Highlights

  • The importance of cover art.
  • How we can write “remarkable” stories by pushing out of our comfort zone.
  • How real-life adventures can serve as great sources of inspiration for our writing.

I always took cover art seriously from my experience as a bookseller (and as a reader who would avoid a book with a terrible cover).

Welcome to the thirty third episode of Interviews from the Void, where I interview writers about their writing process, discussing the mechanics and physicality of the craft. In this episode, I chat with writer Hugh Howey.

From Hugh’s short story, THE WALK UP NAMELESS RIDGE: 

At sixty thousand feet—the height of two Everests stacked one on top of the other—man and machine alike tended to break down. We were at the limit of my regimen of steroids. The gears in my hiking pants could be heard grinding against one another, even over all that wind. And the grease smeared over the parts of my face not sheltered by the oxygen mask had hardened until it felt like plaster, like blistered and unfeeling skin, but to touch it and investigate it was to invite exposure and far worse.

Arthur: I’m fascinated with your career, as are many writers and readers. There’s the actual writing required to get a book out there, then there is the cover design. I’m also curious about your covers. Do you have a process for each of your books when it comes to designing a great cover? Do you have any resources you could share?

Hugh: When I first started publishing my stories, I did everything on my own. And with my cover art, it showed. I always took cover art seriously from my experience as a bookseller (and as a reader who would avoid a book with a terrible cover), but I couldn’t afford anything more than my own efforts. I learned two things from having awful cover art. The first is that it doesn’t prevent you from having success. If your story is great, and generates word-of-mouth, you can have a bestselling novel that earns you a living with truly garish cover art. The second thing I learned, once I had artists reach out and offer their services, is that you reach a whole lot more readers with great cover art. It isn’t a deal-breaker, but it can be a deal-maker.

My process now is to reach out to one of my favorite freelance cover artists, send them a synopsis of my story, and then let them do their thing. I usually get a handful of rough ideas, and then we start drilling down into the version that I like the best. It’s a lot of fun for me, as a book aficionado. I also find that this process pays dividends if I do it early in the writing process, as the cover art inspires me to complete the book. Suddenly, the story is real.

You reach a whole lot more readers with great cover art. It isn’t a deal-breaker, but it can be a deal-maker.

Arthur: What kind of experience are you hoping to create for your readers?

Hugh: I’m hoping to make them miss their subway stop. I want to keep them up until 3am on a work night. I want them to feel the urge to write their very first Amazon book review. I want them to join book clubs just so they can nominate one of my novels. Mostly, I want them to feel lost in a world so vivid and impactful that it makes real life seem dull and muted by comparison.

I want them to feel lost in a world so vivid and impactful that it makes real life seem dull and muted by comparison.

Arthur: Terry Brooks gave a TED Talk about why he writes fantasy. He says he writes about fantasy because he is seeking the answer to a particular question. Did you have a similar reason for writing WOOL? What was the question you were seeking an answer to?

Hugh: I completely agree with Terry. Most of my stories start from a few questions or a personal experience that I want to drill deeper into. With WOOL, I wanted to know why my dog had to pass away so young and so suddenly. I also wanted to explore the effects of being glued to screens that broadcast bad news directly into our brains. Even after three novels, I’m still wrestling with both of those questions.

I also wanted to explore the effects of being glued to screens that broadcast bad news directly into our brains.

Arthur: In The Great Courses, there’s a class called “The Creative Thinkers Toolkit.” The instructor discusses Hemmingway’s approach to writing endings. He wrote multiple endings, upwards of thirty or more for one of his novels before he chose one that worked. How do you write your own endings? How do you decide how the ending will provide the emotional resolution to bring the story to a close?

Hugh: That’s a fascinating process. Mine is the exact opposite. I start every story knowing where it’ll end up. It often takes me dozens of attempts to figure out where to start.

I start every story knowing where it’ll end up. It often takes me dozens of attempts to figure out where to start.

Arthur: Cal Newport wrote a book called SO GOOD THEY CAN’T IGNORE YOU, where he talks about making our work – whatever it may be, writing, music or artwork – “remarkable,” as in it is able to be remarked or talked about. With millions of writers out there writing books and screenplays, what are you doing with your writing to set your stories apart – to be “remarkable”?

Hugh: I try to push myself beyond writing simply passable or agreeable stories and characters. I want to introduce a world or person that no one has seen before. Or create a plot twist that readers can’t believe I’d actually go through with. I grew up being disappointed with the conservative habits of my favorite authors. In comics, anyone who died came back to life. Most characters got what they wanted. There were few lasting scars or serious injuries. Then you read a book like THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY, and the book begins with the destruction of Earth. That blew my hair back. Where’s the author going to go from here? What can the stakes possibly become now? It turns out the stakes can always be higher. In ENDER’S GAME, another book that heavily influenced me as a writer, the main character learns early on that peace comes through the total destruction of his opponents. He later learns the human cost of this philosophy, and that he was mistaken in his beliefs. It took genocide to realize this. If my stories aren’t aspiring to reach similar heights, I lose interest in them. I suspect readers would as well.

