Friday, December 09, 2022

Karen S Wiesner: Presentation is King, Part 2

A Reader's Commentary

Presentation is King, Part 2

by Karen S. Wiesner

In this second of a three-part commentary using author Christopher Paolini's two series, I talk about the conundrum of how important presentation is with massive sagas.

While I was reading To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, the first installment in Fractalverse, I started to ask myself why I've always had such trouble finishing--or frankly, even beginning--any of Christopher Paolini's books. Everything is in his favor: He's an excellent writer, no dispute there. Some of my favorite books are written in the fantasy genre, as his The Inheritance Cycle is. I adore dragons. I love science fiction, and, when combined with horror, it's a win-win for me. The bottom line is that I highly recommend the two series written by Paolini to any fantasy and sci-fi lover.

However, almost unconsciously while I worked to get through To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, my brain was analyzing my reactions to reading all of his offerings. I enjoyed the most the first parts of both his series. Then I got bogged down. In this week's commentary, I have some explanations for why this could be the case.

First, in both these series, just as with most fantasy and science fiction tales, a plot and its players aren't the only things that have to be created. An entire world (or a universe in the case of To Sleep in a Sea of Stars) needs to be constructed and the underlying "explanations" for anything outside the norm of existence has to be detailed. All that has to be added to the plot and players. One brain can become overwhelmed by all that needs to be absorbed to become immersed.

Second, the Eragon books. Books 2-4, each contain a 5-7 page synopsis of what's happened before in the series. This is a great thing, probably necessary, and every single subsequent book in a series--any series--should probably have one. It's helpful not only if it's been awhile since you read the previous book but it also covers anything vital you might have missed while you were trying to get through the former volume. But, man oh man, that is dense reading right here. It's like wading through a bog with muddy muck sucking you down and plants that catch your legs and prevent you from progressing with each new step before you finally get to the other side and can actually begin your journey. {That last sentence was a bog of its own!} There were times I regretted endeavoring to begin with the synopses I did actually need to read for each one to understand what was going on. Doing so, though, made me feel like I might never get to the actual story I was trying to read. It's not that these introductions are even poorly written--not at all. They're certainly abbreviated, well-condensed, and a good summation of the vital points. Yet it was another thing to get through, on top of plot, players, universe and contextual detail for the series.

Third, backmatter: Paolini has these in all this books, and this is good stuff. This is the lore, the very essence of the worlds he's creating. He includes origins, languages, pronunciation guides, glossaries, addendums, appendices, terminologies, technologies… Sci-fi and fantasy readers love this richly fleshed out stuff. But it's just more on top of the sheer, shocking number of pages in each volume added to the plot, players, universe, and contextual details…

Combined, these three aspects exhaust me too early and too much in the reading. While undertaking To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, I truly thought there was no way I could get through the whole volume once I finished the first, 160 page part. I'd barely begun the story at that point either. Because the individual parts had been packaged in a single volume, I mentally couldn't get myself to treat each segment like a finished installment. Because the author and/or publisher had packaged the parts in a single volume, I could see no way around not reading them back to back. And exhausting myself in the process.

I did push through, growing more and more overwhelmed as I completed each installment. I will interject that I did enjoy the story itself--again, it was well-written with exciting and compelling characters and plot, with just enough universe and contextual detail to make everything logical. Each part of this tale was doing the job it was meant to in bringing the story to full culmination. Yet I labored to get through them, just as I had with the books in The Inheritance Cycle.

Paolini isn't the only author I have this issue with. R.A. Salvatore, George R.R. Martin, James S.A. Corey are some others (amazing authors!) who come to the forefront of my mind as well. The only reason I'm "picking on" Paolini (a writer I'm a genuine fan of, as I am the other authors mentioned here) is because I happened to be reading one of his books when I realized this conundrum is actually an issue with me. I don't believe I'm alone in that either.

Ultimately, I believe the bottom line on why these kinds of epic sagas are so overwhelming comes down to presentation. All of these series are massive. Each volume has countless characters, endless plots, complicated and richly drawn worlds, lore, technology, terminology, and contextual details that need to be established and revisited from one book to the next.

We live in a time in the publishing industry where short stories and novellas are popular, whether they're single titles or part of a series. Long stories are still popular, though I'm a little surprised that they're as popular as they always were considering that there are fewer and fewer readers these days and attention spans could qualify for a new Guinness World Record considering how short they are. Almost nobody has an attention span that extends beyond a few hundred words. Readers--the die-hard kind who've kept the industry afloat since the very first bound book was published--are drying up. For the dabbling readers who have replaced them, purchasing physical copies of anything is a dying practice. Handheld electronic devices rule our lives--and let's face it--very few are actually reading on them.

So what options are there for those of us who want to be die-hard readers but find the sheer size and complexity of many of the books and series published these days intimidating and, let's not mince words, overwhelming?

In next week's commentary, we'll wrap up this three-part topic by talking about some potential solutions to the conundrum of how to present massive sagas to readers.

Happy reading!

Karen Wiesner is an award-winning, multi-genre author of over 150 titles and 16 series. Visit her here:

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