Tuesday, December 25, 2012

MERRY CHRISTMAS FROM THE MADHOUSE: PATIENT BETTS


PATIENT: MATT BETTS
ILLNESS: WRITER

When did you start writing? Why did you pick the genre you write in?
I’ve been writing since I was pretty young but I only got serious about it in the last 10 years or so. My mom showed me a book she found that I made when I was in elementary or middle school or something. It was a horrible Scooby Doo rip-off (but then isn’t all writing?) featuring a haunted house and ghosts and stuff. No big dogs, though.
I am kind of all over the place as far as the genres I write in. I do a little horror, some science fiction, some fantasy. I was really into the old black and white horror movies when I was a kid and I still am. I really prefer those old films over a lot of the horror movies that are out there today. The old ones were all about the mood, the atmosphere, the characters, rather than a gross out. I think those movies gave me a really strong foundation for my speculative fiction.
I saw Star Wars in a theater when it first came out. I was pretty young and it left a big impression on me. I had never seen anything like it. It scared the crap out of me. Droids and Wookies, spaceships and lightsabers-it was all pretty amazing for a kid my age and it made a lasting impression on me. I want to be able to write stories like that. Stories that are thrilling and unexpected and that readers remember long after they put it down. Not asking much, am I?

Where do you get your ideas from? Do you journal at all?
I don’t journal, really. I keep notes on my iPod, and I have a few pads of paper around to jot ideas.
It’s difficult to say where the ideas come from. I’ll just get an image. Sometimes that’s the beginning of the story, or the end. It might just be a line or a character sketch. It can come from a song or a movie I’m watching. I might just take the note down and forget it for a while, but I have to write it down at that moment or I’ll lose it.
My kids do give me inspiration sometimes. I wrote a poem when my oldest son was a baby, and it grew into “The Night Godzilla Dumped His Chick” which was nominated for a Rhysling award. It started as an observation that he liked to knock over blocks, and grew into a story about Godzilla destroying Tokyo. It just happened.
 
What's a normal (writing) day like for you?
I really don’t have a normal writing day. I have two young kids, and that really doesn’t allow for much of a normal schedule. I write where I can, when I can. I can try to plan out a block of time, but it doesn’t always hold up. I write large chunks in my head and keep building on those while I’m driving until I’m happy with it, and then I write it down when I have a chance.

Favorite author or book? Who are you currently reading?
I have a few favorites, and it’s really hard for me to pick just one. I always end up walking past my bookshelf a few days after I answer this question and finding a half a dozen writers or books that I should have included.
I love Stephen King’s work. Elmore Leonard is awesome. “Out of Sight” and “Get Shorty” are two of my favorite crime novels. For steampunk, I like “Boneshaker”. I love Sara Vowell’s “Assassination Vacation”. Caleb Carr’s “The Alienist” and “Carter Beats the Devil” by Glen David Gold are both way up on the list of my favorites.

Do you prefer writing poetry or prose? Why one over the other?
I write both and I really don’t prefer one over the other. They’re both extensions of my creativity. Novels and short stories are great because you have time to reel out the plot and show off your characters, whereas poetry makes you do so much in a very small space. I really love writing very short poetry and making it work and have some impact.
The first time I wrote a novel, I would work on poetry whenever I got struck with writer’s block. When I got stuck on the poem, I’d switch back to the novel. Same with short stories. One would work off the other. Anything that got my creativity flowing was a good thing. I’m fond of telling the story of a comedian I interviewed in college that gave me that advice. He played piano, acted, did stand up, and wrote. He gave me the good advice that you don’t have to be good at just one thing. They all feed off of each other creatively.

Do you write in silence or with noise (TV, movies, music)? 
Noise. I have to have noise. Usually I have music on, but sometimes I’ll have the television on if I’m working at home. It has to be something upbeat and fast to keep me writing and keep me distracted from the outside world. If I’m writing in a coffee shop or somewhere I don’t want to listen to the store’s ambient music. It generally doesn’t cut it. I have to have something else.

Do you have any weird habits when it comes to writing? Do you type or write longhand?
Like I said, I write some notes longhand, but for the most part I use the laptop for my writing. I keep a file on my laptop through Microsoft OneNote with pictures and character sketches and maps and so on, that I can sync with my iPod, so I can look at those things, or add to them anytime I want. So if I have a sudden idea for a good line, or for a character, I can jot it there and have it waiting on my laptop when I’m ready to write some more.
I don’t think I have any particular quirks when it comes to my writing. If I’m at home and I’m really on a roll, I’ll get out my favorite ballcap to write. It’s from a TV show called “Homicide: Life on the Street” and has the word Homicide in big white letters across the front. I don’t know. It feels like it keeps me moving along. Other than that and having to have music, I don’t think I have any real rituals or anything.
 
