Joe Hill — Writing Things

Joe Hill, the legendary offspring of the legendary Stephen King (and a damn good writer in his own right, I’m guessing his constant connection to his father must be irksome), came to the Tattered Cover to discuss his short story collection, Full Throttle, and writing in general.

With a friendly, comedic demeanor, and those classic glasses and beard, Hill spoke about his own experience in the publishing industry and read aloud an unpublished short story. The Q&A lasted an hour, followed by another hour of signatures and photos, but I was able to glean a few writerly advicey things.

Here they are:

Good ideas do not necessarily
translate into a good story.

Joe Hill cautioned that one-sentence ideas don’t necessarily make for a story. He mentioned that he was very good at making an elevator pitch, and yet “the better I got it the more I became convinced it’s completely unimportant.” Of course a good concept pulls people in. Nosferatu, for example, has a great pitch: “What if a guy had a car that ran on human souls instead of gasoline?” But, while Hill said he comes up with two or three ideas a week, “it takes me about a month to write a short story and it takes me about three years to write a novel.” The work isn’t coming up with the idea, but what the next four hundred pages will look like; and part of his second-guessing and insecurity regards whether the fundamental idea will be altered irreconcilably, or if the idea must guide the direction of the piece, or if the concept is harming instead of benefiting.

“I’m orderly on the outside,” Hill said. “But inside it’s total chaos.”

The most interesting characters
start as mysteries to the author.

When asked whether he’s a plotter or a panster, Joe Hill said he’s “definitely in the latter camp.” Outlines do not work for him precisely because the most “exciting part of writing a short story or novel is falling in love with a character and wanting to learn about them.” How could he predict in an outline how a character will interact or conflict with others? How he or she will deal with the crisis at hand? According to Joe Hill: “There’s stuff about them that I can’t see but I feel will be revealed if I put them under pressure. Plot is the instrument to create pressure that will force the truth from my lead characters. I can’t plot out a outline about what they’re going to do or how they will respond to trouble because I don’t know who they are yet. … What do they hate, what do they love, what are their daydreams? I can only find that stuff out by churning out a lot of material.”

Sometimes write scenes for the reader and sometimes write scenes for you.

For a four hundred page book, Joe Hill will write a seven hundred page draft. All of which is a quest to discover who his characters are, how they tick and tock and talk. So some of his scenes are written for readers; they’re “part of the journey” the reader is on. But some scenes are necessary only for Hill to know how his characters might respond to this situation or that squabble. Those ‘scenes for me’ get cut, of course, but they help Hill solve the mystery of his characters.