A new essai to follow ‘Death carries a camcorder’. The meme that gave rise to my original LiveJournal pieces asked for ‘ten things I hate in a book’; but being under no obligation to stick to the original terms, I add to the list ad libitum.
According to local legend, one of the first tourists to visit Calgary (then a Northwest Mounted Police fort with a few civilian outbuildings) was an Englishman of energetic habits but not, it seems, with any wide experience of the world. One morning, having rested from the rigours of his journey, he decided to take his morning constitutional by walking to the Rocky Mountains and back.
In those days you could see the mountains easily from the N.W.M.P. fort, small but sharp and clear on the western horizon. In England, of course, nothing looks sharp and clear more than a few miles away. In that mild and humid air, every distant object is more or less obscured and coloured by haze: minor English poets can always eke out their verses with facile rubbish about ‘blue remembered hills’. In the dry cold highlands of Alberta, there is no such haze; objects on the horizon, on a sunny day, are very nearly as clear as those immediately at hand. But our English tourist knew nothing of this, and set out with the idea of visiting the mountains and getting back to the fort in time for breakfast.
Five or six miles out, the Englishman, who must already have been rather footsore and perplexed, clambered up the long ridge that would later be called Signal Hill. Cresting the ridge, he would have been appalled to discover a wide plain sloping gently down for several miles before him. Beyond that rose the first tumbled range of the true foothills, towards which, disappointed but not daunted, he plodded on. Behind that range is the Kananaskis valley, and then the last range of foothills before the beginning of the actual mountains — some fifty miles west of Fort Calgary as the crow flies.
Several days later, a searching party found the Englishman and brought him back to the fort to recuperate.
Something rather similar happens to writers who visit Elfland; even today, when the map of that country has been scribbled over with marked trails and motorways, the lesson of distance is one that every traveller must discover for himself. It is notoriously a place where journeys take longer than expected: short stories turn into novels, and novels turn into trilogies, and trilogies turn into the high felony that has sometimes been called ‘Aggravated Trilogy’ in the statute-books of the critics. This has been going on as long as people have been writing deliberate works of fantasy, yet somehow the experience of it comes as a complete surprise to each new victim.
Tolkien himself was one of the early victims, so that for many years, the kind of critics who had never been to Elfland, and prided themselves on not knowing the place, would point sneeringly at the mere length of The Lord of the Rings as if that alone were sufficient proof that it was egregiously padded. For some reason or other, they did not say the same thing about Anthony Adverse or War and Peace, both of which are much the same length, nor even about the 4,215 back-breaking pages of A la recherche du temps perdu. There is some padding in the earlier parts of The Fellowship of the Ring, to be sure; some of the verses could be cut, and some of the ‘hobbit-talk’, and probably the whole business of Tom Bombadil; but the second and third volumes are tightly plotted and could hardly be reduced without fatal damage to the story.
And yet the padding in those early chapters is there; there was more of it in the first few drafts; and strange to say, Tolkien put it in deliberately. The unexpected success of The Hobbit led his publisher (and readers) to clamour for ‘more about Hobbits’; he complied only reluctantly and with misgivings. Two months after beginning ‘the new Hobbit’, he wrote to C. A. Furth:
The Hobbit sequel is still where it was, and I have only the vaguest notions of how to proceed. Not ever intending any sequel, I fear I squandered all my favourite ‘motifs’ and characters on the original ‘Hobbit’.
With no clear idea what the sequel should be about or where it was going, Tolkien threw in all sorts of odd ingredients. He knew very well that he was making stone soup, and was not about to reject any idea that would help him keep the story moving and pad it out to a suitable length. Tom Bombadil had first appeared in the Oxford Magazine, unconnected with Hobbits and Middle-earth; but he could be made to fit, so into the pot he went. Then there were Barrow-wights and Black Riders and other adventures by the way, and the inn at Bree (a spontaneous invention), where Tolkien found a mysterious Hobbit with wooden shoes, nicknamed ‘Trotter’: the first faint origin of the character that would eventually be revealed as Aragorn. The soup was already getting rather full of herbs and seasonings, but it still needed meat — a principal ingredient to supply the stock and unite all the other things into a harmonious whole.
