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More than Fame or Fortune

In the last couple of posts, I’ve encouraged writers to keep on going, and I’ve heard back from many of you who have been feeling discouraged. The markets are in turmoil still, but I’m seeing some signs that the world isn’t going to end anytime soon. The major publishers are stable. That means that they’re making money in spite of the turmoil.

What I believe that I’m seeing right now is this: the paper book markets are still dominating, and I think that is going to continue, despite the inroads that e-books are having. Why? It’s quite simple. Some 70% of the shoppers are still buying books in paper formats. Thus, the best advertisement for a book is the same that it was a hundred years ago: placement in the bookstores. Even many of the readers who are purchasing books in e-format are going to the stores, seeing what’s hot, and then discreetly ordering the title as e-books.

So the goal of making it big with paper publishers still seems to be a worthy one, though if you want to explore the self-publishing market, it is increasingly attractive.

So what motivates you to write? Is it dream of critical acclaim? Do you want to win awards? Or would you prefer to get paid in stacks of money? The last couple of emails suggested that you follow those dreams. But not all rewards for writing are so . . . easily categorized.

My goal in writing this year has been simple: “to write for the love of it, every day.” Whether I win awards or make a fortune isn’t my main focus. Enjoying my art is.

The truth is, you may not make a fortune. Some of us don’t. I had a friend, Ken Rand, who was a writing addict. He had a saying, “Many people will say that you can’t write, let no one say that you don’t.” Ken wrote a number of good stories and got published in the small press. He passed away from liver cancer. Before he died he asked me to agent a novel for him, one called Dare! I love that book. Several other New York Times bestselling authors loved it, too. We all gave it great cover quotes, but not one single agent or editor picked it up.

Personally, I think it’s not just a good novel, it’s a great novel. It reminded me of The Thornbirds or Gone With the Wind. But Ken never got the million-dollar advance that he deserved. He never made it to the top of the bestseller list—at least in his lifetime.

So what motivated him? The joy of writing. You need to find your own little fount of happiness. As one writer said to me yesterday, “There’s got to be something else to keep us going besides the dream of big success. For me, right now, it is the fact that my son came to me in tears two days ago. ‘Mom, your book made me cry! That’s never happened to me before!’ It’s the fact that he went around the house, saying in amazement, ‘Mom, you did it right!’ For now, that’s enough for me. I know my own kid’s opinion doesn’t count for anything in the publishing world, but what I’m saying is that I know I gave one person a satisfying read, a powerful emotional experience. That’s what I’m after, whether publishing big comes or not.”

Writers change the world one heart, one mind, at a time.

That should be enough to keep us going.

 


David Farland

David Farland

Guest Blogger, David Farland, Coordinating Judge of the Writers of the Future Contest.

David Farland is an award-winning, international bestselling author with over 50 novels in print. He has won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Special Award for “Best Novel in the English Language” for his science fiction novel On My Way to Paradise, the Whitney Award for “Best Novel of the Year” for his historical novel In the Company of Angels, and many more awards for his work. He is best known for his New York Times bestselling fantasy series The Runelords.

dart board

Precision

I’ve just finished reading through thousands of stories for some writing contests—a job that has taken several weeks. It would take longer, but of course, I don’t always have to read an entire manuscript in order to know that it is not publishable. In looking at stories and determining just why they aren’t publishable, I can usually narrow the reasons down to a few common mistakes. One of the most prevalent reasons for rejection is that the author uses imprecise language—and so says nothing at all.

Consider the following sentence: “He moved through the trees.” Now, try to visualize that. Do you as a reader see what I’m imagining?

I guarantee that you aren’t.

Maybe you can visualize something, but chances are almost nonexistent that you will be able to draw close at all. You see, the nouns and verbs are all so generalized that we can’t get a handle on anything.

Let’s start with the subject of the sentence: “He.” What am I supposed to visualize? “He” could be just about anyone—a six-year-old boy out on a camping trip, an escaped slave trying to evade the hounds, or a hunter down in the Amazon rainforest. I’ve read stories this week where “He” turned out to be an astronaut, a dragon, a robot, a lion, or various other creatures. Do you see how the word “He” doesn’t really communicate anything at all?

An author is like a radio transmitter, while the reader is the receiver. As an author, it’s your job to send out clear signals to the reader. A “vague” word is a fuzzy signal, one that is unlikely to be deciphered.

Now, there are usually three levels of specificity to nouns. A very general noun, “he,” might refer to something that is male. We can then become more specific by putting the subject into a subcategory, such as a convict, priest, explorer, and so on. That’s not much better, but it’s a start. To really be specific, we need to get to the level of individuality, the third tier on the specificity chart. We need to know that we’re talking about Bubba Perdot, a 15-year-old Cajun alligator hunter who was born and raised in a shack on the Black River, outside of New Orleans.

