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Oathbringer release party ()
#1 Copy

Questioner

How could I be a better beta reader? Because I suck at giving feedback.

Brandon Sanderson

It's just practice. And try not to fix things, try to just give your responses to them.

Questioner

Like how I felt about certain things?

Brandon Sanderson

Yeah, you don't have to tell them how to fix it, you just have to say, "I was bored here." "I was not empathizing with this character." "This line was really great." That sort of stuff.

ICon 2019 ()
#2 Copy

Questioner

We were talking about Nightblood. How do you go about creating characters that are inanimate objects, but come to life? Because it seems a lot different. Also, gods... like, things that are otherworldly, because characters like real people, it's easy to write that. But considering gods and inanimate objects, that's beyond, sort of.

Brandon Sanderson

Well, fortunately, for us writers, nobody among our audience will be able to contradict us. Right? So, in some ways, writing something that nobody has ever experienced is a lot easier than writing something that a fair percentage of the population has experienced but you have not. And so, I just do my best. Being a writer is about learning to, "fake it." To pretend you're someone you're not, to pretend to have the experience that you don't, so that character sounds authentic. And faking something that no one can call you on is actually fairly easy.

Oathbringer Houston signing ()
#3 Copy

Questioner

How do you write books this long? Like, mental dedication to do that?

Brandon Sanderson

You know, it's all about breaking it down into something smaller, building it up as an outline. I couldn't do something this big without an outline. It's about step-by-step, right. Start with scene, go to chapter, go to sequence, go to book. It does take practice. Oh, yes, milestones are really, really helpful.

The Great American Read: Other Worlds with Brandon Sanderson ()
#4 Copy

Questioner

How do you deal with hecklers? Do you ignore them, do you take their advice?

Brandon Sanderson

So, it depends. Hecklers, I ignore. Criticism, I don't. I am lucky in that I have a team, and I, these days, have my team watch. Like, "You read the one-star reviews. Tell me if there are things popping up that I need to pay attention to," and things like that. Reading one-star reviews is generally a bad experience, but reading three-star reviews is usually a really handy experience for you to do. That's what you're looking for, those three-stars, the people that could have loved the book-- and if you give it three stars, you liked it, but there were things that bugged you. And if you start seeing themes like that pop up, try to address them.

But also understand that art is about taste. Every type of art. And you are going to write things that are the right piece of art, but that somebody doesn't like. Just like some people don't like my favorite food. Some people hate it. I like mac and cheese, other people hate it. I have a friend who hates ice cream. I'm like, "What? Who hates ice cream?" But he hates ice cream. It's okay. So, learn to separate taste from things that are actually skill level problems. And as you're a new writer, in particular, focusing on craft, just practicing, is more important than the feedback, often, on your first few books. 'Cause you'll know. You'll figure it out. Your first couple books, you'll be like, "They don't have to tell me; I know what parts are not working." But you can't get better at that until you write them.

Salt Lake City Comic-Con 2014 ()
#5 Copy

Questioner

How do you come up with all the different worlds, the magic systems, the religions, the-- everything. How do you come up with it?

Brandon Sanderson

Good question. It's a bigger question than I can really answer right now. But I can give you a few tips and I can point to places where I've answered it better. I've written three essays called Sanderson's First Law, Second Law, and Third Law... Those explain my theories on magic systems, that'll help you a lot. The real thing I'm searching for is conflict. I want to have interesting conflict to each world element that I'm spending my time on. Spend your time where there is going to be conflict. If you've got a story where the conflict is all religious and the character's religion is kind of an intersection between religion and something else, spend your time building your religions. Make them interesting, work things into them. But maybe you don't need to spend all your time building the linguistics for that world. Spend your time as the author on the things that are going to be full of depth and conflict and importance to the characters and don't worry about everything else. Unless you want to pull a Tolkien and spend twenty years preparing. Which-- I mean, you can do. I can't complain about the way Tolkien did it. But I prefer to be able to release a book every year as opposed to every twenty years.

Oathbringer release party ()
#6 Copy

LadyKnightRadiant

So you're really good at ending books, especially like post-climax resolution that I feel is always my real weak point. I always find that I tend to write things that end up sounding really, really cheesy. I feel like you have, like, perfected the, like, decent resolution that's not horrifically cheesy. I was wondering if you have like any tips on how to end things properly.

Brandon Sanderson

It's all about promises, right, and I've talked about this a lot. Like, what-- remember that the ending, if you've earned it-- Cheesiness is based on whether the reader is on board with you or not-- Cheesiness is not like this intrinsic property of a scene. Cheesiness is, are they on board? Do they want this? Have you done a good job with this? So if you get people on board-- yeah.

Skyward Seattle signing ()
#7 Copy

Questioner

So Skyward, do you consider it science fiction or science fantasy?

Brandon Sanderson

I consider it-- Is Skyward science fiction or science fantasy?

I generally separate the plot archetypes in my head from the genre trappings, and a lot of times people have plot archetypes that are science fiction. I do a lot of science fiction plot archetypes with fantasy settings. That's what Elantris is, right? The plot archetype is about information and researching information and coming to a scientific understanding of something that happened in the past so you can use it to fix the future; science fiction plot archetype fantasy setting for Elantris.

Skyward's backwards, right? It's the fantasy plot archetype. It is the the coming of age struggle against society through use of a fantastical boon to prove yourself, right? Very kind of classic fantasy thing but the trappings are science fiction. So I don't know that I look at these things the same way. Like, Stormlight, the Bridge Four sequence is an underdog sports story with fantasy trappings. That's the plot archetype...

As a writer, where I would shelve it? I would shelve it in science fiction because the trappings are usually-- And because of that. I would shelve Star Wars as science fiction, even though Star Wars is very much mystical, fantastical plot archetypes going on. Shelve it with where the genre trappings are, that's just for our sanity right? So we can know what box to put things in. Just for ease of discussing it and things like that. Nothing ever matches either genre trapping or plot archetype. It's just there for us to be able to have the framework to talk about it. 

Calamity Austin signing ()
#8 Copy

Questioner

I'm really confused about how you, as a male with three sons, how you create <believable?> female characters.

