Brandon Sanderson 318R #6

The amazing Brandon Sanderson shares his wisdom about the business side of writing in session #6 of his BYU class on writing fantasy and science fiction.

Class #6: The business of writing.

While you’re writing, you should just be focused on the best artistic decision for your story. Ignore any ideas about what might be marketable. Once you’re done, though, he says:

Lock the artist in the closet, take their manuscript, run away giggling, and try to figure out how to exploit it.

Self publishing

Once upon a time, this was called vanity publishing. If you wanted to see your book in print and couldn’t get a traditional publisher, you’d spend a bunch of money to get some copies printed and hope you could sell them. Some famous writers self-published their books, but it wasn’t very common.

Around 2010, when everyone got Kindles for Christmas, ebooks came into their own and the world of self publishing changed. Now, self publishing has settled down as a valid and legitimate way to sell books. On Amazon, something like 30-40% of all books sold are self published. Amazon controls and dominates the ebook market, with about 85-90% of all ebooks being sold through Amazon.

The big selling points on self publishing are:

  1. Control – You choose the cover, nobody can put a spoiler on the back of your book, and you decide what ends up in the final copy and where it’s sold. In traditional publishing, you’re dealing with one publisher in the U.S., another in the U.K, another in India, etc., but when you self-publish your ebook, you can click a button to make it available worldwide
  2. Revenue per book – In general, you make 70% of the cover price. At Amazon, you get 70% if you price your book between $2.99 and $9.99; if you price it higher you only get 35%, and you also get less if you price it lower.

More to come on this in a later class, when Sanderson’s on book tour and a self-publishing author friend will be filling in.


Some professional writers have some traditional contracts but self-publish some of their stuff. Shonna Slayton, who I wrote about earlier, has a traditional publisher for her fairy tale retellings, but recently self-published a historical novel. The dream would be to traditionally publish print books and self-publish ebooks, but Sanderson only knows of one person who managed to get a contract like that (Hugh Howie with his Wool series).

Small press

If you sign up with a small press, you may be able to get a contract that’s more favorable to you than a traditional contract, similar to the deal you get if you self-publish. The small press will do the same things the big publishing house will do, but you get a higher rate.

Traditional publishing

The advantages of traditional publishing are the things the company does for you (cover design, editing, etc.) and the advance they pay you.

Here’s what you can expect or might run into if you have a traditional, big publisher:

  • Advance – For a first novel, the average advance is $5,000 (but $2,000 and $10,000 aren’t uncommon). This isn’t free money: it’s an advance against royalties your book will earn. The company prepares a P&L (profit and loss) estimate, looking at similar books by new authors and guesstimating how many they can sell and figuring costs based on a hypothetical print run. They’ll try to give you what they think you’ll earn in the first 2-3 years. If you have a good agent and get a better-than-usual advance on your first book, it’s not unusual to get a bit less on your second, but your advances should climb from there.
  • Royalties – The author gets a percent of the price:
    • Hardback 10-15% of the cover price (not the discounted price the reader might actually pay at B&N)
    • Paperback 6-10% of cover price (8% mass market, 10% trade paperback)
    • Ebooks 25% of net, meaning the actual selling price after discount
    • Bargain bin books – see returns, below
    • Some contracts give a variable percent based on sales, like 8% for the first 75,000 copies and 10% after that.
  • Earning out the advance – The company doesn’t start paying you royalties till they’ve surpassed the advance. You don’t have to pay back the advance if your book doesn’t sell as much as they thought it would. You only have to repay the advance if you fail to deliver the book. On the other hand, you’ll get a smaller advance on the next book.
  • Returns – To get stores to take a chance on new authors, publishers allow them to return any unsold books for full credit. You lose the royalties for those. The company sells the returns for $2 each (you can buy them at this price too), the stores sell for $4, and you get 6 cents a copy. It’s not a bad thing to have your books in the bargain bin where new readers can discover you.
  • Sell-through – This is the percent of the print run that actually sells. The publisher usually prints about twice as many books as they have orders for. The magic number is 80%: if you sell 60%, that’s okay. Less is a failure, and so is more than 80% because it means the publisher underestimated sales and should have printed more.
  • Audio books – These are sold almost exclusively through Audible. You’ll get about 20% of the credit the user spends, or about $2 per book. People who buy audiobooks generally only buy audiobooks, and they buy a lot of them. If anyone ever actually buys the physical audiobook, you make more.
  • Bidding war – Your agent may get multiple offers for your book. If that happens, they go into a book auction. Your agent knows how to do this. If you’re spectacularly lucky, you could end up with a $100,000 advance for your first book, which in turn means the publisher is invested in you and will do the marketing to try to make it profitable. If your initial contract runs out before the end of your book series, you can go into another bidding war.
  • Reversion of rights – It’s common for contracts to have a clause that says if the book sells under a certain number, you get the copyright back (normally, the publisher gets it for the life of the copyright). Ebooks throw this off, since they don’t have to be printed. If you get a contract, research this.


