The bestselling author of Wool, Hugh Howey, has become the patron saint of empowering authors to take their publishing straight to the people.
His own successes with self-publishing have recently placed him squarely in the spotlight as both a fierce advocate and savvy internet entrepreneur.
And Mr. Howey wants you to write a lot.
He is endlessly quotable on the subject of the author as start-up …
You are a start-up … The next great business is you.
He engages his readers on so many social media platforms that it is hard to imagine he has any time to write his bestselling novels, and yet he has sold nearly 1 million copies of his books and recently achieved a feat few traditional authors have …
Mr. Howey inked a print-only contract with major publishers and retained the electronic rights to his own books (meaning all of his Amazon ebook sales are still his own).
And, as a tireless proponent for the pure craft of writing, he has built an intensely loyal following.
Join me as we examine the file of Hugh Howey, writer …
The DIY work ethic
Mr. Howey’s most recent novel Dust (the third of his Silo Saga trilogy), hit The New York Times combined bestsellers list at #7, and Hollywood director Ridley Scott has optioned the film rights to the first novel in the series.
Hugh’s own story is fascinating. Working for near-minimum-wage in a bookstore, he banged out the first draft of (the now wildly popular) Wool — in a storage room between shifts — within a few short weeks.
And now, as he watches his back catalog adapted into movies and comic books, Mr. Howey continues to offer very grounded advice to writers of all skill levels and genres.
His DIY work ethic, and humble yet innovative take on the business of writing, make him somewhat of a phenomenon. His message is simple:
I found success because I wrote for the love of writing. I self-published simply because I wanted to own my work.
Not every self-published work will be a bestseller, but anyone who cares enough to put in the grueling work of publishing something remarkable can benefit from Mr. Howey’s workman-like advice.
He has been featured by NPR, Wired, Variety, and The Wall Street Journal to name a few. I encourage you to seek out his writing, in all forms, both fiction and non.
About the writer …
Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Hugh Howey and I make up stuff for a living.
What is your area of expertise as a writer or online publisher?
Fiction. Though, expertise might be pushing it. I’ve only been doing this for four years, and I still feel like I don’t belong here.
Where can we find your writing?
Anywhere that books are let in without checking their credentials. Some bookstores carry Wool; the rest of my stuff is available online. You can check my website to see what I’ve written: www.hughhowey.com
The writer’s productivity …
How much time, per day, do you spend reading or doing research?
I spend two or three hours a day reading. I read the paper in the morning and relax with a good book in the evening.
Before you begin to write, do you have any pre-game rituals or practices?
I eat a bowl of cereal, because I can’t write hungry. And I make sure the doggie door is open, because my pup always knows when I’m in a good flow, and that’s when she begs to be let out.
Do you prefer any particular music (or silence) while you write?
Silence. Sounds pull me out of my make-believe.
How many hours a day do you spend writing (excluding email, social media, etc.)?
I spend 4-5 hours a day writing. A lot of that is time spent staring at a blinking cursor, but I count those hours.
Do you write every day or adhere to any particular system?
Every day. I feel empty on days when I don’t get any writing done.
Do you believe in “writer’s block”? If so, how do you avoid it?
Other people say it happens, and I don’t feel that I have the right to disbelieve them. It doesn’t happen to me. What I get is the urge to procrastinate or do something other than writing. Or I feel disgusted with my current output and want to just stop.
The key is to write through that and know you’ll delete the bad bits later.
The writer’s creativity …
Seeing something that doesn’t exist and then making it so.
Who are your favorite authors, online or off?
Bill Bryson, Neal Stephenson, Neil Gaiman, Judith Rich Harris.
Can you share a best-loved quote?
There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed. ~ Ernest Hemingway
How would you like to grow creatively as a writer?
I would like to get better at storytelling. I want my plots to be both simple and intricate. Lots of mysteries, but easily understood. I have a long way to go.
Who or what is your Muse at the moment?
