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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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Well, I think that I'd like to start at the beginning and then come to more recent projects that you've been working on and that's to look a little bit at how you came to be a published science fiction/fantasy author. I did not mention this in your introduction, but you did initially study writing in college and worked long and hard to become a writer. If you could describe that process for us, the process of getting your first novel, Elantris, published.
Alright. It's funny because Elantris...it's my first published novel; it's not actually my first novel. The story starts quite a long time before that, and the longer I've been in this business, the more I've found that this seems to be the rule rather than the exception. A lot of writers spend years and years writing books before they get published. Elantris was my sixth novel, and my story starts like a lot of stories, with an ignorant kid who enjoyed telling stories and writing books and having no idea really what he was really doing.
I went to college my freshman year as a biochemistry major, actually, partially at my parent's encouraging, because 'authors don't make money' was the conventional wisdom, which a lot of us hear, and so I was going to be a doctor, which was, you know, the wrong place for me. But, I was under the impression—I had no idea how to do this writing thing, and even taking a few creative writing classes...they don't really talk about the business side of things, the actual 'how do you do this; how do you break in'—and so I was completely ignorant.
My sophomore year, I realized after one year of trying hard at the biochemistry that I loved the concepts and I was terrible at the busywork; in fact I dreaded the busywork, and if you dread the busywork—the day-to-day work that you are going to have to do in a career—that's probably not the right career for you, whereas with writing, I loved the busywork, the busywork of just working on new stories and plugging away at them, and so I changed to English cause I thought that's what you had to do. I didn't actually know what you had to do—I had no clue—but I figured that was a good place to start. So I changed my major to English and just started going.
One of the things I did—which I think was actually the smartest thing I did at the time—was get a job where I could write while I was at work; it was a desk job at a hotel minding the desk overnight, with the boss telling me during the interview, "Yeah, as long as you stay awake we don't mind...we don't care what you do. Between about midnight and five all we really want is to have someone there in case the building burns down, or in case someone calls and wants towels." It was actually required by the Best Western rules that they have someone on desk, so it was actually perfect for me, and I spent five years working that job, going to school during day, then sleeping in the evenings, and then going to work overnight, and writing all night. It was a wonderful experience. It was kinda was like my own little writers' enclave where I was able to practice my art and try different things, and ignorantly I had the advantage of not knowing how bad I was when I began. This is something I've noticed with authors: When you get going when you're younger, you are don't how terrible you are as a writer, and that's a good thing. Older writers a lot of times will be very critical of themselves, because they've read so much and they have so much more experience with writing that when they start working on their works, it's sometimes very hard for them. They aren't willing to...or it's too hard for them to suck at it long enough to become good at it, so to speak. I didn't have that problem because I had no clue how bad I was.
And I am...like I said, I did that for five years: writing books and slowly, very slowly, learning about the business, realizing how you have to submit manuscripts, realizing where to...how to go about creating a query letter, and these sorts of things. And the real breakthrough, it came my senior year—I took quite a number of years to get through college; I think it was five at the end—so I guess it would be after four years, during my fourth year of writing books at the graveyard shift, I took a class from a published author who had come in to just teach couple of classes for the fun of it—it was actually David Farland, who is a fantasy writer who is local to my area—and what he talked about was the business aspect of it, the real nitty-gritty nuts and bolts of this industry, which nobody tells you about. You never find out about, in most of your creative writing classes—which, you know, they're great classes; they'll talk to you a lot about the craft of writing, and maybe the art of writing, but they won't tell you about the business—and it was because of him that I realized, "Wow," you know, "if I want to get published, one of the things I'm gonna have to do is network," and I never realized that networking would be important for an author. But who you know, the editors you know, that sort of thing, can help you out a lot. And so I started attending the conventions—[?] the literary conventions. And so, WorldCon, World Fantasy Convention, NASFIC...some of these things that you can go to, and editors will attend, and you can hear advice from them, you can meet them, and that sort of thing.
So I started doing that. It's not a silver bullet; it won't get everyone published, but what it does is it partially trained me to think like a professional, and partially allowed me to get advice from people who really knew what they were doing. I spent...oh, three years, four years doing that, eventually graduated with my bachelor's degree, having no idea what to do with it, because I wasn't really prepared for anything by it except for writing books, so I applied to a bunch of MFA programs, got turned down from all of them—they didn't really appreciate [?] fantasy novels—and the next year I applied to a whole bunch more, got into a master's degree—not an MFA—at BYU where I had attended my undergraduate, and got rejected from everywhere else, and so happily went to get that master's degree, partially as a stalling tactic, to be perfectly honest. My dad was dreadfully afraid that, you know, that their poor son was going to be a hobo, and "Oh, why didn't he go into being a doctor like we told him", and so I went back to school to appease them and to stall my life and, you know, to stall myself, give me a few more years to work on it.
