ASOIAF & LOST, similar shortcomings?

Just some superficial comments, as I’m far behind reading ASOIAF while still following how the opinions develop on the internet.

One reason why I appreciate ASOIAF without being a huge fan is because it’s to my eyes limited in some way. I recognize the mastery of the craft of writing and plotting, but it’s as if this craft is not in the service of something worth it. As if the pagecount is proportional to skill, but not to ambition. A great story, a great experience, but lacking a certain purpose or absolute necessity. It lacks a dimension.

All this contained in its structure. A song of ICE and FIRE. But five books in, the Winter is still coming. Fire and ice have yet to meet. What is at the periphery is still there, creeping in but still away. There’s lots of plot, but it’s like suspended in a stasis, with only the illusion of movement. And in two books all this is supposed to come in with a bang and then be resolved. It has yet to begin, but it’s already almost over. A very, very long prelude.

A step further, it seems to me that Martin doesn’t know what to do with the more “fantasy” elements of the story. They are atmospheric but not meaningful or done in an interesting way. Not dealt up to their potential. I’ve read the Prologue of ADWD because it received specific praises and was a self-contained story, but I didn’t find any particular inspiration in it. From the beginning, and with a precise intent, Martin has kept these fantastic elements subdued. They were only a spice, adding a certain flavor to the real meat of the story, which was about intrigue and family matters. But as the focus is supposed to shift, those “fantasy” elements don’t seem to be hiding a greater depth, and the story loses its steam.

Specifically about LOST what got my attention is trying to narrow down how mystery and mythology can be done well. From my point of view LOST finale was met with some disappointment because of a focus shift. It started in season 1 as an mystery/horror, then moved to mystery/sci-fi/pseudoscience and finally “dropped” its mythology to go fully mystic. The first transition worked, the second didn’t not go equally well.

The fact is that LOST in the beginning kept the people watching because it had a good rhythm and tension. It wasn’t the good ideas that kept the audience, but the execution. In fact I believe pretty much everyone started watching feeling quite skeptical. It then “earned” some faith as it started to give the illusion that everything that was shown wasn’t random but part of a cohesive vision that could eventually make sense. A vast, intricate mythology/puzzle that would give an unitarian vision to the disparate parts. While, with the last season, this huge mythology was essentially put on the sideline as if it became suddenly superfluous and uninteresting. In that way, it betrayed some expectations.

So what is that “worked” and that then didn’t live up to those expectations? From my point of view it’s about the core idea of the “hatch”. The “hatch” represented a pattern of mystery and mythology done 100% successfully. It felt compelling and satisfying. Opposed to the later developments that instead felt dry. The distinction between mystery done well and it being disappointing lies on whether or not it opens a window on a new scenario. The hatch is a good example because it became the pivotal axis of the first season. Everything revolved around that big mystery, and people came back for the second season to finally see what was beyond that hatch. A door opening onto something. An hole in the veil of mystery. The revelation did not disappoint. Why? Because it wasn’t a dead end, but it lead up to disclose a big new dimension of the mythology (The Dharma project and all it contained). The mystery felt compelling and satisfying because it branched out, it was a seed for something far greater. A box to open to discover a new world.

Back to ASOIAF, so I can make the link. What characterizes this series are the shocking, unexpected events, like a certain death in the first book, which remains like a signature. Yet that specific event “worked” not simply because it was unexpected and shocking. There were two main reasons why that specific event was so successful: (1) because a “way out” was already explicitly traced and readers believed it logical and true, a plausible development. The shock arrived because the death wasn’t the culmination of a scene filled with danger, but because it arrived once the danger felt already behind. (2) Because that death wrestled the plot in a whole new direction. It works because of mind-boggling consequences and repercussions it has on every level (characters and plot). It “opens up” instead of being just a dead-end and miserable death. It’s not a conclusion, but the true starting point. It becomes the spine of all that follows.

So there are these similarities between the successful (and unsuccessful) mysterious/mythological aspects of LOST and the successful (and unsuccessful) unexpected turns of plot that keep readers reading ASOIAF. The mystery/revelation chain works when it becomes a seed delivering a greater picture. Or comprehension that unifies disparate pieces of the puzzles. Same as in ASOIAF where it’s not an unexpected death to be compelling, but how the reader is directly engaged with its consequences, the opening and closing of possibilities.

