Tag Archives: GRR Martin

2013

Well, this year is about wrapped up, and as is the want of the season I figured I’d take a look back and see if I could somehow parse some meaning from all of those events that occurred:

Best Books:

I read some excellent books this year.
Noteworthy was Joe Abercrombie’s ‘Red Country‘, which was much anticipated and lived up to lofty expectations. I really liked the returning characters and the new ones even more so, and Joe’s continuing breadth of hybridised genres remained an invigorating force on my appreciation of modern Fantasy writing.
I also read several of Chuck Wendig’s books. You might have noticed I referenced him repeatedly this year on the blog, and with good cause. I ‘discovered’ his writing through the terribleminds website and his advice to writers, and I’m glad that this led me to his fiction. The Miriam Black books were great. His Corn-Punk YA and Atlanta Burns stories were good excursions into a genre I don’t read enough of, and Blue Blazes was great. I still have a special place for the first of his books that I read though, the tales of Coburn, a vampire who wakes up in the zombie apocalypse and must become a shepherd to his ‘sheeple’

Against this stiff competition though rose Mark Lawrence’s trilogy (Prince, King, Emperor of Thorns). It has caused some controversy in some circles but I didn’t find the protagonist as shocking or evil as some of the criticism would suggest. He wasn’t a good guy, but I think he was trying to be without really knowing how. In that sense he wasn’t so much different from other protagonists I’ve read. He was younger in book 1, but as the book progressed that feature became less pronounced, and given the images of teenage ‘soldiers’ coming out of Syria I had little problem accepting it. The world was interesting, but several queries regarding technology level and such went unanswered. I would happily recommend them and look forward to reading Lawrence’s future works.

Best Graphic Novel:

It’s a small field, as I don’t read too many, but I did finally get around to reading “Red Son”. I’m not really a fan of DC and certainly not of Superman who I think tends to fascistic fantasies of control, or to some infantile desire to be protected and guided by a greater being. I was interested in how the Superman mythos would play out against the Soviet political ideals, and while ‘Red Son’ touched on this paradox it went largely unexplored. In the end I felt that the Red Son Superman was still an American, transplanted into Russia, rather than a full exploration of what a Soviet Superman would truly mean. It was an interesting and thought-provoking read though.

Best Film:

Surprisingly few real contenders here. I saw many of the big ‘tent-pole’ movies and usually came away with mild disappoint. ‘Elysium’ didn’t live up to its aesthetic and tried to sledgehammer me with a political message. ‘Into Darkness’ was silly, burdened by fan-service and more spectacle than substance. ‘Iron Man 3’ had some good sequences but seemed to lose the sense of character. ‘Man of Steel’ did a wonderful job of setting up and re-imagining a familiar origin story, but the Krypton scenes were unnecessary, the whole final act was terrible and Snyder’s misogyny kept rearing up ugly. ‘World War Z’, again, sacrificed story to spectacle. ‘Desolation of Smaug’ looked amazing but was weighed down under its own attempts to be an epic far beyond the proportions of its source material. ‘Pacific Rim’ had awesome robots and kaiju… and that is all. ‘Django Unchained’ was disappointing – particularly in the manner by which it relegated its eponymous character to secondary and tertiary roles when Waltz and DiCaprio were on-screen.

I think therefore that ‘Gravity’ gets the nod. Sure there were problems, as Neil DeGrasse Tyson pointed out, but it was a great experience. I saw it in IMAX 3D and it was beautifully immersive. I love Cuarón’s long tracking shots and the film’s opening was a wonderful example of how the technique can be well used.

(Special mention to ‘Wreck-it Ralph’ for being an absolutely awesome movie to watch with the kids).

Best Event:

Two great events for me this year as a writer.

Firstly, Genrecon 2013 gave me the opportunity again to meet so many other writers in such a diverse range of specialities, and at different stages in the auctorial development. The panels and workshops were excellent, the community supportive and inclusive, the international guests warm and engaging, the banquet after-party sufficiently well lubricated.

