Zeno’s mountains

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.


  1. “What’s the charge against this one?” “Aggravated trilogy, Your Honor.”

    Love it. I also love the idea of dying in harness — maybe I’ve still got some doomed romanticism about me, even at this age. Just cut me free and leave me by the side of the road for the crows. I’ll be content if the job was well done.

    I suppose I’ve been lucky to write “The End” after only six parts and just under 400k, then. I would credit my first-person narrator for keeping it from expanding out of control — if it had been third person, yeah, it could’ve gotten away from me. It’s a world. Stories are happening everywhere.

    But not all of them are interesting.

    • It’s true, writing in the first person can be a big help in preventing this kind of narrative sprawl. And writing ‘The End’ is such a satisfying experience, isn’t it?

      • Alas, some of us don’t write linearly. The few times I’ve written a story straight through, “The End” as satisfying indeed. But most of the time the end is written before more than half the book is actually done. 🙂

        • ‘The End’ sometimes isn’t. Wrote a 30,000 word novella. Edited, ready to publish, I read it over. One thought hit me: ‘It’s not finished.’ The 30,000 word novella bloomed into a 93,000 word novel.

          • This is very true. Hugh Howey’s Wool started the same way, and Asimov’s Foundation, and actually, quite a lot of good books.

            Which is a different kind of hazard from Aggravated Trilogy, but can be nearly as vexing for the writer who is trying to get to the real end of the story.

          • My firstnovel crept up on me that way.

            The second and third drafts were me d

            • Whoops.

              The second and third drafts were me adding back in all that I had left out in a desperate attempt to keep it short.

  2. Gene Wolfe had written the first draft of the entire Book of the New Sun before he sold the first.

    C. S. Lewis observed to a child who had written to them that there were only two ways to end a series: before everyone was sick and tired of it, and after.

    We could stand more of that. Though Lewis did do the one thing that can keep a series fresh: use the same setting, bring in new characters, and give them new problems.

    Me, I remember my first novel’s first draft. I had tried novels. before, and they had petered out. This one pretended to be novelette and then a novel before revealing that its happy ending was happy yet, and then again, so I had to go on search after the ending.

    • I didn’t know that about Wolfe, but I am not surprised. A few other authors have had the well-disguised good fortune to complete a long series before finding a publisher for it.

      Lewis’s method of keeping a series fresh, of course, applies to a series per se — that is, a sequence of more or less independent novels, rather than one enormous roman fleuve arbitrarily divided into chunks for convenience of binding. The kind of bloat I describe here is more forgivable in such a series anyway, because with each story being self-contained, we are free to stop reading at the end of any given book. There is no emotional investment in future volumes like that of Jordan’s unfortunate readers, who had to slog on through volumes of unadulterated padding in order to find out what was eventually going to happen with the main plot that they bought into so many years ago.

  3. It’s no coincidence that Tolkien wrote “Leaf by Niggle”.

    Any theories about why fiction set in the real world isn’t equally apt to go out of control? After all, the real world offers a tremendous number of possible characters and subplots and historical events which could come into a story.

    For what it’s worth, the fifth Martin novel gave me the impression that the storylines were getting pulled together. I have hope that the series might have a conclusion, and perhaps a satisfactory one.

    • Because the setting is far more expandable than the characters or plot, which is obviously not the case for mundane fiction?

      • But does science fiction go out of control the same way? I can think of open-ended SF series that got out of control, but offhand I’m not coming up with planned trilogies that turned into four books or more.

        • Part of it, I think, is that planned trilogies — that is to say, single narratives in three volumes — are quite rare in SF. Partly this is for historical reasons: SF is still heavily influenced by its roots in the pulp magazines, which simply had no room for enormous, sprawling novels.

          But mostly, I’m afraid, it is that SF, commercially speaking, is a tiny field compared to fantasy, and there hasn’t been enough money in it to justify publishers in risking such long yarns. The up-front costs are too great; the cost of backing out in mid-series if it doesn’t sell well is too high. A sprawling fantasy series may sell tens of millions of copies; indeed, if it doesn’t sell in the millions, the publisher won’t encourage the author to sprawl. Few SF books have sold in such numbers since Heinlein and Herbert died.

