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World Building > Writing Skill?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Ankari, Dec 16, 2012.

  1. Ankari

    Ankari Hero Breaker Moderator

    I'm willing to do a little exercise to find out which is the more successful of the two components. I found a list below ranking the top selling fantasy authors. I'll place my verdict on which of the two the author is best known for (world building or writing skill). I would ask that everyone interested in this debate do the same. At the end, we can determine which path offers the greatest success.

    1) J.K Rowling (400 million)
    The Harry Potter series has been a phenomenon the likes of which publishing has never seen. In less than a decade, Rowling went from an impoverished single mother writing in an Edinburgh cafe to one of the richest women in the world, overtaking dozens of writers who had been working for decades in the process.

    2) Stephen King (350 million)
    In The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1996), it was stated that Stephen King's total worldwide sales in all languages are probably incalculable, and the figure given above is on the conservative side of things. I've seen some figures suggesting he has sold twice this amount, but the 350m figure seems to crop up most often. Some may argue that Horror isn't necessarily part of the SF&F genre either and King shouldn't be counted, but most of his horror features supernatural forces, which firmly places it as a subset of Fantasy. Also, no-one would really argue that Eyes of the Dragon and the Dark Tower series aren't fantasy, and both of these works are set in the same multiverse as most (or, as some fans argue, all) of his other books, which puts him firmly in the Fantasy genre

    3) JRR Tolkien (c. 300 million)
    Tolkien's sales really are incalculable, given how widely his books have been copied, published without permission and distributed worldwide in the last fifty years. However, it is pretty clear that by itself The Lord of the Rings is the biggest-selling single genre novel of all time, and possibly the biggest-selling single novel full stop of all time. 50 million copies of the novel have been sold this century alone. When you factor in the massive sales of The Hobbit, and the smaller but still significant sales of The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales and The Children of Hurin, plus his non-Middle-earth work, Tolkien is clearly a major force in SF&F publishing, arguably all the more notable as his output was small compared to some others on this list.

    4) CS Lewis (120 million)
    It is perhaps fitting that Tolkien's one-time best friend and sometimes collaborator should be next on the list. The 120 million sales is allegedly for his Chronicles of Narnia series by itself, and doesn't include his numerous non-fiction books or his other novels, such as his Space Trilogy

    5) Terry Pratchett (70 million)
    Up until Rowling overtook him around the turn of the century Pratchett was a bona-fide phenomenon, publishing at least two novels a year for almost twenty years and being responsible for the sales of over 1% of all books sold in the UK and his books hitting the top of the Times bestseller lists like clockwork. Major success in the USA had eluded him until The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents won the Carnegie Prize in 2001. Following on from that, his US profile steadily rose until his books began hitting the NYT bestseller list as well. Aside from the occasional bit of mickey-taking, Pratchett was good-natured about losing out on his position as Fantasy's biggest-selling living author (with the King debate still going on) to Rowling, although his ire was provoked when some Potter fans complained that Equal Rites (1987) ripped off Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (1997), demonstrating a flexible interpretation of causality. Whilst Pratchett has now been firmly overtaken by Rowling, he bore it with equanimity and proudly maintains his position as the UK's most shoplifted autho

    6) Robert Jordan (44 million)
    Given how it dominates the discussion on some forums, this would seem to be a fairly lowly position for the biggest-selling of the modern epic fantasists. However, by any standards this is a seriously impressive number of books sold, especially given that the sales are split between a relatively small number of books (I suspect his Conan and Fallon novels' sales are all but negligible compared to those of The Wheel of Time sequence).

    7) Terry Goodkind (25 million)
    Pinning down concrete figures for Goodkind is harder than most due to some truly batty figures being circulated by his fanbase (at one time claiming he was Tor's biggest-selling author but failing to account for why only half as many copies of his latest book had been printed than Robert Jordan's). The worldwide figure of 25 million seems to be well-supported, however.

    8) Terry Brooks (21 million)
    Recently, with the announcement that movie versions of The Elfstones of Shannara and The Sword of Shannara are in development, it was suggested by some papers that Brooks was the 'second-biggest-selling living fantasy author', which would appear to be hyperbolic. An interview with JIVE Magazine reveals them to be rather more modest, although still extremely impressive. His books have sold very well for more than thirty-one years and Brooks, along with Donaldson, arguably kick-started the entire modern epic fantasy subgenre and has been one of its most reliable and visible writers ever since.

    9) Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman (c. 20 million)
    This one was a bit of a guesstimate, coming out of discussions over these two authors' success on a message board several years ago. The figure is certainly highly plausible, with TSR claiming that more than 4 million copies of their Dragonlance Chronicles and Legends trilogies by themselves had been shipped in less than a decade, and this doesn't account for their gaming products, other Dragonlance books and numerous non-Dragonlance novels, many of which have been bestsellers as well.

