Jon Snow lives! A reversal of fortunes, and expectations, in Westeros

Unless you have been living under a rock for the past few years you must have heard of the HBO T.V series A Game of Thrones, based on George Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels. The T.V adaption of the books has left both book and show in a peculiar position as now the show has actually caught up the books, which are still being written. Now some stories we’ll be watching on screen, like Jon Snow’s death, haven’t actually played out in the books yet. Thanks to the show we don’t have to wait till the next book comes out to find out if Jon will somehow come back to life. Last night we got our answer in the final moments of the show’s episode.

Well, he’s back folks! Jon Snow lives!

This shouldn’t really come as a shock. Jon is a main character in the story, we should have this coming a mile off, and yet we still harboured doubts about whether we would actually see Jon live again. People have been debating over whether Jon would rise from the dead for a whole year now, taking all kinds of thing into account- even analysing the actor’s haircut! Eagle eyes fans thought they spotted actor Kit Harrington lurking in the background of a photo taken at the game of thrones filming wrap party. The speculation has literally been nonstop while actors and producers of the show have patiently and persistently told us Jon Snow is dead. Well, I suppose they weren’t lying, kind of.

But now that the fan’s beloved Jon is back doesn’t it seem obvious that this would happen? How did the resurrection of Jon Snow in the episode’s final scene have viewers on tenterhooks and leave them jumping with joy when Jon finally opened his eyes again in the episode’s final few seconds? Surely it was painfully obvious what would happen all along, right? Not quite- and that’s due to the clever writing of George Martin…

It all comes down to the readers expectations. Most readers believe that the protagonists of a novel with survive till the end of the story and eventually save the day. That’s what we all believed when we started reading a game of thrones and met the character of Ned Stark. Ned was a main character. He was a good guy. George Martin was clearly setting him up as the hero of the novel and, along with that archetype, there comes certain expectations with it. When Ned Stark began to discover that the king’s children were in fact the product of an incestuous love affair between the queen and her brother we thought that our heroic Ned was on his way to saving the day. He would defeat the evil Lannisters and all would be well. Even when things looked at the worst, and Ned was injured and locked up in a dark dungeon, the faithful reader still held out hope. The hero always manages to win just after things get about as bad as they can, right? And besides Ned’s daughter, Sansa, was begging the Lannisters to let her father live if he confessed to his ‘crimes.’ All Ned Stark had to do was retract his claims of incest against the queen and he would live to fight another day. That’s what we all expected would happen, one way or another.

It came as quite a surprise, then, when Ned Stark got his head chopped off.

And thus the readers was welcomed to expectations being blown into smithereens. The hero killed? But- but- that’s not how it’s supposed to happen! But poor old Ned was hardly the only example of this kind of literary cruelty in the first novel. Remember Khal Drogo, the might horse lord Daenerys Targaryen was sold to? Daenerys was forced into a marriage with Drogo, whether she liked it or not. Thankfully for her she ended up liking it, even after Drogo killed her brother, Viserys, who was kind of a douchebag anyway. But after Daenerys brother was killed she decided she wanted to take back her kingdom, Westeros (where all the other characters were milling about) and avenge her dead family by destroying all those who once took part in house Targaryen’s downfall. There was only one problem, Khal Drogo didn’t want to go anywhere near Westeros and without him Daenerys couldn’t hope to conquer her dreams of putting her family’s name back on the map after all those terrible years in exile. The conflict in her story was clear: exiled princess wants her throne back, husband is blocking her from achieving her goals. Things changed, however, after a failed attempt to poison Daenerys. Khal Drogo had a change of heart. To pay back those conniving lords who tried to murder his wife he vowed he would sail to Westeros and conquer the whole kingdom, take back his wife’s throne leaving us readers ready to pity the fools who would dare stand in his way. Exiled princesses always gets their throne back, right? And Khal Drogo was Daenerys hero, he was obviously going to… wait a minute. Nope he didn’t manage to do anything we expected of him. Instead he ended up dead. Another reader’s expectations dashed away from us just when we thought we had the plot sussed out.

Things didn’t get any easier in the following novels. The reader made some adjustments. Perhaps Ned was never supposed to be the hero? That was just a trick to catch us off guard, perhaps? Maybe the real hero that would emerge would be Ned’s oldest son and heir, Robb. Robb Stark went to war with the Lannisters and managed to win every battle he fought in. Yes, this was more like it! No one could hope to ever beat Robb. No one had a hope in hell of beating Robb in battle so he had to win, surely? Well… not quite. Robb was pretty much invincible on the battle field, but he met his end after being killed at a wedding feast, caught off guard. His mother, Catelyn, a hugely central character, also met her untimely demise at that wedding too. Even the most dim witted of readers could sense a certain pattern emerging. The heroes don’t always win in Westeros. And being a central character isn’t the get out of jail card it seems either.

Even the villains weren’t safe. Two of the story’s most vile creations, Joffery Baratheon and Tywin Lannister were murdered in the third book. The message was clear. No one is safe. That is what the readers expectations became.

