TorCon, a virtual convention featuring Tor authors and special guests, is already off to a fabulous start! On Thursday night, Christopher Paolini joined Brandon Sanderson in a conversation about their two upcoming books, To Sleep in a Sea of Stars and Rhythm of War, Book 4 of The Stormlight Archive, and along the way they discussed switching from fantasy to science fiction, and the particular challenges that come with writing massive books. Check out a few highlights below, and register for more TorCon events – they’re happening all weekend!
Sanderson started the chat off with a compliment to Paolini, telling him that he was about 20% through To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, and “It is enormous, which is always a big plus in my book.”
Christopher Paolini: It’s the biggest published book I’ve done—you’ll laugh at it cause you quite a bit beyond this, but it’s 309,000 words. A big boy.
Brandon Sanderson: Enormous!
Paolini added that “The goal was to do an entire series in one book. I’ve done the multi-book series with over a million published words, and I think you hold the record for the biggest of the big series at the moment—but I wanted to tell a complete story with a beginning middle, and end in one volume. It was a personal challenge, and I thought it was going to save me time instead of writing a series, but it took me nearly ten years to write the darn thing anyways!”
BS [laughter]: Is there any Fire Upon the Deep influence on this? That’s a book you’ve read?
CP: That is a book I’ve read, and I also had the enormous pleasure of meeting the author Vernor Vinge, in an airport, between cons. I also enjoyed Rainbow’s End.
BS: I get a little bit of that! It’s really a cool book—I’m loving all the names, unless I’m completely off-base, these are all little inside jokes? I’ve caught some aliens—
BS: I’ve caught some science fiction author names for some of the names of planets and space stations, I’ve definitely I caught some Dune here and there, little nods. I think it’s really cool.
CP: I threw everything and the kitchen sink in. I wear my influences on my sleeve with this book. This is my love letter to the genre of science fiction, and hopefully shows some growth as an author, as a technician of storytelling, of course it’s also frustrating, and I’m sure you appreciate this—this book is coming out and hopefully people will se some growth as an author on my end, but then I’ve learned so much from this already that I’m like, “I need to write the next thing!”
BS: I’ve read a lot of your books, and this is by far your best technical writing so far. I’m loving the book. I can see the influences, but it doesn’t feel derivative in any way. It’s its own thing. This is a big departure in a lot of ways for you.
CP: The short fiction was a “breather moment” while working on a big book. I wanted to write something that had a beginning, middle, and end in one cohesive piece. And I watched your video where you were discussing Sonic the Hedgehog!
BS: Oh, did you?
CP: I did! And for anyone who is an aspiring author, I highly recommend that you watch. The way you broke that story down is exactly how my sister and I break down stories and discuss them. The funny thing is that the longest short story that I wrote, in The Fork, the Witch, and the Worm, was actually because I watched a Hollywood movie…the 2014 Godzilla film?
CP: As an audience member I felt that the film fundamentally misunderstood what its own metaphor was, what its own unfulfilled promise was, which was that Godzilla was a personification of death. And so as a result, you can’t defeat death, and the main character has to come to terms with death. So that was my short story—I wanted to do my own little take on that…but anyway!”
BS: No, that’s really cool! This topic is really cool, because I would say that half of my works are responses in that same way. It’s not that I see something and say “Oh, they did it wrong” butI’ll see something and I say, “Huh, they didn’t take the path that I think would be interesting to take.”
BS: So, let’s take that path! See where it takes me. That’s the origin of Mistborn, my first series, it’s me saying “OK, what if the Dark Lord won?’ It’s not a critique on Lord of the Rings, but it is me saying, “what if we took it in a different direction?” You know how people often ask “Where do you get your ideas?” For me, that’s the only surefire way—there’s a theme of me responding to other pieces of art, that’s where I think a lot of art comes from, right?
