“Dedicated to helping you create strong, vibrant, and beautiful fiction”
– David Farland, award-winning author, international bestseller
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Last year I visited the Salt Lake Comic Con. In one panel, I was asked, “Who inspired you to become a writer.” I’ve been asked that question many times before, so I knew the answer, but before I could speak up, I had a realization: More than anyone else, I inspired myself.
Let me explain. Certainly there were a number of authors that I revered as a teen. Tolkien was foremost, but I’m not sure that his work played much of a role in my formation as a writer. He never once called me and asked, “How is that manuscript coming, Dave?”
In fact, I suspect that if I’d never read Tolkien, I’d still have found some other writer who inspired me just as well. Perhaps it would have been Richard Bach, or Frank Herbert, or any of a dozen other popular authors. In retrospect, I realize that it was an innate tendency.
As a child of about 8, I once spent a month drawing a picture that covered some 40 sheets of paper. It showed thousands of knights on horses in battle, in a bloody war. My mother was quite upset by my obsession with it, and went so far as to call in a psychologist to watch me. He was a soft-spoken man who gently asked what I was drawing. I explained that the sides were evenly matched, but if you looked into the center of the picture, you could see where the balance was shifting to the “good guys.” I asked him which knight was his favorite, and he picked one of my own favorites, so I thought that he was a great guy.
After the doctor went into the adjoining room, my mother asked the doctor, “Is he crazy?” The psychologist said kindly, “No, he’s not crazy at all. Congratulations: you have an artist!”
A few years later, I was cleaning a fish tank when I noticed that the colored gravel in the bottom could be used to create a picture. So I cleared off the table and began making mosaics with colored bits of gravel, then I glued them onto boards. I did this off and on for a year, at least, with something of a crazed enthusiasm.
At the age of 16, I turned to sculpting with just as much gusto.
At about that time, one of my teachers in high school warned me, “You’re a writer. You’re going to have to deal with that.” She was very serious about it, almost sad. I enjoyed writing, but I kept thinking that I would go ahead in pre-med and become a doctor.
Then at the age of 21, I suddenly burst out in poetry and began writing more aggressively. I couldn’t keep it contained.
I suspect that I was born to do art of some kind.
Kevin J. Anderson has said, “My muse isn’t a beautiful spirit who whispers ethereally into my ear—she’s a nagging harpy that grabs me by the throat and screams ‘Do it now’!”
Shakespeare isn’t likely to text you today and ask you to get going. Neither is Yeats or Faulkner or Hemingway.
So tap into your love of creating. Be your own inspiration.
All of my writing workshops over at MyStoryDoctor.com are 25% the holiday season.
As a writer, I know that reviews can help, but they don’t make or break sales. I’d much rather have a great cover and no reviews than a moderate cover and fantastic reviews. Only about 10% of the readers take reviews into consideration.
I’m also hesitant to ask other authors for reviews. As an author, I’m asked to review far too often. I usually get at least two requests per week, but I often get more than that. The truth is, that like most authors, I can’t do that many. Part of it is just the time that it takes. To read a book, even for pleasure might take as much as 20 hours (I like long fantasies). If I read two a week, that would be a solid workweek that I’d lose. Economically, there is just no way that I can afford it.
The other limitation is physical. I work on my computer for ten hours or more per day, and I’m always suffering from eye fatigue. Add in that I’m getting old (I had cataract surgery on both eyes), and I find that the eyesight is worse than ever. So when I do have free time, I prefer activities that force me to look at things at greater distance, so that I rest my eyes.
It’s not just the eyestrain that I worry about, it’s the inactivity. You can only take so much sitting down or relaxing per day. My hobbies are: taking long walks, working out, mowing the lawn, and so on. In other words, I try to get in at least an hour of vigorous physical activity per day.
Last of all, I don’t enjoy reading books all of the time. Yes, I could read while I’m on the treadmill, but I do have to give my mind a break.
Most older authors are in my shoes. Yet new authors are still looking to get their works reviewed. So where do you go?
