I have a confession to make. Sometimes, when I’ve hit a rough patch in my writing, I watch Tony Robbins videos on YouTube for a boost.
I know that literary types like us aren’t supposed to like motivational types like Tony Robbins – because he’s rich and in better physical shape than us pale basement dwellers – but the guy dishes out some sound advice, even when he’s just pointing out things that should be obvious. One tactic he frequently recommends has stuck with me: If you want to succeed in a particular endeavor, find someone who’s already succeeded and copy what they did.
Because I want to become a popular science fiction author, and because the evidence suggests that self-publishing is the best way to achieve that, the obvious model for me is Hugh Howey.
For anyone who hasn’t heard of him, Howey is an independent author whose seventh published work, Wool, blew up into an international best-seller. He’s still writing while at the same time sailing around the world on his 50-foot catamaran. That’s not exactly the life I’m shooting for, but it’s not too far off the mark, either.
Helpfully, Howey has made modeling him easy by publishing a blog post called So You Want to Be a Writer, half of which is devoted to the craft of writing. That post, combined with a studious reading of Wool, serve as a solid crash course in how to create fiction that demands to be read.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
Read widely and borrow from other genres. While Wool is ostensibly a dystopian science fiction novel, it’s also three romances and two mysteries. The romances raise the stakes on the action, and the mysteries serve as a propellant for the plot at times when mortal danger isn’t in the forefront.
Let your heroes have flaws. Wool’s major protagonist, Juliette, has refused to see her dad for years for reasons that I – as a father of two young girls – consider not to merit the torture of shunning a parent. But this fault springs from the same source as her heroic qualities, making both sides of her more believable.
Let your villains have virtues. The antagonist, Bernard, is doing what he thinks he needs to do in order to keep everyone in the silo alive. His resolve and his willingness to make difficult choices is admirable.
Suspense allows for intellectual depth. I used to think that suspense and intellectual heft were competing forces in fiction, that more of one meant less of the other. Wool destroyed this notion for me. Suspense makes the presentation of larger ideas more palatable. Passages in which characters are thinking deeply aren’t boring if they occur while they are in danger. This also lends veracity to the story. It’s natural that characters on a precipice would have racing thoughts and that they would engage big problems and concepts when they are at risk of losing everything.
Don’t be afraid to take risks or play with structure. Wool’s opening chapter about Holston and his wife would serve fine as a standalone short story. But it’s also an effective inciting incident for the rest of the novel. I can’t recall any other novel that starts that way, and it had me hooked from the beginning. Wool also employs some time-jumping and other devices that keep the story barreling forward.
Clearly, there’s a lot more to writing compelling fiction, but these are the lessons that hit home on my first pass through Wool. When you’re trying to accomplish something difficult, it helps to know that others have done it before. It helps even more when those people look back and shine a light on the path for you. So thanks, Hugh Howey.
And thanks, Tony Robbins.