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A Song of Ice and Fire is a soap opera with Dragons and Ice Zombies. I’m not trying to besmirch the soap opera (we tend to revile things women like, so while soaps aren’t my thing, that’s just a matter of taste), but George Martin’s books, like some soaps, have a tendency to revel in the baser things of life. Sometimes it hinders my enjoyment of the epic world he’s built. I feel like I’ve been entranced by a snake-charmer, and should pull free.
Why am I reading this stuff?
I’m not afraid of reading about hard truths, about the things people can do to one another. George Martin has obviously studied medieval history. Tales of war are full of violence, rape and political intrigue. Mythology, of course, is full of sex. So what’s my problem?
In the last published book (A Dance With Dragons), we are treated to Princess Asha submitting to a rape, because as it turns out, she likes it after all! The ideal woman likes it rough, right boys? (I will not be reproducing that passage here.)*
Here’s my problem: was it really necessary for me to read a rape fantasy? I’ve seen authors joke that they don’t know what “plot-relevant sex” is anyway, so readers should stop being such prudes. But I feel compelled to point out that many speculative fiction authors deal with gritty subjects, and many do it with a great deal more class than Martin does. Louis McMaster Bujold, for example, in Shards of Honor (one of my favorite books) writes about the difficulties a woman protagonist faces in a militarized society. Cordelia Naismith is captured by the enemy and threatened with rape in a very tense scene, where we see her would-be-rapist prodded toward her like an animal. Bujold does not mince words, but she also doesn’t rub the reader’s face in in. In fact, even though we are treated to images of this naked, barbaric man, Bujold’s Cordelia pities him.
I read fiction so that the world in which I live can be recast in a new light. I should have an insight into human nature. That insight does not have to be accompanied with flowers and roses, or packaged in shiny Disney animation with talking animals. Oedipus has sex with his mother. Orpheus, the idiot, looks back. (Honey, you had ONE JOB.) Psyche looks at Cupid’s face. Lot, in the Bible, is intoxicated by his daughters and raped by them.
I could go on.
My point is that the hero does not always win, and I don’t need that to be the case for a story to possess verisimilitude, to have an insight into some deep truth about human action. I am not, therefore, upset that Martin kills his heroes. His storytelling has surprised me, even delighted me at times.
And yet, I still, at the same time, think that something smells. Martin gave an interview to Time Magazine recently, and he said something that I think nailed down what it is about his fantasy that bothers me. Here is the passage:
Did Lady Stoneheart come about because it was hard to say a permanent goodbye to Catelyn?
Yeah, maybe. That may have been part of it. Part of it was also, it’s the dialogue that I was talking about. And here I’ve got to get back to Tolkien again. And I’m going to seem like I’m criticizing him, which I guess I am. It’s always bothered me that Gandalf comes back from the dead. The Red Wedding for me in Lord of the Rings is the mines of Moria, and when Gandalf falls — it’s a devastating moment! I didn’t see it coming at 13 years old, it just totally took me by surprise. Gandalf can’t die! He’s the guy that knows all of the things that are happening! He’s one of the main heroes here! Oh god, what are they going to do without Gandalf? Now it’s just the hobbits?! And Boromir, and Aragorn? Well, maybe Aragorn will do, but it’s just a huge moment. A huge emotional investment.
And then in the next book, he shows up again, and it was six months between the American publications of those books, which seemed like a million years to me. So all that time I thought Gandalf was dead, and now he’s back and now he’s Gandalf the White. And, ehh, he’s more or less the same as always, except he’s more powerful. It always felt a little bit like a cheat to me. And as I got older and considered it more, it also seemed to me that death doesn’t make you more powerful. That’s, in some ways, me talking to Tolkien in the dialogue, saying, “Yeah, if someone comes back from being dead, especially if they suffer a violent, traumatic death, they’re not going to come back as nice as ever.” That’s what I was trying to do, and am still trying to do, with the Lady Stoneheart character.
Understanding Tolkien requires an understanding of Christianity. This does not mean possessing a fundamentalist view of sex or an inability to cope with gritty, ugly things. (Lot in the Bible, remember.) It requires a different understanding of death. To die for one’s friends is worthy of reward. That is why Gandalf comes back more powerful than before. That’s why it’s not a cheat.
