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The Wheel of Time Retrospective: TOWERS OF MIDNIGHT: 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 six. 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.

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.

To be continued.

|   Castellano