EP19: Joe Hill
Joe is the bestselling author of Heart-Shaped Box, Horns, NOS4A2, Locke & Key and most recently the New York Times #1 epic blockbuster The Fireman. Joe, son of Stephen King, is powerhouse storyteller from an incredible family of writers. He is also an endless well of writing advice, so be ready to take notes… lots of notes…
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In this episode you will discover…
- The power of two: two writers and a two-word sentence
- How the secret to the Beatles’ success can be applied to your writing
- How playing the piano can help your writing
- Joe’s rule when tackling second drafts, and his first paragraph trick.
- Joe’s top tip that he got from his track coach at school
- How rewriting someone else’s work, and the game Go, can benefit your writing.
- Scrivener – Software for Writing
- The Fireman – Joe Hill
Links featured in today’s show:
- Bestseller Experiment’s Vault of Gold. Sign up to get your free Writer’s ebook
- Question Mark: Have a question you want answered on the show? Click here.
EPISODE TRANSCRIPT (HIGHLIGHTS)
Joe Hill is the bestselling author of Heart-Shaped Box, Horns, NOS4A2 and, most recently, the blockbusting epic The Fireman. He’s also written dozens of short stories and comic books, including Locke & Key, for which Joe won the Eisner Award for Best Writer. Joe is a powerhouse storyteller, and an endless well of writing advice, so be ready to take notes… lots of notes…
Joe on the power of two writers:
I’ve been looking forward to talking to you guys. I’ve actually been thinking about this for a couple of weeks now. In part, because I’m interested in how collaborations work out. I’ve been reading a book called Powers Of Two by a guy named Joshua Wolf Shenk, a psychologist, and he examined great creative couples like Lennon and McCartney, the Coen Brothers, Watson and Crick, and the way they form their own language and start to finish each other’s sentences, and if you guys do succeed in publishing a bestseller I think it will be because you managed to get your partnership to that point where the two of you make more of the sum of your two parts.
I’m also terrifically interested in what you’re doing because I think there isn’t a literary science. It is interesting, the idea of is it possible to consciously set out to write a bestseller. Of course, the answer is no, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.
I have this thing that I’m doing where any book that makes more than fifty weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, I read it. I’m curious to see; what did everyone get excited for? What were they responding to? My plan was to start at the beginning of this century, so if it was a bestseller in 1987, that’s different. What I’m interested in is recent bestsellers, and not just any bestsellers, but the kind of phenomenon books, like the Gone Girls, The Girl On A Train, Fifty Shades Of Grey, All The Light We Cannot See. I just want to know what people are responding to.
How many hit that magic fifty mark?
Not too many. It’s usually about one a year. I have to admit, I’ve not yet read Fifty Shades Of Grey yet, I haven’t read The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. I live in the same small town in New Hampshire that Dan Brown calls home, I have not read Dan Brown’s books yet, I feel terrible because he’s a wonderful guy, I’ve met him a few times, but I’ve still yet to read any of those novels. In the last six months I’ve read All The Light We Cannot See and I’m reading The Girl On The Train now, and I did read Gone Girl. It’s interesting.
Are you seeing any commonalities? Anything that helps these books stick around for so long?
Hmmmmmmm. No. Not really.
Is it too broad to call your writing horror?
When I was a kid I used to read Fangoria magazine, which is this magazine dedicated to the art of the gross-out special effects. Every issue always came with a centrefold and instead of some pretty girl in her underwear, it was always some guy with an axe in his head and an eyeball popping out. I’d read it cover to cover, I was completely addicted, and it used to make me crazy, you’d have some guy who was in an interview saying ‘I don’t really think of myself as a horror director,’ and he’d just directed Slumber Party Massacre VII, and I’m like, ‘Dude, you’re not fucking Fellini either. I see right through you.’ I hate it when someone dodges, y’know, ‘Ah, I’m not really a horror writer.’ Heart-Shaped Box is a horror novel, NOS4A2 is a horror novel, that’s a book about a guy who has a car that runs on humans souls instead of gasoline, so those are both pretty scary books. Horns, my second book, is not really a horror, it’s more of a tragic satire. It does have elements of the supernatural in it. It was made into a film starring Daniel Radcliffe, so that has a cult status among my books. The more recent novel, The Fireman, is a big, action film, sci-fi movie that happens to be on paper.
