This week, I got to catch up with somebody I've wanted to talk to for a long time.
David Farland is the author of over 50 books, including The Runelords series. He's worked with top fantasy and science fiction authors like Brandon Sanderson and Stephenie Meyer, and he's also written Million Dollar Outlines.
In this interview, we talk about Robert Heinlein's Rules for Writers. Several years ago, I came across these rules after being frustrated writing and rewriting the same short stories repeatedly.
We chat about hybrid publishing, self-publishing, and traditional publishing and how to decide which approach is right for your book. I also got David's take on marketing and how a back catalog can help you earn a good living as an author.
David also explains the importance of having an e-mail list and how it can help you earn a healthy living from writing.
In this episode, we discuss:
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David: There’s 10,000 right ways to write any story, but there’s a million wrong ways.
Introduction: Welcome to the Become a Writer Today podcast with Bryan Collins. Here, you’ll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.
Bryan: What does it take to build a sustainable writing career?
Hey, content creators, my name is Bryan Collins, and welcome to the Become a Writer Today podcast. This week, I’ve got an exciting interview for you. I got to catch up with somebody I’ve wanted to talk to for a long time. His name is David Farland.
He’s the author of over 50 books, including The Runelords series, and he’s worked with other top fantasy and science fiction authors like Brandon Sanderson and Stephenie Meyer. He’s also written the book, Million Dollar Outlines, and if you’re writing genre fiction, it’s one I’d recommend you check out.
Now, I wanted to ask David all about Robert Heinlein’s Rules for Writers, which is something we talked about in this week’s interview. I came across these rules, I guess it was back in 2014 or 2015, after I got frustrated writing and rewriting the same short stories over and over. Heinlein was a science fiction author and, in the 70s, he came up with five rules.
These are: number one, you must write; number two, you must finish what you write; number three, you must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order; number four, you must put the work on the market; and, number five, you must keep the work on the market until it’s sold. At the time, these rules made a big impact to me because I was writing but I wasn’t really finishing what I had started writing at the time and I certainly wasn’t putting my work on the market through self-publishing, through publishing articles on my website, and through other types of writing online.
In this week’s interview, David gives his take on how Heinlein’s rules have evolved over the years. We also get into hybrid publishing, self-publishing, and traditional publishing and how you can decide which approach is the right method for your book.
David’s worked with many high-profile authors over the years so I wanted to get his take on book marketing today and he talks about how you can use PR to sell your books and how a back catalogue can help you earn a good living as an author. David also talks about the importance of having an e-mail list and, if you’re listening to this and you want to earn a living as a writer, whether it’s genre fiction, whether it’s non-fiction, or whatever type of writing you like to specialize in and you haven’t got an e-mail list, then I’d say to you to set one up today. The tool I recommend and the one I use is ConvertKit.
Once you have an e-mail list, you own the relationship between you and your readers and that will make it much easier to let them know when you have a new book out on Amazon, on Kobo, or wherever else you’re selling. And what’s more, when you have an e-mail list, then you can sell your books directly to your list too and you won’t become so overly reliant on Amazon and on ads to promote your work.
David talks about some authors who were using their e-mail list to earn up to seven figures. That’s right, seven figures a month. That might seem like a lot, but you can certainly earn a good, healthy living from writing if you have a good e-mail list of engaged readers so we talked a little bit about the importance of that in this week’s interview.
Now, if you enjoy this week’s interview, please consider leaving a short review on iTunes because more reviews will push the show up the podcast rankings which means more listeners will find the show which means I can get more guests like David to talk to me and offer practical writing advice. If you really enjoy the show, please consider leaving a short review as well or you can simply share the show.
You can also become a Patreon supporter. For just a couple of dollars a month, I’ll give you discounts on my writing courses, software, and books. If you want to reach out and let me know what you’re up to, I’m on Twitter, it’s @bryanjcollins. Check in and say hello or if you’ve got topic suggestions for future episodes, let me know as well.
Now, let’s go over to this week’s interview with David Farland.