Brandon Sanderson

Practice. Number one, practice. Number two, talk to women. So, write... you're a teenager, it can be hard, but write a scene, give it to women, say "What am I doing wrong?" And then see, it's even better, back up a little bit, start thinking of characters as their passions, and their life experience, not just by their role in the story. That's a big a problem that a lot of people run into, it's that they go "oh, this is the romantic interest", and so you make them the romantic interests, and so you don't give them a full spectrum of emotions and characterization like you do to the protagonist. And so, try those things. Have you listened to my podcast?

Questioner

No.

Brandon Sanderson

Okay. Podcast. Start in January '15, but also look for podcast about "Writing the other", we have people come on and talk about this sort of thing. Alright? You can just push Play on a browser, you don't have to do a podcast thingy.

Footnote: Brandon likely refers to S7E40: Writing the Other (http://www.writingexcuses.com/2011/09/11/writing-excuses-6-15-writing-other-cultures/), of his podcast Writing Excuses.
Shadows of Self Portland signing ()
#9 Copy

Brandon Sanderson

I draw from a lot of distinct and different things, mythologies and things like that and the question is "how do I do that, where do I find material on those." I like primary sources, so I like to find people from the culture that they come from, who believe in that specific religion, or have studied it and I like to interview them or hang out on their forums and read how they are talking and things like that. That has been a lot more recent for me, although I will often, (this is where i'll use audiobooks) I will often go grab books on the subjects and listen to audiobooks of them while I'm signing big stacks of papers or something like that.

Firefight San Francisco signing ()
#10 Copy

Questioner

I write as well, and I was wondering what books you use to improve your own writing?

Brandon Sanderson

I have found both of Orson Scott Card’s books to be very good. Stephen King's book is very good. I find that my writing improves more when I read people's writing that I admire and then ask myself what they did well. That helps me more than some of the textbooks. 

Questioner

That's kind of how I was feeling too, for myself, so excellent.

Brandon Sanderson

Breaking down someone who's really good at this, like Anne McCaffrey, or somebody like that, and saying "what is she actually doing?".

Shadows of Self Portland signing ()
#11 Copy

Questioner

What did you do to get into the head of the opposite gender?

Brandon Sanderson

This is an excellent question. She is saying that Vin turned out really well and it's hard for her to write male characters. This was actually really hard for me at first too. Several of my first unpublished novels had really lame, weak female chaarcters and it was one of the big transitions I had to make in transitioning from aspiring to professional.

 The biggest change was just a mindset change for me, and this might not be your problem, but I found that I was sticking people into roles rather than creating character who had a life outside of the story and then saying what happened when the story happened to them. It was this transformation in my head where I'm like "Wait, everyone is the hero in their own story, what would they be doing otherwise, what are they passionate about, how are they weird, how are they quirky."

 This is the problem with a lot of people who are kinda aware of this issue who write the other gender: they don't make the other gender weird and quirky. You'll see this: female writers, the men will just kinda be this paragon. Male writers: the woman will be up on this pedestal. They don't feel real because of that. Try to say, "if they were staring in the story, how would I design them. What makes them weird, what makes them passionate, why don't they fit their role?" That's the best thing you can ask, "why dont they fit their role."

Shadows of Self Portland signing ()
#12 Copy

Brandon Sanderson

Good question. So Mistborn, [he?] is complimenting the way it all kinda comes together at the end. So the question is, did I have it all planned out, and for Mistborn I did. I had a big advantage, and this is what i'll usually do for a series: I'll come up with a plan that really details the first book and has just a little bit about the next book. So I'll write the first book, then create a really intricate outline for the next two, then use that to revise the first book to match the next two, so the first one I get to explore a little bit further and go a little farther afield from where the outline was without impacting things too much. Then i can lock it in and write the other two. There are plenty of things I didn't have locked down when I wrote the first one, but then i did the two outline, revised the first one, and then wrote the second two books.

Calamity Austin signing ()
#13 Copy

Questioner

I would like to know how do you make cultures so vibrant?

Brandon Sanderson

So, dig deep rather than go wide. One or two cultures that play off of each other in an interesting way, where you've considered a lot of the ramifications, are gonna to be better than trying to create thirty different cultures. Try to keep focused on what's going to be important to the characters and the books, and try to spend your worldbuilding there. So like if the characters are going to have conflict over religion, spend time on religion. But if instead they're going to have different linguistics and that's a source of conflict to them, spend time on the linguistics.

Calamity Austin signing ()
#14 Copy

Questioner

I can write dialogue, I can write a couple of other things, but I suck at worldbuilding. And that's something I've watched you do online, I love it, it's great, but I cannot describe it. And any time I start I get two to three pages into it and then I just can't do it.

Brandon Sanderson

Practice. Number one, keep practicing. Less is more. If you can build great dialogue and great characters, you can pick a couple of cool things, just a few, and make everything else like-- try to [write dialogue] anyway. Pick an Earth culture. Changed it a little bit. You would much rather be good at character dialogue than worldbuilding, I can tell you that right now. A great character in a generic world is still a great story. But a weak character in a great world is a weak story. So, don't stress this one too much, it'll get better as you go along. But just try picking one thing that is cool for you, that's different, and make that swap, and try writing a story. Don't stress this one too much.

WorldCon 76 ()
#15 Copy

Questioner

I'm an aspiring writer. I want to be a writer, and I'm working on submitting a story to Writers of the Future. Would you recommend starting shorter? Something less ambitious?

Brandon Sanderson

So, here's the thing: there are advantages to both ways. Sometimes, if you're the type that might get discouraged by trying something so big, and having it spiral out of control, then sometimes it's better to start small. Most of the time, as long as you're okay with the fact that your first one might spiral out of control, that process will teach you so much, that it's better to start ambitious, and just see where it goes. And just know, you may have to come back to it. Like, my first book, I never finished. I started when I was sixteen. But I wrote a big chunk of it, and it taught me so much. And then my next book, I did finish. And then eventually I came back to that first one, and used those ideas again for another book later on. So as long as you're okay with the idea as a new writer, it may not turn out exactly like you want it to, go ahead and start with something ambitious. Write what you're passionate about, and what you're excited about, and just be willing to let the process teach you. 'Cause nothing will make you a better writer than practicing.

