This is part 2 of a 3-part series in which Vocal interviewed world-famous fantasy author Christopher Paolini. In our interview with Christopher, we talked childhood, Montana, writing, and of course, fantasy and sci fi. It was a joy and education to speak with Christopher and we hope you enjoy his stories, thoughts and advice as much as we did.
Remember to check out Christopher Paolini’s Fantasy Fiction Challenge closing November 8th.
Vocal (V): Do you feel like you subscribed to this very strict planning structure, have you always written this way, or have you seen a significant evolution from when you were writing as a 16 year old to how you write now, in your 30s?
Christopher Paolini (CP): No, I have always written this way, and when I get away from it, I cause myself major problems. I think it’s because my brain can only do so many things at once, and when I’m writing, I’m so consumed by thoughts of what the characters are feeling, what the scene itself is doing, what the pacing is like, what the language is, what I’m trying to accomplish with the language, that I don’t have any processing power to plot. I don’t have processing power to think about the social implications of whatever is going on. And that’s not to say that I don’t invent things as I write: I do, quite a few things. But I’d say I need at least 80 to 90 per cent in place before I go in – if I’m hoping to write a clean first draft. If I go in with, let’s say, 60 per cent planned out, or 50 per cent planned out, I usually can expect to have to do quite a bit of revision and redrafting.
So the only reason I succeeded with Eragon is because I had that outline fully nailed down, or mostly nailed down. I had tried writing stories before Eragon, and I always hit a wall after about five or six pages, because I didn’t have a plot: what I had was an inciting incident, like boy finds dragon egg, great. That’s not a story, that’s one event. What happens after that and what does it mean to the characters? That’s a story. So I was only able to get through an entire manuscript, write an entire manuscript, once I realized that was an issue for me, and then once I worked out the plot of Eragon and the rest of the series in fairly great detail.
And even then, I didn’t know what I know now: I didn’t understand it to the degree I know now, and there were quite a few things in the first draft of Eragon that I changed and revised in the second draft, and that’s not something I would do now: I would have made sure that those choices had already been made before going in to a first draft. Part of it’s just a question of efficiency and time. There are a lot of stories I want to write and a lot of things I need to do in my life, and I am trying to minimize the amount of times I have to go back and make massive changes, especially when my books run at the size they do. If you’re making changes on a 200-page book, it can certainly be heart-rending and difficult, but it’s not the same amount of mental energy as is required to make similar changes, let’s say, to an 800-page novel.
I remember when I was editing To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, my last published book, and I would get through 300 pages of editing and I wasn’t even half-way through, and it was, “I just finished an entire book and I’m not even half-way through!” Now, of course, I can’t complain: it was my choice. I’m the one who wrote that length of a story. But it definitely requires commitment to stay with projects that long, and again, you don’t want to be making massive structural changes if you can avoid it at that stage.
V: You were mentioning some of the similarities and parallels between screen writing and novel writing a minute ago. I’m interested in circling back to that for a second. A lot of people are familiar with the movie-making practice of editing things out of the final cut. Is there anything that got edited out of Inheritance that readers might be surprised to hear about, any big scenes or developments that were initially part of the story but for whatever reason didn’t make it to the final product?
CP: No, there were some small scenes here and there that got nipped out for pacing. A number of them actually I wish I’d left in, and they were in the deluxe edition of the book, and I actually slipped a number of them back into the regular edition in later printings because I felt they were important enough. In fact, I still have fans bringing up some of them, saying, “Did the character of Jeod ever get to ride on Saphira the way he was promised?”. And yes, he did, it was in the first draft.
Inheritance, no, but there have been a few deleted scenes and those are accessible on my website, paolini.net. For example, in Inheritance, there’s a scene in which Eragon faced off against the swordsmen in a castle tower, and I really liked the scene and it just never fit, and it ended up getting cut. In the third book, Brisingr, I had a scene where I was trying to show Eragon’s celebrity among the Varden and also how he was using his magical powers for good, and I had a whole scene where he helped cure this man’s wife of essentially cancer using magic, and, again, that’s on my website, I believe. And the reason that got cut is because I had a later scene where Eragon helped heal a baby who had a cleft palate, so it was a bit repetitive.
Those sort of things happen all the time in editing. My first drafts tend to drop by about 10 per cent during editing, give or take, some books less, some books more. For To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, now that had a massive rewrite process, the structure of the book changed dramatically, but what I do with every single book I write is, I create a file called Cut Sections where I dump paragraphs, lines, pages, whatever gets removed that I feel is worth preserving. I mean, I create backups of the file, but this puts it all in one chunk. So, For To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, I cut about 340 pages, 138,000 words, over the course of various revisions. I don’t recommend that though, that was the result of not having the outline that I needed when going into the first draft.
