Monday, February 25, 2013

Author Interview: Patrick Matthews


Patrick Matthews is author of Dragon Run, a middle grade fantasy adventure that will hit bookstores on March 1. His stories have appeared previously in Of Dice and Pen, Six Words about Work, and Chicken Soup for the Soul: Count Your Blessings. In addition to writing, Pat develops software, is president of Live Oak Games, an award-winning game design company, and writes DaddyTales, the story of his real-life adventures in fatherhood, both online and as a weekly column for the Seminole Chronicle. Dragon Run, published by Scholastic, is his first novel.               

What inspired you to become a writer?

Growing up, I had three things that I love to do more than anything else: reading, playing, and adventuring. In fact, when I wasn't doing one of those things, it was a safe bet I was thinking about them. I loved the idea of being a part of that, of helping other people enjoy the things that I loved. So, after about two decades of being a software developer, I decided to get back to my first loves. I started a game company (Live Oak Games), and got back to my writing. Four books later, I managed to get one published! The adventuring I do as a hobby - and write into all my books.

What is your writing process? Do you prefer to plan carefully before writing, or just jump right in?

Kind of both. When I get an idea, I do what I call "the first 50." These are the first 50(ish) pages of the book, and they're written completely off the cuff. I throw myself into the story and just go. Once the first 50 are done, I go back and look to see what I've got. Is the story going anywhere? Are there enough thematic elements for the reader to chew on? Are the characters interesting and/or surprising? More importantly, am I energized to continue the story? Do I want to write the rest of the book? If the answers to all of those are yes, then I get serious. I flesh out the characters, decide on key plot points, and start looking at possible subplots. Often the book changes a lot during this period. At the end of it, I have a very rough outline that I write to, one that helps guide me, but which I'm still willing to change.

How did you come up with the ideas behind Dragon Run?

There are lots of ideas in there. Rather than tackle them all, I'll focus on the idea of being powerless. In my opinion, that's the key to the story. It's all about power: who has it, who doesn't, what they do with it, and what they do to get it.

My first 50 on Dragon Run were written from the point of view of a dragon (Lord Archovar). I couldn't get them to go anywhere, so I walked away from it. I came back about a year later, and wrote another first 50 from the point of view of Magister Lundi (a powerful mage). Once again, I couldn't go anywhere. I shelved the whole thing. Then, while I was working on another book, I found myself thinking about being powerless. Dragon Run immediately popped into my mind. What about writing the story of Dragon Run from the point of view of a boy who has absolutely no power at all? He has no magic. He has no stature. All he has is a sword that he doesn't fully know how to use. I dove back in, and the book practically wrote itself.

How long did you spend writing Dragon Run?

If you just count my last attempt, three months. If you count the two failed attempts prior to that, three years. The truth is somewhere between those two numbers. I never could have done it in three months if I hadn't spent three years thinking about it.

Tell us about your journey to get your book published.

When I first started writing children's books, I went to an SCBWI conference and had a publisher pick up my very first book. It was a chapter book about a giant wolf, and he absolutely loved the concept. I was thrilled and excited and couldn't wait to hear back from him. I didn't. After months of trying, I finally tracked him down and asked what the story was. He told me that while he liked the concept, I'd written a book that was so ridiculously scary that he could not publish it. Whoops.

After that initial bump, I settled into years of process. I focused on my craft. I worked with writing groups. I wrote and revised and wrote and revised and submitted and revised. Finally, I reached the point where Dragon Run was picked up. If there's one takeaway that I'd share from that experience, it's this: don't be discouraged by rejection. Instead, learn from it. I had a friend once tell me that if five agents don't want your book, there's probably a reason. It really flipped a switch for me. We all hear stories of authors who had hundreds of rejections. What we don't hear is that they probably went back and edited and learned and honed their craft after each rejection. At least, that's what I do.

In fact, I'm still doing it. During each pass of the editing process with Scholastic, I went back through each of my unpublished novels and applied the same edits and concepts.

What kinds of help have you gotten from others while writing and publishing your book?