Secondly, I saw George RR Martin and Michelle Fairley in conversation, hosted by the Wheeler’s Centre in a side-show to their Supernova commitments. Michelle was wonderfully entertaining and forthright. GRRM went over some adages with which I was already familiar – it must be tremendously difficult to answer the same questions in new ways – but also added some interesting insights into his process and the story thus far (such as his being uncertain that Bronn would even survive the Eyrie, only to watch as the character became important as a sounding-board for Tyrion, and then important in his own right).

Writing:

I have taken some strides here too, but not as many as I had hoped. I’m much more organised with my submissions tracking spreadsheet and a good list of potential markets to explore (thanks in particular to Peter Ball and Alan Baxter); I pitched my novel MS again and felt a lot more confident and assured in doing so; I have five finished short-stories this year, for a total of about 30,000 words.

I am not unhappy with that, given all of the external pressures on my time, but I want to increase that figure. Alan Baxter estimated himself as having completed over 250,000 words this year and Chuck Wendig has something like 600,000. Chuck’s a full-time pen-monkey, but he has a toddler and I am sure many of the same concerns and excuses that I do, so I’m not going to point at any of those as a way out, I’m just going to look at my 30,000 or so, nod, and acknowledge that I could do more.

2014:

Goals then?

  • To write over 50,000 words in 2014. For those not good on the maths, that’s about 1,000 a week. 200 words a day x 5 days a week. That looks do-able.
  • To have completed 6 short stories. That’s one every 2 months. I’ll need to do this and more to hit the 50,000, so hopefully this is a goal I can meet and exceed.
  • Reading 10 novels. That’s about one very 5 weeks, and I suspect this will be the tough one., because I want to hit this goal without including the reading I have to do for work, but perhaps the work reading will have to contribute.
  • Reading 100 short stories. That’s 2 a week, and I think this is an achievable one. I’ve subscribed to Daily Science Fiction, so even if I just read all of them I will be fine, but I’ll get subscriptions to a few other mags as well so that there’ll be the variety. I’m also reading Raymond Chandler’s short stories for work. I may or may not include these toward my goal.
  • Blogging. 1 post a month, at least, and I ambitiously hope to get one up every fortnight.

So there you have it: 2013 tucked into the past and a clear guiding line through 2014. Thanks for following and being a part of it. I appreciate that there is some sense of an audience out there and it helps me to stay motivated knowing that there are readers waiting.

Happy New Year to you all. Hope it’s been a good ’13 and a great ’14 ahead.

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Weddings, Beheadings and narrative risk

(Warning that the following post contains spoilers for the Game of Thrones TV series up to episode 9 of Season 3, and for the Song of Ice and Fire novels up to the equivalent events)

The HBO, Benioff/Weiss, adaptation of George Martin’s books reached the pivotal moment known to readers of the series as The Red Wedding… and the internet went into meltdown.

In my house I approached the ‘Rains of Castermere’ episode with anticipation, which unfortunately gave my wife (a viewer who has not read the books) the misapprehension that this would be a joyful episode. That only compounded her reaction.

“How could you have been so excited?” she asked. “How could I have wanted so much to watch that episode, to have been looking forward to that wedding?”

They are legitimate, and difficult questions.

Most tellingly she asked why I didn’t warn her. But of course I couldn’t… could I? That would have been spoiling, and in truth part of what I was looking forward to was seeing her experience the Red Wedding for the first time. I wanted to see her reaction, unspoiled, to the twist. I wanted to re-live, vicariously, that moment of shock that I experienced as a reader several years ago.

In attempting to explain to her why I approached the episode as I did it occurred to me that, as a writer, I wanted to see how an unsuspecting audience reacted. I wanted to see just how George Martin’s narrative hand-grenade would go off in this adaptation. I wanted to watch as the writers brought to a close the stories they had set up, cut short the character development they had so invested in. I wanted to see  how they used Robb’s proposed march on Casterley Rock itself as the hide, from behind which they would fire the shots. Three quarters of the way through the episode, and knowing what was to come, I doubted anyone could have made the prediction of what would follow. That, of course, is its strength. That the audience is aware that some betrayal is possible, even that Frey might do something untoward, but that the totality of that betrayal was so unexpected.

