Brent Weeks is the best-selling author of The Night Angel trilogy and The Lightbringer Series, a “five-volume epic fantasy trilogy” that’s been in the works for the past 11 years. Now, the final volume, The Burning White, is finally complete. Ahead of its release next week, Weeks dropped by r/Fantasy for an AMA, where he talked writing tips, the one most essential rule of writing, the books that were the most fun to write, and much, much more. Here are the highlights! (Stick around until the end for a surprise cameo from Joe Abercrombie.)
On his tips for aspiring writers:
My tip for writers isn’t original, and others have said it better, but: You gotta finish. Nobody has to *see* the thing you finished, but you have to finish it. You may be one of those writers who doesn’t really figure out what your story is about until you finish it, and regardless, you are going to learn things by finishing that can be learned no other way. The follow up to that is that you’re going to need to learn to manage your own emotions. It’s a rollercoaster, and you can too easily read what you wrote yesterday, think it’s crap, and quit. Of COURSE it’s crap. You start ex nihilo, and you get mud–and only after that can you make that mud into something that lives and breathes. At least, that was God’s drafting process. I’d find that Ira Glass video about the Gap (Ed note: this one) to help young artists with good taste but not yet very many writing skills. It’ll help you.
On the most essential rule of writing:
I have like 60 pages worth of writing advice on my website. (Check the Writing Advice, under the Extras tab, IIRC.) But yeah, it IS overwhelming. Remember that there’s only one rule. All the writing rules serve one thing, and if you do this one thing, you can break every other rule in the book: Keep readers turning pages.
That’s it. It’s that simple. “Don’t info dump” Why? Because it’s boring. “Set up micro tensions to arc to the bigger tension” Why? Because you want people not to be bored. “Don’t introduce too many characters at once” Why? Because it’s confusing, and then when strangers are doing things, it’s boring. Etc.
So I say start with that in mind, and then when you get in trouble, figure out what you’re messing up, and find someone who does THAT thing well. Study how they do it. Mark up your book. Then read writing books about it if you want to. There are dozens or hundreds of skills that go into writing, but most of them you’ll be intuitively good at if you’ve been a reader for many years. The others can be learned. And you don’t have to be great at all of them to have a great career. Ask any sneered-at but wealthy author.
On the “little things” he enjoyed adding to Lightbringer:
Most of the reading I do these days is history, so that stuff makes it into my books all the time–and sometimes it shows me what NOT to put into my books as well. I enjoy putting little bits of science in the books where I can. It’s sometimes hard to do because their level of scientific understanding and even their jargon are really different than ours, so if I use the correct terminology for a phenomenon, it will actually be immersion breaking. One of these was finding out about millimeter-wave radiation being used for riot dispersal in our world from a declassified military briefing: they point this truck-mounted thing at you, and you suddenly feel like your whole body is on fire! (But it only penetrates a tiny way into your skin, so allegedly doesn’t do any permanent harm.) That’s pretty darn cool, especially when I realized that it’s exactly the right part of the spectrum for a certain to use. But she has no idea what she’s doing.
Something else I’ve really enjoyed is writing the Mighty being together. I had a really tight group of guy friends in college, and there’s just a bunch of funny ways that guys who really love each other interact and beat each other down, but then stand for each other too. I got to hang out with those guys in this book and loved that.
On the books that were the most fun to write:
Night Angel was more fun to write, and Shadow’s Edge was the most fun of those. I think most of that is because of everything else, though. When I was writing NAT, I was terrified no one would ever publish my books, but I wasn’t worried about the day-to-day business of a writing career. There was no webpage to update, forum to manage, emails to answer, criticisms to deal with fair and otherwise. It was purely waiting for replies from agents (who usually didn’t reply), and writing all day. Shadow’s Edge was the most fun because I’d already built the world and introduced the characters, and now they were all in full sprint. Beyond the Shadows was less fun because I had to tie up all the plot elements I’d just gleefully thrown in wherever I felt like it in the first two books. THE BURNING WHITE became fun at some point in the last year, when I’d conquered the most difficult problems, when I’d figured out ways to more creatively and more satisfyingly write a particular scene (and was thus able to erase a scene I’d written that did the work, but that I didn’t like much), and when I was able to revisit scenes that I’d thought were great and after time look at them again and think the same thing. (Rather than the typical thing where you think it’s great, then revisit it and realize it’s not at all what you had in your head or in your memory.) What I was trying to accomplish with Lightbringer was also vastly more ambitious than what I was doing with Night Angel, so there’s a difference in how gratifying it is to have written a book or how proud I am of it. But for fun? Yeah, NAT.
