Life on Thin Ice: Updating my Progress on The Witness Trilogy

Life on Thin Ice: Updating my Progress on The Witness Trilogy

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Commenting on a work-in-progress is always risky. Whatever the author says is going to run headlong into fan expectation like a ’65 Delmont 88 slamming into a wall. The car’s enough of a tank to go through that wall, but there will be a dent or two, and when the dust finally clears, there might not be a fan in sight.

I’ve hesitated for weeks on this. Had a few discussions with friends, most of whom quickly advised against it (for my own peace of mind, one presumes), and they wisely cited past precedents whenever I’ve showed my inherent slipperiness to evade expectations, and how that inevitably came home to bite my ass.

It’s curious, but when I try to visualize a fanbase – readers, viewers, the purveyors of entertainment in general – I see a vast swirling sea. Currents, eddies, whirlpools, crashing waves of delight or discontent, excitement or fury, loyalty or indignation. And I’ve more than dipped a toe into the maelstrom, via my love of Star Trek and the essays I’ve written on the subject, so I don’t really see myself loftily excluded from all of that.

When the anger or sense of betrayal shows up, I get it. I may not agree with whatever belief system underlies the impulse, but I do get it. For myself, as a rule, I let whatever anger or betrayal I might feel cool right down before I write anything. But that’s because I’m old and I need time to think things through, time to assemble my rationale, so that I am fully able to defend whatever position I take. And part of that process includes taking on the role of devil’s advocate, and thereby challenging my original position as ruthlessly as possible. Before I ever put a word onto the screen.

How I wish everyone would take a long breath and do something similar. These days, people don’t know how to lose an argument. The invitation to humility is an endangered species. Which is why things escalate.

In the course of my life, I’ve lost more arguments than I can count. I lost them pitching screenplays, television series, novels. I lost them on more personal levels which won’t be discussed here. The world doesn’t end when you lose an argument. It may suck for a while, but the hide toughens, even as the iron and steel of one’s convictions rust and rot. Some may see that weakening as a bad thing. In terms of ego, it is. But the ego is nobody’s friend. Its main job is to lie to protect, when often what it’s protecting is utterly irrelevant.

If there’s no personal growth after losing an argument, it’s an opportunity missed. Like paying dearly for something that comes assembly-required, which you never get around to putting together.

This is my typically long and possibly obscure way of saying that, sure as hell, I’m behind the wheel of that Delmont again, slamming the gas pedal to the metal as the big-block 425 opens all four barrels and some ungodly surge of momentum starts building into a roar, with the brick wall dead ahead.

But another part of my mind stays coolly detached, whispering, relax, Steve, you’ve lost arguments before…


I’m moving along quite smoothly on the first novel in the Witness Trilogy. I’ve found the proper scale for the narrative. The characters feel fully alive, fully engaged in living, and I can see the necessary steps on the path ahead for each and every one of them. My daily writing pace is good, comfortable and confident. And most importantly of all, I’m delighting in the pleasure of writing. These are all good signs, and I view them as part of the growing process that comes after losing an argument.

What argument did I lose?

Hmm, where to start?

No, sorry, I meant that literally. Where to start. When I first started on The God is Not Willing, I started here. Then I stopped, did some thinking and working back, and started there. Then I stopped, did some thinking and working back, and started – uh oh. Suddenly I could hear the seas crashing at my back, promising a future maelstrom. By that I mean: oh dear, the fans might not like this at all.

Oddly enough, the process for The God is Not Willing is mirroring that of Gardens of the Moon. It’s commonly known that GotM took eight years to find a publisher. That didn’t mean I pitched it for eight fucking years. It meant that I pitched it, got rejected multiple times, and then pretty much gave up. Shelved it. And it was only after landing an agent and selling a novel in the UK (This River Awakens) that I dusted off the manuscript, read it through, heavily revised it, and tried again.

It was that last revision that did the trick, I suppose. Or maybe it was just that the timing was finally right. No matter. The point is, my revision involved a whole lot of new writing for GotM. The original had the prologue as you see it; that is, the little scene at Mock’s Hold, with Ganoes, Whiskeyjack and Fiddler. Chapter One opened with Tattersail on the hill, outside Pale.

