Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘George R.R. Martin

The tyranny of the calendar

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George R.R. Martin

Note: I’m taking a few days off, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on January 12, 2016.

When a novelist reaches a certain level of commercial success, the charge is inevitably leveled—as it still is against the likes of Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, and most recently George R.R. Martin—that he or she is no longer being edited. And it often seems like the evidence is right before our eyes. The books grow visibly longer, as they did most dramatically in the case of Harry Potter, or they take more installments to cover the same amount of ground, as with A Song of Ice and Fire. Familiar tics, like the folksy voice that King likes to assume, expand into full-blown affectations, and the novels themselves start to seem looser and shaggier. Something has clearly changed, and the underlying assumption is that the writers themselves are to blame: nobody likes being edited, and once their careers have advanced to the point where they carry sufficient financial clout with their publishers, they simply refuse to take any additional notes. As King himself said in an interview from the early eighties:

At this point, I think that if there were any change suggested to me that I didn’t want, all I would need to say would be, “No. I won’t do that.” And it would never be a question of their withdrawing my contract, would it? They’d just finally say, “Well, okay then, don’t do it that way. “Which means, in effect, that if I’m willing to be really intransigent, there’ll be no editing at all.

But the truth, as always, is a little more complicated. The quotation above comes from an interview with King first published in the second volume of the Dream Makers series by Charles Platt. It dates from an intriguing moment in King’s career, around the time of Christine, when he was already a force on bestseller lists but not the institution he later became. And he says of his editorial process during that period:

I like to write three drafts: a first, a second, and what I think of as the editorial draft, when I sit down and take an editor’s criticism and work it through in my own mind, and put the whole book through the typewriter again, and repolish the other stuff as well. But as the successes have mushroomed, it’s been tougher and tougher for me to get my editors to give me time to do that third draft. What I’m really afraid of now is that one of them will say, “I think this is great,” just because it fits their publication schedule. Every year, I’m on a faster and faster track…I am supposed to read the proofs [of Different Seasons] in five days. Now, what if we let a bunch of dumb errors go through? It isn’t a matter of creativity, or trying to do the best book possible, that’s governing things right now—it’s advertising. And that scares the hell out of me, because we’ll fuck up real good one of these days, and then people can say “Steve King writes for money,” and at that point they will be right.

Stephen King

This obviously reflects King’s own perspective on the matter, but it’s still a fascinating point, and it remains relevant when we flash forward more than thirty years to George R.R. Martin. In a blog post from 2009 titled “To My Detractors,” he recounts how he told his publishers that he wouldn’t be able to deliver the next book in the series on time, and he says of their response:

I thought they’d be sick about it…but I have to say, my editors and publishers are great, and they took it with surprising equanimity. (Maybe they knew it before I did.) They already had contingencies in place. They had made plans to speed up production. If I could deliver Winds of Winter by the end of the year, they told me, they could still get it out before the end of March.

Martin didn’t meet that deadline either, of course, and after describing his predicament in more detail, he concludes: “Best guess, based on our previous conversations, is that Bantam (and presumably my British publisher as well) can have the hardcover out within three months of delivery, if their schedules permit.” And although this line wasn’t much discussed in the fury of analysis that ensued, it may be the most astonishing tidbit in the entire post. Even if you just consider the physical challenge of printing a million hardcover copies, three months to take a novel from manuscript to bookstores is insane. With such a huge machine trembling to go into action, something’s got to give—and it’s probably going to be the editing.

What I’m suggesting, in other words, is that the perceived lack of editing in many big bestsellers isn’t due to authorial stubbornness or editorial laziness. Instead, it’s a structural consequence of fitting blockbuster books into a relentless publishing cycle. When you consider how the whole process is being squeezed on one side by the author’s pressure to finish and on the other side by the pressure to deliver the book to readers, it’s no surprise if certain crucial steps get truncated or eliminated along the way. And it makes sense that the first casualty would be editing. Authors often complain that no one really gets what they do, and that’s doubly true for editors. A process that is so opaque to outsiders is bound to fall by the wayside when there’s so much else to consider: you’ve got to drop something to keep on schedule, and it may as well be the editorial phase, which nobody understands anyway. (Which leads me to a crucial point that deserves a blog post of its own: this is also why tentpole movies these days seem to be consistently half an hour too long. There just isn’t the time to edit them properly.) If The Winds of Winter comes out three months after Martin delivers his “final” draft, there’s no way that it gets the edit it deserved: every other stage demands a fixed amount of time to complete, and it’s the edit that ends up paying the price. So when you worry that the books in your favorite series are getting longer and more self-indulgent, you don’t need to blame the editor or the author. You can blame the calendar.

