Q&A with Brandon Sanderson

This week I was able to attend a Q&A with writer Brandon Sanderson, notable in his own right as an author, but especially interesting to fantasy fans as the man chosen to finish the Wheel of Time series (tl;dr) following Robert Jordan’s passing.

Over the hour, he answered a lot of interesting questions, but the two most compelling topics centered around his writing process when taking over from Robert Jordan, and his feelings regarding publishers and electronic publishing. I’m summarizing a lot here, but I thought the points were worth sharing.

On the topic of how to finish someone else’s work.

This was the big set of questions, and it was definitely cool to hear how someone goes through the process of writing the final portion of a very long, and very loved, fiction series.

He said a bunch of things, most of them intertwined, but I’ll try to separate out some of the key points. He started by noting that he had a very different writing method, style, and life experience from Robert Jordan, and therefore opted very early on that he would complete the story, but would not attempt to make it seamless with the previous books. Things like matching Jordan’s wording choices (eg. cobblestone vs paving stone) he threw right out the window, considering that it would be more effort to align than it was worth. He also specifically called out the differences in the battle scenes, pointing out that Jordan’s experience as a veteran gave him a very different perspective on the writing that Brandon didn’t share.

On the issue of methodology, he described himself as an ‘outline’ writer. Someone who creates an outline, then starts at the beginning and works his way through to the end. Whereas Robert Jordan was more of a ‘gardener’, or someone who gets and idea and then nurtures it through to completion. This meant that when he got the source material from Jordan’s widow (~200 pages all told), there were whole plot threads that had been completely written already, while other perspectives only had some rough notes sketched out. Fortunately, this played well into their mutual styles. Brandon took the notes and fit them into his outline model, marking the ‘Jordan’ chapters as essentially done (at first draft quality) and then started going through the process of filling in the blanks.

From his perspective, the story was well planned when he got it, but there was a lot of writing left to do. The actual writing part took him twice the effort of a normal book, because he had to do so much additional research, by way of going back through past work, to fact check and such. But, it sounded like the the general process wasn’t terribly different from normal writing once he’d got the outline done and finished fitting in Robert’s notes with his own.

On the topic of publishing, electronic and otherwise.

Brandon had earlier made a comment that he really enjoys eBooks. When asked what he would add to the world of eBooks to improve the industry / technology, his first answer was ‘nothing.’ He felt that a lot of the biggest problems had already been solved, and the most active topics weren’t that interesting to him. The ‘solved problems’ that he noted were:

  • The feeling of reading a book. People have had access to electronic content for a long time, but reading electronic content didn’t really take off until eInk solutions became widely available.
  • The size of a body of work. With print publishing, there’s a minimum, and a maximum page count that authors have to consider. Electronic publishing gets rid of both.
  • Distribution. Here, he touched on how it’s nice to have wide distribution channels, how it’s nice to be able to easily sell volumes of work (instead of individual titles) and how its cool to be able to support serialized work.

Whereas the problems that people were working on involved adding more interactive or multimedia components to books. Something he felt didn’t make sense in the context of written fiction. I think I agree – it reminds me a bit of the old encarta encyclopedias that included all kinds of cool movies and stuff. While that was fun, ultimately we went back to mostly written text and images.

After some further prompting, he did come up with something that he’d like to see: a good system for supporting third party annotations of written content, similar to directory commentary content on DVDs. This would be really cool for a lot of fiction nerds for sure.

On the topics of Publishing, self-publishing, and other financial issues.

The final things he spoke about were more monetary, and not linked to the technology so much. Like most people, he feels eBook costs should come down, and royalties to authors should come up. This was really interesting fodder for a lot of people, who started wondering ‘why not self publish?’ Brandon spent some time talking about the work that his publisher does (it was a lot), and how he’s very happy to outsource that labour to someone else. However, he did figure that the costs of outsourcing were perhaps a little off. I followed up with him afterwards and he gave an example that a large publishing house might offer 25% of net sales back to the author, where a small business would offer 50%. He figured that neither value was perfect, and would like to see it somewhere in between. I won’t put his suggested value here, but it really was a marginal increase over the lower of the two values.

I’ve had a lot of discussions around royalties and self-publishing with friends, but most of them aren’t making their livelihood from these activities. It was nice to hear some of these numbers from a someone who is, especially considering that it wasn’t just ‘I want more money!’  Even at his higher percent of net, if you also considered that he’d like to see the net cost fall by 10 or 20%, you could see that he wasn’t just asking for change for the sake of personal gain, but because he genuinely felt there were some financial imbalances given the nature of the industry today vs a few years ago.

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