In other words, my revision involved moving back in time, filling in gaps, setting up a whole bunch of shit that was only relevant to this now being a ten-book series. Because it was at this point that I first mapped out the ten novels, the grand arc and all that.

As it turned out, for many readers, even that wasn’t enough background or gaps filled. But no matter what I did with that particular novel, the backstory was always going to be huge, and could only be hinted at (Cam Esslemont is right now in the process of filling in that backstory, with one trilogy done and another on the way).

And so, here I was, with The God is Not Willing, finding myself back-filling, and then doing it a second time, and then a third – at which point I realised something that might, just might, turn out to be problematic for some readers.

Consider the hype regarding this Karsa Orlong trilogy: I get it from all directions. We want Karsa! Where’s Karsa? Give me Karsa! All right! Honestly, I hear you!

But … okay, how to explain this? How about like this: the fans, readers of the ten volume Malazan Book of the Fallen, carry within them memories of Karsa Orlong. That whole package of his deeds, his scenes, what he said, didn’t say, what he did, didn’t do. That package of memories now resides, unique to each fan, like a thing about pounce. It constitutes that character’s legacy here in our world. And foremost in the expectations regarding the trilogy is Karsa Orlong himself.

But what about in the world of Malaz? Well, Karsa’s left a legacy there, too. Or, if you prefer, a wake of mayhem: reverberating, trembling, rippling outward. What made Karsa so evocative? He rattled the foundations. He did the unexpected. He kept going forward, no matter what. In short, a force of nature.

And what did I discover as I tracked back, and back, in where to begin The God is Not Willing? It was this: a sense of responsibility (something Karsa himself rarely considers). In other words, I needed to explore that wake, all those repercussions Karsa left behind him. I needed to show that, just as readers remember that legacy, so too do all the people in the Malazan world that Karsa encountered and interacted with. And that’s where I needed to start.

Because, only there could I launch the first huge arc that would, eventually, converge on Karsa. And only in the second novel of the trilogy, could I launch the second huge arc, so that with the third and final novel, I could make those arcs converge on Karsa Orlong.

Structurally, that makes perfect sense. Do you see the potential problem? We might not even get to Karsa himself in the first novel. Hence my dilemma. The last time I got this slippery, with Crack’d Pot Trail, readers were outraged (perversely, I consider that one to be my best Bauchelain and Korbal Broach novella, by a long shot). They felt they’d been led astray.

So: lesson to Erikson #1: don’t blindside your readers’ expectations.

Possible lesson #2: Next time you’re in danger of leading readers astray, would it help to tell them first (aka this essay)?

Possible lesson #3: Forget it, Erikson, either way you’re fucked. Don’t tell ‘em Karsa’s not in the first book, and you betrayed them! Tell them he ain’t in it and come Book Launch night and it’s … [crickets]… Because now everyone hates me.

How can it be Karsa Orlong’s trilogy if he ain’t even in the first (possibly two) book(s)? Well, my answer is, the entire trilogy is about Karsa Orlong: it’s about his legacy, and we need that legacy to be fully explored in order to bring the reader to Karsa. A sudden jump into his lap without that stuff, just won’t work. At least in my mind. Karsa is all about momentum, but now the momentum is catching up to him, with all that he’s dragging in his wake, and he’s dragging plenty.

In preparing for this trilogy, I went back and read all of the Karsa stuff from the ten-book series. And I took notes. Then I asked myself where would he be ten years after TCG? And with the answer to that question, I planted him.

And there he now sits, minding his own business. But the Malazan world isn’t about to let him rest. And I need to show why. And that means backtracking on his trail. This guy was a runaway freight train, after all. That means picking through the wreckage in his wake, because there are a lot of people who have a bone to pick with Karsa. It’s the standard set-up, if you think on it: all the players who will be converging on Karsa need to be introduced and set in motion. That progression needs to be shown. And for the final convergence to mean anything, it’s where we need to start.

