Have you read George R.R. Martin's interview in Rolling Stone magazine? I was amazed and a little shaken by the depth of Martin's innate, intuitive, grasp of storytelling. All the more so because this wasn't an interview conducted with writers in mind. He didn't set out to give writing advice--at least, I don't think he did--but, nevertheless, the advice was there.
Here's what I've taken away from the interview:
1. Ideas are cheap, it's the execution of the ideas that's important.
"Ideas are cheap. I have more ideas now than I could ever write up. To my mind, it's the execution that is all-important. I'm proud of my work, but I don't know if I'd ever claim it's enormously original. You look at Shakespeare, who borrowed all of his plots. In A Song of Ice and Fire, I take stuff from the Wars of the Roses and other fantasy things, and all these things work around in my head and somehow they jell into what I hope is uniquely my own."
2. Prose writers can learn from screenwriters.
One thing I was surprised to discover about George R.R. Martin, though I discovered it some time ago, was that Martin had been a screenwriter. He had, as it turns out, worked on one of my mother's favorite series, one which we watched together: Beauty and the Beast (1987-1990).
When asked whether Martin feels his writing in A Song of Fire and Ice benefited from his time in Hollywood, Martin replies:
"I do. The big secret about writing screenplays and teleplays is that it's much easier than writing a novel or any kind of prose. William Goldman said everything that needed to be said about it in Adventures in the Screen Trade: It's all structure, structure and dialogue. Being there improved my sense of structure and dialogue. I'd spent so many years sitting alone in a room, facing a computer or typewriter before that. It was almost exhilarating to go into an office where there were other people – and to have a cup of coffee, and to talk about stories or developments in writers' meetings."
Martin adds that he got into trouble with the network for wanting to make The Beast a darker than they were comfortable with. Martin says,
"But CBS didn't want blood, or for the beast to kill people. They wanted us to show him picking up someone and throwing them across the room, and then they would get up and run away. Oh, my God, horrible monster! [Laughs] It was ludicrous. The character had to remain likeable."
Which brings us to the third point:
3. Don't worry about your characters being likeable.
Martin excels at writing the kind of characters readers--and viewers--love to hate and he does it by being ruthless; ruthless to the characters and, to a certain extent, to his readers, but we'll get to that later.
4. Massacre your darlings.
"The more I write about a character, the more affection I feel . . . even for the worst of them. Which doesn't mean I won't kill them. Whoever it was who said "Kill your darlings" was referring to his favorite lines in a story, but it's just as true for characters. The moment the reader begins to believe that a character is protected by the magical cloak of authorial immunity, tension goes out the window. The Red Wedding was tremendously hard to write. I skipped over it until I finished the entirety of A Storm of Swords, then I went back and forced myself to write that chapter. I loved those characters too much. But I knew it had to be done. The TV Red Wedding is even worse than the book, of course, because [GoT creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss] turned it up to 11 by bringing in Talisa, pregnant with Robb's child, none of which happened in the book. So we get a pregnant woman stabbed repeatedly in the belly."
5. How George R.R. Martin does worldbuilding: don't build the world first, build it as you write.
"It all occurs at the same time with me. I don't build the world first, then write in it. I just write the story, and then put it together. Drawing a map took me, I don't know, a half-hour. You fill in a few things, then as you write more it becomes more and more alive."
That's how George R.R. Martin does it. Different strokes and all that. But I find it interesting that--although I'll have ideas about the setting in advance of sitting down and putting pen to paper--the bulk of world development (and character development) gets worked out as I scribble that first zero draft.
Martin had this to say about The Wall:
"The Wall predates anything else. I can trace back the inspiration for that to 1981. I was in England visiting a friend, and as we approached the border of England and Scotland, we stopped to see Hadrian's Wall. I stood up there and I tried to imagine what it was like to be a Roman legionary, standing on this wall, looking at these distant hills. It was a very profound feeling. For the Romans at that time, this was the end of civilization; it was the end of the world. We know that there were Scots beyond the hills, but they didn't know that. It could have been any kind of monster. It was the sense of this barrier against dark forces – it planted something in me. But when you write fantasy, everything is bigger and more colorful, so I took the Wall and made it three times as long and 700 feet high, and made it out of ice."
6. Surprise your readers.
Throughout Martin's interview I felt that one of its themes was that the key to good writing--no, to great writing--is surprise. The ability to surprise your reader. In response to the interviewer's mention of Jaime pushing Bran Stark out a window, Martin says:
"I've had a million people tell me that was the moment that hooked them, where they said, "Well, this is just not the same story I read a million times before." Bran is the first viewpoint character. In the back of their heads, people are thinking Bran is the hero of the story. He's young King Arthur. We're going to follow this young boy – and then, boom: You don't expect something like that to happen to him. So that was successful [laughs]."
