Brandon Sanderson is one of my favourite fantasy writers, hands down.
His stories are often fast-paced, action-packed with wonderful worlds and superb magic systems. I remember when I first finished reading Mistborn (later subtitled 'The Final Empire'), I wanted to pick it up and read it again. Right there. At 2 am on a work night.
I didn't, but I was damn close.
Back to the topic - magic. In fantasy fiction, and any fiction that messes with reality, the way a writer uses magic is vital to a sense of wonder and (partly) suspension of disbelief. If we as readers don't come to believe that whatever magic the writer uses is within the realms of possibility (for that world) in some way, we can have trouble buying into the story.
Over the years Brandon has written a few essays on what he feels make up a great magic system. They're incredibly useful - if you're in the joyous stage of creating a world, have a read right away. I not only found the essays useful in establishing complex magic systems, but the first law especially, assisted me in realising that I wanted my magic in City of Masks to be more of a 'Soft' system as Brandon terms it in the First Law essay.
Check em out - I've posted a quote from each, but it's forty-hundred thousand times better to read the whole thing.
AC: Before its release, on your website you provided a teaser for your Skylords series, and outlined your plans to make the books appeal to both younger and older audiences. Did you feel a certain amount of trepidation in pitching a work for a younger audience?
JM: A little bit, yes, because I’d never done it before and wasn’t sure where to begin. I’d wanted to write a crossover book for a long time, something that would appeal to younger readers as well as my usual readers, and the ideas in Skylords seemed particularly appropriate for that. But I knew I had to retool the way I’d been doing things. All of my previous books were very long, and I knew that wouldn’t work. I also had to reintroduce myself to the classic three-act structure of story-telling. I didn’t want the story to meander all over the place. This is something I’m trying to address in all my writing, in fact. I know some readers love big books, but maybe what they like is actually the “bigness” of the story. The trick is keeping that epic feel while moving the story along at a brisk pace.
AC: How did you go about addressing the different readership you hope to attract with Starfinder? It could be argued that traditionally, if something was written for youth, then it was not to be entertainment alone. It would also have to educate, and often, shelter them from certain themes and topics (I’m thinking Disney). Have this been a pressure for you? Are you censoring yourself in anyway?
JM: I never thought of the word “censoring” before. I think I’m trying to control myself more. I do think juvenile and YA fiction should educate, but then I think all fiction should, at least to a degree. I want it to hold a mirror up to the reader’s face and get them thinking. That’s what attracted me to YA in the first place, because when it’s done well it nails that element in a way a lot of books for older readers doesn’t. I’m not talking about being preachy, and you don’t have to shelter younger readers. They’ve got TVs and the web and they’ve already seen it all.
AC: Starting a new series often requires an entire new world, histories, cultures and geography, a labour intensive process for many. Do you find it tempting to stay in an existing world you’ve created, in terms of efficiency, or is world-building something you enjoy?
JM: I don’t think of myself as a world-builder, actually. I feel like I do just enough world building to make the story happen. The details kind of build on themselves as the story progresses, and by the end of the book you’ve got a world! It’s never really tempting for me to stay “comfortable” in a world I’ve already created, though. I like to move on to new things. What I like about writing a book isn’t one thing like world-building or creating characters—it’s the whole thing, seeing it all come together and start to breathe.
AC: In Starfinder you’ve incorporated ‘budding technologies’ into your new world. Readers often treat generic conventions in a very inflexible manner – something either ‘is’ or ‘isn’t’ fantasy/SF/romance etc unless it has or doesn’t have ‘X’ or ‘Y.’ What kind of lines, if any, are you drawing around the science in the book, in order to maintain a certain genre?
JM: Okay, in my previous answer I said there wasn’t one particular thing I loved about creating a world, but now you’ve hit on something. The one thing I love to do, probably more than anything else, is mix up technologies in my books. All of them have some anachronistic quality to them. In Tyrants and Kings, for instance, the armies use weapons like sword and bows, but they also have flame cannons and impossibly powerful warships and poison gas and other things. In Skylords, we have a world just on the edge of an industrial revolution, with the first flying machines and steam trains and gaslights, and it’s pressed right up against a fairy world without technology at all.
There are some limits though, in that it all has to somehow make sense. If there’s going to be that kind of technology in a book, it has to be weaved into the backstory. There has to be a reason why it exists.
AC: Skylords has a focus on younger characters. Are there any unique challenges facing you in respect to characterisation, as compared to writing about adults?
JM: Definitely. For one thing I’m a lot older than any teenager who might pick up the book, so sometimes it’s hard for me to remember what being that young is like. But there are emotions that everyone feels, and that’s what I concentrate on—making an emotional connection with the reader. I don’t write about breaking up with a girlfriend or boyfriend because that’s not what I’m about these days. So I have to write about things that interest me, and then make them appealing to my readers by giving the characters a sense of wonder.
