Concerning Patrick Rothfuss’s Book Three Release Date

Fans of Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicle, George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones series, or Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora have waited years—even the better part of a decade—to read the next installments in their favorite series. Patrick Rothfuss’s Book Three, The Doors of Stone, does not yet have a release date, and neither does Martin’s The Winds of Winter. (Scott Lynch, on the other hand, has
announced July 21st, 2016 as the publication date for The Thorn of Emberlain.)

Patrick Rothfuss took four years after publishing The Name of the Wind to finish the sequel The Wise Man’s Fear, and has now taken more than five years to work on the final book of his trilogy: at the very least, it will have taken him a decade to publish three books. Contrast this with Brandon Sanderson, who in the same period of time has published twenty four books—admittedly, some were short, but of those twenty four, thirteen were nearly a thousand pages in length.

George Martin took five years between his third and fourth books, and six years between his fourth and fifth. Fans have been waiting for the sixth book for five years, and there is no end in sight—Martin’s pace has actually been so slow that his HBO series has moved ahead without him, spoiling book six for any who watch the sixth season or hear about it on forums or social media.

Scott Lynch took six years between his second and third books, but has now picked up the pace, publishing his fourth book only three years after his third.

You will notice I have merely been using the word “waiting” to describe their fans, not adding any adverbs like “patiently” or “with understanding.” There is a very good reason for this: a small portion (yet large number) of their fans have joked about marching on their houses with torches and pitchforks, chaining them to their desks, and whipping them until their books are done. What’s more, some of them aren’t joking.

This urge ultimately comes from a place of love—the books have been so masterful, so suspenseful, that the fans have difficulty holding themselves in line while waiting for the authors to finish writing. But that’s like saying sexual molestation ultimately comes from a place of love, from wanting someone to do something so fiercely that you just can’t resist trying to help them along. It’s true, in a simplistic, base way…but knowing the motive really doesn’t help. It’s still wrong.

I am not accusing (most) fans of being the literary equivalent of sex offenders. Asking authors when their next books are coming out is neither illegal nor on the same level of offense as reaching into their pants and pulling out a different kind of sequel—but, when done with too much frequency, rudeness, or ignorance, it still isn’t good.

Many of you disagree with me. Fortunately, truth is not decided by a majority vote. You have grievances about these authors, and Rothfuss and Martin are too close to the subject for you to listen to their responses. So, let’s discuss this. Furthermore, let’s discuss this calmly and rationally.

Can we do that? Good.

Avoid Lynching Scott Lynch

Scott Lynch’s debut novel, The Lies of Locke Lamora, was fantastic—so, when it took him six years to
publish The Republic of Thieves, his fans were displeased. They thought they might never hear the end of Locke’s story, and wanted explanations.

I address Lynch first because his situation is quite different from that of Rothfuss or Martin. Lynch came out with his second book a year after his first, proving he can write at a quick pace. The reason he took six years to get his third book out was not a matter of thorny plot issues or character problems—it was because he was cripplingly depressed, underwent a divorce, and lost his grandfather to liver cancer.

Depression is a disease that strikes writers (and other artists) somewhat more often than it strikes members of other professions. It’s primarily biological, not an issue of lifestyle, but the pressures of a writer’s life, and Lynch’s life in particular, likely compounded the problem:

  • The value of your work is ethereal, not concrete—while a salesperson can count the number of sales calls made in a given day, and an architect can watch her building be built one story at a time, it is remarkably difficult for a writer to judge the quality of his own work. Often, a day’s writing needs to be thrown out or heavily revised to become publishable, so it isn’t as simple as counting the words written each day. In other words, it is often more difficult for a writer to feel the satisfaction that comes from productive daily work.
  • After an extremely successful debut novel, readers’ expectations are high. Orson Scott Card defines writer’s block as what happens when a writer attempts to write a story that is beyond her skill level. When the pressure is as high as it was for Lynch (or as it is for Rothfuss or Martin), the tendency is to push oneself to create the best possible work—which often means not creating any work at all. This becomes even more of a problem when you realize that your fans judge your books in comparison to each other, not on an objective scale—when Lynch published a wonderful, but still slightly lesser, second book, his fans were disappointed, because they compared it in their heads to his first book.
  • Sequels are more difficult than first books. In the first book of a series, the feeling of newness pervades: every chapter is a discovery, it is your readers’ first time in the world, and you’re still in the honeymoon phase with your characters. But then you have to follow up on your first book with another, and all those advantages disappear: your plot is more complex (because it has to pick up the threads of the first book), your characters are nothing new, and there is no sense of wonder or discovery. You neither have the allure of a beginning nor the excitement of an ending—just the plain old middle.
  • Lynch’s life has been in shambles from 2007 onward. It is improving, because he got help and started taking medication, but his depression led to his wife of fourteen years leaving him right after his grandfather died of liver cancer. For a few years, he was addicted to World of Warcraft, which served as the only thing that could get him out of bed in the morning.

Sometimes, life happens. You can be on your way to a clean, successful career, and then shit hits the fan, and you have to stop everything and recover. Patrick Rothfuss did his final edits for The Name of the Wind while his dad was “in the hospital after getting his lung removed. I remember red-penning corrections into the manuscript while he slept in the ICU, the tubes everywhere and a machine helping him breathe.” And, earlier that year, his mother had died—also from cancer.

Scott Lynch’s situation is the least controversial of the three, so I won’t spend more time on it. Hopefully, you accept that disaster striking can delay creative writing.

