Writers on the Fly: Joe Hill

hi I'm Joe Hill and I'm the author of NOS 482 or NOS farhat 2 depending on how you want to say the title and some other books heart-shaped box and horns and I'm here in Iowa to read and sign and meet with readers should be fun so not for a 2 is a big book it's as big as my first two novels put together and and that I wanted to do that I wanted to do something on a larger scale than anything I had tried before I wanted to do in everything but the kitchen sink novel and so it's a book that crosses a lot of years it takes place over 25 years and it's also book the crosses a lot of Road so we get New Hampshire we get Massachusetts we have Colorado we even have a couple places that aren't exactly in this world and there's also a stop in Iowa at a fictional public library called the here public library and that seemed like the proper setting for for us to meet a particular character there is a character in the story named Maggie Leigh who is a punk rock librarian and and if she has an impossible gift she has a bag of Scrabble tiles and she can reach into them and pull them out throw letters on the floor and they spell secrets and I felt that it was appropriate to to place her in a public library in Iowa because there was some interesting history some interesting recent history about Iowa Public Libraries which included some of them being flooded out a few years ago and I wanted to touch on the tragic fate of some small-town libraries and this seemed like the right place to do it there are some questions that you hear from people on a pretty frequent basis one I get a lot of times is if I write by outlines I don't I think outlines are the tools of the devil so I avoid those like the plague the question is a lot of times then if I don't work by outline how do i construct a story and I instruct stories by I usually begin with a high concept because I think an interesting quirky concept is glue that sticks the reader to the page for a little while but I don't think it will keep them going all the way through I think what you really need is character and so I look to build my stories around characters with interesting in our lives and interesting histories and odd compulsions and I try to figure out who those people are and once I know those characters I feel I can plot them into almost any situation and then stand back and watch them try to punch their way out so I I feel that even though I'm a genre writer I write thrillers I feel that I'm uh that a lot of people in genre are people who work from plot and that I am a guy who works from character and so that's that's something I get that's that's another question that I hear pretty frequently I occasionally get asked if I've ever thought about writing anything besides horror or scary fiction and I have sometimes thought about writing stories that are not supernatural fiction but I think one thing that I would not be willing to abandon is the element of suspense I think that suspense that tension the ticking bomb under the desk these are the things that keep the reader turning the page it's suspense is a simple term for that feeling that comes over you when you need to know what happens next and I don't know I don't know any other way to tell a story that I trust if you can't create a feeling of suspense if you can't instill in the reader a desire to know what happens next desperately then you've lost or I would be lost so yeah I mean that's I could totally write something that was not supernatural I could not write something that was probably not built around tension I'm moonlight as a writer of comic books my day job is writing the novels but I also have a side job writing comics and I've been writing an ongoing comic called lock and key for about five years now lock-and-key is the story of a New England mansion filled with impossible and enchanted keys and each key has a different power there's one key called the gender key and if you turn it and open a door and step through if you're a boy you'll turn into a girl if you're a girl you'll turn into a boy there's another key called the ghost key and if you use it to open a door and and you walk through your body will fall dead but your spirit will travel on without free from your your living flesh and then you can always pass back through the door and be reanimated one of the keys in this story is called the head key and you can stick it into the back of your neck and it will open the top of your head and it will show your private hidden world of thought all the things that all the things you imagine all your fears all your excitements your secret pleasures your history is all there in this animated landscape and I have an office in in my hometown of Exeter New Hampshire a third floor office and that room is really like the inside of my head and that's where I write all my stories I have I have the covers to all my favorite books on the walls to the left of my desk I have my 10 favorite books of all time to the right of the desk I have my favorite fight my five favorite movies my five favorite albums my five favorite TV shows everything in the room is kind of engineered to put me in that happy place where I'm playing make-believe and you know and and it's all about pretend so that's where I go to work that's where I've done my best workers in this particular office that I've had for a few years now I do have my totems scattered around my office you know objects objects of power items which mean something to me and and I don't mean that in some sort of new agey supernatural way the the things that I care about often have very concrete messages that I call on when I'm writing so right behind my desk I have framed cover for a book called the thousand autumns of Jake to zoo by David Mitchell and when I look at that cover I hear the sound of a certain kind of writing that I've always aspired to there is David Mitchell has captured something in his rhythms and in the feel of his sentences that is something I have always wanted my own prose I have another poster over to the right of my desk which is the cover of True Grit by Charles Portis and I always think that Charles Portis has captured something in dialogue something about the sound of his character's voices that I have always aspired to and over to the left of the desk I have a poster of Sherlock Holmes from an original illustration from The Strand and there is something there is a a mood and atmosphere of Menace and possibility and intrigue that has always I have loved since I was 12 and 13 and that I'm always reaching for in my own work and so I keep these sort of these items these totems around me as reminders very concrete reminders of what I'm doing and what I care about I'm I know that some people really struggle to get sentences on the page for some people it's really and it's it's and I have had difficult times too for some people it's very hard to chip through that stony soil soil and and get to the or you know get to what's good but I have to admit that that I have always had a big engine of make-believe I have always had this tendency to drift off into my own thoughts my own inner world and play and to the point where you know I'm the sort of guy who will miss the door and walk into the window next to it because I'm off in my head writing that story and I have never really found the environment where I couldn't put sentences together and and escape you know jump through the escape hatch of my own imagination and begin writing scenes that doesn't mean that that you know if I'm riding on a train that doesn't necessarily mean it will be good writing but at the moment I enjoy doing it so I haven't really found an advice and you know where I just couldn't write I have three boys they're rowdy and loud they they're pretty adventurous you know there's a lot of slamming doors in my house and yelling kids and stuff and I'm reminded of Louis L'Amour who wrote a hundred and twenty novel some of them with the grandchildren right under his desk biting his feet so I don't think it pays a writer to be too particular about the conditions under which they work if you need the incense and a certain kind of light and there's only one kind of coffee being roasted coffee being that that can provide the coffee that will inspire you you're probably being a little too fussy and you know I try to avoid being that kind of writer when I'm