So You Want to be a Writer…

Sitting in your underwear, hearing voices, talking to people who are not there, mumbling to yourself, Googling how to dispose of bodies and the firing rate of an uzi submachine gun. Assuming this sounds like the ideal life for you—and you don’t want to be certifiably crazy but only a little crazy—then the life of the professional writer is what you’re after. And I’m going to tell you how to make it happen.

Right now, some people reading this are already raising objections. Sure, it’s easy for me to say post hoc what worked and didn’t. I’m suffering from bias confirmation and the self-selecting nature of successful people telling others how to be successful. These same people will say that success is completely out of our control, that it only happens to a fraction of a percent, that you shouldn’t even try. This is good. This is awesome. The more people you hear this from, the better. It means they’ve given up and you now have less competition.

Because make no mistake, you are competing. That doesn’t make authordom a zero-sum game. It’s more complex than that. A great book by another author can cause a reader to read a lot more (rather than spending their time playing videogames or watching TV). Authors can cross-promote and join box sets and anthologies. You network, share what works, read each others drafts, and so on. I’ve never been a part of an industry where “help your colleague” is so paramount, and that includes an industry (yachting) where rescuing your colleague at sea is practically the law.

But before you have works moving the needle, which is where the cooperative effects really take place, you are competing with your fellow aspiring writers. So here’s the #1 secret to success and a career of working in your underwear: You have to work harder than anyone else. Period.

Look around. What are other aspiring writers doing? That’s your ground floor. Your minimum. That’s where you begin. Double that. I promise you, this is the easiest path to success. What follows is specifics. But this is the general rule: Work harder than anyone else. If you don’t have this as your benchmark, you are going to have to rely on too much luck. And this blog post isn’t about the luck, it’s about how to minimize your required dosage.

Let me tell you about my luck. I was lucky in that I started writing when a whole lot of people were working a whole let less. The amount of effort required to make it as a writer today is in some ways greater, even as the tools of access have lowered the barriers to entry. Yes, barriers are down. And yes, the castle courtyard is now more crowded. So you’ve got to do more than your neighbor. Below, I’ve ranked the priorities I believe you should have and how to approach them. Anyone who follows this list has a great chance of making a living as a writer. I don’t say this as someone who saw it work for me; I say this as someone who has studied the hell out of this industry and profession, who has taken a very large sample of those trying to make it and those who are making it, and finding out what the latter group has in common and what separates them from the former.


1) Make a long-term plan. My plan was to write two novels a year for ten years before I ascertained whether or not I had a chance of making this work. You don’t get into the NBA without at least ten years of shooting drills and pickup games. If you set a longterm plan like this, and stick with it, you will succeed. Because you’ll find yourself in the top 0.1% of aspiring writers. 99.9% of your colleagues will drop out before they finish their plan. But you’ll outwork them. And yes, even if a thousand of you read this blog post, and all thousand of you implement the plan, all thousand of you will earn a living with your writing, leaving not much room for everyone else. Tough shit. There are more seats on this bus than there are people willing to put in what it takes to make it. Keep in mind that the videogame and TV busses are packed. We can lure more and more of them over if you implement your plan. And that plan all starts with:

2) Reading. I assume this is a given, but you never know. I’ve met people who don’t read at all but want to become writers because they think it sounds like an easy gig. The underwear! The mumbling! The Googling! The thing about writing that’s different than playing a guitar for a living, or acting on stage, or painting, is that we all do some writing. In fact, we do a lot of writing. We write emails. Blog posts. Facebook updates. A novel is just more of that, right? Wrong. The writing is the easy bit compared to the crafting of engaging plots and characters. There are some things you only gain through absorption. Read a lot, read the greats, and read outside your comfort zone. Want to write science fiction? Read crime thrillers and romance novels. Learn how to unspool a mystery and how to inject love into your stories.

3) Practice. Everyone wants to write a novel, and they want to do it without stretching. You don’t lace up and run a marathon without first learning to run a mile, two miles, five miles. The day you implement your plan is the day you start reading and the day you start writing. Start a blog and post to it every day. It might be a single line from a story that doesn’t yet exist. Or a scene—maybe a first kiss or a bar fight. Maybe you write a different first kiss scene every day for a month. This is like practicing your layups. So when you have to nail one in a game, you don’t freak out and go flying into the stands. The importance of a blog is that your posts remain up and visible forever. Facebook will hide and destory your content. Cross-post to Twitter and Facebook if you like, but the blog is your hub. This is your street corner. This is where you strum your instrument and improve.

After you start blogging, start writing a few short stories. Work on completing what you start. Set goals. A new short story every month for the first year. That’s twelve publishable works. Maybe they go up on your blog for free to get feedback. See what friends and family think. You aren’t trying to sell a million books right now; you are seeing if you can make someone your fan. My first cousin Lisa was my first fan. She was the first person who didn’t have to tell me my book was great but said so anyway. The first person to beg me for the sequel. You want one fan like this. The rest will come.

4) Daydream. Most of the writing takes place away from the keyboard. I did most of my writing as a yacht captain, roofer, and bookseller. I also got in the habit of driving with the radio off, in silence, with just my thoughts. Tune out the distractions and live in the world of your creation. Know your characters, your plot, all the twists, the larger world, before you start writing. And then keep most of that shit to yourself. The reader doesn’t care. Most of what you think is interesting is boring. Your novel is going to be a greatest hits collection, every one of your best ideas packed into a single volume. Hold nothing back. You’ll have more great ideas.

5) Learn to fail. Your first book will not be your best. The elation of completing that first draft is awesome; soak that up; remember it; get addicted to it. Because you’ll want to do this ten or twenty times before you write your best work. We’ll get to the craft stuff in a bit, but for now, just know that you should revise, revise, revise, edit, publish, and then get started on your next book. This was the best thing I ever did: I didn’t waste time promoting my works until they were already selling. I kept writing. So when things did heat up, I had seven or eight works out there. All those works are brand new as long as they stay undiscovered. You aren’t in a rush. Remember the plan.

Learning to fail also includes learning to write like crap and not care. Push through. We all write like crap, some of us by the steaming, fly-buzzing bucketload. The reader will never see it. You’ll revise it to perfection and delete the bad parts. The key is to have something down to work with. So learn to fail. Keep going. Ignore the sales of existing works. Ignore the bad reviews. Keep reading, writing, practicing, and daydreaming.


