The evening began with the amusing sight of Brandon Sanderson piling various items of furniture on top of one another to create a home-made lectern for his laptop. Following a brief aside on the difference between a lectern and a podium (and how this plays into the editorial process), Brandon read from a novella he’s recently written. Apparently, he started it on the flight back to the US the last time he came to the UK. He couldn’t work on the Wheel of Time since he was awaiting the outcome of some research on the notes. He went on to explain that Robert Jordan left a pile of notes roughly half Brandon’s height that his two researchers dip into when Brandon needs an answer to one of his questions. This is normally quick, but it can take several months to come up with a fully researched answer. The reading lasted about eight minutes and seemed to be from the beginning of the novella. I won’t spoil the concept, but it’s clever and deeply silly.
The evening then moved to a Q&A. Questions and answers are paraphrased from my notes and memory, so they won’t be absolutely word-for-word, but they shouldn’t be much different from the original conversation. I’ve included all the questions, not just the Wheel-related ones.
Q: Can you give any advice to fantasy writers on creating magic systems?
A: The most important thing about a magic system is what it can’t do, not what it can. The limitations of a magic system are commonly what drives the plot in a fantasy novel. One novel I’m working on involves a magic system where individually, people don’t have enough magic to do anything major. However, you can give your magic to someone else, and if you can get around 50 people’s magic, then you can do something interesting. But giving away your magic makes your world that bit darker. In such a world, it doesn’t actually matter then what the magic does; it’s more about whether you choose to sell yours or try and get someone else’s.
The second point is to consider how the magic system interacts with the setting. How does it affect the economics, social structures, and religious make-up of the world? For example, in the Wheel of Time, the clear gender difference in the magic--men go mad and women don’t--has affected the whole pattern of gender relations in the world in ways that can seem very bizarre to us. It’s also important to give magic a visual or sensory component. It’s tempting to have all the magic played out in the minds of the mages, but this can be boring to read.
Q: How does compounding work in Mistborn?
A: I can explain this better in person because I know things that the characters in the book don’t. So, they haven’t worked a lot of this out. All the magic systems in my work are linked because the books all take place in the same universe. In Elantris, magic works by drawing symbols in the air. What actually happens is that when they draw a symbol, energy passes through it from another place (which is my get-out for the laws of thermodynamics) and the effect of that energy is moderated by the symbol. In one case it may become light, in another it may become fire. In Mistborn, the metals have a similar effect. The magic is not coming from the metal (even if some characters think it is). It is being drawn from the same place and moderated by the metal.
In the case of Feruchemy, no energy is being drawn from this other place. So, you spend a week sick and store up the ability to heal. It’s a balanced system, basically obeying the laws of thermodynamics. So, while it’s not real, it’s still rational.
In compounding, when you have the power of both Allomancy and Feruchemy, you draw power from the other place through the metal and it recognizes the power that is already stored--"Oh, this is healing, I know how to do that”--and so you get the power of Feruchemy but boosted by energy from the other place. This is how the Lord Ruler achieved immortality.
Q (my question): In Towers of Midnight in Egwene’s confrontation with Mesaana, how was Egwene able to override the a’dam when Moghedien had so spectacularly failed to do so earlier?
A: Brandon accused me of being a Theorylander then thought for a bit. He explained that, while the answer might not give anything away, he was loath to go into detail in case it could be used to work out other things yet to come. So, regretfully, he gave it a RAFO.
Q: Having worked on Robert Jordan’s world, is there any other world you would like to write for?
A: When I was 18, I would have said David Eddings, but that’s not true now. He’s wonderful at the right age, but I no longer want to write in his world. I would have said Star Wars but the prequels left a bit of a sour taste. If George Lucas said to me, "Do you want to re-write those prequels for me?" I’d definitely say yes, but that’s not going to happen!
Q: Is there anything earlier in the Wheel of Time that you would want to change?
