New York Times bestselling author and Coordinating Judge for the Writers of the Future Contest Dave Farland gives tips on writing, taking up the subject of imagination and originality.
Frequently authors ask if I have a “form” that I used to help me critique a story. Given the large number of things that I look at in a story, any form that I had would simply be too long to be workable. Yet it makes sense to try to codify the critiquing process.
What defines “good” writing when it comes to a story? That’s a question that I have to ask time and again as I’m judging contest entries.
Many years ago, Damon Knight, a fine writer and editor, wrote a book on how to write short fiction. Damon talked a bit about avoiding clichés.
I have talked about some of the most frequent problems that I see when judging for the Writers of the Future Contest, and today I’m going to tackle one of the biggest: the problem with “told” stories.
A writer pointed out today that when you send a novel to an agent or publisher, they normally ask for the first five or ten pages, just so that they can gauge your writing skill. If those pages don’t grab the reader, it won’t sell. So, he wondered, what do I look for in those first five pages?
I earlier mentioned that when I used to write for competitions, I would make lists of ways that judges might look at my work in order to grade it. For example, some judges might look for an ending that brought them to tears, while another might be more interested in an intellectual feast. A couple of you asked what my list might look like. So here is a list of things that I might consider in creating a piece.
Very often when reading slush for the Writers of the Future contest, I come upon stories that at first glance seem to be perfectly acceptable. They presented a protagonist who had a problem to overcome. The setting was reasonably well defined. The story proceeded at a good pace, with the problem escalating nicely. Often there was a surprise twist at the ending, and the conclusion seemed appropriate. Yet when I got done reading the story, it just lacked . . . something.
Recently I’ve had a number of my students ask, “What makes a story great?” For example, what sets apart a story that wins major awards from one that doesn’t? What makes one story monumental, a landmark in its field, while another story fades from memory?
One reader asked me to discuss a bit about what I call “grounding” the reader. Quite simply, grounding is the fine art of letting the reader know what is going on. You need to focus on some basics …