Last week saw us celebrating the launch of FRAGILE BOOKS, Susan’s bold and wonderful venture into the world of publishing, with the first eight of my CHUNG KUO books re-packaged in lovely new covers, in the shops and waiting to be added to – one every four months, if we can!
At the same time I’ll be beavering away at the final four books of the sequence, hoping to produce a book a year, to be published in close succession once books nine to sixteen have been presented to a world-wide audience. Which gives us a schedule that reads as follows –
Book 9 – MONSTERS OF THE DEEP – October 2017
Book 10 – THE STONE WITHIN – February 2018
Book 11 – UPON A WHEEL OF FIRE – June 2018
Book 12 – BENEATH THE TREE OF HEAVEN – October 2018
Book 13 – SON OF THE BRONZE STATUE – February 2019
Book 14 – WHITE MOON, RED DRAGON – June 2019
Book 15 – CHINA ON THE RHINE – October 2019
Book 16 – DAYS OF BITTER STRENGTH – February 2020
Book 17 – THE FATHER OF LIES – June 2020
Book 18 – BLOOD AND IRON – October 2020
Book 19 – KING OF INFINITE SPACE – February 2021
Book 20 – THE MARRIAGE OF THE LIVING DARK – September 2021
Well, that’s the aim, anyway. However, the nature of the final two books – and I won’t in any way spoil it for you in advance – might mean putting each of them back six months or so. Because there’s a circularity about things in this version of CHUNG KUO, and it just has to be right, both in structure and in feel.
Covers for the new books are being produced even as I write this, and we might even offer our fans a special boxed set – all twenty books in one strong package – available as an ‘empty’ box for those who’ve already bought all the single books. I can see it even now, there on the shelf.
There are, of course, numerous ways of messing this thing up, but we’re going to try our very best this time round, and with the next eight ready to be tidied up and re-packaged, and only four (admittedly longish) books to be presented, we’ve got a good chance of hitting our target. Our aimed-for publication date for that final book coincides with my sixty seventh birthday, so there’s another excuse for a big celebratory party!
Okay. That’s all the practical stuff. What I want to do now is look at a few of my musings from back in June 2013. About Endings and Dying On The Job, and…
Well hell… here it is. And it’s called –
The Trouble With Endings
 DEAD MAN WRITING
Building a world, and peopling it, and then giving those characters a convincing (and interesting) dramatic existence within that created world – all of that is pretty hard to do, especially when you are working to the kind of epic scale that some authors choose. But the hardest thing of all – the one thing that authors almost universally find difficult – is ending the damn thing.
But why should this be so?
Working on and epic scale, you (as an author) build a world with one main intention in mind: to ultimately destroy it. If you don’t, if you work to some scheme where very little changes and all is very much the same at the end, then you have failed spectacularly. That said, from the reader’s viewpoint, no matter what the author intends and delivers, there’s comfort to be had from living imaginatively (and, of course, vicariously) in an unchanging ‘world’. That’s why those big, multi-volumed epics attract a large audience. But when, as you must, you bring the whole house of cards tumbling down on the characters’ heads, that’s when previously loyal fans are likely to turn around and complain that you haven’t got it right. Maybe that you’ve lost it altogether. And sometimes they’re right.
I’ll come to my own case – Chung Kuo – in a whole, but let’s look at this phenomenon as it appertains to two of the real giants of the fantasy field, Robert Jordan and George R R Martin.
Now, Harry Potter aside, you can’t get much bigger than those two. Both have spent millions of words lovingly creating their worlds and the people within then. They’ve spent long years coming up with and developing plot lines that will draw their readers in and make them long for the next instalment. But there’s something neither of them have managed.
To end it.
By which I mean to come to that final line – that final sentence that will make their readers look up from that very last page, a look of shock, or horror, or some other deep emotion etched upon their faces.
And to make that self-same reader say, in an awed whisper, “So that’s what it was all about!”
In Robert Jordan’s case with The WHEEL OF TIME, I think we might excuse him, as the poor man died before his overall scheme could be laid before a discerning public. Or perhaps not, because Jordan knew he had only a limited time in which to work and partially plotted out the final volume(s), leaving them for another – Brandon Sanderson, as if turned out – to carry out his schemes. And, because an ending DOES exist – if not the ending Jordan might have come to had he remained healthy enough to finish it himself – we might say that he DID end it.
Only I’d argue that he didn’t. Three lengthy volumes of battles, leading to “Tarman Gai-don, the Final Battle, isn’t exactly an imaginatively way of resolving all of the themes and plot-lines Jordan had developed in the eleven volumes he delivered before illness took him. I don’t want to blame Brandon Sanderson too much, but it does feel as if a committee got together and made the decision to “end it with a big battle.” One that takes a million words to tell. I mean, it’s what Tolkien did in LORD OF THE RINGS and Jordan’s fantasy sequence does begin – in Book One, THE EYE OF THE WORLD – very much in Tolkien’s shadow.
