Bestselling author Brandon Winn Sanderson, master of brilliant world building, stunning plot twists, and innovative magic systems, has returned to Dragon*Con this year. Five years ago, he was chosen to complete the late Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. Fans the world over are eagerly awaiting the last installment, A Memory of Light, which Sanderson finished writing just a few weeks ago. He has proven himself a rising star in epic fantasy fiction with his Mistborn series and The Way of Kings, the first book in his groundbreaking new series, The Stormlight Archive. Although he is currently busy prewriting the second book, Sanderson graciously agreed to answer some questions for the Daily Dragon.
Daily Dragon (DD): The Wheel turns, and the Wheel of Time series has come to an end with your completed final draft of A Memory of Light, due out from Tor Books on January 8, 2013. It must have been exciting yet daunting to be chosen to finish such an acclaimed series. How has the experience affected you as an author and as a fan?
Brandon Winn Sanderson (BWS): It’s been a very interesting experience, both as a writer and as a fan. Picking up something that you’ve loved for many, many years as a fan and then becoming the writer on it really changes your perspective on the entire process. Suddenly I had to dig into it in a way I didn’t as a fan. I’m not one of those fans who always have all their favorite lines memorized or anything like that. I never had to keep track of all the subplots and minor characters, and suddenly I not only have to keep track of them, I have to know them intrinsically, which is quite the challenge.
It’s been five years that I’ve been working on these books, and it has forced me to do a lot of heavy lifting as a writer. Things that I wasn’t as good at doing, I needed to become better at doing. It’s kind of like suddenly being thrown into a swimming pool and told, “All right, now start swimming. You know how to tread water, but now we need you to swim ten miles.” It’s forced me to grow a lot as a writer. It’s really given me a deeper respect for Robert Jordan and his works, seeing the process and how much goes on in creating these novels.
DD: What was your biggest challenge while completing the Wheel of Time series?
BWS: Keeping track of everything is a real challenge. I’ve described before the way I approach this. Essentially, when I get ready to write a scene from a character’s viewpoint, I dump everything into my head that I need, and I try to write all of those scenes in the book for that character while maintaining all of that knowledge. Then I dump it out and get everything ready for another character. That’s the only way I can do it, because there’s just so much to hold on to.
DD: Your new epic fantasy series, The Stormlight Archive, has been in the works for quite some time. In an interview earlier this year with Fantasy-Faction.com, you said that you set the project aside in 2003 because you needed to “get better as a writer.” During the interim, as you worked on other projects such as the Mistborn trilogy, Warbreaker, and your middle-grade Alcatraz series, which skills did you improve the most?
BWS: I would say that I learned to juggle multiple characters a lot better. That’s one of the places where I needed to grow, and it’s one of the aspects where the original Way of Kings that I wrote in 2002 flopped. I wasn’t good at juggling all these viewpoints. Working on the Wheel of Time really forced me to learn that, and I think I’ve gotten much better at it. I’ve also learned to be more subtle with my writing; Robert Jordan was incredibly subtle in his foreshadowing. Going through his notes and rereading the books and seeing how he set up things for many books later, it impressed me quite a bit that he was able to do that. I think I’ve been able to learn from that.
DD: How did you find the time and energy to work on The Way of Kings while you were immersed in Jordan’s Wheel of Time? Are you a hidden Allomancer, a slider like Wayne in The Alloy of Law, with the ability to set up a mind-boggling speed bubble?
BWS: I wish I could magically create bubbles of time to give myself more space to do these things. After working on The Gathering Storm, I felt more and more that I needed to do The Way of Kings—I had done it and failed once, and I began to see all of the places where it went wrong and how I could fix it. When you get excited about a book that way, you kind of have to write it—strike while the iron is hot. It’s something I never want to do again—working on that and Towers of Midnight at the same time just about killed my entire family. The hours were very long, and I’m still kind of recovering from that. How did I find the time? I didn’t do much else during that year when I was getting those both ready. I think it was really good for me to do, and I don’t think I’ll ever do something like that again.