The immediately available comparison is of course to the death of Ned in the first book (and season 1). I could not parse that moment in my first reading. All my knowledge of narrative, all my familiarity with genre, was attuned to imagining how Ned may be spared that fate, even how he might return even after that fate was enacted upon him. That beheading was a bold stroke (pun intended – sorry) and one which set Martin’s writing apart from his contemporaries long before people had started to throw ‘grimdark‘ around as either perjorative or descriptor. The Red Wedding re-establishes the brutal fact of Westerosi life – that anyone can die. Ned, Hand to the King, Warden of the North, betrayed and beheaded. His son Robb, King in the North, betrayed and beheaded. Who then is safe?

Other comparisons present themselves, most notably Janet Leigh’s demise in Psycho. Hitchcock murders the top-billed actress, a shining star of her generation of Hollywood, the protagonist of the narrative until the point of her fateful shower. Indeed, with her, he ends that narrative entirely, and shifts to the story of a damaged boy and his ‘mother’. These are not so much twists in a narrative, as they are narrative derailments. The story is not changed by these events, stories are ended, and new stories begun.

Compare this with other ‘shock’ deaths – Samuel L Jackson in that shark movie Deep Blue Sea, Marvin in Pulp Fiction, Sonny in Godfather. As much as these were unexpected twists, they didn’t alter the very fabric of the narrative in the way Martin has twice done. These deaths significantly alter the stories being told, they are essential plot events and disruptive, but Deep Blue Sea continues to be a story about people trying to avoid a killer shark (or something), Pulp Fiction remains a story about Jules and Vic, Godfather remains the tale of Don Corelone.
But when Marion Crane dies, the story of a woman embezzling from her boss dies with her. When Ned dies the story of an honest man investigating a mystery dies too. The new story that begins is of a civil war in which there are several claimants to the throne: ‘The War of the Five Kings’. Now, largely due to the Red Wedding, this story has ended, and a new one will begin which is not about rivals who all claim to be kings. That war is finished, the Starks have lost, and without them the result is an inevitability… or so it would seem.

The risk in this narrative technique is that you lose your audience. Martin has suggested that he had that response from some readers. My sister has spoken of throwing the book across the room, and not picking it up for a week. Twitter and Tumblr has shown that the risk is very real, perhaps more so, from a TV audience. But the reward for taking the risk is that the reader can never be certain, the threats the author levels at his characters are very real, and thus the narrative tension in the text remains effective.
Next time Joffrey raises his bow at Sansa… she really could die.
Next time Arya threatens the Hound… she might really go through with it.
Next time Tyrion goes into battle… he may end up with worse than a scar.
Is Varys safe? Is Cersei? Jon? Sam? Bran? Could even Dany be killed? If the King of the North and all his plans can be bled out on the Frey’s floor, we cannot assume anything.

And that is a great place for a writer to have his audience.


Grimdark

So I’ve basically played the role of a vaguely interested observer in all this, but something Joe Abercrombie tweeted today – a piece by Daniel Abraham in Clarkesworld – has finally motivated to reach into my proverbial pockets and draw out two-cents, which I now humbly submit to the debate.

As Abraham notes the moniker “Grimdark”  is taken from Warhammer 40,000 (affectionately known as 40k). I played the game as a young fella. I had my armies (Eldar predominantly, but I did put a bit of an Orc Horde together and was compiling some Imperial Guard when I gave it all away. The miniatures  including some incredibly carefully and poorly painted Banshees and Scorpions, were sadly lost in a house-fire) and would spend long afternoons plotting the fractional movements required for victory or poring over a codex seeking some tactical advantage. I didn’t get too much into the surrounding mythology of the 40k universe, but it grew exponentially whilst I played and subsequently. I am aware now that entire novel series are devoted to the expanded universe, in much the same way you’ll find with Star Wars and Dragonlance and such.

I am familiar with the line from which “Grimdark” apparently comes: In the grim darkness of the future there is only war.

