Fanmail Q&A: The Biggest Mistake


I love your books, and I’ve been reading your blog for years, silently lurking. Not wanting to take up your time with a comment, let alone a letter.

But here’s the thing. After years of thinking about it. I’m actually starting to write.

Yeah. Surprise surprise. I’m looking for advice.

I know most of it I’ll have to learn on my own. And I know you don’t have time to tell me all the tricks of the trade you’ve learned over the years. But I was hoping you could tell me just one thing. Not something I should do. Something I should avoid. What’s the biggest mistake you see new writer’s make in fantasy?

If you can tell me what that mistake is, then hopefully I can skip that one and make other mistakes instead.



Awww…. free love.

Well Jan, the biggest mistake I see new writer’s make is the grocers’ apostrophe.

No, wait. Don’t cry. I’m just teasing a little. I mock because I love. I don’t hold minor grammatical goofs against people. I’m no Strongbad. Hell, I make the classic it’s/its mistake more than half the time.

Anyway, to the heart of the matter. Let me answer your question the way that I answer all questions, with a story.

Months ago, I was sitting around with Oot. He was just starting to get really verbal in those days. Whole sentences. Picking up words right and left.

More to the point of this story: he was just learning how to count.

So. We’re sitting around and I hold up a finger and say, “One….”

He knows where I’m going with this. Counting is a new thing, so he’s pretty exited about it.

“One…” I prompt him again.

He jumps on board this time. “…two. Three. Four! Five! SIX! EIGHT! TEN! SIX! THREE! SIX!

He gets really worked up after three. He makes little fists and waves around his arms enthusiastically. On a good day he’ll get all the way up to nine before he falls apart.

It’s perfectly natural, really. When you have a cool new piece of information to show off, you’re bound to get excited.

Later on in the day I come in and he’s reading a book with Sarah. It’s the last page in a big Richard Scarry book, and it has groups of things lined up, just for counting. One picture of a whale. Two pictures of walruses. Three pigs.

You get the idea.

Mom is coaching him with ladybugs and buttons. There’s lots of those, way more than ten.

I tag Sarah out so she can go do some stuff on her own, then I sit down with Oot.

I point to the book. “How many walruses are there?”

He looks at the page. “One…. Two….” He looks at the book seriously.

There’s a pause. A long pause. He furrows his brow.

“Two,” he says.

“Good job!” I say, completely earnest. This is big stuff. Cutting edge. I’m proud of him. He really thought it out. Didn’t just make a guess.

I point one line down on the page. “How many pigs?”

He looks at the three pigs. “One… two…. Three.”

But he doesn’t stop there. He’s on a roll now. “Four! Five! Six! SEVEN! TEN! SEVEN! MANY!” He finishes by throwing his arms up over his head triumphantly.

It’s cute as hell, really. But the fact is, he’s wrong. He got carried away.

And this, Jan, is the biggest problem I see most new fantasy authors make.

* * *

(Yeah. That’s a scene break. I’ve decided I can put a scene break in my blog if I feel like it.)

You see, one of the hardest parts about writing fantasy novels is describing things.

Now this problem isn’t unique to fantasy novels. No matter what genre you’re writing in, you have to describe things. That’s a given.

The problem is that in fantasy, there’s so much you have to describe.

If you write a novel set in the real world, you can assume your reader will have a certain baseline knowledge. They will know about Seattle and Paris. They will know what the internet is. They will (almost certainly) know who Robin Hood is. They’ll (probably) know who Don Quixote is. They’ll (maybe) know who Cyrano De Bergerac is.

But when you’re writing fantasy, especially secondary-world fantasy (By which I mean fantasy where the story takes place in a world other than our own) the reader doesn’t know anything about your world. They don’t know the cultures, religions, magic, or cities. The reader doesn’t know anything about the myths and legends of the world.

Now a lot of times, this is one of the major selling points of the book. A big payoff of secondary-world fantasy is the thrill of exploration. We get to see new countries, fantastic creatures, odd cultures, curious magics, etc etc.

And, honestly, this is one of the big perks of being a fantasy writer. We get to build castles in the sky, then show them off to people.

So here’s how it goes wrong.

1. You create something for your fantasy world: a creature, a culture, a myth, whatever.

2. You’re proud of your creation. You’re excited about it. You love it with a fierce love.

3. You need to describe this thing to your reader, because if they don’t understand how it works, your story won’t make sense.

(3b. Remember, the story is the real reason people are there. Story is everything. Story is god.)

4. So you start to explain how folks in the the Shire celebrate their birthdays. (This is important because one of the first major events of the book is a birthday party.) You talk about how hobbits give presents away at their parties instead of receiving them. (This is important because it ties into why Bilbo is going to hand over the ring to Frodo.)

Then you start talking about how some of these presents get passed back and forth, party after party. And how those items are actually called mathoms, and how there’s actually a museum full of mathoms at Michel Delving, which is in the Westfarthing of the shire, since, as you know, the Shire is composed of four sections which take their names from prominent families in the area, such as Tookland being named after the Tooks, who are among the largest and oldest of the Shire families, and in fact still held the title of Thain, which had been passed to them from the Oldbucks, and while the title was largely ceremonial these days due to the lack of Shire-moot in recent, peaceful times…. Four! Five! Six! SEVEN! TEN! SEVEN! MANY!