Where would someone start with your books?
It really depends on the person. If someone wants a really pedal-to-the-floor rollercoaster type experience they’d either want Heart-Shaped Box or NOS4A2, those are the two most straight-ahead here’s-a-thriller! A lot of people have really enjoyed the comic book Locke & Key, the readership of my novels grew substantially after I started writing Locke & Key.
Your short stories are varied, too. Didn’t you start out in short stories?
I sorta had my own bestseller experiment that I started in about 1994. This is not like top secret news or anything, it’s been out there for over a decade, I come from a family of writers. My dad’s the novelist Stephen King.
Never heard of him… Stephen who…?
He’s got tremendous promise. He’s written a couple of books. They’ve done pretty well. I come from this family of amazing writers. My mother’s an amazing writer, my brother is. About the time I was 13-14 I knew I wanted to be a writer. I was writing every day. And I’ve written every day of my life since I was 14. I think I produced about 35 pages a week since I got to High School. When I was 18-19 I began to think, I come from this famous family, I have this famous last name, and it occurred to me that might be a disadvantage, not an benefit to me. I felt like there was too much potential that I would write a mediocre novel and that a publisher would see a chance to make a quick buck on the last name, and they would publish a book that wasn’t very good.
You can fool readers once, but you can’t fool them twice.
My feeling was that if this mediocre novel was published and readers looked at it they’d say, rightly, he only got published because he has a famous dad, I’m never gonna waste my time with him again. I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else and I wanted to have the longest, best-possible career. I felt like the only way to do that was to provide people with stories that really, truly excited them. Where it didn’t matter who my parents were, it didn’t matter what my history was. All that mattered was they were into what was happening, and they wanted to know what happened next. I abandoned my last name and started writing as Joe Hill. Over ten years I wrote four novels that I was never able to sell. Dozens of short stories that I wasn’t able to sell, and I collected my mandatory thousand rejection letters. The joke is that after writing four novels I began to think that I didn’t have the talent or ability to be a novelist, that I had taken my swing and struck out. But I had written some short stories that had appeared in literary magazines and some of them had won some prizes or got prize buzz, and one of these short stories was noticed by a talent scout at Marvel comics, who invited me to write a Spider-Man story. And I remember feeling like, I really wanted to be a novelist, this was my life’s dream, if it didn’t work out, it’s not happening, but… I’ve got a foot in the door over at the comic book business. And if I want to wind-up writing Ghost Rider and The Flash, that could be a pretty great life. I still get to tell stories and play make-believe for a living and that would be terrific. I was a comic book writer before I was a novelist. Around the same time I had around fifteen pretty good short stories. I couldn’t sell them to any publisher in America, I couldn’t sell them to any of the big publishers in England. A very small press in England, PS Publishing, took a chance on the book of stories because the editor there was himself a short story writer of fantastic and horror fiction, and they did a thousand copies and it won some awards, and got some buzz. I was able to sell a novel shortly afterwards, and then eventually it came about my pen name. As soon as I started doing public appearances people started to look at me and say, ‘Doesn’t he kinda look like…? Aaah…?’ But at that point it didn’t really matter because I had what I needed for my self-confidence. I needed to believe that I could do it. That I didn’t need to lean on a family name. That people would enjoy my fiction for what it was as opposed to thinking, ‘This is cool because his dad is someone famous.’
Ten years is a long time. Were there points where you thought this is never going to happen?
I remember I had sent several stories to C. Michael Curtis, the senior fiction editor at the Atlantic Monthly. He had written me back personal notes. He never published anything, but he had written back some stuff. I sent them a story that I thought was pretty good, and this is the old days, it was almost pre-internet, so I would send out a physical story, not a digital manuscript. I would include a self-stamped return mailer and they would sent it back, so I could physically get back my manuscript so I could use it again. I sent one of my best stories to the Atlantic and I got back an envelope instead of my mailer with my short story. It was just the right size to contain a cheque. I thought holy shit, I’ve done it. I just got published by the Atlantic Monthly! I was married at the time, again this is pre cell phones, I didn’t own a cell phone, no one did, and I went outside to the pay phone and I called my wife and I said ‘Oh my God, I think the Atlantic Monthly just published me. I’m holding an envelope!’
