Fri
Jul 22 2011 11:26am

2011 San Diego Comic Con: “Putting the ‘Epic’ in Epic Fantasy” Panel

2011 San Diego Comic Con: “Putting the ‘Epic’ in Epic Fantasy” Panel

San Diego Comic Con officially began Thursday morning as hordes of people from all walks of fandom rushed into the exhibit hall and panel rooms. After a busy shift in the Tor Booth (#2707) giving away free swag and meeting new people, it was time to head upstairs for the noon “Putting the ‘Epic’ in Epic Fantasy” panel where some of the genre’s brightest stars talked about their craft.

Brandon Sanderson (The Way of Kings), Kevin J. Anderson (Terra Incognita), Chistopher Paolini (The Inheritence Cycle), Peter Orullian (The Unremembered), Patrick Rothfuss (The Name of the Wind), and K.J. Taylor (The Fallen Moon series) were on hand to discuss the history of epic fantasy and their approach to writing it.

George R.R. Martin was also a guest on the panel, which surely attributed to the extremely long line to get into Ballroom 6A. There had to be close to a thousand people packed into the room and every one of them a dedicated reader. In a convention that has largely morphed into one about movies and video games, it was really great to see such enthusiasm for books.

The discussion began with the panel trying to define what made something epic. I suspected it had something to do with having a mighty beard, as most of the panelists did. (Christopher Paolini expressed his envy.) Patrick Rothfuss said that being called an epic fantasy writer was more people seeing his big, heavy book and deciding that that’s what it was. While most of the panelists agreed that the length of the story was crucial to epic fantasy, Paolini pointed out that A Wizard of Earthsea was only forty thousands words long, tops, but no one would say it wasn’t an epic. The most agreed upon shared trait between the panelists’ books was that each novel contained many smaller stories that were part of a larger one. Sometimes with dragons. “The main character is the story itself, moving forward chapter by chapters,” said Kevin J. Anderson.

For Brandon Sanderson, epic fantasy is a matter of immersion in a world, through many inhabitants’ eyes. Their dramas, choices, failures. It’s a cycle that is never-ending. (Much like The Wheel of Time series, the moderator, Michael Spradlin quipped, to thunderous applause.)

For George R.R. Martin, epic fantasy is mostly a marketing category, shorthand to distinguish their books from others in the genre.

The discussion then turned to the craft involved in writing all of these bestselling epic fantasy series. You seldom see so many genre masters in one room, dispensing free advice to aspiring writers. Spradlin asked how each panelist approached their stories. Is it the world that is then populated, or the character that populates the world?

Every writer has their own methods. For Kevin Anderson, the world comes first, then the people the world needs in it. K.J. Taylor was adamant that characters come first. Sanderson agreed. “Unless there’s a fantastic character, what’s the point?” But most of the panelists agreed the question was a tough one because the answer is usually a mix of both. For Martin, he started writing A Game of Thrones after he had an image in his head of wolf pups with their mother dying in the snow. He didn’t know what came after that, but he kept writing to find out. But don’t call him the American Tolkien; as much as he loves worldbuilding, he doesn’t go much beyond what the story needs. He only knows seven words of Dothraki, the seven he used in the books.

Martin may not have ASOIAF’s answer to The Silmarillion in the works, but that doesn’t mean careful plotting doesn’t go into these stories within stories that are the appeal of epic fantasy. I thought Patrick Rothfuss had the best answer: “I used to come down hard on outliners. Outlines struck me as irrational. If I had to, I would make a list of bullet points, and those would have some sub-bullets... and then one day, I’m like, damn, I’m an outliner.“ Orullian, too, talked about the ”beautiful accidents“ of fiction writing that come not from careful planning, but from trying a bunch of different things in a scene until the author finds something that just works.

Some Q&A highlights:

2011 San Diego Comic Con: “Putting the ‘Epic’ in Epic Fantasy” PanelBrandon Sanderson’s Writing Excuses podcast got some props for helping new writers. A question was asked about how each author knew their stories were ready to be published and it was really interesting to hear the long, hard struggles some of these now hugely popular authors faced as young writers. Sanderson wrote five novels before Elantris, knowing none of them would ever see the light of day; he just wanted to hone his craft and get into a discipline. ”I trained myself to be a writer of books,“ he said firmly.  Martin began with short stories. Rothfuss ”latched on to [his] ideas and rewrote it for fourteen years. I don’t recommend it. It’s insane.“

When asked what there should be more of in epic fantasy, Rothfuss quickly replied ”Stronger female characters.“ Cue every female in the ballroom cheering and clapping.

The final question was about the panelists’ feelings on ebooks. Unsurprisingly, Martin’s not big on technology. ”I’d rather tie a message to a raven’s leg" but finds his Kindle invaluable on long book tours. Glad to see all of the panelists admit that sometimes epic fantasy is just too big to carry around wherever you go. Paolini said he loves technology, while Rothfuss opened up his hardcover copy of The Wise Man’s Fear and inhaled deeply. Too funny.

