Ep 17 Bookshop towns, writing fears revealed, the Pomodoro technique and bestselling sensation Hugh Howey.

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In Episode 17 of So you want to be a writer, we ask: what are your writing fears? Towns replacing lost industry with books, how to write a solid press release, a new system for plotting your novel, Reservoir Dad – The Book, Writer in Residence, best selling author and Amazon success story Hugh Howey, how to use the Pomodoro technique, why you need fingerless gloves and more!

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Show Notes

Book Towns: Where reading is the reason to live

Clunes Book Town

My 5 biggest writing fears revealed

10 Pointers for Writing a Solid Press Release

Reservoir Dad – The Book (Buy it now!)

Rock your plot: a simple system for plotting your novel

Writer in Residence
hughhoweymed Hugh Howey is the author of the award-winning Molly Fyde Saga and the New York Times and USA Today bestselling Wool series.

Hugh lives in Jupiter, FL with his wife Amber and their dog Bella. When he isn’t writing, he’s reading or taking a photograph.

Website
Twitter

Advice to aspiring authors
Author Earnings
Author to open bookstore

Web Pick

The Pomodoro Technique
The best pomodoro timers
John Birmingham on Twitter

Working Writer’s Tip

@JuliettaJameson and @altait recommend fingerless gloves for typing on cold winter days!

Writers’ Centre Pinterest
Pink Fibro Bookclub
Writers’ Centre Facebook

Your hosts

Allison Tait
Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

Connect with us on twitter

@altait
@valeriekhoo

Transcript

Allison 

Hugh Howey is the author of the award-winning Molly Fyde Saga and the New York Times and USA Today best-selling WOOL series. WOOL began as a novelette and has become part of a three-book series known as the Silo series. WOOL has spent considerable time in the Amazon Top 100, has been be optioned by Ridley Scott and Steven Zaillian for a potential feature film, and has since been published in print.

Now comes SAND, published in January of this year, which brings us a whole new world.

Welcome to our podcast, Mr. Hugh Howey.

Hugh
Thank you, it’s an honor to be here.

Allison
Let’s begin by talking about your newest work, SAND. Given the extraordinary success of WOOL and the Silo series did you experience a certain sense of second novel nerves about this one, despite the fact that you’ve written a lot of books. I’m just wondering if it’s hard to follow up such a runaway success.

Hugh
Yeah, in some ways SAND was harder to write than the sequels to WOOL, because I knew that people enjoyed that world and enjoyed those characters. With SAND I was having to start a completely different series, you just don’t know if people are going to come along with you and give another world a chance. People get really attached to characters and certain creations. What helped is that I had a backlist that people who enjoyed WOOL, after they just devoured that story, they went and read some of my other works, which are very different. The response to those stories was just as high. That gave me some confidence that it wasn’t just that one story that people were enjoying.

Allison
So you had a sense that they would accept new things from you, because you had already written stuff before that they could find?

Hugh
Yeah, that’s the beauty of books these days, they don’t go out of print. Everything I’ve ever written is available in both print and ebook and audio book, and you don’t have to worry about the local shop having them in stock, you can click a button and have a brand new copy of these works sent to you, even works that I wrote back in 2009 when I first got started, all of those works are available and they’re brand new. It’s brilliant, cool feature of print on demand technology and some of the things going on in the book industry that books no longer die. It used to be you had to hope that you could find them at a used bookstore or go through a book collector to track down some rare copy, but now books stay around forever.

Allison
Tell us about SAND, when did you begin writing it? Because you write all of the time, like you have a work in progress section on your website, and I can see that you’re currently working on like four or five different projects. You’re writing all the time, when did you begin SAND, like was it halfway through all the excitement about WOOL? Was it when all of that was over? When did you start? How did you begin, like with new characters, et cetera?

Hugh
I started the writing the first of November of last year, I wrote it as part of a yearly program called NaNoWriMo, it’s National Novel Writing Month. It’s an organization based in California, but it’s worldwide. Hundreds of thousands of people sign on every year. The challenge is to write a rough draft in thirty days, or just in the month of November.

Allison
[Inaudible]

Hugh
Yeah. I love the program. This is my fifth year participating.

A large part of WOOL was written during NaNoWriMo, and the second part, the middle third of SHIFT was written during NaNoWriMo. I’m a huge fan.

The story started many years ago, after I published WOOL with Random House in the UK and Australia my editor, Jack Fogg asked me what else I could I see working on in the future. I told him the story about people who dive down in the sand that now covers their world and they have to bring up scraps from the old world, from the bottom of the sand to rebuild the new world. He said, “Oh, I love this idea. I can’t wait to read this book.” It was about a year and a half or two years later I’m handing him the manuscript, he’s emailed me back and he’s like, “Oh my god, I think I like this even better than WOOL,” so that was really cool.