Skyward San Diego signing ()
#16 Copy

Questioner

What's the most important thing to do when writing to ensure that the story has the tone you want it to have?

Brandon Sanderson

Boy, I'm not sure if there's a one catch-all most important thing. The answer, unfortunately, to most writing questions is: practice a lot, and then show your work to people and get feedback, and then learn how to target it better. With tone, one thing I've noticed that is really tough to pull off is switching very frequently between something that's supposed to be humorous and something that's supposed to be serious. And this is not a bad instinct, because some of the great filmmakers and writers we know are able to do this. This is like a Joss Whedon hallmark, right? We're gonna go from witty comeback to sudden gravitas in the matter of, like, whiplash. So we're like, "Wow, I like movies like that, I like books like that. Terry Prachett can make me laugh and then make me cry in the space of a page. I want to learn to do that." But it is really easy to have your tone go completely off the wall when you're trying to do something like that. And whenever I fail on that thing, on tone, it's almost always because I'm trying to inject something funny into the middle of something with a lot of gravitas.

This actually happened-- "Funny" is maybe the wrong term for it, but in the last Wheel of Time book, a scene we cut. The beginning of the Wheel of Time book, to not give spoilers, start with a really dramatic fight scene where some people are struggling to survive under terrible situations, and they are getting picked off and dying, and things are burning. And I alternated that with a different scene I had written separately of several characters getting engaged. Which were both scenes I wanted in the book; but when I finally came to fold the stories together, these different threads, this one went opposite this one, and wow, it did not work. It was so bad. You would be reading these scenes about people dying, you'd be like, "I'm not interested in the people getting engaged." Even though it's something that maybe you've waited for the entire series to read because of the tone mismatch of where you're jumping back and forth. So that was one where we actually cut out the scene of the engagement, and just let the scene that was the more powerful scene stand on its own.

FanX 2018 ()
#17 Copy

Questioner

So, my question for you is writing related. I just finished a new first draft in my novel.

Brandon Sanderson

I know you! Yeah, ok sorry. It took me a minute.

Questioner

So yeah, I finished my draft; what was it that helped you when you... cause I recalled hearing on Writing Excuses, you talked about this, how editing was the bane of your existence earlier, you just didn't wanna do that, and I'm finding that too. I dont wanna jump in and fix all the terrible things. What was it that helped you kinda like...

Brandon Sanderson

It honestly is the thing that held me back the most. I think it was kinda partially just, getting rejected enough that I realized I just had to learn to do it. That was part of it. Giving myself space after finishing a book, writing something else and then coming back to it when I was feeling kind of fresh about it and exited about tackling it again, that helped a lot. It was also kinda like growing up as a writer, if that makes sense, and realizing I'm not ever gonna sell a book until I could learn to take a good one and make it great and then I just started buckling down and learning to revise.

Shadows of Self San Diego signing ()
#18 Copy

Questioner

I also have problems with an English major with creative writing and fantasy. I'm just wondering, how do you get past that? Because I'm also trying to go into teaching, and it's the same with research.

Brandon Sanderson

...The first thing you should do as a writer, is you should listen to what those people are saying and teaching and try to learn from them. I think the strength of fantasy and science fiction as genres is that people think the wrong things about our genre. You can find literary writers in science fiction and fantasy. N.K. Jemisin is doing amazing things with literary fantasy right now. You should be reading her books, they're fantastic. Gene Wolf, Ursula Le Guin; they imagine that fantasy is way more strict than it is. So, if you take a class with someone, see what you can learn from them, that's the first thing. The second thing is, don't back down. Write what you want to write, and don't let them talk you out of loving what you love. Go ahead and try new things but apply it to what you think is going to help you, and if you're willing to take the grade hit for it.

Skyward San Diego signing ()
#19 Copy

Questioner

I want to write books... Do you have any trouble with trying to figure out what you want your main character's name to be?

Brandon Sanderson

Names... I will tell you this. You're probably stressing too hard about the name, because usually if you just pick one and start writing, you will grow to see that character by that name, and they'll be come entwined, and you won't stress about it anymore. That happens most of the time, if you just settle on one.

If you're writing Sci Fi/Fantasy, there are a couple of things you can do. If you want a really easy sort of Sci Fi/Fantasy hack, assign sort of a linguistic structure to a bunch of different countries in your world, and be like, "All of these are going to have Ancient Babylonian sounding names." And then you can go kind of look at that language and build some names out of that. That's an easy way to do it.

But really, I would not stress this. Just name the characters, start writing. If it feels wrong to you after you've written for a while, swap something else in, see if that works, and write for a while. Usually the person will grow to match the name, and then name will become synonymous with them in your head, to the point that it can be really hard to change their names later on when you decide, as I've sometimes decided, "Wow, this name doesn't fit the naming paradigm for this culture; I'll change their name." And then I just keep calling them the wrong name when I talk about them.

Shadows of Self San Diego signing ()
#20 Copy

Questioner

It's National Novel Writing Month. Do you have any advice for amateur writers jumping into this endeavor?

Brandon Sanderson

Yeah, NaNoWriMo. I did this for many years before I got published. I was already writing, my friends were all doing it, so I'm like, "Yeah, I'll keep going and, then I won't tell you guys my word count because then you'll feel bad." *laughter* We always had, like, a race board posted on a website, that just posted what the daily count was supposed to be. I often doubled it. So, I was like this even back then. I would say, for you, to-- Number one, don't let the word count goal intimidate you. If you don't get 50,000-- the whole goal is just to get you out of your writing comfort zone. So, for you, 25,000 is where you're going, and you actually still do that, that's fine. 50,000 isn't a novel anyway, they just say it is. I mean it is technically a novel, but I mean, how many novels are 50,000 words? There's not very many. A lot of middle grade is around 50,000 words. I would just go for it. The other thing is, have a daily habit of when you're going to write, and try to make that sacrosanct and get into this habit of, I'm writing for these two hours. And kind of unplug during those two hours and write during those two hours. Worry less about what your word count is you're hitting. Do try to not self-edit. That's the biggest thing that's gonna to help you. If you're not going back and revising and revising and revising, and you're pushing forward-- the goal is to teach yourself to finish something and to push forward and turn off your internal editor.

