Dec 10, 2016
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Reflection

The Best Days of My Life

You might think I’m living the best days of my life right now, but that isn’t the case at all.

Guest Author, Homepage Sub  •  Sep 11, 2013

By Hugh Howey

This past week, my latest self-published book debuted at #7 on The New York Times bestseller list. Crunching some numbers, it appears that I’ve sold a million books in the last two years. You might think I’m living the best days of my life right now, but that isn’t the case at all. I’ve had a lot of careers and have gone through quite a few distinct phases in my life, and several were happier than being a bestselling author.

There’s the decade I spent as a yacht captain, delivering boats all over the world. There are the years I lived on a sailboat while going to the College of Charleston, or the year I spent island-hopping through the Bahamas. I had a blast installing custom home theater systems in expensive homes, and I worked as a computer repair technician back when personal computers were first exploding onto the scene. But the two happiest years of my life were spent in Palmyra, Virginia while working at Rockfish Roofers.

My wife and I moved to Virginia in 2005. She was placed at UVA for her internship after completing her doctorate in psychology at Nova Southeastern University. I was still working on yachts, but I wanted to get out of that industry and be home more. The guy I bought my house from, Saul, told me to call him if I was ever looking for a little work. He had a roofing company, and they were getting ready to paint the metal roof on a massive community center out in the middle of nowhere. I never turn down an adventure, so I decided to drive across the county and see what the job entailed.

I loved it. The thrill of the heights, the hard work, the ache in my bones, the sweat-soaked clothes. For the next two years, I worked with Saul and David A. on dozens of roofs. We did a lot of slate, copper, and cedar shakes. Some of these jobs were enormous, and we would spend months at the same place. Others were quick fixes. I spent two years driving all over some of the prettiest land I’d ever seen, spent my days looking out over verdant valleys, watched the seasons change, enjoyed rainy days off, and reveled in the company of two highly educated and morally attuned human beings that I came to see as family.

I was home with my wife every night. We had a beautiful house out in the country and a dog that we loved immensely. We had flower gardens and vegetable gardens, a framing workshop, a stream, a water feature full of fish, and lots of places to go and hike or kayak right around us. We cooked more than we ever had before, gathered blackberries and baked them into cobblers, got to know our neighbors. Our bedroom was high off the ground in a canopy of trees, and when it rained and we kept the windows open, it felt like we lived in a birds-nest. We nearly cried when we first saw the house with our realtor and we did cry when we sold it two years later and drove away for the last time. It was more than the house, though. It was those two years. They were great.

I did most of my mental writing during those two years. I came up with the character of Molly Fyde and the idea of the wallscreen and Wool. I did my physical writing during a later stage of my life, which was nearly as glorious. And this is the point I want to make, because I spend so much time supporting the growth of literature through self-publishing, and I don’t want people to think it’s because I am one of the outlying success stories. That’s not the point. My happiest days were spent writing, not being a bestselling author.

I wrote most of my stories while working in a bookstore for very meager pay. It helped that I have been debt averse my entire life. My wife and I lived in a 750 square foot house that I paid $112,500 for. It was our third home together. I spent a lot of time and energy on all three of those homes fixing them up and making them better, mostly because I wanted to improve our environment. Even in the down market, and never thinking of “flipping” a house, this industriousness not only made me happy, it meant that every house we sold turned a profit. Rather than take expensive vacations or buy fancy cars, we put that money into debt reduction until we were debt free and fully owned our home. It meant I could work for $10 an hour, Amber could be a student/intern/postdoc resident for ten years, and we didn’t have to worry about money. We were poor and wanted for nothing. We hiked and did things that were free. That was part of the key to my happiness, and it required working hard for over a decade and forgoing immediate self-gratification for even longer.

All of that meant that I could work a 30-hour job at a university trade bookshop for just over minimum wage and fill my hours with writing. It was here that I began advocating writing to others. I hung out with creative writing majors in the bookstore, and we gabbed about craft and genre. I got to know professors who were also authors, and we discussed industry news. I met publishing reps and talked trade developments. I joined the Highcountry Writers and spent every other week critiquing works and learning about the art. I spoke at my public library, volunteered with the youth writing NaNoWriMo group, talked to middle school classrooms and college classrooms, all as a non-bestselling author.

