Recently I began a Very Big Book, a close-to-700-page epic that's the first installment in a trilogy. Now, I enjoy value as much as everyone else. Give me a pair of extra batteries in my AA pack, a few free ounces in my box of Raisin Bran, and lots of engagingly written pages in my books. However, the weed-like multiplication of series has gotten me wondering lately if authors ought to start reaching for pruning shears instead of the Miracle-Gro.
For writers, compositional expanse can act much like an extra length of rope: It makes it that much easier for them to hang themselves. Extraneous characters, needless description and narrative drift spring up readily when given greater ground in which to grow. Consider Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time, a series so interminable that it has somehow spawned three additional volumes even after its creator's death. Or how The Passage, an overall excellent title, ended with such an abrupt cliffhanger that it sent wrathful readers hurtling to Amazon.com to leave one-star ratings. Such missteps become even more apparent when considering my current read, a book with an elegant framing device that neatly sections its action off into tidy episodes. It's a Very Big Book behaving like a small one.
By now your eyebrows may be hovering an inch-or-so higher than usual. "But isn't high fantasy supposed to be grand?" you ask. Well, sometimes. But it takes a steady hand and a keen mind to make it so. Aimless series feel exactly that. Compare Neil Gaiman's monstrously bloated American Gods to his earlier Stardust, a short novel that can't run much more than sixty-thousand words. While the former feels about as fun as mining for coal with a garden trowel, the latter is slim and bright as a stiletto and goes straight into your heart just as easily. Sometimes thinner really is better.
(Picture: CC 2006 By ti_lapin_tom)