Here are a few ideas, including some that worked for me:
1) Bloggers. If you simply google “book blog,” you’ll find dozens of bloggers, and many of them are happy to read books by indie authors. You can even find lists of bloggers created by writers. Note that when you do send books to them, it often takes a couple of prods to get them to read the book and blog about it. Yet you can get dozens of reviews this way pretty easily.
Just for the heck of it, here is an example of a review that I got from a blogger for my book Nightingale. “Even without all the bells and whistles that Nightingale hides within its pages, I can assure you that this is one hell of a story. . . . David Farland’s uncanny ability to write an engrossing story is really what really brings it all home. I can promise you that Nightingale is unlike anything you’ve ever read or experienced before. It’s an all-encompassing, immersive experience that will draw you in and make you forget reality. If you aren’t a David Farland fan yet, you will be. You will be.”–See full review
2) You can still approach authors and ask for them. Stick to authors who have made it big in your genre, and realize that most of them will say no.
With Nightingale, I was able to get great quotes from several bestselling authors, including Brandon Sanderson, Kevin J. Anderson, Paul Genesse, and others. Did I get turned down? Of course I did, plenty of times. The more famous the author, the harder it is to even make contact.
But sometimes you get lucky. James Dashner, who did The Mazerunner, said: “Nightingale is thrilling ride of a novel with plenty of twists, action, and amazing characters. I burned through it. Highly recommended!”
3) Check with local newspapers and magazines to see if they will review your book. The magazines typically want to get the book about six months before it goes to publication, and some newspapers also want lead time. Not many newspapers even do book reviews anymore, so realize that they’re probably feeling overwhelmed, too. Most large newspapers will not review indie books at all. Sometimes the review won’t come out for months after your book does.
Here’s a nice one from a small paper, reviewing the iBook version: “The digital pages of Nightingale promise adventure, sacrifice, and an unexplored world. Author David Farland does not disappoint. . . . An exciting new urban fantasy with vivid settings and a unique twist on the paranormal, Nightingale is unlike anything you’ve ever read/heard/seen. Don’t miss it.”- The Islander News
4) Mine your fans. Sometimes the best reviews simply come from fans of the book—people who post reviews on Goodreads or Amazon.com. These tend to be genuine, heartfelt reviews, the kind that a friend might give when telling another friend about your book.
Here’s an excerpt from one that I thought was funny: “It’s High School Musical falling in love with Twilight and having Harry Potter babies. I Love, love, loved everything about it. Highly recommended.” A. Benson
5) Awards. If you enter your books for awards consideration and you happen to win, the presenters will often send out a press release with a mention of your book.
I won several awards for Nightingale, including the Hollywood Book Festival Award for Best Book of the Year. Here is their quote: “Despite its fantastic premise, the book is a touching tale of the dreams and hopes of a young man abandoned at birth and making his way in the world.”—HollywoodBookFestival.com
6) Paid reviews. Kirkus, for example, has long reviewed books for publishers, as has Publisher’s Weekly. Kirkus has been reviewing indie authors, for a fee, for several years now. I believe that PW now does it, too. As you approach these companies, be careful. They don’t guarantee that they’ll give you a rave review, and I know authors who have been very disappointed when they get a review that turns out to be less than kind. Generally, a paid review might cost between $200 and $500.
Some companies that offer reviews are dishonest. I saw an ad a few months ago from a company that offered “Five-star reviews” for only a couple hundred bucks. The reviewer would go online and post perhaps hundreds of positive reviews for a fee. Those companies are not only immoral, it is illegal to run one. Stay away from them. Last year, a reviewer who sold five-star reviews by the thousands got closed down by the Feds, and the owner is looking at prison time.
I’ve never tried paid reviews before, so I can’t give an example.
7) The unsolicited reviews. Sometimes, usually long after the book has come out, you will get unsolicited reviews from promoters. For example, once Barnes & Noble put Nightingale on their “top picks” list, and just last week, iBooks did the same. While those two actions didn’t give the book any new quotes to use, a site called Hypable.com gave us a shout out on Christmas Eve. Their review of the ibook praised the novel itself, along with the soundtrack and the hundreds of illustrations, and called it, “the ultimate enhanced novel.”
