I once did an experiment with my writing. I intentionally wrote Warbreaker as a standalone epic fantasy, much as my first book Elantris was. Obviously, I’m not the only one to release standalones in this genre. There’s a grand tradition of it, and some of my personal favorite books are standalones. I’m curious to see how readers react to me jumping away from a series and doing another standalone, as it’s something I want to do fairly frequently.
And yet, though I don’t let the sales choose what I write or publish, I do let them worry me. Really, releasing that book should have been like releasing any other. I was excited about it, I put my soul into it, and I think it represents some of the best writing I’d done to date. And yet, at the same time, I knew there wass going to be less excitement about it from the readership than there was for the final Mistborn book. Standalones tend to get reviewed more and better, they tend to make fans happy, and yet they just don’t tend to sell as well.
Ever since Tolkien had to split The Lord of the Rings, there has been a strong tradition of the fantasy epic coming in installments. We fantasy readers like lots of worldbuiling, lots of depth of character, and lots of viewpoints. And yet, at the same time, it seems that we like to complain about the length of the series. We want them to be long—but we don’t want them to be TOO long. The problem is, we all seem to have a different definition of what makes a series “too” long.
If you look at the figures, the Wheel of Time didn’t start hitting #1 on the NYT list until its eighth or ninth book. It took Goodkind longer, with Sword of Truth. I believe the eleventh book was the first to hit #1. Even while people were complaining about these series, they were buying more and more copies of them. Perhaps that’s what was making them complain—they really wanted an ending, and were willing to read until they got to it. They just wished they could get the ending sooner.
Or maybe the ones complaining are just a vocal minority. Still, the genre’s love of the huge series does worry me a little. The length of a story shouldn’t be dependent upon what the market wants, but what the story itself demands. If I write a story that I feel takes one book, I want to (and will) release it as one book. If it takes three, I’ll do three. If it takes ten, I’ll do ten. I hope to have the flexibility to be doing a little from each of those piles during my career.
Yet even as it worries me, there’s a piece of me—that fantasy novel lover who grew up as a teenager reading Eddings, Williams, and Jordan—that pushes me to do something BIG. Something grand in scope, something massive, long, intricate, and…well, epic.