The Big Idea: Brandon Sanderson

Don’t know if you’ve heard of this Brandon Sanderson kid, but something tells me one day he’s gonna hit the heights. He’s got a new book out called Steelheart, and he’s here today to talk about. And also to talk about being a geek. And how the latter matters to the former.

Watch for this guy! He’s gonna be big!


Early in my life, I knew I was a geek. I just didn’t know what that meant.

For example, I went to a Star Trek convention when I was eleven or twelve. Now, at that point, I’d only seen a handful of TOS episodes. I hadn’t discovered fantasy novels or reading yet. But I went to a Star Trek convention because…well, I was geek, right? That seemed like the sort of thing that geeks did.

Fortunately, it turns out my instincts about myself were right. During the next few years, I blossomed. In geek terms, that means I discovered comic books, role playing, and novels–then retreated to my room to pupate for the next six years, surviving on a steady diet of Anne McCaffrey novels and bags of Cheetos.

A few years ago, I got an idea. It was a great idea. A really, REALLY great idea.

This isn’t to say it will feel as awesome to you as it did to me. A “great” idea for me is a very individual thing. They aren’t always the ones that come with an accessible, built-in pitch–instead, they are the ideas that boil in my head and turn into a book that I can’t leave alone.

Many writers say that ideas are cheap, and I find this to be mostly true. A writer grows accustomed to coming up with–and discarding–ideas on a daily basis. This idea, however, was one of those powerful ones, precisely because of its undiscardability.

The idea was actually pretty simple. It came as I was driving to a book signing, and was cut off in traffic. I had an immediate, gut response: I thought to the person ahead of me, “You are lucky I don’t have super powers, or I’d totally blow your car up right now.”

This terrified me in ways I can’t explain. It whispered that, if I were to somehow have powers like this, I might not be quite so benevolent with them as heroes from the stories. This spiraled me into wondering what would happen if people started gaining powers, but everyone used them selfishly.

Finally, the idea that made me eager came–it was the idea for a group of regular people who assassinate super-powered individuals. Again, it’s not the pitch, but the entire package that made me excited. Steelheart was a book I was truly, passionately excited to write, and after finishing some thirty books, I’ve learned to trust my instincts. An idea that makes me excited in new ways and captures my imagination is something to grab hold of tightly.

In this case, the idea dredged up passions from my childhood and mixed them with plotting structures I’d been studying in recent films. It prompted a character voice in my head who was individual and distinct.

I had a several hour drive ahead of me. By the end of it, I had Steelheart–almost in its entirety–pictured and held in my mind.

Something about writing the book the way I’d imagined it bothered me, though. And it had to do with my experiences with anthropomorphic turtles.

Geek Culture
In my high school years, we had a gift exchange in my French class. In an interesting parallel to my Star Trek convention experience, the girl who drew my name bought me a comic book. (The one where Superman dies, not first printing, unfortunately.) I’d never mentioned comic books in class, and so far as I knew, this girl and I had never had a conversation. She knew to get me a comic book anyway because…well, I was one of THOSE people.

As a geek in my high school, there were just certain things that you did. You played with computers and video games. You read comic books. You hid in basements and role played. Amusingly, I wasn’t cool enough to be on the school newspaper–which was not actually the domain of the geek, but instead the preppy debate folks.

The previous paragraph might make it sound like I was ostracized, but I didn’t really feel that way. I was quite comfortable in this role–as, I assume, was common for geeks in the ’80s and early ’90s. This was our home. We adopted it, claimed it, and loved it.

We also defended it. As I did constantly in regards to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Now, you have to understand, TMNT was MY comic book. I’d started role playing because of TMNT, and its issues were the first comics I ever read. I discovered the Turtles before I even found fantasy novels, and I continued to role play TMNT games for years into my teens.

And I had a problem with the cartoon show and movies that came after it. Both were actually a lot of fun–except for the way that this new wave of Turtles took MY comic and repackaged it for a more general audience.

I think a lot of us in geek culture have felt this kind of emotion, particularly in recent years. A great deal has been written about geek culture going mainstream.

I’m not going to defend my selfishness in wanting to keep the Turtles for myself. It was an instinctive, emotional reaction from a teenage boy who saw part of what defined him–part of what society had used to define him–being stolen and made (in his eyes) more shallow.