Winter Is Coming…Slowly

George R. R. Martin is the most famous of the three, and also the most renowned for writing at the pace of a dying turtle/sloth hybrid climbing up a slime-covered wall on a lazy Sunday afternoon on a planet with 100x Earth gravity, while the wall falls into an exploding underwater volcano filled with eucalyptus leaves and unicorn vomit. (Or, at least, that’s how I most commonly hear him described.)

There are three main grievances leveled at Martin, which I will address individually:

1. He spends a lot of time and effort working on side projects instead of The Winds of Winter.

An exaggeration. Since A Dance With Dragons, he has published two novellas—short books, each around a tenth the length of his normal books. He also published A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms…except, oh wait, that’s just a collection of three short works he wrote from 1998 to 2010. Not new.

How about The Ice Dragon, his 2014 YA novel? Nope—that was originally published in 1980. Only new thing is the illustrations, which he did not do. And those five anthologies of other authors’ short stories he edited? Well, for one thing, he was only one of two editors—Gardner Dozois also worked on those anthologies. Furthermore, he only actually published two short stories in those anthologies. “Editing” an anthology means inviting other authors to contribute stories, reading them, accepting the ones you like and asking the authors to rewrite the ones you don’t like, and then getting your publisher to print them. Not a massive time-sink.

He wrote two Wilds Cards installments, but those are also short and simple. In all, his publications during the past five years amount to a fifth the length of one of his novels, and a tenth the requisite time investment.

However, pointing out the falseness of this accusation simply misses the point: even if he had spent a significant amount of time working on other projects, that would be OKThe Winds of Winter is a massive, extraordinarily complex story with over a hundred moving parts to juggle, and spending some time refreshing himself by working on other things is actually beneficial. It allows him to look at Winds with fresh eyes, such that he actually gets more done than if he had labored solely on it for the past half a decade. The fact that he managed to get some creative writing diversity into his life through short story anthologies and two novellas is a good thing for his productivity.

It is true that an author has an obligation to finish a series once it has been started. Both a contractual obligation and a moral one. It is not true, on the other hand, that an author must be shackled to that one series and never do anything else.

2. He doesn’t update his fans on his progress.

Again, simply false. He is very upfront about how his writing is progressing, as is shown here and here and here. Sure, he doesn’t have a percent-completed progress bar on his website like Brandon Sanderson does, but Sanderson’s writing is a work of creation instead of transformation. Martin (and Rothfuss) is not primarily having problems writing words; he is having problems revising his words until he is happy with them. That’s not a quantifiable process: “The Winds of Winter is 91% heartbreaking and 82% suspenseful, but only 37% arousing; must add more nutmeg.”

3. He may not live to finish his series if he continues at this pace.

What’s your point? He cannot control the passage of time, and working any faster on his books would mean sacrificing quality. Sure, he could eat more healthfully and exercise more, but that’s not to prolong his life so you can finish his series before he dies—it’s because everyone is responsible for taking care of their own health.

Robert Jordan died before he could finish The Wheel of Time…but the books written by Brandon Sanderson, using Jordan’s notes, were some of the best of the series. (Admittedly, Sanderson will not be finishing A Song of Ice and Fire in the event of Martin’s death.)

Plus, Martin is only 70. He probably has twenty years left, and—assuming seven years for A Dream of Spring, his final book—that means a decade of flipping off his fans after his series is finished.

Fans who make this (charming and supportive) complaint evidently think writing fiction is like bricklaying, where your productivity is a direct, linear result of the time you put in. This is simply untrue. There is a problem of diminishing returns—the fifth hour of writing is almost always far less productive than the first four, because the mind’s resources are quickly exhausted by the focus and strain required for generating quality fiction. In this way, writing is more similar to practicing an athletic sport, a musical instrument, or the dark arts—the point is not to spend all your waking hours doing so, but to return to the task with absolute focus every day.

Fussing Over Rothfuss

I save Rothfuss for last because he is the closest to me. The same week I first read The Way of Kings, I read The Wise Man’s Fear overnight in the middle of the woods in a campground filled with bears, mosquitos, and extended family—this experience was what made me realize I needed to become a fantasy writer. Those two books showed me the true untapped potential of the genre; they hinted at what could truly be achieved, and so I set out to write the books I wanted to bring into the world.

I idolize Rothfuss more than any other fans I have encountered, and so I have encountered every single mewling screed his “fans” have posted urging him to publish Book Three. For the most part, they are crude, rude, and ill-formed:

and

and

This reflects 98% of the complaints of this nature. Occasionally, Rothfuss even complains to himself in order to pre-empt these fans during Q&As or AMAs on Reddit:

prothfuss:

Hey there Pat, I really love the first two books in your series.

I know it takes time to produce quality books (especially books of the size you tend to write, which are easily 2-3 times larger than many other novels). But still, I’m quite eager for the third book. Do you happen to have a publication date?

prothfuss:

Thanks for asking Pat,

Unfortunately, there is no publication date right now. What’s more, I really don’t want to guess at one.

You see, when the first book came out, I was very new to publishing, and I foolishly told people they could expect the next book in a year.

Later, when I realized I needed more time to make the second book as perfect as I could, I was forced to break that promise, and people were unhappy. And this is understandable: They felt as if they’d been lied to.

I’m trying to avoid making that mistake again. I screw up constantly, but I try to avoid fucking up in the same way twice in a row.

