I blame Stephen King.
Okay, actually I blame my ex from ’94 for handing me a copy of The Stand while we were working on True Faith, but the point remains: I blame Stephen King for introducing me to the Large Ensemble novel. I read a wide assortment of his novels in 1993-95, intrigued by his style and his characterizations, and it was The Stand that grabbed me the most. I’m extremely picky when it comes to stories with End of the World themes (they don’t bother me, I just have very little interest in them), but this one fascinated me, because it was such a sprawling piece of work. A doorstop. And the edition I read was the expanded version that had just been released. And I loved it. Still do…specifically that version.
I loved the idea of a large ensemble in a novel, because I was fascinated by how each character’s life intertwined with the others, even if they never met face to face. I loved the idea of each character’s unique development and evolution throughout the course of the novel. I especially like how each evolution had a specific role within the main plot, whether it was a large role or a small one.
That’s one of the reasons the Mendaihu Universe novels are always an ensemble affair. Like the purging and repopulating of the human race in The Stand, I wanted to show that the awakening and ascension of spirits in the Universe weren’t merely relegated to the main characters, but to everyone in the world. Not that future MU stories will also have a large cast; I already have some ideas focusing on a minimal number of characters that we may see down the road, and I’m quite sure I’ll have a Tales from the ARU sequence soon enough.
Writing large ensembles is tricky work, because you need to be a really good note-taker, or at least have it down really solid in your head. Switching from one POV to another is simple enough; you just need to pay attention when you do it. More often than not I kept with a single main POV character throughout an entire chapter to keep it simple — and in the process I got to play with that character’s evolution within that length of time. And on a higher level, I had to make sure the main plot kept moving. It was quite the juggling act, but it was a hell of a lot of fun.
I know a lot of people who aren’t big on ensemble casts, or doorstop novels for that matter. They prefer a slimmer cast (and a slimmer spine!) in their books. Shorter, more concise stories, ones that don’t meander or take forever. Events that affect a small group rather than the entire planet. I tend to switch between the two; one of my favorite novels is Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, which essentially has two main characters and about six secondary characters, and the plot mainly focuses on how the house affects the characters. And on the other hand, I also love Masashi Kishimoto’s Naruto manga, which spanned 700 chapters and has an incredible array of main, secondary and tertiary characters who all have unique personalities and play an important part in the overall plot.
I say all this because I know that some readers may find the Bridgetown Trilogy a bit long; A Division of Souls is nearly 150k words, which is quite long even for a genre novel. This made me think about playing with convention, maybe taking the opposite approach that the 1994 edition of The Stand took: what if I created an abridged version of the trilogy, and leave it up to the reader to choose which version they’d like to buy or download? I’m totally fine with taking that step, because I learned from Douglas Adams: there’s always more than one way to tell a story. I could conceivably edit out some minor characters and leave out a few scenes here and there and still have the same story.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s not that I’m refusing to listen to reason by whinging that severely edited versions of the books lead to them being less than pieces of art. Yesterday I bought a copy of one of my favorite 90s movies, Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World. The original 1991 version Warner Bros released is around two hours long; the director’s cut, which I picked up, is 288 minutes — that’s over four and a half hours long. I get that Hollywood needed a much shorter movie. I was fascinated when I watched the first twenty minutes and noticed something: at the 20 minute mark in the Hollywood version, the main female character (Claire) meets the main male character (Trevor/Sam). In the director’s cut, they haven’t even met yet, let alone Claire getting to the destination where they meet. There are number of short establishing shots, bridging scenes, and emotional moments that are there to show how the world looks and behaves in this fictional 1999. Each version tells the story: one is crisp and concise, the other is slow and deliberate. Both work the way they’re supposed to, and both are enjoyable to watch.
And like any director’s cut of any movie, there are going to be fans and detractors. Some audiences hate long films. Others love the idea of an ‘alternate’ version of their favorite movie. This is where I started thinking: why not alternate versions of my novels? Am I willing to spend all that extra time playing around with different versions of my stories? Am I dithering in wanting it both ways? And realistically, would anyone really care either way? Well, some of those questions really don’t matter all that much in reality. I’m not looking for Hugo nominations here.* I’m not looking for scores of fans; I’m just looking for readers who’ll have fun reading my universe, whichever version they so choose.
* — Yes, as a matter of fact, A Division of Souls can be nominated for a Hugo! Go ahead and nominate if you want, I’m cool with that. 🙂