Lessons Unlearned

I disappeared for more than a week—that is, disappeared from this blog.  It was shameless, I know, and it flies in the face of everything I said in my entry about New Year’s Resolutions.  But I have a good excuse!  Really, I do!  I was reading.  There, I said it!

If it helps, I can say that I’ve been planning this particular bout of reading for twenty years.  It’s a wonder I managed to go to work; I know my productivity level plummeted, and for that I suppose I have no excuse.  I may possibly have been a little excited about this book, though.  Just a little.

The book was A Memory of Light, by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson, the final volume of Mr. Jordan’s The Wheel of Time.  The first volume, The Eye of the World, was published in 1990, but as I was eleven years old at the time, I didn’t encounter it until 1993—hence, the twenty years of waiting for this book.  Robert Jordan—actually a pen name of James Oliver Rigney, Jr.—passed away in 2007 while working on this final volume; beyond being a tragic event in itself, his death naturally delayed the completion of the saga.  I say delayed, because when Mr. Jordan became aware of the health condition that would claim his life, he shifted his focus from writing the book to making preparation for someone else to do so.  That person, eventually, was Brandon Sanderson, an accomplished fantasy author in his own right.  The book was massive, eventually clocking in at over two thousand pages, and so it was split into three volumes, with this most recent release being the true end of the story.

In terms of fantasy fiction, this was monumental; The Wheel of Time has been touted for years as the undisputed heir to J.R.R. Tolkien’s throne at the top of fantasy literature.  Even now, Dragonmount.com and other Wheel of Time forums are no doubt buzzing with discussion and spoilers and the tears of those who lament that it’s finally over.  I have stayed off those forums for now, just to take some time and digest the book myself, but I’ll get back to them soon.

I wanted to talk about the literary lessons I learned over the course of the years as I read this series; but as I assembled my thoughts, I realized it was going to become either a top-ten list, or a middle school essay (“What I Learned From…”).  Let me take a different tack, and tell you what I have yet to learn.  These are the lessons that are right there, but I have yet to master them; after all, everyone needs something to which to aspire.  Mr. Jordan, a master of the craft, left me with much to accomplish.

Some friends have suggested that I am long-winded in my writing.  Guilty as charged!  I have a new defense now, however; I just point them to chapter 37 of A Memory of Light, which stretches over 190 pages and eighty thousand words.  That is a respectable length for an entire novel!  Making a story long for the sake of being long is not a good goal; but if you can successfully spin a tale that truly fills all those pages, that is an accomplishment.  It isn’t necessary—not all stories need to have such scope—but when it can be done and done well, the result is incredible.

In order to fill all that length (there are fifteen books in this series, and all but one of them measures at least six hundred pages; the final volume runs to nine hundred), Mr. Jordan created a multitude of subplots, filled out with a host of characters.  Not every character gets a large amount of “screen time”, nor a high level of character development; but each one is unique, with at least a necessary modicum of backstory.  His characters, to the last, care about something, whether it be good or evil, self-serving or altruistic; and that is what makes them seem real.

In a sense, creating such an epic work is only an extension of the same skills needed for shorter stories.  The danger is in losing track, losing focus—forgetting where you are and how to get where you’re going.  You want the whole story to be interesting to your readers, and to hold their attention; but to YOU, the writer, some stretches will feel like a walk across the Sahara.  I have not yet mastered that skill of not getting bogged down—of carrying a story through to a distant end, and doing it with focus.  With the example set by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson, I’m closer than I was, but I still have much to learn.

Mainstream writers, those who write fiction grounded in the real world (or one very like it), get a pass on one major task:  world building.  A fantasy story, whether epic or not, requires a convincing world, and that is no small task.  Wheel of Time fans affectionately refer to that universe as “Randland”, after Rand al’Thor, the main character.  The map of that world has been present, unchanged, since book one.  Mr. Jordan constantly revealed new locations as he wrote; most of them were noted on the map, but not detailed, while a few were added as time went on.  Still, at all times you felt as though these places were real, steady, knowable, believable.  His descriptions were both consistent and realistic.  We watched that world change as cities were burned, earthquakes struck, and storms beat down.  The world of the Wheel was just as much a character as any human (or Trolloc, or Myrddraal, or Ogier—read the books!), and it had its own stories to tell.  Further, the promises made in that first map were fulfilled, as every important location was eventually seen and fleshed out.

I am no fantasy writer, though perhaps I’ll add that to my list of genres at some time.  I do write science fiction, which is subject to the same demands.  The difficulty isn’t in creating a believable world; it’s in the changes that come to you as you create your narrative.  You’ll come to a certain plot point, and it will demand a setting in order to work; but that setting may not be what you envisioned at the beginning.  You may have to add to your world’s distinctive qualities, or take away from them.  A good world, one that will stand unchanged no matter what tale you throw at it—that is a difficult thing to achieve.  Again, I have much to learn!

I could go on—but this is a blog entry, not an epic.  Although I never set out to write a tribute to Mr. Jordan or his work, this will serve as mine; I would say thank you, not only for a fantastic tale, not only for things learned, but for lessons yet to be learned.  In terms of skill, no writer can say he has arrived; but with examples such as this, we can see what it might be like if we could.

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