Q&A with fantasy author Brandon Sanderson

Q&A with fantasy author Brandon Sanderson

July 20th, 2012 by Casey Phillips in Chattnow Outabout

Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with fantasy author Brandon Sanderson about his concerns about taking over Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" series, why magic should abide by rules and his "dreadful" early attempts at writing.

CP: You have written extensive essays about the usefulness to fantasy authors of having rules that govern their system of magic. Do you these inscribed on a stone tablet above your computer or are they closer to guidelines?

BS: [Laughs.] They're definitely closer to guidelines. The about them is, when I write out these rules, I'm really getting at things that I'm figuring out as I go along. A lot of these things I did more instinctively earlier in my career, but as I realized what was making better stories for me, I came up with these methodologies for ways to approach fantasy. That means that in some of my books, I don't follow them 100 percent because I'm still figuring them out. It's really just a way of looking at writing for myself that helps me create better stories.

CP: You have written essays about two of "Sanderson's Laws" thus far. Are there other laws?

BS: Yeah, there are, but I haven't managed to get them pithy enough, which is why there are no essays about them. [Laughs.] Once they solidified in my mind and I can explain them in a way that's entertaining, I'll put them up. The essays are trying to explain my process in an interesting and entertaining way.

There is another one I'm trying to work on about how everything should be interconnected in a fantasy world. Let's go historical: Say everyone can change lead into gold. It doesn't just change making a few people wealthy. It changes the entire dynamic of the economy; it's going to change power balance for kingdoms and governments; the people who can do this will become resources and powerhouses. It changes everything.

In fantasy, one of the big things we need to do is explain the ramifications of making small changes. Figuring out how to reduce that to a pithy law is something I haven't figured out yet, but that will be Sanderson's Third Law, at length. We'll figure out how to do that eventually.

CP: You teach creative writing at Brigham Young University, right?

BS: Yeah, I got my masters degree there in English with a creative writing emphasis. While I was doing it, the teacher who was teaching the genre fiction-focused creative writing course wanted to retire. They came to me - I had a book deal at that point - and asked me if I wanted to take over the class. I've taught it these 10 years or so. It's the only class I teach. I wouldn't call myself a real professor, but I do have this one class I get to play with and have fun teaching as an adjunct every year.

CP: You could argue your essays on writing are aimed at prospective writers. Do you see those posts as a forum similar to a classroom?

BS: Yeah, when I do my podcast, I target it that direction. We actually put the lectures from my most recent class online for free. Why do I do this? Well, when I was breaking into this and figuring out writing, writing is a hard thing to figure out because it's so individual. Lots of people offer advice, but yet, for any person offering advice, myself included, a lot of the advice won't work for every writer. What really helped me was the fact that there were a number of authors talking about how their process works and talking about their process and demystifying it, to the point that I was able to get help from a lot of different places. I think it made my writing a lot better. My goal is to do some of the same and let people know how it worked for me. Hopefully, it will help them figure out how it works for them.

CP: Do you think there is a "Brandon Sanderson's Guide to Fantasy Literature" in your future?

BS: Umm ... maybe. Honestly, if I were to do that, it would be a long way off. I still think there's a lot I need to learn about this whole process before I can put it down in words. There many people who have done a great job at that in the past. Stephen King's book is great. Orson Scott Card's "How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy" is great. There are a lot of wonderful resources out there already, and it's one thing for me to get up and talk about my process, but I feel like it's different to write a "this is how you do it" book. I'd like to have a decade or two under my belt before I do that.

CP: You have made a distinction between "hard" (defined) and "soft" (undefined) approaches to the use of magic in fantasy novels and suggest you ere more on the harder side. Why is that?

BS: One reason is that it's just what I enjoyed reading. Many of the magic systems earlier in fantasy's history were very soft. There were wonderful stories there, but I felt that that ground had been tread very well. It wasn't until the '90s that I read people who were doing harder magic systems, and I really liked them; they clicked with me.

I have a bit of science background. I started in college as a biochemistry major before jumping ship to English, where I found things a lot more fun. What interests me about fantasy is not necessarily doing whatever you want but changing a few laws of physics and exploring the ramifications upon the people and upon the world itself. That fascinated me; it interests me.

It's one that that fantasy can do that no other genre can. We ask the "What if?" and I like to explore that. I've made kind of a name for myself doing that. I'm certainly not the only one, but a hallmark of my style is that I build a system of magic that doesn't ignore the laws of physics. I'm not a physicist, so there are going to be some flaws, but it's fantasy. At the end of the day, it is fantasy; it's not physics with a different name on it. We're doing something fantastical, but I do try and consider the scientific ramifications and write a story that explores those.

