Why I’m (Continually) Thankful for Brandon Sanderson

In the last few weeks, I’ve become even more grateful for the great writer Brandon Sanderson.  I’ve already given a brief dissertation on why his writing is awesome and why I find him to be an inspiration to my writing.Brandon_Sanderson  I’m going focus on two points here: firstly, I’m just going to talk about some of his other writing I’ve read in the past few weeks, and also I’m going to talk about Writing Excuses.

At the job I recently left I listened to a lot of books.  This was really my first notable experience with audiobooks instead of print books, and I must say that it can be an enjoyable way to experience good writing.  Overall I still prefer the convention medium, but audiobooks have really been great for making long stretches of repetitive activity much shorter and more interesting.  As I’ve mentioned in my other Brandon Sanderson-related post, I listened to the audiobook of his recent novel Steelheart, which was pretty well done, and to his novella Legion, which I thoroughly enjoyed listening to.  More recently I listened to another of his novels, this particular book a fantasy novel targeted for the YA audience.  Though I highly enjoyed this book, The Rithmatist, in its content, I wasn’t as pleased with the reading thereof.

As usual, hisrithmatist story and magic system for the book were both rich and unique.  The magic system, rithmatics, is based on chalk drawings and geometry, somewhat reminiscent of things like alchemical circles in Fullmetal Alchemist, though certainly more clear in what it does.  It uses circles drawn around the rithmatist, which serves as both a defense measure as well as the framework for additional lines or drawings which can be used to defend or attack.  One of the most intriguing elements of the system that tends to differ from other drawing-based systems is chalkings, which are combatant two-dimensional drawings that can to damage to rithmatic lines or living beings, and that there are numerous wild chalkings that are engaged in constant combat with the military.  The story is, naturally, closely tied to rithmatics.  Sanderson is thorough in how he deals out the implications of the magic system and how it has shaped the world in numerous aspects, including military, education, and religion.  I also liked the characters, even though they were clearly written for an audience a decade or so my junior.  I felt that they were pretty solidly presented in their youth.  I didn’t have the usual urge to roll my eyes that comes with much of YA literature, with writers clearly out of touch with what it actually is to be adolescent.  The setting was also one of the most compelling aspects of the novel, both in the school where most of the action takes place and in the world in general.  It is set in a turn-of-the-century America that, instead of being a single landmass, is a cluster of islands.  The sociopolitical history of the world is cleverly demonstrated in ways that are refreshingly subtle– for instance, to indicate a heavy Asian influence throughout Europe, the characters eat “Italian food,” which is noodles covered in a tomato-soy sauce and eaten with chopsticks.

So, as I’ve stated, the book itself is a pretty good read.  It seemed pretty clear that Sanderson intends to write subsequent novels, and I welcome that.  I almost certainly will not be partaking of them via audiobook again, however.

My qualms with the audiobook are fairly simple.  First, the reader wasn’t particularly compelling.  He sounded like a tired older man, which really didn’t work as the voicing character is a young teenager and also just made the story kind of boring.  Also, the book featured diagrams that served to explain elements of the magic system more clearly.  The reader partially explained what was in the diagrams, and there was a PDF with them all included, but it was a pain to stop what I was doing to look at them.

Next up I’m just going to touch on 01_elantris_ukanother of his books– Elantris.  I’m only at the beginning of the book, but I bring it up now because of how I’m experiencing it.  I’m listening to the GraphicAudio version of the book, which is a very different sort of audiobook than what I’ve grown accustomed to in the past few weeks, in a way that I feel is mostly positive.  Instead of just having a reader or two read the book aloud, the GraphicAudio version features a full cast recording.  Every character is voiced separately, as is the narrator, and things like dialogue tags are dropped.  There are also sound effects and implied dialogue, such as a person babbling on as the narrator states that the person wouldn’t shut up.  They claim it’s “like a movie in your mind,” and for the most part, it’s true.  It’s interesting to have a book presented almost like an old-school radio show.  There are a couple little problems I’ve had in the listening to this particular book, but they are relatively minor drawbacks when compared to how much more interesting the book is in this format than conventional audiobooks.  Specifically, I don’t like a couple of the voice actors (they sound too old or the like), and there are times when there is a crowd shouting or something that wasn’t mixed well enough to keep the narrator’s words clear above the din.

