Interview: Guest Lecturer David Farland

Published by Wendy Dye on

David Farland

Interview: Guest Lecturer David Farland

David Farland will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Writing Workshop. David is an international bestselling author with over 50 novels in print.

He has won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Special Award for Best SF novel of the year, the Whitney Award for Book of the Year, and the International Book Award for Best Young Adult Novel of the year, among others. He is best known, however, for his New York Times bestselling fantasy series The Runelords.

He is the lead judge for one of the world’s largest writing competitions and has helped dozens of writers launch their careers, including such well-known names as Brandon Sanderson, James Dashner, Brandon Mull, and Stephenie Meyer.

You can learn about his workshops and sign up for his free advice column at

As a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Workshop, you’ll be lecturing, workshopping, and meeting individually with students. What do you think is the most important advice you can give to developing writers?

There isn’t one piece of advice that everyone needs. Putting together a writing career is like putting together a puzzle. So I try to talk to a writer and figure out what the one piece of advice that author needs is.

For example, with Brandon Sanderson, he really just needed to believe that he could make writing a career, so we worked on that. For Stephenie Meyer, we analyzed her intended market and how to break into it. For James Dashner, he needed to transition from a low-paying market writing sports tie-ins to writing science fiction for a wider audience, and so on.

So sometimes I give writing advice, sometimes marketing advice, sometimes career advice.

For most people, I think that the key is to “Just write.” So much of learning how to write comes from hours and hours of practice. I want to talk about that at the conference, but this would be an enormous article if I talked about meditation, reaching the alpha and theta states, how your readers mirror your brain state, and so on. So we’ll leave it at that for now.

Your career took off in 1987 when you won first place in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest. Why do you think your work began to sell?

Honestly, I think it was mainly the power of reviews. I got a great review in Publisher’s Weekly and another in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and those were enough to launch me high on the science fiction bestseller list. Honestly, even the press from the contest helped, though. When I won the grand prize, it was featured on the cover of USA Today.

At the time, I was working with a number of new theories of storytelling. I plotted my first novel using what I called the “Stress Induction-Reduction” technique, and I tried to bring it alive using a stylistic technique that I called “hyper-realism”—where I hoped to use realistic detail in a dreamlike narrative while the reader was in an excited state so that I could make the story “feel more real than real.”

I was experimenting on the levels of style and storytelling, but really I have to thank the reviewers.

You write under Dave Wolverton for science fiction stories and David Farland for fantasy stories. How did you decide on using two names for your fiction? When would you advise writers to use pseudonyms?

“Wolverton” is a cool enough name for a writer, but so often my books ended up on the bottom shelf. I thought only garden gnomes walking through the store were likely to find them. In fact, research done by Campbell’s Soups showed that 92% of people won’t stoop over to get their favorite soup from the bottom shelf. So think about it. Does that mean that 92% of my readers were being lost?

Maybe I wasn’t losing quite that many, but I think it makes a difference.

So, why change your name?

Change it if it is too close to another famous author’s name. For example, if you’re named Steve King, change your name.

Change it if it’s unpronounceable or offensive. I used to have a good friend whose last name was Shnitz. I’d change it.

Change it if it’s too long to fit on a cover. My real name, at nine letters, was a tad too long.

Change it if you’re writing to vastly different audiences. I used to know a writer who wrote erotica under one name but wrote for Christian audiences under another. He actually used more than twenty pseudonyms since he wrote for a lot of different magazines.

Basically, I try to put pride in my work, not my name. My writer’s name is just a marketing tool, not my identity.

The Runelords is a popular fantasy series that features a unique magic system. How did the worldbuilding come about as you started the series? Did you do most of the worldbuilding before you wrote your first draft, or did you do most as you went along? What is your advice to writers on worldbuilding and crafting magic systems?

I thought long and hard about creating a new magic system for nearly a year before I started The Runelords. I developed the magic system, created a map for my world, and even worked on a bestiary that was more complex than you see in the novels. I even developed some “extinct” species for it.

