Dancing to Dirges

Depressing and happy things Tim says, sometimes while drunk

Monday, July 25, 2011

What's the collective noun for dragons? A Frustration?

I finished A Dance with Dragons over the weekend. I have things to say. But before I say them, I want to be clear about something; I read the hell out of this book. I tucked my nook under my monitor so I could read a page or two while my jobs ran. I read it at lunch. I read while I wandered around outside with my dog. I read while I should have been writing. By the end I was just pushing through to get to the end, but still, most books that produce this level of frustration for me I would have just thrown to the side. GRRM does a lot of things right. But I need to express what I think he does wrong. It's my nature. I'm a writer. Also, *SPOILERS*, duh.

Gods, where to start. I need to reiterate that the magic is getting out of hand. A Game of Thrones was a real breath of fresh air in the fantasy genre because it only minimally touched on the supernatural. Because it's largely a medieval book you kind of have to include some of this, because people at the time really believed in dragons and giants and shapeshifting wolf people, and it's really only a small step to include evidence of such things in the past and maybe a hint of something horrible beyond the Wall. But what I loved was that this was basically a story about knights and ladies and the common, human emotions that can lead to epic tales. It doesn't take a secret history of alien interference or magical blood or a sword forged in the heart of hell to make an epic story. It takes people. People can be epic. They should be epic.

And now we're five books in and people are no longer epic. Oracles buried under the earth, and wild dragons, and prophetic dreams that guide the characters, and whatever the hell else was included in the pages I skipped... those things are epic. Too epic. GRRM did a good thing at the beginning of this series, and he's either betrayed it or never intended to stay true to it, or something.

I should also point out that I don't skip paragraphs usually, much less pages. The last chapter (actually the second to last chapter, but how about we just call it the last chapter that wasn't misnamed as an epilogue) was bad. I was trying to think of a word that wasn't quite so harsh but that accurately demonstrated my disdain, but to hell with it. It was a bad chapter. I skipped so much of that chapter. Terrible way to end a book.

Also, because there are so many ponderous storylines running in parallel, the last fifth of the book is dedicated to ending the book. Each time a chapter ended I had to think "Is that the last time I see this character in this book? If so, was that a satisfying way to tie up their storyline for now?" And sometimes I would think "No, there certainly needs to be more said before we're set adrift for the next book" only to never see them again, or I would think that I was done with someone, only to have them pop up and be irrelevant for another chapter, often ruining a perfectly good ending with additional and unnecessary exposition.

And when you have plotline after plotline drawing to a close for such an extended period of time, things get tiring. We all know how a novel should be shaped, but when you're trying to coordinate a dozen or so lines and have them land in a coordinated manner, it's just tough. And it's tough to read.

The last thing I'll say about this book specifically is that GRRM in the past has done a good job of surprise killing characters. I was really near the end of this book and thought "Wow, no one important has died, I don't think. Am I really going to get through a Martin book without someone dropping off the twig?" I'm pretty sure GRRM looked at his draft and had the exact same thought at the exact same moment, because he immediately killed three major characters in succession. Well, majorish. Including the last Stark that I give half a damn about, assuming that he actually died there and won't wake up in a bed, grievously wounded but still relevant to the plot. As Starks are wont to do.

Actual final thought. Dany is a terrible queen. And she and young Griff occupy the same narrative space in the plot. Eliminate one of them, and then make that one relevant. He's doing the things with Griff that he should have done with Dany, but Dany went off in some wild other direction that is a waste of pages as far as the central plot goes, so it kind of feels like GRRM pulled Griff out of his hat to do the things that he originally intended Dany to do, before she became occupied with slutting it up all across the Narrow Sea.

So, where does the series go from here? GRRM doesn't seem like the kind of writer who is suddenly going to exercise some narrative discipline, cut down the whirling nebula of characters that is spinning out of control across Westros, and finish the series in the next couple books. I also don't see him producing the next book all that quickly. Is he going to continue producing half the narratives at a time, five years apart? Do I have to wait five to eight years for the next book, only to find out what happens to half of the characters I care about, all while threshing through a dozen narrative plotlines that I don't find relevant? And then another five to eight years to tie up the rest of the plotlines? I seriously hope not. While I see no immediate evidence of this, I hope his editor is able to discourage that sort of behavior. But any one book that follows all of these characters is only going to cover a minimal amount of narrative space. We have a long way to go with Westros, and at this pace we're never going to get there.

