Sanderson Takes Over

I’ve been trying to get through the Wheel of Time books before A Memory of Light comes out on January 8, and since I am now 20% finished with The Towers of Midnight, I think I can safely say that I am going to make it. Light! What a reading frenzy.

I was keenly interested to see what Brandon Sanderson would do with the series, and so far I’m quite pleased. I can definitely see the change in writing style (mainly in shorter sections and paragraphs and sentences), but I expected that. What I didn’t expect was the emotional impact that Sanderson brought to the series. Sanderson did something that Jordan never managed: He made me actually care about Rand for the first time since the first book. Rand’s been such an insufferable, stubbornly indecipherable butthead of a hero for so long that I frankly hoped the Dark One would win the Last Battle.

A huge increase in drama was achieved simply by actually having the characters interact with each other. When you think about it, so much of the Wheel of Time has been about the characters not interacting, and not explaining themselves, and not being forthright, and not trusting their peers. Everyone, good guys and bad, has had their own independent story going on, where they have their own plan, and they think everyone else is out to get them. That makes for some interesting points of view, conflict, and tension, but when it’s everyone and it goes on for book after book after book with no resolution, it gets a bit tedious. Of course, it might have nothing to do with Sanderson and might have been Jordan’s plan all along. You can see it starting to happen in Knife of Dreams.

Because of all the lack of communication and side plots and exposition, I haven’t really enjoyed Wheel of Time since The Shadow Rising, and the last good plot development I remember was Dumai’s Wells which I believe happened at the end of Lord of Chaos. I’ve merely been enduring the series since then.

At least until Knife of Dreams, Jordan’s last book, which was good. And now I can say that The Gathering Storm, Sanderon’s first book, is good, too. Were I to recommend the series to someone, however, I would say, "Read books 1-4, skim through books 5-6, then just skip to book 11."

Book and Chapter Word Counts

Since I’m an aspiring writer, I am intensely curious about some of the "inside baseball” facts of the books I read. A took a random selection of Kindle books (the ones that just happened to be on my hard drive at the time) and figured out the approximate word count for each book when converted to plain text.** In the table below, the number of pages is as shown by Amazon.

Author Book

Words

Pages

Robert Jordan The Shadow Rising

396k

1051

Terry Goodkind Stone of Tears

393k

996

Brandon Sanderson The Way of Kings

383k

1009

Robert Jordan The Fires of Heaven

356k

926

George R.R. Martin A Clash of Kings

334k

1040

Terry Goodkind Wizard’s First Rule

305k

*580

Jacqueline Carey Kushiel’s Dart

278k

934

Robert Jordan The Dragon Reborn

253k

632

John Brown Servant of a Dark God

179k

624

Fred Saberhagen The First Book of Swords

85k

219

* I am not sure what is up with Terry Goodkind’s Kindle books, but they seem very screwed up. I’m pretty sure that book had more than 580 pages.

Another question that comes up among writers a lot is: How long should my chapters be? Obviously there’s no right answer, but here is how long the first three chapters (not counting prologues) are in the above books:

Book

Ch. 1

Ch. 2

Ch. 3

The Shadow Rising

15.8k

15.1k

7.3k

Stone of Tears

2.8k

3.9k

6.3k

The Way of Kings

4.5k

5.0k

5.2k

The Fires of Heaven

13.9k

9.1k

7.1k

A Clash of Kings

2.5k

4.8k

5.6k

Wizard’s First Rule

2.5k

5.2k

6.7k

Kushiel’s Dart

2.7k

2.7k

3.3k

The Dragon Reborn

4.1k

4.8k

3.5k

Servant of a Dark God

2.4k

2.2k

1.5k

The First Book of Swords

5.3k

8.0k

5.5k

I don’t know about anyone else, but at least now I know why it took so frickin’ long to read The Shadow Rising.

** Don’t ask how I did it.

P.S. For comparison, the longest novel I have written is 138k words, and my chapters tend to be between 2k and 4k words. I suck. 🙂

Epic Terminology

I read another chapter of Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings the other day. All right, I get that it’s an epic fantasy with an epic world filled with epic people, lands, animals, and plants. But in the first non-prologue chapter, the reader is slammed with an epic number of unfamiliar phrases and terms. I usually enjoy these kinds of things, but in this case I found myself asking “who or what or where is that?” quite a lot. So much that I started highlighting them:

  • Stormfather
  • shortspears
  • longspears
  • darkeyes
  • lighteyes
  • Shardbearers
  • Brightlord Amaram
  • fearspren
  • slickrock
  • rockbuds
  • highstorm
  • Alethi
  • Gare
  • Veden
  • Stormblessed
  • Shattered Plains
  • Parshendi
  • Highprince Sadeas
  • the murder of King Gavilar
  • skyeels
  • wild axehounds
  • on the ground like cremlings
  • chull rustlers
  • Kusiri, who had run off with the cobbler’s son
  • Hallaw
  • battalionlord
  • the Heralds
  • painspren
  • the Almighty

In my opinion, only a handful of items on that list were explained enough for me to visualize or understand them. All you can do is guess based on the names. Which kind of works for “wild axehounds” but not so much for “chull rustlers.”

