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.

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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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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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