Do you think HBO knew what they were getting into? In fairness, I haven't seen the show yet, but my understanding is that they had to clip a lot out to keep it focused enough for a television series. They finished A Game of Thrones in one season. Maybe in the next two seasons they get through to A Feast for Crows. And the way that a television series has to be structured, they're going to edit the hell out of the plot up to that point, and will take a mean blade to books four and five. I predict they'll do AFFC and ADWD in one season. It's one season of material, with three seasons worth of cast. Will GRRM have even written another book by then? I'm guessing no. And then what does HBO do? I'm going to go with "Get Frustrated."

Friday, July 22, 2011

Ecrivains sans Frontieres

First of all, let me say how happy I am that the French word for writer includes the word "vain." Clever boys, those frenchies.

I got my official Borders Rewards notification of the liquidation sale. Tonight I'm going to drive down to the store where I used to work and buy a bunch of books. I've been resisting writing about the liquidation, but I thought I'd give some thoughts on what it means to me, as a writer.

It's not good. I mean, that's obvious, there are no writers for whom it will be good. But just as an example, Dead of Veridon got shelf space in nearly every Borders in Chicagoland. There's only one B&N around here that's carrying it. If there was no Borders (as there will not be starting sometime in August) that book would basically not have been available in a retail environment in Chicago. So that would have sucked. I'm not really sure what it means for my books going forward. Was that limited distribution directly tied to the series/publisher, or specifically my name? Who knows.

But in a larger sense, Borders was kind of a magical place. Bookstores have always been marvelous to me. When I was a kid we had to drive most of 45 minutes to the dingy local mall just to go to a B. Dalton. It wasn't until almost high school that we got a Waldenbooks in the same mall. I was ecstatic. On vacation my main interest was visiting bookstores that could serve my voracious needs. And then places like Borders and Barnes & Noble started cropping up, and it became less of a challenge, but I still always thrilled to walk into those places and see ALL THOSE BOOKS. In college I worked at a Crown, and then when we bought our second house we had to stretch our budget to fill it with furniture and to cover those one time expenses that come with a move, and I got a second job at the aforementioned Borders. I think in different circumstances I could have owned a bookstore and been completely happy in my life.

Well, now the local B&N has closed, and all the Borders are going away. My home town (not where I was born, but where I've lived most of my life) no longer has a single bookstore in it. Since this is Chicagoland, there are plenty of stores in driving distance, but still. It's weird.

My hope is that independents rise up in the wake of Borders' collapse. Their main problem in my opinion was that they couldn't support their square footage. Too much space had been dedicated to music and dvds, and when those retail industries fell apart (Remember Tower Records? Remember going to the mall to *buy* music?) they had nothing to fill that gap. When I was working there they instituted Paperchase, which was perennially empty of customers. It was like they walled off a section of the store and said "We don't want customers in this area" so they stuffed it with paper products. Very strange. And then they took out Paperchase, but that part of the store languished. And sometime after I left they put it back in, to no visible affect.

I can't say this any more clearly. The only way to describe the managerial style of leadership while I was there, and after, is "thrashing about." Things didn't work, they tried something else, it didn't work, they went back to what hadn't been working. But there were many problems, and I've not been following it closely enough to tell you what they could have done to save things. I have opinions, but they're made without full knowledge of the financials. Maybe in their place I would have thought that Paperchase was a great idea. Who knows.

Point is, there are fewer bookstores than there were a week ago. And while I'm sure I'll see a bump in sales as all those copies of Dead of Veridon get liquidated, after that bump is gone there's going to be a long, flat strap, fading away into the horizon. And Barnes & Noble will be deciding what the country reads, by and large.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Tangle of Plotlines

I'm currently reading A Dance with Dragons, George RR Martin's epicly overdue fifth Westros novel. I think I started reading these when the third one came out, and the first two are some of my favorite books ever. The third was fine, but it was beginning to strain under the weight of its own mass. That mass became critical in book four. I still read the hell out of that book, mind you, but I found its form kind of horrific. For those of you who don't follow (who are you people!) the fourth book was way overdue and way over wordcount, and he didn't feel like it was even half done. GRRM has this problem with creating more and more characters, and while he's pretty good at killing them off, the narrative threads were still expanding at a much greater rate than they were being snipped off. So, oddly, the fourth book ended up being a certain part of the narrative from about half the characters in the series, and book five is the same period of time from the other half. I can't call that a good plan, I'm sorry. You shouldn't mean to write a book like that, and if you end up writing a book like that, you've made a grave mistake somewhere.

