Writing and Publishing Advice From WOOL Author Hugh Howey

I recently attended my FIRST writing event ever! I've never been to one in real life, so when I heard about this session on writing/publishing with a bestselling author, I jumped at the opportunity and registered to hear him talk. Best decision I could have made!

His name is Hugh Howey and he wrote the fantastic WOOL series. If you haven't heard of these books, you need to get to a store or library ASAP, because they are truly awesome. I made sure to read the first novel before I went to see him, and now I'm inhaling the next book. And you know post-apocalyptic is not my usual cup of tea!

Because Hugh got his start in self-publishing, the talk was very much in favor of that path of publication. WOOL was once a short story that he self-published on Amazon, and after much reader acclaim, he turned it into a novel that went on to become a New York Times bestseller. He's got an agent and a publisher now, after the fact, but he kick-started the process himself.

He was both cool and funny, and extremely well-spoken about his experiences in the industry. I'm pretty sure I was not the only aspiring author in the room who began to waver from the idea of traditional publication, after hearing the passionate and positive way he talked about self-publishing and the freedom and self-assurance that come with it.

I was so busy taking notes the whole time that whenever I had a question, someone else would ask it before I could muster the courage to raise my hand. (Fine by me, as I am petrified of public speaking, even if it's just to ask something for 5 seconds and have every single person in the room looking at me. *hunches in seat*)

Anyway, these were some of the awesome tips I jotted down:

On the Writing Process
  • Join a writing group. He described the very well-organized, professional-sounding group that he had been a part of (they had a president! and a treasurer! and dues, so they could buy refreshments!), but it doesn't have to be that intense. Just write with other people, because it's a great learning opportunity.
  • Write for readers. Don't write for agents; don't write for publishers. Think about the actual people who are going to be reading/buying your book, because they matter the most.
  • To be a good writer, you need to read. Everyone knows that... but Hugh stressed that you shouldn't only be reading for pleasure. You should also be paying attention to craft. You can write a dozen books, but if you don't read, you will never grow as a writer. He recommended "Eats, Shoots and Leaves" and Stephen King's "On Writing." (Speaking of which, I really need to read King's book; it seems like everyone recommends it!)
  • To be a good writer, you need to live. He said that MFAs and writing programs can only teach you so much. A truly well-rounded writer is one who gets out there and lives life, has adventures, falls in love, gets their heart broken, travels, and - most importantly - talks to strangers.
  • If you're a plotter, write for the reader who will read your book twice. Hugh said he's a hardcore plotter (woo-hoo! plotters represeeeent) and that he could be writing Book 1, but already know what will happen in Books 4 and 5. He likes outlining because you can stick in foreshadowing and Easter eggs that repeat readers can have fun picking out.
  • Six CPs is the perfect number. Too many CPs is not good, as you'll get pulled into too many directions. He also advised us to stagger our submissions. Send out to 2-3 CPs, incorporate their edits, revise, and then send out to 2-3 more. That way, people aren't all reading the rough draft and wasting time picking out the same mistakes.
  • If you're self-publishing, write a lot of shorter pieces instead of one giant novel. He said that this would be 1) easier, 2) more practice, 3) help you build up readership, and 4) allow readers to finish faster so that they can review and spread the word faster.

On Mindset
  • Enjoy your anonymity. I loved that he brought this up. He said that he misses the days when he could just write and not worry about deadlines and tours. Appreciate what you have now and don't lose sight of it.
  • Tell yourself your 10th book will be a bestseller; not your debut. He compared this to being an athlete and said that it's not likely you'll make MVP your first time on the field. He said that each book is like a lottery ticket; the more you write, the more you expand your opportunities. He also suggested writing different lengths and different genres. (This tip made me really happy because, as you guys remember, I worried a while back whether jumping around genre-wise was a good idea.)
  • Don't be in it for the money. He repeated this so many times that I could tell it was an extremely important point he hoped to pass on. "Dream, but don't expect" were his very words.
  • Self-publishing vs. traditional, and how writing is like a painting. Hugh compared a book to a painting, and explored this metaphor down the paths of traditional and self-publication. On the traditional path, a writer can make the sketch, but someone else will paint it onto a canvas, someone else will decide what frame to put the canvas in, and someone else will decide what to call it. Self-publishing can give the writer a lot more control, creativity, and freedom.
  • All writing is practice... even crap. Especially crap! Never underestimate the crap.
  • Tearing down other writers is tearing down yourself. His exact words were, "That's just crazy talk!" He warned us not to hate on people who've had an easier time (like the ones who get an agent on their second query letter, or a movie deal and tons of money right out of the gate, etc.) and not to judge writers - especially self-published ones - whose books aren't perfect. They are out there making art, and that's the most important thing. Someone else's success (or failure) takes nothing away from you; don't wallow or revel in it.

I really wish I could have talked to him afterward (and that I'd brought my copy of WOOL for him to sign), but he was swarmed by everyone else so I just left and tried to absorb everything he'd said.

The session really gave me a new perspective on self-publishing. When I first started to get into serious writing, I (very ignorantly and stupidly) thought that the only people who self-published were the ones who could not cut it on the traditional path. And that's just a very self-limiting, close-minded way to think. I'm glad that my years of being part of the blog community have shown me how much incredible talent there is out there, regardless of publication style - self, traditional, small press/big press, agent or not, etc. - and that I learned so much from this event.

It's way too early to make hard and fast decisions (and my heart still tells me that I want to be traditionally published, because I want to focus on the writing itself and leave the design/heavy marketing stuff to the pros), but I am happy to know that there are so many roads I can take.

So what do you think about Hugh's advice? What's your opinion on self-publishing vs. traditional?