Whether you’re on the bestseller list or not depends on a lot of things, including which list you’re looking at, and who else released a book at the same time as you did. The first time Sanderson was on the list, he was #31, based on 2,300 hardcopy sales the previous week; and the first time he was #1 on the list, he’d had about 80,000 copies sold that week, and the #2 book was at about 32,000. If John Grisham had released a book that week, Sanderson’s 80K wouldn’t have put him at #1. The lowest number he’s heard of for a #1 print bestseller was in the 20,000s. Preorders count as Day One sales.

This puts a whole different perspective on a book I recently read, The Bestseller Code by Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers, in which they taught a computer to read books and predict whether or not they’d hit the New York Times bestseller list. I’m in a group that’s reading through that book’s 100 recommendations in reverse order, and this month-to-month variation probably explains a lot. Here’s a link to the group discussion – join us if you’re interested!

Ebooks have changed things a lot. Sanderson’s 2,300 to get on the list was before ebooks came along. Now, more people are earning money by writing, but the people at the top are earning a bit less than they used to, because people have more to choose from now.

The competition for the list depends on which list you’re looking at. USA Today and the Times of London only have one list that combines all book sales. The New York Times list is broken down into several lists nowadays, with ebooks separate from hardcopies, and different lists for different types of books. I remember the controversy over this when the Harry Potter books were new and had overtaken all the grownup books on the NYT list; the paper’s decision was to separate them out (here’s their article explaining the change). On Amazon, they subcategorize like crazy and they rate not just books but authors – check out the author rank for Brandon Sanderson as of today:


If you make it onto the NYT list, your publisher will call you on a Wednesday to tell you. They’ll send you champagne (Sanderson is Mormon and obviously speaking at BYU, so he had some funny comments about that). You don’t need any help to see where you stand on Amazon; it’s right there on the book’s page.


This is the real reason people go to traditional publishing these days, because you can go far higher than you can with self publishing or a small press.

Once you’re established, your publisher will send you on a book tour, in which they fly you around to a bunch of stores where you do signings. If you’re a new author, they might bundle you with a few others, making it an event. Some stores have regular signing events and customers who show up every week for that; at others, you might be sitting by yourself. Sanderson had some tips for making the most out of book tour, whether anyone shows up for it or not:

  • Meet the store manager – If you can get a bookseller interested in your book, and they read it and like it, they will hand sell it for you. The Mysterious Galaxy bookstore was a big help to Sanderson. This is how a lot of fantasy and science fiction books become bestsellers – through word of mouth. A bookseller named Steve Diamond personally sold 100 copies of Sanderson’s Elantris.
  • Give the bookseller a copy – Sanderson asked his publisher to give him a box of books one year, and the day before each signing, he visited the store and said “if I give you a free book, will you read it?”
  • Sign books and leave them on the shelf – The signed-copy sticker attracts attention and your book may get featured on an end cap with other signed books for a couple of weeks, attracting more.
  • Meet some fans and build a mailing list

It’s rare to get a book tour for your first book. For Sanderson’s second book, Tor sent him on a driving book tour – he lives in Salt Lake City, so they figured he could drive to Fresno and San Francisco. The third year, he called them with a proposal: he and another author he knew would drive and hit 10 bookstores in western states. Tor gave them $1,000, which to them was virtually nothing – book tour typically costs $2,000 a day. He got in a car with Dave, they shared a room, and went to bookstores in Las Vegas, San Diego, LA, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Boise, Idaho Falls where he has relatives, and Salt Lake City. He ended up doing that for 5 years. Publishers are willing to listen to what you pitch to them if you have a good plan.

Generally, your publisher won’t tour you till you have some momentum, so you’ll have to build your own. You can pitch anything to your publicist. Whether they’ll go for it or not depends on the publisher. Publicity is different from marketing:

  • Marketing is expensive. The publisher won’t do a lot of this. An ad in NYT costs $50,000. The marketing industry is set up to sell things everyone uses, like soap, not to sell books. The publisher may, however, spend on targeted ads on Facebook, Audible, or Goodreads. The front page of Amazon and iTunes is all paid advertising space, as is the space at the front of the bookstore and the end caps. The bookstore marketing is called co-op: the publisher gives the store a higher percent off on each book. The advertising budget for Sanderson’s books nowadays is around $150-200K. Giveaways, bookmarks, and postcards are less expensive, and even as a new author, you can usually pitch them on some of these things.
  • Publicity is separate, with a different person called a publicist in charge. This includes interviews, social media Q&As, and book tour. NPR is one of the best places to be – people who read are listening to NPR, so if you can get on a local affiliate, it’s much better than anything else local; if you can get on national NPR, it’s fantastic.