David: Yeah, I started out when I was in college. I knew I wanted to be a writer. I was planning on being a doctor and I wanted to write on the side so I started writing for contests and I’ve won a bunch of writing contests, including the Writers of the Future contest.
That led to a three-novel deal with Bantam Books and so I began writing novels before I even finished college and that just — my career just sort of blossomed. I won the Philip K. Dick and became a best seller and all of that on my first novel and so it just kinda took off.
Bryan: Did you always want to write science fiction and fantasy and genre fiction?
David: You know, I’ve written a lot of things. I’ve written some historical and I’ve written some literary mainstream but, I think, yeah, I decided that science fiction and fantasy were kind of where I wanted to be. In particular, I love fantasy but I read everything so I kind of write everything too.
Bryan: One of your books that made an impact on me is Million Dollar Outlines, which I think was published back in 2013. How has your writing process evolved over the years?
David: Oh, my gosh. You know, it changed wildly because when I was working in college, you know, I was working with people who weren’t really writers and most of them didn’t outline, you know? They were sort of, “Well, wait until the news slaps you in the forehead and get to work,” and I — as I got writing full time, I realized that, gosh, a lot of times, I would be going down dead ends and losing interest in projects and things like that and so I decided that I would start outlining my stories and then working really hard on making them great after I had a good outline.
And so, my process evolved a great deal and I think it’s always still evolving, you know? Every time that you write a new book, you very often have to switch tactics, you know? You need to do different types of brainstorming sometimes and there are subtleties and nuances to planning a book that most new authors aren’t really very aware of.
Bryan: If somebody is new to outlining work of fiction, what advice would you offer them to help them get started?
David: I think that there’s a lot of good ways to do it and there’s no one right way and so, I suggest that what you do is you look at, I’d go, say, three or four books on outlining, something like Save the Cat! Make sure Million Dollar Outlines is one of them. And then, you know, I like the Snowflake Method and some others, you know? So, the idea here is to really look at what a number of different teachers have said over the years and figure out what works best for you.
Bryan: Before I read your book, Million Dollar Outlines, I had taken a series of creative writing classes and our instructor was all about getting us to free write and write without a plan for our stories and it was only when I began to outline, and even though I moved on from fiction, that I was able to finish writing what I started so I found it’s been a fantastic approach for me. And I also started studying storytelling, which I use for non-fiction, but I know you’re a story doctor for novelists and for people who writes genre fiction. So, what do you look for in a good story or a compelling story?
David: Well, because I’m writing science fiction and fantasy, the first thing that I look for is innovation, you know? Do they have a great idea? Is it one I’ve seen before? Has it been overdone? Are there any interesting new twists or takes on the idea? And so I look first for a strong idea. Then, I start looking at the storytelling, you know? How does the story evolve?
You’ve got a few things that you’ve gotta get early on. You’ve gotta find out who the main character is, where the story is taking place, and what the major conflict is. And, in a short story, we wanna get that within the first couple of pages and we get to what’s called the inciting incident. That’s where the character discovers that there’s a jaw-dropping problem that the protagonist has and, by that point, we as an audience should care a little bit about the protagonist and what’s going to happen in the story.
And then, the story starts evolving. We start discovering that the problem is bigger and deeper and more complex than the character first imagined. They try, usually, a couple or three times to resolve the problem and we get to see their thought processes as they try to resolve it and, eventually, there’s usually a twist, a surprise at the end, as they figure out how to resolve the problem and then there’s the aftermath of the story. And so, as I am looking at the story, I wanna say, okay, at each of these parts, am I shocked and surprised? Does this person make interesting attempts to resolve a problem?
Do I care about the character? Do I grow more deeply fascinated by this world and this type of thing? And then the last thing that I look for, the number three thing, is I look for what I would just call kind of stylistic excellence on a level of line by line, the poetry of writing and whatnot. Does the story — well, sometimes, language can get in the way so, you know, you can have a story that’s told very simply but it still wants to be told beautifully and so I look for things like, you know, are there excess words, excess verbiage? Are there wrong words? Poetically, does it make sense, you know? When I listen to it, does the author have a strong and interesting voice or do the characters have interesting voices?
