If I could invite Hugh Howey for coffee and pick his brain, this is what I'd ask.
Sadly, I couldn't buy him a cup of coffee because of the 3,965 miles between us, but I'm so incredibly thankful that he took the time to answer my questions.
I’m always humbled by the way he talks about writing and publishing and by his generous support of other authors in the community.
From Hugh I also learn how to live humbly. On his blog he says:
"I still wear the same clothes I wore before I wrote a book: cargo shorts and t-shirts.I wash my own boat down. I gather my laundry up in a bedsheet, tie the four corners together, and walk it a mile and a half to a laundromat in Jersey City. I eat the same yogurt and fruit breakfast and smoothie lunch every day. I take the subway, the bus, or I walk. Occasionally, I’ll UberX or Carpool, and it feels like I’ve rented a limo when I do. Most of the people who romanticize my life wouldn’t enjoy this life at all. And this is the same kind of life I was living when I was a broke college student."
If you still haven’t, read his books. Read his blog-posts on writing because there’s so much treasure in there. And prepare to be inspired by this interview and motivated to write and put serious work into your stories.
(this is a transcript of the audio interview above, you can listen here, on YouTube or your favourite podcast app)
The craft & lifestyle of writing
Diana Wink: Thank you so much for coming on my show. And I want to start with a concept you introduced in your blog that blew me away, really. It's quite simple, but I'd never thought of it the way you described it. And it is: writing should not take place behind a keyboard. Can you explain this concept?
Hugh Howey: So for when I started writing, I guess like most people I couldn't do it full time, you know. I had to work a day job and work my writing around my nine to five. And I worked in a bookstore and I'm sure there are a lot of jobs like this.
I mean, I've waited tables, I worked as a roofer for a couple of years. I was a yacht captain, which was a lot of time spent just behind the helm of a boat, like staring at the horizon. And of course, when you're roofing, you're doing very repetitive stuff and it frees your mind up. And I spent a lot of time daydreaming.
And when I started writing books, instead of, you know, worrying about conversations I had with friends or family or thinking about the chores I had to do later that day, I started spending all that free time, especially at work, thinking about the next scene of the book that I was working on or having dialogue with the characters and, thinking about their backstory. And I realized that if I waited to write when I sat down in front of my laptop, I didn't know what I was going to write about. So I stared at a blank screen and I would get frustrated.
But if I daydreamed about what my next scene was going to be about, by the time I got back to my computer, I had so much pent up ideas and sometimes the notes jotted down in my phone or on a piece of paper. And so much ideas that I was just pounding out thousands of words in a session.
And it got me in this habit of trying to do most of my writing away from the keyboard and using the keyboard to record what I'd already kind of daydreamed. I used that method for years and my productivity was through the roof.
Diana Wink: Yeah, I love that you said you were living inside those worlds and you would just transcribing it on paper later, which is, yeah, it's just mind blowing actually, because I think many writers have this idea of sitting in front of their screens and writing. And like you said, you just stare at this blank page.
Now about the business of being a writer.
So your general rule is: work harder than anyone else, and pour every spare minute and every ounce of energy into writing. So what do you think, is this the process of becoming a successful writer - the obsession over the craft?
Hugh Howey: I think if you want to be successful, it has to be. If you give anything less than that, I mean, someone else is going to outwork you and you're not going to produce your best work or the quantity of work that you need to make it.
But I think it's not just true for writing. I think it's true for, for everything. You know, there's, a great documentary on right now, just wrapped up, a couple of weeks ago about Michael Jordan. And now he became, you know, the best basketball player of all time and his mindless pursuit of that.
It's not mindless pursuit. It's mindful pursuit. I mean, he was very deliberate about working hard. This is a guy who didn't make varsity basketball in high school as a sophomore. And I think, I see a lot of people not making it in writing cause they give up too early or they put in just like one 10th of the effort that's required.
And there's nothing wrong with that. If you realize early on, hey, I'm not gonna be able to make a living at this cause I can't put this many hours and I can't like give up all the other things that I enjoy and just do this, there's nothing wrong with that. You can, and I think everyone should write for fun, whether you're journaling or just writing some short stories for fun or writing fan fiction, or continuing a story that you finished and loved.
And, you know, for all the people waiting for the next George R.R. Martin book out there, they could be spending that time writing the eighth book in the series of themselves and just having fun with that world. But if you want to make it as a professional and you want to make a living at it. Yeah, I think it needs to be a passion and you need to devote a lot of hours in the day just to improving your writing and getting as many words on page as possible.
"If you want to make it as a professional, you need to devote a lot of hours in the day just to improving your writing and getting as many words on page as possible."
