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Transcript for Episode 9.36

Writing Excuses 9.36: Writing Instruction


Key Points:
Can writing be taught? Yes! But they have to do all the hard work, they have to put the elbow grease into it.
What’s in the toolbox? It starts with storytelling. Tell stories from your own life. Learn to think in stories. Then learn the elements, world creation, character creation, story concept, theme… Build on the shared narratives that we all hear and tell every day. Learn individual techniques, not everything at once — character, world building, plotting, dialogue, scene setting.
Science fiction and fantasy writers need to learn that world building is not the story. “We all come to science fiction and fantasy for the world building, but we don’t stay because of it.” Character and plot trump setting.
Make sure the elements matter to the reader, that the reader likes the character, wants to spend time with them, cares about what happens to that character. Make them resonate, make them familiar, make the reader say, “I can see myself in this person.” Avoid characters that are completely original, unlike anyone anywhere.
From the promo — brainstorming a novel include how to create settings, how to build worlds, how to create characters, how to develop a plot, how to work with theme, how to create a treatment, how to create character voices. Also, how to create an outline.
What are the exercises a writer needs to practice? In Story Mastery One, there is an exercise on setting and bringing the setting to life. An exercise on how to have characters argue, to create natural sounding voices. Exercises on creating characters, including their exterior body, their clothes, their interior, their past, and their aspirations.
What’s the balance between exercises and working on your book or story? Exercises should be usable in your book. They should serve as writing prompts for your book.
Should students bring material to class or start fresh? Best to start fresh. A story that’s been workshopped to death is not a good basis for learning. You need to think about new things in new ways. Write a new dilemma scene, don’t just use one you already wrote.
When you are practicing, don’t worry about publishing it, don’t worry about it being great. Give yourself the freedom to play with it and fail. Learn the principles.
15 minute writing sprints can unclog your writing and make it flow.
Learn to think of yourself as someone who can write great books, who can learn tools, you can build their own toolbox. “You are the product.”
Set high expectations and push yourself.

[Brandon] This week’s episode of Writing Excuses is brought to you by David Farland’s online writing courses. Go to to find out more.

[Mary] Season nine, episode 36.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, writing instruction.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] And we have special guest star David Farland/Dave Wolverton.
[David] Yes. And I’m David Farland.
[Brandon] [laughing] And?
[David] And Dave Wolverton.
[Brandon] Dave, as you all have heard many times from Dan and I, was our writing teacher in college and is a fantastic novelist of many different genres and also is a great writing teacher, as evidenced by the fact that we learned a ton from him. So we are really excited to have him on the podcast, and though every podcast is about writing instruction, we’re going to actually go metaon this one and actually talk about how to help other writers write better. Now, we assume that you guys listening are interested in writing and are writing. You’re probably in writing groups. You may know other people. We’re going to talk about how to help writers be better writers.

[Brandon] My first question to you, Dave, is there are people out there who say you cannot teach writing.
[David] I would say that they’re definitely wrong. I mean, I believe that to most people, we can teach them how to write. The fact is that sometimes trying to teach somebody to write who doesn’t have an immediate gift for it is sort of like trying to teach somebody how to swim who doesn’t have any arms. They can still do it. They may have some deficiencies. But the truth is, probably 85% of the people that come to me to take writing classes, I can teach them how to write publishable fiction in a pretty short period of time.
[Brandon] When you first said that in our class, you said that… Basically that same thing, I was a little bit skeptical, and like what, four or five members of our class of 20 people went on to become published writers. So it’s not 85%, but I bet 80… All those people didn’t try.
[David] That’s exactly right.
[Brandon] Those of us who did try, it feels like to me that we really all kind of did it. Not all of us are making a living at it, because of the luck of the genre and publishing, but all of us are writing things I think are very of publishable level.
[David] Absolutely. I mean, you can teach somebody how to write. But they get to go out and do all the hard work. It’s sort of like me teaching you how to dig fencepost holes or something. Okay, this is how you do it. Then you go out there in the hot sun and after about an hour and a half, and you think, “What in the devil have I taken on?” And “I think I’ll go do something else.” That’s what happens a lot of the time. But I know many talented writers who… Many talented authors who could make a wonderful living at this if they would put in the elbow grease.
[Howard] [garbled]
[David] Go for it.

