Gene Wolfe on the depth and ending of novel series
From ‘Part II: The Wild Joy of Strumming’: #19, pg 208-213; Shadows of the New Sun: Wolfe on writing/writers on Wolfe (2007), ed. Peter Wright, ISBN 978-1-84631-057-7
‘Nor the Summers as Golden: Writing Multivolume Works’ opens as a self-deprecating discussion of the process of authoring ‘something that is more like life itself than the other forms are’, yet is soon replete with the experiential and intuitive understanding of a writer who excels at the form.1
How do you write stories too big for one book?
That is the question I am supposed to answer here, and I ought to confess at once that I may know no more about it than you do. Indeed, I may well know less. My only credential is that I have completed two such works - The Book of the New Sun (four volumes and a coda), and The Book of the Long Sun (four volumes). I, myself, would not read an article on novel-writing by someone who had written two.
Fundamentally, you create these large works by writing something that is more like life itself than the other forms are. Or so it seems to me. In short stories we typically separate a few hours - a single day at most - from the years of the characters. (In 1972, Gardner Dozois edited an anthology called A Day in the Life; that is it, exactly.) A carriage will flee, through ever-deepening snow, a French town occupied by the Prussians; in it ride a great nobleman and his lady, some rich merchants and their wives, a red-bearded beer-swilling radical - and the plump and patriotic little whore the townspeople call Boule de Suif. The driver cracks his whip; a full half dozen horses lunge against their harness; our carriage flounders and skids, and we’re off!
The story, as the reader realises at once, begins with the cracking of the whip and will end when the passengers reach Le Havre.
No doubt one out of the half dozen members who read this will want to be told what a novel is as well, with Huckleberry Finn or For Whom the Bell Tolls as examples. I apologise and beg to be excused. The vast majority of our members, including the other five, read nothing else, and most write nothing else. They do not need to be told what a novel is; they need to be told what the other things are; and that, after all, is what I’m supposed to do here.
One of the other things, to pedants if to nobody else, is the series; but a series is nothing more than a succession of novels that are all too often progressively weaker. You write a novel, and because it sold, another about the same person or persons, until at last your editor warns you Not To Do That Any More. (I cannot present myself as a model of virtue in this regard, much as I’d like to; I’ve done it, and I’ll probably do it again if I get the chance.)
A trilogy, tetralogy, hexology or whatever is very like a series, superficially - so much so that it is often mistaken for one by reviewers; but there are deep-seated differences. And a series, which is much easier to write, is actually much harder to write well.
A multivolume work sets out to tell a multitude of stories under the umbrella of a single overshadowing story. You will be tempted to quibble here, if only with yourself. Telling ‘the story of Main Character’s life’ doesn’t count. Everyone is born at the beginning and dies at the end, although it would be both possible and legitimate to write the story of how Main Character came to die; The Lord of the Rings, which is a genuine trilogy, comes very close as it tells how Frodo rid himself of the one Ring.
By now you have come to see - I hope - why a series is at once easier, and more difficult to write well. It is easier because the author need not worry throughout several books about the overshadowing story that should be lurking in the background of all the subsidiary stories. Contrariwise (as Tweedledee says somewhere in the two-book Alice series), a series is harder to write well because its individual books lack the unity and sense of purpose that an overshadowing story would confer.
From what I have said, it should be obvious that one of the first things the author of a multivolume work ought to do is decide upon the over-shadowing story and tell the reader what it is to be. Thus Homer sets out to tell - and does tell - the tale of the rage of Achilles, with a multitude of subsidiary stories about funeral games, the fighting before the walls of Troy, and so on and so forth. Have you forgotten the opening?
Here it is:
Achilles's wrath, to Greece the direful spring of woes unnumber'd heavenly goddess sing! That wrath which hurl'd to Pluto's gloomy reign The souls of mighty chiefs untimely slain; Whose limbs unburied on the naked shore, Devouring dogs and hungry vultures tore; Since great Achilles and Atrides strove, Such was the sovereign doom, and such the will of Jove!
