Epic Impatience

Sonically Epic: I received an email alerting me to the upcoming release of a new Sigur Rós album. I’m excited by the news, and I’ve been playing their older albums almost nonstop since. Whether you’re familiar with the Icelandic art-rock band or not, you’ve probably heard their music. It’s often featured in film soundtracks, and rightfully so. Their music is lush and atmospheric. Even though their songs lyrics are never sung in English, powerful emotions are conveyed to the listener with a language that is beyond mere words.

Many of Sigur Rós’s songs are like miniature epics. Hoppípolla, one of their best known pieces, is a good example. It starts with a restrained but subtle urgency and builds to dramatic and joyous crescendo before fading with a cathartic sorrow. It leaves you feeling… something. I’m sure that something is different for every listener.

Epic Pondering: And so it was that I spent the week considering the next steps on my journey toward publication to a backing soundtrack of Sigur Rós. The music got me thinking in a new light. Like a Sigur Rós piece, my trilogy is designed to be an epic. An epic, by definition, is a long-form narrative about the life and deeds of a hero(ine) or heroes. Because of a series of helpful rejections from literary agents, and advice from my editor (the fabulous Cathy Yardley) and my writer-friend/beta readers (thanks WU Mod Squad!), I am considering lopping off the front quarter of book one of the trilogy. This in the service of getting the reader into the action sooner, closer to the inciting incident. I understand the whys of the advice, and I’m grateful for it. The whole thing just has me wondering about patience in this immediate gratification world.

My Epic Reading History: Many of my favorite books are sweeping historical epics. They introduce you to the hero(ine) or heroes early in life, and build with a restrained urgency. They incorporate lush atmospherics. Many don’t offer up an inciting incident for many long chapters. I’m thinking of books like the Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, in which we meet Morgaine’s mother, Igraine first. We learn all about the atmosphere of Cornwall and the vacuum in the politics of the Britons caused by the withdrawal of the Romans. The first of the story from the primary protagonist’s (Morgaine’s) point of view comes in chapter nine.

Another that comes to mind is Kushiel’s Dart, by Jacqueline Carey. We are introduced to Carey’s heroine basically at birth. Phèdre narrates (in an incredibly powerful and unique first person voice) her own life’s story as she’s raised in the Night Court and introduced to the ways of Service to Naamah. Phèdre doesn’t move into the home of her patron Anafiel Delaunay until chapter six. And her introduction to the intrigues of the royal court, and her introduction to and involvement with her nemesis Melisande, proceeds from there. Many other books spring to mind—The Far Pavilions, The Thorn Birds, to name a few more—but I’m sure you get the idea.

Write What You Want to Read: It’s all I set out to do. I can’t get enough of epic historicals, fantasy or otherwise. And I still feel good that in the epic culture clash of the Germanic Tribes versus the Roman Empire, I have a unique setting and conflict foundation. But, in light of my situation, I’m questioning whether there is still room in the world for epics. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that the story must be compelling from the first page. Every note of a Sigur Rós song draws you in, leads you on the journey. Every sentence uttered by Phèdre no Delaunay delivers intriguing atmosphere. This is the type of story I wanted to tell in Legacy of Broken Oaths. I wanted to begin with the meeting of my hero and heroine, hoping their being forced together, entwined by a destiny foreseen by their grandsires, who died long before they were born, would be intriguing to readers. I had hoped that I could create an atmosphere that drew readers in to a world of mysticism, political posturing, and looming war.

It’s on me: Then again, perhaps it’s not that the patience for epics is gone. Sigur Rós may never sell as many records as Lady Gaga, or even Adele, but they are internationally renowned. Jacqueline Carey’s historical fantasies may not always make the NYT bestseller list, but she had success with a whole new epic trilogy (Naamah’s Kiss, Blessing & Curse) set in Phèdre’s  world of Terre d’Ange, but which tells the tale of a new heroine (Moirin mac Fainche) who lives several generations later. And one has only to go to her facebook page to see that her fan-base is loyal and vocal.