Rest assured that when there is a publication date, I’ll make a big announcement.

prothfuss:

Thanks for the quick answer, Pat.

I’ll admit I’m a little disappointed at the lack of a firm date, but I appreciate your artistic integrity and your desire to give us the best book possible.

Also, while it’s true that my interaction with you almost entirely revolves around the books you produce, I also recognize that you are a fellow human being. I imagine that you are similar to me in that you have a busy and complex life.

While I enjoy your books a great deal, I’m guessing that being the father of two young boys takes up a great deal of your time, to say nothing of the charity which you help manage.

And while I’d like nothing better than to read a hundred billion books from you, I’m guessing you probably have hobbies, too. I respect that. You probably like playing video games, watching movies with friends, and occasionally walking somewhere with no purpose at all, other than enjoying the feel of cool spring grass beneath your feet.

Let me take this opportunity to encourage you to enjoy your life. You have produced art that makes me happy. Because of this, I would like you to be happy as well.

Does that make sense? I hope I’m not overstepping myself here. But it seems like the only alternative to this treating-you-like-a-human thing is to be a frothy entitled dickhole and bitch at you on the internet. Would you like that better?

The purpose of this exchange between Rothfuss and himself was to get it out of the way so he could respond to other, more interesting fan questions about his books. It is very useful, however, in understanding what Rothfuss thinks on the subject: He works on the book at a reasonable pace, and it would be unreasonable to push him to work further. Furthermore, he feels hurt, because he is the reason his fans have enjoyed his first two books, and that means they should want him to be happy in return—instead, he experiences a very vocal minority of his fans demanding that he turn into a workhorse so they can read The Doors of Stone as soon as possible.

I agree with him. Rothfuss has made my life so much better, and I really would like him to be happy in return. I want him to take his time with the book, and only deliver it to us when he is proud of it: “What I have right now is good, but it’s not the best book possible. I want to give you a great book. A book that is as perfect as I can possibly make it. I want you to read it and laugh, and cry, and be horrified.” I want him to be able to write in peace, with an army of patient, understanding fans.

However. It would not be entirely honest to give only one side of this argument. Let’s venture into some slightly darker territory, shall we?

Most fans post rude, ill-formed comments about book three on all Rothfuss’s social media accounts. Sometimes, though, we we get a more articulate, well-rounded response:

There was an unwritten accord between Rothfuss and his readers upon publication of Name of the Wind. Rothfuss had baldly stated that he was well into the story of all three books, and they would be forthcoming with no unanticipated delays. He laughed at George Martin’s inability to do the same.

Additionally, I believe that once a book series is published, it is no longer solely the author’s. Yes, it is the author’s creation and brainchild; it is nurtured by him; and it ultimately relies on him for life. But the reader (as any author would greatly hope) becomes deeply invested in the story–falling in love with the characters, waiting with bated breath for the next installment.

Even after such an optimistic attestation by Rothfuss before the first book, a wait between books would be expected. Of course it would be. The reader cannot be unreasonable; in the end and most of all, the reader cares for the story. But certain things about Rothfuss’ behavior trouble me. Why does he get so angry that fans are impatient for the story? Why does he refuse to update us, even if just to disappoint us?

By all means, pursue other projects. Live your life, enjoy the fame. But why not keep your readers, who love this story so much, in the loop? It almost seems as though he is scared of the series. This is what worries me. Rothfuss doesn’t like discussing Kvothe, which is so odd to me. He AVIDLY pursues other things. Authors of the most popular fantasy novels LIVE for the story; they don’t run from it. Look at Martin. J.K. Rowling. They’re always in their created worlds.

But not Rothfuss. I fear (and really, it’s fear. Because I love those books) that he is truly struggling to craft a worthy finish (and closing is the hardest thing to do). It’s for this reason that I do not find it selfish or disgusting for fans to be restless. They want the book, and the author has remained silent for a long time now. Of course they will be impatient–they’re human! So please, Pat, give us something. Anything. Put the story on the phone. I just want to know it’s ok.

-Anonymous

It is true—after The Name of the Wind came out, Rothfuss and his publisher, DAW, were very vocal in saying that the second book would come out only a year later, and the last book a year after that. They were all finished, and it was just a matter of doing some edits.

In the weakest sense of the word, they were finished. But, only because Rothfuss had written through to the ending—the books were not of publication quality, and so they retracted all their former statements, apologized at length, and since then Rothfuss has refused to ever give any updates or projected publication dates for the third book (other than the occasional “one hundred years from now”). A reasonable way to ensure he never makes the same mistake he made before…but a bit of an overreaction.

His lack of updates of any sort is a major source of fuel for his fans’ irritation. To say he’s close-lipped would be horrid understatement—nothing comes out of him, of any sort. (Five years of extreme constipation.) Contrast this with Brandon Sanderson, who has progress bars for all his current projects on his website, posts long updates on his current projects, and comes out with an annual “State of the Sanderson” essay outlining his projected work plans and publication dates for the next year.

On the one hand, this makes sense. Sanderson and Rothfuss are about as different as two writers can get—Sanderson is a compulsive drafter, and Rothfuss is a compulsive reviser. His current wordcount for a story is an accurate representation of Sanderson’s progress, whereas Rothfuss’s progress is far less quantifiable—instead of working to actually write the book, Rothfuss is working to revise the book, polishing every sentence until it is the perfect incarnation of itself. He goes through hundreds of revisions, using scores of beta readers and responding to their reactions to each and every paragraph.