You see what happens? It’s easy for an author to get so caught up in the details of the world they created, that they go off the rails and give us more than is really necessary for the story.

Now it might seem like I’m picking on Tolkien a little bit here. But again I say: I mock because I love. I grew up reading Tolkien, and I mean that quite literally. I read the lord of the rings at least once a year through all my teenage years.

To his credit, Tolkien gave us one of the best traditions of our genre, that of elaborate, realistic worldbuilding.

Unfortunately, he also gave us the tradition of providing *way* too much information at the beginning of the story.

Tolkien is the cornerstone of modern fantasy. His impact on the genre is immeasurable. His arm has grown long….

Again, I love Tolkien. But the prologue to The Fellowship of the Ring is one of the most egregious instances of info-dumping in existence. At best, it resembles the dry essay it was intended to resemble. At worst, it’s like reading Leviticus.

(Okay. Fine. It’s really more like reading Numbers. But you know what I mean…)

And yeah, you can argue that Leviticus is a chapter in the best-selling book of all time. But the key is that the bible doesn’t *start* with that chapter. The bible starts out with action. Right out of the gate you get you have magic, “Let there be light.” You get conflict. You get character development. You get a good antagonist, drama, betrayal, exile from paradise. That’s exciting stuff. Genesis really gets the story going. It sets the hook.

That’s why the bible sells so well. Only after you get involved in the plot does Moses start giving you the heavy worldbuilding in Numbers and Deuteronomy. He did that for a reason. If he’d started the bible with the info-dump, it would have been *way* too boring. No publisher would have printed it.

So how do you avoid falling into the trap of telling too much?

I wish I could give you a simple answer to this, Jen. But the truth is, I could teach a week-long class on this seemingly simple question. There are dozens of tricks and cheats. There are hundreds of ways to do it well, and thousands of ways to do it badly.

What makes this such a horrible problem is that “too much” is largely a matter of taste. Some readers really *do* want to read all the details of the ancient Shi-Ang dynasty, and how their government relied upon the use of telepathy crystals. Other readers just want you to hurry up and get to the part where the Lesbian Unicorn Sisterhood initiates apprentice Ayllisia into the secrets of the Eternal Kiss.

It’s also a matter of style. Some writers are better at making exposition engaging than others. Some worlds are more alien than others, requiring more explanation.

My personal philosophy is to err on the side of caution. Given the choice, I’d prefer to give too little description and leave you wanting more, rather than give a lot and risk you being bored.

And yes, I’m aware of the irony of preaching “less is more” after writing a 400,000 word novel. Imagine how long it would have been if I hadn’t been consciously riding the brake.

In my opinion, Jen, the biggest thing is you can do to avoid this problem is to be aware that it *is* a problem.

Knowing is half the battle, and all that.

Verbosely yours,


Later Edit: Yeah. I know the author of the e-mail was Jan, not Jen. I changed it as an oblique reference to the way that Strongbad would usually change/screw up the names of the people that wrote into him by the time he finished answering their questions.

See? That way we start and end the blog with a Strongbad reference, providing a sort of closure and narrative unity.

I can tell from the comments below that at least a few of you got it. But it’s clear the rest of you just thought I didn’t care enough to get her name right.

Just wanted to let you know that I’m not an insensitive asshole. No. I’m just prone to arcane referential douchery.

This entry was posted in Fanmail Q + A, I mock because I love, Oot, the craft of writing, Things my baby has taught me about writingBy Pat85 Responses


  1. bookwyrmpoet
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 6:59 AM | Permalink

    “Other readers just want you to hurry up and get to the part where the Lesbian Unicorn Sisterhood initiates apprentice Ayllisia into the secrets of the Eternal Kiss.”

    I’m definitely the sort who would speed through the worldbuilding to get to this part!

    Would you say though, that even if the author doesn’t necessarily include everything that would appear in a Tolkienesque data dump, those are the kind of things the author should have written down somewhere in their notes?

    • Posted April 5, 2012 at 1:43 PM | Permalink

      I don’t know if you need notes. But I think it’s fair to say that the author should know more about the world than they put into their books.

      • JohnV
        Posted April 6, 2012 at 12:13 PM | Permalink

        I think you mean to say Lesbian Unicorn Sisterhood Triumvirate, correct? Historically, such initiations would be their responsibilty. At least, that what I thought you explained early on in the first book in the series…

      • Posted April 22, 2012 at 10:57 PM | Permalink

        I thought it was a great reference. Very subtle, very hilarious. Stay strong, Pat. Never stop quoting Homestarrunner. xD

  2. Sarah
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 7:00 AM | Permalink

    You should correct those spelling mistakes where you wrote “Jen” instead of “Jan” at the end of your blog entry, otherwise Jan will be really sad :(
    because, you know, names are important things and so on…

    • Posted April 5, 2012 at 7:04 AM | Permalink

      Have you forgotten everything The Name of the Wind taught you about names?! This way, we never know which was her real name, and no one can use it against her.