Diana Wink: Yeah. So then I kind of, I have to admit, I find myself in a conundrum here because writing, obviously, like we said, is more than sitting at the computer and writing. So you have to have this quiet time, the daydreaming, but also you need time for other things. Time to birth those novels, to write, to be with family, to do your day job or whatever. And I know that you did this as well for a long time. You had a full time job, household, friends, family, and you still managed to work hard on your craft. And I wanted to ask: how did you do it? How did you solve this conundrum, basically?
Hugh Howey: I think it's, you know, it's easy to say everyone should be able to carve out so many hours out of your day, but everyone's got a unique situation. Some people have a lot harder. I didn't have kids, but I, you know, I had a dog that I spent probably way too much time doting on then is a healthy, you know, treated her like my child.
But keeping her happy, meant taking on a lot of walks, which meant a lot of time thinking about, you know, story and thinking about plot and having dialogue with my characters. I think to make a living at this, you either need to get an hour every single day, just on the writing and do that for 10 years plus, to write enough novels. Every hour that you can add, you can save so many years off of what's required if you can get three hours a day.
And where it really adds up, it's not just having a three hour session one day. It's when you can do three hours everyday habitually. And for me that meant getting up an hour early. And I would go to work and sit in a bookstore that wasn't open yet, completely dark.
Just sit there with my laptop and have an hour and a half, two hours before the first people showed up. And then an hour on my lunch break and then try to go home and get 30 minutes to an hour in before I went to bed If you do that every single day, the hours really add up. If you just do it one day and then take four days off, you know, you'll never get those days back.
And I think consistency is the key to producing not only a lot of work, but your best work. If you just spend too much time away from your story, it interrupts the flow. You forget what you were writing. You lose the passion. I think the only way I've been able to do it is to write every single day.
"Consistency is the key to producing not only a lot of work,
but your best work."
Diana Wink: And those hours did they consist of actually writing, like putting words on paper or do they also include research and reading other stuff or are those hours really dedicated to pure writing?
Hugh Howey: Yeah. Those were all hours dedicated to writing. I never thought of reading as like work. I would do that on the side and find time for that. I get a lot done when I'm laying in bed waiting to fall asleep. I spend a lot of time thinking about my story then instead of the other, you know, our brain can just spin into weird directions where we're waiting to fall asleep and I would spend all that time just working on the story.
Diana Wink: Now let's jump into reading because I know that your major advice is: read a lot. And especially for science fiction authors: what should we be reading? Or what kinds of books are you reading and how do they inspire you?
Hugh Howey: Sometimes the worst thing to read as a science fiction writer is other science fiction. I think it hampers your imagination either to have people, think that space travel has to happen in one way versus some other way or, avoid something that someone else is doing when a lot of times our stories converge on the same ideas, we should allow that to happen instead of avoiding it.
I think that science fiction is unique in that you kind of need to have an idea of where we're heading – the trajectory of technology and society. So you need to be reading a lot of nonfiction. You need to keep up with what the trends are, and not just the gizmos, but our relationship with the gizmos.
A TV show that does this really well is Black Mirror, because they're not just keeping up with like what augmented reality is like, but our relationship to our scoring of each other, our customer and transactional review system and melding those two things together. So a bit of technology and a bit of human behavior.
For every genre, I think reading psychology and trying to understand the human condition and philosophy are super important. When I find writers, a lot of, I tend to find out that when I get in conversations with them, that the things they want to talk about are artificial intelligence and what it means to be human and like these really deep kind of stoner questions, these philosophical questions that are super fascinating, and they're exploring them in their work.
The people who read an alien shoot 'em up science fiction story and then just write a copy of that, they don't really have anything to talk about. They're not commenting on the brutality of war the way Scalzi will. Because you know, he grew up in the background of the Beatnik movement and the end of the Vietnam war and living under the burden of the cold war.
And I think the best thing I ever did was get a daily subscription to a reputable newspaper and read it every single day. Every article had a science fiction story just waiting to be told out of that article.
Diana Wink: But do you also read novels?
Hugh Howey: I read a lot of novels, and I, you know, grew up on science fiction.
I still read I wouldn't say a lot of science fiction, but a fair mix of it. But I've probably picked up more that helped me in writing Wool and Sand and some of my bestselling works by reading thrillers and mystery novels. I grew up reading a lot of John D. MacDonald, pulp mystery novels.
And I read a lot of classical romance novels. Jane Eyre is one of my favorite books of all time. And I think if you're just reading one genre, then your works don't have the complexity that they need. Like every book should have a love story in it. If that's just the scars of having loved and lost or whatever, like telling a story about someone and there's not someone that they're romantically thinking about all the time or in pursuit of someone to think about romantically is so unrealistic.
