The GWS Interview: Matt Betts, Author of Odd Men Out
I’ve pointed out how fun and generous Matt is in my previous coverage of Odd Men Out. (In case you missed them, here are What We Can Steal From Odd Men Out and GWS Inside the Craft: Matt Betts.) Matt’s book is fun and engrossing and can be purchased at Raw Dog Screaming Press and Amazon.
In conducting the very first Great Writers Steal interview, I wanted to ask Matt about his craft and about his own literary borrowing habits. As you’ll see, his responses are both thoughtful and helpful to the rest of us.
NOTE: Please be aware that the interview may contain mild spoilers. I don’t think you’ll really be spoiled; Odd Men Out‘s blurbs make it clear which baddies the good guys must fight. Further, it really shouldn’t be a shock that a novel–an adventure/science fiction/horror novel, no less–would have a climactic battle 80% of the way through. One sensitive spoiler is concealed with invisotext. Click and drag over the text if you want to see it.
You know, I was writing in high school. And college, but I didn’t really get serious until the last ten years or so. In college, I had professors that were pretty much against anything genre, so I was very discouraged. I stopped writing for 5-6 years because of it.
I’ve always been I to sci-fi and horror. But when I started working with writing groups here in Columbus [Ohio], I usually worked with non-genre writers. It kind of worked out that way. We all learned our crafts together.
I owe a lot to the horror and sci-fi I read, though. King was a big favorite, Anne Rice too. While I consider myself more of a sci-fi writer, I read a lot more horror.
I spent a lot of time in college, while my professors were telling me how terrible genre fiction was, reading a lot of horror and suspense anthologies and seeing how stories worked. How characters worked, etc. I still have one of those anthologiess in my collection.
The pacing of genre novels tends to be faster than literary. Usually. One of my favorites is Faulkner. My dad has always been a fan and it rubbed off on me.
It’s interesting that you say that about pacing; in reading Odd Men Out, I was reminded of the short-chapter style of Alex Cross books, The Da Vinci Code and other “thriller” novels. Did you have any specific structural models for the book? You know, I can’t say that I had particular structural models for the book as far as literary models. I did have that pace in mind from some of the old serial novels and serial movies. The idea that each chapter left the reader or viewer with a cliffhanger or minicliffhanger.
When I went back and did some of the re-editing, I looked at my chapters and tried to use the length of the chapters to my–and the story’s–advantage. I deliberately put some really short ones together and stuck some longer ones in the middle. I found it helped propel story forward better.
I hate to keep fawning over Elmore Leonard, but he works with varying lengths of chapters well. He certainly showed how it was possible to use that to the plot’s advantage.
I did notice that the sections during the action setpieces were shorter, speeding the narrative up and allowing you to switch between the perspectives of characters who were in different places. To what extent were you influenced by these kinds of sequences in action and science fiction films?
Quite a bit. I think I’ve mentioned that I’ve been a pop culture junkie for a long time. I a huge fan of action movies – so much so that I claim Die Hard and Lethal Weapon as my two favorite Christmas movies. But watching well-made action and suspense movies really influenced me. I love when a director and a script can switch between the bad guy and the good guy effectively. An audience gets that look at what could happen, and can anticipate how the hero is going to get out of it.
Back in college, there was a video store (yes, actual video tapes) that had some ridiculous deal, like 5 movies for 5 dollars, but you could only have them for one night. My roommate and I would go there several times a week. At first we were renting all the good movies we heard about, but when those ran out, we started renting the bad ones. Eventually, we were renting movies just to find one good thing about them. A good line, a good chase, cinematography.
It was actually a good study in story. And characters. And plot. I really got to look at what made a movie tick.
I love Die Hard and especially Lethal Weapon. What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of casting your final battle with the dragon–literally in this case–in prose instead of celluloid? Ugh. I was starting to think it was a bad idea when I got to that. I actually wrote some of that scene early on, because I had had a specific part of the scene stuck in my head for a while. I wrote a few pages around that specific part, and then went back to writing parts earlier in the book. I would peck away at the dragon scene bit by bit. It was tough to choreograph. Everything and everyone in the book converged around that scene. So, I was working from different POVs and slightly different timelines, etc. It got so I dreaded going back to it. But I’d plucked away at it enough that by the time I got to it chronologically, the skeleton of the scene was there.
