December 4, 2013

The Wheel of Time Retrospective by Brandon Sanderson

What follows is Brandon Sanderson's own account of completing the Wheel of Time series. He published a series of blog posts on his site, here they are collected into one.
Here is a collection of Brandon Sanderson's blog posts reflecting and sharing his experience with his work on completing the final books in the Wheel of Time series: The Gathering Storm, Towers of Midnight, and A Memory of Light. Take it away, Mr. Sanderson...

I usually do a Q&A session as part of my book signings. One of the questions I get asked most frequently is: “What did you learn from working on the Wheel of Time?” I often struggle to answer; I have no idea how to cover the topic in brief.

I’ve long wanted to a series of blog posts collecting all of the things I’ve said at signings, during interviews, and in other blog posts talking about the Wheel of Time experience. I’m going to add to this my thoughts and feelings, and then try to use it all to tackle talking about some of the things I’ve learned along the way. This will be a multi-day process! So if you’re interested in this topic, check back across the next few weeks as I work my way through a retrospective on my involvement in the Wheel of Time.

The Notes
As I’ve said before, I signed the contracts with Harriet to finish this series before I was given the notes. Therefore, going into this, I knew very little of what had been done for A Memory of Light already. In fact, the only thing I did know was that Mr. Jordan had written down the ending—the one he’d been promising for years that he had in his head. (Though, being the gardener-type writer that he was, he always noted that the ending could change shape as his view of it evolved over time.)

Eager, daunted, I flew to Charleston in December 2007 to meet Harriet. I knew her by reputation only—the editorial director of Tor Books during its foundational years, the woman who edited Ender’s Game and who discovered Robert Jordan. I was rather intimidated. Turns out, Harriet is quite grandmotherly—in a southern gentlewoman sort of way. She’s confident, capable, and has this air of knowledge about her. However, she’s also kind, quick with a smile, and remarkably genuine. I don’t know that I’ve ever met someone who so effortlessly blends self-confidence with compassion.

Once I arrived at Harriet’s house, I asked for the ending, which she gave me. I spent hours picking through the notes and reading—I was at it after Harriet retired for the night, though before she left, she pointed to the computer in the front room where I was sitting. “That’s Robert Jordan’s,” she noted to me. “That’s where he wrote many of the books, on that computer, that keyboard. We recently moved it in from the office into this room.”

So there I was, sitting beside Robert Jordan’s computer, looking at printouts of his notes, and feeling supremely overwhelmed. You might wonder what was in those notes. Well, in preparing to write this piece, I went to Harriet and (as I’d often promised fans) asked if it would be possible to release the notes, or to at least speak specifically about their contents. (I still someday want to do a series of blog posts where I take scenes from the notes, then compare them to scenes in the finished books, with a commentary on why I made the decisions to change them that I did.)

In response to my question, Harriet pointed out that work on the encyclopedia of the Wheel of Time is still in progress. She and Team Jordan haven’t yet finished deciding what tidbits from the notes they want to include in the encyclopedia, and she thinks now is not the time to release them. (Or even for me to talk about specifics.)

Therefore, I can’t talk about many specific scenes. Instead, then, I want to talk about the general process—which might be of more interest to many of you. You see, as I’ve explained before, the “notes” aren’t what people assume. I was handed two hundred pages of material by Harriet, and this is what I read that first night. Those pages included:

Written sections by Robert Jordan: Robert Jordan was a “discovery”-type writer, meaning he tended to explore where he wanted his story to go by doing the actual writing. He didn’t work from an outline. Harriet has explained that he had a few goalposts he was aiming for, big events he knew would happen somewhere in the story. He didn’t know exactly how those would play out until he wrote them, but he knew what they were. Otherwise, he would write and explore, working his way toward his goalposts and discovering many parts of his story as he worked.

Robert Jordan was also not a linear writer. From what I can judge by the notes, he was one of the relatively more rare breed of writers who work on a scene as it interests them, no matter where it may be in the story. It seems like he’d often dig out a file and write a short time on it, then stick that file back into the notes. The next day, he’d work on a different place in the story. It’s possible that as he started work on a book in earnest, however, he progressed in a more linear fashion. The largest chunk of actual writing he left behind was for the prologue of A Memory of Light, after all.

However, from what Harriet has told me, he did not show his notes to people, nor did he show them early drafts. Even Harriet often wouldn’t get to see early drafts—she says what he gave her was often draft twelve or thirteen.

In the stack of notes I was given were all of the scenes he’d actually written for A Memory of Light. Together, these were about a hundred pages. I can’t tell you everything that was in there, not yet. I can speak about the things I’ve said before, however. One thing in these notes was the ending. (This became the epilogue of A Memory of Light, though I did add a couple of scenes to it.) Another was his unfinished prologue. (I split this into three chunks to become the prologues for the three books, though I did add quite a few scenes to these prologues as well. Scenes he’d finished, mostly finished, or had a loose first draft of include: the farmer watching the clouds approach in The Gathering Storm, the scene with Rand seen through the eyes of a sul’dam from the prologue of The Gathering Storm, the scene with the borderlanders on the top of the tower in Towers of Midnight, and the scene with Isam in the Blight at the start of A Memory of Light.)

Also included in this stack of scenes were a smattering of fragments, including the scene where Egwene gets a special visitor in The Gathering Storm. (Dress colors are discussed.) The scene in Towers of Midnight where two people get engaged. (The one that ends with a character finding a pot in the river—which is a piece I added.) And the scene at the Field of Merrilor inside the tent where someone unexpected arrives. (Much of that sequence was outlined in rough form.) I’ve tried to be vague as to not give spoilers.

