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The Other Novels

February 8th, 2007

Mike and Dana Jean and Angie, over on my message board, were wondering if Heart-Shaped Box is the first novel I ever completed. No — in the years before Heart-Shaped Box, I wrote a bunch of other novel-length works I was never able to sell. At fourteen, I fell into the habit of slinking off to my bedroom after school to spend a couple hours playing pretend with words, and eventually, as they will, all those words added up. I sort of assumed I would be a published novelist by the time I was 19. In fact, it took me until I was 32 to sell my first book, 20th Century Ghosts.

But what if things were different? What if I had sold one of those early stories that I wrote when I was much younger? Here's a list touching on a few of those early unpublished stories, along with the age I wrote them, a brief plot description, and the imagined critical response to their release...

Midnight Eats (14): Plucky boys at a private academy discover, during a late-night panty raid, that the dean is a Satanist, and that the Friday goulash served in the cafeteria is, in fact, made out of the ground-up bodies of missing students. Think American Pie meets Cannibal: The Musical meets Captain Underpants. "Utterly convincing in its presentation of young men pitted against believably rendered zombie-Satanist-mutant-liberal-arts-professors, Midnight Eats made me hungry for goulash!" — Trent Larsen, The Wichita Book Journal.

Jonah Who Could (18): Plucky barbarians lead a gang of desperate scholars on a late-night book raid into a magical library, where the goblin librarians will eat your soul if you return one of their tomes late. Think Lord of the Rings meets The Shadow of the Wind meets Slave Girls of Gor. "If Salman Rushdie ate a dictionary and upchucked on a pile of blank pages, it might read just like this!" — Gary Reznor, The Toledo Library Times.

The Fear Tree (26): During a pogrom, a plucky young thief abandons his family to save himself and is blinded in his escape; after, he discovers he has acquired a very selective psychic power, a gift for knowing other people's secret fears. Think Lord of the Rings meets The Fixer meets... meets... meets unanimous rejection, in three different nations. I don't have to imagine the critical response to this book: I got one, and it wasn't pretty.

I started The Fear Tree very soon after graduating from college, high on the fiction of Bernard Malamud and fantasy novels like Eyes of the Dragon. The scary part was when I got three hundred pages in, and showed my soon-to-be-wife, and she hated it. Hated everything about it. She couldn't stand the endless trivia about my invented high-fantasy world, or the halt-thou-vartlet dialogue. Worst of all was that my story didn't seem to be about anything, didn't ask any interesting questions... it was just guys crashing around in chain-mail, poking each other with lances.

By then I had been working on it for most of a year. It was too awful to read, and I had too much invested in it to quit. So I did something I hated to do, at the time. I started to rewrite it. Did I mention that up until then, and even through college, I more or less considered a story done when I wrote "The End" on the first draft?

I revised the first three hundred pages I had, and plodded on for another 700. Then I went back to the beginning and did two more drafts, putting off showing it to anyone, because I was scared of what they'd say about it. Finally, though, I gave it to my parents and my wife — and they all were excited and happy and relieved for me, because it had turned into a pretty engaging read. The dialogue was more lively and the characters had filled out. Best of all, the book was about something now, had become an attempt to examine how fear can turn a whole society against The Other. We all thought that I'd be beating back the offers.

It took two years for that book to be rejected by just about every publisher in the English speaking world, big and small. One major American publisher who shall remain nameless held it for eighteen months, and ignored repeated and increasingly hostile queries from my agent, before finally returning it with a badly photocopied form rejection.

Know what? I think they all made the right call... not just for them, but more importantly, for me.

I have an idea that many published writers have a book or two (or three) in the bottom drawer. These are not sadly overlooked masterpieces. They are, instead, deeply flawed learning experiences. The Fear Tree had a lot of good in it. It also had weaknesses — grave, crippling weaknesses — that I was not able to overcome, even with three years of work.

