Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Tragedy of George RR Martin--Discipline, Joy, and Speculative Fiction

Because I write speculative fiction, creating epic novels or series be they fantasy, sci fi, or paranormal is an advantage. Spec fic readers love to immerse themselves in a vast world capable of supporting huge plot arcs with hordes of characters to fall in love with and, in my worlds at least, grieve over after they suffer heinous deaths. That's the kind of interaction any writer craves for their readers. When I get hate mail for killing off favorite characters, I do a little happy dance around my desk. 

When readers get pissed enough to yell at me for killing off a character, that means I did my job right and I did it well. 


Because the readers were so emotionally invested in the story that they responded to that character's death with genuine feeling. 

The great thing about epic fiction is that you can kill off a lot of characters in a long, complex plot arc. 

But there are pitfalls, too. 

Sometimes, an epic plot arc can get away from a writer. I'm a very prolific and fast writer. That's because of two reasons--first, that movie I'm watching in my head. I'm not sitting around for weeks constructing a painstaking, convoluted plot outline. I'm already writing. The form of the story is ingrained enough in my head that I know how to write from the beginning of the plot's road, up onto the first small hill, dipping into the valley, and then building the trip up the mountain of the plot. Every great story has those peaks and ebbs, a natural rhythm as they grow and the world expands. 

And the second reason is that I'm just damn fast. I used to do product testing for IBM when I was young, which puts my typing speed over 100 wpm (words per minute). Since I have only the one job (writer) I can easily spend 10-12 hours a day at my computer. I usually can clock in around 2,000 words an hour. So if the story is really rolling--like the one my agent is currently shopping--I can write the first draft of an epic fantasy novel in two weeks or less. 

Man, that first draft is crappy but it's on paper, by golly. 

There are a lot of writers who have the absolute opposite problem. Chief among them is George RR Martin, whose last novel in his wildly successful A Song of Ice and Fire--A Dance With Dragons--came out in 2011. With two novels left to complete the story line, Martin stalled so dramatically that now the television show based on his series has moved past his last published installment and has already completed a season beyond the books. He's reworked some of his older works, collaborated on a reference guide to Westeros, and zipped out a few novellas but the main series has languished now for seven years with no publication date in sight. 

What made that even worse was Martin continuing to announce publication dates, getting his fans excited, and then all those dates slipped by without a novel in sight. The latest self-imposed deadline by GRRM claims The Winds of Winter will be released in late 2018 or early 2019. If he actually makes this deadline, that will end up being a hiatus of eight years between book five and book six. So how is it possible that George RR Martin, who was trained in the deadline-heavy minefield of writing soap opera scripts, now finds himself unable to finish ASOIAF? What happened? 

I think he's gotten lost in the story himself. If you read Martin's ASOIAF, as the series moves forward the plot becomes extremely convoluted, with Martin occasionally going off on self-inflicted momentum murder by focusing on secondary characters and their plot arcs when those stories barely intersect with the main through line *coughSandSnakescough* and have little or no impact upon the ultimate denouement of the world. (That last bit is an assumption, because I can't imagine the Sand Snakes affecting much of anything except giving readers a PITA.) So now, having invested tens of thousands of words on that secondary plot, and hundreds of thousands on a slew of similar secondary plots, the writer sits and stares at his computer for days when he finally realizes what he's done to himself. 

He has so many plots going that he can't resolve the main storyline.

Time for...the Red Wedding, or other similar catastrophes. \

The only way to resolve a plethora of unneeded plots is to massacre them. Literally. But that, in turn, leads to other problems. With so many plots and characters it's only to easy to accidentally murder the wrong ones.

Enter Lady Stoneheart. Catelyn Stark's character could have done so much more than to be an implacable zombie seeking vengeance. In order to keep her in some fashion, Martin took away her greatest assets--her voice of reason, her common sense, her impact upon major players like Littlefinger and Jon and Sansa, and her ultimate moment of  revenge on Cersei Lannister, First of her Name.

But Martin is a perfectionist, and he loves the convoluted plotlines he used to whip out daily for soap operas. While I'm sure these two problems are, in some degree, to blame for his inability to finish the series, in the end it's more than likely something completely different and far more common. 

Writing isn't something you can just sit down and do, whiling away the hours like you are playing a video game or watching television. Writing requires discipline. Oh, I know. I'm the queen of procrastination. That's why for a long time I never finished a book. Once I completed my first novel, though, I created a set time every day to write new material. Back then I had to schedule around my job and other stuff, just like you do now more than likely. 

Now that I don't have a work schedule or kids in the house or a business to run, things are much different. I've created a discipline that works for me and enables me to maximize my productivity. I write new material in four hour blocks, and do at least one block a day. During my writing time, I turn off my phone, disconnect from the internet, and switch off the television. I will let my Alexa play music, but mostly classical and almost always instrumental--which is why I have playlists that are developed for specific moods. Then I open up the manuscript I'm working on to the last page and I start writing. 

