“Dedicated to helping you create strong, vibrant, and beautiful fiction”
– David Farland, award-winning author, international bestseller
I’ve been an award-winning author for more than 25 years now, and I’ve been writing for at least thirty. I’ve written many New York Times bestsellers, and worked with such properties as Star Wars, the Mummy, and so on.
Yet every so often, I will be writing along on a tale (often with a new novel), and suddenly find myself “stuck.” I can’t seem to write another word. Most of you know what that’s like. You’ve suffered writer’s block. Some people seem to have it all of the time.
When that happens, I usually discover that I haven’t brainstormed enough. For example, it may be that I simply haven’t thought the upcoming scene through. Or maybe I realize that I don’t know one of my characters well enough. Maybe I haven’t considered a villain’s motives in depth, or perhaps I don’t know why my heroine can’t fall in love.
So I have to sit and ponder a little, think my story through.
In short, I haven’t spent enough time in the “pre-writing” phase of my story. Some of us authors are very fast at writing drafts. We might spend as little as a couple of weeks “banging out a novel.” But if you talk to a fast writer, you’re likely to find that the author has spent months or years thinking about his book before he ever begins typing the first draft.
Too often, new writers think that an idea for a novel makes a novel.
A few months ago, I met a man who asked what I did for a living. I told him that I was a writer, and he said, “I’ve got an idea for a book!” He said that if I wrote the book, he’d split the money with me 50/50. (How many of you have had that offer?)
I immediately said no. I have plenty of ideas. He then said, “Oh, well, I’ll probably never write it. But this one came to me in a vivid dream, and it feels important. So I’ll let you know my idea, and if you like it, you can have it.” He continued: “It’s about a woman with a green nose.”
“Okay,” I said hesitantly. I could see possibilities. The very fact that a woman had a green nose would be harrowing. She’d be constantly embarrassed. A green nose might be caused by an illness, perhaps. But I had to ask, “So what’s her story?”
“That’s it,” he said. “That’s all there is. She just has a green nose.”
I decided to dig deeper. “So, where is the story set?”
“A long, long time ago, I think,” he answered. “I don’t really know any more.
Well, a green nose is not enough to hold an audience through a novel. We need a lot more. We need a real setting, whether it’s a fantasy tale set in another world, or science fiction story in which the “green nose” is part of a cybernetics package, or a historical tale about a nun in the Middle Ages running a leper colony in Jerusalem.
An “idea” isn’t a story. Instead, it is more like a piece to a jigsaw puzzle. Sometimes we may have an idea come to us in a dream, but never do we get a full novel. In fact, we might have several pieces of the puzzle hit us in rapid succession.
But think about your jigsaw puzzle. Imagine that you’ve picked up a piece, one that shows a young woman with part of a startling blue eye. At the most, that piece is simply a character. In fact, it isn’t even all of a character. You might only have some chestnut hair, part of a cheek, and an eye. If you want to get the rest, you’ll have to search for the other pieces. So you begin digging through the pile, until you “find the rest of her,” a whole character. That can be an arduous process, since you’ll often overlook some of those pieces.
In fact, you may have thousands of other pieces to the puzzle. Perhaps you have lots of trees with autumn leaves in the background. That is one part of your setting. So when you’re putting the puzzle together, you would group all of the “leaf pieces” to create that background. But maybe there is a castle back there, and a lake, too, so you need to create those.
Maybe the woman is riding a horse. So now you have to group the horse pieces together. As you think about your horse, if you’re wise, you’ll recognize that that horse might be a potential character too. It can have its own personality. Maybe it’s a trophy-winning jumper, and it was a gift to her from the king.
Then you might have a young man in the puzzle, a fellow in a red cape. She’s riding toward him. You’d group those pieces together, recognizing that this young man is also important to your story.
In short, every story comes about as we consider hundreds of ideas, not just one idea. Even the briefest piece of flash fiction will require a dozen ideas.
You can make the writing of your story a lot easier if you recognize up front just how much work needs to be done.
And, oh, some of those stories are hard work! Often I’ll find that my pieces don’t fit together as seamlessly as I want. Pieces that look like they should fit together don’t, and sometimes you’ll find that you’re missing pieces, and you have to cobble something together.