[Howard] I’m sorry. Let me ask this question. What is… You’ve stepped into class on the first day and you can tell that some of these people are drowning swimmers. What are the water wings that you give them? What’s the first thing you do to start this instructional process? I mean, the first thing you do besides tell them yes, this can be taught and yes, you can succeed. What’s in the toolbox?
[David] The toolbox has so many elements to it. Years ago, I remember reading Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. That was probably the first writing books that I ever picked up as a teenager. I got to thinking, “What are the elements of storytelling?” Storytelling is as natural to humans as just about any activity. I mean, as Brandon’s pointed out, we hear stories dozens of times per day. That’s the way that we learn just about everything in life. Your wife sits there and says, “Did you see so-and-so wearing that purple dress with the blue eyelash… With eyeshadow?” She doesn’t have to say that you don’t do that, but your three-year-old daughter picks it up. We go, “Okay, there’s a faux pas.” There’s so many things that we do where we learn through stories. So what I do is, I start talking about stories. You start relating stories from your own life. You start getting people thinking in stories. Talk about what are the elements of stories, which come down to your world creation, your character creation, your story concept… What is it, your theme, what are you trying to get across? I break it down into the elements as much as I can.
[Brandon] That’s a really good idea. I’ve never taught it that way. But that’s fascinating. Building on the shared narrative that we all have.
[David] Yes. Absolutely.
[Brandon] Mary, were you going to…?
[Mary] Oh, I was going to say that I also approach it very much as breaking it apart into individual techniques. Because I think that a lot of times, writers sit down and say, “I’m going to learn to write…” Or they don’t even say, “I’m going to learn to write.” They say, “I’m going to write a novel,” and sit down to write a novel. During the process, they’re having to learn character and world building and plotting and dialogue and scenic setting, and they’re trying to learn everything all at one time. So I also separate things into individual techniques to learn, and I try to provide them with exercises so they aren’t having to mess with the other pieces.
[David] Excellent.

[Brandon] One of the main things I do when I’m starting off… This is specifically because I teach science fiction and fantasy, is I try to divert their attention from the world building. Because so many fantasy and science fiction writers come in assuming that the world building is the story, that it is the writing. I try to get across to them… There’s this weird dichotomy, we’ve talked about this. We all come to science fiction and fantasy for the world building, but we don’t stay because of it. The stories have to have good set… Or good character and good plot first. A great character and a great plot with a weak setting will be a story that will still be very successful, but a great setting with a weak character and a weak plot will fail. This is something that I think is very surprising to new writers.

[Dan] Tied into that idea, one of the things I remember best from taking Dave’s class was the concept of resonance. He talked a lot about that. Which in my own mind, I kind of define as making sure that all these elements actually matter to the reader. It just doesn’t matter that there’s a character, but it does matter that you like that character, or that you want to spend time with that character, or you care about what happens to that character. Resonance is the way that you do that, by setting up a familiarity or a sense of “I can see myself in this person” or knowing this person.
[David] A good point that goes with that, too, a lot of times new authors try to create characters that are so obtuse, so unlike anyone that they go, “Oh, isn’t this thrilling?” This is a character that’s completely original. You’ve never met anybody like that. You, as a reader, I reminded over and over again that people aren’t that way. That person is nothing like me. Then the author doesn’t understand why you don’t care about their character.

[Brandon] Let’s stop here for our promo, which actually is not a book this week. It is the David Farland writing workshops. Why don’t you tell us about them?
[David] Okay. I teach a number of writing workshops online, and the first one that most people would probably go to is called The Story Puzzle. The idea of The Story Puzzle is to brainstorm a novel in the course of the writing workshop where we talk about… We have individual lessons on how to create your settings, how to build worlds, how to create your characters, how to develop a plot, how to begin working with your theme, how do you create your treatment, how do you create character voices, and things like that. We go through, over the course of about six weeks, and you brainstorm a novel and then create the outline based upon my book Million Dollar Outlines. With the idea of taking those basic ideas that maybe you came into the class with and turning that into a best-selling novel. What we do is, we then get you ready to write the novel.
[Brandon] These are all done online. People can register where?
[David] They can register at
[Brandon] This is actually… This is really cool. Like I was so in the mindset of the old style that you had to meet together like Clarion or something, that when I first heard that we’re promoing your workshops, I’m like, “Oh, yeah, I guess you fly down and you go to Dave’s house or something.” But that’s not it at all. You can do this from your home.
[David] Yeah. I have people in Italy and India and Korea.
[Brandon] It’s going to save you a ton of money to do it this way.
[David] And what we do is, we have weekly meetings on Instant Presenter where we get to talk for an hour at a time. We do that several times a week, so you can set the times that work best for you.
[Brandon] Is this one-on-one?
[David] It’s actually one on somewhere between two and eight. Something like that. So it’s not…
[Brandon] Okay. You with them.
[David] But you can come as much as you want. And many times… There’s times where it’s just Deb and me… It’s one-on-one. That happens. But you can come as many times as you like per week. I have people who come every single meeting to just sit there and listen. Not to ask questions so much.
[Brandon] This sounds really awesome.
[David] But the idea then is then you have the written assignments and I go through and critique their written assignments… I critique them. I don’t have anybody else critique them. The goal is to basically take you from being somebody who wants to be a writer to being a professional writer.

