Questions and Answers

A book club sent some questions about WOOL. Thought I’d share those and the answers. Some spoilers here, so beware.

  • Tell us about your self-publishing journey.

When I wrote my first book, “Molly Fyde and the Parsona Rescue,” it ended a 20-year dream of mine to create a novel that was all my own. I’d dreamed of being a writer since I was 12 and discovered “Ender’s Game” and “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” I wanted to write my own story, and it took until the age of 32 to find the one that I couldn’t let go of until I was finished.

I was so excited to have written it that I just wanted it out in the world. So I sent the Word doc to friends, family, strangers online, anyone who wanted to read 300 pages of young adult space opera. My goal at the time was to publish it for free on my blog, a chapter at a time. But the feedback I got convinced me to try and get it published with someone who knew what they were doing.

I sent query letters to agents (a query letter is where you beg an agent to please read your work and represent you). They are a pain to write, and all you get is rejection or silence. It’s a rite of passage, I suppose. At the same time, I was blogging about my book and Tweeting from the perspective of my main character. Two small presses enjoyed the samples and asked for more to read. Both then made an offer (a small advance and they would then edit and publish the books at their expense). This was already far more than I imagined. I went with the publisher that I had great email exchanges with and learned a lot from the editorial phase. But during the publishing phase, I learned something shocking: I could totally do everything they were doing.

I taught myself how to use Indesign and do layouts, how to use Photoshop to create cover art, how to format and upload ebooks, mostly because they weren’t that great at any of these things. I loved every phase of creating books, it turned out. And I was doing most of the marketing. So what exactly were they doing for me? I was going to help create a better looking book (they were using my cover art and my interior file, and I had convinced them to create an ebook edition); I was going to be driving most of the sales; and they were going to keep most of the money.

I loved them, but this seemed like the wrong path for me. So when the offer for the second book arrived, instead of accepting I asked if I could buy back the rights to my first book. I did, and I started self-publishing everything going forward. I never thought I’d do anything else. The pace, the freedom, the direct connection with readers, the ability to price books affordably, was too enticing to ever leave.

WOOL was the 7th thing I self-published. The combined novel hit the New York Times bestseller list. Even then, I turned down publishers and did my own thing. It took a long time before we got offers good enough to start partnering with others, but I still prefer to self-publish everything first.

  • When you write, how do you deal with writer’s block?

I just write terrible words. I write stuff I know I’ll delete later. Eventually, the words get good again. Sometimes I’ll put a placeholder down for a scene and skip to the next part. Or I’ll take a walk and write in my head for a bit and find a new direction for the scene. Writer’s block for me is often my inner editor knowing I’m taking the story in the wrong direction. What do I want this next scene to do for me? What will wake up readers and get them leaning forward with interest? How do I make this fascinating? How do I entertain myself with today’s writing session? Why did I want to become a writer in the first place?

  • When you wrote Wool, what inspiration did you take from literature or history?

The only thing I deliberately wove into WOOL (see what I did there?) is Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. But I’m sure a ton of dystopian classics were swirling around in my head. Orwell, Swift, Huxley, were huge influences on me. Most of what goes into my stories comes from non-fiction reading and from my travels. Observations about people and how we tick. WOOL raises several fundamental questions: Are people inherently good and corrupted by society (Rousseau’s view) or are they inherently corrupt and require a strong authority to keep them in check (Hobbes’s view). Mechanical represents the former and IT the latter. Lukas is the compromise position, caught between the two (he belongs to IT but his heart is with Juliette, the Mechanic).

  • What inspiration did you take from your own life?

The biggest influenced from my life was sailing into Cuba in the late 90s and volunteering in a Bronx soup kitchen over my spring breaks. Both experiences taught me that the news of the world is very different from the actual view of the world. Don’t trust screens to tell you how things are. Go out and see the world for yourself.

We are poisoned by our own love of bad news. It’s our fault they feed us bad news, because it’s what attracts our attention. Breaking that cycle is the key to happiness. It’s why I dedicated WOOL to “Those who dare to hope.” Hope takes courage. Those are the heroes of my story.

  • When you were writing, what was the revision process? Did you always know where you wanted to go with the story, did you make minor changes, or did you need major revisions to make the story work?

I do a lot of passes before I’m happy. At least a dozen or so full edits. By the end, it’s minor typos, but early passes might see major changes. Lukas didn’t even exist in the first draft of part 3 of WOOL. The novel doesn’t work without him. But I saw the end of the novel as soon as I started the second part of the serialization. I saw Juliette going off to see her father, reconciling, realizing that people are as easily broken as machines and just as much in need of repair.

  • How do you feel about the process of adapting your books for TV?

It’s a dream come true! I get to work with hundreds of super talented people who are all pulling in the same direction, to create entertaining and gripping TV that we hope millions of people will enjoy. I loved every step of the process. I learned from this how much I enjoy creating with others.

  • What has been challenging, what has been exciting, and has there been anything you feel has been more successful in the adaptation than in the book?

The biggest challenge is the patience it requires to get something adapted. It took over ten years for this to all come together. I had to make lots of little decisions along the way, any one of which could’ve wrecked the process. I had to go months and years without asking for updates or pestering anyone, just forgetting that it was even a possibility. And then even when it’s moving forward, you can’t share anything with fans, so you have to contain all your excitement, bottle it up for later. Make sure it doesn’t grow moldy and stale by the time you get to let it all out.

One of the things I like better about the adaptation than the book is that we were able to hold back the reveal that the helmet is the screen that’s lying to the cleaners. When I wrote the first part of WOOL, that was the entire story, so I gave away all the goods. Telling the story to a new audience, we were able to hold that close and reveal things in a different order. Both ways work, but it was fun trying it in a different way for the TV show.

  • How much were you able to influence the making of the TV series? Did you have a hand in choosing the actors and do they match what you imaged how they would look?

I didn’t play a role in casting, because that job is so much more difficult than just drawing up a list of who looks the part or who you liked in some other role. You have to know who is available, who you can afford, who might be willing to sign up for multiple seasons, who is willing to work in the UK, who has a good attitude on set and creates a great atmosphere for others. Casting directors are geniuses, and I would only mess that up.

My role in casting was basically saying, “YOU SIGNED WHO?!” every time I heard they got Rebecca, or Tim, or Rashida, or Common, or David for a role. I couldn’t believe the embarrassment of riches.

  • What is your advice to someone who has a story idea, but can’t seem to get the writing process started?

Write your story like you’re writing an email to a friend. Don’t try to sound like an author, or anyone other than you. Your first pass is just getting down what happens to whom. If you aren’t able to find the right words, then dumb it down. Still can’t find them? Dumb it down even further. Keep doing this until the words go on the paper. You can always dress it up a little later.

Don’t try to be smart or clever. Just try to have an imagination. See what’s happening and describe it. If you can’t do that, it’s more likely that you aren’t seeing what’s happening in your mind first – you are skipping to the part where you describe it. Back up. Take a deep breath. Close your eyes. Who is your character and where are they? Describe them and their surroundings. Start from there.

14 responses to “Questions and Answers”

  1. Found the Wool Omnibus years ago by searching “dystopian fiction” on the Kindle. Been following you ever since. You inspired me to push through and complete a first novel, Gonz Moss, which entertained me and a couple of my friends and no one else. But it was a goal reached and that felt good. Love that you’re a down to earth guy and not an arrogant know-it-all.

    1. Thanks, Mike! Congrats on writing your first novel. Huge accomplishment that can never be taken away from you.

      1. I did have the guts to publish on KDP . . . only place you can’t get a rejection letter, even if it’s a flop!

        1. Oh, now Mike, you’ll sell 200,000 copies. This may not be true, but it’s a good dream nevertheless, eh?

  2. I loved Molly Fyde and hope they can find a way to make that into a series. Maybe the special effects would be a big challenge but perhaps someone would love a big challenge?

  3. Very good post, Hugh.

  4. I thoroughly enjoy these books. I discovered them through Amazon’s free monthly read (Wool) and was hooked. Bought the series, then Sand, then Beacon 23. Thank you! Keep ’em coming. I’m here for it.

    “Don’t trust screens to tell you how things are. Go out and see the world for yourself.”

  5. Thanks for your comments and insights into your process. As a writer of fiction myself, I find it interesting to read/hear other authors’ processes. Mine is similar to yours.

    I discovered “Wool” after Writers Digest did a feature piece on you and your book and what a jaw dropping experience it was for you. I’ve watched the new trailer and first episode of Silo. Great work on all accounts!

  6. Hugh, first of all, great post! I self published my first book, “Family Reunion” in 2015. Wow, with the help of a mentor (John O’Brien) it went up the best seller list of Dystopian on Amazon… I’ve always held you as my “that’s what I want to be when I grow up”. When I saw Silo as an AppleTV series I literally shouted for joy at your success.

  7. Loved reading this! Very cool and you should be very proud of yourself. I sent you a msg on insta in DM’s but didn’t know if you checked those. I was going to email you but love the books! Thanks Howey!!

  8. Hi M.A.M., I’m so proud of you. 😉

  9. Someone asked about your involvement in the SILO series but you answered only with casting issues. There is so much more. I signed up with Apple TV and Silo was the 2nd thing I watched. I liked it very much and was looking forward to S2. But, as is always the case, I figured the book was better. I am a listener through Audible so I bought it immediately. The further along I got the more I was certain you had turned over all the writing of the screenplay to someone else because so very much was different, incredibly different. Yet when checking IMDB I see you wrote/involved in all 10 episodes! So, now for my question: WHY? why such a deviation from the book? It was like I was watching a spin-off of sorts.

  10. Love the Wool series! I had read it a few years ago but never went on to Shift or Dust (silly me). After watching the Apple+ show, I went back to find out what I missed. Subsequent books we’re just as awesome! I thought early on in Shift there was a chance the Helen and Juliette might be one and the same. Could have been interesting…

  11. Just finished Wool on Audible. Loved it. But…………I’ve gone back a few times………am I missing something? Did the story just jump from Lucas being walked to his death to suddenly it is Bernard going outside? How did that happen?

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