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    Brandon Sanderson

    Chapter Fourteen

    And here the action picks up again.

    I love me a good action scene. There’s something very fun about constructing action on the page. Partially, I think, because it’s tough to do. In a movie, you can make the visuals happen the way you want to. However, in a book, you have a real fine balance to walk. You want people to be able to imagine the action, but at the same time you can’t include too much, because every bit you include slows the action by a proportional amount.

    This action scene is my favorite in the book. True, there aren’t a lot to choose from here–it’s not like Mistborn, where there are more fights. However, this one really works for me for a couple of reasons. First off, we’ve just had a lull in the book with lots of interesting–but not very fast-paced–things happening. Second, we get a good character climax in the middle of this scene. Third, there’s a real sense of danger here.

    Again, it’s nice that the first few things Alcatraz tries don’t work. It’s a frustrating metaphor for his life that he has so much trouble. It seems that the harder he tries, the worse things turn out for him. That’s just perception, of course–effort is rarely wasted in my opinion, even if all it does is improve you as a person and your ability to work. However, as Alcatraz sees things, he often gets beaten down when he tries. So he’s stopped trying.

    Up until here. The fact that he doesn’t just give in is the show of what I told you in the last few chapters–it is supposed to reinforce that he really is changing. That he does care. And that caring is now driving him to channel his Talent.

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    Brandon Sanderson

    The Limits Of Alcatraz's Power

    How much could Alcatraz break, if he really set his mind to it? I liked asking this question here because it’s going to be a theme of the entire series. I’ll answer it, eventually. For now, let us say that Alcatraz doesn’t understand his own power.

    Note here, by the way, that he mentions that he broke his family’s hearts. His power is far more abstract that simply being able to break objects that he touches.

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    Brandon Sanderson

    Breaking Out Of The Cell

    Alcatraz fails to break out of here the first few times he tries. I’ve always been a believer of making things tough. Too many stories, in my opinion, have the villains acting in a stupid way. If the heroes can only win because the bad guys are idiots, then where’s the fun in that? (Big problem with 80s cartoons, I’m afraid. Even as a kid, I watched them and said, “Come on! Let Destro lead, not Cobra Commander! Let’s have a challenge here!”)

    Ahem. Quick geek-out moment there.

    Anyway, I figured that the Librarians would be aware of how Alcatraz and company might break out of the prison. True, they had to rile up the guard to get out–and that depended on the guard reacting in a foolish way–but people do make mistakes, particularly when they’re annoyed. I like that the prison–the part of keeping them captive that was prepared ahead of time–worked like it’s supposed to. It was human error in the passion of the moment, mixed with Alcatraz’s ability to be downright infuriating (a talent nearly worthy of magical powers), that was enough to get them out.

    Of course, all this necessitates the villains running off and leaving the heroes in prison. However, try to look at it from their viewpoint. How important/dangerous are Alcatraz, Bastille, and Sing? Wouldn’t you rather keep an eye on the real threat–the centuries-old master wizard with a mysterious objective?

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    Brandon Sanderson

    Chapter Thirteen

    And I spent fourteen years in prison, where I obtained the learning of a gentleman and discovered the location of a buried treasure.

    Yes, that’s a Count of Monte Cristo joke in the introduction here. No, things didn’t pass that quickly in that book, but the years did fly by. (If anything can be said to fly by in it. I like the book, but man, it’s a beast.)

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    Brandon Sanderson

    Interrogation And Torture

    “Foolish, foolish Alcatraz” is a nod to Jeff Smith’s Bone. Give it a read, if you haven’t.

    Also of note is Sing’s comment when Alcatraz is talking to Ms. Fletcher. Sing notes that Alcatraz is a little bit snide. That quip, for some reason, has been a favorite of readers ever since the first draft. I’m not completely sure why. Yes, it’s fun, but it seems to have gotten undue attention as a laugher. Sometimes you just can’t judge what will work for people and what won’t–or what will work really, really well.

    And since I’m talking about little things here, let me mention Grandpa Smedry. Of course he shows up late, after Alcatraz gets tortured.

