How I Won David Farland’s Writing Contest

Today my short story Forcible Powerdown is available for free as part of an Anthology published by David Farland. The story won his recent short story contest. I’d like to explain myself–how I won the contest. It wasn’t by accident.

About two weeks before the deadline for David’s writing contest, I told one of my writing group peers that I wasn’t going to enter the contest. I’d tried to write a story, and just didn’t have it in me. Anything I wrote ended up being too long.

And then, about a week prior to the deadline, I decided to give it one more shot. Forcible Powerdown resulted. When I finished, I knew I had a contender. Here’s how I knew: I know David Farland, and what kind of fiction he likes.

In fact, David had given to the entire world advice on how to win a contest, and his first piece of advice was this: write a story tailored to the judges.

From the start I set out to do exactly that. I wanted to write something that David Farland would like.

How did I know what he would like? I’ve spent a fair amount of time with David, at writing workshops, conventions, and dinners. I’ve worked with him at his seminars. I’ve read his Daily Kick since about its beginning. I think I’ve read six of his novels—which is saying something, because these days I don’t read more than one novel from any given author unless I really like the books.

For example, where some people complained about the ending of his fourth Runelords book, I found it brilliant. I understood what the role of the Earth King really was through those four books, and the equivalent in our world today. I totally got what he was doing. Dave’s books just speak to me unlike a lot of other writers’ books.

What I’ve concluded is that Dave and I have the same taste. And that made it easier to write a story he would like.

I’d most recently read Nightingale, his newest novel, and On My Way to Paradise, his very first novel. I noticed themes that resonated with each other, especially about what makes us human. And how do “special powers” and technology change us, make us less human? And how can we use those tools to make us more human?

Also, after reading Dave’s work, I knew that he likes stories with heart. That’s what he writes. His heroes almost always face challenges because they’re too nice for the situation they’ve been thrown into. (Coincidentally, that’s how Dave is. He’s a super nice guy, and I bet it’s gotten him into trouble a time or two.) Dave likes heart. My story had to have heart.

So I took that knowledge and crafted a story in which technology dehumanizes people. Then, with “magic” the people are able to become human again. Fortunately, it was easy because I’d been chewing on the themes in my own life for months, and been watching as augmented realities are beginning to be seen in our own world. I simply extended the existing technology out a hundred years, and built a simple world. I knew Dave would love it. He was messing with augmented reality in his first book.

Aside from that, I threw little details in there that I knew would speak to Dave. For example, at the opening of the story, a kid gets hit by a car. Dave once told a story about how someone got hit by a car while he was in China. I knew it would resonate with him. I tried to include as many details like that as possible—things I’d heard Dave talk about or write about. Even the name of my story “Forcible Powerdown” utilizes a word commonly found it Dave’s Runelord books: forcible.

So, there you have it. I won Dave’s contest by writing a story just for him. As a result, I’m not sure how many other people will like the story as much as he did. That’s okay. I wrote the story for an audience of one.

I’m pretty happy with the result.

Thanks, Dave, for everything you’ve taught me and done for me!

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A word in favor of content guides

Somehow, books have maintained their status as one of the few modern entertainment mediums that are not subject to some kind “objective” rating system that advises consumers regarding the content of the book.

I suppose this is fine, but as a result have found myself reading a fair number of books without a clue regarding some of the content in them, and subsequently stopping because I simply wasn’t interested in some of the content.

I would prefer it if I could learn beforehand the nature of the content I will read in a book. This desire is amplified as my children grow older and select their own books. How can we choose books that we will dislike due to content we aren’t interested in if we have no way of knowing what the content is? I don’t know of a way.

For example, these days the movie rating system is not detailed enough to tell me if the content of a movie is something I want to watch. So, before I go to a movie or rent a DVD, I use the IMDB app on the iPad to take a look at the parental guide. I’m interested in seeing what kind of content the movie contains. Not just for my children, but for me. On several occasions, I’ve decided not to watch or rent a particular movie because I’m not interested in some of the content.

I suppose I miss out on some good movies, but I can handle that. I don’t need to see everything that most people would probably deem worth seeing. Content guides have benefited me. I’m aware of friends and family members that use content guides in the same way.

As far as I know, we don’t have the same resource for books. I’d like to suggest that writers take the initiative to provide content guides for their own books as a courtesy to those who would prefer to filter certain types of content.