One day, the ‘meat’ came to Tolkien in a flash of insight. Bilbo’s magic ring was not just a stock fairy-tale ring of invisibility; it was the ring, the One Ring that ruled all the others, and Sauron (who had already appeared in several unpublished stories) was trying desperately to find it. At the Council of Elrond, which seems to have been a process of discovery and decision for the author as much as for the characters, it came out (after several drafts) that the only way to defeat Sauron was to destroy the Ring. That was the unifying device Tolkien needed — the meat for the soup — and from that moment, it was stone soup no longer. But he had already dragged in so many ideas and characters and complications that it could not all be worked out quickly.
Up to this point Tolkien, like the Englishman in our local legend, had only been climbing the first high ridge beyond the fort, in the mistaken belief that the mountains were immediately beyond it. With the discovery of the One Ring, he saw for the first time a wide stretch of country that he had to traverse before reaching the true foothills; and disappointed but not daunted, he plodded on. Five years after he began ‘the new Hobbit’, he informed Stanley Unwin with naive and touching faith:
It is now approaching completion. I hope to get a little free time this vacation, and might hope to finish it off early next year. . . . It has reached Chapter XXXI and will require at least six more to finish.
In fact Chapter XXXI was ‘Flotsam and Jetsam’ — Book III, chapter 9 in the published epic; just about halfway through The Two Towers. There were in fact another thirty-one chapters to go. Since Rohan and Gondor, the War of the Ring, and Gollum (not yet ‘tamed’) had already been introduced to the tale, it is hard to imagine how Tolkien could have thought that he would finish it all in just six. But there was Mount Doom — so clear, so tantalizingly close! He could not accept, could not perhaps even imagine, that it would take seven more years of struggle and revision before he brought the story to its conclusion. He had set out to take a morning constitutional, and ended by making the journey of a lifetime.
The Lord of the Rings has been the great exemplar (and fatal temptation) of every writer of epic fantasy since; and we might suppose that subsequent writers in the field would have learnt this along with its other lessons. We would be disappointed. One writer after another has set out to write a long-form fantasy tale, and grossly underestimated the size of the task and the length of the finished work. In one of his moments of wisdom, David Eddings observed that a man who has never walked a mile on his own legs has no clear idea how far a mile is. It seems that a writer who has never written a trilogy has no clear idea what a trilogy is, either. To judge how long a story will have to be, it appears, you have to have personal experience at writing stories of that size; and of course no one starts out with such experience.
In short stories and ordinary novels, this does not pose a problem. The novice writer has to finish his stories before he can hope to sell them; and with a finished text, a publisher always knows how far apart to put the covers of the book. But in fantasy especially, writers routinely sign publishing contracts for long series when only the first volume (or none at all) has been completed. The rest of the series is a gigantic promissory note, and many a writer has found himself bankrupted by the compound interest on his own projected tale.
Tad Williams is one of these. His first long epic, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, was sold to DAW Books as a trilogy, and duly published as such. The Dragonbone Chair is a hefty book, but it delivers exactly what Williams and his publisher called for — the first third of the story, as projected at the time. The Stone of Farewell is much the same size; but it becomes increasingly apparent by the end of that book that the story is not two-thirds done. To Green Angel Tower, as a result, is a monster. DAW was just able to publish it in hardcover as a single volume of over 1,000 pages, though it had to be set in smaller type to fit in one binding. It would have been about 1,600 pages in paperback, which is considerably more than a mass-market binding can hold together. So DAW was reduced to the rather ludicrous expedient of releasing the paperback as a two-volume volume — To Green Angel Tower, Part 1 and To Green Angel Tower, Part 2.
Wiser heads might have surrendered to the inevitable a little sooner and with better grace, and divided the oversized third volume in two from the outset. Then at least each volume would have had its own title, instead of the third and fourth books sharing one title between them. Williams and DAW did just that with his next series, Otherland, which also proved too long for the originally projected three books. His recent Shadowmarch series repeats the procedure. Indeed, it would not be unfair to describe Tad Williams as a professional writer of four-volume trilogies.
The real master criminals of Aggravated Trilogy, however, were yet to come. The late Robert Jordan originally planned The Wheel of Time as a tightly-plotted six-book series, which, even so, would have been the largest epic fantasy yet conceived and written as a single story. In the event, Jordan died after finishing eleven books (plus a prequel), leaving notes for the twelfth and last; and that book turned out to be so long that it had to be divided into three. The result, after nearly thirty years’ work by two authors, was a sheer monstrosity, a soap opera sprawling over fifteen fat volumes, to a total length of more than four million words.
Those four million words, I am afraid, contain a great deal of deliberate padding. I have heard, in such a way as to believe it, that Jordan was asked by his publisher, Tom Doherty, and his editor/wife, Harriet McDougal, to stretch the series out to more volumes and so exploit its huge commercial success. Certainly a lot of his readers felt exploited. Customers’ reviews of the middle volumes on Amazon.com make amusing reading. From about the fifth volume on, there begin to be large numbers of one-star reviews, increasingly strident and despondent, complaining that the story is being drawn out with pointless detail and needlessly elaborated subplots, and that each book brings the main plot no closer to a conclusion. There are endless descriptions of characters’ clothing, and where the clothing was made, and by whom, and when; and endless scenes of the hero’s various mistresses conspiring together, or against one another, and being spanked, a particular Jordan specialty; and of subordinate characters making tea, drinking tea, gossiping over tea, and in at least one case, being poisoned by tea. Adam Roberts, in his wittily scathing review of the series, has described the cumulative effect as ‘epic Miss Marple’.
By the eighth book, these readers are saying openly that they have been swindled, that they are swearing off Jordan and will not waste any more of their money on a series that will evidently never end. Yet many of the same people returned to the series, as the dog returns to his vomit, only to make the same complaints about volumes nine, ten, and eleven. Sad to say, the news of Jordan’s death, and the hiring of Brandon Sanderson to finish the series, actually gave these long-suffering customers a new feeling of hope — a feeling that the tale actually would be finished, that at long last Doherty and McDougal would bid its swelling expanse be stayed and swell no further. The first book under Sanderson’s byline did not much encourage this hope. The Gathering Storm was a fine title for the first volume in Churchill’s monumental history of the Second World War; it is rather less fine as the title of the twelfth volume in a series. One might reasonably expect that the storm would be well and truly gathered by then.
Since then, the crown, if we may call it that, has passed on to George R. R. Martin. A Song of Ice and Fire was always intended to be a large work, but it, too, has grown in the telling. With more than the usual effrontery, Martin dealt with the proliferation of subplots and the slowing of forward momentum simply by fission: he divided the enormous cast of viewpoint characters into two sets, and dealt with them alternately, so that the fourth and fifth books in the series cover the same span of time in different parts of the map. Whether he will get a grip on the reins again in the remaining volumes, or let the horse have its head and go galloping off in all directions for the rest of his days, is still an open question. I have met Mr. Martin once or twice, and I met Robert Jordan once, and in each case I had the strong impression that I was not talking to a well person. If Martin were to follow Jordan’s descent into the void, and die with his magnum opus still unfinished, I would be saddened but not, I fear, surprised. At present he plans to finish the series in seven books, a plan, he says, that is firm ‘until I decide not to be firm’. Perhaps it will be his great good fortune to die in harness at the age of 105, still scribbling away at the twenty-fourth and final (we mean it this time) book of the series.
In less flagrant cases, the growth can be contained short of metastasis; that is, without subdividing the story into more books. J. K. Rowling handled the Harry Potter series in this way. The first three books are neat little novels of the size that publishers used to prefer for juvenile books. After that, Rowling got on more slowly; the drafts grew longer, and because readers by the million were clamouring for each successive book, her publishers developed a distressing habit of wrestling the first draft out of her grip as soon as it was finished and publishing it more or less unedited. The later books would have benefited a good deal from judicious cutting; but the publishers calculated (quite correctly) that they would sell in boatloads without it, and did not propose to delay the releases for editorial work that was not commercially necessary. As a result, the Harry Potter books make a very odd-looking set on a shelf: three thin books followed by four increasingly fat ones. This posed a severe puzzle for the filmmakers, who finally had to deal with the sprawl of The Deathly Hallows by dividing it into two films: the Tad Williams method again.
