Search the most comprehensive database of interviews and book signings from Robert Jordan, Brandon Sanderson and the rest of Team Jordan.
2012-04-30: I had the great pleasure of speaking with Harriet McDougal Rigney about her life. She's an amazing talent and person and it will take you less than an hour to agree.
2012-04-24: Some thoughts I had during JordanCon4 and the upcoming conclusion of "The Wheel of Time."
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How did you get discovered as a writer?
Well every writer has their own story of how they got discovered; and I’ve heard it said in the business that it never happens the same way twice. For me, I decided I wanted to be a writer when I was about 21. About that time, someone told me that your first five books are generally terrible. Which, for some people, might have been very discouraging, but for me I thought “Well that’s great, I don’t have to be good at this for quite a while. I can just write and enjoy it.” So I just started writing.
I started writing the ideas that were in my head. I really didn’t know what I was doing, but I was exploring: I tried writing several different books in several different genres. I actually wrote five books. Different: one was a humor piece, one was a science fiction, one was a fantasy—I really liked the fantasy book. It was my favorite, it’s what I’d read a lot. When it came time to write that sixth book, I still had in the back of my head that “Your first five books are terrible” and I have now hit my sixth book. This one’s gotta’ be the one. So I sat down and wrote a book called Elantris, which was based on an idea that I’d been working on for a while. I got done with that book and I said “This is the one; this is going to do it.” It was a standalone epic fantasy novel that I was really, really excited about.
And then I started sending it out, and I started getting rejected. That can be kind of discouraging. You always hear that every writer goes through a host of rejections before they get published, but it’s still hard to go through it, particularly when you think that this book is the one. But I kept writing. I never stopped, even though I had a book that I thought really was the book that would do it. I continued to work on novels: I didn’t really do much with those first five because I considered them practice novels. I continued sending Elantris out while I was writing other things. Well eventually I started to do some networking, started going to the conventions, started really learning the business side of it, and started just sending books out to editors by name rather than just by company.
At a convention, I met a guy named Moshe Feder who I really connected with. He was an editor at Tor, the books that he worked on in the past were authors that I loved, their works, and he and I had a very similar philosophy about books. So I asked him if I could send him a novel and he said “Sure.” So when I got home, I took Elantris—which had then been rejected a number of times—and I said “Okay, let me give this a really good revision, and I’m going to send it to this guy and keep my fingers crossed.” I sent it to him and... didn’t hear back. Didn’t hear back. Heard nothing, months passed. Eventually, I sent him and email saying “Hey, did you get this?” and he said “Yeah, I got it, but it’s really long, it’s really ambitious, and that’s not a bad thing, but it might take me awhile to get to it: I’m just not sure.” And so months passed. Months more passed. I assumed it was just gone, that I had no chance on that one, and I continued working on other books.
And then, 18 months after I’d sent that book out, I got home—I was in grad school at that point—got home from school, checked my voicemail, and there was a phone call from a guy called Moshe Feder. A voicemail, he said “hi, I don’t know if you remember me, but you sent me a book a long time ago, in fact so long ago that your email address has now changed: it bounced when I tried to send you an email, and your phone number had changed: I got a disconnected phone number, and your address had changed: so my letters came back returned. So I Googled you and I found your grad student page: I hope this is the right Brandon Sanderson, because if it is, I want to buy your book.” And so I immediately called him back, but that’s essentially how the story, essentially how it went. Thank goodness for Google and thank goodness that I decided to put my phone number up on my student page at college, because otherwise, who knows what would have happened.
Every hotel desk clerk you meet probably has a book or a screenplay on the side, that starving artist sort of thing, you really, really dream about it, but you never are sure if it’s actually going to happen. I got that phone call finally. I honestly just about dropped the phone and collapsed to the floor. It was a voicemail that I got, actually, I didn’t talk to the editor until afterward, and I got that voicemail and my immediate thought was “Oh, this can’t be happening, this is one of my friends that’s called me to try and trick me, or he doesn’t really want to buy the book, he just wants to reject it in a really nice way.” My agent later told me, “No, people don’t call you to reject you, they send you a letter to reject you, and they call you to accept you.”
And so I called him back and I couldn’t believe it was happening. I talked to him for a good two hours, just about the book. He had actually only gotten a couple hundred pages into the manuscript. When he finally picked up the manuscript, it had been 18 months since I’d sent it to him. He finally picked it up and started reading, he said he read all night and got just a couple hundred pages into it before calling me, just wanting to make sure that it was still available, because he wanted to buy it. So I spent the next week with my head in the clouds, just completely befuddled by the fact that it was actually happening.