    I worried that having the main character get tortured like this might be too graphic for a children’s book–but then I remembered some of the things I’ve read in children’s books lately. It seems to me that you shouldn’t pull punches because of the audience. There are words I change to make the vocabulary work for the age group, and some types of humor don’t work as well, but I don’t like talking down to anyone, even babies who can’t speak yet. Successful novels are ones that treat their readers with respect, regardless of age.

    Alcatraz needed to go through this (and I know, it’s not really that graphic). It’s what the story needed. Heroes do get themselves into trouble. If standing up for people were easy, what would be the point of bravery?

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    Brandon Sanderson

    I hadn't even noticed - my glasses were gone.

    Alcatraz doesn’t notice that he’s missing his Oculator’s Lenses. This is a big deal to me, metaphorically, even though it’s barely mentioned. He hasn’t grown into them yet.

    However, more important than that is the discussion he has with Bastille about being an Oculator. These are some of the issues we’ll get into with her character later, but remember–this series is about using what you have and making the best of it. Sure, it would be better for Bastille if she were an Oculator, but that’s not an option for her.

    However, what she does have is severe stubbornness. This comes out as she explains how long she tried to become an Oculator. She would have known from the beginning that it was impossible, but she still tried.

    Her stubbornness is what she has to make use of. (Oh, and the Popsicle thing is one of my favorite little explanations in the book.)

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    Brandon Sanderson

    Chapter Twelve

    The Alcatraz Smedry you think you know is a farce.

    And now we get the cynical side of Alcatraz’s character growth. It was an interesting experiment, writing this book from the perspective of someone looking back. I knew what I wanted to have happened in Alcatraz’s life (remember, when I changed the book to first person, I’d done a lot more worldbuilding and planning for the series than I had when I originally wrote it). And I knew where he would end up by the time he was older. (I peg the narrator at about eighteen years old.)

    So I knew that he’d look at some of these events–such as Alcatraz learning to be a leader–with a sneer. I had to get that across without undermining the power of the actual event, which is why I’ve worked so hard to make the narrator seem a little untrustworthy. You see how he reacts to his young self, but hopefully you don’t see the young Alcatraz in the same way.

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    Brandon Sanderson

    She single-handedly ended the drought in Kalbreeze during the fourth-third century.

    By the way, the fourth-third century thing is intentional. They keep track of years a little differently in the Free Kingdoms. There are certain epochs of time. So the first-first century would be kind of like our A.D. 0-100, but the first-third century would be like A.D. 200-300. On the other hand, the second-third century is more like A.D. 1200-1300. (Though the dates are a little off–they’re not analogous. The first-third century is more like 2000 B.C. our time. More in later books.)

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    Brandon Sanderson

    I made them hate me. On purpose.

    This chapter was the one where I really started to delve into character. It just might be my favorite in the book. Now, maybe, you can see why I had to take out the self-awareness at the beginning of the book. This chapter has real power because Alcatraz is being forced to admit uncomfortable things about himself.

    From the very get-go, my goal in this book was to write something funny that also had a strong character with a good character arc. That’s why I started the first chapter with Alcatraz burning down the kitchen. He was a solid character in my mind–a combination of a lot of different sides. The kid who wanted to be loved, the sarcastic teenager who pushed people away, the cynical older teen who is writing these books. He’s a guy who’s been through a lot, and I hoped that with this chapter (and the next) I could show some depth in a book that otherwise might be dismissible as a simple farce.

    We also start to get into Bastille’s character here, though a lot of what I’m going to do with her is reserved for later. In my mind, this series is about her almost as much as it is about Alcatraz.

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    Brandon Sanderson

    The something hard I was lying on turned out to be the ground.

    There’s a small Douglas Adams nod in here, by the way. That’s what the “No, it didn’t want to be my friend” crack is about with the ground. My editor tried to cut it, since she didn’t get it, but I insisted that it remain. Maybe nobody will get it, but it makes me laugh–and sometimes, that’s what humor is all about.

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    Brandon Sanderson

    Chapter Eleven

    Authors like to torture people.

    If I had to pick, this would be my second-favorite rant. The mousetrap one is fun, but this one actually says something. It offers commentary. Even if it is ridiculous.

