Who do you write for? Martin's lesson

Halt. Stop. Hold on a minute, that's what George RR Martin seems to be saying. There's been a small tempest of dismay over the recent announcement, by Martin's publishers, that the latest installment of his Ice and Fire saga won't appear in 2015.

Items in Forbes from Erik Kain and Paul Tassi have framed the situation and some shocking alternative scenarios. You can read them for yourself by going here.

Fans and TV viewers are upset because, with the publisher's announcement, it looks like the popular HBO "Game of Thrones" series will certainly soon outstrip Martin's unfinished multi-book story. What do you do with a popular, massively-profitable series that depends on a work in progress?

I've been thinking a lot about the time it takes to produce just a single book (see my previous post), and that makes me very sympathetic to Martin -- even though I worry like other fans that George isn't getting any younger and all those books are very big ones.

But the notion offered by some of the pundits, that HBO should just go forward with the story without waiting for Martin, is like going to hear a Journey concert without Steve Perry. Yeah, the songs sound pretty good, and the guy they found to replace him has a great voice, but it's still not the same guy.

Those complaining about the delays have an exaggerated sense of their relevance to Martin's work. Here's what I say to them: It's great that you love the stories and are eager to see more, but, I hate to break it to you, your voices don't matter.

I know that sounds very elitist, but I also know that many of you, my dear friends, understand what I'm getting at. Writing is a privileged form of creation, and when you turn your back on the world -- or someone like Martin turns a cold shoulder to the might of HBO and millions of fans -- it's to hear one's own voice, which was the point in the first place.

For my fellow working writers, I hope Martin's heroic example inspires.

On writing: The cautionary example of Alan Moore

What are you looking at?: Alan Moore (credit: The Guardian). When I think of George R.R. Martin, I can't help thinking of Alan Moore, too.

Both have been wildly successful in popular genres (fantasy, graphic novels). Both are old guys. Both don't know how to trim their beards.

They're opposite sides of the same coin.

Martin writes novels accessible to wide audiences (they couldn't get any wider), he likes his fans and likes mingling with them, and in photos he usually has a friendly grin on his face.  If he ever stumbled into Dr. Jekyll's lab and mistook a potion for a good black lager, I could seem him gag and cough, drop to the floor, roll around in agony for a while, then stand up … as Alan Moore.

Moore's disdain for popularized versions of his work is legendary. His avoidance of fans and the marketplace is so un-Martin-like. In photos there's usually a scowl or a perplexed look on his face.

But here's another thing they have in common: Moore, like Martin, is inspiring to any and all writers out there.

The Guardian gave readers an update last week that Moore's million-word novel about a small postage stamp of London earth, "Jerusalem," has been finished. "Now there's just the small matter of copy editing," quipped his daughter in a Facebook announcement. When I read that line, I couldn't help thinking of another incredible understatement, from the movie "Jaws," about needing a bigger boat.

I don't envy the editor of that book, but I do  admire Moore.  In the end, you know he'll successfully publish his behemoth with a solid publisher, he'll receive many reviews, he'll get sales because we're curious — even though he doesn't care for any of it.

During his career, he's layered a cocoon around himself that's a good cautionary example for any writer, I think.

What does his example teach us? Write for yourself. Write what pleases you.

But don't misunderstood this message. It doesn't mean that you can get lazy and do anything you want. Don't indulge in bad habits. Don't settle for writing that's "good enough" when you know you can do better.

I'd add -- not to aim for a million words, either: If you haven't published a novel yet, a big book is anathema to most publishers. Especially by an untested quantity. (An earlier version of my novel, a big fat padded thing, made the rounds and received a bunch of rejections — many commenting on its length .)

Ok, but… if your narrative can't help growing to an enormous length and that growth is truly organic, truly necessary …. well, then just hope a sympathetic editor finds you and is willing to make the case for you.

Such questions have been on my mind a lot lately, my friends, as my own book finally approaches (yet again) its completion -- but in a state that satisfies and pleases me.

So in the weeks and months ahead, I think I'll mostly be dedicating Call of the Siren to aspects of my experience, and my preparation to run the gauntlet again. I hope that's ok with everyone. It's where my mind is.

Maybe I'll also let my beard start growing again. Stop trimming it, too.

George R.R. Martin: A great summer placeholder

park gates Many of my Wordpress friends are on hiatus until September -- they were nice enough to post something that tells everyone why their blogs are quiet.

I'm not nearly so courteous ... I've been on an accidental hiatus created by what affects everyone else: family, vacation, start of school ...

But something George R.R. Martin recently said, in an interview in The Independent, was too provocative to ignore. It forced me to carve out some time to share it with you, friends. It also made me choose the picture above, which shows us a slightly open gate in a lush green park.

Recently, Call of the Siren started a small dialogue on the issue of traditional publishing vs. self-publishing. The occasion was prompted by a former colleague, Jim Rossi, who has decided to take the self-publishing route for a forthcoming book even though he received an offer from a legitimate publisher. If you missed it, Jim explains why in "Why self-publish? Your book's a startup company, that's why" here at the Call.