And she said, ‘Oh my God, that’s the best. You’ve gotta tear it open and read it me!’
‘Oh! Oh, this is the best.’
‘I’m so proud!’
‘I just don’t believe it,’ and I tore it open, and it was a photocopied form rejection.
Scribbled at the bottom was a note that said ‘Sorry, we lost your story.’
That was such a tremendous kick in the nuts that I remember thinking I’m pretty much done, it’s never happening.
I did spend three years writing this epic fantasy novel called The Fear Tree. And I thought I hit out of the park. I thought this thing was a smash and it got turned down by every publisher in America and it got turned down by every publisher in England, and for an extra kick in the pants it got turned down by every publisher in Canada. My dad had read the book and he loved the book, and he was always very supportive of the pen name, but I remember him saying when that got turned down, ‘Maybe the deck was stacked too much…?’ I knew what he was saying and I said, ‘Dad, y’know, I think I would rather fail with a pen name than succeed knowing that I broke in using the family.’ And he said okay, dropped the subject, and never brought it up again. After The Fear Tree it was probably another three or four years before I finally did sell (short story collection) Twentieth Century Ghosts and Heart-Shaped Box.
What kept you going?
I think I was unfit to do anything else. At that point I realised I had written four novels — although, going back to when I was fourteen I had probably written twelve —I wrote my first book when I was fourteen years old. I wrote this thing about a private high school where the administration was a gang of satanic devil worshippers and that the cafeteria was serving a beef stroganoff of human bodies. That was a book called Midnight Eats. I think I wrote about twelve novels between the time I was fourteen and by the time I when I finally got published, which was at thirty-five. I think at about the age of twenty-eight, twenty-nine I thought there’s no way I’m quitting because I’ve put way too much time into this. After this long it’s no longer acceptable to screw it up. That’s one side, the bravado side.
If you hadn’t been published, would you have considered self-publishing?
I don’t know if I ever would have gone for self-publishing because, for me, personally, I needed the validation of an editor. Self-publishing would have seemed like cheating to me. I think I needed someone to say ‘Yes, you’re good enough.’ I was never the kind of person who could say to himself that you’re good enough.
Who was it who gave you that validation?
There were three people, but I want to go back to something you said in the very first podcast of the Bestseller Experiment, you said where people who are trying to achieve a dream, you make a point to remind them that the moment they’re writing the first sentence they’re already doing it, they’re already having the dream.
The dream is not the end result, the dream is getting there.
What mattered about the Beatles — I’m a big Beatles guy, sooner or later every conversation comes back to the Beatles — we look at Sergeant Pepper and we say that was the moment it all came together. It’s not true. The moment was playing every single night in Hamburg in the clubs. That was the moment when they became the Beatles. Before anyone knew anything about them except they were this bar band that made a good noise every single night. The stories that matter are the ones you didn’t sell, that’s how you created the first and most difficult creation of any artist’s career, which is the invention of yourself. Inventing yourself is the real challenge, and, after that, the novels are easy.
Has it become easier? Or is it harder to write since you got published?
I would say it got a lot easier after I got on anti-depressants. I had a lot of struggles with paranoia and anxiety. I had this totally cliched thing when Heart-Shaped Box came out and I had this bestseller and it was bigger than anything I had ever imagined, it sort-of hit my daydream, cleared the bar of my daydream, and then some. I immediately had a meltdown and couldn’t handle it, I had a nervous breakdown and wound-up divorced and terrifically unhappy and full of paranoid ideas and it was a bit of a struggle getting back together. The last two or three years have been some of the best and happiest writing I’ve ever done in my life.
You mentioned the three people…?
