“More of us should be hated and feared by our readers!” – The Fantasy Writers panel at NYCC

What phantom menace chases Brandon Sanderson? What MMORPG can you find Jim Butcher fighting Nazis on? And why is Joe Abercrombie so funny?

If you were lucky enough to attend yesterday’s Fantasy Writers panel at this year’s New York Comic Con, then you found out. Most likely you weren’t, however, as the panel included Jim Butcher (The Dresden Files series), Joe Abercrombie (The First Law trilogy), Naomi Novik (the Temeraire series), Peter V. Brett (the Demon series), Deborah Harkness (the upcoming A Discovery of Witches), and Brandon Sanderson (The Way of Kings, the Wheel of Time, and more), and as such the room was packed to bursting.

The appeal of this panel seemed to have been seriously underestimated, especially considering how many bestsellers were present. Room occupancy limitations had the NYCC staff turning people away, which is very unfortunate, as those con-goers missed a lively and engaging panel that very early on included the audience doing the wave at Naomi Novik’s insistence.

Hopefully, this full report and partial transcript can bring you there. Click below the cut for coverage of the event, which was expertly hosted by Del Rey editor Betsy Mitchell.

The six assembled authors first tackled questions from each other beginning with the query, “Has epic fantasy changed over the last few years, or are we still knocking off Tolkien with both hands?

Joe Abercrombie: I think we can do both. We should continue to knock off Tolkien. It’s important that we continue to do that. It’s the history of the genre, the lifeblood. A comparison not often used [in this context] is the Clint Eastwood film Unforgiven. It’s a western, obviously, but it has a kind of sharp, modern, more realistic, more ambiguous interpretation. But ultimately it’s still a western. What I try to do in fantasy is pay homage to the history but try and bring a little bit something new to it. Maybe make a little comment at the same time.

Jim Butcher: Well, I’m knocking off Tolkien and Arthur Conan Doyle at the same time which, you know, I feel merits something.

Peter V. Brett: Tolkien is considered the grandfather of fantasy and, for me, I consider myself the grandson, with Terry Brooks as the kind of crazy uncle of fantasy, being the one who brought me into it.

So we’re like scientists in that we’re standing on the shoulders of those who went before us. We are all influenced by what we read as we were growing up and that shapes us as writers and we can’t pretend that we haven’t been influenced by those things. But I also think that there’s a lot of room to be creative and to do your own thing and to modernize things so that the genre continues to be powerful for modern audiences while still saying things about timeless subjects.

Naomi Novik: I knock off Jane Austen, so… But actually there’s the Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin and other books that I feel are doing something fun and interesting and new even while they’re also clearly influenced by Tolkien. That doesn’t mean that you can’t take it in a different direction, but I also feel like…there’s plenty of room to knock off Tolkien and there’s plenty more knocking off to be done. I hope people knock him off for years to come!

Deborah Harkness: Some years ago I was reading several different translations of the old Norse myths and I found myself saying over and over again, “Tolkien! You totally ripped that off from these guys!” So, ah, that made me feel somewhat better about mine! If Tolkien were sitting up here at this panel I think he’d be surprised to be called the grandfather of fantasy…

Joe Abercrombie: There’d probably be a bit of a smell, as well.

Deborah Harkness: I think he would be the first one to admit that…to list off all the people he was borrowing from. I like to borrow from Greek and Roman legends, myself.

Brandon Sanderson: This is a personal hobby-horse of mine and I’m glad you’ve asked the question. I personally do have a feeling that—how should I say it—that fantasy hasn’t yet explored everywhere it can go. It’s kind of been more narrow than I think it can be and I think that we’ve really been able to see in the last ten years some of that exploration. Naomi and Jim on the panel here have been doing some of that. There’s been more of a feeling of, you know, let’s do the fantasy-historical hybrid or let’s look at different cultures and expand upon them.