Have you ever hated something you wrote?
Yes—well, I’m not a person who hates much, but there are certainly pieces I was disappointed in, some of the early ones before I was published, when I hadn’t quite figured out how to do this yet. There were a couple of books that I felt turned out very poorly, and I was annoyed and frustrated by how poorly they turned out. That’s just part of the process of learning to be a writer.
It used to be that producing a book a year was sufficient, even productive, but now it seems if you’re not getting at least two or three books out there every year to feed the cavernous maw of impatient e-readers, you’re too slow and the tide will just pass you by. What do you think of the difference between e-books and traditional publishing?
Authors are doing some interesting things in e-books. One thing you’re noticing is that in e-books—probably for pricing reasons—the books are growing shorter and coming out faster. It’s moving closer to a much older model, where you would release serialized editions of books that were more like episodes rather than an entire novel. Some of the market is going that way. I think it’s just a different model; I don’t necessarily think it’s going to be the only model. It’s just a new and interesting thing that e-books are doing.
Is there a pressure that has developed from traditional publishers for their authors to be pushed towards more production? When should an author consider self-publishing instead of trying to land a book deal in NY? Should one self-publish while trying to land that book deal and use potential sales numbers as part of the pitch?
I don’t feel that there has been any push from New York to publish books at any different speed at all. In fact, one of the main reasons to publish with New York as opposed to self-publishing is if you are an author who doesn’t write at least one book a year. If we’re to take The Way of Kings as an example, there’s no way that I’m going to be producing 400,000-word epic fantasies as fast as a lot of the self-published writers can put out books. There’s no way that anyone could have made that book at that speed. It’s a book that takes a year, maybe eighteen months to write. So for long epic fantasies, New York certainly has some things going for it.
One of the reasons that it’s really good to publish fast and short when you’re doing self-publishing is that you don’t have any sort of marketing push behind you. You don’t have bookstore shelf presence, which is one of the major forms of marketing—people seeing your book there on the shelves. Word of mouth is always the most important thing, but it becomes even more important for the self-published writer. Publishing quickly and getting a lot of books out helps to get your name in more places in the market and helps to push some of that momentum through. That seems to be the key way to make it as a self-published writer.
When would I self-publish versus New York-publish? I would not abandon either model. Self-publishing has proved itself so viable recently that if I were a new writer, I would be looking at doing both at the same time. Maybe taking the longer, more epic-style books to New York and doing the faster-paced, more thriller-style books online, and seeing what works best.
So the expansion of the e-book market gives you more places to go. That said, if you’re not a particularly fast writer, self-publishing is going to be a very hard route for you because everything I’ve seen—granted, I’m not an expert on this; there are places to go other than me for expertise—shows that being able to produce quickly is a key factor in being a successful self-published author in this market.
How long does it take to be forgotten in this fickle book market, and what should an author be doing to prevent it?
It depends on your method. What you’re getting at here is the balance between promotion and just writing the next book. That’s a balance authors have had to work with for decades, if not centuries—the idea being that promoting your book keeps it in people’s minds. Right now you can do that through engaging blog posts, being on Twitter, going to conventions, doing book signings, and all of these things. They take time. If they take so much time that you’re not writing your next book, then the question becomes are they worth it?
Do you want all your eggs in one basket? Do you want to write one book and then spend the whole year promoting it, trying to get it to take off, or do you want to, in that time, write three books and try to get one of the three to take off? I don’t think there’s any right answer; they’re both valid ways to go. You could end up writing that one book and, with your promotion, turn it into a big success that builds a name for you. Or you could be in hindsight wasting your time promoting it when it never ends up taking off.
So you have to find the right balance for yourself. Part of the question that I would ask myself is, are you an engaging blogger? Can you write interesting things on a topic and build a platform that is not just about “Buy my book!”? Would it be something interesting and fun for people to read, and can you leverage that to make people interested in your writing? If you can, then blogging would certainly be helpful to you.
Lastly, what advice can you give to new and unknown authors with limitless ambition who want to write epic fantasy and/or sci-fi books? From my own personal research, it appears that agents and publishers do not want long word counts from new authors. Is it best to start simple with shorter stories and work your way up to your true love: the epic, or should you just go for it and write as much as you deem necessary and pitch your grand masterwork as a whole?