Let’s move on to the verb, “moved.” There are dozens of ways to “move.” You can be conveyed on a vehicle or an animal. You can hike. You can stagger, stalk, stumble, race, fly, hop, roll, ski, and so on. The word “move” doesn’t tell me anything at all about how your character is moving. So let’s get back to Bubba. Let’s have him poling a pirogue.

Now consider the object in the sentence, “trees.” There are all kinds of trees in this world, and depending on the story that you’re writing, this world might not even be the one that you’re writing about. I was born and raised in Oregon. When I think of trees, I immediately think of Douglas firs—a nice evergreen. But I’ve seen evergreen forests in China where the trees have a very alien appearance. I have a friend who was born a few hundred miles south, and so when she thinks of trees, she’s imagining giant redwoods. A person from the high mountains might imagine groves of aspen, while one from Virginia envisions live oaks. The word “tree” is so vague that it is useless. So you have to name the types of trees. Let’s have Bubba poling through a cypress grove. Now, if you’ve ever been in a dense swamp in Louisiana, where you find yourself boating along narrow channels, you can understand how Bubba might be thought of as moving through the trees. You might object and decide that he’s really floating over the water. He is actually doing both at the same time.

Yet even to have him moving through a specific kind of tree is a cheat. If you want to do this right, you may need to go to the exact spot where you are setting the tale and describe it with great care. You see, when you go into a cypress swamp, there are dozens of species living together.

But do you see how much better you communicate when you are precise? Sending out clear signals will solve most of your communication problems. It may be that your reader isn’t adept at receiving those signals.

The person who writes an opening sentence that reads “He moved through the trees,” has told me nothing at all.

In order to bring a scene to life, you have to be specific. Years ago, I recall reading a description of a dog, written for an assignment. If I say the word dog, you can’t envision anything. A dog can be a big black Newfoundland, or an English Spaniel or a silver fox. But even those descriptions are just second-level generalities.

In order to really create a particular dog in your reader’s mind, you have to get down to details. Most people only managed to give a general description of the subcategory that the dog belonged to. But one young woman described a coyote that she saw foraging in her garbage can in the mid-morning. The coyote was female, a young mother, with distended breasts that swayed with every move, and patches of hair chewed off by her hungry pups. The author described the hunger revealed by the coyote’s emaciated form, the determined way that she picked through tin cans and tore at wrappers, trembling and frightened all the while. When the author read her paper, there was no doubt in my mind that this was one particular dog. If I ever happened to see that coyote while out on a walk, I would probably even recognize her, and think of her as an old friend.

That’s your goal, to choose specific details that bring your tale to life.

 


David Farland

David Farland

Guest Blogger, David Farland, Coordinating Judge of the Writers of the Future Contest.

David Farland is an award-winning, international bestselling author with over 50 novels in print. He has won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Special Award for “Best Novel in the English Language” for his science fiction novel On My Way to Paradise, the Whitney Award for “Best Novel of the Year” for his historical novel In the Company of Angels, and many more awards for his work. He is best known for his New York Times bestselling fantasy series The Runelords.

man looking at bulletin board

Avoid Hesitation

When you sit down to write a story or the opening to a scene, you’re presented with a problem: how to begin? As a contest judge, I see too many tales that don’t work—right from the very first sentence.

The most common problem that I see arises from “hesitation.” You as an author haven’t figured out how to start your story. You haven’t brainstormed a scene yet, so you just begin writing in the hopes that it will turn into something. Perhaps you’ll tell me about the character, “Gunther Harlan was ten years old.” Maybe you’ll start with a setting: “The day began as any other day.” Or perhaps you’ll start with a conflict. “Gunther sat on a rock, panting from exhaustion. How did I ever get into this mess? he wondered.”

Starting a tale with any one of those three elements is okay, but if you spend two pages telling your reader about Gunther, or inventing the setting, or if you have Gunther wondering how he got into trouble, you’re wasting the reader’s time.

Most often, when I see this hesitant beginning, it’s obvious to me that you’re “ramping-up.” I suspect that the real story will start a few pages in, but if I’m judging the story for a contest, I will have to reject the story long before I find the real beginning, the place where your character and conflict and the action all merge so that the story comes to life.

As an author, it’s your job to create an opening that works, to get beyond that hesitation. If you find yourself spilling ideas onto paper in the opening of your tale, for example, if you’re brainstorming your character until the story takes off, that is all right. But when your story does take off, it’s your job to cut out all of the garbage.