At the time, I thought all those rejections meant the end of my fledgling career as a writer. The truth is, an acceptance would more likely have led to the end of my writing career, because the book would have probably been a commercial and critical disaster.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Heart-Shaped Box: A Novel
    Used Hardcover $6.95

  2. The Lord of the Rings (One Volume)
    Used Trade Paper $8.50
  3. The Shadow of the Wind
    Used Trade Paper $6.50
  4. The Fixer
    Used Trade Paper $8.50
  5. The Complete Stories Used Trade Paper $6.95
  6. The Eyes of the Dragon: A Story
    Used Mass Market $1.95

Joe Hill is the author of Heart-Shaped Box: A Novel

12 Responses to "The Other Novels"

    Hank D. February 8th, 2007 at 12:05 pm

    I'm pretty sure that's how Rushdie writes his novels now.

    Andrew Ryan February 8th, 2007 at 12:06 pm

    I would even eat gulash (yuck!) to be able to read "American Pie meets Cannibal: The Musical meets Captain Underpants" - just to know what that's like boggles my mind!!

    Venkman February 8th, 2007 at 12:09 pm

    any chance we could read an excerpt from The Fear Tree? it definitely sounds intriguing.

    Laura Lee February 8th, 2007 at 12:10 pm

    The novels that could have been make me wonder if "20th Century Ghosts" is going to be reprinted in a more accessable format now that "Heart Shaped Box" is getting so much attention? I can't find "20th Century" anywhere, even online, and I'm intrigued.

    Barry Wood February 8th, 2007 at 12:33 pm

    I'll never look again at rejection the same. You've put in many years of writing and trying and it was all a learning experience. Powerful stuff, Joe.

    Mike Myers February 8th, 2007 at 12:52 pm

    Thanks for answering my question Joe. I love hearing this behind the scenes type of stuff.

    Dana Jean February 8th, 2007 at 12:54 pm

    I liked this blog Joe. I appreciate the honesty in examining yourself and your work. So, I guess in a weird way, I'm glad they rejected you because it made you the wonderful storyteller you are today.

    And, I'm really glad that everyone was so "plucky" in your stories. Damn. I hate people who aren't plucky. They get on my nerves. Mother pluckers.

    Angie February 8th, 2007 at 1:42 pm

    Thanks for this, Joe. It's good to hear about all you've went through to get to where you are. I'm having a hard time getting fiction published...I know it's a long road. Hearing from someone who made it through is always encouraging to me. It helps.

    Catherine February 8th, 2007 at 2:38 pm

    actually, I'd like to see "Jonah Who Could" -I'm such a sucker for libraries I use a magnifying glass on the pages of Architectural Digest to read people's titles...and it makes me wonder how many overdue books you had as a kid. My Dad used to say, "Well, that's how the library buys more books." Obviously, he was an enabler. Very much enjoying this blog, there's no such thing as too many people with an agreeably warped sense of humor, and when one decides to write, I take notice.

    Brockman February 8th, 2007 at 3:07 pm

    Hey, Joe -- Congratulations on your favorable N.Y. Times Review!

    "Mr. Hill uses [the bare bones of his plot] to shockingly good effect, creating a wild, mesmerizing, perversely witty tale of horror. In a book much too smart to sound like the work of a neophyte, he builds character invitingly and plants an otherworldly surprise around every corner."

    Jessica February 18th, 2007 at 4:57 pm

    After devouring Heart-Shaped Box in a matter of hours I was desperate to find a copy of Twentieth Century Ghosts. All the web sites that had copies 2 weeks ago were all out. I finally found one at the Amazon UK site and ordered it immediately. I'm not even sure how much I paid for it. What is the exchange rate for pounds to dollars? Whatever, I'm sure it's worth it!

    Donna April 28th, 2007 at 9:32 pm

    what a great book (Heart shaped box)
    congradulations. I haven't had so much fun reading a ghost story in a long time.
    Finnished it in two nights, oh boy!! I then baught 2 copys for good friends who apreciate great works of fiction.
    Keep it up, looking forward to your next book.

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