Today I’m talking with Hugh Howey. He e-published the first installment of his novel Wool on Amazon last year, and he was soon picked up by an agent who helped him snag foreign rights and an option with Ridley Scott’s production company, Scott Free Productions. He recently signed with Simon and Schuster and his book will be released in the US this March, 2013.
First of all Hugh, I’d like to congratulate you on your new contract with Simon and Schuster. Wool was my number one science fiction pick of 2012, so it was certainly deserving of a big name publisher. The path that led you here is certainly an amazing story. One year ago you were working at a bookstore, and in March 2013 you’ll be able to walk into that same bookstore and buy your own book. With everything you know now, straddling the world of the e-published and traditionally-published book, what do you wish you had known going into it?
Thanks so much, Isaac! I was deeply flattered to make your list, much less top it. I let out a squee or two on Facebook when I saw that.
What would I like to have known? Man . . . it all has gone so wonderfully that I think I would want to be perfectly ignorant the second time around. I think if I’d known this many people would be reading something I wrote, it would have paralyzed me. And all the marvelous little surprises along the way would be ruined if I saw them coming. Almost everything that worked for me worked because I didn’t know any better.
But maybe it would’ve been nice to know that some of the decisions I made were the right ones at the time. Because I really agonized over certain things. Should I sign with an agent? Should I reject this or that offer? I might have fewer gray hairs had I known that I was making the correct choices. At the time, I didn’t know. It took hindsight to realize I’d gotten lucky by following my gut.
What was the hardest part about writing Wool?
The book started as a short story. When it became apparent that there was demand for more, I had to figure out how to take a self-enclosed tale and expand it. That was difficult, because my cast had to change. Plotting out the story was one of the trickiest things I’ve ever done.
On a good day, how much do you write?
Around 2,000 words. I have some days where I write 500 and some where I write 5,000. It may surprise readers to hear, but the 5,000 word days require a LOT less editing than the 500 days. Quality and quantity seem to go hand in hand for me, and I know this is true of many other writers.
Do you spend more time revising and editing than writing?
Absolutely! Revising is where the quality comes in. The writing is just getting the plot and dialog in place. My rough drafts are horrid.
You mentioned in your latest blog post that Wool underwent yet another copy edit at Simon and Schuster. Are stories ever really finished?
Someone once said that books aren’t finished—they’re abandoned. I believe that. You could always tweak or massage a story, but at some point, you have to realize you’re making it worse or that the tiny improvements aren’t worth the time invested. This last copyedit was very light. The book had already gone through several passes on my own and one with Random House UK.
Some of my favorite parts of Wool involve the misdirection and twists–not knowing if the outside world is real or not, wondering if the main character’s love interest will die at the end, and so forth. It’s a fine balance between giving away too much and giving away too little. Do you have any tips for writers on how to pull off that balance?
Employ as many beta readers as possible. They’ll tell you if something was too obvious or too difficult to understand. Trust them. They are reading your work without the foresight the author enjoys. They can feel the bumps in the road far more keenly than we can.
But if you have to stray to one side or the other, I recommend treating your readers with respect by leaving things vague. Allow them to do some work and put things together. The reader’s imagination is what fills the voids left behind by the author, and they tend to do this in a way that augments the story.
Any plans to adapt any of your novels into an audio or other rich-media format?
Yup. The Wool series is already in audio. And there’s an amazingly brilliant audio edition of I, ZOMBIE available. Audible produced it and used several voice actors. It’s remarkable. I’m now working on getting the Molly Fyde series into audio as well as Half Way Home and The Plagiarist.
You often talk about living up to your fans’ reputation on your blog. Have comments from your fans influenced your writing at all?
Absolutely. I read the comments and reviews, listen to the characters they like the most, and then I kill them off. For some reason, fans really seem to enjoy this. I’m not sure why. I spoke with my sensei, George RR Martin, at WorldCon this year and really should’ve asked Master Martin how this works.
We hear a lot about good writing advice. What’s the worst writing advice you commonly hear?
Oh, I hear awful writing advice all the time. Don’t use adverbs. Don’t use –ing words. Don’t use passive voice or “be” verbs. Don’t head-hop. The trick is knowing when to break these rules. Prose can become dry and formulaic if you follow every bit of writing advice. Experiment. Mix long sentences built up with dependent clauses with some sentence fragments. Ignore the rules and listen to your words, how they sound, how they’re strung together, when it feels natural to pause and breathe between sentences. That’s my advice.
Do you have any vices you need to write?
No. Vices keep me from writing. I just need a quiet place and a keyboard.
Any tips for indie authors on promoting with Goodreads?
Be yourself. Don’t try to sell your work, just be a member, discuss your process, marvel at your successes, support your fellow writers, be good to your readers, and have fun.
How about tips for promoting with Amazon? I noticed you keep the first installment of Wool free, which makes it sort of a gateway book into the series. Has that strategy boosted sales a lot? [ Aside tip for writers: The lowest price Amazon allows is $0.99, but if you go to Smashwords.com and set your price to $0.00, Amazon will price-match. ]
Offering books for free and for cheap has done wonders for me. I’m loathe to ask more than $3.99 for a novel. The Omnibus is a long work, so I charge $5.99, but that seems steep. My advice, if you want to gain visibility on Amazon, is to be in the game for the long haul. Write a LOT. Publish a LOT. See what does the best and write more of that. And do it because you love it, not because you hope to get rich. There’s so much luck involved. You can drive yourself insane chasing a thing that you aren’t 100% in control of. (Ask anyone who plays golf. One reason I don’t.)
Where do you think the science-fiction field is headed?
Mainstream. We are becoming so much more comfortable with our gadgets, with space, with the rapidly approaching future. I love pointing out to readers that HUNGER GAMES is science fiction. People who say they hate the genre gobble up the movies and TV shows. They are beginning to read and love the books and realize that it’s not all lasers and aliens (I say this as someone who loves reading and writing books with lasers and aliens).
Where do you think publishing itself is headed?
To the readers. They are going to have greater choice and more control. Books will become like the internet, where anyone can create a webpage. Many of them won’t find an audience, but you won’t see them. They won’t take up any real “space” in your environment. But your friends will share the nuggets they find. And you’ll do the same. And the interesting books will get viewers the same way interesting webpages do. It doesn’t hurt anyone that there are millions of blogs out there that nobody is visiting (I have a few!) It doesn’t hurt anyone (except for the authors) that there are tons of books out there that nobody is discovering. This fear over the massive number of books being published puzzles me. They won’t fly into your eyeballs unannounced!
Where else would you like to take your writing before all is said and done?
I want to write about my sailing days before they become so dim that I forget them. Otherwise, I’ve already exceeded all expectations. I never hoped for an ounce of this success. I’ll cherish these memories forever.
Is there anything we haven’t yet touched on that you think is important in a discussion of writing overall?
If you enjoy the act of writing, do it. Don’t worry about how awful your rough draft is; mine is worse. Just write for the love of writing, revise when you’re done, and surprise yourself. The worst that can happen is that you complete a book that didn’t exist before and you accomplish an incredible life goal. There’s beauty in that alone.
Thanks again Hugh! I appreciate your unique insights into the writing and publishing industry, and I’ve learned a lot from our quick interview. I look forward to future installments of Wool, and reading stories that incorporate your sailing days! Congratulations on your success, and I can’t think of a guy more deserving of it.
Readers, chime in below if you have any comments or questions.