Rat Runners: Cracking the Plot

Writing.ie | Magazine | Children & Young Adult | Interviews
Rat-Runners Front Cover

By Oisin McGann

Imagine a world where, instead of those small unobtrusive security cameras in public places, watching you all the time, there were uniformed figures standing there instead. Masked, robed figures, watching from behind dark glass visors, equipped with x-ray cameras, thermographic sensors, directional microphones and chemical analyzers. They can not only watch you, they can examine you in extraordinary detail. They are called Safe-Guards, and they can follow you into your home if they want to. They can watch you eat, or go to the toilet. They can stand at the foot of your bed and watch you sleep.

Welcome to London in the near future, run by the system known as WatchWorld. This is the setting for my latest book, Rat Runners.

Before I start writing a story, there are a few elements I must have before I write the first line. I need a good title, one that not only identifies the book, but could also be catchy, compelling, and gives some sense of its central theme. And it helps if it doesn’t already have a few thousand hits on Google. If a good title doesn’t spring to mind, I will write out lists of combinations of words until I have a winner. I also need a central theme. Apart from anything else, this helps hold the story together. I need a few key characters, whose points of view will contribute to the voice of the narrative. I need some of the pivotal points of the plot, scenes that give some sense of the shape of the story.

And before I start any book, I need my ending. A climax to aim for. I can always change it if I want, but this means I’m deliberate about changing it, and can change back if it’s not working.

oisin mcgannWhen I first came up with the core idea for Rat Runners, the concept of people with cameras on their heads who could follow you around, my first thought was that the story would be about bringing down this system. I changed my mind because I wanted it to be more crime than sci-fi, and . . . well, the idea created so many other opportunities that I didn’t want to give up. This is something else I like to have: a scenario or environment that will almost stimulate ideas all on its own. If the premise for your plot is compelling enough, as any writer will know, once you start writing, other ideas present themselves to you.

By having a system that tracks adults, but only adults, I discovered a very practical way to empower kids – a real necessity in any story for kids – in this case, four rat-runners, underage criminals working for London gangsters. By having watchers on the streets equipped with x-ray cameras, I had a good reason why genuinely violent villains could not carry guns or other obvious weapons, forcing me to be more inventive in the action scenes. By creating the need for the rat-runners to avoid this all-pervasive surveillance as much as possible, just getting from place to place could become an action scene.

Then I killed someone at the start of the book, because nothing starts a crime story like a good murder mystery.

As I usually do now, I wrote out a synopsis for the book – no longer than this article – which served as a means of outlining it for my publisher, but then became a plan that I added to as I came up with more plot points. I wrote up a few separate descriptions of the main characters, looking for ways to make them distinctive and entertaining in their own right, but at the same time, giving them qualities that would drive the plot forward.

A good story is not just about characters and plot in a given setting, but how those things influence each other. Characters steer the events in your plot, but are also changed by them. And a well created setting should help shape both of these elements too.

Once I’d started writing, the planning took on a different shape. I was still looking at the overall shape, and tweaking it as I went, but I had to be more deliberate about things like what was coming up next, continuity, timeline and the interplay between the characters. The story is told from four main points of view: Nimmo, a master thief with trust issues; Manikin, a con artist and frustrated actor; Scope, an obsessive-compulsive science prodigy who fakes forensic evidence; and FX, a coffee-addicted, fidgety technical wizard and online anarchist. Having all these POVs meant that no one character was indispensable (so there is always a threat that they can be killed off) and I could show things happening in more than one location, which keeps the story more immediate, rather than describing these events with long-winded explanations later. Y’know . . . show, don’t tell.

But four points of view could get complicated for a young reader, so it was important to weave them together coherently, moving from one to another at logical points – while still trying to end each scene on a hook to keep the reader engaged. I’d drop in references to one scene in another, and do the odd recap, to help keep it all together in the reader’s head. By overlapping scenes, so that they stayed as immediate as possible, with one leading into another, and by repeating important plot elements from more than one point of view, I hoped to keep a fairly complex plot comprehensible and avoid a loss of pace.

And as I wrote, everything was seeded in the notebook first. I would list out the next few scenes I had to write, including any important character information, the key events and also any references I needed to bring in to reinforce what had gone before, as well as anything I might have to go back and fix in earlier scenes as a result.

A lot of this might sound quite mechanical, but I see the plot as the skeleton on which you hang the flesh of your story. Once the writing starts, having the main elements mapped out leaves you free to play on the page. In the end, you have to get this writhing, amorphous thing that’s in your head into somebody else’s head, and make sure it survives the journey as intact as possible. You write to have an effect on their reader, and I like to be as deliberate about that effect as I can. As a reader, my favourite books have engaging, distinctive characters, an engrossing plot, a fast pace and an ending that satisfies. That takes craftsmanship . . . applied technique. It doesn’t happen by accident, and it’s a process I’m still getting my head around.

But I’m still having a lot of fun while I’m at it.

(c) Oisin McGann

Born in Dublin 1973, Oisín McGann spent his childhood there and in Drogheda, County Louth. He studied at Ballyfermot Senior College and Dun Laoghaire School of Art and Design, and went on to work in illustration, design and film animation, later moving to London to work as an art director and copy writer in advertising.

He now lives back in Ireland and works full time as an author and illustrator. He has written and illustrated numerous books for young children, including the Mad Grandad series, The Forbidden Files series, and two short retellings of Irish legends, The Goblin of Tara and The Evil Eye. He has written two novellas in the Armouron series for younger readers: The Armoured Ghost and Lying Eyes, with two more titles due out soon. He has also produced eight Young Adult novels; The Gods And Their Machines, The Harvest Tide Project, Under Fragile Stone, Small-Minded Giants, Ancient Appetites (the first book in the steampunk series, The Wildenstern Saga), Strangled Silence as well as The Wisdom of Dead Men and Merciless Reason (the second and third Wildenstern books). His latest novel, Rat-Runners, will be released in March 2013. Oisín is currently working on a number of new projects. Find out more at his website: http://www.oisinmcgann.com/index.html

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