Unity of Purpose: The Oathbringer Beta Story

In Which… Brandon Sanderson’s dedicated band of Knights Radiant search out problems in the world of Roshar, on behalf of Cosmere fans everywhere. Oathbringer is coming, and work behind the scenes has been building for many months. Now it’s time to ramp up your anticipation, making sure y’all are as excited as you can get by November—as much as we can without giving anything away, of course, because we would NOT do that to you. However, spoilers for The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance abound, so if you haven’t read them, be warned.

A long time ago (a little over three years), my first article for this website was about beta reading Words of Radiance. There’s a fair amount of water under the bridge since then, and I’ve done more beta reads, all of which functioned more or less like that one. Then came Oathbringer. I’m here today, in collaboration with a few of the beta readers, to talk about what this one was like. Special thanks to Ted Herman, Ravi Persaud, Joel and Jory Phillips, Ross Newberry, Brandon and Darci Cole, Deana Whitney, Alyx Hoge, Eric Lake, Nikki Ramsay, Gary Singer, Paige Vest, Becca Reppert, Lyndsey Luther, and Mark Lindberg for all their input. They are a small but representative (and vocal) sampling of the beta readers; so far as I know, they will all return for the gamma in the next few weeks.

Alpha, Beta, Gamma

For those new to the concept, here’s how the Greek letters work in the Sanderson world:

Alpha readers are (logically) the first to read what he’s working on, and give early feedback on bits and pieces before a complete novel has come together.

Beta readers from a variety of backgrounds and interests join the alpha readers later, to give feedback to and through the completed novel. Beta reader Brandon Cole writes:

As beta readers, we have two very different jobs that have to be balanced.

  1. Immediate reaction feedback—Brandon wants to know how I as a reader feel at any given point. How do I feel about this? Do I have a question about this? What/how does this make me think?
  2. Looking for continuity. While enjoying the book and fanboying over every new bit of lore, it’s important to look for and comment on anything that feels like it might be out of place, out of character, or just plain contradictory to other parts of the story. This can be difficult to balance against the thought that “Oh, he knows what he’s doing and is amazing, so everything must be intentional.” The BrandonFan goggles have to come off during the beta process.

Gamma readers are the final group to review the book before it goes to print, looking for nitpicky details that only a human brain will be able to catch: missing prepositions, the correct place to hyphenate an in-world term, a misplaced name… that sort of thing.

So. That’s how it usually works. For the most part, that’s how it worked for Oathbringer… except on steroids.

Now, you have to understand how our beta-reading functions. It begins when Peter Ahlstrom emails the document to the beta readers, who choose their own methods to read and to record personal reactions. He also emails the link to a Google spreadsheet, with tabs for timeline, general explanations, each chapter (sectioned by Plot, Character, Culture, Other, and Title Suggestions), and general reactions. The procedure is usually to read a chapter, making notes as you go, and then enter your comments in the spreadsheet. (Some folks prefer to enter stream-of-consciousness comments as they read. I used to, but I hit one too many spoilers for things later in the same chapter… so I started collecting my comments in my document margin and entering them at the end of the chapter.)

So, Oathbringer. Beta-reading on steroids. In the first place, the beta version was 517,000 words. (For reference, the final count for Words of Radiance was 403,000, and the final revision of Oathbringer is around 450,000.) Because of the size and the structure—and to streamline the process so deadlines weren’t so deadly—the beta read was done by parts. When we started on Part 1, Brandon was revising Part 2, and Moshe Feder (his editor) was still working on Part 3.

In the second place, there were approximately 8,257 beta readers. Okay, I’m exaggerating. There were about seventy… which is more than twice what I’ve experienced before. This created issues—the first one being that Google Sheets isn’t entirely prepared to have seventy people entering data at the same time in the same spreadsheet! The other major issue, initially, was that there were so many comments it was almost impossible to figure out whether your thoughts had already been addressed, or where to add them. Combine that with a lot of first-time beta readers (it’s so easy to forget to separate reactions into the different sections!), some of whom didn’t realize that we needed to keep the comments sequential within a section… well, it was pretty chaotic for a while.