Written by nevalalee

April 17, 2017 at 7:30 am

The threshold figure

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Dangerous

Last week, the Hollywood Reporter revealed that Milo Yiannopoulos—a Breitbart editor best known for his online trolling of Muslims, feminists, and the actress Leslie Jones—would be publishing a memoir with Simon & Schuster. The outraged response to the book deal, which allegedly amounted to something like a quarter of a million dollars, appears to have taken the publisher by surprise, prompting it to release this statement:

We do not and never have condoned discrimination or hate speech in any form. At Simon & Schuster we have always published books by a wide range of authors with greatly varying, and frequently controversial opinions, and appealing to many different audiences of readers. While we are cognizant that many may disagree vehemently with the books we publish we note that the opinions expressed therein belong to our authors, and do not reflect either a corporate viewpoint or the views of our employees.

It’s a strange defense that tiptoes right up to the edge of acknowledging that Yiannopoulos is practicing hate speech, while also claiming not to “condone” it, and it carries the buried implication that this is just business as usual. The unstated premise is that publishers have been courting conservative readers with specialized imprints for years, and at a time when the entire publishing industry feels threatened by declining readership, you can’t blame them for going after an author with a proven audience, just as the same imprint, Threshold Editions, has done in the past with the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Donald Trump.

Yet this case is different, and for reasons that don’t have anything to do with its timing. We can start with the fact that this book is being rushed into print in a ludicrously short window of time: it’s currently scheduled to be released on March 14, which pushes the physical limits of the production process to the breaking point. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, George R.R. Martin has said that whenever he finally finishes The Winds of Winter, Bantam could have a hardcover out “within three months of delivery”—which is about as fast as a book can be edited, typeset, printed, and shipped to stores, even with the full resources of a major publisher behind it. Even if we grant that whatever Yiannopoulos is planning on writing is something less than a thousand-page fantasy epic, it’s still a tall order, even if the book were already complete, which doesn’t seem to be the case. Yiannopoulos told the Hollywood Reporter: “I met with top execs at Simon & Schuster earlier in the year and spent half an hour trying to shock them with lewd jokes and outrageous opinions. I thought they were going to have me escorted from the building—but instead they offered me a wheelbarrow full of money.” In other words, he wasn’t shopping around a manuscript, but a brand. This isn’t a book that is being published on its merits, but an attempt to cash in on an existing audience at what seems like a favorable moment. (That said, I don’t have any doubt that Yiannopoulos will be able to deliver it on time, presumably with the assistance of the squadron of interns that he uses to write the articles that appear under his name.) 

Dangerous

You could argue, not without reason, that this isn’t anything new, and that publishers have been cranking out similar books by pundits on the right for years. But there’s a subtle but important distinction that needs to be made here, as Constance Grady of Vox points out:

But in identifying Yiannopoulos as a possible future of conservative thought, Threshold Editions is caught in a cycle. Because by giving him a book deal, they’re not looking at a figure who is already considered culturally legitimate and giving him another platform for his thoughts. They’re looking at a figure who is reviled in some corners of the culture and adored in others—a kind of threshold figure—and they are saying that they consider him to be legitimate. They are not just describing; they are prescribing. They have decided that Yiannopoulos seems like someone who is about to be mainstream, and so they have brought him into the mainstream themselves. When Yiannopoulos told the Hollywood Reporter that “this book is the moment Milo goes mainstream,” he was being entirely accurate.

I think this nails it, and I’m afraid that Grady is equally right when she says: “And having brought in one Milo Yiannopoulos, it will be increasingly easy to bring in another, and then another, until all of the hatred and all of the rage of the white supremacists and misogynists and bigots on the alt-right is considered a valid part of the cultural discourse, and just another strain of thought, as legitimate as any other. It will become normal.”

Which is just to say that Simon & Schuster is doing worse than “condoning” what Yiannopoulos represents—it’s enabling it, and in a particularly craven and gratuitous way. Yiannopoulos doesn’t lack for an audience: he already has multiple platforms, and he doesn’t need a book deal to reach those who want to buy what he’s selling. A book might not even expand his readership beyond where it already stands. But by bringing it onto the New Releases table at Barnes & Noble, it has the effect of normalizing it, and it taints the entire publisher by association. I’m reminded of the controversy that has swirled for the last few years over the Hugo Awards, which have been hijacked by a small group of bloggers and commenters, many of whom identify with the same movements that idolize Yiannopoulos. But here’s the dirty little secret: outside a fairly closed circle of online science fiction fans, nobody really cares. I’m part of that world, in a tangential way, and to the extent that even I’ve noticed it, it’s because I dislike how they’ve opportunistically assaulted a vulnerable slice of the fandom. That doesn’t change the fact that their impact on the culture as a whole has been a rounding error, however inflated their view of themselves might be in their own tiny ponds. (Even at Worldcon itself, their impact was barely perceptible.) I’ve kept an eye on them because it’s my job, but the reaction of most people would be one of befuddled nonrecognition. Until this week, that’s basically where Yiannopoulos was—a figure of marginal interest who gained attention mostly by attaching himself like a remora onto promising targets. Simon & Schuster rewarded him for it. Yiannopoulos thinks that this means that he’s won. And the sad part is that he’s probably right.

Written by nevalalee

January 6, 2017 at 9:34 am

The joy of text

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Search query

When you’re working on any long writing project, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, you’re eventually forced to deal with the problem of information management. In contrast to what a lot of readers might imagine, most writing—at least for someone like me—doesn’t consist of waiting for inspiration to strike while you’re staring at a blank page. A lot of the work and hard thinking has taken place prior to the physical act of writing a first draft, and more will come later, during the revision process. The rough draft becomes a kind of bottleneck through which ideas have to pass to get from one step to the next, and the challenge is less about coming up with good stuff in the moment than about ordering the material that you already have. If you’ve spent three months thinking about a project and six weeks in the actual writing, which isn’t an unreasonable proportion, you’re faced with the task of mapping one collection of thoughts onto another. The first set is amorphous, disorganized, and accumulated over a long stretch of time; the other needs to be set down in some orderly fashion, in a shorter period, and without forgetting anything important. As a result, many of the tools that writers develop to keep their thoughts straight are really designed to enable a lossless transfer of data in the transition between the chaos of conception and the more linear writing stage.

Over time, I’ve come up with various tricks to keep this information under control. The trouble, as with so much else in life, is that the approaches that work well when you’re first starting out don’t always hold up when you graduate to more complicated projects. Early on, for instance, I used hundreds of index cards to plot out my novels, supplemented with handwritten notes and mind maps, on the belief—which I still hold—that the tactile qualities of pen on paper would generate ideas in themselves. Later, as the individual pieces became too numerous to manage, I switched to keeping track of it all in a series of text files. Without thinking too much about it, I began to use TextEdit, the default text editor that comes packaged with my MacBook. And somewhat to my surprise, I’ve realized that I use it more than any other piece of software. For the actual manuscript, I still use Microsoft Word, but for almost everything else, I turn to TextEdit without hesitation. Why? It opens instantaneously when I click on its icon, as opposed to the ten seconds or so that Word takes to boot up, which makes it ideal as a notepad for jotting down quick thoughts. Even for longer writing sessions, its lack of bells and whistles appeals to me for much the same reason that WordStar still attracts loyalists like George R.R. Martin. There’s nothing between me and the words. In fact, I’m typing the first draft of this blog post on it right now.

Notes in TextEdit

But the most interesting use I’ve made of TextEdit is as a kind of filing system for notes. Nearly all of the information I’ve assembled for Astounding, for example, currently lives on one of four text files. One contains general biographical information about John W. Campbell and my other subjects; another consists of notes gleaned from going through 12,000 pages of his correspondence; another holds similar thoughts from reading through four decades of back issues of Astounding, Unknown, and Analog; and the last houses my notes on the hundreds of science fiction stories and novels that I’m reading or rereading for this project. My notes on back issues and stories are arranged chronologically, so I can scroll down and see patterns at a glance, but with the others, I don’t bother with any kind of order: I just type the notes in the first available spot, and I don’t really care where they end up. The result is a set of huge files—the one for biographical details alone is 60,000 words long. But it doesn’t really matter how big it is, because it’s searchable. If I’m looking for a particular piece of information, I just enter a query, either in the search box within TextEdit itself or through Spotlight, which searches the entire hard drive at once. It’s very fast and generally reliable, as long as I know what to look for, and assuming that I was smart enough to peg my notes to some obvious search term in the first place. It’s as if I’ve created a small, highly specialized slice of the Internet that only returns results that have previously passed through my brain.

Needless to say, there are limitations to this approach. My ability to find anything is predicated on my capacity to remember that it exists in the first place, which is harder than it sounds, given the thousands of discrete facts that I need to keep straight for a project like this. Every few months or so, I’ll sit down and read through the whole bulk of my notes in their entirety, which takes several days, just to refresh my memory about what I’ve got. It isn’t a perfect solution, but it’s arguably better than trying to do the same with handwritten notes. There’s also a real loss when it comes to the physical manipulation of ideas: I still do mind maps and write down ideas in my notebook whenever possible, and I can even do a rough version of shuffling the pieces in TextEdit by copying and pasting chunks of text until they fall into an order that makes sense. (Much of this, I imagine, would be possible in programs like Scrivener, but I prefer my more flexible approach.) A lot of it also depends on how much I can keep organized in my own head. It’s impossible to imagine writing a whole book at once in this fashion, but as David Mamet once said, you eat a turkey one bite at a time. I’m familiar enough with my own attention span to know how much I can handle—usually the equivalent of three chapters or so—at any given moment. So far, it seems to be working pretty well. Taking notes, as I’ve said elsewhere, amounts to a message that you send from the past to the future. And while I still miss my cards sometimes, I’ve found that it’s easier to just text myself.

Written by nevalalee

December 8, 2016 at 8:57 am

House of passages

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House of Eternal Return at Meow Wolf

On Friday, I visited Meow Wolf, which is a statement that seems destined to elicit either a knowing smile or a puzzled look, the proportions of which probably change the farther you get from New Mexico. I didn’t really know what it was before I went, which was a good thing, and I’m not sure how to describe it even now, which is even better. It’s housed in a huge building in downtown Santa Fe that used to be a bowling alley and is now owned by local hero George R.R. Martin, who spent millions of dollars in renovations to allow Meow Wolf, an artistic collective with its own long history, to enable its wildest dreams. After buying a ticket, you walk down a darkened hallway into what looks like a crumbling Victorian house, built from scratch down to the last shingle. You can explore every room, look inside every drawer, and even open the fridge, which contains a startling surprise of its own. As you wander, you gradually start to piece together a larger narrative, and you realize that everything you see is a clue. All of the obvious anomalies, from the distorted floor of the upstairs bathroom to the portal in the fireplace, reflect a coherent story about a peculiar family, a missing child, two rival secret societies, and a hub connecting the house to a vast multiverse, tantalizing portions of which are accessible to visitors. (I managed to figure out very little of this for myself, and if you want more information, there’s a much better writeup by Annalee Newitz over at Ars Technica.)

And you come away feeling deeply impressed, even if you leave with most of the mystery intact. I went in knowing almost nothing about it, aside from the notion that it was some sort of interactive exhibit and art installation, and I went from bracing myself for the worst possible version of the experience—I was dreading a kind of kid’s show with insistent actors and cheap set dressings—to the realization that it was probably the best. It’s been compared to an online RPG, and it has to solve many of the same narrative problems, in three dimensions and with a live audience, which obliges it to deal with the challenges of a theme park attraction or a haunted house. There are many small touches of wayfinding that keep you exactly as disoriented as the designers want you to be, but no more, along with subtly incorporated cast members who can give you a nudge in the right direction or indicate a feature that you might have overlooked. And like many of the best video games, it’s accessible both to casuals and to obsessive players. My three-year-old daughter, who is a natural busybody, had a great time simply poking around the house, in which she was granted complete freedom to indulge in her nosiness to her heart’s content. Most of the rooms have both a connection to the overall narrative and elements of self-contained diversion, like the glowing mastodon ribcage that can be played like a xylophone. You can be exactly as engaged with the deeper story as you like, and the fact that local high schoolers seem to treat it as an ideal place to make out probably delights its creators.