I get that no matter how logical or insistent my argument here (for doing this trilogy in the only way I can see it done with justice), it won’t make a whit of difference for some fans. They want Karsa on page 1, sword swinging and heads flying. Because, for those fans, that’s all Karsa ever was. For me, in re-reading his path through the ten books, I saw a process of maturation in him, and that process led me to conclude that his impetuous youth is past, and while his vow remains, how he pursues it will have changed. By the end of TCG, Karsa was fed up. It’s going to take a lot to get him to budge.

Maybe two whole books’ worth.

I envision this trilogy as one giant novel, meaning there’s a lot that needs to be set up before I get to the point of convergence. It’s my hope that the characters I track leading up to that point, are in themselves intrinsically interesting; that they are one and all people you want to follow. Having said that, have fun predicting what will happen when the shit hits the fan.

The Malazan world is a complicated place. The currents of history are not easily traced, and not all the flow is downstream. Sometimes you need to swing round, spin your way into the eddies, and find out what’s brewing there.

One thing I will tell you, here and now, however.

There’s a flood coming.

 

47 Responses

  1. Wyatt says:

    I’m personally very excited about this! I’m definitely a big fan of Karsa Orlong, I think he’s a fascinating character, but I don’t mind at all the possibility of him not showing up in the first book, and I’m very interested in the idea of a book focusing on the people he has left in his wake.

    I might be in the minority though, I tend to be fairly easy to please.

    • Katsy says:

      Thoroughly agree. There are so many interesting characters – and I am not easy to please in that regard.
      I may in fact be more interested in the wake of Karsa, though I cannot even say that with certainty, as I see myself a part of that wake.

  2. Deyan says:

    Well, I feel what you did is fair to your fanbase. I am at the point that no matter what you write in the Malazan universe, I’ll pick it up, and I’m sure I’d love it. But having wrong expectations about a novel might ruin your experience, so thank you for telling us before hand.

    Thank you both for your work, and taking your fan’s interests in mind.

  3. Daniel says:

    The approach sounds very interesting. If there is anything certain about Karsa, it is that he has never left indifferent, and that the rest of the world has to tremble in his wake. I’m looking forward to seeing how the world has trembled from The Crippled God.
    Cheer up!

  4. David says:

    Firstly, thank you so much for sharing these thoughts with us! I think giving us the chance to adjust our expectations is the right move. I’m a bit disappointed, sure, but I’d be much more disappointed 30% of the way through the book, and near tears by 80%. Actually on that note, may I humbly suggest that if this is to be more philosophical (like FoL) than… erm… “eventful”, then some expectation management in that regard might be beneficial too. 🙂

    Secondly, can we at least expect to see Karsa through the eyes of the other characters who experience his passing?

    Finally, with adjusted expectations, your vision sounds awesome, and in Erikson we trust! No matter how you choose to proceed I’m sure it’s going to be great, and I’m looking forward to it!!

  5. Andreas says:

    I am looking forward to the journey.
    As with GotM, those of us who can will hit the ground running…
    And those who stuck with it, understand that as fucking epic as Convergence is to read, its not fucking epic without a sound build-up…
    Glad to hear you’re in a good place. Keep on, keeping on!

  6. Cara says:

    This is your and Cam’s world, and we’re just lucky to experience it. Although I’m hoping some characters we already love make cameos (*cough* Shadowthrone and Cotillion *cough*) I’m honestly just happy to find out what happens next. Any fan who kept going with Midnight Tides realizing that none of the previous characters were in that book (to later become many fans’ favorite) should be good with your approach to the Karsa trilogy. I don’t want a fan service book. I want another one of YOUR books in this world. The fact that it’s 3 more is amazing!

  7. Gus says:

    Thanks for the warning and essay steve! I am very excited for this next series of books. Currently reading black company for the first time after finishing fall of light. Love your work man

  8. JohnS says:

    While I love Karsa’s character, this sounds way more exciting than three books following Karsa around. It sounds, gosh, more like the MBotF that we all fell in love with: something epic, that demands a big cast off characters, that offers a depth of exploration.

