Sanderson Style: A writers Q&A with Brandon Sanderson
I recently ran into fellow author and wordsmith extraordinaire, Brandon Sanderson, on his latest book tour for Skyward. For those of you that have met Brandon before, you know how awesome he is. He can tell a story every bit as good as he can write one.
The latter is what I had an opportunity to chat with him about. Brandon is no stranger to the world of writing, having published an epic forty-two books. He’s known as the King of the one-thousand-page novel as well with his last epic fantasy, “Oathbringer” coming in over 1.2 million words. That’s MILLION!
Brandon was gracious enough to answer a few questions for the benefit of future writers. Let’s not waste any more time with my blabbering. Without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, Brandon Sanderson.
Brandon, you are a huge proponent for the art of writing and provide enormous amounts of support to new writers whether it be from your class on YouTube, your Writing Excuses podcast, or in person. What drives you to help new authors?
When I was trying to break in, I was given an enormous amount of help from authors I met at conventions, or who taught me in classes. I realized that a lot of this information had to come from a professional to a journeyman writer—things that you couldn’t really get except straight from the mouth of someone who had been there. Therefore, I felt it was important for the genre as a whole for those who had been through the process of learning to write to dedicate some time in new media forms (like YouTube or on podcasts) to talk about it—since when I started this, there weren’t a lot of those kinds of resources available.
I enjoy when you post online videos of yourself writing. It lets me into your head and watch you develop a story. Now, specifically, when you wrote the Rysn interlude you made several mistakes and went back to correct them. Most writing teachers would criticize you for this. Are you always a correct-it-on-the-spot kind of guy? What is your daily word output and how does that effect it?
Oh, I don’t know that most writing teachers would criticize that kind of fixing. When we talk about not going back and correcting mistakes as we write, we’re more talking about how it’s a bad idea to kill your momentum by obsessing over previous sections of writing. Generally, the thing you can do to help your story the most is to keep pressing forward.
But, unilateral statements like that are very dangerous. The only real writing rule is this: find what works for you, then iterate on that process. For some people, going back and revising is an essential part of their process. I tend to do only spot fixes here and there during a first draft, but sometimes it’s important to get something right before I proceed.
Really, as a writer, you need to determine what you see as successful writing for you. What are your goals? Do you want to write a book a year? (That’s a good goal to shoot for, in most cases.) If so, how fast do you normally work? How does it feel to push yourself? When you try that, do you end up with fiction you like?
You should certainly experiment a lot with the process as you’re starting out. But once you start hitting upon methods that make you meet your personal goals, that is where you should practice. As for me, my daily wordcount is somewhere between 2–3k a day, with Thursdays being dedicated to blog posts, Q&As, and the like instead of new prose.
Every time I meet you or see something you post, I feel like I’m going to writing boot camp. And that’s a good thing. I said earlier that you like to share your knowledge. My favorites of all of your books are the Mistborn trilogy. The pacing is spectacular, and the detail is perfect Goldilocks—not too much, not too little. What do you do to control the pacing and amount of description and do they work together?
This is one of the areas where writers tend to start out weak, then improve the more they practice. New writers tend to be good at scenes, and bad at stringing them together. (That said, they do tend to be overly wordy with their descriptions, rather than making them precise and tight.)
I control pacing by trying to make sure my scenes are each doing more than one thing. I am a goal-based writer, with my end goals for a character or plot broken down into little pieces, each of which I attack in a chapter. I’m always trying to make sure that each chapter is constructed to fulfill multiple goals.
The other thing I tend to do is ask myself, before starting a scene, is this: Why could this scene be conceivably be someone’s favorite in the book? Try not to write scenes that are just filler, or just connective tissue. Try to make every scene have something that pops out—an interesting revelation, character moment, or setting experience. Don’t fall into the trap of, “Yes, this scene is boring, but it will really make this other scene great.” True, not every scene can be the powerful climactic moment of a plot arc—but it should have SOMETHING to it. Something that is there to be enjoyed for itself, not to act only as setup.
Learn to make your descriptions do double duty by evoking character voice and (if possible) including revelations, clues, or powerful language of their own.
One final question that I hear nearly every time I’m in a group of writers. Mac or Windows; Word or Scrivener?
Windows, Microsoft Word. I still use 2010, as I really like the feel of that program, but support for it stops in 2020 so I’ll probably upgrade then.
Brandon, thank you so much for spending some time with me and I look forward to future chats and of course, I look forward to reading the next novel.
For more information on Brandon Sanderson please visit www.BrandonSanderson.com.
For more amazing tips and tricks from Brandon and his crew of fellow writers visit www.WritingExcuses.com.
Also special thanks to Brandon’s assistant Adam, for helping make this Q&A happen.