A Q&A with Hugh Howey, Author of the Popular Self Published Work “Wool”

Posted to the Monkey in the Cage Website on August 9th, 2012

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Hugh Howey is best known for his series of Novelettes that resulted in the Wool Omnibus Edition a self published, and still ongoing, series on Amazon. This Omnibus spent a span of time at the number one mark on Amazon’s Bestselling Science Fiction list and is currently sitting at number 7, months after its debut. The individual Novelettes all took their turn as well. The most unique aspect of it all is, every one of them were self published and were electronically available via Amazon.

After arriving late to this party I picked up the Omnibus for my Kindle and was very glad I did. I was treated to a unique Science Fiction adventure that allowed me to surrender myself to both a thought provoking and seriously fun ride. Hugh Howey has proven to be very receptive to his fans and immediately agreed to my proposal for a Q&A to let our fellow Monkey Lovers learn a bit about his process, influences, and even some tips for others looking to enter the Self Published world. In any event, less from me and more from Hugh Howey-



Kevin Smith: Reading the “About You” section on your webpage one gets the impression that you’ve always had a desire to write but only recently capitalized on that desire through the ability to Self Publish via Amazon. Did you ever attempt to work through publishers at all or did you set out to Self Publish from the beginning of your work?

Hugh Howey: When I completed Molly Fyde and the Parsona Rescue, my first-ever manuscript, I assumed it would be self-published. It wasn’t until I let friends and on-line acquaintances read the work that I was urged into publishing it through someone else. So I sent the manuscript off with a query letter to dozens of agents and publishers. Surprisingly, a few expressed interest in short order; I had an offer from two publishers within a couple of weeks, and I went that route.

After seeing what was involved in producing the book and getting it off to readers, I decided to try my hand with the sequel. Even though I had a contract and offer for the next work, I realized that the vast majority of the effort behind selling a book fell to the author no matter how they are published. Only a tiny fraction of writers have real marketing muscle placed at their disposal. I never dreamed of becoming that fraction, so it made sense for me to shoulder a little more of the work in order to keep a lot more of the profit. The goal wasn’t to get rich, but to at least make enough money to not have two full-time jobs.

KS: Wool, and the following Novelettes (5 in all) collected into the Omnibus Edition, is by far your most well known, and loved, body of work. Is it your favorite as well?

HH: As a reader, it is probably my favorite. I think it’s technically and emotionally my best work. But as a writer, I would have to go with the first Molly book. The plot in that story is something I’m so proud of, and you never forget the feeling of completing your very first manuscript. It’s always a rush, but never again like that first time.

KS: I read on your webpage that Wool began as a single short story and you wrote more because of the rabid love of your audience. Does this mean you initially intended to stop with just that one story, or did you always intend to expand?

HH: I had no real intention of expanding the story, but I do leave that as a possibility with all of my works. I have sequels in mind for Half Way Home and The Plagiarist. But time is limited, and I have a ton of stories I want to tell, so most of these follow-ups will never see an opening sentence.

The demand for more Wool was something else. It’s remarkable, looking back, because the tenor of the rest of the story and the main characters that come later are nothing like what people were demanding more of. I had these high expectations from readers, I delivered something radically different, and it miraculously worked out very well.

KS: Did you ever expect this kind of response to your novellas? Did you do a final read through of Wool and say to yourself “I’ve got something here”?

HH: When I finished Wool, I knew I’d written something that really pleased me. It was the kind of story I love to find as a reader. What I didn’t think was that anyone else would enjoy it. It was almost like a writing exercise, like a surfer going out on a perfect day with no audience and just carving waves for the pure thrill of it. When you find out later that it was caught on film and other people took sublime pleasure in what you did – it makes it a completely new experience. That’s what Wool feels like to me: a work written for very private and personal reasons that then resonated with a crowd of like-minded people.

KS: A complaint many have with the Self Published community is how poorly edited much of the prose offered there is. A repeated compliment in the reviews I’ve read refers to how grammatically sound your fiction is. Did/Do you have an editor that you work with, or is it all you?

HH: Oh, if it were all me, there would still be tons of errors in there. Having said that, I have received compliments from professional editors that my rough drafts are very clean. I credit this with all the great editors I’ve worked with over the years. Lisa Kelly-Wilson and Nadene Carter taught me a lot. And I didn’t just correct the mistakes they found – I tried to learn from them.

When I was working with NorLights Press on my first manuscript, I started noticing that the same mistakes accounted for most of the corrections. We were editing the work a chapter at a time, so I rushed ahead and tried to fix these bad habits so I could send new chapters across and make Nadene’s job easier. In a way, I’ve just kept doing this with each manuscript. I made a note of my weaknesses and tried to improve in these areas.