working on a story the first draft is for me and I throw a lot of stuff at the page I will write dozens of pages discovering a character puttin them in situations just to see how they'll react in the new novel nos 42 I wrote a whole novella about the bad guy Charles banks the third Charlie Manx when we meet him is a century old and he drives a very bad car a rolls-royce that runs on human souls instead of gasoline and Charlie has used the power of this card to keep him young keep himself young and fit and he you know he drains the spirit out of the passengers who ride with him usually children and then he dumps them at this otherworldly amusement park called Christmas land and when he's finished when he dumps them when he's finished with them there's not much left to them except teeth and hate and I wrote a novella about who Charlie was before he first used that power I wrote 80 pages about Charlie's first trip to Christmas land with his children and I think there's a lot of good writing there I think it's a good story but when I got to the second and third draft I cut it out of the book and I did that because the second every draft after the four first draft is for the reader not for the writer the reader takes that first draft to figure out their characters to figure out the structure of the story to figure out what the story is about but as you move forward from that starting point every draft has to be about what the reader needs what is going to keep the reader turning pages what is going to keep them entertained what do they need to know about these characters the hero of Nosferatu is a young woman named vipul Queen and when we meet vet she's just an eight-year-old kid and by midway through the story she's a 30 year old woman with a child of her own and we get a chunk of narrative about Vic as a kid dipping in and out of perilous adventures and then we jump forward to her as a mother with only about 25 pages in between we only get a brief glimpse of her as this young woman who is in a loving but imperfect relationship and just being a young mother I wrote more than that about Vic but the reader didn't need it a taste just one little taste was all the reader needed to know what happened between before and later I think that when people read my books they feel that they're very carefully structured but the structure came after the fact it didn't come beforehand it in in first draft it's a big mess and scenes are out of order and there are scenes that don't matter and there's material that somewhat works that sputters along and then you know seems to begin well and then end badly seams that begin badly and end well and and the next two you know three to seven drafts is about shaping that material into something where not just every chapter feels like it matters but every paragraph feels like it's having it's adding up to the whole in some meaningful way and and you know I do sometimes think the outline is outlining is some bizarre attempt to spare yourself the Agony's of revision this it's this fantasy that you can have it perfect in first draft and I always think if you're writing honestly and really exploring the characters it's very unlikely it's going to be perfect in first draft because for starters you're when you're your characters if they really come to life on you will refuse to cooperate with your outline they will make choices that surprise you and that run in a completely different direction problems you thought they would take hundreds of pages to solve they will solve in one bold stroke you know Cleveland leaving that knot you know with a stroke of the blade other problems that you thought would be very simple for them to resolve will become agonizing for your characters because of who they are and their own particular deficiencies and flaws and foibles and and so I so I do think that it's important for everything to matter and for everything if all the parts to feel tightly that they fit together tightly but I believe you get to that do a slow somewhat arduous process of honing and sharpening and revising and cutting away just being really ruthless and brutal will see you shot yourself about you know what you need and and what you don't trying to you know you have to determine the difference between what you love and what the reader will love and heaven you have to have the the strength to say well the stuff that I love can go I wrote it and I loved it and it was fun but now I need to think about what the reader needs and they don't need this Hemingway's you know famous line is to kill your darlings I don't know that you always do need to kill your darlings I do think a lot of times when you get into a long project you have this one scene you're dying the right and you'll look ahead you'll say I'm only a hundred pages from it I'm only eighty pages from but I'm finally going to write this one wonderful scene that's going to make the whole book you know it's going to be the big fireworks going off in the center of the book a lot of times in second and third draft it turns out that one scene you desperately wanted to write is the easiest to cut you know it's the one scene nobody needs and but but still it's nice to have some goals to shoot for some darlings I think it's good to have darlings before you start basketball on the head on the head with the hammer the word just is a really bad one that's one that's crept in from speech words they're words people unconsciously use in speech like just alright always actually actually is a terrible word actually is actually a really bad word to use in writing and I I try very hard to keep away from filler words like actually which which can only harm the cause you really I'm a guy who believes some of the most beautiful sentences in the world of just two or three Senate two or three words long you know flies hummed is a great sentence I love that when I sit down to write a lot of times I'm just trying to get that first two or three word sentence I love to begin a day with a five-word sentence to something tight and compact it feels factual and clean and is immediately evocative and once that's that can be the hardest part of the day and once I have that that one sentence that one simple clean sentence a lot of times I'm off and running you have to find ways you do have to find ways to recharge my way is generally to skin helpless animals while they're still alive I've I've discovered that can be very restorative honestly my way to recharge is to read I care much more about my daily reading than I do about my daily writing don't tell my editors that but I am a guy who thinks that I love stories and I love beautiful writing you know I love to read David Mitchell or Patrick O'Brien the sound of their sentences the satisfying weight of their characters and you know if I had to give up one I would give up writing in a heartbeat over you know instead of reading so I do that I have three boys they dragged me out of my head like it or not one way or one way or another every day and I do have a Triumph Bonneville motorcycle the the hero of Nosferatu Vic McQueen has this reality bending vehicle Triumph Bonneville motorcycle which he can use to find lost things and across astonishing distances and just you know bulton you up link and my Triumph Bonneville isn't quite that magical but you know a 20 minute ride is very cheap therapy it's you know 125 bucks for to see a therapist and you know 352 for a gallon of gas so I do like to get out and ride now and then every book out I have tried to set myself a new goal I have tried to do something I didn't do before in the case of nos for a two in case of Nosferatu I wanted to write something on a vaster scale than anything I had done before I wanted to write something that covered a lot of Road and a lot of time I also wanted to write a female protagonist I had written two novels and several short stories that had male protagonists and I wanted to explore a female lead and one of my favorite writers growing up was is Neil Gaiman who wrote The Sandman series and the graveyard book and a lot of wonderful work and I think that Neil more than any other writer when I was coming up was a guy who tackled John our stories and introduced female characters that were really unique and funny and powerful and distinctive and and he really gave I think he set the bar very high and I wanted to try to clear that bar you

