Writing Insights Part One: Becoming a Writer by Hugh Howey

From Amazon Author Insights (beta version):

I started writing my first novel when I was twelve years old. I was thirty-three when I completed my first rough draft. That’s twenty years of wanting to do something and not knowing how. Twenty years of failure and frustrations and giving up.

A big part of the problem is that I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I didn’t know which questions to ask, much less who might have the answers.

These days, people write to me as if I know what I’m doing. Or like I have a shortcut to success. I’m not sure either is true. One thing I’ve learned is that luck plays a massive role. But what I do have are some insights today that I wish I’d had twenty years ago, tips and pointers that might’ve saved me a lot of headache and heartache if I’d known them sooner. Maybe it’ll help some aspiring writer out there if I jot them all down now.

. . . .

Insight #1: Anyone can become a successful writer; the only person who can stop you is you.

I spent twenty years stopping myself from becoming a successful writer. The biggest obstacle I faced is thinking success meant selling a ton of books, which meant writing something that millions of readers would enjoy. As I began writing my first attempts at a novel, watching the sentences form on the screen, I knew the words weren’t good enough, and so I stopped in order to spare all those readers from what I was writing.

The problem is that I had the definition of “successful writer” all wrong. A successful writer is one who finishes what they start while striving to improve their craft. It’s as simple as that. And the only one who can stop you from doing this is you.

Imagine if NBA all-star Steph Curry attempted to learn to play basketball with a million people watching. Or if the first pickup game he ever played was his only chance to land an agent and get signed to an NBA team. This is the pressure writers put on themselves, and it makes no sense. Basketball players will put all the hustle and energy into a thousand practice games before they ever get a shot at turning pro. Most will spend a dozen years playing almost every day of their lives before they make it onto a high school or college team. Writers should have the same expectations. Perhaps you write a dozen novels before you write one that blows you away or becomes a bestseller. The point is to finish them all. Play all four quarters. Steph Curry played a thousand games to the end before he turned pro. Every game he finished was a success. He didn’t stop himself, and neither should you.

Insight #2: You can’t compare your rough draft to any of the books you’ve read.

If you’re just starting out as a writer, there’s a good chance that you’ve never read a rough draft in your life. So don’t compare what you’re working on to what you’ve read from your favorite authors. Their rough drafts were nowhere near as wonderful and polished as the final product that you loved as a reader and that made you want to become a writer. Just like you, they had to get the words down on the page first. And then they had to go back and rewrite much of what they wrote, several times. At this point, they probably gave it to their spouse or a friend to read, and that person saw lots of room for improvement. Which meant another revision. The same process took place again with their agent. And then their editor. Each time, the rough draft got better and better. So will yours.

The books that made you want to become a writer were rewritten and revised as much as a dozen times, with the input of several other people. You don’t get to see all of the mistakes and boring bits – all of that has been cut away. It’s just like when you take a thousand photos on an epic vacation and only share the thirty or forty very best ones. This is what it takes to be a successful writer: You have to learn how to write the good and the bad all the way until the finish. Trust the revision process. No one will have to see your rough draft but you. And you can’t revise a work to perfection until it already exists. So make it exist.

. . . .

Insight #7: Competition is complicated

It might be true that there are a limited number of readers, and that you have to outwork your peers to turn writing into a career, but that doesn’t mean we’re all in competition with each other. We’re only competing to a certain degree, and then we’re in cahoots. Believe it or not, this is a team game.

Steph Curry played for Davidson College, not far from where I grew up. I watched him play college ball. Steph was competing with every player on his team, and every player in his division, for a spot in the NBA. But once he made it to the NBA, he was now reliant on not just his teammates but on his opposition to advance his career. The better Lebron James played, the more spectators and the more money Steph Curry enjoyed. And vice versa. Every NBA superstar grows the pool of viewers, hence advertising dollars, and so all NBA pros benefit.

I see a lot of writers get this wrong, claiming it’s a zero-sum game and we’re all competing with each other. This is nonsense. None of us can write fast enough, or a wide enough variety of material, to please all readers. We rely on our fellow pros to keep interest in the hobby high. JK Rowling did so much for all writers when she increased the number of young avid readers. I rely on my colleagues to keep people reading while I’m working on the next book. Just as Steph and Lebron both work to keep ratings high, advertising dollars flowing, and salary caps increasing.

