Mar 4 2014 10:00am

Words of Radiance and the Art of Creating Epic Fantasy

Words of Radiance Stormlight Archive Brandon Sanderson Michael Whelan

I can be reasonably certain that Dragon Prince, by Melanie Rawn, was the first thick fantasy book I read. For those who don’t know my story, I was not a reader in my youth—and so the thought of approaching something that huge was daunting to me. However, I was just coming off of the high of having discovered something beautiful and wonderful in this genre, and I was hungry for more. This book, with its gorgeous cover (thank you, Mr. Whelan) seemed like the best shot.

It didn’t let me down. Soon, I was reading everything thick I could find, from Tad Williams to Stephen Donaldson, and was therefore perfectly primed to read The Eye of the World when I discovered it. You might say I learned to swim by jumping into the deep end. I went from hundred-page middle grade novels directly into seven-hundred-page epics. But it was only in these pages that I found the depth, the imagination, and the powerful storytelling that I thirsted for.

Dragon Prince Melanie Rawn

If you can’t tell, I love epic fantasy. I have nothing against the shorter forms of fiction—indeed, I have a blast reading stories of all sizes. But epic fantasy holds that first and most important piece of my heart, as it was the genre that made me into a reader, and that in turn made me a writer. It is hard to define myself without epic fantasy.

So, I find myself in an odd place when the genre is mocked. Most of that mockery is good natured—the genre’s thick pagecounts and sometimes ponderous leanings do paint a large target. We comment about “doorstoppers,” warn people not to drop the novels around any small pets, and joke about authors being paid by the word. Some people call the books “fat fantasies with maps” as if to reduce everything the genre seeks to accomplish to the thing you often find on page one.

It’s not my intention to stop such mockery; as I said, it’s mostly good natured, and we in the genre have to be willing to laugh at ourselves. Oftentimes, what one person finds a book’s most compelling aspect (whether it be breakneck pacing or deep world-building) can be the very thing that drives another person away. If there were only one sort of book that people liked, the world would be a much sadder place overall.

However, after ten years in this business, I somewhat shockingly find myself to be one of the major voices for epic fantasy. I released the biggest (see, even I can’t resist the puns) fantasy book of the year last year, and will likely do so again this year. (Unless George or Pat unexpectedly slip their quarter onto the top of the arcade machine.)

So, I feel that it’s my place to talk a bit about the genre as a form, and explain a little of what I’m trying to do with it. Not because I feel the genre really needs to be defended—the number of people who enjoy epic fantasy indicates it is doing just fine without a defense—but because I think awesome things are happening in my genre right now, and I want to involve you all a little more in the behind the scenes.


An Evolving Genre

Assassin's Apprentice Robin Hobb

I’ve talked at length about my worry that epic fantasy seemed to hit a rut in the late ’90s and early 2000s, particularly in regards to what new authors were attempting. This isn’t to say that great stuff wasn’t coming out. (See Robin Hobb and Steven Erickson.) It just seems that—from my experience both with my own reader friends and the fans I meet at signings—a large number of readers jumped ship at that time. While their favorite authors, like George R. R. Martin and Robert Jordan, were still producing great stories, it seemed like every new writer was trying to copy what had come before. It felt repetitive.

I’m sure I’m being reductionist here, and am failing to note some of the awesome things that happened during this era. But as a whole, I know that I myself felt a fatigue. As a fan and aspiring writer, I wrote a number of essays and editorials about the need for epic fantasy to move on, experiment more, and evolve. I felt, and still feel, that the things that define epic fantasy aren’t the specific races, locations, or familiar styles of magic—instead, the genre is about a deep sense of immersion and scope.

Fortunately, epic fantasy has evolved. It is evolving. In truth, it was evolving back then, it just wasn’t moving fast enough for some of us. If you look at what Pat Rothfuss, Brent Weeks, and N.K. Jemisin are doing with the genre, you’ll find all kinds of cool things. Pat is experimenting with non-linear storytelling and use of prose as lyrics; Brent is making epic fantasy novels that read with the pacing of a thriller; Nora is experimenting with voice, tone, and narrative flow in fascinating ways. They’re only a few of the ones doing great things with the genre.

These stores are very different from what came before, but they still feel right. I love where the genre is right now. I’m excited for what comes next. I’m trying my best to be part of that.


So Why Is It So Long?

Brandon Sanderson The Way of Kings Stormlight Archive

Interestingly, my essay has three prologues, as I’m almost to where I get to what I originally wanted to talk about.

Words of Radiance is, famously, the longest book that Tor can physically bind into one volume using their current bindery. By word count, it’s not actually the longest fantasy book in recent years—I think GRRM gets that crown. My book has a large number of art pieces, however, which increase the thickness pagecount wise.

