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Interviews: Invisible Vanguard Author Interview: Brandon Sanderson





Apr 21st, 2013




Invisible Vanguard

  • 1

    Invisible Vanguard

    Brandon Sanderson is a fantasy author who published his first book, Elantris, in 2005. Since then he has released several more successful books, including the Mistborn Trilogy, and The Way of Kings, the first part of an estimated ten-book series. In 2007 he was given the honor of completing the Wheel of Time series after the original author, Robert Jordan, passed away before its completion. Mr. Sanderson co-hosts a podcast at the website Writing Excuses, and teaches a creative writing class on fantasy and science fiction at Brigham Young University. Even with all that on his plate, he was gracious enough to set some time aside to answer a few questions for us regarding what psychs him out as a writer, how he plans to avoid "epic sprawl" and sagely advice for new writers trying to squeeze their way into the epic fantasy market.

  • 2

    Invisible Vanguard

    I am curious if professional writers ever get psyched out by their own works. When you are working on an epic series, such as The Stormlight Archive, do you ever have moments of doubt in your ability to see it through to completion? Does it ever feel overwhelming that you have so many volumes ahead of you to write?

    Brandon Sanderson

    That's not the part that psychs me out. Length doesn't do that to me, particularly when I have a series well planned and I have a feel for how each book is going to be distinctive. This really helped me with the Mistborn series, for instance—when I planned it out, I planned each book to have its own identity. That kept me interested in them.

    No, what psychs me out is that sometimes something just turns out really well, like The Way of Kings, and then I immediately start thinking, "I have to do that again, and I don't know how I did it in the first place." Writing becomes a very instinctive thing.

    Most of the time when I talk about the process of writing, I'm analyzing what I've done after the fact. The truth of it is that right in the moment, right when you're sitting there working on a book, a lot of that stuff isn't going through your head. You're just running on instinct at that point. So it's easy to get psyched out when you're not sure if you can ever do it again.


  • 3

    Invisible Vanguard

    Do you feel that each new book you release should be better than the last? Is that something you think about while writing, or do you just do the best job that you can and hope that your works improve naturally over time with your skill?

    Brandon Sanderson

    It really depends on the project. Yes, I want every book to improve, but that's a bit of a platitude. It's an easy thing to say. It gets a bit different when you sit down to think about it.

    I followed The Way of Kings with The Alloy of Law. Is The Alloy of Law a better book than The Way of Kings? No, it is not. The Way of Kings I spent somewhere around ten years working on; with The Alloy of Law I had a couple of months. In the case of a book like that, I sit down and say, okay, there are things I want to learn in this process. Different books are going to have a different feel. Now, there are people out there who like The Alloy of Law better than The Way of Kings—it's not a better book, but there are people who will enjoy it more.

    When I sat down to write Warbreaker, I said I wanted to get better at a certain type of humor. And I think I did get much better at that, in that book. Is the book itself better than The Hero of Ages that came before it? I do some things better, but it's hard to compare a standalone volume to the third book in an epic trilogy. They're going to do very different things.

    So it's hard to say "better book"/"not better book." I think "always learning and growing" is a better way to put it than getting better with each book.


  • 4

    Invisible Vanguard

    Writing an epic series over many years will surely gather you many fans and many haters. In the case of Robert Jordan, it seems like bad reviews and fan backlash mounted up with each new volume as the series went on. Is that something you are concerned about? Do you try to figure out why people responded that way to that series and work to avoid a similar situation with your own, or do you just disregard the naysayers in general?

    Brandon Sanderson

    Of these things that you've asked me questions on, this is the one that I've spent the most time thinking about. It is an interesting phenomenon. Each Wheel of Time book sold more copies than the one before it, yet each one up through book ten got more and more negative reviews. They start out strong, then a few of the books have balanced numbers of reviews, and then they start to take a nosedive—even as the sales of the books go up and up.