There are so many questions in there that are going to be very situationally dependent. If you have not already written a few novels, I would say absolutely do not write your grand epic yet. You won't have the skill to do it, and it will disappoint you. I've run across a lot of new writers who this has happened to. They want to do their own Wheel of Time, but they don't yet have the skill to achieve it. I tried this myself and learned this the hard way.
That's not to say that it's impossible to do, but I strongly recommend to most writers to try a few other books first. Standalones or something, to really get your head around the idea of characterization and plotting and narrative arcs before you say, okay, I'm going to tell a story across ten books instead.
If you are confident of your skill, and find that you are just incapable of writing anything else? Writing is the most important thing. If something makes you not write, then it's usually going to be bad advice no matter who it comes from. So then I suggest just writing and loving what you're writing. If you can somehow style your book as "a standalone with sequel potential," then that's probably a better way to go.
This is not just for publishers and agents. New readers have a built-in skepticism toward a new author who is trying something that massive. I've found that a lot of readers like to try the standalone to find out what kind of writer you are, before they then read your big series. Having a couple of standalones has been very useful for me for that reason.
At the end of the day, just write what you love. Yes, editors and agents say they want shorter books. This is because historically it has been proven to them that authors trying to write books that are too long for them bite off more than they can chew and the book spirals out of control. But the draft of Elantris that was the first thing I sold was 250,000 words. That's a full 100,000 words longer than what everyone was telling me agents won't even look at. So by empirical proof: They will look at a longer book if it works for them. So write what you love—if you can get into your head that you're going to do this professionally, and that you have years to learn how to do this, then that's going to help you. Taking the time to practice with shorter works will help you get ready to write your epic. But if you just can't do that, then go for it.
You could argue your essays on writing are aimed at prospective writers. Do you see those posts as a forum similar to a classroom?
Yeah, when I do my podcast, I target it that direction. We actually put the lectures from my most recent class online for free. Why do I do this? Well, when I was breaking into this and figuring out writing, writing is a hard thing to figure out because it's so individual. Lots of people offer advice, but yet, for any person offering advice, myself included, a lot of the advice won't work for every writer. What really helped me was the fact that there were a number of authors talking about how their process works and talking about their process and demystifying it, to the point that I was able to get help from a lot of different places. I think it made my writing a lot better. My goal is to do some of the same and let people know how it worked for me. Hopefully, it will help them figure out how it works for them.
When asked if all his books occur in one universe:
While he was selling his initial works to publishers, Brandon was encouraged to write books set in different worlds as opposed to huge epic fantasy series. That way if a publisher didn't like one book he could pitch them a different one, which you can't do with a huge fantasy series. But as a way of still having a huge fantasy series, Brandon made all of these independent stories a "hidden epic." That is, he seeded continuing characters and elements into all of these different worlds, now dubbed the "cosmere".
Elantris, the first book he sold, was one of the novels embedded with these elements so Brandon just kept putting them in subsequent novels. So far there is one character who appears in all of the worlds that he has created (i.e. not The Wheel of Time), sometimes by his name, Hoid, and sometimes only by appearance. He is connected to the grander story going on involving this cosmere.
Right now Brandon wants this to remain a fun easter egg so no one feels obligated to read his books in the order they were published. He will eventually tell the story of the cosmere, though, and you will be able to see what this character is doing.
How many attempts did you make to publish before you wrote Elantris?
Elantris was my sixth novel. I was working on my 13th when I sold Elantris. It was not publishable when I first wrote it; it took several revisions and drafts. It was probably somewhere around book nine that I was really figuring things out, I feel. I like to write and jump projects. Instead of finishing one and slaving over it to make it much better, which may have been better for me in the long run, I would always jump to something new.
For new writers, I always advise balancing those two. When you finish a book, write another one, but then go back to your first one and work it over to see if you can make it better. Then, go write a third one and go back to the second one and see if you can make it better.
Do that instead of doing what I did, where you finish a book and go, "Hmm...that one was good, but I can do better?" and then writing another book and ignoring the first one. Elantris was the first one that I really dug into revisions on, and it ended up paying off.
When I was newer, it was visiting bookstores, giving free copies to their SF readers on staff.
These days, I'm honestly not sure. The momentum of it all has pretty much overwhelmed my individual efforts. :)
Yeah! I know everybody is excited to talk about The Wheel of Time, but let's first talk, really quickly about your Mistborn and your Alcatraz series. 'Cause I think it's interesting to find out where you came from before you got into The Wheel of Time. From the title, Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians, I get the hint that it's little humorous. Tell us a little bit about that series.