          • You may be right: I can think of several planned trilogies in SF, but they’re vastly outnumbered by singletons. But it does seem odd that fantasy would have pressure toward bloat and SF would not. Is the internal dynamic better controlled is SF, or does it just not exist? If the latter, what’s the difference?

            If it’s just editorial, I would suppose that the less successful fantasy series would tend to be cut back as compared to the really successful Fat Fantasies; does that actually happen?

            I’m thinking out loud here: I haven’t really been up up on the state of the field for about three decades. (In particular, do fantasy series really sell in the tens of millions? That’s two orders of magnitude higher than I would have expected for anything short of Harry Potter.)

          • Hmm. John C Wright’s Golden Oecumene was originally intended to be just the Golden Age and Phoenix Ascendant. He had to split the last and add The Golden Transcendence. Also, the Book of the New Sun was originally intended to be a trilogy.

            • “John C Wright’s Golden Oecumene was originally intended to be just the Golden Age and Phoenix Ascendant. He had to split the last and add The Golden Transcendence.”

              This simply is not true. The Golden Age was meant to be a trilogy from the beginning. I wrote the whole thing at one go, and sold it as a single, completed manuscript, and later the editor decided where to make the cutoffs between volumes.

              You are perhaps confusing this with an anecdote I told about my Orphans of Chaos series, which was meant to be two books, but the editors split the second book in two, and asked me to use some material I had originally meant to go into a planned (but never written) sequel, making it into a trilogy.

          • In particular, do fantasy series really sell in the tens of millions? That’s two orders of magnitude higher than I would have expected for anything short of Harry Potter.

            The very top series do — not tens of millions of sets, but tens of millions of individual volumes. The Wheel of Time is supposed to have sold 44 million books; A Song of Ice and Fire is supposed to have sold 15 million. I don’t know how many books Terry Goodkind has sold, but at his peak, he got a deal to extend the series by three books, with a $9-million advance. That indicates a sale in millions per book, since Tor, you may be sure, had no intention of losing money.

            Then, of course, you have Tolkien and Rowling, who have each sold tens of millions of each book in their major series. That’s another level of success entirely. Several SF authors have reached the Jordan/Martin/Goodkind level, though I don’t think there have been any in recent years — the Big Three and Frank Herbert are all that come to mind. None have ever matched Tolkien or Rowling.

          • Thanks for the info. Come to think of it, the Dresden Files may be getting up to that level, since the last few have hit the best-seller lists and there are so many volumes. (They’re also another example of unintended expansion, though less than you’d expect — er, so far — given the ridiculous number of volumes originally planned. )

            I’m surprised I didn’t know that about the Golden Age trilogy, since I’ve been following Wright’s blog for some while now.

            • “I’m surprised I didn’t know that about the Golden Age trilogy….”

              You did not know about it because it is not so. The Golden Age was written and sold as a single manuscript, which the editor divided.

        • Suburbanbanshee says

          In SF, Daniel K Moran’s Tales of the Continuing Time were supposed to be 33 volumes in length, with some prequels and sequels. As it stands, there’s about 5 set in the Continuing Time and 2 side-novels. (Possibly more, depending how you count.) The author had Life happen to him, and it entailed gaining kids and joy. So I’m willing to live with the Continuing Time hanging fire.

          Also in SF, there’s the notorious case of The Galactic Pantograph by Alexei Panshin, which was supposed to tie off a four-book series but which has never appeared. Thurb. Is waiting.

      • The setting for mundane fiction is pretty expandandable. The world is large, and my impression is that most mundane fiction doesn’t come close to making use of the whole thing.

        Also, when fantasy goes out of control, it generally seems to be a matter of more characters and more plot, not more sorts of magic and strange realms. Or at least such is the case for the fantasy I’ve read– I might be missing large counter-examples.

        • In fact, no mundane fiction has ever come close to making use of the whole thing, because ‘the whole thing’ is too much background information for any one writer to absorb. But then there is no temptation to try. Learning about the real world does not tickle one’s hubris in the way that making up one’s own world does.

    • Part of the difference, of course, is that a story set in the real world requires hard research: I don’t mean difficult research, but constraining research — the more you (and your readers) know about your setting, the less room there is to make things up. At some point you cross over into straight nonfiction, because there are no gaps left to slip your invented characters and incidents into.

