David Farland

A Recipe for Great Characters

12 September 2013

From NYT bestselling author and former writing professor Dave Farland:

In the past I’ve talked about some of the attributes that are needed for a successful protagonist. For example, to make a likeable character, in Hollywood they suggest that you either put the protagonist in pain, or you show him “petting the dog,”—doing something likeable.

There are of course other ways to make a likeable protagonist, but what if you don’t necessarily want to make your character likeable? What if you simply want to make a character fascinating, engrossing?

. . . .

1) Give your character a mystery. This might include a hidden agenda, or a secret about his past, or perhaps a secret about himself that even the character doesn’t know. If you do this, then part of the forward movement of your story comes as we, the audience, tries to unravel the mystery.

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Avoiding Hesitation

4 September 2013

From NYT bestselling author and former writing professor Dave Farland:

When you sit down to write a story or the opening to a scene, you’re presented with a problem: how to begin? As a contest judge, I see too many tales that don’t work—right from the very first sentence.

The most common problem that I see arises from “hesitation.” You as an author haven’t figured out how to start your story. You haven’t brainstormed a scene yet, so you just begin writing in the hopes that it will turn into something. Perhaps you’ll tell me about the character, “Gunther Harlan was ten years old.” Maybe you’ll start with a setting: “The day began as any other day.” Or perhaps you’ll start with a conflict. “Gunther sat on a rock, panting from exhaustion. How did I ever get into this mess? he wondered.”

Starting a tale with any one of those three elements is okay, but if you spend two pages telling your reader about Gunther, or inventing the setting, or if you have Gunther wondering how he got into trouble, you’re wasting the reader’s time.

Most often, when I see this hesitant beginning, it’s obvious to me that you’re “ramping-up.” I suspect that the real story will start a few pages in, but if I’m judging the story for a contest, I will have to reject the story long before I find the real beginning, the place where your character and conflict and the action all merge so that the story comes to life.

As an author, it’s your job to create an opening that works, to get beyond that hesitation. If you find yourself spilling ideas onto paper in the opening of your tale, for example if you’re brainstorming your character until the story takes off, that is all right. But when your story does take off, it’s your job to cut out all of the garbage.

. . . .

One piece of advice that you will hear from professional writers over and over again is, “When I finish my novel, that’s when I know what the story is truly about. So the first thing that I do is go back and throw away the opening, then rewrite it, with the ending in mind.”

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Creating Powerful Scenes

29 August 2013

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

I’m a bit preoccupied with the question of “What creates a great scene?”

You’ve probably had movies and books that come alive for you, where the story seems to leap off the page and become more of a part of you than the life that you live. So there are probably dozens or even hundreds of scenes from stories that have become a part of your psychic makeup, and in a way, these are very important: these story fragments create experiences that are shared often by millions of people, and so they are ties that help bind us to a much larger world.

. . . .

So we know that these moments from a story can be important, but what makes for a vivid, memorable, captivating, and glorious scene? You can probably give examples of a dozen or so right off the tip of your tongue, but have you ever taken time to analyze them, to figure out what works and how to create your own?

As an author, you need to know how to do that. Every story is composed of parts. I’ve talked about some of the larger building blocks of a story before—the inciting incidents, the try/fail cycles, the climaxes, reversals, and the denouement.

But in order to create a story, you need to dissect it into smaller parts—individual scenes. Your inciting incident for example might have as few as one scene or as many as twenty—little snippets where your character discovers that he has a problem and that the problem is so massive that it is life-altering.

As an author, it is your job to imbue those scenes with enough information, energy, passion and interest so that they come alive in the mind of your reader.

Some new authors think that it is just enough to “introduce their characters” when they begin writing a story, and because they strive for too little, usually their stories will feel fake, flimsy, and boring. They haven’t learned to recognize the components of a good scene, to see how it might fit within the overall scheme of a tale, and then build a scene from those components.

. . . .

But here is what I’d like to start with today: if you’ve written a scene that just “doesn’t work,” recognize that you can make it better. Perhaps your character isn’t properly motivated to do what you have him doing. If so, you have to consider: is there anything that I like in this scene at all—the setting description, a snippet of dialog, or an intriguing conflict? If not, definitely throw it out, every piece. It won’t fit in your story anywhere. But if there is something that strikes you as grand, beautiful, and useful in that scene—it might be nothing more than the description of a chair—then consider saving it away in a file for later use.

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Dealing with Criticism

18 August 2013

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

I’ve been talking about how to deal with criticism, and I’d like to talk a bit about how to deal with criticism that you disagree with. There are a lot of reasons that people will dislike your work that have nothing to do with your work.