Every kind of help imaginable, from voice to structure to character to encouragement. I'm a huge fan of the right kind of writing groups. By right kind, I mean those that manage to be both supportive and critical. Everyone is different. For me, having an immediate audience, one that is informed enough to point out my missteps and question my decisions, is invaluable. I'm currently in three different groups, each with their own specialty. One is a group of published children's book authors. Another focuses on science fiction and fantasy. The third is an eclectic collection of authors and poets who write everything from mysteries to poetry to literary fiction.

What is the best piece of writing advice you ever received?

"Stay Excited." I don't know where I read it, or who told it to me, but I think it's absolutely vital. You need to be excited about the piece you're working on. Even when you're ripping it apart, even when other people are ripping it apart, you need to keep your passion for the story.

You write a regular column called DaddyTales for the Seminole Chronicle and online, you design games for Live Oak Games, you develop software, and you write books and stories, all in addition to raising two kids. How do you find time to do it all? And what are your favorite parts about each?

My professional life is threefold: writing, game design, and software development. I love all three, and you're right: time management is my biggest challenge. I work out of my home, though, which saves a lot of time and gives me flexibility. I often work after the kids go to bed, for example, or steal time on the weekend if they're busy with something that doesn't involve me.

Favorite parts of each? For software, writing, and parenting, it's all the same: being in the moment. I love losing myself in what I'm doing, whether it's crafting a story, solving a knotty software problem, or laughing with the kids. For game design, it's a little more complicated. The payoff there comes during playtesting, when other people lose themselves in what I've created.

Do you have any more books in the works?

Absolutely! I'm almost always working on multiple books. That's one of the ways that I keep my own fires burning. If I get stumped on one book, I work on another one and give my self some breathing space on the first one.

To learn more about Pat Matthews, you can find him online at www.pat-matthews.com, or check out his book at www.dragon-run.com.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Twenty Titles

Whenever I can't think of something to write, or more often when I am avoiding working on my current WIP because I don't know what comes next, there is a certain exercise I like to do. I sit down with pen and paper and try to come up with as many interesting titles as I can. For most of these, I have only a title. I haven't the faintest idea what the story is about. On occasion, though, I have come up with a title I really love and batted it around until the story eventually revealed itself.

Here is my latest batch of titles. As far as I know, none of these have been used for books (checked on Amazon) but no guarantees. On the other hand, its not like the same titles don't get used again from time to time. If any of these titles speak to you, feel free to claim them. If not, I might get around to writing some of them one of these days.

Twenty Titles (some with annotations)

1. One Skull Short of a Thousand (I see this one as a thriller, but I don't write thrillers, so...)
2. Frequent Fireflyer
3. Hedgehog Salad (made FOR hedgehogs, not FROM them) (though, I suppose...)
4. The Missing Mountain
5. How to Sit on a Cactus
6. Porcupines and Beach Balls Don't Mix
7. Seventeen Shoes
8. I Swallowed an Alien
9. Laughing at Hyenas
10. My Imaginary Friend Hates Me (true story; sadly, it was mostly my fault)
11. The Rotten Apple Riot
12. The Broken Ocean
13. The Forgery Museum (I want to start one of these some day, think it would be cool)
14. The Biggest Pipsqueak in Town
15. Lemonade by Moonlight
16. The Dinosaur in My Closet
17. It's Only Breakfast, and I Have Cheese in My Pocket (I actually said this once, about 18 years ago - good times, good times)
18. Enthusiastic Blasphemy
19. The Deconstructor
20. Ostrich Orchestra

That's the 20. Now for some bonus titles.

Two I thought of, but which are already in use:

21. Baked Beans for Breakfast (1970)
22. Shards of Chaos (2012)

And two that popped into my mind, but which are not likely to ever be used for obvious reasons:

23. Hooway for Wodney Wombat
24. Fifty Shades of Puce

Monday, February 18, 2013

Review: The Madman's Daughter

Based generally on the story of The Island of Doctor Moreau by H. G. Wells, The Madman's Daughter introduces a new character into the mix, Dr. Moreau’s daughter Juliet, and tells the entire story from her point of view. Abandoned by her father when he fled London in disgrace, Juliet’s privileged life quickly crumbles, especially after the death of her mother. Several years later, she discovers that her father is not dead, as she had thought, but now lives on a remote island. Through sheer force of will, Juliet secures passage to the island, there to discover that her father has continued and expanded on the experiments that forced him out of England.

