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