The biggest fear NBA players, team owners, and executives should have is that viewers might change the channel. The real competition at this level is the NFL, MMA, CNN, the great outdoors, and so on. The paradox is this: You compete up to a point, and then you rely on each other. This means it’s never too early to foster great relationships with fellow writers. Which leads me to the next insight…

Link to the rest at From Amazon Author Insights (beta version)

23 thoughts on “Writing Insights Part One: Becoming a Writer by Hugh Howey”

  1. “I started writing my first novel when I was twelve years old.”

    There’s my problem, I started to late at 47! 😉

  2. So much of this is encouraging to me…I finished my first (unpublishable!) novel at 16, my second at 32…it’s nice to be reminded that not everyone makes their debut in their 20’s!

  3. This: ‘We hear the pleasant ring of words on key, and it helps us recognize when our own pitch is a little off.’

    No creative writing class can ‘give’ you an ear for the music of your words. Only reading can train your ear to recognize when something sounds ‘right’. Or wrong.

    • When different writers give different advice, I tend to give greater personal weight to the one who writes books more like those I wish to write, and whose career I would more wish to emulate. Howey wrote the Wool series, which I loved; I dream of writing a unique, breakout sf bestseller that would give me that kind of power over the rest of my career. I hadn’t heard of Smith before, but looking him up, he seems to have written a lot of novelizations and tie-ins, which I don’t really go for and could never see myself writing. So personally I’d probably side with Howey (though it would be interesting to know just what advice Smith gives that contradicts his).

        • Yeah, can’t say I would live on a boat ever. (grin)

          Hugh and I agree about many things in business. We don’t agree on things like believing a writer should write sloppy first drafts. I think that is destructive to a writer and he thinks writing sloppy first drafts is the way to go. Different way of coming at creativity I suppose.

          And yup, Alice, back a few decades I wrote Men in Black, Star Trek, and ghosted for a bunch of bestsellers. I am proud of all of that. They were great fun and practice. For more than a decade now I have only written original novels. Doing just fine.

          • I have to thank you for Men in Black – one of my all time favourites.

            I haven’t seen Pugs the same way ever since.

          • Not sure why anyone wants to pit one author against another author here, targeting one author only.

            Steve King [IT, Carrie, etc] has said that when authors write about
            writing in the charbyds [sp] and scilla of publishing, best pay attention to those old scarred warriors. Id say same.

            Pat Conroy, the wild man Hunter T., Michael Creighton who is nasty mean thinking his way was the only way and that he had the last word on everything, lol, and others were fascinating to listen to about writing, each having their own ways of advising.

            One of the best was Vonnegut, my friend even in death, who took out teaching writing across the nation to filled auditoriums of any who had the price of the ticket…when he was an old man. The still standing.

            No one, lol, is holding a dagger to anyone’s throat to take anyone’s
            advice about writing. Or to see the field their way.

            But many of us listen to everyone and find resonance often not with those whose strokes of luck and/or agents carried them into trad pub, in additional to their work in an already sought after genre, or who write about how to write that can be found on literally thousands of places on the internet,

            but with those who have been in the trenches …and are still standing.

            DSW has the street creds from long and long. If other authors had something original to say about writing, publishing, I’d listen. But Im looking at who are the long runners. The still standing with the battle scars to show for it all. Just my .02

            • Agree USAF. There is no write and wrong. (Did I just type that? I guess no one else did.) I once heard Tom Robbins say that he that he writes the first sentence and rewrites it over and over until it is perfect before he writes the next sentence. Anthony Trollope claimed he wrote his novels straight through from beginning to end and sent them directly to the publisher, who in those days was just a printer like KDP.

              Do I believe either one? I believe both.

              I also believe that the one and only way to write a novel is to draft in Esperanto and feed it through Google Translate.

              To write is to lie to anyone who will listen.