    I’ve wondered about this concept. Why, exactly, do authors do what they do? Why do I write books, and why do I get a thrill every time I see a character in as much pain as I put Alcatraz through in this chapter?

    I acknowledge that I’m probably not a sadist. It’s more that I love seeing good character development. Books are about emotion, and I get the greatest satisfaction from a story when people become so attached to the character that they feel like they know them. Then, when something bad happens, it’s heartwrenching, and the book gains meaning. Not because of what it says or its grand philosophy, but because it means something to that reader at that moment.

    And when there are victories, they really feel like victories. Nothing is better than that.

    Alcatraz Annotations ()
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    Brandon Sanderson

    They named prisons after us.

    Here we get the reason why everyone has prison names. I figured this makes sense, in the twisted reasoning of this book. Alcatraz the First is a famous hero in the Free Kingdoms. So, what do the Librarians do? They make sure everyone in the Hushlands associates the name Alcatraz with something base.

    It was fun when I actually managed to work out a reason behind the loony choice of my hero’s name.

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    Brandon Sanderson

    It was a person I had known for my entire life: Ms. Fletcher

    The Ms. Fletcher scene has some interesting things to note. First off, if you figured out before Alcatraz that the person whose footprints he was following had to be Ms. Fletcher, you’re not alone. I realize this isn’t the biggest twist ever. However, there’s more going on here than you might suspect.

    Particularly with the fact that she lost her keys. That’s important. You’ll find out in book two why. Also, there’s more about her footprints that will be answered later in this book.

    Alcatraz Annotations ()
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    Brandon Sanderson

    Character Growth

    And, speaking of character, another of the fun themes of this book comes out in this chapter. One of my points is to show all of these wondrous, incredible things–then relate them to Alcatraz and his growth as a character. From the very beginning, the narrator has tied the two together. For instance, the reason Alcatraz begins believing that Grandpa Smedry is his grandfather is because he’s seen so much that is insane, the idea of this man being his grandfather doesn’t seem so out of place.

    This character, Alcatraz, has some things he needs to learn. We’ll get into them in the next chapter. However, all of the craziness–even the implausibility–happening in this book is a foreshadowing of the ability he has to change the most incredible thing of all–his own mind.

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    Brandon Sanderson

    Chapter Ten

    Are you annoyed with me yet?

    This beginning is exactly what I like about the form of this book. Here, I can go on and on about how you shouldn’t separate readers from the payoff of cliffhangers–all the while keeping you from getting the payoff of the cliffhanger at the end of the previous chapter.

    This whole theme started with that first line, and my desire not to get right back to Alcatraz on the altar. As I thought about it, I realized there were a lot of ways I could play with the form of a fantasy novel–or any novel–while at the same time following that form. This became almost as fun for me as character or setting.

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    Brandon Sanderson


    There are some jokes in this book that I don’t expect anyone to get. There are others that are just for a select group.

    If you didn’t notice, I spelled pterodactyl differently every time I put it in this chapter. There are a good half dozen or more places where it’s misspelled, each time in a new way.

    I put this in not because I expected the average reader to notice, but because it gave me glee to think of the proofreaders, editors, and spelling-minded people who read the book trying to correct each instance–then groaning when they discovered that I’d done it on purpose. (Evil laughter.)

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    Brandon Sanderson

    Worldbuilding After The Fact

    That said, this chapter has some of the strongest historical worldbuilding in the book. This information–about Silimatics, the Incarna, and Biblioden the Scrivener–was all added to the book later as I developed it. The thing about a big free write like I did is that it just . . . well, wasn’t publishable.

    Once I had a draft of the book, I knew that it would need stronger worldbuilding if I was going to make a series out of it. I needed a history for the Librarians, and motivations for what they were doing. So I did a lot my brainstorming for this book after I wrote it, which was kind of an odd experience.

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    Brandon Sanderson

    Chapter Nine


    I’d like to be able to tell you where this came from, why I put it in the book, but . . . well, I have no idea. Remember, this book was–in essence–a long free write. I didn’t have much of an outline, setting, or anything else in mind. When I got to this point in the book, I thought, “Hey, talking dinosaurs. Let’s put those in.” So I did.

