Part III: Terry Brooks & Patrick Rothfuss

Part III of IV of An Interview Between Terry Brooks and Patrick Rothfuss features both writers talking about their second books, the lessons learned from editors, and the need to break away from the works that made them famous from time to time.

PART I | PART II | PART III (posted here) | PART IV

Cartoon by Nate Taylor


Pat: Looking back, which of your books is your favorite?

Terry: You’ve heard this before, but I always say my books are like my children and I can’t choose between them. I love them all, but in different ways and for different reasons. It’s a nice dodge to an uncomfortable question.

Pat: Was any one of them particularly difficult to write?

Terry: Each book presented its own set of problems. But writing Elfstones of Shannara was the hardest. It was my sophomore effort, and it came on the heels of a rejection of a previous 400 page debacle following Sword. I was devastated that Lester del Rey was rejecting that sequel book, but I was also determined to prove I could write another successful fantasy. So I wrote Elfstones, and he loved it. Except he wanted the middle 200 pages rewritten. One third of the book. So I did. He made me write it again. So I did. Gag me with a spoon. However, that was my baptism by editorial fire, and what I learned in that six to eight months was invaluable. Every writer should have that sort of education, but I think few do these days.

Your turn. Fess up. What was your worst/best experience with your editor holding your feet to the fire in terms of your writing?

Pat: I had trouble with my second book too. But with me, it wasn’t so much my editor holding my feet to the fire, as my editor keeping me from burning myself out….

My first book came out in April of 2007. And as I already had a draft of book two, I promised the whole world that I’d give them the second one in a year. I said it in a dozen interviews. I said it in a dozen phone conversations with my editor, Betsy Wollheim.

There were problems though.

Terry: Aren’t there always with second books?

Pat: Yeah. They should give you some sort of pamphlet when you’re first published. Something titled: “The hardest part is yet to come” or something like that.

The biggest problem for me was that the second book was *much* rougher than I’d remembered. I’d also never written to a deadline before. I was going from 14 years of being a hobby writer, straight into being a bestseller. It was a huge mental adjustment. I was also a bit of an emotional wreck because my mom had died just a few months before the book came out.

I tried, I worked like a dog, going to some insane lengths to meet my deadline. But there was only so much I could do, especially considering the mental state I was in…

In the end, it was my editor, Betsy, who saved me. I’d sent her a draft of the book, and we had a really intense conversation about what was going on.

(If anyone’s really curious, I go into detail about that conversation over HERE on my blog.)

After that conversation, she pulled the book out of the production schedule and gave me the time and space I needed to figure out what the hell I was doing. It saved the second book from being awful. Saved my whole career, really. Probably saved my relationship and my mental health, too.

Needless to say, I think the world of her. She’s an editor that really cares about her authors. And after 30 years in the business, she’s just had her first Hugo nomination. (Ahem. Blatant plug.) She’s got my vote.

If you are eligible to vote, click HERE!

Terry: More than a few writers have been sunk by the discovery that writing to deadline isn’t so easy after you’ve always written at your leisure. Many good first books have been followed by bad books or no books at all, resulting in truncated careers. So I will tell you that I think you did really well here. It’s good to have an editor like Betsy to stand behind you, especially when you start out. I had that in Lester del Rey, who stuck with me for 5 years while I was thrashing my way through Elfstones.

Pat: Huzzah for good editors. People really don’t know what they really do. They don’t just hunt for typos and make sure you’re using the right “Your.”.

Editors help pick out the covers for your books. They write ad copy. They help promote you. They negotiate with the publisher to get marketing money.

And a bunch of other things. Does anything spring to mind that I’m forgetting?

Terry: My editors – I’m on my fourth now, Anne Groell – all helped me find places where my books were weak and needed strengthening. That’s been true almost every time out. You get so close to the material after awhile you can’t see its faults clearly. A good editor will spot this and ask if you can’t do a little better or make something a little stronger. I do better as a writer when I know my editor has my back. You hear a lot about adversarial relationships between authors and editors – you know, how an editor forced you to do things you didn’t want to. I’ve never had that happen. I’ve never felt my editors pushed me in the wrong direction.

