Aug 10, 2015
Prolific, bestselling, multi-genre author Hugh Howey took me on a walk through the writer’s process.
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Mr. Howey is the well-known author of Wool, and his self-published dystopian “Silo Series,” that has sold over two million copies worldwide. His books have been optioned for film and TV by well-known Hollywood director Ridley Scott and Heroes creator Tim Kring respectively.
He has been a fierce advocate for self-publishing authors and even inked a rare print-only contract with major publishers to retain the electronic rights to his early works. Hugh is a tireless proponent for the pure craft of writing, and he has built an intensely loyal following.
As he prepares to sail around the globe on his catamaran, Hugh took a time out from his busy schedule to talk with me on a short walk.
In this file Hugh Howey and I discuss:
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Kelton Reid: These are The Writer Files, a tour of the habits, habitats, and brains of working writers, from online content creators to fictionists, journalists, entrepreneurs, and beyond.
I’m your host, Kelton Reid: writer, podcaster, and mediaphile. Each week, we’ll find out how great writers keep the ink flowing, the cursor moving, and avoid writer’s block.
Prolific, bestselling, multi-genre author Hugh Howey took me on a walk through the writer’s process. Mr. Howey is the well-known author of Wool and his self-published dystopian “Silo Series” that has sold over 2 million copies worldwide. His books have been optioned for film and TV by well-known Hollywood director Ridley Scott and Heroes creator Tim Kring, respectively.
He’s been a fierce advocate for self-publishing authors and even inked a rare print-only contract with major publishers to retain the electronic rights of his early works. He’s a tireless proponent for the pure craft of writing, and he’s built an intensely loyal following. As he prepares to sail around the globe on his catamaran, he took time out from his busy schedule to talk with me on a short walk.
In this file, Huge Howey and I discuss the importance of starting each day the right way, why you need to learn to hit publish from anywhere, how to alleviate your natural self-doubts as a writer, how writers can fine-tune their creativity, where the true magic of writing springs from, and why you should be a tourist in your own town.
If you enjoy The Writer Files podcast, please do me a favor and leave a rating or a review in iTunes to help other writers find us. Thanks for listening.
Hugh Howey, thank you so much for joining me back on The Writer Files to update your file.
Hugh Howey: Hey, it’s good to be back, man.
Kelton Reid: So for listeners who may not be familiar with you and your story, who are you, and what is your area of expertise as a writer?
Hugh Howey: That’s a good question. Who am I? That could be a couple hours there, and I don’t even know if I’d have an answer. People think of me as a writer, but that’s the last six years of my life. Before that I was a vagabond, a sailor and lived on the water, and spent 10 years as a yacht captain. So that’s kind of who I am. I’ve been an avid reader my whole life, always wanted to write a novel. When I finally finished a book, I got hooked on that and started writing a lot, and my seventh work, Wool, took off and allowed me to write full time. I did that for the last six years or so. I’m going to continue writing, but now, I’m moving back onto a boat to get back to my roots, which is traveling the world by water.
Kelton Reid: It’s an amazing story, honestly. You’re a prolific author. You’ve got your hands in a lot of different genres as well. Where can we find your writing for starters?
Hugh Howey: The best place is Amazon. I’ve put everything in Kindle Unlimited because I do write a lot, and I like for people who are paying the $9.99 a month or whatever its costs to get to read everything without paying another penny. I do publish a lot, so it works out for me. Also, major bookstores carry Wool usually, or you can get any of my books in. My website s a great just to see what’s available. It’s just HughHowey.com.
Kelton Reid: What are you presently working on?
Hugh Howey: I’m bouncing back and forth between a fiction series called Beacon 23 and a nonfiction series that’s kind of self-help and travel log called Wayfinding. The Beacon 23 series, it’s weird. It’s another one of those short stories like Wool that took off. I’m telling this story in discrete parts. Each one has its own arc. Kind of like a season of TV, each episode tells a story, and people are eating them up at 99 cents each.
