The Penmen Profile: Fantasy Writer and 15-Time New York Times Bestseller Brandon Sanderson

by Rebecca LeBoeuf

In the eighth grade, Brandon Sanderson discovered a world of epic fantasy and never looked back. Now he’s a 15-time New York Times best-selling author, and his novels are published in more than 20 languages. Sanderson was short listed for the David Gemmel Legend Award six times in four years, and since his debut novel in 2005, he’s been busy writing and publishing several dozens of books and novellas.

The Penmen Review was fortunate to ask him several questions about his writing process, challenges, inspirations and more.

Have you always written?
I started writing my first novel when I was 15 years old. I didn’t have a computer; I had an old electric typewriter. It would remember your file on a disc, but it was really just a printer with an attached bare-bones word processor. It had a tiny LCD screen at the top that could display three lines at a time. You could scroll through and edit bit by bit, and then you hit print and it would type out the document.

The book was terrible. It was essentially a hybrid of Tad Williams and “Dragonlance,” though at the time I felt it was totally new and original. It did have a wizard who threw fireballs with smiley faces on the front, though, so that’s kind of cool.

My writing started in earnest when I was 21, back in 1997. That was the year when I decided for certain that I wanted to write novels for a living.

My first goal was to learn to write on a professional level. I had heard that a person’s first few books are usually pretty bad, and so I decided to just spend a few years writing and practicing. I wanted time to work on my prose without having to worry about publishing.

Around 1999 (I can’t remember the exact date) I joined the science fiction magazine “The Leading Edge” (TLE) at Brigham Young University (BYU); I also took an important writing class, less because of what I learned about writing (though I did learn a lot) and more because of people I met. Through TLE and the class, I ended up as part of a community of writers, editors and science fiction/fantasy readers who were serious about what they were doing.

You might call this the “Golden Era” of my unpublished career. I was getting to one of the most creative points in my life, and was very energized and excited about the writing I’d learned to do. After practicing for five novels, I felt that I was finally in a position to do justice to an epic fantasy story. In 1999–2000, I wrote several books (“Elantris,” “Dragonsteel” and “White Sand”).

I was collecting rejection letters for these books, though I felt they were good – very good. But nobody was giving them much attention. At the conventions, editors kept saying that fantasy novel submissions were too long and that new writers shouldn’t be trying such beastly first books.

Feeling uncertain about my writing and my career, I turned my attention to trying the most basic of fantasy stories. Prophesied hero, orphaned, goes on a travelogue across the world to fight a dark lord. This was the first draft of a book I called “The Final Empire.” Of course, I was putting my own spin on it. But my heart wasn’t in it –I just couldn’t convince myself that I was adding anything new to the genre, and I was again trying for a “half-length” story. Though there were no dragons, elves or mythical objects to rescue, I felt that I was just plain writing a bad book.

I finished that book and was just plain disappointed. This was the worst book I’d ever written (and it is, I think, the worst – though the first book I titled “Mistborn” is close). Here I was, having written 12 novels, and I seemed to be getting worse with each one. I wasn’t selling. I was out of school working a wage job graveyard shift, and my social life consisted pretty much of my friends taking pity on me and coming to hang out at the hotel once in a while.

This was one of the big focus points of my career. That year, 2002, I made three decisions. The first was that I was not going to give up on writing. I loved it too much, even when I was writing books that didn’t turn out right. (I think this is important for every author to decide.) The second was that I was never again going to write toward the market. It was killing my books. If I never got published, so be it. At least I would stop writing terrible stories mangled by my attempts to write what I thought people wanted. The final decision was that I’d go to graduate school in creative writing to get myself into that groove of being around writers again, and to also ‘delay’ for a few more years having to get a real job. Then, in 2003, I got the call from an editor wanting to buy “Elantris.”

What’s your process in developing your storyline and characters?
My process is a little bit toward the one-drafting method. I started out trying the freewriting method, and my first few books were train-wrecks (which is nothing unusual – that’s the way it is with most people). I had good characters and interesting settings, but the stories fell apart as I wrote. Plus, I learned that I detest rewriting. When I finish a story, I want it to be DONE. I’ve since learned to force myself to rewrite, and I think I’ve gotten pretty good at it. However, I’m more fulfilled as a writer if I can get most of it right on the first try.

