Friday, February 19, 2010

Archived Interview: David Farland, author of The Runelords and Of Mice and Magic

Originally published in the December 2006 edition
of Writer's Tips from Jorlan Publishing.

LJ: What events in your life helped to mold you into the writer you've become?

DF: Everything that happens in an author's life molds him or her into the kind of writer that he or she becomes. But I think that the most significant things that happened are the events that led me to become a writer instead of, say, a CIA agent or a street clown. I became a writer because, as a child, I learned to love books. In particular, I loved fantasy novels by the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien and Ursula K. LeGuin.

LJ: How many rejection letters did you accumulate before getting published? What kept you from giving up as a writer?

DF: Actually, I began writing for contests pretty early, and I won a lot of them. This led to a three-novel contract with Bantam books soon after I began writing. I only have gotten perhaps seven or eight rejection letters in my life. But I think the thing that got me going and kept me going was the positive feedback that I got from writing instructors and fellow writers. You need that when you start out.

LJ: How much attention do you give to the new writing rules such as "no adverbs," "no passive sentences," "limited exclamation points," etc.?

DF: Most rules are somewhat helpful, but a rule like "no adverbs," isn't. Sometimes you need an adverb. Sometimes a sentence has to be passive. So I like to think in terms of guidelines rather than rules, and the guidelines that I choose to abide by are what helps define my individual style and voice.
I have so many little guidelines that it becomes almost impossible to list them. But to give you some ideas:

1. I always try to cut a sentence down to the minimum number of syllables possible. This means that "and then" might become "then," or that even the "then" might be removed and a new sentence started, since when you are telling a story in sequence, we know what "then" is.

2. I never use two adverbs (-ly words) in the same sentence.

3. I avoid sound repetitions and word repetitions unless I'm using them for effect.

4. Hemingway once said that "Great writing is always poetry." I may not pay much attention to the poetry of my language on the first and second passes in a story, but I begin to do so eventually. The poetic devices that I use are rarely heavy handed. I use them mainly to try to control the tension levels and tone in my story, in an effort to alter the reader's moods on a subconscious level.

5. I never use double punctuation in a sentence unless I'm writing from the point of view of a protagonist who is just a little over the top emotionally.

6. I never finish writing a scene until I know what each character is thinking. Now, the characters may not reveal what they are thinking to one another, and I as an author may choose not to report what they're thinking, but I know that a scene doesn't work until I've considered it at this level.

7. The setting in a story needs to intrude in every scene, usually on every page. (I find that if I'm not grounded to the place in an author's story, I soon begin to detach from the story, feeling that it is somehow missing something essential.)

8. I try to make sure that the reader is grounded early in every scene. That means that they should know what the setting is, who the characters are in the room, and they should have a conflict established. I prefer to lay this all out in the first paragraph when possible.

These are just a few of my own guidelines. Many of them are so internalized that I just don't even think about them anymore.

LJ: After your first book was published, did you continue to work with that publisher?

DF: I stayed with that publisher for three books. When you get a book contract, your publisher is investing in you as an author, not just in that one book. So most of the time, it is better to build that relationship. I worked with Bantam on my first book, and I've done nine more books with Tor. A couple of times I've written books that were work-for-hire for other publishers, such as when I wrote Star Wars books or Mummy books, but I love working with my current publisher.

LJ: Do you have an agent? What are your thoughts on agents?

DF: Yes, I have an agent. I think that having a good agent is really necessary in today's market. Your agent will typically have much more knowledge of the markets than you will, and will have expertise in negotiating contracts that you don't have.

When you get an agent, you don't really get just one person, normally. You get a host of agents. My primary agent is Russell Galen, in New York. He handles my US contracts and movie deals. But he has an agent named Danny Baror who handles my contracts in the U.K., Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Russia, Japan, China, Denmark, Romania, Yugoslavia, and a host of other countries.

In particular, that foreign agent is very important. A good half of my income comes from foreign sales, and you need someone who is familiar with how to publish in the international territories working for you.

LJ: How did you learn and perfect the craft of writing?

DF: I took a lot of writing classes, and I practiced writing a lot in college. I also belonged to several writing groups where writers got together to critique each other's work. Last of all, I studied fiction editing and worked for magazines to help perfect my own editorial skills.

LJ: Did you have a writing role model and/or mentor?

DF: I wouldn't say that I had a mentor exactly. I very much admire Orson Scott Card, and I attended book signings and seminars where he spoke so that I could get any stray advice that I might hear. He's not just a great writer, he's a great critical thinker and instructor. I also became close friends with Algis Budrys, a 30-year veteran critic for the Chicago Sun Times, and got advice from him.

LJ: How much research do you do before you start on a new book, and is research an integral element of your writing process?

DF: It really depends on the book. Before writing my first novel, "On My Way to Paradise," I read about 100 books. I usually do some research. I'm currently writing a historical novel that required me to read hundreds of biographical sketches and journals. And I'm writing a mainstream thriller that has required large amounts of research. I think that as a writer, you HAVE to do it. You must become an expert in whatever field you are writing about.

LJ: What is your plotting process — do you outline the book, the chapters, and the scenes?

DF: Usually I start with a vague outline of the novel. I then outline each 1/3 or so of it. Then I break it down to the individual chapters and scenes. I will often write the opening without having any idea what will happen after page fifty.

