On epic fantasy sequences (again).

By , 15 December 2006 6:41 pm

CSSF Blog Tour

This is very much an addition to a blog I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the problems of writing epic sequences. There I was concerned with the problems of writing such things but there is of course the whole dimension of actually finding a market for them. It seems to me that there are particular problems with the three, four or (heaven forbid) the even longer epic.

Marketing is a major factor here. You have to get the reading public drawn in to a) buy the first volume and b) want the successor volumes. Yet here there are problems. Because the writer is setting out on a large-scale work, he or she needs to lay foundations in the first volume. But foundations, in the very nature of things, are not the most attractive subject. First volumes can sag (even Lord of the Rings has a very slow start) and this is bad news. How bad the problem is could be measured if we knew what the fall-off rate was from volume one to two and so on. I suspect it’s pretty high; my guess would be that each volume sells 75% what its predecessor did. So you need pretty high Vol 1 sales! I also suspect that it’s hard to revive a flagging epic. A great Vol 3 is hardly going to help slow sales of a rather dull Vols 1 and 2.

I also wonder whether publishers know what they are letting themselves in for. Now I have no intention of criticising publishers (I love Tyndale). But I can imagine that it is very easy to buy into the concept of a series without realising the implications. Trilogies etc are, like children and pets, a serious commitment. And curtailing them is a sad business. (See for example, the discussions about the news that Kathryn Mackel‘s Birthright Project may be cut short two-thirds through the planned trilogy — Just click the CSFF button above.)

I wish I had some idea of a solution for both readers, writers and publishers. One thought is that we write our epics as a series of standalone volumes so that if the concluding books are cancelled, we still have something worthwhile. The problem with it is that many themes just don’t work on this basis. The heroic quest certainly doesn’t.

One final thought on this difficult topic, here, as elsewhere, Tolkien stumbled on a winning formula. He wrote a popular standalone book (The Hobbit) and then 15 years later (if memory serves me right) submitted the completed trilogy of Lord of the Rings to Allen and Unwin. But even then, he had some massive support from folk like C. S. Lewis. And it still took years before it sold massively.

Maybe we need more books that aspire to be the Hobbit and less Lord of the Rings.

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