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George R R Martin in conversation

I have a confession to make. I haven’t read any of the books. I have the first one sitting on my bookshelf, and have flicked through it enough to know how the characters’ names are spelt, but that’s about it. My entire understanding of the phenomenon that is Game of Thrones comes from the HBO series, and comments from learned friends and family who have toiled through the books. But I went to see George R R Martin speak anyway (well, I mostly wanted hear Peter Dinklage talk, but that’s another story).

The author came out on stage to thunderous rock-star applause. I didn’t see anyone dressed up, but judging by the level of detail in some of the questions, it’s safe to say there were some hardcore fans there. Reclined on the couch with his gut hanging over his knees, his suspenders reflecting like daggers under the stage lights, and his distinctive cap and beard, he was a confident, thoughtful, and humorous speaker.

I remember one of the first things I ever heard about the books, before the show came out, was my cousin saying “I like those books. Normally you know the main characters will always live, but in these ones you don’t.” This is what Martin’s known for: killing his darlings. Killing off the characters we learn to love and care for. And this topic took up a lot of the conversation tonight.

Martin recalled being extremely moved by reading Lord of the Rings when he was at a formative age, around 11 or 12. He said the death of Boromir, and then of Gandalf, affected him greatly “and if it was me, Gandalf would have stayed dead, it’s more powerful that way”. The deaths of these important characters were game-changers, for both the other characters and the readers, and certainly influenced the way the pre-pubescent Martin thought about adventure novels. At one point in LOTR he was led to believe Frodo was dead, when he was stung by Shelob, and Sam took the ring and moved on. This was also huge for Martin, having identified with Frodo as the protagonist for so long, but it struck him as realistic and powerful that the story could continue.

Despite the fantasy setting, the realism of war is what he’s after. Martin said one of the things he’s learnt about war is that anyone can die. Everyone thinks they’re the hero of the story, right up until the moment they are killed, and it’s this idea that he’s respecting and emulating. Something that drives him mad is books or films set in a war where a group of friends battle through and emerge barely scathed. Not realistic. His books are art imitating life, and he’ll settle for nothing less.

Does what he’s doing work in novel format? Do readers need to trust that our beloved characters are going to make it, to hold our interest? I know I hated him after I watched the RW episode, and swore I wasn’t going to watch any more. And I hadn’t even tackled the massive books to get that far.

But I respect what he’s doing here.

The other interesting points in conversation were his metaphor about writers being architects or gardeners – either planning things meticulously before writing the first word, or sowing a few seeds and seeing what comes up. He says he knows where all his major characters will end up, but that lots of things appear in the writing, for example the character of Bronn (who fought for Tyrion in the Eyrie) was just going to be used to get Tyrion through the forest, but kept making himself useful and ended up being a major game-player.

Martin was also accused of being a masochist: of taking the things away from characters that they cherished and relied on the most. Little Arya was finally in spitting distance from the rest of her family just before they were massacred. Jaime Lannister’s whole character was formed around his skill with a sword, and then his right hand was chopped off. But Martin said he’s just playing out what needs to happen to the character for their arc to develop. Narratives are about things happening to people, not people having a happy old time. Drama is when characters have to deal with what happens to them.

Of the writing process, he said he needs to shut himself away from the world and tell everyone to leave him alone. And some days he’ll write ten pages, and some days he’ll struggle on one. But in those times, he’s in Westeros. He’s not thinking about the fan forums abusing the slowness of his writing (“I was always a slow writer, I just didn’t used to have people waiting for me”), he’s not thinking about who’s going to be cast as this character for the series, he’s in the character’s mind, wrestling with the words that they would say.

And I think we should leave him to it.


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Emerging Writers’ Festival: Seven Enviable Lines

EWF_Web_Banner-fixedEWF Conference. Two packed days of sitting and listening and jotting and tweeting. All that inspiration, it was pretty exhausting.

The Seven Enviable Lines panel was a great way to start the weekend: what writing-related tips would you tell a younger You?

Here are my favourites.

Melinda Harvey:

“A career in writing is not like winning Tetris—you don’t automatically go up to the next level.”

