Category Archives: David Farland

Learning to Piece Together the Story Puzzle

I have found that there a few divides amongst writers more contentious than the arguments between discovery writers (pantsers) and outliners. I used to be firmly a member of the pantser camp. While I recognized that outlining had its benefits, I felt that planning with such excruciating detail would “ruin the fun” of creation. Plus, outlining was difficult and boring. The outline would only change as I got into the trenches and discovered something new and shiny, so what was the point? I had tried to outline a few times, I argued, and it hadn’t worked for me. It never would.

Fortunately, I had a few friends patient enough to take the time to convince me otherwise. Outlining isn’t a single, specific, regimented process, they argued, but rather a way of approaching a story deliberately. I would still create, discover the characters, the world, and the plot in the brainstorming section of the process. Then, the outline itself would be like writing an extremely condensed first draft. I would be able to edit it for major structural problems without the emotional baggage that came with hours and hours spent working on prose.

Once I had a coherent skeleton, I could write the first draft without worrying about writing my way into corners. My structural edits would already be done, and so I could focus my creative energies on producing powerful prose, vivid descriptions, and touching emotional moments. Not only would my first draft be better than what I had done before, it would also take less time to complete.

As for the “inefficiency” of prewriting, any time that I spent up front would be repaid twice over in the back end of the first draft. My manuscript would be leaner and free from most, if not all, structural problems. Additionally, outlines were guides, not shackles. Of course the outline would change as I wrote, but I would “discover deliberately” rather than wandering off into the weeds. I would be able to compare new ideas against a well thought out plot and be able to decide what was truly better for the story. Though it took a few years of conversations and cajoling, they eventually won me over.

Convinced, I decided that 2016 would be the year that I learned to outline. I struggled for a few months and grew disheartened. Outlining was proving to be as difficult, boring, and ineffective as I had feared it would be. I took my problems back to my writing group and we talked through numerous blocks. The issue, I eventually came to realize, was that I hadn’t learned the skills I would need to outline effectively. I knew how to work with character, with plot, with theme, and with milieu. I had all the pieces, but didn’t know how to put the puzzle together.

Again, I was lucky in that I wasn’t alone in my struggles. Of the three members in my group, two of us were discovery writers who were trying to make the transition. After some discussion, we decided to act as a group to resolve the problem. We enrolled in one of David Farland’s online classes, The Story Puzzle. Over the course of 16 weeks, the Story Doctor walked us through his process and theories, answered our questions via email and the biweekly conference calls, and provided valuable feedback on the writing assignments we submitted to him.

It was hard and frustrating at first, but eventually I found the joy that has always driven me to write. I was still discovering and creating, but by doing so deliberately I was finding more than I had expected. My story improved with each passing week and I began feeling the itch, the need to dive in and write prose. I resisted and kept working Dave’s process. By the end of the class, I had all the pieces that I needed and some good guidance on how to put them together into a functional outline. I was in no way ready to begin writing the first draft, but I knew how to get there.

Time passed as I continued to work on my outline. I built my world, wrote down scraps of description and dialog, and found ways to heighten my story and characters on every level. On the first day of each month, I surveyed my progress and decided if I was ready to start prose. Month after month, I judged that I was close, but not quite there. It wasn’t that I was stalling, like I had in the past when my project seemed intimidating. Rather, I had a task list that I needed to finish.

Then came the first day of another month. November first. NaNoWriMo had just begun. I looked over all of my prewriting and decided that, yes, I was ready. I dove into the prose and emerged thirty days later with my first ever NaNo victory. The story wasn’t done, in fact I had quite a ways yet to go. Rather, I had proved to myself that with a good outline to guide me, I could out-write my old pace by a fairly significant margin. Most importantly, I knew that I could do it again. And again. It was the sort of skill that I could develop into a career.

What “Rejection” Really Means

A Guest Post by David Farland

For the last few weeks I’ve been scurrying to finish up judging on a large contest. I’ve had to “reject” thousands of stories. I hate the word “reject,” because it doesn’t really express what I want to say.

Very often I will read the opening to a story and it is obviously the first work of a very young writer. It may have a multitude of problems—from simple typos, to a lack of understanding as to how to set a scene, to clunky dialog. I know that I can’t accept the story for publication, but at the same time, I wish that I could shout some encouragement to the budding writer, much the way that my mentor Algis Budrys did to a young Stephen King.

I think that people need encouragement. It may be the only thing that will spur a young writer to greater effort.

So what does the word “rejection” mean to you as a writer? I think it’s simply: “Try harder.”

A lot of fine works get rejected. The bestselling works in nearly every genre experienced rejection. Lord of the Rings was rejected by several American publishers. Dune was rejected by all of them. Gone with the Wind made its rounds through every major publisher. Harry Potter was rejected by all of the biggest houses, and Twilight was rejected by a dozen agents before it got picked up—yet all of these novels became the bestsellers in their fields.