Note that I did not say “parental guide” but “content guide.” Sure there are types of content that are inappropriate for kids, but there are also types of content I don’t want to experience. It’s that simple.

I imagine some people (both authors and readers) will object to these content guides on various grounds, but I view the guides as a courtesy to readers interested in them. Nobody is going to make anyone read the content guide beforehand.

As an author, I see content guides as beneficial. If someone knows beforehand whether they won’t like some of the content of my book, there’s a better chance that they won’t read (and subsequently rate) a book they won’t like. This will probably lead to higher ratings for books.

So, from here on out, I’ll be providing content guides for my books, and will be looking for them before I read other books. Will it stop me from reading a book if I don’t find one? Probably not, but I’ll probably review a book poorly if I find content in there that I don’t like. After all, I didn’t like it, and that’s what a personal review represents.

Decisions Determine Destiny

Here’s the thing: in large measure, our decisions determine who we become and who we are.

The bad part about this is that we often don’t realize that we’ve made a decision, or that there is an option–a decision to even make.

Since about the sixth grade I’ve wanted to be a writer. Maybe earlier, but I recall often getting ideas for characters and situations. For example, I remember as a kid sneaking into the sugar tin and grabbing a spoonful of sugar and thinking, “There should be a book with a character that carries around little capsules of sugar, and she pops them whenever she’s stressed out and needs a boost. Like right before she’s about to get married.”

I have yet to use the idea because, quite simply, not every idea is worth using. But I was thinking about books and characters and conflicts early on. During high school I wrote two books. Wrote another the year after. After a two-year break, I re-wrote one of the books.

Then I made a choice. I bought a little computer game called StarCraft.  I remember talking with my wife about the decision because I was quite conflicted on the matter. At the time, money was tight (I worked 30 hours a week as a phlebotomist to support my little family), and $50 was a big spend for us. I have no idea where I even got the money. Probably a gift of some sort. I was debating between StarCraft and something called Ultima Online.

“Ultima Online,” I said to her, “would take a lot more time. It requires a lot more effort.”

I clearly remember her dubious expression: eyebrows raised, mouth a thin line.

“Something will have to give,” I said. “School work, or writing, or something else.”

I may have even said that it might affect how much time I could spend with her. If I said that, it was clearly a stupid thing to say. Back then, I said a lot of idiotic things. I think I’m better, now–at least, a little bit. (I at least know not to say–or even think–that something might take time away from my wife).

Anyway, at the time, I was making the choice between one game or another. What I didn’t know was that I’d already made a choice–to buy a game–that would steer me away from what I really wanted. I wanted to write and publish books. Little did I know that the decision to buy any game would derail my efforts for about 8 years.

You see, I bought StarCraft. That led to other game purchases, and the next thing I know, it’s 8 years later and although during those 8 years I had abortive starts at writing, I mostly dropped it for this other hobby.

That decision to buy a game–quite small, really–took me down a different path than I really wanted to take.

I thought–and professed–that my priority was to write and publish books. In reality, during those eight years my decisions demonstrated that my priority was for leisure in the form of video games.

In the end, I’ve realized there’s value in taking a look at what we really want out of life, and evaluating whether or not the daily decisions we’re making are leading us there. If not, maybe it’s time to change.

Three and a half years ago, I made the decision to change my course. No more video games. Instead: writing.

One of the best decisions of my life.

Editing to greatness

From Monday to Friday of last week I spent my days down in St. George at a one of David Farland’s writing seminars.  The topic of this seminar was editing your novel. The seminar proved valuable on many fronts, but the main purpose–editing–benefited me a great deal.

Dave is a fantastic teacher, and I recommend that anyone who wants to write books take his seminars and learn as much from him as possible. Once you finish a book, Dave taught, you edit as follows:

  1. Add things
  2. Combine things
  3. Remove things
  4. Line edit

Of course, this is just one method. Some people don’t even edit. Some do it differently. I like this methodology. After all, what point is there in line editing if you’re just going to remove things or change it later on? So, take care of the big things up front–like missing scenes, plot lines, characters, and so forth. Then, you’ll notice, the next three edits all involve tightening the book up. The more experience I get writing a book, the more I learn the value of editing. I have 9 books of practice under my belt, now, and each time I write one the process is a little different. It evolves some, each time.

