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2012-04-30: I had the great pleasure of speaking with Harriet McDougal Rigney about her life. She's an amazing talent and person and it will take you less than an hour to agree.
2012-04-24: Some thoughts I had during JordanCon4 and the upcoming conclusion of "The Wheel of Time."
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Sep 13th, 2010
We Survived the Zombie Apocalypse, Now What?
It's that time again where we must say goodbye to our current guests and welcome our new guests. Special thanks to Mira and Jesse who filled the last two weeks with all things zombie. I had a blast reading your posts and getting a peek into your world. Do come back again! If you have any last words (or zombie survival tips, or book plugs), we'd love to hear them.
Next up, we switch focus from the undead to the epic with New York Times Bestselling authors Brandon Sanderson and Brent Weeks (who have both coincidentally started new series with their recent releases)!
In The Way of Kings, Brandon Sanderson brings us the first in a ten book epic fantasy series called The Stormlight Archive. Brandon was also one of the very first guests on Babel Clash and we're glad to have him back on the blog.
Brent Weeks is also another Babel Clash alum (who could forget Brent's epic debate with Joe Aberbrombie). Brent's new book is the first in a brand new series featuring Gavin Guile, a prism with only five years to achieve five goals.
Welcome back to Babel Clash, Brandon and Brent. We can't wait to see what you have in store for us.
Chekhov's Gun in Act 12
Brandon, I just read your essay on Postmodernism in Fantasy, and as always, I'm intrigued by your mix of humility (real) and ambition (huge). You talked about interpretation, intention, and audience—which I hope we can touch on in these posts.
For those joining us who don't know, both Brandon and I have each just published first books in new epic fantasy series. In other company, people would say I write big books—The Black Prism is 640 pages and 210,000 words—but Brandon has just published The Way of Kings, which is what? 1,000 pages and 390,000 words? My series will be a trilogy which will definitely come in under five books, whereas Brandon is planning a decalogy (oddly enough, not the study of decals), which will definitely come in under fifteen.
I want to revisit that essay if we have a chance, but because Brandon's still on the road for his book tour and won’t have much time for a few days, let me toss him a few softballs first:
1) Brandon, multi-volume epic fantasy presents unique storytelling challenges and unique demands upon a reader. You said in your essay that with The Stormlight Archive, "I didn't want to intentionally build a story where I relied upon reader expectations." But I assume you meant that in a specific rather than a global way: you do intend that subplots will get wrapped up eventually, that there is a main plot, that characters have arcs, and that the story has an ending...right?
2) If that's a valid assumption, then as a storyteller chunking a story out in ten volumes, how much do you worry about imposing the traditional limits of a novel on each volume? (i.e. Chekhov's Gun: "If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it must absolutely go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there.")
For example, I wrote a scene for The Black Prism which was interesting in its own right and introduced a cool monster and a setting that I plan to use later in the trilogy—but it didn't accomplish anything necessary for book 1. It slowed the headlong rush to the end of the book; it looked like gratuitous worldbuilding. It wasn't, but a critic wouldn't know that until they read book 3—which I haven't yet written. So I cut it.
Would you have? Would you have cut an analogous scene in Mistborn 1, but not from TSA 1?
Are you writing these books so that each volume has that rousing, bang-up finish, or are you fine with a cliffhanger, content that the series must be judged as a whole? In a ten-volume epic, do you conceive of them as telling one story or ten stories? Or both? Or more?
People have been asking me to expand on that essay, though it was written (originally) to be part of a series I did on writing The Way of Kings. I never had the time, however, and that was the only one that was fleshed out, so my assistant suggested it might be a good fit for a Scalzi guest blog. However, I do worry that some of the ideas are unformed, as it was written to come after several other essays I was planning.
The short answer to your first comment is a yes, you are right. The realization I came to while working on The Way of Kings was that I was so accustomed to writing self-aware fantasy in the Mistborn books that I was searching to do the same with Kings. While anyone can enjoy Mistborn (I hope) it works best as a series for those who are familiar with (and expecting) tropes of epic fantasy to come their direction. That allows me to play with conventions and use reader expectations in a delightful way. But it also means that if you don't know those conventions, the story loses a little of its impact.
But this is an interesting discussion as to the larger form of a novel. Is it okay, in an epic fantasy, to hang a gun on the mantle, then not fire it until book ten of the series written fifteen years later? Will people wait that long? Will it even be meaningful? My general instincts as a writer so far have been to make sure those guns are there, but to obscure them—or at least downplay them. People say this is so that I can be more surprising. But it's partially so that those weapons are there when I need them.
It often seems to me that so much in a book is about effective foreshadowing. This deserves more attention than we give it credit. When readers have problems with characters being inconsistent, you could say this is a foreshadowing problem—the changes, or potential for change, within the character has not been presented in the right way. When you have a deus ex machina ending, you could argue that the problem was not in the ending, but the lack of proper framework at the start. Some of the biggest problems in books that are otherwise technically sound come from the lack of proper groundwork.
In the case you mentioned, however, I think I would have cut the creature. Because you said it was slowing things down. There's an old rule of thumb in screenwriting that I've heard expressed in several ways, and think it works well applied to fiction. Don't save your best storytelling for the sequel. If your best storytelling isn't up front, you won't get a sequel. Of course, once you're done, you do need to come up with something as good or better for the sequel, otherwise it might not be worth writing.
