Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Five Ways to Keep Your Joy for Writing Fantasy Alive from Brandon Sanderson

            It’s a true delight to share another blog post here! Thank you for welcoming me into the Latter-Day Saint Geeks lair!

One of my primary sources of enjoyment in life is writing. You won't ever read most of what I write, though. I’m the type that works on one book for years and then finally moves on to the next thing, the work of the past a jumbled mess. But hey, puttering around with a story is fun anyway.

If there is one thing that does give me hope that at some point I’ll get my act together and finish a book, it’s that Brandon Sanderson releases very high quality instruction on the internet for free. It was at some point during 2020 that I binge-watched several iterations of Brandon’s writing classes at BYU.

Brandon Sanderson has been teaching a science fiction and fantasy writing class since 2004, before his writing career really took off. When his mentor and creative writing professor, the late David Wolverton (pseudonymously David Farland) retired from BYU, Brandon landed the job.

Because Brandon’s class sizes grew and grew each year, students volunteered to record them, until a later time when Brandon had professional recordings produced. He’s teaching another semester, in 2023, and I’ll be excited to see what changes he has made, particularly in light of his success with the secret projects, and as he nears completion of the first cycle of the Stormlight Archive.

 It’s no wonder the students who came to these classes recorded them themselves, and posted them online with Brandon's permission. He has a way of making people feel welcome, and to engage in a creative process with helpful structure. He very deliberately approaches the art of learning to write in a way that delves much deeper than the hand-wavy “put your feelings on the page” and or cliched “show don’t tell”. 

Like his magic systems, he thinks almost scientifically, providing formulas clear enough to show us how he arrives at his own plot ideas, concepts, characters, and cascading conclusions. What was most interesting to me as I wrote this post was the sense the Brandon knows what it's like to have a dream, and to feel supported by a mentor goes a long way in facilitating an experience that changes a person's life for the better. The inclusivity, intellectual honesty, and playful rigor of these classes not only teaches us something about writing, but it coaches us through resilience, and positive psychology.

So I wanted to review five of Brandon’s lessons from his writing advice, and the ideas that he shares as a mentor and great thinker in the realm of writing fantasy. His website has a section that provides more detail to questions he answers for aspiring authors.

Each numbered item is a paraphrase from one of Brandon’s lectures, or an essay. The comments that follow are how I apply what Brandon is saying, an interpretation that, to me, resonates with his comments. But if you want Brandon’s exact words, I recommend either you check out his website, or his lectures on youtube.

  1. Making a living at writing is easier than you think (it’s definitely hard work, but not impossible)

People will tell you that career writer’s are one in a million. The odds are much better than that. The level of one’s monetary success as a writer isn’t a predictable thing, and success like Brandon’s requires the confluence of many different factors working together. However, it is possible to make money doing what you love, and if what you love is writing, don’t give up. In the doing of the thing there is growth and life to experience, so pursue your dream with confidence. In his class every year, there is typically one or two out of a few dozen very serious aspiring writers who get published and kick off their careers.

  1. Making a living at writing is not necessary or best for everyone who loves to write

Everyone who has even tried to write a book, and then revealed their writing to a friend has probably heard the question “when are you going to get it published”? 

Brandon likens this to athletes to show how ludicrous it should sound to us. If the guys go out to play basketball, nobody asks, “hey, when are you going to get recruited to the Lakers?” as if playing in the NBA was the measure of how worthwhile it is to play basketball in the first place. We understand that sports are fun, and don’t question why people go out and play. That’s what writing is at its most fundamental level, a form of play. 

We do ourselves a disservice to overlook why people spend hours creating worlds and characters and intricate backstories populating them. They do it primarily for fun. Publishing as the primary goal is putting the cart before the horse.

The enjoyment of writing itself makes it worth it. Publishing is more possible now than ever, but the writing process can be worth it whether or not a piece of writing is ever published. Writers should allow themselves to enjoy their craft at every stage of the creation process.

  1. Always Err on the Side of What is Awesome

This is jokingly (but seriously) referred to as Sanderson’s “zeroth” law (as in, comes before first). How often do we pass up opportunities to do this in life and in writing?

You would think they would teach us these things in school.

There are many ways to apply this. Make your writing as unique to you as possible. Use the idea that makes you the most excited to write the scene, not the one you think the reader or agent or editor will prefer. Be willing to fight for what you believe belongs in the book.

Perhaps what is most awesome, is that which is most deeply rooted in what you value in life.

  1. Fantasy can Encompass all other Genres

    Sanderson’s thought here is about the expansiveness of the fantasy genre, and its inclusivity. 

Fantasy can comfortably cover romance, adventure, action, humor, drama, suspense, mystery, with the added bonus of dragons. Within fantasy there is a breadth of prose styles, from the most accessible, like Jenny Nimmo, to the literary and sophisticated, like Ursula K. Le Guin, or Guy Gavriel Kay. 

    The potential to experiment with our perception of reality has such limitless possibilities we feel bad for people who don’t enjoy the wonder and possibility available in fantasy. And we also groan when undeniable authors of fantasy (like Rowling and Goodkind) apparently wish to elevate beyond or separate themselves from the genre. 

Fantasy is shaking off the stereotypes it has had in the past, of being fringe, or for undesirable nerds. But still, the case for its worth preceded its popularity.

  1. Workshops are Key

    Part of what allows Brandon such consistent and reliable quality to his works is his workshopping process. Yes, he outlines his works ahead of time and is unusually gifted with plot and worldbuilding, among other things. But he seeks the input of alpha and beta readers, and listens to his editors to ensure all the pieces fit together. 

    It’s a challenge to stay true to the vision of the story for beginning workshoppers, and even experienced writers may struggle to provide feedback that aligns with what the author actually intends. Yet, the early and consistent dialog about what the readers expects to come next compared to what the author has planned is extremely valuable data to hear early on.

    The takeaway for me, and why Brandon’s writing classes, and his encouragement to new writers is so invigorating is that he wants us to know that there is room in the community for new voices; for my voice, and yours. If you enjoy writing, please keep that joy alive.

Part of the dream of becoming a writer, the biggest part, is not to compete with bestsellers. I dream of knowing what it feels like to go through the process of getting a book on the shelf. Why couldn't it be me who created all the characters and the story, me who lived in a way that isn’t possible in the real world, through sending a story out like a ship onto the sea of humanity. I’ve always been curious about what I, the published author, would feel if I walked into a bookstore and could pick my book up off the shelf. I can imagine it being just as wonderful as reading a book that stops time for a while and keeps you flipping the pages for hours. 

And knowing that each one of us has it in us to give another person that experience, that is something worth striving for, despite years of unfinished books behind me.

    So when I finish that book, I’ll let you know. For now, how about we write together?

1 comment:

  1. Thank you! This was great! I'll look into the classes.