Megan Shepherd’s The Madman’s Daughter is a remarkable debut novel. The prose is beautifully constructed and executed. The settings and characters are vividly described without being overdone. The customs, technology, and language all appear to have been carefully researched, and are presented as part of the natural flow of the text, without excessive elaboration that would detract from the story. The plot contains both major and subtle twists that keep the reader engaged and trying to guess what might come next.

For me, the only thing I found overdone was Juliet’s repeated introspection over her fluctuating romantic feelings. But then, I have never been a fan of romance; I can easily see others enjoying those elements as well.  

The Madman’s Daughter is the first of a trilogy, but is complete in itself, and while it leaves the reader wanting more, it did not create for me any feeling of being cheated by leaving too many questions hanging.

Overall, an excellent book and highly recommended.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

My Five Rules for Twitter

Okay, I will be the first to admit that with just two weeks on Twitter I am quite the neophyte and still have a lot to learn. However, it did not take long for me to realize several important things that I think should be incredibly obvious to everyone but, based on what I see constantly, are not. Here are five guidelines that I personally wish everyone on Twitter would use:

1) Quality is much, much more important than quantity. If you tweet 100 times a day, I will not follow you, no matter who you are, your qualifications, or how much you might be able to help in getting me published. Chances are, if you are tweeting that much, you are probably guilty of violating my next point, too.

2) Don't constantly hock your wares, be it a book, website, lecture series, or whatever. Nothing turns me off faster than a person who sends out the same 4-5 tweets over and over again, with a link to his/her latest (and often only) book. I want news and other original information, and if I can't get it from you, I will check elsewhere. Sure, reposting things from time to time is fine, but once or twice a day is more than enough.

3) Your tweets should have value, and not just to you. If all of your tweets are self-promotional, I have no reason at all to read or follow them. Again, give me something that can help me, or off I go to follow those who will. Naturally, a lot of people tweet about what is happening in their lives, and while this is not necessarily "of value" to me career-wise, I often enjoy them simply for their entertainment value.

4) #Hashtags are your friends. They make it possible to find relevant posts from people you are not currently following. Using them well can make your tweets far more visible, but use them properly and sparingly. Using 3+ hashtags in a single tweet is an almost certain sign of off-topic spam, which I will immediately ignore.

5) If you want to follow me, wonderful. If you expect me to reciprocate, follow the guidelines above. I do not feel any obligation to follow people just because they follow me, nor should anyone else. If that means they decide not to follow me anymore, I can live with that.

That is all for now, except to say that, should you want to follow me, I can be found at @ajwyckoff.

Happy tweeting.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Review: This Is Not a Test

There can be no question that Courtney Summers' latest YA novel, This Is Not a Test, is a zombie book, but it is zombie book where the zombies are barely seen.

This Is Not a Test concentrates on the social dynamics and gradual breakdown of a group of six teens trapped in their school. They are safe from the zombies, at least for the time being, but they have no way out. I found the characters to be unique, well-imagined, each with complex motives and backgrounds, all blending together to form a constantly changing matrix of interactions and alliances. The prose is excellent, with descriptive passages that were vivid but not overdone. There is quite a bit of introspection and less action that you might expect, but still more than enough plot twists to keeping the reader engaged throughout.

The story is told in first-person by Sloane, a girl who had no intention of going on living even before the zombies appeared, but who is unwilling to do anything to endanger the lives of the others. She finds herself faced by situation after situation that force her into surviving and persevering for their sake. The entire book carries a dark, depressing undertone, but as a zombie apocalypse book, I would be worried if it didn't.

If you are looking for a ton of zombie-slaughtering action, this is not the book for you. But if you want a well-crafted, imaginative, and believable story, this is it. Overall an excellent read, and highly recommended.