Revisiting the Wheel of Time: Crossroads of Twilight

[This is part of a series analyzing Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time novels. Previous installments can be found under the tag. Comments on old posts are welcome, but please, no spoilers for books after this one.]

This is the book that killed me.

Prior to the publication of Crossroads of Twilight, I was willing (if not happy) to wait two or three years for each Wheel of Time book, slowly plodding my way toward the conclusion. After this one, I was done. I would not pick the series up again until the end was in sight — as indeed has been the case. All the way through this re-read, I’ve been bagging on CoT, dreading its arrival . . . but wondering, subconsciously, if maybe I had mis-remembered; maybe it was just the disappointment of having waited more than two years, or the disconnect caused by not re-reading previous books, and it wasn’t really as bad as I thought.

Reader, I did not mis-remember.

This book is, from beginning to end, the Catastrophic Failure Mode of Epic Fantasy Pacing. It is everything I’ve been critiquing since The Fires of Heaven, writ extra large, with underlining. Hell — to the best of my knowledge, it is the one book about which Jordan ever publicly admitted, “you know, maybe that wasn’t a good idea.” Given the flaws I’ve been pointing out along the way, that admission should tell you something.

Going into it, I wondered how I should approach analyzing this book. What could I say that I hadn’t already said before? I suppose this post could consist of me tearing out my hair and going “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAUGH,” but that’s not too helpful. Instead I decided to approach this systematically: reading the book, I noted down the number of pages in each chapter, the point of view character(s), and, in no more than one sentence, what important events take place. What changes in the chapter? What new thing do the characters (or the readers) learn? What fresh problem starts, or old problem concludes? Having done that, I now have a wealth of evidence to back me up when I tell you:

NOTHING BLOODY HAPPENS IN THIS BOOK.


I subdivide the summary in the three instances where multiple characters have pov within a chapter. Page counts in those instances are approximate.

  • Prologue (80 p) — Rodel Ituralde proposes a truce and alliance with various Domani and Taraboners against the Seanchan (12 p); Eamon Valda argues with Asunawa (4 p); Gabrelle Sedai learns that Logain is going to “recruit” for the Black Tower (7 p); Yukiri Sedai discusses the “odd” Tower Sitters with Seaine (15 p); Gawyn gets a messenger from Elaida (7 p); Davram Bashere finds out that somebody was snooping in his tent (10); Samitsu Sedai meets Loial and Karldin, Heals Dobraine after an assassination attempt, and hears of Logain’s arrival in Cairhien (24 p).
    Chapters

  1. (19 p, Mat pov) — He thinks back to their escape from Ebou Dar.
  2. (15 p, Mat pov) — Seanchan soldiers come to demand horses from Valan Luca, go away empty-handed.
  3. (24 p, Mat pov) — He talks to Tuon, learns about Tylin’s death, and notices Rand’s stunt from the end of Winter’s Heart.
  4. (15 p, Furyk Karede pov) — He talks to a Seeker about Tuon’s disappearance, and leaves to search for her.
  5. (22 p, Perrin pov) — He dreams about something evil, then receives reports from Balwer and Selande about Masema and the Aes Sedai visiting him.
  6. (14 p, Perrin pov) — He tracks the Darkhounds, and gets the Suroth letter to Masema from Berelain.
  7. (15 p, Perrin pov) — Masuri lectures everyone about Darkhounds, and Masema argues with Perrin.
  8. (19 p, Perrin pov) — He scouts the Shaido camp and notices Rand’s stunt.
  9. (29 p, Faile pov) — She notices Rand’s stunt and starts an alliance with Rolan, and her plans for escape are discovered.
  10. (17 p, Elayne pov) — She does PR for her campaign and notices Rand’s stunt.
  11. (18 p, Elayne pov) — She yells at Doilan Mellar.
  12. (17 p, Elayne pov) — She bargains with Zaida over Windfinders and Aes Sedai.
  13. (17 p, Elayne pov) — She accepts the support of four juvenile High Seats.
  14. (23 p, Elayne pov) — She receives reports from the First Maid and First Clerk about spies, and hears that Merilille ran away with (probably) Talaan.
  15. (31 p, multiple pov) — Elenia allies with Naean to escape Arymilla (16 p); Mellar meets with Lady Shiaine (15 p).
  16. (18 p, Egwene pov) — She tells Beonin to negotiate for Elaida’s surrender.
  17. (26 p, Egwene pov) — Her council speculates about Delana, and Egwene checks in on a new project to create cuendillar.
  18. (19 p, Egwene pov) — She reads and discusses reports with Siuan.
  19. (25 p, Egwene pov) — The Hall votes to send an embassy to the Black Tower, for linking.
  20. (20 p, Egwene pov) — She has prophetic dreams and finds out Anaiya has been murdered with saidin.
  21. (21 p, Alviarin pov) — She returns to the White Tower and finds out that she has been ousted as Keeper, then sees (but does not recognize) Mesaana’s face, and gets sent by Shaidar Haran to hunt the Black Ajah hunters.
  22. (7 p, Pevara pov) — Tarna Feir suggests the Red Ajah take Asha’man Warders, and sees the message Pevara received from Toveine in Cairhien.
  23. (17 p, Cadsuane pov) — She watches the Warders exercise and talks to Rand.
  24. (17 p, multiple pov) — Rand hears Loial’s report about the Waygates (10 p); Cadsuane sends Samitsu back to Cairhien (2 p); Rand sends Bashere, Logain, and Loial to negotiate a truce with the Seanchan (3 p); Elza tells her Warder he may have to kill some people (1 p).
  25. (11 p, Perrin pov) — He goes to So Habor and sees a Seanchan aerial scout.
  26. (14 p, Perrin pov) — He discovers strange evils and ghosts in So Habor.
  27. (17 p, Perrin pov) — He tortures a Shaido warrior, abandons his axes, and thinks about allying with the Seanchan.
  28. (26 p, Mat pov) — He courts Tuon.
  29. (22 p, Mat pov) — Renna stabs Egeanin, escapes, and is killed.
  30. (28 p, Egwene pov) — She turns the Tar Valon harbor chain into cuendillar and gets captured.
  • Epilogue (2 p, Rand pov) — He learns the Seanchan want him to meet the Daughter of Nine Moons.