Notice how much Homer has packed into those few opening lines. What is the overshadowing story? Achilles’ wrath, mentioned in the first line. Who is Main Character? Achilles, of course, who is mentioned twice in this brief beginning. Can we expect divine meddling in the story? Yes, indeed! ‘Heavenly goddess sing’, and ‘the will of Jove’. Those unburied bodies promise war, and ‘the naked shore’ hints of the sea. If, after reading all that, you do not understand that Homer was of our trade, you do not understand our trade. Here are a few lines from someone who understood it perfectly:
When ‘Omer smote ‘is bloomin’ lyre He'd 'eard men sing by land and sea; An' what he thought 'e might require, 'E went an' took—the same as me!
Yours is a higher and holier calling, perhaps; all honour to you. But I am of Homer’s trade, and Kipling’s, admittedly on a rather more modest plan; and the moment Homer opens his Iliad, I recognise a member of our lodge. If you have not read him, you ought to, remembering always that he knew exactly what he was doing. (Yes, almost three thousand years ago.) He knew it, because he had recited those verses scores of times to live audiences. If he bored or otherwise displeased his hearers, there would be no soup and no bread for the blind minstrel who wandered from great house to great house. The Iliad is, of course, a multivolume work; if you don’t believe me, examine its structure. If you still don’t, compare its length to those of other poems, including Greek poems.
Now we have reached the hard part, for all the familiar chores of the novelist are the same. You must chose a time and a setting, create engaging characters, provide dialogue that will be succinct and interesting, and the rest of it. You know the drill. You must conclude each of your books in a way that will provide a sense of finality, obviously without prematurely ending the overshadowing story, which will furnish an ending for the last. Thus in The Book of the Long Sun, the first volume ends with Silk’s recognising his need to confront his own nature, the second with the death of Doctor Crane and Silk recognised by officers of the Civil Guard as the legitimate head of the city government, the third with Silk installed and functioning as head of the government, and the fourth with his salvaging the people originally committed to his care from the ruin of their city and their world - this last being the overshadowing story told in the four books. But all that is easy enough. Your own psychology presents the chief difficulty, and frequently requires a good deal of doublethink. You must keep in mind that the overshadowing story is to be told in half a million words or so - while forgetting that years of steady effort will be required to write them. There is a temptation, often severe, to wind the various plots up too quickly. There is another, often insidious, to pad. Half a million is a very large number indeed.
But not as large as you might think. It is necessary to cultivate the notion that half a million words will scarcely suffice, because that is the truth. What you are trying to do is depict not a few hours or a day (that is the short story), not a single significant series of events (that is the novel), but the most significant portion of Main Character’s life. In this sense, the novel is like a screenplay, the multivolume work like a documentary. You are free to do or show whatever you wish - there is plenty of room for all of it. But like the man with the monkey’s paw, you had damned well
better wish wisely, and not once or thrice but literally scores of times. Because if you lose sight of the overshadowing story, or any of the other plots, you are doomed to sweeping revisions or failure. Let us say you are thinking of letting Main Character go fishing. His fishing trip must, at the very least, exhibit some aspect of his (or her) character not seen previously. It should also begin a new plot line or end one, and it should in some fashion move the plot of the overshadowing story - because he meets another angler who later proves to be an important character; because he loses track of the time and returns late, or whatever. Ideally, your reader should feel, ‘Ah, that little fishing incident was much more significant than I thought at the time. And that bit about the horse show gave him the clue to the real nature of the aliens. Wow! I was tempted to skip them both, but I’m sure glad I didn’t.’ Obviously, the more the fishing incident and the horse show incident have to contribute, the longer they should be.
That is really it, but there is all that white space down there so let us double back and fool around with some of the stuff you novelists already know.
Main Character must be large enough for the role. He (or She) must be able to hold your interest through three or four, or even five, books; if he does not, he cannot hold the interest of your readers. Be very, very careful here; it is a point at which many fail. He must have come from somewhere, and brought with him a certain education or lack of education, and certain feelings, values, customs, and prejudices, which are not likely to be precisely the same as ours. That is true in the short story as well, and in the novel too. But as the length of the work increases, it becomes increasingly important because there is so much more room in which to make mistakes.