For The Way of Kings, I've had to walk a very careful balance. I do have ten books planned, but I had to make sure I was putting my best foot forward for the first book. I had to hang guns for the later novels, but not make this story about them—otherwise readers would be unsatisfied to only get part of a story.
Question for you, then, Brent. Have you ever planned out a story to be a certain length, then ended up deciding there just wasn't enough there to justify it? I had trouble learning this balance as a younger writer, and some of my readers know that I wrote two failed books (one called Mistborn, the other called The Final Empire) in which neither one had enough material to form a novel. It wasn't until I combined the ideas and story together and wrote Mistborn: The Final Empire that everything worked.
Sanskrit and SFF
Brandon, you asked if I've ever planned a story to be of a certain length, and then decided that there just wasn't enough there to justify it.
Honestly, my problem so far has been the opposite. I've always ended up having too much to write. Of course, some of this has to do with growing up when we did, reading epic fantasy that was absolutely enormous, so maybe that formed a big part of what I feel an epic fantasy ought to be. (Feel, not think: it's an emotional artifact of my youth, not an intellectual one.) It's silly, but I pick up a book by a great writer like David Gemmell, and I go, Man, it's kinda short.
But of course there are competing tensions about how long is long enough, especially when you're a new writer. And some of these are nakedly commercial. You turn in a first book that's over 200,000 words (like I did, that one didn't sell) and that's a big strike against an editor buying it from you. It's more paper; fewer books can fit on the shelves; it's more shipping; and not least, much more time for the editor and copyeditor (and more time for the sales people that you pray read it, too).
So after I wrote the Night Angel books, I cut ruthlessly. I took The Way of Shadows from over 200k words (again, dangit) and cut 44k words. I cut 20k words from Shadow's Edge, and I cut 40k words from Beyond the Shadows. The last was the only one, in my opinion, that suffered from me cutting too much. I had to get information across sometimes by telling—messenger says, Oh yeah, guy went into these woods and made a sword—rather than showing it. When you have too many of those kinds of important details given once, in brief, if a reader misses a few, they get confused. (I should also point out that this cutting was done on my own because of what I guessed or kind—of knew about the industry, not at Orbit's behest.)
For good and ill, the stories we tell are limited by our market.
In your paragraph on effective foreshadowing, you speak of foreshadowing like it's matching paint colors: you do it well or you don't. I think that leaves out an intrinsic part of the equation: the audience. There are better and worse writers (and foreshadowing is a real skill), but there are also better and worse readers.
Some writers purport not to write for an audience, but aside from guys like T.S. Eliot who are throwing bits of Sanskrit into their poems (because hey, THEY know Sanskrit), I don't see how that can be true. When I set up a plot twist, I have something I want the audience to being thinking before that twist or the big reveal will fail. But it's different to fool different audiences: someone who's read the genre for 50 years is going to read differently than a 15-year-old who's reading her first book outside of school assignments. What is recognizable foreshadowing for the latter is going to be like being beaten over the head with a brick for the former.
So I think there is an interplay that goes both ways between readers and writers: writers teach readers broadly what to expect from their own work, and—I think—readers teach us what works. Dean Koontz writes about writing a book in iambic meter and thinking no one would notice, but then feeling a rush of pleasure when someone did. I'm sure you've had an analogous experience.
By the way, who killed Asmodean?
Fine, fine. Can't fault me for trying.
So something that I'd love to hear your thoughts on are if you think as your career progresses that you can get away with things—story things—that you couldn't when you were less well known?
Obviously, as we grow in our storytelling skills and experience with the industry, we can try harder challenges and succeed where we wouldn't have before. That's not what I'm talking about. I'm more curious about if you think we train our readers (and book store buyers). I think—pure speculation because I haven't yet dug in to my copy of The Way of Kings—that if a 400,000 word tome hit my desk from someone I'd never heard of and when I began reading, I found it didn't follow any epic fantasy structure I knew, I'd be much more likely to assume it was just an amateur mess—but because it says "Brandon Sanderson, #1 NYT Bestselling Author" on the front, I trust that you're Doing Something Big. I think I read it differently. Do you agree?
I run into the same sort of thing: I've got a decent reputation for deep characters now, so when a character does something contradictory (dumb jock says something brilliant or whatever), my readers think, "Oh, there's more going on here under the surface, can't wait to see what." Rather than, "This character is inconsistent. Bad writing."
And I would contend that precisely because you're a magic system guy, that if you don't explain the magic in TWOK, people are NOT going to say, "Good book, but magic system doesn't make sense." They're going to say, "Obviously brilliant stuff going on with the magic, can't wait until book 12 to see what!" (That's hyperbole with a wink, not snark.)
Do you believe you can get away with storytelling stunts, elisions, or tricks now that Brandon Sanderson the debut author couldn't have? If so, what's the good part of that—and is there a bad side?
More on Foreshadowing
Brent, I think you're absolutely right several places in there. (Though I feel like I should object on principle, so there's more conflict to our narrative. Good storytelling, and all that.)
Yes, there are things I can get away with now that I couldn't before—or ones I didn't try to get away with before. One big one is flashbacks. In my early years as a writer, published and unpublished, I stayed far away from flashbacks. Partially because I'd been told to do so, and partially because I'd seen them done poorly from a large number of other new writers. There are good reasons to stay away from them, and the advice is good. If you do flashbacks the wrong way, you'll break the flow of your narrative, risk undermining the tension of your story, confuse the reader, and basically make a big old mess.