    I enjoyed them, however, and had a lot of fun using them. They show up later in the plot–if I add something to a book, even in a free write, I don’t want it to be random. Things exist in stories for a reason, even if that reason is to give a deeper explanation of where the English language came from.

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    Brandon Sanderson

    New Continents

    The existence of three new continents is also a bit of a stretch. Though I appeal to Plato here as an explanation, it’s still mostly lighthearted. I can’t hold this book to the same scientific rigors as my other fantasy novels. Not only would it undermine the book, but it would also make this one feel too much like everything else I’ve written. I wanted to see what would happen if I gave myself a little more freedom. This is the result.

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    Brandon Sanderson

    Chapter Eight

    Elevators? How Primitive

    Of all of the things in this book, I think this chapter has the biggest stretch when it comes to worldbuilding.

    I really liked the concept of Free Kingdomers thinking of our modern world as primitive. Them thinking swords are more advanced than guns is a really fun reversal. However, it’s a tough one to justify.

    I ended up leaving this concept in because of the way it made the book feel, but I would never have done so in a more solemn fantasy novel. If you’re wondering, the reason for Bastille thinking that stairs are more advanced is the following:

    Once, the Free Kingdoms used stairs. They eventually moved on to primitive elevators, but when Smedry Talents and other magical abilities began to get widespread, things with moving parts had a large chance of breaking. Plus, people developed Silimatics–the technology of the Free Kingdoms. Soon they were building stairs again. Partially for health reasons, partially because elevators weren’t very safe, and partially because silimatic stairs–which moved on their own–were so much more convenient (for those who could afford them).

    So technology regressed while progressing at the same time. And people like Bastille can look back at elevators and say, “We stopped using those because they weren’t advanced enough.” We get an explanation like this in the book, regarding guns, in a little while.

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    Brandon Sanderson

    Favorite Joke

    The Summa Theologica comment. I first remember encountering this book (which is on Catholic doctrine) when I was a freshman. Some of us went out to a local used bookseller, and one of my friends said he was searching for a copy of it. I thought he was so smart. He wanted a book that had a Latin title. Ooooh.

    I bought a hardcover copy of The Hobbit. Still have it.

    Alcatraz Annotations ()
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    Brandon Sanderson

    People who weren't impressed by how advanced my culture was

    Man, this book is preachy, isn’t it? Ah well. Good thing it’s written from the viewpoint of a guy up on his soapbox dispensing wisdom. Otherwise it might get pretentious.

    Isn’t it funny how I can get away with so much in a book like this? If I tried to be this overt with theme and message in one of my epic fantasies, it would completely ruin the book. I always talk about how books shouldn’t have intentional messages–only the messages that the characters want to talk about. However, you can’t help having things come through anyway. And as soon as I started writing in first person with a humorous tone, all kinds of things popped out.

    In this chapter, we get Alcatraz having to face the fact that America doesn’t have all the best stuff. This is kind of hard to swallow, sometimes. Everyone wants to believe that their country is the best, and I’m afraid that Americans sometimes tend to go overboard with this.

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    Brandon Sanderson

    Chapter Seven

    Unwittingly made a friend's pants fall down

    Humor is hard to write. Not only is it subjective, but in a book you don’t have the benefit of a laughing crowd to help you get into the mood.

    Because of these things, I know that everyone who reads this book is going to find some of the jokes lame. The best I can do is try to cover the range of different kinds of humor. That’s why there are non sequiturs–where I mention random absurdities–mixed with jokes about a boy’s pants falling down and random discussions of books by Thomas Aquinas breeding with copies of Little Women. Hopefully, the amalgamation has something that entertains you.

    By the way, that crack about Alcatraz making his friend’s pants fall down wasn’t in the original draft. Instead, it was a crack about Alcatraz making a girl’s shirt fall off. That’s what I’d do if I were a teenage boy with the power to break things. However, when we decided to go middle grade for this book instead of YA, making a boy’s pants fall down seemed to hit the humor level for the age group better than jokes about shirts falling off. Unfortunately.

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    Brandon Sanderson

    Information. That's the real power in this world

    Everyone is an academic. (Or, well, nearly everyone.) This is intentional. Grandpa Smedry gives us a speech here about information, and if I had to pick one theme for this book, his comments would be it.

