Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Don't Badger Readers with the "Never-Ending Plot Line"

Learning from Ursula K. Le Guin, Roger Zelazny, Terry Pratchett and C.K. Chesterton

Creative writing, like all arts, lacks rules: There is no algorithm that will provide a reliable best seller every time. There are conventions, of course -- writers workshop saws like "show, don't tell" and "kill your adverbs -- find stronger verbs" for instance.

In practice, there is considerable lee-way; readers read the story, and not the mechanics. For instance, many Postmodern novels break the "Third Wall," and announce that there is a narrator telling a story -- Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, a captivating literary science fiction read ruined by legions of leaden high school teachers, comes to mind. This technique earns tisks during writer's workshops. Yet, Vonnegut's wonderful character, the hapless Billy Pilgrim, and creative treatment of the themes of the pointlessness of war keeps me rereading the story every few years.

By the way, Vonnegut enchants, makes me laugh and covers an immense theme in 288 pages. That's writing. But there are, of course, trends in publishing. At present, most Fantasy -- from Urban to High Fantasy -- suffers from the Multi-Tome-Epic-Arc plague.

Author Charles de Lint's book review column in the July 2013 edition of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction addressed this trend and solidified my thoughts on epics, which has bothered me for many years. He maintains, and I concur, that focusing on marketing the Series instead of creatively writing an excellent book is hurting the fantasy genre.

Genre fiction, even in its pulpiest days, was never like this. De Lint mentions the Edgar Rice Boroughs' John Carter books as examples -- stand-alone books filled with brilliant characters with quirky action. Rice Boroughs draws readers into his world, introducing them to setting and characters in the course of storytelling. Once a reader completes one of his books, Rice Boroughs offers an invitation. If you like Mars and John Carter and wanted more, you could buy another book. If you didn't, at least you read a rousing good yarn that resolved.

If this is the high-road, contemporary authors frequently take the low-road. They withhold the ending by finishing a novel on a cliff-hanger. This engages the human bias for completion. Whether readers like a book or not, they desire completion. Which manipulates them into buying the next book in the series.

The high-road is an invitation to read more. The low-road manipulates people into buying a book. Both de Lint and I find the practice tawdry. It leads to predictable books with comfortable plots instead of forcing a writer to dig deep to produce something original. One need only compare a classic like Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea Cycle to Robert Jordan's interminable, albeit popular, Wheel of Time series to sense the difference.

Le Guin's writing is honed to a fine edge: sparse and evocative. Every book in the Earthsea Cycle is distinct. The world itself is believable and consistent, and Le Guin's characters captivating. Most striking, though, is how creatively the author examines thematic material using fantasy. Her range is remarkable. A Wizard of Earthsea's main theme is recognizing and claiming the evil within, so your evil does not make you blind, projecting your own motives onto others. Even more gut-wrenching is the Nebula-winning Tehanu, where Le Guin tackles the healing power of love, and the devastating destruction child physical and sexual abuse causes its victims.

Despite this creative complexity, none of the books in the series exceeds 300 pages.

With Jordan's Wheel of Time, we get a sprawling, convoluted myth playing out over a projected 20 volumes -- with each installment weighing in at 900+ pages. What's more, despite its mythic background, the stories Jordan presents are prosaic, his themes obvious, and characters expected. There is a violent confrontation between good and evil, and the White Hat kills the Black Hat. The result is a simplistic story built on a convoluted plot "substrata."

You scratch the surface, you find that there is nothing inside. Instead of the French Riviera, you find you're at the Monte Carlo in Vegas: the right look, but no depth.

This realization caused me to refuse reading anything more than the second book in Jordan's Time series. I had no desire to follow his thinly drawn characters on a 20,000 page cliche-quest.

On the other hand, Le Guin's series still captivates me years after my first reading. Le Guin tells a complex story in a way that read simply -- a 7th grader could read the books.

That is real writing. Jordan, by contrast, is more marketer than a writer.

I am a writer. And I reader. I hope that the next generation of writers takes the high road. Or they run the risk of running my favorite genres -- science fiction and fantasy -- into the ground.

De Lint shares a delicious quote he uncovered from the Tumblr for Teens blog that summarizes how better writers take the high road to success.
"Nobody reads a...[book] get to the middle. They read it to get to the end. If it's a letdown, they won't buy any more. The first page sells that book. The last page sells your next book."
That said, as a classic speculative fiction aficionado, I have a list below of some books that manage to say a lot in a single tome. Some are stand-alone books, even when part of a series. They are worth checking out.

  • Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny. A compelling book that illustrates the way political and religious power often intertwine. The language is fabulous -- copped from 19th century retelling of Hindu myths for English audiences. And yet, behind it all is a science fiction story of liberation and truth.
  • Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett. Terry Pratchett's Tiffany Aching books are pure genius. In them, Pratchett blends traditional fairy tale elements and amazing storytelling with his tell-tale humor. Plus, he introduces the Nac Mac Feegle -- a sort of Scottish leprechaun -- foul-mouthed but never obscene creatures. The Feegle aid the antagonist, the clever little witch Tiffany Aching, into freeing the land from a classic fairy tale enchantment. Funny, insightful and original. 
  • The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. Though Philip K. Dick (PKD) can sound read dated at times -- his 21st Century businessmen smoke in the office, and sleep with their secretaries, for instance -- Man in the High Castle is a classic alternative history with some fantasy elements -- including a mystical trip down another alternate history more similar to our own. 
  • The Man Who Was Thursday by C.K. Chesterton. This book is under 200 pages. It packs more Fantasy into those 200 pages, along with some intriguing ideas about the Creator and the created than you can shake a stick at. But Chesterton does not preach. Instead, he beguiles and hints. 
  • Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll. I've read these books probably 50 times each in my life. They are among the greatest Fantasy books ever. On the surface level, they tell the story of a young girl wandering through some "curious" worlds. But they actually tell a more captivating story -- that Alice, like all of us, has to grow up. We can rage against the Red Queen, shaking her violently in our attempt to hold back the tide. But it will still happen.
  • Little, Big by John Crowley. An amazing book. Part Urban Fantasy, part an investigation of Celtic fairy lore; Crowley even squeezes in the reincarnated Holy Roman Emperor, tarot cards, swans and goats. The plot revolves around a strange family's relationship with the little people.It floats around in time like a dream. 
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison. A ghost story like no other. This book is a prime example of how a superior writer can use fantasy to investigate hard truths -- in this case the evil, dehumanizing impacts of racism and social isolation. Morrison's language is haunting and evocative. If you were forced to read this for school, and didn't like it then, I invite you to revisit it. It is one of my all-time favorite literary books.


  1. I believe I see your point, and may even agree with you. But can you clarify whether you think all fantasy series MUST consist of books that are self-contained? The reason I ask is because Lord of the Rings, certainly one of the greatest fantasy series of all time, consists of three books that could never stand on their own without the others.

    If you mean, rather, that writing a series for the sake of writing a series (to sell more books) is harmful to a story, I completely agree. I share your dislike of the Wheel of Time—if anything, my opinion is more vitriolic. Possibly because it took me until Book Five to have the same realization you had in Book Two, by which point I considered that a significant chunk of my life had now been wasted. And I called it in 2006: "Robert Jordan is going to write this series until he dies so that it's the 'great unfinished work' of Robert Jordan." And what did he do?

    My opinion in relation to the topic you bring up (mentioning up front that I myself am writing a fantasy series, the name of which I will exclude for fear of being accused of pimping): I consider that, if a book must be a series, it must have a definite end. The author should have a definite end in mind and know the steps to reach that goal. My series has that end. I know what has to happen to reach it. I THINK it will take me four books to get there. The series may extend to five or maybe even six books, but only if I know that the story requires it.

    I look forward to your response.

    1. @ Garrett Robinson

      I absolutely do not think that there is an absolute, nor that the novel need be self-contained. LOTR is obvious. But I would throw up some others examples from a variety of media -- Gene Wolfe's "New Sun," "Harry Potter," the original "Star Wars" trilogy, and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

      These series all pulled you in with great characters that you related to, themes that were captivating (destroying, instead of seeking, a "ring of power," the Force, etc.). So while I read on or watched each new episode to get to the plot resolution, I was not watching a "soap opera with magic." Instead, I wanted to spend time with those people, and contemplate the author's intent.

      There are even series that fizzled for me, but that I would class as similarly "high road." Pullman's "His Dark Materials" is a perfect example of this. Great ideas, cool characters. And yet, at the end, I felt the series fizzled out. And yet, I did not feel cheated -- just sort of sorry that the author could not pull it off...

      I actually began feeling this way in high school after reading "The Belgariad" (Eddings). I read it through, thinking "this dude is ripping off Tolkien." And was let down. And at the same time, was literally buying every Agatha Christie "Hercule Poirot," Conan or Asimov's "Foundation" book I could get my hands on.

      That said, opinion pieces like this are hard. Since Jordan has a pretty unique magic system. But your reaction to Jordan versus your reaction to LOTR should give a clue.