“So I feel very little in common with those miles of fat fantasy books and feel almost guilty that, in the wake of Tolkien, I reinvented the Victorian three-decker (a lot of them weren’t that long per volume either!). I could write 15,000 words a day and gave myself three days a volume. That’s how, for instance, the Hawkmoon books were written. 45,000 words was the minimum paperback length for a ‘novel’ (which are more normally 60,000 and up) so the whole four are only 180,000 words, which is shorter than one volume, say, in the Pyat sequence…”
Michael Moorcock is one of the larger presences in fantasy literature, and in British literature in general. His most famous character is Elric of Melniboné, whose incessant brooding and implausibly large weapon form a classic template for the fantasy anti-hero—but he’s also one of the first fantasists to write in a multiverse (and possibly the inventor of the term?) and has written about the Eternal Champion in the guise of too many other characters and series to count. Most good used bookstores will have at least a few pieces of one or the other of his “three-deckers,” and the proportions and design of the white Elric books are still an archetypal image of fantasy literature to me.
You don’t see slim fantasy novels any more; the genre’s luminaries today tend to work long, though I think the tendency is more pronounced in men than women (when you think “tome-writers” you think Martin, Rothfuss, Sanderson; versus, say, Le Guin, Link, Valente). Charles Stross has a pretty fascinating blog post on why books are the length they are (see also). For an indie publisher whose main product is ebooks, of course, these considerations aren’t so salient—but I cut my teeth on the work of people who write long, and I have the same inclination. The Dandelion Knight is 160,000 words long; The Eighth King, written in rather less time, is 170,000. I’m proposing to write two books at 50,000 words each, so the trilogy, if all goes as planned, will add up to 150,000.
“I don’t ‘world-build’ and have no interest in what I see as crossword puzzle activities — making up artificial languages and the economies of countries and so forth — and leave that to the people who like to do it. I look for the quickest way to tell the story I want to tell. I am fundamentally a storyteller and the genre in which I tell the story is only chosen because it’s the best genre I can see for telling that story. But since I started an industry has grown up to supply people with fantasy escapes. I’ve said this before, but people accuse me of not doing what they expect from a fantasy trilogy and in response to this I described Elric as a failed escape plan — which makes people furious. My fantasies are, of course, escapism, but they aren’t at root escapist, because they’re written by someone who prefers to confront what scares the crap out of him.”
M. John Harrison has a brief, interesting post on roughly the same topic, to roughly the same effect. I don’t know if I agree with them, necessarily; one of Moorcock and Harrison’s great inheritors is China Miéville, who doesn’t seem to have any problem writing intelligent, imaginative, political fantasy in a meticulously constructed milieu. I would love to write like China Miéville; I have tried to write like China Miéville.
But China Miéville writes fat. Intelligent, imaginative, political—but fat. Fat makes food and books rich, and my own big books do their best to use all the flavor that fat brings out, so don’t think I’m against it; but, with some regrets, I am not in the market for fat this January.
Unfortunately for me, the technique of literary cuisine that requires the most fat is probably worldbuilding.
I think minimal worldbuilding may be key to successful application of the Moorcock model. And I won’t be at all surprised if that pushes me into uncomfortable territory. My tendency in fantasy, so far, has been to resist familiar tropes; for example, The Dandelion Knight’s titular character is an old icon in the story world, as well as a terrorist group, as well as one or more particular living members of that terrorist group, and the significance of all these things is tied in with history in a way that just requires slow immersion and occasional exposition. I’m not quite comfortable with the cognitive economies that come with familiar categories: wizard, dragon, vampire. It makes the whole effort feel too much like D&D for my tastes. It’s not that I don’t enjoy such books; I love A Song of Ice and Fire, jousts and dragons and all. But it’s hard for me to work within those parameters.
Luckily, I have the Western genre to lean on as well, which lets me invent things that still benefit from an easy reference point. So when I talk about a runeslinger, you’re going to understand exactly what I mean; when I talk about a ciudor, that’s not so obvious, but as it becomes clear that a ciudor is a prospector combing the dead cities for old magic and tech, then you get it. There are elections and railroads and cattle rustling, sorcerers and scribes and staves. But the gods of the Ogdoad and Ennead, the magical properties and political importance of black silver, the nature of the deathbirds that patrol the sky… they’re going to have to be applied with a light touch, if at all.
“To be honest, I started doing trilogies because it was way of selling a novel three times! Rather than doing one long one for the same money, it was more economical to do three very short ones. You’ll note that even when put together, few of my fantasies are as long as the majority of trilogies.”
As I write, I’m in the middle of a great interview with David Farland on the Creative Penn podcast, and there’s an interesting exchange that’s currently in paraphrase, although I may go back and copy it verbatim:
JP: It seems like the criteria you’ve given for writing a bestselling book require a pretty long book, and the bestsellers you’ve described [Harry Potter, Twilight] are long books for their genres. Is length a prerequisite for writing a bestseller?
DF: Yes, I think so. If you look at the bestselling books across a lot of genres, they tend to be much longer than is typical for the genre. Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time books, Gone With the Wind, …
JP: The current digital marketplace is moving toward shorter books, novellas. Is that compatible with writing bestsellers given this insight about length?
DF: Oh, sure. You can just slice up your longer works and give us, what, five chapters at a time? No problem.
I wish they’d gone into this in a bit more depth—I’ve thought hard about it in the context of my own long books, The Dandelion Knight and The Eighth King, and I’ve decided, rightly or wrongly, that it would just take too much time to divide the content into equal-length books, then reorganize them so the internal arc is satisfying. At least in my mind, the structure of a piece of serialized fiction is more tightly constrained than that of a single book, even if the book and the serial are of equal length. It’s true that, to some extent, structure needs to be self-similar at various levels of resolution regardless of the length of the whole work; subplots, chapters, and scenes all need to have some kind of arc, some kind of ratcheting tension and resolution. Keeping someone reading across a chapter break isn’t necessarily qualitatively different from making them buy the next book. But it is different. There’s an evaluation at the end of a series installment that’s more important, and more explicit, than any evaluation that happens inside the book, because the reader is being invited to spend money. So it’s the usual tension:
1. Am I satisfied enough with the story to pony up for the next hit?
2. Am I dissatisfied enough with the story that I need to know what’s next?
Point 2 above may actually be where Moorcock’s series tend to flag, or at least not to conform to this admittedly somewhat marketing-driven structure. Things aren’t often left hanging in, e.g., the Elric books. It’s not quite that loops are never left open; when Elric leaves Melniboné, you do wonder whether he’s going to come back and give Yyrkoon what for, and so on. But that’s not why you read on; it’s not a nagging question. If you read on, you read on for more Elric, not for more plot. Similarly, if you’re hoping for the continuation of the plot line of Blood, you are sure to be disappointed by Fabulous Harbors, which is a collection of wonderful but only tangentially related short stories that nonetheless does its best to serve as vinculum between Blood and The War Amongst the Angels.
Now that I think about it, I can think of a lot of “series” where this is true, many by writers Moorcock admires. Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris books, M. John Harrison’s Viriconium books, and China Miéville’s Bas-Lag books all qualify, as do Barry Hughart’s Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox and Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books. So you can certainly create great literature and make a living as a writer with this approach.
But it’s 2015, and part of the point of this project is to go full indie—do what the indies recommend, see whether I can make it work. I have a few years left in me; plenty of time to scorn marketing and follow the muse.
So now I’ve blown a couple of thousand words on matters of general interest. It’s a nice introduction to the way I think, maybe, or at least what I’m reading and listening to; but in my next long essays I’ll get down to nuts and bolts, with one post on the story world and then one on my outlining process.