The last thing I want to mention in my discussion of the-hero-of-ages-by-brandon-sandersonmy recent reading is the final novel of his Mistborn trilogy.  I’ve already raved about how good the magic system and world is generally, but I just wanted to comment that the series’ conclusion is very impressive.  Everything comes together in unexpected ways that are, simply, brilliant.  He set up a number of very critical elements from the very beginning of the first book that stayed beneath my radar until he wanted to skillfully pull back the curtain and show what he’d been doing the entire series.  I even more highly recommend reading this series now that I’ve finished it.  Even the most careful reader is going to be surprised, and it’s simply delightful.  I am very eager to read The Alloy of Law, which is set hundreds of years later, in part because the original series is so good and also because I can’t wait to see how the important events that conclude The Hero of Ages have an impact on future generations.

I’m going to say it again: read Mistborn.  It has an incredible magic system, dynamic characters that you actually care about, interesting creatures, and vast (but not overwhelming) scope.

Okay, I’m done foaming at the mouth fromwriting excuses how good he is at writing.  Now, on to how good he is at teaching.

Writing Excuses, if you are not familiar with it, is a podcast about writing.  Brandon contributes, along with other Utahn writers Howard Tayler and Dan Wells.  So, a fantasy novelist, a sci-fi cartoonist, and a horror novelist.  There is also another regular contributor later, but I haven’t gotten to her contributions yet, as well as numerous guests including Pat Rothfuss, Brandon Mull, Tracy Hickman, and Steve Jackson.  In each 15-minute episode the podcasters discuss some aspect of writing, specifically focusing on helping new and aspiring writers improve their craft.  It’s a lot like listening to college-level creative writing class lectures, but I honestly think they are frequently better than the classes I’ve taken in that they bring in multiple perspectives.  These are all genre fiction writers as well, so the advice is targeted at the kind of writing that I do (and is thankfully free of the judgmental tones that often accompany professorial discussion of anything that isn’t “literary”).  I can’t understate how wonderful this podcast has been for my writing.  First of all, they talk about a lot of topics that are important to take into consideration in writing– everything from specific aspects of worldbuilding to how to brainstorm to giving characters individual voices– and also about the business side of professional writing– that it is being a small business owner, the importance of cons, what publishers look for.  The most I ever got about the business of getting published in college was essentially “always be submitting.”  That’s it.

Not every podcast has been super-relevant to my writing, but every podcast has been at the very least interesting to listen to.  I’ve never had any interest in writing card or board games, but I still was fascinated when they had Steve Jackson on.

The most important thing about Writing Excuses is that it has provided me a regular opportunity to think about my writing.  I’ve listened to it during my commute to and from my last job (total two hours of driving, which is why I no longer work there), so I spent two hours in which I usually did nothing thinking about my writing from numerous angles.  I’ve learned a lot about my characters and what I need to do in my current revision process of my novel– and I’m not talking just about line edits, I mean big-picture changes and refinements.  It’s been invaluable to me, and I’m already seeing that my writing is improving because of it.  It’s also good in that it reminds me, frequently and in no uncertain terms, that I need to set aside time to write.  I need that reminder and I’m thankful that the Writing Excuses guys have gone out of their way to provide it and their experienced advice to anybody who wants to download it.


Discovery Writing

I am a discovery writer.  I have both a great love for and great frustration with my writing process.

For those who are unfamiliar with the term, discovery writing is figuring out what happens next in the story as it is written.  It’s writing with little-to-no outlining.  Writing by the seat of the pants, writing reflexively.

