David Farland

How Big is Your Pond?

14 July 2014

From NYT besteller and former writing professor Dave Farland:

Many new authors feel torn between two loves. They might ask, “Should I write science fiction, or should I focus more on young adult novels? Which way should I go?” There are three answers to this question.

You should be aware that this really is a big problem. I know many authors who start writing for small markets, only to realize that they can’t make a living in that market. For example, one author who pens religious fiction for a small church recently came to me for help, trying to figure out how to crack the national thriller market. He was one of the best-sellers in his pond, but it is a very small pond. So far, he is still struggling to make it big. Another who was writing little novels about kids on sports teams wanted to move into YA fantasy—and fortunately he was able to quickly transition into a much larger pond. He went from making perhaps $10,000 per novel to making, literally, millions.

. . . .

So, here is my advice.

1) Write what you love the most. When you love one particular genre more than another, you will usually invest yourself into it more fully, master it more quickly, and develop a name. It is possible to write a truly monumental novel in just about any genre. So if you’re 80% drawn to, say, science fiction and only 20% drawn to young adult, the choice should be easy, right?

But hold on just one moment!

Yesterday I read a piece of advice that said, “Write what you love.” The author pointed out that when George R. R. Martin wrote Game of Thrones, the fantasy genre was “mostly dead.” He stated that when Rowling wrote Harry Potter, she was writing the same Middle Grade story about a wizard school that had been written dozens of times before, and no one expected it to go big.

However, I have to say this. When Martin wrote Game of Thrones in 1996, fantasy was doing quite well. Robert Jordan, Terry Brooks, Terry Goodkind, Stephen Donaldson, and a host of others were all making a very good living in the field. That was just about the time that I jumped into it. So it wasn’t “mostly dead” at that time, it was the healthiest that it had ever been.

And with Rowling? She was writing Middle Grade, jumping into a pond that is quite large, where authors often do strike it rich. For example, when R.L. Stine wrote in the Goosebumps series in the mid-1990s, he captured 45% of all sales in his market for a time, making tens of millions. Now, it’s true that others had written novels about schools for wizards (heck, I began writing one when I was 17), but Rowling’s love for the idea really did shine through. Hers was by far the best.

So really loving a genre is important, but it helps immensely if that genre is already huge.

. . . .

So if you’re 50/50 on which field to write in, money might sway you. Just be aware that genres are always shifting in popularity. Editors right now are getting a little jaded about dystopian YA, and it might be more difficult to sell this year than it was three years ago. So try to stay educated on your markets.

Link to the rest at Dave Farland and thanks to Eric for the tip.

You and Editors

26 June 2014

From author David Farland:

I got an email the other day from an unhappy writer who said that editors aren’t really editors anymore. He said that they’re just “choosers,” picking stories that need the least amount of fixing. Nobody edits.

I certainly see his argument. There are some incompetent editors. For example, I recently got an email from an author whose novel was rejected by a young editor because it was written in third person. She said, “Young adult novels are written in first person, not third!” The same editor wrote another rejection letter to another author saying, “You have adverbs in your manuscript. I would never publish a book with adverbs in it.”

. . . .

Let’s face it: traditionally, say thirty years ago, many editors weren’t formally trained. They often rose up from the secretarial pools, where they worked as slush readers. They may have had no training at all as a creative writer, or editor.

What they did have going for them was “literary sensibilities.” In other words, when they saw a story that moved them and they knew that it would touch other people, they had the good sense to buy it. Their literary sensibilities might have been their best qualification. A good eye is a gift. It can’t be trained into a critic.

. . . .

[T]hough I have worked with dozens of editors over the years, I probably have had more training than any of them. Does that mean that they weren’t helpful?

Not at all! A good editor brings his or her literary sensibilities to the table, along with their experience, which may indeed by quite vast. My editor at Tor, for example, has more experience as a book editor than anyone else in his field.

. . . .

Sometimes I will get letters from people who desperately want me to write their stories for them, or to teach them everything that they need to know to become a writer. I will usually respond by saying, “I really can’t do that.” There are just too many people who want to become writers without doing the work. I’m not a ghost writer, and I don’t have the time to be anyone’s tutor.

Editors will often feel the same. It’s not their job to go in and “fix” every manuscript. Indeed, most manuscripts can’t be fixed. Too often the authors will tell stories that are stale, where the basic concepts to the story make it so that the tale isn’t worth telling.