Blog tours

Blog tours are the big thing nowadays. A lot of people follow bloggers, especially in Young Adult. You can write a guest piece on some of these. The key is to read the blog first to see what’s interesting to its readers, and then write a good essay that will be interesting to them. Don’t just write a standard essay about your book.

I can’t wait to be in a position to use this information! How about you? Please share your thoughts in the comments.


Brandon Sanderson 318R #5

Continuing my notes on Brandon Sanderson’s excellent and generously free-to-the-public videos of his BYU class on writing fantasy and science fiction.

Class #5: The Box

As a writer-chef (see #2), your job is to come up with something new, not just follow a recipe. Some classic plot frameworks are summarized briefly in the table below. Think about why these stories work – what emotions do they invoke in readers, why do readers like them? Why are they tasty?


If you use one of these, you make it distinctive by adding your own setting and details. For example, the classic boring life is farming (Luke Skywalker was a moisture farmer, whatever that is), but you can come up with your own ideas – maybe a pest control operator in a space station. Each of the beats the classic plots hit can be transformed into something unique in your story. You can flip the whole plot upside down, like riches-to-rags as in King Lear. You can use the underdog sports model in a completely different context.

The point of the frameworks isn’t to say you can’t tell your own story in your own way, but to help you define the story you want to tell. Use them to understand the beats other people have used in similar stories before. Think about why they worked in those stories, and maybe they can help you make your own story better.

The Box

The box you’re writing in has plot, setting, and character tied together by conflict (see #2). Viewpoint and tense are part of the way you write these. There are no right answers. Write what you want to write. Know what the tools are and use them your own way.


  • First person – The character is telling the story. This is the default in Young Adult right now. It’s immediately immersive, with a focus on character. It’s easy and natural to have a strong voice, and building sympathy for the character is easy. The character can address the audience directly. It’s also easier to have an untrustworthy narrator in first person (The Name of the Wind, for example). It usually removes tension because you know the character is going to live. You can have multiple first person characters in one novel, but after two or three it’s going to be hard for the reader. Tends to be bad at immersing you in a whole world full of people. There are a few types of first person:
    • Character tells their story as though it’s a memoir: “I’m going to tell you my story,” “I remember when.”
    • Epistolary, meaning letters. The story is a collection of written documents from characters in the world. Letters, journal entries (like in The Martian), text messages, blog posts, forum posts, government reports. Found footage is the film version of this. There’s rarely any actual prose that isn’t part of the in-world ephemera.
    • Cinematic, common in YA today. It’s as if you’re in their head, their thought bubble, for the whole book. It’s often told in present tense, so you can still have the tension of not knowing if they’re going to survive.
  • Second person – This is very rare and it’s hard to do it well. It shouldn’t be just a gimmick; if you use this, there should be a good reason, like your memory’s going to be erased and you’re writing to your future self.
  • Third person – omniscient – An all-knowing narrator. This isn’t popular right now. Dune is an example of this viewpoint; you know everyone’s thoughts, and the tension comes from knowing something bad is going to happen, not from wondering what’s going to happen. You may have a sense that there’s a narrator, someone telling you the story, although the narrator has to get out of the way when you’re in the characters’ thought bubbles.
  • Third person – limited – Show through eyes of one character at a time. This is the default form for almost all fiction that’s not told in first person. You pick a character’s viewpoint for a given scene; you don’t show anyone else’s thoughts and you don’t see anything that the viewpoint character doesn’t see. A student asked how you show things the main character doesn’t see in a mystery, and Sanderson said there are two ways. The easiest is to go to someone else’s viewpoint. Harder is to give your character a blind spot, so the reader recognizes things the character doesn’t notice (it’s hard not to make the character seem like an idiot). It’s harder to have an untrustworthy narrator, but can be done (The Wheel of Time Matt Coughlin books 9 & 10). You want every viewpoint character to feel distinct; the reader should know whose head they’re in within a few paragraphs without telling them. The narrative can be a little smarter or more flowery than the character would be in first person.


Choose between past and present, and stay consistent through the whole book. They’re very similar, and within a few chapters, the reader has forgotten which one you’re using. Present is more immediate but also a little annoying for some readers. Just pick your favorite. Mainstream adult fiction is usually past tense, mainstream YA is usually present tense.





Brandon Sanderson 318R #4

After taking a break during the entire month of November for NaNoWriMo, I’m back with more notes from Brandon Sanderson’s fabulous BYU class on writing fantasy and science fiction. This was the first time I started NaNo and didn’t finish. Lessons learned include (as Chris Baty says in the book that started it all, No Plot? No Problem!) start something new for NaNo – if you try writing something you’ve already been working on, it’s too close to your heart, and you can’t set yourself free to write crap, so you end up being unable to write at the pace NaNo requires. Life got in the way this year, too, with a couple of trips, a move, and an unexpected hiatus after November 8th. But I’m not quitting!