House of Eternal Return at Meow Wolf

But if you’re really serious about drilling down to the underlying mystery, there’s a wealth of material at your disposal, much of it remarkably dense: a fake newspaper casually left on a kitchen table, a corkboard with sinister correspondence from the neighborhood middle school, a fat binder of notes about the multiverse, a desktop computer crammed with files. And although the comparisons to video games or theme parks suggest themselves naturally, the best parallel is to Mark Z. Danielewski’s novel House of Leaves. (The formal name of the exhibit is “House of Eternal Return,” which may be a play on words between the act of leaving and the act of returning.) They share the same mingled sense of dread and discovery, and like the novel, the art complex rewards both casual browsing and deep exploration, with much of its charm lying in the implication that it can never be fully exhausted. It was the result of six months of brainstorming and world-building, and the big sensory effects that it creates can’t be separated from its attention to detail on the most granular level. It’s impossible to resist doing a few spot checks, and once you’ve verified that the dresser has clothes in it and that the notebook on the desk is full of real writing, the credibility of the whole enterprise rises enormously. As Douglas R. Hofstadter once wrote of an ingenious word puzzle: “It strikes me as weird (and wonderful) how, in certain situations, the verification of a tiny percentage of a theory can serve to powerfully strengthen your belief in the full theory.” That’s certainly true here, and it would clearly reward repeated visits.

Of course, to see it in the first place, you have to go to Santa Fe, which points both to its appeal and to the inherent obstacles it faces. Thanks to the financial support and creative freedom that Martin has provided, this is likely to be the best possible incarnation of this kind of endeavor that will ever exist, and it’s difficult to envision many other cases in which such a benefactor would be willing or able to take on a similar risk. Meow Wolf estimates that it needs about a hundred thousand visitors every year to break even, which seems like a high bar to clear—even if it represents just one percent of what Game of Thrones pulls in on a good week. Given its nature as a localized interactive experience, it seems destined to be both a labor of love and an irreproducible outlier. (To be honest, I’m not entirely sorry about this: I’m not sure that I want to see a version of this experience that was done with anything less than the resources and the attentiveness that we see here, and a bad knockoff of it would be unbearable.) Yet I have the feeling that its real legacy will be as a crucible of talent, or a hub to an artistic multiverse of its own, with other projects or careers reverberating away from it like ripples in spacetime. To conceive, plan, and above all execute this story in a tangible form, with all of the specific problems that would have presented themselves along the way, must have been an education in itself, and it wouldn’t surprise me if some of the participants went on to do fascinating things with the skills they acquired in the process. It’s a house that leads into many rooms, and the most interesting ones may not even exist yet.

Written by nevalalee

May 24, 2016 at 9:16 am

“The rest of the wedding was a blur…”

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"Wolfe walked gingerly down the aisle..."

Note: This post is the forty-third installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 42. You can read the previous installments here.

I’ve frequently written here about the theory that you can classify any given writer as either a gardener or an architect. George R.R. Martin, who obviously places himself in the former category, returns to that premise repeatedly in discussing his work, and it’s been picked up by other writers of speculative fiction: when I attended the World Science Fiction Convention in Chicago a few years back, it came up at nearly every panel I saw. And like most such categorizations, it’s most illuminating when we look at the places where it falls short. A good gardener, for instance, doesn’t just put words down on paper and hope for the best: to keep the process from spiraling out of control, he or she soon develops a set of tactics for managing the resulting pages. If there’s a hidden architecture here, it’s the vernacular kind, which emerges out of the constraints of the landscape, the materials, and the needs of the people who live there. It doesn’t arise from a blueprint, but it depends nonetheless on experience and good tricks. And the self-described gardeners of literature—the published ones, anyway—tend to be exceptionally capable at controlling structure at the level of the sentence or paragraph. If they weren’t, the story wouldn’t get written at all. (Or if you’d prefer to keep the gardening metaphor alive, it’s also a little like the parable of the sower: ideas that fall on rocky soil or among thorns are unlikely to grow, but they yield a hundredfold when sown on good ground. And even if this isn’t architecture, it’s at least a kind of horticulture.)

