Friday, July 20, 2012

Author Interview--Matt O'Dwyer

Hi folks,

Another Seton Hill WPFer interview.

This week we have Matt O’Dwyer in the hot seat. Like me, he’s enrolled in Seton Hill’s MFA in Writing Popular Fiction program, but he’s in his first semester. And, here he is.

-What book and/or experience made you want to be a writer?

I started writing seriously in high school. My teacher, Eddie Miller, was wonderful and very encouraging. In college, I enrolled in about fourteen writing workshops. I primarily studied fiction with an amazing novelist, Mark Powell. His passion for writing, along with his ability to help others with their writing, has definitely had a profound impact on my life. I also had a heavy interest in poetry. My professor for poetry, Terri Witek, is truly gifted and taught me so much about writing. I don’t know exactly when I chose writing as a profession. I do know that by the time my senior year came around, I wasn’t considering anything else.

As for a book that really made me want to write, I guess that would be The Lord of the Rings. That was my first true fantasy experience and I loved it. I also always had a love for comic books. I was (and still am) a big Spider-Man fan. I know that for a long time I thought it would be cool to write for comic books.

-What genre(s) do you write?

I primarily write fantasy. In undergrad, my mentor told me to step away from fantasy and read/write other things. It was a wonderful experience and one that definitely made me grow. When I went back to writing fantasy, I saw it with fresh eyes and fell in love with it all over again.

-What projects are you working on now?

I have two projects that might end up turning into one. The first is a short story called “Ajaer’s Will.” The second is my thesis project, which is untitled at the moment. I have a feeling that the short story might work pretty well as a prologue for the novel.

In the short story, I was addressing the idea of a protagonist that (by the end) could actually be the antagonist. In the novel, I’m looking to address magic at an extreme cost. Brandon Sanderson had some wonderful posts on his blog about hard magic, soft magic, and how to construct interesting systems. I would recommend “Sanderson’s Laws” to anyone, if only to hear his opinion (and he’s very clear about it only being an opinion) on magic systems and why they work or don’t. For the novel, that’s all I can really say right now.


This is an excerpt from my short story “Ajaer’s Will,” it’s the very first page.

“Lay your blade to our throat, king’s envoy,” the creature said. It stood like a pillar among the falling snow, as if the world had been erected around the monster.

“Ajaer’s envoy, creature, and I wouldn’t think too dull my blade on your husk,” Vernil said. His gloved fingertips rested at the buckle of his belt while he tried not to tremble. He looked into the creature’s eyes, black with white in the center, obsidian veins crawled from the sunken orbs and faded across swirling white skin. From afar, the abomination looked like the living incarnation of a pearl. It was smooth and hard like a river-washed stone, even though it appeared slick. Vernil knew better than to drop his guard or draw his sword, he knew that a normal blade couldn’t even make a notch on that skin.

“No? Not better than the others? You have seen others like us before. Maybe you scratched your blade on them. Men think we are soft because we share a shape, not you. You know more than the rest, you know better than to fight.” The creature tilted its head slightly to the right and smiled, showing a set of sharpened teeth the color of coal.

“Ajaer’s Breath has given me wisdom where others have courage, creature.” Standing slightly taller than the thing, Vernil narrowed his eyes and looked at the village behind it.

“Not so much wisdom as to avoid insulting us. Do you tell stories about my people? Do you tell them to your young? Tell them about creatures? Honor me, envoy, with a story of Ajaer. Should we worship this thing? Does the god have time for us?”

“Ajaer’s thoughts have never strayed from his people, the hearts and minds of men.” Vernil’s toes curled, his blackened leather boots were encased in the snow that whipped around them. The wind cut through his heavy cloak, it severed him from any thought or hope of warmth. Vernil wouldn’t move to wrap the cloak tight, not in front of the creature. It wasn’t cold, it had no wrappings, no weapon, and showed no concern in its voice, a deep rumbling with a sharp rasp at the end and a habit for calling itself “we” and “us.” Vernil pushed thoughts from his mind. “You could worship Ajaer, as I do, though I do not believe your words would carry in the wind.”

-For other aspiring writers, any tips?

Always know more than you intend to put on the page. For fantasy writers, that might mean knowing more about the history of your specific world. You’ll see it creep into the story. A character might reference a historical event in some random scene. I think the reference will seem natural because you didn’t make up the event for that specific conversation.

Other than that, find readers and listen to their critiques. I sat in a workshop during my sophomore year of undergrad where everyone in the room pounced on half a page of dialogue that didn’t work. I didn’t think any of their suggestions really worked either. However, that didn’t change the fact that my scene didn’t run as smoothly as I intended. Over the years I’ve learned that there’s something to take away from every person’s critique. Even if a reader doesn’t know how to fix your scene, it’s important to know if the scene doesn’t quite work in its current state.