If you look at online reviews of Lord of the Rings, which is widely acclaimed as perhaps the best fantasy novel ever written, you’ll find a lot of people who hate it. Does that mean that the book stinks? I don’t think so. Does it mean that the critic is wrong? How can they be wrong in telling you that they don’t like it?

What it really comes down to is that the book isn’t to their tastes. Lord of the Rings is a fantasy adventure that is slanted heavily toward a male audience. It’s a metaphor for life during wartime during WWII, and so it’s something of a “buddy tale,” that plays strongly on beats of wonder, adventure, and friendship. It’s a great novel, if you have a taste for that kind of thing.

So when a critic speaks, you have to look at that critic closely. What is the person’s age and sex? What is their cultural heritage and religious background? What are their political assumptions? All of those things (and more) play into their critiques.

So just be aware that any critique may have more to do with a preference for chocolate over vanilla rather than the genuine value of the work.

. . . .

In fact, assuming that you really do tell your story beautifully, achieving the effects that you desired, then virtually all of the negative responses that you get from critics will typically fall into one of these two categories—the reader either has different tastes from you, or the reader made a mistake.

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How Long Is a Chapter?

2 July 2013

From NYT bestselling author and longtime writing instructor Dave Farland:

Over the past few years, the standard length of chapters has been shrinking in many genres. If you picked up a novel thirty years ago, twenty manuscript pages seemed to be pretty standard. If you picked up a thriller five years ago, ten pages would do. Now, for most thrillers and young adult novels, eight pages seems to be more normal.

In fact, if you look at James Patterson’s Maximum Ride, I don’t see any chapters that are over about four pages.

Now, I understand why this was done. Patterson recognized that young readers who watch television and play videogames are taught to take their stories in “bites.” Just as television and radio hosts want you to speak in pithy “sound bites,” modern audiences are looking for the same experience in their stories.

There used to be a time—a hundred years ago–when books were considered a “relaxing” medium. Thus, the opening of a story could take many pages before you reached the “inciting incident,” that moment when a major conflict was introduced and the story took off. When I read Lord of the Rings as a teen, I was a bit troubled by the fact that it took some 92 pages before I felt that the story took off.

. . . .

Modern audiences, though, tend to demand instant gratification.

So, for example, if you’re watching a television episode, the inciting incident now is expected to take place before the first commercial break here in America—within the first 120 seconds.

What does this mean for writers? Well, as novelists, we seem to be following the fad.

. . . .

1) Avoid “completion.” When you’re young and you’re taught to write research papers, you’re told that every paragraph should sum up a thought, every section to a paper should be complete and whole, and each section should encapsulate your argument.

But that’s a death knell for a writer. If you’ve got a conflict in your story, your goal isn’t to resolve it right away. You don’t want your lovers to get together and live happily ever after in chapter one. You don’t want readers to know how a fight ended. You don’t want the readers to see who won an argument, and so on. So in each chapter, you try to end with something of a cliffhanger, a sentence with a hook in it that keeps your audience reading.

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Gray Heroes

27 June 2013

From Dave Farland:

I once got a letter from a reader who asked about heroes and villains that switch roles in a book. The author pointed out that at one time I mentioned that in most cases we don’t get too deep into the mind of a villain. As authors, we avoid penetration in villains.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First, it can be disturbing and distasteful. I have a brother who has worked as a detective, and on a couple of occasions he had talked to me about interviews that he has done with child molesters. I can tell you with great certainty that I wouldn’t want to spend any time at all in the head of one of them, and if your audience is subjected to a revolting character for too long, they will set the book aside.

The second reason to avoid deep penetration in a villain is that it can undercut the surprise in your story. For example, let’s say that we have a villain who devises a complex plan to, say, murder an enemy king. If you as an author get deep into the villain’s head, if you reveal too many details of that plan, you can take the element of surprise out of the story.

Please note, though, that this can also work for the story. It can get the reader to wondering, “Gosh, how is the hero going to get out of this one?” So you can basically give up some surprise in order to raise the level of suspense. So often in storytelling, we must sacrifice one effect in order to gain another.

. . . .

First, pay close attention to your characters’ motivations. Your hero can win the hearts of the readers early, and so long as his actions are understandable, the reader will follow him down a dark road for quite a long way. So you have to keep that deep point of view in your hero. Now, with your villain, you might start out with him using only shallow penetration, but then move into deep penetration as you go. Show why the villain is doing what he does. Ask yourself, does he have any misguided ideals? Was he trained to be this way? Does he act out of any noble desires? Does he feel trapped into behaving as he does?