So I’ve developed a system for prewriting a novel or screenplay, for thinking about my stories in advance.
As an author, I need to research and brainstorm my settings, knowing that I may have a hundred scenes in any one tale.
I need to understand my major characters—my protagonists, my antagonists, my contagonists, guides, sidekicks, love interests, and so on. So I may have to generate backgrounds for them, or come up with exterior descriptions, as well as talk about their relationships and create their voices.
I need to get a grip on my all of my conflicts—the external story that my characters are going through as well as their internal struggles. That means that I need to understand their psychology, their religious beliefs, and their societies.
Once I know all of that, I need to also understand my underlying themes are for the tale. I need to be able to answer, “What is this story really about?” Sometimes, it has several layers of meaning.
Then I have to decide how I want to handle the story. What kind of style do I want to use? Who are my viewpoint characters going to be? How do I want to handle tone? How deep shall I penetrate into character’s heads?
It’s not until I’ve considered this background material that I can begin creating a plot for my tale—pulling in all of the information that I have brainstormed and organizing it into a cohesive whole.
(By the way, my Story Puzzle course guides you through this process for anyone interested.)
My friend Ryan J. Call’s new fantasy novel, Eternal King (The Burning Prophecy Saga, Book Three), is now available on kindle. You can get it here. You should watch for special promotions on the series this month. You can get Hidden Demon (book 1) here and Firesoul (book 2) here. Firesoulwill be free on Amazon this Friday through next Tuesday (Oct 31st – Nov 4th).
Pick up a free copy of my new book Daily Meditations: Writer Tips for 100 Days on the “free stuff” tab at MyStoryDoctor.com. (You must be logged in to access it.) The book is like an archive of 100 Kicks.
Whenever you express an idea, you can look at the poetry of your language, your use of diction, your originality, and compare it to other samples of the same idea. For example, a friend of mine was telling me recently that as his mother died, she begged him, “Stay with me. It’s getting dark.”
Later, he began to notice how that same idea was expressed in many other places, under the same conditions. In a television show, a hoodlum who was shot said, “Hang with me. It’s so black out.” In a movie it was “Hold my hand. I can’t see.”
But he felt that the best “iteration” of the idea was found in a hymn, “Abide with me, ‘tis eventide.” The unusual choice of words, the poetry of the language, touched him more deeply than some of the other more common iterations.
When we look at stories, we can see that there aren’t many “new” stories. Some say that there are as few as three basic plots. We can argue about that, but you’d be hard pressed to come up with more than thirty or forty types of stories. Yet within those tales, we see thousands of iterations of various scenes—love scenes, breakups, death scenes, chase scenes, hero rejecting the call to action, and so on. So even just looking at the “building blocks” of a tale, we can find dozens of ready examples for the types of scenes that you’re working on.
But far too often as writers, we don’t think enough about our story pieces and how they compare to others. I see many young writers who make the mistake of thinking, “I imagined this, so it must be great.” In fact, if you point out a weakness to the new author, he or she may become defensive. They’re too in love with their own first idea.
So what do you do? When you’re writing–a tale, a scene, or even a sentence–challenge yourself. Ask, “How does this compare to others of its type?” If you’re writing a romance, how does it compare to Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliette?” If you’re writing a horror novel, how does it compare to the scariest novels that you’ve read?
Of course, every piece of art is unique. You may be working on a tale that doesn’t have any fair comparisons that you know of. That’s all right. You can still search your imagination and look for ways to make it more exciting, more interesting, than your original iteration.
My friend Ryan J. Call’s new fantasy novel, Eternal King (The Burning Prophecy Saga, Book Three), is now available on kindle. You can get it here. You should watch for special promotions on the series this month. You can get Hidden Demon (book 1) here and Firesoul (book 2) here.
The Superstars Writing Seminar has a Scholarship program that covers the basic cost of the seminar. Those interested must apply between November 1st and November 22nd. Learn more here
Many times as an editor, I will look at a scene and ask myself: “Does this scene belong? Does it move the story along? Does it change the story in new and exciting ways?” Too often, the answer is, “No, it’s wasted text.”
I recently looked at a novel that had a fantastic opening. The problem was, that that great opening didn’t come until fifty pages into the book. Any editor would have rejected the manuscript long before that.
