form.
The Simon451 contest Birch won contained pieces from young writers all over the nation. After narrowing the field down to 10 finalists, Simon451 chose the story with the most potential.
"Chandler's manuscript seemed to have a really good grasp of fantasy genre. It had the most detailed and consistent worldbuilding," said Sophia Jiminez, Simon451's editorial assistant for "Ashes." "Chandler's (work) stood out because the world stuck with us."
And what a world it is.
"It's Les Miserables meets Harry Potter in Atlantis with the protagonist as the Tenth Doctor, but as a teenager," mused Birch in a Skype interview. "Ashes is the main character and gets in way over his head."
What led the recent Taylor grad to write a massive fantasy novel with a unique plot? "It started out summer after my freshman year, 2011," Birch said. "I started writing out bits of it in an episodic format . . . I put them into 'chapterettes' on my blog, kind of just kicking the story around."
This episodic writing stemmed from Birch's steady childhood diet of comic books, television and cartoons. "I wanted to try doing a short format that combines to form a longer story," Birch said. Frustrated that his episodic format wasn't working, he dropped the concept for a time. Writing on and off up until his senior year, Birch flirted with different types of writing. But he couldn't seem to finish any drafts of the story-until last February.
"I saw a contest . . . Simon & Schuster was putting on for students writing fantasy," Birch said. The first entry required a student to submit 50 pages and a summary of where the book was going. For Birch, it was the wake-up call he needed and a great excuse to do more writing.
After writing 50 pages in 15 days, Birch submitted his work March 15. Exactly a month later, on April 15, he found out he was one of the 10 finalists. The entire book needed to be submitted by Sept. 1.
"That was a daunting task because in between those dates I had to graduate, write a book and plan and then execute marriage," Birch said (he is happily married to fellow Taylor grad Kelsey (Losey '14). "I succeeded in all of those."
Over the summer, Birch typed almost nonstop. "That was intense . . . it was very, very difficult. Got up around 5 a.m. every morning," Birch said. In between wedding preparations and graduation, the young writer was able to squeeze in around half an hour of writing a day.
"Every weekday I was aiming to hit 2,000 words a day, every weekend around 5,000. At least once every day to keep up momentum," Birch said.
Birch's revision style was a unique one. "I basically started the story at page 1 all over again and wrote through it to the end, regardless of the previous drafts I had done." His hard work paid off in the end: he finished the story on time, at 160,000 words (close to 640 pages). Now all he had to do was wait.
"September 22 was the date they told us to expect the announcement," Birch said. Bracing himself for disappointment, Birch instead won the contest.
"Ashes" will be released next fall in e-book format. "Not a lot of publishers are able to publish someone like me because it's too risky. E-book publishing is safer, not as much risk in loss of sales," Birch said.
Because "Ashes" is so large, Birch and his editor Sophia Jiminez are thinking of splitting it into two books. "We have one book on contract at the moment," Jiminez said. "The first, tentatively, in a series."
Birch, along with the rest of Simon451, promoted his work last week at New York Comic Con. "I was there just to be a fresh and excited face," Birch said. The event involved a booth where people were encouraged to take selfies with Simon451 authors, including "X-Files" star Gillian Anderson.
Birch drew on his immense knowledge of fantasy and experiences at Taylor to draw the plot for "Ashes." "The plot is complicated. The large-scale plot is this terrorist group trying to overthrow the current ruling party," Birch said. "We have an audacious, clever orphan who in the course of staying alive ticks off a lot of people who want him dead. It's blatant lies and having fun with what can you make a person believe."
A steady string of RPG, movies and television influenced "Ashes." One of the original ideas from "Ashes" came from "Tangled," Birch admitted. "When Flynn Rider is doing his backstory and he's like, 'I was an orphan and I read about Flynn Rider-' Oh, there's an idea! I pay tribute to the trickster and manipulator type."
Unfortunately, the fantasy genre is known for cases of unoriginality. "A lot of them ape Tolkien," Birch explained. "Dragons, orcs, elves, dwarves . . . that's fine, but it's very lazy." Birch wanted to play with the established fantasy tropes and create his own voice. "I'm drawing on what I've read in fantasy all my life and tugging on them a little bit, reshaping them into something interesting and new."
The professional writing classes Birch took at Taylor were invaluable to him. Department professors like Dennis Hensley and Pamela Jordan-Long, along with English professor Aaron Housholder, helped develop his writing style.
"To say that I am proud of Chandler for winning the Simon & Schuster national novel writing contest would be a big understatement," said Hensley, current director of the Professional Writing Department and teacher of Birch's commercial fiction writing class. "I'm ecstatic about that. However, I'm not surprised by it. Chandler is creative, hard working, talented, inventive and diligent."
What does the future hold for this talented writer? Birch admits he has nothing planned but has several ideas. "Ashes" ends with a sequel hook, and Birch hopes the book will do well enough for a second novel.
"If they're willing to stick with me after the second book, I'll give them seven," Birch said. "There are ideas for a sequel and more after that."