So, I’m writing a trilogy.
Trilogies are a big thing in modern epic fantasy, and I totally get why — from a commercial standpoint, they’re a perfect vehicle for hooking and holding an audience long enough to milk maximum profit for a publisher. For me as a new author, a trilogy is ideal for building my “brand”; over the course of three books I’ll have enough time to show the range of my skill, show my publisher I’m reliable, and hopefully acquire a devoted readership that will follow me to my next book. But never mind all that commercial crap. Since the epic of Gilgamesh and surely before, humankind has always enjoyed big, slow-building stories with a clearly-defined arc. There’s just something intrinsically satisfying about a story arc that keeps you waiting awhile, pent-breathed and tortured by exquisite anticipation, before delivering a finish that makes you want to cry for joy and release — and sorrow that it has to end. This is why even in our fast-paced, short-attention-spanned, micro-blogged society, epics still have a place, and real power.
That said, “epic” does not necessarily equal “gargantuan.” I was telling folks at Wiscon about The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms this past weekend, and on two separate occasions I got looks of astonishment when I mentioned that it was about 120,000 words long. “Wow, no wonder it took you only a year to write!” was one person’s response. (At which I wondered, Only a year?) Apparently my epic fantasy is a baby by epic fantasy standards… but I suspect this may be reflective of a trend, or rather a reaction against a trend. The old “doorstopper” fantasy novel — so called because it’s big enough to rival the phone book, shore up the foundation of a house, maybe serve as a space elevator with a bit of carbon nanotube reinforcement in the binding — seems to be out of fashion, save for those few established fantasy writers who built their careers on such books (and their successors). My contract specifies that the books in my trilogy should be between 125,000 and 150,000 words, and other newbie fantasy writers I’ve talked to have gotten the same from their publishers. I don’t know whether this is a sign of the times (paper is expensive) or maybe newbie status coupled with practicality (doorstoppers aren’t very durable in mass market format — the spines break easily — but readers aren’t likely to buy expensive hardcovers from new authors), but it’s definitely a change. Fortunately, it’s a change that really works for me.
There are two kinds of serial fantasies, as far as I can tell — the ones which continuously follow the adventures of a given character(s), and the ones that follow a specific event or situation. I’ll call them Character-Focused and Situational, just for convenience’s sake. Some serials are a little of both, but still generally more one than the other; for example, I would say that the Lord of the Rings trilogy (and its prequel, The Hobbit) is Situational, because the binding thread in all four books is the One Ring. The ringbearers change in practically every book — Bilbo in the prequel and book 1, Frodo in books 1 and 2, Sam for a chunk of book 3 — but the situation remains the same: get the Ring to Mount Doom. I’ll contrast this with Lynn Flewelling’s Nightrunner books, which I would say are Character-Focused. All four (the fifth is forthcoming) books focus on the exploits of Seregil, Alec, and their eclectic cast of friends and enemies. Whether they’re dealing with a situation (in books 1 and 2, there’s a LotR-ish quest to destroy an evil magical object) or not, the characters we know and love are always there.
Like many Character-Focused fantasies, Flewelling’s books aren’t a trilogy — she emphatically says so in the author’s preface of one of the books — and so the series can, if she so chooses, continue indefinitely. (I hope she does; I like Seregil and Alec!) This doesn’t work as well with Situational fantasies, though; an author can’t keep the MacGuffin of Power from reaching The Place of Significance forever, or readers get annoyed.
The Inheritance Trilogy, which starts with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, is a Situational trilogy. In theory this is more dangerous for my career, because I’m changing characters in every book and thus may lose readers who got attached to the people in the previous book. But I can’t help it; I prefer Situational fantasies, both to write and to read. I want to know that all the characters I’m meeting are working together, even unconsciously, towards some overarching goal. I do like it when subplots are wrapped up along the way — cliffhangers infuriate me — but in this case it’s the world that fascinates me, from cosmology to politics, and no single character or set of characters is going to carry me through all that satisfactorily.
So it’s a risk. I feel this very keenly as I start book 3, and am making some narrative and setting choices that please me as a writer, but may not please all my readers. But all I can hope is that my writing is strong enough to imbue each new set of characters with enough specialness to win over new and established readers, and to make some of those readers care about the overarching plot too. I’ll guess we’ll find out eventually.