By my count, precisely two — TWO — things happen during the course of this book that alter the direction of the narrative. They both happen in the last four pages, and one of them basically happens offstage: Egwene gets captured, and Rand arranges a truce with the Seanchan.

Nothing. Else.

At the beginning of the book, Mat was running away from Ebou Dar and worrying about marrying Tuon. At the end of the book, Mat is running away from Ebou Dar and worrying about marrying Tuon. Perrin was trying to rescue Faile; he’s still trying to rescue Faile. Elayne was trying to secure the throne; she’s still trying to secure the throne. The character with the highest plot-to-pages ratio is freaking Alviarin, man.

This is partially, but not entirely, due to the choice that even Jordan admitted was a bad one: starting (almost) every character’s section on the same day, i.e. the one when Rand and Nynaeve cleansed saidin. If you look at that list up above, and where I mention the stunt, you’ll find that the first fifteen chapters all take place on the same goddamned day. We are literally on page three hundred ninety-one before it moves forward, with Egwene’s pov. I am running out of italics with which to express my horror, y’all. I could forgive it if that was an action-packed day for everybody . . . but oh my god, it is so far from that, it isn’t even funny.

Back when I posted about The Path of Daggers, I commented that it’s difficult, with a narrative as multi-stranded as this one, to make clear declarations about how I would have reorganized it. In this case, however, it’s easy. Three examples:

  • Dump Mat’s first three chapters, excepting only the conversation with Tuon, which you graft into his later two chapters. Then find something else for him to do during this book. (I could name specifics here if I’d read Knife of Dreams, but I haven’t.)
  • Condense the time-wasting crap I complained about from Elayne’s chapters in Winter’s Heart (the pointless stalling before the assassination attempt, the mechanics of setting up her meeting with the Borderlanders), and use the pages thus freed up to pack in the few bits of meat from this book (e.g. the High Seats). Then either give her a sabbatical from this book — she’s basically the only major pov character who hasn’t had one — or, as per Mat, find her something to do.
  • Perrin is an interesting case. At the start of this book, twenty-two days have passed since Faile was kidnapped. In that time, he went leaping ahead with gateways, then realized he’d lost the trail of the Shaido and had to backtrack; we learn this through brief exposition. I would totally support eliding that bit if it were surrounded by Exciting! Action! on both sides — Faile’s been kidnapped! (elision) Rescue Faile! — but instead it’s Faile was kidnapped! Blah blah, (elision), blah, blah. [Rescue Faile! . . . one of these days.] I’d chuck, or at least massively condense, the pointless time-wasting with him and Berelain in Winter’s Heart, and replace it with the “leaping ahead with gateways” part of the elision, then end his part of that book with him figuring out his mistake. (Yay despair!) Then have this book pick up directly with him finding the Shaido, and have him do something about it before the end of the book. (Oh look, I found more italics.)
  • Have the story begin on the day the taint was cleansed, sure. That’s what you use your prologue for: a bunch of rapid-fire scenes, no more than five pages each, showing where everybody was and what they were doing when the world changed. Then move on with your story.