[Howard] I’m a firm believer in the school of focused practice, which is that if there is a thing that you don’t know how to do and an expert can see that you’re doing it wrong, they can tell you, “Well, this is the thing you need to practice.” I get asked all the time, and I don’t have the answer here, “What are the exercises that a writer can do that are akin to, for instance, a bodybuilder lifting the same weight of the same muscle group, or a runner practicing sprints?” What are the things that you make people practice? What are the exercises?
[David] I have some exercises. It’s in my class… It’s called Story Mastery One. Which basically covers a lot of the simplest types of techniques, things that you have to learn how to do in order to write a novel. So for example, I have an exercise on setting, and how to bring the setting to life. There’s 17 different points in there that I go over, and it is the toughest writing exercise you will ever be given. Okay? I don’t care what college you’ve gone to, I’m going to take you to the next level. That’s the goal of the exercise. Then we have exercises on how to have characters argue, because you’ve got to create natural sounding voices and things like that. We do exercises that deal with description of just creating characters. When I get into creating a character, I quite frankly never have anyone who turns in less than 20 pages on this character that they’ve developed, because I have them create them in different ways. We create their exterior body, we create the clothes that they’re wearing, we create their interior. We go through and talk about their past. We talk about their aspirations and things like this. So if you’ve got a protagonist that you need to build up, by the time that you’ve done with those exercises, you’ve got a well-developed protagonist.
[Brandon] Excellent.
[David] We do a lot of things like that.

[Brandon] What’s the balance for you, for exercise versus go work on your book or your story that you want to work on?
[David] The exercises that I do are actually almost all created in a way that you could use them in your book. They actually serve as writing prompts for your book. I don’t want you wasting time learning… Taking lessons from me that aren’t practical. There are only one or two of them that I have that I say, “Okay. This isn’t going to go towards your book. It’s just going to go towards building character in you as a writer.”

[Mary] That’s interesting because I actually actively tell my students… I have an eight week class, and I tell them not to use anything that they have worked on previously because they will come in with baggage.
[Brandon] No, I agree with that, but I think what Dave’s saying is he gives an exercise for you to work on to add to your book.
[David] Yes. Exactly.
[Brandon] [garbled] But I think you’re right. That’s a good thing to bring up on this podcast, is the idea that when you’re teaching writing, you will have people… And you may have these in your writing groups… Who come in with this story. The story that they bring to every workshop, that they want to workshop every time. This story is dead. They have written the life out of this story. They have stomped that story into the ground, then they’ve dug it back up and they’ve stopped it down again. This is very unhelpful for the new writer. Making them start clean and fresh is going to be much more useful for them. Because they’ll be more willing to try out the things that you’re saying and the things you’re suggesting.
[David] That’s why I try to start with The Story Puzzle. Then I… The goal here is to get them thinking about new things in new ways. So when I have you write, for example, a dilemma scene, I ask… You say… They’ll say, “Oh, I’ve got this dilemma,” and I’ll say, “No. Come up with another one. Okay?”
[David] You’ve been thinking about this one for 15 years. Let’s come up with another one. Because we want to expand your mind and get you out of your comfort zone so that you can really push harder and do your best work.

[Dan] It can help a lot as well in a closed environment like that to keep it a closed environment. Say, “Let’s work on a piece that you don’t have to worry about ever publishing this. You don’t have to worry about it being great. This is your practice piece. You’re going to play with this. And then at the end of the class, you can hide it or throw it away or do whatever you want.” That gives people this freedom to fail, this freedom to not hold themselves to an unrealistic expectation and just play around with the principles that you’re teaching them.

[Howard] One of the most difficult exercises I’ve ever done… Difficult but incredibly liberating, is the 15 minute writing sprint where the two rules are you are allowed to write terribly, you are not allowed to stop writing. For 15 minutes, I just pound out the words. What I found is that if I had a writing session where I wanted to sit down and work on my book and it wasn’t flowing, if I then forced myself into the 15 minute writing sprint, at the end of that writing sprint, often I was so happy. I mean, the words are now flowing. Now let’s get rid of these crap words, and sit down in front of the ones that matter. And it flowed.
[David] Absolutely.

[Brandon] Yeah. Teaching new writers to think of themselves trying to become someone who can write great books, not being a person who once wrote a book. Focusing on it changing myself, learning the tools, learning my toolbox, not taking any one thing as too sacrosanct and transforming yourself into a writer, rather than walking out with a product. You are the product.
[David] Yes. Absolutely.
[Brandon] You are what you are trying to create, not the story.
[David] Yeah. I think what I’m trying to do when I teach a writing class, I like to put high expectations on the writers. I think that too many of us will tell ourselves, “Oh, I’m not going to really be a writer at any time in the near future, so I’m just going to slack off.” I’m like, “No, don’t slack off. Push yourself.” I’m going to push you. So I like to push my authors. But sometimes I can look at an author and say, “Okay. I’m not going to push any further. This person’s doing the best that they can.” I’m not going to break them. But I do want to push them.

[Brandon] We are unfortunately out of time. Dave is someone else that I could listen to forever. But our writing prompt, I think, we actually have a writing prompt. I want you to do the 15 minute writing sprint. You can’t stop, you’ve just got to go, and you can’t just… You can’t stop writing words.
[Howard] If it hurts, I am so sorry I gave Brandon that idea. But you’re going to feel good about this pain.
[David] Do it. I agree.
[Brandon] You’re out of excuses, now go write.
[Howard] Dave, thank you. Thank you.