Every single page was well written. The characters were fleshed out, the character’s voices and dialog were convincing, the details of setting were great.
The problem was that those first fifty pages consisted of people talking, relating their backstories, and introducing themselves to the audience, and it just didn’t work.
So here is a list of things that you might consider when trying to judge if a scene is needed:
1) Do your characters do anything, or do they just think? Too often, I will see scenes where characters just sit and think about what has happened. “How did I get in this mess?” The chances are good that this kind of scene is garbage. You’re trying to lead up to the action when you do this. Instead, let characters think while they are in action.
2) A character or a setting is introduced. This can go, too. There’s nothing wrong with introducing a character or a setting, but you need to have something happen. Nobody wants to read ten pages about grandma’s kitchen, or get an info dump about the first seventy years of her life before she ever comes on stage. That’s all backstory. Yet when starting a tale, too often that’s exactly what we get. The author begins looking for a place to open, and decides to encapsulate the main character’s life up to this point.
3) Two characters have a conversation—but nothing changes. Very often I see conversations that seem to be rather maid-and-butler, where one character says, “Gee, Bob, you know I think we have a major problem,” and the other says, “Yes, I agree.” That’s all a waste.
4) The scene happens in flashback. In many cases, authors will try to drag in some ancient history that is relevant to the story, but the story doesn’t depend upon the reader knowing the information. The question becomes, did I really need it, or was it just window-dressing.
5) The action in the scene repeats something that has happened before. For example, I’ve seen authors write a scene where Joe gets into a fight with his boss. We see Joe thinking about what he’s going to say. We then see a scene where he fights with the boss. We then see the boss repeating it from his view. We see Joe thinking about how it went. In other words, we’re shown the same fight from four different angles. In this case, the author is like a director trying to figure out how to film a scene from the best angle. He might try moving the camera a few times, but for the purpose of the story, it’s still only one scene that he needs.
When I was young, I would spend a great deal of time on a scene or a description, often to find that it just didn’t work as well as I wanted. I found that too often I was straightening the deck chairs on the Titanic.
A scene can only be justified in a few ways. Before you write a scene, ask yourself, does anything change in the course of this scene?
For example, does a character get new information that spurs him onto an unexpected course of action? An example of this might be: My CIA agent suspects that he is being followed, and takes steps to evade his pursuer—ultimately getting into a shootout. This kind of change hints of a new conflict that of course can be expanded upon.
Does the character change his mind about something? For example, perhaps your character Sarah has always thought cowboys were a bit . . . silly. Then she meets Duke, and suddenly finds herself wanting to follow him home to Wyoming. That emotional change in her, once again, leads to an expanded story.
Sometimes when a character changes his/her mind, it’s not an emotional change but an intellectual change that occurs. For example, a character might be sold on the idea of taking out a new life insurance policy by his wife . . . never dreaming that she plans for him to die in the very near future.
All in all, the chances are excellent that if nothing changes in a scene, then it can be tossed away.
Never get emotionally attached to a scene. With each scene, as you consider details of characterization, character motivation, setting, and dialog, ask yourself, “What can I cut to good effect?” Get to the heart of the story.
Get a new FREE e-book. I have a new book available for nanowrimo—100 of my favorite kicks along with inspirational quotes from other authors. Watch for it at mystorydoctor.com. You will be able to download it for free there when it is up.
If you’re looking for a little more inspiration for Nanowrimo, I currently have two books for sale in the nanowrimo bundle, which has twelve writing books for only $15. This is a fantastic deal, so check that out, too.
Last of all, we will be putting all of our workshops up for a 20% discount this week. Just enter the word “nanowrimo” as your coupon code.
In perhaps the most shocking case of plagiarism I’ve ever heard of, an elementary school teacher in Utah has been named in a lawsuit for allegedly plagiarizing the work of other authors, adding porn to the stories, and then using false identities (called “sock puppets”) to threaten and attack those who uncovered her schemes.
Few people ever commit the crime of plagiarism. It’s too easy to detect. Those who are caught generally just try to slink quietly away, perhaps to try again later. But in this bizarre case, it takes a darker twist.