    • beetjes
      Posted April 5, 2012 at 8:04 AM | Permalink


    • Posted April 5, 2012 at 11:55 AM | Permalink

      I assumed it was another Strongbad reference. :P

      • Posted April 5, 2012 at 1:58 PM | Permalink

        At least one person got it…

        • oneironaut
          Posted April 5, 2012 at 2:56 PM | Permalink

          Though what you do might want to correct is ‘her/she’ into ‘ him/he’. I’m not sure if it accounts for this specific person, but Jan is more often a mans name than a womans in several European languages. But the reference was nicelyclever

  3. Posted April 5, 2012 at 7:03 AM | Permalink

    :) This is a useful tip, and I feel a little better now that someone’s said that knowing is half the battle. Too much info is something my English teacher was always telling me I was guilty of when she read my work. But – and this is my personal opinion – I don’t think it’s so BAD to get overexcited and info dump when you write… as long as you’re aware it needs to be fixed when you go through and edit it later. Right? I’ll say it now; editing is one of my guilty pleasures… I’m a bit masochistic with it, I love getting pissed off at myself because I’ve written too much information, because it means I have to go through and fix it. I’m weird?

    Awesome post! Oot is cute! (Cannot get over how cool it is when that rhymes…) Usefulness ftw! Silly Tolkien, clever Bible, funny people… I’mma go think about the lesson this post has reinforced.

    • Posted April 5, 2012 at 3:18 PM | Permalink

      Can someone please forward this to George R. R. Martin?


      I have to disagree with you. I find that the balance of description vs. enigma is something Pat has nailed right on the head. It’s always better to leave something the reader can ponder for themselves.

      Notice, for example, the attention paid to a little word play in this post, Lesbian Unicorn. By dropping subtle hints that there are lesbian, majestic creatures with phallic foreheads are out there, we all made the obvious mental leap of faith to.

      That How I Met Your Mother song sung by Robin Sparkles, “two beavers are better than one.”

      Thanks for making my day more entertaining once again Pat.

      The Stick

      • Posted April 6, 2012 at 4:04 AM | Permalink

        I didn’t say that Pat hadn’t nailed it? Lol oh if you’re saying this because I said ‘as long as you’re aware…’ and the rest of that sentence, I was using ‘you’ as a reference to all writers, not specifically Pat. Otherwise, I’m sorry but I don’t understand where you’ve misunderstood me… I definitely agree that Pat has nailed this stuff! :)

        • Posted April 10, 2012 at 8:19 AM | Permalink

          Dammit, I’m a moron and should have freaking checked who I was posting this under before I copy-pasted. I’m sorry Bon. Egg on my face.

          I personally, hate editing, which is why I don’t write when I can avoid it. So all you get is word diarrhea that isn’t even posted under the right comment :-(

  4. goodcupcakes
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 7:03 AM | Permalink

    Jan, not Jen. >.<

    Thanks for that. I found it hard to trudge through LOTR because of exactly what you're describing. 4 page long descriptions of the way a dell cascades into a meer or whatever just becomes cumbersome to read after the 50th time. Or Elrond retelling the history of the elves for what was it 40 pages??

    This always makes me think of my favorite Frasier quote "If less is more then think of how much more, more would be!"


  5. SarahS
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 7:23 AM | Permalink

    I am a huge fan of overly verbose and descriptive books :D Call me an anomaly, but I craaaaaaaaaave detail. Over the top detail. Explain to me ALL THE STUFFS that has ever happened please, I want to know.

    But! I of course read Pat’s books or I would not be here. When I give recommendations for fantasy, I will push my descriptive and verbose books onto people like there’s no tomorrow. And then I will push Pat onto them. They will ask why. I will reply; because damn it, the guy just tells a great story.

    While that sentence is severely lacking in poetics and the like, it does say it all to me. Because I agree, fantasy starts with a great story. And even when you strip Kvothe of everything shiny and verbose, you’ll always be left with an amazingly enthralling story.

    I’m pretty sure I had a point when I started writing this, but alas, it got lost somewhere along the way and I’m too scattered to go back and retrieve it. So I’ll just leave this blabbing here, as I’m sure there is a compliment in it, and people should give each other more compliments.

  6. madpiper
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 7:25 AM | Permalink

    Shouldn’t your editor “inform” you when you’re being a bit verbose? :-)

    • Little My
      Posted April 5, 2012 at 6:45 PM | Permalink

      Maybe Pat’s does. Neal Stephenson’s doesn’t.

      • Thigis
        Posted April 7, 2012 at 6:57 AM | Permalink

        At least not in the baroque cycle….

  7. Max
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 7:28 AM | Permalink

    I love this blog, it in many ways helped me figure out why I love your books so much. I really loved taking a scrap piece of paper and figuring out the order of the days of the week in your book. I loved figuring how long a span was (I hope a span isn’t a standard real world word else I’m going to feel very silly). BUT I think I’m going to litterly die if I don’t get a picture of Folly the sword. I’ve read the sections regarding the sword countless times and still can’t get a mental image. It is the single largest burr in my enjoyment of the series and while all books have flaws it is the only flaw in what I concider a flawless experience for myself. Swords and important in Fantasy and I need a picture of it. I love your books and this would make me very happy.

    • ASamuelson
      Posted April 5, 2012 at 2:26 PM | Permalink

      It’s metal with a pointy end. And when you stick someone with it, they cry.
      (sorry, feeling ornery)

  8. Chro
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 7:28 AM | Permalink

    Worldbuilding is the salt & pepper of fantasy. Too little, and your story is bland. Too much, and everyone gags and stops eating.