    It’s probably good that you gave us a warning though. And I loved the bit about losing arguments.

  9. Robert Clendenen says:

    Being it. I have been let down before, with an author whose timeline and characters, weren’t depicted in a scope, that my mind could rationalize, only to be swept up in awe, as the convergence (as you put it) brought it all home. Sometimes, delayed gratitude is it’s own reward. Scribble on, wordsmith, scribble on.

  10. Ryan says:

    Steven,

    I hope I speak for the majority of your fans when I say this… First and foremost this is your World. You created it. Write it how it needs to be written. That is the reason we hold your stories to as high of a standard as we do (most will say that once you’ve gone Malazan, no other series can compare) and why we are eagerly awaiting for more.

    To the one’s who will turn their noses up or complain about how you construct your art: Fuck ’em.

    Witness….

  11. Totally stoked for whatever you bring, Steven, whenever you bring it. I love your storytelling. Thank you for these moments of pleasure in a perilous world (on both sides of the book cover.)

    Peace from Florida,
    Michael

  12. Nikolas Drury says:

    I’ve read 9 of your books and at this point, I trust you and your sense of narrative.

  13. Jacky says:

    This is actually very good news to me. I guess I am one of the minority in that Karsa and his progress left me by turns angry and incredulous. Karsa was exactly as you stated – a runaway freight train. And in a series devoted to the concept of guilt and responsibility, compassions and atonement, his merry progress of self-righteous mayhem drove me nuts. Actions rippled, or in his case – exploded – outwards, with never a consequence or self-reflective thought in response.
    When the series was announced as a supplanter of the final Kharkanas novel I was (and still am) bitterly disappointed. However, this essay now give me hope that the trilogy will NOT be a continuation of the Merry Misadventures of an Arrogant Barbarian. Thank you.

  14. Laurie says:

    You made me even more excited for this series than I was before.

  15. Kyle says:

    Sounds fun, let’s do it. I always felt your strength was characters and motivation so I’m sure it will be interesting.

  16. Martin says:

    Even though i was looking forward to finishing The Kharkanas Trilogy, im really looking forward to reading about Karsa and the ramifications of his actions. I personally dont mind if he doesnt show up for the first (two) book/s.

    As long as we get to keep reading about this exciting world im guessing most of the fans will be happy either way.

  17. Amr says:

    I haven’t get to karsa yet but I am waiting for the third book of the kharkanas trilogy

  18. Erik A. Kruger says:

    I am very much looking forward to reading everything that Steven Erikson is writing. I loved “Rejoice”; I recently re-read the entire BotF; I intensely loved the 2/3 of Kharkanas. I trust. I will witness.

  19. Dan says:

    In all honesty this sounds like an amazing way to capture the story of Karsa’s impact on the world! I think you’ve built up some trust among your readers that you can deliver on a long story arc or two. I’m looking forward to seeing what you do with it.

  20. KT says:

    I think the people that get pissed off will be the people that havent read the 10 book series. And possibly the few people that didnt ever grasp that Karsa was a complex character. So the million dollar question is will enough people buy it given what you are saying here? I hope so. Because it sounds incredible.

  21. Mike Brenner says:

    Don’t worry Steve, we can wait. It’ll be worth it. The longer you wait for dinner, the hungrier you get, the better it all tastes in the end!

  22. Ranin Bradley says:

    Don’t worry one bit Steve! You know exactly how to handle things. As the main series attests. This trilogy is gonna be incredible! As the name attests “Witness” is about all those who did and what happened as a result. – a bad example maybe but the Avengers was all about Thanos and it took a ton of films to get to him! – Your writing is FAR more brilliant. Worry not! We fans love you!

  23. Jon says:

    I’ve been dealt some losses recently and have been trying to figure out what learning and growing from them looks like. While there is much discomfort in examining these situations, I believe now – thanks to your essay – the correct take away from it all is to proceed in humility. Thanks for your insight and wisdom.