The accused, a woman named Tiffanie Rushton describes herself as a Utah school teacher who has worked for the Davis County School District for 20 years, where she supervises elementary children, primarily in the third and fourth grades. She seems attractive and innocent, but online she takes on a bewildering array of dark identities.
As we reported three weeks ago, bestselling romance author Rachel Ann Nunes recently discovered that someone operating under an alias had taken one of her christian romance novels and revised it, adding pornographic elements, and was planning to release it online under the pseudonym Sam Taylor Mullens.
But when Rachel tried to get a copy of the suspicious work, she immediately found herself bombarded by a barrage of implausible lies as, under different identities, Tiffanie Rushton alternately claimed that a) the novel had been the product of her writing group, b) a man who was the coauthor had asked her to do it before he died in a car wreck, c) she was the coauthor of the work because she was the niece to Nunes and had given her the ideas, and so on.
When Nunes didn’t buy those excuses, Tiffanie Rushton began to attack Nunes using her different hidden identities. First Rushton accused Nunes of being the offending party and threatened to report her to her aunt, the CEO of Nunes’s publisher. Then Rushton threatened a blogger that she suspected would turn over evidence of her plagiarism. Then Rushton began attacking Nunes herself, writing blistering reviews of her work online on Goodreads and Amazon.com in an attempt to discredit Nunes and ruin her career.
When I suggested to Nunes that we start a GoFundMe campaign in an attempt to uncover the real name of her attacker, Rushton went to the GoFundMe site. Using various aliases, she tried to dissuade other authors from supporting Nunes by claiming that the campaign was a fraudulent attempt to get money, and in one case she said that Nunes was overreacting to another writer who only wanted to “settle the matter quietly.”
Now, let me be clear about this. This isn’t an attack on an indie author. Real authors come up with their own story ideas and slave over their work. I respect that. What Rushton did was something different. In one online chat, Rushton described herself by saying simply, “I write smut.”
There is nothing illegal in writing smut, of course, but it is illegal to steal someone else’s work and then pass it off as your own. It is illegal to cyberbully. It is illegal to create false identities to promote your own work. It is illegal to try to destroy the careers of your victims.
Oh, and while investigating, researchers found that Nunes isn’t the only victim of plagiarism here. There is an earlier novel. And under her aliases, Rushton is currently out soliciting new authors, asking them to send copies of their work for her to “review.”
Rushton has dozens of identities. Maybe you’ll recognize some of them as your own online “friends”:
Update: names have been removed by request.
Please do not send your works to her. In fact, you should be leery of anyone who goes online and solicits your novels. Ask yourself, “What will they be using them for?” So who is Tiffanie Rushton? Allegedly, under one identity she describes herself as a heroic Mormon woman who teaches disadvantaged Indian children and only writes porn by night. Yet using another identity she appears to be a bigot who disparages Mormons in general and says, “I’m glad I’m not one.” In one identity she is a teacher who tells children not to copy other’s work and not to bully. Using other identities, she’s a writer’s nightmare.
Having worked as a prison guard with a number of sociopaths, I think I know exactly what she is.
Rachel Ann Nunes has asked that you not attack or harass Tiffanie Rushton in any way.
But if you think that it is important to hold plagiarists, cyberbullies, and liars who use false advertising accountable, the best thing that you can do is to help support Rachel in her stand against plagiarism. Here is the site that is set up for this purpose. (You will notice that you can also learn more about the incident at this site.) http://www.gofundme.com/StandingAgainstPlagiarism
Please be aware that this funding campaign is mostly a symbolic gesture. We don’t know if any monies will ever be recovered. But personally, I think that this is an important step to take in order to crack down on this kind of criminal behavior.
Here’s another excellent article on the topic: http://johndopp.com/plagiarism-sam-taylor-mullens-busted/
I’d write more, but I’m on my way to the Salt Lake Comic Con this weekend. If you happen to be in the area, we will be having a special panel Saturday afternoon at the convention. The panel, “Authors Against Plagiarism and Theft,” will feature several New York Times Bestsellers; author participating include Margaret Weis, Brandon Mull, Tracy Hickman, Richard Paul Evans, Kevin J. Anderson, and myself. We will be passing around a donation jar to fund Nunes’s cause for this event.