Well, that series is targeted a little younger, but most of my fans of it are actually older people. It's a silly series about a kid who discovers that evil librarians secretly rule the world.
Yeah. Let me back up and kind of explain how I work as a writer. I spent many years trying to break in, as a lot of us do, and during that decades worth of time, about, I wrote 13 novels. I was working on my 13th novel when I sold my first novel which was Elantris.
A stand alone, epic fantasy. That was the sixth book I'd written. And then my next series was the Mistborn Trilogy, which you've mentioned. That was the first time where I had to sit down and write three books in the same world, which was actually pretty tough for me, to manage because I wasn't used to doing that. And after I'd written the second one, I needed to do something different. I needed to do something new. And so I jumped and wrote this book and in a lot of ways it was me riffing on what I do in my other fantasy books. You know, my epic fantasy, I think, takes itself very seriously as epic fantasy has to. And so I wanted to do something that poked some good-natured fun at that. And that's where Alcatraz came from.
When I think about some of the bright new voices in fantasy and science fiction literature, Brandon Sanderson always comes to mind. Technically you're not that new since you've just released your third and fourth novels with lots more to follow, but for those that may not be familiar with your work, can you just tell us a little about what inspired you to become a writer, how & why you ended up at Tor, and why readers might find your books worthwhile?
After being a voracious reader as an elementary school student, I eventually got bored with the books people were handing me, and by Jr. High I didn't read at all if I could help it. Luckily, a wonderful English teacher introduced me to the fantasy genre, and I've been hooked ever since. I read everything I could get my hands on, and even tried to write a fantasy novel when I was fifteen. It was a bit of a disaster, but when I tried again at 21 things went better. Though I started college as a bio-chem major, I soon realized that I enjoyed writing so much more than chemistry. I changed my major to English and dedicated myself to becoming an author. All through my undergraduate classes I worked nights as a hotel desk clerk because they let me write during my shift, and I could still go to school full time. I began to learn about marketing and publishing and sending my works to editors. I was writing my 13th novel when Elantris, my 6th novel was sold. I met my agent at the Nebula awards. He didn't actually become my agent until I had a contract, though. I met my editor at the World Fantasy convention. Tor was my favorite publisher, and so I looked for Tor editors, and tried to get them to read my work...
While getting my books signed I asked Brandon how many books he had written before Elantris and he said seven, not all of which were epic fantasy. He also said that that number had risen to thirteen books by the time Elantris was published, making Mistborn the fourteenth book he had written.
Brandon and Harriet arrived after their dinner with the library staff to rousing applause.
Brandon apologized for his voice because he'd be sucking on cough drops because, well, he's been touring. He recounted the story of his introduction to The Wheel of Time and fantasy in general. Brandon told the story (which I'm sure he's recounted at many of these signings and many interviews) of how Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly (a terrific novel recently re-released by Open Road Media in eBook) was gently forced upon him by his teacher named Mrs. Reader and Brandon was hooked on fantasy. Realizing he liked big books, he found The Eye of the World at his local comic/book/Magic store and was happy to finally have a series that was 'his' to share with his friends who were always sharing 'their' series with him. When Brandon mentioned submitting his novels for publication, the one novel he submitted directly to Tor rather than through his agent was the first published novel Elantris. Brandon recounted how he didn't let Joshua do his job and negotiate because he wanted to be published by Tor, specifically because they published The Wheel of Time. In 2005 Elantris was published.
It's a really interesting thing. When I got to college, I decided I wanted to be a writer, and I started reading the books that I loved as a youth and studying them and trying to figure out how to do writing. Because . . . I love my professors, but writing teachers don't actually teach you how to write. I don't know if any of you guys have taken writing classes, but they're like well, let's explore your inner voice. And I'm like, you're telling me I have to hear voices? Well, I already do but they're not telling me how to write. How do I write? How do I make a character cool? And teachers aren't really big on teaching you how to make characters cool. They like to teach you how to develop your style.
