David Farland is an American sci-fi and fantasy author best known for his works ‘Runelords’ and ‘Of Mice and Magic’. David was in Brisbane for the 2016 Oz Comic-Con weekend, signing autographs and presenting talks on the writing life. In ‘In Conversation with David Farland’, David spoke about writing processes, research, and finding your voice in a world already crowded with voices.
Be aware of the logic of magic systems.
All magical systems have limitations, and those limitations are important because they literally make the story possible. If magic can do anything and everything, then it could be used to solve the story’s crisis in a few seconds flat. Knowing that someone could wave a wand and solve the problem in a heartbeat takes the tension out of the story. If there’s an easy fix, why isn’t it being taken?
How do they make the magic happen? Is there a ritual? If so, how does it work in an action filled moment? Think about non-darkside Willow’s magic in ‘Buffy’, for example: she needs to be sitting down, doing the ritual outside of the firing line because she can’t multitask this stuff. It’s not something she can do while, say, running away from an explosion or kicking someone in the balls. She also needs certain items for certain types of magic. The same is true in ‘Supernatural’- rituals to get rid of certain demigods or supernatural beings tend to involve specific ritual elements that can’t be easily ad-libbed. There’s rules and limitations, and usually some kind of sacrifice by the caster (to banish angels in ‘Supernatural’, for example, requires fresh blood).
Which is another important point: there’s almost always an exchange, or sacrifice, for the magic being made. You don’t generally get something for nothing just by lighting some incense. So what will your character have to sacrifice to get what they want?
Einstein taught himself math by staying on the toilet until he solved three problems. Every day.
Because Einsten had a timetable he liked to stick to (bathroom at a certain time of day included), putting himself in the position to have to stay, and throw out that timetable gave him incentive to get the work done. You get better by doing, not by thinking about doing. So how can you add time to your day- every day- to improve your writing? What can you be doing to make yourself a better writer?
The creative side of the brain is awake all night, solving our problems. But it can’t talk to us, so it shows us in vision.
A lot of writers talk about dreaming their stories, or those wonderful flashes of inspiration that seem to strike out of the blue. We’ve got an unlimited amount of creative firepower (at least, when we get out of our own way), we just need to find ways to let the creative side of our brains show us what its got. Being aware of how your brain works, and how your creative side sends you ideas and information. If you get your best ideas in dreams, keep a notebook by your bed, or figure out how to record onto your phone so you can blearily mumble the idea instead. If you get your best ideas in the shower, or while out walking, find ways to make sure you’re recording the ideas that interest you.
Your brain is a supercomputer moving faster than we know. You’re only aware of about 0.004% of what goes on in your own brain. Learning how to use your brain well is very important for a writer.
This is why people say to acknowledge a problem, gather together the information you have about the problem, and then stop consciously thinking about it.Letting problems be contemplated in the background tends to help bring new perspectives to the plot tangle. Consciously thinking tends to add emotion and ego, which slows the process down. Once you start polluting the problem with shoulds (‘oh no, I’ve lost my keys again! I should have put them away! I should be better than this!’), it takes longer to find a solution because you’re brainstorming, but you’re also dealing with trying to calm the frazzled nerves. The emotional stuff, especially the negative kind, tends to be dramatic and attention seeking, which doesn’t leave a lot of time or energy for the actual problem.
You need to figure out what works for you. Pay attention to when your right brain is most active and schedule your writing around it.
David, for example, writes better in the morning, while the logical part of his brain is only just waking up. But by about 1-3pm, the creative, problem solving part of his brain needs a nap. We all have different rhythms, and learning when we work best makes it easier to be productive. It’s no use scheduling writing time at 2pm if that’s when your creativity is having some downtime. But maybe it’s a great time to get some editing done. Doing what works for you is 100% more effective than trying to work within a system that doesn’t.
There are hundreds, probably thousands of formulas out there for getting the writing done. The internet is packed with them. But if it doesn’t work for you, ditch it. It’s not bad, just not for you. Don’t waste time trying to fit someone else’s idea of how it should be done, and save your energy for your writing.
If you’re struggling with writer’s block, look at what you wrote the day before to see where you went astray.
Sometimes, you’re just not in the mood to write. But sometimes, you’ve wandered off track, and fixing the problem is much harder than sitting on Netflix for the day. Watch an ep if you must, but figure out where you went wrong and do a quick and dirty rewrite to get back on track.
Truth is truth, wherever it comes from.
People can get precious about where they find their words of wisdom, but the truth is that truth is everywhere. In researching facts, certain sources will always be more reputable than others, but in the search for emotional truth, all sources are equal. Don’t dismiss an idea because the source isn’t literary enough. And don’t for a second believe that only certain people hold control over the truth.
Read what you find interesting.