Over the years, though, I had to confront these emotions. What was it that bothered me so much? A thing which brought me joy was now bringing joy to many others. Why had my first instinct been selfishness, as opposed to pleasure? Isn’t the core of geekdom about expertise? Suddenly, I was an expert about something that everyone else was discovering. Why, instead of being happy, had I been so dismissive, even angry?

Steelheart and the Big Idea
Now, I don’t want to belabor the parallel between myself as a teen and my later self and his desire to destroy inconsiderate drivers. I do want to mention the Big Idea here, though. It’s not the idea I had for my book–I’ve talked about how personal that particular idea was.

The Big Idea for me on this book has to do with the importance, for myself, of embracing the larger world as it discovers stories I’ve loved. Yes, maybe those stories will change as they are brought to new mediums. That’s okay.

I feel I spent my youthful geekhood shaking chains and trying to get people to take my passions seriously. Now that many do, I want to celebrate it. I’m sure many of you have made this same transition, or never felt these same emotions in the first place. But this book brought the idea into focus for me.

As a writer, the further I’ve progressed in my career, the more “epic fantasy” I’ve become. Thicker books, more intricate worldbuilding, more sub-plots and hidden allusions relating my books to one another. I do this because that’s what I find exciting about epic fantasy.

Steelheart, as I’d imagined it, was far more accessible. I imagined it like a mainstream movie–one deeply influenced by the comics and stories of my youth, but paced and plotted like modern action films. The book is a fun explosion of a story–set pieces, chase scenes, and super heroes mixed with my own individual blend of worldbuilding.

I spent an undue amount of time wondering, as I worked on the book, if I was doing the very thing I’d worried about in my youth. Was I taking something individual to geek culture and distilling it to a more streamlined package, presenting it for the general masses?

Yes, I was.

And I love that about it.


Steelheart: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s 

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

39 Comments on “The Big Idea: Brandon Sanderson”

  1. “Watch for this guy! He’s gonna be big!”… Definitely… Waiting for Steelheart to update on my Kindle…. He is by far the most creative fantasy world-builder / magic system creator I have read in a long time… Just wish he would stop completing other peoples books and do his own thing for a while… Bring on Stormlight Archive number 2…..

    He also has plenty of advice for budding writers like myself.. Well worth the praise….

  2. Thanks, Brandon. I *do* think of you as that Epic Fantasy guy, so when you break that mold (with Steelheart, or the Alcatraz books, or The Emperor’s Soul), I get surprised, again and again.

  3. “I’m not going to defend my selfishness in wanting to keep the Turtles for myself. It was an instinctive, emotional reaction from a teenage boy…Over the years, though, I had to confront these emotins..[sic]”

    Thank you, Mr. Sanderson. This is what separates the men from the dudebros.

  4. I live to serve you, Lord Sanderson! Steelheart is unforgettably awesome!!!!

    Now that I’ve had my Sanderson fix, I can go back to obsessively waiting for Words of Radiance (the cover art of which is my computers awesomekickass wallpaper).

  5. I’m about 1/4 of the way through Steelheart and it’s incredibly engaging. Tons of action as Brandon says, but also very enjoyable characters.


  6. Have really enjoyed everything I have read by him. I put this on my TBR pile. Although I have to admit I am still waiting to find out what happens to the Smedrys?

    And congratulations for the Hugo for Writing Excuses. I find the advice very useful.

  7. Blowing cars up is a bit harsh. I’d settle for a disintegrator cannon that left the occupants sitting on the seat fabric in the middle of a cloud of metallic dust.

  8. Saw this book in your recent post and read up on it. Thanks for profiling Brandon Sanderson. It is fascinating to get insight into the writer’s thoughts and personality. I enjoyed his completion of Robert Jordan’s life work- a gift of Eye of the World turned me on to fantasy. I followed along with Mistborn and liked The Way of Kings (second half more than the first). I’ll have to give this a try.

