Sunday, March 23, 2014

Brandon Sanderson signing

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.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

NoVaTeen Book Festival

Last weekend I was able to spend a day indulging in my recent love of YA fiction with NoVaTeen Book Festival sponsored by One More Page Books and Arlington County Library. Held at the local high school, the festival included an amazing lineup of 23 Young Adult authors, featuring Phyllis Reynolds Naylor and Marie Lu.

Inside the event, the festival had tables set up from One More Page Books with books from the authors, free swag, and most importantly snacks. This last bit can't be overstated because the high school, while easily within walking distance of Metro, is pretty far from restaurants and cafes. So it was good to be able to grab a quick bite and hydrate before the next panel. Unfortunately the initial part of the event was a comedy of errors as the poor OMP booksellers valiantly tried to get wifi to work so they could sell all those books in their nice piles. You were allowed three outside books, so I brought my copy of Victoria Schwab’s Unbound and bought Meagan Spooner and Amie Kaufman's These Broken Stars and Marie Lu's Legend. The event ended with a mass signing at Arlington’s Central library.

The opening focus panel was on Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, author of the Alice series and Newberry-award winning Shiloh. I had heard the name before, enough to be impressed, but had never had occasion to read her books. Checking her bibliography suggests I was just off the generation for her books.  By the time she was popular, I was at college and discovering new science fiction authors. She talked about growing up in the Great Depression and how it impacted her family and how much she'd look forward to "story" time where her family would read from the classics. She's had such a wide career from writing little short stories for a church magazine to her novels to even her autobiography. She'd never intended the Alice books to become the long ranging series, covering 28 books! She talked about how they'd become the most challenged and banned books in the country, because she covered topics that were considered taboos. As an example, Naylor picked a sequence from "Alice in April" where she is struggling with the changes of puberty and the cruelty of boys.

After the Naylor speech, I went to the first breakout panel. These were smaller focus panels where two authors would talk and answer questions, held in one of the classrooms. Each breakout panel was named after a song title, so Victoria Schwab and Marie Lu's was "Wrecking Ball". Schwab and Lu both described at length how they'd become writers and their respective publishing careers. Their trajectories were eerily similar in some ways.

Victoria Schwab came from a poetry background originally and discovered writing novels when she was trying out other forms of writing. She also changed majors SIX times in her college career, which makes my one switch pale by comparison. But she'd taken classes in nearly everything and discovered  narrative in all of them. Her first book had sparkling prose that everyone loved, but no plot. This confused people no end. Near Witch, Schwab’s first published novel, was a dark fairy tale where all the children disappear after a stranger comes to a town. Setting wasn’t a focus in fairy tales. They could literally happen in any little village or any forest. Marie Lu had thought about becoming a lawyer or doctor, a nice stable career, which her family heartily approved of, until she had the opportunity to get a video game internship and took a chance on the creative side.

Lu also gave a wonderful final speech as the featured author, so I learned even more about her background. She learned to write because her mother made her to improve her English after they’d emigrated from China. Their first experience of American culture was seeing Mardi Gras in New Orleans! But I felt very old when Marie Lu described living in Beijing at a tender age of five and seeing the "local" Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. I was graduating high school two weeks later. Perspective.

 I laughed a little learning that Marie Lu had written fanfiction in her youth. She loved animal stories, so her favorites were Brian Jacques' Redwall and Sonic the Hedgehog. As a sf/fantasy fan of Eddings and Tolkien, Lu wrote her own horribly bad books, including the dread behemoth book of a party going after the shiny object and… even she willingly admitted "okay, yes, it was Lord of the Rings."

One piece of writing advice I heard repeated throughout the day was that you often didn’t need just one spark of an idea, but several, often combining in ways you hadn’t imagined. Her Legend series came from two sources : rewatching the old Les Miserables movie with Liam Neeson, thinking a detective vs thief would be a fun idea. And a map showing the world would look if the freshwater ice melted, including destroying her hometown of Los Angeles. Rather than be horrified, she reacted like most writers "Oh cool I can use that!"

