Reddit Fantasy Bookclub Q&A with Brandon SandersonEdit
28 February 2011
Q&A with Brandon Sanderson!
Brandon Sanderson has generously offered to answer questions you may have had about our previous Fantasy Book Club selection The Way of Kings.
Please take advantage of this unique opportunity and ask the author some thoughtful questions about the novel.
Professor_Layton: Mr Sanderson, When you tell an epic story, such as The Way of Kings, do you outline the entire series prior to starting? Or do you have a general idea how the series should flow and adjust accordingly? If you do adjust, do outside influences (such as world events) factor into adjustments or do you keep everything contained within the book?
I'm very curious to how rough the story is at the beginning compared to the ending and the path it takes. Fantastic book by the way, but I'm sure you hear that quite often :)
Brandon: Thank you.
I do outline quite extensively. Remember, however, that authors each tend to do things their own ways. There's no one perfect way to do this. George R. R. Martin described some of the extremes in terms of "Gardeners" and "Architects." Gardeners grow a story, without a firm idea of where they are going. Architects tend to build an outline as a frame and work from it.
I'm (usually) an architect. I've found that the best way to get the kinds of endings I like. I have to know where I'm going before I start.
That said, an outline has to be a living thing of its own. I need the flexibility to knock out entire sections of it and rebuild them; I do that frequently. I have to be able to respond to what I'm passionate about in the world, as you mention. In this book, the interludes were more reactionary, and I built them into the story to allow myself more freedom to explore the world in a "Gardener" sort of way, while the plot itself was quite well set out.
The other books in the series are not currently as fleshed out as the first was, but I have outlines for each of them.
ArchAuthor: Seeing as this is a planned ten book series, do you ever fear that your writing will deteriorate along with the length of the series like Robert Jordan's (arguably) did?
How long does it take to make a universe, and how in depth do you go?
What are your top five novels of the past ten years (any genre)?
Any tips for beginning scifi fantasy authors like myself?
Brandon: First question first, as it is an excellent one.
Long series run into some problems, particularly if they're a single, ongoing story rather than a sequence of episodes. Robert Jordan ran into some of these problems, as has George R. R. Martin. I think much of it can be mitigated by releasing books regularly. The Wheel of Time reads much differently to me now that I know the ending, and am not waiting years between books, only to get one that doesn't feel like it progresses the story as far as I want.
I feel the other big danger with the long series is the explosion of side characters. Sometimes, it seems that their narratives--and their plots--take the bulk of books, causing some bloat to the series.
I can't promise my writing won't deteriorate. I haven't ever tried something of this length before. However, I have attempted to do some things specifically in the construction of my outline to try to forestall it. Specifically, I've outlined quite a lot. (See my other reply.) I know where I'm going.
Tangents will be kept to a minimum; I've given myself the interludes, as I've mentioned before, to let me explore some tangents. I think this will keep me from feeling I need to tell entire books about side characters; I can give them an interlude, and hint at a greater story for them. Then I can leave them be.
The other thing I'm doing has to do with the flashbacks. Each book will have a single focus character, and I will delve into their backstory. I'm hoping this will give each volume it's own cohesion; rather than just a tiny slice of a story, I hope this will help make each one feel like it is its own story.
Time will tell if I succeed or not. Until then, I don't fault you for being wary.
Brandon: Second Question: How long does it take to make a universe, how deep do you go?
It depends on the book, honestly. For a thick, multi-volume epic fantasy, I take years working on the world. Such was the case with The Way of Kings, and a few of the other massive Epics I'm planning. Mistborn had about a year of planning ahead of time.
Some books, however, I write more freely. I almost always spend a few months working on the world before writing; it's the thing I feel I need best fleshed out. However, it is dangerous as well. Some writers spend all of their time worldbuilding and none of their time writing.
I try to focus my energies on areas of worldbuilding important to the conflict and the characters. In Mistborn, the languages weren't important--I was going to have everyone speaking one language. In KINGS, language was more important, so I developed the linguistics. (Though that won't be manifest for a few more books.)
