Doorstep Salesmen

A response to Lost_Heretic’s comments.

Yes, by doorstep trilogy I mean the overblown fantasy sagas that now fill the shelves of most bookstores. Originally the trilogies formed a doorstep when compiled, but over the last couple of decades it seems that the individual volumes must reach this size in order to be published.

 

I have nothing against large books, trilogies or series in general, but very often these works are uninspired, bloated and needless. They are either guilty of the most unoriginal world-building for thousands of pages with little or no plot or characters, or otherwise tell a story that could be much better conveyed in a 10,000 word short.

 

Somebody at Wikipedia has seen fit to write, “Trilogies — and series in general — are common in science fiction and fantasy because of the artistic importance of complex ideas and the commercial importance of brand names.”  I feel the second of these currently far outweighs the first, based upon the general lack of complex ideas or artistry in most of these works.

 

I hold the doorstep trilogy responsible for much of the blandness of the ‘mainstream’ fantasy market. It seems that many publishers aren’t interested in well-told stories that might only be novellas or single novels – after all, if a piece is standalone they may have to go out and find something original for next week and that can be hard work.

 

It’s part of the pathetic fixation with sequels and remakes that dominates much of mainstream media these days. Publishers, movie makers, computer games developers and TV producers want long-term, sustainable mush that revels in its generic characters, predictable plots and formulaic structure.

 

“Comparable to Tolkien at his best” is a hackneyed quote often used to describe fantasy works of this type. I find the word ‘favourably’ noticeably missing from the start of this sentence.

 

Of course, I am guilty here of the utmost hypocrisy, having written the Last Chancers trilogy, the Slaves to Darkness trilogy and now embarking on The Sundering trilogy. That is, of course, because those commercial imperatives apply to writers as much as they do to publishers and I can’t blame either. The blockbuster movie, the fantasy opus in ten parts, the interminable computer games franchise, all provide steady income for their respective creators. What needs to be done is for those resources to be put into discovering new talent, new ideas, and new markets, which doesn’t seem to happen as much as it used to.

 

This is also not to say that trilogies, series and franchises are inherently bad. There are great titles in all forms of media that deserve praise and are actually better for being part of longer bodies of works. I read with interest Matt Keefe’s interview with Stephen Donaldson, and in particular his comment:

 

I tried very hard not to make permanent writing decisions based on temporary problems. Ten years from now – assuming that I live and I carry out my intentions and whatnot – ten years from now these books will all have been in print for a while. People will have the chance to read them the way I originally intended which is to be able to sit down and, if you want, read straight through all four books – or read straight through all ten books. Those days will come.”

 

This is a great attitude. Rather than seeing a series merely as a conveyor belt of sequential projects to sustain the bank balance, the body of work is considered in its entirety. This is the difference between drama and soap opera – a self-contained work with a definitive narrative, rather than an ongoing telling of events released in chunks to maintain interest. Of course, lots of people like soap operas and very few go to see plays…

 

No one factor or person is to blame, as is often the case with the clash between creative and commercial. It takes a brave writer to say they are going to stop writing a well-loved, successful character. It takes a brave publisher to not ask for just one more novel. It also takes a brave reader to try out something new rather than go for more of the tried and tested.

 

Back to my hypocritical trilogies. I would say that all three are different. The Last Chancers is not a trilogy per se because it contains short stories as well as the three novels. Each work is entirely standalone and there are huge leaps in chronology and characters between them. The Slaves to Darkness are the most ‘traditional’ in this sense, in that they were written as three novels planned from the outset, each sequentially following the next and following the same narrative thread directly.

 

The Sundering is different, and close to what I feel a trilogy should be, from an arty point of view. It is more like a painted triptych in that the three novels do not tell a single, linear story but rather explore the events of the Sundering from three different angles, both narratively, thematically and chronologically. Their plots are not self-contained but nor do they each follow directly one after the other. Once complete, the works could be read in any order, but all three must be read for the entire story to be understood. Whether this appeals or not, only time (and the sales figures) will tell.

 

In conclusion, a story has a right length. If told too short it will be rushed. If it is given too much space it will be flabby. If you have a story, pick the correct form for it. If you are writing to a pre-determined length, make sure you have little or enough story to fill it.

 

Other News

I sadly report that my trusty steed, an aging Rover 216, went off to the big scrap heap in the sky today. In true Old Yella (Yeller?) fashion it simply had to be put out of its misery. Still, in every end there is a beginning and I look forward to acquiring a new automobile very soon.

 

Looking forward to new Battlestar Galactica too.

 

Mouse update: No traps purchased yet due to the aforementioned untimely demise of my car.

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I was on Yahoo and found your blog. Read a few of your other posts. Good work. I am looking forward to reading more from you in the future.

    Tom Stanley

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  2. In regard to your comments on today’s writing, I thought you might be interested in “Understanding Contemporary American Science Fiction, the Formative Period, 1926-1970,” by Thomas D. Clareson, University of South Carolina Press, 1992. Clarkson chronicles the development of science fiction from short stories in pulps to interlocking stories, and then to novels. I also found it instructive to learn that most of the current tropes of fantasy and science fiction were invented, used, and explored in provocative ways forty years ago in 80,000 words or less. It is sad that most of these ground breaking books are now either out of print or difficult to find. Best regards. Keith

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  3. Thanks for the recommendation Keith, I will certainly hunt down a copy of that. I’m very interested in the development of genre fiction in the 20th century, but it’s something I’ve only just started looking into with more rigour. Certainly sci-fi and fantasy seem to chart quite different courses from very similar origins.

