“Dedicated to helping you create strong, vibrant, and beautiful fiction”
– David Farland, award-winning author, international bestseller
Of course, as a writer, I don’t feel prolific, especially lately. I never think of myself in those terms. I do think about how to be more productive—almost every day. It started when I was young. So today I’m going to revisit some lessons from my youth.
As a child, I began working in the fields at age four, and at that time, I picked as many strawberries and beans as any other child—practically none. But my mother encouraged me to set goals for the day. She would say, “Why don’t you see if you can pick 100 pounds of beans today.” I tried it a few times and usually reached my goal by noon. (We’d start at about 7:00 A.M.) But after I reached my goal, I slacked off and played with the other kids in the fields.
When I was seven, I met an old woman who supplemented her income by picking fruits and vegetables. She was the most productive worker in the fields. On a regular day, she would harvest between 300 and 400 pounds of beans. So I got to wondering, “How does she do it?”
I began working in the row next to her one morning, determined to keep up. I found, first of all, that she kept her focus on the beans. She wasn’t watching other people or talking.
She noticed my interest and gave me a lesson. First, when reaching down to grab some beans, she would brush back the leaves from the bean stalks, exposing any beans that were hidden. So she hunted while harvesting. In short, she was multi-tasking. I soon discovered that I had only been picking about 3/4 of the beans available to me.
She also kept grabbing at beans until her hands were completely full, never pulling them free until she a got a good haul to drop into her bean bucket. In other words, I recognized that she was trying to make each movement count.
Of course she had to sit a certain way, squatting on her bean bucket with her legs spread wide enough so that she could put the beans in. She had to lean forward and stretch far enough to maximize her range. Then she would harvest two or three bushes at a time by working her way from the bottom to the top, then move the bucket three feet, harvest from bottom to top, and so on.
Moving this way hurt. The rim of the bean bucket would cut into her legs. The stretching made her back ache, and the fast labor meant that she constantly had sweat stinging her eyes. I asked her how to handle that, and her answer was simple, “Just ignore it, and keep on movin’.”
She worked relentlessly. While the kids nearby were throwing beans at each other, or singing, or taking water breaks, she was still working. She didn’t set goals to “work fifteen minutes,” she set goals to “finish the next three rows” before she would take a break.
Within a day or two of studying her techniques, I was in the 300-pound club, so that I was picking more beans than almost any of the 400 workers in the field. By the time I was eleven, my adult growth was coming in, and I soon realized that my hands were getting bigger. This allowed me to grab more beans at once, and to have a longer reach so that I didn’t have to move my bucket as far. Of course, I had to stretch further, but that was okay.
I discovered that I didn’t need a break every hour like most other kids. I could go four hours between breaks. And if I needed to go to the bathroom, well, I could hold it. So I worked every day until the sweat poured off of me, and then I kept working.
As a result, I quickly became the most productive worker in the fields, picking 500 or 600 pounds per outing. At age 11, I made more money picking beans than an average employee did working in the local sawmill.
Then I got to thinking. Why should I quit working just because everyone else limits themselves to eight-hour days? So when I got done picking beans at three, I set up other enterprises—I raised and sold pigs and calves, so I took care of them before and after work. Then I ran a newspaper route. In the evenings, I sold vegetables and candy door-to-door, or chopped wood and mowed lawns for neighbors. After sunset I worked in my father’s meat company, cleaning floors and equipment, and when I finished that at 9:00 PM, I still had time to go out and hunt for night-crawlers each night to sell to the local store as fishing bait. I normally harvested a minimum of 10 dozen per night, but sometimes caught as many as a hundred dozen in a night.
While grown men in our little town were supporting families on $3,000 per year (at $1.25 per hour for an eight-hour day), I was making closer to $8,000 per year—all while I spent most of my time in grade school.
Now, one can apply those same principles to writing.
A few years ago, I was in a car with Kevin J. Anderson, a writer who is more prolific than I am, and we passed a corner where literally hundreds of young people were loitering. They weren’t going anywhere. It was merely thousands of young people just watching cars cruise the strip. We looked at one another, and Kevin was the first to break. “How can they waste their lives like this?”
No idea. But I do know that many people who want to be writers spend too much time watching old television episodes or movies that they’ve seen ten times before. They waste hours on Facebook, or play videogames. They sit around talking. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for enjoying life, but for me a big part of that joy comes from my art.
