Today’s post considers the writing process of one of the most successful authors alive.
But first, a confession: Big nerd here. I could not be more excited for the new season of Game of Thrones that starts on Sunday. To get ready, I reviewed the Washington Post‘s interactive murderlog to catch up on relevant deaths. I binge-read Leigh Butler’s amazing Read of Ice and Fire for the first four books, in case the show forgot to kill anyone important. I watched Seth Meyers’ doomed dinner party with Jon Snow, just because it’s hilarious:
(Wait a minute . . . Robb Stark wasn’t stabbed at his own wedding. He was murdered at the Red Wedding, where Edmure Tully married Roslin Frey. You know nothing, Jon Snow!)
And in the course of my exhaustive preparation, I came across a blog post that makes a scientific wild-ass guess about Martin’s progress on The Winds of Winter, the long-awaited sixth book in his series. The post itself serves as prima facie evidence that, as big a tool as I am, I barely register on the SF geekdom spectrum.
More important for our purposes, though, the post includes a link to a summary of Martin’s writing process. Here’s the short version of that process:
- Martin does not have a hard outline for his seven-book series. He knows basically where the story is headed, and he lets it evolve organically. He ends each book when it gets too long, or when he reaches a natural breaking point.
- Martin writes lots and lots of draft chapters, then eventually finalizes them. He also writes partial chapters and fragments when ideas grab him.
- Martin does not write in a linear order. Instead, he occupies a particular character’s headspace and stay there for weeks, writing a series of point-of-view chapters for that character. This can result in timeline problems, and it can also cause him to write way too much material for a character just because he’s fun to inhabit (ahem, Tyrion).
- At the end of the writing process, Martin murders every character you love and throws in a scene where starving children fight over a half-cooked puppy. (Okay, I made this one up.)
This really struck me, because it’s just about the opposite of the way that you’d approach an appellate brief.
Now, I recognize that epic fantasy and appellate advocacy are about as distinct as any two genres can get. And I appreciate that Martin is a super-genius writing the great fantasy epic of our time, while I’m just a hack with a blog. Even so, his organic writing process is basically a recipe for missing deadlines and overshooting page limits. That’s generally okay, if you’re the American Tolkien putting together work that people will be reading fifty years from now.* It’s somewhat less okay if you’re bound by deadlines and strict word counts, and your readership has very limited time and patience. Martin’s writing process is an object lesson in what not to do as an appellate lawyer.
So how could we clean it up to make it work for us?
- Brainstorm, and hash out all of your ideas in the beginning of the process.
- Draft a hard outline. Explain your ideas in full sentences. Follow the outline.
- Write in a linear manner, from start to finish. That is how your reader will approach the document.
- Edit mercilessly. Aim to cut 50% of your first draft, and to file a brief that comes in at 50% of the page or word limit.
- Never kill off Oberyn Martell.
This may take some of the fun out of the process, but it also makes things a lot more efficient and predictable.
*Actually, no. Even then, it’s not okay. It leads to soggy filler like A Feast for Crows, a bloated travelogue wherein all of the characters we don’t care about wander about in the rain thinking sad thoughts.
Image of George R. R. Martin by David Shankbone (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons