The Terror of Legitimacy

Heh. A soon as I typed “Legitimacy,” M.C. Hammer’s hit single got stuck in my head. That’ll be playing for the duration of this post. Kinda annoying.

I’m not too legit to quit, though. In fact, I never set out to be legit. I started out by writing an adventure story that *I* wanted to read. I stuck with that story because my wife got to reading along as I went, and she wanted to know how it all ended. So I kept writing in order to show her.

When I was done, I had an adventure starring this Molly Fyde character that I figured wasn’t all that bad. All I cared about at that point was convincing other people to read it. So I sent the .doc file to family members and friends. My cousin Lisa Robinson fell in love with the story and wanted a sequel. Friends of mine from an online forum said they enjoyed the work as much as anything they’d picked up in bookstores. One of these forum denizens was Lisa Kelly-Wilson, who also happened to be an editor. She wrote me after reading that rough draft to explain how wary she was of anyone who suddenly announces “I’ve written a novel.” And then she said it was good. Really good. I had a hard time believing her (a struggle that persists to this day).

Because of this feedback, I decided to follow the urgings and advice of others and get the thing published. I learned how to write query letters. I researched agents and publishers. I Googled “SASE” to find out what the hell that stood for. This was in 2009, before the rise of self-published authors making it big. I resisted the urge to bypass all this delaying nonsense and simply post the story on a blog or a website like I’d originally planned. Friends and family provided the boost my confidence needed to treat my work seriously.

Even as that story went to publication and won endorsements from bestselling authors and awards from book bloggers, I continued to write for what I perceived to be a small and intimate audience. My wife, mom, sister, and a handful of friends were the only readers I had in mind. Believe it or not, I continue to think of the same target audience when I sit down to write. It boggles my mind to think that strangers will ever read my work.

The first real jolt to my system came in 2010 when I went to visit a middle school English class. I’d met the class teacher in the ASU bookstore where I worked. She and her kids were browsing the aisles while at the university for Model United Nations, and we got to talking YA books. I mentioned my dream of making it as an author and showed her the Molly Fyde series. At that time, only the first two books were out. She bought them both. I didn’t think anything more would come of it until I got an email from her asking if I could send more copies — the kids were fighting over the ones she had.

I donated several more of each Molly book. Before long, another email arrived asking if I would come talk to the school. I said I would love to. At that point, I’d spoken to a few college classrooms about the challenge of writing and publishing. It was quite the step up to go speak to an entire school. But I drove the hour and a half to Mount Airy, gave a talk, and then had pizza with a bunch of 7th graders. We sat with our desks in a circle and I fielded questions about the Molly Fyde universe from a gaggle of fans. Folks, this was weird. It was also one of the coolest experiences of my life. I didn’t know these kids, and yet they had lived and breathed in a world I’d created. It was like being able to discuss some of your coolest dreams with a bunch of people who’d had the same exact dream. I loved it.

Those kids came back the next year for another Model U.N. They had read the third Molly book and Half Way Home by then. They crowded around in the middle of the bookstore and fired more questions at me, told me about a pet gerbil they had in class that they’d named “Vinnie,” and asked me if I’d read The Maze Runner yet. They told me to hurry up with the fourth Molly book and wondered if I would come back and visit their class again. They made me feel, for fifteen minutes in the middle of the bookstore, like I was a real author.

I did end up going back to their school. I taught a writing workshop to two classes and had more pizza. And these yearly visits from the Model U.N. troop gave me a chance to feel what it might be like to have a career as an author. I was still writing with my wife, mom, sister, friends and family in mind … but strangers were now reading my work. I was getting a taste of the fear that came with this. It’s a scary proposition to put words out there that others can dissect and be disappointed by. If you’ve ever double-checked a Facebook post to make sure your grammar isn’t going to make you sound dumb, imagine doing that with 300,000 words per year. I wear diapers when I press the “publish” button on Amazon.

Wool took this fear to a different level. The novelette was published in July of 2011. By October, it had dozens of rave reviews on Amazon. I didn’t publicize the story’s release. I didn’t promote it. I had yet to give away copies or set up “free” days. I didn’t send any to reviewers, friends, or family. This was happening on its own and without my involvement. These people were strangers to me, which is a scary and exciting prospect. I read every review and hung on each word. I took feedback and calls for more works seriously. I dropped what I was planning to write next and launched myself back into the silo to write more.

As my readership grew, so did my fear of disappointing my audience. To combat this, I would eventually begin to write works that I thought no one would want to read. A disgusting zombie story. Wool sequels with no Juliette. I sat at a table with one of the biggest names in publishing this summer, and this industry titan looked at me quite seriously and said that he thought I, Zombie was my best work to date. If I told you who it was, you wouldn’t believe me. I’ve considered wearing diapers to future such meetings. I’ve also learned that I write my best stuff by sticking to what got me here: by writing what I want to read and what my wife might enjoy.