Martin ended the panel by saying that ebooks will replace mass market paperbacks in the future, but the beautifully bound, collector’s editions printed on acid-free paper for collectors is here to stay. I would’ve pegged San Diego Comic-Con attendees as early adopters of all kinds of geek tech, but maybe those people are more into science fiction. But the appreciation for the printed page was touching.

All in all, it was an exciting panel and I’m really lucky I got to attend it this year. I went in expecting much of the conversation and audience questions to be strictly Martin-centric, but I was glad to listen to all of the panelists in equal amounts and to hear both the authors and their fans engage in discussions about the craft of writing and mankind’s interest in epic fantasy from the days of The Illiad all the way up to A Dance with Dragons. It was a nice hour of laughs and thought-provoking questions before returning once more into the fray of another very packed Comic Con.


Theresa DeLucci is wearing a sweater right now. Sorry, New Yorkers. Follow her on Twitter for more coverage live from San Diego Comic-Con.

15 comments
David Thomson
1. ZetaStriker
Appreciation for books seems pretty pervalent out here, actually. I haven't personally met a reading enthusiast who prefer ebooks, yet know many who , like me, outright hate them. I tend to rant on for a good five minutes every time a Barnes and Noble tries to sell me a Kindle, in fact. They're useful as resources, with the ability to search for specific bits of text and such, but for entertainment? I find reading off a screen stressful, whereas reading off a page is relaxing. The tactile experience just means a lot to me.

As for the panel itself, I sadly had to miss it. I heard the first round table of questions, and then took off to resume my place in Ballroom 20 for the Game of Thrones panel later in the day. From what I saw though, the panel was a little weak. A good panel almost always comes down to how good the chemistry of the people on it is, and the format of this one left all of the authors basically monologuing answers without much interaction with the rest of the group. When they did reach out to one another, it was great fun, but I didn't see enough of it in my admittedly short time in the panel. Kevin Anderson I believe had the best joke, in fact. "Some of you wait months for our books - or in Martin's case, years!"
bigalosu
3. bigalosu
Very jealous. I would skip face-to-face meetings with the biggest movie stars at SDCC, just to sit in the audience for this panel. These men aren't just superstars, they create worlds full of them.
David Thomson
4. ZetaStriker
I still almost regret leaving that panel and missing all their autograph sessions for the Game of Thrones panel . . . but it was interesting to see as well. Not to mention the swag bag with a house symbol t-shirt, a map/mousepad and the first book.

For those curious, the Game of Thrones panel basically confirmed that Clash of Kings will play pretty close to the original novel, as Game of Thrones did, but that if they get their third season things will have to start to change. They estimate Storm of Swords would have to be broken up into either 1.5 or 2 seasons, but that the eventual goal of the producers is to get the Red Wedding on screen. They basically said if they can do that much, they'll feel like the series has been a success . . . although obviously they'd rather do all of it if possible.

As for the upcoming season, one fan asked about the battle of Blackwater Bay . . . and yes, it's going to happen. Finally, a real battle! As for whether it'll be exactly like it was in the book . . . well, George R.R. Martin offered to pass his hat around to collect donations for more special effects. So that's a "maybe", I suppose.

The best bit of news from the panel is that we'd get to see not only the dragons, but the direwolves begin to "grow up" . . . so hopefully they'll get more screen presence and look more wolfish next year.
James Goetsch
5. Jedikalos
Well, I'm definitely a "reading enthusiast"--in off times I will easily read three to four fantasy or sci fi books a week--and I now only buy ebooks. The ability to resize font (yes, I'm getting older :)) as well as ease of storage, portability, and no more decaying yellow pages wins out for me. And I have noticed to my surprise that the sensory experience (tactile, visual, olfacory even) has become shifted into a new mode. For example, the leather cover on my nook and so forth, now has pleasant associations for me that physical book properties used to. But that's just me.
Kevin Maroney
6. womzilla
@zetastriker: Correcting you to be polite, I very much doubt that Barnes and Noble has tried to sell you a Kindle. The B&N e-reader is the nook; the Kindle is Amazon's. The difference actually matters to people who use them.

More relevantly, yes, there are people who prefer their ereaders over "dead tree" books. I myself am capable of using either, with an awareness of the limitations of each. Tying this back to the topic of the original post, I just finished reading A Game of Thrones on my phone--yes, the entire book, all 294 Kwords of it. Enjoyed it immensely, and it was much easier than hauling around my 5-pound hardcover. Because I had it everywhere I went, and because it automatically held my place, I could easily read the novel in snatches (e.g., while waiting for a train) in a way that would have been awkward for a paper book.
JOhn Johnson
7. smileyman
To add to what womzilla said. I love my Kindle. I take it with me everywhere I go and I've read far more since I got it than I did before. I think that Martin nailed it with where the industry will end up at. People will use ebooks for paperbacks and what I call "disposable" books, while also buying nice hardbound editions of their favorite authors to show off to friends and family.

