Tuesday, November 18, 2014

David Farland on How to Win Writing Contests

A couple weeks ago, I mentioned that I had earned an Honorable Mention in the Writers of the Future Contest earlier this year. Currently, David Farland is serving as the Coordinating Judge for this contest, which means that he is primarily responsible for going through the "slush pile" of entries and separating out those that are worth further consideration. Given that this is one of the largest and most prestigious contests in genre fiction, Farland's advice on writing is well worth considering.

Last week, he sent out a long-winded E-mail to those on his mailing list entitled "How to Win Writing Contests - and Big Publishing Contracts." You can read the full document here (and sign up for said mailing list), but for those who'd rather just get the highlights, I thought I would summarize it for you here.

He starts off with this preamble:

Recently, several people have asked me to share my list. I no longer have that original document, but here is a list of things that I might consider in creating a story that I want to use as an entry to a contest—or for a novel that I want to submit to a publisher.

First, a word of warning. When I was very young, perhaps four, I remember seeing a little robot in a store, with flashing lights and wheels that made it move. To me it seemed magical, nearly alive. My parents bought it for me for at Christmas, and a few weeks later it malfunctioned, so I took a hammer to it and pulled out the pieces to see what made it work—a battery, a tiny motor, some small colored lights, cheap paint and stickers.

Your story should feel magical and alive. It should be more than the sum of its parts. So as I list these parts, be aware that a great story is more than any of these.

Farland then offers advice on four major story elements. Following each blurb, he offers an almost exhaustive checklist of questions to ponder for each of these elements.
  1. Setting - My goal with my settings is to transport the reader into my world—not just through the senses, but also emotionally and intellectually. I want to make them feel, keep them thinking. This can often be done by using settings that fascinate the reader, that call to them.
  2. Characters - I want my characters to feel like real people, fully developed. Many stories suffer because the characters are bland or cliché or are just underdeveloped. We want to move beyond stereotypes, create characters that our readers will feel for. At the same time, we don’t want to get stuck in the weeds. We don’t want so much detail that the character feels overburdened and the writing gets sluggish.
  3. Conflicts - One of the surest ways to engage our audience is through conflicts. When a conflict is unresolved, and when the audience is waiting breathlessly for its outcome, the reader’s interest will become keen. They’ll look forward to the resolution unconsciously, and may even be thinking, “Oh, this is going to be good!” That state of arousal is called “suspense,” and it’s perhaps the most potent element of a tale.
  4. Themes - Themes in the story might be called the underlying philosophical arguments in your tale. A story doesn’t need to have a theme in order for it to be engaging. Likeable protagonists undergoing engaging conflicts is all that you need in order to hold a reader. But a tale that tackles a powerful theme will tend to linger with you much longer. Indeed, such tales can even change the way that a reader thinks, persuade him in important arguments. Shakespeare made every story an argument, and the “theme” was the central question to his tale.
Finally, Farland offers a few thoughts on the more mechanical elements of writing, including style, prose, and structure.

If you're really looking to craft a great piece of writing, delving into all of these areas is guaranteed to make your final product much better.

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