It’s a Kind of Magic

You know, for a fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire doesn’t have tons of magic. In plenty of fantasy, the magic is front and center. Magical creatures, magical people, magical wars, magic, magic, magic…

But, Martin plays it subtle. In most of the first book, there’s hardly anything magical at all. A hint here and there, a couple of ghost stories, but nothing major. Granted, it gets bigger as the series continues and more of the supernatural crops up. But, as a part of world-building, Martin really treats magic as many other writers would treat electricity in a modern setting. It’s useful, it can affect characters and plot, but it’s not the main attraction.

It’s an interesting choice. Why’d he do it?

My theory: I think it’s because Martin is really interested in historical fiction and he wanted to write a historical story. Doing it in the fantasy genre allowed him to hold on to all the fun stuff with historical fiction, yet mix it up a bit by creating his own settings, politics, religions, etc. In a sense, I would almost call the series less a fantasy series and more a historical fiction series that just happens to be set in a world that Martin made up.

The payoff: In fantasy, as with any other genre, there are those who do it well and those who do it poorly. When fatansy is poorly written, the magic becomes the be-all end-all and it sets up deux ex machinas and all of that other nonsense that happens just because it’s convenient to the story. Why did the character do that terrible thing? He was cursed! It’s not his fault. So, you get the terrible act, but no real consequence, because he’s absolved of guilt. Poof! Done. Boring.

When you downplay the magic, and use it to make problems instead of solve them, then you’re making life more complicated for your characters. When you look at Martin’s books, the cost of magic is high and you don’t always get the outcome you expected. Usually, characters who get tangled up with magic find themselves in more trouble than they started out in. They have to fight harder, struggle more, and in turn, we get more invested.

Getting After It: A Tuesday Post of Accountability

Welcome to Tuesday, dear writers. That means it’s time to tell tales about what we’ve accomplished this past week.

As for me:
1. Filled a notebook! Yahoo! You know the only thing better than filling a notebook?

Starting a fresh one! Which I have also done this week. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I will have to do a lot of typing-in because I’ve made the decision to plunge ahead and fill as many notebooks as possible. This means an exceptionally long type-in session of novel writing. And I’m not the quickest on the keyboard…so I’m hoping to take my time and let the type-in assume the role of Second Drafting.

Well, it sounds good to me.

2. Finished a short story. Sent it off to a couple readers to read. So I’ve added to my submittable short story pile. (And I’m pretty sure you guys have heard how short that stack was getting, right? Well, if you haven’t hear…it was getting short.)

3. (Which doesn’t seem writing related but totally is): Called around to find out about enrolling the youngest in preschool. Preschool time for youngest child = writing time for me. Sure, she won’t be able to go until August, but I anticipate a large increase in productivity around that point.

And that was my week. What’d you guys get done?

Scene Breaks: Martin Doesn’t Do ’em

Recently, in the critiques I’ve been giving for my writers group, I’ve taken to pointing out that we, as a group, don’t generally use scene breaks. (Have you ever noticed you start pointing out bits and pieces in other people’s writing that you think you might need in your own? I do that. A lot.) This strikes me as problematic because a story without scene breaks gets bogged down in the minutiae. You start to show the characters going through every single door, you show the characters as they dress, as they change television channels, as they do all the boring things that have nothing to do with the story.

You’ve heard, I’m sure, of the idea that shorter chapters = faster reads? I believe the same kinda deal goes on with scene breaks. You leave the reader hanging; you leave the reader wanting more. That way they turn the page and Voila! they get to your satisfying end. Seems to be a way to go.

And yet, here is George R.R. Martin. Bestseller.

He doesn’t use scene breaks. At all.

Turn to any chapter in the Song of Fire and Ice series. At this exact moment I have A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings sitting right beside me. I’ve read both. Just this past minute I flipped through several chapters, just looking for the little gap of white space that indicates a scene break. I was to be thwarted in my search. Except for the chapter breaks, it’s one long narrative. No scene breaks.

The question is: Is this a problem?

Well, I’d say yes and no. Yes, because the books do go for a long, long, long time. Both of the books are over 700 pages. Part of this might be that Martin – to this reader at least – gets bogged down in minutiae. I love that his world is so developed…but do I really need to know the details of every single outfit? For example, from a “Bran” chapter in A Clash of Kings:

The sight of Bran in his basket drew stares from those who had not see it before, but he had learned to ignore stares. At least he had a good view; on Hodor’s back, he towered over everyone. The Walders were mounting up, he saw. They’d brough fine armor up from the Twins, shining silver plate with enameled blue chasings. Big Walder’s crest was shaped like a castle, while Little Walder favored streamers of blue and grey silk. Their shields and surcoats also set them apart from each other. Little Walder quartered the twin towers of Frey with the brindled boar of his grandmother’s House and plowman of his mother’s: Crakehall and Darry, respectively. Big Walder’s quarterings were the tree-and-ravens of House Blackwood and the twining snakes of the Paeges.”

