Please welcome Gregory A. Wilson to The Qwillery. Grayshade, the 1st novel in The Gray Assassin Trilogy, was published in September by The Ed Greenwood Group.
Arcs Within Arcs
Authors like to talk about development arcs in their fiction: character arcs, plot arcs, thematic arcs. Everyone and everything seems to be perpetually arc-ing over the course of a given text, and to a certain extent this is a reasonable approximation of what we do in our fiction. On its most basic level, a plot arc in a novel represents a slow build, introducing the major characters and conflicts which will be at the center of the book, building to a crescendo in tension and action towards the late middle (or early end?) of the curve, and coming down on the other side as the plot finishes with the denouement of the tale. Where the curve reaches its apex, and how much the other end smoothly descends, varies widely, and of course in some cases the “curve” looks more like a “cliff”...with an ending that punches you in the gut rather than letting you down easily.
But even the non-standard versions of this model assume a novel structure and length, and trying to overlay it onto shorter or longer works is problematic, to say the least. My first real professional short story was pulled from my novel (then manuscript) Grayshade, and I approached it much the way I did a novel—long and, if not exactly languid, not really punchy either. A short story was, I assumed, basically just a mini-novel...very, very mini.
As you might expect, this approach was utterly wrong, for several reasons. First of all, trying to condense a set of large concepts and narrative beats into a miniature frame had about the same effect as squeezing an elephant into a Smart car—an overcompressed set of ideas inside a structure not designed to hold them. It wasn’t long enough to accommodate the ideas I was presenting (even when it ballooned to mid-novelette length), and so felt frustratingly truncated; but because it wasn’t really a novel either, it felt sort of incomplete at the same time. I couldn’t just shrink down a large arc to small size; I needed to write an entirely new arc designed for the strengths for the form. Short stories are powerful precisely because of their relative brevity; they are highly distilled and focused works generally exploring only one or two major ideas with a relatively limited number of characters, and the “arc” is reduced, sometimes with a faster build and shorter denouement, and sometimes with no denouement at all. How powerful would Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” be without the climactic attack as the final act of the story? Over time I’ve found writing these limited arcs to be extremely enjoyable—I can explore an idea without committing to months of research and development on it, and can do so while packing an intense punch.
On the other end of the spectrum is the arc of the series, which presents an entirely different problem. Here you have multiple books (often part of that speculative fiction Holy Grail, the trilogy) making up a much larger story. It’s true that over time the increasing length of fantasy novels have stretched the limits of what a reader will accept in a single book; most hardly blink at two hundred thousand word epics now, and between eighty and a hundred thousand words has become (more or less, and always with notable exceptions) the speculative fiction genre minimum. But still, when a tale deals with numerous city-states, nations, continents, planets, and universes, and is headed towards 250K with no sign of slowing down, multiple books are called for.
In sitting down to write The Gray Assassin Trilogy, I assumed I could use the novel form broadened out, and again I was wrong. For one thing, the individual book was going to suffer; I couldn’t just cut off the tale one third of the way through when I reached the end of Book One, Grayshade, especially when the sequel wasn’t going to be out for another year (well, I could, but I would hear about it from editors and readers). The book itself would be incomplete and unsatisfying, and the series would be hanging in limbo. And a year later, where would my readers be—waiting around for the second act, or wandering off to other tales that were already finished? I knew what I would do as a reader. Second, what would happen to the sequels? We already complain about the “middle book / movie / game syndrome”; what about a second book which starts in the middle of the action and doesn’t conclude anything in the end? Not a pretty picture.
The answer, then, was to build for the new form: an arc within an arc. Each book has its own build, climax, and (whether more or less gradual) denouement, but is also building the broader story. Thus the events of Grayshade are somewhat self-contained, but also propel its characters into Book Two, Renegade; that book’s arc, in turn, will both resolve some of the questions and conflicts it raises on its own while also setting up and advancing the tale into the third and final act of the series, due out in 2018. The overall effect, I hope, is to both satisfy readers in the short term and keep them excited about the long term story, doing so within a structure which is large enough to accommodate exactly these sorts of rises and falls.
For the five, eight, and ten (or more!) book series writers: you have my admiration, respect, and assurance that I don’t expect to join you in that writing any time soon...I’ve got enough on my plate with three-into-one arc structures! But if I ever do try my hand at a longer series, the first step is going to be to study the characteristics and strengths of the form. Until then, I’m going to keep my elephants and my Smart cars separate. Everyone ends up a lot happier that way.
The Gray Assassin Trilogy 1
The Ed Greenwood Group, September 30, 2016
For ten years the assassin Grayshade has eliminated threats to the Order of Argoth, the Just God. The Acolytes of Argoth are silent and lethal enforcers of the Order’s will within the sprawling city of Cohrelle, whose own officials must quietly bow to the Order’s authority while publicly distancing themselves from its actions.
Grayshade is the supreme executor of the Order’s edicts, its best trained and most highly respected agent. But when a mission doesn’t go as planned, Grayshade starts to question the authority and motives of his superiors; and as he investigates, he soon finds himself the target of the very Order he once served without question. Now it will take all of Grayshade’s skill, intuition, and cunning to find the answers he seeks…if he can stay alive.
Gregory A. Wilson is Professor of English at St. John’s University in New York City, where he teaches creative writing and fantasy fiction along with various other courses in literature. His first academic book was published by Clemson University Press in 2007; on the creative side, he has won an award for a national playwriting contest, and his first novel, a work of fantasy entitled The Third Sign, was published by Gale Cengage in the summer of 2009. His second novel, Icarus, will be published as a graphic novel by Silence in the Library Publishing in 2016, and he has just signed a three book deal with The Ed Greenwood Group, which will be publishing his Gray Assassin Trilogy beginning with his third novel, Grayshade, in 2016. He has short stories out in various anthologies, including Time Traveled Tales from Silence in the Library, When The Villain Comes Home, edited by Ed Greenwood and Gabrielle Harbowy, and Triumph Over Tragedy, alongside authors like Robert Silverberg and Marion Zimmer Bradley, and he has had three articles published in the SFWA Bulletin.
He is a regular panelist at conferences across the country and is a member of the Gen Con Writers’ Symposium, the Origins Library, Codex, Backspace, and several other author groups on and offline. On other related fronts, he did character work and flavor text for the hit fantasy card game Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer, and along with fellow speculative fiction author Brad Beaulieu is the co-host of the critically-acclaimed podcast Speculate! The Podcast for Writers, Readers and Fans, a show which discusses (and interviews the creators and illustrators of) speculative fiction of all sorts and types. He lives with his wife Clea and daughter Senavene–named at his wife’s urging for a character in The Third Sign, for which his daughter seems to have forgiven him–in Riverdale, NY.