When you bring up Tolkien to my mind there’s a difference between doing what Tolkien did and copying Tolkien. What he did was so different for the genre at the time that for a long time we were just kind of circling him and trying to figure out what it was that he did. We can look at Tolkien and ask “What did he do? How did he use mythology? How did he blend it with his story? How did he do this without taking his own mythology and doing stories like that?” I think we’re getting better and better at that.

I love the whole grandfather thing. I think we’re in the grandchildren generation now. I think our generation of writers…I didn’t grow up reading Tolkien, I grew up reading the people who had read Tolkien. I eventually did read Tolkien but I’m more influenced by Robert Jordan and David Eddings and Melanie Rawn than I am by Tolkien. Those were the people that were exciting to me when I was young and reading fantasy.

The next question was of Jim Butcher’s design, although he seemed wryly skeptical on that front, and brought together two currently disparate elements of the same genre: “How does the rise of fantasy gaming—such as World of Warcraft—change fantasy readership and writing and how might it change the genre in the future?

Jim Butcher: I think the major thing that World of Warcraft and similar games have done is that they have broadened the field of who is willing to pick up a fantasy book. True, the average player might not be nerdy enough to pick up any random fantasy book, but they will pick up a World of Warcraft book and then some of those people inevitably get caught in the gravity well and get drawn in.

I think that there’s a lot of references to gaming that get made subtly or not so subtly in a lot of people’s work. I also think there has been a lot of sort of promotional stuff. I mean, if I log on to City of Heroes and I log in as my character Harry Dresden… I’m the only one who can play him, legally! It’s all copyright protected and my username has been changed to generic several times and I have to say, “But I’m the author! I’m actually the only one who can use that name!”

People will say to me in the game “Oh, you know I love those books.” And then they’ll realize “Hey! You’re the author?” and that’s another way the fans can interact with the author and that’s a lot cooler than just throwing the book out there and hoping someone will read it. A fan can go to you and say, “Hey, I know you! I saved you from being bludgeoned by Nazis on top of a skyscraper!” I think it’s creating a liquid interface where you’re able to actually get out and talk to fans.

Joe Abercrombie: I’ve been a big computer game player all my life but I’ve never played World of Warcraft and haven’t played a huge amount of online gaming. I find them quite intimidating. You go out there and make some mistake, use the wrong key, and suddenly everyone’s shouting at you! And you realize you’re basically being shouted at by twelve-year-old kids!

Those kinds of games don’t really work for me but clearly they’ve had the kind of impact that, as Jim was saying, the tropes and cliches of epic fantasy are now sort of widely understood outside of anything you’d consider fandom. It’s out there, it’s general, it’s mainstream, I think. So now as a fantasy writer you’re sort of writing mainstream books, which I think is a good thing.

Peter V. Brett: I think that’s a good point that, as a fantasy author you want to be loyal to the base of your audience that enjoys fantasy but you also want to reach out to other people and make your stories accessible to them.

I think that online gaming has that because you can kind of customize your character any way you want. [Your avatar] has your personality. In writing I try to do that by telling a story through several different people and several different perspectives so that you have different age groups and different genders and different types of people. You can explore each one of those and readers can identify with one of them or they can get a broader sense of what it all looks like together.

I don’t really do a lot of online gaming, myself. I was much more of a pen-and-paper gamer.

Jim Butcher: Nerd!

Naomi Novik: I wrote an online game…

Peter V. Brett: I played that! Neverwinter Nights!

Naomi Novik: Writing that was a lot of fun. I actually don’t play World of Warcraft because I am not to be trusted. Forget about finishing the next book..forget about finishing the next three books. I’ll be back in a year or so…

But I do think that what those games have done besides what has already been described is that they really kind of make you start to think about immersing yourself in a fantasy universe. I do think they help people get over their suspension of disbelief and they make people want to participate and want to be involved in worlds that they enjoy.

So when Jim talks about nobody else getting to play Harry Dresden in City of Heroes, that makes me so mad! Why can’t there be, like, 12 Harry Dresdens all running around…

Jim Butcher: There are.

