I’m currently taking a fiction writing class from Brandon Sanderson, and over the next few months I will be posting some of the best advice I’ve received from the class as well as my own perspective on writing. By the end of the class, I will have written at least 35,000 words of a new work of fiction. As of today, I am 3% of the way there.
Brandon’s path-to-success story is a crazy one involving his mom, who wanted him to become a doctor, a night shift job at a hotel where he wrote books, a period stalling for success in writing by going to grad school, and, once he had achieved success, a phone call asking him to finish a best-selling author’s series for him. It’s not much of a model, but it does hold one key writing lesson for me: Persistence.
Persistence is key to writing. The fact of the matter is that writers write. All the time. I have been better at this in some epochs of my life than in others. NaNoWriMo is a great way to give yourself motivation, though it always seems to fall in the busiest time of the school year as everyone ramps up for finals. Brandon believes that the odds of becoming a published writer are not as dire as you think. Maybe one in a million people writes a book, but it’s more like one or two in ten get published when the writing is quality writing, according to Brandon.
The key to good writing, besides persistence, Brandon says, is what he calls learning to be a chef and not a cook. He does a good job covering this concept in his lecture on YouTube. The idea rests on having a collection of writing tools at your disposal that allow you to make purposeful decisions in your writing and navigate effective course corrections rather than blindly following a story-writing recipe. This strongly resonates with my own opinion of what makes good art good, as I mention in my essay “The Double-decker Couch”.
So writing is about purposeful choices and learning to manage your personal strengths and weaknesses. Most people tend to define their writing style along a continuum from Outlining to Discovery Writing. I tend to fall on the Outlining end of the continuum (as do Orson Scott Card and Brandon himself), while authors like Stephen King tend to be on the Discovery Writing end of the spectrum. Neither is wrong or right, but both of tendencies. Below I provide Brandon’s list from class of strengths and weaknesses:
- Love planning their story, sometimes so much that they never begin writing
- Tend to write dynamic endings
- Suffer from cardboard characters who move through a plot like chess pieces
- Don’t like revising.
- Prefer a “let’s see where it goes” approach
- Write dynamic characters whose decisions drive the story
- Get stuck in revision loops as they keep discovering new ideas
- Struggle with endings.
These lists are, of course, general, and almost no one is purely one way or the other. The important thing is figuring out where you fall on the spectrum. Know your style. For example, I tend to be an Outliner when it comes to major plot progression, but tend to discover my characters as they go. This means I have to make course corrections to my outline as my characters make choices that fit them.
Overall, from my first day of class with Brandon, I was impressed by his genuine good humor and his exhaustive knowledge of science fiction and fantasy as genres. Stay tuned for more tips on writing next week. Until then, remember: be persistent, be a chef, know your style, and write, write, write!
Read week two here.