If you talk to most people, that's a big part of their life story. And worrying about like how to fly a ship better and shoot down aliens, or just survive in the apocalypse rather than survive and find someone to survive with and to invest their energy in.
I just think that if we only read one genre, we miss out on what these others genres bring into what we expect as humans who love story. We love every aspect of it. The way mysteries unfold, the way clues are developed is such an incredibly hard thing to get right. And you can only learn it by absorbing a lot of mystery novels, for instance.
Diana Wink: Yeah, absolutely. I absolutely agree. But why did you then choose the genre of science fiction for your books?
Hugh Howey: Well, it was the first genre that I really fell in love with, what I was reading when I started dreaming of being a writer. But if you have a conversation with me and even if we're trying to talk about publishing, I will almost always steer the conversation into like, what's coming around the corner.
What's the future going to be like. Where are we heading with all this? I grew up reading a lot of history and I think the reason to read history it's like being in the outfield and watching a guy at the plate connect with a great pitch and the ball pops off the bat.
And watching that ball fly through the air. Your brain starts to calculate where the ball is going to end up and your legs start taking you that place. You can be there to make the catch. When you study history, you're really watching this ball in flight and all you have is where the ball is at the moment in the air. All you have to figure out where it's going to land is watching where it's traveled so far.
And for me, that's what great science fiction does. It looks at where the ball is right now. It traces through history, human behavior, the accumulation of events and knowledge and past and histories. And it tries to figure it out: where's that ball gonna land and what is going to happen when it lands? Or what interesting story can I tell around that?
I'm super fascinated with how this is all gonna end up. But the one thing that bothers me in life, like I can't think of anything else that gets on my nerves, the thing that really bothers me is that I'm not going to be here in like 200 years to see what the world is like then. I won't be here in 500 years or a thousand years or a million years. And the further out we push that timeline, the more bizarre things can possibly get. Thing that I can't even imagine.
"Great science fiction looks at where the ball is right now. It traces through history, human behavior, the accumulation of events and knowledge and past and histories. And it tries to figure it out: where's that ball gonna land."
And if I had one wish it would be that I could be like cryogenically suspended and just wake me up every hundred years. And let me give me a two hour tour and then put me back down. Wake me up in another a hundred years, give me a two hour tour. I would spend the rest of the years that I have left just hopping through the future like that if I could.
And since I can't, the only thing that I have is to read futurists, to read science fiction, to write my own and just pause it. Hey, this is how I think things might end up, and here's an interesting story I can tell in that world.
Revising and finishing
Diana Wink: It also reminds me of the plot in shift where the main character had to be woken up like every hundred years or so. I just wanted to talk to you about some other craft aspects. You talk about the difference between revising and rewriting and that rewriting can often be better. and you also have an exercise that you suggest. Can you explain that idea? So why can rewriting be better than revising?
Hugh Howey: Sometimes with the first draft, we're just trying to figure the story out. Even if you have a good outline, you're trying to figure out what's going to take place. Who needs to say what or what actions need to happen to get the story to the end of the chapter or the end of the scene.
A lot of times we figure it out as we're writing and making the adjustments, we need to make it clean, it starts to wreck the flow. So you might go fix one part and now it doesn't flow into the next part and you fixed that part and now things... And I've seen it happen to myself, you can spend days reworking one scene and you know what the scene needs to be.
You've got to figure it out. Now, you just don't know how to tell it well, and that's because a lot of great prose happens not when we massage it into place, but when we know the scene and we're in a good zone and we just write it straight out. There's a lot that we do subconsciously that we don't understand, that I don't even understand, even as I'm trying to figure it out. We know how many syllables we're using and how long our sentences are and how alliteration is making things sound, and the music we're crafting. And revising is just grabbing notes and moving them around. And it creates a distorted sound.
So I suggest once you know the scene and you can't get it perfect, just copy and paste it to a separate document - that way you're not getting the panic of deleting - and write that scene from scratch, knowing what you know now. And every time I've done this, the scene comes out much better. And it seems like it's going to be more work to rewrite even a whole chapter, but it's even quicker than trying to revise it into place.
I'll spend three or four days trying to revise a scene. I can spend one day rewriting it and it comes out great. And I can't remember what famous writer, I mean, someone like Hemingway or actually I think it might been Mark Twain, someone lost a draft of an entire novel on a train.