A few weeks back I had a conversation with a gentleman who had run the numbers and determined that if Tor had split the Wheel of Time into 30 parts instead of 14, it would have made hundreds of millions more in revenue. It was a thought experiment on his part—he wasn’t suggesting the indiscriminate cutting of books—but it opened a discussion of something I get asked a lot.

Why don’t you just make your books shorter? At the size they are, they’re very inefficient to produce. I’m certainly capable of writing shorter works. Why not write these books shorter? Or why not split them? (Several countries already cut the Stormlight books into pieces when they translate them.)

The answer is simple. This is the piece of art I wanted to make.

The Stormlight Archive is intended as a love letter to the epic fantasy genre. I wrote the first version of The Way of Kings during a time when I wasn’t certain I’d ever sell a book, and when I was determined to write something that did everything I envisioned fantasy doing. I gave no thought to to market constraints, printing costs, or anything of that nature. The Way of Kings is, in a lot of ways, my most honest work.

It is what I always dreamed epic fantasy could be. Length is part of that, and so is the hardcover form—the big, lavish, art-filled hardcover. A big book doesn’t indicate quality—but if you find a big book that you love, then there is that much more of it to enjoy. Beyond that, I felt—and feel—there is an experience I can deliver in a work of this length that I could never deliver in something shorter, even if that’s just the same book divided up.

And so, I present to you Words of Radiance.


The Piece of Art I Wanted to Make

Brandon Sanderson Words of Radiance Stormlight Archive

Words of Radiance is a trilogy.

It’s not part of a trilogy. (I’ve said that Stormlight is ten books, set in two five book arcs.) It is a trilogy. By that I mean I plotted it as I would three books, with smaller arcs for each part and a larger arc for the entire trilogy. (Those break points are, by the way, after part two and after part three, with each of the three “books” being roughly 115,000 words long, 330 pages, or roughly the length of my novel Steelheart, or Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonquest.)  When you read the novel, you’re actually reading an entire trilogy of novels bound together into one volume to encourage you to see them as one whole, connected and intertwined, with a single powerful climax.

Words of Radiance is also a short story collection.

I’ve blogged about my goal for the interludes in these books. Between each section of Words of Radiance, you will find a handful of short stories from the viewpoints of side characters. “Lift,” one of these, has already been posted on Tor.com. There are many others of varying length. Each was plotted on its own, as a small piece of a whole, but also a stand-alone story. (The Eshonai interludes are the exception—like the Szeth interludes in the first book, they are intended as a novelette/novella that is parallel to the main novel.)

Words of Radiance is also an art book.

Many book series have beautiful “world of” books that include artwork from the world, with drawings and descriptions to add depth to the series. My original concept for the Stormlight Archive included sticking this into the novels themselves. Words of Radiance includes brand-new, full-color end pages, as well as around two dozen new pieces of interior art—all in-world drawings by characters or pieces of artwork from the setting itself.

My dream, my vision, for this series is to have each book combine short form stories, several novels, artistic renditions, and the longer form of a series all into a single volume of awesomeness.

I want to mix poetry, experimental shorts, classic fantasy archetypes, song, non-linear flashbacks, parallel stories, and depth of world-building. I want to push the idea of what it means to be an epic fantasy, even a novel, if I can.

I want people to feel good about dropping thirty bucks on a novel, since they know they’re actually buying five books in one. But most of all, I want to produce a beautiful hardcover fantasy novel like the ones I loved as a youth. Not the same. Something different, yet something that still feels right.

I feel grateful to Tor for being willing to go along with me on this. It turned out wonderfully. It is the book I always dreamed it could be.

But do avoid dropping it on any small pets.

Brandon Sanderson is the author of Elantris, The Mistborn Trilogy, The Way of Kings and its sequel Words of Radiance, and, with Robert Jordan, the New York Times bestselling The Gathering Storm, Towers of Midnight, and A Memory of Light, the final volumes to the epic Wheel of Time.

Scott Silver
1. hihosilver28
Thanks, Brandon! It's fascinating to get that perspective on how you worked on the series. Looking forward to diving into the book.
Paul Keelan
3. noblehunter
Hey Brandon, I don't suppose you could convince the Powers that Be at Tor to release a leatherbound edition of the book under the title The Book of Endless Pages? I'm never, ever going to get tired of that potential title.