And so I started reading books, and I was actually very very disappointed because some of authors that I read—I won't mention names—but some of authors I read as a youth did not hold up when I was an adult. And they were perfect for me at the age, but as I tried to inspect them as an adult writer trying to develop my style, I didn't find the depth that I wanted to dig into that I thought would teach me how to write. Robert Jordan still did. In fact, Robert Jordan was the one that I would dig into and find how much I'd missed. I constantly tell a story about as a 15 year old reading these books, you know, there's this character Moiraine who's just like always keeping the boys down and not letting them . . . She's always giving them orders, and I was always like, Moiraine, just leave them alone, they need to go off and do cool things! And then I read the books as an adult and I'm studying them and I'm like, you stupid kids, listen to Moiraine!
There's this depth to Wheel of Time books that the various characters are all expressed on very different levels. And Moiraine has an entire story going on behind the scenes that you don't see because you don't see through her viewpoints. And there's a little subtlety and detail. I mean, maybe I'm dense, but I didn't get the whole thing with it being our world, and there . . . and who was it? Not Buzz Aldrin, um—
John Glenn being in the book referenced, and America and Russia and the Cold War being referenced in legend. I didn't get that stuff till I was in college, and I'm like how did it miss that? You know, it's like a smack to the face, right, the first time you realize that Egwene is Egwene al'Vere, which is Guinevere. And you know, I didn't get this as a kid, and building these things out and understanding them and seeing the depth of writing that he was capable of—the really wonderful sentences that evoke so much feeling, emotion, and description.
I started studying the Wheel of Time to learn how to write. It became my primary model, just on a prose level, of how to do this thing that no one could teach me how to do. I spent the next . . . I decided I wanted to be a writer—actually, I was serving mission for the LDS church in Korea. The reason is I . . . I really wanted to be a writer before then, but my mother convinced me that writers don't get scholarships, and that I should be a doctor instead. And so I actually applied to BYU—I grew up in Nebraska—to go be a chemistry major, because that got scholarships. And then I got into college and realized what they do to all those people who just said they want to be chemistry majors to get a scholarship, is they put them in a really hard chemistry class that other people don't have to take their freshman year to show you what chemistry is like.
And I then went to Korea and was so happy to be on a different continent from chemistry. I did not enjoy that freshman year, but I did spend a lot of that time writing. And I decided I missed writing so much, but I didn't miss chemistry, that I had made the wrong choice, and I decided to start writing a book on my days off during my missionary work, and I just started writing in a notebook. And I completely fell in love with the process. I'd known since a kid this is what I wanted to do, but that's the first time that it clicked for me, that what I loved to do should be my job, right? That I could spend eight hours working on a story and come out of it feeling awesome and have not missed that time at all. I get the same thing from a lot of my friends who are code monkeys. It kind of scratches the same itch—that you get into it, and you're creating something, and it's working, and it's clicking. And yes, it can be hard but you love it at the same time. That's what I wanted to do.
Over the course of the next eight years I wrote 13 novels, trying to break in. And I eventually sold Elantris, my sixth book. And I sold it to Tor books. And when I got an offer from Tor . . . It was funny, I called up my agent. He said, well, I want to take this and I want to shop it, because usually you can get a better offer if you have one offer from somebody. This is basic business philosophy, right? And you go to everyone else and say, well, we got this offer from this company, will you beat it? And I said no, you can't do that. And he's like, but we can get more money. And I said, Tor is Robert Jordan's publisher. [laughter] We're not going anywhere else. When you have an offer from the top you just take it, and I did. And he, to this . . . not to this day, because things have kind of changed in my career, but there were many years where he would say to me, you know, I still wish you'd let me taken that, I bet we could have, you know, got a bigger launch, and yada yada yada. And when I did start working on the Wheel of Time, I actually called him and I said, so do you still wish? And he's like ah, you know, ah . . .
Adjunct instructor and BYU alum Brandon Sanderson (BA ’00, MA ’05) harnessed his imagination to write 12 manuscripts filled with magical worlds and inspiring characters–but after six years of writing, not one book had been accepted for publication.
These books that I'd started writing—you know, after the first six. The first five I thought, you know, were just practice. But, books six through about nine, I really put a lot into those. I felt I was getting really good as a writer. I felt I knew what I was doing, and I felt I was writing really good books.
I was getting stacks and stacks of rejections. And people were telling me, "Why don't you be more like this writer over here?" "Why don't you be more like this writer over here?" "Your novels are too big. They're too long. We can't buy things that are this long. Write them shorter."
And I had to make the decision that, at the end of my life, if I had a hundred unpublished novels in the closet, would I be okay with that? Would I be okay with never selling anything? I decided I was going to write the biggest, baddest, most awesome book that I could. I was going to ignore everything that people were telling me.
