Strange Animals 25may2019: Like the Bald Kid Said, There Is No Throne
Something else this week. It’s well and good to write a 1500-word essay every week, but sometimes you have thoughts that don’t need the length, and, I dunno, 1500 words should be reserved for Something Important™.
So let’s think of this less as a break and more a series of jogs down blind alleys before we continue on our walking tour.
This one’s heavy on a particular tv show, but I can promise to write around it rather than about it.
Game of Thrones just ended, and of course, everyone has opinions. As usual, I find a lot of what people are saying interesting not in how it applies to the thing in question (which is always going to tell you more about the person talking than about the thing itself), but as a tool going forward.
So here’s one. Some people have been talking about how the real difference between George Martin’s version of the story and HBO’s is that Martin is largely a pantser, while closing out a tv show requires a plotter approach. So this old nugget about writing styles has come back into the picture.
In short, there are three types of writers:
Plotters: Writers who outline every incident in the story before they write.
Pantsers: Writers who put their characters in interesting situations and see what they do.
Plantsers: A mixture of the two approaches.
I’ve always fallen somewhere in the middle. I dread outlines, but then I also haven’t usually allowed myself to begin without knowing something about every milestone.
I’ve also dreaded the idea of simply sitting in front of the screen and writing, but that was because I hated the idea of writing being wasted, or ending up in the wrong place. And I don’t have that fear now.
So a couple of nights ago, I decided that I’d write a short story and completely pants it. Start with an image, and see where it goes.
Here was the image – three riders on strange alien mounts, dragging a captive behind them. And I’d been talking to a friend earlier that day about how weird the idea of plant grafting is if you think about how it fits in with reproduction as we understand it, so there was that on my mind.
After that, I started asking myself questions, and answering them on the page, writing linearly, but pausing to jot down little notes for myself in the margins for options for what I could do later with certain bits.
I’m around halfway through the story now, and it’s genuinely going somewhere, even though I still only have a vague idea about the destination. It’s a lot saggier than my usual writing, because there are things I put in because they seemed like a good idea at the time but which didn’t lead anywhere. But that’s the beauty of the first draft – I can take anything out that doesn’t fit, and no one would know I’d put it there.
And, as I said a few newsletters ago, this is fun, because I have no idea where I’m going with the story, and there are things I’ve written here – solutions to problems that came up in the writing – that I never would’ve written if I knew in the first place what I was trying to do.
I don’t have anything new on sale this week, but Vault Comics have put out a new printing of the first three issues of These Savage Shores with a very pretty set of covers – remixed by designer Tim Daniel from Sumit’s art – and it’s one of those things that makes me happy I get comps:
I was catching up on my newsletter reading yesterday, and I came across this in one of Robin Sloan’s emails:
Before bed on Thursday and Friday, I read The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts, a brainy, science-y, philosophy-y, thriller-y, okay-maybe-everything-y sort of novel. It has one primary timeline but/and also leaps back and forward. The leaping-back sections, in particular, have a flavor that reminded me of the outer chapters of Cloud Atlas, which is to say, they are skilfully done and, as a result of that skill, a bit fussy to read, and so … I skipped them.
I didn’t skip out of boredom; I skipped because I felt those chapters threatening my investment in the story, tugging at the edges of the waking dream, and … I wanted to keep dreaming!
There is a chapter presented in screenplay format. It’s very well-executed. I skipped it.
So, my reading of this novel was opinionated and customized; truly mine. And I loved it! Is this “okay”? Were my wholesale chapter-skips an insult to the author? Did I not really “read” this book at all? Reasonable readers can disagree on all these points. For my part, I think it’s all 100% fine, and I will defend the reader’s prerogative until the very last scrap of paper, its edges charred, flutters to the ground at the bitter close of the Skimmer-Plodder Wars.
And it got me thinking, once again, about Game of Thrones. See, I’m not a fan of the series, or of the original books. I read the first two books before giving up, and I only started watching the series with any seriousness because I wanted to get to the end along with everyone else – like a cricket tournament, except I have a passing interest in fantasy and none in cricket.
But I have a feeling I enjoyed the final season a lot more than actual fans of the series. In particular, I found myself spellbound by “The Bells”, the episode that seems to be near-universally loathed for one specific decision.
To enjoy something, do you need to like all of it? Is it okay to assume that the writing will be of a certain quality and style that maybe you do not agree with, and then enjoy the music, the acting, and the direction? Or take into account that it fundamentally disagrees with you about certain things and then enjoy it on its own terms.
Can you love a book if you don’t read half of it? Can you love a tv show if you hate the writing?
I struggled with this during Steven Moffat’s run on Doctor Who. Unlike Game of Thrones, I’m a fan of Doctor Who, to the point of having written stories for two spin-off properties.
And I did not enjoy Moffat’s writing. I felt he was doing everything wrong. I used to get actively angry about this – my friends can testify. But then I read a heartfelt essay by someone talking about how Steven Moffat’s writing on the show had had a profound positive impact on their life, and how they’d found the rest of the show because of it. In reaction, I changed my criteria, and to my surprise, found myself quite enjoying the back half of Moffat’s run as a result.
Some things are perhaps not for you, not made to your specific standards, but if you take that into account, you can find yourself enjoying them nevertheless.
Plus, as a fan of Doctor Who, you get used to a lot of the thing you love being quite shit, but you find yourself able to love it anyway.
Let’s keep it Game of Thrones-adjacent all the way through, shall we?
I’ve been listening to Fire & Blood: A Targaryen History on audiobook while I work. This is a fictional history of the Targaryens, purportedly written by one of the Maesters of Oldtown based on primary sources. It’s extremely fun – a dense, gossipy history peppered with portraits and tiny stories that read a lot like real history (and I’m sure, as usual, Martin’s stolen a bunch of stories from real history to add colour), except with dragons.
I’m sure the prose version is well worth reading, coming as it does with Doug Wheatley’s illustrations, but the audiobook, read by Simon Vance, is the version I’m experiencing, and it’s an absolute treat, and much more my speed than the main books themselves.
Note: Originally, that was not going to be my actual recommendation. I was going to springboard off it to recommend Faction Paradox: The Book of the War, by Lawrence Miles et al. This is the primary bible for the Doctor Who spin-off I’ve written two stories for, and is essentially an in-universe encyclopaedia documenting the first fifty years of a war across time and space fought between the Time Lords (with the serial numbers filed off) and an unknown Enemy that has the power to mess around with time and space. It’s one of my favourite books.
Except that it is seemingly out of print, and not available for the Kindle either – presumably due to the complications involved in wrangling rights from something like ten different authors. If that sounds interesting, though, you might like to read Dead Romance.
Since I talked about the pleasure of shitty first drafts up there, here’s Anne Lamott writing in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life:
Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while doing it.
Filed under #advice and #writing.