Rothfuss cannot reasonably be expected to have a “Percent Completed” bar on his website (nor should that be an obligation—Sanderson does it of his own free choice, but that doesn’t mean other authors should be pressured to do the same). And it wouldn’t even make sense, considering there are no hard numbers involved in his work.

He could still let us know how it is going, though, without spoiling any part of the book or giving us unreasonable expectations. He could post on his blog “Working on Book Three. Came across some new problems in the mid-section, and those will take me a couple weeks to sort out. Then I will continue to polish—don’t expect it soon, but know that progress is being made.” He could even post on his blog “Working on Book Three. Right now, it’s like a chocolate sundae, but the kitchen is out of cherries. Must find cherries.” Anything at all would make his fans feel like he cares about them. He does care, but his fans can’t really tell.

It’s like a marriage. We have entered into a long-term relationship with Rothfuss, and he isn’t communicating. He’s not willing to have “the talk.” It damages the relationship, on both sides, and is not a sustainable way to live our lives together.

We could also look at it as a parent/child relationship, where our Patrick has gone off to college and all we want him to do is tell us how his life is going and stay in touch. We don’t need to know the details—we just care about him, and feel rejected when he evades all questions, never calls us back, and is irritated when we ask how he’s doing.

While I think it is very important that we recognize that he is not our bitch, and we need to be respectful in how we pester him about his next book…I also think this should not be so one-sided.

Rothfuss has changed, over the years. Six years ago, when he wrote the blog “unhappy announcement” to explain why The Wise Man’s Fear would not be coming out on time, he was so apologetic and sad to have to tell his fans he couldn’t give them what he wanted. Once the book was published, he became more and more hurt when his fans asked him about the third book—he compared those comments to “turds in his cereal,” and said it made him want to avoid interacting with us. Finally, more recently, he has begun to say truly hurtful things about those fans: when asked why, when given a choice between voting (via donations to his charity) for him to work on Book Three vs. for him to play Fallout IV, most people voted for the latter, he replied that people who howl for book three aren’t as interested in donating money to make the world a better place. You can draw your own conclusions after that.”

He did not say that his fans primarily wanted him to be happy; he said outright that anyone who howled for Book Three was an intrinsically worse human being.

This was a low moment.

(Admittedly (as was pointed out to me in a comment by Spiros Mantzoros, below), he was referring to those who “howl,” not anyone who asks for Book Three. This is better, but still not by any means good – the fact that people didn’t vote for him to write Book Three over playing Fallout IV shows that his fans are kind and supportive, not that those who pester him about Book Three aren’t “interested in donating money to make the world a better place.”)

I will admit that I cannot come up with a legitimate reason, or even any reason at all, not to update us. Even if he doesn’t have anything to update us with. Simply telling us “I don’t know how long this will take, but I am working on it” would be enough. I don’t know his reason, but it feels like simple spite, protectiveness, and maybe, to some small extent, self-consciousness. It takes guts to own up to how long you have spent on a book, and how sometimes it feels like you’ll never make it to the end. It takes guts to admit that your expectations, and your audience’s expectations, of a book are so high you don’t know how long it will take for you to be satisfied.

And, let’s be clear—the stakes ARE high. This is likely the single most important work Rothfuss will ever write. He’s spent two decades on it, he only has four decades of expected life left, he’s exhausted by its scope and has talked about writing a smaller urban-fantasy series afterward, and outdoing himself would simply be so difficult that I would bet my life’s savings on him never publishing a book more central to his legacy.

Last books are dangerous. They’re where the stakes are highest, the expectations highest (especially after a decade of waiting), and mistakes are fatal. Remember InheritanceMockingjay? It’s not the case that Rothfuss’s first two books will stay good regardless of what happens in the last book. The third book can retroactively ruin the entire series.

And I’m not talking about an unpopular book—I expect that most fans will be disappointed by the ending, which I expect to be tragic and most readers expect to be heroic, but, like the How I Met Your Mother series finale, it can be perfect without being liked. (Here’s a controversial statement: I loved the HIMYM finale. But that’s a topic for another post.) And I am not saying I expect Rothfuss to mess it up. I trust Rothfuss as a storyteller more than I trust anyone (even Brandon Sanderson, whom I love beyond all reason, messed up two endings—Elantris and the overly dramatic spontaneous Middle-English “Stretch forth thy hand!” near the end of Words of Radiance). What I am saying is that Rothfuss has to be feeling this pressure. He has lived the life of a beloved celebrity, griping fans or no, for nine years now, and it’s the sad truth that that will dissipate a little bit when he finishes his trilogy. Even if it’s perfect.

Ultimately, I see this as the most likely reason he has been contributing to the deterioration of our relationship with him. We constantly nag him about something he’s afraid of and doesn’t want to confront, and he responds by shutting down completely. We’ve all reacted this way at times, and it always just worsens the problem.

I am nervous to post this. I idolize Rothfuss. I read a random chapter from his books every night, before I go to sleep. I think of the one time I talked to him—on my cell phone, at 4 AM, when I was on the East coast and my father was at his signing in California—as the most surreal three minutes of my life. He gave me this advice, which I have followed for the past few years and will continue to adhere to forever: “Just keep writing. You’ll get there.”

So, Pat, if you are reading this, I know you probably aren’t very happy with me. You think I got an aspect (or several aspects) of your motive wrong. Maybe I did—I’m not in your head, and much of this was guesswork. But is there any part of you that’s willing to see the side of the concerned fan? Most things in life are not one-sided; can you consider meeting us halfway?

