What Can We Steal From Matt Betts’s Odd Men Out?

Title of Work and its Form: Odd Men Out, novel
Author: Matt Betts (on Twitter @Betts_Matt)
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The book can be purchased from Raw Dog Screaming Press.  You may also want to purchase the book on Amazon.  (The e-book is VERY reasonably priced as of this writing!)  Check out the cool jacket art by Brad Sharp:

BOOKS-oddmenoutBonuses:  Here is the Goodreads page for Odd Men Out.  Here‘s a brief but favorable review of Odd Men Out from Publisher’s Weekly.  Here‘s a brief biography of Mr. Betts.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Momentum

What a fun book!  Odd Men Out takes place during Reconstruction-but not in the history we remember from high school.  Cyrus Joseph Spencer and the crew members of his “Turtle” (a five-story, six-legged machine that ferries people where they want to go) inhabit an America that has developed steampunk technology.  And in which giant lizards are a threat.  And in which a precarious truce replaced the open warfare of the Civil War.  Oh, and don’t forget the “chewers,” humans who have succumbed to a virus that transforms people into zombies.  Matt asserts that he’s a pop culture junkie, and that’s a great way to think about the book.  Odd Men Out is a slam-bang adventure story that has all of the excitement and twists of a summer blockbuster.  There are a few narrative threads in the book.  Cyrus and Lucinda deal early on with the loss of their Turtle and join up with Cashe and the crew of the United Nations of America ship Leonidas Polk.  All the while, Tom Preston, member of the Sons of Grant, takes advantage of his employer, entertainment impresario Umberto Cantolione.  The book’s plot hums along quickly and the characters’ lives converge, as you might imagine, on a big, awesome battle that determines the fates of everyone involved. 

As I pointed out, Matt really keeps the plot chugging along.  The book consists of 91 chapters of varying lengths.  Each section is anchored by the third person narrator, taking the perspective of each section’s focal character.  During the climactic final battle, the sections are very short.  The chapters are, by contrast, much longer during some of the quieter scenes between the high points.  When I read the book, I was reminded of the kind of structure that is employed in books such as The Da Vinci Code or (to a lesser extent) The Firm.  When the chapters are relatively short, the reader has less time to get bogged down in the narrative.  The BIGGER ISSUES of the book are often stuck more firmly in your mind.  For example, when you read The Firm, you can’t help but wonder: Will Mitch McDeere enjoy his life at the firm?  What happened with those other lawyers who died?  Oh no!  I can tell something is wrong with this firm; what will Mitch do?  Varying the lengths of your chapters is one of the ways in which you can shape how your reader digests your work and direct their understanding of it.

Matt had a TON of exposition that he needed to release in the book.  After all, he was working in a world that was very much of his own creation.  (The characters in The Firm, after all, were running around a world similar to ours, right?)  The narrator does some “telling” in the book, but Matt also came up with fun ways to fill in the gaps.  At one point, the slimy Tom Preston finds a notebook/diary that was kept by people who were witnesses to some of the “fun” and “crazy” events that occurred when the Odd Men Out world diverged from real history.  Matt’s characters simply can’t know a lot of that information, so I enjoyed that he found a way to get it into the book.

As I mentioned, the book contains Matt’s take on zombies.  I don’t know how he approached naming the creatures, but I could tell from the prose that he was very careful not to use the same word to describe the antagonists.  So instead of writing “chewers” a thousand times, he sprinkled in words such as, “undead,” “the dead,” “ghoul” and “attacker.”

This principle is particularly prominent in sportswriting and with play-by-play announcers.  How often can you say that Miguel Cabrera “hit” the ball?  Instead, here’s what Miguel Cabrera does to the ball:

  • wallops
  • crushes
  • knocks
  • pounds
  • taps
  • slams
  • ticks
  • slaps
  • rockets
  • loops
  • bunts
  • powers
  • jacks
  • fouls

Each of these words kinda mean the same thing, but offer some very important distinctions.  Be on the lookout for synonyms that you can use to add characterization and intensity, as well as to describe.

Above all, Odd Men Out is FUN.  Isn’t fun one of the reasons we get into writing in the first place?  “Genre” isn’t necessarily a bad word, either.  Let’s consider a list of writers who have written in genres that are sometimes frowned upon:

  • Kurt Vonnegut (science fiction)
  • Shirley Jackson (horror)
  • Stephen King (horror, fantasy, science fiction)
  • Ray Bradbury (horror, science fiction)
  • Harlan Ellison (science fiction)
  • Ursula K. Le Guin (science fiction)
  • Jane Austen (romance, steampunk, horror)

Can anyone honestly say that these writers are somehow lesser because they do literary work that can sometimes be considered “genre?”

What Should We Steal?

  • Vary the lengths of your chapters.  Action and suspense stories can benefit from a structure that boasts many small chapters.
  • Experiment with a number of different ways to release exposition.  Perhaps your character keeps a journal.  Maybe there’s a crucial photograph in your piece that establishes an important plot point.
  • Brainstorm synonyms for some of the words in your work that could be overused.  Not only do you avoid boring people, but you force yourself to use words that are more powerful and descriptive.
  • Have fun and don’t be afraid of the “g-word.”  Just because a story features spaceships, zombies or long-lost loves doesn’t necessarily mean that a work isn’t “good” or “literary.”

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