    Isaac Asimov once complained that fantasy was all about dumb barbarians killing smart wizards–thereby making the genre anti-intelligence. I’ve always found this a shortsighted way of looking at the genre. To me, it’s all about being clever. I wanted heroes who were academics. People who were what we would call nerds. And I wanted to show them using information–rather than weapons–to save the day.

    I do worry, however, that Grandpa Smedry droned on a bit long in this chapter. It’s the last place where I think we have this problem in the book, but this chapter itself is essentially one big conversation while preparing to go into the library. Not a lot happens.

    We get those sometimes in my books. Hopefully, they set us up for the drama and climaxes later on. We need to know the characters, and have a groundwork, for the quick pacing that happens from chapter seven onward.

    Alcatraz Annotations ()
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    Brandon Sanderson

    Chapter Six

    Kindly pretend that you own a mousetrap factory

    This mousetrap example is exactly the sort of thing I can do in a children’s book that I haven’t ever been able to make work in an adult book. I’m not sure why it feels so good in this format, while doesn’t quite fly in an adult book. Maybe it’s because when you write humor for the adult sf/f market, it seems like you can only do humor. You can’t have a hybrid story like this. Pratchett comes the closest, and I think his novels are legitimately good stories with good humor in the mix. But everyone else who writes humor seems to get dismissed as “just” humor. Their books don’t get much attention.

    Here, however, I could–I thought–make a book work with good worldbuilding (if a little funny at times) and powerful characters who have actual character arcs in a book that is–essentially–a comedy. I think it’s because in the children’s field, books don’t need to be classified by genre. They already have a genre. They’re children’s books.

    Either way, the humor in this book just works very well for me. It’s absurdist with a hint of satire, and it left me free to play with the form of the novel as well as the content.

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    Brandon Sanderson


    Bastille’s character came quite early, and I was very pleased with how she turned out in the book. I did tweak a few things, making her a knight instead of a bodyguard, to keep her from looking too much like the bodyguard daughter in the Artemis Fowl books.

    By the way, Bastille says something along the lines of “We’ve got plenty of sand” in this chapter. If you’ve finished the book, you’ll note that she’s not nearly as ignorant about the types of sand, and the importance of them, as she’s acting here. She pretends she knows less than she does because she doesn’t like to be reminded of her failure. However, she’s not very good at pretending, as she reveals later in this very chapter where she explains auras to Alcatraz.

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    Brandon Sanderson


    Where is this book happening? If you’ve wondered this, you’re not alone–and you’re also not going to get an answer.

    One of the reasons I write epic fantasy is because I have complete control over my settings. I know where things are and what they look like, and I’m the ultimate expert on the details. But when you write in this world, you can get one little thing wrong, and then end up having all kinds of complaints from readers who get distracted because you describe a real library the wrong way.

    Plus, I like it when you can put yourself into the story. You can imagine this happening pretty much anywhere–I’ve even allowed foreign publishers to change Alcatraz’s national identity, if they want. Doesn’t matter to me. This story happens in “our world,” and that’s all the detail I wanted to give.

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    Brandon Sanderson

    Chapter Five

    Prison Names

    Why did I use prison names? Well, the truth is . . . because. It felt kind of fun.

    It wasn’t one of the things I’d been planning for the book. I knew I was going to name someone Alcatraz, but not that I’d use prison names for other characters. And yet, as I did it, I realized that Bastille was a great name for a girl and that Leavenworth would work really well for Grandpa Smedry’s real name.

    After that, the joke took on a life of its own, and everybody got a prison name. A real-world explanation for this is coming later in the book.

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    Brandon Sanderson

    People generally don't recommend this kind of book

    This chapter has my favorite of all twenty chapter-intro essays, by the way. I’m somewhat passionate about this one in particular. I think that we put too much emphasis on certain books while ignoring others. I don’t think we should ignore the books about boys and their dogs, but we should know that they just don’t work for some people. People like me.

    Fantasy books made a big difference in my life. I didn’t find traditional “literary” books, even ones for kids, to be challenging. Fantasy engaged my imagination, however, in ways that no realistic book ever could have. Fantasy made me think, made me dream, and now I’ve become an author of it.