I want to introduce a world or person that no one has seen before.

Arthur: What kind of advice or information do you think writers are craving most? What kind of advice are you yourself most interested in with regard to writing?

Hugh: I think most writers wonder how they can maintain the focus and energy to write every day and continue to produce creative and inspiring stories. 99% of writing is perspiration. There are so many distractions these days, so many ways to not write. I gave up Facebook last year and Twitter this year, and I’m discovering all the time for reading and writing that I was losing to a zombie state of scrolling through idle chatter. I’d say the hardest thing to do as an artist is to stay addicted to creating art.

I’d say the hardest thing to do as an artist is to stay addicted to creating art.

Arthur: In a previous interview with writer Joseph Pascale, we talked about the future of how readers – and consumers in general – will “consume” our writing work, such as being able to read entire works by one author in a matter of seconds. In a prior interview you talked about the free time lost to driving and how publishers could potentially top into this market. Do you think there is a connection here as to how the future will be for readers? Do we writers need to adapt accordingly?

Hugh: We’re already seeing this with the huge growth in audiobooks. Storytelling in general is changing, with the explosion of bingeable TV on Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, etc. I think authors should be cautious of thinking the novel is the only way to tell a story. But I also think there’s something unique about reading that will never be fully replaced. What I’d love to see is a future where work is largely optional, freeing up more time for people to be creative and to digest the creative output of others. I believe that future is around the corner.

There’s something unique about reading that will never be fully replaced.

Arthur: What is your editing process? When one of your works is completed, what is the process you go through to bring it to the market? Are there any resources you could share?

Hugh: I’ve given this a lot of thought lately, and I keep meaning to write a blog post along these lines. I think of myself more as an editor than a writer. Editing is what I’m good at. The writing, not so much. For my first drafts, I labor to get words and story on the page. Once it’s there, I can get to work. I do five or six full passes before I send a copy to my mom. Her input will shape the next couple of passes. Then it’s off to beta readers or my editor, David Gatewood. After incorporating those edits, another couple of passes will smooth out the wrinkles and remove some more typos. Even with all of this work, mistakes make it through. But after all the passes, I get the story I feel comfortable sharing with the world.

I think of myself more as an editor than a writer.

Arthur: Your short story, THE WALK UP THE NAMELESS RIDGE, is a personal favorite of mine. I’m fascinated with mountains and Mount Everest, which this story reminded me a lot of. Are there any real-world inspirations for this short story? Where did the inspiration come from?

Hugh: I’ve never tackled a major peak, but I’ve always loved hiking, climbing, camping, and trekking. And I’ve been an avid reader of climbing accounts since I was in high school. Climbing Everest has been a dream for a long time, and after doing some climbing and camping on a glacier in New Zealand last year, the bug is definitely still there. I think that same sense of adventure is why I’m sailing around the world, living in remote places, and tackling large ocean passages. Writing a novel has a lot in common with climbing a mountain or sailing around the world: the entirety of the undertaking seems extreme, but the journey is a series of small moves. One sentence, step, horizon at a time, and it’s crazy what you can accomplish.

Writing a novel has a lot in common with climbing a mountain or sailing around the world: the entirety of the undertaking seems extreme.

Arthur: Do you prefer to write short or long works? Do you believe there is an advantage to one over the other?

Hugh: I go back and forth with this. Some stories just need more space to fully develop, and that’s where a novel (or a trilogy) is great. But other times, you just want to introduce a concept or idea, or plant a seed in a reader’s mind, and short stories are perfect vehicles for that. It really depends on the story. Right now I’m playing with short works a lot more and digging it. You can tackle a lot of ideas in a year. But after a few of these, I get a novel brewing that I can’t shake, and it’ll take over and force me to see it through.

One sentence, step, horizon at a time, and it’s crazy what you can accomplish.

Arthur: Bill Ricardi talked about his writing space and how it allows him to focus on his craft. Tell me about your writing space. Are there specific attributes to your work space which help you focus on your writing? How do you free yourself from distraction when you’re in the middle of a writing session?

Hugh: My writing space these days is the cockpit or trampolines of my catamaran. I can write anywhere, but it’s usually while looking out over azure waters, white sand beaches, and palm-fringed shores. That’s what I’m looking at right now, as I write these words.

Such a cool interview, and I’m honored to have had the opportunity to chat with Hugh Howey about writing, motivation and creativity. Be sure to check out his stories on his website. Looking forward to more of your writing, Hugh. Thanks again.