These particular issues were resolved in a couple of ways. Because everyone reads and comments at their own pace, the initial volume dropped off as real life intruded on reading time, spreading out the inputs. So that helped, along with a gentle reminder via email about keeping things in order. We also had a new column for “upvotes”—plus-one if you just want to note your agreement with a comment—which cut down dramatically on the “Me too!” “Me three!” sort of thing we used to do. And one of the biggest innovations in Sanderson beta-reading came about when Mark developed a script that would insert persistent paragraph numbers—which was a huge thing, because with the variety of platforms we were using, page numbering was useless as a sorting tool. Let me tell you, paragraph numbers were AMAZING. They may have saved our sanity—and also friendships.

The ultimate solution was for everyone to pull together and make it work: for each other, for Peter, for Brandon. And it did work.

***

Question & Answer with the Beta Readers

A few weeks ago, I asked the Storm Cellar group what questions, if any, they would like to ask the beta readers. I did a little Google Sheet of my own, though not for 70 people—for one thing, I didn’t have everyone’s email addresses, and for another, I’m not as incredible as Peter! Still, we collected some good material for your entertainment and enlightenment. (I only wish I could include all of it!)

Q: How soon will you read Oathbringer again after it comes out?

A: Unanimously, “When the gamma read starts!” After that, the answers ranged from, “On the plane home from the release party,” to “Oh, sometime in the first couple of months. Life’s busy.” Most agreed that the first thing they’ll do with a hard copy, though, is look at all the artwork. Some of it will be included in the gamma version, but there will be some we won’t see until publication.

Q: How challenging is it when canon differs from what you read in the beta?

A: The most up-voted answer to this was Ross’s: “I occasionally get surprised by misremembering a detail that changed, but for me the best part is seeing how feedback was incorporated to make the end result a better work.” Beyond that, several people commented along the lines of “I expect it to change, so it’s not a problem.” A couple of my personal favorites were these:

Alyx: “I feel like I’ve been filing away “suspect scenes” that are likely to be changed so that I can intentionally pay attention to what’s different when the final version comes around. I’ll just have to be careful to keep the final version straight in my head!”

Becca: “This is my first time as a beta reader so I don’t know yet. But I’m excited to see how much changes and if future me remembers things wrong because of it.”

Q: How extensive are the comments that you make? And how many of your comments/ changes/ suggestions actually make it into the book? Sub-question, has a suggestion of yours become a major (or not) point in the canon?

A: BAHAHAHAHA!! Fun trivia fact: there were more words in the comments (not even including quotes) than there were in the manuscript; Peter stopped counting after 550,000 words. The comments were… extensive. Yes. Oddly enough, most of us thought we were commenting a lot, but as Ted noted, “when I look at the accumulated comments of the other betas, I feel like I didn’t make enough comments.”

As far as how many of our inputs “make it into” the book… well, it’s more a matter of influence, and that’s hard to quantify. In the final version, there are definitely changes that reflect the discussions we had, though we rarely know how much of that is a matter of confirming something Brandon planned to change, versus taking a new tack. Even when there are specifics, we’re a bit skittish of pointing them out; while it’s nice to know we helped, we have no desire to cast any shade on the author! Plus, to avoid spoilers and because we don’t yet know what was changed, we can’t give any examples from Oathbringer.

That said, Joel reminded us of how Words of Radiance was slightly altered to include the pain and the aftercare involved in acquiring tattoos, based on the personal experience of several beta readers. He also recalled his support for Dalinar calling Kaladin “Soldier;” some thought it sounded derogatory, but for a guy with military experience, it was a term of respect. It stayed. Lyndsey led the charge to formalize the wording of Kaladin’s third Ideal, which originally seemed too casual for such a momentous occasion. And then there was The Great Skirts in Water Discussion, wherein all the women piled on to insist that skirts will most emphatically not flow gracefully when descending into water. (To be fair, I’m reasonably sure the men had limited experience with the general behavior of skirts in such situations, and none of them were foolish enough to argue with us.)

Also, Gary is counting the number of his jokes included in final versions. He’s at three so far.

Q: Does beta-reading take away the enjoyment of experiencing the published work in its final form?