There’s those kinds of elements to it too so I just kind of bundle those up all under artistic elements and say, okay, I’m looking for those three. So, I really kind of am looking for three or four different things like that and it’s hard to say exactly what it is because when you start looking at the subgroups, you know, you can say style, tone, you know, poetry, and there’s dozens of elements, you know? Is the story itself, you know, a healthy story, I guess? A lot of times, I’ll get stories that are just so dark and despairing and things like that, you know, that come through our contests that I’m just like, okay, I don’t want to publish that one, you know?
David: We’ll get into that, yeah.
Bryan: So, as the lead judge for one of the world’s largest writing competitions, are there any other mistakes that you typically see authors or aspiring writers make?
David: You know, I get thousands of stories that I look at a quarter and, the truth is, I see every kind of mistake. I like to say that there’s 10,000 right ways to write any story, but there’s a million wrong ways, and so I get a lot of things, you know? There’s a lot of people who are just new and, you know, maybe they’re a little bit inarticulate in the way that they write a story. There are a lot of people who like to shock and gross editors and readers out and so they’re kind of exhibitionists and those don’t usually get very far with me. But, you know, generally speaking, there are just so many ways that you can mess up a story, you know?
Most of the time, quite honestly, I think that it’s people who are free writing who make the mistakes because they don’t seem to have a destination in their story. It kind of wanders around and, you know, their characters get stuck in corners and they’re not really sure which way to go. But, you know, if you’re a great free writer, there are some people who excel at it.
Bryan: I think Stephen King free writes a good chunk of his novels.
David: He does but, you know, Stephen King started out plotting and learned, I think, a lot about plotting and so it’s kind of second nature to him too. I think when he’s free writing, he kind of knows that, “Oh, this could go this way,” and he sees the promising directions as a free writer simply because he’s so well trained as a plotter.
Bryan: One of the story arcs that I learned first was the hero’s journey, which is what is very popular today, thanks to Marvel films. Do you think it’s been overused?
David: No, I don’t. You know, the interesting thing about it is I went and watched Wonder Woman a couple of years ago with my wife and there was a certain emotional high point to it and I looked down the row, my wife was crying, had tears streaming down her face, and the woman next to her had tears streaming down her face and the woman next to her had tears streaming down her face and I realized, you know, they haven’t seen a movie where they had a heroine like this before. They haven’t seen the hero’s journey. And the same thing happened with Black Panther, you know? We haven’t had enough black heroes and so I think that what I would like to see is more hero journey stories where everybody can see themselves in the role of being a hero, of being a wise, compassionate person who uses their power for good.
Bryan: Yeah, I watched Wonder Woman with my daughter a few months ago. She’s 10 so she really enjoyed it so it’s nice to be able to sit down and watch a superhero film with her. And after that, she was curious about the other films in the superhero genre. So, you also run Apex Writers. Would you be able to tell us a little bit about that?
David: Sure. With Apex Writers Group, this is a group that I’ve developed for people who are serious about being writers, who want to go in and launch their careers big, writing books, specifically books that can be turned into film so a lot of us have a lot of interest in film.
Well, I worked in Hollywood as a greenlighting analyst and as a movie producer for a while. So, I’m really interested in trying to help people break into multiple mediums, you know, so that we’re writing not just screenplays and television and books but really working the entire genre. I see the job as a writer as being a storyteller where you create a story and then liquidate the global rights. Whether you’re doing it in video games or in films or in books, you know, it doesn’t matter. Books are the cheapest and easiest way to do it because you can go out and conquer that field pretty easily compared to films and movies where distribution and funding get a lot trickier.
Bryan: You’ve also worked with a number of big name authors over the years, including Brandon Sanderson, and you also worked with J. K. Rowling on the first Harry Potter book. What was that like?
David: Well, you know, I never actually met J. K. Rowling. I was writing Star Wars books for Scholastic and the head of Scholastic loved my Star Wars books and asked me to help them find a book to push big for 1999 and this was back in 1998 and so I read Harry Potter and I said, “This is the book that you should push big,” and we had some arguments about it because her marketing department thought that it was a little bit too long for the middle-grade audience and, anyway, so I convinced her to push Harry Potter big and then after I convinced her to push Harry Potter big, they asked me to help figure out how to sell it big and so I created the ad campaign, the basic ideas for the ad campaign, so that we could push Harry Potter big and J. K. Rowling came along and turned in two novels over the next year which made it really, really easy. It just exploded, you know?