The top five on this list will get you there. If the time and effort you put in are greater than your peers, you’ll make it. I personally know many of the top-selling indie writers working today, and they make me feel lazy by comparison. And I make most of the people I know feel lazy. We’re talking forty hours a week on top of day jobs and taking care of families and households. While writing and working in a bookstore, I did all the grocery shopping, cooking, and most of the cleaning. All the household repairs. Took care of the dog. And found time to spend with my girlfriend and my family. I cut out videogames, mindless web-surfing, and TV, and I was amazed at how much time this freed up. I also didn’t own a smartphone and didn’t use social media for anything other than to share my writing and my blog posts. Cut out everything that isn’t helping make you a writer. How badly do you want this? More than your peers? Good. Less than your peers? You won’t make it. Look at any professional athlete and all the sacrifices they made, all the mornings getting up early to hit the gym. That has to be you. No excuses.

Now for the more craft-oriented bits:

6) Plot trumps prose. The thing you absolutely should not do if you want to make a living as a writer is go to school to learn how to write. MFA programs churn out editors and waiters. Sure, you can craft a perfect sentence, but you’ve got nothing to write about, because you’ve been in school your whole life. Readers prefer the clear and concise delivery of an exciting story more than the flowery and sublime delivery of utter ennui. Hell, they’ll even take the horrible delivery of a great story over the absolute perfection of dullness. Some of the bestselling novels of my lifetime have been lampooned for the writing style therein. Granted, if you can do both, please do. But first learn to craft a story and tell it in the clearest manner possible. That means studying story. Read Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces ($13 for the hardback!). Watch great films and TV shows to see how they pull it off. Read what’s selling and ask yourself why it’s selling.

7) Live fully and cheaply. Yes, this goes with the craft of writing. Writing is much more than putting your butt in a seat. It’s making sure you have the time and financial freedom to write, and it’s ensuring that you have something to write about when you do plant that butt. There’s some truth to the starving artist cliche. You need to make sacrifices. Control your spending. Avoid debt. Live a small or shared lifestyle. The less you spend, the less you need to earn, the more time you can spend on your craft. Not everyone has the same good fortune here. That sucks. But Muggsy Bogues was too short for the NBA, and he made a career of it anyway. You already have five kids before you decide to make it as a writer? Crushing debt? Medical bills? You’ll have to work as hard as Muggsy did. I wish I could sugarcoat it or tell you what I wish were true, but this is the reality. Live cheaply.

Living more fully is easier, because it’s a choice. Talk to strangers, everywhere. Waiting in a line? Talk to the people around you. See someone interesting on the street? Stop them and strike up a conversation. Memorize what they look like, what they sound like. This is the foundation of your craft. Park your car and walk for miles and miles through your hometown. Do it again one town over. Volunteer at soup kitchens and for Habitat for Humanity. If you’re in college, go on Alternative Spring Break. If you’re not in college, see if you can chaperone the same. Get out of your comfort zone. Read magazines about hobbies you never hope to have. Browse websites you never go to. Your books need to be full of characters you’ll never be and places you’ll never see. Meet them. Find them. Study them.

8) Network. Surround yourself with other aspiring writers. One of the best things I did for my career is attend bi-weekly meetings of the Highcountry Writers group in Boone, NC. Your hometown doesn’t have a writing group? Form one. Or join an online crit group. Nothing is better for your craft than reading and critiquing the rough draft of others and having the same done with your writing. And nothing will cement in your brain that you are going to make it as a writer quite like being in a writing group. It reenergizes you. It reminds you of your goal. Dress the part. Live the part.

You should also go to writing conferences that are nearby or affordable. There’s one every weekend somewhere in the States. There are a few that are better than others, especially in certain genres. But don’t break the bank to go to these. There is a lot of networking you can do for free. I’ve watched Hank Garner put together an amazing podcast of writer interviews. And Eamon Ambrose make a reputation for himself first as an indie reader / reviewer / promoter, and then as a writer. And Jason Gurley became one of the most popular indie authors in the land by volunteering to amp up our cover art. There are anthologists like Samuel Peralta and editors like David Gatewood who can call on hundreds of heavy hitters because of how they’ve given back to the community. You can do the same by beta reading for your favorite authors and providing quality feedback. Or any of a dozen other ways. Leverage your talents. Do web development, or SEO, or handmade crafts.

9) Write Great Shit. This seems obvious, right? But here is what separates failed works from those that succeed. I think a lot of craft writing advice is outdated. Times are different. Attention spans are shorter. You can coax a reader along, and give them a slow build, but only if you hook them first. So start your story at the most tension-filled moment, even if that’s in the middle or at the end. Introduce a likable, flawed character in the first paragraph. In that same paragraph, name the stakes. It used to be that we had to distill our novel down to an elevator pitch for prospective agents. Now we need to do the same for readers, and your book should open that way.

I recently watched The Maze Runner, and that story opens in a way that requires you to stick through to the end. The concept is brilliant. An amnesiac rides up an elevator and is deposited in a glade in the center of a giant maze. I empathize with the character; I understand his plight; I want to read until his challenge is resolved. Back to the plot/prose point above, stop stressing over the flowery sentences and trying to sound like a writer and come up with a story that, even told simply, is riveting.

10) Find your voice. I put this last because it’s the hardest, will take the longest, but may be the most important thing you ever do as a writer. What the hell is your voice? It’s how you write when you aren’t aware that you’re writing. Everything else you do is mimicry. Self-awareness is the enemy of voice. When you fire off an email to your mom or best friend, you are writing in your voice. When you blog, you will begin to find your voice. Your voice will change the more you read and the more you write. That’s normal. It’s still your voice.

Why is voice important? Not because it will land you an agent. Or because your works will win literary awards. No, screw that. Your voice is important because you can’t enter a flow state without it. When you find your voice, your fingers won’t be able to keep up with your writing. You won’t stumble. You won’t flail. You won’t sit there wondering what the next best word is. You’ll have an idea or a concept, a visual image, a conversation that you want to convey, and you’ll know immediately how to convey it.

