Brandon's Blog 2018

Event details
Name
Name Brandon's Blog 2018
Date
Date Jan. 1, 2018
Entries
Entries 10
Upload sources
#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.

#6 Copy

Brandon Sanderson

Introduction: The Longer Version

Back in January this year, Wizards of the Coast approached me. Knowing of my love for their game, Magic: The Gathering, they were wondering if I would be willing to write a tie-in story for them. They mentioned since it was the 25th birthday of Magic, they wanted to do something special—and might be able to splurge on a Brandon Sanderson story.

I was, of course, interested—but went back to Wizards with a proposal that I think surprised them. You see, I knew they'd been doing some very interesting things with their stories in recent months. (The multi-part Dominaria sequence by Martha Wells is a good example, if you are interested.) I liked how they were using free stories on their website to both enhance the lore and give some work to talented writers.

Way back in the beginning of my career, one of the things I liked to do was periodically release free stories. Defending Elysium, Firstborn, and even Warbreaker are examples. Over the years, though, I've gotten busy enough that I haven't found a good opportunity to do this again. I liked the idea of doing a story for Wizards in part for this reason.

So I went back to them with a proposal: I didn't actually want payment for this story. I just wanted them to put it up for free on their website, and then if (later down the road) it generated any money by being in a collection or in print on its own, I wanted my portion of that donated to charity. In exchange for doing it for free, I wanted to be allowed to write the story my way. That meant me picking one of their settings, then developing my own characters and plot to happen there. (As opposed to writing the story for one of their official releases, as most of the other writers they hired were doing.)

It wasn't that I had anything against writing one of the main-line-setting stories. I just felt that in this case, I wanted greater flexibility. Beyond that, for several years now, I've had a story brewing in my head that I felt was a perfect match for one of their settings—a story I couldn't make work in the Cosmere, but which I really wanted to write.

Wizards was on board immediately—and so, "Secret Project" was born.

Regarding the Story

Wizards has a lot of great settings for the card game, so I had plenty of options. The story I'd been brewing was specifically inspired by their Innistrad set—a gothic horror setting with some magepunk elements underpinning it. It has had a very interesting evolution over the years, and was the setting for one of the best Magic sets of all time. Ever since writing Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell, I've wanted to do another horror/fantasy hybrid, and so I dove into what became Children of the Nameless.

I don't know exactly what Wizards was expecting of me, but I suspect a 250-page behemoth of a story wasn't it. (At 50k words, the story is roughly half the size of something like Skyward.) I have to say, though, working with them was an absolute pleasure. They jumped on board with the main character pitch I made, integrating him right away into the larger Magic story. They even went so far as to loop me in on conference calls, where I could explain my character concepts so they could develop art. I'd thought they might be worried about letting me go off on my own like this, but they were instead enthusiastic and supportive.

So, it is with great pleasure I present Children of the Nameless. Consider it a Christmas present from me and from Wizards of the Coast to you. I hope you enjoy it!

#8 Copy

Questioner

When will we get the sequel [to Children of the Nameless]?

Brandon Sanderson

I'm putting this question on here because, dear readers, I know you very well. But let's not put the cart before the horse. I would not be opposed to doing something more with these characters in the future, if Wizards is amenable, but I've also got a lot on my plate. I suspect that if I were to do something more with Magic in the future, it wouldn't be for several years. (I have Stormlight 4 to write, after all.)

#9 Copy

Brandon Sanderson

All right, the question that arises here is pretty obvious: How in the multiverse did Davriel let himself get caught up in the mess happening on Ravnica. Well, the events of the story I wrote kind of blew his cover—and, just as feared—soon after, he got several visits from extra-planar entities looking for planeswalkers to recruit for their cause. He also got a very cryptic message that I’ll, perhaps, get into some time in the future.

Suffice it to say that in the end, he decided to show up and do his best to encourage everyone that he was useless. He figured that way, next time everyone decided to go murder one another, they’d neglect to invite him. Unfortunately, he arrived, and everything has basically gone to hell. (And, having been there before, he’s not a fan.)

We can therefore summarize Davriel’s opinion on events with the following list:

  1. OH BOTHER.
  2. Zombies. Why is it always zombies? Aren’t there any evil, power-hungry overlords out there with good taste in minions?
  3. He wonders what the Ravnican insurance policies look like. It would be curious to have a look at the fine print, and see how likely the local actuaries rated “Extra-planar invasion by megalomaniacal dragons.”
  4. Said megalomaniacal dragon really needs to be more careful with his rampaging, as he quite nearly destroyed Davriel’s favorite local noodle shop with his latest destructive tirade.
  5. Did anyone get the name of that Demon in the loin cloth? You know, the fellow with the glowing face and a mouth that looks like it can toast its own bread while consuming it? Because Davriel currently has a hole in his staff and is offering very competitive rates on his soul.

Now, if you’ll excuse him, he’s going to go see if Cruel Celebrant’s party has any snacks not infused with the blood of the innocent. (It really tastes far worse than everyone claims, and he’s convinced they just like to look trendy by consuming it.)

#10 Copy

A. Worland

Whenever I write, I have all the inspiration and stuff to do so and I know what I want to write. But when I come back to what I have written the next day or so, that feeling of inspiration and satisfaction that I had when I was writing goes away and I feel unsatisfied with what I have written. I have great ideas that I think are great, but sometimes I don’t think they are great anymore. Often times I re-write it, but the situation is a continuous loop. Any advice?

Brandon Sanderson

This is a common sort of attitude, and you are not alone. Writers tend to fall into two camps, I’ve found. The people who think their writing is terrible while writing it, but then discover it’s not so bad afterward—and the people who think it’s great while writing it, but then look back and find it disappoints them. I don’t think either attitude is 100% correct, but I can understand both.

What I see happening here (as an off-the-cuff diagnosis not knowing you enough to do a detailed and specific one) is that your ability to see a perfect and wonderful book in your head is not yet matched by your actual writing skill. You’ve likely read a lot of books, and have developed a very discerning eye for what works and what doesn’t in fiction. You feel like you should be able to produce that great fiction, therefore.

But you’re like a person who has become an expert in tasting cheese—that doesn’t mean you can make your own. You have an advantage over someone else, but you still have to put in the work to learn the process of cheese making. Here, you’re comparing the perfect version of the book in your head (or, perhaps, the published books you’re reading) to the first draft, unpracticed work you’ve written.

The challenge here is to recognize your first draft doesn’t have to match a published finished draft. Beyond that, you’re going to grow a lot as a new writer as you finish your first few books—to the point that you will often be much better as a writer by the end of a sequence than you were at the start.

In all these cases, however, the solution is the same: keep your eye on the goal. Finish that story. You can’t learn to do endings until you practice them. Learn to let yourself be bad at something long enough to be good at it. This is an essential step many artists have to take. You can and will make that story better, but you need to finish it first.

Event details
Name
Name Brandon's Blog 2018
Date
Date Jan. 1, 2018
Entries
Entries 10
Upload sources