Having the story gestate and sit in the back of my mind for a year so I could work on the characters makes it easier to sit down and write the manuscript and not having to make it up as I’m writing it.

Allison
You say in the blurb for SAND on your website that you’ve never been more proud of a printed work in your entire life. Why is that the case? Why this book?

Hugh
Well, the physical creation — I mean books are two different things, there’s the story that’s inside, and those words can hold many different forms, it could be oral, it could be an audio book, but the book itself is that physical creation, which as a book lover and collector I pay attention to things like how books are bound and the cover art. I love it when books give credit to the font in the beginning or back of the book, that attention to detail.

The first time I held this book you could feel the amount of love that went into it from the publisher, from everyone involved, the production team. You’ve got a dust jacket that’s reversible. This is something that real fans of this work might even hang on their wall, the inside is this beautiful map, which includes all of this great artwork involved in the map. The board of the hardback itself, what’s there when you take the dust jacket off, has its own graphics and its own art. None of this is necessary, they didn’t have to — a lot of books you just do the board and then you throw a dust jacket on it and you send it out there. You can tell not just that thought and care went into this, but a lot of work, a lot of effort when into printing this book. I’ve never — not just my own books — but, I will see books that have this kind of attention to detail and I guarantee a lot of my US readers are going to be importing copies of this book, just to own it, it’s that beautiful.

Allison
You’re obviously a fan of a beautiful book. The way you were talking about that you’re a man who appreciates a beautiful printed book, and yet your name is so synonymous with ebooks in so many ways, isn’t it? Do you feel — do you have a huge library at home of actual physical books?

Hugh
Yeah, we have a bit of a problem. We have amassed a collection of tens of thousands of books over the years. Every time we move it’s quite a chore, but we love them. I have books that I own just because of the age and the quality of the book, old leather-bound books. I have all of the hardback non-fiction works I can never get rid of. I just came back from BEA in New York and had to ship books home, not just from BEA, but every bookstore I went into in New York I can’t leave without buying one or two books. We both read voraciously. Yeah, my dream has always been to own a small bookstore, and it’s something that I’m pursuing now.

Allison
Oh, you are going to do that?

Hugh
Yeah, I’m looking at property now, trying to figure out where we want to base this and how big of a space to get, and whether to lease or to buy. Yeah, it’s been a dream since childhood. Now I have the ability and my community has the need, so it feels like an obligation really to open one.

I think the reputation I have for selling or for being an ebook writer just comes from the time that I’ve published and how much I’ve embraced the technology to get stories into the hands of the people who want them, but I’ve always published print books alongside my ebooks. I’ve had fans and readers in print form from the very beginning, they’ve just been vastly outnumbered by the number of people who have downloaded my ebooks.

Allison
That’s interesting. For you, the book is not dead, long live the book, basically?

Hugh
Yeah, long live story. The book was the best technology, and in a lot of ways it’s still the best technology for disseminating story. But, I think we miss the fact that ebooks are helping increase readership all over the world, there are people who live in communities that are not even big enough for libraries. Driving hours into town to get to a bookstore diminishes the amount of books that are consumed. Ebooks basically put a bookstore in every child’s bedroom, and that is something to celebrate.

Allison
Let’s talk about that, because as you’ve said your name is synonymous with ebooks and with indie publishing, and you’re a great advocate for indie publishing. Your first novel was actually traditionally published by a small press, what made you decide to self-publish your second novel? Why did you go to
self-publishing?

Hugh
Well, I was very much leaning towards self-publishing beforehand anyway. I was going to publish my debut novel just on my blog, chapters at a time, and get copies printed for whoever wanted one. I had people, friends and family and some critique groups online who read the early manuscripts and said, “This is too good for that, you need to get this out there with a publisher.” I really caved to that pressure. I didn’t believe in the work enough to do that, but I listened to the people who did. Sure enough it got picked up rather quickly, but I still had the feeling that the best way to do this would be for me to control the final artistic expression of the work and the presentation, and have the ability to work as quickly as I wanted and to write whatever I wanted. I didn’t really want to fall into that trap of having and editor or a publisher saying, “OK, your next book needs to be the sequel to this book.” I want to write in all genres, those were just a handful of the reasons.

Allison
It’s interesting that you had the confidence to go forward and do that, but you weren’t necessarily that confident in the first book, you were going to put it on your blog, you weren’t necessarily that confident that people said that it was too good for that. That’s an interesting dichotomy there, I think. Would you agree?

