Sunday 18 October 2015

A History of Epic Fantasy - Part 20

The majority of works that caused seismic shifts in the fantasy field did so almost overnight: Terry Pratchett became a massive bestseller within just a couple of years of his first Discworld novel being published. Robert Jordan's books hit the bestseller lists almost instantly, as did Terry Brooks's. Tolkien took a decade or so, but only due to limited publicity and no paperback editions being available for The Lord of the Rings until the mid-1960s. But other works took a bit longer to really make their mark felt.

The HarperCollins Voyager preview booklet of A Game of Thrones, the first-officially available chunk of A Song of Ice and Fire. Released circa May/June 1996.

A Trilogy in [some] Parts

George Raymond Richard Martin (born in 1948 in Bayonne, New Jersey) was a very well-known writer in science fiction and horror in the early 1990s. He published his first short story in 1971, won his first (of five, to date) Hugo Award in 1975 and released his first novel in 1977. His 1980 short story Sandkings and his 1982 vampire novel, Fevre Dream, were both hugely critically acclaimed and successful. However, his 1983 novel The Armageddon Rag crashed and burned spectacularly in terms of sales. He put his writing career on hold, but a meeting with a producer interested in making a film of The Armageddon Rag led to a new career in Los Angeles. He worked on the first two seasons of the relaunched Twilight Zone before switching to becoming a writer, script editor and producer on Beauty and the Beast. In 1987 his short story Nightflyers was also adapted for film.

Beauty and the Beast ended, slightly controversially, in 1990 after the writers had killed off lead character Catherine, played by Linda Hamilton. This led to the conclusion that while even the Terminator couldn't kill Linda Hamilton, George R.R. Martin could (slightly erroneously, as the show's producer actually had to make the final call on how to writer her out). Ratings dropped, the fans got angry and the show had to be shut down. Back home in Santa Fe, Martin began writing a science fiction novel called Avalon. His prose writer career had been revived by the release of several successful short fiction collections and a new "fixup" novel (several short stories combined into a cohesive narrative) called Tuf Voyaging. Starting in 1987, Martin had also begun editing the Wild Cards series of collaborative superhero anthologies, which soon proved extremely successful.

After several months of working on Avalon, in the summer of 1991, Martin suddenly got the idea for a scene in which a young boy goes with his father to watch a deserter being beheaded, after which he finds some direwolf pups in the snow. This scene led to others, and soon the SF novel was forgotten. Martin produced over 100 pages and a map into the fantasy story before he was called back to Hollywood to work on a TV project called Doorways, which never made it to the screen. Returning to the fantasy story after almost two years away, Martin realised he was still full of ideas and enthusiasm for it. He had a title in mind: A Song of Ice and Fire, a trilogy consisting of the novels A Game of Thrones, A Dance with Dragons and The Winds of Winter.

That plan didn't long survive contact with the word processor.

A first edition of A Game of Thrones on sale at the 2014 Worldcon.

A Storm of Sales

Martin sold his fantasy "trilogy" to American and British publishers in 1994, for quite impressive sums of money. Martin ending his long exile from writing novels was in itself exciting, but publishers were almost giddy at the prospect of a respected, long-standing writer trying his hand at fantasy, not to mention that the sample chapters and outline were compelling. Both sides of the Atlantic deployed similar strategies to get fantasy fans and the book-buyers for the stores excited. In the United States all of the chapters from the POV of Daenerys Targaryen were pulled out and assembled into a stand-alone novella called Blood of the Dragon. This novella won the first Hugo Award for the series in 1997. In the UK HarperCollins simply pulled out the first 100 pages or so of the novel and published them as a stand-alone novella.

A Game of Thrones was published in August 1996, but the early marketing work didn't seem to have paid off. The book sold okay, but not as much as either publisher had hoped. There had been plenty of positive reviews, but also a few that had been more mixed or negative. In the UK, the biggest genre magazine SFX published a notoriously negative review which, at a time when the Internet and its formidable powers of book recommendations were still in their infancy, seemed to drive off at least some prospective buyers. In America the problem was more down to an oversaturated market and the underwhelming (if flashy) cover design.

Fortunately, the publishers had faith in the book. In the States they relaunched it with a new cover design and pulled in some heavy-weight blurbs. Anne McCaffrey, Janny Wurts, Katharine Kerr and Raymond E. Feist (among others) gave really strong soundbites but it was the ringing endorsement of Robert Jordan which had the biggest impact. Sales rose sharply, accompanied by rapidly-spreading word of mouth and the help of the nascent Internet.