It’s worth it: Perhaps I simply have yet to create the necessary intrigue. I understand that atmospherics aren’t enough. Perhaps I just haven’t struck the resonant notes needed to draw readers in quickly enough. I’m honored by the praise of many beta readers who have read on past the opening, and who have told me of their fondness for my characters and for the story. But I realize, whether I lop off the front or not, I’ve got to get them there. I’ve realized that it’s me who needs to be patient.

I’ve decided I’m up for the challenge. I’ve decided the trilogy is worth the effort. I’ve come this far, and I’m willing to continue to strive, for as long as it takes. I have the patience to read and listen to epics. Now I need to strive for the patience to perfect my own epic.

What about you? Do you have any favorite epic historicals? Is there still room in your reading or listening life for the longer form?

32 comments on “Epic Impatience

  1. Heather Reid says:

    Vaughn, I love epic fantasy. As a fan, I have to say, yes, there is still room in my reading life for them. I love the hero’s quest and a well built world. I think it is hard to have patients when you’re a writer. I think it’s even harder to sometimes know if your doing the right thing when it comes to edits. Especially if you have conflicing feedback.

    It’s even harder to have patients. We want to send our books out into the world, to share our characters and our world with readers. It’s what we were born to do. It’s only natural to feel a bit rushed.

    The trilogy IS worth the effort. I know you’ll do whatever it takes to acheive your dream. There are so many people who belive in you and who are rooting for you. You can do it!

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    • Thanks, Heather! Knowing what to do, re: edits, is a tough call. There have really not been so many rejections, in the scheme of things. And perhaps the right agent or editor–one who would love Bonds of Blood as is–is out there. But with several hundred K of completed prose hanging in the balance, I know I’ve got to get the opening right, no matter how many times or how long it takes.

      Thanks for your unfailing support. I really do appreciate it so much!

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  2. Story Addict says:

    Great stuff, Vaughn! It’s definitely worth the effort. And it’s really not about getting the greatest amount of fans but creating something pure like the music you enjoy. I’ve read plenty of epics, though the ones I love are those that cut back on the filler and instead fill the hundreds of pages with good, solid plot and character focus. The first book in the Game of Thrones series is a great example (though I wouldn’t consider it historical).

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    • I’ve never aspired to best-seller lists, or even throngs of fans. All I want is a loyal enough readership to grant me the opportunity to keep doing what I love. 🙂

      And don’t get me wrong about atmospherics and epic long-form. I’m not talking about filler. I really love the details and the world-building, and believe–if done correctly–those elements contribute to, rather than detract from, good story. Your example of Game of Thrones is a perfect one to illustrate my point. I love the scores of characters, the rich detail of GRRM’s world. I’m so content to follow the various story threads and plot twists, the slowly leaked back-story. He’s a master.

      And G of T is hugely popular, so you’ve answered my question. 😉 Thanks for that, and for reading and for your great comment!

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  3. Tonia Marie Houston says:

    Take heart, epic fantasy readers thrive. In fact, it’s part of what brought my husband and I together. During our first conversation he(then only 21 yrs. old) introduced me to Robert Jordan and Terry Goodkind. A young friend at my old job introduced me to Jacqueline Carey, and I found GRRM along the way.

    I know it’s against all our writer rules, but I love being drawn in with atmosphere and backstory. That’s what pulled me deep into Phedre’s world. Ms. Carey builds this lush, provocative world I want to be a part of.

    Vaughn, I think writers learn the rules so we can break them. My ms is not an epic fantasy, but I’m building a world, and discovered it’s going to take a great deal more time and patience than I thought. I’m with you. As you’ve said before, we have to adapt to our own innate writing process. Best way to get our voice–and that of our world’s–on paper.

    P.S. How the heck did I not know you had a blog? I’m going to hang out here more often. 🙂

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    • So cool that epic fantasy brought you and hubby together, Tonia. That does my heart a lot of good. 🙂 I discovered JC after I started writing, but I immediately knew she’d achieved what I was striving for in the Terre d’Ange books.

