Brandon Sanderson: What Makes a Masterpiece

Bestselling fantasy and science fiction author Brandon Sanderson's many series include Mistborn, the Stormlight Archive, Infinity Blade, Legion and Skyward. His books have sold more than 21 million copies worldwide. In 2007, he was chosen to finish Robert Jordan's iconic The Wheel of Time series. He also co-hosts the Hugo Award-winning writing advice podcast Writing Excuses. Sanderson lives in Utah with his wife and children. Recently he spoke with us about the 10th-anniversary edition of his Hugo-winning novella The Emperor's Soul (Tachyon), in which a gifted magical Forger must find a way to escape her captors while finishing the most difficult Forgery of her life: re-creating the Emperor's mind and personality after an assassination attempt.

What does the rerelease of The Emperor's Soul mean to you?

It is one of my favorite stories that I've written. I broke in as a giant, epic fantasy writer. I don't know if I'll ever be writing consistently award-winning flash fiction, but I wanted to practice the novella. My time spent working on it culminated in this story, which won the Hugo Award, which is to date my only win for a major fiction award. It's a mark of pride to me that I was able to teach myself to write in a slightly different format.

It's also a personal story about the nature of art and what it means to be an artist. All artists have this push and pull with art. Art theory goes back for me to Plato. He asks, are all artists poor imitations of reality? I do love Plato, but that question has always stuck in my craw. I wrote a story about what art meant to me, and about what makes something a masterpiece, versus a cheap copy.

How does the real world inspire your fiction?

If I have a challenge in my life, it's that I do not get to write all the stories that I want to write. Some of my beautiful things that I've imagined have to be put on the shelf as something that was only for me, and I'll never get to them. But everything inspires me and, beyond that, fiction is the way I work out my relationship to the now. The way that I work out my feelings about everything, from the nature of art, to politics, to relationships. As a writer, seeing through the eyes of different people who experience the world differently than myself is how I explore what it means to be human.

The world has changed in many ways since you wrote the story, and in some ways it hasn't changed at all. How might the story look different now to readers coming to it with fresh eyes?

Criticism is its own realm, and an author is often too close to the work to know what it's going to mean to people. At its core, The Emperor's Soul is about a woman coming to understand another person while a third person comes to understand her. I feel like the world could use a bit more effort to understand, even when we don't agree. Over the last 10 years, one of the things that has become increasingly obvious to me is that we make less of an effort than we ever have to understand each other.

In the new introduction, Jacob Weisman of Tachyon Publications recounts your Hugo Award acceptance. What do you remember about that evening?

It is one of the most magical evenings of my life. I still am a little bit disbelieving. With this story, I reached back to more traditional literary inspirations, and the fact that it even got nominated was a surprise to me. Winning floored me because I was up against some very, very stiff competition. There are various times when you can say, "Man, I think I've arrived now," and that was one of those moments for me.

What should readers expect from the new edition?

We have a cool deleted scene, the first scene I wrote for Emperor's Soul. As a writer, you have to write your way into a story. Then you read it and think, Wow, this scene got me into the story, but it doesn't belong. This one has some key continuity items that are relevant to the story and series, but I let them be inferred rather than seen. I think fans of the story in particular will love reading the scene and the new introduction.

A good friend of yours advised you to cut the scene.

Yeah, Mary Robinette Kowal, a master of the short form. Her rallying cry for me was, "Brandon, fewer characters." That's how you do the shorter form. Keep it focused. It was excellent advice.

What does having a strong community of writer friends mean to you?

Writing is so solitary. You're sitting in a room for hours on end. A lot of people do that for their jobs, but they're also touching base with their team members. In writing, you're by yourself and figuring out how to fix problems, how to grow. At certain points, you hit a wall and need friends to say, "This is how I climbed that wall. This is how I went around that wall. I dug under that wall!" The stronger the writing community, the more strong writers come out of it. When writers support one another, all their writing gets better. I'm grateful to my writing communities. I like the science fiction/fantasy community in particular, how open and welcoming it is to new writers.

You're known for your productivity. What motivates you to keep creating?

I love telling stories. I love holding the finished product in my hands. I love making things. If I'm not, something's missing from my life. When I have a vacation, what I want to do is sit on the beach and work on a new story, something that no one's expecting. I want to explore how to tell a different kind of story.

WithThe Emperor's Soul, I wondered, Can I tell a story that takes place mostly in one room? Can I tell a story that delves into the nature of art without feeling heavy-handed? These are challenges I set myself. I'm chasing the experience of what it feels like to tell these stories.

If a Forger had to re-create your essence, what would be the most important facets to get correct?

A Forger would probably have a pretty easy time, because I am who I am. When you read the books, every one of those characters is a piece of me. The thing that would be most important to get right would probably be that desire to tell stories. The way I interact with art is at the core of who I am. My desire to understand others drives me. My exploration of the world would be another point to get right.

And they need to know that I love salty foods, and I do enjoy sweet foods, but never the twain shall meet. If you make a Forgery of me that eats kettle corn, you have failed. --Jaclyn Fulwood

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