Early last year, looking for a new book series to lose myself in, I decided to have a crack at The Wheel of Time. People who are even remotely familiar with those books will know exactly what a choice like that entails. Fourteen books, each longer than the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, with so many characters, civilisations and subplots that you need a series-specific encyclopedia beside you at all times just to know what the hell is going on.
But hey, when you want to get lost in a story you can do a lot worse than something as huge and sprawling as Wheel of Time and there’s a reason the series is so well known; it’s very good. The characters are great, the twists are shocking, the lore is fascinating and it pretty much has all the things you could want from an epic fantasy.
And yet, it has a reputation as being a bit of a slog. People always warned me that the going gets a little tough later in the series, that things don’t stay as propulsive as they are at first. I shrugged this off; I survived Feast for Crows and Dance With Dragons, how hard could this be? Plus, the deeper I got into the series the more I was enjoying it. Book six was a clear high point. Book seven was great. Book eight had plenty of rad stuff going on. Book nine was a little slow but had a great climax. Book ten…
Book fucking ten. Crossroads of Twilight. The book that has been sitting in my bag for months on end now. The book that every day I pick up, determined to power through, certain that this time I can get through more than a page, knowing that everyone says it will be worth it, that it’s all smooth sailing from here.
A while ago I had a little tantrum on an episode of Movie Maintenance about the objectively bad TV show Jessica Jones. Apart from the shit acting, awful writing, glacial pace and dreadful characters, it suffers from arguably one of the biggest crimes you can commit as a storyteller; making your audience put up with something that has no discernible point, that adds nothing to the show, that swallows up screentime and detracts from any of the interesting stuff going on. In the case of Jessica Jones that something is the character of Jessica’s upstairs neighbour, a shrill, supremely irritating middle finger to the audience, a character who adds nothing to the plot, who isn’t funny, who is painful to watch and who, for some reason, the writers decide we need a decent serve of in every fucking episode.
I copped a lot of flak for going off in that episode and look, the truth is I was jetlagged at the time and probably could have been a bit more equivocal about the whole thing. But I stand by everything I said because including a character like that shows a profound disrespect for your audience and a frankly offensive carelessness toward the job of trying to tell a good story. I find it hard to believe that nobody in that writers’ room questioned the value of that character, which implies either incompetence or severe carelessness. And while we all have moments in our writing that don’t hit home the way we think they will, it’s hard to figure out what the writers of Jessica Jones thought that character would be. The only explanation is that they didn’t think, which simply isn’t good enough.
Now I’m finding that same feeling in Crossroads of Twilight. I recently endured three pages of two characters getting dressed, followed by those same characters engaging in page after page after page after page after fucking page of endless, circulatory discussion of things that seem to have no apparent bearing on the plot whatsoever. When I finally got through this one chapter (it took me about a month) I was greeted with the introduction of a whole new subplot about a whole new minor character when all I want to know about are the characters I’ve spent ten books getting invested in. And no, wanting to know about them does not mean wanting three pages of what they are wearing.
Earlier in this post I mentioned the great climax to book nine. It was a moment the whole series had built up to and it was just as satisfying and beautiful and exciting as anyone could have hoped. It leaves you with a giddy sense of wanting to know where the series could go from here, what the implications of this enormous moment are. But Robert Jordan apparently decided that we don’t need to know what happens next; what we instead need is to see how a whole bunch of minor characters in different parts of the world reacted to that big moment. I am just over halfway through the book now and it is yet to pick up the threads left at the end of the previous volume.
Why? Why is the author doing this to us? Why did he think this made for engaging, entertaining or important storytelling? It’s frustrating in the same way Jessica Jones was frustrating; because not only is it difficult, it’s impossible to see the value in it. It feels very much like I’m being punished, and I have no idea what for.
Ten books in, I can’t give up. I can’t be one of those people who puts down Wheel of Time and never finishes it. I’ve come too far to fail, but continuing is a grim proposition right now. I actually dread reading this book. I dread the frustration and the anger and the boredom that I get every time I try to struggle through another few pages. And I really hope the end is worth it, because this one book has been almost enough to undo all the goodwill the rest of the series built up.
So basically, any writers reading this, please make sure that whatever you choose to include in your story has a point. Please make sure it’s worth your audience’s time. Because somebody engaging with the story you’re trying to tell and choosing to spend their time on it is a special, precious thing that’s worth too much to waste on unnecessary bullshit.
Writing words about writing words.