Brandon Sanderson on Writing

If you write or read fantasy, you have definitely heard of Brandon Sanderson. If you’re interested in fiction, you’ve probably heard of him. He’s the guy that got tapped to finish Wheel of Time after Robert Jordan passed, and the author of a simply astonishing number of his own books. 

More recently, he did a Kickstarter campaign for four novels which raised over 40 million dollars. He hosts the Writing Excuses podcast, and teaches writing at the college level.

Put simply, the man knows writing, and he knows how to succeed as a writer. We’ve collected 12 of his most important and memorable quotes about the craft and business of writing. Some come from his podcast. Some come from his writing classes. Some come from his website, or social media, or just a random thing he said at a conference. All of them are worth paying some attention to. 

12 Brandon Sanderson Quotes on Writing

1. Nothing will train you better as a writer, than working on your next book. 

In the podcast he co-hosts, they refer to this concept as HOKBIC: “Hands On Keyboard; Butt In Chair”. A lot of writers find brilliant, resourceful ways to procrastinate ranging from reading another book on writing, to fine-tuning their desk, to taking a jog before getting to work. 

All of those things are important. None of them are as important as sitting down to write. 

2. It is very important to be reading as well as writing. A doctor is not going to ignore new surgery practices. 

If I had a dollar for every time I coached a writer, and found their first manuscript would have been great fifteen years ago, I’d have…a few dozen dollars. I wouldn’t be rich, but it’s common. Another famous writer, Lawrence Block, puts this another way. “If you don’t read in your genre, you will not succeed. Nor will you deserve to.”

Reading inspires us and keeps us abreast of the trends in our genre and industry. It’s not as important as writing to those of us who want to write for a living, but it’s the  second most important thing. 

3. You could be writing the book that changes your life. 

I’ve always really liked this one. It speaks directly to us as aspirational writers. Each of us has read a handful of books that changed the way we lived in the world, whether that was from an important lesson, or an inspiring line, or a character we really identified with. 

In this case, Brandon is reminding us about why we write — among other things, the potential to have written a book so good that we can just write for a living. This is something we sometimes lose sight of among all the demands of the craft and our life outside of writing. It’s good to be reminded of this from time to time. 

4. Start writing the things you are reading or that you want to be published doing. 

This is some of the best advice for beginning authors. Often, we get tempted to try wild ideas or to chase corner cases that seem great but are hard to execute. This simple reminder to stick to what we love, or what we want — especially at first — can keep us on the right path toward early success. 

Once we’ve sold some books, and have the spare time that writing income represents, we can get fancy or write that weird novel in the back of our heads. Until then, it’s good to stick to the basics. 

5. Your job as a practicing writer is to remember it’s never going to be perfect on your first pass. 

We’ve said something similar many times at Apex Authors: before you write a good book, you have to write a bad one. It’s extremely important to give ourselves permission to make mistakes, try new things, and especially to just get the ideas on the page even if they’re clumsy at first. 

This is the single best solution to writer's block that I’ve ever encountered. Just get the words out there. There’s time in later stages to make them beautiful. It's impossible to edit a blank page.

6. Novels aren’t just happy escapes; they are slivers of people’s souls.

This one is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s why we write and why we read. Through books, we connect with the writer’s hopes, dreams, struggles, ethics, morals, and way of living in the world. That connection is why we become fans, and why we love reading. 

On the other hand, it speaks to the courage you show every time you share your work with somebody. Our novels are a little piece of us, offered out to the world. When somebody leaves a 1-star review, or doesn’t bother to check it out, that can hurt. But that risk is part of the journey, and we can’t avoid it.

7. Learn the market.

Sanderson goes on to say “If you want to publish, check out the book Writer’s Market and start learning which publishers publish which books. Look in books by those publishers and see if you can find out which specific editor edited them, so that you can begin to learn who does what. You can often find the editor’s name in the acknowledgements.”

Writing is a weird industry because so many people who want to do it for a living fail to do even rudimentary research into who does what, and where they do it. I can tell you from many late night sessions with agents and editors that this drives them up a wall. If you’re the exception, you will stand out. 

8. Write your characters not to an archetype, but a motivation.

This is subtle but can be extremely powerful if applied correctly, and is probably the best defense against getting too tropey in our writing. Instead of writing the “brooding assassin” character, look first into why they became an assassin, and why they’re taking this job in particular. 

It’s a very good way to build vibrant characters, and to differentiate between any characters with similar roles or backgrounds. 

9. To be a successful writer, you need at least the following four things: persistence, revision, characters with distinct viewpoints, use of concrete detail.

What I love about this quote is how it covers four very different aspects of writing success. It talks about personal traits (persistence), process (revision), character (viewpoints), and exposition (detail). It’s not a complete list, but it really illustrates how only some of your success as a writer comes from actual writing. 

The only thing I would add is something about industry knowledge and involvement. 

10. The book is not a product of your writing time. YOU are a product of your writing time. 

I’m not certain I 100% agree with this, but there’s a spirit to it that’s enormously important. From a marketing and business standpoint, the book is your product. It is what you create and sell as a professional writer. 

On the other hand, this applies when you have a hard writing day. If you spend a week writing a chapter that doesn’t make it into the final draft, you have not wasted that week. You have spent that week honing your craft in ways that make all your other chapters better

11. Progress is often a series of small steps. 

Whether you’re writing a hard page, finishing your novel, or putting together the myriad pieces of a writing career, this is worth reminding ourselves on daily. We are doing a hard thing, that takes a long time, and it’s not just okay — it’s necessary — to celebrate the small steps as we complete them. 

12. Turn off your internal editor.

Sanderson goes on from this to say “Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, or even using the right words. If you can’t find the right words in the moment, go ahead and move on to get your story out. Sometimes things just don’t come out right when you start, try the next part, then the next, and so on.” 

This is a wonderful companion to the earlier quote about how it’s never going to be perfect on the first pass. Be as kind to yourself about your early drafts as you would to any of your friends.

One For the Road

I’d like to close with another favorite quote from Mr. Sanderson, which comes from his book Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians:

By now, it is probably very late at night, and you have stayed up to read this book when you should have gone to sleep. If this is the case, then I commend you for falling into my trap. It is a writer's greatest pleasure to hear that someone was kept up until the unholy hours of the morning reading one of his books. It goes back to authors being terrible people who delight in the suffering of others. Plus, we get a kickback from the caffeine industry.

You have the potential to do exactly what he describes there: to keep somebody up too late reading something you created. Isn’t it time to push aside everything between you and that moment?

Photo Credit: Niccolò Caranti (Brandon Sanderson, Steven Erikson, Terry Brooks, Philip Reeve, and Joshua Kahn at Lucca Comics & Games on November 1, 2016. Teatro del Giglio.) CC BY-SA 4.0