Is George R.R. Martin Writing his books or filling them with fluff?
Let's Talk About the Writing
I'd like to make one thing clear; I want to discuss the plot techniques in The Song of Ice and FIre. I'm not interested in the controversy surrounding A Dance With Dragons, and I don't wish to propagate it any further. Both sides have valid points. Therefore, to clear the air so as to move on to my true topic, I'd like to translate the controversy into what I hope will be clearer and more concise terms than have been used the past several years.
Writers have lives outside writing. Within their work, ideas interest and distract them, and often they need to be worked on before they're lost. Even an extremely prolific writer might only write 8 to 10 pages a day, and revisions take longer. George Martin wants you to understand that writing is a laborious prospect, and that sometimes your desire to keep turning pages comes across too bluntly, and even when showered with praise, a message whose topic is death will always sound dark and unpleasant. He appreciates your patronage, but wants you to let him conduct his profession in the method that has succeeded for him in the past.
It is never appropriate to lash out at your fans. Not everyone possesses talent for communication or even tact, but they all wish to tell you they hold you in great respect for the work you do, and feel the need to have a written record of your brilliant creation so that it may survive the ages as has the work of so many talented authors before you, and they wish to express the opinion that The Song of Ice and Fire will become your magnum opus, and therefore deserves more attention than it may otherwise receive. Responding to their messages with hostility and anger makes them feel unappreciated, and to those of us who don't have the luxury of a fan base even a fraction of the size of yours, you come off as arrogant and uncaring.
That being said...
I will continue to read The Song of Ice and Fire. I trust Martin's talent as a writer, and despite the controversy I will continue to offer my patronage (and to refrain from urging him to write faster). However, the two most recent installments, A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons have felt unnecessarily thick and slow-paced. Nevertheless, I slogged through them because A Game of Thrones set up a fascinating story with an unpredictable direction. I want to know what Martin has in mind for the conclusion of his saga.
(Yarrr maytees, thar be spoilers ahead)
Do you remember the first time you read A Game of Thrones? The book ended just as the story got interesting. The ego-tripping Joffrey takes the throne (we all know someone like Joffrey, admit it. He's a dick.) and kills the character we all presume to be the book's protagonist. Robb Stark declares himself King in the North and marches south to exact revenge on the Lannisters. Meanwhile, Daenerys completes her transition from weak-willed little girl into the queen of dragons.
Brilliant. Intriguing. And completely unsatisfying.
Martin more than admitted that writing for television has influenced The Song of Ice and Fire. His best known work is Beauty and the Beast from the late 1980s. The show was essentially a soap opera. I don't mean to belittle it by saying that--I consider Dragonball to be a soap opera of types, and I enjoy that. When I use the term, I think of writing that an author intends to stretch out into a story of indefinite length.
The end of Game of Thrones hints at a story that will continuously change and continuously evolve, but more importantly it will just plain continue. And that's fine in the beginning.
Martin compels us to keep reading--the sign of a good author. The story is clearly based off the War of the Roses, a 15th century English feud between the houses Lancaster and York. Aside from their phonetic relation to the houses Lannister and Stark, Martin places a great deal of weight on geography--superimpose a map of Westeros on a map of England, and you'll find that York falls fairly close to Winterfell, Lancaster to Casterly Rock, London to King's Landing, and the Wall near Hadrian's Wall. Again, "ripping off" other stories and histories shouldn't be a criticism. Tolkien did it too. For fantasy writers, it serves as an excellent substitute for the adage "write what you know," and re-telling old stories was praised more than originality in the Middle Ages, on which Martin bases his world.
However, the truly fascinating plot over the next two books is the (no pun intended) stark contrast between Robb and Joffrey. Robb declares himself king out of necessity--just like his father, he fights for independence from a mad, incest-born king--and proves his merit as a leader multiple times on his march south. Joffrey, unfortunately, sits the throne with the recognition as rightful king. He abuses power for his own amusement and claims to be the Protector of the Realm, even though the only times we see him with a sword is when Arya and Nymeria easily disarmed him, and when he declares war on the books Tyrion presented him with as a gift. This, I think, demonstrates that the only thing Joffrey can successfully fight is knowledge and reason.
Out of all the kings, Martin highlights these two the most, and with good reason. As the heads of their families (in name at least, for Joffrey), the war belongs to them. The story was clearly driving at a major confrontation between the two clans.
But the death of Ned Stark showed us that major characters lack the invincibility we expect from most fiction, and it paved the way for the Red Wedding, which ended the Stark rebellion.
The Pivotal Shift
Robb Stark's death had an enormous impact on me as a reader. I'm sure it did for you as well, and Martin himself confessed the scene pained him to write. The talent to affect readers that way doesn't come easily. But despite its strength as a scene, what did it do to advance the story? Mere chapters later, Joffrey dies as well, also in a manner unrelated to the conflict between the two families.
After three books of pitting the Lannisters and the Starks against each other, these two deaths cause the story's primary conflict to fizzle out without resolution.
I stopped to think after the death of each king. "Why?" I asked. It was powerful and unexpected, yes, but I wondered why I should even keep reading. The war ended and nothing happened.
I found two (possibly three) reasons to keep going.
With Tommen crowned king, the country gained a massive power vacuum. Naturally, we expect someone to try to fill it. With all the other admirable characters turned into corpses, Dany becomes one of the few characters who still drives the plot. Cersei can't hold on to her power, Tyrion is interesting but only as an observer, Tywin is dead, Jamie seems to be losing interest, Sansa is still clueless, Bran just runs and hides from everyone, and Stannis only shows up when Martin needs a battle scene. The only characters still affecting the course of the story are Jon Snow, who won't leave the Wall, Arya, who engages herself in her own private plot, and Daenerys.