A: No. There are things I would have done differently if it were mine, but that’s not the same thing. I don’t approach the Wheel of Time as wanting to fix it. Instead, I think about how I can do it justice. There are clear differences in some areas and I have to deal with that. For example, Robert Jordan's and my action sequences are very different. That’s because he had been in Vietnam and had actually been shot at, whereas all my experience comes from action movies. Also, I treat magic a little differently, so sometimes that carries over into the text.
Q: Your writing style in the Wheel of Time is very close to Robert Jordan's but is much less so in your other books. Are you frustrated by having to write in Jordan's style?
A: Not at all. But I have to change some things as I go to make it work my way. I have complete creative freedom, so I don’t find it constraining. I write what I need and then Harriet checks it. If I can get it past her then I know it’s right. Besides, constraint can be really useful for a writer as it fuels creativity. If you have a dry patch (as all writers do) then a really odd writing task, like having to write about sentient vegetables taking over the world, can push you in new directions. So, I have been creative in the Wheel of Time and I have put some audacious things in there. But Robert Jordan was already an audacious author. For example, cleansing the Taint before the end of the series was an audacious piece of writing. So, I have freedom, but if something is in the notes, we always try to include it. The only time we don’t is if he wrote about something that happens to a character in one part of the notes, then contradicted it elsewhere. In that case, we have to make a decision. Also, sometimes the notes say a character will do something, but I can find no way to get them where they are supposed to be to do it. In that case, we sometimes have another character do it instead, but I can talk more about then when A Memory of Light is out.
Q: A lot of your work deals with stereotypes. Can you tell us more about that?
A: It’s true, but I always make sure that it isn’t just about the stereotype. It’s a fun thing to challenge some of the classic fantasy models, but that shouldn’t take over the writing as that can really undermine a writer. Piers Anthony was an example where the puns were fun but eventually came to undermine the series. I like having non-stereotypical professions and I enjoyed challenging age perceptions in Way of Kings. Having a romance between a man in his 50s and a woman in her late 40s is unusual in fantasy, where it’s all about the young man falling in love.
Q: Does the Oath Rod limit Aes Sedai age by using their life force to power the Oaths?
A: I’m 85% sure on this and you’ll have to ask Maria for confirmation, but no, the effect is not caused by draining the Aes Sedai’s life force. I’m not going to tell you what is causing the effect.
Q: Were Ruin and Preservation two shards or one?
A: They were two shards. Harmony is considered a shard, although it’s really two, in the same way that a king of two countries would still be considered a king.
Q: Do you miss characters when you “write them out”?
A: Nice euphemism. I miss writing for them but it doesn’t shock me because I generally planned it that way, so I have time to prepare. I don’t see myself as killing them. Instead, I allow them to take risks and pay the price for those risks. Mostly, I know well in advance what will happen to a character. Just occasionally, though, the plot will suddenly take me to the point when something has to happen, then I have to go back and re-write the outline. I don’t sit there and think, “Now who won’t they expect me to kill," although I suspect some other authors might do that. (General laughter ensued at that point.)
That was the end of the Q&A. It was followed by a signing in which people got to ask their own questions. Obviously, I didn’t hear all the answers, so I only have the two I asked.
Q: You’ve said previously that when you were a young man you identified with Rand over the other boys, but now you’re older, you identify more with the older characters. Do you think when you are 80 you will identify with Cadsuane?
A: Maybe with Thom Merrilin. I think I would need to be the full 300 to completely identify with Cadsuane.
Q: Why did Grady and Neald stop tying off gateways?
A: They found that it didn’t work as well as they originally thought. Tied-off gateways behaved in strange ways; they were inefficient, ineffective, and unpredictable. There was also a considerable continuing cost to maintaining even a tied-off gateway. I can’t remember exactly when the change happened, but I think it was Jordan who made it. You can armchair this and see that he had to create a reason why they didn’t just tie off gateways all the time. If they could do that, then they would just have gateways everywhere and that would be that. So, he had to have an in-book reason to explain an out-of-book issue.