Right! Who gave me validation… Three people that really mattered. The first was probably Stephen Jones, a British editor who does a lot of projects in horror and fantasy, this guy has edited hundreds of books, and he picked one of my stories for a best new horror anthology, he picked my story Twentieth Century Ghost. His acceptance of that story led directly to a talent scout at Marvel comics, Theresa Focarile, giving me a shot to write Spider-Man, and to me that was my big break. It sounds corny, but writing an eleven page Spider-Man story was my big break. I loved comics, and Marvel comics was a real publisher. And finally, and most importantly, Peter Crowther at PS Publishing who decided to publish my first book.
Joe on rough first drafts:
I can fix a crappy page, I can’t fix a blank page. My first drafts are full of ideas that I’ll cut out later. I’m getting faster, much faster now, but it used to take me three years to write a book, and sometimes I would think it took me two years to write the first third of the book, and then about six months to write the other two-thirds. The reason why is I would churn out so much material figuring out who these people are, and just getting them talking to each other and trying to hear the sound of their voice. The specific way each character talks, and if I could find their voice, I could figure out everything I needed to know about them. Eventually it would get to a point where I was so comfortable with the characters I could plop them into any scene and figure out how they would solve a problem, how they react to difficulties. That’s always what I’m trying to look for. On that level, I don’t care how much material I churn out, a fun new situation is always worth exploring, even if a lot of them don’t make it to the finished book.
My rule when I get to a second draft is every time I look at a chapter, a scene, I say to myself, ‘What’s awesome about this scene?’
If I was a reader, what’s so awesome that I couldn’t wait to get to the next page? I need to see that in every page. Really, I need to see that in every paragraph, because I’m so scared the reader is going to put down the book. I thrive on fear. There’s so many distractions, there’s so much great stuff on Youtube, you guys haven’t really thought about what you’re getting into. You ever looked at Netflix? You’ve seen how much great stuff there is on Netflix? Why would anyone read your book if they could watch Netflix? You’ve seen Apple streaming music? All the Oscar movies are out. Why would anyone waste their time on your book? You’ve got to give them an amazing reason to keep reading. Every page.
I’m absolutely ruthless about saying if there’s not something just mind-blowingly awesome in this chapter it’s gotta go.
It’s amazing how easy the stuff that’s not awesome just drops right out of the book. It’s like turning someone upside down and shaking the change out of their pockets. All that stuff you don’t need.
It’s a bit like Marie Kondo’s way of de-cluttering your house…
What gives you joy! Every page, that’s right, every single page you have to defend why it’s awesome. And this should be easier because there are two of you. There’s one of you to say it’s not awesome, tell me why this is awesome, and the other to defend it. And if you can’t persuade the other person, boom! It’s gone. It’s gotta go. It’s the power of two. He says, I’ve got the first two lines — She was just seventeen, she was no beauty queen — and one of you has gotta say, that’s a crap line, so you think some more and say ‘Y’know what I mean?’ and suddenly ‘Ooh, that’s filthy! It’s great!’ It’s electrifying because you’re good fencing partners.
You’re a big fan of music. Have you ever drawn any comparisons between music and books, which have made some big moments in your writing?
I’ve managed to work my Beatles versus Stones argument into every single book. Sooner or later Beatles versus Stones comes up. I’m a big British Invasion guy; The Kinks, The Who, The Faces, I live and die by this stuff, even the later stuff. I love Oasis. It’s horrible to think, but wasn’t Oasis the best band of the nineties? My first book borrowed the title of a Nirvana song, Heart-Shaped Box. If you ask me what’s the better song, I Hate Myself And Wanna Die, or Live Forever by Oasis, it’s no contest. Live Forever! Absolutely.
What do you listen to when you write?
Do you wanna hear my new, weird amazing trick to get in the mood to write? It never fails, tremendously successful, I sit down — boom! — words start to flow. I play piano for a half hour before I write. I’m a terrible pianist. Dreadful pianist. I play piano, and I work at it for half-an-hour, and it seems to clear my head and put me into a different mind space, and when I sit down it just flows. No thought, no second-guessing. It’s a warm-up. It’s a lateral move. It’s connected to writing and reading, I’m reading notes, and there is expression, but it’s non-verbal. It’s this completely non-verbal thing and somehow it does something to prime the motor.
Any other life hacks to share with us?
