4 Things Patrick Rothfuss Can Teach Writers

A couple days ago, I watched a panel from SDCC of eight widely respected fantasy authors.  As they were introduced, I quickly went to GoodReads and marked every book I could find “To-Read”.  Brent Weeks, Robin Hobb, Patrick Rothfuss—  Wait.  I had already read Rothfuss.  Never mind.  Sam Sykes, Joe Abercrombie, Django Wexler…

But the panel didn’t only contribute to my to-read pile.  Listening, I found out a few things about the one author I knew on the panel.  Since his books were already on my list, I hereby give him this post instead: four things Patrick Rothfuss can teach writers.  I hope you enjoy it.

Thing 1:  An unplanned novel does not mean a bad novel.

I fell into this trap of thinking a little while ago, after editing my fourth novel in a rush and sending it off to agents.  It was a mess, before and after editing.  I had pantsed it, loving every second of its unpredictable creation, all the while forcibly keeping from my mind the idea that I’d soon have to edit it.  Once I did begin editing it, I found out how weirdly my creation had turned out.  It took a lot of work to get to a slightly less horrible state of being, but I didn’t enjoy the process.  I cut 60k words of unnecessary stuff out of that novel (and that may have been a mistake as well).  I decided that if unplanned novels turned out this badly, I would plan from now on.

The trap was enforced by my next novel being planned and executed beautifully.  I’m editing that now, and while it isn’t perfect, it’s a whole lot better than the novel before.  Yes indeed, plotting was the way to go.

But no.  With or without a plan, a novel is a novel.  It goes through the same general steps to becoming published as any other novel.  An unplanned novel, while not as pretty out of the box as a planned novel, is not inferior.  It just takes more time after the first draft.  More care.  It’s like a garden— some people really enjoy watching things grow, while others just use a grocery store.  It depends on the person.  Neither plotting or pantsing is right or wrong.  Any novel can become a good novel.

Thing 2: It takes a long time to get anything right.

This goes hand in hand with Thing 1.  You can plot it or you can pants it— it’s up to you.  The real question is where you want to take the time.  Plotters take time before and during the first draft, making editing a quick and easy business.  (As easy as editing ever will be.)  Pantsers choose to frolic through the first draft, often quite quickly and painlessly.  That makes editing a lot longer and harder, but sometimes it’s worth it.  (Especially if you can’t write from an outline reliably.)  And this advice goes for anything.  I’m pretty sure it took Rothfuss a very long time to get that beard as impressive as it is.

And the reason I give both Thing 1 and Thing 2 is because Rothfuss said, almost straight out, that he didn’t plan stories ahead of time.  Judging by the way The Name of the Wind read, I doubt he planned that— but he worked long enough on it that its eccentricities are marked as interpretations or poeticisms, not as mistakes.

Thing 3: Poets are not born.

Again, this is a Thing 2 thing.  Rothfuss, while not the most poetic of any writer ever, is nevertheless very poetic.  He writes smoothly, raising and lowering his level of poetry for what the story demands.  It’s far from incomprehensible in its poetry, but it isn’t as utilitarian as it could be.  Rothfuss takes the time to make his prose poetic enough to add to the story, instead of forcing the story to carry all its own weight.

Does this say what Thing 3 says?  I think it does.  I don’t believe Rothfuss was born with a golden pen in his hand, spreading flowery words wherever he went.  I believe there was a time when his prose was as bland as mine.  But practice has made him better.  You can see it on the panel— he speaks, off the cuff, with some pretty cool imagery, stuff that I wouldn’t have considered.  Poetry is abstract, yes; it’s impossible to nail down with any sort of formula, yes; but it’s something you can practice, and by practicing it, make better.  Poetry is a skill.

Thing 4: The bigger the beard, the slower the writing.

Yes, I just went through three whole Things to say that slower is better… and then I say this.  But it’s obvious what I mean, isn’t it?  All writers who want to be good should grow enormous beards!  …Okay, I’m kidding.  (Don’t take this Thing seriously.  Anyone can be good.)  Honestly, though, hasn’t it been long enough?  Sure, you’re getting all the poetry and plot just perfect for the final book of your trilogy; sure, you’re having fun going to Comic Con and playing with your son and holding Rothfaux contests on Twitter; but please!  Finish the book.  That’s all.

