Brandon Sanderson Lecture


Things about being a writer… being published…

3 quick lessons, themes of this class.

1. Writing is NOT about inspiration.

2. Writing is NOT about ideas.

3. Writing is NOT about luck.

What is writing about then? Writing is about skill. Here, proof.

Metaphors. When someone sits down to play the piano, how quickly can you tell whether they’re a good pianist or not? Mm.. 2-5 notes? A minute or two of playing?

Editors, published writers, people who know what they’re doing, can do the same thing with one page of your writing in the exact same way. In one page, they can judge how good a writer you are.

People wonder how editors can just reject manuscripts, how readers can put something down after just one page when they haven’t given it a real shot. When you’ve read enough, when you know enough, you can judge if something whether something is going to work for you or not pretty quickly. Perhaps not as quickly as most editors can, but you’ll know.

So how do you develop this skill? PRACTICE. Inspiration, ideas, and luck are all important. But it’s not about those things.

Metaphor. Let’s say you’re a world-star batter. When you step up to the plate to hit that ball and you connect, is it inspiration, ideas, or luck? It’s skill. You have done that so many times that when you step up to swing, you know exactly what to do. It’s not a matter of luck. It’s a matter of having spent thousands of hours practicing how to do that.

One thing I’d like to encourage you to do: Start looking at writing as a little bit more of a performance art.

When you sit down to write, all that skill comes in to bear. Your mind will figure out the problems you’re trying to work through on the page, how to bring out the characters, how to create an engaging plot–all in interesting ways because it is natural to you.

We’ll break down writer’s techniques in this class, but realize that most of the time, writers are not sitting there consciously thinking about that method they’re using, much like a baseball player will not think “I need to bring the bat down at this trajectory, with this exact force.”

One of the primary questions young writers ask: Should I start with short fiction?

But what do you read more of? Short stories? Or novels? Back in the day, the answer would be YES, and it’s still a good way to get into the publishing market, but only if you’re good at it.

The problem is, they’re such different art forms that if you spent all your time practicing with the short story, and never with the novel–yet the novel is what you want to be doing, you’re doing yourself a bit of a disservice.


Ideas are usually cheap. Great ideas do not necessarily make a great book. While a certain quality of idea is important, a great writer is one who can take the most basic ideas and make a brilliant novel out of them. A terrible writer will take the best ideas in the world, and turn them into something terrible.

You shouldn’t have to worry about your ideas, you shouldn’t coddle your ideas or think a certain idea is The One and that, once you finish it, everything will be great. Instead, work with fresh things and teach yourself to write. THEN maybe you can do justice to the “magnificent idea you’ve been working on for ten years.”

You should not treat ideas as sacred things.

There’s a school of thought that says: writing is mystical. And the muse strikes you. Ideas pop out of your head like Athena and it’s like BOOOOKKKK. I don’t buy into this at all. Some days, it feels liek this and words flow, but it’s not the case. Some days, it’s pure drudgery. Like chopping wood. The thing is? With good writers, readers can’t tell the difference.

That’s because you wring the entire thing through the drafting process.


Discovery writers vs outliners

There is no one way you have to do this. Outlines and writing groups are tools. Some will work for you, and some won’t.

Discovery Writers: Work best when they don’t have a lot of structure. They tend to get bored with the book by the time they’re done with the outline and want to move on to something else. That, or they feel restricted, like their characters have no life because their lives are determined for them ahead of time.

George R. R. Martin is a discovery writer. He uses the term “gardener.” They are those who tend to grow their story. Not like the muse mumbo-jumbo. They view inspiration as important, but still are disciplines about working on their story every day. The inspiration comes, for them, only after a lot of hard work and sweat. It takes a long time. “Inspiration is not sitting at a wall until something clicks, it’s sitting and working until something clicks.” They do work best without an outline.

Outliners: “Architects.” If they just sit down in empty, open vastness to write a book, they have no idea where to go, and don’t ever get going. They work best when they know what their goal is. They see what they’re shooting for, and can build it step by step. They develop their sequence of events as an outline, as a map. They tend to have explosive endings that come together really well.

Orson Scott Card is a famous architect. He tends to spend months outlining, then will write the book in a matter of weeks because he’s done so much prewriting. Other people describe the book, almost as book proposals, in these long, run-amok sentences, then takes each sentence and expands that when he sits down to write the book. He’ll also record his ideas when he’s out hiking.

A lot of people tend to fall in one of these camps. You really don’t know which’ll work better for you in which situation until you try book.

Foibles & Follies

Discovery Writers: Tend to like to revise a lot. To get it just right before they’ll move on. They’ll write a chapter, edit it a few times, write the next chapter, then come back “Oh, now I know where my book is going.” They’ll rewrite the first chapter a couple times, then the second chapter another couple times, then go on to write the third chapter. They’ll go through this process endlessly. Generally need a kick to the head to keep going. What they’r really doing is writing a really long outline to their book–their revisions are usually pretty dramatic. Also: endings. Usually quit with “I guess it ends” endings. Need to learn how to write endings. They need to finish their book, give it to people to read, then brainstorm together for that ending.

Outliners: World-builders’ disease. Love building a setting, tweaking it. Spend 20 years building a world, but never writing the book. When they do finally write, they tend to rip through a first draft, throw it aside, then start on something new. That’s what he did, write 13 books before he sold one.

You’ll probably have attributes of both. He Outlines his settings, and Discovery Writes his characters. Problem is that his characters can’t have line-edit veto of the outline. His children’s books, he’ll just discovery write. Larger epics, series’, he’ll outline. A lot of discovery writers have one point on their outline: It Ends Here. Sometimes, that’s the most important thing. Some writers have a pretty strict structure, but give themselves some wiggle room so the story won’t lose its spontaneity.


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