What I’ve Learned From My “Song of Ice and Fire” Addiction

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.

About hawleywood40

Writer, Steelers Fan in Baltimore, Frequent Visitor to the Shot Fairy
This entry was posted in Books, Creativity, Fiction, Game of Thrones, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to What I’ve Learned From My “Song of Ice and Fire” Addiction

  1. Pingback: Misc. Reading (and a free children’s ebook) | Everyday Intensity

  2. l'empress says:

    I always say, the background details are easy. It’s the plots I can’t write. That’s why I depend so heavily on other writers. 8)

    • Kimmi says:

      try it from a different angle: write characters, give them conflicts. And then see how they interact. It’s okay if you can’t write a gambit to save your life. Go play 3-d chess, it’s easier [because the characters write your story themselves]

      • hawleywood40 says:

        Makes a lot of sense, Kimmi. More often not when I’m writing, the characters do tell me what to do. Oh, I think I’ve plotted out their personalities and their conflict. But they find their own actions and insights and crazy interactions along the way. When they do, it always turns out for the best! Thanks for visiting!

    • hawleywood40 says:

      I can be good at one or the other depending on what I’m writing. The key is to rock at both simultaneously : ).

  3. mina says:

    I started reading these in 1999 out of sheer desperation. It’s not my genre at all, but they were around the house, my husband was reading them, and I was nursing a baby seemingly around the clock. One day Game of Thrones was the only book I could reach. It was not my style, but I noticed right away that Martin’s chapter endings practically force you to keep going. My enthusiasm died a little after waiting for Feast for Crows and not seeing much advancement of the plot, but I just started Dance with Dragons last night (I let my husband read it first). People compare him to Tolkien but he reminds me more of Dickens, with the extreme detail and multiple winding plots and set-pieces. I just hope he wraps up the story before he dies! (He would not be the first prolix fantasy author to leave a series unfinished.)

    • Kimmi says:

      Damn, you’re right! Dickens is much more apt. And you’re the first person I’ve heard say it. Props!

      • hawleywood40 says:

        I agree with you, Mina, although I hadn’t thought of it myself. I see some of the Tolkien similarities, but I have to admit that although I loved the LOTR series it didn’t grip me in the same way as Song of Ice and Fire. I didn’t feel quite as invested in the characters, and don’t remember laughing as much or getting as misty-eyed, sometimes in the same chapter. You nailed the reason why, so yes, props to you! Thanks for visiting!

  4. Stacy Green says:

    Wow. My husband keeps talking about the series but I had no idea the books were so great. It’s not my style, but I love a book that keeps you reading like that. As you said, very few can pull it off. I just may have to check these out. Thanks!

    • hawleywood40 says:

      It wasn’t my style either, Stacy. If I hadn’t gotten into the HBO TV series because I like the actor Sean Bean and my boyfriend was watching, I probably never would have even known about the books, let alone picked them up. I’m still amazed at how I’ve gotten sucked in!

  5. Kimmi says:

    The trick to writing a hilarious book is to Not Tell Your Editors You’re Writing A Funny Book. Pratchett has to put a joke in every single page (or the setup to one). Humor works best in flashes, and when you care about the characters enough to enjoy it. ‘Sides, Tyrion’s humor is like Carlin’s… and comedy writers Study Carlin. Insight, the flash of genius where all that everyone else thinks is turned on its head — that’s humor, and it lies close with madness.
    [like l’empress, I can write, but I can’t plot]

  6. Aurora says:

    Thanks for the tips, Hawley. No matter how good we think we are, there is always room for improvement. I saw an interview with a very impressive man yesterday, a sci-fi writer which is a genre I’ve never thought of doing until hearing him speak so positively about it. If I can find his page, I’ll share the link here. As his words were, yours are also very helpful to me. Happy Writing:)

    • hawleywood40 says:

      Would love to have his link if you can find it – I never thought of doing sci-fi either. Then again, though, I was never really into reading epic fantasy before Martin, so you just never know … : ).

      • Kimmi says:

        Can’t recommend science fiction enough. It’s all about exploring “what if” and giving yourself a chance to do some world-building. Look at the implications of flash mobs, say…

  7. Excellent post. The advice you give for writing is fabulous. What I find most rewarding is how much time you devote to writing and reading. I don’t feel so alone what I think is an enormous amount of time I spend on my craft. It’s more than a full-time job.

    You expressed that so well. Thank you!

    • hawleywood40 says:

      Oh yes, way more than a full-time job! I think that’s why I get so frustrated that I usually ahve to give it less than full-time. It is easy to devote time to something you love, that’s what makes it doable. If all those pesky little (cough work cough cleaning) details would just go away!

  8. writingsprint says:

    I’m listening to Stephen King’s “Under the Dome” audiobook, and you’re right, it’s amazing how little details make a big difference. They’re more vivid. They’re the ones that stick in your head. Your multidimensional characters comment reminds me of a saying, that every bad guy is the hero of his own story, and we should write them that way. Great post!

    • hawleywood40 says:

      That’s another great example – I read “Under the Dome” about a year ago and loved it. I still remember a lot of the characters and quirks vividly, and there are a lot of books I’ve read more recently that I couldn’t say the same about!

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