Firefight San Francisco signing ()
#21 Copy

Questioner

What advice would you give to people who want to be authors?

Brandon Sanderson

What advice would I give to people who want to be authors? ...You want to be a writer? So, I have these little cards that say "so you want to be a writer", I'm going to pass one back to you. So the number one thing I'd say that as a writer you want to know is, your duty, your job, is to practice in such a way that you can become a person who can write great books. Your job is not to write a great book. Your job is to practice so you become people who write great books. So treat becoming a writer like you treat becoming a pianist, or becoming a doctor, or anything else that is a goal you want to achieve. Say, I'm going to take years to do this. I'm going to practice consistently. And I am going to not stress right now if I am not achieving what I want to do. You don't start off doing brain surgery, you don't start off playing Rachmaninoff. You start off practicing and just do that. If you are willing to do that, you will improve and you will be surprised how fast you grow. If instead you're like I need to write the perfect paragraph or the perfect chapter before I can move on, and you stare at that and beat your head against it you will never improve.

There's a story told by someone, you can google this online, just look for the, ah-- pottery-- uh, oh... trying to remember what it's called-- Alright I can't tell you how to google it but maybe your googlefu is better than mine when I tell you the story. So there's this person who teaches pottery and he shared in his book--and I've read the book, and seen it, and things like this--a story about how he one year split his class in half, and had one half, the new beginners in pottery, their job was each week their grade was going to be based on how good a pot they made. They've gotta make the best pot they can every week, turn it in, he would give them a grade for that week. And, you know, that's how good you were. The second group, he said you're going to get a grade based on the weight of all the pots you create this week, meaning we're just going to weigh them and if you hit this certain amount you are going to get an A, if you get this certain amount you're going to get a B. He did this for the entire semester teaching exactly the same way and at the end he said "Now make the best pot you can" to both groups. And the best pots all came from the group who did their grade by weight. All of them. The best pots came from that group. Not the people who tried to make a perfect pot every week, but the people who tried to make the most pots every week. And that works in creative endeavors quite a bit, that practice trumps perfection on the small scale when you're starting.

Firefight release party ()
#22 Copy

Questioner

For new writers is there pitfalls in trying to use, like, a more famous story to tell their story?

Brandon Sanderson

You know, I don’t think there are any major ones, just make sure the serial numbers are filed off enough. You know the best versions of these things are like when you realize-- well we talked about-- The Lion King, is Hamlet and when they sat down with Hamlet and said "We’re going to do Hamlet with talking lions" they made it different enough to claim it as their own. And that’s the real thing you have to do, is make sure you're claiming it as your own.

Skyward San Diego signing ()
#23 Copy

Questioner

I wanna write books, too... One thing that really drags me down is that I'm afraid that my book is gonna be too short. Do you have any tips for beefing up your story?

Brandon Sanderson

Well, if you add paragraphs about the architecture, *laughter* and where the clothing comes from--

Number one way to add length to a book without making it feel irrelevant is to start adding viewpoints form other characters who have a different take on what's happening in the story, and by naturally adding in some of those viewpoints and giving them their own arcs, you will lengthen the story in a way that feels natural. It will start to edge it into a different genre. The more of those you add, the more it's going to feel like a different style of story, either a historical epic or an epic fantasy or things like that, so you do want to be careful with it. But if you get done and your story's 50,000 words, and you want it to be 80,000 words, that can be a really good way to do it.

But honestly, I wouldn't stress about this too much. There are fantastic books that are 50,000 or 60,000 words long that get published. I don't know how long the new Stephen King one is, but it's like 180 pages. So it's probably, like, 40,000 or 50,000 words. Like, A Christmas Carol is what, 30,000, or something like that? Write the book; practice at the length you are comfortable in. And if it's consistently a problem that things actually end up too short, then start asking about, "Can I add subplots? Can I add other characters to give a different perspective on this?" But I wouldn't stress it too much at the beginning.

Shadows of Self Houston signing ()
#24 Copy

Questioner

I have a question on when you use terminology because you use a lot of regular terms. If you've read Warbreaker, Breath specifically. So as a working writer, before ever reading Brandon Sanderson's novel, I might have come up with the Breath myself. So the question being, have you ever had that, where you work working on something and then read another book and found out they were using either a similar term or something--

Brandon Sanderson

Yeah it's happened a bunch. Have I been writing a book when someone came up with a similar term? Janny Wurts wrote a book about someone called the mistwraith. There is a book called, like, The Curse of the Darkeyes, or something like that. It's hard to do something where someone hasn't used any of the terms before. Like trying to do the Steelheart books, which use superhero mythology, try and find a name for any superhero that DC or Marvel haven't had, it's like basically impossible. So I had to be like alright, ones that no one has heard of, that only appeared in one issue, if I come up with a cool name and they've used it once in like one issue, I can still use it. You just have to not let that get to you. Make the story your own through good writing and good storytelling, and no one's going to look at it and be like "Ohh this is a rip-off". And if your beta readers all say "Oh this is a rip-off", then maybe you change it, but they probably won't. That's my advice to you. Don't stress that one too much. Work on making your story great and don't worry too much if it is what someone else has done. 

Shadows of Self San Diego signing ()
#25 Copy

Questioner

What is the worst writing advice you've ever gotten?

Brandon Sanderson

...The thing about writing advice is, most people are giving writing advice that works for them which means it's actually good advice to try out. The only really bad advice is, "This is the way it must be done." Because different writers have very different approaches. Can you imagine Stephen King. Stephen King can't write with an outline. So he says "Don't outline." Orson Scott Card says, "I've gotta have an outline or my book stinks." Both of those can't be right. But one of them might be right for you. The truth is, most writers I know don't outline some things, do outline other things, and come up with this, like, Frankenstein of different pieces of advice that work for them.

