All the Worlds and Time: The Long Arc

When I was a kid, stories were short. We read short stories in class. Novels were short. Series were rare, and those tended to deposit the main characters back to ground zero, exactly as television did.

Since there was no internet, and not all the kids in my class were readers, I thought I was the only one who wanted to know “what happened after” when a story closed. I wrote some stories like that—inventing fan fiction, as many of us did—but mostly I returned to my own evolving series, because what happened after could be, in today’s term, canon. When I was a kid, I thought of it as real. As in, it really happened. Unlike a fan fiction, which in my kid mind couldn’t be real because the author didn’t know about it. Theories on transformative literature and ownership of the reading experience would come upwards of half a century later.

One of my intense delights in discovering Lord of the Rings at age fourteen was the fact that here were three books telling one story. Finally! All the side tales and the what happened afters, all in one story arc!

Clearly a lot of my age mates, and those coming up behind us, felt the same, producing the rich world of SF and F books and visual media now, wherein makers are no longer afraid of long stories.

The downside of writing long series is that the creator is not static.

Especially when writers are young, there’s this sense of realtime being suspended as one sinks into the story time. But that’s not actually true. Deadlines loom—often forcing one to work faster, so that the end might get crammed, but the author is unaware of it from their perspective of utter immersion. The emotional blowback can be deceptive, that is, not actually manage to get through the fingers to the story, but stay with the exhausted, and maybe exhilarated author.

I’ve noticed in this time of long series on television that this can happen to writing teams as well. Which leads to the other part of realtime’s inexorable cost: writers get older, though each morning when butt goes into chair, one feels largely the same. Incremental changes do happen. This year, maybe the eyes aren’t so good. Five years later, the hands hurt. Six years, the back aches, each added discomfort forcing one to stop earlier. There seem to be far more outside demands diminishing the writing time than there were ten, twenty, forty years ago, meanwhile the story has begun to ramify until it seems to have become a world tree that one cannot possibly control.

So I’ve got a lot of sympathy with fellow authors whose series seem to be suspended in storytime as realtime takes its toll in various forms.

Looking at that second drawback another way, especially noticeable when one moves up and down a series timeline, and that is, you are not the writer you were when you wrote the earlier portions of a long story. And that can lead to the fundamentals shifting at the tectonic level: where you thought the long story was going . . . somehow isn’t. Worst case scenario, everything goes adrift. Best case scenario, discovering a trapdoor that leads to a whole new level that binds everything together. If you’ve had the time to let it marinate.

From the general to the specific.

Today, DAW Books launches the first in a long arc series, written by me. The initial story arc is divided into three books, called The Rise of the Alliance. The first book is A Sword Named Truth. After this arc comes another arc, when the main characters introduced in this series hit adulthood, and the world shifts into crisis. Then there is another arc about what happens after.

These all have been written—some of them redrafted several times. The toughest to redraft were actually these early ones, which contain story threads written forty, even fifty years ago. To work it together, I—a visual writer—had to learn a lot about narrative strategies. I read a metric butt ton of literary theory, venturing way out into Theory of Mind and Semiotics, which was fun, but taught me little, because visual writer.

So I ended up rereading pretty much all of the nineteenth century classics that developed the novel, focusing on the various levels of omniscient narrator. And that gave me my handle on pulling it all together.

Anyway, reading and talking about long arcs, romans fleuves, series, whatever you want to call them has become my drug of choice—both as reader and as writer.

If you’d like to take a look at this epic fantasy, here’s a handy Amazon link. Some indies will carry it as well. It also has a terrific audio recording.

Also, yesterday Paul Semel hosted me at his blog to talk a little more specifically about the book and the series.

And another interview, this one more about me than about the book.







All the Worlds and Time: The Long Arc — 21 Comments

  1. I grew up loving long series, too. The biggest let-down for me as a teenager was the end of a series. I read Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar series back-to-back-to-back over the course of high school and loved every bit of it.