So here’s how you start:
1) Work through the heat of the day. While others are whining or trying to figure out how to “get more comfortable” or flirting or dreaming of glory or griping about the weather or watching television or getting together for parties, keep working. Don’t look up to see what they’re doing. Focus. Make writing your #1 goal.
2) Study other productive writers. Find out how they do it. What are their working habits? Seriously, do you need to take a typing class? If you could type 30% faster, would you get more accomplished? If you could read faster, could you study more effectively? If you bought a new chair, could you work for half an hour longer per day? Should you be setting different types of writing goals? For example, would it help you to say, “Instead of writing for one hour before I take a break, I’m going to write a chapter”? (I find that it is hard to “get on a roll” with my writing, but once I’m on it, it’s easy to stay on.) What about your computer and its software—is it optimized for the job?
3) Look for time to write. Could you spend your time in the shower in the morning thinking about your novel, so that by the time you got groomed, you were ready to write? Or would it help to brainstorm a few minutes as you prepare to fall asleep? Can you eat a smaller breakfast, so that you don’t feel tired mid-morning? Can you take your computer on the subway and write on your way to work, or write during your lunch break? In other words, see if you can discover hidden moments to write.
4) Take advantage of your own gifts. As a writer, you may have some unique talents. Some writers are great at tuning out the sounds of people talking, so that they can write well when waiting at restaurants. Others might get by on very little sleep, so that they can write in the quiet hours of the night. Discover your own strengths.
To be prolific, just string together one productive day after another for an entire lifetime. It adds up!
On the door at my gym, someone hung a sign that says, “Motivation is what gets you started. Habit keeps you going.”
I began working out regularly about 20 years ago. Since then, I’ve dropped about 75 pounds, and I’ve run or walked something in neighborhood of 22,000 miles. I can’t even imagine how much I’ve lifted in weights. But think about it, if someone had said to me, “Hey, Dave, why don’t you go run 22,000 miles?” it would take an awful lot of motivation to get me going.
However, it only took a tiny bit of habit.
Writing is much the same way. A lot of us try hard to get motivated to write a novel. We try to get ourselves excited about it. But writing a novel is a lengthy process. Being motivated doesn’t help much, but developing good writing habits helps a lot.
I learned long ago that exercise is hard when you’re starting out. If you run three days, you’ll want to quit at the end of them. That’s when muscle aches and fatigue are the strongest. But if you run for a week, you’ll begin to notice that you feel better on the days that you’ve run. Soon, the day won’t feel complete without some exercise.
Writing is much the same. Jumping into a project is hard. Writing on a novel for one day doesn’t really get you very far into it. But if you try making it a habit—if you bundle all of that motivation up and say to yourself, “I’m going to write for one hour a day this week,” you’ll find at the end of that time that you just don’t really feel that your day is complete if you haven’t spent some time engaged in creative recreation.
In my writing workshops, I generally hold them for a week. I try to motivate my students to write daily during that time, if only for a couple of hours. The goal in part is teach the writers and get them to develop new skills, but just as importantly, I’m trying to get them into the habit of writing.
Quite often it works. I’ve gotten several letters from writers in the past few months where the writer has said, “Hey, Dave, I got into the habit of writing at your workshop last year, and I’ve just finished my first/second/third/fourth novel!” Whenever I see that, I always feel as if the mission has been accomplished.
So here’s the key to become a writer: use your motivation to create a writing habit. Long after you’re run out of motivation, you’ll still be writing.
I’ve said before that every story should have an emotional payoff. Yet far too often, I read stories where the payoff is weaker than it should be, or it isn’t there at all.
If you’re writing genre literature—romance, horror, wonder, comedy, thrillers, and so on—then your readers are paying you to arouse an emotional state, and as an author, you’ll succeed based on how well you succeed at creating emotions.
The problem sometimes is that as authors, we don’t want to be accused of being maudlin or sentimental in our writing. We’ve all read stories where the author tries too hard to get an emotional reaction, and so we back away from powerful material in an effort to show our own restraint.
In other cases, we just let opportunities pass us by.
So here is a little tip for the day. Let’s say that you want to create a powerful emotional climax. Imagine, for example, that you’re writing a romance. Your protagonist has fallen deeply in love with a man, and she’s nearly lost him to another woman. Now, you want to heighten that love: so when he comes back, we find that not only has he returned, he has made some significant change to his life so that she loves him more than ever. You’ve just upped the romance, and he tops it off by begging your protagonist’s hand in marriage. She says “Yes,” and then what happens?