This is true whether you’re writing a short story, a screenplay, or a novel. One piece of advice that you will hear from professional writers over and over again is, “When I finish my novel, that’s when I know what the story is truly about. So the first thing that I do is go back and throw away the opening, then rewrite it, with the ending in mind.”

Why do all of that work? Because with a novel, you typically don’t find your characters’ voices until you’ve written about them for fifty or sixty pages. You may not know how they think, their habitual ticks, or what they will do. So you need to let them solidify in your imagination.

So when you finish a tale, return to your opening and revise it.

As you rewrite your openings, you also need to pay close attention to what I call the treatment of your story. If you’re looking to win awards or contests, it isn’t enough to write a “journeyman-style” story, where you’re describing things as if you were a reporter. You need to bring your own art into it. You need to bring in the details that add life to the story. You need to spend some time considering the poetry in your language, adding richness to your descriptions, paying attention to the beats in your dialog, considering what metaphors to choose in order to make your tale more evocative and memorable than someone else’s treatment of the tale.

Mike Resnick addressing winners at the Writers of the Future Workshop 2017

Mike Resnick addressing winners at the Writers of the Future Workshop 2017

I listened to Mike Resnick talk to a group of new writers. Mike has won more Hugo and Nebula Awards for his short fiction than any other writer. He said that he spends about 80% of his time on a short story just crafting those first two pages, while the rest of the story takes another 20% of his time.

This means that he gets to know his characters, understand his conflicts and themes, all before he gets to page three. “If you don’t have a great opening,” Mike said, “one that hooks the reader in on several different levels, then you’ve got nothing. People will never read the story at all if they don’t love it from the start.”
 


David Farland

David Farland

Guest Blogger, David Farland, Coordinating Judge of the Writers of the Future Contest.

David Farland is an award-winning, international bestselling author with over 50 novels in print. He has won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Special Award for “Best Novel in the English Language” for his science fiction novel On My Way to Paradise, the Whitney Award for “Best Novel of the Year” for his historical novel In the Company of Angels, and many more awards for his work. He is best known for his New York Times bestselling fantasy series The Runelords.

Playing the odds

Writers of the Future: Playing the Odds

A friend recently asked me about ways to improve your chances in the Writers of the Future contest.

I thought it was a good question, and I thought my answers were a nice summary of lessons learned. So I decided to share them here as a simple set of “rules”—in quotes, because they can be broken, and they’re no guarantee, but they’re good guidelines.

But before I get to the rules, I must remind you of the most reliable way to win the contest: write an excellent science fiction or fantasy story, 17,000 words or less, and send it in. Honestly, that’s the best thing you can do. Keep working on that!

Now for the rules…

  1. You should know that for pretty much every fiction market out there – and remember, Writers of the Future isn’t just a contest, it’s a pro-paying market—any rule that you hear, even from the editor directly, can usually be circumvented by a really brilliant story. That’s what every editor wants: a really brilliant story that’s close enough to their genre to give them an excuse to buy it. If you can pass Rule 1, you can ignore the rest of these rules. You’re covered. But you still might want to read them, just in case they give you ideas.
  2. David Farland is the coordinating judge for the contest. Out of the thousands of entries they receive every quarter, Dave selects 8 as Finalists. Then a panel of quarterly judges, all pro writers themselves, select 3 winners for the quarter. But Dave is more than the coordinating judge, more than a bestselling author: he is also a writing mentor through his site My Story Doctor. He also writes a series of writing tips on his blog. Every so often, he blogs specifically about what he’s looking for in the contest, or why some stories don’t make the cut. So Rule 2 is: Read Dave’s Tips.
  3. Rule 3 is: Don’t argue with Dave’s Tips! I can’t believe it, but some people do! They say he’s wrong. Now it might be argued that…
    “There are nine-and-sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, and every single one of them is right!” —Rudyard Kipling
    And Dave would not disagree! There are many ways to write a story. If you can tell a great story that ignores Dave’s Tips, more power to you! But that doesn’t make Dave wrong about what he looks for in the contest! He might be wrong about what readers want. He’s not wrong about what he looks for.
  4. Except… In at least one case, Dave was wrong. He’s on record as saying he hates werewolf stories. He never even finishes them. But… Last year Julie Frost won with a werewolf story. How did she do it? Simple: she wrote a story so good that Dave could not ignore it. Rule 4 is: See Rule 1.
  5. They get thousands of entries every quarter. Many are by people who just enter contests without looking into the details. A good number aren’t even science fiction or fantasy. So if Dave doesn’t see an SF/F element by the end of page 2—or at least a hint—he’ll probably stop reading. If it looks promising otherwise, he might skip to the end to see if it’s there.
  6. Dave does a lot of skipping to the end. He has seen a lot of plots. If he figures out your plot on page 2, he skips to the end to see if he’s right. If he is, you’re probably out. But if he’s surprised, he may go back to see how you got there.
  7. They get a lot of stories inspired by the latest big movie. They all blur together and most likely none of them get through. As excited as you may be by the latest blockbuster, put that idea aside. Let it simmer. Come back to it later, and give it a fresh twist.
  8. Dave likes to see three things as early as possible: A character, in a setting, with a problem. It might not be THE problem, but A problem. Struggling with that reveals character and setting.
  9. Dave really likes good description. That held me back for a long time. I’m weak on description.
  10. As for story structure, unless you’ve got a brilliant alternative (Scott Parkin did in Volume 31 – see Rule 1), Dave prefers a traditional Freytag triangle with three Try/Fail Cycles. Two is too easy, four is dragging it out. Three is best. You might have some of the structure happen before the story, or off screen, but try to have it all there somewhere.
  11. Dave likes a story to mean something on an emotional level. Cool plots are great. Cool plots that mean something are memorable.
  12. If your story is set in a modern or historical setting, Dave is a stickler for research and for voice. And he has been a lot of places, he knows a lot of things, and he has met a lot of people. If you’re faking your research, he’ll probably know.
  13. If, on the other hand, you make up your own universe to avoid that whole research trap, Dave likes it logical and consistent.
  14. The contest never gets enough good humor, but they get way too much bad.
  15. Talk to winners. Ask what worked for them. Ask what they learned. My “rules” are just from my one experience. Get multiple perspectives.

