Ghost Stories with Joe Butler

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This week's AfterWords writer is Joe Butler. Joe is a great guy I've gotten to know over the last few months, through Twitter and his extensive (and I do mean extensive) involvement in the RedditWriters anthology, TL;DR. I'll let him tell you a little more about himself:

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I live and work in London, but dream of living and working elsewhere. I have been writing fiction since my early teens, but have been serious about the craft for the last ten years or so. Genre-wise, I would say that I flit between sci-fi, horror, and literary fiction, but I have also dabbled in fantasy. The stories tend to dictate to me what they want to be.

What inspires you and/or why do you write?

I’ve been dreaming up stories for as long as I can remember, and I was lucky enough to find my best friend. He’s equally as imaginative and we spent a good portion of our early teens playing with toys and making up our own stories. We ended up with a huge marvel type universe filled with hundreds of characters, each with their own detailed backstory.

I’ve also always been an avid reader, and I am obsessed with the idea of making people really care about fictional characters. To be able to do that so well, so that readers can’t see the seams and are totally engrossed and invested in a story.

I think video games have also played a large part in that as well. They really captured my imagination from an early age, and I feel like playing them all of my life has really helped preserve and develop that part of me.

The huge universe you created sounds pretty awesome, this coming from a guy with 3000 years of history on a series of stories a friend and I are working on. Care to share a little about that?

I think my best friend may kill me if I divulge too much about it. I can say it’s a sprawling, Sci-Fi epic that spans about 1000 years. It starts in a world much like our own, except on the brink of a global totalitarian regime, run by corporations and enforced by Private Military Companies. The story then follows the state of the world into an apocalypse and what comes after.

Describe your writing process a little bit:

Ideas come from everywhere, random thoughts, news stories. It’s weird because I get a sense of when an idea is coalescing in my brain. It’s an awesome feeling. From there I will let it brew. Chances are if I remember it in two days or a week, it’s an idea that will stay with a reader.

I used to be the writer that could only write when inspiration hit. I found after a couple of years of doing that, I wasn’t actually getting any better. So I changed my process, I write for an hour a day, every day. I don’t carry on much past that if I can help it. That way, I find that I am always inspired, and always want to write.

After I’ve finished a piece I will read it aloud to my wife, second draft and pass it on to my friend to read. I’m really lucky because she is amazing at giving critical feedback. I think it’s vital to have a friend whose opinion you trust and who can be honest with you. I want to know what doesn’t work for someone because I am most likely to be blind to it.

Then I final draft and done!

What is your favorite tool or resource? (Like Scrivener, Grammarly, a blog, etc?)

I don’t really use tools or resources for the most part. I have, however, referred to Robert Macfarlane’s, Landmarks, for ideas on how to describe landscapes.

Biggest challenge for you, and how have you overcome it? (Or how are you working to overcome it!)

I’m not a hugely social person, so I found that dialogue was a particular sticking point for me. It’s a difficult skill to get right anyway, so I spent a long time really trying to get my dialogue to a point where I am reasonably happy with it.

Your point about dialogue is interesting, I feel I'm just the opposite. As an introvert, I feel like I think about communicating more than most people, because it's so hard for me, and I feel like that has translated to being able to write decent dialogue.

That’s really great, and a really interesting point. I think, maybe for me, I see more beauty and poetry in the world than I do in people. As such, I spent more time being interested in learning how to capture that instead of dialogue. I’ve spent a good couple of years really focussing on how to write dialogue, and I think I’m pretty fair at it now.

Okay, tell me about how you produce your audio stories. Those are way cool.

Thanks! I am really glad you think so!

My biggest influences there are Nate DiMeo’s, the Memory Palace, and Neil Gaiman. I was absolutely inspired by the Memory Palace to start recording the Audio Shorts. I also wanted to practice my reading voice for when I hopefully get an opportunity to read my stuff to people at events. (the power of positive thinking!). I also really love Neil Gaiman’s reading voice and wanted to get somewhere close to that.

My website wasn’t getting much attention either from friends and family, and I put that down to them not really having time, so an audio version may be easier for them.

I really, really enjoy doing them.

Equipment wise, I use a Rode USB mic running through Reaper on my laptop. I use free music and samples and just layer those on top of the voice recording. I am experimenting with using sound effects on top of the music, and for the most part, I think they work really well. I really enjoy experimenting with stuff, so it’s fun just to play around.

I am hoping when I am good enough, to book some time in a vocal booth and get some really good quality recordings done and redo some of the stories.

Tell me about these ghost stories in hotels...

I travel a lot for work and so I stay in hotels often.

I love folklore and local ghost stories and how over time, an event or story can get twisted into something far more horrifying. How that twisted version of an event can be woven into the tapestry of a place’s history.

I really love the idea of creating my own folklore, and the idea behind the Haunted Hotel Project is about planting that seed.

I’m hoping a guest will find the story and think about late at night when they are trying to sleep. Then, they will go home and tell the story to someone, who then might tell an exaggerated version of that story to someone else, stating it as fact, and so on and so on, until a ghost story is born!

I usually try and incorporate details from the hotel or the local area. For instance, there was a story set in Queenstown, New Zealand, that incorporated the sound of the ship horn that used to boom really loudly at about 11.30 at night. I think that adding in these little details go some way to helping create that little fear in the back of someone's mind; a hook, or an anchor, so that when the noise happens or they see something mentioned in the story, they start to think about it.

Basically, I’m mean!

The Haunted Hotel Project sounds really awesome! I love the creativity there! How do you leave the stories in hotels?

Thanks, man! I really love the project, and I have some cool plans for it. I write them on hotel notepaper and hide them in the Bible, or on top of wardrobes. Somewhere where they might be found by a curious, but not by cleaning staff.

Any other advice for authors, based on your unique experience?

I think one of the biggest, most positive changes I made was to open myself up to criticism. I just want to serve the story in the best way I can. People telling you that they liked the piece you asked for feedback on is not going to help you improve.

You don’t have to take on board everything someone has said, but at the very least, consider it. Chances are, as a reader they are likely to be right if something doesn’t work.

Oh, and get that critical friend. Someone who can tell you what they don’t like about a piece. Thanks, Amanda!

Where can other authors or readers connect with you?

I can be found lurking on Twitter at @writelikeashark or you can reach me through my site, www.writelikeashark.com.

Where can your work be found?

I regularly post on my two blogs, www.thinklikeashark.wordpress.com and www.writelikeashark.com. The first being a computer game review site and the second being the home of my short stories, Audio Shorts, and the Haunted Hotel Project.

It's been great getting to know Joe and learning about his passions and approach to his art! I love the idea of letting an idea stew for a while to see if it sticks. If it doesn't, it probably won't stick in anyone else's mind either. I hope this AfterWord was as inspiring to you as it was for me! You'll definitely want to follow the Haunted Hotel Project and his Audio Shorts. They don't disappoint!