And there are quite a few passages like this in both books. Again, great world-building detail, but I think it mostly unecessary.

That being said, I think Martin -in general – gets away with a lack of scene breaks because his chapters are very focused on single characters, and watching the interplay between the characters – understanding their maneuverings – creates tension in his story.

Martin’s chapters, as focused as they are, aren’t long either. (They’re not short, but they’re not long.) He keeps the scenes tight – so there’s really not a great need for scene breaks. There’s action in his scenes. The characters don’t just sit there, so whenever a new character pops up, the reader is interested in what this guy is gonna do this time…and how will it effect the efforts of the other characters you just read about?

He creates movement. This is a skill that writers must develop, regardless of whether they use scene breaks or not. For as many words, as many pages, and as many characters as Martin has created, there’s actually a surprising lack of superfluous information. (Like clothes.) Flipping through the pages, it was kinda hard to find the passage above as a useless piece. Every time I thought I’d found a piece that could be cut I found a reason it should be left in: this passage is all character development, that passage paints the scene – the fighting will be confused if the reader doesn’t understand where that tree is. A led to Z almost every time.

Do you guys embrace scene breaks? How do you decide to structure your scenes?

Casting Call

Since we’re talking about TV and movies, today’s prompt follows right in line. Take one of your stories/novels and write out your fantasy cast list. Since it’s a fantasy list, your dream actors don’t need to be their real-life ages, or even alive. So, if you think Marlon Brando, age 32, would make the perfect John Smith, plug him right in there.

The goal here is to spend some time thinking about character, as well as thinking about which aspects of your characters would translate the best to screen.

Extra credit for those who share their cast lists 😉

As Seen on TV!

Whenever you translate a book to TV or a movie, there’s danger that it won’t translate well. However, there are times when it translates beautifully, and it seems that is more often the case when books become a series than just a one-off movie. More time for plot and character development and the nuances that are in the book.

That said, translating A Song of Fire and Ice into an HBO series is total genius. There are three reasons for this:

1. Episodic format fits well with the structure of the books. The books switch between settings and POVs, essentially chunking the epic novels into smaller bites. The show does the same.

2. TV trims some of the bloat. Jenny’s got an upcoming post that will address where some of the bloat creeps up in the books, but the jist is that there is a lot of description of mundane details. Part of it is necessary for world building, but there’s a lot about small details of dress, accessories, food, family ties, etc. When you change the format to a visual one, you’re ditching long descriptions of how things look and letting people just see it.

3. It’s easier to keep track of characters. Martin has oodles of characters. They can be hard to keep track of. But, if you tie that character to an actor, suddenly you’ve got a face, a voice, etc. that remind you who people are. You might not remember everyone’s name right off, but you know that one guy is Sean Bean.

Not all stories translate well to the screen, but this one translates fabulously. Whoever first said, “Hey, let’s make it into TV” has totally earned the tons of cash he/she is no doubt raking in now.

Filling Notebooks: A Tuesday Post of Accountability

Tuesday sneaks up on me sometimes. Time to be accountable! Here is what I have done this past week:

1. Glorious news! I have almost filled a 120 page notebook with new novel words! The rough kind of words, but words nonetheless! Next week I should be able to say: filled a notebook. Such almost-satisfaction. I can see the end. I’ll be done with the notebook in just a couple days. Things are trucking along…and I think I can see the last hill I have to climb before I’m finished with the whole rough draft of The Line.

*the crowd cheers*

(Admittedly, it’s just seeing the last hill…still gotta climb it and hope to heaven that there isn’t some kind of mountain range behind it. I’m sure that happened to the covered wagon trains when they saw the Sierra Nevadas: “We’ve crossed plains! We’ve crossed a huge mountain range! We’ve crossed an unbearably hot desert! Look, it’s a hill! One more thing! Oh. Wait a sec.” That had to be a rough day.)

2. Started second drafts of two short stories. So, yay for progress.

Soon I’ll be able to add to my list of stories I’m submitting. My submittable short story list has been woefully short for a while. When you’re focusing on novel-length work, the time to create new short stories (and actually revise and polish them) is tight. But I’ve recently felt the need to say that something was finished. That I’m making some kind of progress.

Because working on a big ol’ novel sometimes feels like you’re spinning your wheels…even when you’re not.

