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WesternSFA
A Chat with Brandon Sanderson
June 2016
by Catherine Book

I met Brandon Sanderson at the 2016 Phoenix Comicon and was very gratified that he agreed to an interview considering his very busy schedule.

So, I started by asking why he started writing.  He related that he was a different sort of kid – not a reader.  But he had a teacher in 8th grade who introduced him to a Barbara Hambly book and it clicked.  He discovered the magic of fantasy that year and determined that he was going to figure out how to do what these writers were doing.  He actually started writing the very next year and has never stopped.  His first book published was Elantris which was actually the sixth book he wrote; and was written while he worked a night shift as a hotel clerk in 1999.  His boss joked he should be in the acknowledgements since he paid Brandon to write the book.  Elantris was sold while he was writing his 13th book.  Brandon certainly didn’t let any grass grow under his feet.  One of the earlier books is finally publishing:  White Sand which is released this month as a graphic novel.  Most of the rest of the early books have been used in later novels but not as they were originally written.

What made Elantris the breakout book?  Mostly his persistence, he told me.  But it was the most polished effort - it had a lot of the storytelling structure that he would continue to use to good effect.  It had the magic system he would be using and an engaging world.  Elantris was the most revised book he’d worked on; he usually sent out books with only two revisions.  He really didn’t like revision.  I asked him if revision was easier now.  No, he mused, but he’s better at it now.  One of the challenges of his early career was his failure to edit well.  He just turned to writing yet another good book; and, as he said, if all you ever do is write good books, you’ll never write a great one. 

His influences were primarily Anne McCaffrey, Robert Jordan, and Melanie Rawn.  But he really admired Anne McCaffrey’s body of work and considered her the most influential writer in his younger, formative years.  As a journeyman writer, he credits Garth Nix, Guy Gavriel Kay and Robin Hobb.

What is he working on now?  A new series, The Stormlight Archive; the first two books are already out and the third book is about half done.  They are big books that take a lot of time to write.  I asked him if the other series were close to ending.  Not at all, he answered.  The Stormlight books are in two five-book arcs and the Mistborn has many left.  There are two trilogies finished in the Mistborn: the first is epic fantasy and the second was set in an urban early 20th century setting.  There’s one more book coming to finish the urban fantasy set.  Then he hopes to continue with a 1980’s-setting trilogy and a science fiction trilogy.  {I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a thing done before: the same universe with such different settings and genres.  Should be very interesting to follow such an effort.}

Does he have a work schedule?  He works about five days of week – with time off to just be daddy.  He works in the morning and again in the evening after his family is abed. He can work anywhere; just give him a computer.

Brandon generally writes one project at a time; but he’ll be planning one, writing another, and revising the third.  He finds it difficult to stop writing one thing to write another; it creates a big waste of time while he mentally revs up for the new project; and when he returns to the previous work, it’s an even bigger time gap.  He does write from an outline but it’s a very flexible outline, more of a bullet point list.  When building a chapter, he’ll pull bullet points out for events he wants, or character development. He found an outline often provides a stronger ending.

What’s most important to him; setting, plot, characters?  A great book needs All of them:  an engaging plot, characters have to be great (which can overcome other weaknesses,) and an interesting setting. He thinks his strength is worldbuilding.  He isn’t sure that he’s particularly better than anyone else but he feels his worlds are distinctive.

He has a Masters degree in English and taught Freshman Composition for one year as an adjunct professor the year after Elantris sold.  He was able to quit when his writing took off.  But he still teaches How to Write SF & F, one evening class during Winter semester at Brigham Young University.  I asked him what he gets out of it and he replied: it gets him out of the house, he gets to interact with new writers, and it’s a way of giving back to the community.  He teaches the same class that he originally took with the writer David Farland when Brandon was a senior in college.

Brandon is one of the hosts of “Writing Excuses,” an online podcast to help writers.  There’s an amazing amount of information and guidance for new writers. It looks like a lot of work and effort has gone into it so I asked him why he does it. He started it because he wanted to help aspiring writers; there was nothing like it available to him when he was starting out.  And, he said, it’s quick and a fun way to do something interesting, and hang out with his friends.  Check it out at:  http://www.writingexcuses.com/

In 2006, Brandon had a crazy idea.  He started posting his chapters for a new book online – as he wrote them!  This came to be known as the Warbreaker project.  He had his reasons.  Was he successful?  Yes, he said.  He wanted new writers to see what the process looked like.  When he was engaged to finish Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, he was able to point readers to his website to see who he was, what he was writing and how he was writing.  It was a standalone novel.  It’s still there and still free with loads of interesting posted feedback.  He’d like to be able to do it again someday. 

He once said that Emperor’s Soul was the best thing he wrote; I asked him if that was still true.  Well, he replied, it was the most award-winning and is probably still his best condensed piece of fiction.  But he’s feeling now that the Stormlight series is tied for first place.  Emperor’s Soul is more literary and stands alone making it a better introduction to Sanderson-the-writer; Stormlight promises to be a very epic story.

Since Brandon writes across several age groups from middle-grade to adult, I asked how he saw the differences.  Adult and Young Adult have less distinction; he tends to write YA in a single strong character with a snappy plot while his adult fiction can have a larger cast of characters and can take more time to build up the plot.  Middle grade is a very different thing, though.  Teens are more concerned with questions of self-identity, direction in life, duty to society and getting interested in romance which blends well with adult fiction.  Younger children approach books differently; first, they don’t always choose, the books are given or recommended by adults.  And younger children have no interest in the same things as teens; they just want something cool to read about.  So Brandon tries to inject a sense of whimsy and adventure into his middle-grade books. {Check out his Evil Librarians series. Ed.} 

And, finally:  what’s in his future?  He wants to do well by his fans so he’ll keep working on all of his series and he’ll always keep writing new stuff.  “Stuff” is a poor word for the quantity and quality of his work so far; I’m sure he will keep that promise and continue to amaze and entertain us.  And that’s all we really want.

Thank you, thank you , thank you – both for your time and for your contributions to our genre.

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