At that time, really popular in fantasy was kind of very gritty and dark fantasy. And I said, no, that's not what I want to write. I'm going to write heroic fantasy—you know, stories like I want to read.
By coincidence, it was a few months after I'd finished that book—I hadn't sent it anywhere—that someone called me wanting to buy Elantris, the sixth book that I'd written—that I'd really had felt would be the book that broke me out, all those years ago.
Once Sanderson published Elantris in 2005, the floodgates were open. By 2013, he had published 14 novels, including the final three books in the epic Wheel of Time series, whose original author, Robert Jordan, died in 2007.
It was kind of a—I don't know—a fulfillment for me that I was doing the right thing. But it was also this great moment where I realized, hey, people do want to read those things that I was doing.
I'm glad I had the crisis, and came out of it, before I sold the book. I'm glad that I was able to make the decision that this was what I wanted to do, and commit myself to writing, even if I never sold anything. And then it was perfectly all right and awesome for me to get a really nice book deal with a big New York publisher, and become a best seller. I'm perfectly okay with that now that it's happened.
Well I received my first rejection letter and feeling a little depressed. How do others deal with a letter like this?
This touched me, so I just went [and] dug something out just for you. Two rejection letters from DAW.
These are pretty special in that they're from over ten years ago, and are rejections of Elantris and Dragonsteel, the first two books in my cosmere cycle. After getting the second of those rejections, I was pretty down in the dumps. Things turned a corner for me soon after.
Head up. Keep writing.
When I started wanting to get published and was sending books out, there were really only two publishers I was sending to. One was you, as Robert Jordan's publisher, and the other one was Daw, because I really liked how Daw handled... Well, to be honest, I sent to them because they got Michael Whelan covers a lot, and I liked Michael Whelan covers.
When Moshe [Feder, Sanderson's editor] finally called me, my agent wanted me to negotiate and take it to other publishers to see who would offer more. I wouldn't let him, because I thought, "Once you're at Tor, you don't go anywhere else. You go with Tor. Once you're at the fancy French restaurant, you don't go down and see if there's a better deal at McDonald's. Maybe there will be, but you end up with McDonald's instead of the fancy nice restaurant. Instead of getting a steak, you end up with a burger." I already had the steak, so I went with Tor.
And now, sitting in this room... The readers can't see this, but we're in the prow of the Flatiron Building. It's one of the most famous buildings in the city. This was the Daily Bugle, right?
If you go watch the Spiderman movies, you can see. I'll always be like, "There's Tom's office." I'm right at the tip of it, just looking out at the city. It's the coolest office I've ever been in.
They tell me it got trashed in Godzilla.
Godzilla reached in the window and pulled something out.
Apparently they shot some rocket at him. [Note: here's the scene on YouTube.]
It's looking remarkably well put together for having been blown up.
It's hard to believe it's only been eight years since your debut novel, Elantris, was released. You've accomplished so much in less than a decade of work: the Mistborn saga, your Alcatraz series for young readers, finishing the Wheel of Time, beginning The Stormlight Archive, the Writing Excuses podcast, and now the Hugo Awards.... In a career of high points, what is your most proud moment so far?
You ask some tough questions, Paul! By the way, thank you for that very nice review and spotlight you did of Elantris many years ago. I've always remembered and appreciated that.
How can I pick a high point from my career so far? I mean, getting to work on the Wheel of Time, that's like a once-in-many-lifetimes opportunity. Normally, I would have to pick that, though the fact that this year I also won a Hugo Award kind rivals it.
Ten years ago, I was writing books furiously, trying to get published, and dedicating my life to this art. If you'd asked me then what would be the high point, I would've said that it had to be that first moment when an editor called me and said, "I want to buy your book." Everything since then has been awesome, amazing, and wonderful. But after over a decade of work, writing thirteen novels that had never seen the light of day, I don't think anything can ever rival the knowledge of finally being told, "All right, kid, you're going to get a shot at doing this thing for a living." Nothing will ever be able to parallel that professionally.
How did you get your start as a published author?