Well, all kinds of things could happen. Too often, that’s the end of the story. But don’t you want to hold that emotion for a bit? Don’t you want to drag out the romance? After all, your reader may have spent ten hours reaching that climax. Don’t you want to give them ten minutes?
So how long is ten minutes? Well, in a book, you’ve got about 300 words per page, and the average reader happens to read about 300 words per minute. So you as a writer don’t want to stop with your heroine saying “Yes.” You want to draw out those emotional beats for a good ten pages or more.
Just as in the middle of your novel there are only three rules: Escalate! Escalate! Escalate! At the end of your novel, there are only three rules: Payoff! Payoff! Payoff!
So you look at ways to heighten the romance near the end. We spend extra time with lingering touches. We have long conversations where perhaps our love interest explains why he held back and realizes now that he was “Oh so wrong.” We confirm to the reader through detail after detail that the love is real. We show their growing love in a hundred different ways.
You don’t have to be simplistic about it. You can create duality. You can have love tinged with regret. You can show love ripening with age. You can add humor and pain and even fear to it all. In other words, it doesn’t have to be simplistic or maudlin, but you do have to give your reader time to remain emotionally engaged. With luck, the emotional payoff will remain with the reader long after he or she has closed the book.
As a contest judge, I see a lot of stories from beginning writers, and very often the writer seems to be preoccupied with just “writing.” They let their imaginations take them where they will in a scene. So they tend to overwrite in one of several ways.
They may spend time exploring the nooks and crannies of a setting, or creating entire billion-year histories. They might spend time relaying relatively unimportant information about a characters’ inner motivations, or over-writing rather trivial dialog. They may spend time playing with words, trying simply to write beautiful metaphors or working to be witty, or simply just trying to capture a mood or tone.
The results can sometimes be surprising and a bit gratifying, but most often the scene feels bloated, overwritten.
In order to avoid bloat, I often have a list of things that I think about as I prepare to write a scene.
1) What’s the purpose of the scene? For example, let’s say that I want to show that a character, let’s call him Derrick, is falling in love with Kate. How do I show that? I might decide that I want to create a moment when Derrick recognizes that she’s interesting. Maybe she says something that catches his attention—making an astute comment about people. He might think to himself, “Wow, there’s something different about this woman.” I might mention the aroma of her perfume, the translucence of her skin, or something else that attracts him. The point here is that I want to begin writing with a focus in mind, not wander around in a dragged-out conversation.
2) What changes in the scene? A scene that doesn’t advance the story in some way should most likely be cut. It’s probably extraneous to the story. So I look at what changes in my scene, how it makes the story grow. In fact, I have to ask myself, is this integral to the story? Will the story still make sense if I don’t relate this scene? Of course, sometimes the fact that things don’t change is crucial. For example, in the Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Remains of the Day, a butler sacrifices his soul for a rather foolish employer, foregoing the chances for love and happiness out of a mistaken sense of loyalty. Time and again, he has the chance to seize life by the throat—and fails. The results are both heartbreaking and instructive—and so each scene is logically justified.
3) I ask myself at the start, “How shall I ‘set’ my scene?” In every scene, we need to describe where we are with the idea of transporting the reader into the scene—using all of the senses in order to bring the scene to life. This means that we need to let the reader know what is in the background, the middle-ground, and what is close at hand. As we do that, we also have to explain who is in the scene.
4) Next I ask myself, “Who will be my viewpoint character?” Your character is the lens through which you relay the action. That means that you need to pick a viewpoint character, choosing him or her for good reasons. That normally means that you choose the one who is in the most pain, or the one who is struggling hardest to deal with a major problem, though you might also choose the character who has the most power to change the story. But you have to establish a character.
Since we as humans are each locked into our own consciousness, experiencing the world in our own way, your character should become the focal point for the reader’s experience. In other word, the reader should see the world through that character’s eyes, feel it through his skin, hear it through his ears. Since we are constantly thinking and feeling, you also need to relay the character’s thoughts and emotions. Many writers fail to do this well—they try to jump from one character’s consciousness to another for their own convenience as a storyteller, or—worse—they try to hide information from the reader in order to surprise them later.
