The Stormlight Archive

Beta-Reading Words of Radiance: Spoiler-Free Thoughts on the Process

It’s almost here, my friends. Words of Radiance, the second installment in Brandon Sanderson’s epic fantasy The Stormlight Archive, will arrive at your local bookstore—or on your doorstep—on March 4th.

I’m unbelievably excited for this event—it will allow me, after six long months, to discuss this wonderful book freely with all the other fans who have been eagerly waiting to read it.

Has it truly been that long? I had to go look it up and count on my fingers. Sure enough, I received Part One for beta-reading on September 3rd. That seems like a long time ago. On the other hand, it’s almost shocking to realize that in those six months, the beta reading was completed; resulting revisions were incorporated and edited; new scenes were added and edited; gamma reading was completed; corrections resulting from that were incorporated; it’s been proofread, copyedited, corrected, printed, bound… and it’s almost here.

Today, I want to take a brief look at the experience of beta- and gamma-reading this magnificent behemoth. In a few days (but separately so as to keep the word count down reasonable a little lower) I will borrow a leaf from the most excellent Leigh Butler and give you a non-spoiler list of reactions to various scenes, chapters, and events in Words of Radiance.

First, definitions. The purpose of a beta read is to get detail-oriented eyes on the story, looking for continuity issues, errors in timing, perceived character or cultural inconsistencies, etc. This is not a proofreading exercise, so it helps if you can turn off the part of your brain that looks for typos. The gamma read is exactly the opposite. You make note of major inconsistencies if you find them, but this is no longer the time to worry about characterizations or wording choices. This is the time to look at the number of dots in the ellipses, the incorrect hyphenation, the time when it says “of” rather than “off”… that sort of thing. Gamma is the nitpicking proofread, when you turn off the part of your brain that wants to reword things. It’s a challenge. (Not all of us were completely successful…)

I don’t know how other authors conduct their beta readings, but I found this method inherently user-friendly. Words of Radiance is structured much like The Way of Kings, except without the Prelude. It has a prologue, five parts whose titles form a ketek, sets of interludes separating the parts, and an epilogue. Once the amazing Brandon and his incredible assistant Peter had established the beta team, we received a document containing the prologue, Part One, and the first set of interludes.

Additionally, we received the link to a collaborative Google Docs spreadsheet where, chapter by chapter, we could all enter our comments regarding continuity, character or cultural issues, and anything else we thought needed to be mentioned. The spreadsheet ended each Part with a “Part X General Reactions” tab; the last was a final “Full Book General Reactions” tab, where we could list any plot holes or outstanding issues we thought needed to be addressed, and note any expectations raised for the following book(s).

I’m told that this process was first used on the Wheel of Time beta reads, and it worked so well that Brandon continues the practice. The Google Docs spreadsheet was originated by Melissa Craib—for which pioneering effort, thank you, Melissa! I owe you. Because…

That shared spreadsheet may have saved my sanity. (And, quite possibly, my husband’s as well.) There was so much to absorb; if I hadn’t had some way to share my excitement, I’d have gone through the ceiling. (Ouch.) The beta team filled that puppy with squees and groans and questions and discussions. Sometimes we seconded and thirded one another’s comments, sometimes we disagreed, sometimes we speculated, and sometimes we were all puzzled together. But we did it together, and from my perspective that was both extraordinarily rewarding and amazingly effective in drawing out, and sometimes resolving, potential issues. (I have some new friends, too!)

We worked through the entire book (then about 1000 pages) one part at a time, with roughly a week between parts. Now, when I get into a good book, I’m terrible at putting it down and taking a break, so in a way this was very hard. “I’m at the end of Part 3, and Kaladin is where? And I don’t get to find out what happens until when??” It didn’t take long, though, before I discovered an advantage to this approach. When you know you don’t have the whole book, and you won’t get any more for several days, it’s a little easier to slow down, savor it, think about it, make notes, enter comments, and do your fact-checking.