My muse is the ocean. I walk my dog on the beach every day, and this is where I dream up what I’ll write next. It’s also the thing that calls to me to go travel, to get back on a boat and sail from port to port.
What makes a writer great?
You have to write every single day and do it for years and years. If you’re not willing to commit to that, you’ll never be great.
You’ll just fill up with dreams and aspirations until they turn into regrets.
The writer’s workflow …
What hardware or typewriter model do you presently use?
I do all of my writing on a Macbook Air. The keyboard is outstanding; the battery lasts for ten to twelve hours, and it’s so light that I don’t think twice about taking it with me.
What software do you use most for writing and general workflow?
I use Pages for my writing, and then I export to .rtf before sending it to my formatter. When I work with my various editors, I use Word for its “Track Changes” features. I do layout work in InDesign and cover art in Photoshop. My workflow is a bit of a mess, to be honest.
Do you have any tricks for beating procrastination? Do you adhere to deadlines?
I set ambitious deadlines for myself and almost invariably beat them. The trick is to create small goals.
Two thousand words a day, a scene a day, two chapters of revising a day, and then watch them add up.
And if you’re going to procrastinate, do something useful. Write a blog post. Answer email. Do an interview. Spend your time away from writing supporting your writing.
How do you stay organized (methods, systems, or “mad science”)?
I don’t, really. What I’ve learned is to knock things out as soon as they come up. Don’t spend time worrying about how to remember to do something, just do it right then.
Get it off the task list before it even makes it to the task list.
How do you relax at the end of a hard day?
I go for a walk with my wife and my dog. Or I sit in the back yard with a book and watch the sun go down. It’s rare that I get to do this, though. I often work until late and collapse into bed. I keep telling myself things will slow down soon and I’ll be able to take it easy. Still waiting.
A few questions just for the fun of it …
Who (or what) has been your greatest teacher?
Dr. Dennis Goldsberry at the College of Charleston. He turned me from a major in physics to a major in English.
What do you see as your greatest success in life?
Making my parents proud of me. It happened long before I wrote my first book, but I remember both of them telling me they were happy with the way I turned out, and that meant the world to me. I think of all they sacrificed, and I just want to make it mean something.
What’s your biggest aggravation at the moment (writing related or otherwise)?
Not being able to keep up with email and all the various messages I get online. I used to be able to respond to everyone with an in-depth answer, and now I have to be quick or it doesn’t get done. I hate that.
Choose one author, living or dead, that you would like to have dinner with.
Shakespeare. No question.
If you could take a vacation tomorrow to anywhere in the world, where would you go (cost or responsibilities are no object)?
Isla de Providencia. I was marooned on this island for two months once, and I’m dying to get back there. It’s paradise.
Can you offer any advice to fellow writers that you might offer yourself, if you could go back in time and “do it all over?”
Worry about the writing and nothing else.
Don’t worry about sales, agents, publishers, any of that. Get a dozen works under your belt of whatever length you feel comfortable writing, polish them within an inch of perfection, and get them out there. The rest can be a slow burn.
What’s important right now is releasing that creativity and getting your work down on paper.
Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?
If I can do this, anyone can. It takes dedication and willpower. Those are things you can control. Go for it!
Please tell our readers where they can connect with you online.
I’m all over the place.
My website: www.hughhowey.com
Instagram: HughHowey [Note: See if you can find the pic of Hugh with George R. R. Martin, of Game of Thrones fame]
And finally, the writer’s desk …
Key by key, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph … we are building something indestructible with our small feats, no matter how or where we are capturing those words.
It is up to you to shape it into something that will move your audience.
I leave you with another of my favorite quotes from our guest:
You are writing for the reader, who is your ultimate gatekeeper. Get your work in front of them, even if it’s one at a time, one reader a month or a year.
Thank you for taking time out of you busy schedule Mr. Howey! You are not the first great writer to rely on your faithful hound under foot.