      With historical fiction set at certain times and in certain places — basically, anything for which the primary sources are not abundant or detailed — it is possible for the story to go equally out of control. Colleen McCullough’s ‘Masters of Rome’ books come to mind. She began with a period for which primary sources are scarce, the late 2nd century B.C., and threw everything she could find (plus some pure imagination) into the pot to make the stone soup that was The First Man in Rome. As the series progressed, she moved into periods that were copiously covered by primary sources, notably Cicero, Caesar, and Sallust; she began having to pick and choose, and leave large parts of the history outside the scope of the story. But the temptation was always there to go into more detail and let forward momentum go hang; and sometimes she succumbed to it.

      When she finally brought the series to an end, it was not because there was any natural ending to the story, but because of her own advancing age and ill health — macular degeneration in particular. Also, I suspect, because the personages of the Augustan era did not interest her or win her sympathy in anything like the way Caesar and his contemporaries did. Her Octavian is a cold-blooded schemer; her Antony is a drunken lout continually led about by his gonads. It didn’t help that the next book, had there been one, would have begun to trespass on the turf of I, Claudius, which is so very famous that it’s difficult to write historical fiction about that period without either seeming to imitate it or struggling hopelessly against it.

      At that, McCullough managed to get seven fat books and nearly three million words out of the late Roman Republic. I should say that was sufficiently out of control for our purposes.

  4. Good thoughts. Since this summer I’m going to write the 7th and final book in a series I started in 2001, this has been on my mind a great deal in the last year.

  5. I’m writing book 3 of my fantasy series, so these words are certainly timely. The only way I can approach it is to frame each book as complete in and of itself, but with continuing characters and setting and new challenges, much the way a modern detective series is done.

    Since it’s fantasy, the goal and challenge in each book must be larger than life and more significant, but if it were “world-ending”, I’d be done already. So each goal has to be important enough for fantasy, but leave room for the next one.

    The only difference in my mind, vs series detective fiction, boils down to the substance of that goal. Long-form multi-book trilogies founder (when they do) on a single all-encompassing goal. But that’s like framing every story around the apocalypse — surely it isn’t necessary?

  6. Your words are timely for me, too, but from a different direction: after I make the final post in my Wheel of Time re-read/analysis series (and oh, are you right about slogging through padding in order to get to the end), I’m going to do one discussing what I’ve learned about writing epic fantasy series. The kind of bloat Jordan fell into, and Martin is falling into, are Hazard Number One, and anybody looking for wisdom needs to learn from their mistakes. There’s not enough time in life to screw it up yourself for a dozen books, and then to do better afterward.

    • I’ll be tremendously interested in what you have to say about that — strictly for my own nefarious purposes, of course.

      There’s not enough time in life to screw it up yourself for a dozen books, and then to do better afterward.

      Lady, you just said a cotton-pickin’ mouthful.

  7. I can’t believe you didn’t mention the second Belgariad series – or is that simply because Eddings is just so horrifically bad a writer? I read every word, for which the only excuse can be the naivete of youth. I was well and truly sick of it by the end.

    One reviewer summed it up best: “The longest chase scene in literary history.” You want to talk padding? Eddings took two books of material at most and deliberately stretched it out to five, by the simple expedient of exchanging one plot coupon for another. Over and over again.

    • The Malloreon is simply a repetition of The Belgariad at double the length, with different maps, and the stock characters and stock jokes already stale with overuse. I made the same mistake you did.

      If I were writing a piece on how to write hideously padded fantasy, I probably could use it as an example. But I’m half afraid someone might take that as encouragement to do it. Anyway, unlike Jordan and the rest, Eddings knew (in The Malloreon) precisely what he was doing; he knew how long the story was going to be, because he had written the same story before. Making it even longer was a deliberate commercial decision. So it really isn’t an example of the failing I am chiefly talking about.

      • Point taken. Eddings still has his votaries, amazingly enough. A year or two ago I saw someone on a forum describing him, without irony, as incomparably better than Tolkien.

        I was tempted to reply, but decided that way madness lay.

        Weis and Hickman, there’s another few sets of books best forgotten with a sense of embarrassment. Oy.

  8. At last got a chance to sit down and read this–wonderful.

    One might reasonably expect that the storm would be well and truly gathered by then —excellent remark; made me laugh.