So, really, the disadvantage was having everything come to that. All of the good guys and bad guys, ancillary characters, they were pretty much all there. If one of the plotlines didn’t work, I was in trouble. I’m honestly not sure what the advantage to that situation was. Looking back, it seems like I just made more work for myself!
But I think it worked out, thankfully! I had so many versions before the final. It was really like choreographing a fight scene for the stage. I had a friend in college who did fight choreography and I was always fascinated by what went into making it look good. That’s kind of how I had to approach it here.
Well, speaking of movie terminology[…spoiler…] did you intend the “device” to be a MacGuffin in the story? The device certainly figures into the climax of the book, but I was a little surprised that you used it in such a passive way.
It really was.[…spoiler…] I really planned on it being something that actually carried on a bit more, maybe even into another novel, but in the end I really saw it as a MacGuffin that was going to bring everyone together for the rest of the story. I had vision of the glowing briefcase in Pulp Fiction as they were trying to open the device and figure it out. It was meant to be a means to an end for the Sons of Grant, and a reason to give chase for the others. The origins of the device also left open a wealth of other types of devices from Dr. Poley in the future.
It also left the possibility that the device didn’t even work. Which could be explored in the future. I’m not saying it didn’t, but without the evidence, the OMO could well think it. There was this great scientist and he built a lot of fantasic things, but were they all reliable? I may explore that idea further. If not in a novel, maybe a short story. Of course, I didn’t mean to build a plot device that was thin or fulfilling. I wanted something just dangerous enough to be interesting and hopefully serve as a little bit more than something that just didn’t end up going boom, you know?
Very interesting! I do wonder what other devices were created in the alternate United States. One of the challenges of alternate history, it seems to me, is clearly delineating the “break” with our reality and filling in the differences in the world of the narrative as opposed to ours. You definitely offer us glimpses of what happened to the President and how the fighting in the Civil War was suspended; what was your thinking in deciding how much to tell? I’m not sure you mention a concrete year for the story. I don’t come right out and name a year. That was a criticism of one of my early critiquers. So I went back and planted clues, but those weren’t even concrete. I was aiming for the early 1890s. I mention that the first battle of Gettysburg happened as normal, and then one with the chewers at Gettysburg. So, those hints, along with a few others, set the timeline for this. In the next book, I might start with a big stamp on the cover page that says 1895, or whatever I make it.
It was interesting once I made that break with their technology. I found it fun to play with what actually happened and what I wanted to happen. I found myself accelerating the advances in weapons, which seemed logical considering they were facing the chewers, and decelerating their civilization, since it was being destroyed by the chewers.
For whatever it’s worth, I didn’t mind not having a date. Cyrus and Bethy aren’t really thinking about the year or anything; they’re just dealing with the circumstances in which they find themselves. I got the point that we were in Reconstruction and things are very different. My two cents for fun. Maybe I benefited because I wasn’t thinking, “Gee, I wonder if Tilden and Hayes were in the 1876 election in this timeline.”
Thanks! I actually enjoyed not setting it firmly in a certain date. It kept the story ambiguous for the reader. I saw the West as a pretty desolate wasteland when I started. I softened that a bit as I went, with more pockets of people than originally intended. I wondered at some point whether any of those pockets would agree on what year it was if they got together to talk about it. So, that’s another reason I left it in a general area.
Oh. What do I hope people will steal from me? That’s a good question. I learned/stole/lifted so many things from other writers. I hope that, in the long run, writers will write whatever they want and not hold anything back because it isn’t marketable or it doesn’t fit into a nice category. I wrote a story that I enjoyed, first and foremost, and it just happened to have sci-fi, steampunk, horror, alternate history, a Godzilla-like monster, zombies and maybe a few more things tossed in for good measure. But it was the story I wanted to tell. There were drafts where I thought of eliminating the zombies and others where I got rid of the lizards. In the end, it wasn’t satisfying to me, so I kept working on making it a better story. The right editor and publisher came along when I got it right. And with their help, we made it even better, I think.
I’m not sure that exactly answers your question. I love mash-ups and crazy mixes and I’d love to see more. And I’d like to see more authors following their muse.