One of the best things I’ve done as a writer in terms of learning, is to listen to other writer’s talk. Dan Brown, Patrick Ness (twice), Cecelia Ahern, Sarah Crossan, Ali Land, Sam Blake, Catherine Ryan Howard, Hazel Gaynor. The list goes on. Not only is it valuable to take a peek inside their heads but it’s also the greatest motivator and sometimes kick-up-the-arse you need when you’re feeling a bit stuck or low in confidence.
I first heard Joe Hill interviewed on the writing podcast The Bestseller Experiment (http://bestsellerexperiment.com/ep19-joe-hill/) and he was terrific – full of insight and humour – warm and generous with his advice. I was in the middle of editing hell and thinking every word was pure crap. On his advice I sat down and hand wrote, word for word, the opening chapters of Elmore Leonard’s Killshot and instantly I was back in the game – back in love with words and seeing the wood for the trees. When I heard he was coming to Dublin for a Q&A with author Deirdre Sullivan at Eason’s Dept 51, it was a no brainer. Aside from brilliant nuggets of writing advice, Hill read an excerpt from Snapshot, the first story in Strange Weather, as well as taking questions from the floor. Everything he says is with infectious enthusiasm whether that’s telling an anecdote or giving out themed umbrellas for his favourite questions. He’s inspiring, wistful, deadpan, hilarious, entertaining, warm and friendly. He apologises for taking up so much of our time. I could have listened for days….
Here’s my top 5 things I learned about writing, from the genius that is Joe Hill.
Your character should be a crossword puzzle that you’re constantly filling in as the story develops, another clue to who they are wrapped in your story. Leave out too much and the reader has to work too hard to find them. Put it all in. Figure them out.
Hone in on details. Think of yourself as a filmmaker. Where is the camera? What is it showing? Where’s the close-up? Maybe it’s not on the action but a seemingly inconsequential detail that serves to unnerve the reader. The brilliant example he used was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The director Tobe Hooper, sought other things in a scene to highlight – spoiled food, flies on lightbulbs. Details. And the film was all the more effective for it.
Always be acutely aware that readers have a million distractions in their everyday life that will pull them away from books. Work hard to fight against it on EVERY page. Get their attention and hold it.
4. Use humour to build a reader’s love for your character
Humour can ease tension in a scene but it also makes the reader empathise and ultimately feel connected to a character so that when something bad happens, they care.
5. Pour your anger onto the page
Strange Weather is made up of four novellas, Snapshot, Loaded, Aloft and Rain, all linked by weather you haven’t seen before. Hill says the second tale, Loaded, came of his anger over American gun laws and the appalling massacres that have become a regular atrocity on the landscape of the U.S.. As others take to social media to expound their fury and grief, he drills it down onto his page. That’s where your power is as a writer. Get it down on paper.
Strange Weather is out now.