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.
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.