In a similar way, one of the most counterintuitive aspects of the architectural approach is that all of its careful planning and analysis really exists to enable a handful of moments in which the plan goes away. Making an outline is less about laying down the proper path for the story—which is likely to change in the rewrite anyway—than about keeping on task and maintaining a necessary discipline over many weeks and months. This routine exists both to generate pages and to make sure you’re physically there when an organic, unplanned insight occurs: it’s a kind of precipitate from the solution that the writer has prepared beforehand in the lab. I’ve spoken elsewhere about the importance of rendering time, in which you need to stick yourself behind a desk for a certain number of hours or days before good ideas can emerge. Outlining and writing a logical first draft happens to be a pretty great use of the time between inspirations, and it can be hard to tell whether an idea emerged from the preparatory stage or if the latter was just an excuse to keep working until the former appeared. But it still works, and the fact that useful insights tend to appear only after a stretch of systematic, sometimes tedious effort is the best argument I know for writing like an architect. The idea that you need to prepare obsessively to allow for the unexpected isn’t exactly new: in fact, it’s so familiar that it has inspired some of creativity’s great clichés, from Louis Pasteur’s “Chance favors the prepared mind” to Branch Rickey’s “Luck is the residue of design.” But like a lot of clichés, they’re true.

"The rest of the wedding was a blur..."

For the most part, The Icon Thief and its successors were meticulously planned novels: they all called for a lot of research, and their outlines, in some cases, approached the lengths of the finished chapters themselves. But that planning was meaningful mostly to the extent that it enabled about ten minutes of real insight, spread unevenly over the course of three years of work. I don’t know of any better example than that of Maya Asthana. When I started writing City of Exiles, the second book in the series, I was working toward what I thought would be a neat twist: Alan Powell, the hero of the first installment, would turn out to be the mole in his own agency. I wasn’t exactly sure how this would work, but I trusted that I’d be able to figure it out, and I wrote about half the book with that revelation in mind. When it came time to outline the second half, however, I froze up: I just couldn’t see how to do it. Yet I’d already baked the idea of a mole into the story, and I couldn’t bear the thought of discarding those pages. Out of desperation, I cast around for another character who could assume that role. And to my surprise, I found that the only plausible candidate was Asthana, the smart, slightly conceited, but warmhearted agent I’d introduced into the story solely as a sounding board for Rachel Wolfe, my protagonist. But once I recognized Asthana’s potential, I realized that her origins as a purely functional supporting character were a real asset: the reader would be unlikely to see the twist coming—and I think the surprise works—because I hadn’t seen it, either.

And one of the unanticipated dividends of that decision was the wealth of small, almost arbitrary character details that I’d unwittingly bequeathed to myself. Like Wolfe, who was originally a minor character whom I made into a Mormon just to make her a little more distinctive, Asthana had acquired traits and bits of business nearly at random, and now I had a chance to put them to good use. In City of Exiles, for example, I’d established the fact that she was planning her wedding, mostly because it was a thread I could write without much effort—I’d gotten married just a couple of years earlier—and because it seemed consistent with her personality. Once Asthana became the villain of the series, though, and after it became clear that I wasn’t going to be able to resolve her story in the second book, it seemed obvious that her wedding day was going to be a major set piece in Eternal Empire. Again, I could have simply ignored the clue that had been planted, but it felt right, like using every part of the buffalo, and I had a hunch that it would be a good scene. And it was. In fact, the sequence that reaches its climax here, in Chapter 41, as Wolfe realizes that Asthana is the mole while standing up as a bridesmaid during the wedding ceremony, is maybe my favorite thing in the whole novel. (A big part of the challenge was figuring out how Wolfe could stumble across the truth at the wedding itself. The solution, which involves a surprise poetry reading and a clue from John Donne, manages to be tidy and contrived at the same time.) It’s a scene that never would have occurred to me if the pieces hadn’t fallen into place almost by accident. And while I’d never call myself a gardener, it was nice to see one idea finally bear fruit…