What I love:

  • Discovery writing is fun.  It’s all of the thrill of creating something awesome, plus the thrill of experiencing a new story, being along with the ride’s twists and turns.  It’s writing a book while reading it for the first time.  I must say, that is the biggest part of why I don’t outline or the like.  I love not knowing what is ahead.
  • The story quickly takes a life of its own.  Because it becomes its own entity (though one living in my head), it does things that I wouldn’t come up with if left to my own devices.  I don’t feel like I would be able to come up with the twists that the stories I’m putting into text form have on their own.  I know this seems like a weird idea– I am creating the story, after all, but I feel like if I’m trying to get it to conform to a plan, then I would miss out on far too many interesting arcs and directions that have happened organically in my writing.
  • My characters take on lives of their own.  One complaint I’ve heard from people who outline is that their characters frequently want to do things that they didn’t have planned for them.  Because I take the planning out of the equation I don’t have that issue, and they frequently surprise me in wonderful ways.  I feel that I don’t have the trouble of my stories being awkwardly forced into a storyline because my characters are making their own decisions.
  • My first drafts tend to come pretty quickly.  My first draft of Dark Art took, in total writing time, probably a quarter of the time I’ve put into it.  The story just kind of happened, and there’s hardly anything more thrilling than to have a little story world that’s taken form.  It’s the quick gratification that brought me into writing.  Now I just need to love the long haul more…

What drives me crazy:

  • Drafting.  As I’ve said, I don’t outline, but by the fact that I’m dealing with an existing story, writing later drafts of a story is very similar to writing with an outline.  In fact, it’s often more constraining than a list of points I want to hit in a story.  I love writing my first draft as a discovery writer, but when it’s time to buckle down and make my writing good I am out of practice in developing existing ideas and plans further.  Also, it becomes really difficult for me to jump from section to section, making changes early on to tie into something I’m fixing for late in the story or the like, because I’m in the mindset of writing a story from beginning to end, not sporadically as needed.  I’m experiencing this problem right now, as I’m working on a later draft of my horror novel-in-progress.  How I’m doing the drafting is inevitably going to result in several drafts more than I otherwise would need to do, so I’d better find a way to fix my approach at this point.
  • It’s really easy to get writers block.  Really, really easy.  I’ve found that because discovery writing is so much fun, whenever I hit one of the tricky spots that isn’t just “flowing right,” I stop working on a story/essay/blog post for much longer than I should.  Notice the time gap between this post and the previous one?  Yeah, things weren’t flowing, so I found it harder to make myself sit my butt down and write.  Ultimately, I’m letting my discovery writing process create excuses, and that clearly needs to stop.
  • It makes it easy to forget that writing is work.  This is both a blessing and a curse– I love writing, and much of the time I spend doing so I enjoy so much that it’s what I want to do for the rest of my life to make my living.  It’s wonderful to have that level of passion for something that is a viable career.  But, to actually make it a viable career I need to treat it like one.  I need to make myself work, so pushing through the rough spots, making myself write come hell or high water, is part of the gig.
  • I don’t know what’s coming next.  I’ve already mentioned that I love being surprised by my stories, but it also sucks in that I don’t have goals in writing.  I don’t know what to write toward, what to move my characters toward.  I feel like all too frequently my characters can fall into meaningless action or dialogue because, even if they have goals, I don’t.
  • It’s hard to pack in more after my first shot.  Because my story has given me surprises all along the way, it’s very tricky to make future additions fit in as well.  I do make interesting discoveries, things I missed, while I’m revising, but adding compelling subplots, side characters, compelling dialogue– it doesn’t come quite as naturally to me.
  • Prewriting and worldbuilding is more difficult.  I’ve recently found that I really enjoy writing things that don’t go into the finished text– writing the things that make their way into the story subtextually.  Since I tend to discover things as I go along, it’s hard to get to know my characters and world as much as I really should before I dig in to the storyline.  I need to make myself do a lot more of this while I write that first draft, because doing so to help color later drafts is helping me a great deal, and I love it.

Now that I’ve written this all down, this seems like I’m really just saying that writing is hard work sometimes.  For discovery writers, the bulk of the hard work comes after the first draft or where ever the story slows down.  For outliners, the hardest work seems to come with the planning process, then with ironing things out to work with the plan, or figuring out how to adapt the plan to make a better story.  Either way, it’s worth the effort.  There’s nothing quite like putting a story to paper.

Published in: on February 8, 2014 at 4:29 pm  Comments (1)  
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