Q&A sessions with Robert Jordan’s assistants: Near the end, Mr. Jordan was too weak to work on the book directly—but he would do sessions with Maria, Alan, Harriet, or Wilson where he’d tell them about the book. They recorded some of these, and then transcribed them for me. Most of these focus on someone asking him, “What happens to so-and-so.” He’d then talk about their place in the ending, and what happened to them after the last book. A lot of these focus on major plot structures. (“So tell me again what happens when Siuan sneaks into the White Tower to try to find Egwene.”) Or, they focus on the climax of the final book. The bulk of this information gave me a general feeling for the ending itself, and a read on where people ended up after the books. A lot of the “How do they get from the end of Knife of Dreams to the climax of A Memory of Light?” wasn’t discussed.

Selections from Robert Jordan’s notes: As I’ve mentioned before, Robert Jordan’s larger notes files are huge and have a haphazard organization. These are different from the notes I was given—the two hundred-page stack. My stack included the pages that Team Jordan thought most important to the writing of the book. They did also give me a CD, however, with everything on it—thousands and thousands of pages of materials.
Though you might be salivating over these, the bulk are not things many of you would find interesting. Each version of the glossaries is included, for example, so Mr. Jordan knew what they’d said about given characters in given books. (These are identical to the ones printed in the backs of the books.) There are notes for many of the books, things Mr. Jordan used while writing a given novel in the series, but much of this ended up in the books and would not offer any revelations to you. There is, however, a great deal of interesting worldbuilding, some of which ended up in the books—but there’s also quite a bit here that will probably end up in the encyclopedia. There were also notes files on given characters, with the viewings/prophesies/etc. about them that needed to be fulfilled, along with notes on their attitude, things they needed to accomplish yet in the series, and sometimes background tidbits about their lives.

Maria and Alan had spent months meticulously combing through the notes and pulling out anything they thought I might need. This was the last chunk of my two hundred pages of notes, though I was free to spend time combing through the larger grouping of files—and I did this quite a bit.

The Process
The first thing I did upon receiving the notes was dive back into a reread of the series, notes in hand, looking for foreshadowing that I needed to fulfill and character arcs that were incomplete. 

This took months, and I built for myself a large file of questions, potential scenes, and ideas while reading. My next visit to Charleston was in the spring of 2008. (April, perhaps? I don’t recall exactly.) I was nearing the end of my reread, though I don’t believe I was quite finished yet.

At this point, I sat down with Team Jordan. In case you don’t know the members of this group it includes:

Harriet: Robert Jordan’s editor and widow. She discovered him as an aspiring writer in Charleston after moving there to raise her son from a previous marriage. (She didn’t think NYC was the place to do it, and she had inherited the family home in Charleston.) She was encouraged by Robert Jordan’s writing and started publishing his historical novels (she still worked for Tor, but telecommuted). Eventually they fell in love and were married. She edited all of the Wheel of Time books, as well as doing some other things. (For example, she is responsible for nearly all of the chapter titles in all of the books.)

Maria: Maria was hired on somewhere around book seven, I believe. At first, her work seemed to be more clerical—but over time, she impressed Robert Jordan and Harriet, and moved into a more editorial position. She’d maintain continuity for him, as well as work on his copyedits. These days, she is also in charge of making certain things like the Wheel of Time graphic novels are following the storyline and descriptions in the right way.

Alan: Alan came on later than Maria, but has still been there for years and years by this point. He helps with office work and is the resident timeline king. He also is a military history buff, and knows warfare quite well. He became my “Great Captain” for the last books. (Though he and I did butt heads quite a bit as I pushed for more drama and he pushed for more specific descriptions of tactics.)

Wilson: I don’t know if he’d agree he was part of Team Jordan or not, but I view him as part. Wilson is Robert Jordan’s cousin and close friend growing up—the cousin that was like a brother. Jovial and welcoming, he recently dressed up in a costume of me for a costume contest. He’s been a cheerleader for Jim’s work for years, and every time I felt daunted by this project, it seems I’d get a little note of encouragement or help from Wilson.

During this second Charleston visit, I sat down with Alan, Maria, and Harriet to outline my thoughts on where the last books should go. I asked for big sheets of butcher paper, and upon this I started writing down characters, plots, goals, and sequences as headings. Then, we brainstormed answers to holes. I often presented my (somewhat daring) plans for sequences Robert Jordan had not outlined. I think a lot of the things I suggested were surprising to Team Jordan—and made them worried.

My argument was this, however: Robert Jordan would not have kept the last book stale. He wouldn’t have done everything as expected. He wouldn’t have flatlined the character arcs, he wouldn’t have stopped the worldbuilding. If we played this book safe, we’d end up with a bland climax to the series. Harriet agreed, and told me to proceed with some of these plans—but with the warning that as editor, she would read and see if I pulled off the sequences. If I did, they’d go in the books. If I didn’t, we’d remove them.

This ended up working really well. It allowed me to exercise artistic freedom, driving the books in directions I felt they needed to go without limitations. Granted, I had a personal rule—I didn’t contradict Robert Jordan’s previous books, and if he had finished a scene in the  notes, we were going to use it.

This might make it sound like I was trying to steer the books away from his vision. Nothing is further from the truth. In rereading his series, in getting close to his notes, I felt like I had a vision for the types of emotional beats Robert Jordan was striving for in the last book. These emotional beats required surprises, revelations, and transformations—I felt like I truly had the pulse of this series. My goal was to fulfill his vision. However, in order to do this, I needed to exercise my artistic muscles, as he would have exercised his own. I had to allow the creative writer in me to create, to tell stories.

It meant approaching these books as a writer, not a ghostwriter. Harriet understood this; she hired me rather than a ghostwriter because we had notes and fragments of scenes—not an almost-completed novel. However, she was also very right to tell me that she would act as a stabilizing force. Letting my creativity out of its proverbial Pandora’s box meant walking a dangerous line, with things that were too “Brandon” potentially consuming the series. I didn’t want to let this happen, and Harriet was the failsafe.

