Writing Saga, Series, and Just Plain Long Books

There is nothing an author today has to guard himself more carefully against than the Saga Habit. The least slackening of vigilance and the thing has gripped him.
–P.G. Wodehouse, writing in 1935

How little things change! I, too, am a victim of the Saga Habit. Fifteen Deverry books, four Nola O’Gradys—and I haven’t even finished the Nola series! Even Sorcerer’s Luck, which I meant to be a stand-alone, is insisting that it’s only the first volume of a “Runemaster trilogy.” Over the years, a number of people have asked me why I tend to write at this great length. I’ve put some thought into the answer, and it can be boiled down one word: consequences. Well, maybe two words: consequences and characters. Or perhaps, consequences, characters, and the subconscious mind—above all the subconscious mind. You see what I mean? These things multiply by themselves.

Not all series books are sagas. Some are shaped more like beads on a string, separate episodes held together by a set of characters, who may or may not grow and change as the series continues. Many mystery novels fall into the episode category: Sherlock Holmes, for example, or James Bond. Other series start out as episodics, but saga creeps up on them as minor characters bring depth to a plot and demand stories of their own, for instance, in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan series or Ian Rankin’s detective novels. What determines the difference in these examples comes back to the idea of consequences.

James Bond can kill people, blow up large portions of real estate, see yet another girlfriend die horribly—and have nothing in particular happen as a consequence, at least, not that the reader or viewer ever learns. I’ve always imagined that a large, well-financed insurance team comes along after him, squaring everything with the locals, but we never see that. Consider, too, Hercule Poirot or other classic detectives in the crime novel category. They do not grow and change, because they’re a collection of tics and habits. I don’t mean to imply that there’s something wrong with this, or that episodic works are somehow inferior to sagas. I’m merely pointing out the difference.

An actual saga demands change, both in its characters and its world. Often the innocent writer starts out by thinking she’s going to write some simple, stand-alone story, set maybe in a familiar world, only to find the big guns—consequence, character, and the subconscious—aimed directly at her. Sagas hijack the writer. At least they do me.

A good example is the Deverry series. Back in 1982, I decided to write a fantasy short story about a woman warrior in an imaginary country. It turned into a novella before I finished a first draft. It was also awful—badly written, undeveloped, pompous. The main character came across as a cardboard gaming figure. She wanted revenge for the death of her family. Somehow she’d managed to learn how to fight with a broadsword. That was all I knew. Who had trained her? Why? What pushed her to seek a bloody vengeance? What was going to happen to her after she got it?

The ultimate answer: like most cardboard, she tore apart. Pieces of her life appear in the Deverry sequence, but she herself is gone, too shallow to live. But her passing spawned a great many other characters, both female and male.

Her actions had only the most minimal consequence. She killed the murderer—consequences for him, sure—but he was a nobleman. What would his death mean to his family? His land holdings? The political hierarchy of which he was a part? Come to think of it, what was the political hierarchy in his corner of the fantasy world? Everyone had Celtic names. Their political world would not be a standard English-French feudal society. People still worshipped the pagan gods, too. Why weren’t they Christianized?

The ultimate answer: they weren’t in Europe. They’d gone elsewhere. A very large elsewhere, as it turned out. And then of course, I had to ask: how did they get there?

Now, some people, more sensible than I am, would have sat down with a couple of notebooks and rationally figured out the answers to all these questions. They would have taken their decisions, possibly based on research, back to the original novella and revised and rewrote until they had a nice short novel. Those of us addicted to sagas, however, are not sensible people. Instead of notes and charts, I wrote more fiction.

Here’s where the subconscious mind comes in. Each question a writer asks herself can be answered in two different ways, with a dry, rational note, or a chunk of story. When she goes for the story option, the saga takes over. To continue my novella example, I wrote the scene where the dead lord’s body comes back to his castle, which promptly told me it was a dun, not a castle, thereby filling in a bit more of the background. In the scene of mourning other noble lords were already plotting to get hold of his land, maybe by appealling to an overlord, maybe by marrying off his widow to a younger son. The story possibilities in that were too good to ignore.