So does that mean that these were all bad novels? Of course not. It means that the author didn’t find an editor with a matching taste, a matching vision, right at the first.

Very often when I read a manuscript that is close to being publishable, I think, It’s a shame that the author didn’t try a little harder to . . . That’s what “rejected” means to me.

I was talking to international bestselling author Laurell K. Hamilton last week, and asked her to confirm a rumor that I’d heard. With her first novel, she received over 200 rejections before she made a sale. She said, “When people tell me that they’ve been rejected five or ten or twenty times, I just tell them that ‘I don’t want to hear about it.’”

Laurell has the perfect attitude toward rejection. Try harder.

davidfarland_storydoctor

Dealing with Criticism

Dealing with criticism is a gracious art. It’s always important to know when to consider the criticism and when to let it go. If we don’t know the difference, we’ll always feel like something’s gone wrong and we’ll doubt ourselves. In yesterday’s post, Story Doctor David Farland talked about how to take criticism. Today’s post is on dealing with it. Thank you David for allowing us to reprint your sage advice!
Ace Jordyn

PS: read to the bottom to find out how you can download a free book with over 200 of David’s favorite writing tips!

A Guest Post by David Farland
www.mystorydoctor.com

I’ve been talking about how to deal with criticism, and I’d like to talk a bit about how to deal with criticism that you disagree with. There are a lot of reasons that people will dislike your work that have nothing to do with your work.

If you look at online reviews of Lord of the Rings, which is widely acclaimed as perhaps the best fantasy novel ever written, you’ll find a lot of people who hate it. Does that mean that the book stinks? I don’t think so. Does it mean that the critic is wrong? How can they be wrong in telling you that they don’t like it?

What it really comes down to is that the book isn’t to their tastes. Lord of the Rings is a fantasy adventure that is slanted heavily toward a male audience. It’s a metaphor for life during wartime during WWII, and so it’s something of a “buddy tale,” that plays strongly on beats of wonder, adventure, and friendship. It’s a great novel, if you have a taste for that kind of thing.

So when a critic speaks, you have to look at that critic closely. What is the person’s age and sex? What is their cultural heritage and religious background? What are their political assumptions? All of those things (and more) play into their critiques.

So just be aware that any critique may have more to do with a preference for chocolate over vanilla rather than the genuine value of the work.

Then of course you must ask, did the critic read the story properly? Did they understand it? Very often a momentarily lapse in the critic’s memory will cause the person to rant and rave for hours about how the author messed up. Even my own professional editors will often say, “Now wait a minute–I thought this character’s mother was still alive!” Then I have to refer the editor to that touching four-page scene that he or she forgot about. It happens to all of us. We get distracted by ringing phones or children or our own problems.

In fact, assuming that you really do tell your story beautifully, achieving the effects that you desired, then virtually all of the negative responses that you get from critics will typically fall into one of these two categories—the reader either has different tastes from you, or the reader made a mistake.

If you have “errors” that you can’t account for, it’s typically that you are forced to exchange one value for another. For example, you might find that in order to maintain your pacing during a fight scene, your character just doesn’t “have time” to explain the internal functions of the fancy new gun that he’s firing. You will have a gun enthusiast rail that “I really want you to explain why these Glocks have such a great recoil!” But you just don’t have time for it.

Other than that, you pretty much have to own up to any real “mistakes,” and just be grateful for readers who will point them out to you.

 

davidfarland_storydoctorDavid Farland is an award-winning, New York Times bestselling author who has penned nearly fifty science fiction and fantasy novels for both adults and children. Along the way, he has also worked as the head judge for one of the world’s largest writing contests, as a creative writing instructor, as a videogame designer, as a screenwriter, and as a movie producer. You can find out more about him at his homepage at http://www.davidfarland.net/. Also check out more great advice in his book Million Dollar Outlines. And take some of his online workshops at http://mystorydoctor.com.


Now for the free book! Anyone who signs up for David’s newsletter can download a free book with 100 of his favorite writing tips–that’s over 300 pages of writing tips! Check it out at
www.mystorydoctor.com.

Taking Criticism

A critique or criticism from a critique group or a review can make an author feel like something’s really gone wrong, even to the point of doubting yourself. How do you handle criticism? Story Doctor David Farland has sage advice on the issue. He kindly agreed to let us reprint two posts: Taking Criticism (today’s post) and Dealing With Criticism (tomorrow’s post). Thank you David!
Ace Jordyn

PS: read to the bottom to find out how you can download a free book with over 200 of David’s favorite writing tips!

A Guest Post by David Farland
www.mystorydoctor.com

An author has to take criticism as part of his job. That isn’t always easy. After all, if you get too much criticism, a couple of things happen.

First off, you begin to doubt yourself. You might even want to surrender and quit writing completely. I’ve seen hundreds of people quit writing because they couldn’t take criticism—even very accomplished writers with dozens of novels under their belts.

