Book Review: Million Dollar Outlines, by David Farland

David Farland, aka David Wolverton, has been making a living as a writer and writing consultant for quite a few years now. Here in Utah he’s best known as a teacher, having taught creative writing at BYU for years, and frequently offering workshops, both for money and for free. This book is a distillation of his experience around writing outlines, which also includes creating plots, sub-plots, and characters. It is only available as an ebook (I would have preferred a paper copy).

One of the reviews on Amazon accuses this book as being cynical and mercenary, being mostly concerned with writing to make money. I can see that. A majority of writers, especially those taught by most college creative writing programs, approach writing as “art”, and that thinking of it as something to do for money somehow cheapens it. Considering that Farland’s approach here is to take a look at the top selling books and movies over the past several decades to see what factors they all have in common, the criticism is valid. He’s a writer to make money, and sees no problem with approaching the craft as a craft and a career. If you write for yourself, or view your work as some high form of art to be appreciated by a select few who “get it,” then no, this book is not for you.

Furthermore, his approach could easily be interpreted as “how to sell out” rather than “how to write the stories you want to tell in the way you want to tell them.” If you feel that writing to a formula is wrong, this book is not for you. If you’re the type of writer who just likes to grab an idea and start writing, letting the story unfold however it wants, this book is also not for you–Farland tells you as much.

But for everyone else, especially those who are hoping to get published–and published repeatedly–this book is helpful information. Farland analyzes best-sellers, not to steal ideas, but to see what common elements there are to help us find what resonates with readers and makes them feel they’ve read a good, satisfying story. If you really look at the list of books he studied in coming up with this approach you won’t worry so much that he’s teaching you to write to formula in the bad connotation of the word. He’s giving you a formula with a great deal of flexibility, that can be easily adapted to any story you may want to write while still increasing your chances of engaging the reader.

In short, he’s giving you a very solid primer for writing in a way that readers will want to read and with which they will be able to connect. Some people do this intuitively, but others can learn it. You can learn it faster by reading it here. The book is crammed full of ideas on how map out your stories for maximum impact so that you have a solid plan once you start writing. He doesn’t tell you how to write, just how to prepare to write.

It’s a short, quick read, and I found it very useful. I’m currently in the planning stage of a novel, and already I’ve spotted weak points in my outline as a result of this book. If I can learn to implement even a quarter of the information here in this novel it will have been money well spent.  My only gripe is that I’d have rather bought and read it in print. I find I retain information less easily in ebook form. But that is my only real complaint.

I’ll be re-reading this book, and soon.

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