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.