Writing loose and fast has been the key to keeping myself interested and engaged with my material. I’m writing for friends and family, which means I can write freely. I take the final quality seriously, of course. After completing a draft, I do 7 or 8 revisions. I keep at a work until I’m satisfied. In three months, I can turn out a 60,000 word novel, which is the length novels used to be back in the day. Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Fahrenheit 451 were this long or shorter. (That’s meant to give you a sense of quantity not quality!). And my output isn’t all that prodigious, not compared to other authors. Frankenstein was written in a few weeks (another ~60,000 word novel). I can write like this because I don’t think of myself as a legitimate author. I’m just a guy who enjoys telling stories.

That isn’t to say I don’t embrace this as a career. I’ve always dreamed of being a bestselling author. But I never really expected it. Which is why a recent spate of reviews from top magazines, newspapers, and websites have taken the diaper-wearing from occasional to routine. I just saw an early version of a review coming out in the Irish Examiner next week. The Guardian wrote an amazing review. The Hollywood News just published a review yesterday. Several of these reviews comment on the ridiculous hype behind Wool, and then go on to say that the work lives up to this and then some. Amber and I could have twins and go through less diapers.

It’s one thing to wait and hear what your mom will think of your debut novel. I mean, she’s gotta be impressed with the fact that you wrote one at all, right? It’s a lot of words to string together. A lot of videogames not being played. A lot of time concentrating and thinking. Most moms would be proud of whatever tripe you set down.

Your spouse is something different. When Amber reads a manuscript, I peek around the corner at every giggle to make sure it’s at an appropriate place, not some grammar flub or faux pas. “What do you think?” I ask as every page is turned. “Go away, I’m reading,” she says, which is the best response possible.

A classroom of 7th graders is a few notches up from my spouse on the terror-o-meter. College classrooms and their professors are right there with them. And then there’s the bevy of strangers reading because someone I know or have had contact with talks them into the story. They have little connection to me. They are free to judge my work based on comparisons to novels from major publishers. From here, you have strangers one more level out — people who don’t even know the people who know you. They don’t understand that you are some dweeb working in a bookstore and writing during your lunch breaks. They don’t know that your mother and wife are your primary editors. They don’t know that the horrendous cover art is something you put together in an afternoon with your wife modeling and your dog getting in the way. To them, this is a serious stab at real literature. It is judged accordingly. I highly recommend the style with the elastics around the thighs and the ultra-absorbant liners.

Then you have The Guardian. Ridley Scott. Steve Zaillain. #1 NYT Bestselling authors, hoping for a blurb from them. The Hollywood News. The Sydney Times. Can you imagine sitting down to write something knowing that these people would be reading it? It’s not that the opinions of everyday readers count less, it’s just that these people are primed to see flaws and then broadcast those flaws to a wide audience. It’s the way I feel when I respond to my college professor on Facebook. I read over those posts three times, fearful of any mistake. (And then make them anyway).

With M.C. Hammer’s song still rattling around in my noggin, I close this meandering stream of consciousness with a bit of advice to aspiring writers: Keep your audience in mind. The ones who matter the most are those nearest to you. By writing to please my friends and family, there was a good chance I could entertain a classroom of 7th graders. From there, it isn’t all that far to Ridley Scott. Because all readers are legit. Sure, my mom might give me a pass, but the hardest I ever had to work to convince someone to read my book was those early days with cousins and online acquaintances. Even my wife was primed to be unimpressed. Those who know the source can be the most forgiving, but also the least interested. I worked my butt off to wow them, to make sure my stories held their own with anything in the bookstore, and that’s as far out as I dared to gaze across my potential audience. It’s as far as I choose to look even now.

Legitimacy isn’t something I strive for. I doubt I’m capable of such ambition. It terrifies me to be analyzed as if I’m a real author, whether by my cousin Lisa or by a professional book reviewer. I’m just a guy who has always loved reading, has always dreamed of writing, and is now muddling his way through one page at a time. I’m 37 years old, a full-time writer, and I wear diapers. I’m living the dream. And I survive by pretending none of it is real.

24 responses to “The Terror of Legitimacy”

  1. Wow! My stepson”lent” me the Wool Omnibus on my Nook about 3 months ago, and I’ve been on a Howey kick ever since. I’ve read the entire Molly Fyde series, and just finished Third Shift…what do I read next to feed the addiction while waiting for the next Wool installments to come out? I will eventually read them all; it’s a matter of which one next?
    I hear you on the terror of having someone else read your stories and then like them. My serious question for you is how do you get over the pain of editing? When someone (whose opinion counts) tells you: this section here doesn’t work, this character is superfluous, you need to add more here? It seems to me that you *feel* deeply with your characters and the plotting is so tight that it must be agony to make changes. And, that could be me making stuff up…

    1. I made massive cuts to the Shift books in preparation for their publication in the UK. Entire chapters were cut out. It doesn’t bother me, because people can read the original version in the e-books if they wish. I enjoy the organic nature of storytelling. It all began with the oral tradition, and no story was ever told the same way twice. But the heart of the tale was always there.

