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Interviews: Babel Clash: Brandon Sanderson

Summary:

Entries

13

Date

Jun, 2009

Type

Verbatim

Reporter

Morgan

Links

Borders Sci-fi Blog

  • 1

    Morgan (7 June 2009)

    Thank you, Kim! And our next guest is...

    Kim, thank you for contributing to Babel Clash. It’s been fun, and you’re welcome to visit anytime. Congratulations on the success of Once Dead, Twice Shy.

    Our next guest is Brandon Sanderson, author of epic fantasy novels Warbreaker, Elantris and Mistborn. Brandon is also undertaking the incredible challenge of completing Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

  • 2

    Brandon Sanderson (11 June 2009)

    Letting Magic be Magical

    Some who have followed my website probably know how the concept of using magic in fantasy novels intrigues me. It's probably my favorite aspect of writing in this genre, and is what keeps me firmly fixed here. I'm not likely to wander to other types of books because I find the freedom and challenge of writing fantasy—of worldbuilding and designing new laws of physics—to be too compelling.

    A while back, I started toying with a theory about how magic works in fantasy novels. It went something like this: The more you explain how a magic works, the less wonder there is to that magic—but the more chances you have to use the magic in solving problems. (I once summarized this as the humbly titled "Sanderson's First Law of Magic: Your ability to solve problems with the magic system in a book is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.")

    I'm still toying with this theory. There are holes in it. For instance, it really should read something like "Your ability to solve problems with magic and NOT ANNOY YOUR READER is directly proportional to..." After all, you can do anything you want in a novel you're writing. You just risk alienating or annoying readers if you do certain things.

    I've actually struggled with this concept in my own books. I want there to be a sense of wonder to the stories. Magic has to be magical. And yet, I love playing with science and physics, and writing blended science fiction fantasies where the magic feels in many ways like a classical-era science. In this way, every single book I've written has been a tiny bit steampunk, though the trappings of that are very hard to see. (I work very hard to give my books the FEEL of an epic fantasy, no matter what I'm borrowing or mixing from other genres.)

    This is all harder than it looks. Sometimes, I feel I've erred a little too much on leaving a sense of wonder. (Questions about how the magic works for the characters and readers to explore.) When you do this the wrong way, you end up with Deus Ex Machina at times. And yet, explain too much, and the beautiful, magical feel of the fantasy world is gone.

    I'm still playing with this balance. But I'm curious to know what you all think. What is your preference? Straight-up science based magic, or something more wondrous like Tolkien used? Do both work for you, if done right? Who approaches the different avenues the right way?

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  • 3

    Morgan (12 June 2009)

    Magic Systems (and an excerpt from Warbreaker)

    I like magic with wonder and mystery. I don't necessarily want to know why or how it works, but I absolutely want to know what characters are capable of doing with it. Tell me early in a story, so I'm not surprised whenever a wizard pulls a new trick out of his hat. If a character solves a problem by using a previously undisclosed magical power, then it feels like cheating.

    My favorite example of doing it well is Dracula. Early in the novel, Van Helsing tells us the vampire's capability. He is stronger, does not die, can command the elements and beasts and vanish from sight. For the rest of the novel, Stoker plays by those rules, but the character remains mysterious, magical and frightening.

    On a side note, attached is a link to an excerpt from Brandon's Warbreaker: http://www.borders.com/online/store/ArticleView_warbreaker (link broken).

  • 4

    Brandon Sanderson (12 June 2009)

    The Fantasy Series

    I'm in the middle of an experiment. My newest book, Warbreaker, is a stand-alone epic fantasy, much as my first book Elantris was. Obviously, I'm not the only one to release stand-alones in this genre. There's a grand tradition of it, and some of my personal favorite books are stand-alones. I'm curious to see how readers react to me jumping away from a series and doing another stand-alone, as it's something I want to do fairly frequently.

