Tower of the Hand

The Business of Epic Fantasy

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Apr 25, 2015, 10:10 PM ET

At the Chicago Comic Entertainment Expo, which takes place this weekend, the main stage of the convention center has been reserved for some of the show's biggest attractions. This year's headliners include filmmakers M. Night Shyamalan and Kevin Smith, the cast of Orphan Black and the lead actresses of two Marvel TV shows, and even Stan Lee himself. For those more Game of Thrones inclined, Jason Momoa (Khal Drogo) and Finn Jones (Loras Tyrell) will also be spending some time in the main stage spotlight. Hundreds upon hundreds of fans pack themselves into the room to hear their favorites promote their work. Lots of those fans are even costumed like their idols; e.g. four "Peggy Carters" were brought on stage before being greeted by the actual Peggy Carter, the charming Hayley Atwell.

For as much as the main stage celebrates the lucky few who have made it big enough to merit the big room, the show's other panels have been assigned the considerably smaller rooms along the way. Those panels feature authors, actors, and internet personalities who may not be household names, but even still, they have their loyal fans. Go down one level to the convention show floor and you'll find hundreds of booths of artists, many of whom deserve to be recognized for their talents, too, but aren't quite there yet. Regardless, there seems to be a single message resonating from everyone from the big stage to the smallest booth, loud enough to be heard without the benefit of a megaphone: success in the creative arts industry must be earned.

Obviously this isn't a profound insight, particularly since we've heard actors say it time and again. Even today, Jason Momoa mentioned having to hawk shirts for a living before landing roles that eventually led to him being a leading man, and Hayley Atwell and Ming-Na Wen each talked about their early career disappointments, which they can appreciate more now that they've become feminist role models.

But whereas these actors made it sound like a valedictory message, the writers (in their respective panels) portrayed it as on ongoing struggle. The convention has assembled a number of bestselling fantasy authors: The Kingkiller Chronicle's Patrick Rothfuss, The Dresden Files' Jim Butcher, and The Sookie Stackhouse Novels' Charlaine Harris, among others. They're in town to promote new works and discuss the old, yet there was a bit of defensiveness from some of them almost from the start. As Butcher sat down to begin his panel, an audience member prompted him to ask Rothfuss about when to expect his much anticipated next book. Butcher drolly responded, "Patrick Rothfuss is not my bitch." (If you don't recall, Neil Gaiman once wrote in defense of A Song of Ice and Fire delays, "George R. R. Martin is not your bitch.") The joke was well-received, and Rothfuss himself would elicit laughs later when, after a very long statement praising Butcher for being able to produce two books a year compared to his one every five, he asked, "So I guess my question for you is... how?"

Neither George R. R. Martin nor A Song of Ice and Fire came up often in the writers panels that I attended (even though one panel was described: "The realm of epic fantasy encompasses some of the most popular media properties today, from The Hobbit to Game of Thrones. But what does Epic Fantasy mean to you?") Truthfully speaking, at this point, A Game of Thrones seems like a prerequisite for writers and readers alike. When Butcher casually mentioned giving his character the Ned Stark treatment, everyone in the audience knew what he meant. Similarly everyone grasped what The Demon Cycle's Peter V. Brett meant when he said he didn't want his books to be like Game of Thrones; it wasn't a negative opinion, just a belief that GRRM has already cornered that particular landscape of fantasy.

Despite that, it's hard to imagine GRRM giving different answers to some of the questions asked here of his contemporaries. Writing epic fantasy is legitimately difficult, and it's made even more so when a writer has become so popular that he has more responsibilities to his "brand" than just producing the next book. Butcher talked about finding time to write while out promoting. Rothfuss discussed the challenges about dealing with translators. When asked about writers blocks, the authors explained that's how new material often develops. For instance, Butcher's upcoming series, The Cinder Spires, was borne from an idea he had when he should have been finishing the next Dresden book; similarly Naomi Novik's newest book, Uprooted, came about even though she's on deadline for the next Temeraire. For his part, Rothfuss denied the very existence of writers block. In fact, he found the nuanced answer to every question. Many times the other writers looked to him for his response, the amusing exception being first-time author Kelley Grant, for whom writing does not (yet?) seem to be as much a tortured experience.

Point being, sometimes I think we're too fixated on GRRM and the wait for The Winds of Winter. Hearing this wide array of authors speak of their own writing processes and challenges reminds me that our impatience is not unique to our fandom.

Anyway, let me know if you have any questions about the panels I attended or the guests I've listened to so far. The convention has been a lot of fun and I have plenty of other observations, too. The thoughts listed above are simply the ones that I think are most relevant to GRRM and ASOIAF. I'll try to post some photos tomorrow.


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