      The same is true of films. The DVD version might be different from the theatrical release, the TV version different yet again. Or a live album vs. a studio album.

      Keeping this in mind eases the pain of any edit. Now I think of myself as writing jazz novels, and my editor is on the snare drums.

      1. I am waiting for Third Shift ebook to be available in Oz. Will this have the ‘massive cuts’or be the full version?

    2. read “The Hurricane” and “Halfway Home”….should satisfy your appetite for a good read. Oh yeah, both are by my favorite author: HH.

  2. Have you thought of putting your work into a comic series or graphic novels?

    1. … or adapting your blog into a stand-up show?

      Hugh, your blog posts keep telling me how talented you are in writing comedy as well. I hope to see more LOLs in future novels.

  3. Your comment about working in the ASU bookstore caught my eye, especially after you mentioned Mount Airy. Are you a mountaineer? If so, me too!(1995) If not, then this looks stupid. :-D

  4. Hugh, I am truly enjoying your story and your stories. What a remarkable journey! I think the Wool series is fantastic and truly filmable with *Jennifer Lawrence* as Juliette :) The cinematography could be superb; I feel that the silo universe is crying out! to be artistically/visually rendered. It’s been awhile since Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, and Gladiator, but hopefully Wool can re-inspire Mr Scott in the vein of these earlier masterpieces and we can all forget the script and casting of Prometheus! … Just a side note, I was also inspired by “God’s Country” (why is the sky Carolina Blue?) in my career development, having completed the first stage of my graduate education at Appalachian State in the 1980s.

  5. I found out about Wool through word of mouth last spring. I couldn’t believe how good it was, and I passed the word to everyone I know. (I’m about to buy a hard copy so that I can send it to some people I know who don’t use ereaders.) I’m so excited that you’ll be at SXSWi. I’m going to do my best to be in the front row of your panel!

    1. Sweet! Please introduce yourself afterward!

  6. I love that you keep your audience in mind always. That’s a technique I’ve used in my blogging. When I set off to write a new piece (or section of the book I’m working on), I consider the intelligence of my readers and forge ahead.

    Just recently I wrote and delivered a memorial speech for my dad who passed away on 31 January. I sequestered myself in a Starbucks in Gilbert, Arizona for a few hours and knocked out 1,100 words. Practically without hesitation, I wrote the piece, knowing that it had to be a barn-burner, but also that my family and friends would want my speech to be really ME.

    The compliments I received on the speech were touching and helpful. It made me realise I can do this thing, whether or not I ever make it my career. I even had you in mind, Hugh, as I wrote an ode to the most inspiring of people in my life: my dad.

  7. Avatar

    Honesty comes through…

    Authenticity is one of the primary components which keeps your writing alive and interesting. By staying in touch with those you respect and writing from your heart, the work is vibrant, allowing believability.

    This is probably why iZ is regarded so highly by so many of us.

    There’s more human emotion and behavioral conflict (instinctive desires versus moral beliefs) in that yarn than anything else I have read of yours. (The pacing, character development and linkage is not as commercially viable – probably due to the subject matter and expository nature – but I don’t care.) I still read snippets and believe I can identify with so, so much. Man, my kindle edition of that thing is bookmarked to death. It’s darker than it initially appears… and I bet if you revisit it in a year it’ll skivvy even you out. (Don’t fret.. I have some extra Xanax when you are ready!)

    I suspect iZ is “deeper” Hugh Howey than even you really wanted to go. It must’ve been a gut buster to sit in the dark and hammer that one out. As a matter of fact, it’s so damned “heavy” I don’t really want to discuss it.

    I remember downloading it at about two am and cursing each sentence.. riveted to the prose yet getting really annoyed. Looking for some daylight in the story and out my window as the darkness seemed forever to lift. But man, what an honest treatise on human nature and the basic survival instincts we all manifest, no matter how ugly they may be.

    I’m anxious to see if any middle school teacher will invite you to their class to comment on that piece. Of course, careers may suffer .. children will cry.. dogs will sleep with cats.. Naw,.. forgetaboutit,.. it just ain’t gonna happen.

    1. I, Zombie really stuck in my gut. Agreed it’s not as “commercially viable” as Wool, but six months after reading IZ, I still think about it regularly — and about my own zombie-ness. That book’s got a depth and an outlook to it that last far beyond my memory of the individual characters and scenes. I agree with the guy who called it Hugh’s best work yet.