The second thing that might happen is that you might begin to become too defensive, telling yourself that “The world is full of idiots,” none of whom recognize your true brilliance. You’ve probably all met that kind of writer before—all ego. Some of these writers are indeed quite gifted, but once you quit listening to others, inevitably as a writer your skill begin to diminish, until at last you shrink away into obscurity.

The third thing that might happen is that you find yourself confused just as to whom to believe, and so you find yourself running down blind alleys, trying to write works that please your spouse, your writing group, or anyone else—but which don’t really feel real and vital to you.

So you have to try to sort through the various critiques that you get and try to figure out which ones to respond to and which ones to ignore. I can’t tell you how to do that. I don’t know you as a writer, and I don’t know who your critics are.

I can tell you that if you’re getting advice from someone who seems mean-spirited, you had better watch out. I’ve known writers in writing groups who have tried to destroy one another, and in some cases they succeed. So listen to people who mean well.

But also be aware that there are some good reasons why even excellent critics sometimes misread a work.

The first reason that comes to mind is that your critic just quit reading or shut down too early. Something in your work might be perceived as an error when in fact it is not. Let me give you a couple of examples.

I once got the movie Inglorious Bastards and sat down to watch it with my wife. The movie starts out like a standard holocaust movie—beautifully shot and acted. Well, that’s just boring to me at this point in my life. Then we meet the Inglorious Bastards, a group of assassins who go out to scalp Nazis, and the violence was so over the top that my wife and I just kind of looked at each other and said, “Hey, let’s shut this thing down and go to bed early.”

A few weeks later I was talking to a friend who was very impressed with the movie. I told him of my own early impressions—both justifiable, both perfectly correct—and he said, “Yes, but you didn’t see what the writers were working toward. It has one of the most powerful and brilliant endings I’ve ever seen.” So we got it on video and watched it. Holy cow, he was right! The movie is in fact a starkly realistic fantasy about how Adolph Hitler is killed by the Jews in the movie theaters. It’s a metaphor for how one group of people will often dehumanize others. It creates perhaps the most brilliant and complex emotional states at the very end that I’ve ever seen, where the audience laughs uncontrollably while a dumb American soldier carves a swastika into the head of a Nazi. We laugh, even though everything in the movie tells us that this is wrong, that we shouldn’t be dehumanizing one another!

In short, I shut down a bit early.

The same thing happened to me a couple of days ago. A woman wrote and said that she loved one of my books, but she had closed it and tossed it away on page 199 because she felt that I had a “breast fetish.”

Well, that’s just perplexing. I’ve written entire novels where I’ve never mentioned breasts. However, in this case in my novel In the Company of Angels, I felt they were necessary. Part of the story is told from the point of view of Eliza Gadd, a woman whose family pulled handcarts across the prairie in 1856. She’s nursing twin boys at the time, and the arduous journey causes her to lose her milk at the same time that all of the other women in camp—and the cows—dry up. As a result of this, one of her children quickly becomes ill and dies. Her husband, guilt-ridden, begins to give part of his meager allowance of food to his other children, and he soon starves. Her ten-year-old son, trying to take over the responsibility of the man in the family, soon takes ill and passes away, too.

It’s a pattern that happened throughout the Willie Handcart Company as they trekked across the prairie. So I felt that it was important to write about it. The image of mothers struggling in vain to nourish children on this journey crops up perhaps half a dozen times.

Does that mean that I have a “breast fetish?” Probably no more so than any other confidently heterosexual male.

What it does mean is that I introduced an element into my story that I knew would make some readers uncomfortable. I did it in order to create a more powerful effect at the end of my tale. In this case in particular it seemed like the right thing to do. It introduced a level of embarrassment, of emotional discomfort, that I believe that the protagonist must have felt on the journey.

This is a trade-off that as writers you will find that you sometimes have to make, to sacrifice one effect in order to achieve another. Your story can’t be all things to all people. It can’t be a feel-good comedy and a tragedy, for example. So to make that trade isn’t necessarily a mistake, it’s just an artistic choice.

So as you dissect your critiques, be aware that sometimes there are valid reasons for a reader’s reactions. In short, you may both be right.

davidfarland_storydoctorDavid Farland is an award-winning, New York Times bestselling author who has penned nearly fifty science fiction and fantasy novels for both adults and children. Along the way, he has also worked as the head judge for one of the world’s largest writing contests, as a creative writing instructor, as a videogame designer, as a screenwriter, and as a movie producer. You can find out more about him at his homepage at http://www.davidfarland.net/. Also check out more great advice in his book Million Dollar Outlines. And take some of his online workshops at http://mystorydoctor.com.

Now for the free book! Anyone who signs up for David’s newsletter can download a free book with 100 of his favorite writing tips–that’s over 300 pages of writing tips! Check it out at www.mystorydoctor.com.