Then Pat Rothfuss comes along and does a narrative-within-a-narrative where the entire book is basically flashback, and it works really well. I do know, however, that Pat had a lot of trouble selling that book of his to start. (Though admittedly, I'm not sure if that was the flashbacks or not. I seem to remember he added the frame story later in the process, and that the huge length of the book was what was scaring people away at first.)
I guess this brings us back to the first rule of writing: you can do whatever you want, if you do it well. Regardless, I decided—after some deliberation—that I'd use flashbacks as an extensive device in The Way of Kings and the rest of the series. None of these were in earlier drafts of the novel, however, because I knew that many readers (and editors) have a knee-jerk reaction against flashbacks because of how likely they are to screw things up. Now that I'm established, however, I feel that people will trust me when they see them.
(One thing I'm leaving out is that I think I'm a better writer now than I was before, and if I'd tried these flashbacks during earlier days, I'd likely have flubbed them.)
You talk about foreshadowing, and make some great points. One thing I think that I want to bring up is the idea of nesting reveals. I always try to have a nice spectrum of types of plot twists and revelations in the book. Some are easier to figure out, others more difficult. My experience has been that some readers want to try to guess what is going to happen, and others do not, but both appreciate a legitimate twist in the story. (One that was clearly foreshadowed, but not made obvious.) As so yes, there are going to be different types of readers, and some will see the foreshadowing that others will not. Some won't care at all if the story just twists unexpectedly (and without explanation) while others will consider it a put-downable offense.
In the spirit of tossing questions back and forth, then, let me ask you this: I just mentioned above that you can do anything in your writing if you do it well. Yet I've also talked a lot about the importance of foreshadowing. What do you think? Is it ever justified to have a total Deus Ex Machina? (For those who don't know, this refers to a major plot twist—usually involving the heroes/protagonists being rescued from danger unexpectedly—that is not explained or foreshadowed.) How might one do this well? Or is it an exception to my rule? Is my rule even really a good rule?
(Also, all, please forgive typos in this post. Just back from book tour after a long day traveling, and wanted to make sure I got this posted. But I'm kind of drooping here.)
Chapter Breaks and Pacing
I thought I'd do a post on pacing, chapter length, and pulling readers through a story. This is something I've been thinking about. Specifically, I’ve noticed at many authors in fantasy seem to be adopting a more thriller-style (genre, not the music video) of pacing. Shorter chapters, with cliffhanger endings that make for a quick turn to the next page.
Perhaps it's always been this way, and I'm just more sensitive to writing methodology now, as I'm a writer myself. But it does seem to be happening more. A good example are the Codex Alera books by Jim Butcher. But I've noticed some of it in your own books, Brent. It makes me wonder if this is a reaction, on our part as a genre, but the huge teen-fantasy bubble that happened surrounding Harry Potter. YA and middle grade also tend to be more quickly paced, more tight in this regard.
Oddly, I've found myself reacting against it. Not that I don't like this style of storytelling—in fact, I think it works very well. Jim's novel that I mentioned above was a real pleasure to read. Terry Pratchett does this in his books, and they're excellent. But I don't know if it matches every project and every story.
Conventional wisdom in writing is that you don't want the reader to stop and take a break, otherwise they might not return to the book. You always want to leave them hanging. And yet, I don't know if this kind of pacing works very well in the very long form novels. When I write my books these days, I WANT to give the reader some breathing room. Some time to step away from the book, if they want, and digest what has happened. I feel that if I pace them absolutely break-neck, the experience will be exhausting and draining across the long haul, and the book will end up unfulfilling.
Is this something you've ever thought about? Do you merely let pacing and chapter breaks happen? Readers, do you notice this? What do you think of it?
Magic Sword ex Machina
Let me tackle the question about deus ex machinas. (Dei ex machinae? Dang, I've taken either too much or too little Latin.) Could such a thing work in modern fantasy, and how?
Yes, I think it could. But you're running into the middle of the intersection of fiction and reality. And you know what can happen when you run into an intersection.
To answer the question requires context (which you probably know, Brandon, but is relevant for those who haven't studied this).
One paragraph infodump: The Greeks of the fifth century BC believed in many gods, and they believed those gods intervened in real life (especially with the heroes who were so often the gods' own kids). The original plays happened during a religious festival. So part of the point of the drama (as my Classics prof explained it) was that humans make a huge mess—and need the gods to come straighten things out. Thus, the Athenians get rid of the endless cycle of personal retributive justice (you-killed-my-family-member-so-I-must-kill-you-so-your-family-must-kill-me) in the Oresteia only through Athena's intervention and establishment of the rule of law. (She sticks the Furies into the ground beneath Athens, if I remember correctly.) Intractable problem solved.
We don't believe in Athena (sorry, neo-pagans, but generally...), so reading that ending is interesting metaphorically and sociologically and historically. But it is much less interesting to us dramatically. And it doesn't fill us with religious awe. We're just not going to express a heartfelt, "Thank you Athena for sparing me!" (Stop me before I talk catharsis and Aristotle's Poetics here. No really, stop me!)
A deus ex machina written now runs into entirely different audience expectations. It just looks like the author cheating. "Hmm, the way I've set things up, the good guy will die, but I don't want that. So... magic sword!"
I think there are only a couple routes you could use if you really wanted to write a modern day deus ex machina that worked. First, you could set up a fantasy world in which the gods do regularly intervene and play favorites, and where mortals need them. It could be done well. However, at the end of that book, you're still not going to get religious awe from your audience. I think you can get everything else.