A: The responses to this covered the full spectrum from, “No, not at all,” to “Yes, absolutely.” One of the most reflective responses was this one from Nikki:

For me, yes, it does take away some of the joy of reading the final published book…. It takes away from the excitement of Release Day, the ability to read at your preferred pace, and the ability to be in your own world while reading it. That last is one of the major downsides, for me, of a beta-read done by such a huge group in a relatively public space. You lose that first pure, personal experience with the book, because you’re also seeing many other people’s opinions and predictions, and discussing things as you go. Beta-reading turns that first read-through into “work” for me. It’s a completely different experience than just picking up a new book and reading it for fun.

Whether it takes away the enjoyment for any individual is… well, individual. But I think we all agreed that beta-reading changes the enjoyment.

Q: Did you make sure he didn’t use “maladroitly” again?

A: We had a good laugh about this one—and naturally, Ravi had to research it. Turns out that Brandon used “maladroitly” five times in one book, and only three times in all his other books, but that five times made it a Thing. We did threaten to find places to insert it in the gamma, though.

Q: How have you seen Brandon’s writing evolve with Oathbringer vs. previous works? (Specifically wrt: TSA, focused on technique improvements and that sort of thing, not content-specific.)

A: Everyone who responded to this had a different angle, but everyone said they had certainly seen improvement. It’s really hard to pick just one or two comments for this one! Ravi noted Brandon’s increasing ability to elicit emotion, and as Eric said, “The lows are so devastating, and the highs will make you scream with joy.”

Others mentioned greater skill with chemistry and romantic tension; the self-contained structure within each Part; the build-up of context and meaning to a dramatic pay-off at the end; and the remarkable ability to still surprise the reader with amazing plot twists and incredible character moments throughout the book.

Q: How much is Team Dragonsteel involved in your discussion? Do you talk with Peter Ahlstrom or even Brandon himself very much during the beta read?

A: To paraphrase Jory a little, “Contact with Dragonsteel is limited, but not restricted. Peter is constantly on the prowl through the beta spreadsheet, offering points and counterpoints and generally keeping us in line… We had no direct contact with Brandon, though we did occasionally see him creeping through our work late at night.”

Lyndsey mentioned the late-night creeping at a signing: “He laughed and said it was a huge temptation to just leave the spreadsheet open all the time and watch us comment.” She also observed, as we all must sometimes, that Peter is marvelous. “He doesn’t get NEARLY enough credit for all the amazing work he does on these books. Any time any of us had a question, he’d be there to answer it. He worked with us to streamline the process and make it easier for us all.”

Q: Are there any obvious hints you don’t catch during beta and find them later on reread (and facepalm yourselves)?

A: From Darci: “I ALWAYS miss stuff when reading these books. So for me it was incredibly eye-opening to watch the rest of the betas discuss points of interest that had completely flown past me. I’m much more of a casual reader, paying less attention to wider Cosmere references, so getting to see others catch those as I read was awesome.”

We each tend to look for different things, but I’m pretty sure we all miss things the first time through. My personal example from Words of Radiance was Zahel’s identity; I missed that, and didn’t entirely believe the beta readers who did catch it… until Nightblood showed up. So it’s less a matter of finding them on a reread, than it is being stunned by what someone else catches that I just flat-out missed.

Q: I would also love to hear any stories you’ve got about particularly intense debates or silly controversies that the beta readers got into, or weird inside jokes or misunderstandings.

A: This one could be a standalone article of its own!! We’d talk about Ravi, our resident speed-reader, who would be making comments on the last chapters when most of us were still in the first third. The pun-offs in the beta chat. The debates… well, we can’t talk about those yet, because they have too many spoilers. (I’ll include some of those in the spoiler review or the follow-up, I promise.) The theorizing while waiting for the next Part to come out. (Mark thinks we should find a way to force everyone to stop at one specific point and discuss for several weeks before being allowed to move on.) The typo jokes. (Well, mostly one, which will forever among this group of beta readers be a rallying cry: “That tight sh*t!”)