And Warren Ellis, who I love to death, a graphic novelist and author, has become a fan of the series, and my film agent’s getting calls about the film rights. So it’s having a very similar trajectory that Wool had, which is kind of weird for lightning to strike twice like this.
Kelton Reid: That’s amazing, and your sci-fi series, The “Silo Series,” is amazing. That’s the one that Wool kind of kicked off, right? And now Sand, the dystopian sci-fi novel that you wrote, is actually being adapted, is that right? Did I read that correctly?
Hugh Howey: Yeah. It got picked up by Imperative. They re the team behind the relaunch of the Heroes TV show, “Heroes Reborn,” and I just met with them at Comic-Con and got to spend a couple days hanging out with them. Just a great group of people. I’m flattered when someone options something for film, but Wool has been with Ridley Scott for a couple years. They’ve written screenplays for that. It’s just really flattering.
But however excited people are and they say they really want to make something, I don’t get my hopes up. I don’t assume that anything is going to go into production. I’d rather be surprised when it does than sit there and think about it and hound my agent for updates. It’s just better for me to keep writing.
Kelton Reid: Absolutely. So let’s talk about writing and your productivity a little bit. How much time per day would you say you’re reading or doing research for projects?
Hugh Howey: Research, I don’t do direct. My research is very indirect. I read because I want to learn. I’ve been like that my whole life. I mentioned when I read nonfiction, I read veraciously. So all of what I read ends up getting distilled, mixed up, and then ends up in my writing. So even though I mostly write fiction, I want to write about the human condition and satirize popular culture and things like that.
That comes from all my nonfiction reading. Probably two or three hours a day I spend reading, and some days, I can have an eight-hour day of just reading. The same thing with writing. I generally try to do two or three hours a day of writing, and sometimes I’ll have an eight-, 10-, or 12-hour day of writing where I pound out 5,000, 7,000 words in a day.
Kelton Reid: Before you get into a writing session, do you have any pre-game rituals or practices?
Hugh Howey: Yeah, but I don’t know if it has anything to do with the writing. I just live a healthy lifestyle. When I get up in the morning, I have a healthy breakfast of some yogurt with some raisins in it. Then I try to do the same thing every day, so I’m not having to make decisions. I’m not taxing my brain. It’s the same reason I think that I wear the same T-shirt and cargo shorts every single day and flip-flops. I do an exercise routine called The Five Tibetans, which is like yoga. It wakes me up better than a cup of coffee. It only takes about 10 minutes, and it really keeps you in shape. Then I open my laptop and start into whatever story I’m in progress.
Kelton Reid: Nice. Do you have a most productive time of day and/or locale for getting into a session?
Hugh Howey: Yeah, the morning for me. I’m most creative in the morning, but it’s also a matter of getting a lot of work done before I start checking email and get distracted with the business of writing. That doesn’t just come from self-publishing. I’ve published with traditional publishers as well. Having success as a writer means doing a lot of non-writing activities, supplemental stuff.
Kelton Reid: Yeah. Do you have a favorite place to write?
Hugh Howey: No. I can write anywhere. Yesterday, I’m at a family reunion, and I’m sitting at a table with a lot of conversations, a lot going on. I wrap up a work and hit publish and published right there from a dining room table. I’ve published while up on a panel. Right before the panel started, I was putting the finishing touches on a piece. They were doing introductions, and I’m hitting publish under the table. Sitting on curbs, waiting on taxis, on a book tour — Sand, that entire novel I wrote while in Europe on book tour. I wrote that book across nine different countries without a word of that rough draft written in the U.S.
That’s the dedication you have to have. You can’t have an excuse. “Well, I’m traveling today, so I’m not going to write,” or “I’m doing this today, so it’s okay if I don’t write today.” My attitude is, if you take a day off, you’re giving yourself an excuse to two, or three, or four days off.
