Fantasy writer, world creator, and inventor of magics, Brandon Sanderson, has done a very kind thing. Apart from being possibly the most prolific writer currently in existence, as well as a podcaster of some note on the topic of writing, he also spends part of every year presenting a series of lectures on writing at Brigham Young University over in the States. Realising perhaps that all his fans and would be attendants of those lectures don’t live near Ohio, or in the States at all (says the Australian), Brandon has decided to record them and post them to the one country we all have a passport to, the internet. This is his kind thing.
In the interest of my own education, and possibly yours, I thought that as I watch each lecture I would share it here. I then also had the thought that to truly make the most of this knowledge I would accompany each video with a recap of the main points and my take on them in relation to my own writing. This second point is a much more selfish addition as I can’t imagine it’s going to be amazingly interesting to read and I’m mostly planning on doing so in order that all his little knowledge chunks stick in my head. However, if you don’t want to watch the whole video and are more inclined to be the kind of person who prefers looking over someone’s shoulder to copy their notes then this summary is for you.
Sanderson starts this lecture starts with what I believe to be one of his most important, and to me personally, relieving, points; that every writer has a different approach to plotting. As I’m fairly new to this writing game I’ve recently been trying to figure the “right” way to plot, with the certain fear that I was doing my plotting “wrong”. Sanderson’s explanation of the process quickly dissuaded me of this notion, basically stating outright that there is no one right way to plot. Phew. My perfectionist brain was struggling with that one, not helped by having heard ambiguous advice on the correct way to plot in the past. Mr Sanderson even went so far as to say that writers might find that they plot every project slightly differently. Phew, again. He then broke down plotting into two forms; Discovery writers – who just start writing their story, exploring and discovering it as they go, and; Architects – writers who start with a big, detailed outline before beginning their story. Discovery writing can be a good way to figure out your characters, where outlining is beneficial in helping to create a well structured story. These two types of writers are really the end points of the plotting spectrum. In reality each writer will be somewhere on this spectrum; obtaining a plotting style that is really a hybridized version of the two. For myself that’s exactly the case. I’ve found that usually I’ll be struck with an idea and want to start discovery writing it immediately, getting that spark of an idea into words and dialogue as quickly as possible. This can involve writing anywhere between a single sentence to a couple of pages; whatever it takes to get that spark fleshed out. Once I come to the limit of that initial idea then I go into architect mode, starting a notes document for that project and slapping down any broad ideas and thoughts I have surrounding that first spark. This document becomes my sounding board, and gets constantly updated and altered as I figure out what the story is. Once I’ve got all the broader plot points down – especially the ending as I need to know where I’m writing towards – then I discovery write my way from plot point to plot point, updating the notes doc as I go if I change or find new things of relevance.
Back to the lecture; Sanderson next talks about the realities of wanting to be a writer. His basic advice to those who want to be a professional writer is that they should be doing at least six hours of writing a week, equivalent to around three thousand words. For me this was great news as I had recently decided to give myself a weekly word count and had chosen pretty much that exact number. Very reassuring. He then followed this by saying that he’s found it takes about ten years of maintaining this level of writing, on average, before a person has a chance of getting published. This was more sobering, but, as someone who prefers the realities of a situation rather than the more comforting illusions, also welcome. It’s his belief that a writer should be writing a novel a year, and if they can write two even better. Like I said, he’s prolific. I personally like that goal, it’s challenging but attainable. I also don’t mind the ten year rule. If it takes ten thousand hours to master a skill then you simply have to do it a lot, and if it takes writing ten less than great novels to get to the one great one that has a chance of being published then so be it. Plus, writing’s fun, and while putting in that many hours is definately work it’s still not as great a burden as it sounds.
Sanderson’s final topic for this first lecture was about workshopping, more specifically, workshopping as part of a writer’s group. He tells how he’s been part of a writer’s group since he was at university and still meets up with his group regularly in order to workshop each other’s writing. For me I have a sort of sporadic, spread out, writer’s group. The Lady Holly is my first port of call and is great with helping me work through an idea as well as the initial editing. I then have Brother Jonathan – who apart from being a writer himself has the added bonus of having completed a professional writing and editing course, as well my friends from the Masters course; Sean and Gabe. While we do all share each other’s writing and give general points to each other we are lacking a more formalised and routine meet up where each person has a word limit to write and share before each meeting. I have thought of setting up something like this in the past but have until now been a bit slack, I might have to change that. If I do decide to start one I now have Brandon Sanderson’s rules for workshopping.
For the workshopper (those doling out the advice to the nervous recipient) he suggests the following:
- Be descriptive with advice, not proscriptive. This means rather than offering all the things you think the person should add to the book, pinpoint ideas where you’re confused and help clear them up. The most important thing to remember is that you’re trying to help them make the best version of their story, not change it to what you think it should be.
- Stay positive. Make sure you let the writer know all the things you think they’re doing right. Point out the parts that made you laugh, or blew your mind, because as well as boosting the writer up it also ensures that they won’t make the disastrous mistake to remove those bits in revision. Then you can say some negative stuff. Kindly.
- Discuss. This means if someone in the group mentions that they didn’t like a certain bit but you thought it was awesome, say so. If it turns out that that person didn’t like it but three others in the group did, then the writer has a better census on whether or not to keep it in. It’s also important to talk about why it worked for some people and not for others as it allows the writer to know if the reaction they’re getting from that part is the one they want.
- Drop it. If you have a pet peeve about the story and you’ve said your bit on it then let it go. It’s up to the writer if they take the advice or not.
His advice for the workshopee (the one receiving the advice) is simple and has one point; be quiet. Try not to say anything at all while the group discusses your work, don’t defend or explain, just listen. If you’re lucky they’ll forget you’re even there and will discuss it amongst the group like the perfect test audience you want them to be, leaving you free to just take notes.
We’re done. Fun though right? He’s already posted two more lectures but I won’t write those up until I actually get time to watch them. Isn’t learning the best? The answer is yes.