Written by nevalalee

February 12, 2016 at 8:46 am

The tyranny of the calendar

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George R.R. Martin

When a novelist reaches a certain level of commercial success, the charge is inevitably leveled—as it still is against the likes of Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, and most recently George R.R. Martin—that he or she is no longer being edited. And it seems like the evidence is right before our eyes. The books grow visibly longer, as they did most dramatically in the case of Harry Potter, or they take more installments to cover the same amount of ground, as with A Song of Ice and Fire. Familiar tics, like the folksy voice that King likes to assume, expand into full-blown affectations, and the novels themselves start to seem looser and shaggier. Something has clearly changed, and the underlying assumption is that the writers themselves are to blame: nobody likes being edited, and once their careers have advanced to the point where they carry sufficient financial clout with their publishers, they simply refuse to take any additional notes. As King himself said in an interview from the early eighties: “At this point, I think that if there were any change suggested to me that I didn’t want, all I would need to say would be, ‘No. I won’t do that.’ And it would never be a question of their withdrawing my contract, would it? They’d just finally say, ‘Well, okay then, don’t do it that way.’ Which means, in effect, that if I’m willing to be really intransigent, there’ll be no editing at all.”

But the truth, as always, is a little more complicated. The quotation above comes from an interview with King first published in the second volume of the Dream Makers series by Charles Platt. It dates from an intriguing moment in King’s career, around the time of Christine, when he was already a force on bestseller lists but not the institution he later became. And he says of his editorial process during that period:

I like to write three drafts: a first, a second, and what I think of as the editorial draft, when I sit down and take an editor’s criticism and work it through in my own mind, and put the whole book through the typewriter again, and repolish the other stuff as well. But as the successes have mushroomed, it’s been tougher and tougher for me to get my editors to give me time to do that third draft. What I’m really afraid of now is that one of them will say, “I think this is great,” just because it fits their publication schedule. Every year, I’m on a faster and faster track…I am supposed to read the proofs [of Different Seasons] in five days. Now, what if we let a bunch of dumb errors go through? It isn’t a matter of creativity, or trying to do the best book possible, that’s governing things right now—it’s advertising. And that scares the hell out of me, because we’ll fuck up real good one of these days, and then people can say “Steve King writes for money,” and at that point they will be right.

Stephen King

This obviously reflects King’s own perspective on the matter, but it’s still a fascinating point, and it remains relevant when we flash forward more than thirty years to George R.R. Martin. In the blog post that I discussed here last week, he recounts how he told his publishers that he wouldn’t be able to deliver the next book in the series on time, and he says of their response:

I thought they’d be sick about it…but I have to say, my editors and publishers are great, and they took it with surprising equanimity. (Maybe they knew it before I did.) They already had contingencies in place. They had made plans to speed up production. If I could deliver Winds of Winter by the end of the year, they told me, they could still get it out before the end of March.

Martin didn’t meet that deadline either, of course, and after describing his predicament in more detail, he concludes: “Best guess, based on our previous conversations, is that Bantam (and presumably my British publisher as well) can have the hardcover out within three months of delivery, if their schedules permit.” And although this line wasn’t much discussed in the analysis that ensued, it may be the most astonishing tidbit in the entire post. Even if you just consider the physical challenge of printing a million or more hardcover copies, three months to take a novel from manuscript to bookstores is insane. With such a huge machine trembling to go into action, something’s got to give—and it’s probably going to be the editing.

What I’m suggesting, in other words, is that the perceived lack of editing in many big bestsellers isn’t due to authorial stubbornness or editorial laziness. Instead, it’s a structural consequence of fitting blockbuster books into a relentless publishing cycle. When you consider how the whole process is being squeezed on one side by the author’s pressure to finish and on the other side by the pressure to deliver the book to readers, it’s no surprise if certain crucial steps get truncated or eliminated along the way. And it makes sense that the first casualty would be editing. Authors often complain that no one really gets what they do, and that’s doubly true for editors. A process that is so opaque to outsiders is bound to fall by the wayside when there’s so much else to consider: you’ve got to drop something to keep on schedule, and it may as well be the editorial phase, which nobody understands anyway. (Which leads me to a crucial point that deserves a blog post of its own: this is also why tentpole movies these days seem to be consistently half an hour too long. There just isn’t the time to edit them properly.) If The Winds of Winter comes out three months after Martin delivers his “final” draft, there’s no way that it got the edit it deserved: every other stage demands a fixed amount of time to complete, and it’s the edit that ends up paying the price. So when you worry that the books in your favorite series are getting longer and more self-indulgent, you don’t need to blame the editor or the author. You can blame the calendar.