    As an aspiring writer, I find story arcs incredibly frustrating. XD I started out with a single idea that I realized suddenly couldn’t be completed satisfactorily in a single novel. So I split it into three. Now, I’m realizing that to really get to what I want to be saying, I might need to write multiple novellas inside of each “chapter” of the trilogy. Do you have any advice for those of us who find ourselves faced with writing the same story arc for the rest of our lives?

    Thank you so much for writing and sharing. <3

  2. That’s exactly what I mean by ramifying outward beyond control. As for advice, so much depends on your particular writing process. One suggestion is to scale back, and tell the story of your favorite character. When you finish that one, look at the rest and see which one follows most naturally as sequel. Or, which one runs in parallel.

    Another suggestion is to sit down with a single piece of paper, and map it all out on one sheet, so you can see everything from the god’s-eye view. Then, which story is luring you the strongest to write first?

    Some writers insist on progressing in a linear fashion, according to the flow of time–they can’t jump back and forth. Others jump back and forth. There is no wrong method–but evaluating what storylines are important, and attending to them first might be a beginning strategy. Those tempting side tales can be outtakes!

    • Thank you so much! Part of my problem is a plethora of characters who are all Terribly Important to the story (at least in their own minds). Right now, my first “book” is looking like three novellas centered on different facets of the main story and a final novel that ties them together. Hopefully, I can find a way to make that work.

      Thanks for everything you do!

  3. Besides the variety of Arthurian cycles, as a child there were two other long arc series I was able to read. The first was the Black Stallion books, the second was Louisa May Alcott’s March Family Chronicles. Unlike tv, these books did not reset at the beginning of each one. Events of the previous books carried their impact over into the next. Imprint!

    A little older there were completed arc series due to their age — much older — and mine — much younger — that also carried over effect and impact such as The Forsyte Saga and Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time. Not to mention Dumas’s endless Musketeers, that chronicle France between the beginning of the Bourbons through Napoleon.

  4. Great to see you back with DAW! Looking forward to reading this.

    I too got into the long story arc with “The Glass Dragon.” 13 books and I still have stories to tell in that world as each character comes into his own. Unfortunately I don’t still have the audience.

    So I have branched out into other worlds with other characters who have stories demanding to be told.

  5. For the person looking for advice, I thought of how Ryk Spoor is doing it with his epic fantasy: Separate but related trilogies. The first is complete, The Phoenix trilogy. The second, with titles that sound vaguely biblical (demons, revelation..) is either in progress or finished recently. Each tells a whole story, and ties in to the larger arc. Maybe this could help? Or how Janny Wurts is structuring her 12 volume (or so) fat fantasy epic, covering 500 years or so of events and change.

  6. You wrote, you are not the writer you were when you wrote the earlier portions of a long story. And that can lead to the fundamentals shifting at the tectonic level: where you thought the long story was going . . . somehow isn’t. Worst case scenario, everything goes adrift. Best case scenario, discovering a trapdoor that leads to a whole new level that binds everything together.

    I’m guessing you’ve had experience of both of these? The second one sounds transcendent; the first one harder to deal with. If you *have* had to deal with that first one, how did you handle it?

    • In my own situation, wait, and see if things coalesce around a different nexus so to speak. If they don’t, abandon that particular project. If they do, well, carry on! 🙂

  7. Series are wonderful to read. The worlds can be larger, better expanded. The characters can grow and evolve and change. The story gathers power.

    It’s almost like making friends as we get to know the characters and follow them through their lives.

    Thank you for writing those kinds of books.

  8. The loooong tale. My obsessive watching of Chinese Dramas shows me how difficult an art this is. You have mastered it. I, too. recall the revelation and wonder of Lord of the Rings–I thought it too short by the way. But I relish great world building and vivid characterization, so thank you for all the pleasure you have given me.

  9. Thanks, everyone, for new books to read, and ideas about series writing. I, too, love getting immersed with characters as they evolve. And I can certainly relate to the issue of changing our styles and physical comfort zones as we “grow” with the series we’re writing. I find this issue applies to older novel manuscripts that have been sitting “on the shelf” until I revisit years later to revise. Sometimes, from a more detached perspective, I understand better what I was circling around earlier. And the revisions can then deepen the story and characters. If this applies to series, then I guess we just accept that the later novels in the series will also shift, perhaps in style and complexity….