I never went into these programs to hawk my books. Ever. It was about promoting writing, not myself. The talk I gave to college classrooms centered on a Stanford study that suggests we live in the most literate age in human history, a study that looked at all the myriad ways we read and write that have nothing to do with novels. I urged people to take reading and writing seriously since we do so much of it, since we are judged by it, since this is the face we put out there for public consumption. And I talked about the joys of self-publishing—not as a commercial venture but as a way of producing art and making it available to others. I saw myself as a small-time painter or musician might. Nobody tells these people to stop putting their works in local galleries or to quit playing local bars. We don’t rail against the proliferation of YouTube videos from aspiring filmmakers or DeviantArt accounts from future designers. We celebrate the act of bettering our craft by producing early works. This was my message to classrooms, to anyone who would listen. It still is.

Today, I saw a comment on a self-publishing success story from yet another cynic who thought that nobody should self-publish. Their argument was that these success stories are the exception, not the rule. But who says the only reason to self-publish is because someone wants to get rich? And who says publishing, any way you do it, is a route to financial independence? I think we all know it isn’t. I knew that better than most from working in a bookstore and meeting so many bestselling authors who had day jobs. That isn’t why we write. It isn’t why we publish. Do these cynics tell the youth strumming their guitars on the street to stop right then, to give up creating art because there’s no future in it? What about the present in it?

I’m just as fond of pausing in front of a friend’s refrigerator to study the magnet-mounted art their child created as I am walking through a national gallery. Or the art shows in the center of shopping malls from local schools. Or the local craft fairs. Here are the stages of creation. Here is genius of all ages.

If you are twelve, and reading this right now, know that I was twelve once, too. I was twelve, and I dreamed of being a writer. I filled composition books with stories, but I never finished them. Part of that was because there was no youth NaNoWriMo group showing me what was possible. And there was no KDP or Smashwords to give me the freedom to turn my stories into books. There was no easy outlet for my rampant imagination. Now there is, but it means ignoring those who say you shouldn’t go for it.

Remember that it’s okay to write and publish just to make yourself happy, to make yourself fulfilled. There will be authors out there, readers, publishing experts, and booksellers who say that this outpouring of unprofessional drek is ruining the industry, which makes me wonder if these same people drive through neighborhoods yelling and screaming at people gardening in their back yards, shouting at them that, “You’ll never be a farmer!” Or if they cruise past community basketball courts where men and women unwind with games of pickup and shout at them, “You’ll never make it in the NBA!”

There is a kid learning to dribble a basketball right now who will go on to play shirts-and-skins, lead their high school to a national championship, get drafted in the first round and make millions, and this is no reason for the rest of us to not go out and experience the thrill of a 3-pointer heaved up and swishing right through the net. There is some parent teaching a child how to grip a putter right now and take aim at a clown’s mouth, and that kid will get a $50 million endorsement from Nike, and this is no reason not to go whack a bucket of balls after work. Implicit in the message that only some people should publish is the stance that all publishing is commercial, it’s all about making money, about being a bestseller, a pro. But that’s not the reason I do it. It isn’t why I celebrate writing and encourage people to self-publish. I’ve been doing both for a long time. So if anyone tells you that you can’t do it, that you shouldn’t do it, that you’ll never make a living at it, I urge you to agree with them. And then go do it anyway.

*************************************************************************************

Hugh Howey is the author of the award-winning Molly Fyde Saga and The New York Times and USA Today bestselling WOOL series.

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  • What a fabulous piece to read as I finish my writing time for the day. Always an inspiration, Hugh. Thank you.

  • Blair Evans

    “Do these cynics tell the youth strumming their guitars on the street to stop right then, to give up creating art because there’s no future in it?”

    Yes they do. I’m preaching to the flock, but there’s no shortage of people that will tell an indie musician/artist/actor that they and the rest of society would be all the better off if they just grew up and got real jobs. Some of the best art was created when there was little or no remuneration expected from it.

  • A great article for me to read as I’ve left my day job and am sitting down to right. Thank you!

    • Oh my! This should say…
      A great article as I’ve just arrived home from my day job and am sitting down to write. Thank you!
      Obviously, I should proofread!

