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The Wheel of Time Retrospective: The Process

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 section. 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 beginning of my first post, which talked about the notes. Here’s post number two.

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. You can read my book-by-book reactions; I posted them as a sequence of blog posts in 2008 as I was rereading.

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.

To be continued.

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