    10) Frank Herbert (18 million)
    If there's one thing this list has proven, if you want to be a massive-selling author you're far better writing Fantasy than Science Fiction, unless your SF novel features a ton of Fantasy elements. Frank Herbert's Dune is SF's biggest-selling single novel, with more than 12 million copies by itself sold. I'd also make a fair guess that the other 6 million sales are comprised almost entirely of his other five Dune novels.

    You can find the link I used here. I went through the top ten names and tried to verify the numbers. If you see a difference between his post and mine, that's why.
  2. Ankari

    Ankari Hero Breaker Moderator

    That being said, this is how I vote on the names I know:

    1. J.K Rowling: World builder
    2. Stephen King: Writing Skill
    3. JRR Tolkien: world Builder
    4. CS Lewis: World Builder
    5. Terry Pratchett: N/A (never read him).
    6. Robert Jordan: Split
    7. Terry Goodkind: World Builder (by default)
    8. Terry Brooks: Split
    9. Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman: World Builder
    10. Frank Herbert: N/A
  3. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

    I like the list but I'd argue that the reason for Rowling's success as well as many others is not because they are world builders, but rather, fantastic story tellers.
  4. Elder the Dwarf

    Elder the Dwarf Maester


    J.K. Rowling, to me, certainly didn't earn money due to her world building skills. She earned money because she told a good story. She may not technically be a great writer, but her ability to tell that story in a way that was easy to understand and interesting (for an audience that consists, in large part, of younger people and adults that don't read much) says more of her writing skill than her world building ability. I won't make my own list because I have never read enough of Pratchett, Goodkind, Jordan, or Brooks to evaluate them honestly.

    I really don't mind Tolkien's style as much as many here seem to. LOTR can be tough to get through, but I think The Hobbit is written very well. In fact, the style of The Hobbit is why it is one of my favorite books. I don't think many authors could write with a narrator as obviously present (showy, if you will) as Tolkien's is in that work and still hold my interest.
  5. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    My take on these authors:

    1. J.K Rowling: Story teller
    2. Stephen King: Writing Skill / Story teller
    3. JRR Tolkien: world Builder and story teller
    4. CS Lewis: Story telling
    5. Terry Pratchett: Story teller I guess. I didn't get far.
    6. Robert Jordan: Story teller
    7. Terry Goodkind: Don't know. Couldn't reach very far.
    8. Terry Brooks: No opinion.
    9. Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman: More characters / story telling to me, but I haven't read a lot of them.
    10. Frank Herbert: A bit of both, but a good writer / story teller
    Elder the Dwarf likes this.
  6. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver


    1.J.K Rowling: Pass...because I didn't read her books.
    2.Stephen King: Writing Skill
    3.JRR Tolkien: world Builder
    4.CS Lewis: World Builder
    5.Terry Pratchett: story teller
    6.Robert Jordan: Pass...didn't read.
    7.Terry Goodkind: Pass...didn't read enough to make a judgement.
    8.Terry Brooks: Split
    9.Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman: World Builder
    10.Frank Herbert: Pass...didn't read.
  7. Ankari

    Ankari Hero Breaker Moderator

    How is story telling different from writing skills? I thought part of the skill of writing was telling a good story. I mean, I thought there were only so many stories you can tell. It's up to your writing skills to make it your own and accessible for your audience to consume it.
  8. Ankari

    Ankari Hero Breaker Moderator

    Just an FYI, Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman created the Dragonlance universe for TSR
  9. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    I think there is a difference. You can be a superb writer from a technical standpoint, but if you can't tell a story you won't get far in my view. On the other hand, if you are a mediocre writer, in terms of your prose, but can tell a story effectively (Rowling; Meyer) you can have great success.
    T.Allen.Smith likes this.
  10. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

    We've had entire threads dedicated to this topic. BWFoster summed it up...lessee if I can remember this:

    1) Great Story Telling with Great Writing Skill

    2) Great Story Telling with acceptable (not great) writing skill

    3) Great Story Telling with poor writing skill

    4) Mediocre Story telling with great writing skill

    5) Mediocre story telling with mediocre writing skill

    6) Mediocre story telling with poor writing skill

    7) Poor story telling with great writing skill

    8) poor story telling with mediocre writing skill

    9) poor story telling with poor writing skill.

    Story telling is the creative aspect of things - the story itself.

    Writing skill is how well you can express said creativity to your readers.

    World building falls into the catagory of 'prep work' - at a minimum, the author has to know enough about the world to craft the story.
  11. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

    Again, I think the whole process is flawed, but I'll weigh in.