5) Next, I ask myself, “How will I write this scene eloquently?” In a first draft, I just try to get the action on paper. But let’s face it, telling a story well requires us to try to lift the story above the mundane. This might mean that as I write, I will embellish the description a bit in some surprising ways. I might consider the power and poetry of my language as I try to capture a character’s tone or the ambience of the setting. I might consider my dialog, asking myself how I can have characters struggle to be witty or profound. In short, there hundreds of little thing that I can do to make a scene beautiful, but they’re all just decoration.
Often, it’s only after I’ve written a scene well that I take the time to play with it, look for ways to impress the reader.
In short, writing a powerful scene isn’t something that just happens. You need to plan your scene well, then perfect it as your write it, and embellish it through the rewriting process.
All of my workshops are on sale for Christmas. Find them here.
The most productive writers, I’ve noticed, aren’t necessarily the ones with the most talent or the greatest skills. They may not be the most physically fit or even the most motivated. The most productive writers are the ones who get excited by their work.
What do I mean by “getting excited”? Quite simply this. To some degree, we are responsible for our attitudes. We have to be. We must learn to control them. We need to be actors, not creatures that are acted upon.
And the single greatest thing that you can do to motivate yourself to write is to cultivate an attitude of excitement, one that energizes you and drives you to work hard, to spend every spare moment productively.
So, how can you get excited about a story? Here are just a few steps to building excitement.
1) Block out negative thinking. I have sometimes heard authors say, “I’d love to write a novel about X, but I know that I can’t do it.” That’s bull. You can write a novel about anything that you want. Do you want to write military science fiction but feel handicapped because you haven’t been in the military? Guess what, you can do it! You might have to consult with a few military experts and make sure that you get the details right, but you can do it. Do you want to write a historical novel but don’t feel you have the expertise? Expertise comes to those who study.
If you’re capable of talking on the phone for an hour, then you can write for an hour. It’s really that simple.
Sometimes we want to succeed in our art all at once. We want a huge novel to be written “now,” and we want it to be flawless.
Accept the fact that your first draft will be flawed, but know that with a small amount of effort you can make it better, and over the course of several drafts, you can make your book virtually perfect.
2) Cultivate your excitement. Find out what makes you write.
Many authors are motivated by praise. Sometimes, praise can come from fans. So if you’re working on a story, try to imagine how it might affect others. I’ve gotten wonderful letters from fans who tell me that my novels have often changed their lives. For example, one young man has carried a copy of one of my Star Wars novels with him for years. He explained that when he was 8, his mother died. He was terribly sad for a couple of years, and then one day realized that when he was reading my book, he felt happy. So he kept a copy to read while waiting at the bus stop, or while sitting in school. Other fans have written to tell me how their books have inspired them while in battle, or while facing life-threatening illnesses. Seriously, before I began writing, I never realized what kind of influence my work might have on the world.
Other times, authors seek praise from critics. I sometimes suggest that before you write a book, that you sit down and write out your own review of the novel.
For example, with my first novel, I sat down and wrote out my own review in advance. I knew that I wanted a novel that was “deep and powerful.” So I was very pleased when my first review offered the quote, “. . . one of the deepest and most powerful science fiction novels ever written. Many fine books that have won Hugos and Nebulas pale in comparison.” Seriously, in my wildest imaginations, I hadn’t considered the possibility of getting a quote like that.
But there are other types of praise. For example, I’ve known some authors who are motivated by the prospect of winning awards. Is that a bad thing? I think “needing” and award is a way to set yourself up for heartbreak, but if you write a short story with the idea that, “Hey, this is a gamble, but I think that it’s a good gamble,” then writing for awards can be a good motivator. It’s sort of like betting in a card game. You put together the best hand that you can, and see if you win.
There are other people who might offer praise—a spouse, your family members, or people in your writing group.
But we don’t just write for praise. Sometimes we write from a burning need to express ourselves, to say something of import. Are you a revolutionary? Then I invite you to change the world.
Sometimes we can get excited by looking at the financial rewards from writing. Too often, people will poo-poo the idea that you can make money in this business, but over the past 25 years I’ve managed to bring in a few million—and I’m just getting started. I had an idea for a novel series yesterday that I am sure is good for a large chunk of change, and I have several more promising novels in the works. Will I become as rich as J.K. Rowling? Nah. But I’ll have fun writing what I love while making good money, and that’s well worth the time.