That’s a good start. Nothing guarantees a win, of course, but these “rules” will move the odds in your favor.

 


Martin L. Shoemaker

Martin L. Shoemaker

Martin L. Shoemaker is a programmer who writes on the side… or maybe it’s the other way around. Programming pays the bills, but a second place story in the Jim Baen Memorial Writing Contest earned him lunch with Buzz Aldrin. Programming never did that!

Martin’s work has appeared in Clarkesworld, Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, Galaxy’s Edge, Digital Science Fiction, Forever Magazine, Humanity 2.0, The Year’s Top Short SF Novels 4, Writers of the Future Volume 31, Time Travel Tales, Trajectories, Little Green Men: Attack!, The Glass Parachute, and The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-First Annual Collection.

Woman writing

Spectacular Settings

I mentioned last week that when I judge a story, one of the simple things I look at is your setting. There are so many aspects to setting, let’s just look at a few:

1) Is your milieu intriguing? Many authors will set a story in the most blasé of places. Often, the story is set “somewhere in the USA.” While for certain types of stories this may be completely appropriate, in most cases it’s not. It’s as if the writer has suffered brain death, and couldn’t bother to come up with a real milieu. In most cases, it helps if you choose a particular place to set your story, and a particular date.

2) Is the world fully created? If you’re using a real-world setting, then “creating” that world is a matter of capturing it—learning its history, culture, and future. It’s not enough just to research a setting, you have to know it, get it into your bones. This usually means that you must travel to that setting and spend some time there. You can’t just blow through Amarillo, Texas and expect to really know the place.

In a science fiction tale, if you want to set your story on a planet, then creating a setting might require you to decide what kind of star system your planet is set in, along with the planet’s composition, rotation, axial tilt, number of moons, type of atmosphere, and so on. You may have to think about how to create alien life-forms, and develop their life-cycles, and perhaps create their histories, languages, and societies. Just getting those kinds of details takes some concentration.

If you’re creating a fantasy world, then you may have to look even further—into creating the flora and fauna of your world, along with cultures and subculture, the magic systems and economic systems, societies, languages, histories, religions, and so on.

So I look at how robust your setting is. I consider how fully developed it is. I ask myself, “Has this author put enough thought into the setting to create the illusion that this is a real place?”

3) Does your setting produce interesting characters and conflicts?

A well-developed setting has a profound effect on characterization. To a large degree, you’re a product of your environment—of your culture, your society, your school system, your family influences, and so on. In a story, this must also be true.

So, I look at your world and ask myself, “How well has this author taken advantage of his or her milieu? Had she missed opportunities to make her characters more interesting?” If you’re creating a fantasy world, and you develop a particularly fascinating subculture, then you may want to consider placing one of your characters in that culture.

But the setting doesn’t just help develop characters, it also creates its own conflicts. Thus, if you have a story where a world is enshrouded by a continual electric storm, how does that affect your tale?

4) Now, once you’ve created a milieu, how well do you display that world?

Some authors don’t show their settings well at all. I often see stories where there is no background, no mountains or forests in the distance. Often, the author doesn’t bother to mention what time of day it is, or what the weather is like.

In other stories, authors even forget to mention the mid-ground. In other words, if they’re in a small town, they give no details about nearby houses, streets, or crowds.

