Nor the Summers as Golden: Writing Multivolume Works

Gene Wolfe on the depth and ending of novel series
fiction, criticism, Gene-Wolfe, SF
by: Gene Wolfe 2012-03-022013-05-16 finished certainty: log importance: 0


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

Nor the Summers as Golden: Writing Multivolume Works

by

[pg208]

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 - (four vol­umes and a coda), and (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, 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 .

No doubt one out of the half dozen mem­bers who read this will want to be told what a novel is as well, with or 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.)

[pg209]

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; , 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 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:

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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 , 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 , you had damned well

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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.

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 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?

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And how do his friends and foes earn theirs? The man who turns into a cock­roach in 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

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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.


  1. pg 21, Intro­duc­tion by Peter Wright↩︎