The absolute worst thing I that ever heard, and I'm not gonna say who said this, was they were telling my students, while I was teaching them, my students came in and said "What do you think of this," to include a glossy headshot with every submission. To get the attention of editors. And not include a SASE, a self addressed stamped envelope (back in the days, you know, where we did this all in print). If they liked it enough, they'd track you down.

Warbreaker Annotations ()
#26 Copy

Brandon Sanderson

Chapter Thirty-Two

Siri Lies in Bed and Decides to Take Charge

Reading through this scene again, I feel like it needs a bit of a trim. Ah well. There are always going to be sections like that that make it through.

I felt that there needed to be a scene where Siri finally stopped looking toward the past and berating herself for not being more like Vivenna. For her to step forward and become the woman she must be, she needed to do it of her own choice, with her own motivations. She needed this chance.

Sometimes in writing classes or in books on telling stories, they'll mention a moment somewhere in act two where the character decides to take charge. I always dislike explanations like that, since I think it's too easy for newer writers to look at such explanations as an item on a checklist that you have to do. I never use things like that. I don't think, "This is act two, so the characters need to do X." The tendency to follow a formula like that is part of what bothers me about the screenwriting profession. It seems like if you always follow the rules, there's never any spontaneity in a book.

Still, those guidelines and suggestions are used by a lot of people who tell good stories, so I guess you use what works for you.

Skyward San Diego signing ()
#27 Copy

Questioner

What is your philosophy on prologues? You do a lot of them.

Brandon Sanderson

I do a lot of them. I don't think they're necessary. I'm fond of them. Usually, if you can find a way to not do one, your story will probably be stronger. But they do let you do something like, for instance, if you know that the later tone of your story is not going to match the early tone of your story, you can hint what the tone is actually going to be in the prologue, which is really handy. And there are other things you can do. You can start with a bang with a prologue in a way that maybe sometimes you wouldn't be able to do if you were going right into the main story. There's things that I like about them. But I do think that they become a crutch to some writers, and that might include me.

Questioner

Do you have a recommended length in terms of how long it should be? ...Or maybe how long it should not be? What would be the max for a prologue?

Brandon Sanderson

Well, Robert Jordan's kind of became books unto themselves, and that worked for him. But when you're getting that long, you might be-- Short and sweet is probably your best. One of the best prologues ever written is the prologue to Eye of the World, Robert Jordan. But there's no real-- Just try to avoid the classic '80s one where it's like, "Prologue is all the worldbuilding dump that I couldn't fit in to the first chapters."

Shadows of Self San Diego signing ()
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Questioner

When building out your magic in your books, what process do you go through, they're certainly intricate compared to a lot of others.

Brandon Sanderson

Good question! ...I could give you three lectures on this, and I have done it before. Fortunately, I wrote it all down. So, I've got a couple resources for you, this goes for anyone who's interested in writing. My website... there are three resources on there. The first are my essays on magic systems. I've done three essays so far, my speech last years was my fourth, you'll have to find that online somewhere. Sanderson's Zeroth Law. I named them after myself, because, I mean, Asimov did it. *laughter* I don't think he actually named them after himself, but-- So, those are gonna talk about magic systems, how I develop them in-depth.

The other resource I have for you is Writing Excuses, my podcast. Fifteen minutes of writing advice every week. Start with January of this year. I think they get better and better as we've gone along, so this year's are better, and we started kind of a new thing.

And the last thing is, if you're hardcore, and you're kind of masochistic, you can watch my university lectures, which are a little more boring and dry, they're an hour and a half long, there's thirteen of them, they're linked on my website. And I made the university let me record them and post them online as part of having me in there to teach...

Skyward Atlanta signing ()
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Questioner

What do you wish that you could have asked your favorite writers about writing when you first became a writer? And what do you think they would have said?

Brandon Sanderson

This one is easy. I would have said, "How do you finish your book, Mr. Jordan? Specifically: X, Y, and Z that you didn't put in the notes."

Otherwise-- You know, a lot of the things that you do as a writer aren't about what you ask other writers. And a lot of the advice you'll get as a writer won't work for you until you have written. So I wouldn't have known the right questions to ask them until I was struggling through that myself.

The Hero of Ages Annotations ()
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Brandon Sanderson

Writing Fight Scenes

A fight should be more than a blow-by-blow. I've talked about this before. In a book, you can't get away with action for the sake of action—at least not in the same way you can in a movie.

With a visual medium, viewers can simply enjoy the blow-by-blow. Character X hits Character Y can be exciting. In books, it's dreadfully boring. I think I went a little too far toward that in this chapter.

What makes a fight work? Well, emotional impact for one. If we're tied to a character and think that they might be in danger, that can make a fight work—but only insofar as we're seeing the danger's emotional effect on the character. (Which is something books can do far better than movies.) Also, interesting discoveries and ramifications can work to make a fight more exciting.

Why is Elend forcing these men to fight like this? Where are the armies he promised? How are they going to win? Hopefully these questions drive the action. Thus the final way to make something exciting in an action scene is to show the characters being clever through the way they manipulate the fight or the magic or the area around them.

That's just my take on it.

WorldCon 76 ()
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Brandon Sanderson

Say I'm excited about this, but I'm going to stake a claim on the panel's official cabbagehead position. Every time I'm on a panel or doing a podcast it is good to have a cabbagehead. Which is, I'm the writer, right? My job is, I've found, to know enough about these things to be dangerous, so if there are writers out there and you're feeling a little overwhelmed by this, here's how I approach it. I, when I was first writing epic fantasy I found out a few of these things, and I'm like, "Oh no, this kind of destroy the types of stories I want to tell."

But the more I learned the more I realized, no, it can shape the types of stories I want to tell it doesn't have to destroy them at all. What I did was I used this kind of rule, that is it takes actually a fairly brief amount of time to become dangerously knowledgeable in a subject. Like say, if you can get yourself 20 or 30 percent of the way there, you know enough to know what you don't know. My goal is to always get myself there with research, usually on pop-history books or pop-medicine books or things like this. Write my stories, and then to find an expert, which I've used extensively, particularly in the Stormlight books, where one of my characters is a field surgeon, that's his training, and go and say "What am I doing wrong?"