Other authors even forget to mention what is close by, so that when a character is sitting eating lunch at a table, someone may suddenly speak up—appearing out of nowhere.

Many authors don’t involve all of the senses. They go “cinematic” on me, so that they only show me things from the outside, never referring to the sense of taste or touch. These authors often forget to get into the heads of their protagonists, so that we don’t hear their thought or sense their emotions.

Remember, the best-selling novels in almost every genre do one thing well above all others: they transport the reader fully into a well-developed milieu.

As you can see, I can’t talk about settings in great detail in this small format, so I will be writing a book on the topic soon.

 


David Farland

David Farland

Guest Blogger, David Farland, Coordinating Judge of the Writers of the Future Contest.

David Farland is an award-winning, international bestselling author with over 50 novels in print. He has won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Special Award for “Best Novel in the English Language” for his science fiction novel On My Way to Paradise, the Whitney Award for “Best Novel of the Year” for his historical novel In the Company of Angels, and many more awards for his work. He is best known for his New York Times bestselling fantasy series The Runelords.

Small kids handing soldier a ball

Character Traits

As we read stories, we are constantly making judgments. We may admire an author’s style, even as we are annoyed by a plot twist that we saw coming; or we might get creeped-out by the foreshadowing, while we’re annoyed by the author’s cynical tone.

It seems to me that one thing that we are most critical of is characters. Is a love interest likeable? Does he or she work as a protagonist?

I thought about this a good deal yesterday as I was reading a story. A young man in the story was filled with hubris beginning on page two. He had a nice sense of humor, he was hard-working, and he was intelligent. So he had some virtues, but he was tainted. My immediate question was, “Is this author going to kill this character, or humble him?” You see, pride is such an ugly trait, I knew that the author would try one or the other. As it turned out, the author did both, beautifully.

Again, a couple of days ago, I watched a movie, a comedy, that was well written. The protagonist was a naïve young man, trying to make friends. There was a lot of humor in the piece, but much of the humor featured sexual jokes that made the viewer nervous, and I found myself wishing that, despite the excellent acting and directing, the writer had come up with better material for his jokes. You see, the young man’s friends came off as . . . creepy. Even his closest friend left me feeling a bit icky—to the point that instead of recommending an otherwise excellent movie, I won’t even tempt you by telling you its name. This is an example of mischaracterization.

“Mischaracterization” is a surprisingly common problem.

Here are some red flags in stories:

Profanity. If you open your story with a protagonist uttering profanity, the reader has to ask, is the character too profane for my tastes? A lot of readers don’t use profanity or tolerate it in others. If your use of profanity would earn a movie an R-rating, then you have a problem. If your characters are profane in every sentence, as an editor I will probably reject your story.

Now, there are some types of characters and some types of situations where profanity is almost inescapable. For example, if you’re writing about mercenary soldiers in Iraq, I would expect profanity. I’m not worried about those stories, I’m more concerned when the profanity is laid on thick in a vulgar or shocking way where it is unwarranted.

Dark Humor. If your characters use humor that is too violent or sexual in nature, then once again you risk offending readers. With humor, you may have dozens of humorous incidents or lines in a story. If one in three of those tend to be too dark, if they make the audience queasy, your mix is probably too dark.

Shocking characters. Many authors try to shock their readers or offend them by using disturbing imagery, metaphors, or by showing graphic sex or violence. If a tale starts off with these, it can grab a reader’s attention. But the problem arises when the author feels that he has to keep escalating the sexuality or violence. I often have to reject stories where the author is trying to disturb the reader with every sentence, to the point where the tale becomes unbearable.

Negative Traits. Is your protagonist deceitful, proud, reticent, shy, lazy, foolish, vain, boorish, jaded, pompous, jealous, depraved, insipid, cruel, or depressed? While we do have to have some negative traits in order for a character to feel balanced, just about any negative trait can be carried too far.

In fact, some positive traits can become negative traits. An honest man can be too honest. A compassionate person can give entirely too much.

So what is the acid test? How do you know if your characterization has gone wrong?

Years ago, I was reading a story by an author whose style I really admire. However, when I was halfway through his novel, I realized that I wouldn’t want to meet any of his characters in a dark alley. They were universally nasty, universally disturbing, but each in his own way.

So I’ve learned to ask myself early in a tale, “Do I want to spend time with this character? Am I invested in his tale? Do I care what happens to him?” If the answers to the questions are a resounding “yes,” then I’ll go on.

But let me take it a step further. Should I even have to ask those questions? The stories that I’ve loved the most are the ones where I become so invested in the characters, I never consciously think to ask my questions. I’m a jaded old author and editor. So I often ask the questions. But did I ever stop and wonder how I felt about Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games? Of course not. I loved and admired her too much, too soon, to ever even think about it.

