Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘J.K. Rowling

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 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

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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.”

“They don’t understand what we do, do they?”

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J.K. Rowling and Stephen King

[J.K. Rowling and I] did a charity event at Radio City Music Hall a few years back. She was working on the last of the Harry Potter books. Her publicist and her editor called her over, and they talked for about ten minutes. And when she came back to me, she was steaming. Fucking furious. And she said, “They don’t understand what we do, do they? They don’t fucking understand what we do.” And I said, “No, they don’t. None of them do.” And that’s what my life is like right now….

When someone says, “What are you working on?” I’ll say, “I’ve got this wonderful story about these two families on two sides of a lake that end up having this arms race with fireworks,” but I’m doing this event, and then I’ve got the political ad and all this other crap. So you have to be stern about it and say, “I’m not going to do this other stuff, because you’ve got to make room for me to write.” Nobody really understands what the job is. They want the books, but they don’t, in a way, take it seriously.

Stephen King, to Rolling Stone

Written by nevalalee

November 8, 2015 at 7:30 am

The cuckoo’s example

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The Cuckoo's Calling

By now, you’ve probably already heard that J.K. Rowling has been outed as the author of the mystery novel The Cuckoo’s Calling, which was published without fanfare in April under the name Robert Galbraith. Although the book was eventually released by Little, Brown, which published Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, it was evidently shopped around to other houses without success. As one editor said to the Telegraph:

When the book came in, I thought it was perfectly good—it was certainly well written—but it didn’t stand out. Strange as it might seem, that’s not quite enough. Editors have to fall in love with debuts. It’s very hard to launch new authors and crime is a very crowded market.

Of course, now that its author’s true identity has been revealed, the book has shot to the top of the Amazon bestseller list, and for fans who didn’t know when—if ever—to expect a new book from Rowling, it comes as a delightful surprise.

Buried within the hype, however, there’s a fact that deserves a little more attention. According to Little, Brown, The Cuckoo’s Calling has sold about 1,500 copies in hardcover since its release in April. Other sources pin the true number as slightly lower: the Telegraph, citing Nielsen Bookscan, claims that actual sales may have been closer to 500. My own experience is that Bookscan tends to undercount sales significantly, especially outside the major chain bookstores, and it doesn’t include copies bought for Kindle or other electronic readers, so it’s reasonable to assume that the official figure is substantially correct. Sales in the book industry are notoriously opaque, especially for debut authors, so it’s always instructive to see a hard number attached to any book. And I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that its sales were soberingly low—low enough, in fact, to serve as a reality check for aspiring authors who don’t have a clear sense of what the market is really like.

J.K. Rowling

In some ways, this is the most useful case study of a debut novel we’ll ever see, to the point where it deserves to stand as a baseline for calibrating expectations. This is a book by an author who is, by any measure, an exceptionally capable novelist. It was released in hardcover by a major publisher, and it earned good notices, including a starred review in Publishers Weekly. The push it was given wasn’t tremendous, but it’s more than comparable to what most debuts receive. Reader response seems to have been highly positive. Yet despite all these points in its favor, it still had trouble breaking through. And while it’s possible that the book would have continued to sell steadily based on good word of mouth, it’s more likely that sales would have tapered off after an initial month or two in stores, as other titles took its place. (Modern bookselling is something of a cuckoo’s nest itself: the eggs on the shelf are always being pushed out by more recent, larger arrivals.)

Still, there’s no telling what might have happened, and as much as I enjoy this story, I can’t help but wish that Rowling had been allowed to continue operating under the radar for at least one more book. Until now, the most interesting case of a bestselling writer testing the waters under a pseudonym has been that of Stephen King and Richard Bachman. King published four novels in paperback and one in hardcover under the Bachman name, and he seems to have been seriously committed to seeing if lightning could strike twice: by the time the author’s identity was revealed, Bachman was slowly acquiring what King calls “a dim cult following,” and Thinner had sold a respectable 28,000 copies in hardcover. In his introduction to The Bachman Books, King writes:

I had intended Bachman to follow Thinner with a rather gruesome suspense novel called Misery, and I think that one might have taken “Dicky” onto the best-seller lists. Of course we’ll never know now, will we?

No, we’ll never know, and we won’t know what might have happened if Robert Galbraith had been allowed to survive. But I’d like to believe that he could have.

Written by nevalalee

July 15, 2013 at 8:50 am

On the inadvisability of true love

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I don’t believe in true love. At least not in fiction. In real life, it’s another story—I’ve been happily married for years now, thank you—but as a narrative device, it’s often an excuse to avoid inconvenient questions and the challenge of constructing a plausible plot. Perhaps because it’s so difficult to dramatize the process of falling in love, works of art that depict it convincingly are startlingly rare. It’s much easier to pretend that your two main characters are joined by destiny, with the universe conspiring in their favor, a convention that goes as far back as courtly romance, and has since been exploited by the likes of Nicholas Sparks and Nora Ephron. Clearly, audiences respond to it, but for me, all it does is rob characters of their most important quality: their free will. Once we sense that characters are being pushed together by the plot in which they find themselves, the choices they make cease to matter, and so does the story itself.

