Sunday, July 7, 2013

Writing a whole novella of backstory: excerpts from Joe Hill interview

I love reading through the short story magazines I'm subscribed to: Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Nightmare, and Fantasy & Science Fiction. So potent. Novels, even good ones, often run the risk of losing the potency that a lot of short stories can retain with ease. That's part of the challenge of course.

I finished up the July issue of Nightmare Magazine today. It wasn't my favorite issue fiction-wise but the non-fiction worked for me. I really liked the interview with Joe Hill, who is the son of Stephen King apparently. Will have to check out his latest novel, NOS4A2, at some point.

Joe Hill's discussion of his work made me feel slightly better about the mess of a draft I'm sorting through (the 0.5 draft) to get to the end of a 1st draft. The part about him writing a whole novella for one character and then cutting it in the 3rd draft made me realize all the extra writing on various characters and setting could pay off in the end. It's also a great point about how each scene needs to stand on its own almost as much as a short story does. I'll post a few excerpts from the interview below.

From John Joseph Adams' Nightmare Magazine #10 (July Issue):
Interview: Joe Hill (Part 1)
The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy

“Speaking of explaining the villain, I heard you say that you wrote a whole novella to explain Manx’s backstory, and you ended up taking it out. Could you talk about that?"

"I write a lot of material in the “first draft that never makes it into the finished book. People’s time is so precious, people have so little free time, and, right now, this is the best age for entertainment that has ever been. We’re just drowning in a sea of entertainment. There are so many wonderful games, so many great TV shows, so many amazing novels: people can’t keep up with it all. You can only pick and choose a few items from the buffet.
I feel like, in the case of my novels, every bit, every scene, has to fiercely defend itself as a scene that stands, that’s exciting and entertaining in its own right. Every scene should almost be like a miniature little short story that does something compelling and gets the reader pumped up and makes them want to keep turning the pages. But it takes a while to get there. In my first drafts, a lot of them are very, very messy. There tends to be mountains of material that the reader doesn’t really need: stuff that I wrote for me. There’s a lot of stuff, a lot of character moments, and a lot of backstory that I wrote so I can understand who I am writing about, fully.
So, for example, in the course of working on NOS4A2, there was a novella that was a hundred and ten pages long that talked about when Charlie Manx was a younger man living in Kansas. He was on his first marriage and he had a couple daughters, and it tells the story of how he bought the Wraith, and when he made his first trip to Christmasland. I had a really good time writing that story, and I think, in some ways, it’s a pretty interesting story. When I got into the third draft, I made the decision to just chop the whole thing out, because I came “to feel that Charlie was more scary the less of him we saw.”

“You mentioned the vanity license plate—NOS4A2—did you see that actual license plate somewhere? Or did you decide on the concept for the book and then come up with the license plate?

I don’t know where I came up with the license plate, but I do like titles that are puzzles. I think any time you can play a game with the reader or ask the reader an interesting question, you’ve started a conversation, you’ve engaged them, and readers want to be engaged.”


“Originally, that scene, which was sort of darkly comic, it was the original prologue for the book, and then later was moved into chronological order. Later I was persuaded to stick it in the middle of the book. But I kept it in. It tells this one short story about this guy, this character named Hicks, and his encounter with Charlie Manx, and we never see Hicks again. It’s just this one thing.
Basically I wrote that and kept it in the book because it’s really funny to read in public. That fifteen page segment reads really well, and I thought, “Well, I’m going to go on the road on a book tour, and I want to have something to make people laugh, and this is it.” I think that’s an okay reason to keep the scene in the book.”

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