The same can be said of a host of novels that have gripped me over the years. I loved Ender Wiggins in Ender’s Game, and Frodo in Lord of the Rings, and so on.

So perhaps the goal shouldn’t be to simply avoid “mischaracterization,” but to look for opportunities to create great characters.

 


David Farland

David Farland

Guest Blogger, David Farland, Coordinating Judge of the Writers of the Future Contest.

David Farland is an award-winning, international bestselling author with over 50 novels in print. He has won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Special Award for “Best Novel in the English Language” for his science fiction novel On My Way to Paradise, the Whitney Award for “Best Novel of the Year” for his historical novel In the Company of Angels, and many more awards for his work. He is best known for his New York Times bestselling fantasy series The Runelords.

Salt Lake Comic Con 2017

Galaxy Press Rocked the Salt (Salt Lake City that is…)

We attended the Salt Lake City Comic Con which took place at the Salt Palace in downtown Salt Lake City with over 100,000 attendees over the 3-day event.

One of the best parts of attending these conventions is seeing amazing friends—judges from Writers and Illustrators of the Future, contest winners and the amazing fans! We also made some great new friends.

Our Writers of the Future judges Brandon Sanderson, Jody Lynn Nye and David Farland were on panels promoting Writers of the Future…

Writers of the Future judges on a panel

(L to R) Brandon Sanderson, Jody Lynn Nye, Tad Williams, Jim Butcher and David Farland.

And they also talked about the Contest on television.

John Goodwin and Dave Farland on Park City TV with Joe Davis.

John Goodwin and Dave Farland on Park City TV with Joe Davis.

Author Jody Lynn Nye being interviewed by Joe Davis from Park City TV

Author Jody Lynn Nye being interviewed by Joe Davis from Park City TV

Illustrators of the Future judge Rob Prior promoted the Contest from his booth.

Rob Prior at Salt Lake Comic Con

Rob Prior at Salt Lake Comic Con

Writers of the Future winners, past and soon-to-be-awarded, were also on hand to lend their support to the Contest.

Eric and Darci Stone with Joe from Park City TV

Eric James Stone (WOTF 20 & 21) and Darci Rhoades Stone (WOTF 34) with Park City TV’s Joe Davis.

And then Terl showed up figuring he would steal the show.

Terl at the Galaxy Press booth

Terl at the Galaxy Press booth

Stormtroopers take a minute to get their picture with Terl

Stormtroopers take a minute to get their picture with Terl

But he was certainly not to be outdone by all the fans who stopped by our booth.

Galaxy Press booth at Salt Lake Comic Con

Galaxy Press booth at Salt Lake Comic Con

We also met the convention organizer Dan Farr and will team up to promote Writers and Illustrators of the Future at future Comic Cons.

John and Emily Goodwin with Dan Farr

John and Emily Goodwin with Dan Farr

And then there was all the other great media we were featured on.

 

Thumbs up

A Guide to Critiquing a Story: Seven Vital Elements Every Story Must Have

Frequently authors ask if I have a “form” that I used to help me critique a story. Given the large number of things that I look at in a story, any form that I had would simply be too long to be workable. Yet it makes sense to try to codify the critiquing process.

There are of course people who don’t believe that art can or should be measured. They might say, “Sure, this author uses the passive voice so much that his tale flows slower than cold tar, but his stunning insights are unsurpassed in literature.” They’d be right. Yet if you’ve ever had to judge stories professionally, you soon find that you have to devise some logic for deciding how to gauge the relative merits of tales, and I’ve been judging stories for contests and classes for some twenty years.

So I’m going to create a form that I might use to judge a story:

Story Critique Form

1. Originality. On a scale of 1 to 10, how original was this story? A 1 means that the story is cliché while a 10 means that it has at least a couple of ideas that I haven’t encountered before. ______

2. Setting. On a scale of 1 to 10, how well was the setting developed? A 1 indicates that the setting was poorly developed. This means that is almost completely disappeared from the story, or that I felt confused as to where and when the tale took place in one or more scenes. Of course, the author should involve all of the senses in describing his or her setting. A 10 means that not only is the setting well-developed, but it informs every aspect of the story—from character development to tone and narrative style. In a story that rates a 10, the setting itself is a powerful draw for the story, and the author succeeded in transporting me into the tale. ______

3. Characterization. On a scale of 1 to 10, how well-drawn are the characters in the story? Good characters should convince us that they grew up in the world or setting that we’ve placed them in. They should have complex motives and be imbued with conflicting attitudes about life, ethics, politics, and so on. The characters should have friends, enemies, acquaintances, secrets, desires and fears. The character should have a physical body, with a physical history. The character should have a family, of course, and some type of history, along with a place in society. In short, with a poorly drawn character, we know virtually nothing about him by the end of the story. With a well-drawn character, we feel as if we know him intimately by the end of the story. ______

4. Conflict and Plot. On a scale of1 to 10, how interesting are the conflicts? Since the characters, along with their motives and abilities really lead to a plot, then one must also consider the twists and turns of the plot. How inventive are they? How exciting? How engrossing? ______

5. Emotional/intellectual payoff. On a scale of 1 to 10, how well did this story arouse powerful emotions? If it did arouse powerful emotions, were they the proper emotions for the intended audience (as gauged by the age and sex of the protagonists)? Remember that the author shouldn’t be hitting the same emotional beats over and over again. Instead, the author should be creating an emotional symphony, where counter-beats help raise the emotional payoff. ______

6. Theme. On a scale of 1 to 10, how well did this story speak to the reader? Does it raise interesting questions about life and provide profound insights? A rating of “1” means that I don’t really see either one. A rating of “10” means that the author astounded me. ______

7. Treatment. On a scale of 1 to 10, how masterfully was the tale written on a line-by-line basis? A poor story, a tale that earns a 1, might be difficult to read simply because of something like “pronoun reference problems,” or it may be marred by typos and grammatical problems. A tale worthy of a 10 will be written not only in language that is beautiful and evocative, but it will also move with effortless pacing. Too often, authors who write beautifully work too hard to impress the reader and end up cluttering the tale will too many metaphors or overwrought pacing. In doing so, they struggle to draw attention to themselves rather than tell a story. ______

These are the big-ticket items that I look for in a story. You’d think that there would be more, but as you can see I lump things into large categories. For example, an author’s “treatment” can include hundreds of items. An author might have a surprisingly large and facile vocabulary, and that would be a plus. Yet the same author might labor to create clumsy or artless similes and thus mar his work. General pacing and story flow might be part of the author’s style, or I might rank it under plotting, but it is taken into consideration.

There is one other consideration. How do you weight different categories? Is one element more important than the others?

Personally, I want a story that scores perfect tens in all categories, but I know authors who feel that in fantasy and science fiction, for example, a story with an original concept is solid gold. So a story that is fresh and original will beat out one that is beautifully written.

Similarly, in a genre such as romance, where you might well be writing with very strict guidelines, you might not be free to create radically unusual characters or unusual settings.

In short, the audience is looking for a product that delivers a powerful emotional charge. So in that genre, the story might be weighted toward emotional power.

In an upcoming post, I’m going to take the story form and break it down further, discussing some of the things that I look for when I’m considering each category.

 


David Farland

David Farland

Guest Blogger, David Farland, Coordinating Judge of the Writers of the Future Contest.

David Farland is an award-winning, international bestselling author with over 50 novels in print. He has won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Special Award for “Best Novel in the English Language” for his science fiction novel On My Way to Paradise, the Whitney Award for “Best Novel of the Year” for his historical novel In the Company of Angels, and many more awards for his work. He is best known for his New York Times bestselling fantasy series The Runelords.

Now, back to the story.

Back to the Story

What defines “good” writing when it comes to a story? That’s a question that I have to ask time and again as I’m judging contest entries. You see, there are different kinds of “good,” and there are different levels of “goodness.” One writer has a gift for plotting, another a gift for pithy metaphors. So what’s your definition of a “good” story?

Is it a tale that intrigues? I’ve read plenty of intriguing stories that don’t deliver on their promise. In fact, I read one yesterday written by a person who has mastered the art of making promises but failing to deliver. I’d hate to be that author’s landlord.

Is it a story whose author is eloquent? I’ve read many stories where the prose sounds gorgeous but the story ends up to be nothing more than stirring drivel.

Do you want a tale that offers profound insights? That’s tough to deliver. Your profound insights might sound simplistic to someone else—or they might go so far over your reader’s head, the reader never even “gets it.” Besides, too many critics confuse popular for profound. For example, if you were to write a story that deals with the theme of the “greed of the political right,” a lot of critics would say that your work was brilliant even if your insights were intellectually sloppy or stale. On the other hand, if you were to write something that was truly profound on a tired old topic like “maintaining faith in yourself in the face of adversity,” those same critics would most likely yawn. Why? Because they confuse trendy for timeless. Ideally, if you’re going to deal with a trendy topic, you handle it in a way that becomes timeless, so that your story becomes the definitive treatment on the topic.

For most people, a “good” story is one that engages them. The author does several things. He or she transports the reader into another time, another place, and another person’s psyche. And then the author takes the reader through a transformative emotional and intellectual experience.

Ultimately, for me at least, that’s what I’m hoping for when I begin to read a tale.