The physical mass of the book seems to lend something to it as an objet d'art and having it bound in leather would take that up to eleven.
4. eternal_infidel
Fluffy has just become Tufty.
5. shiznatikus
However, I was just coming off of the high of having discovered something beautiful and wonderful in this genre, and I was hungry for more.
What, I wonder, is the book he's referring to?
Jeremy Bruce
6. superjer
Thanks Brandon! Really looking forward to reading it. I just can't believe you make people stand in line holding this thing in order for you to sign it. Talk about a work out...
Lauren Hartman
7. naupathia
Just starting to read the book, so excited!

Is it weird that I dream of writing a fantasy novel on the hopes that someday I might be mentioned in the same breath as Pat, Brandon, or George? Don't get me wrong, I've always wanted to write a novel since I started reading fantasy because I though it would be wonderful to share what other authors have shared with me - an awesome world, cool ideas and wonderful characters. But man, it would be sooooo cool to be part of that club.

Keep up the great work!
Gerd K
8. Kah-thurak
A few weeks back I had a conversation with a gentleman who had run the numbers and determined that if Tor had split the Wheel of Time into 30 parts instead of 14, it would have made hundreds of millions more in revenue. It was a thought experiment on his part—he wasn’t suggesting the indiscriminate cutting of books—but it opened a discussion of something I get asked a lot.
The funny thing is: The german translation of the Wheel of Time has been split into 37 books ;-)
9. av willis
On a random note, It turns out that when you put a massive tome into to an e-book and you try to download said e-book from wi fi in a third world country, it takes a while. Who knew?
Seriously, I'm going crazy over here.
10. Kelley (Oh, the Books!)
Best post ever. I love your explanation and your vision! I'm only afifth of the way through The Way of Kings right now, but I love that I can savor it slowly and enjoy all of its many pieces and treasures within. Words of Radiance looks to be even better!
11. ces
I received my hardback yesterday. And in a couple of days I will have the Kindle version.

Don't drop it on your big toe either!
12. IrishJake
Thanks Brandon for an intersting insight into your process. Sadly I haven't picked up Way of Kings yet. I wanted to let you get a little farther into the series so I could avoid all the Jordan-esque waiting for the new book (IID3Y).
Mostly though I clicked the link to see some love for Melanie Rawn's Dragon Prince series which I think doesn't get near enough. Glad to see I'm not the only one who really enjoyed those growing up.
Lee Whiteside
13. LeeWhiteside
After seeing this, I'm glad I was able to have Brandon and Melanie Rawn on a couple of panels last year at Phoenix Comicon!
Bruce Arthurs
14. bruce-arthurs
As a cranky old fart in his 60's, I have to admit a reluctance to start mega-paged, multi-volume epics, just on the concern that I might not live long enough to finish the things.

I have a copy of Way of Kings, but I'm actually much more likely to read Steelheart.

Nostalgia speaking, but I miss the Golden Age (i.e., when I was 12) when the default paperback size was about 160 pages or 60,00 words. Those were books where you could sit down in a comfy chair in the evening and read the entire story before going to bed.

(Note: One of the entries on my own list of potential writing projects is "Write a one-volume trilogy", so perhaps I should try putting my keyboard where my mouth is.)
Peter Ahlstrom
15. PeterAhlstrom
shiznatikus@5, Brandon is referring to the first fantasy book he read, Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly. If you search around, you can see multiple places where he talks about that experience.
paul Hend
16. tugthis
I am a fan of the genre as well and hope Mr. Sanderson can stand tall in his ambition. I think an integral part of that would be to keep his vision as what he envisioned it. . . a hard bound novel. Resist the temptation to make it a kindle version, a series of paperbacks or anything else. If Sanderson wrote it as a thing (a hardbound book with color illustrations, maps, stand alone stories etc, avoid the temptation to change it to other formats and media.

I am a pretty experienced Kindle reader but i just can't imagine
"Words of Radiance includes brand-new, full-color end pages, as well as around two dozen new pieces of interior art—all in-world drawings by characters or pieces of artwork from the setting itself." as something that is enjoyable in an e-reader.

Fight on, but don't shortchange your vision.
17. darqmatr
Thanks, Brandon. I just bought the hardcover today at the bookstore. They had -just- put it in the front window. I told them to pull it and put my name on it until I got there ;)

I really appreciate your work.

Thank you. John
18. Perfectionist
I was the gentleman who reported the study on the publishing industry... we collected data from a representative sample of readers from across the USA. Personally, I love thick fantasy books--there is a promise of immersion that is not made by thinner volumes. And, when one finishes the 7 shelf-feet worth of WoT, it is an achievement, and a journey. Of course, there are dangers--my daughter nearly suffered a concussion when The Great Hunt fell out of her backpack and hit her in the back of the head...