8) Celebrities. Is there an actor, a sports figure, a general, a scientist, or some other celebrity that might work well as an advocate for your book? Sometimes these people can really help.
I’ve never used a celebrity to advertise a book, but I’ve thought about it. I’d love to get a thumbs-up from Justin Bieber. I based my physical description of Bron on Justin.
You out there, Justin? I’ve got a free book with your name on it!
So there are a lot of places that you can go to look for quotes. It is likely to take more time and more work than you think. Don’t get carried away. And don’t send your book out until it is absolutely ready!
We have a NaNoWriMo special going on for my writing workshops at www.mystorydoctor.com. Use code “nanowrimo” to get 20% off any of my workshops this month. It’s also a great deal for gift giving.
I was recently a special guest on the Hide and Create podcast. Check it out here.
As the lead judge for one of the world’s largest writing contests, I read a lot of stories. Very seldom do I see a completely unique concept for a tale. For example, I see a lot of stories that have vampires or werewolves or superheroes in them. I see tales about interstellar races, cloning, haunted houses, and so on.
Sometimes it feels as if every idea is so old, it must be worn out. Yet that isn’t so. If you look at some of the bestselling novels of all time, you’ll see that they are based on ideas that are a bit faded. For example, Tolkien’s work was based in part upon Germanic folktales and Celtic myth. His orcs, ogres, elves and dwarves and wraiths had all appeared in literature for centuries. Yet somehow he managed to re-invent them enough so that they felt . . . original.
Many authors had written stories about kids going to wizard schools, but none did it as well as Rowling.
Similarly, many people have written stories about vampires, but Stephenie Meyer managed to capture a whole generation by making them her own.
It is possible to be too original. Imagine that I wrote a novel set on an alien world, with completely alien animals and plants. I might create tape-worm people as protagonists, fighting a war with sentient slime molds. But in writing such a story, the truth is that it would be almost impossible to capture a large audience. Most readers would find that I was stretching their imaginations well beyond the breaking point.
As authors, we need to meet our readers halfway. Readers crave originality. As is often said by singing judges on The Voice, “The same is lame.” If a vocalist simply tries to copy someone else’s song, they may do excellent, but it will still sound just like karaoke.
On the other hand, we don’t want too much originality in our singing. A musician might be able to incorporate a lot into a performance—animal sounds, whistles, scat, yodels, snorts, grunts, various slapping and drumming sounds—and end up being so original that the audience doesn’t even recognize it as singing.
The same is true with writing. Even though readers crave originality, they need to deal with ideas and inventions that aren’t mind-boggling. Thus, the most popular writers tend not to use the most original ideas, they instead tend to make them their own.
How do you make an idea your own? I think that you have to invest yourself into it fully. You have to reinvent it.
Several times this year I’ve seen novels that have the Alfar—elves—in a science fiction setting. For a couple of the novels, the Alfar was just another race of space travelers. I worried each time I see that idea that it has just been done to death, that no editor will take it.
But last week I came across a writer who has written a few books on Norse history, herbalism, and magic. His name is Hugh B. Long, and his works using the Alfar in space are . . . different, more fully realized than others I’ve seen. He’s taken the worlds of ancient Norse mythology and reimagined them as military science fiction, where elves are futuristic explorers who once visited Earth, and now mankind must unite with them to fight a common enemy.
I think that he is succeeding in taking a concept and really developing it into something new, making it his own. There’s a possibility that his works could grow into a hit.
Here is a link to his first novel.
Just remember: “The same is lame.” If you’re going to base a story around a familiar concept, one that others have used often, you need to really own the idea, twist it in a way that makes it new. Then, you need to create an intriguing plot and write the story beautifully, so that it becomes the very best of its kind.
We have a NaNoWriMo special going on for my writing workshops at www.mystorydoctor.com. Use code “nanowrimo” to get 20% off any of my workshops this month.
