victim guest, Hugh Howey, for those of you living under a rock, turned the publishing world upside-down last year with his runaway hit WOOL. First, the book took off like wildfire, then he sold the movie rights, then a traditional publisher offered him a unique distribution deal. Mr. Howey was in the middle of his world tour when he was kind enough to answer a few questions for the writers and the curious about his ideas and methods.
Seeley James: Wool fits Lee Child’s definition of a great book: it opens with a question that drives the reader to the end. Wool opens with a civilization living underground, which begs the question, how did that happen? When you began writing, did you consciously or intentionally obscure those explanations?
Hugh Howey: The way I reveal information comes from my antipathy toward info-dumps, those long paragraphs or even pages detailing the makeup or rules of the world. I like to write in third-person limited, and since the characters know and understand their world, going on and on about things that seem banal and normal feels jolting to me. The one book where I’ve resorted to an info-dump comes in the form of an opening statement or letter to the reader, so it’s very deliberate. Otherwise, I like to reveal bits of the world when it makes sense to from the characters’ perspectives. I find that readers are better rewarded to have the pieces come more slowly.
SJ: When starting a new project, do you begin with a concept or a philosophical point in mind?
HH: Usually it’s a philosophical idea that I want to explore via fiction. I, ZOMBIE, for instance, is my exploration of my lack of belief in free will. MOLLY FYDE AND THE PARSONA RESCUE is a look at extremism of various guises. WOOL is about pessimism in the face of an improving world.
HH: I always work from a rough outline, even if it’s just one in my head. I start by daydreaming about a story for days and days, having all kinds of conversations between characters until I know them, and then I figure out the final scene of the story, the climax, the real gist of it all, and I start writing up to that point.
HH: I visualize it first, but I give it the space to breathe and change if it needs to. Every scene needs to have a point, a reason for being. I ask myself that question before I start.
SJ: When you come to a point where dialogue is needed, does it flow or do you work out conflicting sides first? Do you have a method for constructing dialogue?
HH: If the characters are fully formed in your head, the dialogue will go as it must go. You can’t have them say something out of character. Just keep in mind what they want out of that scene, what they are curious about or trying to get, what they are feeling. The words simply reflect the inner state of each person.
SJ: How did your writing process change from when you wrote Wool (in rapidly disappearing obscurity), to writing your newer works (under rapidly growing publicity)?
HH: Not really. I was able to quit my day job, which freed up a lot of time. Current travels are a bit of a pinch, but I don’t reckon I’ll be on book tour for the rest of my life. Just for the next six months or so. The big challenge has been to convince myself that no one will buy my next book, whatever I’m writing at the time. That allows me to take chances and be as free with my prose as I was when I was obscure.
SJ: Do you use professional story editors? Was that true for your earlier works as well? Any changes planned for the future?
HH: My wife and my mother give feedback on story. And then I use editors for copyediting and beta readers to hunt for typos. I’ll probably stick with this method going forward. It’s comfortable.
SJ: Have there been any passages or characters that your readers interpret differently from your expectations? (examples?)
HH: Absolutely. I find many readers don’t get Bernard from the WOOL series. Most seem to empathize with him by the end of the book, but many think he’s utterly despicable and unworthy of sympathy. I find him a tragic character, the victim of abuse who goes on abusing. It’s all about breaking that cycle, which is what WOOL is all about, breaking cycles of violence by deciding that enough is enough.
SJ: In this day and age, where everyone is a critic with an opinion regardless of qualification, what is the best lesson you’ve learned from an unexpected source and how did you winnow it from the background noise (IE: ~6600 Amazon reviews)?
HH: Boy, that’s tough. I can tell you that one negative opinion seems to be more powerful than hundreds of positive ones. And I’ve heard from enough others to know that isn’t just me. Maybe it’s my self-doubt, but I tend to believe the worst and dismiss the best things said about my writing. It can be a very painful rollercoaster. Many authors find they have to just ignore all the noise in order to stay sane. I’m drifting toward that, but I’m not there yet.
Many thanks, Mr. Howey!