The OF Blog: The wotmania Files: Interview with Brandon Sanderson (11/15/2005)

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The wotmania Files: Interview with Brandon Sanderson (11/15/2005)

Before Brandon Sanderson was chosen in 2007 to complete Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time, he was a first-time author. One of the members at wotmania, Bryce, contacted Sanderson and the following interview was arranged. Interesting to see how things have developed a little over 3 years later, no?
As a new author, many people are starting to discover Elantris and would love to know your story. Can you tell us a little more about yourself and how you came to be a fantasy writer?

My story starts back in junior high. I’d never really read any fantasy books, though when I’d been in grade school, I’d been a big reader. My favorite series was the “Three Investigators” books, a kind of Hardy Boys style mystery series.

Well, as I grew older, people tried to give me other books to read. Most of these were realistic fiction--the types of books that bored me out of my skull. My reading habits dribbled off, and I landed in junior high as an average student who just didn’t get through many books in a year.

Then I had a wonderful English teacher--Ms. Reader, ironically--who told me I couldn’t keep doing book reports on novels that were four grades below my reading level. Instead, she gave me her copy of Dragonsbane, by Barbara Hambly. That was the beginning of the end for me! I was amazed by the book--I hadn’t realized that there were things like that out there. The book engaged my imagination to an extent none ever had. I read through every book in the Library that had “Dragon” in the title, then quickly move on to the bookstore, buying whatever fantasy I could get my hands on. I still remember when both Dragonbone Chair (by Tad Williams) and Eye of the World (by, of course, our friend Robert Jordan) came out in paperback--both books quickly hooked me as a reader, and those two became my favorite authors.

I went to college as a bio-chemistry major, but it only took me about a year to realize that I was in the wrong place. I spent all my free time writing, and eventually gave in and changed to an English major. After that, I dedicated myself to becoming an author. I learned the craft (Elantris was the sixth book I wrote) and learned the business of writing, and eventually got a contract!

As a new writer, what are some of the surprises and favorite experiences that you've had with Elantris?

I’d have to say one of my favorite experiences was getting the cover art for Elantris. This can be a harrowing experience for a writer--you know that the cover is going to make a big difference in your sales, and you worry about how someone will interpret your book into a visual medium.

Tor was great with me on this one. They asked my opinion, asked if there were any artists I preferred, and eventually decided to go with the artist I’d asked for to do the cover. Stephen Martiniere is his name--he’s done work for Lucas and for the Myst video game series. I think he did a brilliant job with the cover. (Irene, Tor’s art director, is a real genius when it comes to placing artists with books.)

Overall, in fact, the experience of working with my editor (Moshe Feder) my agent (Joshua Bilmes) and the whole Tor team was wonderful. In relation to your original question, I’d have to say that the most surprising thing for me was how kind and easy to work with everyone was. Authors were very considerate in reading the book to give it a potential cover quote--Orson Scott Card, David Farland, L.E. Modesitt Jr., Katherine Kurtz, Simon R. Green, and Kevin J. Anderson all read the book and gave it quotes. Pretty much everyone I asked was very accommodating.

After hearing about some horror stories about the publishing industry, I wasn’t expecting it to be as easy as it was to work through the editing process and work with everyone in the industry. After all of this, I can honestly say that I think Tor is a first-rate company.

From what we've seen on the internet, it looks like Elantris is receiving a great amount of praise. What was your reaction to this criticism?


To be honest, as a new author, you really never know if your work is as good as you feel it is. Your editor and agent tell you it’s great, and your friends do the same, but honestly--how unbiased are they? Every author, I think, has a little voice inside that whispers “This book is
actually terrible, and everyone will see through you once you put it on the market. You think your book deserves to be up on those shelves with people like Asimov and Jordan?”

I realize that, in a way, my book STILL doesn’t belong on the shelves with Asimov and Jordan. Fortunately, there are only a few of them, and there is room up there for some of us who are still learning and growing. The reaction to Elantris has been nothing less than astounding--and humbling at the same time. My agent told me not to expect any foreign sales on my first book. We’ve sold in ten different foreign markets now. My editor warned that the review markets might overlook a book by a new, unimportant author. We got a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, and got very favorable reviews in Locus, the Library Journal, and Booklist.