This is why some sequences, like the “River of Souls” sequence that became part of the Unfettered anthology, needed to be deleted from the books. It’s not the only one. Others include a sequence where Perrin went into the Ways.

During the process of writing these books, all members of Team Jordan offered commentary on every aspect—but a certain specialization fell out naturally. Harriet did line edits and focused on character voice. (She famously told me, regarding one of my very early Aviendha scenes, “Brandon, you’ve written an almost perfect Elayne.” It took me a few more tries to get that one right.) Maria would watch for continuity with other books. Alan would pin me down on timeline, troop movements, and tactics.

The Gathering Storm: Writing Process

I attacked the project in earnest in the summer and fall of 2008. I realized early on that there was too much to keep in mind for me to write in a strict chronological fashion, as I had normally done in the past. For this project, I needed to take groups of characters, dump all of the information about them into my mind (like loading a program into RAM), and write for weeks on just that group. This way, I could keep track of the voices of the many characters and maintain the numerous subplots.

The hardest part of this project, I feel, was keeping track of the subplots and the voices of the side characters. This is not surprising; though I’d read the Wheel of Time many times, I was not a superfan. I loved the books, but I was not among the people who made websites, wikis, and the like for the books. I read the books to study the writing and enjoy the story; I did not spend too much time keeping track of which minor Aes Sedai was which.

I could no longer be lax in this area; I had to know every one of them. Part of Robert Jordan’s genius was in the individual personalities of all of these side characters. So I began dividing the last book (which was at that time still one novel in my mind) into sections. There  were five of them. Four of these—one for Rand, one for Egwene, one for Mat, and one for Perrin—would push these four main plots toward the ending. They would happen roughly simultaneously. The other plotlines leading up to the Last Battle, and then the battle itself, were the fifth section. 

It became obvious to me early in the outlining process that I was going to be writing a bigbook. I was well aware of what Robert Jordan had said about the final volume—you can find quotes from him on the internet where he promises it would be so large, fans would need a wheelbarrow to get it out of bookstores. I took this to heart, but knew that there was little chance Tor would let me write the book that large without cutting it.

Indeed, by late 2008, Tor had gotten word that I was promising Harriet a 2000-page book. I believe it was in January 2009 when I got the call from Harriet asking about splitting the books. I was ready for this. My first line was to tell her, “I still view this as one book, and would like to try and get it printed as one book if at all possible.” She took my arguments back to Tor, and had a long conversation with Tom Doherty. When she came back to me, she said they strongly advised a division.

I’m still not certain what would have happened if Robert Jordan had tried this. Perhaps Harriet would have persuaded him that the realities of publishing forbade a book so large. Either way, I felt I had made as strong an argument as I could—and I admitted, despite my desire to see the book as one volume as Robert Jordan had envisioned, that I would have to either discard several major parts of the outline or agree to split the novel.

I think we made the right choice. Three books gave me the chance to really dig into the project not as a one-off event, but as a process. Cutting major plotlines would have made the last book a rushed endeavor, requiring me to ignore several large threads. However, the division of the outline did create some problems, which I’ll talk about during the Towers of Midnight post. 

When Harriet asked me about splitting the book, she wondered if there was a natural breaking point. I told her breaking it once wouldn’t work—but breaking it twice might. I didn’t feel A Memory of Light would work as two volumes. Looking at my outline and what I needed to accomplish, two books would either mean one very long book and one normal-sized one, or two books split equally. Both would have been awkward. The former because doing a double-sized Wheel of Time book would have the same problems as just printing the original 2000-page novel. 1400 pages isn’t much better in publishing terms. 1000, like some  of the Wheel of Time books, already pushes against those limits.

The second option—two 1000-page books—was even more of a problem. If we cut it in the middle like that, we’d get the first half of all four plot sequences I mentioned above—but none of their climaxes. This (writing one book as a setup book, with the payoffs mostly happening in another book) was an experiment that Robert Jordan had already attempted, and he had spoken of the problems it created. He was a better writer than I am, and if he couldn’t accomplish such a split, I didn’t want to attempt it.

Instead, I felt that splitting the book as three books would allow us to have complete arcs in each one. Two, actually, for each of The Gathering Storm and Towers of Midnight—followed by the climactic book, A Memory of Light. So I set out to divide the plots and decide what would go where.

I knew fans would be skeptical of me taking over the project in the first place, and I knew they’d be more skeptical when we announced a three-book split. That meant I wanted my most dynamic plots in the first book. (I knew the ending would carry its own book, and was never worried about that one being dynamic enough.) In addition, I wanted to split the four sequences—Rand/Egwene/Mat/Perrin—so that we had at least one in each book that Robert Jordan had done a lot of work on. Rand and Perrin had much less material finished for them than Mat and Egwene. So it was either Rand/Egwene or Perrin/Mat for the first book.

It soon became clear that I needed to lead with Rand/Egwene. They mirrored each other in very interesting ways, with Rand’s narrative descent and Egwene’s narrative ascent. When Rand was being contemplative, Egwene’s plot had action—and vice versa. While my personal favorite of the four is Perrin’s arc, I felt his involved a lot of buildup and some less straightforward plotting as we pushed toward his climactic moments. I also decided that the plots would work with shaving off some of what Rand/Egwene were doing to save it for the second book, but I couldn’t do the same as easily for Perrin/Mat. 

A book was forming in my head. Rand’s absolute power driving him toward destruction and Egwene’s specific lack of power elevating her toward rebuilding the White Tower. We needed a Mat section—I didn’t want him absent for the book—so Hinderstap was my creation, devised after Harriet asked me to be “more disturbing and horrifying” in regards to the bubbles of evil that were coming into the book.
The Egwene plot was an absolute delight to work on. Of all the things that Robert Jordan had been building for this last book (including the final chapter) before he died, I feel this was the most fully formed. Egwene’s rise and the Seanchan assault played together perfectly in classic Wheel of Time fashion, and I got to participate in unique ways, working with his notes and instructions to craft his plotlines exactly as I feel he envisioned them.