Aksen: How long is the gestation period for one of your stories? What I am wondering is if The Way of Kings or Mistborn, for example, were stories you had in mind for a long period of time before sitting down to do the outline, or if they were fresh ideas you began to generate when beginning work on them.
Absolutely amazing work, by the way. When a new Sanderson novel comes out, I get excited. When I finish it, I get panicky.
Brandon: There are two different ways I write books.
One is the long gestation book, the book built off of themes I've been thinking of for years. I first wrote Dalinar (by a different name back then) in a story when I was a teenager. Same for Hoid. I wasn't ready to write the story yet, as I wasn't good enough, so I backed off.
Other books are almost more like performance art--you take a few ideas, you juggle them about a bit, and you then stand up on stage and do your best with them. In the hands of a skilled writer, this comes out like a solo from an improvisation expert. Flawed in places, yes, but also full of a kind of majestic life.
Some things work better in the first form. (Foreshadowing being one, carrying a story across multiple books is another.) Other things work better in the second. (Humor, for example.) Mostly, they just have a different feel.
The Way of Kings and Mistborn were like the first. Warbreaker and Alcatraz were like the second.
gunslingers: The number 10 seems to be a recurring theme in this world. Are the "ten fools" the antithesis of the ten orders of the knights radiant?
Have you ever killed off a character and later regretted it?
When writing a battle scene in which thousands die do those deaths affect you in any way?
Brandon: First Question: Yes, ten is a number of mythological import in the world. The Ten Fools are, essentially, the opposites of the Ten Heralds--who each represented an ideal. (Those ideals were later adopted by the orders of Knights Radiant, so yes, there is a connection--but there's a step between them.
staircasewit: I really enjoy your books, and I can only think of one question at the moment, perhaps I'll come back with more.
I suppose my question is about how you name your characters. I've been reading WoT and notice some similarities, for example Cenn, and Sarene, and Shalon (different spelling, but they probably sound the same). Is it purely by accident that you have characters with similar names, or is it a homage to a recent master of the fantasy genre? Or is it just that with RJ's 2000+ names, it's impossible to escape some overlap? :) So I guess I'm curious about how you name your characters in general (and even places. Urithiru is an awesome name.)
Thanks for your time, and your books!
Brandon: I ended up with a lot of unconscious similarities in KINGS as I was working on it for such an extended period of time. Cenn wasn't actually intentional. (At least, I don't think so; sometimes, it's hard to remember back to which names pop out intentionally and which do not.) The eyebrows of the Thaylens were, however, an intentional homage, as is the name of the mountains by where Szeth's people live.
There is going to be some overlap. Sarene is a great example of this; I'm pretty sure that one is just coincidence, though I'd lay odds on Cenn being an unconscious influence.
Some of the names in the book were constructed quite intentionally to fit linguistic paradigms of the setting. Urithiru, for example, is a palindrome--which are holy in the Alethi and Veden tongues. Some names, like Shallan, are intentionally one letter off of a holy word--as to not sound too arrogant. (Shallash would be the holy word; nobility will often change one letter to create a child's name to evoke the holy term, but not be blasphemous.)
With many, I just go for the right feel. I've worked these names over for years and years at this point. Dalinar's name has been set in place for a good ten years or so, but Kaladin used to be named Merin and Szeth used to be named Jek. (The first changed because I didn't like it; the second changed because the linguistics of the Shin people changed and I needed a name that better fit.)
cthulhu_zuul: More a technical question,
What is your day-to-day writing process like? I've heard from a variety of authors who go by words per day or by time or something similar. What processes do you use to write such long pieces in reasonable times?
Brandon: I write every day, and I give myself wordcount goals. (Usually, it's 2k min, or a certain page goal if revising.) I try to keep distractions to a minimum.
