Brandon's Blog 2018

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Name Brandon's Blog 2018
Date
Date Jan. 1, 2018
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Entries 5
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#1 Copy

Isaac Stewart

White Sand has an interesting background. Many of you know that it was the sixth novel Brandon wrote–Elantris–that was picked up by Tor and published as his first novel, but by the time Tor released Elantris in 2005, Brandon had written more than thirteen novels. Mistborn, which came out a year later in 2006, was Brandon’s fourteenth.

But White Sand was Brandon’s first novel. His third novel–Lord Mastrell–was a sequel to it. When Brandon wrote his eighth novel, right after the infamous Dragonsteel, he went back to White Sand Prime and Lord Mastrell and rewrote them both from the beginning, combining them into the White Sand we now give away for those who sign up for the mailing list. I believe this was also the novel that got his agent Joshua’s attention, and while Joshua didn’t offer representation just yet, he did offer some suggestions for a revision. Brandon also had a list of things he wanted to accomplish were he ever to have the chance to return to White Sand and revise it. But when Elantris came out, turning around and revising an old novel was just not in the cards.

When Dynamite proposed a three-part graphic novel several years ago, Brandon met with Team Dragonsteel and laid out his vision for White Sand. We pulled out his revision notes along with Joshua’s commentary from so long ago. We re-read White Sand and made our own notes, and together as a team we fleshed out what Brandon would have liked to have done were he to revise White Sand today without the luxury of rewriting the book from the beginning. We clarified character motivations, we strengthened character arcs, we changed the gender of one of the main characters, and we brought in stronger elements from the Cosmere at large. Together, under Brandon’s direction, and with Dynamite’s help, we crafted this into the canonical version of White Sand.

#2 Copy

Brandon Sanderson

I have the last quarter of this year earmarked to write the final Mistborn (Wax and Wayne) novel, which leaves me around six or seven months to play with, and I’m hoping to finish another book in the Skyward series. However, before I dive into that, there’s a certain novella I need to write. We’re listing that as “Secret Project” and it’s not anything you’re probably guessing. I’ll reveal it when the time is right, but for now, it’s not cosmere, and is not something I’ve talked about before.

#3 Copy

Brandon Sanderson

One of the most common questions I get, as a writer, is some variation on, “Do you ever hear voices, or feel like your characters are real?” People ask it timidly, as they don’t want to be offensive, but there seems to be genuine curiosity about the way a writer’s brain works. (Other variations on this theme are questions such as, “What are your dreams like?” or “Do you ever get so wrapped up in your worlds that you have trouble coming back to our world?”)

They’re legitimate questions, though I’m not convinced that a writer’s brain works in any consistently different way from someone else’s brain. I think you’ll find the same amount of variation in the way writers work as you’ll find in any profession. There are as many ways to approach stories as there are people writing stories.

That said, I have talked to a lot of writers who imply a certain autonomy to their characters. “I had to write their story,” one might say. “They wouldn’t leave me alone until I did.” Or some version of, “I was writing one story, but the characters just didn’t want to go that way, and so took off in another direction.”

To me, these are ways of trying to voice the fact that the way our minds work—and the way we construct art—is in some cases a mystery even to those involved. Human beings have this fascinating mix of instinct and intent, where we train ourselves to do complex tasks quickly through repetition. In this way, writing a book is somewhat similar to driving home from work—you can consciously think about it, and make each decision along the way. Or, more often, you just let your body do the work, interpreting things your brain says should happen without you thinking about it directly.

I spend a lot of time teaching how to write and talking about writing, but I don’t consciously use a lot of the techniques I talk about. I’ve used them so much that I just move forward, without formally saying something like, “Now I’m making sure my chapter ties together the sub-themes it introduced at the beginning.” The truly conscious technique comes during troubleshooting, when a story isn’t coming together for me—and so I have to step back, take apart what I’ve been doing, and find the broken bits.

So again, a mix of intent and instinct is where books come from for me. I don’t generally feel that the characters “want” to do things—but I still write them by gut feeling most of the way, and only look at breaking down their motivations specifically when I’m either working on the outline or trying to fix something in revisions.

On one hand, I know exactly who the character is and what they would do in a situation. So it does feel a little mystical sometimes, and you can have eureka moments during writing where you finally find a method to express this character that will convey the right idea to the reader. In that way, there’s almost this Platonic version of the character that you’re chasing—and trying to explore, figure out, and commit to paper.

On the other hand, it’s likely that these characters feel right to me not because of any mystical connection to the abstract. It’s because I’m unconsciously drawing from tropes, characterizations, and people I’ve known before—and I am putting them together on the page to form something that will feel right because of the backgrounds I’m drawing upon.

It’s an exhilarating process for me, but also can lead to troubles. Which I’ll talk about in Part Two.

#4 Copy

Brandon Sanderson

In the last post, I talked a little about how characters come into existence, walking the line between an instinctive process and an intentional one.

Working this way can create some issues. The first is that sometimes when I talk about my process, this part of it ends up getting presented as a lot more… deliberate than it really is. I spend a lot of time trying to help new writers, and I worry that in presenting all of these outlines, exercises, and techniques, we miss emphasizing just how little we really understand about the process.

In some ways, writing a story is like hitting a baseball. You can talk all you want about the physics involved in how a baseball is pitched, then hit with the bat. But the truth is, neither pitcher nor batter are thinking about any of this in the moment.