Second, with both your hero and your villains, let them apologize for their deeds. Give them good reasons for doing evil. For example, when I was a prison guard, in at least a couple of instances I saw other guards manufacture evidence in crimes in order to try to convict the inmates that they most suspected. The good guys tried to use deceit to fight crime. Meanwhile, I’ve known villains who used the law in order to gain their own ends. My own grandfather, who worked for the FBI during prohibition, hid behind his badge as he arrested smugglers on the Canadian border, and then sold the stolen goods.

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To Be (Indie) Or Not to Be

15 June 2013

From NYT best-selling author and former writing professor Dave Farland:

Many new authors write to me and ask about the virtues of self-publishing versus traditional publishing. They ask, which should I do?

The answer to that question is complicated. It depends upon several factors: what field are you going into? How old are you as a writer, and what are your expectations? What kind of person are you—someone who wants to write, or someone who is so devoted to a project that you can’t relinquish control to others?

Now, I’ve made a lot of money through traditional publishing, and I have to say that for certain fields, I still prefer it. But I suspect that I’m making most of my income this year through self-published works. So I’m not convinced that either approach is totally right.

. . . .

If you want to write a huge breakout novel in the young adult field, or in the thriller field, I’d probably go with traditional publishing. Why? Because sales in those fields are so robust, and competition is so tight, that having a good traditional publisher backing you is generally worth it.

I say that, knowing that a lot of authors in both of those fields are distraught by the “lack of support” that they get from their publishers. I hear it from thriller writers every day, and more and more from young adult writers. They may have a novel that comes out and sells very well, but by book three in their careers the sales drop so low that they feel that their career is over. And they may be right.

. . . .

What fields would I choose to go Indie for? Well, romance for one. A couple of years ago, I met a woman at a convention who told me that she had a romance novel that had won some writing contests, but the publishers felt that it couldn’t sell because it was set in the “wrong era.” I suggested that she self-publish, and she took it to heart. A year later she came and thanked me, saying, “I’ve made $5000 a month on that novel ever since it came out, and I’m getting ready to publish three more this year.”

Now, not everyone will have that experience, but advances for romance novels are often so low that she has probably made more money on that one book than she ever would have if she had gone with a traditional publisher. Over and over again, I see these kinds of results from self-published romance writers.

The same is true with self-help books. If you want to publish your book, “Divorce the Idiot in 5 Minutes,” you don’t need a publisher. You need some help creating a good online marketing scheme.

. . . .

It’s Not an Either-Or Decision

Many professional authors today have dual writing tracks. For example, my friends Kevin J. Anderson, Tracy Hickman, and Brandon Sanderson all started out with traditional publishing and still work in those careers, yet they also have some self-published works. These might include short stories or novellas, out-of-print works whose rights have reverted, or perhaps those old favorite “hard-to-sell” novels that they’ve always wanted to do.

And remember, even if you self-publish, you may find that your self-published works also attract traditional publishers. For example, my friend James Owen recently self-published “Drawing Out the Dragons: A Meditation on Art, Destiny, and the Power of Choice,” and soon found himself regaled by publishers who wanted to take it traditional. In the same way, Tracy Hickman created a new series about people living in a fantasy village—no earth-shattering wars, no high magic battles, just little personal tales. But as soon as he began to publish them, a major publisher begged for the rights, and the books appear to be doing well.

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Knowing When to End

12 June 2013

From NYT bestselling author Dave Farland:

Have you ever noticed how a television or movie series can grab you at the beginning but feel tired and “old” after a few episodes?

I loved Harry Potter when it came out, but for me at least, it became stale. I quit reading the series at book six, deciding that I’d rather see the movies, but even the last couple of movies didn’t really grip me.

. . . .

There are two reasons why tales go stale, I’m convinced. The first one is that when we first see a great movie or read a great book, we go into the story with a lot of questions. Who is our protagonist, our antagonist, our cast? What are their interesting quirks? What is the world like? What are the major conflicts? What obstacles need to be overcome?

A good writer will look for dozens of way to keep you wondering. But eventually, the questions all have to get answered. Sure, you might be able to string the audience along for a while, the way that the writers did with the television series “Lost” and “Heroes,” but eventually you have to answer the question “What’s going on?” or the audience will walk out on you. With both of those series, I felt that the writers were cheating, and I walked out early.

Once you let us know who your protagonists are and their conflicts, you enter a dangerous part of your story. You see, very often, as an author we use suspense and mystery as our draws, emotions that drag a reader into a story.

But once the reader knows what’s going on, the reader silently begins asking the question, “Do I care?”