  • Hugh, I like you. I really like you and enjoyed every bit of your story. As another self-published author, I’ve learned that making money from books isn’t easy so writers really need to enjoy the process and all the life that happens in between.

  • Mike

    Better call Saul!

  • Great article Hugh. The best time of my life was working in a used bookstore in Brooklyn, NY. I read everything I could and talked to everyone who came in. Mostly collectors, authors, and critics. I learned so much then that I use now in my writing. Thanks for sharing so much of yourself with us, your readers 🙂
    Pav

  • This is such a great article. It reminds me of something Alice Hoffman wrote in the introduction to Property Of… you know, writing to write. I think we forget that, and lose it. But that’s the font. The purity of motive. The love for the craft:) Thanks Mr. Howey for always being inspirational.

  • Thanks for the great words. I enjoyed them and absolutely agree that writing for the joy of writing trumps any other reason.

  • Articles like these give me the impetus to continue. To finish my various WIPs so they can join my published parody on the virtual shelves of Amazon, B&N, Smashwords, and iTunes. Thanks for the encouragement Mr. Howey!

  • Damn. I’d never thought about it that way.

  • Thanks for so many great observations. I wrote a blog post about this a few months ago. It mystifies me that we support and admire local artists, musicians, and athletes and think it is great that they can make even a modest income from their abilities playing local gigs, selling their art in local galleries and coaching, and yet we do not seem do the same or even consider doing the same for writers. Your observation that we do not drive through neighborhoods yelling at people as they enjoy sports, gardening, music and other activities that they undertake for varying reasons ranging from a serious hobby to something that they hope to perhaps be good enough at some day to earn some income doing is so apt. It brings the point home better than any other argument I have read. While I agree with everything you said about writing for the pleasure of it, I do hope that you are enjoying your success at least a little bit 🙂

  • Renee

    I really enjoyed this post.

    But, I don’t think that people are objecting to self-publishing because they object to those people writing– they object to those people *publishing*. The person gardening or shooting hoops in their backyards are doing it privately, and they aren’t asking you to buy their wilted lettuce or pay to watch them miss 5 baskets in a row. These people are asking you to pay, up front, a few dollars, and in 90% of cases are returning shoddy work.

    I’m absolutely not against self-publishing. But I do sympathise with the reader who is inundated with lower quality work.

  • This is a valid point Renee. It is interesting though that we are willing to accept and pay for ‘lower quality’ work in local musicians, artists and athletes. We may know they are not the ‘absolute best’ in the world but we still appreciate their talents and are willing to pay for the pleasure of seeing them live, or to own a piece of their art. We are also not hostile to them for putting their work out there. They obviously do not earn as much as the musicians, artists and athletes that we have deemed to be the best in the world. But they can sometimes make a decent living or at least supplement their non-artistic income. We seem okay with letting the market decide if these kind of artists are worthy of some remuneration for their work – if they are good enough, they make some money and, if they suck we don’t go to their shows, or buy their cds or art and we hope that they get the message. Although we may engage in some eye rolling when a particularly bad musician attempts to sell their art, we seem to accept that having some drek out there is just part of the process of letting the great artists rise to the top, or the decent artists rise to the middle.

    I do agree with you with regard to the fact that the reader is currently being put into a difficult position with the volume of shoddy work out there right now. However the traditional publishing gatekeeping model does not work either. I’m not sure what the solution is, but I do think writers should be allowed to let the market decide on the quality of their work in the same way other artists do. I think the industry is in transition. Perhaps the sheer number of people “publishing” will decline over time, or we will develop better methods for vetting and identifying the high quality work.

    • I disagree with part of this–I *don’t* pay to see a local musician unless I already have reason to expect I’ll have a good time, and I don’t buy art that I wouldn’t want on my wall. And, as a playwright, I hold myself to the same standard: I’d never invite anyone to a production of mine that I believed wouldn’t be worth a person’s money (indeed, I’ve deliberately avoided inviting people to readings of mine on multiple occasions). I save my capital for my absolute best work.