Hugh
For me, for the people reading I think the stigma for self-publishing was very much part of their rationale.

Allison
Right.

Hugh
They thought it needed a bigger platform. I’ve never looked down on — I know the history of self-publishing and how many great writers in the past, books that we call classics today, were published by the author themselves. I was comfortable writing for the internet, which is all that self-publishing, putting your own blog, putting up a Facebook post, tweeting, all of that is self-publishing. I guess I’m just of a generation that’s never seen the stigma. Vanity presses, I understand, where you’re taking advantage of and paying tens of thousands of dollars, but that’s not self-publishing.

Allison
Given that, and given the stigma with self-publishing is definitely disappearing, what do you think stops people from doing it now?

Hugh
I think there’s a lot there. I mean some people, their dream is to see the book in a bookstore. The first time I saw WOOL in a bookstore was in London, and that was because I did a publishing deal with Random House, who is now releasing SAND. Yeah, it was a big enough event that I was on the phone with my wife, as I’m walking into the store, knowing I’m going to see the book there for the first time. I wanted to share that moment with her, so I’m talking to her live while I’m walking around the store and see the book. That’s such a dream for people who love bookstores and love books. If you want that self-publishing is probably not the best route to go.

Allison
Right.

Hugh
It depends on what you want out of your career.

But, yeah, I think the stigma is changing and it just means a flowering of more voices and more choices for readers, more choices for how to get books out there for writers. This can only be a good thing. No one complains about the internet being a place where anyone put up their thoughts and ideas, and people don’t complain that there’s too much on the internet to find. We just trust that the good things that we discover are easily sharable, so that they’ll percolate to the top.

Allison
I know that one of the questions that you get asked over and over is whether you work with an editor. I know that because I read that your tips for writers for writers on your website. And that you do now work with David Gatewood, I believe. But, you didn’t start out that way, do you think your writing has changed since you began working with an editor?

Hugh
My first editors were my wife and my mom, either one of whom could do it for a living, they’re both skilled enough at both grammar and developmental editing that if they wanted to do this freelance for a living both of them could. I was working with the two of them, and a beta reader.

What has happened working with someone like David is that I have — I can write a little looser and with a little more confidence now, knowing that I’ve got someone who’s going to make sure that nothing big passes through to the reader. It’s hard to explain the confidence that you get. I felt this as well with my mom and my wife, but I guess there’s something when you’re paying someone good money to edit your work there’s this feeling of, “I’ve bought myself insurance,” you know?

Allison
Yep.

Hugh
“Nothing bad is going to happen to the work, because this person, their job is to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Allison
OK, have you ever had a situation where that you’ve disagreed, like where he’s gone, “This is not working,” and you’ve thought, “No, it is and I’m going to continue down this road.”?

Hugh
I probably accept 95 percent of his suggestions because he’s brilliant, the same with Jack Fogg, my editor at Random House. The 5 percent, most of it is very small things. There was this one time, I believe it was in SHIFT, where we had a completely different vision for where the story should go, it was a developmental editing phase. I’m pretty sure I got my way with them, I think David may have even come back at the end and said, “Yeah, you were right to go that way.” But, most of the times when he points something out that needs to change I see immediately that it does need to change.

Allison
OK. There’s obviously a real trust there which you do need to develop with an editor if you’re working with them, right?

Hugh
Yeah, absolutely. The cool thing about being able to work with the people that I choose to work with, with my publisher in the US I’m on my third editor in a year and a half, just because people leave and you get new editors. When you’re assigned an editor that can be a challenge, you hope it’s someone you can work well with. You can’t just say, “Can I try someone else?”

I’m real fortunate, Jack Fogg with Random House and David with my other works, I consider both of them friends. When I see these guys I throw my arms around them and I — Jack and I have had a funny history. We went to tour the book up in Wales, we were promoting WOOL and we went to a science-fiction convention up in Wales and we got to stay in a little caravan together. It was one of those things that, like, when he rolls over in the bed in his bedroom the whole thing rocks on its axles. It was just like a little tin can of a caravan, and we had a blast. I don’t know how many writers and editors get to have that kind of relationship where you can really — we’re just kind of like two guys hanging out and good friends, and you forget the professional relationship because you get along so well.

Allison
Yeah, it’s fairly unusual, and very cozy by the sounds of things.

Hugh
Yeah, it was. It was one of the highlights of my book tour. We had a great time up there.