A few times in the past week, people have asked questions such as, “If there were just one thing that I needed to know to become a great writer, what would it be?” Or, I might get asked, “If there were just one writing course that I should take, which one would it be?”
I often feel that those writers are looking for a “silver bullet,” a magical weapon to kill a werewolf.
There are several problems with that question.
1) It presupposes that there even is an answer.
2) Is presupposes that I know you well enough to figure out the answer.
There’s a lot that goes into writing. As you begin writing, you move from one plateau to another. You might start out as a rank amateur, move quickly up to nearly publishable, go on to become a bestseller or an award-winner, and hopefully even write a novel in the “landmark” category, one that is considered an all-time great.
But there are literally dozens of skills that you might need to develop to move from one level to another. Yesterday I sent out a kick that talked about roughly 60-70 things to consider when looking at your story—and it doesn’t go through them all.
Seven years ago, I started my blog in preparation for writing a book, The Fine Art of Storytelling. Since then, I’ve written well over three thousand pages of advice. (You can get 380 of those pages of advice free if you download my free book “Inspirations” at www.mystorydoctor.com). I’ve answered a lot of questions over the years, and to my way of thinking, there isn’t a single silver bullet in all those thousands of pages.
Instead, it’s more like an arsenal of weapons. I’ve got a few tanks, some bazookas, some anti-aircraft missiles, some fuel-air bombs, some machine guns, a few swords and daggers, and boxes of bullets—but nothing alone that will take out a werewolf.
There isn’t a single piece of information, or even a single course, that will turn anyone into a great writer. There’s just too much to know.
That’s why I recommend that if you’re going to study writing, you study with a lot of people. Each teacher has a slightly different set of weapons and strategies.
Then of course, one has to wonder, “Is there even a single piece of advice that will propel you to the next level?”
Well, there might be. A lot of people develop some great skills, and if I look at their work, sometimes I will find a single thing that they need to work on.
But the question presupposes that even if I study their work for days, I can find that information. Telling a story beautifully often requires an author to understand dozens of principles, and then to invent and develop a tale in a way that no one else can.
In other words, you bring to the writing game your own unique inspiration, insights and gifts. Ideally, as an editor and writer, I can help you get where you need to go, but there is always a bit more to learn.
In other words, hopefully, I can help you make learn how to craft your own silver bullets.
We have a NaNoWriMo special going on for my writing workshops at www.mystorydoctor.com. Use code “nanowrimo” to get 20% off any of my workshops this month.
When I was in college, I wrote a story and—on the advice of my professor—entered it into a competition. It won third place, and as I considered my fifty dollars, I realized that I had made over twice the minimum wage writing that story. So I wondered, “If I worked harder, could I win more money?”
I was going to school full time and didn’t have a job, so I set a goal to win first place in a writing competition. In order to boost my changes, I decided to enter several contests. I worked for several months and entered them all within a couple of weeks. To my surprise, I won all six of the writing contests, including the International Writers of The Future Contest.
When I went to receive my award atop the World Trade Center, several editors approached me and asked to see my first novel. The outline interested the editors enough to start a small bidding war, and within a couple of days, I got a three novel contract. I went on to get rave reviews for that first novel and won a Philip K. Dick Memorial Special Award for it. I stayed on Locus’s Science Fiction Bestseller list for five months, and that helped set the tone for my career.
So, how did I win those contests? Well, I started by making a list of lists of ways that a judge might look at my work. For example, some judges might look for an ending that brought them to tears, while another might be more interested in an intellectual feast.
Recently, several people have asked me to share my list. I no longer have that original document, but here is a list of things that I might consider in creating a story that I want to use as an entry to a contest—or for a novel that I want to submit to a publisher.
First, a word of warning. When I was very young, perhaps four, I remember seeing a little robot in a store, with flashing lights and wheels that made it move. To me it seemed magical, nearly alive. My parents bought it for me for at Christmas, and a few weeks later it malfunctioned, so I took a hammer to it and pulled out the pieces to see what made it work—a battery, a tiny motor, some small colored lights, cheap paint and stickers.