I bought Sanderson's The Way of Kings in hardback when it came out. I also have the ebook, and actually read the book in electronic format because hauling around a 425k word book is a huge chore.

In addition reading from an e-reader is a far different experience than reading from a computer screen. I don't get the conflict between physical books and ebooks, because there's plenty of room in the world to own both.
David Thomson
8. ZetaStriker
I'll glady accept my mistake on the e-reader name; no need to be hesitant to correct me. My ignorance is well earned, since I haven't followed the technology closely outside a few brushes with it in the hands of classmates. My experiences with it have just been very negative, and I like the physical presence of a good book. I'm not saying none of you should be using them, but I personally just can't appreciate them the way you can.
bigalosu
9. Mouette
It took me up until this year to start reading ebooks. I said everything all the people who complain about them say - I love the smell of books, the feel of them, I want to own a physical copy, I love *having* my books right there with me. And all of that is still true; I still buy physical books.

I tried the Kindle app on my phone at midnight, far too late to run to the nearest BN, when I had just finished the first book in a series and NEEDED the next one NOW. I blew through the next three books in that series that night. That's what got me finally, finally reading ebooks.

Of course they have problems. I still like physical copies. Reading on an ereader for a long time, no matter how you fiddle with the settings, eventually makes my eyes hurt. But I love the ease and access; I can get new books without having to go to the store or wait for Amazon to ship them. So... I'm on both sides. I was one of those who swore I'd never use ebooks, but I caved to the convenience eventually.

And to be relevant, daaaamn, I wish I'd been able to see this panel :D
bigalosu
10. SitkaSpruce
Rothfuss and Martin, arrrgh that would have been amazing to see!

I love books (I have 4 billy bookcases stuffed to the brim), but for my lifestyle, these days ebooks are the way to go. I live on a remote island and it is a 7 hour ferry to the nearest bookstore. Quite often my mail is held up by bad storms, bc ferries goofiness, etc - one click and there is my book! Heady!

On a kayak expedition, I read the Wise Man's fear, the entire Dresden Series up to Changes, the Miles Vokosigan series - all within my kindle.
bigalosu
11. Cass R
Oh hai, KJA, that's a familiar looking hat...
bigalosu
12. L. Lawson
@womzilla: Thanks for the correction. As a nook user, was about to make it myself.

@ZetaStriker: Negative? How so?

GRRM was right at this panel, and I was lucky enough to see it in person: eBooks are the end of the mass market paperback's prevalence.

eReaders have not replaced books for anyone I know who has one. In fact, we buy just as many, if not more, DT books as eBooks. eReader users, in my experience, are bibliophiles to the Nth degree. We can now carry X amount anywhere we go now.

Like, for example, A Dance with Dragons and Name of the Wind and Way of Kings and .
Theresa DeLucci
13. theresa_delucci
I'm ashamed to say that I've had a copy of The Name of the Wind sitting on my desk for about eight months now. I keep meaning to get to it. But after hearing Rothfuss speak, seeing how smart and funny he was, it's definitely getting read very, very soon.
bigalosu
14. Shawn Speakman
Looking forward to what you think, Theresa. You'd think after watching Pat ride that bull at the Random House party that you'd have started his book by now. haha
bigalosu
15. SoulExpressed
When asked what there should be more of in epic fantasy, Rothfuss quickly replied ”Stronger female characters.“

Is the Sword Of Truth series by Terry Goodkind considered epic fantasy? I recall a lot of strong female characters in that series, maybe even all of them. Kahlan, the Mord Sith; Cara, Denna, Berdine, Raina, Rikka; Rachael, Princess Violet, Queen Milena, the mud women, the woman that Richard married, Verna, Ann and the sisters, Jensen Rahl, Adie the bone woman, Shota, Scarlet the red dragon, etc.

I read once that he said all or most of the women that he (Terry) knows are strong characters. Thus it is natural and easy for him to write them as such.

He also said he began the series to explore some ideas he picked up after reading Ayn Rand's writings. Another strong female.

I bought a kindle two or three weeks ago. Hadn't ever read an entire ebook before, because I didn't like reading for long periods with a regular screen. For my eyes, the kindle feels like reading a book. I am reading Wise Man's Fear on it at the moment. I looked at the hardcover in a store, I'm backpacking in Asia, and thought "nup, I ain't lugging that around", especially as I am travelling without checked luggage. I got the kindle sent to Thailand instead and can travel with dozen's of epic series' and still only have cabin luggage.
:)

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