And you see, this is Brandon Sanderson’s ending. Not Jordan’s. And nothing in the universe can convince me that it is anything like the ending Jordan would have given the books. We’re fooled, I guess, by the fact that he’s using Jordan’s settings, Jordan’s characters, and (some of) Jordan’s plot-lines. I mean, let’s not fool ourselves, Sanderson’s work, for all that it’s officially sanctioned and for all of its commercial success, is still, in a very real sense, a piece of fan fiction. Jordan didn’t write it. Oh, he wrote some of it, apparently, but…
I think, if Jordan had survived, if he hadn’t fallen ill, and if he’d been granted another twenty years of life, he would still be writing the damn thing, postponing that moment when he had to let go of his world and struggling (as we all do who enter into epic territory) to come up with a finale that genuinely satisfied the reader on every level.
I’d argue that Sanderson had it relatively easy. Oh, he had to assimilate all of that previously-written stuff (all three million words plus of it), but it wasn’t in any way, shape or form HIS. So making decisions must have been much easier. His hardest task was to mimic what had come before. To try and make the transition between Book 11, KNIFE OF DREAMS, and the last three books, appear seamless. After all, wasn’t that what the fans (and the publishers) wanted?
No, I don’t want to be too hard on Brandon Sanderson. He did as good a job as he was asked to do. But you can’t expect him to magically BE Robert Jordan, to somehow come up with answers to all those questions that Robert Jordan would have confronted and decided on. So considered it unfinished, in the same way that Dicken’s EDWIN DROOD is unfinished – hey, and look at how many different published endings that has if you want an example of how different writers invariably come up with totally different resolutions to the same material.
It’s just that it seems a hell of a lot easier for someone to come along, look at a project from the outside, as a fan, and come up with a simplified, stripped-down ending, without any of the usual agonising about how to resolve all of that stuff that’s been raised and left dangling on all sides.
But let’s move on. To George R R Martin and A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE.
 The Game And The Song
Now let me state quite clearly, so that you’re in no doubt about it, that Martin’s magnum opus is the best thing I’ve read in the genre since I encountered LORD OF THE RINGS back in the early seventies. It’s a magnificent piece of work with some of the best drawn in fantasy – John Snow, Tyrion Lannister, Arya Stark, Daenerys Targaryen, Joffrey Baratheon, ‘The Hound’, and Brienne of Tarth, to name but a few of his many brilliant creations – and I was at pains to point out, to anyone who’d listen, that the TV version was best when it just took what Martin had crafted in his books and presented it – dialogue and all – without a single change.
However, having now read all of the books that currently exist, and having watched the three series of GAME OF THRONES as it’s generically become known, I’ve changed my mind. Books Four and Five, wonderful as they are in certain ways, are also something of a disappointment structurally. Something which the author realised and, in what is an almost unprecedented step, wrote what can only be called an apology.
“Meanwhile, Back on the Wall…” published at the end of Book Four, A FEAST OF CROWS, is an admission by George R R Martin that he got the structure of Book Four (and subsequently Five) completely and utterly wrong. For no good or sensible reason (other than, perhaps, his publishers’ prodding him to get a book out after so long a gap) he left out many of our favourite characters or, as with Tyrion, sent them on long, tedious journeys down in the southlands.
Winter’s coming. We know that. And we also know that magic (and dragons) are seeping back into the world. The brutal realism in which the books began is slowly changing. Forces are on the march across vast continents, and all of that’s good. The thing has overall shape. Unfortunately, Martin hasn’t quite grasped that in his overall design and after three perfectly plotted volumes (okay, flour if you break book three in two) everything began to fall apart. From the sound of it, Martin just wrote and wrote and wrote, without any real thought being given to how to pull all of that material together in the right manner. Whether this was because he was distracted – by TV interest, and his work on the WILD CARDS series – or not, the fact is that five years passed between Books Three and Four, and a further six between Books Four and Five. And what did we get? Good stuff, page by page, but what about the overall themes?
One of my guesses as to why he got it wrong is that he had created far too many characters and far too many plot-lines, and, lacking the will to be as ruthless with his manuscripts as his characters were with each other, he produced two weighty tomes that really ought to have been intercut and then, like A STORM OF SWORDS, cut into two, or even three. It should really not have been left as it was. If Martin had spent a further six months organising the material he had created, then they would have been quite as magnificent as the earlier books.
