Monday, April 30, 2012

When is Enough, Enough?

This week's guest blogger is Hadley Rille Books' own Mark Nelson, author of The Poets of Pevana--a man and book near and dear to my heart. I pulled Mark's book out of the slush last summer, and got past what has now gone down in HRB history as "the worst query letter of all time" to discover a true gem. I'm proud to claim this discovery, to be his editor, and now, after months of working together, I am honored to call him my friend. Thanks for being here, Mark!

First I would like to thank the ladies of Heroines of Fantasy for granting me the space to air some thoughts on a few things about something all of us who call ourselves writers have strong feelings about: story.  Some of the characters in my first book, The Poets of Pevana, hold story-telling as a sacred trust.  Poetry is a part of their livelihoods and their faith. Simply put: it is serious business and not to be taken lightly.

Homer knew his business, as did the host of ancient oral tradition versifiers who related their tales across the campfires and feast halls of antiquity. One thing that always came clear to me when I encountered some of those great stories was their innate, intrinsic rhythm, pace and depth—as if somehow made perfect through time and repetition. I am reminded of Kipling’s short fiction that my grandmother owned: Just So Stories.

Just so: what a great way to describe things that were just long enough to hold all the magic necessary to enthrall a young mind—or any mind for that matter.  The story-teller had to hold his audience with the power of his spoken word. He had to weave description, setting, tone, character—all the biggies that perplex high school students who still have to wade through generic literature anthologies as part of their required English courses—and KEEP them focused purely by the quality of his delivery.

Those ancients knew when they reached just so. They must have had amazing control of their idioms, knowledge of their subject and their audience.  I suspect the relationship in those former times was much more intensely intimate than what we generally experience today.  We read these great old tales as printed translations, and I am not so sure that Gutenberg’s amazing invention wasn’t a double edged sword. We can now preserve almost everything from the oral tradition, but something is still lost.  I think it might be, at least in part, that connection between speaker and subject, that special knowledge of just so.

What all the verbosity above adds up to is a question that has perplexed me in recent years as I observe the world of modern letters: when is enough, enough? Fantasy and Science Fiction have increasingly become ‘series centric’ genres.  I see a similar effect in Historical Fiction was well, but my issues there are less troubling.  Cornwell has been reshaping the facts of history throughout twenty one volumes in his Sharpe Series alone, and he writes very few stand alone novels. But again, I can see reasons for making an allowance there.

My main concerns are with authors who lose control of their stories in Science Fiction and Fantasy.  Please understand, there are many, many vibrant multi-volume stories out there pleasing a horde of dedicated book-buying fans.  And yet I wonder if “more and more and more” has a potentially negative impact on ‘just so.’

Tolkien lamented the LOTR was too short. Cherryh is on her 13th or 14th volume in her Foreigner series and seems intent on more. I have three drafted and a fourth planned for my Pevana project, so I might be guilty of my own accusation!  But I have encountered a number of projects where I felt the author really lost touch with their tale and began selling books rather than telling a story. I thought Twilight might have had a good book or two worth of material that really suffered by being stretched over four.  Jordan’s Wheel of Time had such a huge beginning with its first four volumes, but by the time I reached Winter’s Heart I had to give up. Nine hundred pages where nothing happened seemed almost insulting. Those early books had passion, power, politics, flawed heroes, epic quests, relevant good and evil. So good, but it needed to end.

I think Jordan stopped telling a story and started selling books. I think the best stories are those that manage to make a happy compromise between both goals: enrich the audience and enrich the author. I also think there is a responsibility inherent there on the part of the author, the publishing house and those that create the marketing model pushing the story to the reading public: don’t insult the intelligence of your patrons. 

So, to end this first ever rant: What are your thoughts on ‘story’? What do you think is ‘enough’ or ‘just so’?  Have you ever encountered stand alone novels or books in a series that ‘work’, that retain that freshness of the skald’s voice over the campfire?  Have you also met up with a text that seemed to lose that connection? Have you persevered through a series only to find that it lost you halfway through?

I would like to know why so many of them seem to find their way onto best seller lists…

Mark Nelson is a career educator and happily married to his best friend and fellow educator. Together they have raised three beautiful daughters and one semi-retired cat. Words, music, food and parenting serve as a constant source for inspiration, challenge and reward. To temper such unremitting joy, Mark plays golf: an addiction that provides a healthy dose of humility.


Pongo Pygmaues said...

Most series outrun themselves. Generally because, for various reasons, important characters cannot be killed off and the author runs out of ideas. Historical fiction can avoid this (O'Brian did superbly for 20-odd books, Cornwell failed to with Sharpe after about a fourteen or so -- he intended to stop with Sharpe's Devil and should have done, the Indian books and gap-fillers are poor) more easily because situations already exist for the characters to be thrust into. But the never-ending 'trilogy' is the bane of SF and fantasy.

Dune should have finished after book 3 (I'd actually argue book 2 should have been the final one).

Iain Banks' Culture novels, though not a classic series following the same characters throughout, hav e become increasingly tiresome (the first half dozen were good or superb.

