Brandon Sanderson—Writing Things

I went to see Brandon Sanderson at the Tattered Cover in Denver.

You know, the guy who finished the Wheel of Time series and wrote Mistborn and forty-four other novels. He’s sort of the James Patterson of fantasy literature except Brandon actually writes his books and has a powerful, simple prose (as opposed to just simple). Maybe Stephen King would be a better comparison?

Brandon focused his lecture on failure and the difficulty of transferring nebulous ideas into physical writing. Although he was here to sell Skyward, the nucleus of the night was how his failed attempt at a novel in 2002 became Way of Kings.

A few of his best bits (paraphrased o’ course):

  • “You create beautiful stories in your head. Then sit down and what comes out is awful and dreary and miserable and flawed. You don’t know what to do, and feel dumb because you’ve been learning how to write since Kindergarten. You worry that you’re screwing up something wonderful.”
  • “I’m here to tell you there’s creation in destruction. And good stories from patience.”
  • “Sometimes you need to write the imperfect story. Reach into the stars and reveal their ugly flaws. You won’t get the story you’re searching for. But someday later, you’ll reach back, and give your brain something to fix.”
  • “The more you write, the more you identify plot archetypes, and separate archetypes from trappings. I’m not dismissing other writers, just different directions. Only when I’m stumped do I go to others. Otherwise, I use my instincts and systems. Going from premise to outline to drafting. Keeping that careful balance between determination and discovery.”

 

Markus Zusak—Writing Things

I went to see Markus Zusak (of Book Thief fame) read from his latest novel, Bridge of Clay.

Zusak wore a cream sweater and thin black pants—a mix of charm and casual. He had a surprising Australian monotone with which he delivered an arras of anecdotes and advice. From a story about his life (basically, Zusak manipulated his brother to crack an egg on his forehead), he drew five key points:

  1. “Stories from your life are the easiest place to start.”
  2. “There were two levels to my story. On the top—the switching of the egg. Underneath was the backstory. About hating my brother. About my Dad’s gruff exterior. Know what happened to the characters before they show up.”
  3. “I include small details like sitting on paint cans and the crack of the egg not because I can picture it, but because as a writer I can do simple things well, so people will believe.”
  4. “The best moment was supposed to be my brother smacking himself with an egg. But the best reaction was when my Dad said, ‘Brilliant.’ The unexpected is what helps story.
  5. “I’ve told this story a thousand times. It’s been work-shopped.”

After reading a portion of his new novel, Zusak went to interview questions. I’ve collected the best of his answers:

  • “It’s often the little things in books that are true.”
  • “Writing is a mountain with a sandpit at the top and if you can get there you can play.”
  • “Coffee is good.”
  • “Don’t network or latch onto other writers or form a club. The key attribute to writing is you need to be sitting alone. A lot.”
  • “It’s not about being better or worse than others. Write books only you can write.”
  • “More often than not the author did intend the meaning. I put it there for a reason. But also the more depth you put in, the more there is to find. The connections and relations.”

And my favorite bit:

  • “Absolutely no one encouraged me to be a writer. My teachers didn’t think I could write. Parents didn’t know. I just knew what I wanted, that I was most alive when I was reading or writing. I never won a contest, never published. I bet everything on my book, and endured eight years of rejections. You don’t have to be encouraged. No one has to believe in you. You can do it, you just have to really, really want it.”

Kathleen Glasgow, Library Luminary

Kathleen Glasgow (of Girl in Pieces fame) swung by my school to speak about the dark places she’s been and the dark things she’s written.

Glasgow wore a black coat, a shirt reminiscent of prison bars, thick glasses, the kind writers wear. I felt bad for her. The air was insufferable. This time of year, Colorado has a pattern of snow days, but today the sun was out, the streets glaring, and the school hadn’t lowered the thermostat.

When she started, I thought she was about to ask if anyone had read Girl in Pieces. Instead, Glasgow asked, “Have you ever lost someone?”

So many students put up their hands.

“Do you know someone who self harms?”

More hands.

From there, her lecture sought to answer the question: What do you do with pain? With darkness? With feelings that hurt?

As you may not know, I’m a high school teacher, so I had to smile at my colleagues’ faces when Glasgow spoke about low grades, perpetual truancy, her expulsion and GED, drugs, alcohol, an early career at Wienerschnitzel and Jack-in-the-Box. And when she muttered “shit” into the microphone. Not exactly the narrative we impress on students.

Now, while she may not be a model of academia, to the nation of women falling and failing and hiding scars under long sleeves, Kathleen Glasgow is an avatar of hope—a sign that art and literature and the wondrous act of creation can salvage scraps, can save the soul.

But the answer wasn’t only art. It was the act of honesty. Of unwinding and expressing the truth without romance. “I write books for people who think help me help me help me,” Glasgow told us. “But say I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine.”

“People tell you—you’ll get over it, you’ll heal. Not true. You go on with the weight of that trauma for the rest of your life. You learn to be with it.”

“If I’m not going to be open about it, who’s going to be open about it?”

Her final piece of advice to the assembled classes, freshmen to senior, was this:

“Do not self-censor. Always believe in the story burning inside you. Write it. Rewrite it. Read as much as you can. Reading assists your sense for story, teaches structure. And never, never be afraid of the things you want to say.”

Formatting Elder Gods

lovecraft_god_dialogue

As a writer, how do you format the dialogue of an elder god?

This was the problem I faced while writing “The Elegy of Entrails,” a Lovecraft lovefest set on an extraterrestrial world.

Quotation marks felt too petty. You don’t say “What’s up?” to Cthulhu and expect “Not much” in return. Sure, the gods in Homer’s The Illiad speak like anyone else, but what about those things beyond existence? Creatures more dream than meat?

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Carl Sagan on Books

François Boucher. Madame de Pompadour. 1756, oil on canvas, Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

Literacy is one of the great tools of civilization. Etymology is one aspect of this tool. Your ability to read my writing—another. The moral imagination invoked is a third. Unfortunately, writing is a recent invention—we’re still getting used to it. As Sagan notes in The Demon-Haunted World (335):

For 99 percent of the tenure of humans on earth, nobody could read or write. The great invention had not yet been made. Except for firsthand experience, almost everything we knew was passed on by word of mouth. As in the children’s game “Telephone,” over tens and hundreds of generations, information would slowly be distorted and lost.

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Perrine on Escape and Interpretation

The first question to ask about fiction is, Why bother to read it?

Rembrandt van Rijn. Scholar in His Study. 1634, oil on canvas, National Gallery in Prague, Czech Republic.

Laurence Perrine, an English professor whose Sound and Sense textbook series was immensely popular, splits literature between escape, which helps us “pass the time agreeably,” and interpretive, “written to broaden and deepen and sharpen our awareness of life” (3). Escape and interpretation are not “two great bins, into… which we can toss any given story” but a scale with each inhabiting opposite ends (4).

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Failed—Desmorious

Every writer has several projects initiated with gusto, abandoned with reluctance. My first was a forty-page novel in middle school—a Lord of the Rings knock-off called The War of the Bowl. In high school, my friend Jon Ying and I devised a western desperadoes-and-dragons webcomic called Dustbound. In college, I wrote rough drafts and buried them in the rough. Even now, as I revise my novel, I fear its future in a back-folder on Dropbox.

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