  9. So, the ordinary people who assassinate those with superpowers represent the geeks assassinating those who look down on them (e.g. the preps at the school newspaper)… Or the ordinary people assassinating those with superpowers represent the Joe Schmoes appropriating geek culture, which amounts to destroying the geeks’ superpowers — the qualities that made them exceptional… Or both, or something else…

    Anyhow, something to chew over. Thanks.

  10. This book appeared on my Kindle Tuesday morning – I’d preordered it – and I was done with it by Wednesday late afternoon, because I more or less couldn’t put it down.

    Thank you; it was really well done, and I look forward to the sequel. Although I’ve got to say I’m somewhat chomping at the bit for Words of Radiance. :)

  11. I’m about one hundred pages into this book an am loving it so far. He is one of the few authors that I have liked everything that I have read. Which I’m pretty sure is everything that he has had published. Can’t wait to catch him on tour next weekend.

  12. “Watch for this guy! He’s gonna be big!”

    Big? He’s the Clifford the Big Red Dog of SF/Fantasy.

  13. For once I actually bought the book before I saw it on The Big Idea. Unfortunately it is at #6 or #7 in the Read Next queue. Curse you authors who write good books! And yes, that includes you, Mr. Scalzi…

  14. I’m halfway through Steelheart, and loving it so far. I love all the little nuances of the world. This is in stark contrast to some of the blander books I’ve been reading lately.

    Sanderson is currently my only auto-buy author. In fact, I wish Amazon would just send me his stuff automatically without having to even click a pre-order button…

  15. Lord Sanderson need not walk among the mortals, yet gifts us his glorious tales. I have a custom-built, super-reinforced bookcase for his works, but am lately concerned that the floor will need reinforcing as well.

  16. I just finished reading Sanderson’s truly excellent YA “Rithmatist”, I’ll definitely check this out.

  17. “I went to buy it, and there are two different covers. Is there any other difference?”

    Probably only that our collections will be incomplete if we don’t have both. Our Lord has a dark side.

  18. I started AND finished Steelheart today sitting in LAX, waiting for a connecting flight. Dammit, this book was supposed to last me through the next flight, but it was too good to put down.

    Coming up all the different Epics and their power’s and weaknesses must have been a blast.

  19. Holy cow, how many Brandon Sandersons are there? Isn’t there another one writing a 100,000 page epic fantasy series? Surely he’s not the same one that is writing five YA books a year.

  20. Sanderson is an author whose books I enjoy no matter what genre, no matter what barrier to entry (he mentioned in a world-building seminar the difference between Mistborn being a gentle slope, and The Way of Kings being a towering wall of death), and I think it’s especially true because he writes about people. The worlds are incredible, but they’re also thought-out from how everything affects people, and how people affect everything. His characters are so very easy to relate to, empathize with, and cheer for.

    He’s also a very engaging speaker, I’ve had the pleasure of attending several writer’s panels at Gencon with him.

    Quite honestly? He also made me love Wheel of Time again, something I wouldn’t have told you was possible a decade ago.

    I really hope folks pick up his work, especially YA readers, because he is an awesome gateway writer and it’s really easy to get people addicted to his entire backlist.

  21. “I went to buy it, and there are two different covers. Is there any other difference?”

    Is one hard cover and one paperback?

  22. @wdgo – when you wrote “the Hugo for Writing Excuses” my first reaction was “Is this a new Hugo category? Cool!”

  23. I received my signed copy a day or so ago but haven’t had a chance to pick it up yet. So I picked up the kindle copy yesterday since I’m patience impaired (plus I don’t have to worry about messing up the signed copy). Finished it today. Cool treatment of the superhero premise. I like Brandon’s very subtly telegraphed plot twists that have a real nice touch of ambiguity so that you know somethings gonna happen, but you’re not quite sure what.

  24. Reblogged this on L.P.'s and commented:
    Sanderson is an author I respect. I’ve said this before; he’s not an author I wold rank up there as one of the most incredible authors in the world, but I give him heaps of respect. He’s done so much to encourage the next generation to write and write boldly. That’s all he seems to do. Again, I honestly don’t think his skill in the craft is what it needs to be, but that’s my opinion. The point is he’s an incredible motivator and he leads by a wicked example. I don’t know, Your thoughts?

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  27. I believe the two covers are the U.S. (hardcover only) and U.K. (hardcover and trade paperback) editions.

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