Usually, the response I get from the medical professionals is "Wow, this isn't nearly as bad as I thought it would be, you're still wrong about a ton of things. But you don't have to rip apart your story, the fundamentals are there, you know that a gut wounds is really dangerous and often takes a long time to kill. You know about these things and you are trying to deal with them and approach them. I can give you some tips to make it more authentic." That balance has just worked wonderfully well for me. 

Barnes and Noble Book Club Q&A ()
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MarlonRand

Finally, do you have any advice for people that would like to write for a living?

Brandon Sanderson

First and foremost, don't give up. It can take a while. It takes time to master anything—whether it be writing, playing the piano, or brain surgery. People are willing to dedicate eight years or more to becoming a doctor. If you really want to be a writer, you need to be willing to dedicate the same amount of time and effort. Practice. Practice some more. Write a book, then write another, then write another. (I didn't sell my first, or my second, or my fifth. Elantris was my sixth book.)

Secondly, write what you love. Don't try and guess the market. Read the type of books you want to write, pay attention to what they do, and decide what it is you want to say and how you will add to the discussion. What makes your additions to the conversation unique? Write it because you feel it inside of you, not because it's what seems to be hot right now.

Finally, if I may make a plug, hop over to writingexcuses.com and listen to me and the others on our writing podcast talk about this sort of thing. ;)

Shadows of Self San Diego signing ()
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Questioner

Any advice for finding a good, constructive writing group?

Brandon Sanderson

Writing groups, your best bet is to find somewhere, like, at a convention, that's doing writing critiques, and get in on one of the group critiques that happen there, usually led by, like, an author or somebody, and see who's giving good critiques. And then approach them and see if you can start something up. I would say that's the best. University classes, you can get into one of those, some sort of writing class where you can kind of get a preview for how people critique and things like that. That's your best bet, conventions, or writing classes.

WorldCon 76 ()
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Brandon Sanderson

That's actually a really good point because often times you can also get away with things in fiction by making main characters who don't know what they are doing. Obviously, I couldn't do this when my character was a trauma surgeon. But, for instance, I'm pretty bad with horses. If you haven't read my books, I've ridden horses a couple of times, enough to know that people who really like horses really like you to get your horse stuff right.

And so, when I was approaching this series, I'm like, my character is the proverbial cabbagehead when it come to horses. He gets things wrong; he doesn't know what he's doing, and a lot of times if you do that, you not only give yourself a reason for your early readers, your beta readers, who know something about it to point out, "Oh here, here is a great way, here's what I see someone who doesn't know about horses do wrong." It's really fun, put it in the book; but it also gives you a sort of plausible deniability, where you're like, "Yes, that was from Kaladin's viewpoint, he has no idea about horses, he's describing it wrong. He's scared of the things."

Read For Pixels 2018 ()
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Anushia Kandasivam

Now, you have been so very incredibly supportive of our Read for Pixels campaign and of our anti-violence-against-women work as a whole. Could you tell us, why do you support the cause to end violence against women and what do you think authors can do to help with the cultural change needed to eradicate violence against women and girls?

Brandon Sanderson

I think that one of the main things we can do is something that I mentioned a little earlier. This is specifically to the other writers out there. Using violence against women, specifically because they are women, as a main plot point in your stories, is not just kind of creating bad stereotypes, it is often times lazy writing. We do it because it is the easiest answer, and because a lot of media takes it as the easy answer, because it elicits immediate visceral responses in an audience. Kind of in the same way that potato chips are bad for you, I think some of these things are bad for us as a society. They are unhealthy, but they are easy.

It is easy to beat up someone's mother, so that the male protagonist has a motivation to go about their life and their story. And this isn't to say we shouldn't ever have people in crisis and characters saving other characters. But what we need to do is we need to look at and say, "Am I taking the easy route? Am I doing this because I've been shown a lot of media, where the way to make a male character motivated is to kill his girlfriend and to give him a revenge plot? Am I doing this just because I've been told this is the way that media is? Or am I doing this because this is actually the story I want to tell?" I don't think any of us are saying that stories should not include women who are in violent situations.

We shouldn't stop writing female characters who get into violent conflicts who are not action stars and things like that. I think what we're all saying is, we should stop the lazy storytelling and we should stop using stories where violence against women because they are women is the way that we further our plots. And so I think as writers, we need to make better stories. We need to not reach for the easy answer, we-- your stories will have more depth, they will be more interesting and they will last longer if you will reach a little further and you will find motivations for your characters that are different. And, I do not uphold myself as the ultimate paragon in this regard. I have a lot of characters who part of their motivations is based off of loss that they have experienced in the past. And you're going to write characters like this too, and it's okay, but examine it, and ask yourself. And, you know, remember that even if you're not writing for your story to be a-- something that is upheld, as the way people should be, you are contributing to the climate of storytelling that people who read those stories will assume is the way that stories are to be told.

Why do I support this cause? Because I am-- I feel very passionately that this is something that we need to step up on, as a community, as entertainers. And that we should stop using sensationalized violence against people, not just women, but children and people who are in weakened social-economic situations as sensationalized ways to make our main characters look awesome. So that's my answer on that, and we can also, like I've said a lot in this particular broadcast, we can listen a little bit better. And I think it'll make us better writers. 

Salt Lake City ComicCon 2017 ()
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Questioner

Any advice you would give to a second grader learning to write?

Brandon Sanderson

For second graders? Until about high school, my recommendation is just to encourage them to write whatever they feel like writing. Not imposing too much structure, it's just about momentum. Just "Go go go" will be my recommendation.

Emerald City Comic Con 2018 ()
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Questioner

How many character chapters is too many? ...My first book has three character chapters, my second has six. I'm wondering if that's too--

Brandon Sanderson

Nothing is too many. It's good practice. You might lose control of it. My advice would be if you can keep those characters in clusters, meaning if you split them off into their own plots if they are together in one or two batches, it's going to be a lot easier. Adding more viewpoints is not too much harder when you're doing that. It's when they're all off on their own. But there's nothing that's too much, right? Even if it doesn't end up working out you will have taught yourself something.

