So something that I'd love to hear your thoughts on are if you think as your career progresses that you can get away with things—story things—that you couldn't when you were less well known?
Obviously, as we grow in our storytelling skills and experience with the industry, we can try harder challenges and succeed where we wouldn't have before. That's not what I'm talking about. I'm more curious about if you think we train our readers (and book store buyers). I think—pure speculation because I haven't yet dug in to my copy of The Way of Kings—that if a 400,000 word tome hit my desk from someone I'd never heard of and when I began reading, I found it didn't follow any epic fantasy structure I knew, I'd be much more likely to assume it was just an amateur mess—but because it says "Brandon Sanderson, #1 NYT Bestselling Author" on the front, I trust that you're Doing Something Big. I think I read it differently. Do you agree?
I run into the same sort of thing: I've got a decent reputation for deep characters now, so when a character does something contradictory (dumb jock says something brilliant or whatever), my readers think, "Oh, there's more going on here under the surface, can't wait to see what." Rather than, "This character is inconsistent. Bad writing."
And I would contend that precisely because you're a magic system guy, that if you don't explain the magic in TWOK, people are NOT going to say, "Good book, but magic system doesn't make sense." They're going to say, "Obviously brilliant stuff going on with the magic, can't wait until book 12 to see what!" (That's hyperbole with a wink, not snark.)
Do you believe you can get away with storytelling stunts, elisions, or tricks now that Brandon Sanderson the debut author couldn't have? If so, what's the good part of that—and is there a bad side?
Yes, there are things I can get away with now that I couldn't before—or ones I didn't try to get away with before. One big one is flashbacks. In my early years as a writer, published and unpublished, I stayed far away from flashbacks. Partially because I'd been told to do so, and partially because I'd seen them done poorly from a large number of other new writers. There are good reasons to stay away from them, and the advice is good. If you do flashbacks the wrong way, you'll break the flow of your narrative, risk undermining the tension of your story, confuse the reader, and basically make a big old mess.
Then Pat Rothfuss comes along and does a narrative-within-a-narrative where the entire book is basically flashback, and it works really well. I do know, however, that Pat had a lot of trouble selling that book of his to start. (Though admittedly, I'm not sure if that was the flashbacks or not. I seem to remember he added the frame story later in the process, and that the huge length of the book was what was scaring people away at first.)
I guess this brings us back to the first rule of writing: you can do whatever you want, if you do it well. Regardless, I decided—after some deliberation—that I'd use flashbacks as an extensive device in The Way of Kings and the rest of the series. None of these were in earlier drafts of the novel, however, because I knew that many readers (and editors) have a knee-jerk reaction against flashbacks because of how likely they are to screw things up. Now that I'm established, however, I feel that people will trust me when they see them.
(One thing I'm leaving out is that I think I'm a better writer now than I was before, and if I'd tried these flashbacks during earlier days, I'd likely have flubbed them.)