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.

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.



Strange & Norrell: Where did that novel go?

A republished post by fantasy novelist Jo Walton asks a poignant question, Whatever happened to Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell?

"It did about as well as any book can do," Walton writes, "….but five years later, it doesn't seem to have had any impact."

Walton's piece first appeared in 2010 (hence the five years remark -- Clarke's wondrous strange novel first appeared in 2004). I just read the piece, which was republished on the Tor website to promote her latest book, a collection of writings and ruminations,  What Makes this Book so Great: Re Reading the Classics of Science fiction and fantasy. (A great idea for a book that any blogger could produce!)

'Magic Circle' - John William Waterhouse (1886)

Walton's is the kind of piece that every writer wishes to see -- it not only tells you that your book matters, but that it's worth reading a second or a third time (and that's quite a thing to say when it comes to Clarke's novel, which is Dickensian in length as well as style).

Walton's piece is thoughtful, and she entertains  several reasons why more novels haven't been clearly inspired by the Norrell/Strange epic (though, since 2010, I think her judgment is dated -- the landscape hasn't been nearly as empty as she claimed back then).

Among them:

  • Inspiration just takes a long time to have an effect on people, and Clarke's book will require time to inspire: "influence does take time to permeate through"
  • Maybe this novel is just too wonderful and unique to influence other fantasy works or to engage in a dialogue with other works of fantasy; in other words, it is sealed off on its own fictive island

I don't entirely disagree with Walton, but my immediate reaction was, hey, more of the burden's on the industry's shoulders, not Clarke's.

As I recall, Clarke's novel appeared in between two books in the Harry Potter series — it was an incredible stroke of timing for her. Magic-hungry readers snapped it up as they impatiently waited for the next Potter installment. The ten years that she spent writing her novel were amply repaid.

Jonathan_strange_and_mr_norrell_coverBut afterwards, I think Walton is right: For a long time, the publishing field remained pretty clear of anything resembling Clarke's (or Rowling's) work. Some publishers did try to cash in with deliberate, pathetic clones. (Anybody out there read a silly series of YA novels about the adventures of Charlie Bone?)  But aside from these, it was mostly Harry who held the field.

That had less to do with the powers of Clarke's inspiration and more with the power of the publishers, the gatekeepers of what we see in bookstores and online.

I suspect — based on my own work, which draws some light from blessed St. Susanna, and from my other experiences in the industry — that plenty of admirers are out there, writing works that are in perfect dialogue with hers. But the buyers for various publishers are thinking of other things. They're chasing after tastes and trends -- one's hope remains, as always, to find that editor who believes in nurturing stories for a simple reason: They should be read and shared.

Walton, I think, forgot about that back in 2010.

As of today, in 2014, Clarke's book still pops up in discussions on the blogosphere. She seems less a solitary figure than a writer in company with the names Rothfuss, Gaiman, Grossman, Link, etc.

And there's a miniseries in the works, which should be terrific -- in other words, Clarke's novel is still alive and well in people's minds.


P.S. I do like Walton's idea of re-reading classic works and explaining why they're great. I've been thinking of ways to feed the Siren. That's a terrific one.

Also Worth Your Time, Worth Reading:

If winter came to George R.R. Martin, what next?

George R.R. Martin in 2010. Credit: Julle So, what kind of obligation does a writer have to his fans?

I couldn’t help thinking of George R.R. Martin after watching a trailer of Baz Luhrmann’s production of “The Great Gatsby.”

That might seem like an unexpected leap, but it’s not a big one. Thinking about “Gatsby” made me think about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last novel, the unfinished “The Last Tycoon,” and then, “The Last Tycoon” made me think about Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” saga.

When he died in 1940, Fitzgerald left behind notes and outlines for “Tycoon.” He didn’t complete the manuscript, but he left a pretty good idea of what he wanted to do and how he planned to get there. Edmund Wilson put together Fitzgerald’s outlines and notes in an edition, and you’ll find richer insights on how to write a novel there than you will in any book or class titled “How to Write a Novel.”

That brings me to Martin. There are two more books to go in his saga, and he’s working on the sixth, “The Winds of Winter.” Plenty of his fans worry that we’re heading for a Robert Jordan situation — Jordan died before he could finish his epic “Wheels of Time,” and Brandon Sanderson finished it for him.

If something like that were to happen to St. George — God forbid! -- would any outlines or notes exist like Fitzgerald’s? (For anyone who can’t believe that I’d speak of the sublime Fitzgerald and Martin in the same breath, oh, get over yourself.)

