David Farland

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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