Pat: Same here. Betsy is good about finding problematic parts in the books. Sometimes she points something out, and I say, “Oh, of course.” Other times I’m the one that knows just how to fix it.

The tricky bits are when we disagree about how to fix the problems. That’s when we argue. But even that is for the best, in my opinion. The book always ends up better in the end because of that interaction. Usually at the end of one of those disagreements, we find a third solution that was better than my way or her way. That’s the editorial process at its best, in my opinion.

Terry: When Lester was my editor, there were never any arguments. He told me what needed doing, and unless I could convince him otherwise, I had to fix it. But he did let me fix it. No matter how long it took. These days, things are a little less one-sided. I like to think it’s because I’ve paid my dues.

Pat: How about your characters? Have any of them been particularly fun or troublesome to write?

Terry: I have more fun or trouble with scenes than I do with characters. I’m very good with battle scenes. I like writing them; it is a comfortable fit. I have trouble with love scenes. Probably because I have so little personal experience. Write what you know, right? I have gotten better with dialogue over the years, which one always hopes will happen. And I have a very strong rule of thumb about difficult scenes. If a scene is necessary to a book, but I find it impossible to write or even to figure out how to write it, then I know I have to find a way. In each book, there is always one of these. But when you are faced with a challenge like that, you have to accept it. Don’t you?

Pat: Yeah. Most of the time there’s nothing to do but knuckle down and write it. But on rare occasion, I’ve found the reason it’s so hard is because the scene really *should* be moving a different way.

My worry is always something along the lines of, “If this scene is so painful for me to write, how can it be any fun for the reader to read?” But that’s mostly just my brain looking for an excuse to avoid hard work.

What are you reading right now?

Terry: I just finished Driven by James Sallis (sequel to Drive) and will read either the new Jane Whitefield by Thomas Perry or Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller or The Wind Through The Keyhole by Stephen King. I will choose tonight. Unless I can find the new Jess Walter, but I don’t think I have it yet.

Pat: If you had to pick your favorite book of all time, what would it be?

Terry: Very hard question. There have been so many over the years that have meant something special. I might choose Mists of Avalon by Marian Zimmer Bradley. That was a really terrific retelling of the Arthur legend, a touchstone of sorts for almost all writers of fantasy. I was mesmerized by that book. I liked Paul Watkins’s In The Blue Light of African Dreams a whole bunch, too. Really, it’s hard to chose just one.

Pat: What is your personal philosophy about your books? How do you want people to feel when they leave the theatre, so to speak?

Terry: I want them to feel like they got their money’s worth. I want them to feel they got a good read and were not disappointed. I am particularly focused on endings. The ending has to feel right for me to consider any book I read a success, so I spend a lot of time conceiving endings that will resonate with my readers.

Pat: Earlier in the interview, you mentioned the pressure that comes from writing a successful book. “Everyone who loved the first book, from your publisher to your readers, expect you to do it again. The bigger the success of the book, the greater the expectations for another.”

I feel that. A lot. A whole lot. My first book did ridiculously well, and I sweated blood over the second one. Now I’m feeling even more stress about the third. This doesn’t strike me as an encouraging progression.

Does it get easier eventually?

Terry: It does. Mostly because you get steadily more comfortable with the process and stop fighting yourself so hard. You learn how to do more in less time. You learn to trust yourself in multiple ways. But that’s not to say there aren’t struggles with every single book you write. There are. And they always seem to be different, coming from different angles, arising from different issues. But maybe that’s what keeps us so fascinated with the process. But it took me about 4 or 5 books to reach that point. So hang in there.

Pat: What is the best compliment you’ve ever received from a fan?

Terry: I think the one I like the best, the one that always touches me, is when a reader tells me they never read a book before they read one of mine. That’s a great thing. We’re trying to reach everyone with our stories, but reaching someone who didn’t even read before reading you – that’s the best.