    And yet, though I don't let the sales choose what I write or publish, I do let them worry me. Really, releasing this book should be like releasing any other. I'm excited about it, I put my soul into it, and I think it represents some of the best writing I've ever done. And yet, at the same time, I know there's going to be less excitement about it from the readership than there was for the final Mistborn book. Stand alones tend to get reviewed more and better, they tend to make fans happy, and yet they just don't tend to sell as well. (I don't know for certain—I won't see numbers on the release week until next Wednesday.)

    Ever since Tolkien had to split Lord of the Rings, there has been a strong tradition of the fantasy epic coming in installments. We fantasy readers like lots of worldbuiling, lots of depth of character, and lots of viewpoints. And yet, at the same time, it seems that we like to complain about the length of the series. We want them to be long—but we don't want them to be TOO long. The problem is, we all seem to have a different definition of what makes a series "too" long.

    If you look at the figures, the Wheel of Time didn't start hitting #1 on the New York Times list until its eighth or ninth book. It took Goodkind longer, with Sword of Truth. I believe the eleventh book was the first to hit #1. Even while people were complaining about these series, they were buying more and more copies of them. Perhaps that's what was making them complain—they really wanted an ending, and were willing to read until they got to it. They just wished they could get the ending sooner.

    Or maybe the ones complaining are just a vocal minority. Still, the genre's love of the huge series does worry me a little. The length of a story shouldn't be dependent upon what the market wants, but what the story itself demands. If I write a story that I feel takes one book, I want to (and will) release it as one book. If it takes three, I'll do three. If it takes ten, I'll do ten. I hope to have the flexibility to be doing a little from each of those piles during my career.

    Yet even as it worries me, there's a piece of me—that fantasy novel lover who grew up as a teenager reading Eddings, Williams, and Jordan—that pushes me to do something BIG. Something grand in scope, something massive, long, intricate, and...well, epic.

    So what are your thoughts? Short series? Stand alone? Big epics? Why do the long series sell so much better when people are vocally claiming they wish there were more stand alones and trilogies out there?

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  • 5

    Morgan (14 June 2009)

    Sequels and standalone novels

    It's rare for a popular fantasy or sf novel to stand alone. Sequels and series follow, and that's a good thing.

    A few writers produce brilliant fantasy or sf stories and choose not to write sequels. So, here's my question. For what standalone novel do you most wish the writer would create a sequel?

    Here are a few of my picks: 1) Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. 2) Weaveworld by Clive Barker. 3 ) The Princess Bride by William Goldman. 4) Brandon's Elantris.

  • 6

    Brandon Sanderson (14 June 2009)

    The Journey in Fantasy

    I think it's easy to understand why the concept of the journey is so intriguing in fantasy novels. There are few things which separate our modern world from previous eras more than that of distance and travel. To us, all things are close. The other side of the world is less than a single day's plane trip away, and the other side of the country can be reached in a handful of hours. The oceans are no longer an ominous, month-long barrier to us, but instead a minor inconvenience. Telephones, the internet, and video conferencing have served to 'shrink' the world even more.

    But in an era without machines, electricity, and powered flight, travel is far more daunting. It is dangerous and filled with mystery. An arduous journey makes for a visceral reminder that the world the characters live in is a very different place. It also allows for a lot of that world to be shown off, as different exotic locations are revealed. Plot wise, the journey is an excellent device because—assuming the reader is told the destination—one can follow along with the characters and feel a sense of completion and excitement as the destination approaches. (This is one reason why maps in fantasy novels are so useful.)

    In the early days of the genre, the journey/quest was such parts of the story that it was assumed that every good fantasy book would have one. The works of David Eddings, Terry Brooks, Tad Williams, and many more (going back to Grandpa Tolkien himself) relied on the journey as a major device for their stories. One commenter in a previous post mentioned that they thought it difficult, perhaps impossible, to imagine a fantasy story without a journey.

    Well, I've actually written four of them without a journey (Mistborn Three had a small one at the start.) Oddly, when I first tried to write fantasy books, during my unpublished days, I found myself bored by the concept of yet another book that took place mostly in the wilderness or on a roadway visiting little towns along the way toward a destination. I wanted to write stories that took place AT the destination. That was what excited me. Some of my favorite books (like many of Anne McCaffrey's Pern books) involve no real 'journey' in the classical sense.

