GWS Inside the Craft: Matt Betts

When I first e-mailed Matt to arrange the first GWS interview, I had no idea that he would be so generous with his time and his thoughts.  Odd Men Out is a fun book–available now at Raw Dog Screaming Press and Amazon–and the book certainly seems like the kind of work that would emerge from a curious and engaging guy like Matt.

In the course of telling him what I might ask about during our interview, I hadn’t expected him to offer thoughtful and lengthy responses.  I share them with you (with his permission, of course) to offer a look into the way Matt approaches his work and solves the problems that confront us all in some way. 

Odd Men Out is an adventure/science fiction/horror/steampunk novel, and that means that Matt needed characters to fulfill certain dynamics in addition to seeming like real people.  I mentioned that two of the characters seemed to have echoes of Han Solo and Luke Skywalker.  (EVERY story that resembles Odd Men Out‘s narrative will have these resemblances, of course.)  Here are Matt’s thoughts on creating dynamics between characters and making them his own.

Though, when you mention Cyrus and Lucy being Star Wars analogues, I can see where you get that, but it was never a thing I really thought about. I love Star Wars – it was one of the first movies I remember seeing in a theater, so it heavily influences me, but I never thought “here’s my Han Solo, here’s my Luke.” I love Firefly and Aliens and comic book teams like The Avengers and the X-Men. I started writing the book thinking of those great casts and ensembles and wanted to have one of my own. I wanted believable adventurers who legitimately had reasons not to trust each other and not to get along. So, as much as I love Star Wars, it really never entered my mind as I wrote Odd Men Out. There were so many steampunk, old west, alternate history things going on, that actual outer space-type science fiction really never came into the process…

…It was strange that I never considered the movie while writing Odd Men Out, or even when I was editing it. I can certainly see correlations in the functions of some of the characters now. But it was weird that it hadn’t come to me before that. 

I think Matt is pointing out that we may have some explicit inspirations for our work, but there are always influences that we don’t think about consciously. 

Matt’s book is set in an alternative United States in which the emergence of zombie-like creatures changes American priorities.  (It was hard enough to fight the Civil War…can you imagine doing so with monsters in the mix?)  Anyone who writes about zombies or vampires or werewolves or spaceships or aliens must set their own rules for how THEIR iterations fit in with all of the others.  There are approximately eleventy trillion zombies in media right now; how did Matt approach creating his “chewers?”

You’re absolutely right about the idea of creating rules for the various ‘monsters’ and for the science in the book. I did kind of have to pick and choose whose mythology I wanted to follow and what I wanted to create of my own. Zombies are certainly weird, as they have become so popular. There are so many interpretations, that I found myself gravitating toward the more traditional versions, if such a thing exists. I looked more at the physiology of things like the original Night of the Living Dead, for the slow-moving, shambling monsters, rather than the running, screaming zombies we’ve seen in more recent films. The main reason was purely story-related. I needed my monsters relatively slow to give characters more of a fighting chance.

I started the novel long before The Walking Dead was on televison, and I never really cared for the graphic novels so much, so most of my zombie influence came from the  movies like Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. I remember watching some of those when I was in high school and having my eyes covered because they scared the crap out of me. Now, the book went through several rewrites, and by the time I was doing those, The Walking Dead was on TV and I was watching those first seasons and loving them. But to me, Odd Men Out wasn’t, in my mind, ever a zombie novel. I meant to treat them at a fact of life, something in the background. An early note I had was that they were ‘carpet’ in the landscape. I’m not sure what that would mean to a reader, but it was an important note to me.

Matt makes a very important point: in a way, the unique circumstances of your world shouldn’t be a big deal.  The reader may get through the first few chapters and think, “Zombies!  Oh my!  I wonder what happened!”  Cyrus and Lucinda and Tom and Cashe do not think that way about the ghouls in their midst.  They’re really just part of the furniture, so to speak.

It’s a sad truth in adventure-type stories: characters must die.  Even characters that you and your audience like.  Too bad.  Here is how Matt approached deciding who was going to die and when.  (Don’t worry.  No spoilers.)

You mentioned useful characters dying and that was kind of a big deal as was editing. I did some major edits and rewrites of the story along the way and there were more characters that died in one of the last versions before the final. In fact, there were actually more characters introduced in the early (Turtle) chapters that lived, but they were later cut to streamline the story. There were survivors that were around basically to make Cyrus and the reader remember what happened on the Turtle from time to time and really, it wasn’t necessary. But in that working draft, some other important characters didn’t live to see the last chapter. I wasn’t always thinking of a sequel to the book and who I needed to keep around for it, it was really just a balancing act to see who I could lose and still be happy with the ending. I didn’t want a senseless death, but I wanted the reader to be a little shocked by losing someone that they didn’t expect. I didn’t want the reader to be comfortable with thinking they knew what would happen. There was a “Hamlet” version of the ending where every other character died. It was fun, but ultimately unsatisfying to the story itself.

Well, not everyone has an eye on a sequel (I have low self-esteem), but I love how the prospect worked into Matt’s thought process.  Writing is all about making choices; some characters die because the story requires them to do so and others bite the bullet because it’s a necessity to the writer.

And how do we streamline those choices?  Editing.  This is not my favorite thing to do, but here is how Matt approached tuning up Odd Men Out:

I don’t think I consciously took this from any particular movie or book, but I remember being surprised by certain deaths Elmore Leonard’s works.

Elmore Leonard has this credo about his writing, and in doing my edits, I tried to stick close to it. He says, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” When I was editing, I had several readers mark up the manuscript, and whenever someone told me a section or paragraph was too flowery or too much exposition, I ended up cutting it 9 times out of 10. I think I actually cut a couple of small chapters that way. I definitely cut out a number of point of views that way. I think I have the story from 4 POV characters now. In early drafts, it was more like 6, maybe 7. It made the the book too busy and I combined some characters and eliminated others. 

Another piece of writing advice I followed is the old admonition to “Kill your Darlings.” The idea being that you can’t be afraid to delete what you consider your best work, if it really isn’t helping your story. I sat with my finger hovering over the delete button for a long time on some of my favorite passages. It hurt like crazy to cut them, but it certainly made the story stronger. It absolutely applied to killing off some of the characters that I loved as well.

I also applied that advice in a somewhat warped way to my main character, Cyrus. I wrote a note in his file specifically saying “Wound your Darlings.” I put Cyrus through hell in this story. Things happen to him. Some are by choice and others just happen, but it became a sport to see what I could actually do to him in the novel. 

See why I called Matt “thoughtful” and “generous?”  As I’ve said a trillion times, there is no step-by-step checklist you can follow in order to improve your writing.  Craft advice must percolate inside our brains; after enough time, you’ll be able to make use of the lessons you didn’t know you were learning.  What do you think of Matt’s experience and process?  How does reading about his thoughts on craft affect your own?

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