Rothfuss is amazing.  I learned a lot from The Name of the Wind, and had a lot of fun reading it.  Sure, he takes his time, but I’ll read whatever he puts out, whenever he puts it out.  In the meantime, I have Brandon Sanderson to keep me supplied.  (And myself.  I will keep myself supplied as well.)  I thoroughly enjoyed the SDCC panel as well.  If you’ve read The Name of the Wind, what did you think?  (I haven’t read Wise Man’s Fear yet, so no spoilers, but I’d love to hear general opinions.)  If you haven’t read the book, or listened to the panel, do so.  I felt it was worth it for me.


19 thoughts on “4 Things Patrick Rothfuss Can Teach Writers

    1. I never said that only bearded writers are good. I just said the larger the beard, the better the writing. For those of us who want to gain skills through hard work rather than facial hair, I think that’s an important distinction.

      Thank you. When he writes something shorter, you should try that.

  1. Yup! The trick with unplanned novels is to remember that they’re only going to be improved with editing and that just because it wasn’t at all good on the first pass doesn’t mean it can’t be good in the future and that you should write a new novel instead—or worse, rewrite the novel from scratch instead of editing. (My entire writing history, summed up in one slightly run-on sentence. I hope you can actually read it, because my brain just went to sleep and can’t figure out how to make that sentence more legible.)

    Ha! I’m not growing a beard, sorry.

    I’ve read both Name of the Wind and Wise Man’s Fear, but I honestly only remember three things. First, the way he got away with both first-person and third-person story telling was really cool. Second, his magic system was intriguing. Third, there were scenes in the second book that were not necessary. But that’s it. (I honestly don’t even remember the main character’s name.)

    Anyhow, good post!

    1. I haven’t read Wise Man’s Fear yet, but I’m looking forward to it. (Kvothe is the main character.) I still remember Name of the Wind, considering I only read it five months ago.

      1. Ahhh, that’s right. I remember now. Hehe, well, if you didn’t remember it after that long, I’d be worried. It’s been about two or three years since I’ve read it. Maybe even longer.

  2. Gah, I have been meaning to read Rothfuss’ books for a long time. I am ashamed to say that the only reason I have not yet read them is because of their size. *hides in embarrassment*

    Did you know that Rothfuss lived and went to college in my hometown for a while? He’s kind of viewed as a god among the reading/writing nerds here, which makes me all the more guilty that I have yet to read his books…

    1. They are formidable, I grant you. When you get enough time (I’d suggest a vacation), give it a try. You’ll be fine as long as you don’t try to rush through it. It’s a good story, but you have to let him take his time. As with… just about everything else.

      Wow. You have a claim to fame— now read his books.

      1. Yeah, I’m behind on my reading challenge, so I’ve been trying to avoid the big books that are going to take me forever to read. However, I may be willing to just ignore the challenge and read his books purely because they sound awesome and I’ve only heard good things about them.

  3. I’ve started reading this post about four times. Seriously. It’s bad, I know.

    But four tries for four things…

    Unfortunately, when you said, “And the reason I give both Thing 1 and Thing 2…” I got this little mental image of, well, Dr. Seuss’ Thing 1 and Thing 2. Sorry. But on a more important note, these are very good things to keep in mind. With…the exception of number 4. I, certainly, have been caught in that annoying trap of “Oh, pantsing made this a mess, so I’m sure plotting will be better.” “Oh, plotting was horrible, so now it’s back to pantsing.” Hopefully I’ve learned better now. I think it also just depends on the book.

    I’ve never even heard of Patrick Rothfuss before now, but this is probably because I never read fantasy anything, basically, until last year. (I’m assuming he writes fantasy.)

    1. Amanda, I had the exact same image. I was just going to comment on the fact that I never knew Doctor Seuss had written a sequel, when I remembered he did write a sequel… but it didn’t have Thing 3 and Thing 4 in it.

    2. Indeed. I apologize if it’s difficult to get into. I’ll work on my introductions.

      Indeed. My apologies for that unnecessary reference.

      Well, yes, he does. Rather large fantasy. I don’t fault you for not hearing of him before this. He doesn’t publish books that often.

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