(About that… you definitely want to do the fact-checking before you do the comments. Otherwise you end up saying stupid things like “Hogshide comes from hogs. Does Roshar, maybe Shinovar, have hogs as well as chickens and horses?” only to be reminded that not only did we see hogshide in The Way of Kings, we saw the pigherder in Hearthstone, and they used hog carcasses & blood as bait for the chasmfiend hunt. You realize that a word search of your ebook would have taken twenty seconds and saved you from feeling like a complete goop. Let’s just say, you only do that once.)

For the first time in my life, probably, I spent a full six weeks reading a single fantasy novel. Not that I always read slowly, you understand. Each part has its climax, its own avalanche. On every part, I started prudently and slowly, diligently making notes for myself, and going to the spreadsheet to enter comments in the discussion after each chapter. Then, suddenly, it would register that I hadn’t made any notes for the past few chapters—and I’d throw diligence to the stormwind as I gave myself over to the storytelling and read straight through. Once I could catch my breath, then, I’d go back to where I left off making comments, read it again, and do my job right. This… seemed to be a common practice among the beta group.

One of the hardest things about it, naturally, was keeping my mouth shut about what I’d just read. Repeatedly, I had to drop out of a discussion on The Way of Kings reread threads because I had just learned something new about the issue. (I could, perhaps, have mendaciously continued in the discussion and headed it off in a completely wrong direction, but I refrained. I’ll admit it: I toyed with that notion once or twice. It was very tempting.) I also deleted a fair number of comments to avoid hinting that a topic would be addressed in Words of Radiance.

So I read each part as it came, and it was good. I knew I was in trouble, though, when we got to Part Five. Up until then, Brandon had labeled each chapter simply by the name of the POV character(s) and a sequence number. Part Five had about a half-dozen of those, and then came “Climax One.” Ruh-roh… A series of “Climax” chapters, followed by several “Endings” chapters, and the Epilogue? Needless to say, this was the full-bore Avalanche, and I threw caution to the winds. When I finished (and before I did a proper job of the Part Five comments), I went to the “General Reactions” tab and wrote one word: BRILLIANT. It was all I could say.

Yes, I did eventually go back and write more intelligible comments, and at much greater length (duh—this is the Wetlander), but it took a while. The finale really took my breath away.

 

The gamma read was a bird of a different feather. By this time, the book had grown to 1088 pages, and the time constraints were significant. I think we had twelve days (or parts thereof) to get through it, reading every word to make sure the brain was seeing exactly what was there, not merely what it expected to see. This time, the artwork, chapter titles and epigraphs were included, which introduced a whole new feel to the book.

This spreadsheet was also different: identify only page number, error, and suggested correction. It’s amusing to look back at it: most items show as a strikethrough, with Peter’s comment “Stet” and sometimes “This is intentional.” Scattered throughout are green-highlighted comments, which meant a) it needs to be incorporated, and b) it’s the type of error we should be looking for. It became a challenge to see if you could earn a green—a friendly (and sometimes hilarious) competition that showed up primarily in the chat sidebar.

Some diligent folks managed to go straight through and make good mark-ups along the way. Personally, I discovered that trying to proofread 100 pages a day while preparing for and celebrating Christmas was a bigger challenge than I had expected. I finally decided to jump to the end and work my way backward, chapter by chapter, on the theory that it would put a (marginally) fresher set of eyes at the end of the book, and that I might be less caught up in the story and better able to see any errors. I did manage to find a misspelled name on page 999… Go me?

The end of 2013 saw the end of the gamma reading. The incomparable Peter finished it off in style; I swear that man read the entire book forwards, backwards and possibly sideways, looking at every single word and punctuation mark. He even managed to find time to post a video of his daughter “making a mess with the papers!” as she delightedly dumped the entire printed document down the stairs. (Seriously—check that out. The whole thing, cascading down…)

All in all, it’s been quite a ride. Just a few more days, my friends. Just a few more days, and we ride the winds together!


Alice Arneson has variously been an engineer; crossword creator for JordanCon; devil’s advocate for Cadsuane, Egwene and Gawyn; and unabashed fangirl. The most amazing thing she’s ever tasted was foie gras with Château d’Yquem.

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