I can't imagine this. I know it's happened to other writers where their hard drive is crashed and they have no backup. But someone like that, some famous writer lost an entire novel. And instead of despairing fired up the typewriter and wrote it from scratch, and it became this bestseller. And their account is that it was like much better the second time they wrote it.
And I think about that every time I set aside some work that doesn't have to just be a scene or a paragraph or a chapter. Sometimes if you sat down and took a book that you believed in that didn't work out and never sold. If you're running out of things to write, write that book again from scratch and see how it comes out differently now that you know your characters and you know, the plot . I guarantee there's some success stories out there waiting to happen because someone took a book idea that they loved and they worked on it too early in their career when their writing wasn't strong enough.
Diana Wink: So how do you know when your book is finished and ready for publishing?
Hugh Howey: I've heard before people say like, you don't ever finish a book, you just abandoned it or something like that. For me, I know when it's finished, I will do about 10 revisions on a novel before I feel like it's ready to go out.
And by the time I'm six or seven through I'm ready to send it out for people to read. I feel comfortable with the story and seven, eight, I'm just fixing a little flow issues and finding typos. The last couple ones, I'm just looking for, misspellings and typos and little things.
I've heard that question a lot, but it's never been a tricky thing for me. No book is ready before I'm done with the revision process. I'm already sending it out for people to get feedback on it at that point, it's just polishing and be comfortable releasing books with some errors in them.
I'm more forgiving of that stuff than some people. I don't look for perfection.
Diana Wink: And I think this one is important too, not to look for perfection, but you know, sometimes it's hard to find this balance between having this perfection, wanting to write this best book and also letting it go, you know.
Hugh Howey: I think the mistake most people make usually is to publish too soon. Where they just are excited to be at the end of their draft and they don't do the first few revisions, which is when you're making major changes to the story and the dialogue to make it much better. Once I get to those revisions, and I'm going through and not making big changes to the plot or what's being said, then I feel pretty comfortable.
The business of publishing
Diana Wink: Now a little bit to the publishing aspect of writing, because I think many writers want to do it professionally, want to become full-time writers and they want to earn money with their art. And sometimes they think it feels like it depends more on luck and feels like winning the lottery. Do you think that is so, or are there things that we can control in this process?
Hugh Howey: Of all the many factors that can go into a successful writing career luck is the biggest determinant. That doesn't mean that it's all luck. Even though we can, we can tell that luck plays a big role, to give up on the career because of it or to assign someone's success all to luck as a mistake.
I think we tend to make one of those two errors when we judge luck and the success in the entertainment industry. We either think it plays no role at all, which is wrong, or we think it's all luck, which is also wrong. I like the saying: we make our own luck and I believe that. Luck is this compounding factor, like a multiplying force on our effort and our preparation and our abilities.
If we read a lot, and I think being a professional writer requires having read a ton of books, if we'd read a lot, if we spend a lot of hours thinking about our story, spend a lot of hours having life experiences and going out and traveling and meeting, talking to strangers and observing the world around us, thinking about our thoughts and our behaviors and analyzing what it means to be human.
If we spend deliberate hours doing those things and then spend lots of hours crafting story, more hours finishing the stories, polishing them, getting feedback, taking that feedback into account, publishing. And again, and again and again, and again, then luck starts playing a smaller and smaller role in our outcome.
In the very beginning, luck as a hundred percent of the outcome. Where you, you know, you tweet something and it goes viral and then someone's like, you should start a blog based on these tweets and then someone hands you a publishing deal. There's stories out there where it's like almost all luck because someone just did very little work they're in the right place at the right time, and they got a book deal out of it. Whether it's cause you were born to someone who is already famous or wealthy or you're in the right place when a crazy bit of history happened.
Then there are the people that have everything go against them, but they outwork the system. They just bust their butts, outwork everyone around them. And eventually they get their break.
So there's the two extremes. Most careers happen somewhere in the middle, but I think you have to embrace the fact that, hey, there's some luck involved and if you enjoy writing as a passion, if you get something out of it, whether you succeed or not, then you'll be able to persevere much more easily than people are just grinding away.
I know it's a bit of a non-answer, but I I'll just say that I embraced the fact that I got lucky and also the fact that I worked my ass off to have that luck happen to me.
" I embraced the fact that I got lucky and also the fact that I worked my ass off to have that luck happen to me."
Diana Wink: And if we look into the future, what do you think will change in the publishing industry? Because things are changing at a very, very rapid space right now, and I think they will change even more. And what's your take on that? Where's the publishing industry heading?