Link to the rest at David Farland

Writing Dystopias

21 June 2014

From NYT bestselling author and former writing professor Dave Farland:

The best dystopian settings arouse realistic fears in the reader. In other words, the author studies the world as it is today, and very often will look at social conditions and consider, “If this goes on, how will the world change?”

So, for example, in a book like 1984 we’re shown a world where Big Brother is always watching you, where history is instantly revised in order to support current government policies, where big government uses deception and propaganda to control the masses. Does it sound familiar at all?

When Orwell published the novel in 1949, he had seen how Hitler’s “big lie” campaigns had worked in Germany, and how the Soviets and other countries were controlling news broadcasts around the world.

To a certain degree, people in every society are constantly struggling to unravel their leader’s lies, so this kind of dystopia resonated with its readership.

. . . .

In the same way, if you look at The Hunger Games, you can see some ugly aspects of American society playing out. Certainly, the Hunger Games themselves echo the popular reality television shows likeSurvivor, where attractive men and women compete for a grand prize in a primitive location. The show is all about lust, betrayal, starvation, and competition.

Certainly in Hunger Games you don’t have to look far to see the comparisons to 1984, where a Big Brother character constantly watches and manipulates the masses, always on the verge of sending in his troops.

In short, both books play upon reader’s fears by echoing current problems.

. . . .

Some concepts are merely absurd. For example, you could write a dystopia in which giant carrot people are growing humans in hydroponic gardens. It might work as a comedy.

A story can easily move from sounding prophetic to becoming barely plausible to sounding absolutely stupid. It’s a sliding scale.

Link to the rest at David Farland and thanks to Eric for the tip.

Promises to Keep

12 March 2014

From Dave Farland:

A reader wrote last week and asked, “Can you talk about the promises that authors make in a manuscript? I’m not sure that I understand what people mean.” So I hope that this article helps:

As a teen, I once read a fantasy novel that had a picture on the cover that showed a wizard fighting with some lizard men. I read the novel, and liked it pretty well, except for one thing: the mage on the cover was too old, and there weren’t any lizard men. I kept thinking, “It must come at the end!”

But the scene never did take place.

. . . .

As authors, we tend to make promises that are more subtle. I have seen stories come to me in in the Writers of the Future submissions, and on more than one occasion that author has promised, “This is the greatest story ever told.” I’ve even had authors send release forms, asking me to promise not to steal their ideas, etc. Most of us authors don’t take ourselves quite so seriously, but we do make promises. We just tend to be subtle about it.

Very often I’ll get a story in my manuscript pile that starts off being funny. It may be beautifully written. It might have an engaging conflict. But when I reach the end of the story, too often I will find that the humorous piece turned tragic.

The author promised me one thing on page one, but delivered its opposite at the end of the tale.

. . . .

There are certain inherent promises that every author makes. For example:

1) I will respect my characters. This means that at the end of the story, I won’t kill my protagonist or have him fail for no reason. I may have him die a heroic death, but if I do, there will be a purpose behind it, a deeper meaning, a compelling reason to end the tale tragically.

This is important. When a reader becomes engrossed in a tale, the reader adopts the persona of your protagonist. It’s a lot like slipping on a glove. If the protagonist is likeable, and is much like us, or is very interesting, then we might find that it is effortless to adopt the persona, and we will then virtually “live through” the protagonist’s experiences. In fact, in the best tales, we don’t slip into the persona effortlessly, we do it enthusiastically.

So when an author decides to harm a protagonist, the reader feels attacked. As a professional author, I know better than to assault my readers.

Link to the rest at David Farland

Why I’m No Longer Cautiously Optimistic about the Future of Publishing

24 February 2014

From NYT bestselling author and former writing professor, Dave Farland:

About five years ago I looked at the future of publishing and felt . . . deeply worried. The rise in the sale of e-readers heralded both opportunities and concerns. You see, there aren’t a lot of avid readers in the world. About 40 percent of the people in the US won’t read a book this year—or in any other year. About ten percent of the readers in the US buy half the books sold.

This means that with 300 million people in the US, only about 160 million of those people will buy a book each year, and only about 16 million people make up half of the audience for books. These 16 million are the hardcore readers, our “super readers.”

As authors, we rely upon those super readers who go through twenty or thirty books per month for instant sales when a new book comes out, along with word-of-mouth advertising.

So when I began to see sales of 4 million e-readers in a year, it sent up some danger signals.