The reason that I do it this way is to keep the writing spontaneous. It's not much fun to write a book if you know exactly where the story is headed. I like to feel free to explore, to move in a new direction if it takes my fancy. My novels almost never end the way that I had thought they would when I started.

LJ: On average, how many revisions do you do on a manuscript? What is your revising process?

DF: I will typically revise a book six or seven times. After I write my first draft, I think about it a lot, then go through and make major changes —cutting out scenes or plot lines, combining two characters into one, adding new scenes.

When that is done, I send it to my editors at Tor. My editor's assistant, Denis Wong, and one other editor will often read the manuscript, then pass it on to the senior editor, David Hartwell. At their direction, I will make one or two more passes.

After that, there are no more major scene changes, only little typos to catch. A line editor will then go through the book and look for typos and whatnot. I'll correct those.
The book then gets type-set, and I will get back the page proofs. This is the last opportunity that I typically have to see the book, and it is an important one. Sometimes the typesetters will put in new typos, or forget to make fixes that should have been there, and so on.

After that, the book goes to print. It will come out in hardcover. I will usually get one last chance to proofread it before it goes into paperback.

LJ: How much time do you spend on writing? Are you disciplined and structured — do you have a set block of time or a certain number of pages that you expect yourself to write every day, or does it vary?

DF: I don't write every single day. Some days I spend doing research. Other days I may spend brainstorming. Others may be spent completely in revising. I find that it is best to have blocks of time to write — usually ten days or so — that are spent away from the house. I don't normally set page goals, either. I often write as few as ten pages a day, but have written as many as seventy when I was eager to finish a novel. On a typical day, when I'm well into a novel, I write twenty-five pages.

LJ: At this point in your career, do you work closely with an editor throughout the writing process, or do you wait until you have an already-revised draft? Who sees your first drafts?

DF: My contracts at this point don't require me to work with an editor. He doesn't know the plots of the books that I'm going to write, and, frankly, neither do I. Yet I've been paid in advance to write them. On my writing contracts, they are listed as "Book #5 and Book #6." So I write the book, send it in, and that's when an editor first learns what the book is about.

LJ: How did you find your writing "voice"?

DF: Your writing voice is really just the way that you naturally speak. If you're born in the south, you'll probably write with a southern voice. So that is the major component. But it may be overlayed by poetic elements. When I write, I don't want to just put words and ideas on paper, I want to write with power and clarity and beauty. So part of your voice comes as you not only try to express yourself, but as you do so according to your own individual ideas about how to express yourself to perfection. So your writing voice comes to you naturally, over time, as you struggle to write to the best of your ability.

LJ: How do you get inside your story so that you can make it believable to readers?

DF: Oh, that's harder than it sounds. You have to do several things. First, you have to get inside the world. That means that if you are writing a story set in 18th Century Paris, you may have to research the period, learn the customs, the dress, the smells and sights. You might even find paintings of the streets where the story takes place.

Then you have to get inside your characters. That means that you have to develop the character's appearance, mannerisms, personal history, thoughts and beliefs, and finally his or her voice. And of course you have to do this with multiple characters — perhaps a protagonist, an antagonist, their romantic interest, and so on.

After you have done that, you have to think about your story. Where is it going? What's the funnest thing that could happen next? Where do I think it needs to go morally?

Once I have considered all of those elements, internalized them, and let them percolate for a bit, then the scenes begin taking shape in my mind, and usually I'll find a thought or interchange that will provide the hook that will draw the reader into the story.

My goal as a writer is to keep the reader totally enthralled. That means that I need to control his or her thoughts and imagination completely as they read.

LJ: Do you base your characters on real people, completely make them up from scratch, or a combination of both?

DF: From both. I rarely choose real people, but aspects of every character that I write about are based on observation of someone that I know or have met, I suspect.

LJ: How do you go about getting to know and understand your characters? How do you bring them to life for the reader?

DF: The real trick is to get inside your character's head. You have to develop that character until you can imagine what he or she will think or say no matter what kind of problem is thrown at them. Then, as a writer, you just report that.

LJ: What's the best advice you were ever given as a writer? What's the best advice you can give us as writers?

DF: Actually, I think one of the most helpful pieces of advice I ever got was from listening to Orson Scott Card once as he talked to another writer. He said, "Writing is about conflicts. When you have a character, let's call her Jane, she may have a lot of problems. Maybe her boyfriend has left her. Meanwhile, she has found a briefcase full of money that belongs to he mob, and they are going to kill her if she doesn't get it back. Oh, and mom is dying from cancer and really needs that money.

"So, when you begin to create scenes, just go through and consider what your conflicts are. Which one seems most urgent to your character right now. That's the one that he or she will have to try to deal with immediately. And your novel just keeps going until you've handled each major conflict.

"Your conflicts are like balls, and you the writer are like a juggler. As long as you have a conflict in motion, up in front of the reader's eyes, the story is still going. As a writer, you might simultaneously have three or five or more conflicts in motion. Your goal is to keep them in motion all of the time. The more conflicts you have in motion, and the more powerful those conflicts are, the more fascinated your reader will be.

"Sometimes you might have insert a scene that just reminds the reader about a conflict until it is resolved later. Other times a conflict will demand to take center stage. Sometimes conflicts are on their way out; they're being resolved for good or ill.

"Once you run out of conflicts, your story is over, whether you want it to be or not. That's how you know that your story is done."

Scott's little piece of advice really helped me understand story structure, and I think it's one of the finest things that I can pass along.

LJ: Thank you for taking the time to share your insights and expertise with us!