You see, there are a lot of rewards that come with the writing life. I don’t have to worry much, for example about office politics. I’m pretty much self-employed. That means that I can work where I want and when I want. This morning I got up at four in the morning, thinking about writing this article. I wrote it while sitting in my overstuffed chair recliner, on my new Alienware laptop, before the sun ever began to rise. If I wanted, I could fly down to Cabo and compose while the sun is rising above the sea, or fly up to Yellowstone and get myself a cabin and pause to think while looking out over a herd of bison in the snow.
There are a lot of great things that come from writing. Think about them often. Let yourself get excited. Every moment of every day offers you the opportunity to write. Take advantage of those moments!
All of the Oz Reimagined short stories, including mine, are on sale for $0.99. These are short stories that put a twist on Dorothy’s adventures in Oz.
Wrestling with the Gods is a new sci-fi and fantasy anthology that just released today:
A mechanical Jesus for your shrine, the myths of cuttlefish, a vampire in residential schools, a Muslim woman who wants to get closer, surgically, to her god, the demons of outer space, the downside of Nirvana. The 24 science fiction and fantasy stories and poems included in Wrestling with Gods (Tesseracts Eighteen) take their faith and religion into the future, into the weird and comic and thought-provoking spaces where science fiction and fantasy has really always gone, struggling with higher powers, gods, the limits of technology, the limits of spiritual experience.
At times profound, these speculative offerings give readers a chance to see faith from the believer and the skeptic in worlds where what you believe is a matter of life, death, and afterlife.
Get the ebook here. The paper copy will be out in a few months.
Hollywood loves a “reveal.” That’s a moment where a bit of information that has been withheld from the audience is suddenly revealed onscreen. You’ve seen it a hundred times in the movies, often handled poorly. In the latest movie in the Pirates of the Caribbean series, the director opens with a tedious sword fight between Captain Jack Sparrow and an anonymous opponent. I recall after five seconds thinking, “Are they going to make us wait sixty seconds to reveal that he is fighting a woman.” Why “sixty seconds”? I’m not sure, but most directors think that dragging out information for sixty seconds is pretty cool. But no, in this case they dragged it out for something that seemed closer to three minutes. I really had to fight the impulse to get up and walk out of the theater.
Yet the truth is that Hollywood loves a reveal because we as an audience love a reveal. We crave those juicy little surprises that pop up in a good story. In fact, as a writer, I crave them so much that I often like to write by the seat of my pants often just so that I can have those nice little surprises jump out at me as I’m writing. You know what I mean—those moments when you discover that the protagonist’s best friend is really the killer that they’ve both been hunting throughout the book. Sometimes the idea will strike you, and you’ll look back at your story, and see that it seems you’ve been setting up that surprise all along.
Yet, for me, it’s often difficult to consciously try to set up those surprises. I think that perhaps it is because I don’t look for the opportunities often enough.
I’ve heard these little surprises called by a number of names—“reveals” in Hollywood—“revelations,” “twists” or “surprises” in writing classes.
A good writer will season his work with surprises, peppering them in.
So I got to thinking, perhaps there is an organized way to think about them.
Here we go:
You may remember tales where there are surprises in the settings. For example, Rowling liked to add surprises to her settings by adding oddities to them—having staircases that moved you from one opening to another, having dining rooms that redecorated themselves for parties, having paintings that move. That’s one way to surprise us, by creating an odd or unique setting, but there are others.
In mainstream writing, we often look for what we call that “surprising detail” that makes a setting come to life. If you were writing a scene set in a butcher shop in the 1960s, you might do a little research about the setting and say, “Ah, this is what a butcher shop looked like.” You might mention the huge wooden butcher’s block that the butcher would throw slabs of meat on. But you probably wouldn’t get the realistic details of someone who worked there. For example, you might not think to open the scene with the butcher cleaning the block, scraping the fat and blood off with a “block scraper,” and then washing it down with hot water and chlorine. Why? Because most people never got to see how often the butcher had to clean the block. It was something done when customers weren’t watching, so that the place always looked and smelled clean. So with every setting, we need to hunt for details that are so right that they surprise the reader.
Another way to add surprise to a setting is to look for historical details. If you’re writing about a real-world setting, an old inn may become intriguing as you mention guests who have stayed there. In Lord of the Rings, Tolkien imbued everything with a sense of history—from the hedge around the Shire to the languages spoken by elves and dwarves.
An even richer source for surprise than setting is your cast. You can of course use the same techniques for creating surprises in characters as you do for settings. You can for example make a character a bit strange or grotesque. In The Godfather, we are fascinated by Don Corleone because of his strange nature—he’s powerful, seemingly warm-hearted one moment and unbelievably vicious the next.