    And yes, the solution of realizing that if you think it’s three books’ worth, it’s probably four reminds me of the rule of budgeting my father had: make your best estimate for how much something is likely to cost, and then increase it by ten percent.

  9. “Rise from the grave!”

    Sorry to post a comment on an older essay, though I doubt there is an expiration date on such a lengthy and detailed discussion.

    First off, great work. I enjoyed reading this, and it is serious food for thought. I am busy planning a fantasy series, and making each book a self-contained novel that is also part of a limited, well planned series is quite the feat. I don’t have a finished novel to my name, so this is all conjecture, but I think if you can ignore the siren call of all the side-story stuff and stick to some structured outline, the fantasy bloat can be avoided. Or at least minimized.

    I only made it through 1.5 books of the Wheel of Time before I gave up. I don’t need a balls to the wall non stop action movie experience from a novel, but something has to…well…happen. And nothing had, so I put the series down. I almost felt bad as I never give up mid-book, but I couldn’t take any more lengthy descriptions of armor, flags, etc. in place of story and forward momentum.

    Do we really need to know where the fabrics for a particular outfit are made?

    I do take issue with the comment above that puts Edding in the same category of offenders in this crime of wordage. Padding was there, no doubt, but The Belgariad clocked in at under 400 pages per book, and only 258 for the first of the series. That’s well under 100k words per novel, 100k being the norm for a modern fantasy. The first novel was only 60k-70k.

    All in all we are talking about around 400k words (guestimate calculated from the total number of pages of the 5 books multiplied by 250, a simple average words-per-page) for a series with about 27 characters, and a number of gods, that were important, many of them main and important to the story.

    Compared to over 4 million words for the Wheel of Time, I would say The Belgariad was lean, mean, fit, and trim.

    That’s not to say he didn’t recycle the hell out of the basic plot structure for the rest of his books. Personally, though, I enjoyed The Belgariad and The Elenium a lot, and I suppose if Eddings deserves finger-wagging because of some padding, at least he held my attention and didn’t explore the complexities of fabric design on a tunic for seven paragraphs or somesuch.

    Thanks again for the in-depth essay.

    • Thank you for your kind comments. There is no need to apologize; I like to hear from readers (as opposed to spambots) even about my older stuff. Feel free to chime in at any time.

      It’s true, The Belgariad was a much smaller volume of bloat than Jordan’s longum opus. However, there is strong internal evidence that the story was originally conceived as a trilogy, and that dividing it into five books was a publisher’s decision. There is a major plot turn two-thirds of the way through the second book, and another one-third of the way through the fourth; and there are no such major plot turns at the end of any volume but the last.

      By the way, you somewhat underestimate the word count of the series. Back in the day, I hand-counted the words on a fair number of representative pages in those books. The last three books averaged a little over 300 words per page. The first two (which were typeset on different equipment and with a different version of Times Roman) crammed in close to 350. In consequence they have fewer pages than the later books, but nearly as many words. It is my guess that Eddings thought he was writing a bog-standard trilogy of 100,000-word books, but when the books swelled up to 150,000 or more, someone at Del Rey put down a firm editorial foot.

      • I have no doubt you are correct about the actual word count. My estimation was just some basic grade school multiplication of 250 words X page-count, no physical counting involved.

        Recently having read the Riven Codex, where Eddings collected some of his source material, I see now there is ample evidence of some padding and stretching. I think it was done far less maliciously than some, trying to milk the cash out of devoted fans, but it’s there nonetheless.

        I figured I would reply again though just to say how important a read this is for anyone starting a fantasy project. I had been planning a series, but now I think I will stick to crafting one self-contained book with the real possibility for sequels rather than planning ahead, and getting lost in, some huge series plot and all the assorted baggage that comes with it. I figure if I have an *idea* of where it could go, maybe some very basic plot points that *could* work for future sequels, I can craft a better first novel than if I try and map out 3-5 books.

        Not to mention it probably isn’t a great idea for an unknown author to get bogged down in a series. Harder to sell, harder to craft, and you may write 3 books and never sell the first – now you have 3 dead novels.

      • Hi from The Passive Voice 🙂 Very thoughtful article.

