David Farland

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


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

Your Writing Name

19 December 2013

From NYT bestselling author and former writing professor Dave Farland:

Many authors would never consider using a pseudonym. Their identity is intimately tied to their name, and they long to see it in print, even if it’s a name as silly as Ernest Lee Funklemeyer.

For me, a name is a brand. Choosing an author’s name is more like choosing the brand name for your new line of automobiles. Sorry, I don’t really get a thrill about seeing my name in print. Maybe I did twenty-five years ago, but it really wasn’t that important to me.

I use David Farland for my writing name, but I was raised as Dave Wolverton, and wrote my first dozen novels under that name. Why did I switch? There were a couple of reasons: When I wrote my third novel, I got a glowing review which advised people to “make sure to look on the bottom shelf at your bookstore, where Dave Wolverton’s novels are likely to be found. . .” My heart sank.

You see I had read an article a few years earlier, in which marketers for Campbell’s soup had found that 92% of all people would not bend over to pick up their favorite flavor of soup from the bottom shelf at a supermarket. People prefer to buy their goods at eye level. Which meant, of course, that no writer wants to be on the bottom shelf. By using the name Wolverton, I was losing a huge number of potential sales!

. . . .

It was a gamble, but I chose a new moniker, and hit #1 on the science fiction and fantasy bestseller lists. I’ve written under the Farland name ever since.

. . . .

1) Don’t choose a name that will put your books next to another huge authors. For example, I wouldn’t want to be shelved next to books by John Grisham. Why? Because every time that he releases a new book, then the bookstore employees have to make room for it, and they will do it by removing other books from the shelf. If you happen to be close to him, the stores will be returning your novels for a refund. It will cripple your career.

. . . .

3) Don’t choose a name that is difficult or impossible to pronounce. Some foreign names are difficult for readers, so I chose one that I believed would be easy for people to say.

Link to the rest at David Farland

Timeless Fiction

16 November 2013

From NYT bestselling author and former writing professor Dave Farland:

Those of us who went through university literature programs often spend a great amount of energy studying “the classics.” It is something that I recommend for anyone who wants to write: Go and learn from the best writers who have ever been. Learn everything they knew about writing, and then bring their techniques to your own work.

The writers that you emulate should also include the modern masters. These are writers that aren’t found in ancient libraries but whose works grace current magazines and can be found on the racks at the finest gas stations everywhere.

. . . .

Yet most of the authors of “timeless classics” weren’t trying to write timeless classics. They were living in their own day, trying to write “timely” fiction, which often addressed social or personal problems that have long passed. Dickens, for example, excoriated the workhouse ethic of his time. Twain struggled with the narrow-mindedness of nineteenth century racists. Shelley worried about the moral problems raised by advances in ancient medicine. Steinbeck championed socialist ideals, and so on.

In fact, I suspect that most “timeless” authors never considered the possibility that their works might be studied and admired by future generations.

Link to the rest at David Farland

Taking Advantage of the Strength of Your Novel

26 September 2013

From NYT bestseller and long-time writing professor Dave Farland:

There are dozens of techniques that you can use to bring a scene to life. One of the best is quite simple: to make sure that you expose the inner thoughts of your protagonist. A movie can bring a story to life by showing us the outer world of the characters. That’s its strength. But a novel can be far more powerful simply because it goes where a movie can’t. It fuses the exterior world and the interior world seamlessly. Let me give you an example of this.

Steven Savile published a novel that I quite enjoyed called Silver. It begins with Judas Iscariot trying to redeem himself after betraying Jesus, and goes on to deal with a cult of his followers in modern day.

. . . .

So here is a passage from the opening of Silver. Notice how Steven gets deep penetration into the thoughts of his character, uniting the inner world, the outer world, and the narrative action seamlessly into his passages:

One garden had a serpent. The other had him.

There was a fractured beauty to it; a curious symmetry. The serpent had goaded that first betrayal with honeyed words, the forbidden fruit bitten, and the original sin on the lips of the first weak man. His own betrayal had been acted out from behind a mask of love, again on the lips, and sealed with a kiss. Both betrayals were made all the more ugly by the beauty of their surroundings. That was the agony of the garden.

Iscariot felt the weight of silver in his hand.

Do you see how he does it? Savile could have used internal dialog to explicate Judas’s feelings, telling us how Judas thought. Instead he chooses to use an extended metaphor, turning the Garden of Gethsemane into Garden of Eden, seeing himself in the role of Satan. The metaphor works so much better than simple inner dialog for a number of reasons. It unifies the past and the present, the character’s inner world and the outer world.

Link to the rest at David Farland

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