So I think the only way to have the full effect that Aeschylus got would be to write your epic fantasy specifically for a particular religious audience: set up your deus as a Hindu goddess for a Hindu audience and then have her act in ways consistent with what they believe is her character. Or a Christian God for a Christian audience, or what have you. I guess the limiter here would be that you'd have to choose a religion which believes in an intervenient God. Deists, you're hosed.
Is that success?
We have a strong rationalist thread in fantasy right now, a demand that the magic system be explained and consistent so that the author doesn't cheat at the end. If magic figures importantly to the plot, we want it stitched in there like a good mystery: all the hints were there for us to figure it out for ourselves, we just didn't put it together. There's an intellectual pleasure to it: Well played, Mr. Sanderson! Compare that to the magic of Tolkien's Gandalf. The guy is treated like he can pull mountains down on your head, but mostly he just uses the Magic Staff Flashlight. Come on, Tolkien, how about a chart of what the Rings of Power do? The people demand a graph!
(Tomorrow, I'll hit your second post regarding short chapters and what is clearly your tragically flawed view of cliffhangers.)
Lazy Readers & Self-Indulgent Writers
Short chapters are another way to deal with the structural challenges of big fantasy. It's only natural that out of a huge cast, a reader is going to care more about some than others. Writing short chapters allows (and forces) the writer to juggle. It keeps the story moving forward. It makes you ask the question: what does this scene accomplish? If you're writing scenes that are only 2000 words and you realize you've written 2000 words of what some guy is eating, you're probably wasting time.
I see the longer scenes, and the "I'll give the reader some breathing space" as giving a writer a perilous justification to self-indulgence. Not that you're doing this, but I think it is a real danger. If I want breathing space, I'll take a nap.
Quite bluntly, I think self-indulgence is the greatest threat to epic fantasy writers. We spend every day with our characters. We know the things they've done that don't make it onto the page, and things they're going to do in the future—we have reasons to care about them that readers don't. We need to remember that. Part of our skill set has to be knowing not just what readers know at a particular point in the story (so we can foreshadow effectively), but also what readers feel at a particular point. Shorter scenes can help with this:
If I really don't connect with Perrin*, please don't make me suffer through 200 straight pages of Perrin. I can handle him for 10 pages at a time, fine, especially if he's doing something important, but then get me back to someone I care about.
As with all structural decisions, there are tradeoffs. Do short scenes exhaust some readers? Sure. But "That book is just too exciting!" is a complaint I'll take any day. With shorter scenes, you have to very quickly orient the reader. Who is this, where are they, who's around, and what are they all doing? So it might not work as well for fantasy with a truly enormous cast: in a George R. R. Martin story, each subplot can have dozens of named nobles, and the huge-length chapters give you more time to reintroduce who's who—
Which only becomes a problem because there are too many characters. Please, epic fantasy writers, realize that every new character will have to be accounted for. I have a hard enough time remembering the names of all the people I know who actually exist. It becomes self-defeating. George R. R. Martin is masterful in handling an epic cast and keeping them memorable and different (seriously, study what this guy does, he's SOO good), and yet even he reaches a point (for me) where his huge cast hobbles his storytelling. Another Lannister comes on-stage and I go: blond and self-serving. I don't even try to remember the names. Mentally, there become just five Lannisters, not dozens: Tyrion, Tywin, Cersei, Jaime, and Everyone Else. In most books, when a character is named, a reader can take that as a clue that This Person is Important. With GRRM, you learn that's not the case. What he gains in Omigosh he works with this ginormous cast, he's amazing. He loses in, Who the heck was this guy again? He did one reveal that was like, This guy is actually THIS guy from the other continent! And I was like, uh yeah, I've read that name somewhere... No punch, at least not for me. But then, maybe I'm a bad reader. And I certainly am a particular one.
Cast lists and genealogies are fine to add extra color—but I'm not going to memorize some list just so I can enjoy your book. If I have to flip back to a cast list frequently just to understand the action, I think you aren't doing your job. If it's been three years since you published your last book, that was your decision, so it's your job to throw a few reminders in to help me regain my footing in your story—not my job to re-read your first nine books so I can understand book 10.
Brandon, do you agree, or do you divvy up the burden between writer and reader differently?
Do you think the way you're dividing plot lines and shifting focal characters in The Stormlight Archives helps you surmount those difficulties, or maybe dodge them altogether?
Other readers of this post, what do you think? Short scenes, or long? Do you like the gradual unfolding of a big world, or a fast ride to the finish? Am I a lazy reader? Are you?
*I actually did tire of Perrin, but I just use him because more people know him than know my characters. The same rule applies to my characters as well: some readers just won't like some of my characters, especially nuanced or mixed-motive characters, and it's something I should keep in mind.
**Yes, I did use the word "ginormous."
I'm Overstating this, but...
Ah, good. Something we can disagree on. (Though only a little, since we're both mostly arguing against bad usage of form—which by that definition, is bad. So neither of us would want to use it anyway. But there does seem to be some room to talk here.)
I think short chapters do some good, and accomplish a lot. Martin is a master, and he uses them well. (At least, in some places.) Pratchett does an equally good job at it in a different type of sub-genre. But used poorly (or, well, unfairly) they do some terrible things to me as a reader.