And, of course, there’s the praise on message boards and blogs. In all honesty, this is what means the most. Some authors write to be remembered, some to win awards. I just want to tell good stories. That’s the beginning and the end of my aspirations. I want people to read my books and get that same excited, wonderful feeling that I got when reading Dragonsbane as a teenage boy. That sense of being taken to another place, of meeting people who feel real, and of seeing things that you’ve never seen before. When readers pick up my book and feel that it was worth the time and money they spent on it, then I feel vindicated in all the years I spent trying to get published.

What is your method for writing? Do you have a daily schedule? Are the novels planned well in advance, or do you let story take shape as you write?

I think a daily schedule is very important for writers. When I was working to get published, the thing I did was get a job working graveyard shifts at a local hotel. That way, I could go to school full time, work full time, and still have plenty of time to write. By doing that, I built a schedule for myself--I went to work every night, checked people into the hotel, and by about midnight things were quiet enough to sit down and work on my novels. I wrote for four or five hours, every night, and then did my other work for the hotel.

This got me into the habit of writing. People ask me how I managed to write thirteen novels before I finally managed to sell one (as I’ve noted, it was my sixth.) It’s because I had good habits. Writing was what I loved, and so doing it so much became second nature to me. Even now, if I’m not making significant progress on my current book, I start to feel anxious. I need to be writing!

I do make outlines. Plotting is one of those things that is difficult to explain. Not because I don’t know what I do, but because I can’t ever be certain that my method will be useful to another person. The thing is, everyone works in different ways. For some, a very strict outline is essential. For others, writing a book without an outline is necessary, for this gives them the freedom to discover what they really want to write while they’re writing it.

I’ve found that people who outline a lot spend more time up front planning. People who discover their story by writing it spend more time at the end revising. It tends to even out. The danger for the outliner, however, is that they sometimes plan so long that they never get to their story. On the flip side, it’s just as easy to spend so long revising certain sections of your story that you never get around to finishing it--so the other method can be dangerous as well.

I guess what I’m saying is that it’s often very useful to try different things, and discover what works best. And, what works best is generally whatever keeps you writing and finishing things!

Anyway, here’s my method. I tend to lean a little bit more toward the ‘outliner’ side than the ‘reviser’ side of things. I like to know where I’m going. I, personally, can’t start a story until I know what the ending is. To me, that would be like starting a trip without knowing
your destination!

So, I always plan a good climax first. Then, as I’m pondering a story, I begin to pick out very important or interesting scenes. These could be climactic confrontations, moments of great character growth, or simply beautiful setting images that I want to portray. These ‘super-scenes’ will develop in my mind to the point that I’ve almost got them completely written before I put pen to paper. (Or, uh, fingers to keyboard.)

Once I have some of these scenes, and I have an ending, I decide where my beginning is. Sometimes, this is obvious. (The beginning is often one of the super-scenes.) But, if it isn’t, I try to start in a place of great motion--something has to be happening. Important events are afoot. I always tell newer authors to be wary of starting their stories too long before important things start happening!

Now I’ve got a beginning, an ending, and a smattering of scenes. I place the scenes in order, and they kind of become my destination points. It’s like a trip--I know I’m starting in LA, and I want to get to New York. I also know I want to pass through Denver, Chicago, and Boston. So, I begin building an outline. What do I have to do to take me from the beginning to the first super-scene? What character growth has to happen? What clues need to be discovered? All of these things go as bullet points on my outline beneath the ‘part one’ section heading. Then, I take myself from super-scene one to super-scene two. What needs to happen here?

I build an outline that way. After I’ve got ten or so bullet points for each section (one point roughly being a scene or chapter) I’m ready to start writing!

Also, I'm assuming that you're LDS. I could be wrong, but you teach at BYU, right? We were wondering if it would be possible to ask a question about how your religion and values influence the way that you write. I thought this was an interesting question, having just finished R. Scott Bakker's first book . If you want to answer this question, feel free. If not, don't worry about it.

No problem at all! This is the type of question that I like, since it forces me out of dry “how to write” mode and gets me talking about more personal things.

I am indeed LDS. I would be lying if I said that my philosophies on life, including my religious philosophy, didn’t influence my writing. Who we are as writers dictates inherently which kinds of conflicts we choose to put in our books, and how our story deals with them.

