How to learn from Tolkien without flat-out copying him: Top fantasy writers speak!

The house was packed last night for NYCC's fantasy writers panel, where fan favorites like Naomi Novik and Jim Butcher spoke about their influences, and whether fantasy writers are still knocking off Tolkien.

The crowd at the fantasy writers panel was far too big for the space allotted. That's not surprising, considering that Jim Butcher (The Dresden Files), Brandon Sanderson (The Way of Kings), and Naomi Novik (His Majesty's Dragon) where all speaking, along with Joe Abercrombie (Best Served Cold), Peter V. Brett (The Warded Man), and debut author Deborah Harkness (A Discovery of Witches).

The panel began with a question from Joe Abercrombie, about whether fantasy novelists are still "knocking off Tolkien with both hands." Answering his own question, he said:

The example I always use is Unforgiven, the Clint Eastwood film. It's a Western, but it has something to say about Westerns generally, as a sharp, more realistic, more morally ambiguous interpretation. But ultimately it's just a great Western. I try to do the same thing with fantasy: pay homage to the history, but try to bring something new, something a bit more realistic. And maybe make a bit of a comment at the same time.

Brandon Sanderson made the distinction between copying and modeling the grandfather of fantasy:

We can look at Tolkien and say, "What did he do? How did he use mythology? How did he blend it with his story? How did he actually do this?" Without taking his mythology, the way he did it, and doing stories like that. And i think we're getting better and better at that.

How to learn from Tolkien without flat-out copying him: Top fantasy writers speak!

They also discussed "fantasy writing in the age of World of Warcraft," or how MMRPGs affect their relationships with fans and fans' relationships with their worlds. Jim Butcher appreciates that it gives him more ways to interact with fans:

It's creating a more liquid interface, where you are able to actually get out and talk to fans and meet people and so on, and that's never a bad thing.

And Naomi Novik added that it helps people get in to the idea of high fantasy:

I do think that what those games have done is really make you start to think about immersing yourself in a fantasy universe. They help people get over that suspension of disbelief, and they make people want to participate and be involved in the worlds they enjoy.

How to learn from Tolkien without flat-out copying him: Top fantasy writers speak!

When time came to discuss their influences, George R.R. Martin got a big shout-out from Joe Abercrombie. Peter V. Brett chimed in to say that:

George RR Martin really made fantasy, in a lot of ways, grow up. Brought a level of reality into the storytelling where you realized that the good guys don't always win, and anyone can die, because that's how life works. You really get invested in what happens to people because you know that this author is an unconscionable bastard who can kill off anybody he feels [like].

Sanderson cited Robert Jordan and Brett credited Terry Brooks, while Butcher stuck to the classics: C.S. Lewis, Lloyd Alexander, and Tolkien. Harkness, on the other hand, referenced Mists of Avalon and Anne Rice's The Witching Hour, and Novik called out Patrick O'Brien and Anne McCaffrey.

We also learned that the majority of the panel (Jim Butcher, Joe Abercrombie, Peter Brett, and Brandon Sanderson) are thorough planners, who control their characters' every moves. Jim Butcher explained:

My characters work for me. And if they're not doing what I need them to do, I'm God, so I go in the past and change it around so they do the job I need them to do. The thing is, if you provide your characters with enough motivation, you can get them to do whatever you need them to do for the purposes of your plot.

But Naomi Novik and Deborah Harkness work more organically. Novik said:

I generally tend to know the very basic skeleton. But, for instance, the last outline that I wrote — under duress — was two pages, and that was enough. I don't really want to know that much in advance, because then I get bored. I wanted to be excited, I want to be discovering what's going on with the characters. So I have concepts set, and I have the skeleton of the plot set, but I do tend to invent as I write.

And how do they motivate themselves? The most concrete productivity tip came from Naomi Novik, who recommends "Write or Die," while Harkness recommends staying off the Internet until you've made progress for the day. Joe Abercrombie says to "do stuff that's rubbish," because you might find that when you return the next day, you can refine the rubbish into something good.

Brandon Sanderson, on the other hand, had this to say:

I imagine this phantom cubicle chasing me. And if catches me, I'll have to be an insurance actuary or something. That really scares me — I don't want to do that. I've wanted to be a writer since I picked up my first fantasy novel. Ever since then I said, this is what I need to do. I am terrible and I'm going to be terrible at anything else, and if I don't make it at this I'm going to be a bum on the side of the road. And then I dedicated everything I had to doing that.

And he concluded by saying: "You've got to want it."

And if you're looking for recommendations, each panelist took a moment to highlight something they've been reading lately. Naomi Novik is enjoying N.K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, while Deborah Harkness loves My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, edited by Kate Bernheimer. Jim Butcher recommends Harry Connolly's Child of Fire.

Top image: Smaug and his treasure, by Shockbolt at DeviantArt. Panel image via Peter V. Brett.