              • True and also funny Democritus. Thanks

                “I once heard Tom Robbins say that he that he writes the first sentence and rewrites it over and over until it is perfect before he writes the next sentence. Anthony Trollope claimed he wrote his novels straight through from beginning to end and sent them directly to the publisher, who in those days was just a printer like KDP.

                Do I believe either one? I believe both.

                I also believe that the one and only way to write a novel is to draft in Esperanto and feed it through Google Translate.”

          • Sometimes I think people have forgotten what it was like pre-Amazon. @Dean, I would kill to write a Star Trek tie-in and I was wondering if I had read anything you’ve written, and now I know I have. DC Fontana and Alan Dean Foster all wrote novelizations of Star Trek and no one would cast shade at them. One of my favorites wrote a Star Wars tie-in. Another, Michael Stackpole got his start writing Battletech and X-Wing novels. Again, I would love to do either. I don’t know why we as indies would think of casting any working writer’s work disrespectfully. After all, most tradpub authors don’t think of our books as real. I’m not going to turn around and dismiss DWS just because he didn’t write wool. He got to write Captain Kirk. What the hell more is there to write than one of the greatest fictional characters of all time? Let’s not sink to the level of the Big Five and create boxes where some writers works are respected and others aren’t considered real.

            • Agreed! All of this.

              And for those of you who don’t know, there is $$$ in tie-ins. Bill paying money. Writing fiction that pays bills! That’s bad? Or lesser? I remember wanting to get in on the Nancy Drew franchise, but that line of books ended before I could.

              Getting to write for cool franchises is cool. That’s actually another way that readers discover new authors, and a good way to pick up new fans.

              • How does one go about writing tie-in novels anyway? Invitation or via inquiry/submission? To my knowledge, I believe Nancy Drew is still an ongoing series. It seems like they take her and the Hardy Boys in different directions over the years, but I would hardly think they would end them.

  4. I see a lot of writers get this wrong, claiming it’s a zero-sum game and we’re all competing with each other. This is nonsense. None of us can write fast enough, or a wide enough variety of material, to please all readers.

    Competition has nothing to do with writing fast or pleasing all readers. I’m not sure there is any product competing in the market that aims to please all consumers. Books aren’t special. They also compete without aiming to please all readers.

    Nor does an author even need to be alive for his books to compete. If he’s dead, his writing speed is way down, yet his books still compete.

    Every novel on the market competes with every other novel on the market. Some are very strong competitors. For example, gothic romances are strong competitors with each other, competing for the limited pool of gothic romance fan dollars.

    However, gothic romances are weak competitors with men’s adventure. But, they do compete.

    The strength of the competition is a partial function of the substitution factor. It is easier for a gothic romance fan to substitute one GR for another GR. It is difficult for a GR fan to substitute a men’s adventure for a GR.

    And professional basketball players? They compete with each other for positions on teams and salary. There is a limited number if positions, and a limited amount of money available to pay those players. They compete with each other to sell their services to buyers.

    The fact that one player needs nine others to have a game has nothing to do with the fact that all ten compete with each other for salary and team position.

      • Hmmm. I’m trying to think of how it could work. Okay, let’s consider: The heroine has inherited a derelict mansion located on a desolate moor (she has to be isolated, right)? The house has secrets (cue ominous music). Okay.

        Now there’s a Hound of the Baskervilles type of creature(s) menacing the moor. Maybe it was genetically engineered to be a super weapon, and was accidentally unleashed. After many creepy happenings, the heroine discovers the corpses of test subjects or something buried in her backyard. Or maybe they’re in the basement.

        Anyway, now that she’s on to the conspiracy, the heroine asks her Navy Seal* neighbor — he of the Smoldering Gaze and Dark Past — to help her do battle with the mad scientists who created the Super Evil Dogs. He will work out his “demons” in the course of several scenes of hand-to-hand combat, plus maybe a shootout or two. Maybe throw in some exotic weapons. Something needs to get beheaded with a naginata**.

        After he’s single-handedly killed all of the bad guys, the happy couple walk off into the sunset and live happily ever after. The end.

        *Based on my BookBub newsletter, I’m curious what Navy Seals do all day, given that they’re always available to trade smoldering glances with the heroines in these stories.

        **Katanas are just sooo cliche 😛

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