One large change I did make was splitting the Egwene dinner with Elaida into two distinct scenes, instead of one single scene. I felt the pacing worked much better this way, and it complemented the Rand sequence better with the first dinner happening, Egwene getting sent to further work, then a climactic second dinner happening where I could really bring about Egwene’s victory, all without her ever channeling. 

In the Egwene sequence, I got to do the most truly collaborative work with Robert Jordan. In other places, I inserted scenes he’d written. In many others, I had to go with my gut, lacking instruction. With Egwene, I had a blend of explanations of scenes, written scenes, and Q&A prompts from Robert Jordan that made me feel as if I were working directly with him to bring about the sequence. If you want to see a full sequence in the books that I think is the closest to the way he’d have done it if he could have, I’d suggest the Egwene sequence in The Gathering Storm. (And beyond. Most of what we have for her was by his direction, inclusive of the events leading up to—and including—Merrilor.)
In taking on this project, one of my personal goals—if the series would allow it—was to focus more time on the main characters, particularly Rand. I love the middle books, with their exploration of other plots and characters, but the first book presented to us Rand, Perrin, Mat, and Egwene as our main characters. I feel that, in the true nature of the Wheel of Time, the appropriate thing to do was bring the attention back to them for the final books—and I feel Robert Jordan would have done so himself. 

Rand needed to be the heart of the three novels. In pondering how to accomplish his outline, I was reminded of things I’d felt when first reading The Dragon Reborn. Rand’s anguish as a character was powerful to me, and I thought, “Surely he can’t go lower, be forced to go through more, than he’s had happen to him here.” The next few books affirmed this.

Then I read Lord of Chaos. That book breaks your heart; I found myself amazed that Rand could be brought down even lower. This progressed through the next books, with more being piled upon Rand—but the low points of Lord of Chaos are the most stark in my mind. I remember thinking, “Surely this is the bottom.”

That was why, in The Gathering Storm, I needed to attempt what Robert Jordan had successfully done twice. I needed to bring Rand even lower than the reader had assumed, expected, or even thought possible. This was in part to fulfill arcs Robert Jordan had in place, in part because of his love for the Monomyth and the Campbellian hero’s journey, but mostly because it felt right to me. Rand’s redemption, so to speak, needed to be preceded by his lowest point in the series.

This also offered me an interesting storytelling opportunity. In the original outline, Rand’s descent, his decision on Dragonmount, and his following actions as the Dragon Reborn would all happen in a single volume. In splitting the books, I could do the first part in one book, then have his actions in the second book introduce an interesting tension—the question of whether or not this new Rand was still the Rand we loved. I could prompt readers to fear that just as he became unrecognizable in the depths of his fall, he might become something unknowable in the heights of his redemption. It would make for a new kind of conflict, one I’d never explored before, through Towers of Midnight—before finally giving Rand more viewpoints in A Memory of Light to humanize him again. (Something Harriet was very glad to hear I was planning to do. Her main point regarding Rand was that he, in performing the actions he did in the last book, had to be very human in his approach to them. This was to be the story of an ordinary man who achieved something amazing, not an unknowable deity doing the same.)
Other Characters
I have a fondness for Aviendha, my personal favorite of the female leads in the Wheel of Time. (My favorite among the male leads is Perrin.) I wanted to see a return of Avi in the last books, as I felt we just hadn’t had enough of her lately. I also have an interesting relationship with Nynaeve, a character who I (as a young man) resented. My opinion of her is the one that grew the most during the course of my reading as just a fan, and by Knife of Dreams I absolutely loved her. I knew that with all of the crowding in the last books, she actually wouldn’t have a large part to play in the Last Battle. (Very few would be able to do so, beyond Rand/Egwene/Perrin/Mat.) Therefore, it was important to me to give her a solid and interesting sequence of scenes through both The Gathering Storm and Towers of Midnight. Her raising was not instructed by the notes, but was something I was insistent be in the books. (And along those lines, one thing Harriet insisted happen—and I was all too ready to oblige—was a meeting between Rand and his father.)

The Gathering Storm: What did I learn?

The obvious thing I learned has to do with juggling so many side plots. I’d attempted this level of complexity one time before in my life, the first draft of The Way of Kings. (Written in 2002–2003, this was very different from the version I published in 2010, which was rebuilt from the ground up and written from page one a second time.) The book had major problems, and I felt at the time they came from inexpert juggling of its multitude of viewpoints. I’ve since advised new writers that this is a potential trap—adding complexity by way of many viewpoints, when the book may not need it. Many great epics we love in the genre (The Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire included) start with a small group of characters, many in the same location, before splitting into much larger experiences with expansive numbers of viewpoints.

I couldn’t afford to be bad at this any longer. Fortunately, finishing the Mistborn trilogy had taught me a lot about juggling viewpoints. Approaching The Wheel of Time, I was better able to divide viewpoints, arrange them in a novel, and keep them in narrative rhythm with one another—so they complemented one another, rather than distracting or confusing the reader.

The other primary thing I feel I gained working on this book is a better understanding of my outlining process. Robert Jordan, as I said in previous installments, seems to have been more of a discovery writer than an outline writer—I’m the opposite. Working with
 The Gathering Storm forced me to take all of these notes and fragments of scenes and build a cohesive story from them. It worked surprisingly well. Somehow, my own process melded perfectly with the challenge of building a book from all of these parts. (That’s not to say that the book itself was perfect—just that my process adapted very naturally to the challenge of outlining these novels.)