V: I reread Aragon recently and I’m a ways into Eldest at the moment. You can really see the developments of your voice and technique as a writer over the trajectory of the whole cycle. I’m curious what it’s like for you to go back and read the first 50 pages of Eragon at the age of 38, given you wrote it when you were 15?
CP: I haven’t. I won’t! I mean, someday I will, but… Writing that book was such a formative experience for me and was bound up in so many intense experiences. My family and I sort of bet the house on trying to make a go of it self-publishing, and if the book had taken a couple more months to turn a profit, we were literally going to have to sell our house and just move to a city and get any jobs we could. I postponed college for it. I went from being home-schooled and living in an extremely rural environment to travelling around and doing two to three one-hour-long presentations every single day in schools for months on end. And then, of course, once it was published by Random House, there was a huge amount of attention and excitement around it which also transformed my life.
So, it’s very difficult for me to just go back and look at it and read it. But, I will say that at times I will see an excerpt, or I will have to look something up in the first book, and sometimes I just cringe, you know; sometimes I look at it and go, “Darn it, I know how to do that so much better now”. Sometimes I look at it and I go, “Wow, I wrote that? That’s not half bad!” There’s a purity to that first book that I think people respond to, that relationship between Eragon and Saphira, the hero journey, the adventure that he goes on.
Later on, with Eldest, I was very much aware that there was now an audience for the book, and I needed and wanted to improve my writing skills, so I made a conscious effort to do that. The greatest disadvantage that a young writer has is their lack of experience, and unfortunately, there’s no easy fix for that aside from just living. The advantage that a young writer has is their youthful enthusiasm, energy, and I would even say, ignorance, because if you don’t know how difficult a challenge is, you might actually be more willing to jump in and tackle it and learn by doing.
But I made a conscious effort to really improve my skills as a writer over the course of the series, and I’ve continued to do that, so I’m happy to see that it shows!
V: It’s almost mind-blowing to think about how different things are now than they were in 2001, of course. It’s easier than ever to create a piece of content and publish it, and I think that’s a wonderful thing, of course, but it’s also a very daunting thing, because now it’s easier than ever to get lost in the crowd. In your opinion and experience, what can writers and creators do to stand out in this new era of publishing? I mean, you used to famously – you just referred to it – self-promote, you went around, you did shows, you really just sold your book, one by one, in bookstores. Is that even still a viable strategy with Instagram and TikTok, when you can reach millions in minutes?
CP: I mean, I think it is a viable strategy, because in-person interactions always trump online interactions in terms of the impact that you have moment-to-moment on a person, and that’s not to downplay the importance of the Internet, it’s just when you’re physically standing in front of someone, you are able to command their attention in a way that is difficult through a screen. Publishers still pay attention to physical book sales, and standing out – ha – when you’re literally standing in front of someone is easier than, again, if you’re one listing out of hundreds of thousands buried somewhere on Amazon or elsewhere.
Online promotion works really well if you can actually get the attention, but as with all things, getting the attention is the difficult bit. There’s actually some mathematical reasons for this, I forget what it’s called, Ziff’s Law, something like that, that applies to a lot of things in nature, like you see rivers flow together and gradually form larger and larger bodies of water, and those larger bodies of water end up containing the bulk of all the water; you see it with wealth accumulation, the accumulation of land ownership, with stocks, with bonds, there’s always a small percentage that holds the majority, whether that’s attention, money, you know, influence, whatever. And that’s just the way nature and the world works. But, that said, you don’t have to be at the very top to have a really successful career as a writer, and deliver a very comfortable life as a writer.
So there is no one answer, unfortunately. You have to find out what works for you. The problem with social media sometimes is that it takes so much work to be good at it that that becomes your job.
You see it with the YouTubers: I like making YouTube videos, I’m not very good at it, I would love to do more film-making, essentially, for YouTube; I would love to do more Minecraft videos, I love playing Minecraft, but to do it well and to do it at the level I’d want to, it would have to be my job, and I just don’t have the time for that. Which is frustrating, because I like to be good at what I’m doing! So if I can’t be good at it, I’ll do it for my own pleasure, but I’m not going to inflict it on everyone else.