    Things aren’t as bad for kids now as they were when I was growing up. However, they’re still pretty bad for older people. I have a friend who was in a creative writing class last week where the professor said–in reference to popular fiction–“You have to decide if you want to write for the most people, or for the best people.”

    “Best people”? What the crap? This is the sentiment that has always bothered me. If a person likes a certain type of fiction, they’re a better person than someone who likes popular fiction?

    People are equal. People’s interests are equal. Not all fiction may appeal to all people, but who is anyone to judge another based on what they read?

    That said, maybe someone someday will give me one of those shiny circular awards just to make me eat my words.

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    Brandon Sanderson

    Chapter Four

    Smedry Talents

    We’re hitting our stride now. I think that this is where the book starts to really reflect what I imagined for it. Here, we’ve got some genuine tension, some worldbuilding, and some utter silliness.

    One of the early ideas for this book was a magic system where the characters had powers that sounded like drawbacks, but which could be used in ways that were clever and interesting. Grandpa Smedry shows this off for the first time in this chapter by arriving late for the bullets.

    As you might have noticed, it’s a kind of metaphor. I find that often, our drawbacks are advantages in disguise. It all depends on how you look at it. I’m often fond of pointing out that arrogance misused will turn you into an annoying person–but if you channel that same energy into believing in yourself, you can accomplish some fairly amazing things.

    It takes a lot of thinking to come up with the right Smedry Talents. They have to be things that you can explain in one sentence, and have to be hindrances that a lot of us feel that we have. However, I also have to be able to twist them around so that they can be used in interesting ways.

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    Brandon Sanderson

    We are civilization's only hope

    I do wonder if this conversation with Grandpa Smedry took too long. I might have covered the same information too many times here. Both my agent and my editor, however, kept noting that we need to make certain there’s a feeling of tension here. We need to know why the sands are so dangerous, and we need to know that they have to be recovered immediately, lest the world suffer a dire fate.

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    Brandon Sanderson

    Something massive crashed through the wall of my house

    Some notes on the chapter itself. First off, the car crashing into the room was one of the later edits to the book. Originally, I just had Alcatraz go with Grandpa Smedry in that scene when he looks out at the car on the curb.

    This scene–the original–bothered me for a couple of reasons. It seemed out of character, for one thing. I mean, why would Alcatraz go with the crazy old man? He didn’t believe Grandpa Smedry, and thought he was crazy. I needed more of a reason. On top of that, it seemed like the pacing of the book was just a bit too slow at this point. I needed something to increase the tension. So, poof. A gun (this guy was originally going to show up later), a car crashing through the wall, and an escape. I’m pleased with the changes.

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    Brandon Sanderson

    Chapter Three

    Who To Blame

    There are two people you can blame for this book. (No, I’m not one of them. We authors never take responsibility for things like that.) They are Stacy Whitman and Heather Kirby, the women who worked on me for a period of several months to get me to start reading kids’ books. I’d always said that I wanted to get back into YA and middle grade (even if I wasn’t sure on the distinction then. Not sure if I am now, actually…). However, I’d just never gotten around to it.

    Well, these two–along with Ms. Fish–just kept recommending books to me. Eventually, I broke down and started reading them. (Though, if I trace it back to the real beginning, it was when my friends Faith and Nathan started reading the Lemony Snicket books to each other while they were engaged. I was the roommate who had to deal with them snuggling on the couch all the time…)

    Anyway, back around 2004 I started reading a lot of YA books. I found I liked them, and remembered a lot of the ones I’d enjoyed as a kid. The more I read, the more I realized that a lot of the really exciting fantasy worldbuilding was going on in the kids’ book world. I also realized that you can get away with my kind of humor in kids’ books much more easily than you can in adult books. (I’ve written one other comedy, but something just didn’t work about it. I now think that if I’d shot for a younger audience, it would have been far more successful.)

    All of that led to me writing Alcatraz during a short break between Mistborn books two and three. It was a quick write–took me sixteen work days–and was essentially an extended free write, intended to get something out of my system so I could get back to Mistborn. (Though at the same time, Alcatraz made for an excellent break from the Mistborn world, which is rather dark.)