      It’s such a slow process. And I’m perhaps a slower learner than most. The earliest version of my book one was well over 200K. It’s down to about 135, but might be on its way further down. Granted, several thousand of those original words were unneeded dialog tags, adverbs, etc. 😉 But still, adapting my own process to a marketable product has been a slow but steady evolution for me. As I say, I’m committed.

      As for the blog, it’s understandable you didn’t know of it, Tonia. It’s fairly new, and I’m a sporatic blogger. I’ll try to remedy that since you so graciously offered to hang out. 🙂 Thanks for your wise words and your support!

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  4. ddfalvo says:

    I hear you loud and clear. Your blog is the story of my own struggle, where I must face a complete re-structure in order to tell the story with a modern pace. The eloquent slow build of the music’s movement likened to the careful unwinding of an epic tale describes our job perfectly. I have learned I must make each plot movement strike the correct note in the edit. To do that my first job is to secure a strong melody before I add in the harmonizing details. You have a gift for grasping the heart of a matter and then translating that vision clearly– so many writers cannot do that, and this is what will get you printed. Wishing you much success.

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    • Good point about securing a strong melody, Denise. I sometimes do get caught up in the harmonizing details. Cathy (mentioned above) helped me by repeatedly asking me what each character really wanted, and what I hoped to accomplish with each and every scene. I sometimes feel like I’m a bit slow, so it’s good she is patient and kind enough to be repetitious. I’m learning to be patient with the process, too. For that reason, I’m particularly flattered by your generous praise! 🙂

      I know how busy you are with your own revisions, D, so thanks so much for taking the time to read the post and for your insightful and thoughtful comment!

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  5. liz says:

    Like you, I wonder sometimes if we as a culture are losing our patience with things that are slow to unfold. Delayed gratification seems like an antique notion, but as a kid I loved losing myself in epic worlds. I hope you persist, Vaughn, and find the balance you are striving for.

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    • A recent and popular epic fantasy novel had an action scene in the first twenty pages that seemed out of place to me. From there, the book procedes as a flashback, as the teller of the tale relates the narrative of his life. It seemed like a logical place for the ‘story’ to have begun in the first place. The author has a wonderful way with language and a powerful voice. I found myself wondering how much the marketplace, and our obsession with ‘grabbing them early’ had to do with the convoluted opening. If my suspicions are correct, the machinations were counterproductive in this case.

      Thanks for the well-wishes, Liz! I’m hoping for balance in the result of my own ‘marketplace machinations’ too.

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  6. It’s very common for first novels to begin in the wrong place. You’re in good company, if that’s indeed an issue.

    I’m not a huge historical fantasy fan, but I willingly read multi-volume urban fantasies, sometimes to the tenth or eleventh book. Patience, o WU FB editor.

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    • Doh. Meant to bring this quote to your blog earlier. It’s from Nora Rawlinson of Early Word:

      “Literary Fiction’s
      Big Week
      It’s a literary feast next week, with new books by both Toni Morrison and John Irving. Critics are already lining up to express their opinions of these two literary giants, both of whom began their writing careers in the 1970’s. Also arriving next week is Hilary Mantel’s eagerly-awaited second book about the Tudors, Bring Up the Bodies, which follows her best selling Wolf Hall. Americans surprised the literary world by embracing that long historical novel dense with political intrigue. Are readers ready for another helping? [More here]”

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    • Seems to be the case, by most accounts. I wasn’t totally oblivious to the issue. Well, maybe during the very first draft. Why is it these things are so much more complicated for our own works, but so easily spotting in the work of others? 😉

      Thanks for the reassurance on the willing multi-volume reading, Jan. I’ve got a lot of stuff for readers to read, if I can just get them started. And thanks for the reminder and the support.

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      • Didn’t see your quote when I replied before, but it is heartening. I think the rise of Game of Thrones, due to the HBO miniseries, bodes well for epic tales too. I’ve heard about Wolf Hall but haven’t read it. I think I should. Thanks again!

