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There are two types of writers, architects and gardeners

31 May 2012

From The Claremont Institute:

During the summer of 1991, George R.R. Martin found himself with nothing to do. He had left a job producing the CBS dramatic series Beauty and the Beast and, looking for a new project, decided to return to the genre in which he had forged his reputation: science fiction. He began writing a giant novel, Avalon, that he hoped would turn out to be “War and Peace in space.” He worked diligently on the story, but it didn’t seem to be going anywhere. Martin has said that there are two types of writers, architects and gardeners: architects plan out their stories far in advance; gardeners meander, cultivate, prune, and till. Martin considers himself a gardener, and Avalon was a seed that failed to sprout.

Then, 30 pages into his sci-fi-meets-Tolstoy project, Martin had a vision “as vivid as a waking dream.” He imagined a young boy discovering the carcass of a wolf in the snow. The wolf’s neck was pierced with an antler. Mewling near the corpse were six wolf cubs. The boy convinces his father to take the wolflings home, and there the scene comes to an end. Martin didn’t know what to do with this piece of writing. But he did know that it was different from science fiction. He put it aside. Before long he was distracted by other television, film, and editing projects. A couple of years later, he returned to the story of the boy and the cubs, which he completed and called Game of Thrones.

The novel, the first of a projected trilogy, was published in 1996. But like a strong oak, the tale kept expanding, its roots spreading, and its branches multiplying. By the time the third book in the series, A Storm of Swords, was published in 2000, Martin was saying that it would take six books to complete his narrative. Then six turned into seven. Judging by the fifth book, A Dance with Dragons, published last summer, one wouldn’t be surprised if the planned heptalogy ends up growing into eight volumes or more.

. . . .

The series owes its success to the power of Martin’s storytelling and the richness of his creation. The story is set in a fictional world with continents that resemble our own. The two main landmasses, comparable to North America and Europe, are called Westeros and Essos. By our standards, the level of technology in these lands is primitive. Books are rare. Hardly anyone can read or write. The weapons, buildings, methods of transportation, manners, religious beliefs, and politics of the Westerosi would all fit comfortably in 14th-century Europe. There are knights, priests, sailors, traders, peasants, kings, and queens. There are tournaments, battles, heraldry, and castles. And there is the seat of monarchical power, the Iron Throne, a hulking black mass made of swords. Whoever sits on the Iron Throne is the ruler of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros.

. . . .

But there is another reason the books are so popular. A Song of Ice and Fire is intensely political. Martin asks the most serious questions about the nature of power: Who governs? By what right? To what end? He is fascinated by the subtle effects power can have on ruler and subject alike. “You can have the power to destroy,” he told New York magazine’s Vulture blog last year, “but it doesn’t give you the power to reform, or improve, or build.” Quite unexpectedly, Martin has emerged as the Machiavelli of the modern novel. The grit, blood, and passion in his books show human beings as they truly are, as opposed to the idealizations one finds in chivalric romances. A dispassionate analyst of the cruelty of princes, he reveals the unstable ground of absolutist rule. He is exploring, through his characters and situations, whether enlightened despotism is possible in a broken world. This isn’t fantasy; it’s a crash course in political realism.

. . . .

At first glance, the political teaching of Martin’s novels may be difficult to discern. The array of social, political, and religious systems at work in A Song of Ice and Fire is dizzying. Custom and caprice rule these societies; there seem to be no natural standards of right and wrong. Most Westerosi adhere to the divine right of kings and worship a seven-faced god. The denizens of the Iron Islands worship a sea god and have a method for determining leadership through assembly that resembles an Afghan loya jirga. The northern barons who live near the wall of ice pray to animist “old gods.” Across the Narrow Sea in Essos are the self-governing merchant city-states modeled on the Venetian Republic. The citizens of the Free Cities bend the knee to a variety of deities; one of the more popular religions is a Manichean system that pits light against darkness. The marauding Dothraki horselords are organized in clans. Still farther East are the slave states in which gilded oligarchies rule over human chattel.

The most important actors in Martin’s story are the kings and queens. Who rules, on what grounds, and for what purposes are the central questions of the series. Martin sees the problems inherent in the theory of divine right: without a public declaration from the gods that so-and-so should be king, human beings are left to determine the monarch through bloodlines, a slippery standard. To overturn one line through violent rebellion, as House Baratheon does to House Targaryen, is to undermine the foundations of authority and invite further challenges to the throne.

This dynastic quarrel leads inevitably to skepticism of monarchy. When the grounds for legitimacy are so thin, one ruler seems a lot like another. “Treason…is only a word,” says a character in “The Sworn Sword,” a novella set in Westeros.

. . . .

It is a sad commentary on contemporary American “literary fiction” that the most complex, gripping, and thought provoking exploration of power and legitimacy in prose is a more than a decade old fantasy series that languished in obscurity for years. What Martin’s epic teaches is that pride, honor, virtue, and envy are coeval with human life, open to interpretation by authors high and low, and this includes screenwriters. By stripping genre fiction of its clichés, by describing a political culture in shades of gray rather than in black and white, Martin is composing a far more relevant and nuanced work than, say, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (2010). As Martin understood when he began his tale in 1991:

“Stories of the human heart in conflict with itself transcend time, place, and setting. So long as love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice are present, it matters not a whit whether that tall, lean, stranger has a proton pistol or a six-shooter in his hand. Or a sword.”

