George RR Martin: A Game of Writing

A month has passed since I attended ConCarolinas in Charlotte this year. I’ve had a lot of life changing decisions, paperwork to mail and illnesses to recover from in the interim, but it’s allowed me time to reflect and get my thoughts together about meeting this year’s special guest: George RR Martin.

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When I arrived to the panel room, I noticed a few in the audience members dressed as Game of Thrones characters: Danaerys, Jeoffrey,……that’s about all I know. George RR Martin was at the other end of the room, a moderator at his side. As one would expect, he did discuss things related to Game of Thrones, but expanded on his other works and collaborations like Fevre Dream, the Wild Cards series, Hunter’s Run and his time working on television projects such as Beauty and the Beast, Max Headroom and the 1980s Twilight Zone.

Martin discussed his life as a writer, such as his writing routine, and his well known usage of a 40 year old DOS system. Around this time a microphone was being passed around to audience members with questions, the first inquiring whether it was better for novice writers to find their niche with short stories or a novel. “Short stories are better to take a risk on.” He recommended. Martin wrote a few before he began A Song of Fire and Ice. The short stories earned him three nominations and one award which provided excellent PR by the time he released his first novel. His career has given him many opportunities to work on projects outside of literature, including an invitation from Neil Gaiman for his Sandman project, which Martin admitted to stupidly turning down.

As he further discussed his experience with comics, Martin provided a perspective similar to what I briefly touched upon in an earlier posting: that which one had when Marvel comics first came about. Like television, the telephone and even internet, those who grew up with the innovation develop the idea that life has always functioned with said innovation integrated. What my generation sees as “old hat” comic tropes was revolutionary for Martin’s generation—in his words, the world of DC Comics was “static”—once Batman and Superman saved the day, they returned to their homes, jobs and loved ones. He was right, it took 60 years for superman to marry Lois Lane, and 50 for Dick Grayson to move out of the bat cave and on with his life. The Marvel universe changed all that—Spiderman lost Gwen Stacy, went off and on with Mary Jane, graduated college, and life changed for Peter Parker—all in the first 40 years. All I can say is thank god for trade publications, or us new gens would never be able to keep up with any prime marvel story.
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Editor’s notes can only catch you up so far.

Others may differ on this issue, but I’d rather have a story I’d need to keep up with than see the characters and settings remain in arrested development after a decade. The portion of people who get agitated by the emotional swerves and sudden deaths of characters forget one thing—the same things happens in real life. The creators of Sesame Street and Guiding Light, and Gasoline Alley understood this as much George RR Martin. Yes, the media scale is that wide in terms of understanding this fact.

In this age of trade paperbacks and Netflix, we more access than we know to catch up on episodic stories. If soap operas managed to gain new viewers with an ongoing storyline and long established characters long before the digital age, why must the rest of television have to stick to the 20th century sitcom formula in it? The only reason left for a person to complain about changes in a story is if they themselves cannot come to terms with change in real life. Of course Mr. Martin had a story for that, to which he explained the difference between “escape fiction” and “comfort fiction”. He reminded the audience that his books are not for everyone. In my opinion, the woman who wrote to complain about his book probably should’ve picked up the latter at her local bookstore.

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“Nobody Lies. Nobody Dies. All is well in the land of Westeros”

After all that, you couldn’t call me too surprised when he admitted hating comic reboots like Marvel’s “Ultimate” series and DC’s “New 52”. In response he decided to write Who the Fuck was Jetboy? For the Wild Cards series, in which newer generations could revisit older heroes. By now it was pretty clear how much his perspective on comics ( especially Marvel) influenced the way he wrote as much as history.

I was not the only one to expect mostly Game of Thrones topics, because many of the cosplayers suddenly had to leave the room. It gave me the opportunity to take one of their closer vacant seats. My writer’s mind was still on, so I stayed and listened. After all this was a writer who got to work in other media and had his own series adapted into a runaway hit TV show. I wanted to learn what he did to get to that point, so I listened.

Another issue Martin brought up was the tension that often came when two writers collaborated on a shared fictional world. What is that? Readers of any medium would notice when a new writer comes in and changes things the previous writer established, the former will react to this change by killing off as many of their characters so that no other writers can use them. I think TV Tropes calls this “Torch the Franchise and Run.” Martin explained a compromise he set up (which I keep secret out of respect for the guy), so that both parties could benefit from a shared world. This is a part of the writing world I never even considered, and to hear about this was information is well valued.

The last question raised regarded his notorious habit of killing off characters. Close followers of his career would notice this trademark extends beyond Game of Thrones. For example, not long after being hired as writer for Beauty and the Beast, he kills off the eponymous “Beauty”. All he could say was this: his books were about human nature. Again, I agree.

People do die without warning, in car accidents or unforeseen heart attacks. It’s why we have life insurance. Friendships end, lives are upended, and people make decisions that make sense to them yet boggle others’ minds. We begin the day in one place and condition and end it in another. As Martin insisted with comics, humans and the world they live in are not static.

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I assure you they’ll be dressed as another character next year. That’s life.

Writing this reminds me why I like attending panels like this—you get to learn about the person behind the pop cultural phenomenon and a little a bit about yourself as your take in what you hear. If only one thing has proven static is that Martin’s experience has reminded me that literary works are always the springboard for writing projects in other media. Dorothy Parker and F. Scott Fitzgerald had their own experiences as hollywood scriptwriters. Unlike the latter two writers, Martin was being part of that generation who grew up with television and comics; he could transition himself between the different media. Now he’s in Parker and Fitzgerald’s shoes, adjusting late to the new medium of Twitter. My generation has the digital world now and the one growing up now will think of it as “old hat”, so let’s see what we can do with that and whatever comes later.

 

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