  24. Camilo says:

    On the one hand, thank you, Steven, for daring to risk pissing off a lot of people. On the other, I say, ‘Do whatever you do in the best possible way, and there will be no regrets’.

    Lead on, we’ll be there.

  25. SerArnys says:

    Holy shit, now I am hooked again. This sounds a lot like MBOTF 😉

  26. Robert says:

    So, in short. You’re worried that Steven Erickson will write a Steven Erickson story and people who buy the book written by Steven Erickson will be disappointed in getting something too Steven Ericksonish? The story deserves justice, don’t short change it for the few that require instant gratification. If you’re ever in the Alberta or Saskatchewan prairies and want a walking buddy let me know!

  27. Jesse says:

    I am guilty for being one of the readers who gets impatient during introductions and back story. Maybe a result of a generational expectation of instant gratification? That said, I love your series more than any other and trust your judgement far more than my own. It’s very likely that you know what’s better for your readers than they do. I want to read the story that your heart is backing.

    Besides, as everyone else has said, this is your baby. We’re just here to witness. You keep writing, we’ll keep reading.

  28. William says:

    Thanks for the heads up. I’ll buy anything in the Malazan world, but it’s nice to see honesty.
    I was never a huge Karsa fan, so I’m not troubled by this (wouldn’t be even if I was a Karsa fan) either way.
    I think you would have experienced some fury from fans, even if (when) the book turns out good. Not the same type of media, but this reminds me of a game, Metal Gear Solid 2. Everyone went in expecting to continue a story, and they were “blindsided” by what actually transpired.
    Either way, I need more Malazan.

  29. Jason says:

    Thank you for sharing your insight into the formation of the arc for the Kara’s books Steven. Your attention to detail and care for every aspect of your writing shows in everything you do. My devotion to the Malazazan world will be something that will always be a big part of my life. Many thanks to you and everyone involved in your painstaking process!

  30. Luke Hughes says:

    Thank you for the head’s-up but in my mind itis completely unnecessary. Your work, your rules. We are here for the ride.
    In this day and age of social media it is all too easy for “influencers” (fookme…) to get their undies in a twist if they do not get what they think they want. Tough.
    Oh, and as for GotM…that was one hell of an opening chapter!

  31. Kristina says:

    Makes complete sense, I trust you. Off you go!

  32. Randy Pierce says:

    Exploring new characters and their arcs is a way of life in the Malazan world. How boring it would be to have Karsa swinging a sword and heads flying on page 1. The antithesis of what we’ve come to expect from you. Fully fleshed out new characters (and old) with all the necessary backstory is what made me fall in love with your writing to begin with. Fair seas and following winds on the exciting new project!

  33. Ramaganesh says:

    I am more exited than disappointed

  34. Carl says:

    meh…as for me and my house I only consider this to be good news. Keep on, Steve!

  35. Abyss says:

    Does this mean Karsa would beat Dassem in a fight?

    …just kidding. You write it, I’ll happily pay for and read it. Karsa’s wake covers a whole lot of interesting territory across malazanland. I have zero worries about visiting any of it again.

  36. Kel says:

    Thanks for the update! It was refreshingly honest.

    I think a lot of us who keep up with your progress would happily read two novels about the other Malazan characters trying to make sense of a post Crippled God world. We are invested in the story and while I love Karsa, he isn’t my favorite character in Malazan.

    That being said, I can see a vocal few moaning about Karsa and finding out after purchasing the first novel that he isn’t in it.

    Well, screw those guys. Keep up the good work. At least you are writing and producing new material that we can devour. Any true Malazan historian knows that you need to go back to go forward. Cheers!

  37. Andrew says:

    Hi Steve – good call on the warning. Sounds like great news too. I wasn’t sure how three books of undiluted Karsa could work, but building him up for the final volume sounds excellent. I was loving the Kharkanas trilogy, so I’m curious to know if Witness continues in that style, or whether it’s more like the Malazan books… I guess I’ll find out soon enough. Enjoy the rest of the writing!

