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Brandon Sanderson - Tips from a Master, but are they Master Tips?

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In the context of NaNoWriMo, I find this video to be a useful kickstarter for new writers looking to figure out how they're going to start page one. I especially like the idea of "types of progress" whether it be through information, physical movement, etc. While I do think Sanderson's "Promise, Progress toward that promise, and Payoff" structure is quite a bit oversimplified... [SEE BELOW]

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I will do my best to be unbiased here because, full disclosure, Brandon Sanderson is my all-time favorite writer.

In the context of NaNoWriMo, I find this video to be a useful kickstarter for new writers looking to figure out how they're going to start page one. I especially like the idea of "types of progress" whether it be through information, physical movement, etc. While I do think Sanderson's "Promise, Progress toward that promise, and Payoff" structure is quite a bit oversimplified (the video is short so I'll cut him slack), it's definitely a good primer for writers looking to start their very first outline and to me is a clearer version of the classic "3 Act" structure. However, I do believe writers going for the long haul (not writing for NaNoWriMo) should choose a more detailed style of outline.

The big thing I disagree with here is the advice about writing a monologue or a novel in journal entries. I guess the argument could be made that if the writer isn't writing with the intent to get traditionally published it's okay, but that disclaimer wasn't mentioned by Sanderson. Writing a random monologue to kickstart your story might be fun and a good way to get words on page...but outlining is more productive (hence why Sanderson spent more time on outlining).

Lastly, I'm so glad he mentioned the concept of the "outside observer" in main characters. It's such a problem with new writers to have a main character who isn't as interesting or as active as the "side characters."

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Personally and overall, I found this vid by Sanderson to be the most useful and pragmatic of all the vids reviewed so far--precisely the kind of advice I would expect from a truly successful author. My takeaways as follows:

  • The concept of "borrowing" or getting story ideas, entire structure, or themes from other books or films can't hurt and might actually lead to publication; but I maintain you step carefully. The concept may already be overdone, a stale trope.
  • His advised method of transposing the "structure" of one type of genre novel onto another can be productive--reminiscent of Italian writers in the old days transposing Japanese samurai scripts into spaghetti westerns. Another good example is the transposing of BATTLE ROYALE into THE HUNGER GAMES (different genre? debatable). 
  • Helpful to note plot points and/or scenes that successful stories have in common. 
  • Concept of "interviewing" your character to learn about them, is a very good one. Ask them questions, get in their heads, role play.
  • Asking what character wants and needs, and how they're different.
  • Careful with choice of primary protagonist viewpoint. The story needs to be personal to the viewpoint character. 
  • Partitioning a novel into three basic part: PROMISE, PROGRESS, PAYOFF. Yes, very basic, but helpful for new writers.
  • Finally, his idea for "mind priming" before you hit the paper is a good one, e.g., you consider the ways in which you can make an important scene very visual and thrilling, and you roll it around in your head like a lozenge under the tongue. You savor it and play with it.

Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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Just like Joe, I too will probably be biased in this review, as I learned the majority of my plotting and story structure from Brandon Sanderson as well as from his friend Dan Wells, whom he mentions. While Brandon states that his advice is for those participating in NaNoWriMo, I think it can be used for just about any novel writing circumstance.

I really appreciate how he goes in depth into plotting and story structure for beginners, instead of just skimming the surface like many others do. His advice to borrow your initial plot structure from a favorite movie in a favorite genre is fantastic advice to help any new writer ease themselves into writing novel length stories.

Writing a monologue with your main character(s) to get to the heart of who they are and what they need or want is priceless advice. This is a little golden nugget he got from his author friend Dan Wells, and who I learned it from first. It is really helpful when you need to figure out backstory. I recommend it to all. It's what I have done for all my characters (major and minor) in all my stories and it works every time to help me know their personalities, quirks and how they will behave in any given scene. This way, you never have to worry about a character doing something really weird or spontaneous, thus hijacking your story.

"Prime your mind" is good advice for keeping yourself focused on your writing, even when you can't write. However, I'm sure I'm not the only writer who needs pen and paper close by anytime I'm brainstorming or even thinking about my story because inevitably, if I do not jot it down right then then I forget what my 'ah-ha' moment was about. So, while this point wouldn't necessarily work for me, I'm sure it can benefit many others and is still worth trying it out.

In summary, I think this is a great video for any writer and definitely worth 12 minutes of your time.

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I agree with the Kara and Michael that this is the best video we’ve reviewed so far. Brandon Sanderson puts the viewer at ease with his encouraging and relatable manner.  

There are good practical tips here. Sanderson gives the new writer a roadmap to create scenes and structure and he also provides tools to get the writer’s ideas flowing. Like Kara, I also like creating monologues from the point of view of my main characters. It helps me dive deeper into their personalities and discover their idiosyncrasies. 

While his last point (“prime your mind”) is good advice, it doesn’t work for me. I have a hard time thinking about my story ahead of time. I need to be in the act of writing or outlining before I can work details out in my head. The more time I spend at the keyboard, the more my story brain kicks into gear.  

One quick note about the production. I think the video would benefit from graphics. Five simple graphics would be a nice visual break in the twelve-minute video and would help reinforce the main points to the viewer. 

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