    I think new writers read published fantasy and think, “Wow, that world is so deep, I have to make my world that fleshed out!” Unfortunately, they then use ALL the information they gathered in their research; otherwise they don’t get credit, right?

    Oot makes for a great example here. Some of us writers need to stop showing off!

  9. LionsRampant
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 7:31 AM | Permalink

    Wow, awesome response to her letter.

    I have always had problems with diving into historical descriptions of my settings, so the “less is more” solution was always an accident and nothing credited to my writing (lack of) ability.

    A major issue for me was the “naming” process, of creating names for people and places without it trying to sound forced, fake or stereotypical. I always found myself trying to give a character that I want the reader to feel as “strong” an name derived from actual languages. So for example, I would browse Gaelic dictionaries for words close to the word “strong” and create a name based on that.

    In the end I always felt contained to certain styles of creation and was curious if you had any advice for that? Thanks.

    Oh, and Pat, check out the PS3 exclusive downloadable game “Journey”; very beautiful game with amazing graphics/music (Oh, the music!) that takes about 2 hours to complete. The game as a whole is ironic to your post on story and description, as the player gets the world gorgeously displayed to them, with colors and a musical score to fill the soul. The irony here being that there are no spoken words in the game and the storyline is set up for the player to ascertain, making it a nice change of pace and unique style of storytelling.

    Thanks again!

  10. Posted April 5, 2012 at 7:49 AM | Permalink

    That its/it’s thing makes no sense, why is there ever an its? For every other possessive we add an apostrophe, what could they possibly been thinking when they decided it didn’t need one? That we would confuse it with its contraction? Does context count for nothing? That has always bothered me. Plus we only change that rule for it. You would say “Jim’s car is in the shop.” and “Jim’s going to the shop to pick up his car.” I know it came about when “tis” fell out of use. It will never make sense to me.

    Having no real experience writing any fantasy, and really somewhat limited experience reading it. I do agree you have to balance the information you have about this world with the story, always leaning more on the story side of thing. That is a matter of taste.

    • goobermunch
      Posted April 5, 2012 at 10:12 AM | Permalink

      I think the reason is that we don’t do an apostrophe s to show possession for any pronoun. It’s not his’s or her’s car, it’s his or hers. Similarly, it’s its car.

      • Posted April 5, 2012 at 12:51 PM | Permalink

        Gooobermunch, that’s a very good point. Our possessive pronouns don’t use apostrophes, mine, yours, his, hers, its, our, theirs, whose.

        Although now that you mention it… why don’t use apostrophes for possessive pronouns. Still doesn’t make much sense to me.

        I feel terrible for the folks learning English as a second language.

        • TheFlyingFish
          Posted April 5, 2012 at 3:22 PM | Permalink

          As I understand it, the ” ‘s ” in a possessive noun actually stands for the possessive pronoun. That is, instead of “Pat’s book,” the term would originally have been “Pat his book.” So the apostrophe stands for dropped letters, just like it does in contractions. Which is why we can use apostrophes for contractions and possessives both without feeling inconsistent.

          • VLaRousse
            Posted April 5, 2012 at 6:20 PM | Permalink

            That’s actually a common myth. While the apostrophe does stand in for dropped letters, the dropped letters are from the Old English genitive case, which added an “es” onto nouns when making them possessive. So the original would have been (for the sake of this illustration) “Pates book”, then a few hundred years later we stopped pronouncing unstressed “e”s at the end of words, so the letter disappeared but the apostrophe remained.

  11. zacharybosch
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 7:53 AM | Permalink

    Please tell me where I can find this Lesbian Unicorn Sisterhood.

    • Chro
      Posted April 5, 2012 at 9:40 AM | Permalink

      I imagine you could search bronies fanfic forums. ;)

  12. Alan Martin
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 8:09 AM | Permalink

    More writerly advice, C.S Lewis on Naming:

    “If you become a writer you’ll be trying to describe the thing all your life: and lucky if, out of dozens of books, one or two sentences, just for a moment, come near to getting it across.”

  13. luciddreamz613
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 8:23 AM | Permalink

    More from Rothfuss on this topic (along with Brandon Sanderon, Dan Wells and Howard Taylor):

  14. Peter Vermazeren
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 8:34 AM | Permalink

    Did you answer need to be this long Pat? Or just illustrating? :D

    It’s really nice to see how you connect with your fans though. GRRM can learn from you!

  15. May
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 8:52 AM | Permalink

    I know that’s kind of an unnecessary comment, but: I think Jan is a “he”… It’s the name of my brother…^^

    And by the way: This blog was again a really cool and funny one to read -I just love Pat’s stuff. :)

    • Darmys
      Posted April 6, 2012 at 10:33 AM | Permalink

      Jan is the name of my Aunt. So whenever I see it written I always think Jan is female.

      For me personally unless Jan wants to do a Jayne and show us his man bits I’m sticking with it is a girls name.

  16. Frank
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 8:59 AM | Permalink

    This is awesome, I have been running into this exact problem with pretty much ALL the stories I’ve started. I thought I was just a geek for my own world and shouldn’t describe much at all really. Now I know it is a problem even my favourite writer fights gruesome battles with in the darkest of his writing times. I don’t know if that will solve it, but at least I know I’m not alone in this, and it is okay to (with the brake on) describe my latest monster, Drandilliar the twenty-headed dragon. or something of the like…

  17. Gendou
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 9:09 AM | Permalink

    Now I want to read the uncut version of your books.
    400,000 words describing the history of minor governance in Tarbean.