Your story should feel magical and alive. It should be more than the sum of its parts. So as I list these parts, be aware that a great story is more than any of these.
My goal with my settings is to transport the reader into my world—not just through the senses, but also emotionally and intellectually. I want to make them feel, keep them thinking. This can often be done by using settings that fascinate the reader, that call to them.
1) Do I have unique settings that the reader will find intriguing? In short, is there something that makes my setting different from anything that the reader has seen before?
2) If my setting is in our world, is it “sexy” or mundane. (People are drawn to sexy settings. Even if we place a story in a McDonald’s, we need to bring it to life, make it enjoyable.)
3) Do I have any scenes that would be more interesting if the setting were moved elsewhere? (For example, let’s say that I want to show that a king is warlike. Do I open with him speaking to his counselors at a feast, or on the battlefield?)
4) Do I suffer by having repetitive settings? For example, if I set two scenes in the same living room, would one of them be more interesting if I moved it elsewhere?
5) Do my descriptions of settings have enough detail to transport the reader?
6) Did I bring my setting to life using all of the senses—sight, sound, taste, feel, smell, hot/cold?
7) Do my character’s feelings about the setting get across?
8) Do I want to show a setting in the past, present, and suggest a future? (For example, I might talk about a college’s historical growth and importance, etc.)
9) Can a setting be strengthened by describing what it is not?
10) Does my setting resonate with others within its genre?
11) Do my settings have duality—a sometimes ambiguous nature? (For example, my character might love the church where she was married, have fond memories of it, and yet feel a sense of betrayal because her marriage eventually turned ugly. So the setting becomes bittersweet.)
12) Do my settings create potential conflicts in and of themselves that aren’t explored in the text? (If I have a prairie with tall grass and wildfires are a threat, should I have a wildfire in the tale?)
13) Do my characters and my societies grow out of my setting? (If I’ve got a historical setting, do my characters have occupations and attitudes consistent with the milieu? Beyond that, with every society there is almost always a counter-movement. Do I deal with those?)
14) Is my setting, my world, in danger? Do I want it to be?
15) Does my world have a life of its own? For example, if I create a fantasy village, does it have a history, a character of its own? Do I need to create a cast for the village—a mayor, teacher, etc.?
16) Is my setting logically consistent? (For example, let’s say that I have a merchant town. Where would a merchant town most likely be? On a trade route or port—quite possibly at the junction of the two. So I need to consider how fully I’ve developed the world.)
17) Is my setting fully realized? (Let’s say I have a forest. What kinds of trees and plants would be in that forest? What kind of animals? What’s the history of that forest? When did it last have rain or snow? What’s unique about that forest? Etc.)
18) Do I describe the backgrounds (mountains, clouds, sun, moon), along with the middle ground (say a nearby building) and the elements nearest to my protagonist.
19) Does my setting intrude into every scene, so that my reader is always grounded? (If I were to set my story in a field, for example, and I have men preparing for battle, I might want to have a lord look up and notice that buzzards are flapping up out of the oaks in the distance, already gathering for the feast. I might want to mention the sun warming my protagonist’s armor, the flies buzzing about his horse’s ears, and so on—all while he is holding an important conversation.
20) Are there any settings that have symbolic import, whose meanings need to be brought to the forefront?
I want my characters to feel like real people, fully developed. Many stories suffer because the characters are bland or cliché or are just underdeveloped. We want to move beyond stereotypes, create characters that our readers will feel for. At the same time, we don’t want to get stuck in the weeds. We don’t want so much detail that the character feels overburdened and the writing gets sluggish.
So here are some of the checkpoints I might use for characters.
1) Do I have all of the characters that I need to tell the story, or is someone missing? (For example, would the story be stronger if I had a guide, a sidekick, a love interest, a contagonist, hecklers, etc.? (Note: if you don’t recognize those character types, Google dramatica.com.))
2) Do I have any characters that can be deleted to good effect?