An example here for me is Dan Brown. I don't want to pick on him, as big targets are often too easy to pick on. He's obviously been very successful, and has some very interesting things about his writing. However, one thing I noticed reading the Da Vinci Code was that he seemed to be using the same tricks over and over and over to simply get me to turn the page. Someone would open a door and... We don't find out what was on the other side. The chapter ends. We go to the next chapter, and we either find out that nothing really that important was on the other side of the door, or we get told "I'll tell you what was on the other side of that door eventually...if you keep reading."
This actually works, quite well, for a little while. (For me in the Da Vinci Code it worked for about half the book.) And then, it just gets wearying to me. The gimmicks start to show through, and I get tired of never finding anything out. There doesn't feel like development, just one big long stall. Yes, it's possible for a book to be "too exciting." Because if excitement is all there is, we lose character, setting, and a whole lot of depth. We go from trouble, to trouble, to trouble. High tension moment to high tension moment.
Now, this is an extreme example, but I think that it's something for writers to think about. You suggest that self-indulgence is a danger. Yes, perhaps it is. At the same time, I'm not writing thrillers. I'm writing epic fantasy. I'm writing 300,000 word plus books. There should be ups, there should be downs, there should be moments of frantic pace, and there should be scenes of (yes) dinner. Sometimes, the most telling scenes in a story can be a simple dinner sequence. The scene with Faramir riding to charge while his father eats from the LoTR movies comes to mind.
But this isn't exactly what I was trying to get to. I write long chapters not to (hopefully) indulge. I do it to make each chapter (or sequence of them) to have its own rising action, its own climactic moments, its own falling action. I want to open the door and, instead of cutting away, show something on the other side that really does upset the scene. Then continue through the scene to show the ramifications. I want to have each chapter be a story unto itself, rather than a movie trailer for the next chapter. (Which, in turn, is a movie trailer for the next one...and so on.)
Again, I do think there are great ways to use the short chapters. But I worry that the conventional wisdom of "Don't ever let them put the book down!" is bad advice for some authors. Les Miserables has a whole lot of parts that are not very exciting. There are plenty of parts where, once I'm done with the scene, I can put the book down and walk away. It pulls me back to read not because it uses a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter, but because the deep, rich characters draw me back to read further about them.
I do agree that the larger casts are a problem that doesn't seem to have a good solution. Either you ignore half your characters for a book—as GRRM did—or you give them only brief appearances—as Robert Jordan often did. I don't think I'm in a position to criticize either author as, unlike Dan Brown, I think they both do/did fantastic jobs with their works. But I am consciously keeping the cast of the Stormlight Archive down.
Cliffhangers, Cheating, and... Dinner
Brandon, I have to disagree with you about the Steward of Gondor Eating Scene being an example of a lull or a breather scene, and thus showing how such scenes can be important in an epic fantasy. (I could only find it in German, but the dialogue is unnecessary to the point here.) First, it's two scenes intercut with each other, over a total of less than two minutes. It is indeed telling, as you said, but it only works because you have a high-tension scene (the beginning of a charge, orcs drawing arrows) held against the Steward eating in a piggish manner reminiscent of the bloody, meaty work of combat. Watching the guy eat for ten minutes wouldn’t have worked. Verbal conflict plus charging horses, singing, eating, and orcs does work—and it works great—but I don't think it's evidence for including low tension scenes in epic fantasy.
If only every dinner in epic fantasy were so exciting—and brief!
Now, don't get me wrong. I don't think every book has to be a thriller. I just think that if epic fantasy meanders, it can go badly off the rails: Entire books where nothing happens. Characters we don't care about doing stuff that doesn't matter to the main plot or the characters we do care about. Dinners described because the writer has a huge almanac of medieval recipes he likes. Books hundreds of thousands of words long with only half the cast appearing.
Some of that you can get away with, because readers don't expect any book to be perfect. But too much, and readers feel cheated.
And this idea fascinates me. What is the contract between an author and her readers?
I've been accused of writing cliffhangers—which never fails to irritate me. I hate cliffhangers. I especially hate cliffhanger endings to books. Not long ago, I read an otherwise fully competent fantasy novel that did some things really well, and at the end, the main character was literally dangling off a cliff.
I threw the book across the room and vowed never to read that author again.
My idea of a contract with an author goes something like this: I'll spend $8, and you give me the best story you can. If I get more than $8's worth, I'll sing your praises and help you sell more books. If the story wasn't that good, Meh, maybe you tried your hardest and you're just a mediocre writer. Oh well. I take a risk with more than $8 for the cinema and get bad payoffs all the time. But if you give me half a story? It took you 800 pages to tell me half a story? Now to get the rest of my story, I need to shill out more cash? I feel cheated.
Professionally, I think this is not just bad judgment; I think it's insecure writing. "Please come back for more. Please. Please?" It is a trick, and it does get old. If I'm holding my breath for what's on the other side of a door, and the answer is "Carpet!" the first time I might think it's funny. Ya got me, good one. But if you do it again and again, I'm going to slowly lose my trust that the author knows what the heck she's doing.
Because I hate that cliffhanger allegation enough that I Googled "cliffhanger" so I could say, "Look people, this is a cliffhanger, what I do isn't." Then I found that the definition is broad enough to cover what I do. Crap.