That said, I come down with Tolkien (and against C. S. Lewis) on the side of the debate about the didactic nature of stories. I don’t think that fiction--in most cases--should be written in order to perform some agenda, even if that agenda is to make people into better people. That undermines the story--to me, the most important thing about the book needs to be the story, and not a group of morals an author decides his readers need to learn.

So, while I deal with issues I think are important and valuable, I don’t intentionally put any sort of moralistic themes into my books. Being religious myself, I tend to deal with religious conflicts because they interest me. Those who have read Elantris realize that my antagonist is a very religious man. I did this not because I had a moral to prove in saving him, nor did I do it to show that any particular kind of religion is evil--I did it because his internal conflict fascinated me. What would a man do if his conscience disagreed with his religion? How would he react if he were told to do something terrible, but knew something even more terrible would happen if he didn’t follow orders?

In the end, I think it comes down to being true to your characters. One of the characters I enjoyed writing the most was an atheist. I knew from the start that I couldn’t put her into the novel just to have some warm-fuzzy of a conversion story--if that were her purpose, I’d not only be betraying the character, but insulting any of my readers who shared her philosophy on life. So, I worked hard to read up on the atheist worldview, and tried to present her arguments--where appropriate in the story--as forcefully and logically as possible.

Some people have told me that a side-effect of my religion is that my books tend to be inherently optimistic. I tend to write characters that are optimistic, even when they get thrown into terrible situations. I can look at it and see that they might be right, though this was never my intention. However, I guess that it really is true that you can look at an author’s soul through his writing.

When you said that you spent time working at a hotel in order to write during the nights, I had to laugh. I work nights at the Holiday Inn right now, and I tend to use that time to ponder writing and do a few things for wotmania as well. Quite the coincidence, no?

Perhaps. However, I notice that creative people I know have a singular aversion to ‘real’ work. We try and find people who will pay us to do our own thing, even if that requires us to sit at a desk over night!

Speaking of writing and what influences your style of writing, what advice would you give to aspiring writers? What important lessons have you learned that could help us (speaking for all aspiring writers at the site) to get published and generally write a better novel?

Well, lets see if I can get some quick ones down. First off, I’ll talk about writing, then I’ll give a few tips on getting published.

1) Write what you love! I believe that passion shows through in writing, and it is very important that you feel passionate about the subject you choose. Don’t switch from SF to fantasy just because fantasy seems to be selling well at the moment. Excellence will always get published--and I believe that passion has a lot to do with excellence.

2) Write something original. Don’t write what you’ve seen before. Try and capture the same feel of something you’ve read and loved without writing that same story. You do this, in my opinion, by experimenting a lot with setting, magic, and worldbuidling concepts. What was it you really liked about Tolkien? Was that he had elves and dwarves, or was it that he created new cultures that felt real?

3) Keep reading, and read a lot in a all genres to give you a broad basis of ideas.

Now, unfortunately, I’m going to have to contradict myself. See, here’s the thing--writing is a very strange job. You have to be one-half artist, and one-half realist. So, you need to have a professional mindset as well as an artistic one.

1) Write what you love, but if you love several things, write the one that will sell. If you’re a really creative person, you’ll often have a lot of ideas. Some of those ideas will be more marketable than others. Those should probably take priority.

2) Be original, but don’t be too wacky. Breaking conventions is all well and good, but you need to understand the business side of marketing. The sales department is going to know what genre sticker to slap on your book. If they can’t, they have a very tough time selling it. So, before you write, decide what about your book is going to be innovative, and what is going to be familiar. (And, if you do happen to write a brilliant western, fantasy, comedy, dark gothic romance hybrid. Just tell the editors it’s a historical fantasy and let them figure out the rest on their own.)

Just as a note, I think this, actually, is one of the best things Jordan did with Eye of the World. He was creative and clever, yet still managed to write an epic fantasy with many of the traditional elements. The books that sell, I believe, are the ones that walk the line between the familiar and the original. They have something old to love, but also something new to discover.

3) Read around in all genres, but pay attention to what is selling. Read first novels by new authors (hint hint) and see what the editors are buying. (In other words, find out which editors bought those books and which agents represented them.) It comes down to learning the business side of publishing, and learning the tastes of the different editors. You don’t have to write toward those tastes, but you improve your chances drastically if you can place your manuscripts on the desks of the editors who seem to like books similar to the ones you write.

