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October 19, 2011

NYCC: Fantasy – Straight from the Authors’ Mouth

Posted by on Oct 19, 2011

Wading through the sea of booths, books, and colorfully dressed and smelling people is one of the main battles of attending a Comic Con.  Waiting in lines, telling your legs that they have to continue standing for the next 87 hours, and finding time to eat before your stomach lining turns on itself can prevent us from finding quality time to check out stuff in our personal realms of interest.  Luckily, I emerged victorious against these foes as I snuck my way into a tightly packed panel entitled Winter is Here: Epic Fantasy Takes the Throne, to hear from a group of fantasy authors that included one of my personal favorites: Brandon Sanderson.

Minus the periodic comments by the moderator (who felt the need to respond to a few of the questions himself), this panel was quite informative.  Not only were all of the authors very forthcoming in their responses, but the variety of their own works provided a large spectrum of answers and reflections.  Before I hit on a few specific points that I found very interesting, here is a list of the authors who were present and their most popular works:

Renowned Authors:
Brandon Sanderson – Mistborn trilogy, Wheel of Time, Way of Kings
Peter Brett – The Warded Man
Phillipa Ballantine – The Geist

Up-and-Coming Authors:
Rae Carson – Fire and Thorns Trilogy
David Chandler – Monster Trilogy and Vampire Series (Published as David Wellington)
Nils Johnson-Shelton – Otherworld Chronicles

The Danger of Spiraling Out of Control

2011 Panel - Winter is Here. From L to R: Sanderson, Chandler, Brett, Johnson-Shelton, Carson, Ballantrine and moderator

The title of this panel was interesting because no one on the panel had anything to do with A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF for short) or HBO’s Game of Thrones. One of the audience questions pertained to a worry that many people have with GRRM’s series (as well as with The Wheel of Time): they get too large for their own good and spiral out of control.  With two books left in ASOIAF, and the last book coming out next year in The Wheel of Time, readers are nervous that these books will take the route of LOST – and end up with too many questions and characters to adequately answer and take care of .  And it’s a legitimate concern.

Since he is writing the conclusion to Robert Jordan’s series, Sanderson spent some time looking at how and why this generally occurs.  He claimed that for the most part, series get too big for their own good because of too many side characters.  This became a real issue in The Wheel of Time, specifically  in book # 10 (of 14), where even Jordan himself mentioned that he wished he had done it differently.  There were simply too many characters and too many story lines to keep up with, so the book covered all of them without reaching a climax for any, which meant for an incredibly long drag of a book.

Peter Brett (after hearing him speak, I’m excited to read The Warded Man) mentioned how side characters, while dangerous in preventing plot maelstroms, are oftentimes a great and necessary break of pace.  These characters allow the readers to jump to different points of view, and it cures any monotony that may occur from seeing the same main character chapter after chapter. It’s also a break for the author, who often find they can explore more in a new character than they can in the one who’s been around for a while. Brett noted that all of that is fine as long as it is done in moderation.

While I have yet to read any of her books (and I’m not quite sure that her style is up my alley), Ballantine made a resounding George R. R. Martin-esque comment:  She reflected that, as an author, keeping a high number of characters, with their own full set of opinions, thoughts, and actions, can be quite difficult… but if it’s gets too hard, you can just kill them.  *chuckles to self*  I approve.

Static Worlds

Referring to Sanderson’s new book, The Alloy of Law, the moderator noted that fantasy books often seem to be stuck in time, without a real sense that the world is changing. Sanderson mentioned how in fantasy writing, corners are often cut.  One of the most common cut corners is making the world static – or in other words, the world is exactly the same as it was 10,000 years ago.  This is simply not realistic.  Worlds change – their technology, culture, religion, and general everyday lifestyles shift, mold, and progress with time.  In The Alloy of Law, a new novel set in the Mistborn world, Sanderson runs with the idea that his world is NOT static.  It takes place in the same world but hundreds of years down the road, the magic system is the same but the society has evolved – and so the world we see is vastly different from what we remember, but still operates with the same rules.

Sanderson is the man - follow him at @BrandSanderson

He also mentioned the idea he has for a new novel further down the road – where a system of magic (most likely Allomancy, from Mistborn) is used in conjunction with science to advance technological advancements.  Specifically, he mentioned that in blending the two, people finally acquire FTL (Faster Than Light) travel because Allomancy allows them to bend the rules of physics.  A novel that combined the  two genres in this way sounds fascinating – and if he gets around to it between The Wheel of Time and The Way of Kings, I think it will be a big hit.

Epic Endings that are Actually Epic

How often do epic fantasy endings seem inadequate? By nature these worlds get so built up and so large and diverse that  the scope of the conclusion is rarely as epic as it needs to be. So how do you give an epic fantasy tale the ending it deserves? There weren’t too many answers to this problem –  though in their defense, none of the panel authors have published entire series that were so wildly epic that ending them became… problematic. At least not yet. Is it possible that this question was directed at the author of A Memory of Light?  Hmm…

Sanderson reacted well, stating that the ending of The Wheel of Time – large fully written portions of which were left by Jordan before he passed, along with copious notes – actually wraps up the story quite well.  He did acknowledge the challenges he faces in this mighty task, but he expressed pure confidence that the epic nature of the story would continue on through the ending. We can only hope.

David Chandler, who has written many horror books published under the name David Wellington, is in the process of writing a 6 book fantasy series.  He turned to a mathematical approach, stating that if you multiply the number of pages in a series by the number of books, you’ll get an approximation of how difficult writing the ending will be. (I hope he’s not right, ’cause if he is, Sanderson is screwed). He, as well as Ballantine and Rae Carson, said that working backwards from the ending and knowing where you are going is essential to avoiding this problem.  If you know exactly how it will end, you reduce the risk of having your work become too epic to finish.

Chandler also mentioned that he loves to have books that end at the last sentence of the last chapter – they don’t need an epilogue, a twenty years later follow up, or ‘they lived happily ever after.’  His ideal book ends where the last sentence changes everything you had grown to think about over the course of the book, and then “you scream and throw it against the wall.”  While I have been guilty of throwing GRRM’s books against the wall (three separate times – thanks for that George), I do know that while I initially hate being “screwed-with” as a reader, I tend to enjoy it much more in the long run, and have more respect for the work and the writer. Chandler is now on my radar.

Further Fantasy Recommendations

To conclude this not-so-brief recap, each author was asked to recommend books or authors that they personally enjoyed, were inspired by, or both.  They all agreed upon Patrick Ruthfuss and Joe Abercrombie.  But their individual tastes were a tad more divergent:

BallantineCJ Cherryh
CarsonDavid Eddings and Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy
Johnson-Shelton – David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas
BrettCS Friedman‘s Coldfire Trilogy and Mark Laurence’s Prince of Thorns
ChandlerFritz Leiber
SandersonGuy Gavriel Kay (who helped edit The Silmarillion) and Melanie Rawn