Schwab and Lu answered questions from the audience. Some questions were process related, others for encouraging aspiring writers. We were cautioned not to ask spoilerly questions, which was a relief from my perspective. We had a nice discussion about Word vs Scrivener. Scrivener worked wonders for Schwab with her multiple documents and windows – although she admitted it worked only when she started the project there, rather than import an existing one.

After the first breakout session, I grabbed a bite to eat and then headed into the auditorium for the next panel. "The Scientist" was all about the intersection of science and technology and morality. Jon Skovron was co-moderating. He'd been at the library's Shut Up and Write event I had attended last year. Fascinating topic. I wish I’d been more familiar with the authors to appreciate their answers more.

In between the panels, I was amused when the auditorium played music, including "Carry on My Wayward Son". I half expected to hear discussions of demon hunters in the next panel.

Instead the “Survivor" panel showcased authors with characters in difficult situations. Again I appreciated being introduced to authors I had not encountered and hearing more about their writing process. Meagan Spooner’s These Broken Stars proved a particular challenge, since it was written with her writing partner Amie Kaufman in Australia. One wanted to write about a shipwreck and one wanted a space story, so they combined the idea. What surprised (and gratified) them was hearing that one particular character was embraced by readers rather than ripped to shreds. Kirsten Simmons was imagining a world without the Bill of Rights and other statues. Simmons’ character remembered the way it’d been before, so there was a tendency to survive by just getting by, put head down and don’t attract attention, and whether that was the right way. Both Jessica Spotswood and Claudia Gray wrote about witches, but approached them differently. Spotswood’s books were about the power also of sisterhood and their combined strength. Claudia Gray’s witches had to maintain their secrecy, even when it prompted awkward questions. How do you tell that local boy that well… yeah, actually he *was* cursed.

The only thing that bothered me in the Q&A session was the question about world building. To me, just because something is set in the “real” world doesn’t mean I have to research or think it through any less than if it’s a Middle Earth style fantasy. There was, though, a hilarious sidebar on the research questions you’ve had to ask your friends in the course of writing. For instance, how *do* you explain to the State Department your fascination with dead bodies and massive injuries? And how your friends go from “Why do you need to know this?” to “Oh, it’s for a book, isn’t it?” in the course of knowing you as a writer.

The second breakout session featured Diana Peterfreund and Meagan Spooner discussing science fiction in YA. This was more low key and informal than the earlier breakout session. Lu & Schwab were very business-like in their approach, but quite fun and personable, where Peterfreund and Spooner gabbed like old best buddies having a grand old time. At length they discussed the covers for their books and the market struggles, especially the boy book vs girl book demands. Peterfreund had a librarian tell her that she loved her second Star book, but she couldn't get boys to read it because of the cover. Spooner admitted asking the publisher if they realized the cover for These Broken Stars would turn off potential boy readers. Publishers didn't care; they were perfectly okay with losing that potential market. Another unfortunate side effect of the pretty covers: you might not guess they’re set in outer space.

Markets and labels was another common refrain I’d heard throughout the day. Some writers were not allowed to call their books “science fiction” or “dystopia” because the Trend was over. Yet Jenna Black truly believed her “Replica” series where you can create a duplicate of yourself if you have enough money was a *true* dystopia, in that her science was intended towards “the good” and went horribly horribly wrong. But her publisher wouldn’t call it that.  It’s a bit of quandary for writers. But all of them dissuaded wannabe writers from “chasing the trend” because by the time your book is out the trend may be long over.

In the end, the first NoVaTeen Book Festival was a great success. I was exhausted by the end of it, but I quite enjoyed the book festival and meeting all the authors and hearing their experiences.  If I have a regret for NoVaTeen, it was that I wasn’t more daring.  I do lean more heavily towards science fiction and paranormal sides of YA in my own reading. Ah, well, judging by the bookshelves, there is plenty of time to learn.