In a way, this is really a particular illustration of a more general problem, which is that fate or destiny has no place in most decent  fiction (with an important exception that I’ll discuss below). Plot, on its most basic level, is about characters making meaningful decisions, and while it’s certainly possible for a writer to nudge his characters one way or the other, this only works if it’s cleverly disguised. Making destiny an active player in the story automatically renders all other actions meaningless, or at least waters them down unforgivably. My main problem with the Harry Potter series, for instance, is its insistence on Harry’s exceptional destiny, as if being taken from under the stairs at the Dursleys and sent to Hogwarts wasn’t exceptional enough. Harry’s special status robs the series of much of its suspense, and it’s a testament to J.K. Rowling’s raw narrative skill that she managed to write seven engaging novels on her way to a preordained conclusion. In most other cases, however, I tune out whenever the talk turns to a Chosen One: it’s a sign that the author just isn’t going to let the characters go their own way.

Which is only a reminder that even if you believe that such forces apply in reality, they generally don’t belong in fiction. We may not know exactly how the world works, or if there’s some larger pattern in which we all play a part, and the consideration of such possibilities—no matter what you decide—is an important part of every examined life. In fiction, however, unless you’re supremely confident in your abilities, or writing for a very limited audience, it’s often necessary to exclude certain possibilities for the sake of good storytelling. Many of my favorite writers, from Chesterton to John Updike, hold nuanced religious beliefs, but very few have written readable fiction that turns on an act of explicit divine intervention, and for good reason. Not everyone believes in divine intervention, or true love, but most of us, at least in practice, believe in free will and individual responsibility. Most good fiction, whatever we hope or think in private, takes place in a world in which people are left to their own devices, in love as in all other things.

That said, there’s an exception to this rule, and it’s a negative one. As I’ve said in my post about the unfair universe, many great works of art turn on a single moment of cosmic unfairness: from Oedipus Rex to Vertigo, King Lear to The Postman Always Rings Twice, some of my favorite stories trap their characters like a fly in a web, daring them to extricate themselves, usually with unfortunate results. So why am I more happy with an unfair universe than one in which everything is destined to turn out fine? It’s far more entertaining, on an intuitive level, to see a character fight against a hostile destiny than to overcome his or her problems with the help of fate. Taken too far, this can also be irritating, as in the victim story, or those romances where a series of contrived events conspire to keep two appealing characters apart. And in general, one act of cosmic unfairness is enough. But it reminds us that what we want out of life is not always what we want out of fiction, and it’s the writer’s job to tell the difference. (On that note: Happy Valentine’s Day!)

Written by nevalalee

February 14, 2012 at 10:17 am

Potter’s wheel

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During my sophomore and junior years in college, I worked as a film critic for a currently defunct pop culture website, attending preview screenings and cranking out movie reviews at fifty dollars apiece. This was, believe it or not, my first real job of any kind, and while not particularly lucrative, it was hugely educational. (I learned, for instance, that while it may sound like fun, being forced to see every movie that comes out between January and March is a special sort of hell.) I also suggested occasional ideas for feature stories, and one day, probably in the fall of 1999, I noticed that media interest was growing around a series of children’s fantasy books about a boy wizard. I made a note to bring up the idea with my editor, then promptly forgot about it. I never did write that story. And it looks like this may be my last chance.

Now that the second half of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is finally in theaters, there have been a lot of think pieces about J.K. Rowling and the future of her creation, but one of the themes I find most interesting is the seamlessness of the franchise. This is the first global fantasy series, born from a novelist’s imagination, where books, movies, and other media were allowed to grow along with their audiences. There are those who love both the books and the movies; a significantly larger worldwide audience that has experienced the movies alone; and those, like me, who began with the books, then switched to the movies, once it became clear that the films were finally doing justice to the series. There’s also the theme park, the video games, and even, dare I say it, the fanfic. The result has shaped how we think about mainstream storytelling in ways we’re only beginning to appreciate.

As far as the films are concerned, Harry Potter was never my favorite movie franchise, but for the past ten years, it unstintingly received the full resources of one of our great movie studios, resulting in a polished Cadillac sheen that shouldn’t be underestimated. The installments by David Yates, in particular, while a bit impersonal, are among the handsomest, most lavishly mounted movies in recent memory, to the point where they’ve spoiled me for lesser franchises. These days, I get a little impatient watching a movie like Thor, which is clearly a big studio production but with obvious limits to its spectacle—meaning that it cost $150 million to make, not $250 million. And while the escalation of movie budgets is far from a good thing, there was still something reassuring about paying eleven dollars to see a Harry Potter film, knowing that you were bound to get your money’s worth.

But that doesn’t mean that bigger is always better. Of the movies, my favorite, somewhat to my surprise, is Goblet of Fire, which is also the only installment I never saw on the big screen. The first two movies are frankly embarrassing. Prisoner of Azkaban gets more respect, but while I have nothing but love for Alfonso Cuarón, I can’t get past that movie’s tonal issues and confusing final act, although much of it is smart and charming. And while the Yates installments, as I’ve said before, are big, sleek machines, Mike Newell’s Goblet of Fire comes closest to my idea of what this series should be about: not action, not special effects, but the idea of magic and of being a child. The lovingly detailed buildup to the Yule Ball, which otherwise puts the complicated plot on hold, strikes me as the most satisfying sequence in all the films. And that’s where I’ll remember Harry.

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