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WOOL Author Hugh Howey on Writing and Self-Publishing

Sometime last month, I’d downloaded a sample of the popular Sci-Fi short story “WOOL” by Hugh Howey to my Kindle. It had been on my radar for a while, but I hadn’t gotten around to checking it out. The sample popped up on my Kindle in seconds, and I propped myself up in bed and thumbed the screen.

In just a few minutes, I was disappointed when the sample ended abruptly, just when things were getting good in the story. But it was a good kind of disappointment. I wanted MORE!

I purchased the WOOL omnibus that evening and am currently reading through the first 5 installments. It is rare that a sample hits me in that way, but exciting all the same. Author Hugh Howey’s method of storytelling is engaging, and draws the reader in early on (be on the lookout for more on this in a future post).

Today I have the pleasure of interviewing Hugh Howey about his best-selling WOOL saga (for which the omnibus edition just hit #98 on USA Today’s Bestseller List) and how he approaches his writing.

TWW: “WOOL” is one of the hottest things in Sci-Fi right now. Could you tell us how the story came to be? Did you have any particular inspiration for it?

HH: The idea behind Wool haunted me for years before I finally got around to writing it. It was always going to be a full-length novel, but I couldn’t find the time among all the other projects I had going. Last summer, I wrote another short piece, THE PLAGIARIST, for a science fiction class I was taking. Yeah, at 36 years of age, I was still in college. I worked for an independent bookstore on campus, and one of the perks was a free class per semester.

After writing THE PLAGIARIST as my final project for that class, I decided to turn the idea for WOOL into a similarly structured novelette, just to purge it from my brain. I had fallen in love with the 10,000 – 15,000 word length. It was just enough space to develop a character and a world and bring a bit of tension to climax.

The commercial expectations for WOOL were zilch, which ended up being a good thing. I was free to write what I wanted to read, not what I thought others might enjoy reading. And it worked. 

As for the inspiration, it came from realizing many years ago that my worldview was severely biased from always peeping through a very limited lens, like seeing the world projected on the wallscreens of WOOL. I began to question whether my sense of dread and impending doom was justified or merely a product of the daily news I was being fed. WOOL, then, is an exploration of whether we are justified in our pessimism or our optimism, and the risks we face in choosing between the two. What is the world really like? What would we chance in order to find out?

Amidst all of the offers you’ve received to publish “WOOL” through the traditional route, why have you decided to remain self-published domestically? Would you recommend self-publishing to other authors? If yes, why?

I recommend self-publishing as the start to one’s career, not necessarily the end. The stigma behind self-publishing is on its way out, and good riddance. There’s a great article in this week’s Variety magazine about this, and more and more of these opinions being bandied about every day. Publishers have scouts who sift through the bestselling e-books looking for potential. It’s like a slush pile that’s already been sorted by the reader, so there’s no career suicide in publishing your own works anymore.

I publicly suggested this exact route half a year ago before WOOL took off, and my fellow writers thought it was a foolish idea. The old assumption was still strong back then that if you self-publish, it’s because your work isn’t good enough. But some of us just want to publish and move on to the next project. We don’t want to spend our days querying to dozens of agents and keeping track of everything we’ve submitted and to whom. Rather than test ourselves in that slush pile, I say give the reader the power to choose. Put the work out there and get cracking on the next thing. This is writing as one’s primary form of promotion.

My hope back then was that good stories and good writing would work their way to the top. And that’s exactly what happened. And I’m watching it happen to friends and fellow writers, who are also being approached by publishers. And the ones who aren’t having success yet, but who are still writing and still putting out content, they will improve their craft and diversify their offerings. Maybe some future project will gain traction. To me, this process seems infinitely superior to the old one. Even publishing experts can’t predict what readers will like, so why not bypass the gatekeepers and go straight to the source?

Some have described your writing as “poetic.” What techniques, processes, or other writing magic do you use to create your scenery-rich scenes?

The WOOL series is written in a more lyrical style than I use in my other works. I was able to fall into this voice due to the post apocalyptic nature of the setting. Language will have changed in the future. Just as someone writing in the Victorian era can use a bit more flourish and get away with it, so too can someone writing in an upcoming age.

I also try to mix short sentences with long ones. I listen for cadence. And I try to use words in slightly awkward ways when I need to be a little jarring. The great thing about self-publishing is that you don’t have a “house style” to conform to. You can really experiment and go wild with your words.

What can your readers expect from your upcoming story, I, Zombie?

They can expect to be very upset if they waste their money on it. The work is going to come with a lot of warnings. I’m going to beg people to not read it. This isn’t a marketing ploy, it is genuine terror that people will try to get through the mess of this work and then decide to never read any of my other works. I’m still debating using a pen name.

I, ZOMBIE really began as an exercise in catharsis for me. It was never meant for publication. However, I shared some chapters on my website a while back, and several of my sickest fans have asked for me to finish it and put it out there. The only thing I’m looking forward to now is getting this over with and moving on to something I can be proud of.

Given your experience, what are your top 3 tips about the writing process for aspiring authors?

One: Write. It’s that simple. There’s no magic sauce that can replace repetition and dedication. Write every single day and don’t allow yourself to be distracted from it. Stare at the blank screen for an hour if you must. That’s more productive than surfing the web while you wait for inspiration to strike. Believe me, your brain will be doing something while you’re gazing at that blinking cursor.

Two: Write poorly. This is as important as writing at all. Stop revising as you go, that’s a different mindset to get into. Just write the damn words, as rough and horrible as you like, until you get to the end of the story. Write for the rubbish bin. You’ll fix it all later. The inner critic is really just your inner procrastinator in disguise. Ignore those nagging thoughts and keep moving.

Three: Write because you love it. Don’t write for money, as there isn’t much there to be had. My best writing days were when I was most broke, working a day job, squeezing in the hours where I could, and pleasing a handful of devoted fans. If you write because it makes you happy, you’ll write better material and your reward will have already been earned. Think of it as a hobby, one that costs almost nothing. Most hobbies are dreadfully expensive. Fishing, golf, collecting things, riding or sailing things . . . you’ll find enjoyment but you’ll go broke. Writing will earn you money in all that you save, as long as you’re happy doing it. I liken it to vegetable gardening, which can satisfy the urge to do something productive while also paying you dividends in the long run.

Also, to aspiring writers: be great to one another. Help those who need it and be appreciative of those who help you. I’ve been on both sides of this equation, and the fun is in trying to keep it in balance. We’re all in this together. Voracious readers are out there, constantly bemoaning the fact that there’s nothing left for them to read. Be a part of the growing community that sees us not as competitors for limited eyeballs, but as a family trying to keep the awesome and unruly kids in the back seat satisfied. Because it’s a long drive. And there’s room for all of us. And no, we are not there yet, wherever it is that we’re going.

Check out the IndieReader article about the sale of the movie rights for WOOL (with Ridley Scott at the helm). The article was also republished on Huffington Post.

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