The second epic fantasy book panel Lytherus attended at San Diego Comic Con this year was titled Rulers of the Realm. This was the panel for fantasy book fandoms, to be sure! The all-star lineup consisted of Joe Abercrombie (Half a King), Lev Grossman (Magicians Trilogy), Diana Gabaldon (Outlander), George R. R. Martin (Game of Thrones), and Patrick Rothfuss (The Kingkiller Chronicle). The MC was Ali T. Kokman of Barnes & Noble, and he was a lively host to this lively panel.
Ali started out talking about how every story needs characters and setting. However, these panelists up the ante with theirs. He wanted to know: what’s their approach to world-building? Joe kicked it off, saying his approach is similar to others: he makes stuff up. He suggested you do a lot of “research”, as in read stuff. He likes a lot of historical non-fiction to provide authenticity. Diana decided to write historical fiction because she’s a historical researcher. There’s lots more to steal with real history (this got a good laugh). George said he does the same, and just throws out what he doesn’t want. Lev starts with normal and then defiles and degrades every part (ha!). Pat added to these ideas, saying that he’s written things he thought he made up and then fans send links asking if those comparisons were deliberate. “I’m clever, I take credit for accidents” (lots of laughing with this one!). He also is a huge advocate for writing what you know, and that half of deciding what to do is deciding what not to do; basically his reaction to what pisses him off is his book.
For the second question Ali wanted to know what, aside from movies, assists with writing. Joe said maps are good. George added that writers need to be careful however, because then you need to fill them in. And don’t even get him started on the world map. Lots of chuckles were had as he regaled the audience with his personal story regarding this, and how he had the hardest time naming mountains. Pat likes special paper and colored pencils. He also asks lots of questions. Lev got a lot of laughs when he said has a passive-aggressive relationship with maps, as his wife’s ex-boyfriend creates them. Diana took a different approach, saying that she needs a kernel: an idea, a sentence, and her process is to develop off of that. She then describes how she got a scene in one of her books and describes the thistle goblet and cold winter afternoon (it was amazing to see her train of thought and how one led right to the next). George brought it back to maps, talking about Tolkien’s maps, how we get this detailed map of the Shire, and then once they leave you realize just how small it really is. Tolkien pulled the rug out, in a sense.
At this point Pat brought up an interesting thought. He said the main question you should be asking yourself is why am I doing a map? You should think about what purpose it serves. Tolkien did languages, for example, because he was a huge language guy.Everyone is a geek for something, you should revel in your geekery because that’s what will be the most interesting. Pat then provided his personal example of geekery: currency. It’s really prevalent in his books, because he’s really interested in it.
The next question was about writing. Ali wanted to know who is their first reader? Diana said she writes for herself, so technically she’s her first reader, but her husband of 42 years will read, as she trusts him. She said it’s good to have a first reader you trust, but make sure you know what you trust them for. Joe echoed this, also saying he writes for himself, and if the people like it, awesome. He said you should cover your own interests; as soon as you write “out”, you’re doomed. Lev said his wife reads for him, she’s way smarter than he is. But he said also he writes for himself, he’s an asshole and will be tough on himself. He’s a grumpy reader, so he’s tough. George added to the general idea, saying he’s known writers writing the trends vs. the stories they lose themselves in, and it doesn’t work. And Pat’s right, you need to write your obsessions. George loves heraldry and food. Pat added that you hope your interests will catch on. He then said his first reader situation is really different than most. He had 2-300 beta readers for his first book. It’s good to have smart people read your book over writers, but he wants general people. Other people know lots of things about everything else beyond writing. It’s part of his therapy (ha!), he’s obsessive about getting feedback. Joe said he couldn’t do more than two readers at a time. The current book had four editors and that was a lot for him. But Lev said that he has around twenty-five beta readers because of reading about Pat’s way of doing things on his blog. Diana said you should always ask the experts. For example, if you cut a leg off, find out how to amputate a leg, etc.
For the last question Ali asked them what’s the toughest thing with writing? Diana said inertia. The longer you wait, the harder to get back into it. When stuck, write anyway. Joe said with a laugh that with the first and last sentence he’s awesome. Otherwise he thinks he sucks. But he said don’t get down on yourself.
There were some great audience questions, but one of them referenced Jane Austin and wanted to know their understanding of love and how they explore healthy and unhealthy relationships. Pat got a lot of laughs when he said that he’s explored a lot of unhealthy relationships. He said to make a lot of mistakes early on, as we learn through failure. Without mistakes we don’t have motivation to evolve, so get out there and do crazy stuff. Lev said you can’t hold back, that fantasy is raw. Be very honest, which can be painful. Diana said Lev’s dead right, honesty is important. So is picking the right person (ha!).
One of the best things about this panel was the authors all listed books they’ve really enjoyed recently. Here’s the list:
Joe: Annihilation, by Jeff Vandermeer.
Lev: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by David Shafer
Diana: Phil Rickman’s crime novels, Pandaemonium by Chris Brookmyre
George: Classic fantasy like Jack Vance, Tolkien, and straight historical fiction like George MacDonald Fraser
Pat: Declare by Tim Powers
Lots of great info to chew on from this panel, especially if you’re a writer. These are some of the best, and it was great to hear what they had to say about their craft and the worlds they create. And be sure to check out some of their book recommendations!