It used to be that I would write the book and then when editing simply go back through and line edit. Tweak the sentences and paragraphs. But the once I’d put the structure in place, I wouldn’t change it. These last four books, however, each book’s revision process has become more traumatic to the book. I’ve started taking drastic measure upon revision. Changing chapter sequences, deleting scenes, adding new scenes, combining characters, changing motivations, re-writing complete plot lines, removing entire swaths of book, adding others.

In the end, I’m certain that the more you write, the more willing you are to make big changes because the less sacred your writing becomes.

It’s a point that’s difficult to reach for many reasons. You hear stories about writers (such as Orson Scott Card) who write a first draft and then ship it off for publishing–and you want to be awesome like that. Or, you have very little time to write, and every page you remove counts as significant time lost. Possibly, you just can’t admit that something you wrote is poop, and needs to go.

But here’s the thing: when you reach the point that nothing is sacred as you edit, that you’ll throw anything out and sacrifice anything and spend any amount of time to fix something–that’s when you can gain true power as a writer. You can write things you never thought you could write, and when you can make your stories truly great.

Because chances are unless you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it up front, and quite a bit of time exploring a lot of the options, the book or story isn’t as fantastic as it could be with a little more work. Yes, it means sacrificing something–time, your pride, comfort–but in the end you come out on top.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

My last post, I believe, I’d summarized another chapter of the excellent “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.” I stopped for several reasons. Three, really:

  1. The end of each chapter includes a summary of the points of the book. My summaries on the blog recreated much of that information.
  2. I suppose that my summarization might reduce the need for someone to buy the book. And I’m generally in favor of writers having people buy their books. So, it’s probably enough for me to say that the book is excellent, and if you edit any fiction, you should read it.
  3. It got downright tedious posting the summaries.
So, I stopped posting the summaries. The book, however, is excellent on many levels. If you write fiction, I recommend that you read it.

Chapter 5 of “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers”

Here in chapter 5 we get a nice lesson on dialogue mechanics. The basic lesson is that you want your mechanics to be as transparent as possible and not get in the way of the dialogue. “Show don’t tell” is once again the star of the chapter.

The fist basic idea is to stop telling how people said something. The actual dialogue or a beat should accomplish that. Don’t write:

“Stop eating that pie,” she said angrily.

Instead, something like this works better to show the emotion”

She slammed her fork on the table. “Stop eating that pie.”

We want reader to feel the emotion in our characters–not know about the emotion. If we tell readers exactly about the emotion, they cannot interpret it the way that best suits them. So, show them, instead..

Also watch out for description that tells about the content of dialogue–you show what someone is thinking and then they say what they are thinking. That’s twice your readers learn about it. One time too many.

A lot of the time, dialogue explanations come in the form of -ly adjectives, which is another reason to get rid of such words.

In the end, the only reason to use speaker attributes is to show readers who is speaking. No other reason. Not to convey emotion or to tell how someone said it. Because of that, we should use the word “said” almost without exception.

Other tips:
–Don’t open a paragraph with speaker attribution.
–Put the character’s pronoun before “said” (that is: “Dave said”, not “said Dave.”)
–Decide how you’re going to refer to a character for a scene and stick to it.
–If it’s clear who is speaking, get rid of character attributions completely.
–If you’re getting tired of the number of beats, insert a beat, instead. A beat is a piece of action. In my example above, it’s the slamming of the fork on the table.
–To show an interruption, use dashes.
–To show someone trailing off, use ellipses.
–Start a new paragraph with each speaker.

And, there you have it. Dialogue mechanics.

Chapter 4 of “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers”

In this chapter of the book we get a topic that I have never actually read about before, but that makes extremely good sense. The idea is that you should focus on what’s important to either advance the book’s plot or establish character. The book summarizes this with the word “proportion.”

This very simple idea is pretty easy to forget when you’re in the moment of writing and you find something great to add, or want to include a bit of research you’ve done. The book especially warns about focusing too much on unimportant actions and pet topics and hobbies.

Here are a few excerpts:
–“The time spent on a relatively minor point has thrown the scene out of proportion.”
–“When you fill in all the details and leave nothing to your reader’s imagination, you’re patronizing them.”