Just as with settings, you can surprise us with a character’s history. If Mario Puzo had told us that Don Corleone had been a second son, and had therefore followed a centuries-old tradition of studying for the priesthood—until his old brother got rubbed out—would you have been surprised? Probably, but you wouldn’t be too surprised. It’s the kind of detail that would fit nicely.
And, of course, you can surprise us with just the right details. Mario Puzo wrote knowledgeably about the mob—much more so than the average housewife who had never even heard of it in 1969, when the book came out.
But with characterization, there is another way that you can surprise a reader: duality. You can have a character for example who is both brilliant and a thug, or completely honest in his business dealings and not in his feelings. These inner conflicts create a new opportunity for surprise—those moments when the character feels so conflicted that he chooses a course of action that even he wouldn’t have considered. Thus, in every hero journey, we almost always have a struggle where the protagonist doesn’t want to get involved, but finds himself torn as he witnesses some injustice, until at last he is forced to risk his life to defend people that, in all likelihood, he didn’t know at the beginning of the tale. In fact, he may even have considered them to be enemies.
On the level of conflict, we have much the same categories that give us opportunities as above.
We can look for opportunities to create surprise by having grotesque conflicts. In The Life of Pi, we have a man trapped on a small boat out in the ocean with a tiger. In the movie Liar, Liar, we have a protagonist who gets into terrible trouble because he can’t tell a lie.
Yet you’ve seen plenty of tales where the author puts in telling details that convince you that he or she has “been there, done that.” In my novel Nightingale, I write about a boy who was raised in foster care. I received several letters from people who said, “This just hit too close to home. You got it so perfectly, that it brought up horrific memories that I had thought I’d long forgotten.”
Just as with the other categories, conflicts can have fascinating histories. I moved to a small town when I was six; I recall seeing two boys fighting on the playground, punching each other with gusto. I could tell that this was more than your typical “boys wrestling” kind of thing that I was used to. Eventually, I learned that the two families had been feuding for 150 years. In one incident, when I was sixteen, a gunfight broke out between the two sides. One group of men were holed up in a tavern, while a dozen others took shelter in a grocery store across the street, and the two clans shot at each other for an hour until a policeman showed up—at which point they all began firing at him. So when you put characters in conflict, you can give an incident a bit of delicious history, adding a layer of surprise.
With conflicts in particular, you can’t just look at the history of the conflict for surprises, you have to look to the future. If I were writing a novel about our feuding families, there are all sorts of opportunities for surprise. Perhaps a young woman from one family wants to marry a boy from another. It happened once before, back in 1952, when a young couple eloped and disappeared. But this is 2013, and the couple wants the families to resolve their differences. The passion with which they both want this could be powerful. Just as interesting could be Uncle Lucius’s plan to poison the punch at the wedding, so that all of the members of the opposing family die. Then you could twist it, so that Granny Rogers, knowing of the plan, decides to drink the punch anyway, because she is so tired of living in a world with so much senseless strife. Or you could write about the Rogers children who drink the punch despite the warning, simply because it looks so good, and thus bring to life a metaphor on how the elders in this family are poisoning the next generation.
In short, you can study your conflict and add layers to it, so that you add new levels of surprise.
On the level of treatment, there are hundreds of ways to add surprise. For example, I might decide to write this feuding family story in the voice of a very sophisticated, intelligent Supreme Court Judge for the state of Oregon—a member of one of the families. In fact, let’s make him Uncle Lucius. The fact that a seemingly reasonable person might poison the punch would definitely add a layer of surprise. Trying to come up with a reasonable way that such a grotesque character could evolve would be a challenge. Making him believable would be a triumph.
Similarly, in such a story, the use of voice might be a way to add a level of surprise. We could pepper the judge’s speech with quotes from Gandhi, Shakespeare, and the Bible, so that he seemed both wise and well read. We might also add luscious metaphors and profound insights to make him seem to be a man of artistic temperament and stern reasoning. (All of this could serve as a delicious counterpoint to the unthinkable brutality of the tale.)
Of course, there will be thousands of opportunities to create surprise in such a tale by choosing just the right word when describing a situation—the proper bit of slang, or the revealing adverb.
With plot, we add surprise by twisting it in unexpected ways.
