In Memoriam: David Farland

Jan 17, 2022 | Authors, Business, Me, Updates, Writing

I got some of the worst news of my life this week. David Farland, my editor, died. Early Friday morning, from an accident.

This naturally means that he will not be helping me to self-publish my book this year. He was assisting me in the endeavor. His influence is what landed me my audiobook narrator, cover artist, and concept artist. He was going to give me specific instruction on promotion and putting together my Kickstarter. Now, I have to figure out the rest without him.

It has been a very bad week.

What Made Dave Special

Dave Wolverton was not only a bestselling author in his own right. He had made a life’s mission out of training the next generation of best-selling authors. It’s likely that even if you never read any of his books, you’ve read some of the ones written by his students. Brandon Sanderson, Brandon Mull, James Dashner, and Stephenie Meyer are members of his student body.

As lead judge for the Writers of the Future contest, which is possibly the largest and most prestigious such contest in the world, he found yet another way to launch unknown authors into the mainstream. He was a star maker.

He was also responsible for the popularity of the Harry Potter series in America. He often told the story about how he was approached by Scholastic Books in the late 1990s and tasked with finding them a book to promote using all the excess Goosebumps money they needed to spend. They sent him a stack of twenty or so books, and when he found Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, a foreign book that had enjoyed moderate success in the UK, in the pile, he advised Scholastic to go all in on the strange little volume.

He came up with a never-before-tried marketing campaign for the book. He convinced the publisher to pay bookstores to make full-window displays advertising Harry Potter, and to do it during the holiday season—which was certainly the most expensive time to do it. To launch such a campaign nationwide would cost north of fifteen million dollars, but Scholastic did it, and it is fair to say that it was the best decision the company had ever made.

Famously, Dave wrote under the pen name of “Farland” for one reason: books written under his real name were always shelved at the very bottom of bookstore racks. He wanted a name that would be shelved at the customer’s eye level. Even with all the skill he put into his writing, he always remembered to think like a salesman, and taught his students to do the same.

When the time came for me to seek out an editor for my own book, Advent 9, I decided there was only one name I could trust.

Dave the Teacher

In his now-legendary creative writing class at Brigham Young University, Dave was responsible for the ascension of many aspiring writers. More than a few of these went on to become mega-sellers, or, as Dave called them, “Apex Writers”.

His curriculum differed from most other creative writing classes in many ways. The biggest difference is that Dave taught his students not only how to write, but how to make a living as writers.

You can live off writing,” he would tell his students on their first day. He then taught them the secrets that professional writers use to maximize their profits and keep what they earned. He instructed them how to get film and television deals, how to popularize their work internationally, and how to keep from getting fleeced by parties that try to exploit naive writers.

He was well known in Hollywood and consulted on many films. One of the first conversations I ever had with him was clarifying that I am in no way connected to “Alan Horn”, an executive producer on The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. He had worked with that Alan Horn before, and thought he might have been reaching out for help with publishing a book (a realistic scenario, by the way).

He also had a…serious past that he could occasionally be persuaded into talking about. I have no right to go into detail about it, but I will say that he once worked as a prison guard, and that was not even close to the scariest part of his history.

But this only served to make him a better teacher. He was unafraid to peel back the curtain and show his students how the industry sausage is really made—in Hollywood or anywhere else—or what the world is really like when the lights go out.

While at BYU, he also created an “Editing” major, which not only focused on the mechanics of editing books, but also taught students the business practices of acquisition, brand building, and all the other things that real editors actually do at their publishing houses. The program was such a success that it became a template that other universities across the nation quickly copied.

I often remarked that he was the greatest writing teacher alive. And now that he’s gone, there is no one else who can replace him.

Who Dave Was to Me

David Farland was my first fan.

He did freelance editing work up until his death, and I had meant to seek him out for help on my own book. And, frankly, I was too afraid to approach him. For years, I dithered about hiring him to edit my manuscript. Only in 2020 did I muster the courage.

What he had to say about Advent 9 floored me. I couldn’t believe anyone, much less someone as experienced as Dave, could have such high praise for a book by an unpublished author. I wasn’t going to ever share his words with the public. But now that he is gone, I find that I cannot keep them hidden. Here is as much as I dare show you:

Dear Alan:

I’ve finished editing Advent 9, as has my assistant Diann, and I have to say that I enjoyed it and I thank you for the privilege. You’re going to notice in the manuscript that in several places I mention that you are doing things that are fascinating and ingenious. I rarely do that. I’m a very jaded critic, and after 35 years, I’m pretty tight-fisted with praise, so let me explain something.