And thank you for sharing The Writer Files …
More Q&As are in the works from writers who inspire us, and if you care to sift through our archives, you can find more inspiration here.
If you’ve already subscribed to Copyblogger via email or RSS, the next installment will be delivered to you just like the rest of our daily content. If not, go ahead and subscribe right now so you don’t miss a thing.
Now set some ambitious deadlines and get back to work! See you out there.
Reader Comments (25)
Love it. Well, actually I hope nobody is offended, but I’ve never heard of the guy before. He has a lot of good tips though. I am a cereal fanatic myself–guess I never grew up…
I don’t suffer from writer’s block either. It just never happens. I am blessed, I guess.
He said his ideas come when he is on the beach; mine come when I’m on the riding lawnmower. I keep a small pocket sized pad in my pocket, and when something comes to me, BAM! I write it down. Of course, I’m never without paper, because like him, I love to write all the time.
Brian Clark says
Josh, if you enjoy well-written science fiction with great characters and storytelling, check out the Silo saga (first installment is Wool).
Chad Butler says
Ditto to Brian’s comment. WOOL is absolutely fantastic! I couldn’t put it down (nor the sequels Shift and Dust).
And Hugh’s own story is just as amazing.
Thanks Kelton for the post/interview. Good stuff!
I will check it out. I do like the genre, especially if it isn’t too predictable (which happens a lot these days).
Grace Wynter says
I was a fan of the man before I’d even read any of his work. I just didn’t read a lot of sci-fi. But then Wool happened and now I can’t stop reading, and writing. It sounds funny, but Howey is my muse – seriously. Doesn’t hurt that he seems like a genuinely nice guy too. Can you tell I’m a literary fangirl? 🙂
Cynthia Lindeman says
Hi Josh (& Brian),
This column is incredibly inspirational to us hard-working writers out there.
As Hugh mentions, the only way (usually) to actually succeed is to write like hell . . . for awhile. If that sounds glamorous, it actually means hours of social isolation in your office and confounding the well-meaning question of family and friends: “what do you do?”
This can wear at the soul and the self-esteem if not handled with care.
The truth is that we struggle to value ourselves BEFORE anyone else values us with respect to the “thing” we make out of words.
And it’s really eff-ing hard. Even when we believe in it.
And . . . since we’re on the topic of muses, I have to say . . . my muse is yoga and dance. Something about moving the body causes the ideas to fall up.
I totally get it, Cynthia. Most days, I feel like a failure. Pretty harsh, huh?
But people do ask me what I do, and I would say that I’m a writer. Then would follow their next question of, “oh, anything I’ve heard of?”
Um, no. My name isn’t attached to most of the stuff I’ve written. Which is turning into a big problem, by the way, when starting my own company.
So, then I have to explain what I write, “oh, I write web copy for websites.” or “oh, I write content marketing material for blogs.”
I am then greeted by a blank stare, because people don’t get it.
Oh well, I’ve never been understood. LOL.
Thanks for the reply,
John Gibb says
“My name is Hugh Howey and I make up stuff for a living.”
Ernest Hemingway is my favorite author.
Not sure why 98% of all writers use Mac though… any ideas?
#Kelton, it was a fun and useful interview, thank you!
Kelton Reid says
Thanks for tuning in to the series John!
I think a lot of creative types use Macs for their usability and apps. But I use Mac and PC, and I’m sure there are equal measure writers who only use Windows (Mr. Howey’s desktop in the photo is not a Mac).
It is probably a coincidence that almost everyone interviewed for The Writer Files is a Mac user.
Demian Farnworth says
The desk is nice and clean. Yes. 😀
Kelton Reid says
Had a feeling you might approve of this. 😉
Grace Wynter says
My desk looked like that the day I got it. it’s never been clean since.
Andy Crestodina says
I love that Hugh Howey is here on Copyblogger! I’m a huge fan of the Wool series and read the last one the day it came out. Sad it’s all over.
