George R.R. Martin: A Lesson and a Warning

English: George R.R. Martin signing books in a...

The other day when I was playing with my new Kindle, I was checking out George R.R. Martin’s latest book in the Song of Ice and Fire series, A Dance With Dragons. I’ve been reading the series for a couple years now, and I immensely enjoyed the first three. Lately, I have been plodding through the fourth volume, A Feast for Crows, wondering if I was just getting lazy or if something was truly wrong with the book. After reading the reviews of A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons, I realised that it wasn’t me; it was Martin.

According to the reviews, most people agree that the first three books are excellent, and I concur, but around the fourth installment, it appears that George began stalling. I have read countless tips on writing that speak of including conflict or tension or something that advances the plot in every scene, yet throughout A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons, we are treated to endless scenes where nothing happens.

People complained that Martin filled up hundreds of pages with descriptions of food and locales, letting his characters ruminate instead of take action to resolve their dilemmas, and maddening repetitions of certain phrases such as “You know nothing, Jon Snow” and “CORN! CORN! CORN!

This intrigued me because the contrast between the first three books and their successors is striking; I actually revisited my copy of A Game of Thrones just last night to study the first couple of scenes and to try to figure out why it worked so well.

I was surprised to find that Martin’s first scenes actually rely quite a bit on inserting backstory and references to the world of Westeros amidst the characters’ interactions. The key difference between these descirptive passages and the ones in later books is that they actually mattered: When Lady Catelyn visits Ned in the godswood, we get glimpses into her past in the Riverlands, and similarly, when King Robert and Ned go into the crypts of Winterfell to pay respects to Lyanna, we are fed bits of the backstory of the Battle of the Trident, vital to our understanding of future events and Robert and Ned’s characters.

As I have been working on my own opening scenes, I have been overly concerned with delving right into the action as so many writers suggest; but something still does not feel right about them. Although it should be remembered that they are only first drafts, after examining them a bit more, I realised that the reader does not have much reason to care about my characters yet. My scenes have felt a bit… sparse, and I can now see that they’re in need of some beefing up.

On the other hand, once you have established a certain amount of rapport between your reader and your world, there is no need to continue long-winded descriptions of every dress worn by your antagonist or every building in your hero’s town. I know that, when I saw the prolific output of writers like Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, and even Tolkien, I was impressed by the sheer volume of writing they produced. Yet bigger is most certainly not always better, and it is clear– through my own experience and the opinions of other readers– that it becomes burdensome and more work than leisure to wade through volume after volume with countless characters and little plot progression.

I consider myself a solid representative for fantasy fans, and as such, I ought to have more patience than the average reader to stick with epic-length series. But you know the author has done something wrong when even his most loyal fans lose interest in the story.

Achieving that balance between just enough detail and just enough plot progression is no easy task. On the one hand, we need enough description to allow the readers to immerse themselves in our world and empathise with our characters, but on the other hand, the reader also yearns for resolution, and if the plot does not maintain a steady pace, he can feel trapped in the details. A story does not have to be of epic length in order to be epic.

How do you balance interjecting worldbuilding and backstory while making sure your plot progresses in a logical and timely manner? Some people say that you shouldn’t do too much preparation beforehand, else the writing feels “canned” or goes stale for you, while others would advocate knowing as much as you can to ensure you have a steady supply of content to drip in to the narrative. What do you think?

We Are Not Alone (and This Post Proves It!)

Amazon Kindle Touch

Yesterday, I finally caved and bought an Amazon Kindle Touch. I held out for so long, but at the behest of my reading partner (who often orders books for us off of Amazon), I decided to research the eReader craze sweeping the literary world. I have to admit that I was skeptical; I love my physical books and the places they live (libraries, bookstores, etc.). I don’t want to see these places close or never be able to hold a book in my hands again.

However, I must say I really love my new Kindle. I was most drawn to the eInk technology that renders the page as softly and practically as clearly as a printed one. There is no backlight, so my eyes never felt strained like when I look at my laptop screen for too long. The slight refresh when you turn the page seemed off-putting at first, but it’s really not that bad and quite responsive. Even typing on the onscreen keyboard is a fairly easy task.

I’ll always have a soft spot for traditionally bound books, but I tried to console myself by thinking of all the materials I’m saving by using electronic books, now. And the cheaper price of eBooks is a nice boon for a bibliophile like myself.

I’ve been reading a lot about electronic publishing, and I have to say, based on what I’m hearing, the future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades. As a writer myself, I am intensely interested in my possibilities for publication, and with the soaring popularity of the eReader format, it looks like self-publication via sites like Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Sony, and Apple afford authors a lot more control over the process and royalties earned for their book. It also democratically reforms the literary world because now the readers have more access to the content they want to read, since the gatekeepers of traditional publishing are no longer an issue for authors seeking the self-publication route.

Of course, an eReader is worthless if you don’t have an eBook to read on it (or 3,000, like my new toy purportedly holds). One of my first orders of business was to order We Are Not Alone: The Writer’s Guide to Social Media by blogger Kristin Lamb. I’ve followed Kristin for a while, and her blog has been nothing but helpful for me as a writer, so I knew it would be a worthwhile christening purchase for my Kindle. Plus, it’s only $4.99 for the Kindle version, which is a steal (not to mention, Kristin will be getting 70% of that, so I loved being able to pay her back in a small way for all she’s done for me).