Either way, just keep writing. You’ll get there.

 

Note: This article was originally published on April 14, 2016.

Litmus Test of a Great Story

Note: This article was originally published on April 10, 2016.

 

In Alice LaPlante’s book The Making of a Story (recommended reading) she describes a litmus test to tell the quality of a story:

What is lost in summarizing the story?

LaPlante contends that a great story resists paraphrase—any brief, condensed run-down of a well-written story does not actually summarize it—whereas a poor story is easily paraphrased.

When I first came across her claim, I was surprised by how briefly she elaborated upon it. For a couple pages, she clarifies her point and provides a few examples, after which she moves on to other subjects. IMG_1763The reason this surprised me is that this is an impressively deep observation: the longer I considered it, the more layers were revealed to me. I find this idea exceedingly useful in understanding the distinction between a good and a bad story—which has always seemed difficult to articulate (as is shown by the massive size of LaPlante’s book on the subject).

First, let’s formally state the claim:

LaPlante’s Law: The quality of a story is directly proportional to its resistance to paraphrase. (The better a story, the more that is lost in summarizing it.)

This is a bold claim, and in a moment we will clarify and extrapolate it, but first, let’s see how it explains a pattern among the great authors:

Patrick Rothfuss, author of The Kingkiller Chronicleis asked in the majority of his interviews “What is your story about?” He always has the same answer—he is no good at summarizing his own book, and if the story could be told in one page it wouldn’t be three thousand pages long. At first, this just seems a bit snarky, but in light of LaPlante’s Law, it makes a great deal of sense: Rothfuss is one of the world’s most skillful storytellers, and he has spent over two decades on his trilogy of novels, so I would hope it would be good enough to be exceedingly difficult to summarize. (And it is good enough—reading The Wise Man’s Fear and The Way of Kings in one week was what made me decide to become a fantasy writer.)

This is also why, on the back of each of his books, he has a quote from the book, rather than the more typical description of the book.

Similarly, Brandon Sanderson writes this about his best book: “I’ve been asked to introduce The Way Of Kings to you. And I have no idea how to start. This is an odd position for me. Before, I’ve found it easy to explain my novels…Kings has stymied me each time I’ve tried to describe it. I often end up talking about its creation. (How I started work on it over fifteen years ago. How I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words worth of worldbuilding for it. How much the project has come to mean to me over the decades.) But such things describe the book but don’t actually tell you anything.”

Great storytellers have this internal inhibition against summarizing their best works because of their unconscious awareness that great stories cannot be briefly summed up. Any literal paraphrase of such a story not only sounds trite, but it also misses the point of the story:

Kingkiller Chronicle: A depressed man talks about how he blames himself for his life being in shambles.

The Way of Kings: The world will end unless humankind can quickly refound a mythical order of magic knights.

In summarizing these stories in one sentence, I have described a small portion of what happens but not conveyed any piece of what the story is actually like.

The above gave me evidence that LaPlante’s Law may be accurate, but what really convinces me that it is a fundamental truth about storytelling is considering the reasons the Law works—and this is what we will do for the rest of the article, starting with the superficial aspects of LaPlante’s Law and moving in toward the deeper underlying philosophy.

“Things Happening” Should Describe Your Story

The Wheel of Time is among the biggest epic fantasies of all time, in terms of both length and popularity. The general consensus is that the first four books and the last four books are marvelous, and the intervening six books are dull and frustrating. The reason the middle portion of the epic is nigh-universally disliked is that virtually nothing happens between books four and eleven. Robert Jordan decelerated the plot’s pace to 1 mph.

The strength of the beginning and end still support the epic’s status as one of the greatest fantasies of modern times, but the major weakness of the middle is a key problem of bad fiction: a lack of events, or plot. The reason this contributes to LaPlante’s Law is that it is more difficult to summarize stories that contain many events than to summarize stories that have fewer things happening.

The thriller genre gets by almost entirely on this principle: the more things that happen, and the quicker they happen, the more story you are conveying in a smaller space. However, “things happening” does not only refer to plot events—instead, it describes all things that contribute to the story. Characterization that affects the plot, setting elements that affect the characters, foreshadowing of later pieces of the story…basically, the lesson here is that anything that cannot be removed from the story without changing the story increases the quality of the story. The purpose of a summary is to strip away everything non-essential from a story; if every aspect of a story is essential, the story cannot truly be summarized.

Patrick Rothfuss likes to say his best quality as a writer is brevity. At first, this seems a joke—his books are between 600-1,000 pages long—but then he points out that “It’s long, but it’s tight. There isn’t a lot of wasted space. I don’t engage in long, tedious bouts of description or big chunks of explanation. It’s efficient…the goal is always the same, [to] make the book clearer, cleaner, faster.” And he’s right, The Name of the Wind is a quick ten-hour read—the first time I read it, I bought it at an airport in Boston, and then finished it at baggage claim in Los Angeles.

This aspect of LaPlante’s Law can be summarized (oh, the irony) like this: Delete every superfluous word, phrase, sentence, scene, and character, and your book will be improved.

The Heart of Good Storytelling Is Implication

There is a saying: “ ‘The king died’ is not a story, but ‘The king died and then the queen killed herself’ is a story.” The distinction is that a piece of the latter story (the queen’s motive for suicide) is implied instead of stated outright; the reader has to work to understand the full story.