DD: Shallan’s sketches in The Way of Kings are terrific additions that enhance the epic feel of the novel. What inspired you to push for these illustrations?
BWS: I wanted to use the form of this novel to try and enhance what epic fantasy can do, and downplay the things that are tough about it. One of the tough things about epic fantasy is the learning curve—how much you have to learn and pay attention to, how many things there are to just know. I felt that occasional illustrations could really help with that. For instance, how Shallan’s sketchbook, or uses of multiple maps, could give us a visual component to the book. Pictures really are worth a thousand words. You can have on that page something that shows a creature much better than I can describe it. And so I felt that that would help deemphasize the problem of the learning curve, while at the same time helping to make this world real. Epic fantasy is about immersion, and I wanted to make this world real since that’s one of the great things we can do with epic fantasy. We’ve got the space and the room to just build a completely real world, and I felt that the art would allow me to do that, which is why I decided to do “in world” art.
I didn’t want to take this toward a graphic novel. I like graphic novels, but it wasn’t appropriate here to do illustrations of the scenes and characters from the books because I don’t want to tell you what they look like. I want that to be up to your own imagination. And so we wanted that in-world ephemera feel to it, as though it were some piece of art that you found in the world and included.
I think it goes back to Tolkien. There’s a map in The Hobbit, and that map isn’t just a random map, which has become almost a cliché of fantasy books and of epic fantasy. “Oh, of course there’s a random map in the front!” Well, Tolkien wanted you to think this map was the actual map the characters carried around, and that’s why he included it. He wrote his books as if he were the archivist putting them together and translating them and bringing them to you, this wonderful story from another world, and he included the map because the map was there with the notes. That’s what I wanted the feel for this ephemera to be. As though whoever has put this book together—done the translation and included pieces of art and maps and things that they found in the world that had been collected during these events—that’s what you’re getting.
DD: Your work is often praised for unique magic systems with interesting limitations, like the application of the laws of physics to the abilities of a Coinshot in the Mistborn series. What kinds of limitations do you think have the most potential?
BWS: There are lots of ways to go with this answer. It depends on how creative you are with your storytelling. I like to found my magics with certain rules so that I can force myself and my characters to be more creative in their application. I think that a good magic system is going to have some of this. Granted that my way is not the only way; there are a lot of great stories that don’t do magic the way I do it. But if you’re trying to tell a story where the way the magic works is a very big part of the story, then limitations are vital. I would say the best limitations are ones where creativity is forced on the part of the characters.
I don’t like limitations such as kryptonite—this one thing negates the magic, which focuses the story around having it or not having it. I like limitations that are intrinsic to the magic and have a logical sense. When I can, I like the limitations to be bounded by the laws of physics—what requirements will physics put upon this magic that will make the characters have to use it in a more natural way.
The other big thing is that I split out costs and limitations in my head. A limitation is just what the magic can or cannot do, just like we have limits in our own world to what a physical body can achieve. Costs are what you pay for the magic, and these can add an economic component to a book and a magic system; they can add a lot of ties into the setting, and a great magic, I think, has a lot of ties into the setting.
DD: The light-hearted banter in your recent standalone Mistborn book, The Alloy of Law, is an unexpected yet delightful change from the more serious tone of the original trilogy. Why did you decide to make such an abrupt shift? Will we get to read more about Waxillium and Wayne?
BWS: This was quite conscious on my part. One of the reasons I ended up writing The Alloy of Law as I did is because I personally wanted something to balance The Stormlight Archive, which is going to be more serious and have a tone more like the original Mistborn trilogy. I’m planning a five-book sequence to start off The Stormlight Archive, so I wanted something to go between those books that was faster paced, a little more lighthearted, and more focused.
I love The Stormlight Archive—it’s what I think will be the defining work of my career, but that said, sometimes you want a bag of potato chips instead of a steak. Sometimes you want to write that, and sometimes you want to read that. I knew not all readers would want to go along with me at the start on such a big, long series; they may want to wait until it’s finished. So I wanted to be releasing smaller, more focused and more simply fun books in between, both for my own interest and for my readers. And I will keep doing this; there will be more Wax and Wayne books in the future, spaced among my bigger epics.