Hugh Howey: Well, it, man, it's hard to predict anything right now because we're going through this global pandemic. But right now ebook sales supposedly are up 30 or so percent from major publishers. I'm not sure what's happening in the self-publishing world, because anytime you start polling individual authors they all have their own careers were always in flux. So you never know if that's a bigger trend or just what's happening in one person's career. A lot of people are spending time at home. I think there's going to be a, a subset of the population that goes out less after this. Even with the vaccine or even with the cure, it's just gonna be habit forming or a little bit of like people who were born or were teenagers or adults from when Jaws came out. There's a whole generation of people are just scared of the water because of one film. Maybe that increases the number of people who are writing and reading and maybe the publishing industry has a bit of a balance.
Maybe it goes more eBooks because of that. Or it could be that when we're able to get out again, people spend less time at home. Like there could be a huge decrease in reading, as everybody goes out to parks and gets out for a walk or to play some sports. I can see either interpretation being right.
I think what we will continue to see is other forms of entertainment eroding the share of time that publishing takes up for people. So the popularity of video games and the streaming of TV, social media, all the things you can do with your time. I think that's where people in the publishing industry need to be a little cautious and really focus their energy on how to compete with those other forms of entertainment.
But reading is never gonna go away, writing is never going to go away, but, I do think that we're in for possibly some tough times ahead for the industry.
Diana Wink: And do you think this personal connection, even digitally with readers and with other authors is getting more important? Emailing readers, you know, answering the questions, having like a conversation with them.
Hugh Howey: I think it's hugely important and I don't think it's publishing specific. Some of the sports that I follow and some of the other things that I'm into, I love having a connection with the people involved and following them on their social media pages and getting glimpses of their life behind what you know them fo r as a professional . I think those connections just make you a bigger fan and a bigger supporter of what they're doing and wanting to follow these people in their endeavors, whether it's owning their t-shirts or, any paraphernalia that has their stamp on it. For me, it was hugely important in my career. I was like just a pretty naive writer early on and was just sharing my experience with people on Facebook mostly. And the people that found my works early on and formed a relationship with me online, those are the folks that really launched my career and were telling everyone about every book that came out and sharing every link and showing up to all my events.
And I think if I was trying to write in a vacuum and not be connected online, my career would have either not launched at all or taken much longer. I was getting so much sustenance out of that connection with people and getting feedback. It's so much easier to write when you know someone is waiting to read it and they're giving you feedback that they loved it.
That is the manna that kept me going for so long, and I was only able to have that through social media.
Hugh's favourite story
Diana Wink: I absolutely agree. And I think it's so amazing to live in this age where you can just connect with readers all over the globe, actually talk to them. It's insane. So I have one last question that I like to ask every guest, and it's going to be a tough one for you, probably because you maybe have tons of them, but what's your favorite story and why?
Hugh Howey: I would give you a different answer every day of the year, because it's just like what's going on in my life. This isn't my favorite story, but it's my favorite story to tell people.
That I love because everyone has such a bad opinion of the story. The author himself and the religious cult that he created, it's like, there's so much absurdity behind this book and it was a terrible film adaptation. That's like one of the worst movies ever made and everyone loves making fun of it.
And I'm of course talking about L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology and Battlefield Earth. But this book is like 1200 pages long. It's so pulpy, it's so ridiculous. I think I've read it like five or six times in my life, which is a time to spend with a book that's well over a thousand pages long. Usually when we tell our stories, we tell a fraction of the whole story. We tell just one part of a character's life or we tell it at one scale. So it might be the conflict within a family. It might be conflict between two neighboring cities or a country.
But what L. Ron does in this story is he starts with a kid on horseback. And that kid is going to overthrow the most powerful alien race that has the rest of the universe living in terror of it. And it's so inconceivable and yet Hubbard makes this almost believable that this can happen. And for me to do that in one book is, every time I read it, I just marvel that every time he gets to the point that I would have stopped writing and now I would have said, this is the climax, he's thinking: okay, but there are more problems that would happen after this. And those problems would not be surmountable. These problems are bigger than the problems he just solved. So what happens then? And he does it like five times throughout the story.
And I am in awe that every time I read it. I dream of one day writing a book that has that kind of scope. I don't think I have it in me, but it is so admirable. Especially in an era where we watch people create these epic, like five, six, seven, eight book series is that they never really finished. They just give up on it, don't have the, the legs at the end that they started with. And here's someone that told a similar story in scale in one book.
And for me, like absolutely nailed it. And I love giving that book to people that say, read this because it comes with all the baggage of Scientology and a terrible film adaptation, but at its heart is one of the best stories ever told.
Diana Wink: Okay, wow. Thank you so much for that. And thank you again for doing this interview.
Hugh Howey: My pleasure.