  10. My first reaction to this was – What??? I think I’m only four years younger than you are, and my perspective is that series were ubiquitous when I was growing up. But possibly you and I have very different meanings for “series.” I wouldn’t consider ‘Lord of the Rings’ a series at all, just a good book too long to fit into one volume. A proper series should have a reasonable degree of closure at the end of each volume, leaving the reader happily anticipating the next. (I confess to being furious the first time I hit the cliff after 600 pages of Inda. If I’d realized it was a multivolume book rather than a series, I’d have waited until the whole story was available! Obviously I loved it in the end, but that was years later.)

    But before thinking about definitions, I kept listing more series from my youth.

    The few sci fi/fantasy authors on the shelves really didn’t do much in terms of series: some sequels in the Andre Norton collection, but the longest series I remember would be the Oz books. Most of the Mushroom Planet books were out, and Narnia. For very young readers there were several each about Space Cat, the Space Ship Under the Apple Tree, and My Father’s Dragon. Sadly, my Bookmobile only had the first of the trilogy starting with The Magic Ball from Mars, which was a favorite from those shelves. I suppose you could count the Mary Poppins and Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books as fantasy. Also besides the “realistic” animal series (Black Stallion, Misty of Chincoteague) there were the anthropomorphic variety such as the Cat Club books, Paddington Bear, and I don’t know how many volumes starring Freddy the Pig.

    *Stratemeyer series type — Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, etc. — were categorized with comic books and banned from both school and public libraries, so naturally we read them voraciously. But they certainly fit the zero plot arc/no-character-development genre.

    * Besides Alcott, we had L.M. Mongomery’s Anne maturing from orphan arriving at Green Gables through her youngest daughter coming of age during WWI. I also read over a dozen of the Pollyanna Glad Books, which went beyond Orange Blossoms to an entire family. I think the Five Little Peppers continued well after the ones we had. Plus I remember borrowing all five volumes of the Leatherstocking Tales (James Fenimore Cooper. Most people seem to have heard only of Last of the Mohicans).

    *Series inspired by authors’ lives would include Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, Sidney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family, Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy series. Lovelace is especially remarkable in that reading level changed dramatically with the age of the protagonists.

    *School series couldn’t help promoting their protagonists, and sometimes went well beyond school. My mother introduced me to the Beverly Gray College Mystery Series, which went 21 volumes beyond the four concentrating on college years. It took 8 volumes to get from Betty Wales, Freshman to Betty Wales Decides. British school series started with younger heroines, and the ones I ended up collecting went well beyond the original protagonists’ school years: Dorita Fairlie Bruce (Dimsie series), Elsie Oxenham (Abbey Girls), Elinor Brent-Dyer (Up to 62 volumes of the Chalet School depending on how you count; amazing how much fan fiction is still produced today). I also read all the scouting series I could get my hands on.

    *Even the bottom shelves of our age-stratified Bookmobile included series: Carolyn Haywood had one beginning with B is for Betsy and another featuring Eddie; Beverly Cleary’s Henry Huggins and Beezus & Ramona series; Catherine Woolley’s Ginnie & Geneva. You then worked your way up the shelves through thicker books such as the Swallows & Amazons series (still relaxing) and Noel Streatfeild’s Shoes books, up to series full of teen angst. I didn’t realize until later how thoroughly the Beany Malone series was also steeped in moralizing. Once we moved closer to a proper library, I don’t remember encountering many new series in the children’s/young adult section. I think by that point I was on a historical fiction kick, which included some prolific authors but not many series. Maybe Sally Watson, if you count heroines connected through an elaborate family tree.

    Doubtless there are more, but that’s quite enough for now!

    • Very true that Lord of the Rings wasn’t a series. But it seemed to be one when I was fourteen, as there were no three volume books that I knew about, anyway. (Obviously I hadn’t run into Anthony Powell yet, for example. Or Proust.)

      thanks for the trip down memory lane! Indeed, there were series going on, but a lot of those I read much later. Or had read and forgotten. Good to be reminded!