Class #4: World Building

Follow up on last session

Practice – You don’t have to follow any of the approaches to plotting Sanderson talked about in the last class. Explore your own approaches by practicing. The more you write, the more you’ll be able to do unconsciously and naturally, freeing your conscious mind for higher level problems. The more you write, the easier it all becomes for you.

Making your story distinctive – If everything has been done before, why bother? Genres and cultures evolve and change. Readers want a mix of the original and the familiar. Plot is the hardest thing to be distinctive about while telling a good story, so that will be the familiar; your characters and setting will be original and reflect your own passions and specialized knowledge. When John Grisham started writing legal thrillers, he brought lawyers as characters to the familiar genre. Bring your own enthusiasm.

World building

This is the place where you can be the most distinctive. Try to take a few steps forward; don’t build a world just like everyone else’s epic fantasy.

The iceberg – You show the tip of the iceberg in your book, but the reader needs to believe that the underwater part also exists. Your job is to extrapolate, be able to answer questions about the culture and setting, so the reader gets the sense that it’s real. You’re taking them to a different time and place, immersing them.

The iceberg includes the physical setting, which includes all the stuff that would be there if there were no people (flora and fauna, geography, weather, laws of physics or magic, etc.), and the cultural setting, which can include things like economy, religion, laws, government, caste system, gender roles, folklore, languages, music, fashion,  technology, history, education, arts, etc. You could come up with many more. Magic is a special element in fantasy world building, and there’s a whole lecture on it later on.

Watch out for world building disease, where you spend so much time world building that you never get around to the story, and don’t dump the whole iceberg on your readers. Pick two or three things that really pop off the page. Be as original as you can with these, and extrapolate as far as you can go. These elements should be at the heart of at least one of the conflicts in your story. Be distinctive and interesting in these areas, and it can make your world feel more real than if you had a 100,000 word bible for it.

Building the iceberg

  • Fake it: If you’re a discovery writer, you can write the tip of the iceberg in your first draft, then develop the underwater stuff, and weave it in when you rewrite, just enough so the underwater part is somewhat visible. You need to give the illusion that there’s an iceberg there – you don’t have to actually have it developed.
  • Write it: You can write a 400,000-word encyclopedia of your world. Tolkien spent decades doing this, and the actors playing elves in the Peter Jackson movies actually wore elven underwear even though it never showed onscreen. Do it if you enjoy it. Caution, though: you don’t want to show the whole iceberg on the page (next session will have more on how to avoid this). Also, if you want to make money by writing, you can’t afford to spend 30 years inventing languages and mythologies for your world.

The reader’s learning curve

The learning curve determines how long it takes the reader to become expert in the world. Every book has a learning curve, whether fantasy or not – Moby Dick has a steep learning curve; Harry Potter has a shallow curve that eases you in, and steepens once you get your feet underneath you. You need to decide how steep you want it to be. For middle grade fantasy, for example, the curve needs to be pretty shallow.

One reason for the popularity of series in fantasy is the learning curve. Once the reader has invested the time to learn about the world, they want other stories so they can just enjoy the ride.

  • Sprinkle in terms: Sprinkle in the occasional term as you go along, and let the reader pick up the meaning by context. Readers like to do this. Use terms that will be relevant to your characters and plot, so they become familiar. Give good payoffs on a couple of things so the reader feels rewarded for paying attention. Make the details not throwaway but relevant.
  • Give hints: Dole out information in a careful way. Introduce things slowly, by context. The reader should get to know the character first, then learn what the character wants, and then see how the character fits into their larger place in the world. Watch out for maid and butler talk. This is old stage lingo and it’s when characters talk about something familiar to them in a way that makes them sound unfamiliar to it: “As you know, the master is away…” Don’t have characters discuss things they would already know about.
  • Go deep on one thing: Take one little thing about the world, and go into depth with it to create the illusion of the iceberg beneath the surface. Talk to other people about the little thing, see what 3 assumptions they’d make about it, and then in your next couple of chapters put in 4 things about it. This gives the reader confidence that you have the same depth on the whole world as you have about that one thing.
  • Don’t confuse the reader with proper names: In the first few chapters, construct the story so you don’t have to drop a lot of proper names on the reader. The opening chapters should be more intimate with the character. For example, “She pulled against the wall, breathing heavily, as the bandit stomped past.” This lets the reader get to know the character in a tense moment.
  • Only use a prologue if it serves a real purpose:  If it establishes the tone, for example, it might be great. If the only reason for a prologue is to explain the world (an info dump), it will bore the reader.
  • Start with character: Be sparse with the world details up front; focus on character instead. You can set the character up in a strange situation that lets you drop in some of the background (but only the stuff that’s integral to the scene).
  • Consider using a Watson: One approach is to have a character who’s unfamiliar with the world. They can ask questions, and it also gives you a chance to reveal some things through points of tension and conflict between the Watson and the natives of the world. There are lots of examples, including Bilbo in The Hobbit, Harry Potter, and Lucy in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

How much research should you do?

