Writing a Bestselling Series, Chapter 11: Taking the Plunge

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Writing a Bestselling Series, Chapter 11: Taking the Plunge

From the time that I was a teen, I’d wanted to write a fantasy series.  In fact, my first two attempts at fiction writing were both fantasy novels, but as I got into college I began writing other things—literary fiction, poetry, science fiction, non-fiction.  Ten years after winning the grand prize in the Writers of the Future Contest, I decided to again take the fantasy-writing plunge.

I’d been writing science fiction successfully for years, even hitting as high as #1 on the science fiction bestseller lists, but I didn’t feel fulfilled.  So I decided to write a novel for me.  I didn’t have a contract for it.  I’d spoken with my new editor about writing it, and he didn’t want to see a fantasy from me.  So I just decided to write it “on spec.”  In other words, I’d write the novel, send it to my editor, and if he didn’t like it, I’d send it somewhere else.

While writing it, I considered what it was that I wanted to do.  I wanted it to be a medieval fantasy because, at the time, they were very marketable.  If I’d set one in a contemporary setting, the market would have been dead. But if it was going to be a medieval fantasy, I didn’t want it to be Tolkien clone, with elves and dwarves and whatnot.  There were a lot of things like that being done by TSR, and being done at a very high level.  But I really wanted to create my own universe, so to speak.

I’d always been interested in biology, so I decided that I’d have fun creating my own unique animals, but I have to say that I didn’t want the story to focus on nonhumans.  I began thinking about magic.  I’d seen one writer who wrote entire novels in a fantasy world that seemed void of magic.  Stylistically what she did was interesting, but the readers felt cheated, I was sure (because her editor had talked about how she was looking for stories with “high magic levels”).  I decided to create a story with high magic levels, but really felt the need to brainstorm on that.  I considered a number of systems, and even went so far as to look at how magic was used historically around the world.  I soon found that all of the magic systems used historically had been put into stories in one way or another.  I wanted to try something fresh.

I also knew that I wanted to write about economics—about the relationship between workers and employers, and how all of that related to good and evil.  And as I considered possibilities and did research on magic systems for month after month, I came up empty.

It wasn’t until I went to Worldcon in Glasgow in 1995 that the magic system really hit me.  My deadline for writing the novel was looming, and after the convention I went with my friend Shayne Bell for a tour of Scotland.  While on the tour, we talked about writing and whatnot, and while passing a Scottish loch, the idea for the magic system in the Runelords really hit me. It had everything that I wanted—uniqueness, a high magic level, led to a focus on human interaction, and led one to consider the moral consequences of its use.

As I began writing notes on what to do, the first novel really seemed to plot itself, and within three days I was able to get the outline finished.

I wrote the novel over the course of several months at the end of 1995 and on into 1996.  When I gave the first draft to my writing group, I suspected that it would be a hit.  I made up about a dozen paper copies, and gave them out to writing group members.  Now, a paper copy of an 800 page novel cost about $50 to make, and so I didn’t want to lose them.  But when I came to my writing group the next week, most of the folks didn’t have the edited manuscripts.  They’d read it and given it to friends and family to read.  In fact, I had something like a 95 percent pass-along rate.  I’d already figured out that if readers recommended or gave books to friends in high numbers, then the book was likely to be a hit.  One with a pass-along rate of 95 percent was pretty abnormal.

So I made my edits and sent the manuscript to my agent.  She gave it to her assistant and asked her to read it and see if it was any good.  Now, as one of my last edits, I had gone through every scene and made what I call a “hook edit,” where I made sure that each scene began and ended in such a way so that you literally “couldn’t put it down.”  My editor’s assistant began reading at ten at night, with the idea of reading a chapter before bed.  Four hours later she realized that she had to pee, but couldn’t find a good place to stop.  At five in the morning she still hadn’t stopped reading and now felt enough discomfort so that she called an ambulance.  She was taken to the hospital and found that she had a bladder infection from trying to hold it too long, so they gave her a catheter and she stayed up the rest of the night to finish the book.  At 9:00 A.M. she called her boss to let her know that the book was good enough to put her in the hospital.  So my agent was very happy about it, but then said something odd to me on the phone that day, and I realized that her paranoia was . . . just too much to deal with.  I had to let her go.

