Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Few genres have found their markets over the past couple of decades as successfully as fantasy. Once marketed to a niche, stereotypical idea of teen boys, the genre has exploded across the publishing, TV, and movie industries and, in the world of fiction at least, one of the brightest rising stars has been American author Patrick Rothfuss.
Known principally for his epic fantasy series The Kingkiller Chronicle (currently composed of two chunky novels – The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear), Rothfuss has won both the Quill Award and the Alex Award, and his novels have been extraordinarily popular, with their unique brand of cold, informed, almost pedestrian low fantasy taking the genre in bold new directions.
But success didn’t come easy to Rothfuss. It took him fifteen years to finish The Name of the Wind, and in that time he learned some hard lessons about writing and getting published. Thankfully, he’s been vocal on the subject, and so today we’ll be distilling his words down into actionable advice, beginning with…
1. Live to write
This one sounds obvious, but it’s worth spelling out, especially to young writers – if you don’t have a lifestyle that supports your desire to write, you won’t be able to write. Or, like Toni Morrison, maybe you’ll find a way, but you’re going to need to exercise some serious willpower and possibly sacrifice your health and wellbeing.
Want to live in New York City so you can mingle with the literati but don’t have an obscenely well-paying job/suspicious gold reserves/a fat trust fund that’ll cover the astronomical cost of rent? Well, bad news – turns out you’re going to have to work three jobs just to make ends meet, which means you’ll have no time for either mingling or, more importantly, for writing. Darn – there goes the novel.
For fourteen years, up until 2005, Rothfuss never paid more than $225 per month for rent. Now, admittedly, these were different, pre-financial crash times, but still – $225 is not a lot of money. The trade-off was that, instead of living in cool, literary cities, Rothfuss lived in small towns in Wisconsin. Instead of living in nice apartments, he lived in grim hovels barely fit for habitation (one was nicknamed ‘The Pit’ by his friends). Now, if that sounds bad, it probably was – but it meant Rothfuss didn’t have to work as much, which meant he had time to do what was important to him: write. Turns out you can do that anywhere, even in horrible apartments.
Was the place a shithole? Absolutely. Was it inconvenient not having a phone? Of course. Hell, at one point my parents took out a classified ad in the college newspaper because they had no other way to get in touch with me.
But I had time to write.– Patrick Rothfuss, ‘Fanmail Q & A: Advice For New Writers’, Patrick Rothfuss Blog
These are choices all of us who aren’t obscenely wealthy have to make if we want to invest in our work. I mentioned Toni Morrison earlier because, as a single parent, she famously woke up at 4AM each morning and wrote until her kids woke up, after which she’d make them breakfast and take them to school before going to work. She then wrote Beloved and became the first black woman ever to win a Nobel Prize in Literature. Not bad.
Extreme examples, perhaps, but they prove the point: if you want to be a writer, writing has to be more than a hobby. You need to build it into your life, and that might mean making sacrifices in other areas. Remember: nobody beats the triangle.
2. Don’t get overexcited
Offering writing advice on his blog, Rothfuss speaks about a subject dear to my heart: authorial restraint. Discussing pitfalls new writers of fantasy often stumble into, Rothfuss points an accusing finger at information dumps – that is, excessive information and exposition that often comes at a novel’s beginning.
These can occur in all kinds of fiction but are especially common in fantasy as the writer has a whole new world to describe; one filled with novel people, cultures, creatures, myths, societies, conflicts, flora, fauna, etc. Excited by their creations and not wanting readers to feel confused, writers dive into overwhelmingly encyclopedic explanations that cripple pacing, drown story, and get real dull real fast. As an example, Rothfuss takes aim at Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, infamous for its ash-dry prologue. Here’s a thrilling excerpt:
The Harfoots had much to do with Dwarves in ancient times, and long lived in the foothills of the mountains. They moved westward early, and roamed over Eriador as far as Weathertop while the others were still in the Wilderland. They were the most normal and representative variety of Hobbit, and by far the most numerous. They were the most inclined to settle in one place, and longest preserved their ancestral habit of living in tunnels and holes.– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
This, in case you couldn’t tell, is some vital pre-plot information that is absolutely necessary to enjoy and appreciate The Fellowship of the Ring. It’s a paragraph about one of three historical breeds of hobbits, which itself comes after a more general introduction replete with references and before another twenty-something pages of yet more riveting background information. Ahem.
This is perhaps an extreme form of the kind of thing Rothfuss is warning against; contemporary writers are more likely to try to slip in a couple of pages about a particular fantasy city when they should be revealing that information gradually over the course of a plot-driven chapter, but darn it if Tolkien isn’t an easy target when it comes to information dumps.
So: take a breath. Slow down. Your reader doesn’t need to know as much as you think they do, and certainly not now, at the very beginning of your chapter – don’t be afraid to release information slowly as your plot progresses. Let your reader piece it together as they go.