And about a year into it, Elantris—which had been my sixth book, as I said—I finally got a call back from an editor that I'd met at World Fantasy Convention, I think in 2003, that I got the call back. It was eighteen months after I'd submitted it. Actually, I had given up on the submission. It was the Tor, whom I love; it's a publisher I wanted to be with. I was a big fan of the Wheel of Time books; I wanted to be with that same publisher, but Tor is also notorious for having an enormous slush pile, and things get lost into that void fairly frequently. They are one of the few publishers out there who will take manuscripts from unknowns, which opens the floodgates to tons of manuscripts coming in, and they do their best with it, but they get easily overwhelmed. I had sent to them before, and I never heard back, and so this time I assumed I would never hear back, [?] in person. And then I got a voicemail one morning; got up, and checked my voicemail, and lo and behold, there was an editor in New York, Moshe Feder, who left me a voicemail that said something along these lines: "Hello; I hope this is the right Brandon Sanderson, because you submitted me a book eighteen months ago, and now it's been so long that your email address is bouncing, your snail-mail address isn't good any more, and your phone number's changed, so we're not sure how to get ahold of you, but we googled you, we got a grad student page at BYU. We assume this is the right person; if it is, call us back, because we want to buy your book." And that's how it happened. I guess the moral of this story is: leave a forwarding address, if you are sending manuscripts off to publishers in New York.
But, it just happened from there, and the years that I spent as an unpublished writer really—just practicing my craft and not worrying about publishing—served me really well. Elantris is by no means the greatest fantasy book ever written, but I do think that I was able to hit the ground running, so to speak, because it wasn't my first novel. It doesn't, I hope, in many respects read like a first novel; I had five other books under my belt by that time, and I got a lot of my terrible ideas and terrible storytelling out of the way, and so I was very aware of what I wanted to do as an author, and where I wanted to make my statement and how I wanted to add to the genre. All of these things, I had...right then, I knew what I was doing as soon as I sold, so I was able to be focused a little more, I think.
One of the best things you can do as an aspiring writer is learn about editors who publish writing similar to yours, then attend conventions to meet people and make contacts. I met Moshe Feder, a consulting editor at Tor, at World Fantasy Convention in 2001. He agreed to take a look at my work, so I sent him the manuscript for Elantris, my 6th novel. I didn't hear anything from Moshe, so I continued writing and submitting. Elantris sat on Moshe's desk for eighteen months, but eventually he read it, and liked it! I'd moved, so my contact information was no longer correct, but with a little persistence, Moshe managed to track me down and make me an offer for Elantris.
Eighteen months! That's a long time to wait patiently, what can you recommend to aspiring novelists to help them avoid such a fate...but still get their book published!
I think a writer who has several works to send out, and is actively seeking multiple sources to which to send them, is more likely to get published. Be aware, though, that it is against industry protocol to send a complete manuscript to more than one editor or agent. You can send query letters or partial manuscripts to several sources, but if someone asks for a full manuscript, that person must accept or reject it before you send it to anyone else. It is important to know and follow the submission guidelines for the places to which you send manuscripts.
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.
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.
I remember coming to see you the very first time, when Elantris was just barely out. I've always been impressed, because I was a nobody and you had read my book. There can't be many other publishers of major companies who read as many of the books as you do. Why do you do that?
Well, if I've got an editor working for me, it's because I believe that that editor really has something to contribute. Moshe [Feder] was so enthusiastic about Elantris that I couldn't not read it. And when I read it, I loved it.
I think it's pretty clear we really loved what you were doing. I may be a little prejudiced as his publisher, but I think Robert Jordan really created one of the great epic fantasies of all time—a magnificent series, and you just finished it magnificently. We never could have turned it over to anybody that we didn't have tremendous confidence in, Brandon. We loved what you were doing. It said to us, "Yes, he can do this."
If you weren't the type of publisher who read all the books, you couldn't have fingered someone like you did with me. You couldn't have said, "Give him to Harriet." I remember she said she asked you to send her some of my books. And you said, "Well, I'll send you Mistborn instead of Elantris. I've read them both and Mistborn is a better novel."
Elantris is a first novel. The second novel's better. You knew to send her Mistborn, and it's that book that made her choose me. In a lot of ways, if you hadn't been on top of things, it may not have happened the way it did.
Well, Mistborn's really great. We thought of it as a trilogy, but then you wrote more.
Yeah, I'm in the Robert Jordan tradition, right?
You are. But, anyway, it's smaller scale than The Way of Kings. The Stormlight Archive is such a natural progression for you, I think. You've told me you picked up foreshadowing from Jordan.