So I chose another agent, sent the book to him, and had him represent it.  It sold to my current publisher and I finally was realizing my dream of becoming a fantasy author.

But even then, it was a tricky change to try to negotiate.  You see, I was a bestselling science fiction author.  Now, science fiction readership was down in the mid-1990s, and it was obvious that fantasy readerships were much larger.  A bestselling science fiction novel might sell 100,000 copies in paperback and make the author $80,000 in domestic sales, but a bestselling fantasy could hit 500,000 copies in hardcover and make the author a million dollars in domestic sales.  It seemed obvious that fantasy was a booming market, and several science fiction authors were trying to take advantage of that.  I didn’t want to be seen as a science fiction author who was jumping ship in order to get more sales.  I wanted to be known as a fantasy author who loved the genre and wrote from the heart.

It seemed like a perfect time to change my name, to create a pseudonym.  There was a problem with my name anyway.  In one review in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Orson Scott Card had suggested that readers look at the bottom shelf in the science fiction stacks, where my books were likely to be found.

Now, my dad owned a grocery store, and I recall reading a survey done by the makers of Campbell’s Soup that said that they’d found that 92% of the soup buyers would not stoop over to purchase their favorite kind of soup off the bottom shelf.  You can see the reasoning if you’ve ever had a back problem, or arthritis, etc.  And I got to noticing that some fantastic authors—like Roger Zelazny and Gene Wolfe—who were selling books on the same lower shelf, all had to supplement their incomes by teaching at colleges. I didn’t want that.

So I began looking for a pseudonym.  I decided to search for a name that was a) easy to pronounce, b) small enough so that my name could appear in big letters, and c) had a fantasy flavour to it.  I also wanted a name that was unusual.  At the time that I was looking for a pseudonym, there were two authors who were fighting over the name of Timothy McVeigh.  They were even going to court over it, because both were writing thrillers and felt that having two writers with the same name confused their audiences.  Then a terrorist named Timothy McVeigh got arrested, and both authors decided to drop their lawsuits and change their writing monikers.

I had a friend name Greg McFarland, and thought that it sounded like a great last name for a fantasy writer, but I didn’t want to be a “Mc.”  Still, I felt drawn to it.  My mother’s mother’s mother was a McFarland, after all.  But there were other popular writers like Anne McCaffrey and Patricia McKillip who would have books right next to mine on the shelves.  And do you know what?  If a bookstore employee has to put out a new release by a big author, the way that they find room for the books is to get rid of the nearest books to the big author.  I didn’t want to have my books all get returned just because my friend Anne put out a book.

But I remembered a girl in college that I had known with just the name “Farland,” and that sounded like a decent pseudonym.  It was perhaps a bit “On the nose,” as they say, but heck, I liked it.  The “Mc” on a Scottish name just means “son of,” so I had an ancestor named Farland somewhere back within a couple hundred years, and I decided that that was a good enough excuse to use the name.

I went to my publisher and told them what I wanted to do, and got a cold reception.  I was a #1 bestselling science fiction author, after all.  Now, there are a lot of readers who read science fiction but not fantasy, so even if you’re selling well in SF, the audiences won’t necessarily follow you over.  But I told Tom Doherty, my publisher, my reasoning for wanting to change my name.  He was very hesitant to make the change, but at the last minute decided that it might be a good idea.

So, David Farland was born, and the book went out in hardcover.  The reviews were excellent, and the novel got a good push from Tor.  The books sold well in hardcover, and got picked up for reprint in the U.K., Germany, France, Russia, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Spain, Italy, Poland, Japan, Taiwan, China and a few other countries that I don’t recall.  Making those foreign sales is important, because it literally doubles an author’s income on a property.  So I was on my way with a nice international bestselling series.

Even before the first book was published, I was considering ways to push it bigger.  I heard about a small videogame company in our area, and was interested in getting a videogame tie in, so I met with their president and asked him about the possibility.  He thought that I might need to gain a reputation as a videogame designer and scripter in order to get a tie in, so he had me help write a proposal for a game, which was funded instantly.  I was co-leader on the design team for a game called Starcraft: Brood War, which became a huge hit, and back in about the year 2000, it was even listed as the third bestselling game of all time.