22 thoughts on “Writers on the Fly: Joe Hill

  1. As a full time writer, I agree with joe about outlining, and characters taking over to redo things, but itโ€™s a lot easier to rewrite a few pages of outline than 100 pages of text lol

  2. I'm about to do NaNoWriMo and this all very helpful, and resonates with me ๐Ÿ’ž

  3. That's the son of Stephen King?


  4. Joe, will you be visiting Missouri? Especially Kansas City, Missouri any time soon?

  5. Love his work. Locke and key and Nos4a2 are my favorites. Is it just me or is his writing often homoerotic is a very subtle way???

  6. I'm just starting NOS4A2 but so far I love Vic Mqueen and her bike.

  7. I just read heart shaped box, great horror novel. He is truely Stephen kings son. I also have locke and key.

  8. This guy 'thinks too much'. JUST FUCKING WRITE! ('Dad' has never had to 'think' anything…just sit and begin typing from the thought of "What if vampires were real? How about'other Worlds' where things have gone to shit because 'magic' has too much power there? If people have a 'spirit' that endures past physical death…what about other critters that 'think'…do they have 'souls' too? What if everything we think is 'real' is just one aspect of 'reality' because our minds can't grasp anything more?")

  9. Lock and Keye is really an amazing fantasy epic- Cape is another great comic (graphic novel) he wrote. In Cape, Horns and L and K he really is unafraid to gaze at the really really dark sides of his characters. He is a great character builder.

  10. "My way to recharge is to skin helpless animals while they're still alive." Yep, he's Stephen King's son alright.

  11. His methods and ideology are almost identical to Stephen King's. Go figure.

  12. Finally someone else who's noticed the word Actually. People use it all the time when they don't know what to say. It's replaced "um".

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