I wanted to mention, Hugh is a great writer, but also an excellent marketer. This post didn’t mention it, but the way he cut a book deal, but kept the digital rights is unprecedented in the industry.
Also, (and this is very clever) the left of his website show the progress he’s making on his various titles. So you can see how close he is to publishing the next book in each series. Anyone seen this before? Brilliant. It’s like a fiction loading bar…
Tony Clark says
You’re spot on about the progress bars. I remember checking the one for Dust (which I also read the day it came out) constantly as he was writing it.
It’s also been interesting to watch the fandom and burgeoning fan-fic market grow around the Silo Saga — which is organic content marketing at its best.
Kelton Reid says
The progress bars are smart, and I don’t think I’ve seen that before, but I’m sure we’ll see more of it.
Also, if you didn’t catch his ingenious promotion of Dust that I to linked above:
“Howey created a ‘cult’ object that would appeal to Sci-Fi fans: A special USB thumb-drive featuring the silo Fallout Shelter Sign, to give away to supporters who would help promote the book by spreading word-of-mouth buzz.”
I did actually mention in the intro. that Hugh ” … achieved a feat few traditional authors have … inked a print-only contract with major publishers and retained the electronic rights to his own books (meaning all of his Amazon ebook sales are still his own).”
This is the WSJ article link on that.
Hugh Howey is very inspiring, thanks for the interview Kelton.
Hugh’s story is, in fact, a great companion piece to James Altucher’s “Choose Yourself”, how modern times allow you to bypass nay-sayers & gatekeepers and “just do it” … letting the market to decide whether your work has broad appeal or not.
Greg Strandberg says
“Get a dozen works under your belt…The rest can be a slow burn.”
He’s right on that. I think more authors need the mindset of bloggers: keep churning the works out on a set schedule.
That little bit you do here and there adds up, and it’s not unreasonable to have a book a month come out, especially if they’re non-fiction.
John P. Wheeler says
Great read! Truly inspiring! It’s dedication and willpower that sets aside a successful talented writer from a writer that is merely talented.
Ann Bevans says
Great post for storytellers and writers of all stripes. I love what he says about spending your time away from writing supporting your writing. We can’t write 20 hours a day. No one can. Might as well use that time to do all the other stuff that the writing life requires of us.
Juan Castillo says
OMG! Never heard of Hugh Howey, but this interview makes me want to go buy his book! I think I will :).
James Strait says
I must assume that I’m different…really different than most writers. I like writing, some days I really like it, but I don’t think I could attach the word love to how I feel towards something that I often prefer to not do.
If continuously thinking about writing is part of the process then I’m more involved than I admit. But having just finished my third novel and fourth book in five years I now know that I could have written ten books in that time frame had I the desire.
The average full sized novel is about 300 pages, which translates to about 90K words. If a person writes 1K words per day thats four books per year. But I’m a 5K per day writer…when I’m writing.
Knowing that a fourth book will be in print within a few weeks does give me something to look forward to, and I like that…but I still fall short of loving being an author.
Maybe I’ll grow into it as time goes on, but if not, liking something to the degree where you repeat the process once per year is still a pretty nice thing.
“You have to write every single day and do it for years and years. If you’re not willing to commit to that, you’ll never be great. You’ll just fill up with dreams and aspirations until they turn into regrets.”
This applies to just about anything. Probably to everything. If you want to accomplish something, you have to put some effort into it.
Jonathan Gunson says
Thanks for linking to my article about Hugh’s innovative ‘Thumb Drive’ promotion. I tend to follow his marketing trickery with fascinated glee.
Kelton Reid says
You bet Jonathan, thanks for your work. I look forward to more.
syed Aly says
I never read sci-fiction stories. but i do like “Why the 21st Century Author is an Internet Entrepreneur”
I never heard of Hugh Howey but after this interview, I dam sure I will purchase!!! and thanks Kelton Reid for a such a wonderful piece of information
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