    I didn’t expect much from the book. It was fun, but had been done more as a writing exercise than anything else. A way to clear my system of all the kids’ book ideas that came to me during my readings in the genre.

    Then Joshua and Steve–my agents–got hold of the book. They sold the heck out of it, and we discovered just how many people loved the concepts in it. We ended up getting a four-book deal from Scholastic, which tickled me pink. Not just because I got paid for a book I didn’t expect to earn a whole lot from–but because it let me write more books in the series! (These are a blast to work on.)

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    Brandon Sanderson

    The Simpsons Did It

    I worried a little bit about having Grandpa Smedry and the other Free Kingdomers misunderstand American culture so much. They don’t quite get it. This is a fun plotting element, and it gives explanation for some of Alcatraz’s past (you’ll get this later) but it’s also worrying because it’s similar to something that was done in Harry Potter. (The Weasley father tries to do things like Muggles, but doesn’t ever quite get it right.)

    I almost cut this element from the book because of the similarity. Those of you who know me and my work probably already understand how much of a “Don’t do what I’ve seen done” reaction I have. If another author has done it, and I’m not parodying it or changing it enough to be unrecognizable, then I don’t want to put it in my books. Even if I knew nothing of the other author and their work.

    In this case, I didn’t cut it. I do happen to like Harry Potter, and have read all of the books, and so I was even more tempted to edit this out. However, in contemplating it, a certain episode of South Park came to mind. In the episode, one of the characters is constantly crying out “Simpsons did it!” to plot elements or ideas that the characters tried.

    The point in the episode was that the characters kept getting frustrated because all of their great ideas are things that the show The Simpsons had already done in one of their episodes. I can see the writers of South Park and their frustration in this episode, and see it as a reaction to times when people emailed them and posted on forums, chastising them for copying The Simpsons. The problem is, as the show points out, The Simpsons has pretty much done everything. The writers couldn’t afford to undermine their own show by trying to cut out every little thing they thought of that happened to be similar to something in another show.

    Harry Potter dominates the market right now. And the thing is, a lot of the things in Harry Potter weren’t invented first by Rowling. They’re staples of the genre, or ideas that have been done other times by other books. Rowling does them very well. However, if you try to cut out anything from your books that might hint at being similar to Harry Potter, you’re going to have a frustrating time.

    Yes, we need to innovate. Yes, I prefer books that are original. However, I’m already writing a book about a cult of evil librarians that rule the world and a boy with the magical power to break things. Neither are ideas I’ve ever seen before. I didn’t feel I needed to expunge everything that might reference another work. If I did, I worry that my novels would be so original that they’re inaccessible.

    Just my thoughts on the matter. Wow, that turned into an essay. I didn’t mean it to be one–it was more for my own benefit than for yours. But that’s what you have to deal with in these annotations. I’m even more free than I am in my books to write whatever the heck I want.

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    Brandon Sanderson

    Alcatraz, My Boy!

    Here we get Grandpa Smedry, introduced for the first time. As I believe I mentioned earlier, I wanted this book to be a subtle satire of some of the books on the market in fantasy. Not a full-blown satire, of course–I don’t tend to like books like that. They’re forgettable. Instead, I wanted something that had its own world, magic, characters, and story–but something that also occasionally took a subtle shot at the fantasy establishment (of which my other books are a part).

    I love fantasy. However, what I loved about writing these books was that I could strip away some of the self-importance and seriousness. Standard epic fantasy, as a necessity of the genre, takes itself very seriously. These books don’t. That doesn’t mean that I don’t want the stories to have structural integrity or good storytelling; it just means that they can be a little more silly at times.

    All of this leads to why I wrote Grandpa Smedry the way I did. I wanted a wise old mentor character. We’ve seen plenty of the type–Belgarath, Gandalf, Dumbledore. However, I wanted to make him a total spaz. Hence Grandpa Smedry, who’s a great Oculator and a very competent person–but who is also a complete spaz, and who is sometimes his own worst enemy.

