Wool, by Hugh Howey
Publication: Self –> Hybrid
Genre: Dystopian Sci Fi
Verdict: Yes

If you keep abreast of the news in self-publishing (or possibly even if you don’t), you don’t need me to tell you that Hugh Howey’s Wool is selling. It’s the Next Big Thing, the latest book that proves that self-publishers can in fact find an audience, excite them, and make a zillion dollars. It is also a really compelling piece of dystopian science fiction, and as your local Technician, I set out to analyze why.

Wool starts out with the promising premise,

The children were playing while Holston climbed to his death…

and goes on to tell us all about Holston, and the life of desperate misery he’s been living for the last three years, ever since his wife left the underground silo in which their entire society lives to clean the lenses of the cameras that provide them their only view of the bleak, dangerously toxic world outside. People don’t come back from cleaning, so sending someone out to clean is the method of execution. And as the silo’s sheriff, Holston had to help do it to his wife.

But he’s now determined to join her, to find out for himself what actually exists beyond the silo’s walls. Could his wife still be alive? Holston, in his grief, seems to simultaneously believe she is, and isn’t. Why was she so determined to leave the silo? And why do the exiled people clean the lenses anyway? Why don’t they just sit down on a rock and wait for death, to spite the society that sent them to their doom?

Before the end of the sample, Holston will have the surprising and horrifying answers to all these questions. And that is what makes the sample of Wool such a compelling selling tool: it tells a complete story. It is a sample in the purest sense: it tells you what this writer can deliver as a storyteller, not just at the beginning of a tale, but at the end.

This is a tactic frequently employed by self-publishing authors, though usually in a slightly different form: release an abbreviated version of your book, or a short story based on your characters, for free. Use that to sell your larger work. It’s a good tactic, and what makes it even more effective here is two things:

1. It leads seamlessly into the larger novel, and
2. It not only answers questions, it raises others.

In the final pages of his story, Holston will learn of a terrible lie that has shaped life in the silo. It will bring his tale to a satisfying end, but it will leave us readers with a couple of important questions to answer: Why perpetrated this lie? And why?

This, I think, is the best way to use a short story as a selling tool, whether you’re releasing it as a standalone story or as the initial pages of your book. Let some balls come to rest, but leave others in the air. Satisfy and perturb. Tell us that you know how to end a story. But whatever you do, don’t end it completely.

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