3. Got some new short story ideas, and one idea for a play. My buddy John has recently been super-active in our local theatre community. Going to these play recently, I have been inspired. I had a one-act play produced when I was in college but haven’t embraced the challenge of a full-length. Sometimes you’ve gotta mix it up. (Just ask Neil Gaiman, right?)

And how have you guys been? Got a lot done?

Giving Characters Their Arc

I’m always hesitant when it comes to a Dramatis Personae list anywhere in a book. What it means to me is this: there are too many characters to handle. It means there are too many threads to follow through to a full conclusion. It means that there is so much information gathered in the text of a novel that you need notes in order to understand it.

Generally, this turns me off.

And George RR Martin has a loooooong cast list at the back of his books.

When I picked up A Game of Thrones, I was very nervous about it. My brain didn’t seem up to the task of handling such a large group of people. And, honestly, if I hadn’t seen and fallen in love with the HBO series, I would have been beyond lost. It took a while to put the names with the characters for me – even with the visuals provided by the television series.

However, I was greatly, greatly impressed with how Martin handled his characters. After a little effort, they were easy to track and follow.

I think the ease of adjustment came from how Martin created complete arcs for each of his characters – especially in A Game of Thrones, the first book in the series. And the best example is of  Daenerys, the exiled heir to the Iron Throne, in this case. She goes from a child, with a child’s sensibilities at the beginning of the book, to a believable leader of nations by the end.

This arc for Daenerys is so complete that Martin lifted her sections bodily out of A Game of Thrones and created a whole novella: “The Blood of the Dragon.” It proceeded to win a Hugo award.

Daenerys’s story can be marked Point A to Point Z in A Game of Thrones.

SPOILERS!:
She is an innocent married into a barbarian horde, she learns to fight and love within that horde, she faces down her bullying brother, is faced with the death of her child and husband, confronts and kills the person who murders her child and husband, and then hatches dragons…earning her heir-to-the-throne rank rather than just having it handed to her. Pretty badass.
END SPOILERS!

I’ve never tried to lift a whole storyline based on one character before, but that’s probably a good exercise for revision –

Here’s what I’ve come up with…

Pick a character, any main or semi-main character in your story. Find all of his/her scenes. Pull them out (i.e. copy and paste them into a new document). Read it through. Does it read as a whole story? Is there a beginning, a middle, and an end? Is there some kind of growth cycle or does he/she remain painfully unchanged all the way through? Adjust accordingly.This also strikes me as a useful revision technique because it forces you into some distance from the main plotline sometimes. And in order to revise gracefully, we all need some space from the original story.

What do you guys think? Have you allowed your characters their full development? Have you decided that not all characters will get a full development? (Because that’s totally legit too.)

Character Twist

In honor of George R. R. Martin’s complicated characters, this week’s writing prompt is all about character twist. One of the my favorite characters that I love to hate is Jamie Lannister. He starts off as a total creeper and then you see a few more things that really make your skin crawl. I mean, total ick factor, people. But, then, Martin reveals the real motivation for the killing that earned Jamie the nickname Kingslayer and it turns out that Jamie has one or two redeeming qualities after all. Martin likes to muddy the waters, and it makes for fabulous reading. “Good” characters do bad things and “Bad” characters do good things.

This weekend, you should try to do the same. Take a character you’ve created, either one of your heroes, or one of your villains. Next, you’re going to write a scene where your character does something that contradicts that archetype. Your hero betrays a friend. Your villain performs an act of self-sacrifice for the benefit of an innocent. Or, whatever else you can think of that would be suitable.

Keep in mind, that the trickiest part of this kind of exercise is writing it convincingly. It’s not going to do you any good unless your reader believes the act is sincere and authentic to that character. Dig deep on this one.

Happy Writing!

March Mentor: George R. R. Martin

I was first introduced to George R. R. Martin a couple of years ago when someone said, “Hey, I got this really good book. Do you want to read it when I’m done?” That book was A Game of Thrones. For those of you who are familiar with it, you know it’s not a slim book. Yet, I sped right through it. I likewise read the second and third books in the series in no time flat. Recently, I had the chance to watch season one of the HBO series based off of the books. I was impressed at how closely the show follows the books and how well it translates all of the best aspects of Martin’s writing.

What are those wonderful things? In a word: messiness. There are good characters who do terrible things and dark characters who have moments of redemption. The lines between what’s good and what’s bad never hold still. As the series progressed I found that some of the characters I loved to hate had turned into characters that a part of me was rooting for. It’s the kind of character development you can really sink your teeth into.

When Jenny said we should do Martin as a mentor, I thought it was a fantastic idea. March is going to be good, folks. Get ready.