In other words, take the tiny fragments of actual material and shove them into either Winter’s Heart or Knife of Dreams, and dump the rest of it as dead weight. Because that’s what it is. Several different kinds of dead weight, in fact. The stuff in So Habor is creepy, sure — but what does it add to the narrative? I’m guessing it’s a sign of the Dark One’s touch (along with, presumably, the failing of the wards on the Tower/Keepings on the rebel army’s supplies, Mat seeing things that aren’t there, people wondering if saidar is weakening, etc; I’m speculating there, but it seems likely that’s the cause). And you know, back in the early books, So Habor would have made a great scene. But at this point in the story, give us a couple of paragraphs where somebody tells Perrin what happened when they went to buy grain; don’t waste two entire chapters on it. In a related vein, half of the dead weight in this book and the last one is Jordan showing his math on Elayne getting the throne. Either he had what he thought was a compelling reason why he couldn’t let that happen before Book 11 (in which case he should have come up with actual challenges for her along the way), or he didn’t realize that at this late stage in the game, we’re willing to spot him the routine stuff.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have lost sight of the epic, except in the pathological sense of “wordy.” We briefly found it again, at the end of Winter’s Heart; it’s why that book gave me hope. But Crossroads of Twilight grinds it under once more. Almost nobody knows what Rand did, so all they can do is goggle and make wrong guesses; even the few who do know (like Cadsuane) doubt whether it’s true. Rand himself seems to go on vacation afterward — I think he gets less page-time, and certainly does less of interest, in this book than he did in The Dragon Reborn. For God’s sake, he doesn’t even show up until page 540.

The one other thing that seems vaguely epic — Egwene turning the harbor chain into cuendillar — falls flat because I have no goddamned clue why she did it. Seriously, can anybody explain this to me? If there’s a simple answer, I don’t even care that it constitutes a spoiler, because right now I’m staring at that and going “huh?” I cannot for the life of me figure out what advantage that’s supposed to gain for her side. Will it be too heavy to lift, thus forcing Tar Valon into an actual siege? (I thought cuendillar was lightweight.) Will its value cause people to mob the harbor, trying to run off with links of the chain? (As if they could.) Will this show of wonder cause the people in Tar Valon to freak out and surrender? (It seems unlikely.) I really, really don’t get it. So if you can explain it to me without giving away Egwene’s whole part in Knife of Dreams or later, please do.

It’s the same problem he’s had before, done all over again, this time in bold letters. Jordan hides stuff from the reader — including stuff the pov character knows — without good reason. What’s the point of Egwene’s plan? What message does Gawyn get from Elaida? Is Rand’s sooper-sekrit plan in Tear to make peace with the Seanchan, or something else? Why not tell us that Tuon asked for Mat to take her (god help me) shopping? Toveine’s message to Pevara and Loial’s warning about the Aes Sedai that came with him from Cairhien are both almost certainly about the Asha’man bonding Aes Sedai; we the reader already know this, so why not tell us? Augh! <beats head into desk, hoping for a concussion and subsequent memory loss regarding this book>

. . . it just goes nowhere. Even on a paragraph level, it’s too much description, not enough action. There are almost no runs of dialogue; each paragraph of speech is separated by one or two of description, or consists of a line of dialogue, several sentences of description, and then another line of dialogue to close the paragraph out. There’s no speed, no momentum. People say “nothing happened” in previous books, but it isn’t true; it’s just that the story kept going on tangents instead of proceeding toward a conclusion. Here it isn’t even tangenting. The entire book is treading water.

You want to know something funny? In the copy I read, the story is 680 pages long. Except that, like most books, it doesn’t actually start on page 1. In this case, it starts on page 15.

Which would make Crossroads of Twilight 666 pages long.

It really is the devil.

<sigh of relief> Okay. I made it over the hurdle. Everything after this, including New Spring, is stuff I haven’t read before. I was thinking of speeding up my pace — one month per book, rather than two — since once the plot gets moving again I’ll probably be eager to see it through to the end, but then I found out that apparently the final book has been pushed back to March, instead of November. I’ll probably still do New Spring next month, using it to make up for the total lack of interest in Crossroads of Twilight, but if I otherwise keep on at my current pace (and Tor doesn’t have any more delays), I’ll arrive at A Memory of Light right when it’s published. That seems fitting.

Ten books down. Four (and a half) to go.

I can make it.