Don’t feel like you need to love the classics because they’re the classics. If you can’t stand Shakespeare, Tom Hiddleston isn’t going to attack from the shadows one night and beat you to death with a book of sonnets. We all have different tastes- that’s a good thing. It means that there’s a wider variety of authors who can write their stories and tell them to the world.
If you’d rather read about World War II than Elizabeth Bennett, that’s perfectly okay. Don’t let other people shame you into reading books you hate because they’re popular. And don’t shame yourself for liking the things you do, either! When you look at the genres people tell you should be guilty pleasures, it’s amazing how often you’ll see there’s a lot of other people being told to feel guilty for their reading matter, too. Don’t feel guilty. Your life, your choice in how it’s spent.
Try to bring something into the genre. If you start trying to write like someone else, it’s nostalgia, not original.
J.K. Rowling already exists. Those authors that you want to be like? We’ve already read them. Write your story your way, rather than trying to write it the way your literary hero would or could. It’ll make the process a lot easier, for a start, but you’ll also find that readers enjoy your work more. If they wanted to read that author’s work, they’d have done so. They chose yours. Give them what they want: your voice.
Find original thinkers to teach you how to write.
There’s an argument that an increasing number of writing teachers are just parroting the same ‘rules’ in slightly different ways, or just parroting their own ideas of what writing should be and calling it a universal belief. Whether you believe it to be true or not, finding the right teacher is important. Don’t just find someone who loves your work- that’s what your grandmother is for. Find someone who challenges you, and who is happy to work outside of those little boxes around how things should be done. It’s not always an easy way to learn and grow, but it’s infinitely preferable to only ever hearing what you want to hear.
There’s 10,000 right ways to write a particular story, and a million ways to stuff it up.
The rules of writing aren’t perfect.In fact, for pretty much every rule about writing, there’s some pretty compelling evidence that it can work, and really well, in certain circumstances.For David, whenever he’s told a student not to do something, it’s led to him having an idea that requires that rule being broken. After telling a student never to write second person future tense, for example, he ended up writing a horror story that used it. Ask yourself:
Is it wrong always, or just wrong for this particular story?
Chances are, there’s going to be a story that will benefit from that thing you’re never supposed to do.
And that’s why finding the right mentor is important: you need someone who won’t just dismiss an idea out of hand. You need someone who will challenge your idea with more than just saying ‘that’s not how this is usually done’. You’re not here to do it the same way as everyone else. You’re here to put your stamp on the stories you tell.
‘Write what you know’ is bullshit. Learn about it before you try to write it. Do your research. Write it in a convincing way.
You don’t have to be an expert in Norse dialects of the middle ages to write a Norse character in that time frame. You don’t need a degree in psychology to write crime, though it might be fun. Research is really important, because there’s generally people out there who do know a lot, and who’ll be rather unimpressed if you’ve gotten something wrong that five minutes on Google would have solved.
Challenge yourself to learn new things. There’s free courses online for a range of subjects- try one. And learn not just because it might be useful in a story, but because you’re curious or it sounds interesting as well. Look outside genre-specific ideas. Look for fun topics, or challenging ones. You’ll be amazed how many tiny, random facts become the basis for stories.
Write about experiences we all share.
We don’t all know what it’s like to be a refugee struggling to survive a boat trip in wild weather on an old, rusting boat. But we all know fear, and desperation, and hope. Most of us know what it’s like to feel out of control and powerless, even though it’s in a vastly different way. The emotional experiences are universal. The physical experiences? Not so much.
Oftentimes, the really good, compelling, emotionally devastating stories are the ones that find the universal thread in an individual’s experience, so that even though the reader hasn’t known those exact problems or events, they can relate and empathise deeply to the characters and their experiences.
Hemmingway said to wait six months before revising. Bullshit. Do what works for you. Whatever works for you is a great way to write.
Just because someone famous says to do it a certain way doesn’t mean it’ll work for you. Besides, if you do twenty edits to a story, and you wait six months before each edit, you’re going to be spending an obscenely long time on any one piece of work.
In truth, the majority of writing advice comes down to doing what works for you and your story. Whatever anyone else is doing is irrelevant. Your process needs to serve you, not someone else’s ego. Let go of writing the way someone else says should be done. That energy is much better spent actually writing.
When you start writing, you start making changes. Your outlines become garbage.
David’s solution is to plan his story, write the first third, and then revisit and edit the plan. Write another third, and revisit and edit the plan again. Stories evolve, and that’s a good thing. But you’ll drive yourself crazy trying to force your evolving story to stay confined in the original plan.
I feel my more successful books were planned. Once you know your plot, it frees up your creative juices for details, and character growth.
Some people can just sit at the page and create a story from nothing. Some people need every detail and scene mapped out fully in advance. Many of us fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. But knowing some of the key story beats gives you a direction to wander in when the writing gets tough.
For David, knowing the basics of the plot means that he can focus on the details of the story, letting him explore them more deeply because he can better see how they interact with the plot.