Sanderson tries to get himself 75% of the way there by reading up on the topic, and then writes as best he can. He then gives the draft to someone who really knows the topic and asks what he got wrong. He tries to get as close as he can in a reasonable amount of time, so he isn’t basing the story on really faulty premises.

Writing outside your own experience

Watch out for creating a straw man. Humans are great at combining things, not so great at imagining things that are brand new. You can take existing patterns and extrapolate for your book. The danger is when you create something that’s “not the Catholic church but exactly like the Catholic church and they’re all evil.” Don’t create a weak copy of something in our world; make something new, your own, tied into your created world, with a well rounded viewpoint.

If you’re writing the other – someone different from yourself – present their arguments, their way of life, in a way they’d present themselves. Every character shouldn’t be a copy of you, but write other people appropriately. Watch out for subtle sexism, racism, etc. in your writing. When you can notice it, it’s easier to overcome it. Sanderson gave an example from feminist theory to help explain this, but it applies equally to people who are different from the writer in other ways. Level 1 is woman as object; there aren’t many women, they aren’t relevant to the plot; they only exist to be moved around so manly men can do their manly things. Level 2 is woman as paragon; there’s only one of them, they’re awesome, can do everything, and their role is to come in and save the day – they have no character arc. Level 3 is woman as authority figure or straight man; there may be more of them but they still don’t have character arcs. Level 4 is woman as token, where you finally have a full, well realized character, with passions, dreams, quirks, and flaws, but there’s only one (the Smurfette principle).

Let your characters be real. You want each character to be important to the story that they are part of, have independence and agency over their destiny, allowed to be flawed. Force yourself to look critically at your “other” characters. If every one from X culture is a wisecracking person, or whatever, do some work to make them different from each other, and make them more real.

Why is this important and relevant? Engaging characters. The whole world isn’t inhabited by the same group. Everyone has made mistakes in writing “other” characters. It’s okay to realize that you’ve been racist or sexist in your writing, and fix it – you’ve fallen into the trap but you won’t in future.


Brandon Sanderson 318R #3

Class #3: The illusionist writer

Motivation – The point of those character sliders, dossiers, and other techniques for understanding your characters covered in the last class is to know your characters’ motivations. You can have them act in line with who the reader knows them to be; or if you have them act outside who they really are, you can foreshadow so the reader understands why they’re acting that way.

Characters in motion – Your story needs motion, a sense of progress. Scrooge changes into a different person over the course of the story; this character arc is the motion of the story. In contrast, Superman accomplishes things but he doesn’t change himself. Either type of story can work, and you can combine the two where your character accomplishes things and also changes; decide what kind you want to write.

Plot as illusion

As a writer, you’re creating an illusion. You want the reader to feel it’s real and get caught up in the story, enjoying it, and anticipating but not quite knowing what’s going to happen. Use foreshadowing that makes the ending surprising yet inevitable. Hide your foreshadowing – it should be invisible.

Every story combines something familiar with something strange. This varies by genre and age. Middle grade books and cozy mysteries have more of the familiar. The essay The Strange Attractor by Terry Rossio explains it well. Decide where your own threshold for familiar and strange is.

  • Sense of progress – This is the most important part of plotting, and you’ll get better at it with practice. You can take any great story and boil the ending down to an unsatisfying one-sentence conclusion or drag it out into something long and boring. As the writer, this is your domain, and you can do anything. Your job is to make it exciting by creating conflict and tension in the reader. If the reader is bored, it’s because the story isn’t progressing; if they feel the story is moving forward, they’ll keep reading.
  • Promises – Learn to make promises early in your story, and fulfill them in a satisfying yet unexpected way. This usually happens in the first few pages, and it’s one reason epic fantasy often has a prologue – it shows the tone, where you’re going, what kind of book you’re getting into. The prologue in the first Indiana Jones movie shows you’re going to see fun wisecracking action with an awesome hero, and even though he fails in the prologue you expect to see him succeed later.

Promises unfulfilled might explain why another author’s first book didn’t succeed. It starts as classic epic fantasy, and about 3/4 of the way through the author upends all the tropes and it becomes a modernist take on the generic fantasy. The people who were loving it in the beginning suddenly hated it, and the people who would have loved the modernist take stopped reading before they got that far.