DD: If you could have one Allomantic ability, which would you choose and why? (I still have my suspicions about you and speed bubbles.)
BWS: I would pick Steelpushing, because who doesn’t want to fly, right? That’s as close to flying as any of the powers get. As I’m walking or driving around I’m often noticing where the sources of metal are and considering where I could push off them to go where I want to go, and that’s always exciting to think about.
DD: You posted the chapters of Warbreaker on your website at BrandonSanderson.com as you wrote them. The first and some subsequent drafts of the novel are still available for download to help aspiring writers study your revision process. What are some of the positive and negative consequences of posting your work in progress?
BWS: For one thing it lets people see all of the pops and bells and whistles that go into a book, meandering, sometimes, toward becoming a better novel. My agent and editor’s big worry is that readers would read an unfinished work and therefore have a wrong taste in their mouth for how my books are. So I’d say that’s the biggest disadvantage. I don’t think personally that there has been any sort of sales repercussion. I can’t say for certain.
I would like to say that it has been better for my books, particularly releasing it when I did, when a lot of Wheel of Time fans were discovering that I was taking over their series and wanting to know what kind of writer I would be. They were able to download the book for free and know a little about me and my writing. I think it was helpful. I think the big advantage is that I was able to give something back to my readers. I’m always looking for something I can give back. They support me; I get to do this job because of them, so I like to add as much value as I can to the books for them.
DD: With all the focus on social media these days, what impact do you think fans might have on story development in the future?
BWS: Boy, I think that they will have some impact. What, I’m not sure. With Warbreaker I was able to read perspectives on the book online as I was working on it, and that certainly did inform how I did my revisions. Maybe you’ll see more crowdsourcing on editing and that sort of thing. I do think that the ability to directly connect with fans helps me understand the way a reader’s mind works. Usually that doesn’t translate one-to-one to changes in a novel, because there are a few steps in between in deciding what the reader really actually wants and what they say they want—working on the Wheel of Time as both a fan and a writer has helped me figure that out, because there are things that as a fan I would have said I wanted, but looking at it as a writer I can say, “Oh, if I gave that to the fans, it would actually in the long run make the story less satisfying.” So there is some work to be done there, but I think social media is a great resource.
DD: According to your blog, an RPG video game called Mistborn: Birthright, based on your Mistborn series, will be coming out in 2013. Can you give us a teaser?
BWS: It’s set hundreds of years before the first trilogy. I’m writing the story, and it’s about a young nobleman who gets entangled in events he did not expect at all. It should be a whole bunch of fun, and I’m trying to work into it things like the origins of the mistcloak and fun stuff like that, [so] we can dig into the past of the world and see the origins of a lot of things that we see later on in the series.
DD: What other projects do you have planned or in the works?
BWS: My novella Legion just came out from Subterranean Press and I’ll do a signing for it at the Missing Volume booth at noon on Saturday; it’s a modern-day story about a guy who has something like schizophrenia, but he’s a genius. He himself can’t do anything special, but all of his hallucinations are experts in their respective fields. People come to him with problems they need solved, and he brings a few of his hallucinations along with him to help solve them.
In November I have another novella, The Emperor’s Soul, coming from Tachyon Publications—it’s more like my fantasy books, in a world where trained Forgers can change reality, and the main character has to Forge a new soul for the Emperor, who was left brain-dead in an attack.
Next summer I have two YA books coming out: The Rithmatist, which is about fighting with magical chalk drawings, and Steelheart, which takes place in a world where all the superheroes are evil; the main character is a boy who knows the weakness of the Emperor of Chicago and wants to hook up with a team of assassins to hunt him down.
Then my next book that will come out after those is the sequel to The Way of Kings, which I’m working on the outline of right now.
DD: Thank you for the interview. We hope you have a great time at Dragon*Con.