    Many feel the golden age of written sci-fi was from the fifties to the seventies, because there was a huge amount of originality and creativity at that time. I recently read a couple of Brian Aldiss books, Hothouse and Non-Stop, and the difference in style to the ‘modern’ novel is quite plain. Clearly these are works based more upon the exploration of concepts rather than on rigid plot or well-developed characters, as is typical of much of the fiction of that period. I wonder if part of the issue for writers these days with the massive expansion in sci-fi and fantasy over the decades is finding ideas that haven’t been done before. For sci-fi in particular, concepts that were astounding and revolutionary thirty years ago seem old hat now, and the advances in technology over the last few decades seems to outstrip our capacity to imagine where this may lead.

    This is why new types of fiction such as cyberpunk emerged, to cope with the ever-changing relationship between people and their technological environment. Although expertise isn’t widespread, the general awareness of sciences such as genetic manipulation, space exploration, physics, communications technology and nanotechnology in the mass media has possibly dulled people’s wonder at the advances made. This may be why ‘science fantasy’ rather than some of the harder sci-fi that dominated until the mid-eighties is now more prevalent. What can writers envisage that would truly amaze a modern audience?

    Thanks for taking time to comment,

    Cheers,

    GAV

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  4. Wow, one little question spawned all this? I’m honored.

    As well, I agree with a number of points you brought up, Gav. It’s very easy for publishers to release books in a series that chronologically progresses. A close friend of mine is quite the book-aholic and I’ve found that far too often she purchases an entire series at a time. Recently she picked up the first two books of Margret Weis’s recent Dragonlance trilogy, despite my warnings. She didn’t like the first book and therefore wasted her money on the second.

    It’s also very easy for writers to produce a series. To paraphrase Michael A. Stackpole, “Writing in someone else’s universe is like learning to play basketball with an eight foot hoop. Sure you’ll get some of the basic skills, but you won’t be in the NBA.” If the mechanics and setting of the universe are already there, its far easier to get the story started. Once the first book is complete and the author doesn’t have to explain as much to the reader and I would think the writing would flow much faster.

    I’m sure you’ve noticed this to an extent while writing for the Black Library. You already have a writer’s bible of sorts (twenty-five years of background) and once you’ve finished your research there’s only plot, theme and mood to worry about. Atleast, that’s my personal experience with writing short stories set in others’ creations.

    But enough with that tangent, I would really like to comment on audience. Having only been alive for twenty years, my view of science fiction and fantasy is limited. However, are sci-fi and fantasy really facing the same sort of audience that they were in the fifties through the seventies?

    Many of the major publishers of those times were still magazines. Dune and Dune Messiah where both serialized in magazines during that time. These days major sci-fi and fantasy publication is done in full novels and seems to reach a larger audience. This is also a much more expensive format, since people will purchase a book based on a single author, rather than one or more of the many authors in a magazine.

    But is the audience different? Science fiction and fantasy now reaches a far larger audience than ever before, sparked by related media in video games, movies and even music. Despite the growing partyline that readership is shrinking in the United States, large bookstores are flourishing. Publishers are taking advantage of this and releasing fiction that they know people will buy: Tolkein rip-offs, vampire passion plays and science fantasy.

    Keith, I’m really not sure that those ground breaking books are really out of print! Here in the U.S. early pulp science fiction and fantasy has always had a cult status, but in recent years it’s been much easier to find. I’d like to attribute this phenomenon to small scale publishing becoming cheaper and faster. A fine example of this is Paizo Publishing’s Planet Stories. They’re reprinting lots of early pulp, from non-Conan Robert E. Howard to the obscure Otis Adelbert Kline.

    Thanks for the excellent discussion!
    Mike

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  5. Dennis the Hamster, oddly quiet; Gav Thorpe, oddly verbose. Hmm…

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  6. Well said, Herr Thorpe. There is something almost obscene about the way alot of these ‘trilogies’ pad themselves out needlessly. I am reminded of the ‘Legend of Kern’ trilogy from the Age of Conan line. It would have been fine as a single novel, but spread out over three books it quickly became tedious – about the last thing you want from a book obstensibly about barbarians beating the crap out of each other! While I see nothing wrong with writing series fiction, at least have something to write about!

    At some point, the Professor’s wight is going to crawl out of the box and start taking people to task for absuing his name to sell insipid pap. Remember the row when they named that hovercraft ‘Shadowfax’?

    Both as reader and author, I’ve found short stories and novellas much more entertaining. There is something so much more intimate and exciting about a quick, vibrant read. I know going through a collection like, say, Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories or the early tales of the Grey Mouser, I always feel a greater sense of accomplishment and epic journey than I do with alot of trilogies like Dragonlance and what have you. Not sure if it makes any kind of sense, but there’s just something so much more satisfying about shorter works. Then again, it could also just be the steady diet of Victorian fiction I reared myself on.

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