-What’s your favorite book/genre to read?

My favorite genre is definitely fantasy. I just love the complex characters that seem to come out of fantasy.

I don’t think I can choose just one book. My favorite series within the fantasy genre is A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin. I also have to mention The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I don’t think I could ever choose between Martin’s books or McCarthy’s. Both authors have greatly influenced my writing, as well as my studies.

-What’s your favorite thing you’ve ever written?

A poem that I wrote during my senior year of college called “Crush.” There’s something about it that just hits me every time I go back to it. There’s a visual element to it, the way it’s displayed on the page. I was also thinking of someone very special to me when I wrote it. I think I’ve written better stories, maybe even better poems, but I love that one.

Thank you very much, Mary, for offering to do this interview. Your questions made me reflect on some things I hadn’t really thought of in a while.

You are very welcome, Matt, and thank you very much for your insightful responses.

Want more from Matt?

Check out hisBlog.

Visit his author page on Facebook or follow Matt on Twitter.

Want to get in touch with Matt?
Email Matt O’Dwyer!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Synopsis Writing: Before or After--That is the Question

“We love synopsis writing!” Say it with me. Ready, go. “We love synopsis writing!” I can’t hear you!

And, if you’re sane, that’s a good thing.

I haven’t met the writer yet who likes writing a synopsis. Personally, I hate them. However, I’ve come to understand that, like dentist visits, they are necessary but extremely painful and not enjoyable.

So, what’s all the hate about? We all know the many, many, many, many, many…many… (anyway) reasons why writers hate synopses.

-I wrote this wonderful book, and you want me to tell all of it in 2 pages?!?!

-This is important, but that’s important too. The entire book is important. What can I possibly cut out?!?!

-What if I write the synopsis and then the book looks nothing like it?!?!

You get the idea.

So, there’s no happy way to write a synopsis. Is there, however, a good time to write the synopsis. Up until a few weeks ago, I would have said “you can’t possibly write the synopsis without finishing the book first.” I then—partially out of necessity—proved myself wrong.

My synopsis and project approval form for SHU are due this month. So, like any desperate writer, I sat down with a how-to synopsis book and set to work plotting my demise…err, synopsis. At this point, I’d written about seven chapters of my thesis—not even scratching the surface—so, for all intents and purposes, I hadn’t really started the novel. I expected to crumple to the ground, cry, bang my head on the floor in hopes of falling unconscious, and scream “I’m not worthy!” I’m pleased to announce that I did none of the above; though I did consider crying.

Actually, the synopsis came more easily than I thought possible. And—wonder of wonders—it helped. I went in with a vague outline of the plot etched in my mind and in bullet point form in an MS Word document. I twisted it all around, added some transitions, put it into complete sentences, and a miracle occurred. The gaps filled themselves in.

I kid you not.

The weak links in the story—the parts where I was sure it would fall apart—they wrote themselves. Where I had a loose idea and a desperate need for things to work out before, I now have a real event that enhances the story. I jumped for joy, spun in circles, and flapped my arms like a chicken. All right, that last part’s a lie.

How did I do it, you ask. I will attempt to break it down. Please remember, though, that synopsis writing is not an exact science. What works for one will not work for all.

-Step 1 – establish what absolutely needs to happen in the story
There are some events that just need to happen or the story can’t move forward. Find those. Make friends with them. Write them down so you don’t forget them. These are the backbone of a synopsis. Without those, there is no story. All the middle details can change. Heck, the exact happenings of the essential events can change. But, those essential events themselves need to happen. And, they need to be in your synopsis—at least a synopsis of any length. Tip: For shorter synopses, simply pick out the most essential of the essential events. For longer ones, add less essential but still important events.

-Step 2 – how do your POV Character(s) feel about said events?
A synopsis is not a play-by-play. It’s not a laundry list of events. It’s a story about your story. Find your POV and other essential characters. Add them to the event list. For the POV character(s), get inside their heads. How do they feel, react to, come to terms with the events? Do the events change them? How? In the synopsis, you may tell not show, but tell well.

-Step 3 – Final touches
Add transitions when jumping between characters, from place to place, or over periods of time. Double check to make sure emotions have been inserted in a way that makes the synopsis sound like a story rather than a list of events. Begin with a theme, hook, or (in the cases of stories with much background) a detailed description of everything that needs to be known but would not fit in the synopsis itself. End strong. In the case of “first book in a series” syndrome, add a paragraph or two at the end about events of following books.

Put it together and what do you have…?

If anyone says “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo,” I will hurt you.