CP: In one of your essays, you write that you like "mystery more than ... mysticism" in your novels. Elaborate on that.

BS: I, as a reader, like the tension that comes from "Can I figure it out?" That's one of the things that keeps me reading, "What's going on here? Can I figure it out?" The difference is that mysticism is something you can't figure out. That's alright for the stories that do it that way, but I prefer to be able to look at it and go, "OK, something is going wrong."

It goes back to Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics. Many of his early stories about robots are about, "OK, these three laws are interacting in an interesting way." It's really a mystery - "Can you figure out what's going on here?" There's this wonderful pay off in reading where you go, "Wow, that just works so beautifully." That's one of the aspects of writing that I enjoy.

We're talking a lot about magic systems, but any time this topic comes up, I like to point out that any good story is about characters. Magic is what fantasy does uniquely. Certainly it's a hallmark of our genre, and we need to approach the setting in a cool way for our stories, but if you don't have cool characters, the story is going to fail, no matter how great the magic is.

My goal is to create a story that is an enjoyable read because the characters are enjoyable. Then, after that, I like to go with my magic system and try and make something you've never seen before. But no amount of world building is going to succeed if the characters are bland.

CP: You refer, somewhat illusively, to your "dreadful" first attempts at writing. How old were you when you wrote your first story?

BS: I was, oh, 15, but I don't count that. When I'm talking about my dreadful stuff, I'm talking about my first serious attempt when I started when I was 19. Those were still bad, but that's when I first considered myself a writer. I think anyone you go to is going to have a story they wrote when they were 15 in creative writing class. The point is, I was still bad when I decided, "I'm going to be a writer."

It takes time to learn to do this right. I spent 10 years figuring it out before I sold anything. That's consistently true across the board. Writers spend a decade figuring this out before they really start to get good. Whether they do it like J.K. Rowling did where they pick one story and slave over it for 10 years, or if they do what I did and write book after book trying to improve with each one. You find people divided along that line doing different things. It's not something you figure out immediately, for most of us.

CP: What changed about you or your approach to writing that helped you cross the threshold from "dreadful" to "passable?"

BS: You know, I would say that there are hundreds of little eureka moments all along the way. Figuring out how to make characters work and not have them be just a caricatures. Figuring out how to make a plot twist pop off the page at the end. Figuring out how to make the magic system work. Each of those is a little Eureka moment for me.

Putting it all together over time and learning how to revise takes effort. Learning to write a book is a lot closer to learning to hit a baseball than people realize. I talk about the process a lot, but that's me analyzing it after the fact. When a batter gets up there to swing at a ball, they've practiced tons and tons and tons. They've gone over fundamentals and learned what those fundamentals need to be. They might think about that for a minute, but when they swing, it all just clicks and they swing at the ball.

That's actually what writers do a lot of times when they're writing a story. Yes, they've practiced the fundamentals, and they've written a lot before, but when they sit down to write a story, they just let it flow and the muscle memory takes over. After the fact, you go back and look at it and revise it and try to figure out what you're doing wrong, but there's more instinct to this - instinct born of practice - than people assume.

CP: How many attempts did you make to publish before you wrote "Elantris?"

BS: "Elatnris" was my sixth novel. I was working on my 13th when I sold "Elantris." It was not publishable when I first wrote it; it took several revisions and drafts. It was probably somewhere around book nine that I was really figuring things out, I feel. I like to write and jump projects. Instead of finishing one and slaving over it to make it much better, which may have been better for me in the long run, I would always jump to something new.

For new writers, I always advise balancing those two. When you finish a book, write another one, but then go back to your first one and work it over to see if you can make it better. Then, go write a third one and go back to the second one and see if you can make it better.

Do that instead of doing what I did, where you finish a book and go, "Hmm ... that one was good, but I can do better" and then writing another book and ignoring the first one. "Elantris" was the first one that I really dug into revisions on, and it ended up paying off.

CP: Is there an appetite, either on your behalf or that of your readers, to write an "Elantris" sequel?

BS: There certainly is, based on the questions people ask me. Basically, at every signing, someone asks me that. You know, we'll have to see what happens. I plan and hope to do one, but "The Wheel of Time" has really drawn a lot of my attention and my efforts lately. So once "The Wheel of Time" is done, I can re-assess and figure out what my five-year plan is for novels.

CP: Under what circumstances did you met Robert Jordan?

BS: I never met him. I saw him once at a convention, and that was it. I was chosen, unbeknownst to me, by his wife Harriet when she was looking for someone. "Mistborn" ended up in her hand, she read it, and she called me. I didn't know what was happening, but she asked me if I was interested [in writing the last novel].

