Tuesday, June 4, 2013

PHXCC 2013 Report: Brandon Sanderson and the Wheel of Time

On Friday afternoon of the con (5/24), I decided to check out the panel on Brandon Sanderson and the Wheel of Time. The Wheel of Time is an epic fantasy series by Robert Jordan that one of my cousins got me hooked on in…late junior high? Early high school? Somewhere in there. As the series progressed and the books got longer and more doorstop-like I was still enjoying them, but it got to a point where there was a book that focused on all the characters who had grown irritating to me (at least that’s how I remember it), and I put it down and never picked it back up. I’ve often meant to get back to it and finish out the series, but just haven’t for one reason or another. Robert Jordan passed away in 2007 and Brandon Sanderson ended up being the author selected to finish writing the series (more on that later, as it's something he talked about at the panel).

I thought it would be interesting to hear what he had to say on finishing off such a popular series in the place of the original author, and decided to go to the panel even though I was fully expecting to encounter major spoilers. Surprisingly enough, I did not! Brandon Sanderson said at the beginning that he would not go out of his way to talk about spoilers, but at the same time he wasn’t going to hold himself back from discussing things or the audience back from asking their burning questions. It was probably a combo of his not making a point of bringing up spoilery things, and the fact that it’s been so long since I read these books that any spoilers that did come up didn’t even register as such in my head. That being said, there may be spoilers for the whole series in this report, and since I can’t really tell whether they’re big or small ones, proceed at your own risk! I made heavy use of the interwebs to fact check and try to get spelling right, and I listened to the audio track over and over to get quotes down correctly—I apologize for any errors. This is Brandon Sanderson!

Here are some of his books:

And here are the 3 final books of the Wheel of Time series that he wrote using Robert Jordan’s notes:

So Brandon Sanderson (how should I refer to him in the rest of this post? Brandon? Mr. Sanderson? Branderson? BS?) talked for a bit about how he came to be chosen to write the final books of the Wheel of Time, and then he took questions from the panel and from audience members. Highlights:

• Robert Jordan was discovered by Harriet McDougal, who is considered one of the “great editors.” She edited the Wheel of Time, and she ended up marrying him (“to ensure narrative direction,” Sanderson joked).

• The Wheel of Time books started coming out in the ‘90s, and they were very popular. Fans eagerly awaited new installments in the series as the years passed. In 2006, Robert Jordan (which was a pen name! His real name was James Oliver Rigney, Jr.) was diagnosed with a “cancer-like disease,” and in September of 2007 he passed away. The last Wheel of Time book he completed on his own was 2005’s Knife of Dreams.

• Branderson read the books when they first came out, and 17 years later he got the call to finish the series. He wasn’t originally on any of the lists of names being tossed around of people who might finish out the series. At the time of Jordan’s death, BS had published a few novels, including Elantris and a couple of the Mistborn series, I believe. When he heard of Jordan’s death, he wrote a little eulogy on his website. A friend of Jordan’s wife and editor Harriet came across it and showed it to her. Harriet read it and something in it must’ve grabbed her, because she then contacted Tom Doherty, founder of Tor books (prominent SFF publisher, also BS’ publisher), to ask, “Who’s this kid? I want to read his books.” She read Mistborn and was impressed, and asked BS to complete the Wheel of Time, using Jordan’s notes and his own familiarity with the series as a fan. Branderson said, “I did not apply for it or anything like that—I had no idea this was coming. I just answered my phone one day and there was a voicemail from Robert Jordan’s widow. And so, at that point I did say yes. I was terrified, but I said yes.”

• He then flew to Charleston (where Jordan had lived) to pick up the notes. He didn’t really know what the notes entailed—he hadn’t seen them yet, he just had to say yes to finishing the series and sign the contract, and THEN he got to look at the notes and see what he’d gotten himself into. He knew that Jordan had written the last scene of the book, though. After flying to Charleston from Salt Lake City, he met Harriet: “I’m there, I’m exhausted, it’s like 9 p.m. I walk in the door, and Harriet had left a soup on the stove and she went over and started to warm it up and said, ‘Do you want some dinner?’—black bean soup, it’s the little details you remember—and I said, ‘No m’am, I’d like the ending, please!’”

• To continue from there, on the subject of notes and Asmodean: “Then she laughed and she said okay, and she went over and she got it and she handed me a stack of papers. Right on top, on a post-it note, was who killed Asmodean. It was actually a piece of paper, with a fan theory, and Robert Jordan had written ‘this is right’ and stuck a post-it note to it. And that’s all I knew about Asmodean.”