    I think it's very possible to have a fantasy novel without a journey or quest. However, I must acknowledge the power of that storytelling mechanism. The early Robert Jordan books were essentially journey/quest stories. I know we touched on this a little bit during my first post, but I wanted to do one more specifically focused on this concept. (And I apologize for the lack of a post yesterday; I was asked to do one post during the weekends, and intended to do them Saturdays to give the whole weekend for discussion, but release week signings for Warbreaker kept me away longer than I expected.)

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  • 7

    Morgan (15 June 2009)

    Travel Guide to Medieval Europe

    Why are so many fantasy settings based on medieval Europe? The journeys through these new worlds seem familiar because they have this common root ancestor. There are exceptions, such as Daniel Abraham's Long Price Quartet or Jane Lindskold's Thirteen Orphans, but they tend not to catch on in a big way.

    One of my favorite non-European settings is Stephen King's Dark Tower world. This apocalyptic Old West is one of the most unique landscapes in speculative fiction, and it shows that the fantasy fan is willing to branch out. Granted, the Stephen King name helps. There's also Star Wars, which is as much fantasy as science fiction. It features a traditional fantasy plot (rescuing the princess and overthrowing an evil empire) in an outer space setting.

    So what other cultures or time periods are ripe for a fantasy interpretation? I'd vote for Shogun-era Japan.

  • 8

    Brandon Sanderson (15 June 2009)

    Guns and Words

    I can still remember the first fantasy novel I read that used gunpowder. It was one of the Robin McKinley books, the Blue Sword or The Hero and the Crown. I've mentioned before in one of these posts just how wrong that felt to me. And then, the fact that I felt it was wrong ALSO felt wrong to me. Shouldn't a fantasy author be allowed to play with any kind of technology and magic mix that they want? Shouldn't any time period be valid for creating the fantastic? And still, it felt wrong.

    Interestingly, many fantasy characters are anachronistic themselves. At least as much so as guns. One standard aspect of fantasy fiction is the idea of the 'socially progressive yet technologically slowed' society. Some fantasy authors tiptoe around it. I don't. I admit it straight out—I'm writing about societies where people, for one reason or another, are more like people in our world socially, even if much of their technology hasn't caught up to ours yet. Perhaps I can get away with this a tad more than most as I have yet to write a fantasy that takes place in what I envision as a medieval society. Elantris and Warbreaker are Renaissance, Mistborn is 19th century. Only in all three cases, there is no gunpowder.

    Perhaps this is my old bias influencing me. In the Mistborn novels, it's a world element and there's a very good reason why there's no gunpowder. In the other two, no explanation is given. I think it's reasonable to say that just because technology grew in a certain way in our world, it doesn't mean each and every world is going to follow the same path. And yet, at the same time, I doubt that adding gunpowder to either Elantris or Warbreaker would have changed the books in any great measure.

    What are your thoughts on these topics? Does gunpowder ruin a fantasy immediately, or is it just another element of technology and world an author can play with? Does it bother you that fantasy characters sometimes talk and act like more modern people, or do you prefer it? (I happen to like this last one both ways. I enjoy reading a book—like Doomsday Book—where the author tries to accurately portray the way people thought in previous eras. But I have trouble relating to those characters, and that inhibits my ability to get into the characters' heads. And so I generally gravitate toward books where the characters are much easier to relate to, and feel more like people from our era.)

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  • 9

    Morgan (16 June 2009)

    The Magic & Tech Challenge

    I like the Arthur C. Clarke quote, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

    The more advanced the technology in a fantasy setting, the less wondrous magic appears. Technology gives us the power to fly and the capability to communicate across thousands of miles. Not so long ago, both acts would have seemed magical to the average person. The science featured in some of the far-future sf novels appears as strange, wondrous and weird as many magic systems.