At the end of book three, Daenerys controls the dragon hatchlings, a small force of Dothraki, and a large army of mercenaries and freed slaves. She has conquered city after city in the east, scattered the operations of the slave trade, and keeps her eyes fixed on the iron throne.
Dany has the power to drive the plot.
Jon Snow and the White Walkers
Jon Snow remains one of the most capable characters in the book, and with Arya he's the only Stark left with the physical strength to fight. His election as Lord Commander of the Night's Watch only bolsters his potency. True, he won't abandon the Wall, but the prologue to A Game of Thrones and the epilogue to A Storm of Swords hint very strongly that the real plot of the series as a whole doesn't revolve around kings and politics, but the looming threat of the frozen undead.
When I saw Catelyn Stark in her brief re-appearance as an Other, I thought, "He must be weaning readers off the politics and on to the supernatural threat." Jon Snow ties into this plot. His vigilance sends him north, keeping him out of the squabbles of the royal contenders. Operating briefly as a spy, we see glimpses into the workings of the Wildlings. He encounters white walkers and fights them with his own hands. Jon Snow remains a strong and interesting character, presumably integral to the conclusion of the story.
But in A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons
After A Storm of Swords ends, none of the characters do much of anything. Daenerys is mired in Meereen, doing nothing plot-related until her final scenes when she hops on her dragon. Jon Snow is mired in bureaucracy, and we see him as no more than a concierge for Stannis and his army. Sansa goes into hiding. Arya flees the kingdoms entirely. Cersei's power wanes after the death of her father. Jamie can't fight and doesn't know anything else. Tommen barely makes any appearances at all. Varys and Baelish continue to drive their own personal goals, but don't have the strength to manipulate the plot. And Tyrion hops from place to place experiencing minor conflicts that usually resolves themselves before his next chapter even begins. Then, of course, we have all the characters in the Iron Islands, who declared independence and sat still at home doing nothing so long as no one bothers them, which as of yet no one has.
Then he kills Jon Snow. To be fair, I don't know this. He's miraculously saved more main characters than he's tragically killed, so it's possible we'll see Jon again. But if he's truly dead, we have no PoV character at the wall--where presumably the biggest threat is--and we've lost a character who may influence the story, and even intended to when he announced his march on Ramsay Snow and Winterfell.
That leaves us with one character with any potency--Daenerys. Except for the introduction of young Griff. We spent thousands of pages watching her prepare to forceably claim her rightful throne, only to meet a character with a stronger claim to it than hers. Yes, Martin seems to be using him to lure Daenerys into action, but the disappointments of the last two books cause me to regard this new character with apprehension. Martin could create a new, exciting conflict, or completely destroy everything he built through the first three books.
Mr. George Martin, please tell us what you mean by all this nonsense.
As much as I enjoyed the first three books, the last two don't seem to be anything but filler. They're the longest books in the series, and Martin says it was supposed to be one book, but it just kept growing until he had to split it up.
But how much of that book is actually necessary? As mentioned, I don't really care about any of the Greyjoys except Theon and maybe Asha--but only when she interacts with Theon. The entire Iron Islands chapters could have been cut and the story wouldn't suffer. How about Davos? Clearly his only purpose was to provide a point of view for the reader to watch Stannis. He becomes meaningless to the story once his king marches to the wall and Jon Snow gets to watch him for a while. Then Martin tosses Stannis over to Asha, apparently captured between chapters.
Why couldn't he have just made Stannis a PoV character and saved all the fluff?
How about the temporary PoV characters? Two full chapters in A Feast for Crows come from the eyes of a Dornish knight, but the only purpose that seems to serve is to show Myrcella being ambushed. The only result of that is a slight disfigurement, which we hear about in subsequent chapters. Mr. Martin, your books take a long time to read. I think you underestimate our ability to comprehend simple things such as that.
Out of all the temporary characters, I only really find Ser Barristan of any interest, but the three chapters he gets could have easily been condensed into one. Martin seems to write with the understanding that each chapter should introduce no more than one or two plot points. I question his verbosity in that manner.
Quentyn? He shows up, gets burned by the queen and then her dragon. Then he's dead. Did that really advance the plot at all?
And what's up with Bran? It seems like he's going to be some mystical hero, but it sure is taking him a long time to get to Dagobah.
The Bottom Line
I tell my composition students to write enough to fully develop their argument, but not to include anything redundant or unnecessary. I'd like to propose the same advice to George Martin, who suggested in an interview that he may find it challenging to wrap up all the loose ends. The books ooze extraneous material from between the pages (I've had to scotch-guard my bookshelf).
But I understand why this has happened.
Ever read "The Shining?" One of Stephen King's best novels. Read anything he's done lately?
Publishers know that new authors must have excellent books or no one will buy them. But established authors can sell a book with their name alone (I never pick up a book if the cover shows the author's name in a larger font than the title). Therefore, editors and agents tend to be more critical when working with an unknown author. It isn't as necessary to invest their energy in suggesting revisions when they know the book will sell anyway. Martin may be entirely on his own to fix his books prior to publication. I'm an author myself, so I understand the difficulty in determining what information needs to be there and what doesn't. I think, though, that Martin would benefit from severe cuttings--honestly, we'd still love a 700-page book as much as a 1000-page book. More so, even, if it wasn't filled with fluff. I'd even buy abridged versions of the existing books, just to get at the chapters that make up the bulk of the plot.
At the very least, something interesting needs to happen in each book. If the next two installments turn out like A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, both of which read like a TV show that's jumped the shark, I'll still appreciate The Song of Ice and Fire, but I'll strongly encourage potential readers to stop reading at the end of A Storm of Swords.