Naomi Novik: Somebody asked me on my Livejournal the other day, “I’ve named a character ‘Temeraire’ on an MMORPG, do you mind?” And I’m like, “No, that’s fantastic! Are you a giant DRAGON!?”

I really love that and I think that’s part of a general trend where you really kind of want to invite the reader to make themselves part of your world. To imagine more things that could happen with the characters after they close the page of the last book and really get invested in your world in a way that people weren’t necessarily ready to do when there was more of a separate distance in the consumer relationship.

Naomi Novik and Jim Butcher’s mention of being able to interface with fans through massive multiplayer role playing games brought up the issue of fan feedback and when it turns from something exciting into something too overwhelming to handle.

Brandon Sanderson: There was a time when I could set Google Alerts to my name and pay attention to all the links it brought up, and there was a time when I could go to forums and say “Hey, I’m Brandon Sanderson…” and talk about things. That ended a few years ago when suddenly I check my inbox and there’s 4000 emails in there because Google Alerts is pinging me…it does become overwhelming, and very quickly.

As soon as the Wheel of Time announcement was made I found that I could no longer visit all of my favorite forums because all of them had threads about me! And that just makes you want to spend all your time talking! Arguing or discussing or whatever.

I did want to ask…Jim, do you play World of Warcraft?

Jim Butcher: No, no, for the same reason as Naomi. City of Heroes is all I can handle.

Brandon Sanderson: Quick story! At one of the cons I was at Jerry Pournelle was griping that Terry Pratchett was writing so many more books than him, so he got this Wing Commander game—this was many years ago—and he’s like, “I’m gonna get him!” So he sent him Wing Commander to try and get him to play video games so that Terry Pratchett wouldn’t write so many books, so Jerry could get ahead of him! And then Terry sent him a letter back saying, “Hey thanks for the game, it inspired me to do this whole new book series…”

It is something you have to be aware of. Online mediums…they’re very scary. I remember the first time I started playing an online game that didn’t have an end and I thought, “Ohhhh, this is dangerous. There is no ending, this is dangerous. This is like a game of Tetris but it doesn’t get faster it just gets COOLER!” And that’s really scary!

So I only play the games that have endings. Usually they involve shooting people in the head. Then when I get shot then I’m done and I can back to my books.

Betsy Mitchell: What if you’re having a really bad day? You’re getting bad reviews, nothing’s getting done, there’s no writing? Are you tempted then to go have a look at the forums?

Joe Abercrombie: You’ve described my standard working day there! Every day is like that in my house. I must admit I spend a lot of time lurking on forums and Googling myself. [Edit: If that’s the case, then hello Joe!] Google Alerts I find very impersonal. There’s something about typing your own name in. It’s something special. I’m like a little boy on Christmas morning waiting to see all the lovely blog reports under the tree!

It’s very addictive, like there’s a lot of people in a room talking about you and you can kind of hear it through the keyhole. It’s very hard not to listen, so I find it virtually impossible.

Naomi Novik: I have to say that I usually find stories about myself really boring. I’d much rather go read a story about Stargate or whatever. But my husband has Google Alert on me. So it’s something really cool, he’ll tell me.

Peter V. Brett: I’m in the [Google Alert] club, I’ll admit it. I’ll come out.

You’re just trying to promote these books any way that you can, so any time a fan would write me a letter I would write this long letter back. Like, “Oh it was so nice of you to write and how’s your dog?” That went on for a while and even now I get fan mail regularly and I try and knock off replies as soon as I can but it’s gotten to be more and more backlogged because I don’t have the kind of time I used to.

Recently I looked at my letters inbox and there were about 200 letters in there and I had to kind of accept that there’s no way I could get back to all of these people. Some people are not going to be gotten back to and they’re going to have to understand that so I put a thing on my website apologizing.

It gets to a point. And I can’t complain that I’m popular enough that that’s happened but I feel bad about it. I want to respond to everybody but I just can’t. I read every review online and I want to respond to those but I resist the urge to do that.