CP: Culture in general! It’s a conversation not only with ourselves, but with other creators. I can read The Way of Kings, and I start thinking about how you tackled the creative process, the storytelling process. I carried the hardcover Way of Kings, in my leather bag for the entire friggin’ book tour of Inheritance. I carried it with me the whole tour.
BS: I am so sorry about that.
BS: You’ll have that experience with this one—you’ll be making people carry giant hardcovers around all over the place.
CP: But I remember when I read Way of Kings, there were two things that struck me, like from a technical standpoint – it felt like you tackled a fantasy world almost as if you were writing science fiction. And I found the pacing fascinating. You didn’t pace it as though it were going to be aa standalone novel, or even like it was a trilogy—you paced it like it was the first book of a ten book series, and each book was going to about 1,000 pages, and you just don’t see that, normally. As a reader I relaxed and said “OK! I’m in for this big ride.”
BS: Pacing for the big books is a really interesting challenge, right? On a littler book, you generally you want to pace it so the reader has a sense that they need to get through it now. You can pace it in such a way that they feel this tension pulling them through. But in a large book that’ll exhaust readers. You’re book, I think you did an interesting job with the pacing, because I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that has chapters and sub-chapters?
CP: I’m going to admit I shamelessly stole that from The Dark Tower. Specifically because when I wrote my The Inheritance Cycle, I was doing the occasional thing with the line break to indicate a jump in time or in space, but I never felt comfortable with it By adding the subchapters, which are numbered in the book, it gave a real sense of framing for it. Then I felt the freedom to make them as long or as short as I needed to.
BS: I think it really helps with the pacing. The danger with an enormous book is that it can feel turgid. But with this, each chapter feels like a mini fast novel? Like ripping you through with the sub-chapters, but then it gives you the breaks you need to relax a little bit. It felt like it’s paced like a much shorter book, which will make it read fast, but still feel like you had an entire meal.
CP: When I came to this book, the phrase I’ve become fond of is “informational density.” As a reader I’ve noticed that the really great books– it doesn’t matter what the genre is–they tell you something new and interesting with every sentence. For the most part they’re doing something interesting in every line.
CP: We’ve been talking about my book, but I want to talk about yours! Rhythm of War, Book Four of the Stormlight Archive.
BS: I’ve settled into this groove where I do the Stormlight books in three-year cycles. When I was newer at this, I thought “Ah, one a year!”
CP: I remember you saying that.
BS: “Robert Jordan got one out a year in the first part of his career! His first books were like one out a year. I could do that!” …no I can’t do that.
BS: I pushed for that for a while, and it just kicked me in the head. So eventually I was like, let’s try a three-year cycle: eighteen months on Stormlight, and then eighteen months on whatever else I want to do – the weird wacky stuff. I’m on draft number four right now, I finished it yesterday. And I do five drafts on most of my books. I have the final polish left to do and it’s due July 1st.
CP: How do you manage that amount of material? You have your team, and of course the folks at Tor, but I know [revisions] get exhausting, I’ll finish 300, 400 pages and say “I just finished a book! I still have another book to go!”
BS: I’ve gotten to the point where I know how much I can do in a day without burning myself out. Lots of practice has gotten me there. I look at the word count, and right now Rhythm of War is 474,000.
BS: I usually cut 10% in the last pass so it’ll end up at 430,000.
CP: Is this your biggest book?
BS: Oathbringer is 460,000—it started at 540,000, and it needed a lot of trimming. I need that final pass to rein it in, to tighten everything up. I cut 10% from each chapter. If I’m doing actual daily new prose writing I can do between 2,000 and 3,000 words a day. Stephen King does 2,000 words a day, and I always thought that was a good model for me, I really admire King’s work, and his work ethic.
CP: How much are you getting through when you’re editing or revising?
BS: In Draft 2.0, 20,000 words a day. It’s fast because I haven’t gotten any feedback from anyone else yet, I’m only fixing things I know I need to fix. Three and Four are alpha readers, my team and the Tor team, and beta readers, who are the first audience test. My team goes though all of those and insert the comments in the actual document.