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  7. Nicole L. Bates says:

    This is a tough call Vaughn, and interestingly I find myself in a similar situation. It’s so hard to look at the castle that you’ve built and then decide to destroy several of your favorite towers. Only you can decide what is best for the story, and in the end I know you’ll make the right decision. For the record there are readers who love atmosphere and background. Your story is worth the effort. One thing that I’ve thought about is eliminating the first several chapters and if this makes the story more immediately appealing to a wider audience great. Perhaps once your story is out there you can offer up those chapters you removed and the fans you already have will eat them up. Just a thought.

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    • It is hard, isn’t it, Nicole? Great idea on offering up the chapters as a stand-alone. Actually, my editor Cathy had the same thought (great minds…). She suggested offering them in a tab on my website as a sort of lead-in short story, which in my case might work pretty well.

      Thanks for reinforcing the idea, and for your reassurance and support. Good luck with Empyrean!

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  8. It is truly stressful trying to decide what is best for your story. There are so many differing opinions. Also, something I never really thought about before is how genre requirements affect a story. I don’t read much epic fantasy, but I think if those wide, sweeping generational views are a part of the genre, then you kind of have to have them in there, and then it’s like you said about making that part of the story compelling and intriguing. Of course, I’m not an editor. Or an agent.

    I have been looking and re-looking at my first page. Before I rewrote it, the action got started on the bottom of page one. After rewrite, it gets started about half-way into the page. I don’t really like the rewrite. I like a little bit of warm up to get into a story. I added a hook line, which I’m hoping creates interest and tension. But, do I go with the re-write, or with my preferences, and this is just the first page! I don’t envy you having to decide what to do with several chapters…

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    • Part of the issue for me is that my opening scene was one that I dreamed, which makes me just a tad too sentimental, and perhaps too superstitious, about losing it. I still like a line Cathy Yardley (she keeps coming up today) gave me: The first draft is all our own, but all subsequent work belongs to the reader.

      In your case, Lara, I think reading to the bottom of page one is absolutely soon enough, especially if you have a nice hook line. I know it’s hard to decide, and I haven’t read it, but my gut tells me you should trust your gut here.

      You’ve got a good point, that there are genre expectations. All good things to consider moving forward. Thanks for reading, for sharing, and for weighing in!

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  9. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says:

    An all-too-familiar-dilemma for me as well–to lop-off or not to lop-off, what to rewrite? A lot of conflicting advice out there, too. Almost like a choice a hero/heroine might have to make on a quest, no? In the end the wise ones usually follow their inner guide… so go with your gut, do what you know is best for your writing. May the force be with you.

    Thanks for posting the beautiful music. 🙂

    Like

    • Thanks, Bernadette! Problem is, I trusted my gut for this last rewrite (the rewrite to end all rewrites… that moniker worked out about as well as when they used a similar one for WWI). I guess I’m having gut trust issues. 😉

      My pleasure on the music. So glad you enjoyed. 🙂

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  10. I like my epics in single book form, if possible, too, though I’ll read trilogies and more. I’m a rereader as well, and hope I’ll read The Thorn Birds, Sho-Gun, and LOTR many times more before death, I hope; I’m still working on The Iliad.

    And as far as I’m concerned, if you haven’t read The Chronicles of Amber and The Earthsea trilogy, you haven’t lived.

    Keep on with that long story– until it’s finished, I’ll be listening to the latest book in The Dark Tower series, and trying to decide if my MC’s lives go from age 6 to 26, or 36.

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    • Hey Mary, thanks for stopping by! I too am a rereader, and have reread all three of those you mention.

      Never actually tackled The Iliad. Love Earthsea, but haven’t gotten to Chronicles of Amber, either. I know several fantasy writers who consider The Dark Tower series a must read. And so I must, and will, since I have the same decision to make. 😉 Thanks for weighing in!