Contrary to common belief, readers like to work. We read fiction for leisure, but what we find enjoyable is the thinking and effort that goes into reading a story—in this sense, reading is not an act of relaxation but instead an act of rejuvenation. Part of the counterintuitiveness of this fact lies in the use of the word “work,” which typically connotes difficulty and boredom, but here actually just means effort and energy. When I read Gene Wolfe’s The Shadow of the Torturer, for instance, what I enjoy is experiencing a full story from the bare bones laid out by the words on the page—the act of reading is not one of translation, from written words to visual scenes and stories, but one of transformation, from written words to a complete, whole story.

This is one reason (the other being the superfluity, as described above) many readers, including me, find lengthy descriptions of scenery highly irritating—we already have complete pictures in our heads. A better approach is to describe a single unusual aspect of a setting or character, and let the reader fill in the rest.

For example, the entire physical description of Rothfuss’s protagonist: “The man had true-red hair, red as flame. His eyes were dark and distant, and he moved with the subtle certainty that comes from knowing many things.” Here Rothfuss gives us three details, each rich with implication instead of mere explicit fact:

1. The man has hair “red as flame”—this implies that the hair also bends away from the head like a rising flame; it also can be taken to mean that the man has a fiery, passionate personality.

2. “His eyes were dark and distant”—this implies an inner sadness, and a preoccupation with something other than the here-and-now.

3. “He moved with the subtle certainty that comes from knowing many things”—this implies that the man is highly educated and intelligent, and is very confident in his knowledge and skill; it also implies that this confidence is “subtle,” meaning he is not blatant and forthright about his intellectual superiority.

Now, here’s the crux of the matter: Rothfuss’s original description was 28 words long, but I drew 80 words of inferences from them. The density of meaning of Rothfuss’s writing here is 80/28 = 2.857—each word is pulling about three times its own weight! Implication is a way to make writing accomplish more than it would otherwise have space to accomplish.

Writing filled with implication is writing that relies on the thoughtful interpretation of its readers. As writers, our first instinct is to make everything easier on our readers—we cut superfluous phrases, revise for flow and continuity, and generally put in a great deal of effort so our reader doesn’t have to. This is not a novel approach, either—virtually every business in the world benefits from making life easier for its consumers. (Hence why “some assembly required” furniture sells less well than actual, put-together furniture.) However, this philosophy forgets one major, unavoidable truth:

We value what we work to gain. Our minds justify effort by putting value on what we exert energy to
obtain: Anyone who has ever had the irrational thought “If I don’t eat this dessert, purchasing it was just a waste of money” (as if eating a chocolate cake will give you back the 5$ you spent on it) is guilty of this tendency.

As usual, Patrick Rothfuss said it best in The Wise Man’s Fear:

“It’s the questions we can’t answer that teach us the most. They teach us how to think. If you give a man an answer, all he gains is a little fact. But give him a question and he’ll look for his own answers. That way, when he finds the answers, they’ll be precious to him. The harder the question, the harder we hunt. The harder we hunt, the more we learn.”

This is why readers like to work. Never spoon-feed your reader information, whether it be details of the setting, revelations about a character, or a moral lesson. Instead, show your reader how those setting details affect the story; show your reader how a character’s actions reflect her innermost being; show your reader the results of following (or not following) a moral code.

A frequent complaint about Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series is that he engages in long, pedantic moral screeds—which was wholly unnecessary, because the moral lessons he was concerned with were woven into the fabric of his plot, his world, and his characters. His lecturing was, to some extent, redundant.

Let’s break down two different ways to approach incorporating implication into writing: showing and connoting.

Showing is demonstrating something instead of telling it outright—the classic “show v. tell” issue. It’s not as simple as “show, don’t tell,” however, because even though showing is often more effective than telling, it also requires more time than telling. When we explicitly tell the reader “Walt is unhappy about his cancer remission,” it only takes seven words; when we show Walt punching a towel dispenser in frustration after receiving the cancer remission news, it takes a full scene.

Showing takes more space than telling. In a short story, it is sometimes best to just state something outright, in order to save space. However, though it is less efficient, it is far more powerful to show something than it is to tell it. The reader values the information more and has more time to process the information.

We need to keep this tradeoff in mind as we craft our stories: Showing has a greater impact than telling, but telling is more efficient than showing. Neither should be used exclusively.

How can we reconcile this observation—that showing requires more space than telling—with our earlier realization that writing that relies upon implication accomplishes more in a smaller space? The answer lies in connotation.

Our earlier example of Rothfuss’s description of his protagonist was an instance of telling, but a very special kind of telling that implies more than it states outright. “He moved with the subtle certainty that comes from knowing many things” connotes more about the character than it states outright. While showing conveys information in more space than telling, connoting conveys information in less space than telling—it is the path to forcing your words to carry more than their own weight.

Consider Earnest Hemingway’s shortest (and, as he reportedly saw it, best) story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” This six-word sentence states nothing more than that unused baby shoes are for sale, but it connotes an entire background: Why would someone put up an ad selling baby shoes? Because their baby died before it had a chance to wear the shoes. Not only that—the baby, we may assume, died because of poverty or malnourishment. (Why else would the parents go to all the trouble of taking out an ad in a newspaper if they weren’t desperate for the small bit of cash baby shoes might earn them?) From the mere existence of the ad, we can also infer that the parents want others to know of their suffering, to feel sympathy for them. Hemingway’s six words give us a full, poignant tale, without actually telling us more than the smallest piece of it.