Still. I read the books, because they're well written and the characters are interesting. I have a couple nits to pick, though, so I'd like to go ahead and lay those out for you. Don't consider this a bad review of the book. It's a good book. But there are things that bubble up as I'm reading that I have to vent.

Before I go any further, I should point out that my agent, Joshua Bilmes, has his own list of complaints here. I agree with some of the things he says, but not all. I have found myself skipping through GRRM's pointless lists and even (gasp) a lot of his description, especially of pointless people. I don't care about the histories or even names of the six who travel with Jon north of the wall to say their vows in the godswood. They're not prime motivators. They are there to give Jon and excuse to go north, for plot purpose. Don't make them more than they are. Anyway. I guess that's complaint number one, and as long as I've begun my list, I may as well continue.

So I guess the next thing is that the characters and places are like caricatures of medieval things. Kind of like the Medieval Times equivalent of characters. These knights who are eternally donning helmets cunningly fashioned into fish heads or pig snouts or whatever, that's what knights wore to tournaments, and that's kind of it. The Boltons, with their flaying and their pink everything, it's like you dipped Vlad the Impaler into pepto bismol. And the throne room in White Harbor? The interior of the throne room was painted to look like it was underwater, with waves and sea creatures painted on the walls and floor, and the ceiling was draped with fishing nets. And all I could think as I read those several pages of description was that this place looks like Long John Silvers, and then I couldn't take it seriously. So that keeps getting in my way.

Also, ever since this series started people have been describing it as a low magic fantasy. Those people are reading a different book. What's sad is that what interests me most about the books (and I think I stand with the majority of the fans in this) are the unmagical people and places and events of the book. For a little while it was about petty kings and proud knights fighting for their place in history. And in book three a little more magic crept in, and then in book four it was a major player. And now? Book five is choked with it. I don't know if this was GRRM's intent from the beginning. There are certainly indications that it was, but I wish to gods he would have left it out. I think there's some requirement in a fantasy novel for at least the implication of magical power in the world, and that's pretty much where he started in Game of Thrones. But now everyone's a "skin walker" and there are magicians and ghosts and... it's too much. If he stayed with the level of magic in the first novel, maybe bumped it up a little bit, things would have been okay. But the people in the book who aren't magical have pretty much no chance in this magic-sotted environment. Too. Much.

I haven't finished the book yet. I'm sure I'll have more thoughts as I go along. I keep getting frustrated because when I think of the events of the last book I honestly have no idea if those things have happened yet in this timeline, or if they have yet to happen, or what. It's a terrible way to tie two books together.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Getting better, always better

Neil Gaiman said something that I'm going to paraphrase quite liberally here. Or maybe it wasn't Gaiman. You know, let's say it was a writer you've heard of and respect, and that way I can be lazy and not look it up. This person said something along the lines of "I haven't learned to write books. Each book I finish, that's the end of my education on how to write that book. And for the next book I have to learn how to write that book, kind of from scratch."

That sounds like Gaiman, doesn't it? I don't know. Anyway. While I think this nebulous yet famous author was generally right, I also think they were exaggerating. There are things I've learned from each book that I write that informs the next book. Honestly, sometimes those things are detrimental to the next work. You can learn bad habits, or crutches that cover up some of your weaknesses without ever addressing those weaknesses. But you also learn something about process, and discipline. Mostly you learn that you can write a book. It's not some impossible task reserved for the elite. Look, here's the proof. A book!

But mostly I become aware of the areas where I'm limping by. I see the ways I can write better, and with each book I try to address those things. I get better with each book. I can say without a doubt that Dead of Veridon is the best book I've written to date. But honestly I think it's only marginally better than The Horns of Ruin, which in turn was marginally better than Heart of Veridon. And I'd like to make one of those commitment moves. I want the next book to be significantly better.

I started that process by sitting down and writing out everything I felt like I could improve, and how it could be better. I made a plan. And that general sketch became a structure, and that structure became an outline. And this thing I've been working on in notebooks and laptops and big sketch pads has slowly solidified into something solid. And now I have ten thousand words that do nothing but describe the book. An outline. A backstory. Characters. The map for this book is written. And I'm now passing it around to people I trust to see if it makes sense, to see if there are any "What the hell?" moments for someone coming to this story for the first time.

Anyway. I've been working on it feverishly (literally. I've been sick.) for a while now, and I wrote the last word well after midnight last night. I think it's good that a week ago, when I was legitimately quite ill, I woke up and said "To hell with it. I'm not working on the book today. I'm going to take cold medicine and watch some racing, and take a lot of naps." And that lasted about an hour before I was at the table, working on the book.