One that will always be a “fond” memory—or perhaps not so fond, because the argument got flaming hot—was “that one point where Brandon directly asked for our positions and mine ended up being the opposite of what I ever thought, and everyone was divided and it was awesome to read all the opinions. That was pretty great.” (Mark) It was pretty great—I, too, was shocked to find myself voting exactly the opposite of what I’d always said. We’ll all be watching to see how the final version of that turns out!

My personal favorite, though, is the Beta Babies. Yes, we had Beta Babies, and they are adorable. “Thumper” was born to Brandon and Darci Cole, just a few hours before Lyndsey Luther delivered Sammy, about a week before the beta read officially started.

Beta versions:

Here’s “Thumper” in early January, just about the time the beta started:

And Sammy (photo credit to Shannon Sorensen):

For the Gamma versions, here are brand new pictures as of the day of uploading this article:

Grown just a bit, they have. Check out the stuffed animal for scale! All. The. Cute.

Q: How unique and/or similar are the analyses of each of the beta readers?

A: From Joel: “What I love about this group of beta readers is the diversity of style and vision. It can cause interesting discussions in the beta chat. Everyone seems to have an open mind to a new idea, possibility, or vision. These discussions have never devolved into anything ugly, either. We all seem to recognize that we have equal input, regardless of education, background, and interests. We get multiple opinions/viewpoints on multiple subjects.”

Ross pointed out that the different areas of focus and expertise worked well together: laws of physics, magic system quirks, fashion, relationship dynamics, politics, historical accuracy, physical descriptions… Add it all together and the coverage is pretty thorough.

Several people noticed certain trends in perspective. Nikki says, “As you beta-read, you’ll definitely start to notice the people whose opinions (mostly) align with your own, or those whose opinions (mostly) don’t. But I don’t think there’s ever been someone I NEVER disagreed with, or NEVER agreed with. We all come at it with different perspectives, and that definitely shows.” Paige also remarked that eventually, whenever she found a comment from Ravi that she agreed with, she felt it was worth mentioning in the spreadsheet. (Come to think of it, that was pretty rare…) There were strong disagreements over the emotional responses of characters in certain situations, for example. (Very. Strong. But civil, too.)

Q: Do you ever feel like Peter and Brandon are delighted—or surprised—by your impressions?

A: It was passed on to us by Peter that Brandon is particularly happy with the beta process this time around. (Thanks for the reminder, Jory.) When the author feels that the beta process was extremely helpful, all the work is worth it.

Darci also passed on one that several of us missed: “Peter mentioned to us that Emily (Sanderson) read a lot of our commentary and she feels like she knows us now, which I think is equally as cool.”

Personal notes from the beta readers:

To conclude this section, let me present a collection of random inputs on the general subject of the Oathbringer beta read:

Ravi: “It’s like we threw an unfinished book and a bunch of crazy, amazing people into a blender and a finished book came out! I loved every second of it.”

Jory: “The most wonderful part of this process is the friendships that have grown from the beta … we all come together in a mutual respect for each other and love for the book that we’re nurturing together.”

Ted: “Reading is usually a solitary activity, but beta-reading and beta-discussion add a whole amazing dimension to reading enjoyment!”

Ross: “For a number of the seasoned beta readers, the Oathbringer beta process started well over a year ago, with a private group reread of the whole Stormlight Archive…, noting unanswered questions as we went.”

Alyx: “It’s really a team effort like nothing else. Every fan has the things that they focus on and their own perspectives to bring to the table. We all put in some contribution and the finished product is a better work for it.”

Mark: “I’d like to highlight the amount of work that being a beta reader involves. For three months, I planned anything outside of work around the beta schedule, because when a new part arrived, I disappeared into my cave, working through a few chapters every evening. I had no free time. It was gruelling, intense, and sometimes discouraging when it felt like all I was doing was +1-ing comments that other people had already given. It is not for everyone, and there are plenty of people who say they want to be beta readers but don’t realize how much work it really is.”

Deana: “The greatest surprise of the Beta was the new friendships. The beta chat can become very busy at times. Yet talking to them every day about something we all loved was friendship development on fast forward.”