CP: And how do you manage to not get overwhelmed by the feedback?
BS: With beta reads it’s a matter of submerging myself in the main feedback. Give me a twenty or thirty page document, and I’m going through beginning to end, reading, absorbing, and changing what I need to change. Really it’s a matter of bug-hunting. I list the problems from most important to least important.
CP: I do the same thing.
BS: I’m trying to cross things off the list, and there will still be things at the bottom of the list, but I can fix those during the publishing draft.
CP: How do you manage—it’s easy for editing to feel like its an attack on your self, your ego. You’ve created something you care about deeply, and now here are people—whose advice you’ve solicited—who are telling you every single thing they thing you did wrong. How do you keep a sense of success through that process?
BS: My beta readers know to talk about what they like, also. Cause, it feels like getting punched in the face.
BS: But a good editor knows to periodically tell you what they like as well. You get this carrot and stick sort of thing. But your mind is going to naturally ignore, it’s going to gravitate to the one-star reviews. It is rough. But, I asked for this, and I know it’s going to make the book better. I wrote 13 books before I sold one—and when I actually started selling was when I started listening to feedback, and learning how to take it.
CP: As Stephen King says, “No one gets it right the first time.” We all edit, we all revise—what’s the saying in the military? “Embrace the suck.” Go toward the hardest bit because that’s how you get better.
CP: You’re coming up on the fourth book of the Stormlight Archive coming out—is this the end of the first cycle of the series?
BS: Yeah. It’s really two five-book series, but ten is so mythologically important to the books that I had to call it a ten-book series. There will be some character continuity between the two series, but I kind of have them very separate in my mind. I’m coming to the first ending.
CP: And, how does that feel? Where are you at with it?
BS: The Stormlight Archive will be the defining series of my career. It’ll be the longest, and the one I’ve spent the most time on. If I’m going to be finishing the next six books of this, and doing them every three years, there’s twenty more years of writing on this series. It’s inseparable from what I wanted to do with fantasy. This is where I set out to carve my space in the genre. I’m on a very long journey to finish. Each of those five book have things built into them, in my original outline, that I’m really excited to share with the readers. There are secrets and character moments, and big set pieces that I’ve designed now for 20 years, that I finally get to write when I write each book.
CP: [delighted laughter]
BS: I’m looking forward to people finally being able to read it.
CP: You told me the final scene! Was it for the Stormlight Archive or for the Cosmere as a whole?
BS: I can’t remember which one I told you…my team all knows both of those. So I could have told you either one!
CP: I think it was Cosmere, but I’m going to keep that to the grave. Without spoilers, what can readers look forward to?
BS: There is a character moment that was one of the pillars of my outline from the very beginning. This scene that I was working on. There were only two or three scenes that were core pillars. My beta readers feel like it landed. There won’t be a moment like this again until Book 7 or 8.
BS to CP:Do you plan a continuation of The Inheritance Cycle?
CP: Yes, I’m planning on more collections of short stories, because I find them to be palate cleansers, and a fun way to explore the world. There are a couple of large standalone novels in the world that I want to write in the future, probably the biggest one is the one I’ve affectionately been calling BOOK FIVE. [laughter]
CP to BS: Will we ever get anything from Wit’s point of view? Maybe an interlude?
BS: Each book has an epilogue from Wit’s point of view. You will eventually get his backstory. That’s a three-book series that I’m planning after the Stormlight Archive narrative is done, so I’ve gotta keep moving! I actually think it would be fun some time to write a novel of him telling a story.
Those are just some of the highlights – you can watch the full conversation through Sunday, June 14th. We’ll end with a surprise announcement: the audiobook for To Sleep in a Sea of Stars will be read by Jennifer Hale of the Mass Effect series, so look forward to that!
Christopher Paolini’s To Sleep in a Sea of Stars will be out from Tor Books on September 15, 2020.
Brandon Sanderson’s Rhythm of War, Book Four of the Stormlight Archive, will be out from Tor Books on November 17, 2020.