So let me offer my own definition. I tend to think of scenes as having hooks and buttons. Every cliffhanger is a button, but not every button is a cliffhanger. Every scene should be necessary in a book; each scene should have parties in conflict. By the end of the scene, someone wins, someone loses, or both lose, or both win. Now, if the winning of this conflict—we'll send a fellowship of 9 to destroy the ring—leads to more conflict (destroying the ring will be opposed), and especially if it leads to different types of conflict (Arwen doesn't want you to go), you've got a nice button. Rising stakes. Direction.
That solution-of-problem-leads-to-more-problems is what makes a book a fast read, in my opinion. But the button itself can be anything that leads you into reading the next chapter, a particularly beautiful piece of writing, a rhetorical flourish, a revelation about some other character, or a new conflict. George R. R. Martin does this (with his huge chapters) brilliantly.
Book finales are a different beast. I believe each book—even in a big fantasy epic—should tell a complete story. Say, the characters all care about saving the city. (Maybe we care more about the characters and whether the Girl is the Chosen One, but they are out to save the city.) By the end of the book, the city should be saved or lost. The more plotlines you actually wrap up, the more satisfying I think the book is: the guy who wanted to be king gets killed (and now will have considerable difficulty becoming king); the assassin who wanted to leave the business has left it; a new king is in charge. Point is, the story ends. If you thought it was just okay, or not that good, well, at least you got a whole story. You can move on to greener pastures. No trickery, no "I need to see how it ends, guess I'll pony up another $8, but I'm ticked off about it."
Now after the city's saved or doomed, and you learn in the epilogue that the city was small potatoes and that the new king is going to cause serious trouble elsewhere, that—to my eyes—isn't a cliffhanger. This book was about X, and X got resolved. The next book is going to be about Y.
I do that.
Okay, fine, so it is a cliffhanger, but it isn't a cheat.
The Series as Form
The end-of-book introduction to the next novel is an interesting beast. I'm glad you brought it up. I actually feel about them the same way you do, it appears.
One of the challenges of writing a series is to make certain the reader is satisfied with the book they buy, even though it's part of a larger story. Readers seem to have a love/hate relationship with the series, at least in our genre. Stand alone books, as a rule of thumb, do not sell as well as series books. Mistborn outsold Elantris and Warbreaker, as an example, and the Wheel of Time books did not start reaching the top of the bestseller charts until the series was at its eighth or ninth volume.
And yet, the longer a series goes, the less pleased readers seem to be with it. If one looks at most series and compare reader reviews on something like Goodreads, the longer the series goes, the worse the reviews tend to get. It has happened for nearly every major fantasy series. (Pratchett is a shining exception.)
Is this because the writing is getting worse? That might be the cynical response. There are a number of complaints leveled against the longer series. That the author is getting lazy, or that they're so popular now they no longer get the editing they once did. Some critics think that series degradation happens because the author starts milking them—writing more in the series simply because they sell well.
I wonder if it's something else, however. Not a failing on the author's part, but a natural evolution based on the form of the series. Readers seem to want continuing characters and plotlines, but along with those come the need to juggle various sub-plots/storylines, and keep track of them across books. The cliffhanger endings that are really more "Hey, here's what we'll be dealing with in the next book" are another aspect of the series. I agree, true cliffhangers stink. But it feels very natural to have a section at the end of a book introducing some of the elements from the next book. This ties the series together.
But it's also something that could make readers gripe. (Especially if they have to wait another year or more to read what you're teasing them with.) Anyway, I love series. I love writing them and reading them. But I also like a nice stand alone for flavor now and then. (Which is why I'll continue to do them, regardless of sales comparisons.) However, it is interesting to me that the nature of the beast is such that the more you write in a world, the more people will simultaneously praise you and complain about that fact.
Keeping Magic Magical
I'd love to agree with you—but I think you're wrong. Readers say that the following books in a series are worse because they have been worse. I can't think of any epic fantasy that's gone beyond a trilogy that has gotten better. (Doubtless, there must be some, because I don't think that the structure problems are insurmountable, and I absolutely expect you to give me a big counterexample with your forthcoming work.)*
But I think the reasons for the slumps are simple—and they aren't because readers are impatient or misunderstand stories. I think it's because the longer the series, the more a writer's limitations show and the more the novelty of a world wears off.
If you have a character tugging their ear to express frustration every five pages, no one will notice it in a ten page short story. But in 5,000 pages, there are going to be a thousand ear tugs. Pretty soon, any time someone tugs her ear, readers cringe. And they should: it's bad writing. It's just bad writing that you don't notice in a short span.
If a writer's greatest skill is exploring new worlds and by book 5 they've explored everything, book 6 is going to have to rely on different skills that the writer isn't as good at.
I also see lots of reasons why book 8 could sell better than—but not be as good as—book 1: the cumulative effect of eight marketing campaigns, eight years of those first awesome books gaining new readers, and eight more years of people hearing about a writer over and over and finally giving him a try.
But maybe we'll have to agree to disagree, and I don't want to tear anyone down; I've just been curious to explore the structures of our genre and the challenges inherent in it.
So let's talk about magic. How do you keep magic, well, magical over multiple books? How do you balance the rationalist impulse of "I need to explain how it works so it seems well thought out and balanced" with some of that Harry Potter-esque sense of wonder? How do you balance the ability to surprise your readers with being careful not to make the magic feel like a deus ex machina? Is the presence of magic in fantasy about more than adolescent power trips? Must the functions of magic be analogous to other technologies or physical processes, or can it be truly alien?
To paraphrase one of the commenters, if you dissect the magic too much, do you risk it dying on the table?