  18. brendilon
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 9:15 AM | Permalink

    Ooh ooh ooh!

    Were you deliberately trying to teach this lesson to your readers in NotW with Kvothe’s description of Felurians tales of the Fae Court?

  19. AlanAdams23
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 9:15 AM | Permalink

    This ties in to something you mentioned in a previous blog that I latched on to. Paraphrasing, you basically said one of the best things about writing fantasy/sci-fi is that there are very few rules governing how you build your world. One of the bad things about fantasy/sci-fi is that there are very few rules governing how you build your world.

  20. Posted April 5, 2012 at 10:01 AM | Permalink

    I am very impatient with verbose world building when I read a book the first time. I’m famous for skimming it unless the writer has such a gift with turning a phrase that I am just enjoying words spinning out in front of me.
    However, I inevitably enjoy reading the background information about kingdom politics and religions and the anatomy of a dragon on the second reading.
    As you say, story is god and I read to find out if Frodo and Sam save the world and I want to get on with it when I am still not sure of whether they will make it.

    ps – This post has inspired me to get off my but and start typing words into my manuscript. It turns out thatis the only way it turns into a story other people can read. Sigh.

  21. zdrumz13
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 10:37 AM | Permalink

    Great post Pat. Just one thing, though: how can you talk about info-dumping and over-describing things and not give a mention to the absolute granddaddy of authors notorious for doing that, Mr. Robert Jordan. One of the things that makes Wheel of Time a frustrating read even for die-hard fans like myself is that Jordan insisted on describing EVERYTHING……especially womens’ dresses and interior decorating. I guess you can do that when your editor is your wife, though…

  22. dcnuman
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 10:47 AM | Permalink

    Could overkill be the reason David Eddings did “The Rivan Codex”? For all the years I’ve read and re-read The Belgariad and The Mallorean series’ I’ve never read the entire Rivan Codex…it’s just TOO much information! I’ve found over the years I no longer read the prologues in this series, either- I just want to get into the story (story is god!)

  23. Posted April 5, 2012 at 10:48 AM | Permalink

    – Lesbian Unicorn Sisterhood initiates apprentice Ayllisia into the secrets of the Eternal Kiss –

    Just about peed myself laughing at that one..

    • michael.h.tritter
      Posted April 12, 2012 at 8:20 PM | Permalink

      Okay, obviously I don’t read the blog as often as I should to discover this went up a week ago.

      “Other readers just want you to hurry up and get to the part where the Lesbian Unicorn Sisterhood initiates apprentice Ayllisia into the secrets of the Eternal Kiss.”

      Sure, it sounds like a great premise, but how many years does it take to craft something like that into something like NAME OF THE WIND? I’ve been working on my story for seven years now and it is complete mess! At this point, only a writing titan, nay – a writing god, somehow acknowledging my efforts, could help me be sure my effort was worth it.

      Even then, my story will never have the richness and beauty in the prose and story both that NOTW has; but it would serve as a splendid kick in the pants … to the seat, that is. Effing eff, this blog will have me smiling for a few months solid. Thanks, Pat!

  24. Erzberger
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 10:50 AM | Permalink

    Reminds me of something Peter V. Brett once said. He had this scene about animals living in his world, explaining how they were either extra tough or fast and sneaky, in order to survive his demon infested world. He was proud of it, because it showed that he´d thought his shit through. But in the end he cut the part from the book because it served no purpose to the story or to character development and would probably bore the reader.
    I can imagine how cutting something like that would be difficult.

  25. IvoryDoom
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 11:06 AM | Permalink

    That was a good a answer! I’ve been building a world of my own and will have to add that to my considerations. :/ (Like more of those were necessary)

    Plus the fact that Richard Scarey and Strongbad are mentioned has really made this answer seem all the more reliable….(I actually mean that)

  26. Luke D
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 11:07 AM | Permalink

    Definitely made me think of Gene Wolfe. Reading The Book of the New Sun was one of the most difficult, but rewarding, fantasy experiences of my life. I haven’t read it in a while, but I don’t recall there being much “explaining” of the world at all—maybe it’s a first-person narrative thing :).

    • Little My
      Posted April 5, 2012 at 6:48 PM | Permalink

      “Reading The Book of the New Sun was one of the most difficult, but rewarding, fantasy experiences of my life.” I second that. It was tough but fascinating work trying to put things together, and you knew you had to be alert to every detail.

  27. chaelek
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 11:33 AM | Permalink

    That’s why I set all of my stories inside a featureless gray cube. Really streamlines the whole world building/explaining quandary. And when a character wonders where the cube came from, a giant voice from above thunders, “DON’T TALK ABOUT THE CUBE!”

  28. joker116
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 11:49 AM | Permalink

    The first time I read “The Lord of the Rings”, I thought it was extremely boring. Had to literally fight through the book. But that was maybe influenced by the fact that I was too young and that I had seen the movies before.
    Later on, I gave them another try and listened to the audiobooks out of the library. Then, my love for hobbits and the Ring War started. And to put the whole matter in a nutshell, I really appreciate especially the detailed and humorous prologue.