Sales improved again after Robert Silverberg published Legends, an anthology featuring new short stories set in the signature worlds of major fantasy writers. Martin contributed a story called The Hedge Knight. Readers picked up the anthology for the Terry Pratchett, Robert Jordan or Stephen King contribution, read Martin's, and then picked up the main novels as a result. Combined with growing word of mouth and stronger reviews (SFX this time gave a much most positive review), these factors helped push A Clash of Kings onto the lower rungs of the bestseller lists. In 2000 A Storm of Swords debuted at #11, before A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons nailed the top spot.

And introducing Ser Not-Appearing-In-The-Book

A Dance of Delays

The writing of the first three books of A Song of Ice and Fire proceeded relatively smoothly. The publication dates (August 1996, October 1998 and July 2000) were quite reasonable, sales rose steadily and the critical acclaim only got bigger with each new novel. However, Martin was struggling with structural issues behind the scenes. He'd started the series with multiple characters in the age range of 3 to 14, planning for each novel to span months or years so they would grow up relatively quickly. But by the end of the third novel less than two years had passed and the characters were still a long way from adulthood.

Whilst writing the third volume in the series, he hit upon an alternate plan: he would bench the story for five years and pick up in Book 4 with all of the "training montages" and awkward growing up material having happened completely off-screen, allowing him to rejoin the narrative and get things moving towards a grand conclusion. In the event this proved unworkable, leading to a massive over reliance on flashbacks and exposition that bogged the novel down. Instead, he jettisoned that material and rewrote the book so it started immediately after A Storm of Swords. Pursuing this blind alley, backing up and starting again cost him over a year's work on the novel. The decision to push stories in the Iron Islands and Dorne to prominence also complicated events. In the end, the fourth book grew to such a huge size and went so far over deadline that drastic action was required.

At the suggestion of his friend (and later formidable fantasy talent in his own right) Daniel Abraham, Martin chopped the story in half by location. The characters in the south of Westeros had their stories told in A Feast for Crows, published in October 2005, and the remaining characters would appear in A Dance with Dragons, to follow, hopefully, a year later.

In event, Dragons was not published until July 2011 after additional structural nightmares, constant rewrites and a whole lot of complaining about it online.

"Let's get out of here."
"Where are we going?"
"Book Six."

A Feast for Viewers

By the time A Feast for Crows was published, worldwide sales of the series are guesstimated to have reached about 5 million. The series was big and the critical acclaim was strong, enough for Martin's Hollywood agent to make attempts to attract the interest of television and film producers. David Benioff, the toast of Hollywood for his fast and skilled scriptwork, was sent the novels and was hooked early on. So was his friend Dan Weiss, then working on the aborted Halo movie. They joined forces and suggested to Martin that they take the project to Martin's favourite TV network, HBO, the creators of The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood and Rome.

The project was huge and ambitious, and HBO hesitated over the project, not sure if it was "them". They tentatively took it on, but then grew in confidence when another adaptation of books outside of their usual comfort zone, with the vampire drama True Blood, paid off handsomely. Even though it was almost sunk several times (by the 2007-08 Hollywood Writer's Strike and then a confusing and problematic pilot), the TV adaptation, under the title Game of Thrones finally hit the screens in April 2011 to almost-instant acclaim.

The success of the TV show boosted the sales of the novels by a staggering degree. Over nine million copies of the books were sold in 2011-12 alone. By the end of 2015, sales of the series had passed 60 million. Although still somewhat less than The Wheel of Time, the much smaller number of novels in the series meant that A Song of Ice and Fire has now beaten every other fantasy series by a living writer (bar only J.K. Rowling) in terms of actual readers. Whilst gratifying to Martin, this also meant that the number of readers excitedly waiting for the sixth and (planned) penultimate novel in the series, The Winds of Winter, had grown massively and exponentially. However, the rapid production schedule for the TV series also meant that planned plot points for later novels had to appear on TV as early as the fifth season, leading some to fear that the show would comprehensively spoil the books before the books could ever be finished.

A Song of Ice and Fire is the most popular epic fantasy series of the modern age, despite its incomplete status and lengthy between-volume gaps. But how the story affected people and the impact it had on the direction of the genre is a slightly different story.


Ghost said...

I remember seeing A Game of Thrones on the shelf and flipping through it sometime in 1997. After the first chapter, I knew I HAD to have the book. Now if only GRRM can finish the damm series!

Mark Andrew Edwards said...

I do hope you plan on publishing this at some point. This is a really good series.

I expect you're going to deal with this in your next post but...

The first three Game of Thrones books might be the best Fantasy since Tolkien. And the next two, Crows and Dragons, made me pretty much stop caring about the series entirely. I re-read the first three books earlier this year and abandoned A Feast for Crows about 3/4 of the way through it.

Noldorimbor said...

Where can i find that negative SFX review I wonder?

Anonymous said...

Excellent as always. This is your best such series yet.