Writing Excuses 6.17: Writing Assistants

Peter Ahlstrom, assistant to Brandon Sanderson, and Valerie Dowbenko, assistant to Pat Rothfuss, join Brandon and Dan to talk about what they do for “their authors.”

While this may seem like an incredible luxury — most of you listeners aren’t going to rush out and hire an assistant — there are things that can be farmed out from the earliest stages of your career as a professional writer. The goal, of course, is for the writer to find more time to write.

It’s also a lot of fun to hear Peter and Valerie talk about how they keep Brandon and Pat writing, and to listen to them talk about some of the unusual things they do as part of this job.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline, narrated by Wil Wheaton

Writing Prompt: First person once removed — give us a story from the perspective of a first person narrator who is NOT the cool person.

The Shoes, Pat Has All of Them: Because that’s what Valerie did for him.

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28 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 6.17: Writing Assistants”

  1. LUXURY!

    (Since Howard wasn’t there)

    I can’t imagine ever being in a position, financially or career-wise, where I could afford/need an assistant. The idea of being able to pay someone else’s wages….

  2. I bet the psychological aspect helps too.

    I mean, if you’re paying that much money to open up time to write, you’re probably going to get some writing done so the money doesn’t feel wasted.

  3. Yeah, I agree. I’m not sure I want to even think about a point in career where I potentially want or need an assistant. Beyond basic career planning, tunnel vision is serving my self-esteem well. It’s nice not to notice how not awesome I actually am.

    It was extremely interesting, nonetheless. Thank for the insight, Peter and Valerie. :)

  4. Do the author and assistant need an NDA? Or is it unnecessary?

    I would like to have heard about what the assistant gets out of the arrangement. Is it purely a financial agreement? Is there a mentor/student relationship for the assistant? Something else?

    What does the assistant get paid for such work? What kind of hours? In person or telecommuting? Etc.

  5. My contract has a non-disclosure clause. (My first task after getting offered the job was to write my own contract, and it seemed reasonable.) There’s no mentor/student relationship, but it’s a friendly relationship. I mean, Brandon was my friend for years before he was my boss, and I’ve been an alpha reader since before Brandon even knew the term “alpha reader.”

    I get to work on books I love, since I love Brandon’s writing, and I never have to work on books I hate or am indifferent toward, as was sometimes the case when I was editing at TOKYOPOP. Brandon pays me (after more than two years doing this) a bit better than I was getting paid there. (Editors do not get rich.) At this point in his career Brandon makes over an order of magnitude more hourly for writing than I make for what he has me do, so any non-writing time I can take off his hands is worth it.

  6. I have a self-nominated writer’s assistant (unpaid). She said that if I was to hire one, it has to be her. =P She’s on pregnancy leave now. She’s better at research than anyone I know. I promised her gold signed copies of my books as in her words, “When you get published.”

  7. Great episode guys and gals, a few questions.

    @Peter, how far along was Brandon in his career when he hired you? (i.e. what book had come out or was about to?)

    Do you still have thoughts of writing your own book, even if just for yourself?

    What’s the one aspect of your job that surprised you the most?

    How involved do you get in the “business” side of Brandon’s writing?

    *If Valerie is reading this please feel free to answer any applicable questions concerning Pat.

    Thanks for your time! Loved the behind the scenes look.

  8. I think the elephant in the room is: How much do you pay a writing assistant?

    I’m not expecting a direct number, as an answer because that is obviously a matter of private business.

    What I would like to know is:

    When do you hire an assistant?
    Do you start one off part-time?
    Do you pay them a percentage? (I would imagine it’s a salary)
    Do you have any written guidelines as to job expectations and tasks?

    I’m a paralegal/personal assistant, so I can really see how having a minion frees up a lot of your time and it makes sense for a writer.

  9. I should add that I enjoyed the podcast very much. It’s nice to break up the storytelling theories with some of the practical, real world advice that has made the ‘cast so successful.

    I too would enjoy more on this subject.

    @Jace: Due to the inevitability of a pants joke, Howard was asked not to contribute to this particular ‘cast.

    And now the obligatory joke about Dan’s assistant helping hide the bodies. It’s what he gets for writing effective horror.

  10. @Michael

    Ohhhh, that was disturbing….

    Assuming you were replying to my ‘Luxury’ riff, yeah, I know about Howard’s colorist, but I’m not sure he covers the same range of duties.

    I just figured, since he USUALLY says it… what can I say, I like running gags.

  11. Like Michael said, I like to occasionally hear casts about the practical side of a writing career as well. That said, and I’m sure assistants can be very helpful, I’m going to have to file this one under “yeah, not gonna worry about that anytime soon.” First things first, right?

    I bet you’re right on about the psychological aspect. I know it would motivate me.

    Here’s my prompt. Had a little fun with it this week.


  12. To think of the day I’ll even be able to consider this!

    But it was nice to hear the reflections of writing from the assistants. I can relate to the needing to be reminded to stay focused on one idea even when multiple ones pop up. I wouldn’t mind having someone to keep me in check on that one….

    -Justin C. Key

  13. Loved this podcast – very interesting view of the business side of writing. Can we have more podcasts like this? I was intrigued at learning that Brandon and Dan both are “corporations” – why is that? And I echo the questions posted – how do you find research or editorial assistants?



  14. @Rachel: I’m a corporation too. Or rather, “The Tayler Corporation” is the entity that cuts my paychecks, and that manages all of the expenses for printing books, paying for postage, and paying Travis for coloring.

    The short version? The tax burden is much lighter, and your personal finances are shielded from certain kinds of lawsuits. For instance, if somebody were to sue the company (maybe one of my displays tipped over and injured someone at a show) the company could lose the lawsuit and I’d still be able to keep my house.

    Small business owners whose businesses “churn” in the neighborhood of $200,000 to $2,000,000 (numbers pulled from hat) can get clobbered by taxes if they don’t incorporate, and the result is often that their businesses can’t grow, even if they’re doing well. I know that we’d never have been able to afford to pay Travis Walton for coloring if we weren’t incorporated. He’s not full-time for me, but this last year we paid him nearly half what we paid me.

  15. I would really be interested in how one goes about finding someone to be an assistant? A soundingboard/research/extra brain…where do you even start looking? What kind of background/credentials are you looking for? Is it wise to hire a friend or should you look outside your immediate circle? How much time do you usually spend with your assistant on a daily basis?
    You left me with more questions than I knew I had before this podcast. Enjoyed the episode very much, anyway, though, great job.

  16. @Howard
    Would you guys consider doing another episode on the business side of things? I’d love to hear about reasons for incorporating, tax filing, business models, etc. for writers. I’m especially interested in how you all made the transition to full time from the business side.

  17. @Howard: Just curious — is “The Taylor Corporation” an LLCs, or some other organization type? I thought I saw once that Brandon’s company was, but maybe that’s my imagination.

  18. @Howard – thanks for the explanation. Makes perfect sense to save on taxes and have the protection. It’s just interesting to think of y’all as “corporations”. Evil Corporations! No – just kidding. But what a great writing prompt – living in a world where everyone is a corporation…What would the social interaction look like…Hmmmm….interesting.

  19. Interesting podcast, I never even thought about writers having assisstants. I wonder…do you need any speacial skills or degrees to be an assisstant? It sounds like a cool job if the whole becoming-a-writer thing doesnt work :)

  20. I wanted to echo the earlier question of: How do you go about finding assistants? Since Peter said that he already knew Brandon, maybe we could direct this question at Dan.

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