Several weeks ago we posted about Wool, a short story by Hugh Howey. Since the posting – and hopefully due to some of you awesome guys and gals – Wool and its Omnibus edition, containing all five Wool stories, have elevated the formerly proclaimed “cult following” into a bonafide hit. One of Hugh’s favorite novels is Ender’s Game, a novel that, when I read at some tender age, changed my life as well. The intricacy of Ender’s Game is not in its brutal military critique and self-reflective xenophobia, but the turmoil of a boy at war with himself and his gifts. In it, a man/woman’s worst enemy is him/herself and their untapped potential.
In many (sometimes similar) ways, Wool turns on introspection rather than a deus ex machina or the Law of Conservation of Detail. Wool refuses to turn on minutiae. The writing is lean yet expansive. The world is huge in Wool yet it is restrained by its tendrils. Maybe this is a beauty in the renaissance of self publishing. Instead of publishers forcing a novel down your throat, brought together to fit the 40k / 80k / 100k word expectations, short stories and novellas can propagate in this new free market. Hugh Howey seems to have benefitted from this growing marketplace.
Readers worldwide are the real beneficiary. All of a sudden they can choose what stories are worth reading, sharing, or worshipping. The modern book critic can’t keep up with our demands. When Wool gained 200 new reviews in under two months and shot into Amazon top 200 in the Kindle store, I can’t say much more than it’s for the people and by the people.
So I asked Hugh five questions.
Alec: Were you born to write or was it a craft you learned? In that regard, what event made you decide to write for a living?
Hugh Howey: I’ve had some people close to me say that I was born to write. I suspect they mean that I’ve been making things up in my head for way too long, or that it’s healthier if I put my imaginary friends on paper rather than talking to them on the street. I remember writing letters to family members when I was younger and having them say that I should write for a living. But it was a true story of a yacht I was captaining that really sparked the urge. I posted this story on SciForums, a site for people to discuss trends in various fields, and the members went nuts. It was the first hint that I might be able to entertain people with my words.
As for when I decided to write for a living, I didn’t really have the luxury to choose when I would do that. I struggled for years, working second jobs, until I was finally making enough to dare go for it as a solitary profession.
A: When and why did you decide to publish independently?
H: I didn’t. Not at first. My debut novel was published by a small house called NorLights Press. When I saw what was involved with promoting and pushing a few books here and there, I decided to give it a try on my own. Nothing against NorLights, they were awesome, and I still consider one of the founders a dear friend. But so much of book promotion relies on the author, so I thought I would see if I could wear all the hats at once.
I’ve loved the experience. Learning to paginate books, to create cover art, to market and publish everything. It suits my workaholic nature. Plus, I get to set the price, give books away, and see all of my sales data. There are a ton of advantages to publishing independently. I’ve also made a lot more money that I probably could have with a traditional press.
A: Wool is more of a novella than a novel. Which form do you prefer and why?
H: I love them both, but I’m starting to lean toward novellas. 30,000 words feels about right to me. That’s a 120 page book, or thereabouts. With that length, I can get rid of the boring middle bits of a book that often keeps readers from finishing a story. I can manage numerous revisions, cut down on errors, and keep the plots nice and tight. And with e-readers, there’s no need to pad a book to justify print costs. I can charge anywhere from a buck to three for a story, and everyone makes out. I love it.
A: 20 years ago, people were predicting flying cars, hoverboards, and stun guns. What is sci fi in the post millenium? Does it even exist?
H: I think science fiction will show up in the post millenium less in the form of gadgets and more in the guise of philosophical leaps. Both have always existed in science fiction. There has been more ethical explorations in the genre than most readers appreciate. Aliens were just as often treated as equals or superiors as the enemy, often providing lessons about human rights. Women have been given stronger roles in some tellings of the future. Star Trek showed an interracial relationship that was far ahead of its time.
Now that we all have smart phones that are more advanced than Captain Kirk’s communicator, the areas of progress that I see will be more along these lines. And there will be steps toward grand issues like immortality that I believe will take people by surprise. It might not be in our lifetimes, but I think within the next 1,000 years, we will see the aging process solved, or perhaps the digitalization of our memories and thought processes. I wish I could live to see some of the great leaps forward that await us.
A: Do you enjoy reading your own work? Or are you of the mindset that “nothing is ever finished?”
H: Nothing is ever finished. I wish I had the time to go back and revise everything I’ve ever written, because it all becomes rubbish with the passing of time. On the other hand, I do find that I enjoy what I’m writing while I’m writing it. As I make my six or seven passes through a work, I start to think that it isn’t all that horrid. And by the last pass, I find myself impressed that this came out of my noggin. That’s the beauty of the writing and revising process: You end up with a product that’s smarter and better than you are. There’s no way you could produce it in a single sitting, but over a bunch of laborious weeks, you craft a bit of drivel you aren’t upset to call your own.