Your voice will get easier to find the broader your vocabulary becomes. You’ll have more pieces to slot into the jigsaw puzzle of your prose. Your voice will improve as you study your own writing to see what works and what doesn’t. My voice is sing-song. I fell in love with Shakespeare’s sonnets and read so much iambic pentameter that I can’t help but have my syllabic stresses rise and fall to a beat. I like the way it feels. It feels like me. I also discovered that I love run-on sentences, with lots of comma clauses, but only if I intersperse those sentences with a bunch of choppy, short, incomplete clauses. My mother pointed this out to me. She was right. Nailed it. And I learned to embrace this.

Getting comfortable with your voice means becoming less self-conscious about your writing. When this happens, you can tell the story in your mind without getting in your own way. Stop reading what you’re writing as you write it. See the world in your head. Visualize it. Smell it. Hear it. Sprinkle in details from the periphery of your character’s senses. Make the world real. Then just tell it as naturally as you can. I promise this will go better than trying to impress yourself or anyone else. I promise.

Whether or not you succeed as a writer is almost entirely up to you. How much do you want it? Are you willing to fail for years and years and not give up? Are you able to network, get along with others, be helpful to your community, without feeling any pettiness or envy as others get where you want to go? Can you handle critique? Does it make you want to work harder? Can you read across a broad spectrum? Can you stick to your goals and put in effort every single day? Can you work harder than anyone else striving for the same goals? Can you help lift others up, even if that means them taking a seat on the bus in front of you? Can you live simply and fully?

If you can do these things, you can someday work in your underwear and Google how to dispose of a body. Or you can be like me and realize the underwear was a crutch and forgo even that.






Great post! I particularly like your last point about finding your voice. I’ve been writing FT now for four years and I have to say I haven’t yet defined that for myself as I’m writing. There are times when a scene just flows, but most times I’m consulting my thesaurus for a word that will convey just the meaning I intend, suscintly. I will say this though, reading Rick Riodan with his creative metaphors, puts me in a frame of mind where my craft flows more easily. More practice coming :)

Hugh, you truly are an asset.

I want to read some of your work, where do I start?


Wakey, I have started with the Wool Omnibus (the five Wool novellas/novels in one bundle). TERRIFIC writing. Loving it.

Thank you Hugh!
That was brilliant and very inspiring!
Thank you for taking the time to include so much detail.
With best wishes, Chris.

Step 1: Make a long term plan.
Long term plan: be Hugh Howey.
You’re my hero, dude.

It amazes me that every time I’m in a slump of self doubt some message rises up to shake it. I sat down this morning beating myself up for not being serious enough about writing and what would appear, but a blog post. It read like it was written for me !! Thank you.

Excellent article. I’ve been a published Indie author for 6 years now. I have over a dozen novels out, act as a publishing consultant to writers who need direction for their work, volunteer at my local library, staff write for Indies Unlimited, and have a blog and Wattpad in which I post excerpts of my WIPs. I retired from the USAF after 20 years, and now have a 100 acre farm that keeps me busy. I still manage to write some each day– keeping my goal. Despite having 2 award winning novels and a bestseller, it ain’t easy. With the sea of books out there, it’s easy to be a little fish lost in a great ocean of sharks. Sometimes I wish luck would intervene and I’d bump into that movie producer that’s looking for a new project. But I doubt that will ever happen. So I put nose to grindstone and keep writing, not because I want to, but because all the voices in my head won’t shut up until they’ve had their moment on the page. The joys of being an author…

Kathy, I tried putting nose to grindstone, but I just can’t write in that position. Tell me how you do it.

Try dictation. Voice to text is far better than it used to be ;-)

Can you say RESONATE?? Because that is what you words did for me. Brilliant piece!

This is why we all love you, Hugh.
You share yourself and your experience so freely. This post was well timed for me, as I’ve recently recommitted myself to this dream. Thank you!

Thanks for the extra motivation and insight. You are a much needed voice in publishing.

I’ve been doing this full time since mid-2012 or so, and I still have time maintaining a healthy work-life balance. Working for myself, being responsible for my own success has turned me into an absolute workaholic. I’m still barely scraping by, so whenever I’m NOT working on the next book in a tangible manner I start to feel anxiety clawing at my throat.

That said, getting out and finding the time to actually LIVE is vitally important. You must go out. You must have experiences. You must participate in the human condition. If you want to exhale art, you must first inhale life.

Love it! Great post. Inspiring and true, all of it. Although I have to ask, am I the only one who heard that snowball song from Frozen when reading the first line?

So you want to be a writer?
Work in your underwear?
Live your days in a pretend world
And talk to people who aren’t there!


Another way of getting to know people and having them share their stories with you is going out sketching. For some reason people think that you have a super power if you can draw, they and they tend to come and confess to you.
I was 16 in art school and we had to draw 50 sketches a day (kind of what you mention about writing).
I spent a lot of time at the railway station drawing people. Many were mesmerized by what I was doing and they came up to me telling me about their lives… Sometimes in details. I made it a habit to try and guess who they were based on their posture, clothes etc before they even spoke.

What I want to say is, great post. Love your book. Can’t put it down even if I have work of my own to do. And my friend told me your next book is even better ( reading Wool right now). ? Thanks for the quality time!

Brilliant idea. I’ve found photography to work the same magic. Especially if you ask to shoot portraits, and then show people how beautiful they are. Then they want to tell you their story.

Oh wonderful. And it takes less time than drawing. ?

Wow, I love these ideas. Thank you Maria, for bringing up sketching. Added even more to Howie’s awesome piece.

Oh, you are welcome. This was quite unexpected for me too and a very pleasant practice. It got even better during my times as a street artist, drawing caricatures. Different kind of stories would come up then, mostly from the subject´s spouse or closed ones bringing up embarrasing details or strange habits of the person in the chair to go with the funny drawing. :D No, no one cried, everyone had a good laugh, ice was broken, more people came to watch … and to laugh… and to be drawn, etc.
I have a good use of this experience now, when I work with animated movies. :)

Thanks for this post, Hugh. I’m in a little slump while working on my sixth book. I’m motivated and psyched. Excuse me, gotta go write! Jer


Excellent advice all around. I would add one tiny thing to this—don’t be afraid to go beyond a novel or short-story. I am in the midst of a 2-year detour from my novels to work on writing a musical with a two collaborators. It was the best decision I could have made, even though I was scared to death and filled with doubt as to whether I could write a script. It has been the most fulfilling artistic endeavor of my life to date, and a completely different experience than writing a novel or short story. So step out, be bold, and see what else you might have up your sleeve!

