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A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Dance with Adjectives

So everyone else is reviewing A Dance with Dragons, the fact that I haven't actually read the book shouldn't stop me from doing the same... Or at least, in a limited basis, trying to explain how the first page of the latest GRRM opus shows him breaking the rules in order to follow him.

There are enough sample chapter places all over the internet that I'll take the liberty of typing in page 1:

The night was rank with the smell of man.

The warg stopped beneath a tree and sniffed, his grey-brown fur dappled by shadow. A sigh of piney wind brought the man-scent to him, over fainter smells that spoke of fox and hare, seal and stag, even wolf. Those were man-smells too, the warg knew; the stink of old skins, dead and sour, near drowned beneath the stronger scents of smoke and blood and rot. Only many stripped the skins from other beasts, and wore their hides and hair.

Wargs have no fear of man, as wolves do. Hate and hunger coiled in his belly, and he gave a low growl, calling to his one-eyed brother, to his small sly sister. As he raced through the trees, his packmates followed hard on his heels. They had caught the scent as well. As he ran, he saw through their eyes too and glimpsed himself ahead. The breath of the pack puffed warm and white from long grey jaws. Ice had frozen between their paws, hard as stone, but the hunt was on now, the prey ahead. Flesh, the warg thought, meat.

A man alone was a feeble thing. Big and strong, with good sharp eyes, but dull of ear and deaf to smells. Deer and elk and eve hares were faster, bears and boars fiercer in a fight. But men in packs were dangerous. As the wolves closed on the prey, the warg heard the wailing of a pup, the crust of last night's snow breaking under clumsy man-paws, the rattle of hardskins and the long grey claws men carried.

Swords, a voice inside him whispered, spears.

The trees had grown icy teeth, snarling down from the bare brown branches. One Eye ripped though the undergrowth, spraying snow. His packmates followed. Up a hill and down the slope beyond, until the wood opened before them and the men were there. One was female.

[excerpted from A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin, ©2011, published by Bantam Spectra Books, buy here]

So there's this adage in writing that you "show, don't tell." This means that the writer is supposed to use a character's actual words, deeds, gestures, to use these to allow us to get close to the character. The other approach, the "tell" approach, has the narrator telling us things. One small example taken from a submission I read recently, the narrator tells us that a character is anxious, and the better approach in about the same amount of words would be to tell us that the character could feel his heart pounding or his pulse racing. We've all felt our heart pound or our pulse race, we know when and why it happens, we can imagine the sensation. Using those words makes the prose immediate, it brings us into the world, it helps us feel what the character feels. The tell way, to say the character is anxious, does none of that.

The interesting thing with the prose I've excerpted from Dance With Dragons is that it's full of telling, but almost all of the telling is intensely visual, and intensely relatable, so even though Martin shouldn't -- and believe me, by the rules he shouldn't -- be using such a potpourri of purplish prose to start his book, he's actually doing something with it.

Let's look closely:

The smell of man. I'm assured by Myke Cole that I haven't experienced the smell of man until I've changed in the Coast Guard's Sector Hampton Roads locker room. I still don't especially like the phrase, we're in the outdoors and unless there's a Roman Legion of very sweaty soldiers standing right there I don't think the phrase is right, even if an army just marched past five minutes ago that would have to be one hell of an army to leave that stench. Still, as bad opening phrases go let's say that I've seen a lot worse. The examples I have to give to point out why I don't like the phrase still all point in a certain direction of what's just happened, is happening,is about to happen in this space. It's not a picnic, not a quilting circle.

Piney wind. If you've never been in a pine forest this phrase won't mean much, just like the "smell of man" phrase might not resonate for everyone sufficiently removed from high school gym class. But if you have, and here in NYC we can go strolling through the Arthur Ross Pinetum in Central Park, these two words tell us an amazing amount about what these woods look like. A pine forest doesn't look like other kinds of forest.

Puffed warm and white from long gray jaws. This phrase and the ones immediately preceding in the paragraph give us an idea how many wolves are racing through the pine forest. Now, we know it's cold, we know that there are those vapor trails of the breath emerging into the cold air. And then we can add the visual of the stuff frozen beneath their paws. This is another of the visuals that doesn't quite work for me, I don't have enough experience seeing that to really buy into it, but buy into it or not I can visualize.

Last night's snow breaking. Again, a clear visual.

Of course, between these well-chosen phrases, GRRM continues as he does in this series to lay on the lists:
fox and hare, seal and stag, even wolf
smoke and blood and rot
Big and strong, with good sharp eyes, but dull of ear and deaf to smells. Deer and elk and eve hares were faster, bears and boars fiercer in a fight

Let me say on a personal level that this opening page tells me I wasn't wrong to bail out of this series around 90% of the way thru book #2 without any deep regrets. There's a lot that I can and do admire about the prose, in fact I often recommend GRRM's "Fevre Dream" as a writing textbook for authors needing to learn some lessons about writing good dialogue. And reading this one page, I can easily admire all of the perfectly chosen two or five word phrases that tell an incredible amount and pain vivid pictures for me that are entirely different than the pictures I'd draw in my mind with any other two word phrase in the Engish language. At the same time, there are a lot of words here, a lot of words. Rich and powerful but still so very very many of them. What I came to realize with this series was that for me, where I am, with the time I have to give to read things for pleasure, that the pleasures of the series weren't quite rich enough to justify my own time investment. It's fun to admire the prose, I just can't afford to admire so much of it.

This is not exactly the same as saying I wouldn't agree to represent if a client of mine decided to write the next Game of Thrones, or if it came in through our query pile. Pleasure reading time is precious, while work reading is a question not just of what I like, but also of the marketplace, of the investment I have in an author-agent relationship, and other factors. Your spouse might not make the world's best quiche, but you can happily eat that quiche having brunch at home while choosing not to order a quiche of equivalent quality at a local restaurant.

My submission pile will not lack for people trying to emulate GRRM. Alas, very few of them will be able to emulate in a wholly successful way. GRRM can get away with his love of lists in part because he can match example for example with one of his perfectly chosen two word phrases.

Or with people who think there's a difference in meaning between an azure sky and a blue sky. And you know what, there really isn't. Unless you work devising colors for Behr and Benjamin Moore, Tupperware and Corning, KitchenAid and Waring (please note that not all lists of six are equally interesting as those on the first page of Dance with Dragons) you're substituting use of a thesaurus for an actual demonstration of literary craft.

The fantasy submissions we get are as rich with derivative RPG-inspired fantasy novels as the opening page of Dance with Dragons is with rich visual imagery. I'm glad to see GRRM succeeding with these books even if I'm choosing to abstain because they are incredibly rich, a major literary accomplishment in a field that often settles (you could say this of most...) for considerably less.

But new writers beware: GRRM's richness is of a piece. I would say it is even less tolerant of success via mediocre imitation than the RPG-inspired.

1 comment:

Brian Niemeier said...

Thanks for the post. Let it serve as a reminder for me to remain vigilant against excesses in my own writing.

May I also request further exposition on the less desirable qualities of RPG-inspired fiction?