And a lot of people feel like, “Oh, yeah, this is just, you know, one of those organic hits that, you know, came out of nowhere.” No. We invested millions and millions of dollars in promoting that book and making it huge and, you know, it went on and became — it’s sold 500 million copies now and became the best-selling book — in English, it’s the best-selling book of all time. So, you know, it’s doing quite well.
Bryan: It certainly is. It certainly is. Is it still as important today as it was back then to write a series of books that readers can buy if you want to earn a full-time living as a writer?
David: I think so. I think so. You know, you can have a one-hit wonder and that will be pretty good and you’ll make enough money to live for a few years on it but if you wanna make serious money and make a living at it, George Lucas with his Star Wars universe, Harry Potter, you’ve just about gotta go big, I think, in order to really make a good living in this business.
Bryan: Somebody is listening to this and they’re saying to themselves, “What genre should I work in?” how would they answer a question like that?
David: You have to work in the genre that you love, you know? If you want to be a romance author, be a romance author. If you want to be a fantasist and write fantasy, then that’s what you need to be doing.
There’s no one way to do it. I’ve trained authors who are best sellers in pretty much every genre but it’s a lot easier for me in fantasy and science fiction because those are the ones that I love so most of my authors have come out of fantasy and science fiction. Some of them are writing young adult, you know, Stephenie Meyer, Brandon Sanderson, Brandon Mull, James Dashner, you know, people like that, but then other ones are writing for adults and, you know, there’s just an awful lot of variation.
Bryan: Were Brandon Sanderson and Stephenie Meyer in the Apex Writers Group or were they in a different coaching program that you offer?
David: They were actually both in my 318R writing class at Brigham Young University —
David: — and I taught that 20 years ago. Brandon took it twice and then he wrote Elantra as his first novel while he was in there. Stephenie Meyer and I sat down and talked about Twilight and I helped her basically brainstorm that and so, you know, that was a lot of fun and so I decided this last year that I’d go ahead and teach that again and I’m getting ready to teach it here in September. So, I’ve got a 318R writing class that, you know, if you go to mystorydoctor.com, you can pre-register to get into that class and I’m gonna have to cap it, you know, at probably 50 or 60 people because my — I taught it this year and I had over 180 people sign up and I can’t do that for the fall.
Bryan: I can imagine. When you see an author like Brandon or Stephenie come through, is it that they have an extra amount of talent compared to other authors or they’re more persistent or they work hard? What separates them from everybody else who wants to write a big book?
David: Well, it’s interesting, because I think my wife sometimes says, you know, “How can you tell?” and I can usually see it in them and there’s a certain amount of excitement in them and energy and a willingness to do what you say, you know?
With Brandon, for example, when he turned in his first story to me, I said, “This is really great. Now, we’ve gotta get you writing half a dozen books and let’s get you published,” and he said, “Well, I’ve already written six,” and I said, “Okay,” so we had a little talk and I said, “Your next step is to go to this convention in New York City,” and he said, “I have to work,” and I said, “Well, don’t you have somebody you can, you know, take your shift for you?” He said, “Well, my brother could do it,” and I said, “Okay, your brother will take your shift,” and he said, “But then there’s the money,” and I said, “Do you have a credit card?”
And so we basically sent him to New York and he went to a convention and that’s where he met his literary agent and, you know, it was — he really had to scrape to get there. I mean, it was sort of down to the point of we had to plan peanut butter sandwiches and put them in his suitcase so he’d have something to eat while he was there, you know?
But Brandon was the kind of person who would go out and do it and I think that’s really what it comes down to. And these are also people who are willing to write, you know? Who recognize that, yeah, you’re not gonna do it until you’ve written the novel and so, with Stephenie Meyer, you know, I remember grading her papers and looking at them and thinking, “This girl has a wonderful gift of voice. She could be really dangerous if she gets on the right idea,” and we had already talked about — we’d already brainstormed Twilight at that time. I didn’t know that that was gonna be the one that would catch her on fire, you know? But she went off and did quite well.
