Jul 29, 2021

On Joe Hill and creating stories

Excerpt from "Mondo Moore: Questions from Hill, Diaz and more", a six-part interview by Zack Smith posted on Newsarama.com in May 2009.
Newsarama: Our next “bonus round” question comes from Joe Hill, author of Heart-Shaped Box and the comic series Locke & Key.
Alan Moore: Another very, very good author. I read Heart-Shaped Box and thought it was a splendid book. I was very impressed with it.

NRAMA: Joe writes, “In a recent interview on the subject of episodic television, you said writers working on a continuing series ought to have an ending in mind, that they should know what they're building towards.
“With LoEG - or with any of your stories - do you work backward from a known ending then, or do the characters lead you naturally towards a conclusion you didn't expect? To put the question another way: you've sometimes discussed fiction as a form of magic. With that in mind, do you always get the demon you planned to summon, or are there sometimes surprise visitors?”

AM: Well, I think all of that is true. It’s like, yes, I do generally at least have a vague plan before I commence a narrative. Back in the day, when I was starting out, I used to have everything planned out and nailed down. With Swamp Thing, before I started writing every issue, I had an idea of what was going to go on every page and how it would all tie up.

As I did it issue-by-issue, I had an idea of where the overall narrative would be going. I can’t claim to have had the entire Swamp Thing story worked out from issue #1, but I had an interesting idea about redefining the character that I thought could take in into some interesting territory, so I left that fairly loose.

The other books up through Watchmen, From Hell and Lost Girls…I had everything in place, but that still leaves an awful lot that is open to change. Just because you’ve got a rough idea of where the plot’s going, that doesn’t tell you how you’re going to express those ideas, or what you’re going to make of them.

And so, with Lost Girls, I knew from my first conversations with Melinda that it was going to take place in a series of 38-page episodes, and that the plot outline would be building up to these three climaxes at the end of the three books that would end up with the First World War.

But in writing the book, so much rich material starts to emerge, so that as long as you’ve left yourself room to tie it back in, it will probably fit with your original conception of the book. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything where I came up with an ending that I completely hadn’t expected, but there have been plenty of times where I was pleasantly surprised by something that had been there potentially in my approach to the story all along.

There were very, very nice bits in the bit I’m working on now, Jerusalem. There were elements I threw together into the original mix. But the original mix was basically 35 story titles! I’ve got a vague idea of what’s in each chapter, and a vague idea of the order the chapters would be appearing in, and therefore roughly what this vast novel would be about. But it’s only with this current chapter, 25, that I’ve comprehended the entire shape of this enormous thing, I’ve realized the scope of what I’m doing.
That, in itself, has changed the shape of these final 10 chapters. I didn’t know when I started out that I’d be writing a chapter in an approximation of James Joyce’s language, because it’s a story about his daughter. It wasn’t until I was halfway through this chapter that I realized the next chapter would be about the development of economic policy, since Isaac Newton was put in charge of the mint.

I think that the important thing is, in my experience as a writer, I’ve come to recognize a workable skeleton, just by sight. I can see that yeah, this story, it’s got four legs, it can stand up, it can move, it’s articulated in the right way. What the flesh will be like, and the eventual meaning of that flesh will be, that’s a surprise that I probably won’t know until the end. I won’t know what Jerusalem is exactly until I’ve finished the last page and the last revisions.

But it’s a mixture of those things. I do like to have enough of the story worked out so I can trust my abilities as a writer to finish the story in a way that is satisfying to me and the reader. But I do like to leave room open for serendipity, because it happens a lot, and it can be so wonderful. Leave yourself the space for that, but do it within a predetermined structure. It’s the best of both worlds, really. Leave room for nice surprised, but try to get rid of any nasty surprises before you commence the narrative.

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