But yeah, there’s so much material being published nowadays that standing out from the crowd is the great challenge. But – and here’s the optimistic view of all this – people are hungry for stories. People are consuming more stories now than any time before, and more people are alive now than at any other point in history. I think we just hit, what, 8 billion people, something like that? So if you can find 10,000 people who will buy anything you publish, your core fans of 10,000, if you can find 100,000 people who will buy anything you publish, man, you’ve got a career right there, you’ve got a good career. So it’s possible.
And the nice thing with there being so many people in the world is that no matter how niche your interest is, someone’s going to like it: in fact, odds are, hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people are going to like it. You know, if you’re one in a million, that’s not that rare these days!
V: I feel like this ties into another thought that I wanted to ask you. I recently had a conversation with someone who said that they only read non-fiction because they want to spend their reading time enhancing their mind. As someone who spends the majority of your time building and creating fictional universes, what do you think is the importance of both reading and writing fiction, especially fantasy fiction? What can someone gain from investing their time and energy into fantasy?
CP: So, I tried to hand-sell a copy of the self-published edition of Eragon to a man who claimed that he only read presidential biographies. And I did my darnedest to sell Eragon to him. In fact, I even went so far as to say, “Well, what if I become president some day? Wouldn’t you want to own this?” and he said, “No, I’ll just get your biography”.
As far as reading only fiction or non-fiction, I’m not going to say that someone should do one thing or the other. Read what makes you happy, read what helps you become a better person or teaches you things or you find just purely entertaining. That said, as with most authors, I’m a big fan of reading widely, and I think that if you restrict yourself to just one type of fiction or non-fiction or genre, you’re missing out on a lot of human creativity.
So, as far as genre goes, specifically sci-fi and fantasy, fantasy is the oldest form of fiction, and for a long time there was sort of a snobbery toward more modern forms of fantasy while ignoring the fact that a lot of our greatest pieces of fiction from history are fantasy. The Odyssey is fantasy; Beowulf is fantasy; The Tempest, Midsummer Night’s Dream, are all fantasy. So many of our myths and legends are technically fantasy: if they were written nowadays, that’s where they would be shelved. So fantasy has the advantage of being able to tap into stories that have succeeded for thousands and thousands of years and they’ve succeeded because they speak about fundamental parts of the human experience, and that’s not going to change. You may dress it up with different settings and different clothes and different types of more modern dialogue, but fundamentally, what’s happening in those stories often adheres to those older forms.
And of course, there are iconoclasts, there are people who push the genre and bend it and do interesting things, but they’re doing it often in reaction to the traditional forms. So it helps to have knowledge of them. Science fiction is – not always, but often – the genre of the future, it tends to look forward, it’s often pessimistic, although I prefer the more optimistic science fiction, because I think that’s a more productive thing to put into our heads, and yet, it still draws from those same structures.
You know, ultimately, it doesn’t matter what genre you’re writing in: story is story. There are arguments that there are only a couple of basic types of story: that might be a bit too reductionist, but in general, stories work off of certain basic building blocks, and it doesn’t matter if you’re writing a romance or a horror novel or a science fiction novel, it all kind of works on your brain in similar fashion, even if the ultimate effect is different.
I don’t know if that answers your question or not!
V: Definitely. I actually have lots of questions about the interconnectedness of fantasy and science fiction, which I think is so interesting.
CP: Well, I’ll also say that a lot of the power of fantasy comes from the fact that it is able to externalise things that are otherwise internal. A very crude example would be if you have a character who’s scared of a spider. In a fantasy novel they can meet a spider who’s as big as a house, you can personify Death itself in a fantasy story and use that for storytelling purposes – there’s a famous movie, The Seventh Seal, by Ingmar Bergman, which has Death as an actual character. I’m using obvious examples here, but you get the point. Symbolism and thematic imagery can be over-the-top with fantasy, but if done well, it can be incredibly powerful.
V: So Shelob the spider might have been a manifestation of Tolkien’s deep fear of arachnids is what you’re saying!
CP: Possibly, but it’s better if you make it about the characters and not yourself! And again, with science fiction, similarly, you can do that also, depending on how realistic you want to be.
As far as the similarities between the two of them, they’re both genres where you ask, “What if?” Horror often does that also. But you ask “What if” and then you can explore that, the trick being you still have to create characters we care about. You can survive on an idea, you can write a story that’s entirely about an idea, but I would argue that stories that combine a good idea plus characters we actually care about are the ones that tend to last the most. A lot of earlier science fiction tended to be dominated by the interesting idea of plot, and I’m not going to single anyone out here, because some of them do it better than others, but those can be interesting to read, but again, if the characters don’t matter, then you’re almost reading a scientific exercise.