Kelton Reid: Yeah. So as a world traveler, are you a writer who can stick on headphones? Do you like to listen to music while you write, or do you prefer silence or white noise?
Hugh Howey: I prefer silence or white noise, even crowds like cafes or airports, but I just posted on my website a few songs that I like to listen to when I’m having natural self-doubts that come from being creative. They’re very heavy-hitting songs just to fire you up and get the adrenaline going. So sometimes I use music to motivate me to have a powerful writing session, but I don’t like to listen to music while I’m writing.
Kelton Reid: Got it. I think I already know the answer to this next one, but do you believe in writer’s block?
Hugh Howey: I don’t. What I believe is that our writing varies in quality depending on what we’ve consumed, our chemical state, what’s going on in our life, how distracted we are, things that we’re anticipating might happen, how well the last writing session went. All of those things increase or decrease our expectation for how good our writing is going to be if we started clicking our keyboard.
Sometimes we get into a mindset where we know we’re going to write crap, so we’d rather sit there and not write anything. I think we have to embrace the fact that we’re going to write poorly at times. When we feel that hesitation and that lack of confidence, that should motivate us to really pour the words out, prime the pump, get back to the good stuff, and trust the editing process.
Kelton Reid: Absolutely. Are you still working on a MacBook Air?
Hugh Howey: Yeah, I prefer the Air. I might be switching to this new Dell laptop they ve got out, which is a smaller form factor. I’ve not been too overwhelmed with the updates to the Mac OS. I’ve played with Windows 10. I kind of liked that, so I might be switching.
Kelton Reid: Interesting. So what software do you use most for your writing?
Hugh Howey: I usually use Microsoft Word.
Kelton Reid: Do you have any organizational hacks since you’re constantly on the move?
Hugh Howey: Not really. Organizational hacks. No, I’m sloppy. I have a Word document that I’ll keep open for notes, and I just kind of pile in notes for a series in there. It’s ugly, but it works for me. I’ve used it to write book series with 400,000 plus words across them — a lot of foreshadowing and a lot of plot points and characters — and somehow it all works. I’ve tried using Scrivener and stuff that have those tools built in, but I find myself playing with the tools instead of writing. I’ve never gotten over the learning curve for those things to be useful to me.
Kelton Reid: Do you have any best practices for beating procrastination?
Hugh Howey: Yeah. Sit down, and it’s like exercise. There’s so many reasons to not get down on the floor and do push-ups. Your body does not want to be taxed. It doesn’t want to feel that. As soon as you feel it, you have to say, “I’m not going to let that control me. I’m going to choose what I’m going to do with my life and not let my inherent laziness, my desire to conserve calories, or whatever is going on in our bodies that makes us want to curl up in a ball and not attack the task before us.”
Open up the document, turn off the Internet, and start writing. If you’re not sure what happens next in the story, skip to the part of the story that you know is going to happen. Start writing there. Just start writing about your character, or if you know the next scene takes place in a bar, just describe the bar. You’re going to delete every bit of that, but describe every facet of that bar — what the jukebox looks like, what the street noise is, every weird detail that aren’t going to end up in your story. As soon as you start doing that, you’re going to find that you’re able to get back into the flow of the plot.
Kelton Reid: Very nice. My final question on workflow stuff is how do you unplug at the end of a long day?
Hugh Howey: My favorite thing is to get by the water or on the water. Go to the beach. If I can have a nice meal looking out over the water, if I can go for a swim or take a paddle board out, anything like that energizes me. Just chill out with a book and read.
Kelton Reid: Just a quick pause to mention that The Writer Files is brought to you by the Rainmaker Platform, the complete website solution for content marketers and online entrepreneurs. Find out more and take a free 14-day test drive at Rainmaker.FM/Platform.
So let’s talk about creativity. How do you define creativity in your own words?
Hugh Howey: I think creativity is not so much as creating something that’s never been done before. It’s the free expression of a combination of things that we’ve absorbed from elsewhere. To be absolutely creative is almost to be avant-garde, to do stuff that’s almost absurd. There’s some value in that, absurdity for the sake of complete newness or shock value.