Yep. One of the main things I learned from him.
If I recall, you said that you'd actually written the first draft of The Way of Kings in 2003, and that you had ideas for it way back to high school, and that when you and Moshe were talking about what to do after Elantris, you weren't completely happy with it.
It wasn't good enough yet. I had all these dreams, these aspirations of doing something big and momentous like the Wheel of Time, but I couldn't do it yet. I tried, and I couldn't. The problem was juggling the viewpoints, and the foreshadowing.
What I learned, when I was rereading the Wheel of Time to work on the series, was that Robert Jordan kept everything really quite focused for the early books of the series. He expanded it slowly. He didn't hit you in the face with twenty viewpoints.
We had something like a seventy viewpoint chapter in the last book. That's something you have to earn, across years of writing. You have to get the reader invested in the main characters. Without that investment in the main characters, I wouldn't have cared enough to pay attention to the side characters.
It was a matter of scale and scope and building upon itself, rather than just trying to start off with this massive book that gets everyone lost. That's one of the big things I did wrong in the original write. I had six main characters with full arcs and full viewpoints. It was too much. You couldn't really attach to any of them. In the revision I cut that down to three, which really focused the book. It let me give the passion and focus on these three characters, so that you felt it when you read the book.
Working on those Robert Jordan books did that for me. Writing The Gathering Storm in specific was like going to the gym and having to lift some really heavy weights you aren't used to. Either you get used to it or they crush you. I had to get used to it very quickly. That taught me a lot. I grew more that year than I had at any point in my writing career, except maybe the very first year I was writing.
When I look at the Stormlight Archive, you also like to jump around like George R. R. Martin. These are the two great epic novelists of our day, Martin and Jordan.
That's really one of George's big strengths: jumping to keep the pacing up. But even he didn't start with a lot of characters at the beginning of the first book. I've actually tried to learn from Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin and say, "Okay, what are the things they had to deal with? There are growing pains when you're creating a series this long. There are certain things that are difficult to do. What looks like it was difficult to do for them, and what can I learn from them?"
I often say that I had a big advantage over Robert Jordan: I've been able to read Robert Jordan, and he couldn't, at least not in the same way. Reading Robert Jordan showed me what happens when you create a big series. Nobody did this before him, right?
There were no massive epic fantasy series of that scope at the time. You have things that are episodic, like [Roger Zelazny's] Chronicles of Amber, which is fantastic, but it's thin little episodes. You have nice trilogies like Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow and Thorn. But you don’t have anything with the scope of the Wheel of Time.
I was able to watch and benefit from what Jordan did. After the fact, he said "You know, I don't think I would have done book ten the same way if I had it to do over again. I learned this and I learned that." Being able to pay attention to those things allows me to hopefully use that.
When I went into The Way of Kings, I saw what George R. R. Martin does, jumping to these other places and giving you a scope of the world. It makes it feel epic. But if you spend too much time on jumping to those places, you get distracted and can't focus.
So I did this thing where I would end a section of The Way of Kings and do what I call interludes, where we jump around the world. If this is the sort of thing that doesn't interest you, you can skip those interludes and go on to the next part, where we get back to the main characters. But there are these little stories in between each part, showing the scope: "Here's what's going on around the world, now we focus." You get distracted for a little bit, after a natural end point, then we come back to the main story.
That restrains me. It makes me say, "Okay, I can only put this many of these chapters in." It makes me keep my eyes on the main characters more. One of my main goals with writing this series is being able to juggle that. It's hard.
I think you’ve done a particularly great job of still having that broad, epic feel with fewer characters. You only have the three principals: Kaladin, Shallan, and Dalinar. Jordan had six, maybe eight depending on how you count them.
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.
Dedication to his craft, intricate world building—none of this would matter if there wasn't a relatable, human element to Sanderson's characters. Three-dimensional personalities permeate his novels, from Vin, a street urchin yearning for friendship yet terrified of ever needing to rely on others, to Dalinar, an aging Highprince who seeks to replace the fury of his youth with peace and scholarship.
"Brandon's characterization has gotten stronger with each book," Feder says. "A number of times, he's surprised me. For such a young person, he's shown genuine wisdom in understanding people, and I'm really impressed by that."
Through talking with Sanderson, it's evident that his wisdom extends from a unique interpretation of the relationship between authors, their books and readers.
"For me, the beauty of a book is that it is the entertainment medium where we don't give you everything," Sanderson says. "When I write a book, I give you 75% and then you take that script, you are the director in your mind and you add to what I've done. You change the characters, or you imagine what they look like. Your version of my books is completely different in some ways than another person's version, and that's what I love about fiction... I don't believe a book lives until it's been read."