3) Do I have characters who can perhaps be combined with others? For example, let’s say I have two cops on the beat. Would it work just as well with only one cop?
4) Do my characters have real personalities, depth?
5) Do my characters come off as stock characters, or as real people?
6) Do I know my characters’ history, attitudes, and dress?
7) Does each character have his or her interesting way of seeing the world?
8) Does each character have his or her own voice, his own way of expressing himself?
9) Are my characters different enough from each other so that they’re easily distinguished? Do their differences generate conflict? Remember that even good friends can have different personalities.
10) Have I properly created my characters’ bodies—described such things as hands, feet, faces, hair, ears, and so on?
11) Do each of my characters have their own idiosyncrasies?
12) Do I need to “tag” any characters so that readers will remember them easily—for example, by giving a character a limp, or red hair, or having one who hums a great deal?
13) How do my characters relate to the societies from which they sprang? In short, are they consistent with their own culture in some ways? And in what ways do they oppose their culture?
14) What does each of my characters want?
15) What does each one fear?
16) What things might my character be trying to hide?
17) What is each character’s history? (Where were they born? Schooled, etc.?)
18) What is my characters’ stance on religion, politics, etc.?
19) How do my characters relate to one another? How do they perceive one another? Are their perceptions accurate, or jaded?
20) Does each character have a growth arc? If they don’t, should they?
21) How honest are my characters—with themselves and with others? Should my readers trust them?
22) What would my characters like to change about themselves? Do they try to change?
23) Do my characters have their own family histories, their own social problems, their own medical histories, their own attitudes? Do we need a flashback anywhere to establish such things?
One of the surest ways to engage our audience is through conflicts. When a conflict is unresolved, and when the audience is waiting breathlessly for its outcome, the reader’s interest will become keen. They’ll look forward to the resolution unconsciously, and may even be thinking, “Oh, this is going to be good!” That state of arousal is called “suspense,” and it’s perhaps the most potent element of a tale.
1) What is the major conflict in my story?
2) Do I have proper try/fail cycles for it?
3) Is the major conflict resolved in a way that satisfies the readers?
4) Is it universal enough so that the readers will find it interesting? (Note that a conflict becomes far more interesting to a reader if it is something that he must deal with in his own life.)
5) Have I brought the conflicts to life through the incidents that I relate? In other words, are their ways to deepen or broaden the main conflict?
6) Do I have secondary conflicts? Most stories require more than one conflict. For example, a protagonist will often have an internal conflict as well as an external conflict. He may also have a love interest. He might have conflicts with nature, with God, and with his companions. So as an author, I must create a host of conflicts and decide how each one grows and is resolved.
7) How do my characters grow and change in order to overcome the conflicts?
8) Do my characters perhaps decide to adapt to a conflict, struggle to live with it rather than beat it?
9) How ingenious are my character attempts to solve their problems? Ingenuity often adds interest.
10) How driven are my characters to resolve their conflicts? Characters who will go to extremes are needed.
11) Do I have any namby-pamby attempts that I should delete? For example, if I have a protagonist whose main problem is that she doesn’t have the nerve to talk to her boss about a problem at work, should I strike that entire try/fail cycle? (The answer is that almost always you should strike out the scenes and replace it with something better.)
12) Is my hero equal to or greater than his task at the start of a tale? If so, then my hero needs to be weakened so that we have a better balance.
13) Does my protagonist ever get betrayed?
14) Does my protagonist have an identity conflict? At the heart of every great story is a character who sees himself as being one thing—charming, heroic, wise—while others around him perceive him as being something else—socially wanting, cowardly, foolish.
15) Do I have enough conflicts to keep the story interesting?
16) Should some of the minor conflicts be deleted, or resolved? (Remember that not all conflicts need to have try/fail cycles.)
Themes in the story might be called the underlying philosophical arguments in your tale. A story doesn’t need to have a theme in order for it to be engaging. Likeable protagonists undergoing engaging conflicts is all that you need in order to hold a reader. But a tale that tackles a powerful theme will tend to linger with you much longer. Indeed, such tales can even change the way that a reader thinks, persuade him in important arguments. Shakespeare made every story an argument, and the “theme” was the central question to his tale.