    His curses, by the way, are all the names of my favorite fantasy and science fiction authors. (In no particular order.) So, in this chapter he curses by Melanie Rawn’s name and Robin Hobb’s name, I believe. That’s only the beginning. [Assistant’s note: Terry Brooks and David Gemmell are also sworn by in this chapter.]

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    Authorial Interruptions

    The style of these interruptions–we’ve got one at the beginning of each chapter–is intentional. I’m not shooting for brilliant humor, most of the time. I am the type of person who likes dumb humor. Groaners, you might say. That’s why I post Amphigory comics on my site. Bad puns, jokes that deserve rimshots, that kind of thing.

    So, what I tried to do with a lot of these inserts was have a final “pow” of a line that creates a jarring gap between the last bit of the humor and the reintroduction of the story. Instead of a smooth transition, in other words, I wanted a harsh one.

    I can’t quite explain why I like this so much in mixture with the humor. For one thing, I think it lets the reader keep the commentary and the story straight from one another. Also, I think it gives a stronger emphasis to the jokes–which, like the aforementioned rimshot, gives an unconscious clue to the reader that yes indeed, that was a joke. A lot of the humor in this book has to do with non sequiturs and the like, so making them stand out more seemed like a good instinct.

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    Chapter Two

    I'm A Writer

    In making this book first person, I gained one thing that is really cool. I was able to write the book such that the method of writing it proves–or tries to prove–what Alcatraz is trying to get people to believe about him. He says in the prologue that he’s not a nice person. Then he proves that by being mean to the reader through the way he writes the narrative.

    I really like the way this works in the book. It’s much better than the joke of having the third-person narrator actually be the subject of the novel. My literary love of postmodernism and self-awareness tingles marvelously at this aspect of the book. (And I do something similar in the sequel, which I’ve finished writing.) The book itself is a form of proof of what the character in the book claims.

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    Brandon Sanderson

    Alcatraz's Self-Awareness

    The biggest change to this chapter was one I couldn’t talk about above. You see, in the original version of this book, Alcatraz was far more self-aware of the fact that he was intentionally driving his foster families away. In this chapter, he saw it as a game. Originally, he didn’t burn down the kitchen by accident–he did it on purpose to get the parents to send him away. He did this because the first few families sent him away after he got attached to him. So his goal with later foster parents was to push them away first before they could do it to him.

    Getting rid of this knowledge was one of the very first things that Anica suggested. You see, Alcatraz has such a great chance for character growth and revelation later on, when he’s in the prison, that having him be aware of what he was doing the whole time undermined what could have been a great scene.

    I agreed with this immediately, since I’d been thinking of doing the same cut. The edited manuscript, then, has him accidentally setting the drapes on fire, then not caring about it. I think that gives me a nice balance.

    However, the broken smoke alarm here is a reminder of the original draft. I left it in, implying that Alcatraz does partially know what he’s doing, even if he won’t admit it to himself. He broke the smoke alarm because he knew that by fixing dinner, he would likely start a fire. Grandpa Smedry hints at this later.

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    The Revision Process

    As usual for my books, chapter one is the most revised chapter in the book. Getting the balance between humor, character, and plot establishment in this chapter was a bit tough. The first draft (which I’ll try to remember to post to my website so you can compare) was too long. As the book went through drafts, paragraphs were cut, trimming it down and trying to concentrate on what we really need.

    This was important for this book. I still worry that chapter one is one of the least funny. We don’t really get to the right voice and tone for the book until chapter two.

    I tried to fix this, but it proved impossible. The reader has to be acclimatized to the characters before I can do anything else in this book, and so I have to focus on Alcatraz’s strange power and the way he feels about life before I can get more wacky.

    Some of the cuts from this chapter include a fun line involving one of Alcatraz’s former foster mothers and cookies, a longer explanation of the postage stamp mystery, and a crack about Joan being a liberated woman. That last one was edited out so that I wouldn’t have as many women throwing things at me.

    Anica is a good editor, by the way. She knows how to write for kids. I’ve got a feel for how to do that, but I sometimes let my desire for a good line or quick joke overshadow the clarity of the book for the target age group. I do leave in some of my obscure jokes (as you’ll see when I make fun of Heisenberg), but Anica is great at pointing out phrases or words that just won’t work for the audience.