      Now we find out that Hugh was just trying to write something that people would hate. Guess this is a real-life “Springtime for Hitler”.

      1. Avatar

        “… Hugh was just trying to write something that people would hate…”

        Don’t believe for a minute that he didn’t want iZ acceptance. In fact, notice he never says that about iZ… he only says he wanted people to “hate” it. I “hated” iZ the way I hate when my conscience bothers me.

        I suspect that there’s a lot more of Hugh Howey’s attitude towards life in that book than he wants to admit. It’s a side of him (of all of us!) that’s not, well,.. not clothed in admiration and Snow White fairytale endings.

        Craft wise, you can only do so much with that all that darkness.. gore, and with main characters that don’t talk.

        Can’t speak for him, but the deeper an artist exposes himself.. the more dangerous to self-esteem “rejection” can be.

        The zombie platform allowed for a shortcut into the deeper darkness of mankind.

    2. Ha! Love the imagery of that classroom visit.

  8. You rock, Hugh. Seriously.

  9. In “Hearts in Atlantis” Ted Brautigan tells Bobby Garfield that you read some books for the story and some books for the words. I can say that I read your books for both. I read about 3 books a week on average, and rarely have I come across someone who writes as well as you and more importantly, writes stories that “we” the readers want to read. Most important to me is that you do this while continuing to interact with your widely growing audience. It tells me that you won’t reach the point in your career that you start phoning in books because you know that the hardcore fans will just continue to buy them.
    Thank you for what you do. I look forward to following along with you in this amazing journey you’ve been taking us on.

  10. I got Wool in the Kindle store as a free pick in January 2011. I was tired of reading romance and vampire stories and needed something new. When I had finished it, I said out loud, “What the hell?!” I had to immediately downloaded the rest of the series (the Omnibus wasn’t out yet). When I finished, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I didn’t read anything else for a week, as though it would be disloyal to the Silo gang. I immediately recommended it to all my friends.I told them they had better read this because it was going to be a movie someday soon. I then read the Molly Fyde series and loved those books also. As I was reading the first book, I thought to myself. “how does he keep all this stuff in in his head?” I an a true fan. My husband calls me a stalker. Keep up the good work. Good luck on your book tour. I hope to “stalk” you in Miami in March.

  11. “It was like being able to discuss some of your coolest dreams with a bunch of people who’d had the same exact dream.”

    -This! This drives me to finish what I write, publish it, and go through the effort of letting people know it exists.

    My wife enjoys my writing, though no one else in my family has read my book, though I handed each a copy. I am trying not to let that get to me, but it helps that other people are reading it and enjoying it.

    Anyhow my point is that I feel for what you went through at the beginning, and look forward to where this ride takes me.

  12. “Those who know the source can be the most forgiving, but also the least interested.”

    So true! I was actually astonished when my friends and family actually went and purchased my first novel. And astonished again when they enthusiastically praised it. Wow! I was expecting the equivalent of a pat on the head and a “that’s nice” dear.

    I’m just starting to read Wool, but I’ve enjoyed the first two stories very much and look forward to reading the rest.

  13. Writers are people who actually have feelings.*

    I need to keep that in mind. Seriously. For half a century writers have been these semi-human, other worldly beings; demi-gods with typewriters who I held in awe.

    I’ve probably never been more wrong about something.

    * I rewrote that sentence 3 times which is why I’ll never get past the first paragraph of what I’m “writing”.

  14. Hugh,
    I stumbled across Wool on Kobo and, like everyone else, was immediately driven to find other works of yours, however this was after the 1st chapter!!!
    When I read this Blog it struck me the similarity of your approach to mine when I DJ. I am not a superstar DJ, but I play music in Clubs. I always play tunes I want to dance to: I 1st wanted to play for my wife Derelyn, seeing her dancing to music I’ve chosen in my mind when I choose the tunes… Friends joined that group and then eventually members of the public… Still struggle with believing people are willing to travel and pay money to see me, so I can totally empathise with your self-confidence and use of diapers; I like Depends, comfy fit when dancing ;0)
    It is absolutely the way to succeed and I think it can be applied to almost any endeavour…
    The more I read of yours, the more I like… The more I like the more I want… I have never wished time away before waiting for a book to be published (Third Shift not out in UK yet).
    Hurry up Spring 2013 :0)

  15. I read aloud the bit about how you pester Amber when she’s reading and she tells you to go away. My husband nodded sagely and quipped “I told you I wasn’t the only one saying that”.
    Flashback to June 2012 when those of us who made the semi-finals of the KBR Best Indie Books contest looked over the list and realized we had to compete against “Wool”. I spent June -October bragging to my beleaguered family about making the semi-finals and finals but always ended with “but I won’t win, because I’m up against that famous author, Hugh Howey.”
    Thank you for sharing your insights, for being “real”, and for telling great stories.

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