Yet so often writers get bogged down in little things—like trying to cleverly describe a town or a character—that the author will even admit to their audience that they are lost.

For example, in this past week I rejected perhaps fifty entries to a major writing contest for using five simple words: “Now, back to the story.” Have you ever done that? It’s a grave mistake. If you as an author even think that while you’re writing, it should raise red flags.

I reject those stories automatically. Why? There are three problems:

First, the author is addressing the audience. In most cases, that is a mistake. By addressing the reader, you pull them out of the story. It’s like winking at the reader, saying, “You and I both know that this is a story.” It can work at times, in an over-the-top comedy. (Remember the asides in the movie Ferris Beuller’s Day Off? The sit-com “The Office” uses it, too. But it almost never works in a dramatic tale.)

The second problem with using the words “Now back to the story” is that the author is admitting that he or she has gone astray. It’s like saying, “Okay, I just told you about this lovely little house for two pages, and I know that I’ve vastly over-written the passage, so let’s get back to the story.” The author not only admits that he has given unnecessary information, he is now asking forgiveness.

Instead of begging forgiveness for errors, the writer needs to go back and edit the offending passage.

That is three major storytelling errors in only five words. I’ll reject that story every time. Every other editor will, too.

All I really want is for you to tell me a story. Don’t overindulge in wordiness, don’t underwrite. Don’t get lost and start telling me some other story. Don’t give up and just write a scene.

Keep to the task. Write a story!

 


David Farland

David Farland

Guest Blogger, David Farland, Coordinating Judge of the Writers of the Future Contest.

David Farland is an award-winning, international bestselling author with over 50 novels in print. He has won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Special Award for “Best Novel in the English Language” for his science fiction novel On My Way to Paradise, the Whitney Award for “Best Novel of the Year” for his historical novel In the Company of Angels, and many more awards for his work. He is best known for his New York Times bestselling fantasy series The Runelords.

Girl at typewriter

Avoiding Cliché Openings

Many years ago, Damon Knight, a fine writer and editor, wrote a book on how to write short fiction. Damon talked a bit about avoiding clichés, and in his book he mentioned the problem of stories that open with people “wondering who they are,” “where they are,” and so on. Damon taught a lot of workshops, and his counsel to new writers soon spread far and wide.

Back when I began working as first reader for the Writers of the Future Contest in 1991, I didn’t see a lot of those cliché openings. But Damon passed away ten years ago, and his counsel has been forgotten. In this past quarter, I came upon nine stories in a row where characters were opening their eyes and wondering where they were, who they were, and in some cases what they were. The tenth story skipped, and then I got four more.

Unfortunately for the authors, I probably didn’t give those stories a fair shake. Literally, I saw a hundred of those openings in one quarter. In the same way, if you wrote a story about teens taking a journey to the center of the earth, that probably didn’t get you far, either.

Other clichés: the story where a ship’s captain is startled from slumber by warning sirens or claxons; the vampire lover meeting the man of her dreams (tall, dark, handsome, and O+); the human counselor meeting an alien for the first time; a person vomiting; someone getting a really cool tattoo; and the kid who gets picked on in school just because he’s a zombie.

One of the biggest clichés is the fantasy story that starts with what I will call “wandering.” A person is riding a horse down a road and thinking. We don’t get told where he is going or why, we just see into his or her thoughts. I’ve written articles in the past suggesting authors not start a story with characters sitting on a rock or thinking, and I’m glad to say that I didn’t see any of those. However, the meditators have now gone ambulatory. Folks—give someone a destination. Have them striding purposefully, or running, or racing their horse—in order to resolve a substantial problem.

I can’t tell you all of the clichés for every genre, but the ones listed are some that I see a lot.

When you start a story, it isn’t bad to start with action. I’ve bought stories about ship’s captains being awakened by warning claxons, and I’ll do it again. I kind of like zombies who get picked on at school. But when you open with a scene that I’ve seen a hundred times before, you have to imbue it with a lot of virtues—brilliant description, captivating dialog, astonishing visuals, and so on. It becomes an uphill battle for you as a writer.

So as you’re opening a story, look for a unique opening. Have characters doing things that the audience hasn’t seen before. This may require you to stretch your imagination, but it’s one way to help get a sale.

 


David Farland

David Farland

Guest Blogger, David Farland, Coordinating Judge of the Writers of the Future Contest.

David Farland is an award-winning, international bestselling author with over 50 novels in print. He has won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Special Award for “Best Novel in the English Language” for his science fiction novel On My Way to Paradise, the Whitney Award for “Best Novel of the Year” for his historical novel In the Company of Angels, and many more awards for his work. He is best known for his New York Times bestselling fantasy series The Runelords.