• He was given about 200 pages of notes, and on top of that there was a CD—on that were all of Jordan’s world-building notes, replicated from his computer: “There were folders and folders and folders. And there were sub-folders, and you’d dig down like 5 folders deep, and there’s like one file there. It’s like its own weird organizing structure, right? And they’ll be named things like ‘For Book 11, Remember This’ and ‘Character Notes, in This City,’ and just random things. And I once decided I would take Microsoft Word and I would add these all together into one file, just to see how much there was, because Harriet always said there was more in the notes than there were actually words in the series. So I did that, and at around 4 million words, um…my computer crashed.” (For comparison purposes, he then went on to say that the entire series is about 3 million words. 1 million more words of notes than words in a 14 book series, wowza!)

• Example of the sort of thing he found on that CD: A file with names of all the Two Rivers residents who had not yet appeared by name in the book, and their professions and their ages. About 100 of them.

• There was so much stuff to sift through that he had Jordan’s assistants print off about 200 pages of the most relevant stuff, and that was what he wanted to work from directly. If he had questions about any other stuff, he could ask the assistants and they would be able to dive into the rest of the amassed info and spend some time digging around looking for answers. Branderson explained, “The 200 pages were really what became the last 3 books. The rest is all there and I made extensive use of it, but I made extensive use of it through my personal librarians, who worked on it. The 200 pages are usually what I refer to as The Notes.” (It sounded capitalized to me when he said it.)

• In the Notes, there were some complete scenes that Jordan had written before he died, such as: 1) much of what is now the epilogue of the last book, 2) a lot of the prologue (which, I think if I understood BS correctly, was divvied out into the prologues of the last 3 books), including the scene with the borderlander and his son on the tower, the scene with the old farmer on his doorstep watching the clouds roll in, the scene with Rand and some Seanchan in Gathering Storm’s prologue, and the scene with Slayer/Isam in the last book, 3) little scenes interspersed throughout the last 3 books (which were originally going to be one book), such as the scene where Egwene gets an unexpected visitor at the White Tower, the scene at the end of Towers of Midnight where two characters get engaged, and a big sequence in the Tower of Ghenjei. They were just fragments he had written, some small, some bigger, and in no particular order—just written and put in there in a pile.

• Next in the mass of info came Jordan’s notes to himself, like “make sure this happens,” or “Perrin is going to do this in the Last Battle, remember to put this in.” Remarking upon reading through these, Branderson said, “These were notes to himself, which means they weren’t terribly clear all the time, because he could be like, ‘Remember the brick,’ and you’re like—(shrugs shoulders)—‘Okay, Jim! Remember the brick. We’ll do that.’” :) (He made sure to add that that wasn’t actually one that was in there, just an example of what it was like.)

• The NEXT stage of information he had available to use was the Q&As they had with Jordan when it became clear that he was really sick and not getting better. Branderson explained, “He started talking about the book. And he didn’t normally do this—he was very private about the process, even with Harriet. She says she would never see something until it had been through 12 drafts. He liked to present a story that was polished and done even to his assistants and things. So, he just started talking and they grabbed a voice recorder and just recorded him talking through things. The scene with the farmer [mentioned above] was actually dictated. This is the famous talk where—if you’ve read about it from Wilson, Robert Jordan’s cousin, was there—and they were very good friends, and Wilson said Robert Jordan looked at him and said, ‘There’s a village in the Blight, and nobody knows about it. Not even Harriet,’ and just started talking and these sorts of things.”

• So Harriet and Wilson and others began asking Jordan questions about what would happen to certain characters, and he would tell them where they’d end up. “A lot of those were focused on actually the very last part of the Last Battle and after—where everyone was going to be, what their final state was.”

• Bringing it back around to the discussion of the 200 pages of The Notes (which we can now categorize into written scenes, notes to self, and Q&As), Branderson said, “I would split those groups up pretty evenly for those 200 pages, maybe 50 pages of written material, and then 75 of each of the others or something like that, I haven’t done the count on it. But that is what was handed to me in a big stack, and from there I was to craft the final book, trying to do my best to keep his vision.”

• Branderson explained how he did his best to keep Jordan’s vision, but since Jordan hadn’t gotten a lot written before he died, there were big holes. But, while Jordan hadn’t gotten a lot written, he had gotten a lot outlined, often in great detail, and BS was able to use those outlines and even lift quotes from them to put into what he wrote from the outlines. Egwene’s part in Gathering Storm is one of these heavily outlined parts, but in contrast, for Rand in Gathering Storm there wasn’t much of anything to go on. So BS re-read the series, and using the notes and his instincts had to construct for the parts where there wasn’t outline to use as a basis. Harriet said that she needed someone like that, who could construct the plot and not just follow an outline (since there were gaps in the story without any outline), and she chose BS because she liked his writing and she knew he was also a fan.