  38. Nadja says:

    Thanks for the update!
    To be honest I would have been disappointed if this trilogy would just follow a sword swinging Karsa. 😉 I love the way you always get so many great characters and plot lines into your (Malazan) books and turn expectations on their heads as with Kharkanas (which I greatly enjoyed. Please do finish it some day!).
    Karsa has never been my favorite character as he often makes me uncomfortable but that‘s what also makes him interesting.
    So I‘m really looking forward to this new trip into the malazan world!

    Greatings from Germany

  39. Gul says:

    An author concerned about fans’ reaction to his next book? Erikson, you’re fucked.

  40. TJ Phillips says:

    Steve I think you’re spot on with setting expectations. As you said if people know it’s a series ABOUT Karsa and he doesn’t appear until later on then we’ll enjoy the ride and not be upset about his (lack of) appearance. I for one can’t wait!

    Having said that, you have already written so many phenomenal story lines that I would rather have you do it YOUR way rather than how you think we would like it. If it is not obvious yet, we are on board with how you are doing it! We are in it for the long haul.

    Thank you for taking us on this journey with you. It is a privilege.

  41. Ben says:

    Interesting,

    I think I wilk be disappointed but not for the reasons a lot of the above comments speculated, or even (if you’ll endulge me) mr Erikson himself, “…sword swinging on page 1”.

    I’m a curious fanboy of fantasy who grew reading fantasy from a young age (Hobbit, Redwall, Deptford Mice, and lord was that dark for a 7 year old) matured into very trope heavy teen readings of Gemmel and early Sanderson, then matured further into much more challenging works; Malazan then Second Apocalypse in particular and the jury’s out on which I actually prefer.
    While reading Malazan I matured in the duration of the books (particularly Karsas arc in HoC – TTH) I began upset at a new character, then disgusted, then disgusted at myself that I liked him, then I loved him and then He became my favourite characrer in any book series.I was a fan who delighted in his savagery (a little vicarious anger management, here) but then began to delight in something else: the curious and alien philosophy of the barbarian. While his later scenes in RG and TTH did include violence (in particular his duel with Rhulad) I began to see Karsa as a complete character rather than a simple expression of a fantasy fans desire to witness (teehee) and imagine “epic” scenes displayed. Rather it was Karsas philosophy and discussions in TTH that drew me to want to know him more and his compassion (not violence) in TCG that brought me to tears. Now matured I loved Karsa for his character. One that displayed violent action for a depth of purpose that neither he, nor I, could appreciate at the start of his journey.

    So while I will, undoubtedly, be disappointed to not be inside the mind of my fantasy hero it is due to my desire to learm more of his philosophy, to see him in action for justified reasons that carry weight and depth and, though it hurts, if it takes a book or two to explore, and speculate through the eyes of those left behind then I believe the outcome will be worthwhile. I never wished to simply follow Karsa Orlong, I grew to want to hear a new line of thinking, a challenging one to my western “enlightened” ears. If mr Erikson believes we must follow the ripples of Karsa, to explore and challenge him before seeing him roused to action….well…I suppose my disappointment will be eclipsed by something more; something ambitious; a moment that takes its time and, fingers crossed, pays off in spades.

    Perhaps, like Karsa, my gut reaction is a sign of my immaturity and this will help me mature anew as my eyes are opened to new horizons that I hasd, formerly, never even considered were worth seeing.

    Forgive my melodrama (my wifes grandmother is playing some very evocative classical music)
    This news genuinely turned me into an entitled bell-end for a minute while I simultaneously decided that if Karsa was not present I would not read, and at the same time reigned in my nonsense to write out why I actually felt a bit sad.
    Perspective. If the book follows Karsa, it cannot not be filled with the philosophy of the Shattered god. In which case, after all that soul searching, I’m in! 😊😉

  42. Charlie Lavery says:

    Torvald Nom to the rescue again!!!! Via the Blue Moranth and any and all randoms you can work in please!!!

  43. Dan says:

    So what you’re saying is …
    “Walk softly and carry a big stick.”

  44. Gabriel Homer Garcia says:

    Just finished Kellanved’s Reach, ready for some “Witness!”

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