When the Learning Curve is Steep – Sometimes HBO Can Help

Confession time: I watched the entire first season of the Game of Thrones HBO series before I read the books.

I know. I know. It was very Impure Reader of me. I should be thrown on the hellfire that awaits those who use CliffsNotes to write research papers. (Yeah, I know! There are people out there that do that! Not readers of this blog, of course….But they are rumored to exist.)

My friend John will not be meeting me in that .5 level of hell. Because he decided to read the books before seeing the series – if he ever, in fact, watches the series.

For the readers who are pure of heart and pure of intent…I give one warning whilst pursuing A Game of Thrones as a reading adventure: it might take a bit to get into the story. George R.R. Martin has this uncanny ability to write about a whole new world. Perhaps that should be Whole New World. Operative word: Whole.

He has a cast the size of four or five armies. He has the lineages of those characters stretching back five generations. He has two continents worth of weather, culture, clothing, courting, and infighting to tell you about. And all of this stuff is richly imagined and well-executed.

But it is a lot.

Once upon a time, while taking Shakespeare, my professor told my class that utilizing CliffsNotes, watching the Bard’s plays – or the movie versions of the plays – and using Wikipedia to help us gather the plot details was not a cheat. His argument was that Shakespeare’s language wasn’t familiar to most people and that as soon as you got past “What the hell is going on?” you could get to the meat of the matter. He told us to utilize whatever was at our disposal in order to facilitate understanding. Then the discussions could really get going.

While I won’t go so far as to say Martin is Shakespeare – after all, he’s writin’ in easily understood English – it might speed the process of getting into the first book if you have witnessed the relationships between the characters with your eyes. Martin does a great job of creating these characters but sometimes the names are tricky: relatives are named after one another, just like in real life; some character names are spelled very similarly (i.e. Tywin and Tyrion); and there’s always a House of ________ surname to try and keep track of. Plus, if you watch the show, you have the added bonus of knowing how to pronounce all the names.

The important thing to know: once you’re in the story, you’re in the story. It’s a rare book/series that makes you blink when you turn the last page, surprised to see the real world staring back at you. (“Hello, children. Where did you come from?”)

I might have considered this steep learning curve a negative for the book series, except there’s such a work ethic embedded into the text – you just know Martin did a crap-ton of work and that should be respected…and you just know deep down in your readerly soul that it’ll pay off.

So have you guys ever ‘cheated’ and watched the movie version before the book? Have you ever read a story where the details were increadibly focused? Where the world seems like it could exist right now, just on a different planet?  That’s some imagination right there! 

Westeros The Super Map!!!

Oh, this is good, people. For those of you who love Game of Thrones you must go check out this kickass map of George R.R. Martin’s fictional world!

You may now go about your business.

First Lesson

Today’s prompt is a quote from Game of Thrones. Write a story/scene that starts with the following:

“First lesson. Stick them with the pointy end.”

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 😉