Two of my favourite modern Fantasy authors (Abercrombie and Richard K Morgan) have been labelled as writing Grimdark, as well as Mark Lawrence,  an author highly recommended to me and near the top of my to-read list (after I finally finish Red Country, which I am powering through at amazing pace). Judging by Abercrombie’s thoughtful response, and Richard Morgan’s, neither of them are thrilled at the assignation (though Joe seems to have embraced it with his twitter handle), but more on that latter.

Mark Lawrence’s response basically summed up my own, but seeing as we’ve made it this far, let’s unpack it a bit.

Genre is a fraught concept. At its best it’s a useful framework for understanding tropes and narrative archetypes, at its worst it’s a cage, a ghetto, a straight-jacket. Mieville’s reference to Tolkein as the “Big Oedipal Daddy” of Fantasy is perhaps a starting point in identifying how the Fantasy genre came to be seen both from within, and from without. Fantasy was escapism for nerds. It was largely derivative to its progenitor (and “Author of the Century” no less) and it operated within variations of his British agrarian idyll being threatened by malevolent forces.

Arguably this continued until recently, arguably very recently, arguably it continues still. Many would point (as Abraham does) to Thomas Covenant, and fair enough. Others would point to George RR Martin, whose Game of Thrones was published in 1996 and featured many of the traits now assigned to Grimdark: the amorality, the incest, the rape (so much rape, so casually put to the page), the murders, the attempted (and successful) infanticides, regicide, ultimately (spoiler alert of sorts) the death of the apparent protagonist before the end of the first book.

But Grimdark seems a more modern label than either of these. Perhaps it is the HBO effect and GRRM’s ever-growing fanbase, but even that is older than Grimdark, being in place for two years at least. And so the finger is pointed at Abercrombie (whose First Law books were published in 06,07 and 08), Mark Lawrence (Broken Empire 2011, 2012…), and Richard K Morgan (A Land Fit For Heroes 08, 10…).

Morgan is particularly interesting, because it’s his Fantasy books that see him labelled as Grimdark, but his previous series (published between 2002 and 2005 and focussed on Takeshi Kovacs) wears a label of sci-fi/noir. As Morgan himself points out it is the elements of Noir that he brings to Fantasy which are most likely what is used to label his work Grimdark. The Kovacs novels have been credited with reviving Cyberpunk (the genre spawned, or at least identified, by William Gibson‘s Neuromancer) by grafting “the Gibsonian subgenre” back onto pulp fiction, and I think particularly in this Noir Pulp. It’s a link Abraham makes as well in his Clarkesworld piece, though by Abraham’s distinction I personally see Kovacs as more Hard-boiled than Noir. Kovacs does make moral decisions that go against his self-interest, the difference perhaps is that Morgan makes his protagonist pay the cost of those decisions. Kovacs gets no free pass for having done, or having tried to do, the “right thing”.

Likewise with Abercrombie’s flawed “heroes”.  Logen Ninefingers has a past he wants to escape, but can’t. In much the same way as Morgan’s protagonist Ringil Eskiath (who shares a name with a Tolkeinian sword), Ninefingers isn’t given the freedom to just put aside the consequences of his past acts. He wants to be a better person, but it’s not going to be easy to change, and will be harder still to convince others of the change. Shivers suffers even more-so. The change in the Northman is pronounced, from when we first meet him during the final stages of the First Law, through his Styrian experience and his final, decisive, blow in The Heroes. It is not a change for the better. And yet it is a change we, as readers, can understand, perhaps even sympathise with. Is it enough to mean well, even if your actions bring ill consequences? Can we redeem our wrongs by good acts? Would I not too struggle to maintain the finer parts of myself if I had suffered as he suffered? I think these are essential questions for readers of this sub-genre, whatever we decide it should be called. I think these are essential questions for readers of all literature. Especially that last one.

Is it not this question that we ask ourself as Casablanca ends? Would I send the woman I love away, on a plane with another man? Would I risk something of myself for others, even if there was little hope of personal gain and a genuine risk of personal suffering?
When Harry Lime, atop the ferris-wheel in The Third Man, asks how much money it would be worth for one of those specks to simply stop moving, are we not being asked how much we value human life, being challenged to explain that value, or at least to respond in some way to a character who values it little at all?