Of course, there’s no right answer to exactly how much information you should be including in your fiction, particularly early on, when everything is new, but I tend to agree with Rothfuss when he says his ‘personal philosophy is to err on the side of caution.’
3. Be aware of the limits of your own experience
In a recent and predictably controversial post on the uses of sensitivity readers, I covered how writing characters who seem real, authentic, and therefore believable can be challenging if said character is someone totally different from you in terms of gender, background, or, as in the case of fantasy and sci-fi, just about everything. There’s certainly no shortage of male writers prone to writing female characters who’re all breast and no actual person, just as there are plenty of female writers who produce rather drab, unconvincing male characters. Likewise, one of the great challenges faced by grown-up YA writers is getting into the heads of teenagers. This kind of transference is not easy.
Rothfuss, never one to jerk knees, recognizes his own background and the limitations that come with it. He talks about how he struggled to make Denna – a major character in The Kingkiller Chronicle and the detached, moody love interest to Kvothe, the protagonist – as engaging, interesting, and likable as he’d envisioned:
Denna has always been the hardest character to bring into this book. Part of that is because I started writing it in ’94 when I was, like, a 20-year-old straight white boy. To say that I didn’t understand women is a vast understatement – and also implies that I understand what it’s like to exist as a woman now, which is also not the case. The other part is that, narratively, she’s the one thing that Kvothe can’t opine on in an objective way. It’s so hard. I’ve made mistakes all over, but if I have a genuine failure in this book, it’s my lack of ability to do with Denna as much as I wish I could have.– Patrick Rothfuss, ‘WIRED Book Club: How Patrick Rothfuss Saved a ‘Hot Mess’ of a Book’, Wired
Rothfuss is able to walk the line with Denna because she’s seen through the eyes of Kvothe, who, as Rothfuss points out, is unable to see her ‘in an objective way.’ But the trade-off is that we get a sometimes warped, uncomfortable-feeling character – a woman who, if she was the main protagonist, might fall flat.
There’s no easy way to get into another person’s head but, beyond careful empathizing, writers shouldn’t be afraid to talk to people as part of their research. Characters need researching too, and if you’re able to sit down with a bunch of people, whether they be beta readers who’ll directly respond to your characters or just people with different viewpoints, you’ll be sure to learn something. Hearing people talk about their own experience of the world can be eye-opening and, if you’re writing fiction, your characters are sure to benefit.
4. Establish internal logic
Even the wildest fantasy and sci-fi novels will, if they’re worth their salt, operate according to internal logic. By this, I mean a framework of deep-rooted rules that has been implicitly established, letting the reader know what is possible and what isn’t in the context of the narrative. The internal logic doesn’t itself need to have any bearing on real-world logic – indeed, it could be wild, just so long as it’s consistent.
In Wilson Harris’ Palace of the Peacock, for example, the internal logic actively fights real-world logic. The novel dares you to expect some level of rationality and, when you unconsciously do, it punishes you for your adorable naivety by having characters who drowned in a previous chapter appear again, no worse for wear. Readers, it’s really good.
In Rothfuss’ novels, the magic system, ‘sympathy,’ is pretty much an exact science. Rothfuss lays out the components of sympathy early on, meaning his characters’ tools are plain to see. A combination of ‘Renaissance concepts of Hermetic magic’ and ‘alchemy,’ the stuff ‘Newton used to do back in the day,’ sympathy makes its limits clear to the reader, which in turn solidifies (and on some level rationalizes) the story’s world. Regarding sympathy, Rothfuss says:
Once I explain that framework to you, if my characters are clever using the framework, then you can appreciate their cleverness at a different depth, and it’s very satisfying. You cannot get that same satisfaction in a world that does not have a cohesive, understandable, and explicit system.– Patrick Rothfuss, ‘WIRED Book Club: How Patrick Rothfuss Saved a ‘Hot Mess’ of a Book’, Wired
The fact that the reader can see what Rothfuss’ characters are doing with sympathy richens and deepens the world’s mechanics and, in turn, makes cheap twists and deus ex machina moments unnecessary. The reader won’t have any trouble swallowing unlikely escapes or miraculous intervention because the logic of the story’s world is so clearly presented.
Slowly regarding silent things
Rothfuss’ advice is satisfying because it covers so many different aspects of being a writer – he has thoughtful things to say about how to live a life that allows you to write, how to actually write well, how to think about and frame your characters, and how to craft an authentic world.
So, while you’re waiting for the next installment of The Kingkiller Chronicle, take Rothfuss’ advice for a test drive. Do let us know how you get on!
Which is your favorite of Patrick Rothfuss’ books? What lessons did you personally glean from his work? Let me know in the comments, and check out 6 Ways Margaret Atwood Can Help You Improve Your Writing and 6 Ways Terry Pratchett Can Help You Improve Your Writing.