Anyway, two important pieces of the research indicate that 1) the vast majority of people prefer a shorter book (around 300-350 pages); although epic fantasy readers prefer longer books than other genre readers, most still prefer 400 pages. 2) Readers prefer books in a series to come out every 6-9 months. Part of being involved with the reader and facilitating immersion is the length of the book (and WoT was unprecedented in that aspect), but the other part is how often books in the series come out. Readers want the next part of the epic no longer than 9 months after the last one. They begin to forget the names and places, so become annoyed when too much time goes by between installments.

WoT books came out every year for the early books, then came out less frequently (12-26 months apart). So, readers would have been happier with smaller parts of the story issued more frequently. The "what if" thought experiment used individual choice models that captured reader preferences and price trade-offs from the research to maximize the revenue for the publishing industry. We didn't test whether there would be a psychological effect of decreasing the size of the tome or the financial impact of consussions, pet flattenings, or people having to buy actual doorstops. There is certainly an argument that publishing super thick books in epic fantasy led to some of Jordan's success. The thought experiment did not consider the art, or psychology, but rather sought to maximize revenue using reader preferences. The data indicated that breaking each book into two or three and releasing them more often would have generated over $1.1 billion more for the industry. Of course, the author/artist only gets a small part of that revenue--the rest pays for the editor, the publisher, the Barnes & Noble store. So, from the industry's standpoint, it appears that it have been better to break the books up and get people into stores more frequently--if and only if the books would have been just as successful as thinner books. We tried to control for that aspect by including an attrition rate in the optimization.

Again, I personally prefer the longer, more immersive books, and Brandon is a master. My copies of Radiance should arrive today (my daughter has to have one, too, so she doesn't have to wait for me to finish) and am already thinking... Bring on volume 3!
19. shiznatikus
@15 Thank you, PeterAhlstrom
20. Inescapable Light
Really enjoyed the article. Been a fan for over 10 years. I remember reading various blogs and articles years back that suggested that epic fantasy was in decline, that attention spans were shorter, and that humans in the 21st century wanted short, quick bursts of entertainment, not long works 1,000 pages long. They said the days of college students and adults spending months wading through long novels like "Atlas Shrugged" were over. Although AS isn't fantasy, it's still a lengthy tome, and just as likely to be dropped on a pet.

Despite those assertions that epic fantasy was in decline, I found just the opposite to be true. Robert Jordan kept churning out books, as did Martin, Tad Williams, yourself, and many others. And because authors now engage directly with fans online and in-person more and more, fanbases for many authors have exploded. I follow quite a few fantasy authors online, on their blogs, and through social media, and find the epic fantasy universe evolving for the better.

I'm excited about Words of Radiance for so many reasons. Primarily due to you adding in so many new and exciting elements beyond the actual story. As they say, content is king! I write supernatural fiction, and have long dreamed of adding some of the same elements into my books, especially the side-stories of certain characters. The fact that Tor stands behind you should signal to all of us what is now possible. The envelope can be pushed. Publishers will support new visionary ideas. And fanbases will buy the books and support the author. It is a very exciting time in fantasy fiction! Thanks for being a pioneer in the genre!
21. Gregor Lewis
Could this essay be what Mr. Sanderson was talking about when foreshadowing his GOH/Toastmaster (? - sorry I forget the actual appearance title he assumed) at LTUE?

I have been looking for reproductions to appear, ever since reading his announcement post on his website.

Either way, it is engrossing, thoughtful and illuminating stuff. Moreover, it is typical (IMO) of what separates Mr. Sanderson from many authors working - not only in the fantasy field - today.

Notwithstanding the fact the he is a prolific producer of completed works in a variety of his chosen genre's staple forms, I have also found great joy & satisfaction in reading Mr. Sanderson's auxilliary contributions of information on his writing ... ideas, process and status ... Both on his own website and various others, like this here beauty on tor.com.

In fact, I would say I enjoy Brandon Sanderson's process and informational contributions and updates more than the works themselves. Reading through the above reminded me why.

Mr. Sanderson is a visionary writer, with a real gift for conveying his love of his created works and the works of others he enjoys. He is also the epitome of what a modern publishing machine would wish their talent to be ... Prolific, Self-Promoting, Has Genuine (not 'big-noting') Canvassing Ability & is prepared to share developments in an openly generous (instead of resentful) manner.

These qualities, among many others, have contributed in elevating Mr. Sanderson into a 'Top of List' Artist, when IMO, his execution of his interesting, well promoted ideas has thus far been mainly mediocre.