Joel: “To know 100 years from now my great great great grandchildren could pick up a Sanderson novel and see our names and know that we contributed to the final product of these amazing stories that Brandon writes, gives me such a warm feeling. For me, a man without a college degree, that grew up reading all kinds of fantasy—C.S. Lewis, McCaffrey, Eddings, Tolkien, Jordan to name a few—to know that over the coming years Sanderson’s name will be considered among equals with those great writers, and to know that even on a small scale you helped contribute to the final product of some of his books, it’s difficult to put to words….”

Darci: “I’ve beta read for a lot of authors, published and aspiring. As a writer myself, I’ve loved seeing the diversity of thought in the readers’ responses, the roughness of Sanderson’s work (it’s nice knowing your heroes aren’t perfect), and seeing the many ways that Peter and the Dragonsteel team help sustain Brandon so he can focus on the part of his work that he truly enjoys. I’ve loved it.”

Eric: “The Oathbringer beta came at my busiest time at my work, but there’s nothing I’d rather lose sleep doing than working on this. It really is a huge array of work. It’s not fun and games. You read an exciting bit—there are lots of them—and you have to stop and write down your thoughts coherently. It’s way more time consuming than reading the book for fun. Still, there’s no place I’d rather be.”

Gary: “I loved it, but it was 2.5 months of sh*t hard work!”

Paige: “I knew it would be difficult yet satisfying work. I did not realize just HOW difficult it would be (my only previous beta being Edgedancer) or how utterly, wonderfully, fantastically satisfying it has turned out to be—both during and after completion. It was the best experience as a fan and I cannot wait to do it again.”

Lyndsey: “I’m going to get a bit sappy here. I’ve done a LOT of beta and gamma reads over the last four years, but this one… This one was so special to me. My baby was born about a week before we got part 1. I was in and out of the hospital with complications and dealing with a lot of depression and mood swings, and beta reading this book kept me sane. Working on this gave me something to look forward to, something to focus on, when everything seemed so bleak and I felt like I would never recover. At least I had Kaladin and Adolin and Bridge 4 to escape to. At least I had this wonderful group of people to be there for me, to talk to me about something other than the depression, to heap compliments and love on my babe when I shared photos. Most of them didn’t know the extent of the pain I was in, but the puns and the debates and the camaraderie helped me to feel connected. To say that this book means a lot to me is an understatement, but a necessary one, as there are no words to adequately express my thankfulness for my involvement and this community of people, in addition to the usual joy of being able to help—in a small way—make something I love even better.”

Becca: “This was so much harder than I expected it to be. I made things hard on myself by planning a wedding and studying for a professional exam as the same time as the beta. I had no idea that the time commitment would be so great and there were times I wondered if I’d be able to do everything. But despite the stress and complete lack of free time, I am so happy to have been given this opportunity to contribute. I would absolutely do it all again.”

So you want to be a beta reader?

Here’s a challenge from Deana Whitney:

  1. Wait a week in between parts. Are you still sane?
  2. Stop reading in the middle of the climax to write two pages about your thoughts and feelings and “his eyes are blue” comments. Were you able to stop reading?

If both answers are “Yes,” you might have what it takes. The personal notes above will give you some idea of the additional challenges. There are probably hundreds of people out there thinking they’d like a chance, but … like Eric says, it’s not fun and games. It’s bloody hard work. Several of us were on the verge of burning out by the time we were done. Only 45 of the original 70 even put their names on the Part 5 spreadsheet. Brandon Sanderson himself was tired of Roshar by the time he finished revision 3. (And he still had another revision to do!) Peter had to enlist the aid of a couple of the beta readers to sort through the comments, collate them, and create a condensed version to be useful. Emily sorted through our myriad chapter-title suggestions to pick the best ones. It was, as several people noted, a grueling process for everyone.

But, WOW. It was worth it. Come on, November!

Alice Arneson is by now a veteran beta reader—who nearly met her match in Oathbringer. Watch for upcoming articles from Tor staff and the beta readers on the story to this point, various refreshers, cosplaying The Stormlight Archive, being a Stormwarden, new artwork, and of course early release chapters of the book itself. Oh, and Alice is sure to do another “spoiler-free reactions” article for you to throw darts at, come early November.

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