This is how I became a writer:

Four years ago I was at my chiropractor’s office and we started talking…talking about books and writing. I had mentioned that it was my life-long dream to become a writer. I wasn’t very good at it, but I really enjoyed writing stories and sharing them with my family and friends.

“You know, you can do that,” replied my Chiropractor.

I looked at him, thinking he was nuts, simply because 1) I wasn’t very good with grammar, and the such, and 2) Who would ever look at little ‘ole me and think to publish my work?

“Have you ever heard of Hugh Howey?” he asked.


He flipped open his Kindle, which he seemed to carry everywhere with him, and showed me “Wool”. He flicked his finger on the cover image, saying, “He wrote this. Get it. You’ll love it. He is a self taught, self published author.”

I didn’t have a Kindle and I was heading for a beach vacation with my partner, Lotus, and our three kids, so I shrugged it off and said, “Yeah, maybe I’ll get that. Thanks Doc.”

“Here.” He handed me his Kindle. “You can barrow mine. Bring it back when you’re done.”

Fast forward.

Kids playing. Me reading. Kids eating. Me reading. Partner asking me questions. I apologize for reading. They all go outside to play. I watch them with the kindle in hand, and read every so often. I finished that book in two days, gave the kindle back to my Chiropractor, and felt completely motivated after reading Hugh’s book. I was ready to write. I was going to be a best seller. I was going to mimic my new found hero and favorite author, Hugh Howey, and be the best damn writer and most prolific writer that I could be.

I sat in my home office and read every blog post that Hugh wrote. I dissected his interviews. I purchased the Writer’s Digest Magazine with his picture on it. And, no, I’m not a stalker, I simply felt compelled to figure out how to write and write as best as I could through Hugh’s words and ideas.

Since I have three kids, a full time Sport’s Therapy job, and a loving partner, I could only write, read, and do my writing homework after they went to bed. And, I wrote, studied, wrote, studied, and so on from around 10 pm every night to about 2 am. I would then wake up early in the morning, do the parent and work thing, and start the process over again.

My first book took me about six months to write. I didn’t have much money, so I found an editor that was willing to trade with me. When she sent me back my manuscript, it was riddled with a thousand errors, but I didn’t care. I was going to get this right.

From that day on, I’ve written four novels, three novellas, one short story for a cross over anthology, and I’m almost finished with my fifth novel. One of my books, because of hard work and the wonderful community around me, won first place in a global book award in the Fantasy category.

Now, I don’t make a lot of money from books, but I’m able to cut back on work a few hours a day because of the money the books bring in. My goal is to become a full time author, bringing in enough money to support my family and to do what I love — write.

And, it all started with a Chiropractor’s suggestion, Hugh Howey’s book, and a heart — my heart — wanting to express itself through writing.

Thank you, Hugh. I really appreciate it. You’ve been an inspiration for so many.


Awesome stuff, man. Congrats!

That’s an awesome story, thanks for sharing.


Your story has inspired me as much as Hugh’s. To read that someone has had the same thoughts and feelings about writing and becoming an author is uplifting. Thank you

Brandon, I’d say you have found your voice. Wow! Your story was as moving as Hugh’s. Thanks for sharing.

Amazing story Brandon – thanks for sharing!

Kudos to you for your dream supported by a fantastic work ethic.

Wow – an inspiring story Brandon. Thank you so much for sharing!

Thanks a million, Hugh! I read every word and loved it all. I found my passion late in life but rather than have regrets and convince myself it was too late for me, I dug in and have never had so much fun in my life. One good thing about being older is that after a life of painting and doing photography, I have a tough hide and can take the criticisms I need to learn the craft. Thanks again for sharing! :-)

Amen. If being a working author were easy, more people would be able to do it. My mantra for 2016 and beyond is: Show Up, Do the Work, Don’t Quit (Steven Pressfield)

Peace, love, and writing!

Show up, do the work, don’t quit. I think I need that tattooed on my forehead, or at least posted on my wall.

Ditto. one change:..have it tattooed on my forehead in reverse so every morning I can look in the mirror and read what it sez. I have a short-term memory problem. I have a short term memory problem. I have a probl–

You said this so well. Thanks for another blog post I don’t have to write!
Blessings on your amazing journey. i love that you share it with us.

Thanks so much for this, Hugh. Wonderful advice and thanks for generously sharing.

Would love to read your search history – would make a good story in itself.

A very-much-needed kick in the pants! Came just at the right time when motivation was low. Time to get serious again. Thank you, good sir!

Wow, as always your post have change the way I view the world. Underwear a crutch? Revolutionary! Of course the rest was spot on too. Good thing you didn’t start with the underwear part though, I would have missed the rest.

Once again, your timing could not be more perfect!

I especially love this sentence on finding your voice: “Self-awareness is the enemy of voice.” God, that’s so true. Just let it flow.

As an introverted only child, I used to sit in my grandmother’s kitchen and write down every sound I could hear around me from the birds singing outside to the click of the second hand on the clock. That was my first foray into the world of the observer.

Later, while studying Fine Art my favorite works were line drawings where you never look at the paper, but create the drawing solely based on your observation of the subject. This created the most amazing portraits and was a perfect exercise on focus and letting go of expectations.

Later, as an actor, observing people as character studies became a daily habit. I never knew when I might need that one person’s limp or that other one’s unique speech pattern.

All those years of observation are paying off now. The tricky part for me is to come out of the writer’s closet. That’s where your quote above about self-awareness fits so well into my experience. That said, I’m just now in the process of finding an editor for the first novel I’m ready to put out there. It’s time to kick it out of the nest before I spoil it to death. This process feels very much like standing backstage waiting for my next cue… and then that deep breath before stepping out into the light, letting go, and being completely in the moment come what may. Because when this play is over, the lust for the next one begins. And I have a lot more stories waiting for me in the wings.

As for Joe Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” I haven’t read that in years. My old dogeared copy is now sitting on my desk. What a brilliant prompt that was!

Thank you!

Testing: Oh no! Did I lose my whole comment? Uch. Maybe I’ll rev up the energy to rewrite it again…eventually.

Printing this for constant reference. Thank you for the free class :)

Thanks for the locker room talk, coach!