I understand this comes across pejoratively, but I don't shy away from insisting that IMO, after having been sold on his works - mainly by the man himself - I have been merely satisfied with the final product. And left somewhat disappointed with the realisation that Mr. Sanderson's ability to execute a (now virtually mandatory) promotional presence in the virtual WWW, whether it requires a conscious effort ... Or, is a positive by-product, windfall even, of his modern IT conscientiousness ... exceeds the sum total of the finished articles he produces for consumption.

Steelheart as he described it, was the latest product from Mr. Sanderson that conceptually caught my imagination and got my reading juices flowing, before leaving my reading engine on idle after I'd finished.

Now, after reading the above, I'm more than sold ... actually I'm avidly anticipating Words of Radiance, despite my ambivalence towards Way of Kings' perfectly acceptable but hardly exceptional execution.

For me that is the best indication of both Mr. Sanderson's 'realised talent' and the state of the publishing industry today. That the self-proclaimed (however prosaically) producer of the 'biggest' SFF release of the year has thus far failed to meet his own well documented lofty goals - as per my admittedly subjective assessment - is overshadowed only by his prominence in the modern day pantheon of the genre.

It's a tribute to Mr. Sanderson's overall writing abilities and willingness to share his professional information comprehensively. Perhaps I'm being too traditionalist, or perhaps my highly subjective view is way off ... Maybe I'm just over eager and reading too much into the anticipation Mr. Sanderson has been able to generate in me promotionally.

Either way, I look forward to a pleasant surprise after finishing Words of Radiance and will admit, even though I haven't yet found the finished product from Mr. Sanderson exceptional, I do agree it is important for an artist, be they socially adept on the WWW, or idiosyncratically reclusive, to be entirely unafraid & dare to dream and aim high.

There is no doubt Mr. Sanderson has 'hit' commercially. For the rest, time will tell for mine ... subjectively.

Alice Arneson
22. Wetlandernw
It's all in the mind of the reader, isn't it? So far, I've seen people who said WoR was merely satisfactory, and others who said it was amazing and incredible. I've seen those who felt the humor was forced, and those who found it hilarious. It all depends on what you like and what pushes your particular buttons. I guess it's good that we don't all like the same thing, eh?
23. Gregor Lewis
No doubt @22wetlandernw!
I like Sanderson's stuff well enough, but the point I was trying to make with my bag of long-wind above is that, the fact I have been caught up in anticipating each and every one of Sanderson's works (post Mistborn - they were already out when I started reading him), mainly through the promo work of the man himself,
....it surprises me that not once have I been blown away, by any of them.
I always find myself believing the potential is there, but for mine Sanderson's gift is to hook me in, only to leave me hangin' when the whips are crackin'.

What doesn't surprise me is that what I have found to be guaranteed mediocrity has managed to rise to Titanic levels through shear volume of insistence.

IMO, a basic truth, indicative of the preferred state of contemporary publishing.

Douglas Edwards
24. Horneater_Goldeneyes
This was awesome post, yes?

It made me want to chant


I spent so much time being intimidated by this genre, thinking that it would be so hard to read a book this size in any reasonable time frame.

Thanks to you, Robert Jordan, Robin Hobb and Terry (both Brooks and Goodkind), I can't imagine reading smaller books as anything but INTERLUDES to the great volumes.
25. Freelancer
Mission accomplished, Brandon.

Words of Radiance lives up to, and easily exceeds, all expectations.

Best wishes on maintaining or exceeding this level for eight more volumes.
26. Layma Vespera
Good to know I'm not the only one who loves tomes. When your reading speed can exceed 100 pages an hour, it's lovely to have long books that last so much longer. I've travelled cross-country and even out of the country with "Way of Kings" in my backpack and it was definitely worth the strain of carrying it through the airports. My only concern for the Stormlight Archive is that I'm going to need a reinforced bookcase to store them in once all of them have been released...
Jennifer B
27. JennB
I am so happy it is as big as it is. I was sad when I had heard that you had promised Tor you would make it shorter tha Way of Kings. Thank you for making it the way you wanted it to be.
Karen Fox
28. thepupxpert
I was at the HB B&N to see Brandon on 3/4, it was great! So far my reading of the new book is going slow so I'm being careful not to log in to too many blogs for fear of being "spoiled". I did ask Brandon when I got my book signed, however, if Bela was a Hero, and he smiled and said that he'd like to think she was...
Myra Wollman
29. Morevna
It is a work of art, quite frankly the most best book I've ever read (with TWOK) a close second).
30. Rhane
Dear Brandon,
Your work of art sings to me. My eyes are captivated, my mind gives voices to the characters. The world you've created is rich and textured, and fascinating.

Thank you, and please hurry with the next ones.

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