By this time, I had already written about twelve or thirteen novels, which I was trying to market for publishing. I was still working the graveyard shift at the hotel, and eventually one of the manuscripts that I'd sent somewhere got me a callback from an editor who had finally looked at my manuscript and wanted to buy it. I actually got the phone call as a voicemail. It was from an editor that I'd sent a book to eighteen months before. By that time I had pretty much given up on it; eighteen months is a lot longer than you expect for them to ever get back to you. You figure, "Okay, it's either lost or they didn't like it and just rejected it but forgot to send you a letter." It's a funny story, though. The one who gave it to the person who finally contacted me was actually an agent I had met and talked to at a convention. He said to me then, "Oh, you seem so nice," and later told me that it was because I was such a nice guy that he didn't want to just reject the book without looking at it. I guess that got me lots of points, because he sat on it for all those eighteen months before he eventually looked at it. But by then all my contact info was wrong, because during the time that I had sent the book out, I had moved and had AOL get rid of my e-mail address because I stopped paying for the service. I had also purchased a cell phone, so my phone number was no longer accurate. So this person, who would later become my editor, had to google me. He found my contact information on my BYU grad student page, which fortunately I had kept up-to-date, and when he called me, the voicemail said, "Hi, I don't know if this is the right Brandon Sanderson, but if it is, you sent me a manuscript about eighteen months ago, and I finally started looking at it last night. I got a few hundred pages into it, and I knew I had to call you and make sure it's still available, because I think I want to buy it."
I called him back, and then I called the agent that I had met, because it seemed like his editorial style matched mine. He handled the contract negotiations, and I became an author. I quit my graveyard shift job, taught freshman English composition in between to keep me going while we were waiting for the books to actually come out, and fortunately I've never had to go and get another real job. I've always worried I would have to.
You have many blog posts and podcasts about the writing process and getting published. Could you touch on a few of the core things would-be authors should do?
I would say that the first and most important thing for an author is to learn to write consistently. It's just so important. A lot of people say they want to be writers but don't actually write, or they just write here and there. You can't expect to be a master at something when you first try it. Even if you're pretty good at it, you're still not a master. So just write something. Write a book, edit it, start sending it off, and then immediately start writing something else. Give yourself time to learn to love the process and learn to become a professional, because if you really want this, then you need to act like one. The way you do that is you learn to make yourself write. You need to learn how to deal with writer's block, too. It happens to all of us and we all deal with it in different ways, but you have to find what works for you and how to get yourself to produce.
You don't need to be writing as fast as I did. I just absolutely love the process, and one of my big hang-ups early on was that I wouldn't edit my books. That's part of what took me so long. When I'd get done with a book, I'd say, "Yeah, I learned a lot from that; let me see what I can do now," then I was always excited about the next new idea. I always thought, "Oh the next one's going to be really good." But because of that mentality, I never gave the books that I did finish the credit or polish work that they deserved. It wasn't until I learned to start editing and revising that I got published. The first book I sold, Elantris, was actually the one that went through the largest number of revisions. Learn what works for you.
Another big thing I want to mention is that you shouldn't try to write just toward the market—write toward yourself. Write something that you would love to read. It's good to be aware of what's happening in the market and what types of stories are out there and who else is writing books like that so that you can better explain what you're writing. What you don't want to do is say to yourself, "Teenage girl vampire romances are selling really well—I'm going to write one of those," unless you happen to really love writing teenage girl vampire romances. If you write a good book, someone out there will want to read it, and someone will want to buy it and produce it for those people. Not all genres are as viable marketwise as others. But again, you can't just say, "This sells well, so I'm going to write it," unless you happen to really like what happens to sell well.
Why are you at WorldCon?
Yeah, why am I at WorldCon? In the early days trying to break in, WorldCon was one of these wonderful resources, right? Where I would come here to meet editors, to meet other writers, and it was just a great community. It's very different from the media cons like Comic-con, where it's a spectacle. This isn't a spectacle. This is a bunch of fans hanging out, and so I just like it. So I come back to WorldCon—usually I come at least every other year—just to meet everybody. And also, you know, all the authors were coming when I was trying to break in and had such great advice. I feel like it's useful for me to appear on panels and talk about breaking in, in the era I did. Granted everything's changed since then, but it's changed even more since the older guard broke in, so hopefully I can be of some use to people.
Hey r/writing: I just finished a novel. Any tips on finding a literary agent?
It's my third. I got decent feedback on the first two—just no publication. I'm polishing up my pitch and contacting agents who expressed interest in my previous attempts. I wonder if you guys can give me any tips.
Or! If you happen to be a literary agent, are you interested in a story about an amnesiac ninja who has to save the world from a demon invasion? I think it's pretty fun!
Go to the bookstore. Find a book on the shelf that is somewhat like your book. Find out who represents them. Repeat.