Pat: Yeah. I’ve had that a couple of times. My other favorite is, “I gave up on fantasy years ago, but your book brought me back into the genre.” I like the thought that I helped bring someone back into the fold.

Terry: I don’t know if you know yet, or even if you are willing to talk about it, but what are you thinking of doing after the current set of books is completed? Do you have anything in mind yet?

Pat: Yeah. It feels like a bit of a pipe dream, but I do like thinking about what I’ll do when I’m finished with the current series. I think I could have a lot of fun with an urban fantasy.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my current books. But it’s like being in a long term relationship. Eventually you start to chafe a little at being tied down. You see all these skinny little urban fantasy books on the shelves, and you think, “Wow, I’d love to try a little bit of that.”

I’m pretty sure I just mixed a metaphor there….

Terry: I think that periodically all writers yearn to try something different. But it is a slippery slope. Your readers and your publisher all want you to write the same thing you’ve been writing. But now and then you have to stretch yourself. You just have to try something else. The trick is not to stray too far from your strengths as a writer. Very few writers can write successfully cross genres.

Pat: Yeah. That’s one thing that I’ve always admired about Tad Williams. Did Epic Fantasy. Then he switched to hard sci-fi. Then back to fantasy. Now his first urban fantasy is about to come out in a couple months. I got a sneak peek at it, and it’s really good.

I really loved the Landover books. But thinking about it now, they were a big departure from the Shannara books. Still fantasy, but an entirely different style and flavor.

Did you have to fight a bit to write those? Did everyone just want you to keep on writing in the Shannara world?

Terry: They did then, they do now. Nothing much has changed. But once they find something they like, readers want you to keep writing it. Once publishers find something that sells, they want you to keep writing it. When the two go hand in hand, look out. It is a nice fit, but artistically you have to stretch yourself now and then. You get that itch. Landover was Lester’s idea in the first place, so that helped. He saw it as Piers Anthony redux. I saw it as something much darker. It found its own audience, fortunately. But you have to change gears now and then. In fact, I’m starting to get that itch again right now.

Part IV of An Interview Between Terry Brooks & Patrick Rothfuss is now posted for all to read! Enjoy the finale!

15 responses to “Part III: Terry Brooks & Patrick Rothfuss”

  1. Wow. For some reason this interview gives me a strong feeling of nostalgia. Digging out Sword of Shannara and the Name of the Wind…but which do I reread first?

    • My thoughts exactly… since I have read NotW 2 times in the past couple of years and I have no clue how long it has been since I have read Sword I think that I will go with Sword.

    • The annotated version of Sword comes out in October – sounds like a perfect time to re-read one of my favorite books of all time!!

    • Sword of Shannara for me, but I’m waiting for the annotated version to come out…

  2. A lot of the advice in this part of the interview makes me wonder if it wouldn’t be best for first time authors to begin their second book before they even try to get their first one published. That way they can build in some buffer—at least a few months.

    It’s always awesome hearing from authors who are successful, but haven’t started inflating themselves on rarified air. These guys are just so down to earth. It’s really refreshing.

    • Pat *did* begin his second book before his first was published. He had a draft of his whole trilogy before he was published. As he said, though, by the time he’d spent years focusing on the first book, the draft of the second book was rougher than he remembered and it was still a couple of years of hard work revising it until it was up to his wonderfully high standard. As readers it can be tough to muster the patience, but his work is well worth the wait.

  3. Since these interviews started coming up, I’ve reread Name of the Wind and Wise Man’s Fear. When anyone asks me about a new author, I always say Patrick Rothfuss. I love rereading my favorites, it’s like revisiting old friends you haven’t talked to in years. I started reading Shannara in 2009 and devoured the entire series by 2011. I suppose something must be good when you can polish off decades of work in less than a couple years. Both you guys are Titans among men.

  4. A rejected sequel? I’m curious to know what it was about, and if any of its content found its way in another sequel later on.

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