This Saturday, join me and others as we celebrate Matthew W Harrill‘s book HELLBOUNCE at this Facebook event. I will be donating 100 copies of Nightingale and 100 copies of After a Lean Winter. Maybe you can get one. https://www.facebook.com/events/611192022321330/
You can redeem your coupon here:
Dave was in the news today. KUTV, a Salt Lake City-based television station, ran a spot on him in the evening news. You can find the video here:
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 Hemmingway’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.
Indeed, here’s a key not only to understanding characters, but to understanding people: look at anyone who is feeling anger, depression, or sadness. Look at anyone who is acting out or trying to attract attention, and you will nearly always find one common factor: the person feels frustrated. He’s not growing, not progressing. It may be that he’s frustrated with his economic fortunes, his love life, his health, but somewhere these feelings of sadness, worry, and anger are rooted in frustration.
As organisms, we feel driven to constantly progress.
A pattern emerges in many of the world’s most popular stories. Consider for example A Christmas Carol, Lord 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.
Eventually, the protagonist of course discovers evil in himself. Scrooge sees himself as a moral pauper, to his own dismay Frodo claims the Ring at the Crack of Doom, and Ender finds that he is guilty of genocide. When the protagonist recognizes that evil is not a distant thing, that it’s something within him, he is forced to either accept evil, or to change.
First he must find the strength to change himself; only afterward can he hope to affect change in the people around him and the world at large. That’s what these popular tales are all about—the journey from moral darkness to enlightenment. This enlightenment is the goal of the mythic journey, and that’s what growth literature boils down to. Growth tales can be very compelling.
But you should also know that all literature isn’t growth literature. Much literature—even some very popular literature, is about stagnation. It may let us retreat from issues of growth, and return to that safe place we all occupied before we had to grow up.
In stagnation literature, the protagonist is almost always stuck at the adolescent level. He never grows up. He doesn’t engage in adult activities—such as marriage, the raising of children, taking a day job, or caring for an elderly parent. Instead, he remains an adolescent, without responsibilities, without ever recognizing his own need for change.
Let’s take a look at a classic: Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. The name suggests a growth novel, but in this one, aliens who look curiously like Christian devils invade the world. They’re brilliant and they teach mankind a great deal. Eventually, the whole world becomes a hive-like organism in which people are but drones, and human society evolves into something new——and mankind leaves the planet. The only person left on Earth is the protagonist who refused to participate in the exodus. He remains alone and damned, the perpetual adolescent—and apparently unsure whether he has won something or lost.
In the same way, Heinlein’s characters never grow up. They like to go around saving the world, but have no day job. They recognize that everyone around them is wrong, but they’re . . . well, they’re supermen. They don’t fall in love, they just have lots of sex. In essence, his protagonists too are always trapped in the adolescent state, and they have no desire to move beyond it.
In short, growth is unimportant in these tales simply because this is “escape” literature. The story transports the reader back to a safe time in his life, to a time when the reader did not have to worry about the complexities of life, and that is a major appeal of the tale.
In case I make it sound as if only science fiction literature offers adolescent/stagnation literature, let me assure you it’s not. In fact, if you look at literary stories—the kind you read in The New Yorker—you’ll find that much of it is stagnation literature. Oh, sure, the college professor may be burdened with a wife and child, but he’s also usually out exploring sexually, discovering that his life is meaningless, and wallowing in sophomoric angst. In short, he’s an adolescent trapped in a world where he doesn’t want to grow up.
In every genre there are plenty of stagnation stories around, simply because so many people read in an effort not to confront their challenges, but to evade them.
These readers don’t want to grow up while reading fiction. Such challenges are too discomforting—the conflicts can become too personal, strike too close to home.
Think about it: ultimately, when your character reaches adulthood, he accepts personal responsibility for the world’s state of affairs and then spends the rest of his life in service to his community. In essence, he accepts a kind of death, the death of his selfish desires and dreams.
So, my challenge as a writer of growth literature is to figure out how to get beyond that. How do I sell the message that growth is good and necessary and beautiful?
That’s easy. You simply show that the community is good, that family is necessary and beautiful, so that when your protagonist sacrifices himself for these things, we as an audience see the nobility in it.
As you consider your tale, it will be up to you to decide: do I want my characters to grow or not?
Registration for my online writing workshops closes today. If interested, you can do register here