. . . .

As an author in the traditional publishing world, I have a partner. My partner, my publisher, makes about 8% profit per year on his investments, on average. This means that if anything messes up the publishing world—so that all of his books take a 20% hit in the course of a year, the publisher’s revenues constrict. The publisher loses money.

. . . .

The first thing that goes when a publisher loses money is large print runs on books. With fewer books on the shelves, that means that I make less money. The next thing that goes is advertising budget. That means that books that might have been placed at the front of Barnes and Noble as part of “cooperative advertising campaigns” (that’s where the publisher pays a couple dollars extra in order to get some prime advertising space) now don’t get decent placement, so that the few copies that you do get on the shelves don’t sell as well. Then of course the publisher has heavier returns than expected, and so profits dip even more.

. . . .

The problem that I saw was quite simple: with the transition from paper books to e-readers, the publishers were going to be hurled into a downward spiral. For several years, as people transitioned to e-readers, the market for paper books would plummet, profits on paper books would diminish, and publishers would lose money.

. . . .

So for five years, a lot of us authors have been lying awake at night suffering from fever dreams. The real questions were, “How am I going to make a living in these changing markets? Will there be a paper book market in five years? Should I even continue to publish in the traditional markets? What retailers will be left standing? What is the path to success in e-publishing, where I won’t have a marketing department and editors to back me? Will the big publishers—who tend to lumber about like dinosaurs—be facile enough to leap into the new market and take over (thus putting an abrupt end to the careers of people who might be investing time and money into e-publishing)?”

. . . .

But 2014 brings something new. I’m no longer cautiously optimistic about the future of e-books and publishing: I’m wildly excited!

You see, big changes are coming. I don’t have time to go into tremendous detail here, but the future is looking good on every front.

. . . .

Whether Hugh [Howey's] research is off by ten percent, either high or low, really isn’t important. What is important is that when you look at his charts, you can see instantly that on any given day, the bestseller lists in e-books are dominated by independent authors.

That’s great news. It means that in the past five years, a new and more-lucrative market has opened up for authors. Not only that, with a bit of study and hard work, one can figure out how to excel in that market by doing such things as advertising through social media, setting proper price points, and so on.

. . . .

Whether you’re selling books in print or as e-books, I can now see a clear path to success.

A year ago I was struggling to stay cautiously optimistic. Right now, I’m deliriously excited.

Link to the rest at David Farland and thanks to Julia for the tip.

Getting Great “Word of Mouth” Advertising

9 February 2014

From Dave Farland:

There are certain books (and cars, and foods, and vacations) that somehow demand to be talked about. You know what I mean.

For the past couple of years, I’ve heard people talking about the hit television series Breaking Bad, which tells of a high school chemistry teacher who decides to start a meth lab. I heard enough about it, that last summer I finally decided to watch an episode—and found myself deeply hooked.

Obviously, as authors, all of us want to get great word of mouth advertising. It is easily the least expensive form of advertising—since it costs you nothing—and the most productive form of advertising, since it comes in the form of testimonials from people that you know, and trust, and who are more or less a lot like you.

. . . .

If you look at books that have gotten great word of mouth, there are a few things that they have in common.

1) Story is more important than style. Most bestsellers aren’t stylistic masterpieces. Instead, the authors offer prose that is merely workmanlike. The prose doesn’t interfere with the story. Many great stylists are actually challenging to read, and their stories become opaque and obscured due to overwriting. Bestsellers on the other hand are usually easily understood.

. . . .

4) The story transports the reader. It may transport them to another time or another place, but it also needs to transport the reader emotionally and intellectually, make them feel things that they want to feel, think about things that suddenly become important to them.

Link to the rest at David Farland

To Grow or Not to Grow

28 January 2014

From NYT bestselling author and former writing professor, Dave Farland:

If you want to understand how vital character growth is to good fiction, take a look at a few classic movies. Study such films as Good Will Hunting, As Good as it Gets, Orange County, and The Silver Linings Playbook. In each of these films, every major character grows during his or her time on camera. It’s a motif in Hollywood. Having a character grow as a person is practically a requirement for any comedy, any feel-good movie. But it’s not a new thing.

In fact, this pattern of growth remains consistent through nearly all great works of fiction ever written. (I only say “nearly” because as soon as I say all, someone is going to come up with something that doesn’t have growth, like Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and then we’ll have to argue all day about whether it was great literature.)