*slaps Mike on the ass*

I got a chuckle out of “Googling how to dispose of bodies and the firing rate of an uzi submachine gun.” For sequels to my first novel, I’ve been researching arson investigation and the heroin trade … two occupations I knew nothing about. I just hope the ATF and the DEA haven’t been spying on me.

But now that I think of it, if they are, that could be a good plot in itself.

I started on my wip in 2008 (while waiting for cancer surgery) and will finish first draft in February. Lots of life (and medicine) in between! Anyway, I have friend who is a gun aficionado. I wrote him an email and asked for a profile of a rifle, ammo and sight for my book–shot distance of 2,000 yards. The answer was Remington 720, with NATO round and Laupor cross wind and sink correcting sight. By the way, why did I need the information? For a sniper shot across the Shenandoah River.

It took four email exchanges to convince him it was not a set-up nor a real assassination. Love it.

Great post and responses.

I self-published my first novel this past fall after working on it for 3 years, but so far I haven’t received any unsolicited reviews at all (just reviews from a few bloggers I contacted and some folks who had critiqued the draft). Sales sometimes trickle in when I do free promotions for my short stories, but flatline the rest of the time. I know I can’t expect instant success with my first novel, and I want to keep writing, but given the non-response, I’m not sure if I should continue or not. Am I persevering if I continue, or just ignoring the writing on the wall?

Your first novel will tell you very little about your potential. Ask the same question about your tenth novel. But persevere only if you enjoy the act of being creative. Or if you don’t mind toil with the potential of eventual reward.

Hi Dan, I just wanted to encourage you to keep at it. I’m a beginner too with three books out there, and I’ve got a similar situation to yours with my third publication. I checked out your reviews, and they’re all excellent. I’ve come across some pretty shoddy books with lots of five star reviews that don’t have a lot of meat to them. At least your reviews have cred. As a reader, that is becoming more important to me when I’m selecting my next book to read. Keep writing and publishing, I say.

I rarely spend too much time thinking about sales. I don’t plan to make a living from writing, and I don’t think that type of validation is necessary to refine my craft. I want enough free time to work on my various projects, and enough freedom that they can be anything I want. I would hate to have to write something just because it would sell. The novel I’m working on now is a magic realist view of a pioneering village along a river. I have no idea who the audience for the story might be, but I know at least one person who wants to see what happens and I’m working as hard as I can so I’ll find out. If other people like the book once I’m done the various rounds of editing, that would be lovely. And if they don’t . . . well, by then I’ll be distracted by my next project.

Barry, I almost envy your lack of interest in sales. As someone who needs the money from my writing, how many books I sell is integral to my peace of mind. When I started writing, I did it for the fun and fulfillment. Now it’s for finances, fun, and fulfillment. And probably in that order.

By the way, I’m 68 and had my first book published at 65. Writing number six now. Jer

Hey Dan, if you love writing, then don’t be discouraged by the lackluster response to your first novel. I have 6 novels, 31 novellas (equaling approximately another 6 full-length novels in word count), am well beyond my million-plus published words, and still nobody knows about me. I have done blog tours, Facebook promos, Google Adwords, Amazon ads, the works. My books are all highly rated with tons of real reviews from real readers (what I never did was pay for reviews) and still the general populace is unaware I even exist. As Hugh said, the competition to be heard is fierce, but it is important to realize that if this is what you want to do, I mean REALLY WANT TO DO THIS (be a writer) then keep doing it.

Best effin pep talk. I needed an “Feckin’ Onward, ye writing soul!” It’s hard to remember I love it forever after a few rejections. Buck up, Buttercup. #DoTheThing

I’m not sure that this is adding to your thoughts, but I have a strong tendency to try and generalize a principle, because it becomes more useful, much like in mathematics and science. Specifically, I agree with the general sentiment behind working harder than anyone else will lead to at least some success, but I think that’s a specific example of a more general case. Writing is, as you say, a very competitive environment to try and make a living. This is the case in any field where passion comes into play. There are people who are not writing to make money, they’re writing because they feel compelled to. They aren’t going to stop no matter how discouraging the marketplace is, because the marketplace isn’t very important to them. Competing with such a creature takes a lot of persistence.

This isn’t totally true. People get their identities wrapped up into these things and they take failure as a reflection of who they are as a person. They put a lot of effort into the first book and see it fail. Then they write a second and see maybe a little more success, but it’s really more a case of failing a little less. By the time they get to three or four or, more likely, well before that point, they hit their pain threshold and start talking like Dan above (who may be the only sane person in these comments) and quit.

Obviously, one can hope for luck to come along and make everything easy, but most people don’t have that big break waiting for them down the road. Meaningful success, which may not quite be a living wage in this field, will likely come if you have a pain threshold that is much higher than everyone else. You don’t have to work the hardest or the smartest, but you do have to be willing to keep going when most others would give up. Then, you have a good chance of scraping by. Yes, those other people complaining that it’s too hard make it easier for those that persist.

Very interesting point of view. I agree totally about writing about interesting people and how can you write about them if you don’t go meet a few? Nobody wants to read about ordinary , mundane people, unless I guess, something extraordinary happens to them, ala Forest Gump. Speaking of which, be careful my friend, that you don’t meet some very interesting pirate types out there on the high seas. Piracy is no joke , especially where your going.
Good Luck

Thank you for sharing. I really needed to hear this. A few years ago, I decided to give writing everything I had. I would work harder than anyone else I knew, give up sleep, and invest every dime I have in my writing. If I don’t succeed, it won’t be because I didn’t try. After reading your thoughts, I feel a little less crazy and hopeful that it will pay off.

This is great to read at the start of a new writing year. One thing that I battled with a lot at the start, and still do at times, is crippling self-doubt. I’d love to see more successful writers share their thoughts on that too. Thanks for the practical inspiration, Hugh!

Thank you so much for this post, Hugh. I needed this today. After years of writing, 28 publications (including a Kindle Worlds story set in your Silo Saga world!) and lots of hard work, I’m finally starting to see regular sales. My sales numbers are low, however, but I’m determined to persevere. Your post was the pep talk I needed.

Congrats, Marilyn! And that’s a heckuvan output. Awesome.

Crap. That sounds like work. I was hoping for a magic pill.

