Interviewing Brandon Sanderson
Brandon Sanderson (Nebraska, 1975) is currently one of the most prolific fantasy writers. With a BA in English and a MA in Creative Writing from Brigham Young University, he is nowadays a full time writer, podcaster (he is part of the Writing Excuses podcast) and university teacher. In his student years he volunteered in The Leading Edge, the university science fiction/fantasy magazine. In 2005 he published his novel, Elantris (Tor), an epic fantasy followed by the Mistborn trilogy: The Final Empire, The well of Ascension and The Hero of Ages (Tor). In 2007 his first children’s book Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians (Scholastic Press) came out, and its sequels -Alcatraz versus the Scrivener’s Bones, Alcatraz versus the Knights of Crystallia, Alcatraz versus the Shattered Lens (Scholastic Press), followed in subsequent years.
His novel Warbreaker (Tor) was published in 2009, and 2010 was the year The way of kings (Tor), which started his series The Stormlight Archive, saw the light. In 2012 he published Legion (Subterranean Press), a novella, as well as The Emperor’s Soul (Tachyon Publications). The following year he started a new YA series with The Rithmatist, and not happy with this, he published Steelheart (Random House Childrens Books), the first tittle in yet another YA saga –The Reckoners-. 2014 was the year in which a sequel for Legion, titled Legion: Deep Skin (Subterranean Press), was published. In 2015 he continued The Reckoners with Fireflight (Random House Childrens Books). Chosen as the writer to end The Wheel of Time series, he finished A Memory of Light (Tor), the final book, in 2013. Words of Radiance, the second novel of The Stormlight Archive, was published in 2014. In between all this, he had time to write the novella Infinity Blade: Awakening (Epic Games), and a sequel to the Mistborn trilogy, titled The Alloy of Law (Tor). Calamity, published in 2016, ended the trilogy of The Reckoners.
I had the opportunity to attend a panel and a presentation he gave at Emirates Literary Festival in March 2016, and could interview him afterwards. Here you can read the result of our encounter.
Cristina Jurado: You are a teacher of Creative Writing. I would like to know how your experience as a teacher has helped, shaped or influenced your work.
Brandon Sanderson: It is always great to meet with new writers, people who are just breaking in. They have such an enthusiasm, and sometimes innocence, about the publishing business. It really helps me keep my excitement to read their writing, to be helping them, just as writers helped me when I was breaking in. I think it is a very important thing to do, and it does influence me. Writing can be very solitary, where we sit in our rooms, by ourselves, all day, getting out at night. I only teach class once a week, so going out, meeting these new students, and reading their writing, it’s really a great experience.
CJ: I want to ask you about your writing process. It's such a particular thing for each author… I’m fascinated about this. I asked everybody when I interview them. How do you manage it? Do you write a plot and character cards, and then write several drafts or you go ahead and swim into it?
BS: About my writing process: I’m an outliner, a very strong outliner. I like knowing where I’m going, and I actually build my outline in an interesting way: I build it backwards. I start with what I want to have happened in the book, the emotional experiences. My outline is not subheading A, paragraph B, it's not like this. It’s more like: here it is a really great scene, and here are the ways I’m going to earn that scene, and here it is another great scene near the end, and here are the ways throughout the book I’m going to earn that scene and make it work. So, I build my outline backwards. Then, I write my book forward, starting on page one and go straight through. I don't always stick to the outline. What I do is, if I´m getting off, I stop and then I rebuild the outline and look at it. Then I come back to the story, and go a bit further. If there is something different from the outline, I look at the outline and see if I like where it is going, and I rebuild the outline. It’s a kind of back and forth process, through the course of the book until the ending. In my second draft I fix big problems. Big problems always pop up in a book, as you are writing it along. The third draft is a polish, where I get all the language to not be quite as bad, because the first draft’s language is terrible. It always got more “tell than show” and it's passive voice. I try to clear all that out, kind of like ten percent. Then I send the book to my Alfa readers, which are my wife, my editor, my agent and my writing group. While they are working on it and giving me feedback, I usually write something else. I come back to it and compile all the things they’ve said into a revision document, a guide to do this revision. This is kind of like an outline for a revision. So I organized it by the most important things at the top and the least important things at the bottom. I just build through them the draft number four, trying to fix those things. Draft number five is a polish, and then I send it to Beta readers, who are fans, to give me kind of a reader response. An editor would tell you “Oh, I think this is broken. You should do this”, whereas a fan, what we are looking for is just the “Hey, I like this. I was bored here”… that sort of thing. Then I do another draft incorporating their comments and the last comments my editor had made. And it's done! I ship it off to the publisher.
