Everyone knows that part of becoming a better writer is reading. Over the years, even during my losing battles with writer’s block, I’ve kept that part of the bargain. I can’t remember a time since I was 10 years old that I wasn’t reading something.
Even so, I’ve had to question my reading choices lately. I’m working an average of 50 hours a week, trying to write a novel, maintaining this blog, tackling the occasional short story, and spending several hours a week in the gym. Every now and then, I also just like to kick back and have fun.
With all that on my plate, you’d think I’d give myself a simple summer reading list. A fast-paced novel or two, with some short stories thrown in for good measure, maybe. But no, not me. I decided I’d also read the entire “Song of Ice and Fire” series this summer.
Actually, “decided” isn’t really accurate. After I first watched the first series of Game of Thrones and then read the book, I had no choice but to continue. I’d been sucked in to the point of no return.
Many nights, I want to put down my Kindle and write. But I don’t. Instead, I read into the wee hours, knowing I’ll regret it when my alarm starts schreeching at the buttcrack of dawn. I finish a chapter, and know I should stop for the night. Instead, I listen to the little voice in my head that says “just one more” at least 3 times.
If you can coerce an extremely busy and tired reader into staying up way past her bedtime to turn your pages, you’ve got mad skills. There are many writers I enjoy, but very few I can’t put down when I’ve got other things going on. I’ve got tons to learn from someone who can weave an epic tale that seems to go on forever, and who does it so well that I can’t wait to escape into his world.
In a way, I’m glad I discovered Martin’s Westeros so late in the “Game.” It took an HBO series to put it on my radar. Many of his devoted readers have anguished over what will happen to his characters for YEARS. The 5th in the series, “A Dance With Dragons,” has been anticipated by his faithful fans since 2005.
If Martin can keep his readers hanging by a thread for so long and not have them give up on him, then he’s got lots to teach me. I will never write an epic tale like “Song of Ice and Fire,” because it isn’t my style or my “thing.” But as Martin says himself, good writers don’t just learn from those who write in their genre.
As a reader who just completed Book 3, all I want is know what will happen to the characters I’ve come to love and hate. As a writer, here’s what reading “A Song of Ice and Fire” has taught me.
1. If you want your story to be enthralling, you’ve got to put aside your fears and attachments.
Are you so attached to certain characters in your stories that you’d never kill them off? When you write, do you think too much about how your readers might react to something?
I have a confession to make. I’ve never offed a major player in anything I’ve written. Secondary characters, sure. Martin can’t say the same. Many of his characters will weave their way into your heart. You can’t imagine the story going on without them. But in his world, that doesn’t mean it won’t. Being a major player in the game, and one he knows his readers love, does not keep his characters safe. You never know who is going to make it, and who has a brutal death waiting on the next page.
We don’t all write stories that require death and chaos. But willingness to take risks in our fiction still applies to all types of writing.
2. The story lives in the details.
“A Song of Ice and Fire” is filled with war and destruction, politics and relationships, love and hate, obsession and cruelty. Not to mention dragons and direwolves and witches and creatures come back from the dead. With all that going on, you’d think there’d be no room for tiny details. You’d be wrong. Martin describes his characters’ appearances so that you can see them vividly in your mind. You can smell and taste the food his characters are eating – sometimes this will make you drool, and other times you’ll want to barf. You can feel the icy winds on the Wall, and feel the searing heat of the deserts.
No matter how much is going on in your story, you have to make room for the details. They are what bring your fictional world to life.
3. Are your good guys too good and your bad guys too bad?
Martin is a master at creating complex and multidimensional characters. The ones you come to love will do sometimes do brutal, bloody, selfish things. The ones you hate from the get-go will astonish you with flashes of kindness in their thoughts and deeds. Just as you never know who is going to lose body parts in the next round of swordplay, you can’t be sure who will do the right or wrong thing at any given point in time.
The relationships in “Song of Ice and Fire” are just as complex as the characters. Couples are bound by love, duty and resentment all at once. Parents will move mountains to save their children and then arrange for them to marry into guaranteed misery in the name of saving kingdoms. Enemies will try to kill each other, then save each other’s lives, then try to slay one another again. The person who stabs a character in the back one day will save his ass the next.
Complex characters build suspense and make your story real. I’ve always thought I was pretty good at not making my characters too “good” or “evil,” but after reading Martin I realize I am just beginning to learn how to write the complex psyche of men and women.
4. Laughter works everywhere.
Martin splashes his wars, horrors, magic and betrayals with many unexpected moments of bawdy humor. Even in brutal scenes where a character is slaying his own kin, he’ll throw in a thought or a conversation that will make you laugh out loud.
Good storytelling blends the darkness of human nature with the bright light of humor.
In some of my previous writing initiatives, my inner editor has tried to tell me that my splashes of humor are “innappropriate” for the subject matter. Martin has helped me to realize that, if done right, humor is something that can always fit in.
My addiction to “Song of Ice and Fire” may be slowing down my own writing progress a little. I won’t rest until I’ve finished the last two books. But that’s okay, because the reading has been like a crash course in mastering the art of storytelling. I will never create a Westeros, because as my own fictional Man-Whore would say, that’s not how I roll.
But from the time I’ve spent in Martin’s world, I think I’ll come away as a more complex yet funnier writer who is less afraid of taking risks. And I’ll have plenty of time to write when I’m done, because at the rate he seems to go Martin won’t put out the next in the series until 2016 or so.