Barnes and Noble Book Club Q&A ()
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Dreamer129

Are there any useful exercises you could give to a writer who's trying to improve their technique? I've heard the one about four different people describing the same place, but I was wondering if you had any other good ones.

Brandon Sanderson

Try to describe an extended scene, with various things happening, four different times, once with a focus on visuals, once on scents, once using touch, once using sounds. See if you can evoke a different feel each time, using the same scene but different senses.

Practice both discovery writing and outline writing. Meaning, practice writing stories where you just go off on whatever strikes you, and practice writing a story where you spend a lot of time on an outline. Try to figure out which method works best for you when trying a specific type of story, and perhaps try some hybrids. Anything that helps you write better stories more regularly is a tool to keep practicing.

Try a dialogue scene, where you try to evoke character and setting using ONLY dialogue. No descriptions allowed. (This is best when you're focused on making the characters each distinct simply through how they talk.)

Finally, listen to Writing Excuses. ;)

BookCon 2018 ()
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Questioner

I'm in <a MFA and> one of the things I'm interested in is writing multiple perspectives. So how do you go about that and make the characters sound distinctive?

Brandon Sanderson

I think really distinctive viewpoints is a big part of it, particularly in the third-limited. It's much easier in the first to distinguish them in some ways, though it's harder to keep track. But in third limited you want to make sure your viewpoints are really distinctive. I always ask myself the question, "How would they describe a cup of water?" Would they see that as if they are thirsty, or how would they describe that thing...

Third limited gets away with a sort of more general voice of the narrator a little bit, to kind of lean on that as long as the focus on descriptions and voice and thoughts of the characters.

WorldCon 76 ()
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Brandon Sanderson

One of the things I relied on my surgeons for when I was working was, they would periodically say, "Cauterize this one, not this one." I'm not sure I ever really figured out why, but I just did what they said. But I think that could be really handy for the audience. Any suggestions?

Panelist 1

Yeah, I had that on my list. So, cautery has been around for a very long time, and properly applied it can both stop bleeding, what we mostly use it for now, and limit infection by sealing the skin. So that's a perfectly valid therapy from way way back. 

Panelist 2

From a surgeons perspective cautery is a primary tool that I use in the operating room all the time. Mainly on small vessels. In the same, when you're doing abdominal surgery is that charcoal doesn't bleed, today. The problem with cauterizing a very large vessel is that it will stop the bleeding, and then the eschar, the charred part falls off and it starts bleeding again. So cauterizing your entire arm to stop bleeding is not as effective as cauterizing, say, an open bleeding wound that doesn't involve a major blood vessel.

WorldCon 76 ()
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Brandon Sanderson

I actually have a really good resource for you writers out there, if you want. There's a YouTube series done by historical fighting recreationists in the U.K. And a lot of times, if I'm like-- I was writing Oathbringer, my latest book, I'm like, "I need spear versus dagger." Which is, you don't want to be in that fight, but someone got in that fight, and I'm like "Alright, what are his chances, what would he do to actually win?" And I Googled on this YouTube series, which I really love, and lo and behold, they had 20 matches of dagger versus spear with some discussion about what the strategy for the dagger fighter was, and what the strategy for the spear fighter was. They played it out and showed you. The dagger fighter won a couple times, it's totally possible. Grab the front of the spear, yank them forward, get in close range. But it was really helpful. So this is called Schola Gladiatoria, on YouTube. I've been following it for years, and it's really great. You'll be able to find sets of, you, "here's 2 swords versus sword and shield." He also does reviews of historical weapons saying, "Here is what it was used for." He just really likes swords so he buys them frequently and talks about them. Really great resource.

WorldCon 76 ()
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Brandon Sanderson

One of the things I read regarding blunt trauma that Hollywood and authors like to ignore is-- I've been told by several experts, the old "Hit 'em on the back of the head and knock them out thing" is just not a thing. If you hit them on the back of the head hard enough to knock them out, chances are you have done serious damage to them. This [is] just not a thing.

WorldCon 76 ()
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Brandon Sanderson

This is where the writers can exploit this a little bit, and it's always a balance, right, as a novelist. The original question was: Alexander the Great survived, famously, a punctured lung. And so, the fact that it does happen means you can get away with it in your fiction, you can get away with a lot of things. But as it was brought up earlier on the panel, one of the things we try to do in fantasy, and I would say the hallmark of an epic fantasy is the sense of immersion. That's why we are writing epic fantasy, we want to draw people in, and while you are reading this book you want to feel like this is a real place and these are real events that happened.

WorldCon 76 ()
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Brandon Sanderson

Okay, so the question is: How do you draw the line between deciding to be realistic, and to fudge it in the name of drama, essentially. Pointed out, like, at the end someone gets shot in a way that would normally lay them out but you need the story to keep going. You have a number of options here, and sub-genre and tone is going to have a lot to do with it. The fact that Star Wars is not in any way realistic in its physics does not prevent it from being enjoyed by even a lot of us who understand how bad the physics is, right? Because Star Wars does not present itself as a story where they need to get the physics right. Whereas a hard science fiction movie that we're watching then make an enormous error-- I love The Martian, but this is why Andy Weir gets so much flack. It was way better than 99.9 percent of all science fiction stories; he gets one thing wrong and people will notice it because it's a hard science fiction story.

So, you're going to have to decide on the tone of your story, that's a large part of it. And the other thing is, you build up, in some ways, credibility, like I said, often with the small details. And then you use those small details. We often call it the pyramid of abstraction. You lay the foundation with concrete details, building the scene so the reader is on board for what you're doing. And then, when you need to fudge it and strain plausibility, even in a very realistic story, the reader generally gets on board and goes with it, and doesn't let it break immersion for them. In your example, if all the way through this story you had dealt with these things very realistically, at the end you even dealt with it realistically, but had the character kind of overcome it for a little while and push through. I am totally on board to buy that, right? I am there with you. I'm like, "This is the climatic moment. Yeah, he should have dropped, but instead, he manages to stand up and push the fire alarm or something like that." This sort of thing, readers will be on board. You just need to make sure to keep them on board and to sell them on the idea of the tone of your story. 