There are a lot of little things. Harriet’s careful line edits taught me to be more specific in my word choice. The invaluable contributions of Alan and Maria taught me the importance of having assistants to help with projects this large, and showed me how to make the best use of that help. (It was something I started out bad at doing—my first few requests of Alan and Maria were to collect things I never ended up needing, for example.) I gained a new awe for the passion of Wheel of Time fandom, and feel I grew to understand them—particularly the very enthusiastic fans—a little better. This, in turn, has informed my interactions with my own readers.

I also learned that the way I do characters (which is the one part of the process I do more like a discovery writer) can betray me. As evidenced below.

The Gathering Storm: What did I do wrong?

My take on Mat is very divisive among Wheel of Time fans. A great number feel I did him poorly in The Gathering Storm. I’ve had a similar number approach me and tell me they like my Mat better than they did in previous books. Unfortunately, in doing so, these latter readers prove that the first readers are right. People don’t come to me and say “I like your Perrin” or “I dislike your Perrin.” They don’t do it for Rand, Egwene, or any of the other major characters. While undoubtedly there are some who feel this way about those characters, there isn’t a consensus opinion among a large number of fans as there is that Mat was DIFFERENT in The Gathering Storm. Those who like him better are likely ones who just naturally prefer the way I do a roguish character as opposed to the way Robert Jordan did one. It doesn’t mean Mat is better—just that I wrote him differently, and anytime there’s a difference, some will prefer the changed version. (There are even people who prefer New Coke!)

I don’t mean to demean the opinions of those who feel Mat was great in
 The Gathering Storm. I’m glad you enjoyed him, and I think there is some excellent writing involved in his viewpoints. However, I feel that I was wrong and the critics are right. Looking at Robert Jordan’s Mat and what I wrote, there are some subtle differences that made Mat read wrong to a sizable portion of the audience. (Jason Denzel, who is a good friend, was the first to point it out to me—not maliciously, but truthfully. His comment was along the lines of, “I think your take on Mat feels like very early books Mat.” This was a nice way of saying that my Mat lacked some of the depth of characterization he’d gained over the course of the latter books of the series.)

My Mat wasn’t an attempt to fix or change Mat—the sense that Mat is “off” was created by me trusting my instincts and in this case being wrong. You see, as I say above, I discovery-write characters. I write a viewpoint, and then judge if it has the right feel. I try again, changing the way the character reacts and thinks, until I arrive at the right feel. It’s like casting different actors in a role, and I do this quite deliberately—I feel that there is a danger in outlining as much as I do. It risks leaving your characters feeling wooden, that they are simply filling roles in a plot. (I find that many thrillers, which as a genre focus on tight plotting, have this problem.)

To combat this, I let my characters grow more organically. I allow them to violate the plot outline, and then revise the outline to fit the people they are becoming. They often do this, but mostly in very small ways—usually, my casting process finds the right person for the plot, and this doesn’t require major revisions as they grow.

However, I’ve read The Wheel of Time over and over—and I had never noticed that my picture of Mat was still deeply influenced by his book one/two appearance. The sidekick rogue. While some of my favorite parts of the series are his latter appearances where he gains a great deal of characterization (although this starts in book three), I cast the wrong Mat in these books, and I simply wrote him poorly. It was
 a version of Mat, and I don’t think it’s a disaster—but he’s much farther from his correct characterization than the other characters are.

The interesting thing about this is, though it is the biggest mistake I made in my writing of
 The Gathering Storm, it also is one of the things that taught me the most. My digging into viewpoint for the next book became one of the greatest learning experiences of my career so far.

