When I was a kid, the only thing that made me happier than a thousand-page epic fantasy was a series of thousand-page epic fantasies. Reading the Wheel of Time, I dreamed of my own epics, determined to make them even more complicated, to have more bad guys, more magic, more heroes. Why stop at ten books, I thought? Why not twenty? Fifty? A hundred?
Three years ago, when I first decided to give writing a try, the first story I worked on was a ‘small’ epic fantasy. No need to bite off more than I could chew, I thought. I’ll stick with a mere five main characters and keep it small – a pentalogy, perhaps, or a heptalogy (is that a word?). And besides, this series was merely a warm-up to my huge, twenty big epic that would turn the world on end.
Of course, six chapters in, it blew up in my face.
Needless to say, the degree of difficulty in navigating plots of that complexity is insane. Brandon Sanderson, even after writing for nearly a decade, considered his first attempt at a massive epic fantasy series un-publishable. It took him another five years before he had the skills to rewrite it successfully. George R.R Martin has sagely pointed out to new authors that he started the Song of Ice and Fire after he’d been writing for twenty years.
Even the published series have run into criticism. Robert Jordan’s the Wheel of Time (which I talked about here) ran into serious pacing issues around books 8-10. Many accuse Martin of having the same problem in books 4 and 5 of the Song of Ice and Fire.
That these series have flaws should come as no surprise when one considers how few sagas of this magnitude have even been published. Jordan had no ten book series to learn from; he was forging new territory. Martin was in the same boat. That they achieved as much as they did is remarkable. When you’re writing a single book and you discover an issue in the middle, you can fix it. When you’re on book eight of the series you’ve been writing for fifteen years and you see a plot or pacing flaw, you’re probably stuck with it.
For many readers, myself included, those flaws are beside the point, an acceptable cost to being thrown into a world of such breadth and depth. Few stories are as real to me as those two, simply because I have spent so much time in their worlds, met so many of their characters, seen so much of their magic and wonder. I dream of the day my own set of hefty tomes will be stacked in a tower next to Jordan’s, Martin’s, and the others.
And unlike those pioneers, I’ll have complete examples to learn from. Sanderson will have finished the Wheel of Time by January. I’ll also be able to watch Sanderson write his own epic series the Stormlight Archives, with ten books planned. The first volume, The Way of Kings, has been out for a couple years and is highly recommended, not to mention one of prettiest hardcovers I’ve ever seen.
Sanderson’s already taken steps to try to avoid the pacing and plot snarls. His strategy is to roughly split the series into two closely linked pentalogys, and to have each book ‘focus’ on a single character by exploring that character’s backstory as well as the current events. He allows himself to show glimpses in the rest of the world through interludes, essentially self-contained short stories, but he restrains himself and sprinkles only a few throughout the novel.
I even have a concept for my own epic, taking place on a world with no sun, undergoing a technological revolution. The cast of characters has been quietly growing for years. I even have an inkling as to how the major story arc begins, develops, and ends. I look forward to the day when I’ll be able to let them onto the page.
But I’m going to wait. I’ve got plenty of learning left to do before I’m ready to try a long epic. In the mean time, I hope more authors jump into the breach. As much as I love the break-neck-paced urban fantasies, the long epic will always have a special place in my heart. All I know is whenever one comes out, I’ll buy the hardcover (it’s just not the same on Kindle), curl up on my bed, and enjoy every single one of the thousand pages.