And what would you think if - one day down the road - I ever released PPP as an e-book, since so many of you have asked to read it? :) :)


Connie Keller said...

WOW! I wish I could have been there. But thanks so, so much for taking notes and sharing them with us.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Some smart tips there! Enjoy your anonymity. Yes, I can relate. And my second and third book were written only for the readers, so hopefully I was successful.

Cynthia said...

Sounded like you learned a lot from this event! There were so many points that you shared here that I agree with, like not tearing down others down and not going into it for the money. Very solid down-to-earth advice.

Tony Laplume said...

Pretty great advice, and surprisingly humble (or perhaps not), so that was nice to discover.

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

Big fan of Hugh Howey and the WOOL series (have DUST in my TBR pile.) Thanks for sharing these tips!

Came over from Alex's blog - glad I did! :)

workofheart09 said...

Wow, sounds like this was an amazing talk! There's just something special about author events, isn't there? And what wonderful advice he gave! I love the part about writing for the readers.

Oh, and I'd be excited to read PPP in whatever form you release it! :)

Tiana Smith said...

I've read the first two books in Hugh's series, but stopped after that. I do agree with most of his points though! If you ever released PPP, I would definitely buy it, even though I have read it before :)

Tiana Smith said...

I've read the first two books in Hugh's series, but stopped after that. I do agree with most of his points though! If you ever released PPP, I would definitely buy it, even though I have read it before :)

Haddock said...

I like that second point - Write for readers. . . . makes sense and a sense of satisfaction for the writer too.

Tyrean Martinson said...

Sounds like a great session - lots of great advice.

From a self-published/indie perspective, I think it's healthy to remember that we are writing for an audience, and not necessarily for the money. I've had some great feedback from readers that I treasure, but I don't necessarily have a paycheck coming in regularly.

A writing teacher I had once echoed Hugh's advice about not expecting a bestseller for your first book -she said to wait until the 5th book or beyond (and she was talking about traditional publishing).

Thanks for sharing your notes!

And as for PPP, if you self-publish, I'll read! And if you go traditional, I'll read it that way too. :)

mshatch said...

I love the way Hugh is marketing. So inventive! I also think self-publishing is a very valid means of getting our books out there as long as we don't skimp because of the ease.

Medeia Sharif said...

I loved this. All his advice really spoke to me, because I've been ruminating a lot about writing, my progress, and the business lately...more than usual, and my thoughts have been changing these past few years.

Julie Dao said...

Connie: It was a great experience! I'll definitely be going to more author talks in the future.

Alex: I bet you can! And that's not something that many unpublished writers think about.

Cynthia: Yes, the not tearing others down is one that I feel strongly about myself. Very solid advice.

Tony: He seems like a very humble and down-to-earth guy.

Madeline: Enjoy! I just finished Book 2. I need to read some of his other series as well.

Shari: It's kind of surreal to attend an actual author talk and hear people speaking about querying and agents and all that, when all I've known of this biz has been online. I'd definitely go to another one! (And thanks for saying that about PPP :D)

Tiana: And right back at you - I would read DUNGEON in any shape or form! Loved it!

Haddock: Funnily enough, I don't lose sight of that point b/c I'm writing for agents or publishers... usually I am writing for myself or for a particular friend/family member. It's a nice reminder to focus on the more general readership!

Tyrean: Thanks for sharing your perspective/experience on self-pubbing. Glad you've gotten some valued feedback and have a solid readership... that's really what it's all about!

Marcy: Yes, the strategy is spot on and takes advantage of the changing market. Agreed that self-pubbing is a valid way to get your book into readers' hands, but requires even more attention to quality.

Medeia: I'm glad these tips helped you! They really helped me. I've been thinking a lot about this as well, although for me it's quite different since I haven't even gotten my foot in the door yet.

Michael Di Gesu said...

Some amazing advice here... Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and your time with Hugh Howey...

Crystal Collier said...

My goodness, the man is genius! I love that starting with shorter pieces to build a faster readership. Why didn't anyone ever tell me that before. (Darn novel writers...) ;)

Karen Lange said...

Sounds like a great event! They can be so inspiring. Thanks for sharing; I almost feel like I got to go too! :)

Jay Noel said...

I read Wool, and I liked it. But I find his take on the self-publishing route he took to be very inspirational.

After my two contracts fell through with both of my publishers, I sought out Mr. Howey's words of wisdom.

Tammy Theriault said...

love the tips!! i was reading them nodding the whole time! newest follower, hi!

Margo Berendsen said...

Thank you for taking all those notes and sharing them! I must read WOOL now, I've already heard so much about it and Hugh but somehow hearing it from you really made go, yes, must read that.

I love the "never underestimate the crap" !!!

And I've had a really change in perspective the last year on self publishing too, a large part due to the amazing series of on self-pubbing that Susan Kaye Quinn has been blogging.

Julie Dao said...

Michael: The advice was terrific! I'm glad that this has helped many others, because it definitely is helping me.

Crystal: Dude, if you can write shorter pieces, go for it! I can't. I'm so wordy that even if I try to do a short story, it always turns into a novel.

Karen: It really was a great event! I'll have to make a point to go see more authors and do more writing events!

Jay: So inspirational, right? He totally broke the mold and took a risk, and now it's paying off a hundredfold... AND he gets to do what he loves most.

Tammy: Hi! Nice to meet you and thanks for following :D I checked out your blog and love it!

Margo: I hope you enjoy WOOL. The pacing and characterization are phenomenal. I will have to check out those blog posts from Susan Kaye Quinn on self-publishing! There's a panel soon near me that features all self-pubbed writers. I think it might be cool to attend that too. It's such a big field now!

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