Most fantasy series outgrow their originally envisaged endpoint, at which point the quality rapidly falls off. On the whole I think this is a combination of reader demand for more of their favourite characters, author affection for setting and characters, relative lack of work required (characters don't need devised, the setting is known) and perhaps publishers also wanting more of what worked before.

George Martin is a notable exception in that he is not afraid to kill important characters but he's just lost his way in a mire of interlocking stories (increasingly about characters that I have met relatively recently and who I don't care two hoots about -- all these Dornish and fingerless knights for example).

Personally I think the wise author 'leaves 'em hungry' (as Cornwell did with his excellent Arthur saga -- three books and stop) at the point where his original vision intended. To do otherwise is begging for the lingering death that most extended series suffer.

Terri-Lynne said...

Pongo--first, I have to tell you, I am always amazed by your depth of knowledge about these things. And you usually send me on a quest for new books to read--shame on you! As if my TBR pile isn't towering enough.

I agree about Martin--though he insists he's not lost his way. I haven't read Dance With Dragons yet (gasp!) but book four seemed a bit meandering, and an awfully strange place to introduce new characters while focusing on a certain set of characters while completely avoiding another. It just didn't mesh for me, and while I'd never say, "I didn't like it," I will say that it's the least favorite of the series for me, thus far. But, I suppose there has to be a least favorite (like Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets.)

I think Robert Holdstock did a great job of keeping the story going while not getting stale with his Mythago Woods series. With each book really centering on a wholly new character/s, while still forwarding the general arc of the series. So far, Mythago Wood reigns supreme for me, but I've not read Avilion yet, so...

As always, thanks for stopping by.

Pongo Pygmaues said...

I see no reason why a series can't run for, say, 20 books if there was no pre-conceived ending point after 3 as is often the case with fantasy and sci-fi trilogies that then run on forever.

O'Brian managed it with Aubrey-Maturin partly because he allowed the characters to change quite significantly as they aged, partly because the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars allowed huge scope and had themselves a defined end, partly because he did not indulge inn the current penchant for a soap opera approcah with a dozen or more main characters (that clearly has Martin floundering despite his protestations -- the last two books of his series have been below par compared to the first three) and partly because he was a writer of genius. Other historical novelists have done so for about a dozen books (eg Flashman's episodic adventures bar the last one where MacDonald Fraser had become too sentimental to write Flashman properly, the first 12 -- I went back and counted -- Sharpe books) because they often have a long span of years for their novels to be set in and the setting given to them and the ending point defined.

Fantasy (and some sci-fi) authors, it seems to me, often set out to write a trilogy and then extend that rather than deepen it by exploring the world in a different place or time and with different characters (Iain M. Banks' culture novels did change setting and time both from book to book and always with different leading characters (though Diziet Sma played a recurring minor role in three). So they stayed fresh longer until he started to try to say important things rather than just tell stories. Whereas Dune just went on and on chronologically meeting its nadir in the unmentionably awful and interminable God-Emperor of Dune and stuttering fitfully thereafter.

I think a good comparison is TV sitcoms. Ones like Fawlty Towers that stopped too soon are missed more than ones like Frasier (which was admittedly superb for six seasons) and Coupling that ran on too long (far too long in the case of Frasier). The lingering doesn't really make the good seasons less funny but they do detract from the overall sense of satisfaction with the whole.

Equally you could look at HBO's Deadwood and the Wire which would have been stone cold classics had they been as sensible as Rome and stopped when they were ahead rather than having truly dreadful last seasons that undermined the brilliance that went before.

Heroines of Fantasy said...

Re: sitcoms--Very good analogy. Seinfeld COULD have gone on another several seasons, but quit at nine, before it got stale. Though, I do admit, I really don't like the finale much, but that's another story.

(This is Terri, btw. AOL doesn't let me into the room under my own name, for some reason...)

Anonymous said...

Shakespeare had problems with sequel-itis too. His best stuff, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, never needed a sequel, but between his Henry and Richard stories, jeez, it was like watching Stephen King rehash the same plotlines over and over and over...


One of my favorite fantasy series was "The Waterborn" by J. Gregory Keyes. It was over in two books, which told the story, didn't wear out the character's welcome, and were some of the most imaginative stories I have enjoyed. GRRM's books are taking on that RJ sheen of being bloated, poorly proofed books that have nearly collapsed under the weight of their incidental characters.

Anonymous said...

Pongo: I agree completely about series tending to outrun themselves. I think Herbert's second set of Dune titles pailed by coming off as derivative. It can't be a good thing when an author borrows from his own stuff and comes off flat in the process. Wow.

Cornwell has a few potential stinkers in his Sharpe series, but what helps him is the connection to historical truth. He manages to take us deeply into the times about which he writes; his Uhtred stories about Anglo-Saxon England are some of my favorites. The Arthur books were composed quite a bit differently in my view in that he was essentially, as with any attempt with the Arthur saga, writing fantasy loosely connected to real place/setting. I wonder if that had anything to do with it falling prey to your trilogy plague.

I have always felt that the industry did more to foist the notion of the 3 book series on the public than authors, generally. The packaging of the product might be the culprit: LOTR is actually six books presented in three volumes, and when it took off with the American audience...well, some say it sealed the deal for nearly a generation.