For me, true creativity is seeing the individual human like a filter, like a coffee filter. You push all this stuff through: popular culture, life experiences, upbringing, genetic makeup. What drips out is the way they distill all that knowledge and all those experiences. It’s different for every person, and people are creative in ways they don’t even appreciate. The way they approach their work, they might think that’s not creativity. There are things that they do in their workflow, how they organize their desk space, or how they organize their day — I see those as expressions of creativity. I think everyone is creative in some ways, and we need to figure out what ways we enjoy being creative and do more of it. It gets us in tune with ourselves.
Kelton Reid: When do you feel the most creative?
Hugh Howey: After I’ve written something. So when I’m writing, I tend to feel like it’s kind of garbage, but when I’m done with the writing session, I go back and read some stuff. Or I’m revising. That’s when I feel like I don’t completely hate what I’ve just done.
Kelton Reid: Do you have a creative muse at the moment?
Hugh Howey: Not really. I’m going through a lot of change in my life right now, and some of it is very stressful. It’s sad that that’s inspiration, but the best stuff I’ve ever written has been dealing with huge losses of my life. I’m generally an upbeat, perfectly happy, even-keel person, but the best stuff I’ve ever written is when I’ve lost people in my life or lost a beloved pet. I guess that the tortured artist cliché, there’s something to that because you tap into an emotional well that’s difficult to tap into when you’re just content and happy.
Kelton Reid: In your own words, what do you think makes a writer truly great?
Hugh Howey: Having read a lot. Actually before having read a lot, I would say having lived and experienced a lot. I think you have to fill yourself with knowledge and experiences before you have something really wonderful to write. What we end up writing is kind of a greatest hits collection of our ideas, our thoughts, and our vocabulary. In order to have a greatest hits collection, you have to have a huge body of work that you absorb.
It’s somewhat like photography, something I’m passionate about. The secret to photography is learning lighting and the controls of the camera and framing and all these tricks of the trade, but the magic comes from taking thousands of photos and then having an eye that recognizes the dozen in there that are truly spectacular. When we write, we have thousands of ideas, thousands of word choices, thousands of word combinations and sentence flow options, and the quality of a writer and the skill comes from knowing out of those thousands, which handful are viable options.
Kelton Reid: Do you have a few favorite authors that you’re reading at the moment?
Hugh Howey: I tend not to follow writers. I tend to follow subjects. Nonfiction makes it difficult to follow writers. Rick Adkins wrote a World War II Trilogy that I really liked, and I’ll read anything that Bill Bryson writes. I just read McCullough’s biography of the Wright Brothers. I’ve really enjoyed his work, but it’s rare for me to find … Stephen Pinker is a guy who, anything he writes, I’ll pick up and dabble. With nonfiction, it’s not like with a fiction author where you’re going to get a book a year. You might be likely to get one every five years. It’s hard to follow an individual author like that.
Kelton Reid: Yeah. Well, I found your original writer’s file to be infinitely quotable, but do you have a favorite quote yourself?
Hugh Howey: I don’t know. One that I’ve come back to time and again — and it’s so cliché, everyone uses it — but maybe there’s a reason for that. I’ll get the exact quote wrong, but I’ll paraphrase. I’m pretty sure Hemingway said it. “Writing is easy. You just sit down in front of your typewriter and bleed.” I love that because it tells me that writing was difficult for him, and it reminds me that it’s not supposed to be easy. The same thing is true of exercise, and diet, and anything worth doing in life.
We should look for the things that are most difficult and then attack those things. We tend to live the path of least resistance. That’s defined to preserve calories, preserve our energy, and find ways to not tackle long-term goals and be fulfilled deeply in life. I found fulfillment through listening to my body, figuring out what it least wants to do, and then doing that thing. That quote kind of inspires me to do that.
