Sometimes panel titles aren’t really all that helpful. My eyes skipped right over the title “Rulers of the Realm” when I was putting together my San Diego Comic-Con schedule, and only later was it pointed out to me that it was a panel on epic fantasy fiction, featuring Joe Abercrombie (First Law trilogy), Lev Grossman (The Magicians), Diana Gabaldon (Outlander), Patrick Rothfuss (Kingkiller Chronicles), and George R. R. Martin (do I need to tell you?).
Well, that certainly changed up my Saturday schedule a bit. Following on the heels of a packed Skybound Entertainment panel (attended, as far as I could tell, mostly by fans of Norman Reedus), the Rulers of the Realm panel was a lively discussion of fantasy worldbuilding and writing process, moderated by Ali T. Kokmen.
Kokmen led off asking the panel about their approach to worldbuilding in general. Abercrombie, Gabaldon, and Martin talked about working with historical nonfiction—“lots more to steal from,” Gabaldon noted, to which Martin replied, “I work with history too. I just throw out the stuff I don’t like.” Grossman’s take: “You begin with Narnia and then you systematically defile and degrade every part of it. Ka-ching!” Rothfuss (who later described himself as “a really contrary person,” to which Martin replied, very dryly, “We’ve noticed.”) went in a different direction. Once, he said, his roommate came home to find him watching Warlock 3. “His look made the sound all of you just made.” But, Rothfuss contended, he really was working on his novel—“No glowing crystals or bat demons in my book! That is what this movie has taught me. I want that not in my book!” Rothfuss’s point: half of deciding what you want to do is deciding what you don’t want to do.
A question on other parts of the process led to a lively discussion of maps, as well as an incredible moment of Diana Gabaldon talking rapidly through an iterative process of world design and scene setting that begins with a crystal goblet spotted in a Sotheby’s catalog and the image of light from a window passing through the goblet to fall on a table—“fell on the table? sounds like it went thud … it can make a thud if it wants to”—to coalesce in “Jocasta Cameron’s parlor; she has glass windows so the light can come in, I’m not some place with hide over a window, she’s the only person who can afford a goblet like this, and the glass is full of whisky, so that is why the light is amber.”
On maps, Martin pointed out—in a rather knowing and weary tone—that you must be very careful about fantasy maps, because someday your publisher may want a poster, and you will have to fill in the blanks you left before and also discover that details of the map you’ve drawn contradict the things you wrote in the book. He added, “If you want to know where fantasy maps come from, take the map at the front of your favorite fantasy novel, and turn it upside down. Westeros began as upside-down Ireland. You can see the fingers of Dingle. Robin Hobb’s Six Duchies? Upside-down Alaska.”
Rothfuss noted that a writer should ask why they feel compelled to do something like create a map, especially if they don’t particularly care for maps. It’s a fantasy convention, of course, but it’s a convention because Tolkien did it—but he did it in The Hobbit because it was part of the story. Similarly, he went on, fantasy writers feel that they need to invent languages, again because of the Tolkien influence. “But Tolkien didn’t do it for tradition; he did it because he was a language geek! […] If you’re a geek for something, and if that’s herbology, or the nature of the night sky, or plate tectonics, revel in your geekery, roll around in it, and make that a part of your world.” But if you do something because you feel like you’re supposed to, “I don’t really feel like that’s the best way to enjoy yourself and make a vibrant world.”
The discussion then turned to questions of audiences and beta-readers. Gabaldon spoke warmly of her husband’s eye for identifying the flaws in a scene, and how she trusted him for honest feedback in the face of questions like, “Operating in the grip of testosterone, what would this person do? Because it’s clearly not what a sane person would do.” Rothfuss talked about the benefits of getting as many beta readers as possible, so that the odds of a specialist in some obscure field catching an error is much higher. “I’m not offering this as advice; it’s confessional thing,” he said, though Grossman admitted to using about 25 beta readers “and I do that because I read about it on Pat’s blog.” Of audiences, Martin argued that one should always write for oneself first; that writers who spend years running from one trend to the next keep switching dramas instead of writing the stories they really want to write.
Asked for reading recommendations, Abercrombie mentioned Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation—“excellent for lovers of fungi.” Grossman praised Kate Atkinson and David Shafer, and Gabaldon recommended Phil Rickman’s crime novels and Christopher Brookmyer’s Pandemonium. Martin advocated that anyone not up on their classic fantasy should “repair your education” with Robert Howard, Tolkien, Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser books, and Jack Vance; he also suggested George MacDonald’s Flashman books and Thomas B. Costain’s historical fiction. Rothfuss weighed in for Tim Powers and also Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, “which should be named The Adventures of Pa Ingalls, Pioneer Badass.”
At this point the panel was opened up for audience questions. The first: what’s the toughest thing to get through when you’re writing a novel? “Inertia,” said Gabaldon. “The longer you go without writing, the harder it is to start again.” “That long period between the first sentence and the last,” Abercrombie said.
Next, a question about “your understanding of love, and how do you explore the unhealthy and healthy relationships in your books.” Rothfuss: “Make a lot of mistakes in your life. The earlier you make them, the more useful they will be and the more forgivable from your peers—and the police.” “Don’t just write, do crazy stuff, get your heart broken a couple of times—that’s bad advice, don’t listen to it.” Grossman described fantasy writing as “raw,” the writing of it involving “sides of yourself that aren’t your favorite … you can’t lie in fantasy, because everyone will know.” Gabaldon agreed that honesty is the key to a successful life—as is marrying the right person. Abercrombie said he’d gotten two great pieces of writing advice: one from his mother, “be honest, be truthful”; “the other one, which I try to live by is, every morning, get dressed. It can be a problem for writers.” Martin protested “I wrote many of my best works in a red flannel bathrobe!” “That counts!” Abercrombie assured him.
The panel closed with a question for Martin, and steps he took to counter his own inherent biases. “The world is a complex place, of course, and some of these issues are extremely complex issues,” he said. “One way I tackle that is by having a cast of thousands in which people people can have differing opinions on these issues.” On the matter of biases: “The biases that I think will bite you in the ass most easily are the ones you don’t even think about. Where you’re just writing something and you don’t even notice it’s a bias because it’s so ingrained in your culture and yourself in ways that you don’t even stop and question it. […] You do need to be conscious when you’re called on something, and examine whether some unconscious or subconscious bias was at work there, be open to that kind of criticism.”
What the rest of the panel thought of these questions we unfortunately won’t know, at least not today. As often seems to happen, the clock ran out right when the discussion was really getting good. The panel overall tended toward digressiveness, but it was funny, informative, and eminently quotable.
Karin Kross is at her sixth San Diego Comic-Con. She can be found elsewhere on Tumblr and Twitter, and she, her husband Bruce, and her friends Shellie and John are posting about SDCC at nerdpromnomnom.