Panelist

As Sidney and Jen pointed out earlier, the wound that is ultimately fatal, often is not immediately fatal. That's one of the other Hollywood tropes that I sometimes hate is: sometimes he gets shot and immediately falls down. No, doesn't happen. A headshot maybe, but that's about it. 

Brandon Sanderson

Yeah, I was interviewing some people for a story I was writing, and I interviewed someone who had been shot. And he said "It felt like someone had tapped me on the back, just like that, and I didn't know I had been shot." The bullet went all the way through him, but he still was up and doing things for another couple of minutes.

Firefight San Francisco signing ()
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Questioner

Can you talk a little bit about writing your action sequences?

Brandon Sanderson

Writing action sequences, alright, alright... So writing sequences. The trick to writing an action sequence as a novelist is to not try to do what Hollywood does well, on the page. Instead do what a book does well. What I mean by that is, I can watch, like I assume most people can, Jackie Chan, he can fight for an hour and I'm loving it. He can introduce physical comedy into it and just the punches and stuff are just great, the blow by blow is fun. But if you tried to write a blow by blow in a book, you know "he punched him", then "he kicked him", then "he punched him really hard", and then "he jumped over and kicked him" it would just get boring. And so the way I think to write and engage the action sequences is, number one, make sure the reader knows very soon on what's at stake and have them care about what's at stake. Number two, get them inside the head of the character, so what the character's thinking, feeling and what connections they're making. In other words, make the fight sequence into a puzzle. Your main character's got to solve this puzzle in some way, and maybe the way to solve that puzzle is to just stab a bunch of people really hard, but you want to follow that thought process and have motion in the scene that involves the character's desires, goals, and thoughts, and things like that, and you'll have a stronger action sequence that way. It's the sort of thing that movies can't do. They can't show you the thoughts unless it's David Lynch doing Dune, and then-- have you seen that movie? You know how that turned out, it was really weird.

Emerald City Comic Con 2018 ()
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Questioner

What is the best advice you got from a beta reader or editor on your female characters?

Brandon Sanderson

Stop treating them like a role and start treating them like a person. Most of the times when guys write girls poorly, it is because they are saying  "Well, this is the X. This person's role in the story is X," and then they make the person not exist beyond that. Every character, regardless of gender, should have their own motives, passions, and you should be able to know what they were going to do with their life if the plot hadn't smashed into them, and that can go a long way toward helping with that.

That was the big thing for me, was not writing anyone to a role... making everyone the hero of their own story. That was the big thing, but it was a process over time, figuring out treating people like characters instead of roles. That's kind of nebulous, right? Tell them to read a bunch of books by women, because a lot of them haven't, and that's part of the reason they're doing it poorly.

Oh and here's another big thing. The first way of being sexist in your writing involves writing people into roles, right? Into stereotypes. The next thing that people generally do, you'll see this a lot in cinema right now, is take the underrepresented group, or the token female or something, and make them awesome, so that they don't actually have any sort of-- they're just good at everything. Right? That's the next level of doing something wrong, and the third is where you're like, "Wait a minute. Let's make everybody kind of quirky and interesting in their own way, rather than putting anyone on a pedestal," and things like that.

And it's a process for all of us. You'll notice that like in the Mistborn books... I was so focused on making sure I had a strong female lead, that there is like no other women in whole the book. And that's a really common mistake... But you just get better at it the more you write.

Skyward Atlanta signing ()
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Questioner

Do you find it harder to write from a male or female's point of view?

Brandon Sanderson

It is harder to write-- The more different someone is from me, the more difficult they are to write. Gender is only one part of that, however, and so some characters who are very like me, but maybe-- maybe a woman, would be easier to write than someone who is very different from me but is a guy. But that's all kind of part of it.

Early in my career, before I got published, I was actually really bad at this; but the main thing I learned from that era of my writing was that I was writing people to a role in the story. It wasn't that I was bad at writing women, it was that I was writing all women as the love interest. Which resulted in bad storytelling and flat characters. And if you start to be able to learn: treat each character they are the protagonist of their own story, treat each character like they see themselves, not as a bit part, but as the story themselves; and start to explore who they are rather than putting them in a role in the story, your characters will get better all around.

Shadows of Self Houston signing ()
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Questioner

When you're writing a book, and you're writing a character that's better at something than you are, like Shallan is very good at drawing, or Wayne is very good at imitating voices, how do you write that?

Brandon Sanderson

This is a good question. You get this old adage in writing classes where people are like "write what you know". And you're like, buuuuuut...writing about English professors gets a little old, unless you're writing literary fiction and that's like half of it. What do you do when you want to write someone that's better at something than you are? Excellent question. A couple of things. You can construct the perfect situation to show off what you want to show off, which is not how life normally goes. So I'm not nearly as clever as some of my characters, but I can construct the situation and then take like two hours thinking "Alright, what's the perfect comeback" Go get a burger and it's like "Ahh the perfect comeback". Like you might do when you're like "Ahh if only I'd thought of that. You can make that happen.

The other thing you can do is good research, and for a lot of things where it's a skill I don't have, what I try and do is I try to do enough research to get myself like seventy percent of the way there as an expert. And you can do that pretty fast, you take a couple of months, read a couple of books, and you can get yourself to the point that you don't sound embarrassing. Then you write the scenes and you find someone that is an expert, because that last thirty percent is what takes like nine years extra. And you give it to them and you say "Where am I wrong?". And since you've kind of done enough work that you're not just like completely out of left field, they can fix it usually, and they're like "Oh yeah, this is not something that a doctor would say", "This is not something you do, you fix it right here, but you got these parts all right, the context is correct". And that's what you want to do, if you can. Forums are very useful, in the internet age you can go and hang out, learn around people talking about all kinds of things. You can be like "How do these people think? How do people who think this way think?", and you can go there and get from their own mouths and their own voices, a lot of how they're talking and thinking, what their passionate about and things like that. And then you try to represent that the way they would represent it if they were writing the book.