On a serious note, I can usually argue with just about anything. But it’s hard to argue this blog. I have been at this now for approaching five years, and with 50 novels written and couple million books sold, I still clock 12 hour days, seven days a week. I’m hugely unpopular with some authors because they dislike my statement that if you want to do this, you need to be prepared to work harder than you ever have in your life, and sacrifice most things for your desired vocation. Don’t expect full time results with part time hours. Nobody likes hearing that. Shrug. It is what it is, and I accepted that truth before I started. Now I’ve put in these years, I recognize that truth even more than I did in the beginning.

Then again, nobody’s holding a gun to your head. There are plenty of easier ways to go through life and get paid. This would rank about dead last on the easy list, and I’ve done some pretty tough things to make a buck in my life.

Nicely put. Hopefully it will be taken to heart.

Russell – Dang! You make it sound like we really have to write. I was counting on a Hugh Howey-like career, where I float around on a beautiful boat and leave my swimming clothes fluttering in the breeze up on the yardarm. Or the mainsail. Or the fo’c’sle… whatever the fock that is. I don’t know anything about boating but I am studying up so that I can be ready to sail away to the azure waters as soon as I hit publish. Isn’t that how it happened for that guy?

“This would rank about dead last on the easy list, and I’ve done some pretty tough things to make a buck in my life.”

So much truth in this, and few are willing to believe it until they experience it. Roofing in 100 degree Virginia heat on copper and slate? Easier. Week-long charters with nightmare guests while the boat I was captaining was falling apart and/or sinking? Easier. Pulling wire through new construction with temperatures below zero so I couldn’t feel my hands? Way easier.

But nothing has been more satisfying or filled me with a sense of purpose. Like I may have touched another human being on a deep, emotional level. And like I may commune with a stranger long after I’m gone. Like I left a mark. Made something that never would’ve been made had I not stopped and taken the time to craft it out of thin air.

I’ve felt the same about some construction projects. A triangular, freestanding gazebo I built in Virginia felt like a sculpture of sorts. An addition in North Carolina. One roof in particular in Virginia. But those things won’t last fifty years. There’s a chance someone reads some of my drivel in a hundred years and smiles or laughs or cries, and that’s pretty cool.

Great article. I stumbled across your work before I knew your story as a breakout indie writer, and thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s nice to see you give a helping hand to others out there striving to achieve your level of success. I started off with the idea of long term, so I definitely feel this article. It gets difficult at times to keep going, but articles like this one help out, because quitting is not an option for anyone who wants to make it.

From a fan of your work and an aspiring writer, thanks for the kick in the butt. I’ve been putting off writing for a while now, and your post has galvanized me to get some writing done tonight. Time to put the controller down and dust off the ole’ laptop.

Hugh, Thank you so much for sharing. I am a new author. I have written off and on my whole life. Six years ago I wrote a story for my kids. That story turned into four and a half that just flowed–no struggle, no pulling teeth. The stories sat on my computer until a year ago, I was at a writer’s conference with two of my kids. One of the presenters mentioned her publisher was accepting manuscripts. I debated with myself, and finally hit send without telling anyone–not my husband or any of the four kids at home. Needless to say, I was floored when an acceptance email came in. All five of the series was accepted along with a sixth independent book. I am now an author!
I have learned so much through this year, mainly that it is a welcoming community that works together to help promote each others work. I’ve also heard repeatedly not only from my publishing company, Booktrope, but also from a Twitter conversation between Brian Rathbone and Margaret Weiss that it takes time, possibly up to ten years or more! So, I guess my goal is to be able to go full-time writing in 2025. That is scary to write. I don’t know if it is possible, but I will work for it.
Thanks so much for sharing.

Great post, Hugh.Thank you. Thank you to Brandon and Dan for their inspiring stories as well!

I first learned about you when my g.f. spotted the WSJournal’s March 2013 article on your breakthrough deal with Wool. I am now 50, and have decided to commit myself to writing, MFA be damned. I intend to make 2016 the year I get a virtual ass slap from H squared too.

*slaps Steve’s ass*

Good hustle out there.

Thank you for this, Hugh. Exactly what I needed to hear after dreading and postponing editing these past few weeks. Thanks again.

More inspiration from Kandi arrived while I was scribbling my comment. Great stuff, Kandi. Keep up the great work.

Thanks, Steve. We all need encouragement every so often.

For anyone here struggling with issues pertaining to confidence ( including myself) I have found some useful information in the book “The Confidence Gap: A Guide to Overcoming Fear and Self-Doubt”
I have the audiobook, which I find useful for when I am able to multi-task with everyday chores /tasks, or at work.

This is not to be be confused with George Carlin’s mention of another book with a similar title: ” How To Rid Yourself of Doubt…or Should You?” : )


As to working hard and finding luck… I just bought a hardcover copy of Jason Gurley’s fabulous “Eleanor,” which started years ago as a concept for a graphic novel, then became a book manuscript which several of us read and commented on, then a hugely successful self-published novel, and now has been published by Crown. Along the way he wrote a number of other stories, and made fabulous cover art for many authors. When you see the trajectory for someone like that, you know that it’s possible. I told the young guy at the bookstore that his book was originally self-published, and he said, “I love to hear stories like that.”

Thanks for the shout out Hugh! The podcast is a joy for me to do each week, and I just hope the audience learns as much as I do.

There probably isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to my question, but I’m going to ask anyway: what are your thoughts on having more than one writing project going on at a time? Do you think that’s counter-productive to work on one story for two or three days, switch gears, work on another, switch back? I’m asking Hugh, but interested in others’ thoughts as well.

Judith, I’d say that depends on your personality. I can only live in one world at a time. Some people are better at switching out than others. Curious to see others’ thoughts.

It works for me, but it’s not for everyone. I say experiment. Try both systems. See which is more productive for you.

Hugh – thank you so much for this post. I agree 100% with everything you said and I’m going to bookmark this and read it often!

Thanks for giving so much back to the community of writers.


Also glad that you mentioned The Maze Runner. I thought that was a great movie too!

Great post, Hugh. I agree wholeheartedly. Particularly with the part about writing schools.