...Reddit doesn't exactly help with that last part. :)
Phaz: In your gut instinct, who would win in a fight, Marsh (no atium, limited feruchemy) or Szeth? (Or maybe we could go Zane & Szeth since I see a lot of similarities in their characters. They also happen to be my favorites from their respective series)
One of the interesting things I really liked about the book was Jasnah's lack of faith. It seems like during a lot of the scenes where that is an issue, you give her the upper hand. She makes some argument or point and the other characters leave it unchallenged. For instance the line where she says something like "Religion looks for super natural explanations to natural phenomena, science looks for natural explanations to super natural phenomena." That side of her seemed incredibly well written and genuine. Was it hard to do? Where did you get her arguments/points from? I swear a lot of what she says could of been ripped from comments of /r/atheism.
Lastly, I've been rereading the MB series again after reading WoK twice in a row so I could decide which I liked more. So far... it's still a tie. I'm really liking getting back into the MB world though. That has me super excited for Alloy of Law. Once it get's a bit more polished would it be possible to get an early copy? :)
Brandon: First question: It's always hard to answer these questions, since there are so many factors. Do the combatants start at a distance? If so, Marsh/Zane have a huge advantage; they have the ability to fling coins.
Does Szeth have metal on him? Szeth's Shardblade would be mostly immune to Pushing and Pulling, as it's an Invested object. But he'd still have trouble getting to them if he had a clasp on his shoes, for example. He doesn't carry a lot of metal, but he might have some.
Overall, I'd say that a full-blown Mistborn would be tougher than Szeth in most cases.
Also, send me a PM with your Email, Phaz. I can't find your email in my address book. I remember that it's not something I expect it to be, so I'm having trouble looking it up.
JamesKY: First off, I really enjoyed TWoK. I became more emotionally attached to the characters in this book than I did in Mistborn or Elantris. Dalinar and Kaladin are some of my favorite literary characters of all time.
My question is in regards to the audio book version of TWoK. I think Michael Kramer and Kate Reading did a great job narrating the book and creating voices for each of the characters but I wanted to know what you thought about it. Do you feel like the characters were portrayed accurately based on your original ideas for them?
I'm also reading WoT for the first time. I just finished A Crown of Swords and I'm looking forward to seeing what happens and how you complete the series. I just hope it doesn't delay the sequel to TWoK too much. ;)
Brandon: I asked for Michael and Kate specifically, since I've liked their work on the Wheel of Time. That said, it's always an odd experience to hear the book read by someone else. In fact, I find it an odder experience than getting cover art, which is arguably a larger 'interpretation' of my work than a reading is. I think with the reading, I find myself wanting to tweak and change things, so it's kind of a nerve-wracking experience.
I think Michael and Kate did a great job, though sometimes, it's a strange experience to hear voices I associate with WoT characters being used for someone else.
Blackrabite: My friend and I read Mistborn when we first heard you were going to take over on The Wheel of Time. We've been hooked ever since and you are definitely one of our top authors now.
The friend I spoke of grew up in a Mormon household, as did my wife, and both of them say that a lot of your work seems to borrow or at least use ideas from the Mormon idea of an afterlife as building blocks. Are those just similarities or is your world building influenced heavily by those ideas?
Brandon: Most of what people are noticing isn't so much intentional as inevitable. Just like people see WWII influences in Tolkien (though he denied that there were such parallels) there are going to be LDS parallels in my books.
I don't seek to expunge them; they are part of who I am. If I'm reaching into mythology and history for my foundations, I'm going to dip into LDS sources more often than others. So tell your friend and wife that they're seeing real things, most likely--though it's not intentional allegory.
ISw3arItWasntM3: Before I ask my questions I just wanted to say I loved Mistborn and found The Gathering Storm to be my favorite WoT book after The Great Hunt.
For my question I was wondering, how do you go about world building? Do you come up with a premise for a book before creating a world for it or do you like to create a world first and then come up with a story to take place in it? Got a favorite part of worldbuilding?
Also, where do you feel you've improved most as a w+riter since your beginning? And if you'd like to go one further, what do you think are some common flaws which tend to be found an author's earlier works?