But he didn’t and, strangely enough, I think that David Benioff and D B Weiss have not only grasped what the thing IS, they have actually – working under the constraints of television – produced something which is far better structured than the original, especially in dealing with the material set far from Westeros in the deep southern deserts. What I found tedious in the book – those interminable scenes with Daenerys and the cities of the plains – work wonderfully in the TV version. There’s a real balance between the TV version’s plot-lines. Even when it spreads its web wide and takes its time, building one of those many (sixteen?) tales within The Tale, it never bores us.
I want to pause a moment and look at what Martin actually says in that ‘apology’.
“To tell all of the story that I wanted to tell, I was going to have to cut the book in two. The simplest way to do that would have been to take what I had, chop it in half at the middle, and end with ‘To Be Continued’ The more I thought about that, however, the more I felt that the readers would be better served by a book that told all of the story for half the characters. So that’s the route I chose to take.”
Yeah, and got it wrong, George. Because the strongest, most distinctive thing about A GAME OF THRONES is its characters, and to deliberately omit them completely from the story for near on 850 pages is NOT the way to do it.
Yes, but… you’re supposed to be talking about endings, David. How the hell is this relevant to that?
Okay, just think a moment, Martin is – what? – just over halfway through his epic. The big changes have yet to come. Daenerys is still a long way from coming home to Westeros. Magic is slowly seeping back into this world, but not at any pace.
So how long is Martin going to take to finish A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE? And how’s he going to do it?
At the present rate, and with each book growing bigger and taking longer, I’d estimate he’ll need three more thousand pagers minimum, let’s say at five years a throw. And he’s sixty four now (cue Beatles ditty), so he’s likely to be seventy nine when he’s done. Maybe in his eighties. And, as we all know who’ve passed the fifty mark, we authors start to slow down. Things take longer. And, with the fame Martin has attracted through the TV series of his books, there are bound to be a lot more distractions – nurse-maiding the TV series being perhaps the greatest of them all.
Ah yes, but what about the TV series? How might that make Martin’s task – in ending ‘The Song’ – a lot easier? Let’s look at that a moment.
Having Hollywood move in on your franchise makes a huge difference, especially when the epic they’ve bought off you is only half finished. Normally this is for the bad. Movie and TV adaptations of classic genre works don’t usually match their written counterparts, but, as the magnificent HBO version of THE GAME has proved, it can be done. But then there’s a unique factor at work here. And that is that the TV version is likely – highly likely, I’d say – to be completed long before we see the final paperback, and it’s almost certain that, when the deal was being done, a lot of work, by both Martin and Weiss and Benioff, went into plotting out the way ahead. That is … how it ends. There’s no way they would have gone ahead without having the road ahead clearly marked out.
Now, what does this imply? That Martin has, in effect, become his own Brandon Sanderson? A hired writer, in effect, in his own epic world, settling on the details of the plot long before he’d really wished to do so, and – as the downside of that process – abandoning those wonderful ‘accidents’ and chanced discoveries (of plot and character) that can only happen if you write into clear imaginative space.
Because that’s the truth. Making a lot of the plotting decisions before it’s time to do so can be harmful to a work of fiction, particularly when you have so many plot lines and characters. And I imagine that, unless Martin chooses to take the books on his own path, completely separate from the TV version, then the final series of GAME, as with the final volume of SONG (distinguishing the two) will prove a lot less exciting and powerful and drop-dead superb – than they really ought to be.
Oh, I’m guessing what’s going to happen. Of course I am. But think of it a moment. If the TV guys are planning a series a year for the next four years, that brings us to a finish date for GAME of 2017, which is six years on from when Martin published the last of his epic doorstops, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS. Well, the most we can hope for by then is that he’s produced Book Six of the sequence, and that maybe he’s got Daenerys home (with her, by then, quite massive dragons). And the rest of it? Well, we’ll have seen on lour TV screens how things developed, who died, who triumphed and who failed. Yes, and how Winter came at last to Westeros. And unless we’ve the patience to put the box set aside and not watch them for – 0h, five or six years, there aren’t going to be a lot of surprises in the books when eventually they come out. Which makes Martin what? For the last ten years (good health granted) he’s going to be effectively novelising what the fans have already seen and the bulk of the books will – I’m sorry to have to say – seem like so much padding.
Or maybe they won’t. Maybe Martin will put a lot of stuff in there that the TV version doesn’t touch. Maybe he can keep it all as fresh as the early books, and as jaw-droppingly good, despite someone having blazed the path before him and given the work an ending. That’s to be hoped. But I’d say it’s unlikely. And finding an ending to something that – in another form – has already ended, is going to be the hardest trick Martin ever faced.
 A FAILED MARRIAGE
Which brings me to my own attempt at creating a world.
Now I have one single advantage over Messrs Jordan and Martin. I finished my two and a half million word epic – CHUNG KUO – some fifteen years ago, back in 1997.