    Pat’s right, you have to convince a reader. But if you’ve won his love, he will care for the least important bit of information-if it is presented appropriately.
    I would even go so far as to say that this can be compared with man falling in love with women and suddenly absorbing every single word out of her perfectly curved mouth…

  29. HeroineOfCanton
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 11:52 AM | Permalink

    I’ve been lurking for awhile now, but I had to pop in and say how freaking much I love this. As someone else who is trying to write fantasy for the first time, this is just ridiculously interesting.

  30. SporkTastic
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 11:59 AM | Permalink

    Gotta say I really dig your style.

  31. rmcphail
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 12:30 PM | Permalink

    I think a good way to keep the writing lean is imagine that for every world-building detail you put in your story, God kills a puppy. But if your story does not make sense, God kills ALL the puppies. Appendices or Ars Arcana don’t count. Those are good for people that want info dumps to find them. This tactic is good for a few reasons. It will keep your writing lean (unless you hate puppies, in which case you have no soul and your writing will be bad anyway), it will help you develop the moral fortitude to make hard decisions (kill a puppy to save a million) and its a nice ego boost to imagine God is reading your work and paying that much attention.

  32. richagarg
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 12:32 PM | Permalink

    Very nice Pat, really enjoyed reading the post! but you did provide too much methinks :D

  33. stodtmeister
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 12:40 PM | Permalink

    Jan, you should check out writing excuses. Its a Hugo nominated podcast from writers, for writers. You can find a link at Brandon Sandersons website at

  34. klobster
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 12:59 PM | Permalink

    I will never read Oot and not think Ocarina of Time…

    • He without a clever name
      Posted April 5, 2012 at 4:12 PM | Permalink

      Took me awhile too. Pat’s little Ocarina.

  35. jplan74
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 1:45 PM | Permalink

    this is a great blog topic! i’m currently slogging my way through my first novel after 2 years of developing my world… i also try my hand at short fiction and it took me quite a few rejections before i finally understood “info-dumping” … perhaps i should have listened to my early readers who complained my stories read like history textbooks. and that’s exactly it, i was proud of my lore and wanted to show it off.

    i think GRRM does that better than most. i almost had to read ADWD again because of all the information in there that was left unsaid but evident to anyone who took the time to think about what they read. (i tend to read fast)

    now about this sisterhood…

  36. ASamuelson
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 2:30 PM | Permalink

    I thought the biggest mistake was having your tavern/inn serve stew?

  37. hewhocomeswiththelocust
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 2:35 PM | Permalink

    “story is god” I’m putting that on a t-shirt.

  38. DancingOnFire
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 3:37 PM | Permalink

    I completely agree that too much information is boring. I barely got through the Scarlet Letter in my high school English class because he took 10 pages to describe a forest (that’s only a small exaggeration).

    On the other hand, with Pat’s books, I can’t help but want to know all about his world. He’s built this beautifully intricate world in his story and the amount of detail given in the books is perfect. Enough for the what you need in the story with a few extra tidbits and such. But, in this rare case, I want to know way more. For example, I want the history of the Tehlins, what they believe, any sort of scripture or holy relics they have, etc. Or a full account of The Tale of Sir Savien or Daeonica, since those are often mentioned. I suspect we might see more history and such later since it plays a pretty prominent role in the story, but I want to know everything. It’s just so terribly interesting!!!!

  39. jenk0975
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 4:13 PM | Permalink

    “The Lesbian Unicorn Sisterhood initiates apprentice Ayllisia into the secrets of the Eternal Kiss”

    THAT sounds like a story that should have been entered in the Zombie vs Unicorn Debate. I smell a sequel with a premis like that!!

    Fantastic as usual Professor Rothfuss. Thanks for being you – and sharing with us.

  40. He without a clever name
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 4:15 PM | Permalink

    I didn’t get the Strongbad reference, but the wife did. Now there’s been Strongbad playing on her laptop since she told me to check today’s blog. Another very good one. Adorable story.

  41. Barefootninja
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 4:18 PM | Permalink

    I liked the strong bad reference good old it’s .com

  42. rmcphail
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 4:56 PM | Permalink

    Dear Rothbad,

    Is the reason that book 2 took so long is that that you type with boxing gloves on? Also, how did you grow such a mighty beerd?

    Crapfully yours,


    • IvoryDoom
      Posted April 5, 2012 at 6:14 PM | Permalink

      LOL (Literally)

      That was a pretty hilarious mental image….

  43. Lexxa
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 5:41 PM | Permalink

    Tolkien. Richard Scary. Strongbad. Leviticus. DeBergerac. Lesbian Unicorns. All in one post. This is why I never miss reading your blog.

    • Posted April 7, 2012 at 4:12 AM | Permalink

      Yeah. I can be pretty sure that I’m the first person to ever put all those things together into a single short piece of writing.

  44. Posted April 5, 2012 at 6:10 PM | Permalink

    It’s always a treat when you talk about writing Pat. Thank you.
    I’m guessing you are busy so no problem if you pass this by.

    When you get an idea and you begin writing and writing and writing. How does the writer objectively evaluate their idea and recognize whether it is truly good?

  45. Jongleur
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 11:08 PM | Permalink

    Wow, this is amazing advice and I’m actually just starting to world-build now. I haven’t even started writing stories yet, I’m just establishing my world in my head and on paper (or word document…) and starting to think about potential plot points, but I know that I’ll start writing soon and I need all the advice that I can get. If in four or five or six or TEN or SEVEN or MANY years (most likely many, I take a long time to do things like this) you find yourself reading a book about Minstrels and Dancers, you can know that you helped that guy get started.