Re: Judith
Personally, I find it impossible to write two projects at once although I’ve often wanted to. The problem is that for you to write the best book you can, you have to live and breathe in the characters’ world. You should be thinking about it in every spare moment you get. Even when you’re not thinking about it, just driving to the supermarket or walking the dog, ideas will come falling from the sky and clunk you on the head. If you’ve got two projects going at once, I feel like there isn’t enough extra brain time to go around. That said, I’m sure there are writers who can do it. I’m just not one of them.

If you want to be a writer—keep writing, read (critically), have patience (play the long game), and don’t give up. Ever.

Thank you, Hugh.
Great post. You reminded me of some basics that I’d known as an artist, that also apply to the writing business.
“Don’t be afraid to network and share with others, few will work hard enough to become serious competitors. Those who do, deserve all the success they can get.”

This was something I needed to read. Thanks.

This says it all … ‘been doing the weekly critique group with aspiring and published writers for years, close to ten, and the long range plan is ‘my voice heard/read at the highest level to do the greatest good, most rewards$ and be fun, Two years out from a well reviewed niche market book, it’s the social media marketing, that gives me ‘the book promotion blues.’ But I’ve learned from the national non-profits and and grandparents that found me from my naming or ‘branding’ this phenomena of grandparents kept from seeing there loved ones, that profits is not what writing is about, it’s about connections, the heartfelt ones.
Blog every day? oy … guess I better start.

Way to give back, Hugh. Glad to see it still going well!

Mchelle Rodenborn

Thank you for this great post. Have read it twice, and saved it to favorites. The part that hits home the most (always the place where lies the greatest weakness) was the “work harder than everyone else.” It also reminded me of a favorite saying from Lao Tsu: “Taking things ligtly causes great difficulty.”
I needed the reminder about all the time wasters, and about just how difficult this enterprise is. The length of the plan, 10 years!!!, is an eye opener, too, but it is surely realistic, and reminds me to relax as I launch into this endeavor.
As a thank you, and because I am curious anout your work now, I will buy one of your books. Any suggestions for a first time Howey reader? Michelle

As an avid HH reader, I recommend Wool first. It is certainly the most famous, but I believe it’s a great introduction to his work. After reading Wool, you’ll be hooked. If not, I’m sorry. However, if you are hooked, just look at the list of works and set forth. That’s what I did.

Have fun on your adventure through Hugh’s work. Jer

Great article! Fun and well-written. Only I take a bit of exception to the MFA slamming. Only because I had such a great experience. It’s true though that plot trumps prose, and they do not emphasize that in MFA programs, so I agree with that. But would I want to be a writer that can’t do both? No.

This is an actual post about how to really write in a sea of babble on the topic. Thank you.
Also, tiny typo in the copy. I’d message you, but don’t see the contact info.
et me tell you about my luck.
-I was lucky in that I started writing when a whole lot of people were working a whole let less. –
Take care, Lorraine

Plot trumps prose. As a refugee from one of the finest creative writing programs in the country (long ago in a galaxy far far away…) I can tell you that’s a damn fact. Working on it.

Thanks for the post. Back to playing the long game.

Of all of the articles and tips I have read to help give me inspiration for the future of being a possible author this one here has really made me feel as though I can do it. I am excited to try again! So many times I have felt held back by whatever excuse I come up with to put it off a little while longer! Motivation is hard to come by sometimes so thank you for sharing this with us.

Great post! Makes me feel better about not have an MFA.

Brought here by Dani Greer.

Easier said than done, all of it, but there is no room for compromise. Thank you for your words, friend, and for the prioritization of their order.

Thanks for the encouragement about writing. I’m jazzed to keep on trying now as an indie author. The hard work and community you write about are central to success in so many fields and your points help me see it as less of “luck” and more of being a master of the craft. I just started your book Wool, and you really hooked me into the story immediately.

Another inspiring post, thanks Hugh! This post is now bookmarked for future nights of staring at blank pages. I actually wrote to you back in May of last year when I was just putting pen to paper for the first time and this blog has been encouraging me along this new path in writing the whole way. Since then I’ve had two short stories published, two more are going through submissions, and I’m starting my first novel. Thanks for all the inspiration along the way!

Congrats Jordan!

What a fabulous piece. Yes, yes, yes to all. Off now to share among my writing network. Because I’m not envious and sharing with the competition!


Thanks a lot for this blog. I love your rules for succeeding as a writer because they simply ring true. After decades of wishing to be a writer, I have finally gotten to a point in my life where I have the time and the motivation to do it. I love your advice to write two novels a year for ten years and then see if you are succeeding.

Back when I was a college kid wishing to write fiction, there were no blogs, no Internet, and trying to write felt like a solitary, futile endeavor. Now, I have a great critique group, I’ve found Nanowrimo and been a ‘WInner’ twice, and I’m finding a ton of support and feedback from other writers in places like this one. What a difference forty years makes!

Now I need to get back to revising my latest Nanowrimo opus.


Jay Salyer

I literally grew up in Boone, NC – the absolute zero of America as I call it, and I didn’t know this writing group existed. I am very sad about this. However, this is a great and inspiring post.

Excellent post, thanks for taking the time to share. I write for fun, and don’t worry about selling it. When it’s not fun, I’ll stop.

Meanwhile, and since we’re all wired up differently (no size fits all), I’ll offer this little trick in case anyone shares wiring similar to mine: Imagine everything your mind cooks up, story-wise, as you think it would appear in a 5-star movie, then describe it.

When I do that my fingers naturally fly, for hours at a time inside my country home on weekends (now finishing my romance/legal-suspense trilogy). I guess it helps that I’m a movie fan and have seen so many fine movies in my 60 years. I now have a sense of what entertains, and what’s cinemagraphically pleasing, so I translate it into words.

Thank you for writing this. For the past nine years I have had a story to tell. Unfortunately, I had no idea how to tell it. I spent years learning how to find my voice as a writer and am thankful to have finally released my ebook. The sales are not coming in, as expected. But even though I was prepared to not see immediate results, I was surprised by how emotional this whole process became. The reviews are great; the readers just aren’t finding it.

Your blog has given me a new spark. Focusing on one book and dwelling on its sales is pointless. I’m going back to what I love: telling stories.

Wow, this is so cool. Very happy you’ve come to that conclusion.

Thanks, Ephraim! Very exciting stuff happening. :)

Thank you for this inspirational blog post. Ten days ago I had never heard of Hugh Howey. Today I finished reading Dust, after reading Shift and Wool in the previous week. I know what genre captures me now. Thank you Hugh Howey.