        Like several previous commenters, I was very taken with The Belgariad in my impressionable youth, but gave up on Eddings when The Mallorean proved to be “The Belgariad (Extremely) Extended Edition”. Eddings says in the introduction to The Rivan Codex that, following the example of The Lord of The Rings, he wrote The Belgariad as three books, but the publisher re-cut it into five. This wasn’t because they wanted to pad it, but rather because the two companies that controlled paperback distribution in the US wouldn’t carry any book that needed to have a retail price of more than $3. In practice that meant that a paperback couldn’t be more than 300 pages. Eddings’ three books came to about 1500 pages, which divided by 300 gives you 5…

        • Hi, and thank you! I still haven’t read The Rivan Codex, and don’t have enough interest in it to pay the asking price. But I do find it interesting that Eddings confirms what I worked out from internal clues in the story.

          Though I must point out, to say that the paperback distributors baulked at books costing more than $3 is a bit of a taradiddle. They were quite happy to take higher-priced books from James Clavell, Stephen King, or Colleen McCullough; not, alas, from thee and me (and, at that time, the unknown David Eddings).

          • That was what he said (or what I remember him saying, anyway – it’s about 15 years since I last read the book). I think he said that was what his editor told him, so the editor may well have meant they wouldn’t take books retailing for more than $3 from an author with no track record.

            The Rivan Codex is roughly equivalent to the bonus material on the DVD of a movie – making-of documentaries, deleted scenes, commentary tracks. If you’re interested in knowing how to build a fantasy world (or knowing how he built his, anyway), it’s worth a read, but I assume you’ve already got a handle on that process 🙂

  10. Judith Sears says

    Hi, Also from TPV,
    Just a minor point: I don’t think the “sprawl” of The Deathly Hallows really required two films. There wasn’t that much story there. The studios just wanted to milk it for all it was worth. (Full disclosure: I read The Deathly Hallows, was sorely disappointed and did not see either movie.)

    • Never having read Deathly Hallows myself, I shall defer to your judgement. The studios did use the length of the book as their excuse for dividing it into two films; so if I was misled, that was who misled me.

      Thanks for stopping by!

      • I forget where I heard it or read it, but someone (possibly the screenwriter or director of Deathly Hallows) said the first thing they did when squishing the previous books into two-hour movies was to cut the subplots. Deathly Hallows, though, has no subplots – it’s all Harry and Voldy. To my way of thinking, that doesn’t excuse making it four hours instead of two, but it sounds more plausible than “it was too long for one movie”. If it was just a matter of length, books 4, 5 and 6 should’ve been two movies as well.

  11. This is a very intriguing article. As someone starting Wheel of Time and also a writer planning out a fantasy book (dare I say “books” now after reading this!) I am proceeding with caution. I’m seeing a lot of talk around different book sites and also Amazon where authors are being accused of abandoning their epic fantasy series and letting down their readership. It is fascinating to see the reviews (especially for series such as Eragon and Game of Thrones) but, it must be terrifying to be one of the authors helming these series. I am one of those waiting for the conclusion to ASOIAF, but it may never come. Every reader who enjoyed Harry Potter will say they wish there was just one more book, but if in reality a book came out that was mostly a laundry list, I would just as soon not have one at all.

    • Thanks, and welcome!

      I hope you won’t mind my asking: I see you have got a serial out, which appears to be doing very well. I’m (fitfully, when not ill) working on a serial myself, and I would very much appreciate any advice you may have on how to market such a thing.

      • Absolutely! I finished the first two installments (out of a planned seven, which condensed into six) before doing any advertising. I started with releasing my first cover on my blog, sort of copying what I’ve seen publishers do for some other authors, and followed that a day or so later with my cover blurb.

        Once that was out in the world, I put the first book up for pre-order. It was given about three weeks to gather some interested readers. I posted an excerpt about a week before release day. Once that was finished, I repeated the process for all subsequent episodes (though the pre-order part was abandoned for some of the books if I thought I was behind on the release schedule).

        The last thing I did was copycat monthly comic books, particularly Brian K. Vaughan’s “Saga”, by placing an author’s note at the end of every episode. Those were fun to write, and they teased what would happen next in the serial. Some readers were peeved that each part was a separate thing, but others really enjoyed it that way. So, I expect mixed reviews even if the content is up to high standards. Hope that helps! Good luck on your serial.