So I began doing a little work in videogame design and scripting on the sides.  I also looked at creating a Runelords calendar, and hired the folk at the videogame company to do some illustrations, one of which was put into the hardcover edition as front-papers and end-papers.

In short, I was going the extra mile in order to try to push the series big.

Here are a few quotes that were given to the Runelords at the time:

Review for Runelords, the Sum of All Men

"The world of fantasy has a new king.  David Farland is already one of the best fantasy writers there has ever been!" John Jarrold, UK Literary Critic

"The Runelords is a first-rate tale, an epic fantasy that more than delivers on its promise. Read it soon and treat yourself to an adventure you won't forget." Terry Brooks, New York Times #1 Bestselling fantasy author

"With The Runelords, David Farland breaks new ground in fantasy fiction and wakes up anyone who thought they'd read everything the genre had to offer.  Definitely a great new series to watch!” Kevin J. Anderson, New York Times Bestselling Science Fiction author

"THE RUNELORDS heralds the arrival of a serious contender for the Jordan crown. This massive tale is woven together with the skill of a superior storyteller, making it the start of a series that will thrill readers for years to come." Michael Stackpole, NYT Bestselling fantasy and science fiction author

"In THE RUNELORDS David Farland has created a vivid, detailed, different world that becomes perfectly believable. The characters are real, the action fast, and the sum a brilliant and engrossing novel." David Drake, New York Times bestselling author.

“David Farland is a consummate stylist, and his characters are so alive they walk right off the page. The Runelords is a wonderful fantasy novel!" Robert Sawyer: Campbell, Hugo, and Nebula Award-winning author

The Runelords is that rare book that will remind you why you started reading fantasy in the first place. Much of the setting--and even some of the story--is conventional fantasy fare, but David Farland, aside from being a masterful storyteller, has built his world around a complex and thought-provoking social system involving the exchange of "endowments." Attributes such as stamina, grace, and wit are a currency: a vassal may help his lord by endowing him with all of his strength, for instance, and in turn the vassal comes under the lord's care as his "dedicate," too weak to even walk. A Runelord might have hundreds of such endowments, giving him superhuman senses and abilities, but he then must care for the hundreds that he has deprived of strength, or beauty, or sight.

Runelords excels because this novel idea is not mere window dressing—Farland uses it to explore fundamental questions of life and morality. The story's hero, the young Runelord Gaborn, struggles to define his role in this "shameful economy" while keeping his commitments to himself, to his people, to the woman he loves, and to the earth itself. We end up asking ourselves the same questions: Should you choose your friends based on insight or virtue? Is it better to be just or good? Competent fantasy lets you escape to adventure in faraway lands, but exceptional fantasy makes sure you have something to think about when you get back. Runelords accomplishes the latter.” Paul Hughes—official reviewer for Amazon.com

“Imaginative use of magic and detailed world-building. . . .  Fans of Robert Jordan and Terry Goodkind will enjoy Farland’s Runelords.” Romantic Times BOOKreviews

“Farland gets a prospective series off to a dynamic start with a compelling, action-packed story set in an intricate created world in which magical powers are unusual and convincing.” Booklist

“The intriguing hook behind Farland’s first novel—and launch of a new fantasy series—is a complex magical technology whereby abilities such as wit, brawn, and stamina are transferable from person to person.  The magic is basic to Farland's story, not just painted on, and it and the society in which it plays out are rigorously and imaginatively elaborated.” Publisher’s Weekly

“Prince Gaborn's visit to the Kingdom of Heredon becomes a frantic race against time as he seeks to warn Heredon's royal family of the approach of an invincible warlord whose might threatens to consume the world.  Farland launches his epic series with a powerful story of a prince's transformation from a Runelord who steals his abilities from others to a ruler dedicated to the preservation of life.” The Library Journal

“Farland uses his magic system to great effect, both in terms of its moral ideas and in generating powerful suspense.  Even though the novel reaches a satisfying conclusion, Farland leaves enough loose ends to keep me wanting to read the sequel.” Locus Magazine

“Thoughtfully devised magics . . . a well-turned plot . . . satisfying and involving.” Kirkus Reviews

. . . a wonderfully entertaining world filled with some unlikely heroes and truly despicable villains.... If you're into topnotch epic fantasy, get this book!” Barnes and Noble Preview Magazine

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