I say finished, but it never actually was. Not properly. But let me set the scene before coming to that. Let me explain WHY it was so difficult to end my tale.
CHUNG KUO is science fiction. It’s set two hundred years from now in a world covered by a giant mile-high city. A world radically different from our own. A world run by China, the Middle Kingdom. The story opened with the premature birth of the central character, Li Yuan, and ended (almost) with his death, some sixty years later – a full cycle – later.
And between times?
Between times we saw the slow but certain fall of the great empire of Chung Kuo, until nothing of it remained and humankind needed to flee the planet and venture lout into the stars.
Now, like Jordan and Martin, I created dozens of main characters and – literally – hundreds of minor characters, who peopled my future world. They were born, lived and died in that world. And at the end of the sequence, I had to resolve what happened to all of them after what in effect has been the Apocalypse. The old world has some down on their heads, and the new?
As with Jordan’s epic, CHUNG KUO is meant to be cyclical – is meant to chart one great turn of ‘The Wheel’. It was several years after I had ‘finished’ my tale that I discovered that Jordan’s extended work had the same kind of underlying idea. At the end of both, the circle has been closed and a whole new story for humankind is suggested. I knew that was how it had to be.
Only I got it wrong.
I have written elsewhere how circumstances had meant that, when coming to the end of CHUNG KUO, I was forced to cram all of the remaining material – which ought to have been in Books Eight and Nine – into a single, muddled volume. My choice was a simple one. I didn’t have a contract for two more books, the publishers only wanted one, and I could either write one single volume or I could leave the whole venture unfinished.
As it was, I spent the best part of a year putting together THE MARRIAGE OF THE LIVING DARK – the culmination of CHUNG KUO – and received little financial reward for it. The only publisher who paid me any money for it were Bungeishunjū in Japan, bless them, and had I not had a contract with the Myst guys to write another volume of that sequence, then we’d have really gone under. But leaving that aside…
I did a piss poor job finishing the first CHUNG KUO sequence. Oh, there was some good stuff in there, but… MARRIAGE reads like it’s been tacked on from some other series. It’s suddenly less dynastic saga and more science speculation. Oh, and there was lots of stuff I had planned that just went missing in the final mix. Li Yuan’s campaign in America; Kim’s discoveries in the metaverse; the colonization of Eridani and the moral problems that engendered. But, these big subjects aside, what was missing was the resolution of all the character by-plots. I just left so much dangling, so much unresolved.
I ought to have abandoned it here and then. Given up on it and moved on to something new. And indeed I did. I spent the next seven years – through to 2004 – writing ROADS TO MOSCOW, a big time-travel trilogy, but all the while my thoughts kept returning to CHUNG KUO and how I could ‘fix’ what I had clearly got badly wrong, and make the series as grand and satisfying as I had hoped it would be. And five years ago I took the step of committing myself to doing just that, and began to search for a publisher who would take on a completely fresh version of my epic – a twenty volume series this time round, with six whole new novels there in the mix – two at the front and four at the back.
It wasn’t easy working out where I’d gone wrong and how I could put it right. Part of the solution was to re-read what was already there and then BROOD on it. I filled filing boxes full of ideas and thoughts and partial glimpses. Stuff which, when connected together properly, would have real depth and real richness. Because the stuff that already existed – in the old books seven and eight – hadn’t really been brooded on enough. And slowly, very slowly, I began to understand just what was needed. It meant changes – major changes – but I could see how necessary those changes were.
So where does that leave me? With an ending or without? You know, it’s hard to say. I know roughly what I need to do, and I have pages and pages of the stuff already written. But when I come to the final push – sometime in the next few years – I don’t want to find myself in the position of knowing too much. You see, I know what ought to happen, but that’s not always a good thing. I want those final books to surprise me and keep me guessing, right to the very end, because if I’m surprised, the reader will be too.
Let’s put it this way. I’m expecting trouble. Big trouble. But hey, that’s the challenge, isn’t it? To go out on a high and not with a whimper. And to convince the reader, in the process, that it could have ended no other way but this.
(Originally posted June 6th 2013)
Okay. So there you have it. My musings on events from four years ago. But now it’s late June 2017 and I’m about to launch out once again – to try and get this final section written and then probably re-written. To tie up all of the various loose ends and make a true and solid sense of this.
So bear with me. I know roughly where I’m headed. But, as I’ve already said, it doesn’t help to know too much before the journey’s undertaken. Just enough and no more.
As for that journey, my plan is to let you know just how I’m progressing and – without any spoilers – just what’s happening in my life as these final pages unfold. Beginning this coming Friday, the 30th of June. To provide you with some degree of context. And, I guess, to reassure you that I’m not just sitting on my hands, but actively finishing what I began back in 1983. For the dragon must swallow its tail.