0 Responses to “Revisiting the Wheel of Time: Crossroads of Twilight”

  1. tenillypo

    I think turning the chain to cuendillar basically freezes in in place because the cuendillar can’t bend, but it’s been a while, so I may be wrong…

    When I did my big reread last year, I was dreading Path of Dagger the whole time. But I think that’s because my mind must have repressed the pain of Crossroads of Twilight in a desperate act of self-defense. Spending nearly 400 pages just getting caught up to where we were in the timeline at the end of the last book is probably the most egregious editing failure I think I’ve ever seen. What were they possibly thinking? Oy.

    The good news is that you’re in the homestretch and it does get better from here. πŸ™‚

    • Marie Brennan

      All I can figure is they were thinking it would be better to put CoT on the shelves and make (quite a lot of) money off it, than to delay another two years and put out a better book.

      It’s cynical, but financially, it makes sense.

      • moonandserpent

        Also, apparently cuendillar is indestructible – force used against it just makes it stronger – thus blocking the port.

        • Marie Brennan

          The thing is, this chain is being used by the besieged — not the besiegers — to keep enemy ships from sailing into their harbor. (They raise the chain to let supply ships in, because the circumstances don’t permit the besiegers to blockade the whole place.) So I’m not sure why making a piece of the fortifications indestructible is a useful thing to do, when you’re on the side that’s trying to break in.

    • Marie Brennan

      Also, I’m not sure why freezing the chain in place is that useful. All it does is shift the tactics to an actual siege, which is going to be hideously unpleasant for everybody, and lethal for quite a few. Depending on how stubborn the Tower Aes Sedai are, it might end up killing more than an actual assault would. And you might be able to accomplish the same thing by just fusing the chains, instead of turning them into cuendillar; we’ve been told often enough that not many Aes Sedai are good at working Earth and Fire (as evidenced by the experiment in the Salidar camp), so I’m not at all sure they could undo the damage. (Or, y’know, just rust the chain into oblivion instead. They’d have a hard time replacing it.)

      And even if that’s the logic, why the hell can’t Jordan tell us that?

  2. d_c_m

    NOTHING BLOODY HAPPENS IN THIS BOOK.
    Are you sure you’re not talking about “Twilight”? *giggle* Sorry just had to write it.

  3. Anonymous

    so, two points:

    1) luckily, Knife of Dream kinda rocks. I mean, it’s no Shadow Rising, but it’s at least as good as, say, The Dragon Reborn.

    2) Hahahahaha “Tor doesn’t have any more delays” hahahahaha aren’t you sweet. The book has already been pushed back at least six months but I fully expect it to be at least another year: http://wot.wikia.com/wiki/A_Memory_of_Light

    • Marie Brennan

      I know it’s been pushed back once already; the question is whether that will happen again. I’d be deeply surprised if it got delayed much further than March of next year, though, as Sanderson has proved fairly reliable when it comes to delivering on time.

  4. sandmantv

    So… how is Feast for Crows any better?

    • Marie Brennan

      Did I ever claim it was?

      I haven’t read that one since it came out, but my clear sense is that Martin has been falling victim to the exact same structural problems that plagued Jordan, in terms of pacing, pov control, and all the rest of it. (I’m done with him, too, until the last book is on the horizon. So no spoilers for A Dance with Dragons.)

      • sandmantv

        I hope you don’t mind if embroider this quote on the back of my favorite jacket.

        • Marie Brennan

          Feel free. πŸ™‚

          I think A Feast for Crows did accomplish more than this book . . . but as they say, that’s a bar so low you can step over it. And it’s a difference of degree rather than kind.

          • sandmantv

            At which point you get to the question of, are you hoping:
            A) the author gets better and stops following that meandering path, or
            B) the author dies and someone else finishes the books.

            I’m not reading them because I’m too cynical for A and not maudlin enough for B.

          • Marie Brennan

            I’m hoping for A, rather glumly afraid of B. Martin’s average across this series has been nearly four years per book, and now he’s saying it will be eight total instead of seven; that’s another twelve years we’ll have to wait, assuming his pace holds.

          • sandmantv

            Ooh, can you give a link on that 8 books quote? Some of our friends insist it’s still 7.

            Also you’re looking at the absolute average, and not the dynamic. Given how these books are getting both bigger and more infrequent, I’d say 5 years per book left minimum.

            Sorry for derailing the convo of course. Very amusing post about a book I’m glad I never tried.

          • mastadge

            Yeah, I thought the 7 was still locked at least as of a couple months ago. . .

          • Marie Brennan

            Ask up above; he’s the one who told me 8. From a recent interview, as I understand it.