  12. Yet another enticed here by your post at TPV. A quite wonderful essai and one I can do a lot of head-nodding (if not banging) to, having just finished writing a five-book series that started out to be three. Since I’m not trad-pubbed, there was no need for padding, but have gotten some indication from readers that after the fourth book, they are ready for the end. So glad that I’ve done it, and it is indeed very satisfying to look at that final The End (not yet published, still editing stages to go through). It is important to gauge the readers’ willingness to join (and remain) on the march up the mountains.

    Am rereading LotR for the fifth time (and again loving it) and look forward to your essay on Tolkien that I bought some time ago. Looking forward to some of your other essays as well.

  13. Keywords for Series

    Take Notes
    Consult Notes

    That’s it, there may be more, but I’m running a blank on them.

    One more thing; if you have more to say, start a new series.

  14. I was directed here by a poster on a web forum who expresses negativity that Martin will ever finish A Song of Ice and Fire (well, at least within this decade). She said this would be a thoughtful and engaging essay to read, and I find she was rather correct.

    If I may be so bold, perhaps the biggest problem of all for Fantasy comes not from Tolkien but that other great influence to the Fantasy genre: L. Frank Baum and his Wonderful World of Oz?

    It became rather obvious after the third story that Mr. Baum had begun to run out of story to tell as, by my accounts, his best narrative is the third story in his series of Oz books, but the Turn of the Century child audience clamored for more–even writing in with suggestions on what to write (in fact he credited that third story in his series to a suggestion a girl wrote him about).

    He also employed about every trick in the book to keep the series feeling fresh to some respects by cycling in new characters to bicker and argue (the more stories he goes in–the more they seem to do so) as they travel the land of Oz. At one point Mr. Baum retired Oz and tried to start another fantasy series with a more real world setting. In fact I’d argue his best written story of all is in that “other” fantasy series: Sky Island. However the market simply wasn’t there and the children were still clamoring for Oz, and so he continued to write Oz books and incorporated those other characters from his new fantasy series into his Oz books.

    What I’d credit Mr. Baum for doing is laying that ground work of explaining that exploring the land can and should be done in a fantasy setting. Ever since then travelogues have been the bread and butter of “Elfland” as you so put it. However, I will credit that Mr. Baum knew well enough to limit his explorations by journeying through four of the five special locales within his first book alone, making the unexplored region a stronger focus in his second book, and by surrounding his fantasy world with impassable deserts to keep the land from growing ever larger. Of course, when he needed to write another story for Oz, he had to expand that world to a magical continent that was isolated from other continents, adding other magical lands surrounding his original one on the other side of those impassable deserts.

    I think even before Tolkien came along the tone that fantasy was partly an outlet for the explorers among writers was laid down by Mr. Baum–even if he was a pressured into being a full-time explorer rather than one by inclination.

    And while the exploration of those different parts of the worlds are amazing to behold, I have to agree with one of your other posters–that doing so by including a revolving door of characters is likely a better way to go about it. Eventually though, as the Oz books show, even that can get tiring if taken to too much of an extreme. As you said above it gives each book a sense of closure and that the reader can pick up any book within the series and put it down without feeling much obligation to continue if they don’t want to.

    Great article, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on how Oz may or may not fit into your Elfland analysis.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful and intelligent comment, Chas, and welcome!

      I agree with you entirely about Oz, actually. However, when I wrote this piece, it had been many years since I read any of Baum’s work. Anyway, his books, taken individually, have the virtue of brevity; it is only the sheer accumulation of them that clogs the works, and you have the option of stopping at any time without feeling cheated.

      I have put down some of my thoughts about Oz in an essai called ‘Ozamataz’, which you might be interested in reading if you’re so minded.

  15. Carlos Carrasco says

    Great piece! And timely as I’m now in the process of writing the last chapter of a tale that began as a short story and now sits at 56K words! Your essai puts me in mind to re-read “Death Carries A Camcorder.”

    btw, recently read “Where Angels Die” and my only complaint is its length. Too short!


  1. […] but then on Friday Tom Simon (author of THE END OF EARTH AND SKY and other books) post an excellent essay on the matter. Key […]

Speak Your Mind