Martin, Bakker and Rowling: Learning from the Best

I have been focusing on the final stretch of my book lately, the third and final edit of Ages of Aenya, which I hope to have completed by the middle of May. I cannot promise anything though, since I have young children and a restaurant. Whenever my two or eight year old gets the flu, which is often, my editing gets pushed back a week; when a cook doesn’t show up, another week, which is why it’s taken nearly 9 years to rewrite Aenya. Two years ago, I had no time for writing whatsoever, and then a midlife crisis hit and I decided it was worth the $70 a day to edit. That’s right, being an owner and manager, I have to pay someone to replace me, so the sacrifices I’ve made for Aenya include a lot of money.

Blogging is of secondary importance, but I can’t abandon it entirely, so here’s something I think useful to fellow writers: what I did after self-publishing my first book. I basically went on a reading binge, learning everything I could from every popular author at the time. I discovered that there is no right or wrong way to write, no absolutes a writer need follow, that styles and techniques differ drastically from one author to the next.  I also learned the pragmatic side to writing and publishing, that I could not ignore the modern literary world in favor of archaic styles I find personally enjoyable. While Homer and H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Rice Burroughs count among my biggest influences, I cannot hope to emulate them without taking the present day into account; they wrote for a different time and audience and it’s doubtful The Iliad could find a publisher today. Readers nowadays want more fully realized settings, complex plots, and psychologically 3-dimensional characters—characters that step off the page and come alive. As I was reading, I made copious notes in a little binder. Here’s a short list of what I learned from some of today’s finest:

George R.R. Martin: I was reading Game of Thrones back in 2004 and couldn’t help but feel envy and even a little bit of intimidation. Martin is the undisputed king of world building. Any author would be hard pressed to create a setting as vivid and complex and as seemingly real as Westeros. In Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, every place and character has a history. Even the guard at the gate holding the spear is a character. Whether you choose to delve into the guard’s story or not, his dialogue and actions should stem from his background. Side note: the new HBO mini-series based on Martin’s novels, now in its 3rd season, features enough sex and gratuitous nudity to count as soft-core porn, which I find encouraging for a future naturist fantasy series like Ages of Aenya, where nudity would be the norm.

Scott Bakker: While not a fan of his book, The Darkness that Comes Before, with its gruesome violence and uber-dark antiheroes, I still found much to learn from Bakker. Namely, write the unexpected. You can never predict where his story will take you. Even his style is unconventional. Bakker’s sentences are short (often, short sentences are more potent) and easy to understand, yet his writing is at times beautiful (you don’t need to be obscure to be poetic) through his uses of metaphor. Get more creative with metaphors! Finally, a lot of his novel takes place inside the characters’ heads. While I often found this to be excessive in his book, a little bit of “internal dialogue” can go a long way to making the reader identify with your characters.

J.K. Rowling: Probably my favorite modern/successful author, Rowling’s first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, was a surprising tearjerker. She accomplished this feat by understating the tragedy central to Harry’s story and character, by using subtlety to great effect (something I found the later books to be lacking). Her greatest strength, however, and the reason for the success of the Harry Potter franchise, is that you truly care about the characters. By the end of the story, Harry, Ron and Hermione have become close friends; the reader becomes, in a way, a fourth member of this trio. Incidentally, my book also has three main characters. I learned that if my readers can’t relate to Xandr, Thelana or Emma, they won’t care about anything else in the story, no matter how fantastic.

Khaled Hosseini: Lesser known on this list, Hosseini’s The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, two novels set in modern day Afghanistan, is emotionally gripping and actually hard to put down. The realism and the power of the emotions at play is something I wish to capture in the fantasy genre. What I learned from Hosseini was: Make the story personal. Good stories are about people, not things.

This is by no means a complete list. I’ve read over seventy books since 2004 to get the widest possible perspective on the literary world, to understand what readers and current publishers want. I am still partial to classics like Michael Ende’s The Never Ending Story from the 50’s and Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn from the 60’s, but reading newer publications has boosted my confidence and improved my writing. Hopefully, Martin, Bakker and Rowling will have unwittingly helped Ages of Aenya earn a place on the mantle of great literature.

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