I’ve written seven novels. The first two were published; the other five haven’t been. Three of those five my agent (who I guess is now my former agent, more or less) declined even to try to market. He didn’t feel they were commercially viable, and he may have been right. It’s very possible that my stories aren’t gripping enough to provoke excitement among hard-to-impress publisher types.
Even so, every few years I get the itch to try it again. Right now I’m sketching some ideas for a fantasy novel. The idea of writing another less-than-publishable book, however, fails to stir me. If I’m going to put all that work into developing a story, I’d like to believe, or hope, that other people might enjoy reading it too.
To that end, I thought I’d do a little survey of what’s going on in the fantasy field. I have my own favorite authors, but they’re not necessarily representative. Terry Pratchett sells like gangbusters, but I have no interest in writing like Terry Pratchett. Tim Powers I happen to like a lot, but I don’t think he’s a hot seller.
Poking around on the Web, I made a list of about 20 authors of epic fantasy series, folks who seem to be selling decent quantities of books. Hard sales figures are not readily available, but given that there are 14 books in Robert Jordan’s series, it’s a reasonable bet that the publisher was happy with the sales of volumes 3, 4, 5, and so on.
I approve of writers’ habit of putting the first chapter of a book up on their website. It gives me a reasonable glimpse both of what the book may be like and — more important — what elements these writers feel will draw in fantasy readers.
One strategy, in books that aren’t the first volume in a series, seems to be to bring in as many evocative references to earlier volumes as you can. Presumably, this reminds the series reader of what has gone before while also giving the newcomer a quick sketch of the back-story, which he or she can hope will be filled in later. In the first short chapter of Naamah’s Blessing, by Jacqueline Carey, I found mentions of Marsilikos, Master Lo Feng, the Five Cycles, Ch’in, Terre d’Ange, Naamah, Blessed Elua’s Companions, Anael the Good Steward, Bhaktipur, Rani Amrita, Ravindra, the tulku Laysa, the reborn Enlightened Ones, something called a diadh-anam, the White Queen, Alba, the Maghuin, Dhonn (the Great Bear Herself), a Yeshuite fanatic, Vralia, Jehanne de la Courcel, Raphael de Mereliot (Lord Lion Mane), and Eisheth. All crammed into what looks to be about four pages. And while that content is being ladled out, there’s not a speck of action. The viewpoint character is standing at the stern of a ship, looking out at the wake in the moonlight. Her husband comes and stands beside her. They talk a bit; the chapter ends.
It would be easy, and it’s very tempting, to heap scorn on this performance. It’s certainly not how I prefer to write. I believe pretty firmly that a book should get the reader’s attention by deploying some action on page one, if at all possible. I also believe that new elements should be introduced one at a time, and only in a context where the reader will be able to figure out what they mean.
On the other hand, Jacqueline Carey is selling books, and I’m not. So I have to take seriously the possibility that she’s doing something right. Maybe fantasy readers like it when all those exotic-sounding names and places and terms are spinning around in their heads at high speed. Maybe the subconscious connotations of made-up words are more important than any sort of narrative logic.
Personally, I’m a big fan of narrative logic. I like a story to make sense. This may be part of my problem.
When I was a freshman in college, I heard a lecture by a visiting professor. I’m no longer even sure of his name, but I remember this anecdote. He said (paraphrasing only lightly), “I sometimes wonder about the role of the college professor. In this regard, I’m reminded of the Zen proverb, ‘There are many roads, but only one mountain,’ and of Rousseau’s famous dictum, ‘Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.’ A college professor, it seems to me, performs the same function as a Highway Patrol officer on Interstate 80 when you’re heading east over the Sierras in December. His job is to make sure you put on your chains before you start over the mountain.”
Maybe, in wanting the story to make sense, I’m being dragged down by chains.