On Reading your Writing Heroes – 3 Things I’ve Learned from Brandon Sanderson’s ‘Elantris’

About two years ago now I started listening to a podcast called Writing Excuses. I’ve been listening more and more regularly. It chimes with me; I can always find ways to relate their advice and reflections to my own work. Recently I’ve become a supporter through Patreon.

In particular I find many of Brandon Sanderson’s descriptions of his own writing process to be comfortingly familiar.

I’ve always thought the way I write is weird. Most people talk about writing their first drafts in a linear way, from start to finish, in chapters. I NEVER do that. Not only do I not write in order, I will radically re-organise what I write as I progress. I don’t even start to work out chapter breaks until way down the line.

Not only that, but most writers seem to agree revision is usually a process of cutting down and polishing, while I use rounds of early revision to add more material. A lot more. Sometimes doubling word count between my very first rough draft and the complete official first draft stage.

I worried that my process being so circular, so non linear, would handicap me as a writer. It didn’t sound like this was the way other people did it, so it must purely be a result of my inexperience. Something to be corrected. But hearing a successful, multi bestselling author like Sanderson talk about doing similar things has offered vindication of a sort. My process isn’t wrong; it’s the way my mind works. It’s the right method for me. It’s a labour intensive way of writing, granted, but I’m embracing and working with it now, rather than trying to resist it, and I think that has helped my productivity and confidence.

Cover art for Brandon Sanderson's Elantris 10th anniversary addition

This revelation came some time in Autumn 2017. At which point I also started checking out some of Brandon’s YouTube lectures, which again have been really helpful for my specific issues. I realised I was starting to consider this author one of my writing gurus and it struck me—with a certain amount of associated guilt—that I’d never actually read anything he’d written!

At this point I got weirdly nervous. What if I read one of his books and it didn’t work for me? What if I didn’t like my new writing guru’s style, or worse, I didn’t actually rate his writing? I’ve never felt so much personal investment in whether or not I liked a book before I’d even opened it.

But I shouldn’t have worried. I tore through Elantris in three days, even sneaking time to read at my the day job because I couldn’t put it down.

Vindication intact, and book finished, I reflected on what I could learn from it. Here’s three things I came up with:

1. Form serves function – Not the other way around

Elantris starts with three POV characters and each chapter has one POV. Most of the early chapters are of similar length – about 8-10 pages, and rotate through the characters in a regular order.

Brandon breaks every part of this format as you move through the book. Chapters vary in length down to as little as two pages and about half way through he starts allowing POV switches within chapters, using line breaks only. The regular order of the POV switches is discarded and during the finale he brings in several other POVs to cover the story from more angles.

Any sense of format established at the beginning is completely disregarded to serve what the story needs, and it works.

I really needed to learn this lesson. I’ve agonised about overly short or long chapters in Mime, setting myself upper and lower limits for chapter length and thus forcing myself to adapt the content to the format when I should have been doing the reverse. If a two page chapter is what best serves the content I should bloody well use a two page chapter.

2. I’m being overly harsh on myself regarding repetition

This is one of those things I have been highly conscious of in my current editing pass. I worry about using the same phrasing to describe people, returning to referring to people’s appearance or location appearance during scenes, or referring to the same attributes in multiple scenes.

Looking at the way Brandon handles this in Elantris I think maybe I’ve been too strict. One of the book’s strengths is the way it reinforces the pictures in your mind with tactical repetition.

3. You can build relationships between characters without interaction

Raoden and Sarene follow almost completely separate paths through the story. They don’t meet until nearly half way through the book, each unaware the other is part of the story. Yet there is an inevitability and anticipation of that moment that burns brightly.

I had no idea you could pace a romance subplot like that and I had never even considered that you could introduce and progress a romance sub plot any other way than having the two characters interacting with each other.

Mind. Blown.

It’s left me happier than ever about the decisions I’ve made about the romance sub plot in Mime and given me substantial food for thought about my other book baby, Hidden Talent (which is on the back burner for now).

With Hidden Talent, trying to pace the main action plot and the romance plot in parallel causes massive issues – the main plot feels under developed and the romance sub plot shoves a lot of important events into the back story all because I considered the point where Tom and Jackey “meet” HAD to be the start of the story and had to happen in ACT 1. That I could radically alter the pacing to allow the POV characters to lead separate paths until much later in the story opens a new door I’d never considered before.

Through that door I glimpse a far more mature and sophisticated version of the story I want to tell which gives my female MC far more agency. I like what I’m seeing.

Who are your writing gurus? What have you learned from them and how? Share your writing journey in the comments.

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