I was thinking about writing a bestseller. What do you do to write a bestseller? And I know some stuff and it’s totally useless and it won’t help you even the tiniest bit. The best thing you can do to have a successful, big bestseller is to get your book praised publicly in a high-profile media space by a big influencer. This morning on the front page of the New York Times they ran a big article on Barack Obama’s reading and about how the president’s reading kept him sane and grounded during the eight years he was president. He mentioned a science fiction novel called The Three Body Problem. I don’t know what the Amazon sales rank for The Three Body Problem was yesterday… but today, at the time of this recording, it’s number fifty on Amazon’s list. The president loved it, he said so publicly, and it became a huge bestseller, and that is not the first this has happened. When Kennedy was asked what he liked he said he enjoyed the spy thrillers of Ian Fleming and the rest is history. Over here we have the Oprah Show, if you can get noticed by someone; Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Barack Obama, Donald Trump… I don’t think Donald Trump has ever read a novel, so it’s not likely he’s going to recommend you. The other thing I’m certain will help sell books is if you can get on TV. Over here we have the Today Show, over there you guys have the Punch and Judy Show, or Richard and Judy Show? Something like that? If you can get on, then you’ll be a bestseller, right?
What about praise from Lee Child or Stephen King on the cover?
Not sure that helps you. Not big enough. Lee Child and Stephen King are good, but they blurb a lot of books, and lot of books they blurb don’t become bestsellers. Barack’s gotta say something, man.
Who was the most influential media type who promoted you in the States?
Neil Gaiman said he loved Heart-Shaped Box unreservedly. They put that quote on the back cover and I’m sure it’s why it sold. I was coming from comic books and I write a kind of scary dark fantasy that is in some ways more similar to Neil’s work than to my dad’s, and so I wanted to steal Neil Gaiman’s audience, and he said sure let me help you with that, and gave the book a big quote. Janet Maslin has reviewed all the books in the New York Times and she said some early, terrific things about them. I would say a good review, from a high-profile reviewer can still move a couple copies. I don’t know if it will make you a bestseller, but every little bit helps. I don’t really know why the books have sold well. I think, and this is the flaw in your experiment, not to bum you out, trying to predict what’s going to become a bestseller is a little bit like trying to predict which direction a flock of sparrows are gonna fly in. You can’t do it. The readership is this giant, unpredictable crowd. You don’t know what someone is going to write and suddenly that’s going to electrify everyone because it’s exactly what we need to be talking about.
The only thing you can do… I had a track coach in high school, and we asked him once what’s the best way to win a race? And he said if you start strong, and then you powerfully through the middle section of the race, and then put on a final burst of speed at the end… you’ll have a good race.
The only thing you can do is open your book with an absolutely mind-blowing powerhouse beginning, and then if the next two-hundred-and-fifty pages are completely irresistible, winding up to a brain-smashing I-never-saw-that-coming ending… you’ll be fine. You’ll sell some copies. It’ll be all right.
Are conscious of going in with a firework display? I have to end this chapter on an absolute cliffhanger?
Yeah, I think so. When I finish a chapter there had better be a reason to start the next one. You always try to end it the way Chandler discussed with the man coming through the door with a gun… I might have lifted that from one of your first podcasts, actually. On a practical level, I think people would rather read dialogue than big blocks of description.
If you have characters with interesting voices, those pages will fly when you put two people in a room and they’re not going to be nice to each other. There’s some magpie part of our brains that want the gossip.
It doesn’t matter that these people don’t really exist. We want to hear. ‘He said that?!’ ‘She said what??’ We can’t help it. Especially if they have a really distinctive, fun way of talking. I’ve always tried to look for a way to make the characters verbally fun. C.S. Lewis does this, too. Reepicheep’s dialogue is really, really fun. The Pensives say great things. In Prince Caspian, I think, Edmund says to Peter, ‘Do you really think you can beat him?’ And he says, ‘I don’t know. That’s why we’re going to fight to find out.’ It’s such a great way to end a chapter, and such a great little line.
Your reviews talk about the horror aspect of your writing, but they also talk about the fun. You’re trying to make your books humorous as well as scary?