“You’ve got to be at your desk/computer/notepad to write. Inspiration can strike, but like lightning it’s rare. First, you’ve got to produce the right climatic conditions…”

John Safran:

“Here’s what’s wrong with you. You’re lazy, and too in love with your one stupid idea.”

Khairani ‘Okka’ Barokka:

“Take care of yourself, write clearheaded. You might think tortured writing is the best, but usually it’s delusional and self indulgent.”

“Back up your files. Type up your notepads. Go through the archives and tease out the old threads.”

Jennifer Mills:

“Persistence is more important than talent.”

“Being a writer is not an excuse for being an asshole! Be nice to your families, partners, friends. They are the ones that will support you.”

Walter Mason:

“Run, don’t walk. Don’t wait until the time is perfect. Don’t put it off. You can do amazing things by yourself online, and you can do them tonight when you get home.”

“If invited to book/writing/publishing events, never give into the impulse to stay at home.”

“I’ve never once been hired on my skills. Fabulousness has always won out over literary prowess.”

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Editors Vic dinner meeting

59095_409435612461438_158118939_nA few classmates from RMIT’s Professional Writing and Editing course and I tagged along to last week’s Editors Victoria dinner meeting.

The focus of the evening was Carrie Tiffany and Toni Jordan discussing the process of writing fiction and how they teach creative writing, in conversation with freelance book editor Nadine Davidoff.

Having seen Carrie and Toni around uni (they are both grads of our PWE course, have published novels, and both now teach at RMIT) and having heard Nadine speak in one of our editing classes, I jumped at the chance to hear them all together in one room.

And at the chance to act like a real life editor. We wore nametags and got a free glass of wine and everything.

Here are some paraphrased notes from the conversation.

On why they write:

C.T: I wouldn’t say I enjoy writing… But I do enjoy having written. The most important thing is when you write and find out something that you didn’t know before you wrote it. You surprise yourself.

On following rules and advice for writing a novel:

C.T: I follow Oscar Wilde’s thinking: “It is always a silly thing to give advice, but to give good advice is fatal”. The ‘novel’ means the ‘new’. If you’re committed to writing the book, you’ll write the book, and you’ll work out how to do it on your own.

T.J: Even when you’ve written a book, the next one is just as hard. I felt like I was getting dumber after each book. I couldn’t remember how I started them. I ended up calling my poor husband and asking things like ‘when I was writing the first book, what did I have for lunch?’ But the most important thing is to keep promises to yourself. Treat yourself like a business associate. Don’t give yourself an untrustworthy reputation by falling through on promises you make, like word counts. Take yourself seriously, and deliver on your promises, as if they were for a business.

On inspiration and the quote of the evening: ‘The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamouring to become visible.”

Ruth Stone. photo source

Ruth Stone. photo source

Nadine tells an anecdote of American poet Ruth Stone who grew up working in the fields in rural Virginia, and who would feel a poem coming at her like a ‘thunderous train of air’. She’d have to run inside and get pen to paper so when the poem ‘barrelled through her’ she could collect it on paper. Sometimes she missed it and she felt the poem thunder across the landscape looking for another poet. And sometimes she’d just catch the tail end of the poem, and pull it backwards, and it would appear on the page perfect and intact but backwards, from the last word to the first…

T.J: Yes! I feel like this. Once I was on a train with only a tiny little handbag and no notepad or pen and I just needed to write, and was trying to memorise all the words going through my head, but of course by the time I got to a newsagent to buy a pen and paper they were gone..

C.T: No. It’s 100% hard work and no magic. Of course I think there are subconscious aspects where you don’t know a character’s name or something about them until it appears on the page, but they are just hidden in your subconscious, they don’t come out of nowhere.

On teaching creative writing:

They both agree writing has everything to do with reading, and you can’t write a good sentence until you’ve read a lot of other sentences first. C.T suggests the first year of any writing degree should be only reading. T.J has students read novels aloud in class to understand rhythm. She also suggests keeping two books on your desk at all times when you’re writing: one inspiration book (if I can write something 1/10th as good as this it will be worthwhile) and one confidence book (if this **** got published… I’ve got a chance!).

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