The solution to this problem, according to the authors, is to pay attention. Notice what you spend a great deal of time on. Anything that is focused on for very long will create an expectation in readers. If it doesn’t end up being important later on, readers will be disappointed.

Also, it doesn’t hurt to set the book aside for a little while and then come back to it. Approach it as a reader, not a writer. This will give you a fresh perspective on the content and will help you see what things are out of proportion. You may also discover that parts of the book that are small might be worth expanding on.

You can also use proportion to create tension or surprises. If you spend less time on something at the start, and then make it important later on, it can give a nice twist to the element and plot.

The authors also note that you don’t have to cut EVERYTHING that doesn’t relate directly to your story, but anything you add or leave in should somehow add to the story in a way that resonates with the rest of the story.

As far as description goes, and avoiding too much detail to throw something out of proportion, allow your viewpoint character’s interests to control the amount of description. Only devote the amount of attention to something that your character devotes to it.

So, there you have it. Proportion. It’s a tool. Use it wisely.

Next up: Dialogue Mechanics. Oooooh!

Chapter 2 of “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers”

In chapter two of the book, we learn about characterization, and to a degree the lesson is the same: show, don’t tell. Let the action and the (natural) dialogue help the readers form their own opinions sf the characters.

The basic idea is to avoid introducing your character all at once, by describing them and their history and the important things about them when we meet them. That slows down or stops the action. But if you show us the character a little at a time, the readers can interpret the character as they see fit.

Some specific things to avoid:
–Flashbacks. These stop the present action all at once.
–Long bits of exposition about the character.
–Presenting already arrived-at conclusions about the character.
–Absolutely don’t use maid and butler dialogue, or “feather duster.”
–Don’t tell about characteristics that show up in dialogue and action.

Rather than any of the above techniques, establish your character unobtrusively.
–Show characters saying and doing things.
–Write about what your character thinks about things.
–Give only as much background, history, or characterization as is absolutely necessary.
–When having to explain a new culture, let reader see them in real life– not lengthy exposition.

In the end, it is the same lesson as chapter one: know when to show and tell. And in the case of characters, it will almost always be better to show.

Chapter 1 of “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers”

I have started reading Self-Editing for Fiction Writers in preparation for a workshop with David Farland in a few weeks. In an effort to better retain the information inn the book, I’m going to post my summaries of the chapters, here.

Chapter 1 covers a very basic topic, showing versus telling, but explains it as well as anything I’ve ever read on the topic.

Here’s the gist of it.

On a large scale:
–Avoid narrating scenes. Give them a time, setting, and action. Don’t summarize an important scene.
–Where practical, convert exposition into scenes.
–Use narrative summery to vary the rhythm of your text, so that each scene doesn’t have the same feel as every other scene.
–Summarize (tell) about unimportant plot developments

On a smaller scale, don’t tell when describing or in order to convey character emotions–resist the urge to explain: R.U.E.

I’ll be back with the other chapters as I read them.

Discipline and the basics

My 11-year-old son’s basketball team lost tonight. First game in the playoffs. To a comp team one year younger than them. It was a very physical game, and pretty brutal. Lots of kids on the floor, several of them crying and holding onto various body parts. The refs asked our coach to take out our star player because he was out of control.

Now, I am no coach, and no expert in basketball, but I could see clearly why the other team won: greater discipline, and better mastery of the fundamentals of passing and rebounding. Seems like the enemy team passed 4-5 times per possession, looking for an open shot. Then, if they missed, they would get 2-3 rebonds.

On the other hand, our team acted like a pack of wild men, just throwing shots up that didn’t have a prayer. Not taking time to set up shots. Not passing. All kinds of offensive fouls. Just crazy.

Really, when it comes down to it, the other team was better prepared and better trained. No doubt about it. The fundamentals made all the difference.

My 6-year-old daughter is learning to read. I’ve noticed that she struggles a little with some letters and recognizing their sounds. No wonder she is struggling to read–she hasn’t mastered the basics.

The same will happen in any person’s efforts, in any endeavor. We must master the fundamentals before we can excel. We must know the basics, and they must be second nature to us. In basketball, I must know when to take a shot, and when to pass. I must know where to position myself for a rebound. In reading, I must know what a G says.

What are the fundamentals of writing? What are the things that must be second nature to us?