If someone tried to replicate the success of ASOIAF following the widespread idea that “no one is safe”, then he’d only end up in failure. Because what works isn’t in that pattern of simply doing something unexpected, but in giving the new perspectives and knowing how to kick the story up to a higher level.

One wonders if Martin knows, with two books left, how to close the story in a meaningful way as he was able to do with its beginning, instead of being squeezed in that pinch made by fire and ice, that seems to have no real way out.

On narrative linearity (Erikson Vs Bakker & Martin)

Just a passing thought. In this blog post Bakker says he’s currently writing his next, and last in the series, book “The Unholy Consult” and that specifically he’s working and jumping between fifteen chapters without having completed any yet.

This “process” is similar to how George Martin writes. He jumps around and works at the same time on a number of disconnected chapters without following a narrative linearity, which also means that it’s not possible to pinpoint how much of a book is completed since there’s not a linear progress. The writing proceeds sparsely across the whole body of work.

Erikson instead is a special case. From one of his recent comments it can be deduced that he writes linearly not simply because of restraints due to deadlines, but because it’s structural to his peculiar process of writing. He writes linearly, page after page, with the scenes following exactly the final order they’ll have on the published book. And he specified that jumping back and forth, rewriting and moving scenes, switching order of chapters and so on, would feel like “cheating”, and that this way of doing allows him to stay true to the characters and context, providing that limited perspective in which he thrives.

My thought was about the result, which is quite odd. Both Martin and Bakker jump all over the place when they are writing, but then the finished book has a strictly linear narrative. The scenes are ordered in chronological order. Erikson on the other side writes linearly, but the final structure delivers the opposite: scenes are scrambled in chronological sequence AND narrative direction. You can read an outcome in book 1 whose “cause” appears in book 5. How can he do this?

It’s like all three of them work by fighting what would come natural: Bakker and Martin have to restore a linearity after they “built” the whole book in a non-linear way, while Erikson has to have his mind jumping around an do the extra work so that he can set up the roots of the narrative complexity that he is going to realize.

Am I the only one finding this curious?

GRRM update on ADWD

Hello acronyms. But then whoever may be interested in this knows already what the title is about.

In this last update GRRM explains that when you mess with the timeline you’ll always get your ass handed back to you, whether you’re Erikson or Martin.

He says he doesn’t want advices, so I won’t give any, nor I’ve read AFFC yet but I know what the general public thinks and that’s what got me worried reading that update. The problem is that the longer the wait the more people expect a kind of payoff. That’s why these long series always improve on rereads when you don’t have to wait years from one book to the other. A relaxed and balanced pace is not bad, in a general context. But if you waited 5 years for that book, then every page you turn is one page less from whatever expectations you have. Without some sort of payoff you’ll finish the book with a big feeling of dissatisfaction even if the book wasn’t that bad. Preparatory work spread along 10 years of wait just can’t work.

In the case of AFFC we got a book that was criticized exactly because it seemed to go nowhere and was mostly about setting the pieces back up again. It was a valley after a peak. So if this following book, 5 years later, only fills the gap and doesn’t deliver anything special, the risk is that the already weakened balance breaks completely.

Taking back chapters to move them on the following book may be a disaster if those chapters make the plot move onward. Especially since the actual release of the next book is so remote that it may as well just not exist.

So my advice (to the publisher) is to think more about delivering the best book possible right now, than sparing the good stuff for later.

Martin Vs Erikson – My perspective on writing

In regards to the previous post, the author of the quote wants to make sure he’s not a Martin fanboy and that the first part of the phrase isn’t directly implying the second (even if it actually is). I’ll instead clarify that I simply extrapolate the quote to use it as a general example of a trend I sometime notice and don’t like. No idea if the author of that review is biased or not, fanboy or not, I just say that the quote implied certain things that are false and I used it as a general example.

Instead the other day I got an occasion on Malazan forums to elaborate on the differences in writing between Martin and Eirkson. These are things that I believe do exist and are not a result of my biased perception. In the end my preference goes for a particular style and I explain why. I’m not interested to see one of them triumph on the other, only that when a discussion takes place it follows certain rules of coherence and objectivity when it comes to objective elements. I respect every opinion, as long it is coherent.

I think the whole approach to flaws is different.