Plotting approach #1 – Three-act format

Most Western civilization stories can be put into this format. It’s useful because of its simplicity. Save the Cat – either the most important book ever written or the worst thing that ever happened to screenwriting – explains this in detail. Dan Wells’ Seven Point Story Structure videos on YouTube have great information on it from a discovery writer’s viewpoint.

  • Act I – Introduction – introduce characters, setting, tone. This is usually the second biggest part of the book.
  • Crisis point – character is forced to make a decision, enter a plot from which they can never return; things will never be the same. Luke’s aunt and uncle’s death in Star Wars.
  • Act II – Confrontation – things get worse. Establish what the character’s trying to accomplish; character tries things and fails and things get worse. This is usually the biggest part of the book, and it can be broken into parts.
  • Low point – do or die time. Character can’t fail again or we are defeated. The Death Star is pointed at the planet with the rebel base.
  • Act III – Satisfying conclusion – where you make good on the promise. Not necessarily a happy ending, but the reader accepts what happens as the end.This is usually the shortest part of the book.

Plotting approach #2 – The monomyth

Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces is worth knowing, but don’t use it as a guidebook – use it as a tool. Think about the reasons behind the elements. It’s basically a 3-act format but described as a circle.


Common elements include the mentor, who guides the hero, while the hero becomes more like the mentor. Often, the mentor dies, allowing the hero to become independent and take the mentor’s place. The hero often refuses at least once before crossing the threshold and entering the trials. The hero may have a boon, or magical gift, like Harry’s scar that tells him when Voldemort is near. Sanderson didn’t mention it, but I think the structure described in The Better Novel Project follows this model.

Plotting approach #3 & 4 – Two general ideas for pantsers

The try-fail cycle is the rising action diagram you may have seen in English class. This is too simple to help a writer, but you can modify it by making the rising line jagged instead of smooth – so the main character goes up two steps and down one, and repeat until they reach the top.

Yes, but/No, and is a simple technique to keep things moving. You introduce a conflict in the first few pages. The character tries to do something to address it. If it works, you introduce a “but;” if it doesn’t work, you introduce an “and.” This can be exhausting for the reader but it can work, like in Dan Brown’s books (The Da Vinci Code, for example). If you use this, string the events together with causality and motivation, so it’s not just a series of events. Be sure to make the main character proactive. You can also nest the plot cycles, so some things are getting resolved (she reconciles with her father) even as other problems are building.

Plotting approach #5 – Sanderson’s own method

He starts building a series of promises and great moments he wants to fulfill. For his Mistborn, these included a romance, overthrowing the empire, and learning magic. There are lots of these, reflecting all his goals and all the cool scenes he wants to include. Then he brainstorms bullet points for the progression of things that need to happen (i.e., for the romance, the character needs to learn to trust).

Readers keep reading because they see a little progress. Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Inferno is essentially a bunch of vignettes, almost like short stories, but they hang together and the reader senses progress because of the map at the front that shows them working their way to the center of Hell. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s corruption by the ring has outward manifestations, so even though this basically happens inside him, the reader still sees progress.

Consider the types of promises and subplots you might include, such as mysteries, romance and relationships, travelogues, time bombs, and overcoming character flaws. Then figure out what the steps are along the way.

Once he has all this down, he builds the book by taking something he likes from one place and mixing it with something else from another place to build a scene. To do this well, you must make sure there’s conflict and red herrings. Finally, you need to make sure the steps match the type of novel you’re writing.

For Sanderson’s actual high-energy lecture, with whiteboard illustrations and much more detail, see the original video.



Brandon Sanderson 318R #2

A few days ago I posted my notes from the first session of Brandon Sanderson’s BYU class on writing science fiction and fantasy at BYU. Today: notes from the second class. Link to class on YouTube

Class #2: Cook vs Chef

Your job as a writer is to be a chef who comes up with something new, not a cook who just follows a recipe. The chef looks at the ingredients and thinks about how to combine them in a new and interesting way — which may or may not work out. This class will talk about a lot of formulas, and there’s a danger of treating them as checklists. Instead, focus on why the formulas work, what you can learn from them.

The Hero’s Journey is a great tool. This is the idea from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which describes storytelling and common elements like the wise mentor who dies at some point in the story. It tells how the elements have been combined in the past. The chef looks at why these elements work. For example, the mentor dies to give the hero a chance to see that he can stand on his own.

Sanderson said that while planning a book, he thinks about the principles he talks about in this course, but while actually writing he isn’t consciously thinking about them. When he gets stuck or runs into trouble, he’ll go back and consider these ideas again.

Parts of a story 

A story has 3 main parts: plot, setting, and character. The conflict – a character at odds with some other element or character – draws them all together. How you tell the story – viewpoint, tense, tone, paragraphing, chapters – is your window into this structure, your personal voice. In this class, there will be about 2 sessions on each element (the 3 parts and “the box”).