So, here is my preference: Build your world first. Your societies, your characters, and your conflicts all need to grow organically out of your world. If you try to build your characters or your conflicts first, you’ll screw up, and they won’t feel organic.

As far as magic systems go, though, I have so much advice that I put it in a book. Writing a great fantasy is about more than just the magic system. It’s about arousing wonder and horror through your magic, characterization, places and creatures, and so on.

Here is a link to my book Writing Wonder

You’ve written several novels set in the world of Star Wars. Did you find it easier or more difficult to write in an established fandom as opposed to worlds of your own creation? What did you learn about writing in the world of Star Wars that you have applied to your own writing?

Writing in someone else’s world is easier if they’ve actually created the freaking world! (Many screenwriters, when working with large franchises, try to avoid really making any decisions that will become bible, lest a director or studio decide to override them. So the rules in Hollywood properties tend to be rather plastic and hard to hold onto.) Anyway, I was a big fan of Star Wars as a teen and watched the films over and over, so I knew the imagery, knew the character voices, knew the world, and so on.

But I did do research. One of my friends, Grant Boucher, wrote a great “Galaxy Guide” for Star Wars many years ago that was really a brilliant piece of world creation.

When I wrote for Star Wars, my goal was to simply cut loose and make the writing as fun as possible. I wasn’t trying to win awards or impress anyone.

Yet just by having fun, I found out that I impressed people. I wrote a little book for Scholastic, and the president of the company loved it. She said, “This is the funnest book we’ve published in 32 years,” and so she asked me to help pick a novel to push big the coming year. I looked at forty books and chose Harry Potter, then helped design the marketing campaign that made it huge.

(Please remember, though, that a marketing campaign alone doesn’t make a book huge. Rowling is a genius, and she did a great job with the book. She also wrote books 2 and 3 in the series and got them into Scholastic just in time to coincide with our big push.)

But think about it: all of that came about by learning to have fun. As a writer, when you get too serious about your work, you suck the fun out of it.

You are a highly sought-after instructor, and you have taught several bestselling authors. What’s been your biggest takeaway having taught so many authors who have gone on to write stories that audiences love? What do they all have in common?

There are three traits that all of my bestselling students have in common: Passion, Intelligence, and Work Ethic.

When I speak to a class of students, I can spot a potential bestseller by the gleam in his or her eye. Usually, they’re bent over their desks, furiously taking notes.

Now, there is a myth that natural talent plays into bestseller-dom largely, but that’s not necessarily true. I know of immensely talented stylists who can’t tell a story worth a damn. I know talented storytellers who can’t roust themselves out of bed in the morning.

Give me Passion, Intelligence, and Work Ethic, and we can go out and discover and develop your hidden talents later. (I believe that most people have a bunch of hidden talents. We just have to nurture them into the open.)

How many stages does your work go through before you send it off to a publisher? How much of your time is spent writing the first draft, and how much time is spent in revision? What sort of revisions do you do?

I write a first draft, and I call it “Laying down the bones” of the story. It’s sort of like putting together a dinosaur. You have all of these bones—a jaw here, a hip there, and you have to decide how it works together. If you know anything about paleontology, you know that very often scientists have screwed up. They put together a dinosaur wrong, say mixing up a skull from one species with another, and don’t discover the mistake for a hundred years. So I try to create a story that makes sense.

In the opening stage, I figure out what happens and why. I concern myself with creating characters who are consistent and well-motivated, then develop an entertaining plot. This is roughly half of my writing time on a project.

I next write a second draft, where I reconsider the intents of the characters, actions, and the fallout of each decision. This takes about a quarter of my writing time on the project.

I then go through and polish several times. In the polishing stage I:

a) Try to strengthen my descriptive prose and involve all of the senses—including emotion and internal thought;

b) Smooth out narrative transitions;

c) Make sure that each character voice is unique and consistent;

d) Last of all, I check each scene and make sure that it hooks the reader both at the beginning, throughout, and at the end, so that the reader is never left with a convenient place to close the book.

In short, I usually do at least six drafts of each work before it sees publication.

I hope this all helps. I look forward to visiting you all at the Odyssey Workshop!

Wendy Dye