In Martin’s view, Ned Stark is a probably fool. In my Christian view, he is a martyr. If Ned Stark’s death isn’t any different than Joffrey’s, then what the hell is the point? Am I really supposed to believe that they both end up in the same place?
Martin’s books like to show readers how hard it is to be a hero. That being good might not come with material rewards or power. In that respect, I understand the project.
But I’m afraid that we’re not going to get the eucatastrophe, the good that comes from the bad, that Tolkien so effectively delivered in his own stories. I don’t think readers will get that from Martin’s mind. Maybe it’s not fair to accuse Martin of not being Tolkien, but it helps me see why I have major problems with his his narrative decisions.
I’m too Catholic.
*Theon Greyjoy’s sister, as she’s named in the books.
I’ve been helping evaluate short story submissions for a contest, and I’m on the hook to give meaningful feedback to young writers. It’s been fun! I’d like to share some common mistakes I’ve seen cropping up in aspiring writers’ prose in this post.
Don’t crowd a story with too many concepts
When writing, the ideas flow: have fun! See where it goes! But then, edit. Focus on one idea and flesh out it’s implications in a meaningful way. If you start the story about a robot, follow through with it. I’ve seen several stories that start with once concept, and then they split off into completely different concepts that don’t make sense. For instance, a robot story becomes a story about a pirate who steals it, which then becomes about a ghost watching over them, and ends with a serial killer. Don’t create new elements to get yourself out of problems. Readers will know you’re fudging. In a short story you have time for one idea. State the idea in the opening, and then complete the arc.
Give readers command of the world and the characters right away
If you’re writing an alternate history, a fantasy in your own made-up world, or about the near future, the reader needs to know right away. Readers will get frustrated if there are no clues about the setting. I’ve seen several stories that didn’t establish a sense of place until they were halfway through the tale. That’s sloppy, and gives the impression you were making it up as you went. That’s fine for a first draft, but your readers want the polished end product. This will make them trust you.
There’s no narrative arc
All stories have a beginning, middle and an end. Spaceships aren’t interesting unless we’re made to care, and the engine of making a reader care is conflict. You might have a great idea, but nobody will care about it if you don’t get your protagonist in trouble because of it. Here’s a basic breakdown of an arc’s structure:
a.) Beginning: conflict
b.) Middle: fallout
c.) End: resolution/catharsis.
These are the basics. Don’t submit your brainstorming notes: mold that idea into an arc.
Some basic prose/ grammar tips
A metaphor is a complete idea that compares unlike things. It’s not enough to say, “Paul is an ant” and leave it at that. Why is Paul like an ant? What are the implications of such a comparison? Never obfuscate for mystery, because chances are you’re just being unclear. “Paul is an ant: diminutive, better in groups where he can disappear into a collective effort.”
Be careful when jumping from one internal monologue to another. Point of view should be cohesive. Is it first person or third person? (Does the narrator say “I” or does it pull back and say, “Mike did X”?) Make that decision before writing each draft. The reader should never feel jarred.
As always: read more. Learning how to develop a prose style is essential to writing anything well. Be sure to read the basics: Dorothy Parker loved Elements of Style , or pick up William Zinsser’s On Writing Well.
And never self-reject! Write and submit to as many contests and magazines as possible. You’ll never get better if you don’t keep working on it. Get as many eyes on your work as possible.
** The original version of this post claimed that Parker wrote Elements of Style; that was a mistake. (Written by Strunk)
When I heard that Moira Walley-Beckett of Breaking Bad was going to work on an adaptation of Anne of Green Gables, I joked that we’d finally see Anne and Diana start a drug ring selling “cherry cordial” on the black market. Since our media is saturated with obnoxiously gritty reboots of beloved tales (think 2010’s Alice in Wonderland), I wasn’t looking forward to what I assumed would be an unnecessary catastrophe.
I was wrong. Anne With an “E” stays true to the spirit of L.M. Montgomery’s original work, while punching up the gritty realism of a story about a moor-less orphan and her resulting eccentricities. This show reads between the lines: we all might think Anne has a charming imagination, until we recognize that she developed this as a probable means of escape. She was grossly mistreated before getting to Green Gables, we forget.
This artistic decision by Walley-Beckett just shows us what Montgomery let her own readers assume. Consider this passage from the book, which I think served to inform the showrunner’s goals: “Marilla guided the sorrel abstractedly while she pondered deeply. Pity was suddenly stirring in her heart for the child. What a starved, unloved life she had had – a life of drudgery and poverty and neglect; for Marilla was shrewd enough to read between the lines of Anne’s history and divine the truth.”
