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The Wheel of Time Retrospective: THE GATHERING STORM: What I Learned

Just a reminder, all. Steelheart—my new novel—is out right now! It hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list in the Young Adult category. If you’re curious, you can read about the book here, and listen to a cool audio sample here.

For an explanation of my Wheel of Time retrospective, see the previous posts on the topic. Here’s post number four. Before we begin, it should be stated that this post will contain spoilers for the entire series, ending included. If you haven’t finished, you will want to do so before reading this post.

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.

To be continued.

|   Castellano