CJ: So it is all least six to seven drafts?
BS: Yeagh. Usually, about six or seven drafts.
CJ: I have heard you talking about the authors within the genre that have influenced you. I am more interested in the authors outside of the genre that have influenced you. I think it says a lot about writers in general. What can you tell me about those?
BS: Oh, boy… There is a ton! I would say that my single biggest influence outside genre is Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, one of my favorite books. I love his use of character. Another is Moby Dick, and really all the writings by Herman Melville. I like his world building. Theirs feel like epic fantasy novels. That is one of the places I went to learn world building. Sherlock Holmes for plotting, of course, [Conan Doyle] is awesome. And Jane Austen, for relationships. You can steel from each of this: you can see world building, plotting, relationships, and all those things coming together with characters. There are a lot of great things in what we call Literature, as suppose to genre fiction, although I don't know if that distinction is useful or not. There are a lot of things in there that feel like fantasy, even if they aren’t. You can learn a lot by reading outside your genre. I find that it brings things inside on what you are writing.
CJ: Right now, what things outside of your genre are you reading?
BS: The last things were mostly non-fiction. Non-fiction can be really useful to a writer when you are looking for ideas, when you are exploring. So I read a lot of psychology books. Why gender matters was a really good one. Things like Freakonomics, I find fascinating. I read a really good book about North Korea –see if I can remember the exact tittle- … Nothing to envy. It was mainly interviews with North Korean people who had escaped North Korea. That one was really good for looking at a different world and understanding it.
CJ: They asked me to ask you if you keep a sort of Wikipedia of Cosmere to avoid any contradictions.
BS: Yes. We actually use it! You said Wikipedia, and we use a Wiki. It’s called WikidPAD. It’s open source wiki software and it’s the source of all continuity for the Cosmere. After I finish a book, I give it to my continuity editor –Karen- who goes through it, and ads all the things from the new book to the Wiki. Peter, who is my editorial assistant, will go though it to see if there is anything that is contradicting. I usually have a big list of contradictions that I need to revise or rewrite or change.
CJ: I didn't know there was this fan web site called 17th Shard. I knew there were lots of fan sites, but I didn’t know there were so well organized like this one. I went to take a look into it. It’s a mazing the amount of information and how well systematized is it. You mentioned that, sometimes, you get to see what they are doing, and your assistant goes pretty regularly. Any of the theories they post, do any of them influence you a little bit?
BS: This is dangerous because, as a fan of the Wheel of Time, I’ve read all of the fan’s theories. As a writer, looking at these “signing on my one”, I feel that, if you change something because of a fan’s theory, you are in danger of undermining all of your foreshadowing. You have to be really careful as a writer: they are going to guess things; they’ll figure it out. You can’t feel bad if they do, because that just means that your foreshadowing is good. They are occasionally things that fans will say that spark me in an interesting direction of the world building. Like “Oh, yeagh… I should be thinking about this”. It’s not usually what they say, but the concepts they talk about that will send me in a certain direction. So, does influence me? Not as much as people might think, but it does.
CJ: Whitesand is going to be published as a graphic novel. Do you have any other projects to be published in that format?
BS: Right now, this is the only one that we have. We thought about doing several others, but we really want to see if people like this one, if this one sells well and if it's interesting to people. If so, we definitely will do more. So far we have shelved every project we’ve came up with -other than this-, because we don't know if this is going to be successful or not.
CJ: Let’s talk about your next book published in Spanish. How excited you are? Are you looking for coming as a special guest to the BCon2016 in November?
BS: I love coming to Spain! My wife studied abroad in Spain, and she speaks Spanish. The very first country that I was invited to as a writer was Spain. I was invited to Barcelona to do the speech at the UPC award. That was my first trip where someone outside of the United States even cared who I was. So I’ve always loved coming to Spain. I tried to get there every year or two. I’m really excited to be having The Reckoners coming out in Spain, as well as Steelheart. I’m super excited to be coming to the Convention in November. I’m glad that the timing worked out, because I was coming to Italy and, it turns out there is a Con next weekend in Spain, so…
CJ: Can you tell us something special for our readers, something that nobody knows? For the Spaniard only!
BS: Oh, My Goodness! For the Spaniards only… about The Reckoners specifically? Let’s see… what nobody knows… So, right now I’m writing a novella, because in all my plane flights I work on a novella. I’m working on a science fiction novella called Snapshot and nobody knows that yet.