Whereas Martin would write 100 pages and then toss away everything that isn’t 100% working as expected, Erikson makes the process of writing part of the intent the novel is about. Erikson writes like a freeclimber. He knows exactly where he wants to go but the process of getting there is part of what you see on the page and his journey is your journey as a reader. Move after move. Sometimes you can’t go straight up as you wish and have to move sideways, a few times maybe you have to move backwards, but every move you make is essential and part of what you’re creating there and the final destination. Erikson is insanely ambitious in what he does and even when the task is quite hard to reach he doesn’t back off, he just gets more motivated. So the books are indeed “flawed”. There are parts that work better than others, some amazingly successful and some not quite reaching, yet this is what makes the books much more interesting to read for me. They are filled with experimentation on all levels and that’s what keeps my interest and lightens up the brain and the fun feedback.

Reading Martin I think makes easier to forget about the book itself and engage with the story and characters. Erikson instead requires a certain detachment and look at things from multiple perspectives (what he calls “layering” the writing, sometimes to insane levels). With Martin you get a final product that is perfectly crafted and ready to be enjoyed. With Erikson instead you have the process of crafting itself as part of what you are experiencing. So while what Erikson writes feels rougher, to me it also feels like he’s telling me something that is “true” and that offers me a lot more. And where Martin may respect all good rules that make a classic narrative without any slip of control or mastery, Erikson may as well go and break them all just because of his rebellious soul. You decide what you like better ;)

I’ll also point out this post that, while not quite to the point on Erikson, I think underlines well certain canons that Martin follows and make me say there’s not a whole lot of originality involved. He just picked certain canons that were not typical in “fantasy”.

On the merit of the legitimacy of battles between writers, as the title of this post would suggest, I say that there’s plenty of legitimacy in comparing things (or writers).

Where the thing breaks is when the intent is trying to have one being declared superior to another with a pretense of objectivity and absoluteness. Who can say who’s the better writer? A final judgment made on what rules? What is the canon everyone agreed upon as the ultimate judgment? The only real objective and usable canon is: “sales”. And sales will only declare which author is more accessible and able to reach a large public, leaving out everything else that belongs to writing. It basically tells nothing really useful beside the economic possibility of the book existing as a physical object and the writer being able to survive by writing as a job. We have no ultimate way to proclaim the better writer. So a discussion is only useful when it brings up characteristic of writing that are true and observable, so that the discussion helps to have a correct idea of the writer and his writing. Everyone will have a preference for something different. What is important is that the analysis is true to the writer and his style.

George R. R. Martin and Steven Erikson

(elaboration of a forum post)

Erikson has definitely an inhuman approach.

I’m reading Martin right now for the first time and I can assure you that the most evident difference is how he puts there the characters first, and much later the plot. In the first chapter with Bran he sets up a handy situation to present one by one all his family. Plot points and history are introduced through well placed infodumps, some of them are repeated/redundant every chapter with some more elements added so that the reader isn’t overwhelmed. In any case, even if you miss something, all the focus is on a few characters, living their life relatively unaware. Readers can connect to that, as the tricks are quite common: little boy gets puppy, little girl gets pretty horse, Sansa and Arya with sisterly rivalry and contrasting personality, adding unmotivated cruelty to move feelings. The first and foremost concern of Martin is to know where the reader stands and win him over.

Erikson gets to the plot first, characters eventually come later. Because he isn’t writing an introduction for you. You start with Bridgeburners, but you get to know them better as characters only in book 2 and 3. Martin, writing Erikson’s story, would have started presenting the Bridgeburners one by one, the plot would have come much later, with time. Instead of showing the siege of Pale from Tattersail POV, he probably would have stayed in the trenches with the Bridgeburners and use them to slowly explore the plots from their limited POV. The many of the POVs at the beginning of Martin’s book are “kids” because kids offer a simplified, unaware vision that works well as an introduction point for the reader.

What I mean is that it’s not the number of pages the problem. In fact this story written from a different perspective would take MORE pages, not less. I also think that Erikson’s way isn’t inferior to Martin’s. There isn’t one better than the other, they are just antithetic, aiming for a different result. To appreciate for their difference.

Martin will ALWAYS reach a larger public because his writing is much more approachable, making easier to connect with story and characters. Erikson, deliberately, writes in a different way and doesn’t care to win the reader over. He doesn’t care to make sympathetic characters that readers find easy to connect to. Paran and Felisin may be mistaken for that, but it’s pretty obvious how their paths make them completely alien, instead of familiar.

