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!