You ever watch the Marvel movies? All the Marvel superhero films are like a textbook in great storytelling. I read a review where someone reduced them to ‘Quip, quip, punch,’ and I thought… Yeah? What’s wrong with that? That works pretty good. Pauline Kael said movies are kiss-kiss-bang-bang, so another way of saying ‘Is this chapter awesome?’ is to look at it and say, ‘Is there a kiss? Is there a bang?’ No? Gotta go.
When you go into rewrites, what are you looking out for?
Short chapters and short sentences. If a chapter’s going on it had better be going on because it’s so awesome. Someone is being dragged behind a truck and their skin is getting flayed off and they’re trying to wriggle out of the handcuffs. Something like that. It’s the only reason I can think of for a chapter to go on longer than three pages.
People like short things. Short chapters, short sentences, short skirts.
A seven-minute pop song is never gonna fly, let’s keep it to two-and-a-half minutes. Don’t bore us, get to the chorus. If you’re going to go long, if you’re going to write a sentence that goes on for a full page, or if you’re going to do a twenty-page discursive chapter, there had better be a damn good reason for it. I’m not saying you can’t do it, although if you’re writing an entertainment, sorry you can’t do it. If you’re writing literary fiction, you can do it, but you guys aren’t. You guys want to write something where the pages are going to fly, I guess it’ll be an eBook, so the button will fall off because someone’s pressing it.
By the way, when I said I read bestsellers, I also pay close attention to what sells in eBooks. That’s become an increasingly important part of the market, and reveals something about readers. The mask has come off and we’ve seen this hidden face, this whole hidden demographic. Clearly, people really like to read dirty fiction. They didn’t like doing when they had to read a book where it was like naked people on the cover, but if they can read it on an anonymous device they did. We dig the people undressed, monkeying around.
Are you a structured writer? Or do you write whenever it happens?
It’s kind of gone through a transition recently because for about three or four years I was doing all my first drafts longhand. Prior to that I had done most of my work directly into the computer, and then I went through this whole phase of really enjoying the notebooks and being disconnected and no Twitter, no text messages, I put on my vinyl, and I wrote longhand and that was terrific. I wrote the last twelve issues of my comic book longhand, I wrote The Fireman longhand, I wrote three of the four novellas in the upcoming book longhand. It was a terrifically satisfying way to work. However, I have gone back to the computer and that’s been a real rush. It’s like I spent years running with weights and now I’ve put the weights down and I’m working without them and that’s pretty exciting. Writing longhand was like resistance training. In terms of my pattern, I expect to get between fifteen-hundred and three thousand words every day. More and more I find myself looking for three thousand, not fifteen-hundred. We’ve got some deadlines to keep, let’s go ahead and make them. I’ve been a lot more relaxed, so it’s been a little easier to get my pages in.
If you’re up against a deadline and feeling anxious is there something you can do that calms you down?
Playing piano has been terrific, because prior to that most what I did was I would go out for a long drive, and find someone’s pet and then I would strangle it in a ditch, y’know…? I generally found that killing pets, killing animals in the wild, seemed to stir something… Kept me motivated. You can have awkward conversations and visits from people in uniforms and stuff, so the piano has been a huge step forward.
My trick when I sit down is I decide ‘This first paragraph is only going to have three sentences in it, and the first sentence is going to have three or four words.’
I love a great two word sentence. It’s like a hammer and a nail. Tyres smoked. Thunder boomed. Y’know? I love that. For the reader it’s a real kick in the pants. I’m not thinking about the whole day of work, I’m not thinking about the whole scene, I’m just thinking about What’s one awesome sentence I can put on the page? I just want to find that one little four or five word sentence where the reader will feel a little bit like, ‘I didn’t think that was going to be the next thing I read.’ Norman Mailer used to compare it to a boxing match, and I sometimes think it is a little bit like that, it’s almost like you’re beating the reader. Why a reader would pay to be pummelled I don’t know? But you’re trying to stick ‘em again and again. Boom-boom, here’s another one, you didn’t see that coming, boom!