    J.K Rowling: Absolutely a story teller. Her world sucked imo. What exactly were the limits of the magic again? It seemed to me that the magic was purely there to provide amusing things for the characters to do.
    Stephen King: Definitely writing skill over world building.
    JRR Tolkien: I'll go with world builder here.
    CS Lewis: pass. Been way too long since I've read it.
    Terry Pratchett: pass again. I've read some of his stuff, but it didn't stick in my mind at all.
    Robert Jordan: I'll go writing skill b/c, to me, his world building actually detracted from the books rather than added.
    Terry Goodkind: Writing skill. The story of the two characters drew me into the series. The world building got tedious.
    Terry Brooks: Again, I've read some of his work, but it wasn't very memorable.
    Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman: I wouldn't know either of them if I hit them with a truck. Sorry.
    Frank Herbert: I'll give you world building on this one. His stories definitely focused on the world.

    Where is Stephenie Meyer?
  12. Ankari

    Ankari Hero Breaker Moderator

    This list focused on fantasy authors. Stephenie Myers is consider, I think, paranormal romance.
  13. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

    It's hard to know where people are categorized. Thanks.
  14. Shockley

    Shockley Maester

    1. J.K Rowling: Writer, though she was no slouch at world building
    2. Stephen King: Writer
    3. JRR Tolkien: World builder
    4. CS Lewis: World builder
    5. Terry Pratchett: That's... difficult.
    6. Robert Jordan: Writer, though I don't think he did either particularly well.
    7. Terry Goodkind: N/A
    8. Terry Brooks: N/A
    9. Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman: World builder
    10. Frank Herbert: World builder

    Interestingly enough, my favorite (Tolkien, Lewis) are world builders, as are some of my least favorite (Weis & Hickman).
  15. danr62

    danr62 Sage

    I'll take a shot at this list:

    J.K Rowling: Great story, writing skill and world building not so much.
    Stephen King: Would you believe that I haven't actually read King? What's wrong with me?
    JRR Tolkien: Both
    CS Lewis: Both
    Terry Pratchett: Haven't read.
    Robert Jordan: World building.
    Terry Goodkind: Hard to say. Some of both, I guess.
    Terry Brooks: How could people keep reading the generic stuff he kept writing? I stopped halfway through his third book with a feeling that I already read that book twice before...
    Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman: World building.
    Frank Herbert: To my shame, I have not read him either.
  16. Shockley

    Shockley Maester

    I'm curious, what do people see as the flaws in Rowling's world building?
  17. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    People seem to dislike the ad hoc nature of magic, but to be honest that doesn't bother me.
  18. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

    To me, there didn't seem to be any real world building done at all. Does she logically explain how all these magic users exist without any knowledge of the muggle world. In the books, as opposed to the movies, non muggle born magic users are shown as highly ignorant of the mortal world. At the same time, the world of the magic users is shown to overlap world of the muggles everywhere.

    Additionally, there is the magic system. What are the limits? Is there any kind of cost? To me, it's never really developed or explored as a true fantasy magic system. Instead, it exists as a prop for the characters.

    I don't necessarily have a problem with having the world exist as a prop, but, given these flaws, how can she be declared to be a world builder?
    Ireth likes this.
  19. Amanita

    Amanita Maester

    I simply don't get this. Why are "limits" and "costs" always the first thing mentioned in every discussion about magic?
    And why is it supposed to be a flaw if magic doesn't have more "cost" than exercising other human abilities in real life? I liked the way magic was simply part of some humans nature in HP and I generally prefer this approach to any kind of "mana" or "ley lines" etc. especially if those are thrown in only to counter such critisism but without putting any work in.
    But anyway, Harry Potter has some things magic cannot achieve. I admit that there isn't a recognisable system behind this though. Mabye it exists in Rowling's mind, maybe it doesn't, hard to tell.

    I agree with the first part of the post. Generally, I think it's really hard to tell how good the world-building really is and how much stuff has simply been added by countless fans trying to figure out the ending. The HP-world's closeness to the real one gave plenty of background without forcing the author to create it herself.
    In my opinion the main reason for the success of Harry Potter was neither the world-building nor the plot but well-done mixture of many different elements which allowed huge numbers of readers to find characters and themes that interested them.
    I don't really think all of it was handled well in the end though.

    Another example that came to my mind while reading this thread is Marion Zimmer-Bradley's Darkover. The world-building's good, at least in my opinion, the characters often (not always) are as well, but few of those books have a really convincing plot. In many of those books, there's no real action at all and if it's there, the scenes often aren't well-done.
    Thinking of my own work, I think I'm having similar problems.

    In my opinion, world-building, characters and plot are all integral elements of a good fantasy story. If all of them are excellent the story will be too, if one is lacking it can still be an enjoyable read, if two are bad not so much anymore.
  20. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

    This is a discussion of world building. If the world of the story were fully developed, we'd have a greater understanding of the magic system. As it is, it seems you can do anything you want by saying a few words and making the right motions. If there are no limits, why can't Harry simply say the right words and, poof, Voldemort is dead. Aparently the magic doesn't work that way, though, 'cause he never did that or tried that. Why didn't he? What other limits are there?

    Why is gold important to them? Why can't they conjure gold? Is that another limitation of the magic?

    A fully developed magic system answers these questions for the reader.

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