This week I attended a book signing by Brandon Sanderson, author of the Mistborn Trilogy and the Stormlight Archives, and the man responsible for completing the late Robert Jordan’s legacy, the Wheel of Time. 

In the course of the evening he chose to share some of his writing process with us. I felt like I should have been taking notes and didn’t have anything to do it with! So if I’ve forgotten anything, or get something wrong, I do apologise to Brandon, who was so totally cool and awesome that he was still signing books at 10pm when I left and he’d been going for two and a half hours!

First off, how many drafts do you think you should do of your novel? I know some people think they can publish a first, second or third draft. Brandon talked us through some of his drafts:
  • Version 1 – This is the absolute first cut. Brandon tends to write each character arc from start to end independently, so at the end of this process the different points of view are not woven together.;
  • Version 2 – This is where the storylines are woven together, revisions done to make them fit and to correct continuity errors;
  • Version 3 – Brandon’s own line edit, where he focuses on sentence structure and polishing the prose. It then goes to his editor for his or her line edit;
  • Version 4 – After the line edit by his editor, it comes back to Brandon. Version 4 is working through the line edit and making corrections line by line;
  • Version 5 – this is beg revisions the editor asked for – new scenes and the like which have to be written from scratch. Then it goes back to the editor again.
It certainly made me feel better about the four versions I worked my way through on Deathhawk’s Betrayal last year. Out of curiosity, I asked him how many drafts he does total. The answer was a staggering twelvedrafts for a Wheel of Time book (the series is so monstrous the extra drafts are required for consistency) and eight drafts for his own works. So if you think one, two, or even three drafts is enough – think again!

It’s also worth noting that his drafts come back from his editor covered in red scribbles – this is always going to happen. If you don’t get your work back from an editor covered in scribbles, the editor is not doing their job.Even if you got most everything else right, an editor will look for passive language, the chance to use stronger verbs, and to improve specificity e.g. oak door instead of wooden door.

I know there are those out there who expect an editor to tell them how wonderful they are and not change anything, but I’m sorry, it’s never going to happen. If this is really how you feel, you might like to consider another career. Receiving feedback can always be a very demoralising experience, and Brandon admitted it is for him as well, but it’s part and parcel of the job and it’s never going to change, no matter how successful you are. Your job is to write. The editor’s job is to scribble all over your baby.

Interestingly enough, Brandon said one of his weak areas is his prose. He doesn’t have naturally beautiful prose, which I found completely amazing. While being lectured about editing and prose, I happened to be reading the Stormlight Archives and noticed Brandon’s style is very effective. I asked my editor and she said yes, he is virtually technically perfect. Apparently, though, that’s something he has to work hard at! So there is hope for me yet. 

One of his stronger points is characterisation and he says he often has to dial back the characterisation. I think the lesson here is balance, people! Work on your weaknesses and don’t let your strengths get so out of hand they take over. Too much of a good thing is bad. Everything in moderation!

Lastly, if you are a Wheel of Time fan, Brandon told us a little story about the death of Asmodean at the end of the Fires of Heaven. If you don’t know (and I didn’t) the killer is revealed in the glossary (of all places) of The Towers of Midnight. I’m not going to tell you under which entry, but I’ll wait while you check *taps foot impatiently*. If you really can’t find it, let me know.

Anyway, the reason behind putting it in the glossary is that when Robert Jordan’s notes were handed over to Brandon Sanderson, there was a post-it note stuck to one page which said simply ‘X killed Asmodean’. No how, or why, just the name of the killer. Because all these other details are lost with Robert Jordan, Harriet McDougal (Robert Jordan’s widow and editor) decided the details would only be disclosed in the glossary. Brandon did try to slip it into a scene but it was removed during editing.

I’m sure there were other pearls of wisdom but I’m afraid for the moment they have escaped me. 

I should also mention how cool Brandon is – Tuesday night he was free and he issued a Twitter invitation for people to go and play ‘Magic’ with him. Apparently that’s a card game. I would have gone along if I had any clue how to play, but my friend was most impressed he gave out his hotel like that. Definite cool points. 

Lastly a shout-out to @goddessmallie, whom I had the pleasure of meeting at the book signing. We waited 2.5 hours to have our books signed, with no phone reception, and therefore no Twitter I might add (AARGH!!!), and I’m sure we kept each other sane. 


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