I’ve done a number of author signings over the years. Most have been on the smaller scale, nestled into an independent bookstore or library. But it has been awhile since I’ve been a signing for a bestselling author at a big chain bookstore, where you needed to worry about tickets and time and endurance. Such was the case Thursday night. I was used to a nice easy sprint. I was unprepared for a full out marathon.
Brandon Sanderson is an author of epic fantasy, including his Mistborn trilogy and his current Stormlight Archive. He was also tapped to fill the shoes of the late Robert Jordan in finishing his “Wheel of Time” series. He co-hosts a Hugo-award winning writing podcast and teaches creative writing. His books regularly appear on the New York Times best sellers lists.
All of which goes to say Sanderson is not a niche author by any stretch. So I should have been worried when I saw the notice yesterday afternoon that his event at the Tysons Corner Barnes & Noble would be a ticketed event. You’d need to buy his latest book to get one of the fabled wristbands that allowed you to get your books signed. The bookstore ran out of his backlist fairly early on, not that seemed to deter anyone. That should also have been my first warning.
But what really alarmed me was the mob scene I saw at the store. The upper floor was crowded with people with nary a seat to be had. The spillover were standing by the bookshelves and surrounding the signing area several people deep. The first people showed up when the store opened at 10AM! If I’d known it was going to be so crowded, I might have taken some time off work.
The bookstore was quite well organized as far as the actual signing. The wristbands were broken down into zones, like boarding a flight, so when they called your section, it was time to line up. By the time I arrived, they had already handed out bracelets through zone E and at least one more zone behind that one. The line wound its way up and down and around through the fiction and science fiction sections, so we had plenty of time to window shop. Or mock cover trends unceremoniously. Sanderson warned people outright that he would be there all night, so if we wanted to go off and grab a bite to eat and maybe catch a movie, he’d understand.
Sanderson gave out little Szeth stand up cards for people that asked questions and wore costumes and even to the guy that showed up the earliest. He enjoyed flinging the cards towards the person like a frisbee. Sometimes it came close to its target and well other times… let’s just say it was entertaining?
To start, Sanderson did a quick 15 minute speech that explained about his books and his career. Then he’d do a question and answer session and reading and finally the actual signing. The pre-signing stuff took about an hour all told, which is probably fine when you’re sitting down, but brutal when you’re on your feet. I was grateful for the comfortable shoes, but my knees gave out a good way into his talk.
Sanderson started as a chemistry major of all things, but eventually studied creative writing. He used to be a professor until his schedule prevented it. Now he teaches one class on writing sf/fantasy, which he’s trying to keep. He wrote twelve(!!!) horrible books before he was published. He was working on the original incarnation of Way of Kings when Elantris (#4) was bought. He dumped everything he loved about epic fantasy into Way of Kings and didn’t care how long it wound up. So if it wound up 400K instead of the usual 100-200K for epic fantasy?
He showed the original WoK to them when they asked innocently “What else are you working on?” In what sounds like a trend in Sanderson’s career, they looked at the idea and went “Brandon, what are you thinking? Artwork?” But he willingly admitted there were problems with the original and he decided to shelve it for awhile.
Sanderson only touched on briefly the enormous privilege and honor of being asked to continue Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time books, describing them as “enormous freight train”. He mentioned how he’d learned some things from writing those books. Jordan could weave multiple arcs/POVs very well. On the other hand, Sanderson could also step back and recognize some of Jordan’s flaws. Ironically this gave him the courage/confidence to think “Yes, I can write Way of Kings now”. His editors were of course more concerned about getting the *other* books on his plate out on time. Stormlight Archive is planned as 10 books with two sets of five books.
Words of Radiance started life as what he described as a horrible Dragonlance book. Sanderson originally had all his titles for the Stormlight Archive all mapped out with the idea each would named after a fictional book from the universe. (I can only imagine his editors/publishers/marketers going “Oh god, writers, there is a reason we don’t let them name things.”) He was convinced however that maybe naming “The Book of Endless Pages” was perhaps not the best choice for a 1000+ page behemoth. No sense in giving the critics more firepower. So suddenly he had to come up with a completely new title and work it into the book somehow. He called “Words of Radiance” the hardest three words he’d written for this book. It took so long to come up with one that the marketing material all read “Unnamed Brandon Sanderson Project” for the longest time.
The Mistborn books are envisioned as three sets of trilogies -- one trilogy is epic fantasy, one is urban fantasy, and another science fiction. Alloy of Law and its followup are not part of these books. He did them when he realized how long it’d be before he’d do this universe again. Again his editor/agent is going “Wow, you’re certainly... ambitious” whenever he’d give them these crazy ideas.
Throughout the speech & Q&A, he’s nimbly going back and forth on all his different projects. I amazed he can keep them all straight, especially given how tired he must be during a book tour. He loves jumping around between different projects, so he’ll write one Stormlight book and then a Steelheart book and then he’s onto the Arithmatist, rather than working on one project continuously.
The Q&A session followed his initial talk. He tried to avoid spoilers for his books, which I appreciated. Questions ranged from what he looked for in artists to what would happen if Hoid appeared in our universe. Sanderson pointed out Hoid is only here when there is a presence of magic, so we might have a reason to be worried. He was also asking about his tendency to give his magic systems a scientific approach, rationalizing that most of his worlds would at least have reached the Renaissance and the basic scientific method. He is one of the few authors I've encountered to consider technological progress into his worldbuilding; most seem to stop at medieval.
After the Q&A session, Sanderson gave a short reading. Instead of reading from one of his books, he read an unpublished short story he wrote in between “Steelheart” and “Words of Radiance”. He hopes to go back to the story at some point.
Then came the waiting for my zone to be called. I had a snack and drink in the B&N cafe and rested my feet for awhile and listened to the conversations around me. The ages ranged widely from teenagers to older fans. You could choose to have your books personalized or if you were in a hurry he was pre-signing some books so you could grab and go. In retrospect, if I’d know how late we’d run, I might have considered it.
By the time I wound up at the table to get my books signed, the store had officially closed, unless you were there for the signing. So yes, we closed the store and possibly then some, since he was still signing books when I left nearly at midnight. I was physically fried, but it was nice to say hello and to thank him for the Writing Excuses podcasts I’ve enjoyed. I had to hoped to ask him for encouragement/advice when the writing isn’t working, but that’ll have to wait for another day.