Popeye the Sailor boasts, ‘I’m Popeye the Sailorman!’ Do you know what a sailorman is, and how a sailorman differs from an ordinary seaman? If you were going to write the sort of stories Joseph Conrad wrote, it would be knowledge of value, and if you intend to write a trilogy about sailors and their ships, about islands and ports and seas, and
'Before you come on board, sir, Your name I'd like to know.' With a smile upon her countenance, She answered, 'Jack Monroe,'
it will be exceedingly dangerous for you not to know it . In science fiction and fantasy, we frequently make up these things for ourselves; but it makes no difference - you must know it. There are no empty cultures and no empty subcultures.
Speaking of sailors and such, how does Main Character earn his bread?
And how do his friends and foes earn theirs? The man who turns into a cockroach in Kafka’s story is a salesman, but we need not see him selling because the story is so short. In a longer work we must, if the work is not to fall prey to a creeping sense of unreality. In a multivolume work, we will have to see more of the second string earning theirs, as well. Thus in The Book of the Long Sun you not only see Silk at the pulpit, but see Maytera Marble in the classroom and Spider the spycatcher snaring a spy.
Neglecting this aspect of our characters means throwing away one of the strongest supports our stories can have. Some people are interesting in bed, although most are not; but virtually everyone is interesting at work, even when the work itself is not. We meet people at work, too, and they meet us.
Think about it. How many of the people you know socially are or were co-workers, suppliers, or customers?
We bring skills and habits of thought and speech home from work as well, and sometimes use them to solve the problems we face in our private life. Sherlock Holmes could tell a weaver by his tooth; we should be able to exhibit one - or an uanhk driver - showing how he talks and acts. Note here that making Main Character independently wealthy may give him more control over his time, but really changes things very little. Independently wealthy people have their own work, and if they leave it to managers and investment councilors who operate without oversight, they will not be independently wealthy very long. Imagine yourself arranging a wedding and reception for six hundred guests - many from each of the three known intelligent races - without gravity. Catering? Security for three or four hundred gifts? Most will be valuable and some will be very valuable indeed. Flower girls? Rest rooms? What about parking? (You may kick the next person who talks about ‘the idle rich’ hard and frequently.)
Up there I mentioned setting. One will often suffice for a short story, but rarely for a novel. Three novels with a single setting? Well, that may be possible, but it had better be a real world-beater. You will most likely require several big, complex, and well-thought-out settings, with a good deal of contrast between them. I once told a beginner to put up a little sign facing his desk: I AM GOING TO TELL YOU SOMETHING COOL. A work spread over several books deserves a bigger sign. If your settings do not interest you, they will not interest your reader, and in a long work that is fatal.
How much of this must you know when you begin? None of it, actually; you can work it out as you go along, revising as needed. But it is important - vital, even - that you think you know it. You do not have to make notes or outlines in a neat hand in a little spiral notebook before you begin Chapter One; but they may be of value. What is absolutely
essential is that you continue to research and make notes and outlines (even if they are only mental) as the story proceeds. You cannot possibly know all that you need to know at the beginning; and if you try to complete the entire work knowing no more than that, you cannot succeed. I said the end of the overshadowing story would provide an end for the final volume. Perhaps I should add, ‘if you are lucky’. It must wrap up its own volume, obviously. It must also wrap up the entire work in a satisfactory way. In general, it should not undercut the endings of any of the earlier books, rendering them, in retrospect, trivial. Rather it must validate them, assuring the reader that they were indeed important points in the overshadowing story - that you did not cheat. Thus in The Book of the New Sun, Severian leaves his native city at the end of the first book, reaches the distant city in which he is to be employed at the end of the second, and reaches the war toward which he has been inexorably drawn at the end of the third. At the end of the fourth book (when he returns to his city) I attempted to show that all that had been significant, moulding his character and contributing to his rise to the Phoenix Throne.
There is one final point, the point that separates a true multivolume work from a short story, a novel, or a series. The ending of the final volume should leave the reader with the feeling that he has gone through the defining circumstances of Main Character’s life. The leading character in a series can wander off into another book and a new adventure better even than this one. Main Character cannot, at the end of your multivolume work. (Or at least, it should seem so.) His life may continue, and in most cases it will. He may or may not live happily ever after. But the problems he will face in the future will not be as important to him or to us, nor the summers as golden.
pg 21, Introduction by Peter Wright↩︎