Towers of Midnight: Writing Process

Part of the reason I’d decided upon doing Rand/Egwene first was because I knew that this book—Perrin’s sequence in particular—was going to be the trickiest of the four major viewpoint sequences. Of the four leads, I felt Perrin was one of those who needed the most growth. In fact, he had as much to grow as Rand did—but in more subtle ways. Rand’s descent was a result of the multitude of forces pushing against him, bearing him down, threating to crush him. He was brought to the point where he was because his personality issues were magnified a hundred times over by the extreme circumstances of his life. He cracked while trying desperately to find the right thing to do.
Perrin was different. He had major hangups that he consistently refused to confront, and in many ways was the farthest of the main characters from where he needed to be. Rand’s transformation was more dramatic, but Perrin’s was just as necessary.
It should be noted that I felt, both from the notes and my own readings of the series, that Mat was basically where Robert Jordan wanted him to be. This remains true even after I re-looked at Mat and tried to fix my interpretation of him. That doesn’t mean that Mat is finished as a character, just that he was where Mr. Jordan wanted him for the Last Battle. Mat was going to have another series all his own after the main group of books, and some of his character progress was saved for those. (Note that those books are not going to be written.)
Egwene had a small amount of development left to do, but was mostly there. In The Gathering Storm, she faced the most critical challenges of her career, but Robert Jordan had brought her to the point where she needed to be in Knife of Dreams, and in the notes for A Memory of Light he had indicated specifically how she was to progress. It was mostly a matter of using the confrontations in the White Tower to manifest things she had already learned, and to show once and for all the person she had become.
As for the other characters, Elayne was where she needed to be, but Avi was not. (She had a great deal of growth left to her.) Nynaeve had reached the peak of her development, in my opinion, as had Min. At least this is my read on it, which is reflected in my interpretations of the various arcs of the characters.
Perrin is my favorite character in the series, and has been since I was a youth. Like many readers, I was frustrated by his choices through the later books, though the writer in me really appreciated Robert Jordan’s skillful guidance of the character. The problems Perrin confronted (sometimes poorly) highlighted his uncomfortable relationship with the wolves, his unwillingness to cut himself a break, and his ability to devote himself so utterly to one task that everything else vanished. (As a note, I feel this is one of the major things that made me empathize with Perrin for all those years. Of the main characters, he is the only artist. However, he’s an artist like me—a focused project builder. A craftsman.)
Though I wanted to be careful not to overdo the concept, one of my goals in these last few books was to bring back ideas and conflicts from the first books—creating parallels and emphasizing the cyclical nature of the Wheel of Time. Again, this was dangerous. I didn’t want these books to become a series of in-jokes, homages, and repetitions.
However, there are places where it was not only appropriate, but vital that we return to these themes. I felt one of those involved the Whitecloaks and Perrin, specifically the two Children of the Light he had killed during his clash with them in the very first book. This was a tricky sequence to plot. I wanted Perrin to manifest leadership in a way different from Rand or Egwene. Robert Jordan instructed that Perrin become a king, and I loved this plot arc for him—but in beginning it with the Whitecloaks, I threatened to leave Perrin weak and passive as a character. Of all the sequences in the books, I struggled with this one the most—mostly because of my own aspirations, goals, and dreams for what Perrin could become.
His plot is my favorite of the four for those reasons.
I had other goals for Perrin in this book. His experiences in the Wolf Dream needed to return, I felt, and push toward a final climax in the Last Hunt. This meant returning to a confrontation with Slayer, a mirrored character to Perrin with a dual nature. I wanted to highlight Perrin’s instinctive use of his powers, as a contrast to the thoughtful, learned use of power represented by Egwene. People have asked if I think Perrin is better at Tel’aran’rhiod  than Egwene. I don’t think he is, the balefire-bending scene notwithstanding. They represent two sides of a coin, instinct and learning. In some cases Perrin will be more capable, and in others Egwene will shine.
The forging of Perrin’s hammer, the death of Hopper, and the wounding of Perrin in the leg (which is mythologically significant) were in my narrative plan for him from the get-go. However, weaving them all together involved a lot of head/wall-bashing. I wanted a significance to Perrin’s interactions with the Way of the Leaf as well, and to build a rapport between him and Galad—in my reads of the characters, I felt they would make for unlikely friends.
Of all the major plot sequences in the books, Perrin’s was the one where I had the most freedom—but also the most danger of straying too far from Robert Jordan’s vision for who the character should be. His instructions for Perrin focused almost entirely on the person Perrin would be after the Last Battle, with little or no direction on how to bring him there. Perrin was fully in my hands, and I wanted to take extra care to guide my favorite character toward the ending.
I will note, by the way, that Verin’s interaction with Egwene in The Gathering Storm was my biggest surprise from the notes. My second biggest was the Thom/Moiraine engagement. Robert Jordan wrote that scene, and I was surprised to read it. (As I said, though I loved and had read the books, there are plenty of fans who were bigger fans than myself—and to them, this was no surprise.) I didn’t pick up the subtle hints of a relationship between the two of them until my reread following my getting the notes.
Robert Jordan had written much of Mat’s plot, and left instructions on much of the rest. My challenge with Mat in this book, then, wasn’t to complete his arc—which was quite good. It was to do a better job with Mat than I had in the previous book.
In order to do Mat right, I went back to Robert Jordan’s writing. This time, I dissected Mat, looking at him as a craftsman. I saw a depth of internal narrative that was unlike anything I’d analyzed before. Of all the Wheel of Time characters, Mat is the least trustworthy narrator. What he thinks, feels, and does are sometimes three very different things. His narrative itself is filled with snark and beautifully clever lines, but a relative few of those actually leave his lips. The harder he tries to do something, often the worse it turns out for him. Mat’s at his best when he lets instinct lead, regardless of what his internal monologue says.
This makes him very tricky to write, and is why my initial gut instinct on how to do him was wrong. I think for a lot of Wheel of Time readers, Mat is the big surprise in the series. The sometimes snarky, but often grumpy sidekick from the first two books transforms into a unique blend of awesomeness I haven’t found in any other story.
I feel that my stab at writing Mat in Towers of Midnight is far better than it was in The Gathering Storm, though I’m not sure I got him right until A Memory of Light. I know some fans will disagree that I ever did get him right, but I am pleased with—and comfortable with—the Mat of these latter two books. Though, of course, having Robert Jordan’s more detailed  instructions for Mat in these books does help.

Towers of Midnight: What did I learn?