Written by nevalalee

January 12, 2016 at 8:50 am

The song has no ending

with 3 comments

Emilia Clarke on Game of Thrones

Nearly seven years ago, when readers of A Song of Ice and Fire were anxiously awaiting the appearance of A Dance with Dragons, George R.R. Martin published a blog post titled “To My Detractors.” He noted “the rising tide of venom” that had arisen in response to the book’s lateness, and he wrote:

Some of you are angry about the miniatures, the swords, the resin busts, the games. You don’t want me “wasting time” on those, or talking about them here. Some of you are angry that I watch football during the fall. You don’t want me “wasting time” on the NFL, or talking about it here.

Some of you hate my other projects…Some of you don’t want me attending conventions, teaching workshops, touring and doing promo, or visiting places like Spain and Portugal (last year) or Finland (this year). More wasting time, when I should be home working on A Dance with Dragons.

After all, as some of you like to point out in your emails, I am sixty years old and fat, and you don’t want me to “pull a Robert Jordan” on you and deny you your book.

Martin obviously didn’t take such criticisms all that seriously. Last week, however, he published another post that was very different in tone. A Dance with Dragons had finally come out four years earlier, and fans had moved on to clamoring for the release of The Winds of Winter. Martin wrote: “You wanted an update. Here’s the update. You won’t like it.” He acknowledged that the book wasn’t close to being done, and he continued:

Unfortunately, the writing did not go as fast or as well as I would have liked. You can blame my travels or my blog posts or the distractions of other projects and the Cocteau and whatever, but maybe all that had an impact…you can blame my age, and maybe that had an impact too…but if truth be told, sometimes the writing goes well and sometimes it doesn’t, and that was true for me even when I was in my twenties.

This post was widely reported and analyzed, but few observers appear to have noted the extent to which it deliberately echoed its predecessor, almost point for point. Martin seemed to grant that the “distractions” invoked by his detractors might, in fact, have been partially responsible for the delay—and although this sounds like a concession to his critics, it feels more to me like an act of self-wounding from a writer who is already deeply depressed, to use his own words, by his own lack of progress.

George R.R. Martin

And as much as I can understand it, it saddens me. Martin is a gardener, not an architect, and as an avowed architect myself, I can speak with some objectivity about the advantages, as well the disadvantages, of the gardener’s approach. What impatient fans sometimes fail to recognize is that the very elements that they love so much about the series arise from precisely the same place as the factors that have led to these delays. Its density of detail, its attention to character, its sense of taking even its author by surprise: all are inseparable from a creative process that is inherently unpredictable. In a blog post that most famously included the line “George R.R. Martin is not your bitch,” Neil Gaiman got close to the heart of the matter:

It seems to me that the biggest problem with series books is that either readers complain that the books used to be good but that somewhere in the effort to get out a book every year the quality has fallen off, or they complain that the books, although maintaining quality, aren’t coming out on time.

And the tradeoff between time and quality—which might strike regular readers of this blog as familiar—is especially true of a series like A Song of Ice and Fire. If you want to live with the richness and unpredictibility that the gardener provides, you have to be prepared to die by it as well. And if those double-edged qualities weren’t there, you wouldn’t have been drawn to these books in the first place.

But there’s also a very real sense in which the series’s own successes contained the seeds of its downfall. (This is certainly true of Game of Thrones itself, which I’ve stopped watching largely because of issues that were invisibly contained in its conception from the very beginning.) Martin’s approach to writing isn’t wrong, but it’s problematic when linked, like a conjoined twin, to a television series that has to release new seasons on a regular schedule. The idea of a novelist finishing a book series in parallel with its production in other media isn’t unprecedented: J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter did much the same. But the movies are less hungry for plot and more forgiving of delay, and big franchises, like the James Bond series, have weathered long interruptions in production without damaging the brand. A cable series can’t do that, and the pressure on Martin, which is clearly enormous, arises from a structural tension between the kinds of novels he writes and the implacable logic of television—which doesn’t even mention the pressure from his publishing house, which is a huge machine trembling to take action as soon as his manuscript is delivered. Martin, who spent years writing for television, knows this, but he still hoped he could make it work: “I never thought the series could possibly catch up with the books, but it has.” His disappointment in himself is painfully clear, and his sole consolation should be that what he was trying to do was probably impossible. Being unable to write to your satisfaction is the worst thing that can happen to any writer, regardless of the larger systems in which he plays a role, and we can only say to writer’s block what Arya is told to say to death: “Not today.”

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