• Although there were some outlines that RJ left behind, he was actually more of a discovery writer than an outline writer. Branderson, however, is more of an outline writer, so he spent some time outlining what he wanted to do with the plot before he actually sat down to write it. He then took that outline back to Charleston and brainstormed with the others to fill in the holes.

• One of Branderson’s big things during these talks was telling them that they couldn’t do what’s comfortable: “We can’t write this book in a way that we don’t take any chances. We can’t just have it play out exactly like everyone’s going to expect. We can’t be so careful of wondering what Robert Jordan would and wouldn’t do that we don’t take chances, because he would have. The thing with Verin shows that he wanted to be audacious in this last book, and this was one of my big fears, that we would just play it safe point by point, and at the end of the day we’d have a bland book where we didn’t take any chances because we were too afraid of creating new canon, or of changing character arcs, or completing character arcs as I envision it…things like this. And so I pushed them toward more…I was a force for pushing ‘let’s take chances’ and they became a force for ‘we’re going to try and mitigate or stabilize this and make sure we’re not pushing too far.’”

• Brandon Sanderson’s story in the forthcoming Unfettered anthology is actually a result of this push and pull process. It’s a deleted sequence from A Memory of Light, from the viewpoint of Demandred. It was something that he had originally pushed for in the book, in the interest of world-building and new things, but when they had it in the book they realized that they had pushed a little too far, because adding in an entire new culture in the final volume was too distracting from what the last book should be about. So they cut it, and BS completely agrees that it was right to do so. “That balance between us [Sanderson and Harriet]…allowed us to be audacious, but also not go too far. And that was the balance that we were really striving for,” BS explained.

• In Towers of Midnight, Mat’s part is more Robert Jordan, while Perrin’s is more Branderson. From Jordan’s notes they knew that there was going to be something between Perrin and the Whitecloaks, and from there BS had to construct it. Perrin is BS’ favorite character, so that’s he wanted one of the three books he wrote to have a lot of Perrin in it. (When I heard this, all I could think was, “NOOOOO!” Perrin is actually the reason I stopped reading the series back in the day…but maybe he gets better. Maybe. I’ll have to start reading again and see.)

• A lot of the beginning and ending of the last book, A Memory of Light, was Robert Jordan. Branderson elucidated, “And specifically, Rand’s confrontation with the Dark One, he told us the soul of what we were to capture, he didn’t tell us specifically what to do, but he had told us what Rand needed to discover and the conclusions he needed to come to, and kind of I came up with…how to make that happen in a visual, kind of dynamic way.”

• He actually tries not to talk too much about which scenes are Robert Jordan’s and which scenes are his, partially because he’s been working on the Wheel of Time for 6 years now and doesn’t remember anymore where all the pieces came from and how they were built up and brought together and coalesced into these 3 books.

• “So I spent, what, 5 years?, working and compiling this, and writing this book, and now it’s finally done. The other big question I get from people is, how does it feel? And it feels like I have put down an enormous weight. I am so glad that I was able to carry it for awhile, but I am also very glad to be able to put it down. It was a very hard thing, the hardest books by far I’ve ever written. It took twice as long to write a given scene in the Wheel of Time as it does in one of my own books, just because I have to make sure I’m keeping all the viewpoints right, and all the characters right, and all the side characters right, and all these things. And it was a really big challenge. It forced me to grow a ton as a writer, and I grew by leaps and bounds[…]I am enormously pleased and honored to have been a part of this. Robert Jordan was one of my heroes, and being able to help out at the end—this is the sort of thing that just doesn’t happen, right? This doesn’t really happen to people! I dreamed someday of becoming a writer and actually making it as a writer for a living, and that alone seemed like this mythological thing that I could maybe never even attain, and then to have it go this far, to being able to work on the book series that inspired me and turned me into a writer…it’s been amazing.”

So that was what he had to say about the whole process from start to finish of writing the last three books of Robert Jordan’s series. He then fielded questions from the panel and the audience. Panel questions were mostly about very specific things (as one would expect) so I’ll probably skip most of those super-specific questions in hopes of avoiding spoilers or attempts to write about things I’m not familiar with, and instead focus on broad strokes-type questions, interesting facts, and funny things that were said.

• Robert Jordan was planning to do a sequel trilogy about Mat and Tuon as main characters. They only know two sentences about what he was going to write, which were something to the effect of, 1) Mat’s in a gutter somewhere, and he’s wearing a knit cap, and he’s gambled everything away, and 2) Perrin is in the belly of a ship, sailing somewhere, thinking about how he has to go kill a friend. They are not going to write those books, because they would have to be too much someone else’s and couldn’t be Robert Jordan’s. They feel it’s just best to let it be done.

• Robert Jordan said for character development, Rand needed to come to understand that the Dark One was necessary. He also needed to learn how to laugh again—he needed to enter the Last Battle as someone who could laugh again.