Another reason I consider myself more of a one drafter is because I have to know where I’m going before I start. I need an ending. I feel lost in a story if I don’t have a climax in mind, and I have trouble writing a character if I don’t know how they are supposed to progress. However, I do enjoy the discovery of writing. If everything is TOO rigid, then I don’t do well making connections and coming up with innovative ways to be clever with my plot.

What challenges do you face in your writing, and how do you overcome them? 
My biggest weakness as a writer is repeating words and phrases, which is a very common thing for writers to have. There are people like Pat Rothfuss who don’t have this problem. Because they slave over every sentence. For years. (You know I love him.)

The way I deal with it is to highlight the ones I struggle with a lot, and have my assistant look for them. Then do a search and replace in Microsoft Word for the word but with brackets around it, so it leaves the same word in brackets it so I can decide, do I really want that word, or did I just use it because that’s what I always use.

What has the road to publication been like for you?
The journey from starting to write to actually getting published was long, frustrating and difficult. I wrote 13 novels before I sold “Elantris,” which was my sixth. The big change for me happened when I managed to figure out how to revise. I always had good ideas and got better and better at storytelling. But it was the power of revision that finally got me published. It took about eight years of dedicated writing and being rejected.

By this time, I had already written about 12 or 13 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 it over 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 18 months before. By that time, I had pretty much given up on it; 18 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 18 months before he eventually looked at it. But by then, all my contact info was wrong. 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 18 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 freshmen 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.

How do you market your work?
I’ve often found that the best marketing I can do for my books is to work on the next story. I doubt that anything is better for a writer’s career than consistently releasing good books. In today’s world of social media, the best publicity is word of mouth. You want regular people saying nice things about your work. My gut says that people can smell insincerity a mile away – and nothing drives them off faster than trying to artificially generate hype or viral success.

That said, I do hang out on the usual social media suspects, and we’ve tried a few tactics for drawing attention. Most have to do with things I already do or like to do. For example, I have a habit of signing books in airport bookstores when I’m traveling, so I sometimes slip goodies into the books and tell my Twitter followers where to find them.

What do you wish you knew when you first started writing?
Well, I’d like to have known that I’d be successful! That would have removed a lot of stress.  Though actually, according to stories I’ve read, nothing good ever seems to come of knowing that sort of thing ahead of time. Seeing the future tends to be a bad thing in speculative fiction.

On a more serious note, I’m rather pleased with how things have gone. There is no magic secret or bit of advice that makes someone into a better writer. You have to go step by step, trying out new tools, and slowly learning to be a writer. There is no replacement for experience, so I’m not sure there’s anything I wish I’d known when I started.

I AM glad that I received early advice not to focus too much on any one story or book. Instead, the goal of my early writing years was to learn how to write. That allowed me to move between projects easily, and not get hung up too much on any one flaw I discovered.

Who are the authors that have inspired you most, and how have they inspired you?
Unlike a lot of writers, I wasn’t a big reader when I was younger. I came to it late, when I was in eighth grade. Until then, none of the books (mostly ones about boys with pet dogs) that people suggested worked for me. And then I discovered fantasy. From then on, you never found me without a book. Or two or three.

When I was 14, I discovered the fantasy genre through Barbara Hambly’s “Dragonsbane.” After her, I read (Anne) McCaffrey and (Melanie) Rawn. They are really the ones who inspired me to start writing. When Robert Jordan’s books came along, I was done for.

When I read those books, I discovered something that blew my mind. Here were people who were taking what I did, sitting around and imagining stories, and they were making a living out of it.

I hit the ground running, so to speak. Started my first novel the next fall, began gobbling up fantasy books wherever I could find them, began writing ideas about stories in my notebooks instead of (as you guessed) the notes I was supposed to be taking in class.

If you could keep just three books in your library, which would you choose and why?
I always have trouble with questions like this. It’s going to depend on my mood, and – being a guy who has fun with magic systems – I’m going to try to break the rules somehow. I mean, what means is enforcing this “you can only have three books” rule? Why on Earth would this occur?

Does the “Collected Wikipedia,” printed and bound in a single enormous volume count? How about all of project Gutenberg? What defines a “book?” I’d probably only need two volumes. The sum of human knowledge bound into one tome, and everything else in the second.


Visit Sanderson’s website for a complete inventory of his work and for an extensive list of FAQ questions he’s answered.