*Maybe I'd put JK Rowling as an exception, arguing that eventually what she was writing was epic fantasy. And it did get better. Mostly.
Magic and Wonder
Okay, wow. I don't want to put you on the spot, but... You think Jordan, LeGuin, GRRM, Brooks, Hobb, Erikson, Zelazny, and Donaldson ALL got WORSE the longer they wrote in a series? You think that they were strongest at worldbuilding, so the longer they went, the more the novelty wore off of their worlds, and there was much less left to hold the stories together? That it was not character or plot that made them good, but exploration of worlds?
This is...yes, let's just let this one die. Admittedly, perhaps you wouldn't count each on that list. (It seems, from what you’ve been mostly focused on Jordan without wanting to say it.) My argument will continue to be this: There have been stumbles, but I think it’s due to the nature of the form, not bad writing. We just haven’t explored the epic fantasy long enough to have figured out the ways around all the pitfalls. And if we do figure it out, it will be from the perspective given by standing upon the shoulders of the greats.
Anyway, on to Magic.
If you dissect the magic too much, do you risk it dying on the table? Certainly, you do. Any time you explain a magic, rather than allowing it to remain mysterious, you are trading some of the sense of wonder for something else. An ability for the reader to understand the world, and what the characters are capable of. If you give a character a magic box, and say that when it is opened, something magical will happen that's one thing. If you tell them what the magic box does when it is opened, that trades some of the sense of mystery and (a smaller bit) of the wonder in exchange for a plot point. Now the character can open the box consciously, and influence the world around him/her by what is in the box. Done cleverly, you've traded mystery for suspense, which do different things.
When you start explaining why the box works like it does, you also make a trade. You trade more of your sense of wonder in exchange for an ability for the character now to extrapolate. Maybe figure out how to make boxes of their own, or change what the box does when it is opened. You make the character less of a pawn in a scheme they cannot understand, and more of a (potentially) active participant in their destiny.
I'm certainly over-simplifying, and I don't want to understate the power of either side. A sense of wonder, mystery, and a smallness to the characters was essential for such works as The Lord of the Rings. If you'd known exactly what Gandalf could do, and why, it would have changed the experience. Instead, you are allowed to feel like Frodo and Sam, who are moving through a world of giants, both literally and figuratively.
However, there are always going to be trades in fiction. What is it you're trying to do? I tend to gravitate toward worlds where the science adheres to the scientific method. And so long as something is repeatable, it can be studied, understood, and relied upon. You don't have to understand the HOW, so long as you know the WHAT and a little of the WHY. What is going to happen when I open this box, and how can I change the effect?
Done really well (and I'm not certain if I do it really well, but I hope to someday get there) explaining can still preserve a measure of wonder. The classical scientists discovered, explained, and tried to understand science. But the more they learned, the more wondrous the world around them became, and the more answers there were to be found. I think it is important to establish that there IS more to be learned, that the answers haven't all been found.
A Battle at Last!
Oh, good, I wondered how many bombs I'd have to throw before we started a real debate. *grin*
First, you're misrepresenting or misunderstood what I said. I've read all those authors, but not all their books—several do multiple trilogies, which obviously doesn't fall under my definition. Admittedly, a few I haven't read since I was a kid. (I loved all the Zelazny books, but I was 14 and don't remember them flawlessly, plus all of the Amber books together would have had a wordcount of less than one of the monsters we've been talking about, so apples, meet oranges.) And of course, some of those authors may have tackled the problems successfully in series I haven't read of theirs. I never claimed encyclopedic knowledge.
I never claimed they all had the same greatest strengths and weaknesses. That doesn't make sense. The point was purely logical: If X is your greatest strength, and you write a novel without X, you're writing a novel without your greatest strength.
Come on, you have to agree with that.
Not all writers are equally great at all parts of writing: Grisham does dynamite tension, but his characters aren't deep, someone else will have the opposite strength and problem. The same applies to fantasy writers. Surely you can agree with that, too?
So, going from the fact that readers score subsequent books in really long series lower, the question is why? Either fantasy readers are vindictive and ignorant of the difficulties of the form, or "there have been stumbles," as you put it. (In the passive voice, lest you say who stumbled.)
I don't think the main mass of readers are vindictive. I think they know quality, and I think they read enough books to know when an author is giving them great stuff, and when they're not. So this is where you and I stand apart from each other. You blame the form, I blame the writers.
And, since you put me on the spot, sure, I'll say it: Robert Jordan stumbled. For multiple books. Were there reasons stumbling was easy? Yep. Did he get good things out of the tradeoffs he made by writing too many books? Sure. Is he still one of my favorite writers? Absolutely. Was his writing magical? Yes. With Robert Jordan, I could read a whole book and not realize until it was over that nothing had happened. I owe the man a huge debt, but that doesn't mean I can't learn from his mistakes.
(I didn't post at all about magic here, so I'll take the next post on Monday, Brandon—but I'm on the road and had to dash this off.)
Magic Explained. Definitively.
Well, for my books. Well, mostly.
(I'm jumping back a couple of posts here—but both Brandon and I have been traveling on and off during this Babel Clash, so apologies on some non-linearity.)
From a storytelling standpoint, the more magic you have in a world, the more problems you create, so I've dealt with magic differently in my two series. In the Night Angel books, I wanted to start with magic users being incredibly rare. The paradigm was that magic users were like professional athletes—the average person would go their whole life without ever seeing one in person, though they would hear about them. Of course, if you're in the right circles, you might know or see a lot of pro athletes. But, like pro athletes (depending on the sport), the average person might walk right past one of them on the street and never know it.