About the WFC last weekend. Did you get to meet any authors that you previously hadn't talked to? We heard that there was some talk about R. Scott Bakker and his goings on at the WFC. How was WFC, and what role did you play there?

I got to WFC late, missing the first day and most of the panels on the second because of a booksigning in another state. So I had a fairly low profile at this con. I went to the parties Saturday night, then hit the banquet on Sunday. I did meet several people I hadn’t before--I got to talk to David Drake and Jim Frenkel at the banquet, and they were both very courteous and nice to a newcomer like me.

I’d say, however, that the last author I was really star struck to meet was Robin Hobb, who sat next to me at a booksigning at Nasfic this year. She’s one of my favorite authors, and one of the best things about being in this business is that I can actually sit next to her and feel--a little bit--like I belong there. It’s a weird feeling. (Don’t worry about my humility though--that was well restored when I had all of three people come get books signed by me, while she had quite the line. She deserves it!)

Elantris is a stand alone novel, which really excites many people here who don't prefer to get into a long series before it's well underway. You do, however, have a series planned, correct? What can you tell us about that series? Number of books, date of release, brief description, etc.

Well, if you insist. . .

First, let me say that I love having written a stand alone. I always wanted my first published novel to be a stand alone because I felt that was a much better way to introduce myself to a readership. Nothing annoys me more than looking through a bookshelf, wanting to try a new author, and only finding “Book one of this series” or “Book one of that series.” Not knowing the author, I don’t want to get bogged down by a trilogy (especially one that isn’t done yet) without having confidence that the author can tell a good story.

So, that’s why I don’t plan on a sequel to Elantris right now. I won’t say it will never happen, but it probably won’t be any time soon.

That said, however, I also love to read in a series. A trilogy of books give a reader more time to know the characters, and lets them return to a world they love and find familiar. A lot of my favorite books are part of a series. However, I told myself I wouldn’t let my series go on forever. I don’t have Mr. Jordan’s weight to throw around! I decided, then, that I would write only three books in the Mistborn series, with each book standing alone fairly well. That way, I could go on to another project, and worldbuild something new. (Which is one of my favorite parts of this process.)

So, the new series is called The Mistborn Trilogy. Book one, Mistborn, will be out in June of 2006 from Tor, and they plan to release the other two at nine month intervals. (Getting them out quickly so people don’t have to wait too long! And, don’t worry. The first two books are already turned in, so I promise that they’ll come out on time.)

Mistborn came from two concepts. First, I was watching the movie Ocean’s Eleven, and realized that some of my favorite movies (Sneakers, The Italian Job) were centered around a team of specialized thieves pulling off incredible feats. I wondered why nobody had done this in fantasy. So, I built a magic system with sixteen specialized parts, and came up with a team of underground con-artists who each specialize in one or more of these aspects of the magic system.

The second inspiration for the book came from the weight of fantasy novels I’d read when I was younger. It seemed to me that so many of them were the stories of a young peasant hero who went off to fight some powerful dark lord. I wondered what would happen if. . .well, the dark lord won. What if he squished that little peasant, as probably should have happened in all of those stories?

So, Mistborn takes place in a world where the dark lord won. A thousand years ago, a prophesied hero rose up to fight the evil power, and got abjectly defeated. Now, a millennium later, our little team of thieves is annoyed. Their prophesies failed, and the world has become a dark place where ash falls from the sky and most of humankind is enslaved. Our heroes, lead by a charismatic man with the powers of a Mistborn, decided that they’re going to take down the dark lord their own way--by stealing all of his money then bribing his own armies away from him.

Of course, they get involved with much, much more than they expected, as the story a thousand years ago isn’t quite as simple as everyone believes. (Sample chapters will be up on my website beginning in January!)

Last, but certainly not least, if you were to own several monkeys and/or midgets, how many would you own, and what would you name them?

Well, I would certainly hope that they would, indeed, be monkey midgets, rather than just one or the other. I would have an infinite number of them, of course, because then they could produce fantasy novels for me in iambic pentameter while I swung in my hammock and ruled over my unending simian empire.

Great interview, huh? For those of you curious to know more about how others have received Elantris, check out the reviews section. And Sanderson has also provided commentary on the chapters in Elantris, so feel free to check those out here.

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