Note that in literary fiction, it is often said that the characters should merely “change,” not grow. But it is not nearly so enjoyable watching the demise of a protagonist as it is to watch one succeed. Change may intrigue, but growth inspires.

. . . .

A pattern emerges in many of the world’s most popular stories. Consider for example A Christmas CarolLord of the Rings, and Ender’s Game.

In each of the tales that I mentioned, the protagonist starts out like a child, viewing evil as something outside himself. Poverty is not a problem that Scrooge normally worries about–it’s something that happens in other counties. Frodo’s Dark Lord is in lands far away. The Buggers are on another planet.

But evil soon strikes closer to home. The protagonist discovers that it’s in the people around him. Scrooge discovers that his best employee is suffering. Frodo confronts his Boromir. And young Ender Wiggins discovers that children who should be fighting evil are cruel and divisive.

Link to the rest at Dave Farland and thanks to Lee for the tip.

Exploding the 10,000-hour Myth

24 January 2014

From NYT bestselling author and former writing professor Dave Farland:

Recently I wrote an article where I pointed out that as a young writer, I had heard that it takes seven years of practice before the average person breaks into publishing.

That seven-year rule has always seemed somehow arbitrary to me, yet it does sound an awful lot like the popular notion that “It takes about 10,000 hours to master just about any discipline.”

I decided to try to reach a publishable level with my fiction in one year. In doing so, I not only managed to break into publishing in one year, selling short stories and obtaining a three-novel contract, I also won several awards.

It has always seemed to me that route practice of a craft isn’t enough. You can’t just show up at college and become a brain surgeon. You have to bring a certain amount of passion and discipline with you. You have to analyze your work, make adjustments, and push forward. You can’t be content just to learn from others, you have to try to make your own discoveries.

Link to the rest at David Farland

Plotting

18 January 2014

From NYT bestseller and former writing professor, Dave Farland:

We often begin a story with very little in mind—a powerful image from a dream, a play on words overheard during a conversation, an emotion that we want to capture, a clever idea for a twist. As these ideas begin to stack up, we begin to form a story.

I often feel that the ideas that give me the genesis of a story are like pieces to a puzzle—a puzzle that I will create. Yet when I first imagine them, I only glimpse parts of a complete image—a flash of blue sky here, the eye of a monster there, a mouse in a meadow.

As I imagine the story piece by piece, a novel eventually takes shape. But I want to emphasize that for me, at least, books don’t “take shape” by accident.

I was reading an article recently about Madeline L’Engle, who wrote about how she once went through a five-year dry spell as a new writer. In her memoir “Summer,” Madeline recalls telling her mother about people who say they’d like to write books, yet somehow can’t. “The reason they don’t ever get around to writing the books is usually, in the young, that they have to wait for inspiration, and you know perfectly well that if an artist of any kind sits around waiting for inspiration he’ll have a very small body of work,” she said. “Inspiration usually comes during work, rather than before it.”

I agree. Most of my inspiration comes while plotting and composing a book.

. . . .

A novel doesn’t have just one plot. A complex novel may have a dozen plots. As I’m plotting my novel, I take each of my main viewpoint characters and create a plot chart for each one. Each important conflict gets charted out.

Link to the rest at David Farland

Human Resources

2 January 2014

From NYT bestseller and former writing professor Dave Farland:

When I’m preparing to write a chapter, I often look at my characters and conflicts and wonder, “What can I do to make things change in this chapter?” I might look for a way to make a character grow intellectually, or emotionally, or face some new struggle. My goal of course is to create a dynamic story, one where the plot, the characters, and the reader’s emotions all are in a constant flow. But at one time I found myself stuck in a novel where my character could not change himself or his situation. He was in a stalemate.

For a week or so I worried about it, and finally sat down to dinner with one of my friends, L.E. Modesitt and brought up my problem. He said, “Then write the chapter where nothing changes. Sometimes that is the point of the story, to show that nothing can change.” Problem solved. He was right. I wrote the chapter with that in mind and it worked well.

. . . .

When you’re writing, don’t hesitate to look around you for human resources. People are almost always more than happy to help out a writer. I’ve interviewed astronauts, forensics experts, movie producers, spies, university professors and even criminals when looking for help on a story. Some of them may ask for an acknowledgement in a book. Others have begged that their names not be used. But all of them have been eager to help, and the most that it has ever cost me was the price of a dinner.

Link to the rest at David Farland

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