Certainly in gritty stories, in amoral characters – or just overly pragmatic ones – we are challenged. I enjoy as a reader that I am. I enjoy as a writer exploring those questions and developing ways in which I can use characters to provide different perspectives on these questions and others like them.

The problem then with Grimdark is that it is used so often pejoratively, and often by those who are seeking to define what they dislike about a certain type of story. Abraham sub-titles his piece “Literatures of Despair” – a phrase he explains, but which I don’t accept. Morgan’s response dialogue is telling. The complaints (of the straw man) become ones of taste and of subjectivity. Some blood, but not too much. Some danger posed to the protagonist, but don’t kill him. Some hint of the enemy being evil, but no rapes or torture. A little military-based murder is ok, but no gore please.

I think allowing anyone – even a readership – to define a genre in such a way, to set up boundaries and borders in which writers should (or must operate), is a stultifying influence. Even more so if those arbitrary borders are then policed by self-appointed guardians, wielding indignation and harking back to a supposed Glorious Age.

If Grimdark is Noir come to the Fantasy worlds then it is no new thing. Indeed it’s taken a generation or two to move from the mainstream into Fantasy. In 1991 Silence of the Lambs swept the Oscars:  Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Picture. The cinema-going audience were ready for a story in which the secondary character, an advisor to the FBI (and thus in some way on the side of the ‘good guys’ even if reluctantly) was a cannibal serial-killer. Lector’s escape was celebrated, anticipated not as a defeat of the ‘good’ but as a victory for a character with whom the audience had become fascinated.

On television we watch Dexter, the serial-killer with a ‘Dark Passenger’ and a mission, and hope he doesn’t get caught. We admire Omar Little, a man we have witnessed murder and steal. We hope that Walter White can keep cooking and distributing crystal-meth, because doing so doesn’t make him a bad guy… not exactly… kind of… I don’t know. And that’s the point. These characters are fascinating and exciting and wonderful precisely because I can’t answer that question.

Is it any wonder the audience of modern Fantasy is ready for similar characters? Is it not a good thing that I started questioning why I should still be barracking for Monza to get her revenge, that I should question whether the world wouldn’t be better off if the ‘bad guy’ had’ve just killed her off in chapter one? I want characters who are flawed, who make mistakes, who do things I would never do, who suffer in ways I hope never to suffer. If it serves the story, put those guys through the wringer. Carve them up, piece-by-piece, and let’s examine what’s left at the core of them.

All of that’s fine. All of that means that I – now only two chapters into Red Country – honestly don’t know if I want Shy South to catch up to the bandits who took her brothers or not… and surely that uncertainty, that hesitancy, surely that’s a powerful narrative force.


Genrecon 2013

Well people Genrecon’s inaugural event in 2012 was one of the highlights of my year and was a real kick-starter to help me get serious about the craft and business of writing. It introduced me to some wonderful writers at various stages of their careers, from fellow amateurs with an ambitious pitch to professionally published authors, self-published authors, agents, editors, publishers, international award winning best sellers. It had it all, and while it certainly fired my enthusiasm and drive it also opened my misted eyes to some of the harsh realities which lie behind the dreams of auctorial super-stardom.

So it is with great excitement that I receive the news that Genrecon 2013 is up and running. The start of the guest list was announced today and none other than Chuck Wendig is one of the International guests. I’ve mentioned his work and his website here before. I’m a big fan. When I came away from 2012 and thought about who would make a great guest for 2013 Chuck Wendig was right at the top of the list. I and several others tweeted as much at the time and if you don’t believe me check the records.

So what a year 2013. Neil Gaiman was here recently. China Mieville’s at Perth Festival (unfortunately I won’t get to go to see him, unless I make some irresponsibly hasty decision to skip work and fly across the continent).Apparently as part of the Supernovas and as side shows both Raymond E Feist and George R R Martin will be in Australia this year. It’s like my bookshelf come to life.

So check out Genrecon 2013 people, but not yet. Wait until I get in on the early bird special, then you can check it out.


