In July, I had the opportunity of a lifetime. A friend of mine, Darci Rhoades Stone, whom I met at the Writers of the Future workshop in April (and the Grand Prize winner of Writers of the Future Vol. 34), invited me to attend Brandon Sanderson’s private writing group while I was vacationing in Utah.
Now, let me preface this invitation with a little bit about my Sanderson history. I first saw a Brandon Sanderson book my freshman year of college…
The year was 2008 and I was quickly passing through the BYU Bookstore, a shortcut to class from my on-campus job. Elantris laid cover-up with other stacks of books at the entrance. I had perused those stacks a number of times, being an avid reader and time-waster. Each time, I’d studied that cover. You know the one: a woman with long black hair looking over her shoulder toward majestic buildings, a glowing orb of white near her head, a man in red armor in the shadows behind her.
Again and again, I’d picked it up and decided against it. Why? Because I didn’t read that “fantasy stuff.”
Not yet, anyway.
Fast forward a year, several Tamora Pierce series, some Garth Nix, and a few Sherwood Smith’s–all from my roommate’s collection. I asked her, what next? Guess what she handed me. Yup, Elantris. That same paperback edition with the woman looking over her shoulder.
I took it smiling, realizing, it’s time.
…That seeded an ongoing affair with Sanderson’s books–Legion to Shadows Beneath and Alcatraz to Oathbringer. Oh, and The Rithmatist! And The Emperor’s Soul! And Sixth of the Dusk… You get the point. I’m also a fair hand at proselyting and have converted at least three people to the cause of Sanderson.
Now, why talk about my beginnings with the man’s books? To help you understand, I am a fan.
I am a big fan.
I’d already met Brandon two other times. Hell, he handed me my trophy at the Writers of the Future Contest Gala. I took pictures with the guy! But I’m a complete moron when it comes to socializing–it’s a social anxiety extravaganza topped off with an adrenaline rush and a dopey grin. But now I’m getting ahead of myself–
The first time I met Brandon Sanderson was at his Oathbringer book-signing in Houston (you can read about that adventure here) at Murder by the Book. I’d never attended a book signing before. I’d never met a hero before.
My number in the cue is surprisingly low. Fans pack the store–avid fans dressed up as Shallan, a guy with a windrunner First Ideal tattoo, people with little wagons of books… I hold Oathbringer, Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians, and my Kindle in my hands. Imposter Syndrome kicks in–am I really a fan?
Panicked monologue: What do I do? What do I say? What does he expect of me? Should I just do what any huge fan is expected to do? Should I gush? I could gush, but will that be awkward? I don’t want to be awkward. I hate awkward.
My turn for him to sign. I hand him my kindle and a silver marker, Oathbringer beneath it. “Could-you-sign-it-‘See-you-in-LA’-I’m-with-Writers-of-the-Future-and-you’re-going-to-be-there-right?” Breathe. Stare at my kindle as he signs. He pauses. Looks at me.
HE’S LOOKING AT ME!
“You’re a winner?” he asks.
I nod, smiling at the damn kindle because I can’t look him in the eye.
“Cool. I won’t be judging the grand prize anymore because one of my friends won one of the quarters.” He hands me my kindle.
I stare at the kindle in my hands, the silver autograph. My husband replies to him for me because I’m already walking away staring at my kindle. I nearly forget to say goodbye: “Uh, thanks-bye-take-care-see-ya-later,” I tell my kindle. Nervous laugh. My legs are jello. I’m already kicking myself for being a doofus.
But there’s the gala, I tell myself. You’ll do better at the Gala.
Six months later, I took press release photos with Brandon before the Gala began. I’d seen him interacting with the other winners a few times, but I hadn’t had the nerve to approach him. I can debate abortion with Kevin J. Anderson but not say “hi” to Brandon Sanderson. *face palm*
We’re standing with frozen smiles while the press snaps photos.
The conversation goes something like this:
Me: Sorry I haven’t approached you. I’ve been too nervous to say anything.
Brandon: Oh. Ha. Ha.
Brandon: So, you went to school where I teach?
Me: Yeah. Actually, my winning story was one I originally wrote for my Creative Writing class at BYU.
Brandon: Oh, really? Who was your teacher?
Brandon: Huh, I’m not familiar with her.
End of pictures. Brandon and I look at each other. A moment, a chance to continue the conversation.
Say anything, Amy. ANYTHING!