• Branderson wanted to show an Asha’man viewpoint, so he discussed with the others and took an Asha’man who they knew nothing about and was allowed to go for it with him—that is Androl. One of the features of Wheel of Time as a series is the introduction of new characters and viewpoints with each new book that comes out, so he wanted to continue that. Additionally, BS loves magic systems and it’s kind of one of his things in writing to play with magic systems, so with Androl, an Asha’man with a talent for gateways, he was able to play around with gateways and their associated magic. He admitted, “People have mentioned, and I kind of feel bad about this, ‘It feels like Androl strolled out of one of your books into the Wheel of Time!’ And it kind of does. And I apologize for that. I don’t want to be distracting like that, but that’s kind of what Androl is, someone who strolled out of one of my books and into the Wheel of Time.” XD

• A panelist asked if there was anything in The Notes that surprised or shocked him. His answer was a spoiler for me, even having been away from the series for a decade, so I’ll spoiler-mark it here—hover away if you want to know: Spoilers!

• At last count, there are about 2200 named characters in the whole series. (Um, wow!)

• Branderson and Harriet sat down and talked about the possibility of him writing any prequels or other things in the Wheel of Time universe, and from the beginning he has said no, he doesn’t think they should do any more fiction in the Wheel of Time world. Originally Robert Jordan had been against the idea of anyone finishing his series in the event that he died before it was completed: “Long before he passed away people had asked, ‘What happens if you don’t finish the series?’ And he’s like, ‘I’ll have my hard drive reformatted, melted down, so you’d better hope I finish because otherwise you’ll never get an ending.’ He changed his mind about that, but he did so uncomfortably. He had said many times that he did not want other people writing in his world. I, uh, hope there’s not a punch to the face waiting for me on the other side, but I know there would be if I didn’t stop there. Out of respect for him and his wishes, it needs to be done.[…] He left some brief notes about the other prequels. He was going to write one about Tam going to war—that’s the one I really wanted to see—and a second one about Moiraine and Lan. If I have my way, we will see these done as video games or other media…something kind of extended universe-ish, so we don’t have to worry about his legacy in the same way.”

• As far as movies go, Universal holds the rights to the Wheel of Time and they’ve been developing a feature film of The Eye of the World. A lot of people on the inside have been encouraging them that it would be much better as a TV show instead, but no one knows what they’re going to end up doing.

• Robert Jordan left a lot of information about who died and who didn’t, and where people ended up. But, there was one major character that Branderson made a call on because RJ didn’t say specifically one way or the other, and one major character that Harriet made a call on. Otherwise, if he didn’t say anything about a character, they had him/her live. Who did they kill?? Hover here!

• Interesting discussion on the nature of the world of the Wheel of Time—is it our world, in the far future? Or is our world a shadow of that world? Those seem to be the two main camps of theories. Branderson says maybe it’s in The Notes, but even if it is they won’t reveal it, because this is something that Robert Jordan wanted people to theorize and speculate about, and they don’t know the answer for sure.

• An audience member wanted to know whose idea it was for a 200 page chapter, Branderson’s or Jordan’s, so she would know who to curse. He responded, “You can curse me… That was another of my audacious things that I pitched, because it’s not that audacious, it’s a little bit audacious…but my goal with the chapter was, when you get to this chapter, the characters cannot put down their weapons. They’ve got to keep fighting; they’re fighting for their lives here. It’s the end of all things. I didn’t want you to be able to easily put down the book. I wanted it to be like, ‘I’m going to read one more chapter,’ and then that chapter takes you like 5 hours…well, it shouldn’t take you 5 hours, it’s like a 3 hour chapter to read and I wanted you to be like, ‘Damn, I can’t put this down, it’s 2 a.m. I’ve gotta finish this chapter though,’ and I wanted to end that chapter in a way that you’re like, ‘Alright…’ and turn the next page. And the next one’s very short for that reason.”

Whew! That’s not even everything that was talked about, if you can believe it. There was a drawing for shirts somewhere in there, but alas, I did not win. I really wanted to, partially because it was so cold in the convention center that I wanted to drape it around my shoulders to keep warm…

Later that weekend while I was waiting in line to get books autographed, I was chatting with someone and we were marveling at the volume of work Brandon Sanderson has produced. Having been to this panel, though, I can definitely see how it’s possible—the man has a lot of words, and he was able to fit a ton of info into an hour-long panel. I was impressed by how respectful he was of Robert Jordan and his legacy, and he really seemed honored to have been chosen to complete the Wheel of Time. And now I’m feeling inspired to get back to and maybe finish the series! :D

1 comment:

Alyssa L. said...

Thank thank you for reading it and making me feel like I did not toil in vain! :) Now I just need some people to key in just the right search terms so they can come across it, too... :)

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