Readers will only care about a story so long as the protagonists are likeable (what makes a protagonist likeable is a large topic in itself), and the protagonists must be going through some conflicts that grip the reader. Such questions as “Will Dan and Gina fall in love?” “Will Gina catch her mother’s killer?” and “Will Dan ever overcome his drinking problem?” all need to be answered. Once they’re answered, that story is done—forever.

. . . .

With mysteries, you’ve got a little more leeway. You can have a detective solve a crime, catch a criminal, have that criminal get released from prison or escape somehow, and then have your detective track him down again. But you can’t do it endlessly. If your killer escapes justice once, shame on him. If he does it twice, shame on your detective. At least in American fiction, the criminal would need to die after a couple of movies.

Of course, the detective can solve a new crime—as with Sherlock Holmes or Die Hard—but eventually even the most intriguing detective grows stale.

My point here is this: eventually, the story needs to be defined and the conflicts need to be resolved. Once those two things happen, your series is done. Period.

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Writing Out a Great Scene

31 May 2013

From New York Times bestselling author Dave Farland:

A couple of minutes ago I had an idea for a great scene for the novel I’m currently working on. I’m going to go begin writing it within the hour.

Twenty years ago, I would have taken a different tact. I would have waited for the idea to “ferment,” to age like a fine wine. The idea being that when you have a new idea for a scene, very often it isn’t easily integrated into a novel, and so you would want to think about it, let everything settle, and then begin to compose.

For example, let’s say that you have an idea for a story. It’s about a loving mother who becomes depressed about her life. Her mother passed away when she was a child, and she has often felt so cast adrift that she has wondered if she should have died instead. Now, at age 33, she is a young single mother who has been diagnosed with heart failure, and she realizes that her two children, ages two and four, are most likely going to repeat the cycle. So she decides that she is going to take her children and throw them off a bridge, then jump off and drown with them.

Okay, so you think about that big climactic suicide scene and the things that could possibly happen, and each time that you think about this novel, that one big climax seems to loom in the foreground of your imagination. It’s like an old record that is skipping, replaying the same fragment of song over and over.

Meanwhile, there are dozens of other minor scenes begging for your attention.

. . . .

But as you try to populate your story with various scenes, you realize that each one will affect what happens in your climax.

. . . .

So, I used to wait. I’d try to populate the story with minor scenes, then wrap everything up in one round. But I’ve found that if I wait, I might spend an awful long time trying to develop those few key scenes. Each novel needs between 70 and 100 scenes, but I’d find myself going over half a dozen of the biggest ones, unable to progress. My creative energy got spent rehashing the same scene over and over, often with very minor twists.

So now I recommend that you write out those big scenes early. Once you do, your creative mind is free to focus on those minor scenes.

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How to Reach Your Writing Zone

18 May 2013

From bestselling author Dave Farland:

For the past two posts, I’ve been speaking about how to get “zoned in,” to reach that mental state where your writing time is the most productive and where the quality of your work is at its highest. I spoke about the importance of getting rid of all external and internal distractions, and I suggested that you need to move into your writing zone slowly, often by performing writing exercises. Now comes the third step:

Step 3: Play. Shakespeare once said “The play is the thing.” I think that he understood that playing with words, with ideas, with characters in opposition—brainstorming as he wrote—that was the key to writing well.

. . . .

[W]hen you’re writing, you very often have a bunch of characters in conflict, but as you begin to write, you find that one of them feels more fascinating to you, more genuine and real than the others.

New writers will often complain at that point that a secondary character has “taken over” the story, yet I sometimes wonder if they haven’t really just “found” the true story, the one that feels deepest and most important to them. Many times I’ve found that the author in such cases is writing about a heroic character that is larger than life. The protagonist feels hokey and shallow. It’s when the writer begins exploring a minor character that the tale comes to life for them.

. . . .

So as you play, you begin to discover the story that you most want to tell. Characters come alive, and you find yourself envisioning scenes that you never intended to include in your tale. Fresh new themes suggest themselves, and that requires even further departure from your original plans.

In short, it is not until we begin playing in the woods of our subconscious that we can find ourselves lost in them.

. . . .

The subconscious mind, which resides in the right hemisphere of the brain in most people, spends a great deal of time trying to make sense of emotional issues. It’s constantly trying to help us resolve issues related to frightening images, powerful sexual urges, or unkind words. It tries to alert us to dangers that the conscious mind is too preoccupied to deal with. That’s what happens in humans. We have two brains connected with a little bundle of fibers, and so each of the brains works somewhat independently. As artists, we’re trying to tap into the reservoir of wisdom locked in the creative part of our mind. But that can’t happen if we’re feeling stressed, if our subconscious is trying to deal with other issues. If it’s already working overtime, you’re not going to be able to get much out of it.

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