Set Your Sights High
I’ve never been one to dodge a challenge. However, after failing to do The Way of Kings right in 2002, I was timid about tackling complex narratives across many, many viewpoints. Towers of Midnight marked the largest-scale book I’d ever attempted, with the most complexity of viewpoints, the greatest number of distinct and different scenes to balance, and the most ambitious forms of storytelling. Aviendha’s trip through the glass pillars was the most audacious thing I believe I pitched at Team Jordan, and was one of the things about which they were the most skeptical. Perrin’s balance between action and inaction risked having him descend into passiveness.
I worked on the new version of The Way of Kings during this time, in 2009–10, when I was also working on Towers of Midnight. I doubt I will ever be more busy than I was in those two years, tackling two of the biggest books of my career at the same time. However, during this time I entered a place in my writing where something clicked, dealing with the next stage of my writing career. I’d always wanted to master the complex epic—my favorite stories of all time fit this mold. Before this, however, I’d done very few sequels—and Towers of Midnight was the most complicated sequel I’m ever likely to do.
I learned a great deal about myself during this period, and the results are on the pages of these two books, Towers of Midnight and The Way of Kings.
Depth of Viewpoint
Working on Mat sent me down a proverbial rabbit hole, as I studied—really studied—how a master approached the use of the third-person limited viewpoint. I have always respected Robert Jordan’s ability to characterize through viewpoint. (By this, I mean his ability to show how a person thinks and feels by the way they describe the world while you’re seeing through their eyes.) Mat changed my perspective on how to write narrative, and how to make characters live beyond the words stated about them.
When asked what I think Robert Jordan’s greatest skill was, I don’t say worldbuilding or juggling a complex narrative, though these are certainly two areas in which he excelled. No, I talk about his viewpoints. If there’s one thing I wish to learn from Robert Jordan, it’s how to accomplish this—how to make you feel a character’s culture, history, temperament, and current emotional state by the way they describe the simple things in the world around them.
I think I have improved at this. But it’s one of the things I believe I’ll be working on for my entire career.
Increased Subtlety
I like novels where a multitude of different threads, some hidden, twist together to a surprising conclusion. This is one area where I think I’ve, for the most part, done a good job in the past. Working on The Wheel of Time, however, I was able to see Robert Jordan’s hand in new ways—and see how delicate he could be with some of his plotting and characterization. I worry that sometimes, I beat people over the head with a character’s goals, theme, and motivations. It’s because I feel a character with well-defined motivations is one of the hallmarks of a strongly written story.
However, I do think I need to learn to be more subtle—and The Wheel of Time taught me a great deal about this. Robert Jordan’s light hand in dealing with the Thom/Moiraine relationship is a good example. Other characters, however, stand out as well—Pevara is an example. The subtle clues about how some of the Sitters who had been chosen were too young is another example of his very delicate hand. It’s not an important thread, in the grand scheme of things. Little touches like this, however, are what makes a world live beyond the page. It is something I think I learned from this project—not necessarily how to accomplish this (we’ll see if I can), but how to recognize and appreciate it.
Towers of Midnight: What did I do wrong?
I’m the culprit of numerous small mistakes, most of which there is no time to point out. The biggest flaw in my writing of Towers of Midnight, however, has to be the chronology.
All of my solo books have been basically chronological. Elantris had some funky storytelling where each group of three chapters happened concurrently, but most of my other books had a forward progression without much jumping back and forth in timeline for different characters.
The Wheel of Time, however, does jump around a lot—you just don’t notice it, as Robert Jordan juggled the timelines quite well. Mat could be progressing at one rate, and when you jumped to Perrin, you’d jump forward or back in time. Those who wanted to look for the clues could find out and build a timeline using the phases of the moon or other hints. Those who didn’t want to notice, however, were never thrown out by perceived incongruities.
When we split the books, some of the timeline things I’d done got too far out of sync. At the end of Knife of Dreams, the character viewpoints were somewhat out of sync, as Robert Jordan often wrote them. I didn’t have any experience juggling something like this, and in Towers of Midnight I flubbed it. Not that the timeline is messed up—it’s actually pretty good, all things considered. However, the perception of it brought us troubles. Because characters interacted across timelines, it felt like they were in two places at once (Tam is an example) even though it all worked narratively.
This made for some confusing moments for readers. Mr. Jordan did things like this without distracting; I didn’t juggle this as well, and because of it, I think the book suffered. I hope I’ve grown better, but it was eye-opening for me when Towers of Midnight came out and people mentioned being confused. I hadn’t even noticed the potential problem until the book was out.

The Wheel of Time Retrospective: A MEMORY OF LIGHT: Perrin and Egwene

Now we come to the big one. The Last Battle, the final book of the Wheel of Time.
There was so much to pack into this book that at times I wondered if I’d be able to create a cohesive narrative from it. The danger was that instead, it would feel like a sequence of “Oh, hey, I forgot to tie this up” loose ends being completed one after another. Many of these things did need to be tied up, but it needed to happen in a way that came together into a story.
When I launched into this book, I’d just finished Towers of Midnight and was in a very “Perrin is awesome” mood. I wanted to keep writing Perrin, so I did his sequence for the book first. It worked, to an extent. I love the Perrin parts of this book. However, by the end—and after finishing the other viewpoints—we found that the book had way too much Perrin in it. Cutting the sequence where Perrin travels through the Ways to try to close the Caemlyn waygate from behind was one method of balancing this out. The sequence was also cut because Harriet felt I’d gone too far in the direction of returning to previous themes in the series, bringing back something better left alone so we could focus on the Last Battle. (In addition, Maria thought my descriptions of the Ways just didn’t fit the story.)
This was a 17,000-word sequence (and it ended with the Ogier rescuing Perrin and his company from the Black Wind, driving it off with their song). I love the sequence, but unlike the sequence with Bao (the deleted scenes named “River of Souls” and included in the Unfettered anthology) it is not canon. It couldn’t happen for a multitude of reasons, and got trimmed.
Otherwise, Perrin ended up as I wanted him. A lot of people were surprised that I knocked him out of the fighting for a big chunk of the Last Battle, but I felt it appropriate. The fighting armies were Mat’s show, and Perrin’s focus for the fighting was to join Rand and protect him in the Wolf Dream. There was so much else going on, I decided to bench him for a chunk of the warfare—and I’m pleased with the result. It brought real impact to the Slayer fight, where Perrin was left wounded.
There were three particular things that were quite a challenge in writing this last book. The first was how to use Rand fighting the Dark One in a way that would be interesting, visual, and powerful. The second was how to do the tactics of a large-scale battle. The final one had to do with Egwene.
In his notes, Robert Jordan was very specific about the fact that Rand and Egwene needed to almost come to blows in the lead-up to the Last Battle. He called it the grand union of the armies against Rand, whose decisions were considered too radical, too dangerous, to be allowed to proceed. Moiraine was to be the force that brought the two of them together, unifying the armies of light, cementing her importance—and showing why she needed to be rescued by Mat before the Last Battle. (There were a lot of instructions about what Moiraine was to say, and some good writing on that meeting at the Field of Merrilor.)
The burden upon me was to realistically bring Rand and Egwene to the point where the reader believed they’d fight one another—or at least go to the Last Battle separately, without cohesion—if Moiraine hadn’t intervened. This was difficult. Having The Gathering Storm end on such a high note for Egwene left me struggling to figure out how, in Towers of Midnight and A Memory of Light, to make her go at cross-purposes to Rand without alienating the reader from her viewpoints. I felt what she was doing was very realistic and in character for who she was, but I also knew that making the decisions she would make was going to cause some readers to be very annoyed with her.
In the end, I decided that the proper course was to let them be annoyed. The very same strength that had made Egwene shine in The Gathering Storm was also the strength that let her lead the Aes Sedai—of whom she had truly become one. The will of the Aes Sedai against the rest of the world is a major theme of the Wheel of Time, and say what you will of it, the theme is consistent—as are the characters. Egwene was at their head. Yes, I wanted her to be relatable, but I also wanted it clear that she was Aes Sedai, and she wasn’t about to let someone else dominate the decisions on how to approach the Last Battle.