Some people will suggest that dealing with themes is “didactic.” Don’t be fooled. Those same writers will put themes in their own works, and usually they’re taking stands that oppose yours. For example, if you argue that morality is innate and central to what a human is, they’ll argue that it’s situational and we’re all just animals. They don’t oppose the idea of stories having themes; they may just be opposed to your views. So make sure that your arguments are rigorous and persuasive.
1) Can I identify themes that I consciously handled?
2) Are there themes that came out inadvertently?
3) How universal are my themes? How important are they to the average reader?
4) Are there themes that need to be dealt with but aren’t? For example, if I have a policeman who is going to take a life, does he need to consider how he will feel about that?
5) Are there questions posed or problems manifested that bog the story down and need to be pulled?
6) Do my characters ever consciously consider or talk about the main themes? Should they?
7) Do my characters need to grapple with important questions? If not, perhaps they should.
8) Do my characters change at all due to the influence of new ideas or beliefs?
9) If my theme is going to “grow,” become more important as the story progresses, do I need to add or modify scenes in order to accommodate that growth? In other words, do I need to let the theme help shape the tale?
10) As your character grapples with a theme, does he find himself led down false roads? For example, let’s go back to our cop. Let’s say that he shoots a boy at night, and feels guilty when he discovers that the boy wasn’t really armed. What the cop thought was a gun turns out to have been a cell phone. Would other characters try to influence him? Perhaps a senior officer might take him out to get a drink—because alcohol has been his salvation for 20 years. Another officer might suggest that the kid was trying to commit suicide by cop, and our protagonist that he ‘did the kid a favor,’ and so on.
11) Does my character ever have to synthesize a thematic concept—come to grips with it intellectually and emotionally, so that it alters the character’s behavior?
Your “treatment” is the way that you handle your story. The number of items that come into play in your treatment is so long, I can’t get into all of them. We would need get down to the real nitty-gritty of putting a sentence together.
You’ll want to create your own list of items to look for in your treatment. If you notice for example that you’re creating a lot of long, compound sentences in a row, you might make it a goal to vary your sentence length. If you find that you’re using weak verbs, you may want to go through your tale and search for instances of “was” and “were.” If you find yourself using the word “then,” you might want to go through in your edits and make sure that incidents in your tale are related in sequential order, so that you don’t need the word “then.” If you find yourself stacking modifiers in front of nouns and verbs, you might want to watch for that in your editing. If you tend to over-describe things, you might want to watch your descriptions.
In short, whatever your own personal weaknesses are in writing, you’ll want to create a list so that you can think about them when you write.
But here are a few elements to consider in your treatment.
1) Is your tone appropriate to the tale? For example, let’s say that you want to invest a bit of humor into your story. You start it with a joke. Do you maintain the tone throughout the rest of the tale, perhaps layering the humor in, scene after scene?
2) Do each of your characters speak with their own unique voices? You’ll need to do a dialog check for each character before you’re done.
3) Do you as a narrator establish a voice for the piece, one that you maintain throughout?
4) Is every description succinct and evocative?
5) Do your descriptions echo the emotional tone of the point-of-view (POV) character?
6) Do you get deep enough penetration into your protagonist’s POV so that the reader can track their thoughts and emotions? If not, is there a good reason why you neglected to do so?
7) Is there music in your language? Do you want there to be? Ernest Hemingway once said that “All great novels are really just poetry.” With that in mind, listen to the sounds of your words. Consider changing them as needed to fit the meter and emphasis that you need.
8) Do you use enough hooks to keep your reader interested?
9) Could you strengthen the piece by using foreshadowing?
10) Do you use powerful metaphors or similes to add beauty and resonance to your work? (If not, you’re in trouble. Your competition will.)
11) Is your pacing fast when it needs to be, and slow when it needs to be?
12) Do you waste space with unnecessary words?