Here, he connotes by giving us facts that have certain preconditions. Humans have amazingly sophisticated processors in our brains—given a piece of input, we can model how it came about and what will result from it. This is why J.K. Rowling’s “time-turner” set off alarm bells in her readers’ heads, this is why writers can convey information that relies on their readers’ interpretation, and this is why we are able to derive the full story of Hemingway’s bereaved parents solely through its ending—a seemingly innocent, trivial advertisement for baby shoes.

This is also the reason not every character needs to tell their long, tragic backstory (at a nighttime campfire the day before they think they’re going to die): show us a character’s actions, words, and reactions, and we’ll gain an unconscious feel for their history that will be truer than any factually-accurate-but-dry résumé you could give us.

Any summary loses the implicit stories underlying the raw facts of the situation; no Wikipedia page can let you know Benjamin Franklin in the way his autobiography, and the hundred billion neurons with which you’re interpreting his every word, can.

Journey Before Destination

The same idea of human cognitive modeling applies to future events, albeit more weakly. We are often less sure of where someone will go in life than where they came from, but we may have a general idea—we know technology will continue to progress, though we don’t know all the ways how; we know the peoples of the world will slowly but steadily become less sexist and racist as the human race becomes wiser and more capable of moral reasoning; we know most (but not all) originally happy relationships will turn sour with time, because it is unlikely the participants will have the impetus or awareness to recover from tiny fights, let go of petty grudges, or put money, time, and energy into consciously building positive bridges between each other. We know all manner of vague directions the future will go in, but we don’t know the details—and that is where we can take advantage as storytellers.

One of the goals of writing fiction is to take these ethereal, unconscious connections, predictions, and inferences and transform them into something concrete. In this sense, telling a story is the practice of following the threads of your audience’s expectations and finding unexpected kinks, rips, and knots: the key to compelling narrative does not lie in the end-result of the story, but in the path taken to get there.

For example, the overall plot of Breaking Bad is obvious from the first episode—we know how it’s going to turn out, because we know the premise, the goals of the protagonist, and the inclinations of dramatic screenwriters. Nobody is surprised. Yet it is still single greatest television show of all time (not hyperbole). The reason it’s so riveting and beautiful is the series of steps on the way to that inevitable ending.

Did anyone (except Brandon Sanderson) think The Lord of the Rings would end with anything except Sauron’s loss and the victory of the right and just? The third book’s title is literally a massive spoiler about the triumphant ending: The Return of the King. Yet it is still the progenitor of the entire modern fantasy genre, and a damn good read. Tolkien takes us through his world with (almost too much) detail—that’s the point of telling us the story. The struggle against the Dark One is almost a formality, merely a convenient framework through which to showcase his world and his characters. Since its publication, we have encountered hundreds of stories with identical plots—which were, when summarized, the same
overarching story—yet none of them has Samwise Gamgee, Smeagol, or the Shire’s tobacco industry.

And now for the Return of the LaPlante: a summary, by necessity of brevity, skips all the small fragments of story in favor of the big picture, and thereby misses the point. It may mention the protagonist passed through a city, but it won’t mention the striking conversation she had with her barista, who was wearing sunglasses at night and had an ankle tattoo of a seven-legged baby pegasus. Details. Details are why we read Shakespeare instead of skimming the Sparknotes; they are the meat and measure of a storyteller, yet are too numerous and subtle to be mentioned in a paraphrase.

LaPlante’s Law: The quality of a story is directly proportional to its resistance to paraphrase. A useful tool for understanding what really matters in a story.

(I will not sum up this article here, for obvious reasons.)

How to Approach Becoming a Writer

Note: This article was originally published on April 6, 2016.

 

False: Writing is a mystical practice, in which the muse strikes like a bolt of lightning from a blue sky and a perfect story flows out of you. True: Writing is a skill, like any other, that is acquired through thousands of hours of practice.

Writing is not about inspiration. Writing is not about ideas. Writing is not about luck.

Not about inspiration: The writers that get published are the writers that write not only when the writing is easy and fun, but also when it is pure drudgery, and every word they type feels stale and worthless. There are three reasons for this:

  1. When the novel is done, it is impossible to distinguish between the pages produced in the two mindsets, because you revise and remove the pretentiousness from the “inspired” writing and you rework the dry, “uninspired” writing until they both feel the same.
  2. If you wait until you are inspired to start writing, you will very rarely feel inspired, whereas if you write every day, you will find yourself looking forward to the task at hand more and more frequently.
  3. The reason to practice writing is that every word you write makes you a better writer, regardless of how you feel while writing it—you improve the same amount, no matter whether you feel brilliant or stupid while doing the work.

In summary: You produce the same quality of writing and improve the same amount whether inspired or uninspired.

Writing is not about ideas: The same school of thought that teaches that writing is about inspiration teaches that the greatest writers have better ideas than the rest of us. Some think that if only they could find the idea for a bestselling novel, they would be set. They think writers should hoard their ideas, waiting for the best one before writing. But the truth is that ideas are cheap, and far less important than the execution.

Ideas are cheap. A great writer can write a compelling, powerful story using a weak idea, and a terrible writer will take the best idea in the world and write a terrible story with it. A certain quality of idea can be important—specifically, an idea that you find interesting and worthwhile, and an idea that excites you—but it is far, far less important than how well you actually write. Your skills in writing sentences, scenes, and chapters, and your skills in portraying emotions, characters, and conflict, are orders of magnitude more important than the ingenuity of your ideas.

