A weary, sad and lonely man climbs a seemingly endless stairwell, and when he gets to the top he asks the people there to kill him. Or maybe to let him kill himself. All he has to do for the privilage is agree to wash the windows. At least, that’s how it seems.
So, more or less, begins Hugh C. Howey‘s Wool, which has become something of a mini-phenomenon. Possibly the name means little to you, and if so, likely it doesn’t matter which name I’m refering to. I only came across the book through a roundabout way, but one detail of that ties loosely into how and why Howey is making a name for himself.
I’m one of the countless multitude out there in the world who wants to be a professional writer, and as we all know there is now a lovely new way to go about becoming one: Amazon. Once the options were effectively limited to either Real Publishing (difficult, since if you weren’t an established name already you had to be both good and one of the fortunate few to be plucked from the slush pile) or “Vanity” Self-Publishing (easy, provided you had the money to pay for it and somewhere to store all your unsold copies after your house was repossessed). This led to three sorts of people: the frustrated, the homeless, and the bastards who actually knew how to write a decent book. And got noticed doing it.
Now there is a third option: Real Self-Publishing, for example through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing service, in which no-one has to pay for anything up front and the profits, if there are any, are shared between you and the enormous faceless evil corporation… that just gave you a chance to earn money… by expressing yourself the way you’ve always wanted to... anyway, in mid-2011 Howey wrote Wool, a post-apocalyptic sf short story, and “published” it “himself” in just this way. It became clear he could write a decent story when a bunch of Amazon reviewers noticed he had done, so he wrote a sequel that was about three times longer. Then he wrote three more, the last being more like a novella. This year he released them as an Omnibus edition and found himself selling a lot of copies.
The reason why is probably that the Wool Omnibus is really good.
Howey starts off with a straight-forwardly decent tale, sketching out a handful of interesting characters in an interesting environment, and I suppose one could either say “he’s not breaking any new sf ground” or “he knows how to play to the trappings of the genre”, depending on how mean-spirited one was. I enjoyed it – I could see where it was going, and that was were it went, but I was quite happy to buy the omnibus on the strength of the first story. I’m glad I did, because in the four tales that followed the little details of the world are explored very nicely, deepening a familiar concept into an original interpretation.
More than this though, with each new story the preconceptions the reader builds up around the principle characters are neatly undermined, lending them a similar depth. In particular it is the villains that come off well through this, despite the fact that the heroes consistently make themselves very engaging in a very short period of time. When they are thrown into peril, you want them to escape. And the guys doing the throwing – well, you start to feel more than a shade of sympathy for them as well.
That original title, Wool, proved to be a good one. At first glance it is dull, gives no handle for a prospective reader to latch onto – but as a result it also avoids the kind of over-revealing quality that tends to crop up in horror, fantasy and sf titles quite a bit. There is a punny quality to the sequels; each one prefaced by WOOL:, of course, in order we get Proper Guage, Casting Off, The Unravelling, and The Stranded. Yes, very clever, Mr. Howey, well done. Except, in addition to being knitting puns (and rendered via neatly unconventional covers) they all make perfect sense in the context of the developing story. Very clever, Mr. Howey, yes, well done.
First Shift, the sixth part of the (er) Woolen tapestry (that will have to do), is a prequel. I’ve not read it, and that’s not because the punning is a bit more obscure, but I may well do so when my big pile of ebooks starts to shrink. In the meantime I can only talk about the onmibus, which is also interesting for being not a Young Adult work (at least, not in my opinion) but something better: a story which, by the way, would be perfectly appealing and accessible to a Young Adult. I don’t have a problem with YA, far from it, but I suspect that – being distanced from the Real Publishing point of view – there are certain expectations that Howey hasn’t had to worry about, like focusing in on the lives of young adult characters for a start. It’s more than a little nasty at times as well.
So, what does MY interest in being a published writer have to do with how much I enjoyed Wool? Well, if it isn’t totally obvious, I see it as an inspirational example that, amidst the ever rising flood of dross pouring into this new oportunity, a few bubbles of quality can float to the surface. That’s why the new self-publishing is more like the real thing than the much maligned vanity presses of old – we’re not paying to be noticed, and there is still a chance we will be.
Plus it’s a fun little story too.