Writing Advice from George R.R. Martin

So. It was a productive writing day for me yesterday. I had a new article published on DolphinsWire.com and I edited three chapters of a W.I.P. I’m co-authoring with a friend. It was a busy day waiting for the new Games of Thrones episode. With #GoT on my mind, I wandered around online a bit to see if Thrones scribe George R.R. Martin had ever published anything specific about writing advice.

3 Writing Tips from George R.R. Martin
George R.R. Martin speaking at the 2013 San Diego Comic Con, by Gage Skidmore via Creative Commons.

There were a few things. A New Yorker article from 2011 that explored Martin’s life and career. A Business Insider article on Martin’s creative process. But nothing exclusively focused on writing advice. I did, however, come across a pair of sources that featured Martin’s own words on writing and writing craft: a Buzzed article reporting on a London speaking appearance from 2014, and the FAQ section of Martin’s own website.

 


The article, by Buzzed staff writer Dan Dalton, centered around a public speaking engagement at the Freemasons’ Hall in London on August 19, 2014. Martin appeared with fellow author Robin Hobb. During the panel discussion, Martin touched on writing in a few different ways that I found interesting.

“I never finished any of my early stories. They were all beginnings, an endless number of beginnings.” – George R.R. Martin

When I read this, a strange sense of freedom washed over me. While I’ve finished two novel manuscripts (early drafts, not at all ready for publication) and maybe half a dozen short stories, the majority of the stories I’ve begun over the years have been left unfinished.

I don’t know why I stop writing them. Sometimes, it was another story popping into my head. Other times, just life pulling me away from my desk. I’d lose interest in some, or feel the narrative wasn’t going anywhere and wasn’t worth pursuing anymore. Sure, I save them and consider the different ways to push forward with them every now and then, but I haven’t. So seeing someone as successful as Martin having the same issue I’m facing is heartening.

Martin went on touch on the best writing advice he every received:

“The best writing advice I had was [in] ‘Heinlein’s Rules for Writers’ by (American science fiction author) Robert A. Heinlein. His first rule is that you must write, and I was already doing that, but his second rule is, ‘You must finish what you write,’ and that had a big impact on me.” – George R.R. Martin

These two rules seem obvious, but that’s where the challenge of being a writer lies. When I sit at my desk, I feel like I have ADHD. A million different things pull my attention away from the story. There are chores to be done, or grading to be done, lesson planning. Exercise. Blood sugar management.

But if I’m going to do this, really, I have to (to borrow from John Dufresne’s writing commandments) sit my ass in the chair. Every goddam day.

The “finish what you write” sentiment segues nicely to the content found on Martin’s personal website: GeorgeRRMartin.com. Found in the “For Fans” tab, under FAQ, Martin posits the following regarding writing advice:

The most important thing for any aspiring writer, I think, is to read! And not just the sort of thing you’re trying to write, be that fantasy, SF, comic books, whatever. You need to read everything. Read fiction, non-fiction, magazines, newspapers. Read history, historical fiction, biography. Read mystery novels, fantasy, SF, horror, mainstream, literary classics, erotica, adventure, satire. Every writer has something to teach you, for good or ill. (And yes, you can learn from bad books as well as good ones — what not to do)

This is something I have always heard, and it’s one of the best parts of being a writer. On some level, all writers come to the profession because they started as readers. We’re drawn into another world by the work of another, and we want to do the same for someone else. The first book that did that for me was C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. My reading tastes tend to stay in the realm of fantasy, science fiction, and adventure, but I do make it a point to read the newspaper every day. I should probably expand my fiction horizons, too. My wife has plenty of mainstream novels laying about.

The idea that I can learn from the masters is an easy one to understand, but the concept that even the bad books provide teachable moments is interesting. It’s an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of others. How did they make this mistake? How could it have been better? It’s arrogant to assume my answers will be the right ones, but in formulating those answers, I’ll have learned something about my writing process I think.

For a long time, I wouldn’t put a “bad” book down, but at some point in my life I decided plowing through something that wasn’t holding my interest was a waste of time. There are some many other books to read. But now, I’ll hesitate before putting a book down in the future because I didn’t like it. According to Martin, those bad books can teach us just as much as the good ones. Martin goes on further:

And write. Write every day, even if it is only a page or two. The more you write, the better you’ll get. But don’t write in my universe, or Tolkien’s, or the Marvel universe, or the Star Trek universe, or any other borrowed background. Every writer needs to learn to create his own characters, worlds, and settings. Using someone else’s world is the lazy way out. If you don’t exercise those “literary muscles,” you’ll never develop them.

This goes back to the writing advice Martin took in from Heinlein. If we are to be writers, we need to write. As a basketball coach and someone who enjoys playing sports, I completely understand his “literary muscles” metaphor here. I tell my players all the time, the only way to improve upon your skills is to practice them. Time to adhere to my own words, it would seem.