I can hear some of my editing clients now. "But Celina, what if inspiration doesn't come?" 

Inspiration--the Muse--doesn't have a choice whether it's showing up or not for a disciplined writer. Writing is a job just like any other--except for the fact that it's a lot more enjoyable--and it comes when I want it to...not the other way around. Writers who sit around and wait for the Muse to pay a visit are generally writers who never finish a book. I keep the Muse showing up because of the next to the last thing I do in every writing block. I leave a comment for myself in the manuscript, making note of whatever my next thought or plot point following the last thing I wrote. 

The last thing I do is back up my manuscript. Trust me: you want to do that too. 

Once I finish a writing block, I'll play online or clean house or whatever. I'll work on my editing clients' work, or write an article. I do not read what I just wrote though. Revision and editing is something I approach after I've completed the first draft of the novel and not before. The only thing I work on regarding my work in progress outside of those writing blocks is research/story boarding. I basically scout locations, find costumes for character description (or hair styles or shoes or interior design or what's on the dinner table. When I find an image that evokes my world, I'll pop it on my Pinterest storyboards. 

But I don't write. Just like any other job, you need to rest when you take a break. Writing is no different. Then, usually a couple of hours later, I'll start another writing block and do it all over again. 

This discipline helps keep my writing time productive, allows me to maximize both my time and my word counts, and lets me finish first drafts fairly quickly. But it also helps to keep writing fun for me. When I sit at my computer to start working on my manuscript again, I'm excited to get back into the world and find out what happened next. And if I'm excited to learn that, I can be fairly certain or at the very least hopeful that my readers will be as well. 

I don't think GRRM feels that same excitement. The announced deadlines that are subsequently missed, the lack of progress on such a heavily developed world, and the still-stretching distance between books five and six all indicate to me that he's bogged down emotionally. Hell,, he's a multi-gazillionaire off books one through five. He doesn't have to drag himself to the computer every morning like I do and start my work timer to compel myself to get to work. His hunger for the series has left him, and walking in the world he created no longer brings him the joy it once did. So he gives himself deadlines. He means to beat every one of them, too. He knows how long it usually takes him to crank out 200,000 words, and gives himself a generous cushion to ensure he beats that predicted date. 

Then he sits at his computer, waiting to pick up the lost threads of the story, knowing in his head where he needs to go next but dreading the journey because it's So he turns to the internet, seeking that inspiration. He answers fan mail because it makes him feel good. He checks out his website, then decides to write a blog post because blogging is writing too. He can write his way into the book. But the blog post diverts his attention to something else, and before he realizes it he's wasted two hours and not one word was written. So he gives it up for the day, meaning to make a fresh start the following morning.

Inevitably, it happens again. Because with all the chatter out there about Game of Thrones, absolutely none of it is about his books anymore. All the excitement, all the intense love of the fans is now reserved for the television show...and their writers have already forged the plotline that will resonate in fans' minds. GRRM's no longer necessary to build his own world, to set the characters he created onto the path he'd always intended for them to follow. ASOIAF is now secondary to the HBO version of Westeros, because GRRM didn't have the discipline he needed to finish the books before the series caught up with him. 

And now, it's passed him. 

When I sit down to write, it's a labor of love. I enjoy every moment I spend exploring my imagination. But I had to learn the discipline I needed to be at maximum productivity. In 2016, I wrote a little over a million words. In 2017, I will almost certainly write over 1.25 million words. Crappy words. First draft words. Words that I will beat and shape and melt until I forge a new story, a new book out of them. Make no mistake--I loved every single crappy word I wrote, and remember the singular joy each of them gave me. But not a single word would have been written if I hadn't created a disciplined routine for myself and stuck to it. I know myself too well. And that, in turn, had enabled me to make damn sure that if/when one of my series takes off like ASOIAF, I won't lose my joy in the middle and leave the last couple of books unwritten. Although my agent very intelligently told me not to worry about sequels until the first book is sold, GRRM stands as a cautionary tale and the lesson I learned from watching him the last seven years is that for any writer, even the great ones, the joy can absolutely evaporate from your own world. The money, the fame, the fans can become a distraction taking you away from what you really love. 

So, young writers, a bit of advice since I believe strongly in paying it forward. Create your own discipline. Not daily word counts, but a daily commitment of time without the distractions of everyday life where you can sit down, shut the door on the rest of the world, and walk beside your characters into whatever world you've created for them. Without the discipline, it's inevitable that you, too, will lose your joy in writing. And at the end of the day, that is the ultimate tragedy of George RR Martin. Not that he can't meet a deadline or finish his next book, but that he's lost his joy in Westeros, which has brought so much joy to millions of people around the world.