The Writing Secrets of a Best-Selling Author Revealed

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending a special event. This one was in my hometown, my own backyard you might say. It was fairly low-key and inexpensive, a fundraiser for our local library. The event was Community Conversations: Homer Hickam. Yes, that Homer Hickam, NASA engineer and author of Rocket Boys, a memoir that became the movie October Sky.

carryingalberthomeI was incredibly excited when I heard about it. I’ve known for decades that Homer Hickam lives in the same small city I do. I know somebody who has known him and his wife since forever. I met him years ago and I’ve spoken to him at book signings. I could bump into him at the grocery store in the produce department. Why was I so excited about this event? Because I’ve recently started writing with the idea that I want to publish a novel. He is living, breathing proof that an ordinary, yet talented, person—someone I actually know—can become a best-selling author. So I was thinking, maybe I really can do this too.

Advertisements went something like this: “What do Homer Hickam, Buddy Ebsen, and an alligator have in common? Find out when Huntsville’s own Homer Hickam leads the conversation as he recounts themes in his latest book, Carrying Albert Home. Filled with Southern charm, a bit of conflict, and lots of humor, discussion about this book is sure to be interesting!”

It was interesting. The book is fantastic. Carrying Albert Home is a hilarious recounting of (mostly) true events involving an adventurous odyssey undertaken by his parents in the 1930s to return an alligator named Albert to Florida.

I enjoyed hearing Homer’s anecdotes about growing up in Coalwood, West Virginia. He talked about loving to read before he realized he wanted to write. He told us how his mother had “suspended his first amendment rights” when he wrote a story for his elementary school newspaper that depicted her in a less than flattering manner.

Homer mentioned several of his books and how he came to write them, but my favorite by far is Rocket Boys. He talked about writing for various publications and becoming a regular contributor to the Smithsonian Air & Space magazine. He explained how Rocket Boys was inspired by a last-minute, desperate request for a 1,500-word “filler” story. Response to that little story was overwhelming, so he knew he had tapped into something special. I confess, I adore the movie October Sky, and I loved hearing Homer talk about how the movie simply didn’t do justice to every aspect of the book. Never mind how some things had to be changed or compressed or expanded—the movie made his mother look like a wimp! Wow. I never got that impression from the movie, which means Mrs. Elsie Hickam must have been quite a formidable lady.

Naturally, I was on pins and needles anticipating the Q&A after Homer spoke. There I was, a writer hoping to one day be a published author, ready to soak up all the wisdom and advice that a master of the craft was willing to impart. I scribbled away with my pen on my tiny notepad, ready to record the Gospel according to Homer.

When asked, “What does a good writing day feel like?” Homer replied, “Liking what you wrote the next day, or even better, the next week.” He elaborated that getting lost in the words and letting the story carry you where it needs to go feels wonderful. I agree with him wholeheartedly.

In response to other questions, Homer explained that his typical schedule is to write four to five hours in the morning when he has a deadline and handle rewrites in the afternoons. He’s less structured when not on a deadline, but still always has a work in progress. When asked about rewrites and the honing/polishing process, Homer was honestly unspecific. After 18 published books, he indicated that it’s different for each one. He did share, though, that it is vital to hook the reader immediately. Like many writers, he works longer and harder on first chapters more than any other. Then he commented that there comes a point when you have to stop. Rewrites can go on forever, if you let them. He confessed that there are portions of Rocket Boys he’d like to rewrite, even today.

Homer said he always wrote to be published because he wanted to be read. He learned to hone his craft and developed his simple, straightforward style from writing magazine articles. As he put it, being an engineer isn’t so different from being a writer. They both need to be creative, original thinkers who communicate well whether telling a well-crafted story or designing and developing technology.

I wouldn’t know about being an engineer, but it is essential to know how to use the tools of your trade, whether you are building a spacecraft or writing about one. Nobody woke up one day and said “I’m going to build a mile-long bridge that will last for generations” and do it successfully without spending the time learning what it takes to do it. The good news is that you are never too old to learn how to write well, if that’s what you want to do.

No, Homer Hickam didn’t wake up one day and stop being an engineer so he could focus every ounce of his time and effort on writing Rocket Boys. He wrote it while he was working full time as a NASA engineer, a challenging and time-consuming career. He “just got it done.” He’s a full-time writer now, his second career.

What did I learn from listening to Homer Hickam?

  • Write as much as you can, every spare minute you have. You won’t get better if you don’t keep at it.
  • Write about something that’s meaningful to you.
  • Polish those first chapters, first paragraphs, first sentences until they sparkle like glittering stars in the night sky.
  • Don’t quit your day job until you have a book on the bestseller list. And maybe not even then.
  • Never forget that while writing is a creative endeavor, getting published is a business.
  • Memoirs are best written by writers who have actually done things other people find fascinating.
  • Book tours are grueling, exhausting, and necessary.

Wait a minute. I knew all of that before I ever attended his speaking engagement. There are no secrets, no special shortcuts, no substitutes for talent. There’s just hard work and perseverance.

My admiration for Homer Hickam has increased exponentially.

How about your own writing career? What lessons are you learning, or have learned, on your journey to publication? Has a successful author made an impression on how you approach the craft? Leave a comment below.