The Wheel of Time Retrospective: A MEMORY OF LIGHT: The Black Tower

Robert Jordan didn’t leave me a ton of direction regarding the Black Tower. There were a few gems that we knew, but in a lot of places I was left to follow my instincts regarding the plotting points he had built across the last few books. He did leave a lot of clear instructions regarding Taim, fortunately, including his backstory and instructions for a scene where Taim was named as one of the Forsaken.
Androl and Pevara
In working on the Black Tower plot, one thing I realized early on was that I wanted a new viewpoint character to be involved. One reason was that we didn’t have anyone to really show the lives of the everyday members of the Black Tower. It felt like a hole in the viewpoint mosaic for the series. In addition, each wheel of time book—almost without exception—has either introduced a new viewpoint character or added a great deal of depth to a character who had only seen minimal use before. As we were drawing near to the end of the series, I didn’t want to expand this very far. However, I did want to add at least one character across the three books I was doing.
I went to Team Jordan with the suggestion that I could fulfill both of these purposes by using one of the rank-and-file members of the Black Tower, preferably someone who wasn’t a full Asha’man and was something of a blank slate. They suggested Androl. The notes were silent regarding him, and while he had been around, he so far hadn’t had the spotlight on him. He seemed the perfect character to dig into.
A few more things got spun into this sequence. One was my desire to expand the usage of gateways in the series. For years, as an aspiring writer, I imagined how I would use gateways if writing a book that included them. I went so far as to include in the Stormlight Archive a magic system built around a similar teleportation mechanic. Being able to work on the Wheel of Time was a thrill for many reasons, but one big one was that it let me play with one of my favorite magic systems and nudge it in a few new directions. I’ve said that I didn’t want to make a large number of new weaves, but instead find ways to use established weaves in new ways. I also liked the idea of expanding on the system for people who have a specific talent in certain areas of the One Power.
Androl became my gateway expert. Another vital key in building him came from Harriet, who mailed me a long article about a leatherworker she found in Mr. Jordan’s notes. She said, “He was planning to use this somewhere, but we don’t know where.”
One final piece for his storyline came during my rereads of the series, where I felt that at times the fandom had been too down on the Red Ajah. True, they had some serious problems with their leadership in the books, but their purpose was noble. I feel that many readers wanted to treat them as the Wheel of Time equivalent of Slytherin—the house of no-goods, with every member a various form of nasty. Robert Jordan himself worked to counteract this, adding a great deal of depth to the ajah by introducing Pevara. She had long been one of my favorite side characters, and I wanted her to have a strong plot in the last books. Building a relationship between her and Androl felt very natural to me, as it not only allowed me to explore the bonding process, but also let me work a small romance into the last three books—another thing that was present in most Wheel of Time books. The ways I pushed the Androl/Pevara bond was also something of an exploration and experiment. Though this was suggested by the things Robert Jordan wrote, I did have some freedom in how to adapt it. I felt that paralleling the wolf bond made sense, with (of course) its own distinctions.
Finding a place to put the Pevara/Androl sequence into the books, however, proved difficult. Towers of Midnight was the book where we suffered the biggest time crunch. That was the novel where I’d plotted to put most of the Black Tower sequence, but in the end it didn’t fit—partially because we just didn’t have time for me to write it. So, while I did finish some chapters to put there, the soul of the sequence got pushed off to A Memory of Light, if I managed to find time for it.
I did find time—in part because of cutting the Perrin sequence. Losing those 17,000 words left an imbalance to the pacing of the final book. It needed a plot sequence with more specific tension to balance out the more sweeping sequences early in the book where characters plan, plot, and argue. I was able to expand Androl/Pevara to fit this hole, and to show a lot of things I really wanted to show in the books.
Rand and Logain
I made a few interesting decisions with the Black Tower sequence. The first was to not involve Rand. Though it would have been a nice narrative balance to have Rand come save the Asha’man in contrast to them saving him in book six, I felt that Rand was riding to the rescue too often. The Black Tower was about to lose him permanently, and if its members could not face their problems on their own, then thematically they’d be left at the end of the series hampered and undermined. Beyond this, I believed that Rand’s personality (as shown in earlier books) would push him to avoid being pulled into a potential trap at the Black Tower. His argument that he couldn’t risk a confrontation is a good one. Androl and company had to face their problems on their own—save for the help of an Aes Sedai, another thing I felt to be thematically important.
Perhaps the most controversial decision (among Team Jordan) that I made with this sequence was to push Logain toward being a darker figure. Following his extended torture, I felt that Logain would emerge as a different person—though he’d always been somewhat dark. Some members of Team Jordan felt he was past that, and I disagreed. Logan was a false Dragon, gentled then healed, head of a group of men going insane who owed loyalty to Rand—but who rarely interacted with him. There is so much going on with this guy that he could have carried an entire series on his own.
I wanted him to wrestle with all of this. Logain’s life ever since his capture way back when seemed to have been one of being shoved this way and then that. He needed to decide for himself what kind of Black Tower he was going to rule, if he was going to earn the honor of men as was promised. (And yes, this had not yet happened at the end of the series.) Logain, so far as I know, never once let go of power in the series—it was always ripped from his fingers. In this case, he was allowed to choose.

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