Here’s what this adaptation made me realize: Light isn’t so notable unless we’re aware of the creeping darkness around the edges. The grit only makes the humorous moments more memorable, more earned. Anne’s hopeful outlook is radical considering her upbringing. Far from dragging a beloved heroine through the mud, illuminating the gritty details of Montgomery’s classic allows the show to achieve an emotional impact that resonated with me.
The second thing I realized was that I’d always judged Montgomery’s work by the beloved, saccharine 1985 classic miniseries instead of the other way around. Most dramatic revisions of Anne of Green Gables focus on the positive, without recognizing what it’s reacting to, or why it’s important.
Anne With an “E” doesn’t shy away from hard questions, and I love it for that. It’s the adaptation I didn’t know I wanted, and it will renew in viewers an appreciation for the original source material.
Ready for this? This is what a story needs to keep the reader interested:
1. Main character is in trouble right away, and we care! Oh no! How will this be resolved?
2. Main character tries to fix her situation, but everything she does makes it worse. Oh man!
3. Lowest Low: Everything looks hopeless for the main character.
4. Highest High: The misfortunes that befell the main character have taught her how to personally overcome the opposition.
Since I know this, why is writing a novel so hard? I feel like I’m in a jungle hacking down vines to make a path, and now I’m lost and have to wee and fire ants are swarming at my ankles and I’m crying while chewing on tree bark.
Guess I’ll write a fight scene till I figure it out.
Art produces secondary belief , and story-making is the highest form of art. It’s not about bewitchment or delusion, but, as Tolkien says, “[it seeks] shared enrichment, not [slavery.]”
We love movies. Blockbuster after blockbuster punching our eyeballs, and we don’t have to do any work for it. Just sit there and let the colors and the noise and the nonsense pummel you. Tolkien states in his essay on Fairy-Stories that drama is a bogus, substitute magic. “A visible and audible presentation of imaginary men in a story. That is in itself an attempt to counterfeit the magician’s wand.”
Sorry, Elijah Wood! You may have nice, expressive eyes but you contributed to a medium that Tolkien describes as de facto flawed.
So what do we do about this? Are all movies, and all scriptwriters just doomed to occupy the lowest levels of story-making? To languish in the lowest levels of Dante’s Heaven (or Hell?) What are the reasons Tolkien gives for this? Pure story-making, he thinks, is different than stage-plays (or movies) because they focus on characters instead of things. This is a key distinction he is making: writers have to think through their characters to give a story verisimilitude, but Tolkien wants the setting to be a character too. Care about the trees, the grass, the roads and the skies. This doesn’t mean that Fantasy is only about being fanciful, rather it is about truth. It’s not enough to tell a reader that the your world has pink grass unless you have a reason for it. “The keener and cleverer is the reason, the better fantasy it will make.”
The best television I have ever watched, now that it comes to mind, are stories that try to give a place a personality. The first season of True Detective does this, as does FX’s first season of Fargo. These stories are not Fantasy; rather tales about the human condition contending with a world that is mostly absurd and hostile. Tolkien might approve of the way in which well-don detective stories invite viewers to participate in catharsis, and then re-orient their view of life after being pushed to the edge of the surreal.
But the surreal is not “Other Time,” the surreal is attached to our world. The fantasy writer has to make a sub-creation, a Secondary World the reader’s mind can enter. We don’t like fairy-stories because there are tiny creatures in them, we like them because we like stepping behind the curtain. All stories are true unless they betray our trust.
I’m writing a book! I have no idea if it’s good, but I have to start somewhere or I’ll let a crisis of confidence be a personal ball-and-chain.
Every morning I scribble: at least 500 words, some of it terrible. Oh well. I take time every week to edit. That’s the serious writing time; because writing is about revising something 20 times and then being told by an editor that you need to revise it at least fifteen more times.
I’m stacking up rejections pretty faithfully on the side, but I’m determined not to tinker with the stories looking for homes. If I get 50 form rejects each, then maybe they’ll go to the trunk.
So tomorrow, it’s coffee shop time for serious edits and organizations. I work best in the morning, as the tiny sticky-fingered creatures in my house demanding food or something tend to occupy my days.
Once more unto the breach dear friends, once more; Or close the wall up with our English dead.