Bryan: Didn’t Twilight start as fanfiction for another TV show on some message boards? Wasn’t that how it was picked up as well?
David: Yeah, I don’t know too much about it but, yeah, that’s what I’ve heard.
Bryan: Okay, okay. So, you talked about doing the work. It’s probably easier today for authors to find success thanks to self-publishing. Do you believe that that means writers can earn a living more easily or it’s harder to stand apart from your peers or your contemporaries thanks to self-publishing?
David: This is a good question because you can make a lot of money. I’ve got a number of students who are making really good livings as indie authors and it’s a perfectly valid career path, okay? And for certain kinds of people, it’s actually easier, faster, and better than going through the traditional publishing. But you can make it in either rate and, you know, hybrid authors, authors who both do indie publishing and who work with traditional publishers, end up making about 30 percent more money anyway than people who choose one path alone so I really believe that, with indie publishing, there’s a huge future in it but most people who start into it don’t know enough about how to market their books, to do it properly, you know?
They try to go out and write the book and they get it done Sunday night and release it on Monday and that’s not the way to do it because then you become just a small fish in a big pond and you get overwhelmed, you know? So, I like to teach people, with my 318R class, for example, I talk about how you can make a living as an indie writer and what it really takes, because I really think that, right now, to stand out from the crowd, you’ve gotta do an awful lot of work.
Bryan: Yeah. Yeah, a lot of the work comes after you’ve written the book. Some of the strategies I’ve used are Amazon ads. I tinkered with Facebook ads for a while. I have an e-mail list which I’ve had probably the most success with for selling books on Amazon and elsewhere. Is there anything else that your students are doing that’s helping them sell?
David: Well, I think Amazon ads are important and I think — because that’s the point of sale advertising, you know? People are — they’re buying books and they’re gonna see it there and understanding that audio books do really well and so working well with audio and doing point of sale advertising there. Facebook ads and working on Google ads, you know, those kinds of things can both be very helpful too, but I think that we need to look at it and, you know, for example, newspapers are a great way to advertise but most people don’t know how to create an ad in a newspaper and ads for newspapers are really what I call stealth ads where we write an article about ourselves and our book and then it gets published in the entertainment section of a newspaper and you can send out publicity releases that will go to 10,000, 12,000 newspapers and get picked up by 250 newspapers pretty easily and so it’s a great way to advertise but most people don’t like to do it because it does take a bit of money, you know?
It’s gonna cost you $3,000 US to do half a dozen of those. But I’ve seen a couple of authors who’ve been able to make millions of dollars off of those. And so I’m a fan of any kind of publicity. There’s television, there’s radio, there’s all kinds of ways to get into it. And the problem that you have is that some people only read on paper books, some people only listen on audio, some people only read e-books, you know, and so you have to try to figure out how you’re going to advertise to all of those at once.
Also, I’m a big fan of collaborative reading lists, for example. If you’re an indie author and there’s a certain genre that you love and you know several other writers who are really good at it and who are working hard at it, you can share your lists so that, you know, you say, “Oh, I don’t have a book coming out this month but my good friend so and so has one coming out,” and, by doing that, when you get half a dozen people doing that, there are some romance writers lists where the writers are making a million dollars a month writing —
David: — by sharing their lists and that’s something that indie authors haven’t figured out yet.
Bryan: And are they primarily selling on Amazon and —
Bryan: — Audible or are they going —
David: Yeah, Amazon’s the big one.
Bryan: You mentioned using PR for books. Are there any particular services that you’ve come across that have work quite well?
David: You know, there’s a number of them and I don’t want to limit you to one but I’ve used PRWeb and been very happy with them and what we do is you go in there and you create an account, you know, you buy a package and then you write the articles and then they have someone who works with you and says, “No, this one won’t work, you know, for us. We need to be more newsworthy,” and so they will help you tailor that article so that it will get picked up and so that’s a great way to go.