Would you consider yourself a Plotter or a Pantser?
Ah, that age old rivalry! When will those two learn to get along? I don’t really do that much in the way of detailed plotting. I know where I’m starting, I have a good idea where I’m ending, but the rest is pretty much up in the air.

What do you think is the hardest aspect of the craft?
The hardest part of writing is finding the time, really. The toughest aspect of the craft itself, I think, is plotting. Keeping all of those strings pulled tight and making sure none of them come unraveled is tough, especially in a novel with so many point of view characters. For someone like me (who just admitted to writing by the seat of his pants) sometimes the long view is hard to think about.
Another thing that’s tough about the craft is revision. I’ve always tried to get away with as little as possible, but I finally woke up and saw the value in rewrites and being open to opinions I don’t really agree with about my writing in order to make it better.

Current Projects?
Well, I’m thrilled to say my first book in coming out from Dog Star Books this summer! It’s called “Odd Men Out” and it is a steampunk/alternate history story.  It was so much fun to write and it’s actually kind of fun to revise. I’m nearly through the edits on that, and I’m a decent way into writing and making notes on the follow up to it in the series.
I have a poetry collection out and we’ve talked about doing a second one, so I’ve been gathering material for that in all of that glorious free time I have. It’ll happen, I’m just not sure how soon.
Finally, I have some short stories that I’m not terribly serious about, but that are lingering in the back of my mind.

How do you balance being an editor and being a writing (Or double jobs, being a mom, etc.)
It isn’t easy being a rodeo clown, a world-renowned chef AND a secret agent, but somehow I manage. Actually, it is tough working a full-time day job, writing and trying to be a good dad to two kids. In that equation, being a parent will always win out. It means working late on my writing, missing a little sleep (or a lot of sleep). Sometimes it means writing while the kids nap, or while they’re watching TV. But, the family always wins. My wife is great and helps me find time to write when things are slow at home.
Also, I’ve developed a means of writing big chunks of the story in my head during my commute. I will write the same sections over and over in my head until I have it memorized so then when I sit down to write, I have a huge amount of a story or chapter all ready to go, and I can just pour it out without really thinking.

What do you think people expect from you with your writing? EX: Can they always count on a good gross out?
I have to inject humor into just about everything I write. It just has to be there. I think so much of life has little humorous moments, that to leave them out would be weird, even in my poetry. I’m also a big fan of action movies and I think that also permeates my work. I like to keep things moving in the story and I love to take the reader on an exciting trip with the characters.

Advice for aspiring writers?
Some of the best advice I got was to read everything you can get your hands on. Become as knowledgeable about your genre as possible, certainly, but make sure you read outside of it as well. Read whatever. Pick up a popular book that you would never touch and read it. Find out what makes it popular, or read one that got terrible reviews to find out what went wrong. It is almost impossible to hurt your career as a writer by reading someone else’s work, as long as you go into it objectively.
Next? Be willing to really hear the criticism of your work. You may not make every single change that is presented to you, but you have to be open to changing everything about your book. There can’t be any piece of your finished manuscript that you won’t listen to suggestions on. Every beta reader and critique partner comes to your story with a different background. They may just have a point about something you hadn’t noticed when writing or editing your novel. If you aren’t willing to make drastic changes and hear some scary suggestions from your beta readers, then all you’re looking for is a pat on the back. And that isn’t going to improve your writing.
Lastly? Revise. Rewrite. Revise. Rewrite. Look at your chapters. Are they in the right order for maximum impact? Can you tell the story another way? Do you need more points of view? Or fewer? Take these all into consideration and try rewriting the chapters and characters that don’t work from another angle. Keep doing it until it sounds right.
 
BIO: Matt Betts is a former radio personality whose fiction and poetry appears in various publications, including Kaleidotrope, eSteampunk and the Triangulation:Taking Flight anthology. Eventually his robot army will be complete, but for now it’s just the Roomba and a homemade Twiki.
 
He blogs at www.mattbetts.com, Twitters as @captplothole and does interviews and other stuff for Shock Totem Publications (www.shocktotem.com). His book of speculative poetry, See No Evil, Say No Evil, can be found at www.happybotgardener.com. His novel Odd Men Out will be released by Dog Star Books in the summer of 2013.