Allison
That’s great. A lot of people probably look at where you are now and wonder how it all happened. When you began your indie publishing career were you thinking right from the start about marketing your work? Did you have this whole author platform thing in your head and think, “I’ve got to sell,” from the start?

Hugh
No, I had a very long horizon for all of this. It took me twenty years of futility, of wanting to write a book and trying and starting books and not finishing them before I finally completed my first manuscript. Getting over that long of period of frustrating — a sense of failure, really, “I’m never going to write a novel — never going to write a novel, because I’ve tried so many times and I can’t do it.” Once I finally did I knew, “OK, this is all I want to do. I just want to write.” Even when my first book was out my dad was like, “You should be out there doing this and doing that. You should try this to promote it…” I was saying, “Dad, I just have this ability to write now, I just want to throw all of my energy into that and ten years from now I can look at everything I’ve written and figure out how to promote it, but I need to wait until I can’t write anymore.

My drive in the beginning has just been to write as many stories as I can, as I have in me, and worry about the marketing later.

WOOL took off without any promotion at all. I didn’t have a link to it on my website, I didn’t tweet about it, I didn’t Facebook about it.

Allison
Wow.

Hugh
I just made it available. Yeah, it happened organically. It was because I had seven other published works, I had developed a small following, so I had a handful of readers out there. The ability to share things that we enjoy these days is unmatched. That’s where social media is really powerful, it’s the ability for readers to share the things that they discover with each other.

Allison
Yes.

Hugh
It means that you can write something that strikes a nerve and finds its audience, that audience can just really explode.

Allison
It began as what you describe as a novelette. So, that was what? The first part of a serial type of thing, or it was just a short-ish story, or –?

Hugh
Yeah, at the time that was the whole story. A novelette is a story that’s longer than a short story, but it’s shorter than a novella, and it’s a real category. There are awards for best novelettes. It is its own genre.

Allison
I learned something there.

Hugh
It’s a great length of story too. A lot of long magazine articles would fall into that range, and it’s enough for great character development, but it’s not long enough to be considered a novella. It really cuts out what can become a boring middle of a lot of books. Most authors admit that the middle is the hardest to write, because you’re introducing the world and the characters is exciting and wrapping it all up is exciting, but all of the stuff in the middle, keeping that entertaining is difficult.

Allison
Yes.

Hugh
With WOOL, this was going to be an entire novel, I had an idea for a novel and I knew the world and I knew the ending, and I put off writing it because I wasn’t sure about all of the rest.

Allison
OK.

Hugh
I just published this novel called The Plagiarist, and I was like, “Oh, this is the length of story that I need to put WOOL in.” And, that’s how it came about. I realized that this was the best way to tell the story. I had no plans to write anything else in the series, the first one was the whole story.

Allison
Why do you think it resonated so deeply with people and then suddenly you had to write more?

Hugh
Well, I think the figurative story that I was telling, which you don’t expect readers to get, I didn’t believe my English professors when I was in school and they were telling me all of the hidden meanings in stories, but it’s true. When you live in these worlds and you’re writing the stories you’ve layered in all of these figurative meanings. For this book the figurative meaning is that we keep hearing that the world outside is so awful, and what does that do to us? Do we choose to believe that? That the world is just getting worse and worse and worse? Or are the people with the real courage, are those the people who doubt that view and want to go see the world for themselves and want to make it a better place?

While it’s a very dark and depressing story, there’s an underpinning of hope behind it, that we’re celebrating people who dare to hope. I think that’s the time that this story came out it really hit a nerve with people and everyone I know who read it early on went and told 10, 20, everyone they knew had to go read this short story. Yeah, I think it was a product of its time. The fact that it’s still selling as well as it is makes me wonder if it’s a timeless observation of human nature, or whether it’s just a product of the world that we’ve lived in the last handful of years.

Allison
I’ve read it, and I think that the world that you’ve built there is amazing. It’s a layered world and the layers come through in all of the different areas. I think people relate to a really well-developed world as much as anything. That’s just my thoughts on it, but anyway…

Hugh
[Inaudible]

Allison
Moving on, do you think it’s more difficult for people to stand out in the publishing marketplace now than it used to be? It seems to me like you venture online and everyone’s a writer and everyone is promoting a book and people are uploading 20,000 new books to Amazon everyday. That discoverability thing that people talk about, like is it harder? But then you have WOOL that you didn’t promote at all and people found. So, what do you think the key is?