Starting with a hook

Character is what keeps the reader interested. Rather than starting with a “bang,” start with a hook that grabs the audience’s attention and promises what the story will deliver. The hook should introduce the idea of your story in a concise, interesting way that encapsulates the kinds of emotions and tone you’ll be giving the reader. Part of the hook is the interesting and engaging character, maybe someone who wants something really badly.

What makes a character interesting?

There are lots of things that can make a character interesting. Maybe they can do cool things; maybe they can’t but they seem real and remind you of yourself. They may have conflicted morals; be out of their depth; be haunted by a powerful past; or be flawed. Their relationships with other people and the way they’re affected by the world around them can make them interesting. They may contrast against stereotypes, be funny, or be sympathetic (or not sympathetic). Consider why these things are compelling or interesting to you, and use that to help make your characters sympathetic and readable.

Character sliders

Three major forces drive whether a character is interesting to us. You can think of your character as falling along a spectrum in each of these dimensions.

The competence scale goes from everyman to superman. A hyper-competent character like Sherlock Holmes or James Bond, where the reader just knows they can do anything, can be interesting because they do interesting things. Often this is balanced by an everyman, like Samwise from The Hobbit – he’s hyper-competent in loyalty and being a good friend, but mainly he’s an everyman. The main character can start on the everyman end of the scale and be dropped into an environment where they have to become hyper-competent (fish out of water type stories). We tend to see ourselves more as the everyman and wish we were more like the superman, so the everyman character is sympathetic. Everyone should have something they’re good at, even if it doesn’t relate to the main plot.

The likability scale measures how nice the character is, how much they remind us of ourselves, are they a good person, do they have friends. An easy way to make someone likable is to have another character talk about why they like them (but don’t overdo this; it can become sappy). In Hollywood, there’s a cliche that you have the character pet a dog or kick a dog to signal whether the audience should like them or not. You can increase likability by increasing the other scales, or by having an antagonist attack them.

Proactivity reflects how the person moves the story along. We like people who move the story, and get frustrated with people who refuse to move it along. This can lead to the villain problem – in a lot of stories with dynamic villains, the villain is the main source of proactivity in the story. Your challenge as a writer is to make sure the main character is also proactive. One way is to have the character arc be that they learn to step up and take control of their own life – but then how do you make the character sympathetic enough at the start of the story? You can force their hand early, as in The Hobbit where Bilbo is invaded by dwarves in the first chapter. Another way is to have a false plot that carries them through the beginning – they actually want something, and they’re working towards that while the real plot is sneaking up on them. Give an indication that even if they think their life is perfect, there’s something missing, like when Luke looks out at the two suns in the original Star Wars. You can show the character’s desires even if they can’t act yet. Give them small things to be proactive about even if they’re stuck in a rut.

These sliders move independently of each other. You can have a character who’s competent and proactive but not likable at all, like Sherlock. Villains tend to be this way and stay there, but heroes may move along the scale, like Gru in Despicable Me. If they can’t be proactive, you want to show them being competent in some sphere. We forgive people for being incompetent if they’re trying – if they’re proactive, like Wiley Coyote.

Flaws and handicaps

A handicap is something the character is stuck with and won’t get rid of, but learns to deal with. It’s not just physical limitations like being blind; it can be something like having a family you don’t want to endanger, or having been brought up by Muggles and not knowing things you should already know, or having OCD like Monk.

A flaw can be overcome. It’s something that might be the character’s own fault. Examples are arrogance or shyness. It causes the character trouble in the story, and they may learn from it and overcome it. Flaws make the character sympathetic because it makes them more like us.

Getting to know your character

Dossier method – questions you ask about your own character. You need to develop this for yourself, based on what’s meaningful to you. There are lots of examples from other writers out there. Answering these questions is a structured brainstorm to develop your characters. You can also brainstorm with friends to get yourself thinking.

Character monologue – if you’re a discovery writer, you can try writing a directed monologue like have the character write about their great passion in life.

What you’re trying to figure out is this: Before the story begins and the plot grabs them and carries them along, who is the character? What have they done with their life, what do they care about, what do they want? Stories that seem flat are usually because the character was built to suit the plot and doesn’t seem to have another life.

Figuring out the characters is how you figure out what the conflict is going to be, and what needs to happen in the plot. For example – if the character doesn’t fit the role they’ve been put in, like the wise mentor is actually the villain, or the loyal sidekick has to take over as the chosen one, this can drive the plot. Another example – what’s the character’s deep, dark secret? Hiding this or having it come out can drive the character arc that drives the plot. What goes wrong in their life, and why can’t they have what they want? Good characters change in some way over the course of the story, with a few exceptions like Miss Marple.

Character motivation is critically important and it’s the subject of another lecture.