    The same thing has happened with my own books—as they have grown more popular, they've gotten worse and worse reviews. It's very interesting. You can watch a book like Elantris, which when it came out had more or less universal acclaim, partially I think based on expectations. People read it thinking, hey, there's this brand new author, it probably isn't that good—hey, this book isn't half bad! And then they go and write reviews on Amazon. There are a number of early reviews there that say, wow, this wasn't half bad! This new guy is someone to watch!

    As you gain a reputation, more and more people pick you up by reputation—simply hearing "This is a great book" and picking it up, rather than looking into the book and deciding it's a book they will like. That's going to lead to more people picking up the book who it's just not a good match for. I think that certainly is part of it.

    I do also think that there is epic series sprawl; there's a legitimate complaint against these series like the Wheel of Time or A Song of Ice and Fire. I think the fans still like the books, but they have complaints about how they're happening. George R. R. Martin and Robert Jordan are really doing some new and unique things. Robert Jordan didn't get to read any ten-book epic fantasy series of that nature; he had to do it on his own without a model to follow. I think that as we go forward in the genre, hopefully we're picking up on things—we're standing on the shoulders of giants, and hopefully we will figure out how we can do this without necessarily sprawling quite so much, which I think is part of the problem. There's this push and pull in epic fantasy where we read epic fantasy because we love the depth of characterization and world building, and yet if the author does too much of that in every book, then we lose the ability to move forward in a central plot. That can be very frustrating.

    I will say that when I was able to read the Wheel of Time from start to finish, having the complete story, that feeling that it wasn't going anywhere in places just wasn't there. That feeling came because you would wait two years for a book, and then when you finished it you'd have to wait two more years for the next book, and because of the nature of the epic series you're just getting a little tiny sliver of the story. So that part of it is just the nature of the beast, but I think we can do things to mitigate that, and I will certainly try.


  • 5

    Invisible Vanguard

    Lastly, what advice can you give to new and unknown authors with limitless ambition who want to write epic fantasy and/or sci-fi books? From my own personal research, it appears that agents and publishers do not want long word counts from new authors. Is it best to start simple with shorter stories and work your way up to your true love: the epic, or should you just go for it and write as much as you deem necessary and pitch your grand masterwork as a whole?

    Brandon Sanderson

    There are so many questions in there that are going to be very situationally dependent. If you have not already written a few novels, I would say absolutely do not write your grand epic yet. You won't have the skill to do it, and it will disappoint you. I've run across a lot of new writers who this has happened to. They want to do their own Wheel of Time, but they don't yet have the skill to achieve it. I tried this myself and learned this the hard way.

    That's not to say that it's impossible to do, but I strongly recommend to most writers to try a few other books first. Standalones or something, to really get your head around the idea of characterization and plotting and narrative arcs before you say, okay, I'm going to tell a story across ten books instead.

    If you are confident of your skill, and find that you are just incapable of writing anything else? Writing is the most important thing. If something makes you not write, then it's usually going to be bad advice no matter who it comes from. So then I suggest just writing and loving what you're writing. If you can somehow style your book as "a standalone with sequel potential," then that's probably a better way to go.

    This is not just for publishers and agents. New readers have a built-in skepticism toward a new author who is trying something that massive. I've found that a lot of readers like to try the standalone to find out what kind of writer you are, before they then read your big series. Having a couple of standalones has been very useful for me for that reason.

    At the end of the day, just write what you love. Yes, editors and agents say they want shorter books. This is because historically it has been proven to them that authors trying to write books that are too long for them bite off more than they can chew and the book spirals out of control. But the draft of Elantris that was the first thing I sold was 250,000 words. That's a full 100,000 words longer than what everyone was telling me agents won't even look at. So by empirical proof: They will look at a longer book if it works for them. So write what you love—if you can get into your head that you're going to do this professionally, and that you have years to learn how to do this, then that's going to help you. Taking the time to practice with shorter works will help you get ready to write your epic. But if you just can't do that, then go for it.


  • 6

    Invisible Vanguard

    Thank you, Mr. Sanderson, for your time and insightful responses, we really appreciate it and wish you well in your forthcoming endeavors!

    For more information and the latest Brandon Sanderson news, check out his website