The Wheel of Time Retrospective: The Notes
Just a reminder, all. Steelheart—my new novel—is out right now! It’s sitting at #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.
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.
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.
To be continued.