You can love or hate this, but you can’t mistake it for a lack of skill. Erikson isn’t trying, is non-conformist. His focus is elsewhere and works HARD to avoid making familiar, sympathetic characters. He writes to upset, disappoint and put the reader off balance. He dreads to fall in some common place or typical story. So, when he does something vaguely familiar, twists it so that it is deformed. That’s how Erikson works. He writes in spite of common feelings and writing trappings. He breaks all the rules deliberately and with deep understanding.

Many here enjoy Erikson’s plots, but can’t stand his attitude. So in the longer term they are disappointed, especially when the plot isn’t the absolute focus with its pretty fireworks and all. I may be an exception but I like Erikson for attitude first, and plot and fireworks later. I can’t predict where he goes and I’m not groaning because I see him trying hard to win my sympathy (like I do often with Martin): because he’s not a fraud. I think that the aspect I admire the most in Erikson’s writing is the absolute sincerity. I think he writes for himself more than every other writer I’ve read up to this point. So I share his intent, and follow him silently :)

Martin writes for you, and writes the story the best way to please you. The audience is the protagonist and ultimate focus. Erikson writes for himself, sincerely and without hypocrisy or desires of popularity. Without compromises. He’ll never try to do something to please a reader because that would be betraying what he is and what he does.

Some evidence of this is in the way they work. Some writers write for money or popularity. They are quite easy to recognize because after they get enough money or become popular, they lose their motivation. Martin has some of this. He struggles with the writing, doesn’t find it an easy or pleasant task. He sweats on the books. On his blog he says often that he enjoys “having written” much more than writing. This is symptom of the fact that his true moving motivation comes after, my guess is that he may enjoy more the popularity and satisfaction that comes after the book. This reflects directly in his writing style. He writes to please first and foremost and this is obvious reading his books and I’ve explained above.

I think I read in a interview that the longest vacation Erikson took between the books was ten days. He doesn’t stop writing and keeps an aggressive schedule, writing huge books almost every year. This also is reflected in his writing style. He writes in spite of the audience and I think that the real risk is that he would take his readers with so much antipathy to start doing everything possible to kick them away. I have the impression that he’s scared to meet his readers and find out they are a bunch of idiots. If he writes it is because he finds the motivation within himself only, and has demonstrated that he does absolutely nothing to meet the reader’s desires. If you follow him it is not because he dragged you forcefully down his path, but because you agreed to his work in an uncompromising way. Saying that the books and plots needed to be edited and cut is like saying that his work should be subject to manipulation in order to meet better validation. I don’t think that Erikson refuses this because of some “noble integrity”, but because that would mean lying to himself and obtain an attention he doesn’t desire.

His flaw isn’t in his skill, his flaw is being a niche writer who is exposed to a larger public than the one he writes for.

GRRM and the neverending delays

With the beginning of new year I was at least expecting an update about the status of the book. Good news, bad news, even the same rhetorical lines, I was only hoping in some kind of update to know where he stands. I expected it because the last one was written the 1st January 08, where he wrote he was hoping to finish the book before the summer. Then the summer arrived and it became obvious that he was not yet done (like Iktovian). One year later, not yet done still. But I was at least hoping that he would write us a page. Not of apologies, just of honest update.

As always there are plenty of fans that defend GRRM and the books, and justify every kind of delay as something ultimately good. The arguments are usually two. The first is that more time equals to a better book. The second comes right from GRRM, saying that in the next years it won’t matter when the books came out or how long it took to write them, but just their quality. Meaning that he wants to write for future readers as he wants for current ones, and he cares more about doing the thing right than do it in time.

I write about this because I kind of disagree with both arguments. Against the first I already argued many times. Statistically it seems that the best books from an author or in a series are the ones that took LESS time to write. When the author starts to struggle and need more and more time to complete a book, said book is usually disappointing and below expectations when it is out. Specifically I also believe that more than time = quality, the more meaningful equivalence is: necessity = quality. If you look at the past of Fantasy and Science Fiction genre you see a number of writers that at the time wrote for specialized magazines. They wrote to make money and eat, out of necessity. This means that they HAD to write quickly and favor quantity over quality. Today that time is considered a Golden Age. Only few writers have the luxury to break deadlines without worries and I believe that this can be useful as it can be detrimental. Sometimes better things come out of a scarcity and strong determination, opposed to the whimsical, fickle inspiration.