Brandon Sanderson 318R #1

The talented and prolific author Brandon Sanderson teaches a class on writing science fiction and fantasy at BYU, and generously posted – or allowed someone to post – videos from one entire 13-week class on YouTube. He also has an ongoing podcast he does with other authors. I recommend watching and listening for yourself! Below are my notes from the class. Link to class on YouTube

Class #1: Course Overview

This session introduces the goals and philosophy for the course, and provides some specific guidance on writers’ groups. The course as a whole will cover plotting, creating likable characters, world building, and the business of being a writer. The goal is to give you tools you can try out and see what works for you – a writer’s toolbox. There’s no one right way to write. Listen to other writers talk about their style and think of it not as “this is what I should do” but just consider trying it out and see what the tool does for you in a given story.

Discovery writers versus outline writers

Discovery (gardener, pantser) writers like Stephen King tend to know their characters really well. They often don’t do a lot of world building in advance but may explore it in notes as they go along when something becomes important. Their first draft is their outline. They then go back and revise, sometimes even rewrite from scratch. Watch out for endless loops – when you write chapter 2, you find you need to change stuff in chapter 1, which necessitates more changes in chapter 2, and so it goes. Keep moving forward and get it finished first.

Outline (architect, plotter) writers like Orson Scott Card tend to meander less and have better endings. Watch out for world builder’s disease – when you can’t start writing till it’s all perfect in your head. A professional writer needs to complete at least one book a year. Almost every outline writer uses the outline as a changing skeleton, modifying as they go along.

Writers aren’t all one or all the other, but more 75/25 or 25/75. Sanderson “discovery writes” his characters but outlines his plot.

Science fiction and fantasy

Genre fiction means any story that fits in a particular section in the bookstore. The tropes of your genre are useful tools but they don’t define the genre. SF/F can be anything you want – literary, humorous, romance, adventure. It’s your job to say “what is it about vampires/rocket ships that makes people interested, what kind of emotion is it going to evoke in my readers” and go beyond the superficial.

Writing as a professional

The odds of becoming a professional writer aren’t as impossible as people think. You’ll have to spend 10 years of your life producing a novel a year to hone your craft and get a chance that the job will pan out (this is about 6 hours a week at 500 words an hour, which is a typical pace). Out of the 22 people in a writing class Sanderson was in, 5 are now professionals, including 3 who are full-time. His own job is more stable than his friends in the computer industry who have changed jobs multiple times.

On the other hand, never feel guilty about writing as a hobby. If you went out and played basketball once a week, nobody would expect you to go into the NBA. Writing is good for you, just like playing basketball is.

Write what you wish was out there – what you would want to read.


Workshopping helps you perfect your book, and can have other benefits – networking via his writer’s group put Sanderson in touch with the Tor editor who published his first book. (Tolkien and CS Lewis were in a writing group.) However, the group needs to be managed. Sanderson says writing groups will try to ruin your book. The biggest problem is when discovery writers workshop pieces that aren’t finished yet. “This is great, what if you did this?” and suddenly your story goes a totally different direction. People will hijack your story. You’ll end up writing to the wrong audience: the writing group.

What works for him is a weekly, in-person meeting, with writers who have a similar pace and are at about the same level.

  • Giving advice?
    • Be descriptive instead of prescriptive – “I was confused here” not “I know what you should do here;” “I was bored here” not “You should add an action sequence here.” Your editor’s job is to be prescriptive – they know what kind of book you’re trying to write, and how to bring it out.
    • Stay positive. List the positive things in a piece before getting to what’s bothering you. Prevents the writer from taking out the good stuff. “I loved this character’s voice.” “I laughed out loud here.”
    • Discuss. If someone else says they were bored on page 2 but it was something you really liked, speak up; you should talk about why each of you had those reactions. It could be a pet peeve for one member of the group, or it could be legitimate. If three people think a joke fell flat, that could show it’s a problem; if one thinks that and five like it, it’s probably that one person.
    • Drop it. Learn to say you’ve had your say about it and the writer has heard you, and leave it alone.
  • Being workshopped?
    • Be quiet. Avoid saying anything at all! Don’t defend yourself, don’t explain yourself. Treat your writing group like a test audience for a movie. You want to get the fly on the wall feedback.
    • Don’t argue. You can ask questions at the end if you need something explained more, but let them talk it out first.
    • If you’re a discovery writer, write the whole book first, and then workshop that one while you’re working on something else.
    • Consider the feedback and make changes when the comments bring up things that are important for your story. He usually takes about a third of the comments he receives and makes changes based on them.

Sanderson didn’t mention the need to develop a thick skin, but he did say that the people who like his books least are his writing group friends, because they only read his first drafts. The writing group doesn’t get your best stuff.

I plan to keep on with this class and post my notes as I finish each session. Have you watched this? Please share your thoughts in the comments!