Later in the interview Martin says:
"I knew right from the beginning that Ned wasn't going to survive. Both as a writer and as a reader I like stories that surprise me. Hitchcock's Psycho has tremendous impact because Janet Leigh is the movie's star: She's stealing, traveling across country – are the cops going to get her? – and all that. The next thing is, she's being knifed in the shower – you're only 40 minutes into the movie. What the hell is happening? The star just died! After that, you really don't know what the hell is going to happen. It's great; I loved that. That's what I was going for with Ned: The protector who was keeping it all together is swept off the board. So that makes it much more suspenseful. Jeopardy is really there."
7. Explore the deep issues.
George R.R. Martin uses his writing as a medium to explore the deeper issues, the deeper questions, of life. Questions such as "Is redemption possible?" Martin says:
"One of the things I wanted to explore with Jaime, and with so many of the characters, is the whole issue of redemption. When can we be redeemed? Is redemption even possible? I don't have an answer. But when do we forgive people? You see it all around in our society, in constant debates. Should we forgive Michael Vick? I have friends who are dog-lovers who will never forgive Michael Vick. Michael Vick has served years in prison; he's apologized. Has he apologized sufficiently? Woody Allen: Is Woody Allen someone that we should laud, or someone that we should despise? Or Roman Polanski, Paula Deen. Our society is full of people who have fallen in one way or another, and what do we do with these people? How many good acts make up for a bad act? If you're a Nazi war criminal and then spend the next 40 years doing good deeds and feeding the hungry, does that make up for being a concentration-camp guard? I don't know the answer, but these are questions worth thinking about. I want there to be a possibility of redemption for us, because we all do terrible things. We should be able to be forgiven. Because if there is no possibility of redemption, what's the answer then?"
"Does the Queen of Thorns need redemption? Did the Queen of Thorns kill Hitler, or did she murder a 13-year-old boy [King Joffrey]? Or both? She had good reasons to remove Joffrey. Is it a case where the end justifies the means? I don't know. That's what I want the reader or viewer to wrestle with, and to debate."
Martin also brings up Jaime and his attempts on Bran's life. He reminds us that "Jaime isn't just trying to kill Bran because he's an annoying little kid. Bran has seen something that is basically a death sentence for Jaime, for Cersei, and their children – their three actual children." Martin asks fans of the series whether, if they were in Jaime's position, would they try to kill Bran? The fan will say, "No. Never!" Then Martin will ask, "What if killing Bran would save your family? What if killing him would save your children?" Then, often, people hesitate. The answer doesn't seem as clear.
The point is--my point at least--that these questions don't have an easy answer (if, indeed, they have an answer at all). But they are questions that, when incorporated into a story, make great fiction.
8. Write great characters, not great heroes--there's no such thing.
"[...] I do think there are things worth fighting for. Men are still capable of great heroism. But I don't necessarily think there are heroes. That's something that's very much in my books: I believe in great characters. We're all capable of doing great things, and of doing bad things. We have the angels and the demons inside of us, and our lives are a succession of choices."
9. Write for yourself rather than others.
Martin mentions that he has gotten a lot of mail, much of it critical, from both readers and viewers concerning The Red Wedding. He seems to understand as well as sympathize with his fans reactions, but is not apologetic. He says:
"One letter I got was from a woman, a waitress. She wrote me: "I work hard all day, I'm divorced, I have a couple of children. My life is very hard, and my one pleasure is I come home and I read fantasy, and I escape to other worlds. Then I read your book, and God, it was fucking horrifying. I don't read for this. This is a nightmare. Why would you do this to me?" That letter actually reached me. I wrote her back and basically said, "I'm sorry; I do understand where you're coming from." Some people do read . . . I don't like to use the word escape, because escapism has such a pejorative aspect, but it takes you to another world. Maybe it is escape. Reading fiction has helped me through some bad times in my own life. The night my father died, I was in Michigan and I got word from my mother. I couldn't get to a plane until the next day, so I sat around thinking about my father, the good and the bad in our relationship. I remember I opened whatever book I was reading, and for a few hours, I was able to stop thinking about my father's death. It was a relief. [...] I understand where the other people are coming from. There are a lot of books out there. Let everyone find the kind of book that speaks to them, and speaks to what they need emotionally."
A wonderful interview, both informative and strangely moving. Highly recommended. Once again, these quotations were from George R.R. Martin: The Rolling Stone Interview.
Photo credit: "There is a House in Infrared" by Ian Sane under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.