On how he plots, and whether he knew the ending of The Burning White while writing The Black Prism:
For one main character, I had two endings in mind from the beginning. One worse than the other. In general, I plot out a lot of the character arcs both externally and internally: Karris is going to end with this position, Logan is going to end up as this, Kip is going to wrestle with this problem. I layer in secrets that I want to reveal eventually, sometimes not until four (or even five!) books later, and then I lay out what I think will be good external climactic sequences: does this city fall in this book, do the rebels win this battle? Always with an eye that what happens to an overall external conflict (like who’s winning a war) can be different than what is most important to the characters and then even that different from what’s important to the readers. That said, I haven’t (to this time in my career) ever done a scene-by-scene outline or step sheet, and I give myself the freedom to make up new stuff as I go, so long as it fits with what I’ve already written and can eventually get me to end points I’ve been aiming at.
On historical inspirations for the religious storyline in The Lightbringer Series:
A confluence of influences, I suppose. The initial idea of the Prism came from the Japanese imperial system around the same time period I was writing (1600). How do you deal with an emperor if you can’t unseat him, but you really want more power for yourself? Just make him be so busy with Super Important Religious Stuff that he can’t cause you any problems while you handle the piddling Power over the Empire Stuff.
I was also reading a lot of early Renaissance history, and the levels of interlocking and conflicting loyalties was astonishing. You’d have loyalty to God, to Church (sometimes the same, not always), to family, to the family you married into but might or might not like, to your lord, to your city, to your kingdom, and to your vassals. All those might be aligned or you might be constantly picking and choosing. But the more I read, the more obvious it was to me that people throughout history have really, really cared about religion. Sometimes–often–they fall short of what they say they believe: as when Muslim slave traders (who were not supposed to enslave other Muslims) would regularly violate that prohibition in taking African slaves. Other times, actions ONLY make sense if a ruler really believed what they said. Like when King Richard forgives his treasonous younger brother John SEVERAL TIMES. And these weren’t little plots where John plotted to do something but got found out and said sorry. They were plots where he invaded lands, killed people, and took castles–and then said sorry. And his brother forgave him! Not once. Multiple times! So those collisions of values and ideals and what’s right and what’s “right” and your political considerations balanced against those seemed like an area ripe for exploration.
It bothered me. Worried me. So I knew I wanted to go there.
On writing trauma:
I was lucky enough to be writing before I knew grim-dark was a thing. I had a question and a character: Is it possible for there to be such a thing as a moral assassin? Then I thought, if it were possible, how would that happen? My answer was that the character would have to have very little choice. He would have to be totally desperate, in a world where the adults don’t do what adults should do, where all authority is corrupt, and where the weak are crushed. So the grimness of the world arose from the story I wanted to tell, rather than me deciding I was going to write a grim-dark novel.
I spent a lot of time and care with how I depicted trauma. My wife was a counselor working with children who had been abused, so that awful stuff was on my mind, but mostly in terms of these hard questions: is an abused child who abuses other children truly culpable for the damage he or she inflicts?
With certain scenes, I first wrote them at the same narrative level that I wrote all the other scenes. The camera was close everywhere else, so I kept the camera close there. I finished the book, and then I came back–I’d seen how that abuse had played out in the character’s life, so now I could make judgments about how much we needed to see of it. I didn’t want to retraumatize people who have been abused. I was also careful to put hints about where we were going really early, so that anyone for whom that kind of plot line is just too sore of a spot could bail out. I don’t think it’s good to have a plot that’s all roses and rainbows until there’s an awful rape on page 600.
So there was a lot of brutal stuff in Night Angel. Once I’d set up this corrupt city and these awful forces in motion, what people in it did to each other was pretty terrible. You do not want to be powerless in Cenaria, because no one is going to come save you. That was actually part of the reason I wanted to start a new world with Lightbringer–here, the authorities are often selfish and hypocritical, but they’re not relentlessly, ruthlessly corrupt. It’s dysfunctional often, but not absent.
On his next book:
I’m six chapters in. I’ve outlined this one more extensively than any other book I’ve ever written, and I’m really enjoying it. Actually, I’m really missing it as I’m having to abandon it for a while as I do Lightbringer promotion stuff. I don’t want to give anything away about it yet other than that it’s set in the Night Angel universe, and you will see some overlapping characters. (So, clearly, it’s within their lifetimes.) I’ll let you know more when I’m deeper in and ready to share.
Also, at one point Joe Abercrombie dropped by, and they had the following interaction:
Why do you think Joe Abercrombie’s books are so much better than yours, Brent? Is it the British sense of humour or just far superior intellect on his part?
I hate to admit it, but I think it’s the grasp of regional dialect that sets you apart. I mean, I’m a Montana native, and when I read Red Country, I just had to set it down, flabbergasted. This man, I thought, writes a fantasy Western like a man with deep, deep roots. In the South. Of England.
Ouch. Right in my sensitive dialects.
Check out the rest of the AMA.