You can see their ultimate expression in books three and four of the Deverry saga with the hassle over the re-assignment of Dun Bruddlyn. It just took me a while to get there. The woman warrior, complete with motivation and several past lives’ worth of history, appears in the saga as Jill, Cullyn of Cerrmor’s daughter, but she is not the same person as that first piece of cardboard, not at all. The opening of the original novella, when a woman dressed as a boy sees a pair of silver daggers eating in an inn yard, does appear in a different context with different characters in book six, when Carra meets Rhodry and Yraen. Rather than revenge, however, she’s seeking the father of her unborn child.

More story brings more questions. The writer’s mind works on story, not “information.” Pieces of information can act as the gateways that open into stories and lead the writer into a saga. Tolkien started his vast saga by noticing some odd discrepancies in the vocabulary of Old Norse. Sounds dull, doesn’t it? But he made something exciting out of it. The difference between varg and ulf was just a gate, an innocent little opening leading to a vast life’s work.

Not every writer works in the same way, of course. Many writers make an outline, draw up character sheets, plan the structure of the book to be, and then stick to their original decisions. Often they turn out good books that way, too. I don’t understand how, but they do. I personally am a “discovery writer,” as we’re termed, someone who plans the book by writing it and then revising the entire thing. When it comes to saga, this means writing large chunks of prose before any of it coalesces into a book. I never finished any of the first drafts of these chunks. Later I did, when I was fitting them into the overall series.

Someone like Tolkien, who had a family and a day job, may never get to finish all of his early explorations of the material. Such is one risk of saga. Readers who criticize him and his heirs for all those “unfinished tales” need to understand where the tales came from. Anything beyond a mere jotting belongs to the saga.

Another risk: the writer can put a lot of energy into a character or tale only to see that it doesn’t belong and must be scrapped. When I was trying to turn the original ghastly novella into Daggerspell, the first Deverry novel, the most important dweomerman was an apothecary named Liddyn, a nice fellow…not real interesting, though. My subconscious created a friend of his, a very minor character, who appeared in one small scene, digging herbs by the side of the road. When the friend insisted on turning up in a later scene, I named him Nevyn. If I’d stuck to my original plan, that would have been it for Nevyn. As soon as I asked myself, “but who is this guy?” I realized what he was bringing with him: the entire theme of past lives. Until that moment, reincarnation had nothing to do with this saga.

Liddyn shrank to one mention in one of the later books. Nevyn took over. The past lives appeared when I asked myself how this new strange character got to be a four hundred year old master of magic. What was his motivation? How and why did he study dweomer? These questions brings us right back to the idea of consequences. As a young man Nevyn made a bad mistake out of simple arrogance. The consequences were dire for the woman who loved him and her clan, and over the years these consequences spiraled out of control until they led ultimately to a civil war. The saga had gotten longer but deeper, and I hope richer. Had I ignored these consequences, I would have been left with an interesting episode, isolated, a little thin, perhaps at best backstory.

The term “backstory” always implies a “frontstory,” of course: the main action, the most important part of a book. Some readers get impatient if they feel there’s too much of this mysterious substance, backstory, in a given book or movie. They want to know what they’re getting, where the story is going, and in particular, what kind of story it is, front and center. Sagas, however, can’t be divided into back and front. Is the Trojan War less important than Odysseus’s wanderings? The one is not “backstory” to the other.

The saga has much in common with the literary form critics call the “roman fleuve,” the river-system novel. A great many stories flow together in one of these, like the tributaries that together make up a mighty river meandering across a plain. The classic example is Balzac’s Comedie Humaine. Romans fleuve follow a wide cast of characters over a stretch of time, just as true sagas do. None of the stories are less important than any other.

The past and present of the created world together produce the last essential element of a saga: the feeling of change, of movement forward in time of the saga’s world. In a true saga something always passes away, but at the same time, something new arrives. The elves leave Middle-earth, but the Fourth Age begins. True sagas, in short, include a future.

And that future often calls the writer back to the saga. Sometimes the damn things won’t leave us alone. Which is why I find myself contemplating a return to Deverry for a novel that takes place hundreds of years after the main saga. It should be a stand-alone, I think. But I’m not betting on that.

This article was originally published on the blog of Deborah J Ross in October 2013.

An inveterate loafer, baseball addict, and rock and roll fan, Katharine Kerr begrudgingly spares time to write novels, including the Deverry series of historical fantasies or fantastical histories, depending on your point of view. She lives near San Francisco with her husband of many years, a cat, and a part-time opossum.

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