Quality before Quantity - The Holy Worlds Writing Motto
Besides liking to write, I also happen to like digging. I get strange enjoyment out of sinking holes in the ground that are deep enough to jump down inside. But the real reason that I enjoy digging is because it reminds me of mining.
Mining. Nobody really, really likes dirt. So much space occupied by dead organic matter and a smattering of hardened rocks that were probably uplifted from the lower crust over centuries. Once below the surface more than a few inches, very few people have an interest in that space. I have always wanted to delve out mines. Not just any mines, mind you (terrible puns!), but true mines. Mines and tunnels with doors and passages. Mines like the mines of Moria.
I have always wanted the same for my stories. Grand, epic, filled with crisp detail and ornate decorations, all bounded in a gigantic cohesion. Unfortunately, most of my stories have ended up like most of my mines. About three-feet deep with a dirty roof made of scrap wood and full of roots and spiders. I have nominally crawled through them to prove it can be done, but have never dug so deep that I wished to stay there for long.
As writers, we want our stories to be like the great Mines of Moria, yet they keep ending up like another of David's half-finished barbarian-cave-man projects.
The beauty of the underground can come naturally, or it can be forced. If you have ever had the pleasure of spelunking (exploring caves) you have probably found that, deep enough, and well enough lit, they can be most beautiful. Stalactites hang down to join with stalagmites and make beautiful natural pillars. Underground lakes sit undisturbed, as though no ripple has moved them for decades (until somebody flips a coin in there for some reason). A natural beauty.
Then there are the (unfortunately fictitious) mines of the dwarves, Dwarrodelf and Moria, the great halls of Erebor. Great halls carved out of stone to perfect symmetry by dwarvish chiseling expertise.
Often, as we dig out our novels, we find that they are resembling something like mine shafts. They are running in every direction with about five different plots and probably fourteen main characters. As we survey our work, we see that this is neither the flowing natural beauty of the cave nor the epic greatness of the carved hall. We make our mistake when we go back to dig a bigger mineshaft. We run the risk of, like the dwarves, delving too greedily, and too deep.
Reviewing the manuscript that is now, most likely, full of contradictions as our passages cross one-another, we find that all our extensions have not helped. We can install gas-lighting and guard-rails all we like, but now all the sore spots are still showing, and it is more clear than ever that our network of tunnels is neither cave nor great hall.
With a moment of inspiration, or perhaps advice from a friend, we decide that what we need is really just one giant hole, like the great Dwarrodelf halls of the Lord of the Rings. So we go to join all our tunnels together. But this can never be... shafts run so deep that there are themes there we cannot manage to do justice while still maintaining the roof near the surface. Some passages run to far off to the East that we cannot, without ugly plot-contrivance pillars, manage the storage rooms in the West. Our first attempt at an underground library to the South is so far from the entrance at the North that the fresh air of our great opening cannot breathe life that far.
There are two solutions. First, an army of pick-wielding dwarves. But since (in most cases) we cannot have others write our novels for us, we are left with the second. Second, downsize. That character's story may not be accessible in this first great hall. That great theme about family-reconciliation may not be able to be mined at the same time as the precious gem of a king's return that we have on the other end, and as much as we would like for the balcony to be able to view all our greatness across the whole of the mine, we may have to settle for a map with a "You are Here" to cover.
So spare yourself the difficulty and sadness of filling in unusable shafts and locking away great storehouses, and bite off what you can chew in each of your stories. Your first novel does not have the be the first novel in a forty-two part series where no wiki in the world could hold your world-building. You will end up with a confused labyrinth of passages and shafts that may actually hold an unexpected minotaur or balrog if you keep digging too long. And never expect your first digging venture to yield a great hall. Once done with your pick-axe you will need a chisel to smooth the edges and a shovel to carry-away the trimmings.
To the dwarves (and apparently a number of authors), gigantic mines with great sweeping arches and inconspicuous pillars come naturally, creating mines so beautiful to view them without the epic soundtrack of the Lord of the Rings would be a waste. But to most, a hobbit-hole will do, until many years from now we have learned the skill of delving great halls. Then I will open up the secret door in the back of my little hobbit hole, and reveal the great Mines of David.