For the past 20 years I’ve been watching the superhero genre and been waiting for someone to make a breakthrough—advancing the superhero genre to new heights by dealing more maturely and seriously with its underlying themes. Some people have managed to do it in the comics themselves, but I haven’t seen anyone do it in novel form. I think you did it.

In fact, I get superhero stories in every quarter of the Writers of the Future [contest], and every three months I have to reject those stories as finalists because I think that the author “just isn’t quite there yet.” Sometimes the author is a beautiful stylist or a master of dialog, but at the level of just creative concept, they just aren’t quite there yet. You are.

Advent 9 as a character, Dr. Felix Antiworld, Trancedragon—all of them are excellent superheroes and I think you’ve got a great dynamic. Time and again, I found myself loving your scene design. Now, that doesn’t mean that this manuscript doesn’t need some work, but what it does mean is that I want to do my best to push you forward, much as I did with Brandon Sanderson, J.K. Rowling, and Stephenie Meyer.

I’m dedicated to helping you on this novel. Every few years, I take an author under my wing and give them an extra push. It has been a few years since I’ve taken an author on as a special project. I’d like to take you on as a project—see if we can find you a good agent and publisher, and get you started in a career, if we can.

I suspect this book could find a wide audience.

Like I said, he was my first fan. And though we ended up not finding an agent or a traditional publisher, Dave was still dedicated to helping me bring my book to the world. Months before his death, he gave me a roadmap. He’d been working for years on creating the perfect plan that would allow a self-published author to compete with traditional publishers. He’d been looking for a candidate who could pilot this program, and I agreed to be that candidate.

Thankfully, he’d already connected me with a brilliant cover artist and famous audiobook narrator before his death. Though there are still many missing puzzle pieces that need filling, Dave left me a foundation I can use to still make his plan work.

Except now, I have to be in charge of everything. It used to be Dave sending people my way who can help me. Now I have to be the one to find those people. It’s not going to be easy.

What Now?

Since learning of Dave’s death, it has never occurred to me, even once, to quit what we started together. I owe it to him to keep going, and knew as soon as I made up my mind that it was the right decision.

I then spent the next two days feeling like all hope was lost.

How could he be taken away right when I needed him most? Why didn’t I ask him to edit Advent 9 years earlier? How could someone so talented and useful be taken while he was still doing good in the world? He was still writing books, after all. He was even working on finishing some of his long-standing series.

And I felt bad about feeling bad. What right had I to mourn a man I barely knew, with whom I had only a business relationship that was less than two years old? His sudden death took many people in the writing community by surprise. Some of his students had known him, and worked with him, for decades.

And I can only imagine what his family must be going through. While Dave was getting on in years, he was very health conscious and exercised often. I met his wife, once, when we were discussing my book. Even when working together, he always told me when he needed to step away to spend time with his family. The extreme suddenness of his passing is a sad reminder that tomorrow is promised to no man.

However, it was during that meeting, with his wife present, that he asked me if I was serious about publishing my book. He confided to me that many times he had found authors whom he was prepared to push over the finish line, only for them to chicken out at the last minute. When the pressures and duties of becoming an author finally became real to them, they asked to be returned to the safety of the life they knew before.

He wanted to make sure I would not be intimidated by the spotlight, that I was ready to do interviews and appear publicly, and do everything else an author needs to do to give their book the best chance it can get.

I remember telling him that I was ready. And that has not changed. I am devastated that he will not see Advent 9 in print, that he will not be advising me when I make it a bestseller, when it is converted into foreign languages and other mediums, and that he will not be there to edit the sequel.

I’m sorry that future generations will not have David Farland as their greatest living writing teacher.

But that’s not going to stop me. He wouldn’t want that.

My next steps are…uncertain. But everything that is in motion now was set in motion by a master. I don’t have to restart the engine. I’ve just got to keep it running. However I manage to do that must certainly be the right way to do it. Maybe that is the only thanks I can give him.

Yet even if I succeed to the utmost, he will be missed. Tell the world: we have lost a titan.

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