The cumulative effect of all this is to make it seem that epic fantasy writers are by nature sprawling, slovenly, and self-indulgent. Some are, no doubt, but most are defeated by the nature of the medium — and of human experience. You set out to write an epic, and figure out what the story will be about, and who the heroes are, and what kinds of places you want to visit along the way; and you divide your outline into roughly equal thirds, and expect to write a trilogy. But the story has an exasperating way of growing bigger as you go along. The mountain that you chose for your destination turns out to be twice the size you originally thought, and consequently, twice as far away; and having travelled two-thirds of the distance you planned for, you find you are only one-third of the way there. Then, if your series has been a commercial success so far, you may find your publisher happily playing along, encouraging you to spin it out into as many books as they can profitably sell. If not, you are liable to be dropped in mid-series and never reach the destination at all.
Once you have completed one of these epic journeys, you will know in your muscles and your bones how long the journey is, and how much the real distance exceeds the apparent distance; and the next time you make such a journey, you can go forewarned. So Tad Williams discovered that what looked (to him) like three volumes would reliably turn out to be four, and he has learnt to pack an extra lunch. But if you set out on a journey the size of Jordan’s, you may not live long enough to profit by the lesson. The only person who knows in his bones how a six-book journey turns into fifteen is Jordan, and his bones are lying in the graveyard and will not make any more journeys now.
I do not know of any general solution to this problem; perhaps no general solution is possible. The tragedy of life, they say, is that it takes a whole lifetime to learn how to live. That tragedy is doubled for travellers in Elfland: the elves are immortal, but the travellers are not. And just as, in the old tales, a mortal man could spend one night with the elves to find that a hundred years had passed in the outside world, a fantasy writer can easily spend the best years of his working life covering a few fleeting days in the history of his invented world.
If there is a solution, it will demand a quality that our ancestors valued highly, but that we have almost forgotten: they used to call it wisdom. It is truly said that fools learn by experience; wise men learn by watching fools — and by taking to heart the rules and maxims that other wise men have distilled from the experience of fools. Perhaps there is some rule or maxim that a wise man could devise to solve the paradox of epic fantasy, as there is (nowadays) a rule for solving the rather similar paradox of motion, first presented by Zeno of Elea.
One form of Zeno’s paradox explains that it is impossible, from any starting-point A, to reach a fixed destination Ω. To get there, you first have to get to point B, halfway between A and Ω. But then you have to get to point C, which is halfway between B and Ω; and so on. By the time you reach point Y, which is halfway between X and Ω, you will be heartily cursing the name of Zeno and wishing you had never set out on such an impossible journey. Or if your name is Newton or Leibniz, you will notice that each stage of the journey takes only half as long as the last, until you are adding up an infinite number of infinitesimals. Then you will pause to catch your breath and invent calculus, add up all the infinitesimals, and reach Ω in a finite time.
The wisdom that could solve the paradox of epic fantasy may likewise be a matter of mathematics. What we want is a formula that will tell us, as a general rule, how much longer the actual story is likely to be compared to the outlined or projected story. Tad Williams worked out a solution for his own special case: if it looks like three books, it will actually take four. Extrapolating this to cover other situations is the tricky part, and that problem has not yet been solved. Of course, even with a general solution, we would still need the wisdom and the will to do what it prescribes. That is, I think, largely a matter of courage: it means having the guts to wrap up a successful series while the readers are still calling for more, instead of spinning it out to greater and greater lengths for easy profit. It means trusting our talent and our skill — knowing that if we can finish this one tale, the Muse will not desert us; there will be other tales to tell, and if we choose the best one available, our audience will follow us there.
Elfland is large, and those who have once visited it nearly always want to return. We need to put our trust in that; and we need the wisdom to measure our journeys in proportion to our writing lives. As long as writers lack that wisdom and that trust, they are likely to go on making journeys that never seem to reach their destinations, but merely peter out, defeated by the paradox of Zeno’s mountains.