I imagine there is a giant glossary in the back of the book, but we Kindle readers are out of luck (because going to the back of the book screws up your reading position). Even if it did work, I don’t really want to have to go to the glossary every three paragraphs.

So, future epic fantasy writers, have pity on your poor readers!

UPDATE: Oh lol, the murder of King Gavilar was in the prologue. There was about a month  between the time I read the prologue and the time I read the first chapter.

Learning From Mistborn

I’ve been listening to the Writing Excuses podcast lately (which is excellent imo), and Brandon Sanderson often refers to his own works as examples of the points he’s making, so I thought I’d read some of his stuff. First up is Mistborn.

I’m reading this book “critically,” as opposed to reading for pleasure, so I’m making notes along the way about what I think works and what doesn’t. (I think a big part of learning to be an author is learning one’s writing preferences, which might sound silly, but one doesn’t always know what one likes writing when you start.) By the way, calling Mistborn an epic fantasy really stretches the definition of the genre, if you ask me. It feels more steampunky or urban fantasy-ish to me.

So here’s what I’ve learned for myself after reading six chapters. I don’t want to write a heist story. Why? Mainly because the complexity of plotting such a story intimidates me. I don’t do well working from the ending backwards (yet?) and it’s impossible for me to conceive of writing a heist from the beginning forward. It’s an extremely plot-driven kind of story, and I think thusfar I might be more adept at charcter-driven stories.

In chapter 5 we learn all about this thing called Allomancy, which is Sanderson’s magic system in this trilogy. He is known for inventive magic systems, and I have to say that it’s plenty inventive. What I’m learning for myself though is that I prefer magic that is more “mysterious.” What I mean is this: Sanderson explains Allomancy down to the most minute detail; how it works, the power behind it, how it can be used, the advantages, the disadvantages. It’s almost the level of detail you’d expect in hard science fiction (is there such a thing as “hard fantasy?”). There’s nothing really wrong with that, but to me it takes away a lot of wonderment and turns it into something mundane. When I think of magic in a fantasy story, I think of something that would make your jaw drop if you saw it. Something divine, mystical, and mysterious, used by a class of people who are set apart from ordinary men. But that’s just me.

Also in chapter 5 we see a pretty complex fight scene. What I learned here is that detailed fight scenes are hard to follow and not very interesting to read. Particularly when there are a lot of complex gymnastics interspersed with a complex magic system that we are just beginning to understand. You know how in the movies they sometimes slow down a fight to super slo-mo so you can see the super awesome move the guy just made? This fight in chapter 5 would have had like twenty of those super slo-mo shots. It just doesn’t work for me. My fight scenes seem to get less and less detailed the more I write. (Also, in real life, fight scenes don’t last very long, particularly with swords.)

One overall critique I have is this: When I’m reading fantasy, if I notice anything from the modern world that pulls me out of fantasy setting, it’s pretty jarring. So when I’m writing, I try to be conscious of terminology or speech patterns that sound “modern.” In Mistborn, I can see what happens if you don’t. Sanderson has a perfectly logical explanation for this: The person who translated the work from the fantasy world translated the colloqualisms into something we modern readers could relate to. Again, a perfectly logical explanation, which I’ve thought to use myself. But when I actually read the results, it still pulls me out of the world. For example, some dialog in Mistborn goes like this: “That was kind of the point” or “That was so not what I meant.” Not much, mind you. Just occasionally. But those two examples are enough to pull me out of the story and make me think of Seinfeld or Friends. Here’s another example. He used the word “caliginous” in a sentence. First of all, I had to look up what it meant heh. As you might guess just by looking at it, it stems from Caligula, that wacky old Roman Emperor, who should not have been known in the Mistborn world.

One argument I just now thought of against the “translating into modern language” theory is this: Most translations of things like Beowulf and Chaucer don’t do that. They leave the original colloquialisms intact, and I think I will continue to do so in my fantasy writing as well (as long as they make sense to a modern reader).

(By the way, I hate it when I begin a paragraph with a sentence like this: “One thing I’ve noticed is …” or “My feeling on that is …” Why do I keep doing that? Why don’t I go back and fix it?)

Chapter 6 of Mistborn deserves close study. I will freely admit that I am terrible at dialog, so there is a lot I can learn here. The chapter is nothing but a group of people sitting down and brainstorming how to pull off the heist. There are at least six or seven different characters speaking. I won’t say that I could have told them apart without dialog tags, but I did notice certain characters had distinct speaking patterns. For example, one of them said “my dear boy” a lot. Anyway, I found this to be an interesting chapter because I often find myself writing out a character’s problem-solving process (usually one at a time!), but I always want to go back and delete those scenes because the problem was that I had written my character into that corner, so the writing is my way of thinking up a solution to get him out of it. I guess it depends on the character and the situation.