      I’m definitely in favor of people taking *chances* on local musicians, but the people who make money off of it tend to be generally very, very good. I have no idea why someone would buy a painting that they didn’t want to display.
      Even with WRNG In Studio City–my online series, which is *free*–I wouldn’t recommend it to people if I didn’t firmly believe they’d be entertained for the length of an episode.

  • Thank you for the reminder, Hugh. The other day I was at a Writers Talk with a long-time published author discussing how everyone should attempt to get a traditional contract and that nobody really writes for themselves and must consider who they are writing for. I thought, “who are you to define the art of writing (and the business of it) for everyone here listening?” Maybe that model works for some and not others, and isn’t that what art and creativity are all about anyway–existing beyond definition?

  • Well said, as usual. Self-publishing is important because there’s a reader for every writer, and now they can more easily find each other.

  • That is a wonderful read. Thank you for giving it to us, who are also writing next to a day job.

    Yes, it’s about the writing, the present, the making people happy in our own way.

  • Love.

  • I couldn’t agree more. Writing is like breathing. It’s essential. It’s a passion. When I stop breathing is when I’ll stop writing.

  • Another inspirational bit of writing from one of favorite authors. His stories inspire me to achieve his same level of greatness with my own writing. Hopefully with what he has shared is enough to help by debut novel have half the success as his work.

  • Great article. Thanks for letting us take a peek at your pre-Wool life.
    I started out writing Star Trek scripts when I was five. Little did I know it was already in re-runs. I think for many of us the urge to create through writing is in our blood. Publishing was/is another step we can take.
    Like you, I’ve had a happy fulfilling life that I’ve created with my spouse before publishing ever entered the picture.
    But now that it has, I’ll keep doing it. While writing is fun, the publshing part is work, (editing, formatting, loading up in all the various formats, at all the various sites, descriptions, keywords, pricing, covers, socia media, etc.)
    I’m also a huge fan of NaNoWriMo, and urge school librarians to check it out and promote it to their students.

  • Well said, sir! I’m a huge fan of your work. Thank you for giving us a small glimpse into your life. You are an inspiration to writers and aspiring authors everywhere!

  • Excellent article. And it’s something that I think a lot of writers can lose focus with. It’s the journey that is worthwhile, not necessarily the destination. If you hate every step along the way, then I’m not sure it’s a wise course of action.

  • Excellent piece, and I especially identified with your comments about promoting writing and reading in schools and libraries. I taught secondary students for 22 years and then worked on a testing program for job skills, specifically reading and writing. These are so important in themselves on the job and, in addition, for developing reasoning skills. And yet, writing is one of the least recognized skills in our schools, especially small ones. A student who has talent, or just works at developing skill, in athletics, art, music, drama, etc almost always has a way to share and showcase his/her achievements, but that is not true for writing.

  • Great piece, Hugh, that’s cheered me up on a rainy day.

  • Love this interview. In all good writing, its the foundation of living true to our inner compass that gives depth, breadth, and clarity to our work.

  • Thanks for this, Hugh. As you point out, in *every* kind of creative endeavor, there are ranges of ability and ranges of skill — and skill, at least, can be honed. Nearly everybody’s lousy when they start to learn something new. It only becomes a problem when you run into somebody whose mindset is, “If you’re not making money at it, then there’s no point in doing it.”

    And when it comes to “making money at it,” actors, musicians, and artists — even athletes — have small venues where they can practice their crafts as their skills improve. Writers don’t, really, or at least not in this day and age; very few small publications accept fiction any more. Your choices are to either keep your work in the drawer or publish it on Amazon.

    But you’re right, Hugh: the most satisfying part of any creative endeavor is the act of creating.

  • One year ago I quit my job to write out the stories that were already been written in my head. If we don’t write–what will they read. I love this post. Really love.

  • Wow. You brought me to tears. What a wonderful way to describe why we should write. I love the freedom of self-publishing. I love writing for the shear joy of it, and I thank you for putting my sentiments into words. God bless you.

    • ***sheer** Sorry, I was typing fast, not thinking. No editor for my blog comments. lol

  • Great post, Hugh. I pulled out my old composite notebooks last week and reread a few…youth, writing and memories came snatching me back in time and I was grinning hard ear to ear with the joy I experienced in writing them. Such an amazing feeling. So I agree with you there- happiness is the joy of writing. Sometimes I forget that when buried deep in getting done what is next and marketing. Enjoy the beauty of writing. Always an inspiration, Hugh!