Kelton Reid: Nice. Couple fun questions for you. Do you have a favorite literary character?
Hugh Howey: That’s a good question. Maybe growing up I loved The Stainless Steel Rat. That character really resonated with me.
Kelton Reid: If you could choose one author from any era to sit down and have an all-expense paid dinner, who would you choose?
Hugh Howey: Oh, it’d be William Shakespeare for sure.
Kelton Reid: I’m always curious about this answer, but why Shakespeare?
Hugh Howey: I like to tell everybody, “Hey, it was definitely William Shakespeare’s. Stop with the theories. I know for a fact it was him.”
Kelton Reid: Do you have a writer’s fetish? Any good luck charms or any weird collectibles?
Hugh Howey: No. All I really need is my laptop. I do feel kind of naked if I don’t have it with me. I grab it in the middle of the night to make notes. I try to carry it with me everywhere. I will say, as a reader, that I’ve upgraded my Kindle to the Kindle Voyage, and that’s such a sexy reading device. I feel I do not like not having that thing with me. With that in my pocket, I’ve got every book that I own and access to every ebook out there. I fetishize the heck out of that thing.
Kelton Reid: Nice. So who or what has been your greatest teacher?
Hugh Howey: Literally, Dr. Dennis Goldsbury, my English professor at the College of Charleston. I was a physics major when I had him for a prereq and loved his class so much that I made sure I had my 102 from him the next semester. Then I asked him what he was teaching the semester after that.
He was the hardest teacher I’ve ever had. Getting an A from him was the most rewarding challenge in my collegiate career. I started taking all of his classes, and soon he was like, “Look, you have to be an English major to take these 4000-level classes.” I probably would’ve written something at some point in my life anyway because it’s been a dream of mine for a long time, but I wouldn’t be the writer that I am today without his guidance.
Kelton Reid: Can you offer any advice to fellow writers on how to keep the ink flowing and the cursor moving?
Hugh Howey: Yeah. What are you doing to have novel experiences? Without that, you’re just not going to be inspired to write. Find a way to be a tourist in your hometown. Look at towns that are a short drive away, and get out on the weekend and do something. Talk to strangers. If you see an old man with a military service hat on, sit down on the bench beside him, and ask him his story.
Observe the world. Carry around a notebook. Describe strangers. Describe settings. Writing is not something you do in front of your laptop. Writing is something that you do all day long, and the laptop is just the place where you dump that out.
Kelton Reid: Where can fellow scribes connect with you out there?
Hugh Howey: You can find me on Twitter at @HughHowey and on my website. Once I’m on the boat in another two and a half weeks, I’ll be moving onto the catamaran, and I’ll be at sea a lot. I’ll hopefully still be able to keep in touch when I’m in port, but I don’t know how much I’ll be accessible like I have been for the last five or six years.
Kelton Reid: That’s really exciting. Where is your first destination?
Hugh Howey: Well, I’m starting in St. Francis Bay, South Africa, and my first port of call will be Cape Town. I’ll stay there for a few weeks, and then I’m just going to spend a couple of months total in South Africa. Early October, we’ll head to St. Helena, which is in the middle of the south Atlantic and then Ascension Island, which is where Napoleon was held captive. From there, either Brazil or Barbados and then up the Caribbean chain into the Bahamas and Florida.
Kelton Reid: Amazing. Well, we wish you a safe journey, and I’m sure that will spark some more really inspiring stories and writing. So best of luck to you, sir.
Hugh Howey: Thanks, man. Well, if something bad happens to me, it’ll probably boost book sales just for a brief moment with any obituary or news mention. My heirs have that to look forward to.
Kelton Reid: Well, I’ll knock on wood over here, and thank you so much for stopping by.
Hugh Howey: All right. Thanks, man.
Kelton Reid: Take care.
Thanks for tuning into the show. In the words of Mr. Howey himself, you are a startup. The next great business is you.
Cheers. See you out there.