13) Is your diction appropriate for your audience? By that I mean, if you’re writing to a middle-grade reader, is the diction understandable to a ten-year-old.
Sometimes when you’re looking at a story, you need to think about it in “chunks.” Here are a few things that I think about when creating a tale.
1) Is the basic idea of my story original and powerful? (In a contest, entering a story with a mundane concept probably won’t get you far. For example, if you enter a story about a young man fighting space pirates, it probably won’t do well—unless you come up with some new technology or angle that sets it above all other space-pirate tales.)
2) Do you establish your characters swiftly? We should probably know whom the story is about within a scene or two, and we should probably be introduced in a way that tells us something important about the characters.
3) We also need to establish the setting in every single scene.
4) Do you get to the inciting incident quickly and cleanly? (The inciting incident is the place where the protagonist discovers what his main conflict is going to be.)
5) Are there any storytelling tools that I could use to make this tale better. (For a discussion of storytelling tools, see my book “Million Dollar Outlines,” which is available at www.davidfarland.com/shop.)
6) Does my story escalate through the following scenes, with conflicts that broaden and deepen?
7) Does my story resolve well? Do I have a climax that really is exciting? Is the outcome different from what the audience expects?
8) Do I tackle all of the resolutions in a way that leaves the reader satisfied?
Writing a story can be an exhausting exercise—intellectually challenging and emotionally draining. When you’re in the throes of it, it may seem daunting. But you’re never really done until the outcome feels magical, and if you take care of all the little things that you should, the outcome will indeed seem wondrous.
Sometimes you’re not in the mood to write, but you know that you should. Maybe you’ve set a goal and hope to reach it, or you’re on a deadline. Here are a few strategies that you can use to get started:
1) You don’t know what to write? Find a writing prompt, a sentence that suggests the opening to a story, and run with it. Years ago, a writing group used a prompt that started, “There were rats in the soufflé again.” Suddenly stories about rats and soufflés appeared in magazines everywhere. You may find writing prompts online simply by Googling “Writing prompts.” But guess what, you might have writing prompts in your own subconscious. Just let something pop out. “After the horrific thunderstorm, I found an angel in the gutter by the side of the road.” “The skyfish on Lucius V drifted on the wind like an airborne jellyfish, translucent and insubstantial, with streamer-like tendrils swaying below.” What are those stories about? I have no idea. But I could start a tale with either sentence. There’s something that you want to write about. Your conscious mind just doesn’t know it, so let your subconscious do the heavy lifting.
2) You have a story you want to write, but don’t know where to start? There are several things that every story has to have—a setting, a character, a conflict, a theme. Try writing a hook to your story based upon all four of these things. One of those hooks may get you excited, and set you to writing.
3) Set a goal to do one thing stunningly. For example, you need to set your scene. So you might set a goal to simply describe the setting, to bring it to life as vividly as possible, by using evocative language, by giving it a history and a purpose, by making it fascinating. Of course, you can do the same with a character or a conflict. In fact, if you’re writing a well-rounded story, you will do all three!
4) Work on the emotional tone that you want to create. Is your story supposed to be hilarious? Write out a dry description of your setting, then bring it to life by making it humorous. Are you seeking to be horrific or mysterious? Then you would need to search for details and descriptive terms that set your tone.
5) Are you dozens of pages into a novel or screenplay? Many years ago, one of my professors, the poet Leslie Norris, said that his method for getting into a project after he had been away from it for a few days was to simply rewrite. Go back ten or twenty pages from where the story stops, and then make a pass through it, fixing any errors, and looking for ways to better the prose, adding or taking away details as needed. This lets you ease in to the writing process, so that by the time you reach the last page, you will remember what you had planned to compose next.
Did you notice that I didn’t say anything about checking your email, listening to music to search for inspiration, paying bills, or anything else that will take you away from your keyboard? Don’t let yourself be distracted. Plant your butt in your chair and write!
Matthew W. Harrill’s novel Hellbounce was a runner-up for the horror category at the Halloween Book Festival. Check out his book here.
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
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