Bryan: Interesting. Interesting, yeah, because I spend a lot of time looking at online marketing but I never really considered traditional marketing or PR like you’ve described there before. So, a couple years ago, I came across Robert Heinlein’s rules for writers. I won’t go through all five but basically he says you must write and finish what you write and keep it on the market. And, for me, that was mind-blowing. It was like, well, if I just finish this and publish it, then I’ll earn a living as a writer finally. And I know you have an interesting take on it, that maybe the rules have evolved a little bit since they were written years ago. Would you be able to describe that?
David: I think so. You know, Robert Heinlein wrote back in a day when they had what they called single draft publishing where you would go and you’d write one draft and you’d send it out and then you’d wait to hear back. And, today, you know, it’s a lot easier to rewrite on your computer and I’m not a big fan of single draft publishing, I know some people who do it, and I keep finding that my favorite writers are the ones who learn to revise well. So, you know, I do think you have to say, “Okay, I’m gonna go through and revise the story maybe five or six times and then I’m going to be done and then I’ll send it out,” but, otherwise, his rules are really pretty much spot on, you know?
There’s so many people who talk about writing who don’t actually sit down and do it. So, first rule, apply butt to chair, you know? That’s always been a perfectly good first rule and it still is and I think it will be 100 years from now, you know? And then write, write, write. I think that when you’re writing, we learn to write by doing it and so you’ve gotta practice this and that means you’re integrating a lot of different skills as you’re writing, you’re learning how to punctuate and how to tell a story and so practice, practice, practice. And then, you know, it’ll come.
Bryan: Good advice. I should use that myself. How do you balance your creative work and your stories with all of the other things that you do, like teaching writers and running the business? How’d you find time for it?
David: That’s really easy. I wake up in the morning and go to work and then, late at night, I fall asleep from exhaustion and that’s pretty much it. No, I — you know, when you love what you’re doing, it doesn’t feel like work and so whether I’m writing or teaching, I love both of them equally, and so, as long as I can make a living doing it and everything, I’m perfectly happy to do it for 12 hours a day, you know?
Bryan: Do you have many books in progress at the moment?
David: Yeah, I’m finishing up my final novel in the Runelords series and that’s the big one for this summer and then I’m working on a new series that’s called Heir to the Dragon that I’m working on and I’ve got several other books that are lined up, you know, in progression. So, I’ve got this list of things to do for the next 20 years so I can’t afford to die between now and then. And then, of course, I’m always working on my stories for Writers of the Future, you know? The Writers of the Future contest is like, you know, the biggest — one of the largest contests in the world and I think it may now actually be the largest in the world and so, you know, each three months, I have to take a couple of weeks and just focus on that so, beginning at the end of this week, I’m gonna have to switch gears and work on that for a couple more weeks and have some fun with that.
Bryan: Sounds like a big commitment.
David: Yeah, yeah. So, anyway, I know we’re coming up to the end of our time here but I should go ahead and just tell people where they can reach me. For Writers of the Future, go to writersofthefuture.com. This is for the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest. It’s got a big grand prize of $5,000 for first place for our grand prize story, $1,000 for each first-place story, plus publication plus a week-long writing trip in Hollywood where you can learn the ins and outs of writing from a number of professional writers so that’s really exciting. And then, beyond that, if you want to learn about Apex Writers Group, go to www.apex-writers.com, and if you want to find out about my 318R story class or other workshops that I’m teaching, you can go to mystorydoctor.com.
Bryan: I’ll put the link in the show notes. Thank you, David.
David: Okay, thank you so much. It’s great talking to you.
Bryan: I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode. If you did, please consider leaving a short review on the iTunes Store or sharing the show on Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you’re listening. More reviews, more ratings, and more shares will help more people find the Become a Writer Today podcast. And did you know, for just a couple of dollars a month, you could become a Patreon for the show? Visit patreon.com/becomeawritertoday or look for the Support button in the show notes. Your support will help me record, produce, and publish more episodes each month. And if you become a Patreon, I’ll give you my writing books and discounts on writing software and on my writing courses.