That built in some mystery from the start. Then I did something that seemed to hit different reviewers differently. I had a magic system that I understood, that had scientific limits, and costs and clear delineations—but then I filtered that through a medieval, pre-scientific worldview. Then, I figured that each culture is going to have different views of magic: even if magic works the same physically everywhere, a culture is going to affect how people use their magic or understand it. Then I layered in the fact that my main character is an ignorant kid, and some people lie to him about how magic works. And then I put in—for one culture—a parasite that would feed on magic, making those infected more powerful in the short run, but ultimately destroying them.
Sound complex? It was, but I had a handle on it. It had costs and limits—they just weren't what the main character always thought they were. That preserved some of the mystery, made things fun as they unfolded, and makes re-reads of the books fun. (Wait, you're telling me Durzo lied?! Um, yep, Durzo lies.)
But the complexity comes at a cost. And this is why I was asking Brandon earlier about how he thinks outside perceptions of a book or its author affect how you read a book. I think Brandon can get away with explaining little about his magic system (systems?) in The Way of Kings precisely because he's known as a magic system guy—his magic is always well thought out. Because I was a new guy with The Way of Shadows and because there are contradictory statements made about magic and no Irving the Explainer to say How Things Are, you could see the magic as just a mess. Contradictory. Contrived. Deus ex machina stuff.
I don't know if there's a way around that except having your reputation grow. It's like when you show an awkward teen romance: Is this dialogue awkward because the characters are tongue-tied, or because the writer sucks at dialogue?
Regardless, I decided to go the opposite way with The Lightbringer Trilogy, to take on something harder, and juggle the problems having lots of magic creates. This world has a proto-scientific understanding of magic. They're disciplined in their study, and they get most things right. (It helps that I'm using light as the basis for the magic, and light is innately funky and mind-boggling and cool and mysterious.) I also have the kid taught stuff that is (mostly) true. The fun comes from me making solid rules and making each magic obey the laws of physics: you want to throw a fireball the size of a house? Fine, can you lift a house?
Each color of magic has its own attributes: red is sticky and flammable, blue is hard and smooth, and so forth. Then I gave each drafter a finite amount of magic they can use in their life—use it fast and you're hastening your own death. Then I gave each color a metaphysical effect on the drafter who uses it: using lots of blue makes a person more orderly, etc. Then I—well, there's more.
But the rules are simple and analogous to those from real systems. I think this does strip away mystery, but adds wonder. It's like a physician who comes to understand many processes of the human body, but becomes more and more awed by life itself.
To use a less grandiose metaphor, I see this magic as a box of toys. I hope people will play with them and put them together in ingenious ways. Indeed, the enjoyment and the terror for me as a writer is feeling like I'm in a footrace with my own fans. Who's going to come up with the coolest uses of these luxins? Them, or me?
It's an experiment, and I think that's one of the greatest things about fantasy. We get to play. And if we keep that sense of play, of fun, then the magic—and the stories themselves—will be wondrous.
So on that note, Dane, thank you for having me on to talk about some of the things that I love. And Brandon, thanks for sharing your thoughts—and for swatting aside a few hand grenades. It's been a real pleasure talking with you. And to my fans out there, if you haven't already, Check this guy out. His books are great.
Time Flies When You're Having Fun
It seems like it was only yesterday that Brent Weeks and Brandon Sanderson jumped on the blog to debate all things epic fantasy. The conversation was so engaging that I completely lost track of time. I can't believe today is their last day on Babel Clash (maybe if we ask nicely they'll come back when it's time to promote their next books—hint, hint guys!)
While Brent and Brandon prepare to say their good-byes, don't forget to support them in their craft and pick up a copy of their books. I don't think I need anymore convincing to pick up their books, but if you'd like to Brent and Brandon, please feel free to offer up a sales pitch to the readers of Babel Clash!
Also, starting tomorrow, we switch from epic debate to an editor's roundtable of sorts. Curious to read about what some very accredited editors think about current trends in the genre? Curious to read about their thoughts on the e-book revolution? Curious to read about what an editor does? I'm sure you'll find out about all this and more starting tomorrow as three editors take the floor on Babel Clash for the next two weeks. I'm really looking forward to hearing what our next three guests have to say about the publishing business and where they see the genre heading (who knows, it may even help me get closer to adding featured guest and moderator to my Babel Clash bio...if you catch my drift)!
We'll have Lou Anders, the four-time Hugo nominated Editorial Director of Pyr Books, a Chesley award winning art director, and the PKD nominated editor of nine anthologies, the latest being Masked (Gallery Books) and Swords & Dark Magic (with Jonathan Strahan, Eos).
We'll also have Ginjer Buchanan, the Editor-in-Chief of Ace/Roc Books which are the Science Fiction and Fantasy imprints of Penguin USA. Ginjer adds: "Lou and I are tied for Hugo nominations, but I've also managed a World Fantasy Award nom in the Special Award-Professional category. I've been with Ace since the propitious year of 1984."
And finally, we'll have Jeremy Lassen, Editor-in-Chief at Night Shade Books, an independent publisher who have been publishing horror, science fiction, and fantasy for over a decade. Prior to his career as a publisher, he was a book seller (at Mysterious Galaxy and Borderlands Books). His view from the sales floor has been instrumental in forming his outlook on publishing and book selling in general.