CP: What, in your mind, makes the "Wheel of Time" series so popular? Why has it retained an audience that is willing to wait so long for it to conclude?

BS: I think it's depth of characterization. That's something that Robert Jordan was phenomenal at. His use of third-person viewpoint gets you really close and intense with these characters, and you fall in love with them.

He was also very subtle with foreshadowing, which I appreciate. He did a great job with that. And his world building is quite spectacular. He has a magic system that straddles that line between hard and soft, and I really love a lot of the things he did with it.

Those things all came together, but first and foremost, it was characters people love. He did that viewpoint so well. When you're in someone's head, you feel like you know them. These characters became my friends growing up; they're like my high school buddies. I can only assume that that happened with a lot of readers.

CP: What sense of responsibility did you feel when Jordan's widow approached you to take over "The Wheel of Time" with 10 novels have so firmly established the series?

BS: I was just hoping I wouldn't screw it up. I've said this a number of times that anyone approaching it was going to screw it up, to an extent. This is Robert Jordan's work, not mine, and there's no way I can do the job he would have done. My goal is just to screw it up the least of anyone who would have been given this job. I wanted the characters to remain themselves. I felt like if I could do that, everything else would fall in line.

CP: You've mentioned baseball a number of times, so what's your batting on screwing it up as little as possible, at this point?

BS: So far, it's pretty good. There are a few things I got wrong, particularly in "Gathering Storm" that I feel I did much better in "Towers of Midnight" and hope to do even better in "A Memory of Light."

Comparing it to batting averages, I would say I'm doing a decent job. What is that? A .28? [Laughs.] Percentage wise, I'm doing better than that - maybe 85 to 90 percent of the things I needed to be doing I've been able to hit.

There's still that 10 percent that fans have to be lenient with me on, to some extent, because no one is going to get it to 100. I can hope to push it higher than I have, but there are certain things I've done that I've done a worse job on than I would have liked. There were some characters I didn't quite get right in the first book.

CP: How definitive was Robert Jordan's outline for the final "Wheel of Time" novels? Was there any room left for you to find your own path?

BS: There was a lot of room, and it's been a true collaboration. Wherever he left information, I tried to follow what he directed, but there were huge gaps that he didn't explain, and I got to do what I thought the story needed at those points.

CP: So it was more a series of landmarks to hit than a point-by-point road map.

BS: Yeah, certainly. That's a really good way to explain it. He wrote the last scene himself, for instance, and big chunks of the prologue and, interspersed through that, viewpoints from different characters. There were notes that his assistants gathered for me when during his last months they asked him a lot of questions.

CP: What was your reaction to reading Jordan's notes for the series' conclusion?

BS: I was very satisfied. I was very satisfied with the ending.

CP: How would you characterize the ending?

BS: I really don't want to give any spoilers, and I'm worried that anything I say here "The Wheel of Time" fans will read to much into. I would characterize it as the right ending for the series, and that's basically all I can say.

CP: What was the impetus for splitting the last novel into three novels?

BS: I was writing it to the length he instructed it was to be written. He wanted it to be so long, he said, that "it would take a wheelbarrow to get it out the doors." The publisher and Harriet decided that was too long. I was supposed to split it into three novels because of the length I was writing it at. It came down to binding issues and things like that.

CP: You're close to finishing the last draft of, "A Memory of Light," which will publish in January. How does it feel knowing the series is almost done?

BS: Well, ask me in January, because I still see a huge mound of work ahead of me getting the last revision done and the copy edits and things like that. Ask me in January.

CP: Your "Mistborn" series has been well-received. Will you continue exploring that universe in more novels or are you more interested in writing about new worlds?

BS: I will come back to "Mistborn." The original trilogy is done and complete. I did write a sequel to that that takes place hundreds of years later. I may do more with the characters in the sequel, "The Alloy of Law," but my intention is to keep revisiting that world time and time again. When I first pitched it to my editor, I pitched it as a much longer series spread across the years with different glimpses of what's going on in the world.

CP: You have written extensively about the importance of innovation in fantasy novels. What is your take on the current state of innovation in the fantasy genre?

BS: I think fantasy is pretty healthy right now. I've seen a lot of cool things being done. I think we've pushed past the part when it wasn't very healthy in the late '90s. I'm not even saying there weren't authors doing cool things there because there were, but it seemed like publishers kept pushing the same old and the exciting books were being downplayed. I was just fan back then, but from my perspective, that's created a lull in the genre. Recently, there's been a lot of cool stuff happening, and I'm excited about it. I think there are lots of cool places we can go.