The story of Jim Butcher’s rise to fame illustrates this principle. Jim Butcher is a fantasy writer, and author of the Dresden Files and The Codex Alera series. Five years before he was published, he was in a heated argument on a forum with a random stranger. Jim argued that the execution of the story mattered far more than the ideas that made up the story; the other person insisted that the ideas behind
the story mattered more. So Jim said, “Give me the worst two ideas you can come up with, and I will write an amazing story using them.” Other person replies, “Alright—write a story that combines Pokemon and the Lost Roman Legion.” . . . the result was Jim Butcher’s seven-book, #1 New York Times Bestselling series The Codex Alera.

Writing is not about luck: A novel is not a coin-flip. Getting published is not a fluke.

Let’s say you’re listening to a pianist. How long do you have to listen before you can tell the general skill level of the pianist? Thirty seconds? A minute? I would argue that, within as little as five to ten seconds, you can distinguish between a masterful concert pianist, a good-but-not-amazing intermediate pianist, and an I-started-three-months-ago-and-never-practice novice pianist. You can tell them apart immediately even if you don’t play or listen to piano. Similarly, an editor or agent can tell your writing skill from a single page. A literary agent (someone who helps you with book contracts, marketing, foreign rights, and publication in general) can read the first pages of a hundred novel submissions in a day, and will know very quickly whether the writers are experienced and publishable. Similarly, you can probably tell whether you will like a book within the first chapter. All these phenomena rely on a single, underlying principle: You don’t have to have a skill to recognize it in others. You don’t need to be an author to tell whether a book is good, in the same way that you don’t have to be an Olympic sprinter to tell whether an athlete runs quickly and you don’t have to be a painter to tell a Picasso masterpiece from an amateur’s doodle.

If you are persistent, you write every day, and you submit your books to enough editors and agents, you will eventually get published.

Becoming a writer is about none of these things. Instead, becoming a writer is akin to becoming a pianist, baseball player, or Jedi. Writing is a skill that can only be developed through practice.

The number often thrown about since Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers popularized the concept is 10,000 hours. There is nothing magic about hitting exactly ten thousand, but the overall concept is sound: to master any specific craft you have to work at it for two or three hours a day, every day, for a decade (or five hours a day for six years).

There is a caveat: it is not enough to simply write each day. The key is that you have to consistently work hard at improving your writing. You have to deliberately practice the key skills of becoming a writer (doing this is the main purpose of this entire site).

This type of work, in which you concentrate for 1.5-4.5 hours at a time on a difficult task, without distraction, is called deep work (credit to Cal Newport for the term and idea). Deep work is work on a cognitively challenging task that takes place without distraction. (Shallow work, in contrast, is easily replicated half-work that produces no real value.) Deep work has several benefits:

  • A continual improvement in the quality of your writing (an improvement in your skill as a writer).
  • A continual increase in the quantity of your writing (deep work is a skill that is developed like any other: through practice. If you start out doing 1.5 hours of deep work once a week, then move to twice a week, and over a few months to every day, and then to twice a day . . . you will end up producing a far greater volume of work than you would have thought possible).
  • A sense of meaning in your life. When you spend daily time working hard on something of value, you feel that your life is well-lived and worthwhile; when you spend all your time on inconsequential, transient matters, like Facebook, television, and other low-stakes, low-value activities, you yourself start to feel that your life is similarly without worth.

That said, deep work is extraordinarily exhausting if done properly—it requires absolute, absorbing concentration on a single, difficult task, without distractions, and will drain you of a good deal of your mental energy and willpower. This is why it is important to spend several hours a day doing the fun, frivolous, low-stakes and rejuvenating activities mentioned above after you do your deep work. If you do a couple hours of deep work in the morning and then spend the rest of your day doing less intensive, distracted half-work (or more deep work), instead of completely disengaging and relaxing, you will not be able to continue to work the next day. This reflects an important underlying concept in the general philosophy of becoming a great writer: No one day matters; what matters is that you get back on track, and repeatedly spend a majority of your days working on what matters to you.

Because deep work is draining, you should not expect your mind to switch over to it easily. If you want to engage in deep work on a regular basis, you need to do a few things:

Maintain conscious, compelling clarity on the answer to the questions of why you are going to work deeply and what you are going to accomplish in any particular deep work session. E.g., “I am going to work deeply today because becoming a skilled writer (biologist, politician, chef, etc.) is important to me and will result in me having a rewarding and well-rewarded life.” and “I am going to drill down today on my magic system and really nail down all the details, because that is the area in my novel where I am having the most trouble currently.”

Establish a ritual you follow before every deep work session, which gets you in the frame of mind necessary for total concentration. Turn off the internet on your computer and put your phone on airplane mode; pick a quiet, empty place to work.

(One tip I’ve found helpful is to make the ritual require significant physical or financial effort on your part. Climb to the top floor of a skyscraper; go to a building ten minutes’ walk away; rent a hotel room, so you actually have to pay money to do deep work. The reason this works is that your brain has to justify all the effort you just put into preparing to do deep work, and so it becomes much easier to transition into a productive session of difficult work—the only kind of work that truly matters in your quest to become better at any task.)

(If you want more advice and information about deep work, its benefits and how to fit it into your life, check out this article and the book on the subject by the same writer.)