If you’re writing a mystery, there’s a temptation to have a scene where someone calls someone on the phone for information… okay… but that’s not awesome. We’ve seen that scene in a million movies. Why do they have to talk on the phone? Can’t you have them talk someplace more interesting? What if one of them checks safety on a roller coaster and they have to have the conversation on a roller coaster? Can’t you put them somewhere else? Get them off the phone! Don’t have them talk in the kitchen, I can’t imagine anything more boring than that. Have them talk someplace interesting. And right away you have to figure out why they don’t like each other. They do like each other? That’s not that interesting. Your detective is trying to get information out of this woman and she hates him. Why does she hate him? Just because she doesn’t like his face? She doesn’t like his car? He comes to her neighbourhood in that car? Showing off how much wealthier he is than everyone else in the neighbourhood? What’s his deal? What’s his problem? Why does he look down on her? You’ve gotta have conflict, you gotta have friction. Or… maybe she’s really lonely and she likes the guy? And then it’s an uncomfortable seduction or something, but there has to be something. It can’t just be that he needs some information and she’s going to give it to him. That’s boring.
People will start a story with someone waking up, turning off the alarm, and opening the fridge. There’s no reason to hear about them opening the fridge unless there’s a severed head in there. If there’s a severed head in the fridge, I wanna know… otherwise, let’s move it along.
What’s the one piece of advice that’s stuck with you through your career?
I want people to keep listening to the Bestseller Experiment because they’re gonna get a lot of good advice, they’re going to learn a lot from the podcast and I’m following along, too, I’m also interested to see what I can learn. Though, now I’m going to say something that is a little bit of a bummer, which is I’ve had lots of good advice from my mom, my dad, from various mentors, from very experienced writers, but I never really learned the things I needed to know from the advice of other people.
Everything I learned about good writing, I learned from reading a lot of good books.
That’s basically how I got it. I mentioned that I had a little bit of a nervous breakdown after my first novel. I was in a really bad place, and I started all of these books that I couldn’t get going, and I had another book due, and then it was a year overdue, then two years overdue, and things were getting pretty bleak. At a certain point I said fuck it, I can’t write my own novels, I’m all done writing my own novels, I can’t do it anymore. And I got a copy of one of my favourite novels, Elmore Leonard’s The Big Bounce, and so every day I would sit down and I would write four pages from The Big Bounce. I copied it sentence-by-sentence, page-after-page, and then as I went along I started to change sentences, or to add material. I had this idea that I was going to finish it and release for free on the internet and it was going to be called The Bigger Bounce.
After I got twenty pages in — just copying his words, his sentences, his rhythm, his dialogue, the feel of his characters — I would push it to the side and I would start writing Horns, which was my second novel. Horns isn’t anything like Elmore Leonard, but in the process of working on Elmore Leonard’s material I found I could make a transition to my own voice. It loosened up stiff muscles, and, at a certain point, when I was about eighty or a hundred pages into rewriting The Big Bounce, I quit working on Elmore Leonard and just gave myself over full time to Horns.
If you want to learn how to be a good writer, I would say read a book where you say this book is it! And read it again. And read it again with a highlighter and a pencil. Count words. How many words did he put in each paragraph? When he has dialogue, how long does his dialogue generally go? Does he write pages of dialogue? Does he only write three or four exchanges? What’s going on? Know that book inside out and, if you have to, rewrite it. Sit there and physically run his or her sentences through your brain. You will learn rhythm, you will learn how to dance.
You’re copying someone else’s dance moves and learning them for yourself. And, eventually, you will be able to dance your own dance.
It’s been ten minutes since we talked about The Beatles. What did the Beatles do in Hamburg? They didn’t play their own tunes. They played Chuck Berry, they played the girl bands, they played those songs, and they played those songs, and they played those songs, and by the time they were writing their own songs they knew the structure of a three minute rock and roll tune inside out. They knew all the tricks, all the vocal intonations that would elicit an emotional reaction. Students of Go, who learn how to play the game of Go, traditionally are not allowed to play their own game of Go when they begin studying. Instead, they have to play their way through a hundred classic games of Go, playing both sides of the games, working from a booklet that shows them what moves were made, to learn the moves of the masters, before they even begin with their own stuff. It’s a good way to learn.
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