Thanks for taking the time to do this!
Brandon: First Question: I jump around a lot when outlining, and so things kind of grow in one place (maybe character backgrounds) and that sparks me thinking about something in the culture, so I jump over there and work on it for a while. Then over to plot, then back to world.
However, KINGS is a little different in that I specifically spent months and months doing dedicated worldbuilding for the novel. In this case, I started with the most important setting elements and explored them in a kind of encyclopedia form, then moved on from there.
digitalpicaso: I always get the feeling that you don't particularly enjoy the process of cutting your books down or chopping them up once they go 'over-budget' in word length.
What are the most annoying issues you have to deal with when publishing a book?
Also, since I am kind of thinking of writing a short story in my free time, what order should I write my story so it's the least aggravating to put together when I'm done? Should I try and focus on a linear story line and write it start to finish, or just write down whatever parts I can think of and then work on connecting them together in some way?
These questions don't specifically relate to the Way of Kings, (which I liked too much for my own good), but I can't pass up an opportunity to milk information from someone I idol (=
Brandon: First Question: I'm not, naturally, a reviser. I like to plan a book, I like to write the book, but revision is something I drag my feet on. I'm usually okay once I get going, though the line edits are particularly tough on me.
Other annoying issues: The number of things that distract me from actually doing my writing. (Things like business aspects, or travel. I like doing signings and conventions, but the travel to get there is a big hassle.) Also, I don't like negotiating contracts.
nowonmai666: Hi! Two sort-of related questions here, about the writing process:
What would you do differently if you were writing the books to be released all at pretty much the same time (like Lord of The Rings) rather than as episodic updates? Would you still go into the same level of detail in describing relatively trivial events such as the affixing of contraband from the Chasms to the underside of permanent bridges?
I'll probably finish up the book later today, and if/when I write the review it will be a mixture of fulsome praise and F7U12-level frustration. The latter is largely because you set up so many questions - hints about characters' backgrounds, secrets about the world, its people and its magic, riddles wrapped in mysteries inside enigmas. After 1007 pages I feel I deserve more answers! I imagine you planting the seeds of mysteries and thinking "haha, I'll make 'em suffer 8 years before they get the answer to that one!". The question here is how do you balance (1) providing enough information to make the world and characters seem consistent, real and immersive with (2)withholding information for revelation later in the series? Do you consciously think about building up trust in the reader that the questions they have will one day be answered, or worry that the reader might think everything is so mysterious it will probably end up in a nonsensical betrayal like so many scifi films and tv series?
Brandon: This is a very interesting question.
I actually wrote the Mistborn trilogy straight through before releasing the first, so I have some experience doing it both ways now. With KINGS, I'm much more careful with my foreshadowing. Maybe to the point of teasing. That's a contrast to Mistborn, where I may have been too blunt with my foreshadowing. (Or just not put it in.)
The trilogy there was one book in my mind, so things that happened at the end of the first book that should have been better foreshadowed didn't get the foreshadowing they deserve--because I was looking at them as elements I was introducing 1/3 the way through the story, and thinking of them as being on a proper curve of information.
The balance of what to provide and what to withhold has more to do with not bogging down this story with details for a future story than it does with trying to tease. In my mind, this book is three things: Kaladin's experiences as a bridgeman 2) Dalinar's decision to do what he does at the end of the book 3) Shallan's first apprenticeship. I wanted to keep the narrative focused on those things, and provide climaxes dealing with those three concepts. Other secrets and teases are more intended to begin setting up future stories.
However, the "Lost" effect (making the mysteries so cool that no reveal can live up to them) is in the forefront of my mind. My feeling is that instead of dragging them eight books, I should be quick to give answers in future volumes. The things that span eight books as secrets shouldn't be the ones that you're wondering at in the first book; they should be the things that, after you begin wondering about them in the seventh book, you can look back to the first book and see the hints. Then you get your answers in the eighth.