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  11. katmagendie says:

    I almost let Sweetie out at the ‘wrong time’ in the ‘wrong way’ – At the very last minute – I mean the morning after I’d sent it to my editor as “done” – I emailed her and said “wait” because something that had been poking at me for a while kept poking. I went for it, and I chopped off three chapters in the beginning and two at the end. It was the best decision I could have made and I shudder to think how the book would have been had I not done that, for it also gave me an idea for something in the chapters I did keep and it made the book less draggy at the beginning.

    I say trust your gut.

    But also be true to you and what you love to write and to read. Write with truths . . . and as I said on FB today -OWN IT – whatever you decide to do OWN IT!

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    • Hearing that from you, about a book I loved, really helps, Kat. Thanks. I loved the opening and end of Sweetie, so can’t imagine it any other way. Hopefully that will be what happens with my book one.

      You know, it’s funny, there have been a lot of references to trusting you gut in this wonderfully helpful thread of comments. And I must admit, when it comes to the opening third of my book one, my gut is actually at its weakest. Bringing readers into such a huge and foreign world is such a tricky thing. I’ve never been completely at ease about it. So, the glass half full guy in me is happy. If I can nail this opener, my gut tells me readers will only enjoy it more and more, from book to book. How’s that for sounding confident?

      Thanks so much for relating your oh-so-perfect to hear personal experience with this, my friend! 🙂

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      • katmagendie says:

        I’ll tell you one more little ‘story’ – in my first book, I was told by one place I submitted that they didn’t like the beginning and thought I should start with the second part, and I was told by another I submitted that they loved my beginning and should make that more of a focus even into the second part, and I was told by another place it was too long, = so I went with “would you want to read this kat?” and I said, “yeah, I like this book!” – and then whadyaknow I was told by BB that it was perfect *laugh* – –

        Whatever you decide, there will be so many different opinions; so, you only have yourself to please – when you sit back and say done – you should feel it is DONE and feel good and as if you would pick this (your) book off the self and read it. All else is just other’s opinions. Just yours counts.

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  12. Wise words, Kathryn. I really like that standard. Thanks so much for coming back and making my day with such a positive message. Hope you’re having a wonderful weekend!

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  13. Nina Badzin says:

    Hmm, maybe it’s the blogging, but I find it hard to get into anything epic these days. In some ways I think of The Hunger Games as epic if you think of all three books together. I guess that’s been my most recent “epic” experience.

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    • I just read your great article today about how blogging is ‘enough.’ But I’m not nearly as prolific or as skilled a blogger as you, Nina. Maybe I’d write more and better blog posts if I didn’t get lost in reading (and writing) so many big ole doorstop books. 😉 I do agree, Hunger Games does feel like one of those trilogies that is a unified epic tale, rather than an ongoing series. I like that.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

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  14. I’m a fan of the “sonically epic” sigor ros. To me, the music is sort of a modern day take on classical music with their endless treats for the ears in movements, overtures, etc…Still have not become a fan of the epic reading however. Probably because a lot of the trilogies, etc are more contemporary literature, and I do not read a lot of these types of books.

    Like

    • Always nice to meet another Sigur Ros fan. Good obervation on the classic nature of their music. I’m not sure if by contemporary you mean set in the current time, or if you mean stylistically, but in either case, I’m not exactly a fan, either. 🙂 Thanks so much for stopping by and for commenting!

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  15. Your “epic historicals” … I gotta mention Kathryn Magendie. Her books make me laugh, cry, remember my life growing up. There was a series written back in the 70s (?) about a family in Revoluntionary War times, there were about a half dozen of them, can’t remember the names of the books or the author, but I do remember reading them. Also, “Roots.” “The Clan of the Cave Bear,” first couple of books were awesome, then it got sort of mundane. But if I can finish one book in any series and can’t wait for the next one…that is “epic” to me.

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  16. […] the lack of patience of today’s audiences for atmospherics. I already did that a few weeks ago, here. This time I want to talk about derivation. I promise not to bemoan those who are too quick to site […]

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