On Cover Art and the Judging of Books Thereby…

At last year’s Genrecon one of the undoubted highlights was a snark presentation of covers given by Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. Of course her particular focus was the Romance novels, an easy target perhaps for snarking, what with Fabio and man-titties (as opposed to man-boobs) and various other such tropes. It came to me though that Fantasy was as easily lampooned, the Hooded man, the enthroned King, the busty and poorly armoured warrior woman.

Covers are vitally important, despite the old adage that does not bear repeating. Perhaps in the ebook market this is less true, as opening a new ebook usually will take you to page one rather than to a cover, but with the flood of product a good cover is still an effective way to draw clicks to your Goodreads, or Amazon, or Kindle store presence.

I was surprised to hear from published authors how little control they had over the covers with which their novels appeared. I did here some anecdotes of cover artists communicating with the author, or perhaps even reading the book, but these were told as exceptions, remarkable precisely because they were not the rule. In some cases the author hated the cover which the publishers used.

Some years ago my sister recommended a book to me:

A-Game-Of-Thrones-George-RR-Martin-Book-Cover

This is (I think) the 1997 edition.

On the back cover, below the blurb, there’s an image of a white wolf running through the snow.

Here, I thought, is everything I hated about Fantasy.

The swordsman in black, the black warhorse, the snowy castle, the raven…

Could these images look more hackneyed and clichéd?

It looked terrible.

I read a chapter or so in case she asked me about it, then it was shelved.

Some years later I found this book in a book store:

AGoT_UK_Current

This is the 2003 edition under the Voyager imprint.

There’s a few extra endorsements, as over the intervening years and sequels Mr. Martin’s work had gathered a following and some rave reviews, but they’re mostly the same.

The blurb is much better on this than on the original, and I’m certain that that played a role in my selecting it too.

I bought it and began reading it without ever making the connection to the book my sister had given me.

It was only when I was several chapters into the book, and hooked, that I started to make connections with the earlier book I had shelved (or in fact, by that time, boxed-up and stored under the stairs).

For five years I had ignored a great Fantasy novel because of its cover.

Another example of a cover leading me to great fiction is Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes

The-Heroes-HB2front

I had a voucher to a bookstore sent to me as a Christmas gift, and I went in to buy China Mieville’s collection of short stories “Looking for Jake”, but I had some money left over and no real plan so I browsed the shelves.

Abercrombie’s views on maps have been well explained, and he included none in his First Law trilogy (which also have great covers), but this cover (as with the covers for “Best Served Cold” and “Red Country”) manages to convey I think a very real sense of Abercrombie’s world and the style of Fantasy he writes.

I like them far more than the hyper-real close-ups of the US covers.)

I bought it, loved it, and went back through the First Law and “Best Served Cold” in a matter of weeks.

Here’s the jacket of Heroes in all its glory (click the image to enlarge):

The-Heroes-HB_jacket

Recently the author Mark Lawrence responded to some suggestions comparing his cover for King of Thorns to GRRM’s Game of Thrones (specifically the Sean Bean cover that was released to tie-in with the success of the television series)

2013-01-03-book-cover-twins

Lawrence’s response was to refer to similar covers back through the history of genre and still being released:

Conan_the_LiberatorPromise_of_Blood
His point of course is well made. The mere similarity of having your protagonist (if Ned is the protagonist) sitting a throne is as much a part of Fantasy as the heroine swooning in the strong arms of her hunk is a part of Romance.

It’s always tempting of course to judge these covers. Whether they are examples of the best the genre has to offer, or some of the worst covers in the history of literature, there’s no denying their effect. It was suggested that the success of Fifty Shades of Grey in breaking beyond the Erotic Fiction market and into the mainstream was (in part) because it didn’t look like a typical Erotica cover.

It’s also worth acknowledging that the covers do not always reflect or represent the novel in the way the author would wish though, so in the interest of dispelling that hoary old cliche and admitting that of course we all do judge books in this way I invite you in the comments to nominate others.

What covers have made you pick up a book you went on to love?

What covers have drawn you to a book that you hated?

What covers have chased you screaming away swearing never to inflict such rubbish upon yourself… at least until they repackage it?