He turns away and that’s the end of the single conversation I had with him during the entire week-long workshop. One of the most successful fantasy writers of my time, and I turn into the awkwardest awkwardork (not a word, but it should be) in the world. Lame.
Now, why tell you of my failed social interactions with Brandon Sanderson? One, because I’m able to look back on them and laugh now. Mostly. Two, because this invitation meant something more than meeting a hero again.
It meant Redemption.
So, my husband and I arrived at Brandon’s house punctually on the designated Friday night (even though I’d never been punctual in my life, I would be punctual to this meeting). We’d determined to set aside our fan-selves (my husband is an even bigger fan of Sanderson than I am) and be on our most professional behavior. No pictures. No autographs (not even for family). And most especially, no gushing.
After knocking, his wife Emily took us over to the house next door–a home they’d recently purchased and converted into a next-door office. Brilliant! Not only that, but they’d dubbed it the “Cosmere House.” Just know, it’s A.W.E.S.O.M.E.!
Brandon was already there with a few of his cohort, prepping the snacks and getting comfortable for the evening. Brandon introduced us to his writing group, many of them longtime associates from his college years, many of them current employees of Brandon’s company, some of them family, all of them involved in the writing industry to one extent or another. With nods and hellos, my husband and I settled down at the dining table with our treats.
I fought the temptation to bury my face in my treats like a little hamster and decided to put my best professional I’m-not-intimidated-by-any-of-this foot forward. (I very much relate to Shallan in The Stormlight Archives–give me a role to play and I’m fine.) I dove into a conversation about the current state of publishing and where Brandon saw it going. I’d recently taken a workshop on the publishing business with Dave Farland (you can read about that adventure here) and brought up Dave’s opinion that traditional publishing might disappear in the next decade. That elicited and interesting conversation about traditional publishing versus independent publishing.
For those interested, Brandon’s opinion was traditional publishing will continue to seek out potential bestselling authors. They’ll keep those that sell and let go those who don’t. Those who don’t sell will then turn to indie publishing to maintain and cultivate any following they gained after being traditionally published. Brandon and Peter, his personal editor and right-hand man, felt any changes indie publishing could make to the publishing industry had already been made.
With the gasps and eye rolls indie publishing continues to elicit in the industry, it’s hard to imagine. Has a state of equilibrium already been reached?
I was surprised to discover Peter is Brandon’s personal editor and all-things-done-well person, so I asked how Brandon’s company interacts with his traditional publishers. I learned a lot. I won’t go into it here because some of it was complex and some of it was private, but needless to say, Brandon is very involved in the running of his company, Dragonsteel. He knows his employees, contracts, investments, partners–he’s involved in everything. Not only that, his wife is his COO, and it’s not just a courtesy title. Emily took us on a tour of the Cosmere House before we left, and she manages all the details of what goes on there.
I’d had this image in my mind of the solitary writer who only knows writing. He’s devoted to his art and has no time or interest in other pursuits. A friend or family member manages the minutiae of everything else. Honestly, I’d assumed Emily played that part. Instead, Brandon is very much invested in Dragonsteel and not only knows the business end of the writing industry, but actively participates in it. This was a big revelation to me.
Lesson learned: Successful writers don’t just write. They do business too, and they do it well.
Other conversations followed, things like, what’s big in the fanfiction world (apparently, Purge and One Direction mashups), favorite mangas and animes, and new movies. Then, when everyone arrived, we dove into critiques.
First, a regular member’s piece. Thanks for going first, Al!
The format for feedback was simple. The writer could not offer explanation or argument until the end. We began with positive comments and went around the circle, like the way popcorn might, to give each person an opportunity to comment. Next came the criticism. There was a loose order to the process. Many, myself included, interjected questions, or agreement/disagreement, or a demand for clarification amidst other people’s comments. But, by the end, everyone had an opportunity to add more comments or declare themselves finished. After the critiques, the writer had the opportunity to ask questions, offer explanations, and/or defend him/herself.
The nature of the format demands a large amount of tact and consideration from the group. It would be very easy to discourage someone with the sheer volume of criticism. Luckily, disagreements are a regular part of Brandon’s writing group, which eases some of the finality of the feedback.
Next was my turn. Brandon offered a preface–the group tended to be particularly hard on new people. Oh, goody… *grimace* I doubt you want to hear all that was said on my submission. Though, honestly, it received a better reception than I’d expected. It was the first chapter of a YA fantasy novel I’d started two years before, called “The First Wife.” It was still in first draft form.