For example, as a protagonist takes a course of action, and others either support or oppose that action, it creates all sorts of opportunities for surprise. Literally, with the right motivation for your characters, just about anything can happen.
One major animation studio says that when you’re looking for an opportunity to create surprise in your plot, ask yourself, “What couldn’t possibly happen?” In other words, stretch your imagination. Try thinking outside the box, and you’ll probably come up with some surprising directions for your story.
Another way to tackle this is to purposely misdirect your audience. For example, let’s say that our young bride in the story above learns about her uncle’s plot to poison her fiancé’s family. Perhaps she calls the police and reports it, and the audience is led to believe that the authorities will stop the incident. But for some reason, perhaps because the officer involved is indebted to this judge, the report gets destroyed.
In short, you can create surprising twists in your plot, but they will often work better if the audience is also misdirected as to the course of the story, too.
Very often, we can look at our theme to add an element of surprise.
A good theme will seem universal, relatable to the reader, but often the connection isn’t obvious. It becomes the writer’s job to provide the connections for the reader, often in surprising ways.
For example, in the tale about our murdering judge, he might talk about the history of the family feud—how one of those damned “Barron boys” knocked out his teeth on the playground when he was seven and how they would pull the clothes off the wash line when he was young, and so on. The reader might empathize simply because most of us have had some sort of childhood feud. Heck, you might even have had it as an adult. I have to admit that we moved out of one house in large part because we had a neighbor that made us miserable with her constant attacks.
So you surprise the reader in this instance by showing how this conflict is something similar to incidents from their own experience.
At the same time, you can show how the theme relates to the world at large. One of the greatest problems that the world faces is tribalism. It lies at the heart of the problems in Syria, for example, where members of one tribe are struggling to dominate and usurp those who belong to other tribes, to the point where President Assad is willing to use nerve gas to kill the children of his enemies. Tribalism also can be linked to most of the atrocities going on in Africa, and even to the fights between Democrats and Republicans here in the US.
So with our themes, we can surprise readers by showing connections between our story, our audience, and the world at large.
I was recently a guest on the podcast The Creative Penn. You can listen to the episode here.
My friend Kristy Tate had her novel The Highwayman Incident come out:
Celia Quinn’s business lies in ruins at the hands of Jason West, the latest in a long line of scoundrels. As she seeks to restore her family’s livelihood, Celia stumbles upon lore about the local Witching Well, whose water is said to cause hysteria and psychosis. When a mysterious stranger slips Celia water from the well into her drink, she’s transported to Regency England. Her timeless adventure spans miles and centuries from modern-day New England to Merlin’s Cave in Cornwall, England. Only Jason West can save her.
But Celia and Jason must tread carefully, as what happens in the past can reverberate through the ages. Their lives, hearts and futures are caught in time’s slippery hands.
But Celia and Jason must tread carefully, as what happens in the past can reverberate through the ages. Their lives, hearts and futures are caught in time’s slippery hands.
“If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.” — Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
You may not realize it, but as writers we are all on the same journey. We all start as “wannabes,” hoping to amaze audiences with our eloquence and powerful tales, and so we set out on a quest to become “writers.” Some of us take only a few steps along the path before we give up. Others become legends.
There are a lot of fears that we face along the way.
One of the most basic fears is the fear of criticism. I was terrified to even admit that I wanted to write at age 16, and didn’t willingly show anyone my first story for two years. I know writers who still won’t show their work at age 50.
Some writers are so afraid of criticism that I’ve seen then pull perfectly good stories from magazines after acceptance. In fact, many years ago, one of my favorite stories ever in the Writers of the Future contest was pulled by the author for . . . reasons that I’ll never understand.
Recently, a friend of mine wrote a fine novel but was afraid to send it to a major publisher. He went to a small local publisher instead, and I’m hoping that he will have a great career, but it may be hard to overcome that handicap.
I know one great author whose nerves bother her so much that she has to vomit before she speaks in public. You’d never guess it from her mesmerizing speeches.
I know another fine author who for years couldn’t even begin to put words on paper until he was good and drunk.
And so it goes. We all have fears, but they don’t go away. Neither do our dreams.
So what can we do?
First, face those fears. Acknowledge them. It feels a little better when you admit to them in public.