          • starlady38

            Bwahahaha I’m sorry, I just. I’m not actually sorry. Well, I’m sorry for the people who love the books, anyway.

            See, this is why I have hitched my epic fantasy wagon to Michelle West: twelve books in seventeen years (that’s 0.71 books per year!), no end to the series or ramp-down in production in sight, and strong female characters galore. While writing a very enjoyable urban fantasy series at the rate of one book per year.

            /derailing

          • Marie Brennan

            Nah, the production pace of epic fantasy series is totally a fair topic for discussion here. It’s one of the things I’m going to talk about in my wrap-up post when all of this is done.

          • starlady38

            Have you read the New Yorker article on GRRM? It was an interesting combination of several things, including bothersome media topoi about fans and about fantasy/genre fiction, but it did leave me thinking about the production pace of those books, and what’s reasonable to expect, or not.

            As much as GRRM or any writer is not anyone’s bitch, I do think at some point, after several years, the question of production pace/work ethic does become legitimate to raise.

          • Marie Brennan

            I have avoided pretty much everything about GRRM and the series, because I don’t want spoilers. But if isn’t spoilery and you have a link, I’d be glad to read it.

            As for your comment: yeah, this is the thing I feel has gotten lost in the brouhaha over the (admittedly inexcusable) way some fans have treated Martin. No, he isn’t our bitch; but he made us a promise — not just the explicit one at the end of A Feast for Crows, but an implicit promise that he was going to tell us this story — and when he starts falling down on it, I don’t think it’s fair to tell his fans they just need to suck it up and be grateful for what they get. Five years’ wait for an unsatisfactory book, and then six more years’ wait for the next (apparently also unsatisfactory) book that was supposed to be “almost done” five years ago, is enough to make anybody justifiably cranky.

          • starlady38

            It was written in April, so no spoilers for ADwD as far as I can recall. The article is here; it talks generally about AFfC, though.

      • mindstalk

        My talent for not picking up popular but flawed fantasy continues to impress me.

        Renna getting killed doesn’t change the narrative? I mean, someone getting killed?

        Your mode of analysis, tracking what is changed/learned, is interesting! I shall try to keep it in mind. I’m not sure it’s always appropriate, e.g. for tone painting/slice of life/scenery porn stuff like Maria-sama, Aria, or YKK (anime or manga all), though I guess even there the characters or readers may learn something, or see something new.

        Can you really fairly boil 22 page chapters down to single sentences like that? Is he just being really horribly verbose?

        • Marie Brennan

          Thing is, Renna’s a minor character. If she’d gotten away, it could have changed the course of the narrative; she would have told the Seanchan army where Tuon is (since Mat kidnapped Tuon at the end of the previous book), and that would — eventually; at this pace it would have happened in the next novel — have meant much more severe problems for him and his getaway plans. (Though even then, it really would only have sped up the timetable for the trouble he’s in already.) As it stands, after her death Mat is still running away, just with one less prisoner to look after, and a bit more angst about having had a woman shot.

          Horribly verbose: yes. There’s lots of stuff I don’t list, mind you; to use that chapter as an example, it starts with Mat taking Tuon and Selucia (Tuon’s maid) into town so they can go shopping for dress fabrics (no, I’m not kidding), since the stuff provided to them by the people they’re hiding out with is pretty crappy, and Tuon, being a high-and-mighty noble, isn’t okay with that. And Mat sees people who aren’t there (but this happens once and stops, and is never explained), and then he briefly loses sight of the two of them, but finds them in a store, and then they go back and find out that Egeanin’s been stabbed, and one of the other people with them Heals Egeanin, before Mat and a few others chase off after Renna. But there’s no point in listing most of that, because it isn’t actually important. Or Mat’s first chapter: it spends a chunk of time filling in details of his escape that were cooler when they weren’t specified, but also includes lengthy descriptions of the aftermath of a riot in Ebou Dar, and then all the people in the traveling circus they’re hiding out with, and how these people don’t like those people and Mat’s paying the circus leader lots of money to not run away just yet (since that would attract the eyes of the searchers), etc, etc, etc; but ultimately, all that is just exposition, that doesn’t move the story forward in the least.

          Actually, it reminds me of an incident from one of the first RPGs I played in. Our characters were going to go talk to somebody elsewhere in the city. The GM said, “Okay, you go downstairs” — and we all tensed up, because the only reason for her to start detailing the steps of the journey was if something was going to interrupt it (probably something bad). As it turns out, it was just a random error on her part; she didn’t mean to do that. But it illustrates the principle that unless something’s going to interfere, it’s almost never worth your time to fill in all the middle bits of routine narrative.