  46. priscellie
    Posted April 6, 2012 at 1:25 AM | Permalink

    This is the most adorable writing advice ever.

  47. Posted April 6, 2012 at 12:22 PM | Permalink

    Pat –
    Thanks for the great blog and advice to all of us starting out writing fantasy. You’re the man. Thanks for your delightful contribution to the genre. Best.


  48. QWOPtain Crunch
    Posted April 6, 2012 at 4:18 PM | Permalink

    Heck, you want to get into info dumping, read the Silmarillion! That thing isn’t a book as much an encyclopedia. Well, a riveting encyclopedia, if that’s not too much of an oxymoron.

    I agree with the details thing. I tried my hand at writing in high school, and I fell into this trap. So deep a trap. I wanted my book to be the ideal fantasy book, and I poured every single freakin detail into that. His boots were leather and buckles and straps and exciting laces too! Oh, and this enemy was such and such, etc etc. ‘Twas terrible.

  49. dirtyscarab
    Posted April 6, 2012 at 6:18 PM | Permalink

    Completely agree with this post. I’m a bit of a late bloomer when it comes to fantasy and have just started reading ‘A song of ice and fire’ and boy, is it confusing. Info dumping is something I usually cope with if it’s regarding the geography of the world or a bit of politics, but the trouble with ASOFAI is GRRM introduces way too many people into the story at once. Perhaps that’s the charm of the book… Who knows?

    I’ve never had to do this before but I had to look up a family tree of all the characters to keep on top of things.

    I like books that are like Pringles – Once you pop you can’t stop, and the Kingkiller Chonicles fit nicely into that niche but ASOFAI is like taking part in a competitive eating contest.

    /snack metaphor.

    I’ll stick with the series because it’s so raved about but it’s tough going.

  50. Jam
    Posted April 7, 2012 at 3:16 AM | Permalink

    mm @QWOPtain Crunch, I think Silmarillion works on a style basis. I think no one really went into that book expecting a story with regular plotting and characters and such (or at least discovered this after the first few chapters), and no one came out of it with anything resembling a typically paced story. But it works as a collection of myths and a creation story.

    It’s about audience I guess: Silmarillion would be the worst tolkein book to start on, but once you’re drawn in by the richness of TLoTR it is there for those with the desire more from the (already epic) worldbuilding and want to explore it further.

  51. jasonaroo
    Posted April 7, 2012 at 1:06 PM | Permalink

    Will you consider including some info from how your 3rd book is coming along every now and then? I keep checking on here but I never see much reference to progress being made. Even a “I just finished writing one of my favorite chapters in the new book” kind of thing would be nice to hear. It makes the waiting easier to hear even small tidbits like that!

  52. xespum
    Posted April 7, 2012 at 6:16 PM | Permalink

    Steven Erikson (of Malazan fame) has a great essay on this topic: “Show Don’t Tell”

    Fair warning — once you read this, your eyes will open up to the difference between writers (like Pat and Steven) that know how to do this and those who do not. I found that I simply couldn’t read the latter anymore.

    an excerpt

    Imagine starting a puzzle in reverse. It lies complete on the tabletop, and now you begin removing pieces, while still ensuring that the subject illustrated in that puzzle remains coherent should anyone walk into the room and glance at it. How many pieces can you remove, and how long does it take before you begin weighing thoughtfully the extraction of the next piece? You reach a point where pulling the next one collapses any hope of comprehension, at which point it’s time to stop. It’s hovering on the very edge right now; let concentration slip and the image dissolves.

  53. AO_22
    Posted April 7, 2012 at 6:44 PM | Permalink

    “What makes this such a horrible problem is that “too much” is largely a matter of taste.”

    Best part of the post imo. Too often these days people confuse their personal tastes with universal truths, thanks very much for pointing out that this is not the case.

  54. Tungil
    Posted April 8, 2012 at 9:02 AM | Permalink

    I love to read your Blog ! :)
    a lot !

  55. nillohit
    Posted April 8, 2012 at 10:20 PM | Permalink

    Erikson’s worldbuilding is what first came to my mind when i read this post. Both Pat and Erikson share somewhat similar views when it comes to how much background information would suffice before it starts irritating the reader. It’d be interesting to hear Pat’s take on the malazan world and vice versa. I believe the Kingkiller Chronicles is right up there alongside Martin and Erikson. You wouldn’t probably equate 400,000 words with “less is more” theme, which is why it turns out to be a surprise, and pleasantly so i heartily add. It’s rich, yet not arrogant. Certainly one of my favorites besides malazan and a song of ice and fire.

  56. ruthanne
    Posted April 11, 2012 at 11:52 AM | Permalink

    Now, if we could work in just HOW the telepathy crystals are essential to the Lesbian Unicorn Sisterhood’s initiation, I believe that would qualify as Damn Good Reading. :D

  57. Gavin
    Posted April 11, 2012 at 9:05 PM | Permalink

    Off topic but I would willing trade my second best friend’s soul for a time machine to go into the future read the entire king killer chronicles in a 168 hours and then go back in time to when you were 15 and become your best friend or the janitor at your high school.