This makes the process feel overwhelming to some new writers, who think they need to have all of this in hand before they can write a story. Truth is, I’m generally explaining things I did by instinct early in my career, then figured out ways to talk about as I proceeded to study what I’d already done.

You don’t need to feel some mystical connection to characters to start writing—and if you focus too much on the idea that your characters should “feel” right and “do what they want,” you can end up frustrated, as you don’t have the practice writing yet to get them to do what needs to be done to actually create an interesting story.

Another problem with the voices in my head is the worry that I’ll repeat myself. Working by instinct, as so many authors (including outliners like me) do, can lead to repetition. Something can “feel” right because you’ve seen that thing done so many times, you think it is the “right” way—even when it makes for a worse story.

This sort of writing, even when you’re doing something interesting and new to you, can get repetitive as you only write in one way or style. In fact, I see a lot of writers talking about the “right” way to do something, as if it’s a hard and fast rule—but it’s not really that, it’s simply the way they’ve trained their instincts to respond. Something that goes against this feels off to them, but only because of a kind of tunnel vision.

You can also start to regurgitate stereotypes and other weak or harmful tropes because they’re part of your historical experience with genre—and you take them for granted. I did this in the original Mistborn novels, where I spent a lot of time working on Vin as a character, wanting an interesting and dynamic female lead for the stories. But then I wrote the rest of the team as men—not because I consciously decided it, but because stories like Ocean’s Eleven, The Sting, and Sneakers (which were part of my inspiration) contained primarily male casts.

It isn’t that you can’t make a story that does this, or couldn’t have reasons for writing a primarily male cast in a story. But I didn’t have any of those reasons in mind; I did it because I was mimicking, without conscious thought, things I’d seen before. It felt “right” to me, but during examination later, I felt the story would have been stronger if I hadn’t just run with the default that way.

Overall, I think that repeating myself is my biggest worry as a writer. Specifically, I worry that I’ll end up writing the same characters over and over, or look at themes the same way time and time again, without even realizing that I’m doing it. That’s one of the reasons I force myself to approach stories like the Legion ones—where I have to get out of my comfort zone, write in a different kind of setting with different kinds of storytelling expectations, and see where that takes me.

And so, the third part of this series will look at the Legion stories specifically, and where the voices in my head came from in that regard.

#5 Copy

Brandon Sanderson

This is my third and final essay tying in with the release of my new book, Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds. The book has been released for about a week now, and I hope you’ve all had a chance to check it out. This story is something special to me, particularly the third part—which might be the most personal story I’ve ever written.

But how did it start? The Legion stories seem, at first glance, very self-referential. They are about a man who hallucinates a wide variety of characters—but unlike many protagonists of his ilk, Stephen knows that his hallucinations aren’t real, and doesn’t (for most of the stories) resist the fact that he is like this. Instead, he uses this ability to help him, acting like a one-man team of experts.

The parallels are obvious. Stephen is very much like me, in that he imagines a large cast of people who accompany him. It’s quite the metaphor for being a writer, though when I was working on the first story, I didn’t really see this connection. I just wanted to see if I could change something that is often portrayed in film as a huge liability into (instead) a huge advantage.

The original cast of hallucinations—specifically JC, Ivy, and Tobias—were based on actors. This is rare for me, as I don’t often “cast” my characters in stories. But to me, it felt like Stephen would have used people he’d seen in film as a jumping-off point to create these personas, much as many of my characters have their roots in the pop culture I consumed when young. Ivy, then, looks roughly like Gwyneth Paltrow, Tobias like Morgan Freeman, and J.C. like Adam Baldwin—with the name J.C. being a reference to the fact that he’s played multiple characters with those initials.

But, like any characters I create, these were just jumping-off points, used to spin me into unique characterizations. JC went into this fun mix of self-aware, playing up his quirks, while Ivy became a representation of the fight within Stephen between cynicism and sincerity.

The more I wrote, the more this became a metaphor for the complex relationship between a writer and the characters in their head. The voices that they know aren’t real—but still depend on convincing readers to buy as real people. The stories deal with mental illness, yes, but the further I wrote, the more Stephen became a stand-in for the way our perceptions—and our hopes—shape the world we perceive. And maybe for the crisis that can be caused when we realize there’s a misalignment between the two.

Going back to the points I made in the first essay, however, it isn’t that I was trying to express anything specific by writing these stories. And yet, by the end of the third one, I had indeed expressed something that was deeply personal—and real in ways that it is still strange to me that a piece of fiction can reach.

But that’s the point of stories, or at least one of them. A medium through which we can all connect in ways that we never could solely by explaining ourselves. Because art reaches inside us, and expresses aspects of ourselves that aren’t deliberate, there’s a truth and genuineness to it. A raw sincerity that isn’t always about which part of the three-act structure you’re crossing right now, or which part of a character arc this event is fulfilling. Those are important to give us a framework. But it is not itself the art.

The structure is the skeleton, but the art is the eyes. The part you can see into and feel it looking back at you. The part that somehow—despite my best attempts to quantify it—is a soul that lives on its own, and defies explanation.

Event details
Name
Name Brandon's Blog 2018
Date
Date Jan. 1, 2018
Entries
Entries 5
Upload sources