Deborah Harkness: I’m listening to all of this and I’m thinking, “Wow.” Because I have Google Alerts for some of the people I’m sitting with!

Deborah Harkness is the newcomer on this particular panel. Her debut book, A Discovery of Witches comes out from Viking on February 8, 2011. The panel host, Betsy Mitchell, took an aside to let Deborah speak on what’s involved in changing one’s writing style from academic papers to fiction.

Deborah Harkness: Well I’m a history teacher and if you’re a good history teacher and the students are listening then what you’re doing is being a storyteller. I think sometimes we forget the story in the history, bury it under a huge avalanche of facts. Those are the classes you just want to walk out of.

For me, this was a wonderful transition because I got to think about how to tell a story instead of thinking about whether my facts were right all the time. Now with Wikipedia my students sit in lecture and factcheck what I say anyway. It’s been a real pleasure writing a novel and if I’d have known it was this much I would have started 20 years ago. I’ve got some catching up to do.

[A Discovery of Witches centers around the search for a lost alchemical manuscript, so Harkness took some time to elaborate on the narrative of her debut novel and where it comes from on a personal level.]

Deborah Harkness: I’m a historian of alchemy so what I’m always drawing from, my myths, are the alchemical legends. Most people now, thank you J.K. Rowling, know a little something about alchemical myths and they’re a wonderful little set of stories. They’re about life and death and birth and falling in love and getting married and breaking up, but it’s about metal at the same time.

It’s science and it’s fiction. Maybe its the first form of science fiction? So in the book I decided to put a manuscript in a library I knew really well and have a witch discover it. She is trying not to be a witch so she can pass as human. And that’s where the story starts.

With all the talk about finishing debut novels and being distracted by video games, the panel thought it best to start giving the hopeful writers in the room (pretty much everyone) advice on how to stay focused on their writing day after day after day after day…

Joe Abercrombie: Can they give us advice?

Deborah Harkness: Don’t get online! Not until you’ve written something. And it don’t think it’s a thing about how many words you write but just that you have used your words on your writing. I think of my brain as a pitcher and it runs dry so at some point in the day there are no more words in there. So if I spend them on email, Facebook, Twitter…I don’t have any left.

Brandon Sanderson: I get to open a pack of Magic: The Gathering cards for every 1500 words I write. I’m half-joking. Only half.

Actually, really, people ask me this a lot and I don’t know that I’m that terribly productive but I do work a lot compulsively.

I’ve never had to have a real job. I sold a book while I was a grad student and went full time as a writer the year after. It sounds more impressive than it was. I was living in my friend’s basement and had $300 a month rent and could afford to be a full time writer. So, to get motivated to write, I don’t know if this would work for anyone else, I imagine this phantom cubicle chasing me. And if it catches me then I’ll have to become an insurance actuary or something. And that really scares me. I don’t want to do that!

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I picked up my firts fantasy novel, which was Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly. It’s a fantastic book. Ever since then I said, “This is what I need to do. I’m going to be terrible at anything else and if I don’t make it at this I’m going to be a bum on the side of the road. I’m just not good at anything else.”

I then dedicated everything I had to doing that. I wrote 13 novels before I sold one. And they were ALL 200 to 250 thousand words long. And that’s because I really really wanted to do this.

I’ve found that my story is not that unique. There are some writers that, the muse hits them and they write this brilliant first book starting off. For a lot of the rest of us we spend a lot of years working at it. So I guess my piece of advice is you’ve got to want it. You’ve got it want it more than the video games. You’ve got to want it more than the time you want to spend on social media.

I don’t turn off the internet because I want to be writing. I do waste some time. I waste a pretty decent amount of time. But I waste more now that I’m full time at it, than I used to. Back when I only had two or three hours a day to write, that was precious and I wasn’t tempted by any of the other stuff because I wanted to do this!

Joe Abercrombie: There’s a common cliche that a writer is terribly artistic and…the words is paint…and the computer is the canvas. It’s very rarely like that. For me it’s very workmanlike, plotting and…I’m not really selling this, am I?