  58. Posted April 12, 2012 at 7:39 PM | Permalink

    I realize I’m late to the party here but I just have to comment. I’m currently writing (yes, somewhat spurred on by The Name of the Wind and this blog, I must say) a steampunky space novel which features only one human and opens with her leaving Earth. So pretty much everything about the world has to be explained to the reader, and it’s problem I’m still struggling with some 10,000 words later. I’m aiming for a “Firm” sci-fi grading which throws into question even simple things like time measurements, distance measurements and many things otherwise taken for granted (surely aliens in a galactic commonwealth wouldn’t measure their ages in earth years…) so that trying to construct a smooth narrative without inundating the reader with world building or alienating them with new basic assumptions is a real challenge.

    As you said, there is no magic bullet for this, you just have to be aware of it and catch yourself getting too wordy or assuming too much. I also think editors are good at calling this kind of thing out, although I haven’t worked with a profesional editor myself, yet.

    I have notice many authors, as they get more popular, get away with being more and more wordy. Rowling, Martin and Stephenson I’m looking at you. I’ve occasionally wondered if this increasing wordiness is the authors getting more able to ignore their editors suggestions or if the editors just give them more leeway because bigger books by known authors market better.

    I also want to call out an especially clever bit of world exposition I encountered recently. It was so well done and smoothly integrated into the narrative that it completely jolted me out of the movie in admiration of it. It is a little specific to the situation and I struggled with trying to emulate it in my own story before having to, sadly, put it aside but it’s worth mentioning here I think.

    It’s in “Water for Elephants”, near the start the hero hitches a ride on a circus train, in one of the animal cars which is naturally at the end of the train (because no one wants to ride behind the animal cars) and the author is faced with not only explaining the slang and physical particulars of a circus in the 50’s but also the social and political structure because class and social standing are a huge part of the narrative. So after one train stop, once the audience has been introduced to circus life in general, one of the circus hands takes our hero to meet the big bosses, who are naturally in the lead car. This necessitates a trip through every other car and, thus, through every social strata and group in the entire circus with a healthy dose of terminology and character intro’s along the way. It’s neat, compact, smooth and clever.

    It’s not perfect, of course. The viewer is asked to take on a lot of information in a very short amount of time so some reintroductions and reminders are needed later on, but still, it’s impressive.

    Yeah, Sara Gruen, I see what you did there.

  59. sesenta y cuatro
    Posted April 13, 2012 at 7:25 AM | Permalink

    Hi, Pat

    I couldn’t disagree more with your example. In fact, I am 100% convinced that the way Tolkien describes things in TLOTR is the reason that they are so close, so real, so dear to us.

    One gets sick of Bilbo’s relatives because of the patience Tolkien took to describe The Shire. The folk in The Shire are happy folk and live without knowing anything of the perils that lay so very close.

    Then, in The Council of Elrond, Aragorn speaks to Boromir about Bree and The Shire: “[…]If simple folk are free from care and fear, simple they will be, and we must be secret to keep them so.” And then, when the rangers reach Aragorn in Calenardhon and speak of hobbits, Halbarad speaks likewise.

    What really sets apart TLOTR from other books is the accurate description of the whole world. The Middle-Earth is fertile and rich (intellectually rich) because of the depth of it. There’s a reason for the reinforcements of southern Gondor being late. There was once Mornumenedain who went rotten in Ûmbar, there was war between Hârad and Gondor. There was a Thain, there was a King of Arnor who lived in Fornost and gave the Shire to the hobbits. And he was killed in the North and… (THREE, SIX!,NINE,…)

    That makes the world rich, if not a top-seller. You (as a reader) don’t need to get to though that from start. It’s an old tale that Aragorn tells inside an old tale. It’s got a fragment of knowledge that would make you understand better why there are trolls south of Mount Carm but there’s no need to try to decypher the tale like you could not resist, for example, with Arliden’s song about his wife. You will get a second read and a third one and each time you will realize that The Middle Earth is far more ancient and richer than you had thought.

    The same goes with the Prologue. You don’t need to read it. It’s not good to read it, but when you’ve read the Book twice or thrice, reading it makes everything more real. Thanks Tolkien you added the Prologue!

    “When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced […]” that is the beginning and you should not bother about the Prologue. You will eventually come to that.

    As I was reading TNOTW and TWMF I thought you (Pat) must be a person who really loves music. Music is what holds Kvothe’s world together and possibly the one thing that he does not learn throughout the books but lies within him and needs to get out instead.

    Then you are right that playing too many notes will ruin the song, but when it’s Bach you are listening to, his music is so rich that you may well listen to a work 200 times and still you could find something new the 201st time you heard it. It’s not too many notes, it’s just magic.

    If one tries to imitate Tolkien the result could very well as disastrous as to trying to imitate Bach, but that does not mean that there’s anything wrong with their works.

    And that’s what I stand by.

    Now excuse me for any stupid thing (or non accurate thing) that I may have said about Kvothe. It was not ill-meant, just ignorance.

  60. Edena
    Posted May 6, 2012 at 9:43 AM | Permalink

    Hello Patrick

    I don’t know if you will read this, but i’m a big big fan of yours. I read both books in about 5 days and i cant wait to read the next. So, hurry a littlebit! ;)

    Hated. Hopeless. Sleepless. Sane.
    Alaxel bears the shadow’s hame.

    Greetings from Belgium!

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