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2012-04-30: I had the great pleasure of speaking with Harriet McDougal Rigney about her life. She's an amazing talent and person and it will take you less than an hour to agree.
2012-04-24: Some thoughts I had during JordanCon4 and the upcoming conclusion of "The Wheel of Time."
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People have been asking me to expand on that essay, though it was written (originally) to be part of a series I did on writing The Way of Kings. I never had the time, however, and that was the only one that was fleshed out, so my assistant suggested it might be a good fit for a Scalzi guest blog. However, I do worry that some of the ideas are unformed, as it was written to come after several other essays I was planning.
The short answer to your first comment is a yes, you are right. The realization I came to while working on The Way of Kings was that I was so accustomed to writing self-aware fantasy in the Mistborn books that I was searching to do the same with Kings. While anyone can enjoy Mistborn (I hope) it works best as a series for those who are familiar with (and expecting) tropes of epic fantasy to come their direction. That allows me to play with conventions and use reader expectations in a delightful way. But it also means that if you don't know those conventions, the story loses a little of its impact.
But this is an interesting discussion as to the larger form of a novel. Is it okay, in an epic fantasy, to hang a gun on the mantle, then not fire it until book ten of the series written fifteen years later? Will people wait that long? Will it even be meaningful? My general instincts as a writer so far have been to make sure those guns are there, but to obscure them—or at least downplay them. People say this is so that I can be more surprising. But it's partially so that those weapons are there when I need them.
It often seems to me that so much in a book is about effective foreshadowing. This deserves more attention than we give it credit. When readers have problems with characters being inconsistent, you could say this is a foreshadowing problem—the changes, or potential for change, within the character has not been presented in the right way. When you have a deus ex machina ending, you could argue that the problem was not in the ending, but the lack of proper framework at the start. Some of the biggest problems in books that are otherwise technically sound come from the lack of proper groundwork.
In the case you mentioned, however, I think I would have cut the creature. Because you said it was slowing things down. There's an old rule of thumb in screenwriting that I've heard expressed in several ways, and think it works well applied to fiction. Don't save your best storytelling for the sequel. If your best storytelling isn't up front, you won't get a sequel. Of course, once you're done, you do need to come up with something as good or better for the sequel, otherwise it might not be worth writing.
For The Way of Kings, I've had to walk a very careful balance. I do have ten books planned, but I had to make sure I was putting my best foot forward for the first book. I had to hang guns for the later novels, but not make this story about them—otherwise readers would be unsatisfied to only get part of a story.
Question for you, then, Brent. Have you ever planned out a story to be a certain length, then ended up deciding there just wasn't enough there to justify it? I had trouble learning this balance as a younger writer, and some of my readers know that I wrote two failed books (one called Mistborn, the other called The Final Empire) in which neither one had enough material to form a novel. It wasn't until I combined the ideas and story together and wrote Mistborn: The Final Empire that everything worked.
During the era when I was trying to find my voice and find out what I was going to do as a writer, I felt that Robert Jordan had really captured the story of the hero's journey, the monomyth type epic fantasy, and done it about as well as it could be done. And so I started to look for things that I could add. This was very good for me to be doing, to be spending this time thinking about, not just retreading what had gone before, but really doing what some of the greats in the past had done.
One of the reasons I love the Wheel of Time is because I felt that when it came out, it best blended what was familiar about fantasy with a lot of new concepts. A lot of the books that were coming out were using the old familiar tropes: elves, even if they called them a different name, and dwarves, and even dragons, and these sorts of things. And then you came along to the Wheel of Time, which didn't use any of those things, or if it did, it twisted them completely on their head. No one knew what a dragon was, and a dragon was a person. And you know, the magic system having a logical approach to it rather than just being something that happened. And he really took the genre in a different direction. And I said, I have to do something like this. Not that I ever wanted to, or intend to, or think that I could be revolutionary in the genre in the way he was, but I wanted to add something. I wanted to take a step forward rather than taking the same steps that people had taken.
And so I began to ask myself what hadn't been done. And so you end up with me, Brandon, who...sometimes I look at myself as a postmodern fantasy writer. If you read the Mistborn trilogy, it's very much a postmodern fantasy epic. It's the fantasy epic for someone who's read all these great fantasy epics. And the story's kind of aware of all of those. It's the story of what happens if the dark lord wins? What happens if the prophecies are lies? What happens if all the things we assume about the standard fantasy epic all go horribly wrong?
I don't want to simply be someone. . . to be postmodern, you have to be a little bit deconstructionalist, which means you're relying on the very things that you're tearing apart. I think there's a level beyond that, which is actually adding something new, not just giving commentary on what's come before. But I do love the whole postmodern aspect. I love delving into that. It's something that I think can be unique to my generation because we've grown up reading all these epics, where the generation before us didn't.