The book is a quick read, and Kristin’s usual conversational writing style makes it feel as if she is sitting with you in a café, coaching you personally with her renowned wit and expertise. She teaches you a bit of basic marketing (which is really just how to tap into the humanity of others) before giving a very detailed action plan for how to establish your platform as a writer across the four major social media sites Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and WordPress.

For a young whippersnapper like me who has practically grown up using these technologies, some of the explanations seemed a little extraneous, but for anyone who is striking out into the overwhelming world of social media, Kristin does an excellent job of leading you by the hand as you establish your brand and synchronise all four outlets to work for you when you eventually need them. My one other (minor) complaint about the book is that her instructions for these websites are actually so specific that when I walked through them today, I realised that some of the steps she includes in the book (which was published in 2010) are slightly outdated already. A couple of the graphics in the book did not match up with the new formats on MySpace and Twitter, but for anyone who can use the internet and has a passing familiarity with how these sites operate, this is not a problem.

Overall, what really enamored me to Kristin’s method is her attitude of approaching social media “with a servant’s heart.” I realised long before I discovered Kristin that one of the biggest addiction factors of Facebook (the site I use the most often) is the feeling of validation you get when you receive notifications, but especially genuine interaction from your friends, not just alerts about various activities in your Newsfeed or adverts from your “Likes.” Reading Kristin’s book opened my eyes to just how backwards I had been approaching social networking all along (and how I suspect the average user does, as well).

In a sense, social networking is all about me, me, me; and yet, it is actually more about others. The reason I feel so empty most of the time when I use Facebook is precisely because I don’t put much in, nor do I follow many other blogs on WordPress. As they say, what you give is what you get, so now, I’m determined to follow through with her techniques and improve my etiquette in the online world.

The ironic thing about all of this is that you are witnessing Kristin’s book in action by reading this blog post: I found out about her blog via a hyperlink somewhere on WordPress, and I read enough of her posts and witnessed enough of her genuine interactions with her readers to know that I could trust what she had to say in her book. I’m not normally someone who will impulsively drop $5.00, but because I felt like I knew Kristin, I was happy to help her out with my purchase, and now, I’d like to pass it along to you, the readers of my network.

Thanks, Kristin! We most certainly are not alone. Now, I’m off to go add her to all my Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, etc. feeds and really start social networking! You guys should, too– swing by her site and look around, and if you mention that Ed sent you her way, so much the better!

Happy networking!

Greatness

Happy New Year!

I hope you enjoyed a safe and joyous New Year celebration, wherever you find yourself in the world. I am always deeply affected by thresholds and turning points, so I have decided to dedicate this blog post to some of my thoughts about what this time of year means to me personally, but especially as a writer.

Last night, I had the opportunity to go out with a couple of friends to the twenty-something scene for New Year. We enjoyed ourselves for the most part, but as I observed people during the celebrations, I could not help but reaffirm something I have already known for a while. In everything in life, there is trashy and there is classy; the high road and the low road; the banal and the exceptional.

I believe that we, as artists, are a relatively small and unique group with a special calling. To us has been given the gift of creativity, and by employing our creativity through our art, by creating order out of chaos, we are like beacons in a world in turmoil. We are those who refuse to be content with the way things are and instead lift the minds of those who experience our art to the way things ought to be.

As writers, especially, we know that words– the primary tools of our craft– hold tremendous power. With words, we have the ability to make the abstract real; the power to cut down or to build up; and the potential to discourage or inspire.

With such power comes responsibility, and sometimes, as a melancholic temperament, my sensitivity to real beauty and truth can seem like a burden when I am discouraged by the feeling that I am confronted with a sea of mediocrity or when I feel alone as an idealist. It is tempting to look at the consumer lifestyle of our modern world, or the oblivious revelry my peers seem to make their modus operandi and feel as if everyone else is enjoying a more happy, comfortable way of life by conforming and settling instead of challenging and striving. But as Pope Benedict XVI, a man I greatly admire, has said:

“The world offers you comfort, but you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.”

So, for this coming year of 2012, I have resolved to be more faithful to to my calling as an artist. Instead of viewing it as a burden, I wish to more joyfully count it as a privilege to be able to create beauty with my talents. No longer do I wish to be resentful or reluctant about that tasks and the real effort that come with the gifts I have been given. No more pessimistic, “suffering artist” attitude. No more condescending, impatient exchanges with people who do not share my ambition or my talents.

Now, a greater gratitude for and confidence in my strengths, and a more joyful and persistent approach to employing them, not solely for my own validation, but to truly benefit others in a spirit of humility.

As I have written this blog post, my computer has emptied its trash bin, and with 700 something items to be deleted, this process was long overdue. I think it is a fitting symbol to the start of a new year: sweeping out the clutter and debris of our past in order to free ourselves to pursue our goal with greater clarity and focus.

Perhaps if I make a public resolution here, it will hold me accountable more. So, I’m doing it: I resolve to write at least two blog posts per week while I continue working on my draft.

I hope that in 2012, you enjoy success in all your pursuits, but especially in your writing. In the coming year, don’t settle for less. Strive for greatness not just in your creative endeavors but in every aspect of your life. The world does not need any more mediocrity.

It needs you.