let's get ready to ramble

Making my way through the sprawling Wheel of Time series (WoT) as a young aspiring writer, I often wondered how author Robert Jordan did it on a technical level: How could one person keep so much information straight across one enormous book after another while telling an epic story? As just one example of WoT's scope, readers count 2,787 distinct, named characters across all 4.4 million words.

According to Michael Livingston's Origins of The Wheel of Time, Jordan didn't do it alone. It took a village. Just as Lucasfilm Story Group maintains canon for Star Wars across all the books, comics, TV shows, movies, and video games, Jordan relied heavily on his wife, editor Harriet McDougal, and several employees to keep the Wheel rolling steadily even as he surged ahead in the narrative.

That's just logistics, of course. The more important question is, how did Jordan actually write these novels without drowning in research, notes, and imaginary maps? How does one write a coherent story with a beginning, middle, and end while simultaneously building its world and all the characters to fill it? Most would-be authors who attempt feats like WoT vanish down the rabbit hole of planning and preparation, never getting past Chapter 1.

Years before twisty, serial narratives on television like Lost betrayed audience trust by making their mysteries up as they went along, hinting at a master plan that never materialized, Jordan's readers started to doubt. As the WoT books—and the gaps between them—grew, some frustrated fans lashed out, accusing the author of delaying the ending deliberately as a cash grab—think Deathly Hallows Part 1 and 2—or, worse, not actually knowing where the story was going in the first place. So many open loops—there was no way he'd ever close them all.

The anger around George R.R. Martin's inability to complete his Song of Ice and Fire series echoes this. In contrast with Martin, however, Jordan didn't let the delights of fame and fortune interrupt his writing. Rather, he refused to let his knowledge of the story's destination stifle his creativity. From the start of the project, Jordan assured readers he had the final lines in mind, even as the series ballooned from a planned 6 books to 11 and beyond.

Some called it a bluff, but it proved true. When Brandon Sanderson swept in after Jordan's death to tie the series up, McDougal, Jordan's wife and editor, gave him that ending, and Sanderson used it unchanged to close the final book. Jordan knew where he was going. He was just in no hurry to get there.

Novelists fall into two camps. Plotters map things out. Pantsers, as you might guess, fly by the seat of their pants. As I've written before, nonfiction authors should always outline their work. On the fiction side, however, an argument can be made that pantsing allows for more exploration and invention. Characters can surprise their author. Brilliant twists sometimes emerge unexpectedly only to fit the material to a T. Risky, maybe, but the results can be remarkably vivid.

As it turns out, Jordan "never wrote from a strict outline," Livingston writes. And, in fact, "the full richness of The Wheel of Time ... resulted from the ways in which Jordan’s characters were allowed to grow beyond their original models." That said, Jordan couldn't have flown by pants-seat alone. Not with a story that complex. According to Livingston, the author took another approach.

Instead of tamping down on inspiration to adhere to an outline decided well in advance, Jordan "wrote through a state of constant dialogue with his developing story":

[Jordan's] preferred mode of creativity was brainstorming in what he called “ramblings”: opening a fresh document, he would begin writing what he then knew about a character, sequence, or scene. Along the way, he would ask questions of himself, even raise objections against himself, all within a written stream of consciousness. Sometimes these ramblings would evolve into the solutions to problems. Other times they would serve only to solidify what the problems really were. Among his notes are ramblings, printed out, on which he handwrote his attempts to answer his own still-unanswered questions. These documents are the closest we can get to seeing his actual creative process laid bare.

"Ramblings" are a way to work out your ideas without getting locked into a traditional outline. A kind of pre-writing. Jordan's reliance on rambling speaks to the importance of dialogue in the creative process, even if that dialogue takes place entirely in your own head.

It makes sense to me. While editing my work or someone else's, I'll read tricky passages out loud. Hearing the words spoken lands differently. Likewise, programmers debug software by rubberducking: talking through the problem with an inanimate object (like a rubber duck placed on their desk for the purpose) to arrive at fresh insights into the problem. In this sense, Jordan rubberducked 11 best-selling novels.

If outlining stifles you and pantsing terrifies you, consider rambling through your ideas instead. Open a blank document and start writing what you know about the topic. Not for readers. For yourself. As you explore the idea you have in mind, listen for questions as they arise in your own mind.

If necessary, try reading your rambling out loud. In my experience, that's the fastest way to surface logical gaps, factual inconsistencies, and creative opportunities that might have eluded you in the writing. Think of this rambling process as a creative conversation with the one collaborator who shares your goals, talent, and mission: yourself.

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