This isn’t a unique proposition, and the fact that every writer asked to provide novices with advice probably answers the question with some version of what Martin’s said here is telling. It’s the inescapable truth of the profession.

Martin finishes his writing advice section with the following:

Given the realities of today’s market in science fiction and fantasy, I would also suggest that any aspiring writer begin with short stories. These days, I meet far too many young writers who try to start off with a novel right off, or a trilogy, or even a nine-book series. That’s like starting in at rock climbing by tackling Mt. Everest. Short stories help you learn your craft. They are a good place for you to make the mistakes that every beginning writer is going to make.

This one is interesting because it’s something that I’ve heard from a few different people over the years. But I’ve also heard the opposite, from agents, editors, and writers alike. I’m not sure what to make of it, but Martin’s sentiment here has merit. Being able to explore the form in a confined space teaches us certain aspects about the craft, but it’s the confined space that might frustrate certain writers (me among them). I’ve always heard a short story is almost like a snapshot, but my ideas tend to grow a little to wide for the frame.

Writing is hard, no matter the form or function. I mean, look at how long it’s taking Martin to finish Winds of Winter, the next volume in the A Song of Fire and Ice series. What Martin says in these places provides an incredible amount of value to writers like me, so if any of you are in this metaphorical boat with me, hopefully you found this helpful as well. Let me know in the comments below.

Writing Advice from John Grisham

So. A few days ago my friend Mark (check out his blog: makinghismark) turned me on to a recent NPR interview with John Grisham. In my friend’s words, “it’s motivating.” See, Mark and I are both aspiring fiction writers, so when he described the interview, I knew it was something I had to check out.

Grisham was on NPR promoting his new novel, “Camino Island.” I’ve read a number Grisham’s legal thrillers over the years, but when I think about writing advice, Grisham’s name isn’t really the first jumping to mind. But of course, since he’s an incredibly successful writer, anything he has to say on the matter is relevant to aspiring novelists like me.

There were two points during the interview where Grisham’s words stood out to me. NPR’s host Lulu Garcia-Navarro asked Grisham about his thoughts on the current state of the “book world” as she put it. Grisham voiced his concerns, but transitioned to another point that really interested me. He said:

And I tell writers who are trying to get published, you know, it’s sort of discouraging. I got discouraged, you know, 30 years ago when I’d walk into a bookstore and see all – the wall full of these big, beautiful, brand-new best-sellers on The New York Times list and I would say, good gosh, who wants to hear from me? And I would get discouraged by that. But every year, you know, several hundred first-time novelists are going to be published. And publishing needs the new talent every year. Publishing needs a new best-selling author every year.

I found this fascinating. It’s hard to believe an author whose sold almost 300 million copies of his work would ever be discouraged, but sure enough, he was at the start. He paints a picture I see myself in all the time. (Literally every time I walk into a bookstore.) After hearing this, I discovered Grisham’s first novel, “A Time to Kill,” was rejected by 28 publishers before being picked up for a modest printing run by an unknown, small publishing house that went bankrupt a year later.

Grisham’s declaration that “publishing needs new talent every year” is incredibly encouraging. And it makes sense. We need new voices. Sure, any bookstore will sport a wall of best-sellers, but there will always be room for more. There will be room for my work.

It’s toward the end of the interview when Grisham provides his best advice for writers. He said:

I tell students, people who are trying to write, there’s, you know, certain tips that – I guess we, you know, call them tips, suggestions, do’s, don’ts, whatever.

But you’ve got to find somebody who loves you, who can read your stuff and be critical, and somebody who really wants you to succeed. It can be a teacher, a parent, a spouse or girlfriend, boyfriend, whatever, somebody who’s on your side but who can be very honest with you. And that’s – you’ve got to have a sounding board.

This piece of advice articulates an important part of the writing process. Grisham’s “sounding board,” as he described it, is his wife, who he revealed “reads everything before anybody else does.”

Finding a reliable sounding board provides a writer with an outlet to collect important feedback. Some people might hesitate to share their work, but it’s vital for writers to understand how their work is being received. It’s during the revision stage where a writer can take that feedback and make necessary adjustments to their stories.

While I work toward my goal of being a published novelist, I will continue to heed the advice of successful writers like John Grisham. I will try to avoid discouragement and I will search for sounding boards to help me improve my work so that one day I can walk into a bookstore and see my novel on the wall full of big, beautiful, brand-new best-sellers on The New York Times list.

Here’s a link to purchase “Camino Island” from Books & Books, the locally-owned, independently-minded neighborhood bookstore with five locations in South Florida. Books & Books serves as a community center for writers and readers, hosting 60 author events a month.