It’s filling in the blanks, it’s brick-laying, putting the story together block by block. The lesson for me is about chair time. You sit down in it and you do it. Even if you don’t feel like it you grind it out and think it’s rubbish. Then you come back to it and find, oh, well it’s not as bad as you thought. You see something there, you revise it, cut it down, pick bits out and you make it better. It’s a long process of revision, grinding, revision.

It’s not that romantic. It’s sitting in a darkened room grinding.

I supposed that’s the advice. Do it.

Naomi Novik: I’ll actually give a specific piece of practical advice… [Audience laughs even though Naomi didn’t mean it that way, you guys.]

I mean, a specific tool! There’s this tool online called “Write or Die”. It is fantastic. Basically what it does is you put in how much time you’re going to write for or how many words you’re going to get and then a timer starts. And if you stop writing then the screen starts flashing, eventually it starts playing Rick Astley at you…

Joe Abercrombie: I think I had a nightmare exactly like that website.

Peter V. Brett: When I made the decision to really get serious about my writing I set myself a goal of 1000 words a day for seven days. If I got to 7000 words before Monday I could take a day off, but I had to get there. I had to do that every week.

In order to make time to do that, I started writing on the subway. I got one of those little smartphones with a keyboard and word processor and I would shove an old lady out of the way and grab a seat and I would just sit there and put my headphones on and just write with my thumbs. And I’d write about 400 words between my house in Brooklyn and Times Square and about 400 words on my way home.

I’m not saying it was fun, but you have to force yourself to produce on a regular basis or else you don’t get anywhere. If you’re really committed to it, you have to make time for it.

Brandon Sanderson: Most of the writing pros that I know, they write how Joe described it. They write, and if it’s crap, they throw it away and write it again. And if it’s still crap they throw it away and write it again. This is as close to writer’s block as pros get. It’s not sitting in front of the screen and nothing’s coming out. That’s a myth for most people I know.

I’ve found that if you do that enough times, you figure it out. The pros are always writing, they’re just not writing stuff that you’re going to be seeing.

Jim Butcher: I like to regard writer’s block as something imaginary. Not really a terrible threat. I’ve always said that I don’t have a muse, I have a mortgage. That’s the attitude you have to take with it.

The panel was tossed one last subject before the floor was opened to questions, “Who has been an influence on your writing, and who have you read recently that you’d like to give a shout-out to?

Naomi Novik: Patrick O’Brian is a huge huge influence on my writing and Anne McCaffrey. I do want to completely pimp out The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin. Fantastic, fantastic book, and I get to read the sequels!

Peter V. Brett: For me I think it was Terry Brooks. I had read The Hobbit and really liked it and then I just read comic books all the time. My dad kind of got fed up with that and he wanted me to read a real book, so he went to the fantasy section of the bookstore and pretty much picked a book a random, brought it home to me, and just threw it at me with a “read that.” And I did! And it was Wishsong of Shannara. And after that I read everything that Terry Brooks wrote. And when I ran out of his books and I didn’t want to wait I’d just go to the fantasy section and pick books at random and read them.

This summer, I’ve been reading this chump [Joe Abercrombie, seated next to him]. No, actually I’ve read all four of his books this summer and they’re fantastic.

Joe Abercrombie: He’s right, you know.

George R.R. Martin, I’ve got say. I read a lot of fantasy in the ’80s, you know, a lot of straight up commercial things, some Dragonlance, Tolkien as well. I felt that fantasy was getting repetitive in a way, quite familiar, so I got out of the habit. In the ’90s I read A Game of Thrones and it really kind of revolutionized the whole way I thought about fantasy. I think I saw a lot of what I’d subconsciously felt was missing from things I’d read in the past really clearly expressed there. The unpredictability and the realism and grittiness. “Gritty” gets used so often, but the cap fits here.