Wow. You tore through those. Thanks for giving them a chance.

That’s what that is? I’m writhing my first of seven books in a series. Right away everything started to flow from my pen! My voice! Thanks for telling me what that was! Very informative, it lets my know what I’m in for.

An author friend recommended you to me a few times so I bought Wool yesterday. I read the opening sentence and I was like, d@mn, this is gonna be good.

I was a sales manager for a long time and what you said here is true of sales and a lot of other professions. The successful salespeople are the ones who out-hustle the others. And a lot of would-be salespeople – nice, hard working folks – can have all the “secret info” in their hands and they just won’t do what it takes. I’m glad what I always believed about writing is reinforced by somebody famous and established.

Nice hustle out there, yourself.

Great post, Hugh!

I notice greatness is a product of talent and hard work in all fields. Even the most talented work very, very hard. At least the ones we’ve all heard of do. The talented ones who lack a work ethic make a local impression but that’s it.

It’s two weeks today since David Bowie died. Looking back over his career we can see someone of immense talent who also had an obsession with work. No surprise then that he left such a great legacy.

Nevertheless, despite the evidence, creatives often rely too much on raw ability and too little on output and so end up stacking the odds against them.

My take away from this success map, that can apply to all creative fields, is to do the hard work with a long term outlook. Doing the work and staying busy is easy, it’s the hard work that separates the amateurs from the professionals.

Thanks for a great post.

Insightful, and direct as always. Thanks for taking the time to give back via some tips/wisdom. I’ve found that “finding more time with my thoughts” its a bigger deal than I thought.


While the silver bullet for success is a myth, there are some universal truths. This post covers them and I think anyone asking for advice on how to get started as a writer should be pointed to this post (among others) as essential reading.

Incredible read. Thanks for taking the time to share your wisdom!

I’ve written my entire life, in one format or another, but the one that eluded me until recently was book-length works. I’d always thought maybe I could do that, but then would make excuses for not doing it. My parents were both journalists, so I grew up to he sound of a manual typewriter emanating from the spare bedroom near mine. I grew up around big bookshelves full of all manner of history, science, fiction, among other genres. I was always an avid reader and lover of all types of stories.

When I was in my 20s, I took a job teaching English in Slovakia. This was just a few years after the fall of Communism in the Eastern Bloc. For years after I returned from that experience, I thought I might write something about it. It took reading Hugh’s Wool stories for me to “get it” about writing as a goal and a passion.

Now, I don’t think my little memoir about Post-Communist Slovakia is best seller material, but that’s not the point. What I proved to myself is I could write a damn good book (of course Jason Gurley did a kickass cover for it), and also that I had more books in me. I consider the first book as my training ground for writing novels, which is what I’m undertaking now. With all the raw material of 30 years of experiencing life all over the planet, fiction seems like a given.

And I have you, Hugh, to thank for the inspiration, as so many of us do.

Thanks for the motivation and thanks for taking the time out to tell us how it really is. Hopefully, I’m one of the thousand. Only time will tell.

Plot trumps prose. Mr. Howey, you manage both beautifully. I read a lot of literary fiction, as well as Sci Fi and fantasy, and you can definitely do it all. I love your books, I’m inspired by your blog. Thank you so much for all the encouragement. I’m never giving up.

Hope it’s okay to write a blog post entitled “The World’s Best Advice to Writers” linking to this fantastic post here. Really love it and am printing it to keep by my desk. Thank you, Hugh.

Man, do I love run-on sentences too!

Thank you so much for this. It’s the kick in the pants that I needed. I’m refocusing my blog as of this morning.

Great post, the first I’ve read of yours. Have to say the one about blogging is a concern. Time away from all the others on the list, and the writing. I subscribe to a few wonderful blogs that often make me wonder how much more successful this person would be if they spent less time blogging. I’m going to search your page for a blog about starting a blog!

Fabulous post. Gets to the heart of the magic that is writing and the unbelievable constraint to keep trudging along this creative journey. I’ve been published, I’ve been lucky, but I’ve also worked hard on my craft. And all the things you mention are spot on.
Listen to this guy, you all! He knows what he’s talkin’ about!

My first novel comes out tomorrow and I’ve been freaking out about what I should be doing in terms of marketing. Your paragraph about learning to fail hit the nail on the head. Just keep writing. When I read it, I knew that THAT is exactly what I needed to be doing. Thanks for the clarity!

Inspiration comes in many forms, but I think reading ranks highest in that category. Blogs like this one certainly make the grade. And I think the comment left by Jason Lockwood brings out the best of them. Bravo Mr. Lockwood. May good things come your way.

Thank you for exactly what I needed to see today, Hugh. So grateful to have seen this.

Hugh, this blog post is an example of what I truly appreciate about you. I like your novels, sure, but it’s your openness and enthusiasm for the craft, and your willingness to share your experience that makes me a fan of the man, Hugh Howey, more than of the writer. Thanks.

The keys to the kingdom are less a secret than an attitude and willingness to listen.

Just a last week I’d been asked by an indie writer to review his book.

I told him, well: conditionally I’d look at it. I’m a tough reader I told him.

I made it about twenty pages. Rather than leave a negative review on Amazon, which I think is kind of mean for DNF books, I broke down some of the reasons I couldn’t go on, it had to do with common errors and voice (the subject: dystopian world. It’s a favorite of mine…i.e. how I found Hugh).

I post in the forum at Shawn Coyne’s The Story Grid and I told the indie writer I’d made a list of things about WHY….why it didn’t work.

He sent me an email, “well, sorry it didn’t work for you.”


It had nothing to do with “not working for me” and everything to do with craft, style, voice, things that could be fixed (should be fixed)…..Uggggg.

One of Hugh’s most important comments (we know this because he did it in BOLD) is get critique of rough draft and feedback.

And here I was giving this away to someone who had published a rough draft, essentially, and he didn’t care.

Don’t be that guy.

Be willing to die to your feelings.

Thank you Hugh, for being so damn generous to all of us that dream of following a unique but similar path to yours.


I have a question for you. What sort of balance should a writer strike in writing and reading, It is obvious that to be a good writer you need to read. But I wonder how much of your day should be spent reading verses the time you spend writing?