I once had a high school English teacher who confronted me. She said, “You don’t know it, but you’re a writer. You have to face that fact. You have to prepare for it. Someday it’s going to hit you, and the words will just come tumbling out, and they won’t stop.” At the time, I planned on becoming a physician, so I didn’t even admit that I’d secretly purchased a typewriter and was working on a novel. It might have saved some time if I’d told her that I wanted to be a doctor who wrote on the side. Instead, years later, I began writing a poem—and have never been able to stop.
So you confront your fears, and you make a plan to realize your dreams. Maybe your first step is to show a story to a friend or a writing group. Or perhaps it’s time to submit a novel, or buy a book on writing, or take a class, or—you probably know what you need to do next.
Confronting your fears doesn’t make them go away, but it will build courage. That’s what courage is, confronting your fears. If you continuously confront your fears, they will diminish.
Are you afraid that others won’t love your story idea? Get over it. There are people who hate Shakespeare. Think of your favorite novel, then look up the reviews for it on Amazon.com or Goodreads. Someone will hate it. Remember, twelve editors rejected Harry Potter before an editor accepted it . . . and helped turn it into the bestselling novel of all time.
Small successes will do even more to help you build confidence.
I was terrified to show anyone my stories until I went to college. I took a short story to an editor at the writing lab at BYU and asked her to teach me how to handle some of the tricky punctuation problems. She began reading, and after two pages quit making any editing marks at all. Instead, she laughed in the right places, became terrified in the right places, then burst into tears at the end, and said, “If you write this well, no one gives a damn whether you know how to punctuate.”
I realize now that she didn’t do much to help me punctuate any better, but she did help me overcome my fear of showing my work to others.
So I entered the story into a contest, and won a small cash prize. But that small success really helped fuel my dreams, and within eighteen months, I got my first multi-book contract.
As a writer, I suspect that I know what you really want. You want to learn to put words on paper in such a way that your stories feel magical, so that they ultimately both transport and transform your reader. That’s what most of us really want, in our hearts. Admit it.
“If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.” Dream big, and face your dreams.
You have one day left to pick up our NaNoWriMo bundle. Get 6 writing books for $5 or 12 writing books for $15. Find it at StoryBundle.com/nano
Many writers will recommend that as you edit your tale, you do a final read-through so that you can see how the story sounds. After all, if you’re going to be doing readings in libraries or at signings, you want to make sure that your tale flows well, that it’s free of typos, and that the dialog sounds natural.
But might I suggest something more? I think that you need to perform your story much as an actor would. Imagine that you’re an actor, hungry to get a job, and that you’re reading this tale as an audition so that an employer can gauge your skills.
That means that you don’t just read it, but that you read it with gusto. In other words, before you read, you need to gather your wits, develop the voice of each character, and then “act out” that character’s scene, complete with gestures and the speaker’s emotive tone. This helps you make certain that you get each character’s voice down honestly.
More than that, it lets you look at your dialog tags and study the way that you’ve signaled the emotional beats, to make sure that the reader can understand what your characters are thinking and convey their feelings.
Of course, every story has a narrator, and so you will pay attention to how you’ve narrated the piece. You’ll look closely at the poetry in your use of language. You’ll weed out weak transitions between speakers and between scenes, even as you strengthen your description and niggle with the text.
Remember: writing is a performance art. When you create a piece of fiction, you get to sit in your chair in silence and thoughtfully perfect your tale.
But ultimately you will offer it to the public, where millions of others may sit quietly. On the invisible stage of their own minds, they will devour your words. Through the images and sounds and emotions and thoughts that you arouse, they will be thrust into your world, into the lives of your characters, into their loves and dramas and tragedies, and your readers will be swept away.
Just giving your work a half-hearted reading isn’t enough. When Shakespeare finished a play, he would sit with actors and rehearse a tale perhaps sixty times before it was ever performed in public, and it might be performed another hundred times and changed over a single season. He would throw away scenes and add new lines again and again, honing his work. What we see when we read his plays isn’t a rough draft or even a tenth draft. We’re seeing something that may have been shaped and polished over many seasons.
Do as the bard did. Perform your story, at least a few times.
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We have our NaNoWriMo Bundle still happening. Get 6 writing books for $5 or 12 books for $15 over at StoryBundle.com
Get any of my writing workshops for 25% off here.
Get a free book of writing tips when you login/register here at MyStoryDoctor.com and click the “Free Stuff” tab.
We have our NaNoWriMo Bundle happening for the rest of November. Get 6 writing books for $5 or 12 books for $15 over at StoryBundle.com
Get any of my writing workshops for 25% off here.
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