    This is a big reason why so much fantasy is grounded in the past. I'd love to see more books that approach fantasy and science fiction as one genre, instead of genres in opposition. Is it possible to integrate the two in some way and make it work well? Where are our futuristic fantasies? Can anyone think of great examples?

  • 10

    Brandon Sanderson (16 June 2009)

    Steampunk/Gearpunk

    Talking about people taking chances with fantasy and pushing the genre in interesting places has me thinking about one of my favorite spec-fic subgenres: Steampunk.

    I've been fascinated by the Steampunk (and its younger cousin gearpunk/springpunk/whatever you want to call it) since my early days enjoying the anime movies my brother would dig up here and there. (If you're lost as to what these are, might I point you to Wikipedia? They'll do a better job of explaining it there than I have time for here.)

    There are a lot of interesting things going on in the sub-genre. Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan looks very well done, and the sub-genre as a whole seems to be enjoying a renaissance of books, stories, and visuals. (A lot of fantasy art lately has had a decidedly steampunk edge.) I actually wrote a very fun gearpunk story two years back—a full novel, actually, that I haven't had time to revise or do anything with. (The Wheel of Time has proven somewhat distracting to me lately....) It's called Scribbler. Maybe I'll get around to doing something with it eventually.

    I have a lot of curiosities about this genre. What is it that draws us to it? Why do we love this classical use of technology, turned in to science fiction? Perhaps it captures that sense of exploration and wonder that used to exist to a larger extent in scientific discovery. Science is still exciting, but it's become something much more...technical these days. Back in the late 1800's early 1900's, there was a feel that science could not only solve all problems, but that it was something every day people could explore and understand. A lot of branches of science were relatively new, at least in the modern form, and there was a general excitement and enthusiasm to the process.

    Now, science is something we study in school and take tests on. In general, even the common person has a grasp of basic scientific principles. What is happening is amazing, but at the same time, there's a density to it. Trying to figure out quantum physics or other areas where breakthroughs are happening can twist the brain in knots. Some of the wonder is gone. And so, we find ourselves looking back at times when science WAS magic to us, and we create stories that explore these eras.

    Or maybe that's all just me waxing overly philosophical. What are your thoughts? Do you like Steampunk? Is it played out and over-done, or is it here to stay? Why haven't we had a really good steampunk live-action movie? (Note that I said a GOOD one. LXG and Wild Wild West do NOT count. Hellboy gets points for having some gearpunk elements, though.) Why does this subgenre fascinate us so?

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  • 11

    Brandon Sanderson (17 June 2009)

    The YA invasion

    When I was in high school, I spent some time doing service at a local library. For the most part, this meant re-shelving books or looking through the stacks to make certain everything was in order. I remember being asked to shelve a copy of Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey. I couldn't find the place in the computer where it was supposed to go, so asked the librarian. She told me I'd been looking in the wrong place—Dragonflight was shelved in Children's, not adult.

    That's right. This award winning story, one of the best spec-fic books of all time, was shelved in Children's. That bothered me for reasons I couldn't quite define. It made me feel childish and annoyed at myself for feeling childish. What I was experiencing was something that a lot of literacy professionals have talked about recently—that teens HATE the idea of being thought of as children. (Who knew?)

    There's nothing wrong with the children's section, and there's nothing wrong with shelving McCaffrey there. If her books are of interest to teens, then putting them where teens will find them is a good thing. (As a culture, though, I think we still have a tendency to look down on teen/middle grade/children's authors and books. To shelf something in children's still strikes many of us as something of an insult. I wonder why that is.)

    Anyway, as the 90's passed, more and more 'teen' or 'YA' sections started appearing in bookstores and libraries in order to provide a place for teens to go find books without having to enter the dreaded children's section. About the same time, interestingly, fantasy fiction was invaded by a plethora of fantastic YA and middle grade fantasy novels. His Dark Materials has been brought up, so has Harry Potter. I'm partial to Garth Nix's work as well, and they're just the tip of a mound of very good, excellently worldbuilt fantasy novels that appeared in the late 90's and early 2000's.