Hugh
If it’s harder, I would say it’s not all that much harder, because I worked in bookstores for years and even ignore everything that’s self-published, even the books that were coming out just form the major publishers, it was daunting how many books that were coming out every year, as a bookseller. On one hand, it never felt like enough books for voracious readers of certain genres, they would gobble — young adult readers would have read anything in the section and would say, “Where’s the next thing?” on the other hand there were so many traditionally published authors whose books sat spine out for three months and then we pulled the book and returned and it never even had a chance. There was never enough of some books and there was too many of some others.

I think, yeah, it’s hard to stand out, but, first of all, you have to write like half a dozen books before you even know if you have a chance. I don’t think one book will be enough for most people to launch a career. That’s the first thing, you need to write multiple works. The second thing is if you have the ability to write, to hold someone for an entire novel, you should be able to hold them for a blog post or a tweet or a Facebook update or something. Don’t just throw a tweet out there, or a Facebook post, or a blog post, put the same care and passion into everything that you write online that you put into your works. If you’re not able to woo someone with 120 characters, 120,000 words probably isn’t going to go over very well.

Will it ever be easy? I don’t think so. It was never easy before.

Allison
No, it’s never been easy.

Hugh
No, it’s never been easy. But, what’s great is now it’s much easier to get your voice out there at all, and there’s so many niches that publishing ignored, like genres that were too many mixes of several genres, so we didn’t know how to categorize them. Those books, agents and editors would love these books, but they didn’t know how to publish them. Now those books are being published and finding an audience. Now publishers are seeing because of this that readers are more adventurous and they want to read things that don’t fit neatly into our established genres. I think the future is bright for writers and readers, we’re going to have a glut of things that are published and I think that’s something to celebrate.

I don’t worry about the internet being overburdened with new blogs every single day, I’m glad that everyone has that ability to blog and I trust that if it’s a wonderful post that’s being put up online that someone will see it and they’ll tell everyone they know about it, and we will all discover it.

Allison
Your theory is also, as we were talking earlier about, the cream does rise? Like, people are going to talk about the stuff that really resonates with them?

Hugh
Yeah, I think you said it really well there. That we’re going to talk about what resonates with us. Thinking of the cream rising to the top puts a value judgment on these things. I’m less comfortable with that, because resonating with us can be the thing that offends us, or the thing that shocks us, or the thing that doesn’t have what someone judge to be artistic qualities, but has some other thing to offer — it’s just the story or one character, or the presentation. Yeah, the ability to have anything that resonates with us to be freely available with an infinite number of copies printed on demand or ebook or whatever, I think that’s just something that we’re just seeing the beginning potential of here.

Allison
How much of your day do you devote to writing? How much do you devote to the business of being Hugh Howey, indie publisher and author? Because you are still writing quite a lot.

Hugh
I spend about three hours a day writing, which is what I was doing when I had a full time day job and everything else was going on in my life. It leaves a lot of hours and I don’t spend that time fishing or doing other things that I could enjoy doing with my free time. If I’m not writing, because I’m really passionate about the book industry and really the fortune I have to be an author, I spend all of my time not writing, furthering that career. I guess you could consider procrastination, but when I’m not writing I’m just procrastinating in a way that’s productive — I’m answering email, I’m writing a blog post, I’m doing something that’s involved in this career.

Allison
Productive procrastination, I love that.

Hugh
Exactly.

Allison
I’ve got to use that.

My last question for you would be do you have three pieces of advice for writers who would like to be where you are now?

Hugh
Sure. For the people who are sort of like me, struggling for so long to even finish a book, I think the best thing to learn as a new writer is to write to get to the end of story and not just waste your time revising the book early on, but just write in rough draft, know that you’re going to delete things and change things and push through to the end.

For the people who have a work in hand and now they want to get out there, don’t be in a rush. You want to polish that story to perfection, no matter how you’re going to publish it. If you send it to an agent and you haven’t had it properly edited or work shopped with friends or other people to go over with you it’s probably going to get rejected by an agent or editor. If you’re going to self-publish it, it’s probably going to be rejected by readers unless you really pour your heart into perfecting that story.

Finally for the people that have the work out there, that’s also a time to be patient. Works now are available forever and you don’t have to worry if it doesn’t take off in the first month or even the first year. As soon as the work published or as soon as it’s out of your hands, if someone else is publishing it, start writing that next piece. It’s all about developing as many stories as you can. That’s how these three things go together, you want to write as many great stories as you can, have them be as polished as possible and make sure they’re available to readers and not locked away in a desk drawer somewhere.

Allison
Fantastic. Thank you so much for talking to us today. I really appreciate your time. You’ve given us a lot of great insight there for our listeners. Good luck with SAND, I hope it takes off as much as WOOL has. Thank you very much.

Hugh
Thank you so much.


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