Other things to remember:

-write in third person, present tense
-write in the same overall tone of the story (serious, upbeat, funny, etc.)
-use standard manuscript format (12 pt font, clear font such as Arial or Currier, double spaced, header with page numbers/your name/abbreviated title of manuscript on the top left)
-It’s only a synopsis. It won’t hurt you. But, also, remember that it’s a story. A second set of eyes can bring clear what one cannot.

While I’m here, I recommend the how-to book I read last semester—“Writing the Fiction Synopsis” by Pam McCutcheon. It saved my life. Okay, not literally, but you get the idea.

Anything to add? Have any award-winning synopsis tips to pass on? I encourage discussion. We’re all in the same boat with synopsis writing, and I know I’ve only scratched the surface.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Thesis Inspiration Part 1--Disney's "Mulan"

First—the answer to the question posed in last week’s post.

Which actor has been in every Pixar movie, and who did he play in “Brave?”

Answer—John Ratzenberger, and he played Gordon.

All right.

“Let’s get down to business to defeat….”

Actually, we’re not defeating anything. This Monday and the following two Mondays will be a triplet set. I will introduce, comment on, and explain my connection to the three movies that inspired the novel that is my thesis for Seton Hill.

First, a little background on my thesis. Last week, I did an interview on a fellow SHUer’s blog—Amarilys Acosta. Check out the interview and her blog here. My thesis novel is—at least for right now—titled “Saving Edalya” and may be summed up by the old adage “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”


Jayleen Rothwell (daughter of Edalya’s army general and Royal Guard captain) and Crown Prince Kylander Cammoleer (air to the kingdom’s throne) paths would never have crossed if not for the academy. Jayleen—out of a desire to protect her home—and Kylander—on his father’s orders—partake in military training. It is an off-base assignment, and the attack on Jayleen and Kylander’s force, that bring them, if reluctantly, together. After Jayleen saves Kylander’s life, the two form a tenuous alliance. But, as time passes, relationships are strained, and attacks become more frequent, Jayleen and Kylander must learn to put aside their differences—and even grow together—to keep one another alive. Evil has a way of slipping into the night, and it’s not until it’s too late that the two realize just how deep corruption can run.


So many details, not enough time.

In any event, back to the interview I did. You can see in said interview, that the three movies in question are Disney’s Mulan,” “Quest for Camelot,” and “The Swan Princess.” Yes, these are all children’s movies. No, my thesis is not a children’s book. But, as you can see in my post from a few months ago about Disney’s “Tangled” and last week’s post about Pixar’s “Brave,” there is much to be found in children’s movies that can be applied to adult audiences.

So, without further comment and to keep with the quotation above,” this week, I begin with Disney’s “Mulan.” The story of a young Chinese woman who can’t seem to fit into her role in society, “Mulan” shows the courage, honor, and caring of the title character as she disguises herself as a man and takes her ailing father’s place in the imperial army.

Right away, there are a lot of adult themes here—responsibility, doing what’s right even if it means putting yourself in harm’s way, protecting those we care about. All of these themes make an appearance in my thesis novel. There’s more than that, though.

As is probably obvious, the military figures prominently in both “Mulan” and my thesis. I loved “Mulan” growing up—still do—and the reason I love it so much is because it’s different. Mulan takes matters into her own hands. She does what she needs to do to keep her father alive, regardless of the consequences.

Originally, Jayleen was the only female ever to join the Edalyan army. I quickly replaced this idea when I realized the logistics of making it work. Not that I couldn’t do it but that it would take away from the story I really wanted to tell. It wasn’t about a woman making a stand. It was about a person doing what’s right, protecting those she cares for, and chasing her dreams. Mulan represents all of this and more to me. She’s not the traditional Disney female—nothing wrong with the traditional Disney female. She is a strong, brave, strong-willed young woman—what I have made Jayleen.

The other thing I loved about Mulan is that she didn’t need a man. Yes, she falls for Shang, and if you watch or Google “Mulan2,” you will see ***SPOILER ALERT*** that she and Shang do marry. But, that’s movie 2. I’m talking about movie 1. Mulan goes and does—love comes later.

As is the case for Jayleen. Yes, she and Kylander are main characters. Yes, they work together. Do they end up together—read the book when it comes out. That’s the power of authorhood—keeping readers wondering—oh, and killing off characters for fun. Anyway, I wanted Jayleen to be her own person. She has a twin brother who makes her nervous, but everyone has a weakness/issue. That’s hers. I’m confident she’ll work around it…

That concludes Part 1. Tune in for next week’s edition—“Quest for Camelot.” That one had probably the largest impact. ***ERR, was that a spoiler?***

P.S. Check out my recording of “Reflection” on YouTube.