At the same time, it was very clearly an epic fantasy and commercial so it was an appealing, exciting type of work and made clear that you could do something exciting and interesting within epic fantasy. It made me feel like…I could copy that! Steal that idea and make some money from it!

Peter V. Brett: I think George R.R. Martin made fantasy grow up. He brought a level of reality into the storytelling where you realize the good guys don’t always win and anyone can die, because that’s how life works. Bringing that level of reality into the story I think forced the genre to mature in a lot of ways that it hadn’t prior. Nothing bad could happen to a main character! But now it could and now you really get invested in what could happen to people because you know that this author is an unconscionable bastard and can kill anyone off at any time!

Joe Abercrombie: More of us should be hated and feared by our readers!

Deborah Harkness: I think for me it was Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon and possibly also Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour, which I absolutely adored. I think I liked them both because they had amazing female characters which was a thing I really gravitated towards.

What I’m reading right now is a wonderful collection of fairy tales for grown-ups called, and I hope I get this order right, My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me. It’s got wonderful short treatments of fairy tales from people like Neil Gaiman and Joyce Carol Oates and it’s a really, really interesting collection.

Brandon Sanderson: Robrer Jordan would be the author that influenced me the most, in more than one way! When I read those books I felt that they were transcending a lot of the cliches of fantasy. It took a lot of what Tolkien did but did the method without imitating.

These last few years I’ve had several deadlines that have been tight. Very tight! I haven’t had a lot of time to pick up a lot of books so I’ve been reading Terry Pratchett. My time has been tight so I wanted to pick up something that I knew was going to be awesome. I came to Pratchett late.

I would put in a plug for Dan Wells (I Am Not A Serial Killer and the recent Mr. Monster) but he’s in my writing group so I don’t know if that counts!

And, actually, I’ve been reading a lot of Jim Butcher lately. A fan of his came up to me at a signing and said, “You haven’t read the Codex Alera books? Here is my copy that I’ve read seven times, weathered and beaten, I want you to read it!” And you can’t say no to that so I’ve been reading a lot of Jim.

Jim Butcher: First of all let me say that I question Brandon’s taste.

As for writers that influence me I would say probably C.S. Lewis and Lloyd Alexander. I read those when I was six, and then when I was seven my sisters gave me the box set of the Lord of the Rings, in those primary colors, red, blue, green…yellow? So I kind of did start on Tolkien.

As far as new discoveries…there’s a writer named Harry Connolly, the title of his book is called Child of Fire. It’s really excellent, really well crafted and I loved it. I’m going to have to up my game.

The panel took questions from the audience at this point, many of which focused on building plots and characters alongside each other. Plotting a book out beforehand found a range of approaches form the panel. Peter V. Brett writes outlines that are near 200 pages long, while Naomi Novik prefers to let the characters and story lead the way and has a hard time committing even a couple pages of outline. (Even, as Betsy Mitchell pointed out, when she is promised payment for doing so!)

Brandon Sanderson and Joe Abercrombie both plot out beforehand, with Brandon spending a great deal of time on systems of magic, citing the allomantic system from the Mistborn books and how that combines a rational magic system with the need to have characters with powers that reflect their personalities.

Jim Butcher plots beforehand, as well, and is unsparing of any character that tries to step outside of that.

No questions about the storylines of any of the author’s upcoming books were asked (which was a bit surprising in itself) but plenty of writing advice was doled out. Wondering what to do in the weird flux time between getting an agent and getting your book sold? Write another book! Got your book sold but need to promote it? Make yourself available for anything. (And plugging your own book in a panel certainly doesn’t hurt!)

All in all, it was a really great panel. Lots of time devoted to interesting topics, smart audience questions, and some very funny and easygoing panelists. I cut out a lot of jokes (especially from the masterfully dry Jim Butcher) and other conversational chatter from this panel recap for the sake of some kind of brevity.

I didn’t quite succeed in keeping this short, but hey, that’s fantasy!

Chris Greenland thinks it’s a curious kind of shame that occurs when one Captain America cosplayer meets another, way better, Captain America cosplayer.


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