The feedback was candid, sometimes controversial, and very helpful. As I noted, I wasn’t allowed to argue or give explanations during the rounds. It’s a solid writing group rule–and one I remind myself of regularly.
One of my favorite writing tips from Orson Scott Card’s website: You can’t explain things that aren’t in the text to an editor, so you should get out of the habit of explaining them anywhere else.
So, we proceeded through the circle, everyone offering their bits of encouragement and criticism. The final prognosis? Excellent world-building and an interesting premise, but too much internal exposition and not enough action or clear characterization. Brandon’s advice was that the first few chapters of a novel should establish the novel’s genre and possible subgenres, tone, character, setting (including world and time period), and technology level. Peter also mentioned, often the first few chapters establish the “normal” for the main character and then the inciting incident occurs to screw everything up. He cited Disney as the expert at this kind of opening, and I think for this story, it’s a good way to go. Brandon also reminded me (and several of the other writers agreed) that the first chapter is pretty much a throwaway chapter. It practically always gets rewritten.
Overall, it was an encouraging experience, and I realized how valuable a regular writing group would be. It’s one thing to receive a critique with simple notes and thoughts squeezed into the margins. It’s another to watch people discuss an issue or element, argue it, and agree or disagree on it. I could note specific issues that, when mentioned, nearly everyone confirmed. There were other issues nearly everyone disagreed with. Or, some people had expertise (like Peter’s linguistics and Al’s experience with Japanese culture) that came into play in their feedback, and I could take a moment to ask questions and get immediate responses.
Conclusion: A good writing group is far more efficient than other feedback methods.
Though, admittedly, there are dangers to a writing group that’s not as qualified as this one. Jane Friedman has a good article about that. Even this group mentioned an issue called “Writing Group Disease,” which referred to the unrealistic circumstances surrounding a writing group’s reading experience. Because chapters get broken up and read over months, writing group members don’t experience the book the same way a reader would, a reader that would like read it within a few weeks. It means that sometimes writing group members forget important details or mention issues resolved in later chapters. So, writing groups do have their own issues, as much as I gush about them being some sort of writing “cure all.”
After my turn, came the critique on Brandon’s current project. No, I will not reveal any inside information. No, not even a title. Not even a genre. All I will say is, I look forward to its completion and publication.
Writing group ended much as it began, with snacks and casual conversation. We discussed the current controversies on cultural appropriation, FanX, Brandon’s experiences leading a life of fame, the gossip on movies (and the buzz around Brandon’s newly minted movie deal), and it ended with me talking Mom-talk with several of the other women.
All sides of my nature embraced in one social gathering! What?
Oh, to have a writing group of this caliber! Online critique programs and critique swaps hardly compare with the sheer volume and quality of feedback, or the social reward, of a good writing group, and it’s both exciting, and bitterly disappointing, to realize.
As I was preparing to leave, one writing group member asked if I was going to be a new regular. I looked at the people around me, some familiar, some new, all interesting. My heart ached a little. If only…
My best hope is to cultivate a near equivalent in Texas. This writing group didn’t fall into Brandon’s lap–he nurtured it over years of writing and networking–so I shouldn’t expect one to just land in mine. So, hopefully with this experience in mind as my goal, I can cinch up my courage and get out there and meet other writers–even if it means being an awkwardork–and cultivate and contribute to something of this caliber.
P.S. Emily gave us a tour of the Cosmere House before we left. Two notes: One, the Cosmere House is a magical place. Two, I think Emily might be a kindred spirit.
I’d love to describe the house in detail–Emily is decorating each room according to the various worlds of the Cosmere, complete with weaponry (can I do that to my house, please!)–but it’s not quite done, and I don’t want to steal Emily’s thunder. I definitely look forward to hearing more about it. She also mentioned Brandon’s “secret lair,” an ongoing project complete with underground passage and deceptive gazebo. You’ll have to consult his newsletter to learn more about that. 😉
At the end of the night, I was able to take home a bonded-leather special edition of Mistborn: The Last Empire. Emily let me filch it (which, of course, isn’t actually filching, but it’s a great word) from their dent-and-scratch inventory. It’s perfect to me because that book, with its scratch on the cover, proves this adventure did actually happen.
*deep, satisfied sigh* Redemption is lovely.