I think my work ethic helps. I do five or six revisions and complete passes before I hand the manuscript off to my wife and mother (and anyone else offering to take a look). The more eyes the better. And when readers email me with a typo or a suggestion, I try to take these into account and update my e-books. That’s another advantage of digital publishing: you can make changes much more easily. A work doesn’t every have to be “done.”

KS: When did you really “get” that Wool was making a big splash? Was it when people started demanding more or was it when the likes of Ridley Scott and Steve Zaillian started speaking with you about potential movie rights?

HH: It was the foreign deals that really made me sit up and wonder what in the world was going on. The enthusiasm from so many markets and cultures overwhelmed me. We went to auction in the UK and Germany, and the pitches from all these editors detailed huge plans for Wool that really blew me away. In order for a book to land deals like this, it has to be read and enjoyed by a lot of people who are difficult to please, who read a ton of work that they pass on. I finally started believing this was real when those people came at me with such strong offers. We’ve agreed to terms with sixteen foreign countries as of this writing. Another country made an offer today, in fact!

Another sign that something is taking place has been the recognition of my peers. I was at a book conference recently as an attendee, not a guest. Wool had taken off, but it was too late to ask to sit in on any panels. I spent my time trying to learn as much as I could from these other authors, not telling them who I was or even that I was a writer. I was buying signed copies of their books and sitting in the audience and taking notes. What freaked me out was when a few authors at the conference did a double-take at my name badge and asked me if I was who they thought I was. That amazed me. It made me realize word was spreading further than I had thought.

KS: Wool is so claustrophobic, not just because of the physical location, but even in some of the more tense situations. Was it a challenge limiting yourself to such a small a tiny environment?

HH: Not at all! I spent five years living on a 27’ sailboat. My last house was 750 square feet, and my current one is a palatial 900 square feet. In a lot of ways, creating a tight environment simplifies the writing process. There isn’t a sprawling empire with a dozen lordships and dark forests and mountain ranges to manage. And a small place also gives the reader a feeling of being trapped. Look at Alien or any of the great haunted house films. There’s no place to escape to. The action is contained, which makes it even more intense.

KS: Do you think you will ever spell out exactly what happened to cause the apocalyptic world the characters in Wool live in? Readers now know who caused it but not how or why.

HH: I already have! The first prequel is out right now. It’s called First Shift: Legacy, and it tells the story behind the creation of the silo. It’s an end-of-the-world scenario that I think is far more likely, and it hasn’t been done anywhere else that I know of. It’s always some vague environmental collapse or nuclear holocaust.

The former I find highly unlikely; nature is more resilient than we give her credit for. The impact that wiped out the dinosaurs (and most other species) created a devastating nuclear winter that nature recovered from (and some mammals thrived through). The nuclear threat diminishes with each passing year. I find it cliché and less terrifying than it was in my youth. The disasters I can believe in are quieter and less dramatic: a virulent virus, nanotechnology, a genetically modified disaster. If our end comes, I fear it will be nearly invisible and not worth seeing in IMAX 3D.

KS: So it seems I should have done more homework then! So are you going to continue writing in Novelette form?

HH: The first of three prequels is already out (First Shift: Legacy). These will all be novel-length at 60,000 words each, which is about 240 pages. The third act will combine the storyline from Wool with these prequels, and it will either be short novellas or one big honking book. I haven’t decided yet.

KS: What tips would you give to others interested in Self Publishing?

HH: Five things I wish I knew before I got started:
1. Keep it short and simple. I think 80,000 words is a good ceiling to set for your first work. You’ll find editing and revising a work of this length is much easier. If you can, start even shorter than that. Write a 15,000 word work with a beginning, middle, and end. Get used to finishing what you start.
2. Don’t write a series. After you publish that first novel or short story, go write something completely different. Otherwise, you’re always selling book one of the series, which will not be your strongest writing. Diversify. You never know what will take off.
3. Your book is never ready when you first think it is. Take some time away from it before giving it another read. And believe all the criticism from beta readers. Use their objectivity to make the work stronger. Doubt those who love you.
4. The plot is more important than the writing style. If you have a good story, just tell it. Don’t try to get fancy or flowery. Pretend you’re writing an e-mail or chatting with a friend. The harder you try, the more it’ll show.
5. Stay focused on your goal. When you sit down to write, don’t get distracted. Force yourself through to the end of the story and trust the revision process. Don’t get sidetracked! Write a horrible first draft if you have to. It’s better than no first draft.

KS: What is it about the Novelette format that keeps you writing your stories this way?

HH: It was an accident, really. I wrote The Plagiarist as an assignment for a class I was taking, and I really fell in love with the length. I was able to tell a full story in 60 pages, and I was able to edit and revise it in much less time. After finishing this book, I was inspired to write a story I’d been sitting on for at least five years. It was originally going to be much longer, but I’d seen what was possible with an economy of space. And so I wrote Wool just to excise it from my system, to get it out there. Its popularity is what led me to explore the novelette further.