I keep thinking that Martin should do the same thing, if he hasn’t already. Even if he changes his mind on some of the details of what’s supposed to happen to Tyrion Lannister, Daenerys  Targaryen, the poor, afflicted Starks et al., he knows where his story is supposed to end. He’s always said so to interviewers.

So, here's what I'd suggest to George:

One afternoon, why don’t you sit down at your desk with a plate of honey-dipped walnuts baked in a cookfire, pour yourself a flagon of brown bitter ale, and sketch out the basic plot points of  books 6 and 7 like Fitzgerald? Then, next time you’re running errands around downtown Santa Fe, stop by the bank and leave them in your safety deposit box in case of emergency.

Then, another writer — like Patrick Rothfuss, Daniel Abraham, or even David Benioff (producer of the HBO series and a novelist himself) -- could give us the conclusion that Martin wanted, not one imagined by somebody else, even if the words aren't entirely his.

That gets me back to my question at the top. Does Martin owe his fans anything?  Probably not. Even with everyone breathing down his neck — including HBO — he should be writing the story for himself.

On the other hand, writing is one of those situations in which a special relationship develops between a writer and reader. There’s a special bond there, a contract. Any of you who have traveled to Westeros and have aligned yourself with Starks, Lannisters, the Night’s Watch, etc. know what it means to be fiercely loyal. When it comes to his fans, George probably does too.

My friends, I welcome your thoughts!

Spoiling George R.R. Martin: some cautionary advice

No spoilers here: The land north of the Wall, from "The Lands of Ice and Fire" (Bantam) I'm well into "A Feast for Crows" -- book 4 of George R.R. Martin's "Song of Ice and Fire" epic -- and I've lost my breath and had my heart broken countless times by this series. Oh, I know, there's plenty more to come, but I need to be careful: The surprises can be ruined if you don't watch out.

If you relish this series, you'll find it difficult not to buy everything else connected to the series, and that can only mean one thing: Read related works at your own risk for spoilers abound. Here are a few Martinesque items to consider for your bookshelves ... along with my advice:

"The Lands of Ice and Fire" (Bantam):  Even imaginary landscapes need to be treated like real places -- J.R.R. Tolkien demonstrated that with his sketches of scenes and maps for "The Hobbit." The same is also true of George R.R. Martin's tale. Until now, the only maps of Martin's heroic world have been mostly simple: black-and-white sketches included in the volumes of the series. Or else you might check out images of Norway -- kindly supplied at Ajaytao's blog -- to get some idea of what the frozen country located to the north of the Wall is really like for Jon Snow and the rest of the Night's Watch

This is  a lovely collection of maps that gives us Westeros along with the rest of the surrounding continents in vivid, topographical detail. I'll admit that I picked up one of the maps, "Beyond the Wall," hoping for some additional clues about The Others. No luck. While this map doesn't reveal any of Martin's secrets, one thing is certainly true: It's too bad Lord Snow didn't have this one in his pocket when he went out in search of Wildlings!

Verdict: Dig up every gold dragon that you can find and buy this!

"Beyond the Wall: Exploring George R. R. Martin's 'A Song of Ice and Fire' " (BenBella Books): I wish I could say the same thing about "Beyond the Wall," but I can't.  It has nothing to do with the quality of this book: Editor James Lowder has assembled a great collection of essays by a variety of authors who celebrate Martin's saga.  But this book is the dessert once the main meal has been eaten -- if you're not finished with Book 5, this book is liable to ruin your experience of getting there.  I grabbed a copy of this book, opened to its table of contents and felt my heart skip a beat.

Verdict: Ok, buy this book, but shelve it ... and be patient!

"A Feast of Ice and Fire: The Official 'Game of Thrones' Companion" (Bantam): I love this book because it shows us how to make all those wildly strange dishes digested by kings and queens, bannermen, maesters and simple folk. The authors present us with a superb collection of recipes so that you can bring the meals of Westeros into your own home.

Verdict: A great book, but be careful -- each recipe is accompanied by a quotation selected from books 1 - 5.  These aren't lethal spoilers, but they can sometimes drop hints that you wish you hadn't seen.

"Epic: Legends of Fantasy" (Tachyon): This collection of stories by epic novelists -- including Rothfuss, Le Guin, etc. -- includes a story by George R.R. Martin called "The Mystery Knight."  Martin gives us an extended story of Westeros that precedes our introduction to Lord Eddard Stark and his wolf clan.

Verdict: No spoilers here, but a great tale to occupy your time as you await Book 6.

Any other books that we should know about? All you citizens of Westeros -- please, let me know!