          This book, however, is wall-to-wall middle bits, without any exciting interruptions to justify it.

  5. starryniteynite

    This is the book I’ve alternately titled: “Wherein our characters arrive at a crossroads and decide to have a very long picnic”

    • Marie Brennan

      Yeah. The title really is emblematic of the book’s problem: the characters spend the whole thing sitting at the crossroads, deciding which way to go (but not actually going yet).

  6. Anonymous

    When they turned the chains, which were in the “up” position at the time, into cuendillar, it fused all the links together, basically making an indestructible bar across the harbors. That means they can’t bring in any food, since the Tower Aes Sedai don’t have Traveling, and makes reinforcements unlikely.

    • Marie Brennan

      Okay, so it turns this into a protracted siege. I can understand that, I guess, but I was really hoping for something more clever and decisive. (Clearly Egwene does not understand how ugly sieges are, if she thinks that’s really a more humane course of action than assault-by-gateway. I guess it avoids sisters fighting each other, but at the cost of, oh, everybody else in Tar Valon.)

  7. april_art

    I only made it to book 5 and I thought nothing happened in those, too… Or at least nothing relative to page count.

    • Marie Brennan

      It started becoming a real problem in book 5, yeah. Prior to that, stuff did happen, by the criterion of “changing the direction of the narrative;” it just wasn’t clearly directed toward a conclusion.

  8. green_knight

    Most of what you say are things that I know, intellectually, but find difficult to implement while I’m in the act of writing:

    – events need to matter to the story, and change something
    – protagonists need to act (even if they make mistakes or later change their minds) and work towards something, not just react to events

    And it seems to me, more than ever, that at *some* point the writer needs to understand the story as a whole. That’s not necessarily during first draft, but if a writer gets hung up in the details because everything a character says or does matters to them… well, I think this book is an extreme example, but it illustrates a more general problem.

    I’d also like to pick up on your use of the prologue – I mostly dislike them, and see very few uses for them (Kristen Britain’s Green Rider has one that works: we see the antagonist setting something ominious into motion that we won’t fully understand until much much later in the story – suspense creation at its finest.). ‘Bring the reader up to speed in a quickfire way about where everybody is at the start of the novel’ is also something you cannot do in the text of the novel itself.

    Last but not least, on the balance of description/action/dialogue: I am currently reading Kari Sperring’s _Living with Ghosts_ It matches your description of little dialogue, lots of description and internalisation… with one fundamental difference – it has plenty of momentum; I don’t think that dialogue and action would have saved this book.

    • Marie Brennan

      And it seems to me, more than ever, that at *some* point the writer needs to understand the story as a whole.

      Which is what makes writing a long series of the “single story, multiple volumes” sort so difficult: it’s pretty much impossible to hold the entire thing in your head at once. And there’s no chance to go back and change things in previous volumes to make them better suit what you want to do later. I tend more toward the organic side of writing, but I think if I ever tried to do something like this, I would have to rely on some degree of outlining, whether I wanted to or not.

      I’d also like to pick up on your use of the prologue – I mostly dislike them, and see very few uses for them

      I’ve chewed on this before, some years ago, and pretty much stand by what I said there. (As evidenced by the kinds of prologues I use in the Onyx Court books.) But I should add that a prologue in an ongoing series of this kind has an additional option, which is, as you say, the rapid-fire “where are they now?” update. It’s not the most compelling thing in the world, but a) anybody who’s reading the tenth book in your series is in it for the long haul; you don’t have to convince them to keep reading and b) there’s something to be said for getting it over with quickly. What doesn’t work is what Jordan started doing, which is giving random scenes, often with characters we don’t know and don’t care about, with very little tension to make us care.

      I am currently reading Kari Sperring’s _Living with Ghosts_ It matches your description of little dialogue, lots of description and internalisation… with one fundamental difference – it has plenty of momentum; I don’t think that dialogue and action would have saved this book.

      Oh, I didn’t mean to imply that description and internalization were bad! But in this case it’s a visible sign of the problem: this is (supposedly) an epic fantasy — a genre of grand deeds and thrilling action — but it’s gotten bogged down in the mud of details and the characters thinking about things instead of doing them. To the point where, even when they have a conversation that might up the tension, it doesn’t — because the flow of the conversation keeps being broken by the surrounding text. I’ve complained about this before, but it’s gotten seriously out of hand here.

      • green_knight

        t’s pretty much impossible to hold the entire thing in your head at once

        For now I have the luxury of getting through a draft of the whole thing before submitting the first book – it’s not a great strategy, but I am discovering too much about the story while I write.