    As someone working in this genre, all of this leaves me to wonder and speculate. Did the increasing prominence of YA sections add to this explosion? Was it all the Harry Potter bubble? Or were people jumping ship from traditional epic to YA because epic was beginning to feel stale? Perhaps it was all of this.

    I think it made the genre better. I think we've had to look at our sluggish beginnings in epic, and realize that two hundred pages of wandering around a castle before conflict appears may not be the best way to begin a story. We've had to become more creative in our worldbuilding, partially (I think) to compete with the elegance of YA competition. Probably, most epic authors don't even think about this, though I bet many of them have read Potter and the others. You can't help but react to, incorporate, and learn from what you read.

    What do you all think? What are your favorite YA fantasy novels, and how do they compare to your favorite epic fantasy novels? Am I just searching for correlation where there is none, or is my speculation on to something?

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  • 12

    Morgan (17 June 2009)

    YA & illustrated books

    Sometimes I'm jealous of the novels sold into YA. I want them in the Fantasy & SF section. Sure, I understand the publisher's decision, but the books are so good and the appeal so broad that it seems a shame not to show them off all over the store. One example that comes to mind is D. M. Cornish's Monster Blood Tattoo series. Those are some gorgeous books.

    Speaking of Monster Blood Tattoo, there are illustrations! Would you like to see more illustrated novels? There are a couple of interesting adult illustrated novels forthcoming: Peter & Max, a Fables novel & the Child Thief by Brom. Is this a trend that you'd like to see catch on?

  • 13

    Morgan (19 June 2009)

    Warbreaker

    Brandon, thank you for sharing your time and thoughts with us here at Babel Clash. Would you like to take your last post or two and share with us why Warbreaker is an essential summer read and a perfect addition to any book lover's collection?

    All, attached is a YouTube interview with Brandon. Please check it out, and then, if you haven't done so already, track down your copy of Warbreaker: YouTube Video.

    Brandon Sanderson (20 June 2009)

    Warbreaker

    This is the part where I pitch my book, apparently. Only, I'll admit, I've never been that great at this part of the whole process. I once heard a wise man (Robert Jordan) say something along the lines of "Well, I wrote the series as long as I did because that was how long it took me to tell the story. If I could tell the story in a one-page summary, that's what I'd have written in the first place." I always had trouble writing a query letter or synopsis for one of my books. (Note how I cleverly worded that sentence in such a way as to keep from having to figure out how to spell the plural of synopsis.)

    But if you'd like a summary, here's a page where I posted some things my editor wrote about the novel:

    Blog Post: It's Out!

    That page also includes a nice long list of reviews from top tier media sources, including some glowing words from:

    Publisher's Weekly (They call the book Powerful, extraordinary, and highly entertaining.)
    The Library Journal (They call the book "essential reading for fantasy fans.")
    Booklist (They call the book superior.)
    And Michael Moorcock, who says: "Anyone looking for a different and refreshing fantasy novel will be delighted by this exceptional tale of magic, mystery and the politics of divinity."


    Are the words of those nice people why you should read my book? Well, I guess it depends. What and what are your personal tastes? Warbreaker is a stand-alone epic fantasy, self-contained in one book with an original magic system. The story focuses on reversals and witty dialogue, along with some (hopefully) deep and interesting characters. Is that why you should read the book? Perhaps.

    If you've liked what I've had to say on the blog, if you enjoy epic fantasy that tries to take a few steps away from the cliché, if you like to support people who post their books on-line for free alongside the store product, or if you're simply curious who this guy is that is finishing the Wheel of Time, maybe that is why you should read the book.

    But it's hard for me to explain to people what they 'should' do. You make that call yourselves. It's been a pleasure visiting with you all for these two weeks, and I hope to do it again some time. If you're curious about my work, check out the link above. If not, then you're fine by me. Not every book is going to appeal to every reader, and we can like different things and still get along.

    Thanks for listening to my random rants!

    Brandon

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