How to Craft a Bestseller: David Farland's Not So Secret Recipe

Following on last week's call to help author David Farland's son in coma (see here) through a Book Bomb event - and my post was one among several, see below -  I bought his recently published 'bible' for authors, Million Dollar Outlines. This too I must have done along with thousands of other fans because his book hit #1 in paid Kindle Store for publishing guides and editing. And you know what title is #2 in that list? His other book Drawing on the Power of Resonance in Writing, focused on teaching writers how to pull on a reader's heart strings. 

Amazing, isn't it? David Farland is suddenly catapulted as the leading guru for writers!  Hopefully the purchase of his books, either this one or the thriller Nightingale (also doing well, standing at #41 for paranormal fantasy), have helped ensure for his son the best possible medical care.

Now that I've just finished reading Million Dollar Outlines, I'd like to share with you my enthusiasm for this book. If you're out to write a best seller, that is definitely the way to go. But David Farland warns you at the outset: if you are what he calls a "discovery writer", then this book is not for you. 

Yes, there are basically two kinds of writers: those who write following an outline and those who don't, preferring to follow their creative instinct, or as Farland puts it, who "like to begin a story without really knowing where it will end. Stephen King is an excellent example of a discovery writer." I must hasten to add that I am a discovery writer too. I love to let myself be carried by my own story. If I enjoy my current work, 2213: Forever Young , it's precisely because it is a serial novel. This is a form particularly congenial to discovery writers: while I know what happens in Part Two that I am currently writing (to be published in May), I still have no idea how the next parts will develop. Sure, I know where I'm headed, I want to explore what happens in future when Science will have solved what we see as problems today (in particular aging). I also know who my main characters are, and they are going to reappear from one episode to the next: a young man named Jamie and two lovely and very different girls, Alice and Lizzie, both 99 Percenters hoping to become One Percenters, and their lives will intersect many times...But the details? No, I don't know them anymore than you do: I need to keep that unknown, otherwise I'd be too bored to write it up!

So, you may well ask, why am I so enthusiastic about Farland's book if I don't write to an outline? Two reasons:

1. Coming from the world of movies - he's had experience greenlighting films, analyzing audiences reactions in order to gauge the movie's probable success - Farland has taught a number of writing courses that are pretty unique in content, being focused on the link between films and literature, and that have proved astoundingly successful: he has taught dozens of writers who have gone on to staggering literary success, including such #1 New York Times Bestsellers as Brandon Mull (Fablehaven), Brandon Sanderson (Wheel of Time), James Dashner (The Maze Runner) and Stephenie Meyer (Twilight).

2. Given this, it is fairly obvious that Farland has something special to offer even to those who consider themselves discovery writers, in particular his focus on audience analysis and identification of what he calls "emotional beats", i.e. what drives the audience, what plays on certain emotions, for example, a sense of wonder in children, of romance in women. He has set up a number of broad categories of emotions: mystery, drama, romance, adventure, wonder, horror, humor and lust. It is interesting to see how these are actually broader than classic theme-related genres (romance, thrillers, science-fiction etc) and focused on something entirely different: not a theme but emotions

Farland's reasoning is straightforward: the number of "emotional markers" hit by a story will determine the size of its potential audience. If the story hits the wrong emotions, it will drive readers (and in the case of movies, viewers) away. For example, a story meant for teenage girls should not contain drama or pornography. As Farland put it, "teenage girls don't generally look for drama; they get enough of it in their lives. Nor do they respond well to pornography."

Hollywood is big on emotional markers but Farland - dealing as he is with writing - goes further and refines the concept, adding something new to the mix: what he calls "themes", pointing out that "there are commonalities in stories that go beyond the emotional tags." He's noticed that "tales about character growth tend to be more satisfying than those that are not...Similarly, many readers respond well to novels about friendship - gaining and keeping friends." He reports that "as a man I've noticed that tales about 'making it rich' are attractive to me. Interestingly, before I got married I was far more interested in romance - how to find and wed the right girl. Now my fantasies tend to revolve around, 'How am I going to support my family - not just for the rest of my life, but even after I die?'" He goes on to admonish us: "So look at the bestselling novels of all time. How many of them deal with themes appropriate to their audience?"

Before you give him a resounding yes - and I certainly do because that is the key to producing great literature - please stop and give a thought to that sentence that broke my heart, when he tells us his "fantasies" revolve around how to support his family.  Indeed, this is heartbreaking in the light of what has happened to his son as a result of his inability to obtain adequate health insurance - a problem that appears widespread in America: see Tobias Buckel's article below that highlights how through no fault of his own, Farland could not get medical coverage.

To conclude: although I'm not personally able to produce a "million dollar outline" as Farland recommends - going up to 80-100 pages of details to cover character and plot aspects - I have no doubts that this is an excellent and proven way to obtain investment and set up winning franchises for TV, Hollywood or video games. Personally, I will stick to my old-fashioned "discovery" method of writing, but there's no doubt that Farland has hit on a key element of success: the emotional leverage that comes from knowing what your audience wants.

So if you want to write a bestseller, make sure you know your audience and hit as many emotional markers as you can. All of which has very little to do with the classic genre classification in use in the publishing industry. Incidentally, that is precisely why, once I had written A Hook in the Sky, I proceeded to look for my audience, analyzed what I saw (also using my training as an economist) and found it among the baby boomer generation. That's what Boomer Lit is all about: I didn't invent it, it was there, waiting to be discovered. Mind you, boomers are only my primary audience but there is a secondary one as well: anyone who has a boomer in his or her life would be well advised to read my book to learn more about what makes boomers tick!

Surprised? You shouldn't be, Young Adult Lit is also read by many who are mature adults: because of the emotional content, a book can be read by many more people than those that are the primary target, a prime example of this is the success of Harry Potter with older readers...

Interestingly, Farland does not go into considerations of primary vs. secondary audiences but I'm sure that in a future revised version of his excellent book, he will do so.

Question: Do you think Farland is right in identifying the number of "emotional beats" as a key ingredient of success? Do you agree with this Hollywood approach to literature?

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