Thanks for reading, hope you enjoyed - and thanks once again to John for giving such great responses! Here's some links if you missed Part 1 or Part 2.
AC: Count Biagio, a favourite of mine from Tyrants and Kings, is a great example of a character with contradictions, but also, a character who almost completely changes himself for the better. That’s a big step and a hard transformation to convey in writing. How did you do it? Did you always plan for him to have such a positive epiphany?
JM: It’s funny, but Biagio keeps popping up in my conversations with people, even though it’s been a number of years now since I wrote about him. Of all the characters I’ve done, he is by far the most popular with readers. That said, not everyone was thrilled with the transformation he underwent. In the first Tyrants and Kings book Biagio is introduced as a villain. There’s no question of that. But as the next two books progress he develops, and his past is revealed more and more. I didn’t think much about how he would develop when I first created him. But by the second book I knew that he would have to be redeemed. There was just too much to him not to see the “good” in him. People who read my books probably know that I always do that with characters.
AC: Is it hard as a writer to punish the ‘good’ people in your stories?
JM: No. I say that with a smile on my face. I really don’t mind “punishing” my characters, as you say, because that’s what makes a book interesting. Whenever something unexpected happens to a character I like to imagine what the reader will feel when they reach that point of the story. For example, I don’t mind killing off characters, but when I do I always stop for a moment and wonder what it will be like for the readers. Hopefully it will surprise them. It might even upset them, and that’s okay too. I’ve gotten many emails from readers complaining about the death of a character they loved. But no one has ever written to me to say they stopped reading once a character was killed. They keep on going because they are emotionally involved.
AC: How about you, how emotionally involved do you get with your characters?
JM: Sometimes people are disappointed to hear this, but I don’t get very involved emotionally with my characters. I try to have empathy for them, and I try to bring them to life, but in the end they are figments. The real importance that they have is the lessons that they can teach. If they make me think of things in a new way, or if they somehow touch a reader, then I’m happy.
AC: While writing is a laborious, energy-sapping career, it is possibly the most rewarding too. Does most of your joy come from the process? Or in the finished product?
JM: That’s a tough question. I want to say that I love the process. I do, in fact, like it a lot. It’s extremely satisfying work for me, because it’s something I dreamed of doing for years and now that I get to earn a living as an author I appreciate it. But really there is nothing like going into a book store and seeing your book on the shelf. And there’s nothing like getting that first copy from your publisher, about a month before the book hits the stores. When you hold that book in your hand, all of the hard work falls away and you are left with a deep feeling of accomplishment. So, although this probably sounds like a cop-out, I like all of it, the whole package. To me, being a writer is the best job in the world.
AC: What kind of time do you invest in a single book, from inception to the moment it comes off the press, and then after? Do you spend a lot of time travelling to promote your novels?
JM: A book usually takes me about a year to write. Usually I have some ideas for it even before I start outlining. While I am working on a book, the next one is gestating in the back of my mind, so by the time I start actually actively working on it I have a pretty good idea of what I want to accomplish with it. Outlining takes me about two months. Then, depending on the length of the book, I have another ten months to write it. Lately I’ve been going long with my books so they’ve taken more than a year. But a year is enough time for me, generally.
I haven’t travelled at all to promote my novels. It’s just not something that interests me all that much. I love speaking with my readers, and I have been invited to speak at a number of book stores, but so far I haven’t taken up any of these offers. I’m sure I will in the future, because I’m starting to get the itch to get in touch with more of my fans. We’ll see how that plays out.
AC: Do you think the Internet has helped keep a lot of writers at home?
JM: I don’t know how other writers feel about it, but for me the Internet has helped tremendously. It’s fantastic being able to look something up quickly without having to drive to a library. The Internet can be a ghetto sometimes, overrun with people trying to make quick money, but if you dig you can still find gold in it.
Find Part One of the interview here and stay tuned for Part Three
John Marco is an American SF/F writer, author of many books including one of my favourite trilogies, Tyrants and Kings. The first book, the Jackal of Nar is ace. Check it out.
John was generous to give up a lot of his time for this interview. It's actually one I did years ago and so John has been up to a lot more since we spoke. Have a look - John's also an entertaining blogger who you can visit here at The Happy Nerd.
Now, be kind when you read my questions, some are a little...unpolished, but John's answers are all fascinating!
Stick around, as Part Two is up tomorrow, Part Three the day after.
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Ashley Capes is an Australian writer of fiction, poetry and very occasional non-fiction.
Imperial Towers (Never Book 5) - draft 1
Moss Dragon - draft 1
Reed Lavender (working title) - draft 1
Unnamed Spec Fic - draft 1
Whisper of Leaves (sequel) - Outline