Get published first.... I know it sounds strange but thats how it works.
A combination of what canadianwriter said and sblinn said is a good start. I suggest that you start researching publishers, start submitting to publishers—but also start researching and submitting to agents at the same time.
The best two tips on getting agents I can give are this:
1) Learn to write a great query. 2) Learn where agents in your field can be found, and go meet them in person.
For what it's worth, I did get an offer on my first book without an agent. I called an agent I'd sent other books to, and had rejected, to handle the negotiations and he's been my agent ever since. I met the editor I eventually sold to at the World Fantasy Convention in 2000 or 2001 and the agent at the Nebula Awards a year or so before that.
I never did learn how to write a good query. It has helped a lot of others I know, however.
Generosity and fame
Sanderson doesn't just create worlds in fiction; he also helps others create their own fictional worlds. With his friends Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal and Howard Tayler, Sanderson puts out the weekly (and Hugo Award-winning) Writing Excuses podcast. He also teaches one creative writing class at Brigham Young University each year.
In 1994, when Sanderson was a senior in High School in Nebraska, he went to a local science fiction fan convention called Andromeda One.
"The guest of honor was Katherine Kurtz, a great writer," he said. "She sat down with me when she heard I wanted to be a writer and she talked with me for about an hour on what to do."
Later, after Sanderson served a mission in Korea for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he took a class on science fiction and fantasy offered at BYU from author Dave Wolverton (who also writes as David Farland).
"Dave took a 'pay cut' to teach us," Sanderson said. "It was something he did to help us. Both of those situations were so incredibly helpful to me and so wonderfully useful that I basically got published because of things like this—authors spending their time. ... These chances I got were so useful to me that I think I would be remiss if I didn't do it myself."
But as successful as Sanderson has been, he tries to keep that success in perspective. Although huge lines and crowds will, if past events are any indication, gather for his book launch at midnight on March 4 at BYU Bookstore in Provo, fame isn't a motivator.
"Fortunately, writers don't get that famous; even famous writers don't get that famous," he said. "Like if you were to walk out on that street and say, 'Hey guys, Brandon Sanderson is in this room,' I can guarantee that nobody would care. There might be one person who might say, 'Hey, I've heard of that guy. Didn't he write those books?' Nobody would care. ... And so it is very easy to keep well-grounded as a writer."
Sanderson began writing his first book, "a bad knock-off combination of Dragonlance and The Dragonbone Chair,” within the next year. Embarrassed by his efforts, he hid the pages behind a painting in his bedroom so his family wouldn't discover them. This first attempt at writing would become the only manuscript he ever abandoned before it was completed.
Fast-forward several years to college, where Sanderson concocted a grand writing scheme.
"I had heard somewhere, and I can't remember where it was now, that your first five books are generally terrible," Sanderson says. "For me that meant, 'Well, I don't have to be good until book six. So that's okay!' I sat down and decided to write six books."
Instead of penning six novels, Sanderson wrote 13 in eight years. He'd taken the graveyard shift as a hotel desk clerk after graduation, allowing him time to write from midnight until 6 a.m. every morning.
"I actually did the starving artist thing, which is awesome to be able to tell people," Sanderson jokes.
Rejection letters for eight years of manuscripts piled up, and Sanderson's family became nervous.
"[My mom] kept having my dad call me; she was so worried about me," he says.
Then Sanderson received a life-changing voicemail. An editor wanted to buy his sixth book.
"Elantris revealed two important qualities that I'm always looking for," says Moshe Feder, a consulting editor for Tor Books. "One is strong storytelling ability—you can't teach that, it has to be there—and the other, which is even rarer, is the ability to come up with new ideas. [Brandon] definitely had that, and that's a rare treasure."
Feder acquired Elantris, Sanderson's first published novel, for Tor Books.
"I'd met [Feder] at a convention," Sanderson says. "Then I sent him a book, and it sat on his desk for 18 months. So I'd given up on it."
Feder insists he hadn't been sitting on the manuscript for quite so long ("every time Brandon talks about it, I think he makes it even longer"), but enough time had passed for Sanderson to move twice and get a new email address. He eventually tracked down Sanderson's grad student webpage, complete with a current phone number.
"I woke up to a voicemail saying, 'I'm Moshe Feder. I don't know if you remember me, but we need to talk because I want to buy it,'" Sanderson says. "And I was like 'WHAT?'"
As magical as it was, this was only the first life-altering phone call Sanderson received.