So! The writing pants are fresh out from the dryer (mmm… warm writing pants) and I finally I have the energy to write a bit about the Mereneese Knot, which in itself is just a handy reference to the two generally accepted approaches to writing: planning or pantsing.
Be aware though that in order to discuss this effectively I’m going to talk about George R. R. Martin’s latest book in The Song of Ice and Fire series, A Dance With Dragons. So if anyone hasn’t read it and wants to remain spoiler free don’t venture beyond the cut.
As they say, there be dragons.
I’d say I’m a pretty big fan of George R. R. Martin’s writings. I especially like The Song of Ice and Fire series in all it’s glorious, jumbled mess. I’m putting this here because it provides context. I like how Martin breathed fresh air into the Epic Fantasy genre, and how he weeded out worn cliches and tropes (not that his books don’t have cliches or tropes, their just easier to overlook because he avoids the big ones). I love how he makes every character in some way relatable: after reading through all the available books I understand why Jaime’s a dick, how Cersei might react the way she does, why Eddard acted the way he did in book one and so on and so on. Point being Martin writes some wonderful characters.
You can also add scenery into the mix. I’ll be damned if he’s not evocative.
That being said book number five, A Dance With Dragons, fell well short for me. In all honesty I didn’t like most of it. It’s bloated and slow. Everything east of the Narrow Sea brings the book to a complete standstill (well maybe not Tyrion’s journey downriver but that’s a very small portion of the plot) and does nothing to advance the plot.
I felt like Martin was trying to be the world biggest cock tease, and not in the good way.
Wait that came out wrong.
What I mean is that Martin spends so much time teasing the reader with Dany’s journey through the Red Waste and Yunkai without providing some resolution that the reader feels cheated. He starts book one, A Game of Thrones with Dany as a scared little mouse of a girl and by the end she emerges, literally, from the flames as a strong independent woman ready to take back Westeros. She doesn’t know how she’s going to go about doing this yet, but she’s not a little girl hiding from her brother anymore. She’s grown up. It’s a fascinating read and shows that Martin can write some kick-ass characters and character arcs.
Martin keeps this strong momentum going in book two, A Clash of Kings where Dany travels to Qarth to purchase ships and well into book three, A Storm of Swords where she goes to Astapor, a slave city, to buy the Unsullied, the best mercenary company there is.
All in all through two and a half books there’s some pretty good character momentum going on. But halfway through the third book she has a crisis of conscience and instead of heading to Westeros with her kick-ass army she heads to Yunkai, another slave city, to free all the slaves there. And it’s there the plot grinds down to a complete halt.
To be fair to Martin though it’s a good representation of Dany’s character. You buy that she might just turn her entire crusade around to liberate a city full of slaves. But it’s also there, in that decision, that Martin gives into his weakness as a writer.
Namely he doesn’t plot worth a damn. In interviews when asked how he plans the books he admits that he doesn’t plan, and that most of the stuff is in his head. He’s a gardener that just plants seeds and lets them grow where they will.
Fair enough. I can’t say that I disagree too much with that approach as it is fun and can often lead to unexpected discoveries. Also, it worked for most of The Song of Ice and Fire series. But it seems pretty obvious to me that he hit a dead end with Dany’s plot when he stuck her in Mereen (the second city where she liberated slaves) and made her queen there.
In isolation I don’t have a problem with that plot-line. That is to say, if the entire series only revolved around Dany and her quest to reclaim the Iron Throne. But the entire premise of The Song of Ice and Fire is that there are three legitimate contenders for the throne. Three Targaryen’s that survived Rober’s rebellion. Three heads of the dragon.
Hell, even part of the pull the series has is that the reader doesn’t know who the other two contenders are.
Which is why I, reluctantly, come back to the analogy that Martin is a cock-tease.
If you accept that the central plot revolves around the contest for the Iron Throne, which is merrily combined with the survival of Westeros (both as an outright survival from the wars that spring up endlessly because of the contest and because of the White Walkers), then it’s pretty clear that for the most part the series has to revolve around that conflict. If not then you run the risk of boring the reader.
Which is what happened in A Dance with Dragons. I got bored. Really fucking bored.
And it’s all because Martin stuck Dany in Mereen (hence the Mereneese knot) and in order to advance her plot-line, without performing a giant fucking Deus Ex move (though the end of that book might be considered a Deus Ex move), he had to bring all the characters relevant to Dany’s rise to the Iron Throne, to her.
So instead of having one book where he tells the story of how Dany gains confidence in her leadership abilities (pretty important for a would-be queen), how Jon Snow learns (again) that he knows nothing (Jon’s chapters in A Dance with Dragons were by far the best ones) and how the political infighting in King’s Landing is tearing up Westeros, Martin is forced to do that in two books: A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons.
Not only that but he splits the point of view chapters by region so we get two books with each book taking place at the same time, but in different parts of the map. So what happens in King’s Landing in A Feast for Crows is also happening, chronologically speaking, at the same time Dany is Mereen in A Dance with Dragons.
Makes for some confusing reading.
I think that the lesson here, if any, is that pantsing (that is going by the seat of your pants) is not a solid strategy when it comes to writing a gigantic multi-volume, epic fantasy series. It confuses, pisses off and bores the reader. At least it did so for me.
Now if you’ll excuse me I’ll go piss on someone else.