The other aspect is about considering the book outside its time. Tolkien is still popular today, as are plenty of other classics. It’s the vocation of every writer to transcend time and embrace immortality. The book is in itself immanent and defying time. But at the same time I consider this an unrespectful claim. If you truly like a genre, you hope it to flourish. You’ll try to write books the best you can, you’ll hope to reach people and have success, but you ought also to be willingly to see it exist and flourish WITHOUT you. I don’t know where the genre will go, if it will expand or slowly fade into a niche. A lot depends on how the culture goes. As long there’s a focused interest, good things will continue to come out. So, sure, let’s hope that Martin finishes the book and it kicks ass, and then completes the series in the way he wants. But I also sure hope that in the next years new writers will come that will try to match and even surpass Martin. I think that ultimately that should be the hope, that the apprentice surpasses the master.

If that doesn’t happen then the genre is as good as dead, and the role of the master diminished.

No dancing with dragons this year

Or at least it’s what I deduce from Martin’s last blog post:

Well, I’ve made it across the ocean safe and sound. Typing this from an internet cafe.

No, I didn’t finish the novel, though not for want of trying. Nothing to be done about that but push on when I return.

Considering that (I think) he won’t be back till August, and that he still has work to do on it, a late 2008 release is basically impossible. Usually there’s a full year between the finished novel and the published book, for major releases like this one the gap is reduced to something like six months.

With the book probably finished in September I think the release will likely be pushed to spring 2009.

I wonder why Martin doesn’t try to look at what he’s doing with a detached eye and change his plans. The decision to split book 4 in two is where the original mistake was. Instead of surrendering to an endless drift he should have kept the plot tight, cut the meaningless parts and make a more lucid plan about where he wanted to go.

Scott Bakker commented this from a similar point of view:

I know when I started working on The Judging Eye, I found myself inventing a whole series of new viewpoint characters. I didn’t realize what I was doing until I started reading A Feast for Crows, at which point I scrubbed them all save one. I told myself I was adding these new viewpoint characters for the reader’s sake, when in actual fact I was doing it for my own – I mean, multiply the time you’ve spent with The Prince of Nothing by a thousand, and you’ll have a rough ballpark sense of how much time I’ve spent with my cast. The urge to “freshen things up” is almost irresistible, as is the attendant assumption that you’re doing it as much for your readers as for yourself. But when you already have a complicated narrative on the go, you really do risk drifting across that fateful line where your story starts to decohere. Whether or not this was what happened with Martin’s last book, I’m not sure – all I know is that it threw what I was doing into perspective, and led me to take an entirely different tack. It took me a while, but I eventually fell back in love with the old fogies.

In the end I think it marks another difference between Martin and Erikson. Erikson knew exactly from the beginning where the story would end, and the theme of all the ten books. Then it’s a matter of self-discipline and learning.

Martin instead has surely other many vantage points over Erikson, but he lacks the same lucidity and now he doesn’t seem honest (to himself) enough to look at the whole thing and make choices. The problem isn’t about finishing the single page, it’s about deciding what to do with the whole series, where to lead it. He could decide for example to end it with the sixth book, so that the next is the last, as one last effort to give a closure to the plot.

In fact I would be more eager to read an overall consideration, than updates whether he finished one chapter or another. He doesn’t need to keep working in the hope to finish a novel that doesn’t seem to come out. He need to stop, sit back and think about it. Where do you want to go? How?

Martin and Erikson are like reversed patterns. Where Erikson became stronger in the longer term, demonstrating his tight control and talent, Martin instead got carried away, was overambitious and now trapped himself in a corner.

See George Martin’s world come to life

Usually fantasy art destroys the sense of wonder you get from a book. You imagine scenes in your head and when you see them portrayed you are always deluded by the result.

This is a rare exception. I’ve read the news from Most Popular fantasy blog, Martin is at work to make a sourcebook/encyclopedia on “A Song of Ice and Fire” and there will be 13 illustrations by Ted Nasmith to give life to some key locations in the books. One artist I’ve never heard about but obviously talented.

You can see eight of these masterpieces on the artist’s website, by clicking on one of the small images at the top, then clicking the image appearing for a full-size version.

This *does* justice to Martin’s work. It is as powerful as you can imagine, and actually adds to it. These illustrations wouldn’t be out of place inside the books themselves, they would complement them perfectly. As opposed to WoT’s sourcebook, where the illustrations would kill every attempt at keeping things cool in your mind. Awe-killers. Too often no art is much better to something mediocre.

Not in this case, those paintings would make some gorgeous covers for the books themselves. Why we never get cover art this good?