        I would have to rely on some degree of outlining, whether I wanted to or not

        <sobs quietly>

        I thinK i will have to learn to write very fast, sparse first drafts so I can get through a whole chunk of story and get an overview of the story without falling into the trap of making up details, because whenever I do _that_, I create a bundle of bad clichees.

        characters thinking about things instead of doing them

        I can do that without a single line of description πŸ˜‰

        And I can’t speak for Robert Jordan, but for me it’s a fundamental hurdle in the way I think about the story, and the way I find out what’s happening next, and right now, my next scene wants to be [character] reveals [something that happened on screen] to [group of people, some of whom already know this]. During the conversation there will be two or three small shifts in relationships, and to me, those shifts matter, so I want to bring them onto the stage. It’s pure conjecture that Jordan might have felt the same, but I’d entertain it as a possibility – and I feel that the only cure for it is to think differently about the story – and we’re back with the ‘getting an overview’ and having a goal in mind and finding better ways of setting character interactions in scene.

        And to me it sounds as if Jordan’s exposition is gratuitous – in the example you cite, what people are wearing is pretty irrlevant to their reaction – but I’ve just come to the opposite conclusion: the books I love use a lot _more_ description, and cast a wider net than I would, and they are richer for it. And I think we’re back to the overview again: description in which the setting is part of the story – providing obstacles and puzzles and clues to mysteries – won’t _feel_ gratuitious, even when there’s a lot of it.

        Also, structurally, I wonder whether the series at that point isn’t bogged down in the eternal middle and it wouldn’t need a different meta-structure to make it work. In this context, Horcruxes would be a good thing – you can have a small battle and a small triumph and you know you’ve ticked an important thing off the list and are a step closer to the resolution. That sense – that the character are moving towards a final confrontation, towards something that matters – seems to be missing from the books; I am curious to see how the series will develop.

        • Marie Brennan

          I thinK i will have to learn to write very fast, sparse first drafts so I can get through a whole chunk of story and get an overview of the story

          If you have the freedom to do that, it’s probably a good idea, yeah. But of course the logistics don’t always allow for it. I should clarify, though, what I mean by outlining: not chapter-by-chapter, but at least a few pegs nailing down, say, the end of each volume. If you have a few fixed points to navigate by, it’s easier to keep everything else from flying out of control.

          (But that’s getting into thoughts I want to save for my wrap-up post for when this project is done.)

          During the conversation there will be two or three small shifts in relationships, and to me, those shifts matter, so I want to bring them onto the stage.

          Here’s the thing, though: that can’t be the only thing the scene is doing. (Or rather, it can, but then the scene isn’t very strong.) I always forget who it was that said every scene should forward the plot, develop character, and include relevant aspects of the setting, but it’s a good ideal to shoot for. Too often it feels like Jordan writes five pages whose only purpose is to provide a frame for the one detail that’s new. When he piles up five or ten of those, as I reader, I find myself desperately wishing he had found some way to combine them in to ONE scene of actual substance.

          Over lunch I was saying to a friend of mine that this stage of the Wheel of Time sort of feels like it’s operating on the soap-opera paradigm: rolling steadily along, with little to no variation of pace, showing each step of the way rather than skipping over the routine ones so as to get to the exciting moments sooner. There’s a reason soap operas work that way, mind you; as I understand it, they have to be structured such that viewers can step into the narrative at any point, without feeling like they missed something vital or came in too late. It makes sense for the medium. But when it’s a series of novels that are heading toward a final confrontation, the odds that anybody’s picking up Book 10 without having read 1-9 are well-nigh nonexistent. And plodding through every routine step, delaying the exciting ones, is an active disservice to the readers who have been waiting years for the story to get to where it’s going.

          • green_knight

            of course the logistics don’t always allow for it

            I dread that stage of my career when I’ll have to face that problem. Won’t be for a few years, but… not looking forward to it. Maybe by that time I’ll have learnt how to explore a story in my head without squashing it.

            The big three thing is something Patricia C. Wrede says, and she’s ever so right – but I find that for me, the thing I need to look for is the challenge. ‘Conflict’ isn’t the best word for it, but scenes – even when plot-moving and character/background-revealing things happen – often fall flat until I have a character wanting something, and working to get it. Doesn’t have to be a big, epic problem, but ‘character wants to unite group’ works better than ‘character talks to group’ even when it has much of the same events and revelations.