Martin is totally mired in a mess in my opinion, and the shock value of killing off characters has begun to pale significantly for me by the time I finished the newest one. I don't think it is a good thing to have readers thumbing ahead in a text to read the next chapter about one character and ignoring the bits in between. To me, that is a sure sign of bloat. Martin combines the over extensive character list with a whole slew of TMI passages about food, sore horse hooves, plate armor and sigil the end I feel that too much of it falls to window dressing. Gaudy, attention grabbing (maybe), but the stuff inside the store suffers.

Cool response. I'm beat, but I have more on your excellent comments later. Your refs have added a few more books to my TBR list as well.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Mark, I enjoyed this post a lot and am so happy you were able to be our guest of honor this week on HoF.

I agree with most of what's been said, and as has been pointed out the answer to your question -- how much is too much -- really depends on the series and the author.

Some thoughts that have come to mind while reading everyone's comments & perspectives:

Many readers, once they fall in love with characters, like to see them again and again. To the point that one of the best strategies for getting readers to take a chance on a novel from a new author is to assure them that a sequel is on the way. I'm not sure where this comes from, but I'd hesitate to chalk it up to mere brain washing by publishers looking for an easy sell. I believe it is something innate in the readership.

A fantasy world that is well constructed can bear the weight of more than one novel. Many of our character's lives don't end when the novel does, so unless -- as Pongo pointed out -- the main players are killed off, you can always come back to them and explore new conflicts at different stages of their lives. Keeping it fresh, of course, is a challenge. But again, if the world is well-constructed, and the characters grounded in reality, this can be done without losing the edge.

All that being said, I like the number 3. It's a powerful number in mathematics, a sacred number in many mythological traditions, and it seems to works well for the genre of fantasy.

As a reader, trilogies give me enough depth to keep me satisfied, while allowing my imagination to play with some questions unanswered (there's the 'hungry' part)and minimizing the risk of falling flat on the storytelling before it's all over.

As an author, I actually prefer stand-alone novels, but I've found that having the trilogy as a goal makes my readers happier, and also allows me to spend some more time with characters I've come to love, before moving on to new horizons.

All in all a great post, Mark. Thanks again!

Heroines of Fantasy said...

I think (aside from three being a sacred number--because I really dig that) trilogies do so well and resound with readers because of the simple formula: Beginning, middle, and end.

While each book has to have a satisfying arc/climax, the overall story arc will follow that natural trajectory. The second in just about any triology I can think of is alway smy favorite. It's the MEAT of the story. It's all been set up in book one, the big finish will be in book three. Book two is that meaty middle--the hamburger on the bun, the cream filling in an oreo.
(Again, this is Terri, fyi!)

Pongo Pygmaues said...

I'm not sure LotR really counts as a trilogy (or sextology) really as it was never conceived of as anything but a single novel and was released in three parts only due to the expense and difficulty of producing a single volume of such length at the time of publictaion (obviously now there have been several single volume editions at various times) and more inportantly, no single part stands alone as a complete book. I suppose one could make the same argument for Martins' series and some others but a very important differnece is that Tolkien had finished the whole work before any of it was published. Unlike most (possibly all) of the later authors.

Tolkien did start a direct sequel to LotR but wisely abandoned it at a very early stage.

Most of the very long-running historical fiction series are composed of books that are complete stand alones (true for Sharpe, Aubrey-Maturin bar one thre-book sequence that is a trilogy buried in the longer narrative - and Flashman -- there is no need to have read earlier works in the series). Whereas with, say, Dune, the later books don't really stand alone very well, they rely to a large extent on reader familiarity with the earlier volumes. It's not always the case in fantasy/SF that one needs to have read earlier books to follow later ones in a series, but it's very often true.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Granted, LoTR may not have been intended (by the author) as a trilogy, but I'd say it now counts as one, if only because this is how it resonates with the popular readership.

I much prefer series that are a set of stand-alone-novels. Anything else, for me, tends to hold the reader hostage.

(And while we're talking about historical series, I must mention Laura Ingalls-Wilder's classic Little House stories. All of her books were also stand-alone novels, but they integrate quite nicely into a single multi-volume saga.)

writerknv said...

I'm always late to post comments, but this summer... no school! I'll be all over it! :)

I just wanted to chime in two things:

1) I DETEST the neverending series. I am striving NOT to write one. Endings are as important as beginnings, and bloat is never a good thing.

2) One of my favorite series is a duology by Jacqueline Carey. Two books: Godslayer and Banewreaker, which present the typical "hero's quest" from the perspective of the bad guys, who turn out to have their own reasons and motivations for what they do. It's fantastic. You should all go read it for homework!

Kim :)

Terri-Lynne said...

Kim--Damn...two more books for my TBR pile.

I love the whole notion of "good and evil depends upon the eyes one is looking out of." No one thinks they're the villain of the story, right?

I learned that first--that I actually GOT it--from Guy Gavriel Kay's Tigana. Brilliant piece of work. And that's one YOU should read! So there.