  • Love this article. And I for one would love to meet Saul! I bet he could tell us some Hugh Howey stories…

  • OMG this brought me to tears. Awesome perspective.

  • Thanks, everyone. Really floored by the responses.

  • Needed this today. Thank you.

  • This is great. Very inspiring. It’s also fascinating what you’ve done in your life. I’m not sure I could have quit being a yacht captain 🙂

    My mother-in-law is an 80 year old doctor. She went to college for the first time when she turned 40. Then med school. Her husband held 2 jobs while she did all this. Her husband is African American, she’s white. She got court marshaled in the army for dating him (trumped up charges on something else, which she beat). Whether it’s writing or basketball or becoming a doctor, there’s always someone willing to get in the way of your dreams.

  • I just finished another book. It’s in the hands of beta readers, and I have to wait. I was waking up each morning with nothing to do, and it made me feel somehow unsettled. I didn’t know why until I read Hugh’s article. Thank you, Hugh. For making it obvious.

    I watched from the sidelines a couple years back when Hugh got trashed by what I call the “good ol’ gals’ network” on a writers’ and publishers’ discussion site. He got raked over the coals for his pro-self-publishing stance. His subsequent successes left about a pound of egg on some faces over there.

    Hugh later told me that leaving that group was the best thing that could have happened to him at that time.

    The article he’s written here is inspirational and motivating. The moral: Don’t get stuck in an elevator with Hugh Howey. (Vague reference to “Shallow Hal.”)

  • Love this essay. I’m one of those writers with a foot in both camps – traditionally published and self-published. I’m proud of all my books, but especially love the fact that my self-published book was written for the pleasure of telling a story and I’m convinced that it is my best work. At the heart of your piece is the truth that the best writing is done for the love of it. As a reader, I love the choices offered by writers whose work would otherwise not be available because they don’t fit into a niche. Some of the choices are less than wonderful, but I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that didn’t give at least a few minutes of pleasure or insight.

  • Tara K.

    What a great piece! Hugh, I first became a fan when you wrote about your self-publishing journey (“Hugh Howey Explains Everything”) back in March. Once again, your candid perspective – not just on self-publishing, but on writing and LIVING and being happy – reminds me why I admire you so so much. Thank you for writing, for sharing, and for staying humble! And please promise to continue sharing your essays on IndieReader ( :

  • Awesome article. I also spent some time on a sailboat in Charleston harbor. I was anchored east of the highway bridge for a few nights on my way down the inter-coastal to the Bahamas. Has some boiled peanuts in the shell at a local bar. Good times. That was 22 years ago and I remember it like it was yesterday. Thanks for the great article and the memories.

  • Well said. I loved this.

  • Aquilla Lynn Zerbonia

    My husband died from suicide last year and he had long been my best supporter and fan as well as my soulmate and best friend. Other than my journal writing I have not written since his death. I couldn’t bring myself to try again without him. I came across your article tonight and thought about what you said. I had been writing long before my husband and I had met and will till I take my last breath. I think tonight I will pick up my pen and try and write again. Thanks for reminding me that it used to be just me who believed in me.

  • I always go and whack a bucket of balls after work. Or, I would if I had a job. Or a bucket. But sometimes, balls just need a good whacking…

  • INTERESTING! Thanks Hugh.

  • Thanks to this I will stay content with being a non-bestselling author. Maybe even a bit thankful.

  • “You’ll never be a farmer!” The perfect illustration. Great article.

  • Great article. I keep reading about best-selling authors having day jobs. And while this is somewhat deflating – it is SO good to hear because it’s better to be realistic than live in a fantasy world.

    I write because I have to. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to sell books. I do. But my purpose in life (and with writing) cannot hinge on that desire.

    It’s taking a lot of reading and gradually starting to grow up to get this. The fantasy always seems so much better.

    Thanks!

  • I love this! It is so easy to get caught up in the idea that creating is a commercial pursuit and the goal is to quit my day job. I have to stay centered to remind myself that I create to share myself and help others. Thanks

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