            As for soap operas, at least the ones I’m familiar with (OK, that mainly means the Archers) tend to have plot strands in different cycles, so you’re likely to get something you don’t understand the significance of, and somehing that’s in the middle so you can follow it, and something that’s just ticking along and you’re not sure where it’s going. Given the multi-POV nature of this, I’d expect something similar – a puzzle from the last book solved, a couple of plotstrands developing, a new problem for someone else and thus a reason to pick up the next book.

            And the other thing is that while people might not start _new_, it’s not inconceivable that readers would have forgotten the last book or maybe skipped a couple (I read the first few, and, oh, look, this one’s on sale).
            In that respect, reading a series in one go is a different experience than reading them as they come out. I remember Elizabeth Moon’s Paksennarion trilogy, where Book Two ends with the character in deepest, darkest despair and I had to wait a whole year until there was a chance for her to get out of it. I knew she would, but it was a powerful scene. On rereading, with Book Three at hand, it lost most of its impact, because the dark moment lasted a couple of minutes. I guess what I’m trying to say is that each volume has to stand on its own just a little bit – because many of the initial readers will have forgotten the previous volumes – who has time to read all of them every time a new one comes out?

          • Marie Brennan

            Maybe by that time I’ll have learnt how to explore a story in my head without squashing it.

            I’ve gradually found it easier to hammer in a few story-pegs and them aim for them while writing, so yeah, some of it is a skill you can just pick up with practice.

            until I have a character wanting something, and working to get it

            This is what my acting class called the “objective,” and we subdivided scenes into beats based on shifts of objective or tactics to achieve same. It’s a useful way of looking at things.

            plot strands in different cycles, so you’re likely to get something you don’t understand the significance of, and somehing that’s in the middle so you can follow it, and something that’s just ticking along and you’re not sure where it’s going

            By this point, the Wheel of Time seems to consist entirely of middles. For the major characters — of which I’d say there are five or six — basically only one thing has concluded, and one had a major development, in the last three books. (I wish I were kidding.)

            There are two problems in this instance with “each volume has to stand on its own just a little bit” (which is a sentiment I generally agree with). First, the stuff that’s getting rehashed is, too often, the excruciatingly tedious detail of the — quaternary characters? I guess that would be the level below “tertiary.” Not Rand and Perrin and Egwene and so on, nor Siuan and Faile and so on, nor Pevara and Alviarin and so on, but every random bloody Aes Sedai and Aiel and nobleman and servant. To quote my complain from Lord of Chaos:

            “When Rand departs from Cairhien in Chapter 19, we get an entire paragraph describing the Aiel who show up to see him off, another paragraph for the Cairhienin, and a third for the Tairens, with a fourth to cover how they’re all interacting; there are eighteen named characters in those four paragraphs. Then more fluff, telling us how all of them respond to his departure.”

            That was four books ago, and the problem has only gotten worse.

            The other issue with these books standing on their own is that, at this point, they’re almost totally lacking in shape. If anything concluded at the end of a given book, then the next book would be able to jettison whatever bits were no longer needed. Nothing ends, so nothing can be discarded; we’re still trailing around all the random baggage brought in by every little sub-plot. When I read this series as it was coming out, after a while I gave up on re-reading, and I wondered if I lost something by forgetting who all those people were in the intervening years. Based on my experience reading things more quickly for this project, the answer is no.

            who has time to read all of them every time a new one comes out?

            Several people I know, actually — which is a little scary. <g>

  9. Anonymous

    Crossroads of Twighlight is tedious, I’m thankful I got into the series late enough that I could go from one to another without a massive gap, cause that would be painful. I guess you could say this is an experiment in writing a book without the usual format… but the results clearly show there’s a reason why the traditional format is used.

    I’ve never understood why Jordan didn’t space out the conclusions to his sub-plots. One or two per book in this stretch would have been nice. Say, have Perrin resolve his problems in Winters Heart. And have someone (Elayne or Mat?) wrap their stuff up in CoT.

    As for the chains in the harbor, I want to say that using chains to block a harbor has been done in real life during sieges, maybe American Civil War? Why a siege is okay and an assault isn’t doesn’t make a ton of sense but what about the Aes Sedai does? And spoiler alert: The chains in the harbor don’t really come up again in any significant way

    • Marie Brennan

      I know chains to block harbors have been used in real history. It’s the cuendillar bit that baffles me. And it turns out to be not that important? Great. So glad we spent all that time building it up.

      Regarding the spacing-out of conclusions, it’s a real challenge in writing novels, and even more so in series. You don’t want to spread things out so much that by the time you get to your Final Throwdown the reader feels like most of the tension is gone; but if you try to wrap up everything at once, it gets so unwieldy that readers can barely follow what’s going on. There’s no easy solution to it, but I think we can all agree this approach is not ideal.

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