Coming soon, the Call will provide a brief index of recent articles about the pros and cons of self-publishing that have been percolating during the summer months.

Until then, here's what Maester Martin had to say about the cons of self-publishing in his interview:

The world is changing, I will admit. I am old enough and now very well established so the changes don't affect me so much. But with the rise of the internet and self-publishing, we are seeing people who are trying to reach the readers directly and bypass traditional publishing and bypass the editors. It is really too early to tell where that will lead but I am not necessarily sure it will lead to a good place. I do think the function of editors as gatekeepers is a valuable and worthy function – they do save us from reading a lot of crap!

I'm of two minds on this. I get his point; my other reaction is, "Easy for you to say, George!"

A Comic-Con footnote

Outside Comi-Con 2014, San Diego Convention Center. I was standing outside the convention center for Comic-Con 2014 on Saturday -- it was hot and noisy, and waiting for the traffic signal to change was even more unpleasant because of the Christian evangelicals positioned at various crosswalks.

As we waited to cross the street, they blasted our ears with their mini-speakers. All of us, they announced, were headed to H-E-double hockey sticks if we didn't accept Christ as our Lord and Savior. A fiery punishment awaits  all unbelievers.

Unbelievers, at Comic-Con? I thought. Really?

There was plenty of belief on display inside and outside the venue. I didn't dress up, but tons of people did: I saw witches and scarlet witches; zombies, vampires, and angels with elaborate, feathery wings; gladiators, King Arthurs, and Game of Thrones characters; manga girls and X-boys, and, of course, your traditional superheroes, too.


comic con attendees


It reminded me of something that Robertson Davies wrote in his essay "The Novelist and Magic" :

The people I pitied, without despising them, were [those] innumerable fellow-citizens who have no focus for their faith, but in whom the roots of faith are still alive, and who seek hungrily and foolishly for something to do with the power they feel, but do not -- even in the vaguest and most superstitious sense -- understand.

That's what I saw all around me: a hunger for something. Comic books and superheroes have always tapped into the roots of religious faith. They ask you to believe in things unseen, like time-travel portals and invisible space ships, or mysterious loners with the power to change the world.

If you saw the movie Man of Steel, you may recall that some of the dialogue describing Kal-el's purpose has a strong biblical ring to it. I can't tell you the exact lines, but there are several moments when Superman's purpose on earth is described in explicitly messianic terms ... the hero sent from the heavens who can save the world even though he's rejected and feared.

man of steel movie poster

So, when those preachers said the attendees didn't believe in anything, they were wrong. The capacity for belief was everywhere, even if it was being invested in looking like Iron Man or the Hulk instead of what they were talking about.

If they'd been a little less scolding, if they'd taken a more interesting route -- like, for instance, describing Jesus as "the Bible's ultimate superhero" -- that sort of humor might have won them some listeners.

Instead, we were all just waiting for the traffic signal to change.


Wondercon and my 401(k): at Call of the Siren

Don't even publish your book: Tolkien's option

With my recent conversation with Jim Rossi about self-publishing in mind, I turn again to J.R.R. Tolkien, whom I've been reading lately because of the publication of his Beowulf translation in May. tolkien-associated-pressHe published The Hobbit and LOTR, and more besides these, but his translation of Beowulf never saw the light of publication in his lifetime.

Though complete, and though he generated a vast set of notes to go with it, it went into a file cabinet or a desk drawer.

It's an extraordinary translation. We're so lucky to have it.

So why the heck didn't he publish it?

There are at least three theories that different critics (including his son Christopher) have suggested:

1) his family's life was disrupted by his taking a post at Oxford just as he was finishing it 2) he became too engrossed in the writing of The Hobbit and didn't think about it anymore 3) his relationship to Beowulf was so special, and secret, that he didn't want to pollute it with publication

The first two make little sense to me. Few writers have disruption-free lives, right? And his Beowulf was done by the time he started The Hobbit. So reason 2 doesn't work either. All he needed was a brown paper package and some postage stamps to send it off.

But the third reason ...

... now that's appealing. The New Yorker's Joan Acocella offers this explanation near the end of her splendid recent piece about the translation. She describes Tolkien's relationship to Beowulf as "a secret love" that fed his imagination. It was so special to him that he kept it only for himself.

Can you imagine any writer today who'd spend enormous time and energy on a manuscript only to consign it to their files?


And incredibly brave.

I like Acocella's theory though I think another factor was behind it, too   -- something that his son understood as he prepared the poem for publication.

Christopher Tolkien writes, in the recently published edition, that he worked from a clean typescript that was all marked up by his father's margin notes about alternative phrasings and other ideas. His father never stopped tinkering with the poem. He was never satisfied with it.

Even though the text is complete -- to us -- for Tolkien it wasn't finished.

That's less romantic than Acocella's idea, I know, but for me it underscores how devilishly hard the craft of writing is.

As you fumble around with your own manuscripts, my friends, and as you feel discouragement, take heart. Tolkien experienced frustrations like yours. He understood, like you, why writing sometimes feels like this picture:




But he learned a lesson, which those marginal scribblings and tinkerings clearly suggest: You just have to keep going.

Keep that ball rolling.