KS: Tell me about some of your other works. Which ones would you suggest to someone who has just put down Wool?

HH: I would start with The Plagiarist. It costs a buck, is a quick read, and features similar philosophical questions. And then I would check out Half Way Home, which is Lord of the Flies meets Starship Troopers. And while I’m cautioning most people away from I, Zombie due to how disgusting it is, I think the underlying metaphors are worth enduring the messiness.

KS: Will I, Zombie be a single story, or do you intend to continue with that as well?

HH: I have two follow-ups to I, Zombie in mind. There’s no telling if I’ll find the time to write them, but I want to tell the story from the other side. When you read I, Zombie, you’ll see all these survivors and hints of their perspective. A book that mirrors I, Zombie but is more conventional begs to be written.

The other sequel is a post apocalyptic tale that takes place well after the events in I, Zombie. This book would follow the grandson of one of the characters in I, Zombie as he searches for the legendary “talking zombie” that his grandmother once whispered about but no one has ever been able to prove exists.

KS: What has been the greatest thing about this whole experience for you?

HH: Connecting with readers and having an audience. When I started getting emails from fans — and people began reviewing my book on their blogs because they wanted to, not because I sent them a free copy and begged them to — that really reinforced what I was doing. Now I get to spend my day crafting stories that I enjoy telling, and I have an eager readership waiting on the other side. It’s an amazing feeling. A lot of pressure, but an amazing feeling.

KS: Were you a fan of Science Fiction and Fantasy prior to writing Wool? Is there any body of work that you could point to as hugely inspirational?

HH: Absolutely. I grew up on science fiction. I loved the Foundation series, Ender’s Game, 1984, all the works that made you think about deeper issues while they entertained you. I’ve also been influenced by the thousands of comics I’ve read and all the TV and film I’ve watched. There are so many ways to absorb stories, and I’ve learned from them all.

KS: Did/Do you draw on any people in your life as inspiration for your characters?

HH: Oh, yeah, I think all authors must. You have to draw upon what you know. But it isn’t like you take someone and drop them into your story; you pick a slice of their personality, a physical trait, and you combine it with a half dozen others that you’ve picked up on. Every character is an amalgamation of multiple people.

Except for the bad guys, of course. Those are all people I’ve worked for.

KS: You’ve had an adventurous life yourself. You spent some of your time as a young adult sailing through islands in and around the Atlantic Ocean. Any chance you’ll ever write a sea faring adventure?

HH: In a lot of ways, my Molly Fyde series is a seafaring tale. The planets they visit were inspired by islands I’ve hopped between. And running a large yacht is a lot like captaining a spaceship. You have to be able to cobble together repairs in the middle of nowhere, stock food and spares and supplies for long journeys, and know a little bit about electronics, diesel engines, plumbing, and so on.

I do plan on writing something like my memoirs one day. It will focus exclusively on events that occurred near or on the water. I’ve had enough crazy things happen to me that I think it’ll only be mildly boring, not full-on mind-numbingly boring.

KS: Are there any other Self Published writers you would recommend?

HH: For sure. I’m a huge fan of Matthew Mather’s Atopia series. I like Cole Drewes and David Adams. There are so many wonderful writers out there (Ryk Brown is another) who could easily be with a major publisher, they just don’t want to take the pay cut that would entail.

KS: Many of the readers on this site enjoy gaming, whether it is Pen and Paper Role-playing, board, or video games. Do you partake of any of these hobbies currently or have fond memories of doing so?

HH: I was a huge pen and paper role-player in middle school and high school. I’ve been dying to get back into it, but it’s hard to find a steady game. Me and my geeky friends aren’t forced to sit together for an hour every day at the same cafeteria table (I wish we were!)

I then moved to computer RPGs. My favorites are the single player games with turn-based combat and great writing and characters. Baldur’s Gate, Fallout 1 & 2, The Temple of Elemental Evil, Divine Divinity, and Arcanum are some of my favorites. If they still made games like this, I wouldn’t get any writing done at all.

KS: If someone approached you with an idea to create a role-playing universe or video game based off of Wool would you like that?

HH: I wouldn’t kill for the chance, but I’d certainly maim someone. I do have an idea for a video game that would break all the rules and bring realism to the medium that hasn’t otherwise existed. One of the things that’s always troubled me with video games is the fake ratchet of difficulty. You fight the weakest baddies at first and gradually work your way up. Why doesn’t the evil mastermind send his ninjas or dragons after you right away rather than train you up on rats and weaklings? The game I want to make handles the difficulty ramp in a believable way. It also tells a story about the human condition that I think would move players like few games have.

But of course, all game developers set out with these ambitions. And at the end, they are rushing a product out the door and writing the first of many patches at the same time. Still, I’d love to give it a shot. Or at least draw up the plans so someone else could make it and I could play it!

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