Link to the rest at The Claremont Institute


11 Comments to “There are two types of writers, architects and gardeners”

  1. Well . . . there are hybrids too.

    I outline very sketchily indeed, and then garden within the outline, changing things considerably as I go.

    I must have the outline. No traction for the start without it.

    The outline must not be too detailed or specific. Death of creativity in straight jacket.

    And I must feel free to make big changes.

    According to the Myers-Briggs personality inventor, P-types prefer a flowing garden, while J-types prefer a castle.

    I say: hybrids go for a pergola or a terrace on the garden: structure, but not much.

    • “According to the Myers-Briggs personality inventory, P-types prefer a flowing garden, while J-types prefer a castle.”

      That’s interesting. It makes sense to me–in general, as an INFJ with an INFP partner, I can clearly see that difference between us, and as a writer, I thought I preferred puttering but am discovering that building a structure makes figuring out what goes in between a lot faster and easier.

  2. This is one of those pseudo-profound sentences that strive to say something and manage to say nothing of value – and that drive me bats:

    “It is a sad commentary on contemporary American “literary fiction” that the most complex, gripping, and thought provoking exploration of power and legitimacy in prose is a more than a decade old fantasy series that languished in obscurity for years.”

    Why is it a sad commentary? Why tar it with the brush of “a decade old fantasy series that languished in obscurity for years.”

    Prissy much?

    By the way, I’m an architect. All my little bricks in a row, with freedom to change the mortar color.

    • What got me was the “languished in obscurity” bit, since Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series was hardly obscure and unknown even before the HBO series.

  3. I’m a ruthless gardner. I’ll scatter seeds in every direction and let the characters sprout up like weeds. They can be nasty and invasive in the mind and give you a rash. I let them have their way and let them get away with everything. It makes for an interesting first draft.
    I’ve never read any of his novels, they look long and daunting but maybe I will pick one up at the library to try. I do love fantasy.

  4. Maybe it’s because I’m an INTJ that I have problems with the later books in Martin’s series…I feel like his garden has grown out of control!

    Read the first book. There’s a point in the first book where you’ll throw it against the wall (I recommend doing this only metaphorically if you have an ereader.) If you pick it up and finish, read the first three books. If it hasn’t started feeling like a slog yet, then read the rest, and hope he finishes the series before he dies.

  5. Martin came to my local indie bookstore the week before the release of the 3rd book. He had just learned that it would debut as #1 on the NYT the following week. The store was packed, by the way, with rabid and admiring fans, myself included. He gave a wonderful talk and he told us, among other things, about how the idea for GOT came to him, and that the story of Bran languished for several years before he wrote it– because he was busy and because the story was still percolating.

    He also said that he had 1300 pages of Dance With Dragons and was still working on it, and that (obviously) it would have to be two books, not one. He also told us that he had bought the house across the street from him and used it as his office. A writer who can afford to do that is hardly languishing anywhere.

    GOT did not “languish in obscurity.” It was a huge SFF hit from the start which is why Martin packed a bookstore in Northern California YEARS before HBO.

    I shouldn’t, but I still get annoyed when people who pay no attention to books until something hits in a huge way believe the book was “languishing in obscurity” before they took note. Right.

  6. There are two kinds of people in the world: those who think there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don’t.

    “Stories of the human heart in conflict with itself transcend time, place, and setting. So long as love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice are present, it matters not a whit whether that tall, lean, stranger has a proton pistol or a six-shooter in his hand. Or a sword.”

    You know, I agree with that on one level… but on another level perhaps this is one reason I really dislike A Song of Ice and Fire. The fantasy element feels incidental.

  7. Well, he lost me on the fourth book with the never ending meandering with so many secondary characters and I’ve waded through and savored Michener’s epics, DOCTOR ZHIVAGO and WAR AND PEACE.

    As to just the architect/gardener comment – What kind of architect? Commercial, residential, monument builder? What type of gardener? Japanese, old English Roses, herbs?

    I know there are many who love his work and, for those, I hope he is able to keep writing many fine stories for you’all.

  8. Spoiler warning. Minor spoilers ahead.

    Having read all of Martin’s books in the GoT series I find myself somewhat torn. On the one hand, the literal game of thrones is quite powerful. On the other hand, The mythical parts (white walkers, Giants, and other strange beings of the north, as well as dragons, the red priests and priestess with their supernatural powers, Bran and his strange journey into bizarre shape shifting episodes) seem out of place with the politics and violence that permeates the more realistic aspects of the books. In many ways I get the feeling that Martin has painted himself into a corner with all the strangeness. It certainly feels that way in his last book, “Dance With Dragons”, where most of the book seems like a run-away train, with no one in control. The whole thing seems to be headed for a giant train wreck, with death and destruction waiting in the wings like the four horsemen. With all the violence in Westeros and Essos, it’s hard to imagine how this can lead to anything but disaster, what with the coming of Winter.

    • Yes, the fascination with a train wreck is watching it as it happens. The pile of debris that results is far less interesting.

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