At the end of the last book Jon Snow is murdered by the brothers of the Nights Watch. By now we have become so used to the central characters being brutally killed off that it’s our expectation that he won’t be coming back from the dead. This is Westeros after all. Heroes get murdered around here. But then it happens. Jon Snow opens his eyes, a total reversal of the expectations we have been trained to believe will happen so far. And that is how Jon Snow’s return kept everyone on the edge of their seats. On paper it should have been woefully predicable but thanks to the clever reversals of expectations in George Martin’s storytelling we were suitably shocked, and not to mention relieved, at the return of everyone’s favourite moody bastard.

 

I got rejected so you don’t have to

It’s been a while since I last posted on this blog as I have have been putting all my time and energy into sending my novel out to agents. I’ have had some favourable responses but no offers of representation just yet. Yep, the reject pile keeps mounting. That’s the bad news but the good news is you can learn from my mistakes and rejections so the same thing doesn’t happen to you! Here’s my top five tips for sending out query letters…

1. Write your query letter- but don’t send it till the next day.
Writing the query letters to agents is hardly the most exciting part of an aspiring writer’s process. It can feel like a chore and, just like any chore, you might be rushing to get it finished. Typos can be over looked and even if your reading something over and over again there might be glaring mistakes you are missing because you are just too close to it. So my tip is to write the letter but wait till the next day to send it. When you look at the letter with fresh eyes you’ll be more likely to notice mistakes than you would when you are desperate to just get the darn letter sent and finished with.

2. Name of agent + interview = RESULT
I always try to tailor each letter to an specific agent, the more specific my letters have been the more of a response I have gotten, even if it is a rejection. There is way more information on literary agents out there than you might realise, so much so that I always type into google the agents name and the word ‘interview’ and usually there are at least two or three interviews with agents and what they want/like/expect – or even hate – when reading a query. Some agents even have blogs and wish lists. There really is plenty of information out there if you take the time to find it.

3. Tease them!
You most likely will be asked to send a synopsis along with your work but you’ll have to give a little more information in the covering letter. I’ve had two agents request to see my full manuscript and each time I have given them just a little tease of the story in the letter- but not too much! You want just about enough info as you’d find on the blurb of a book. I usually write the hook first, then lead into who the main characters are before rounding off with the main plot line, maybe ending with a question that hopefully entice the reader to want to know more. Most agents say they are looking for a distinctive ‘voice.’ Along with the actual manuscript the query letter is the best place to showcase this voice of yours.

4. What next?
What’s your next project. A line or two about what you are working on next is probably a good idea to include as it shows you are serious about writing and you’re not just a one trick pony. Agents will want to represent someone who can write more than just one book.

5. The vital statistics
Something I always include in every letter is the word count and the age group the novel is aimed at, for example my novel is roughly 75,000 words and aimed at middle grade. Telling the agent this information means you have thought about your target market, so I’d quickly get to this point first. I also put all this information on the first page of the manuscript along with every piece of contact information I have, email, address, telephone number etc. As Rachel Stock puts it in her book the insider’s guide to getting published:

Always, always, ALWAYS (you can tell this one matters to me) put ALL your contact details on your covering letter and the submission itself. Make it easy for the editor or agent to contact you the way THEY want to…

Every story I’ve heard about a writer getting offered representation has had an agent ringing them on the phone to offer that golden opportunity rather than emailing. So there’s a thought for you, if they really like your work they’ll probably want to give you a call, best to slap your number down on that submission just in case!

Classic Book Review: The lion, the witch and the wardobe

Today I’m finding it a little hard to work up the motivation to write. I’m not sure why. I don’t think anyone ever know why they can’t seem to write, some days you can, some days you can’t. But if there was ever a cure for this I think it would be me writing about my favourite books of all time (along with reading them of course.) What better way to ignite those flighty fires of inspiration? I’ll begin with my all time favourite book of all time, a story that’s starts with something as unremarkable as a simple wardrobe…

The lion the Witch and the Wardrobe is a glittering example of everything a children’s book should include; children drawn into a magical land to defeat evil, a wicked witch opposing the land’s inhabitants and collection of mythological creatures and talking animals to populate a fantastical realm.

The key to Narnia’s charm often lies in Lewis’s ability to merge myth and magic with whimsical touch. Mr Tumnus may be a creature straight out of Greek legend but he hops around carrying an umbrella and parcels right underneath a Victorian Lamppost. It’s this little sprinkling of charm, perhaps invoked by the likes of Lewis Carroll and Beatrix Potter, that distinguishes Narnia from Middle Earth. In the shire Hobbits there may be, but Tolkien certainly wouldn’t dream of them popping letters or parcels into British postboxes as Lewis might of had his characters do. And while Middle Earth and Narnia are similar, and owe a lot to each other, Tolkien (Lewis’s close friend) made his distaste at Narnia clear. He particularly disliked the appearance of Father Christmas, another quaint touch of whimsy from Lewis.

But despite Tolkien’s doubts the mixture of myth and charm made Narnia a success. It has all the settings of a classic fairytale, settings which enhance whatever happens to be going on in the plot at the time and change accordingly. At first the snow covered landscapes help give the story that fairytale book feel along with the arrival of Mr Tumnus. Later the snow melts away to lush green forests and the action is centred around the Stone Table, Narnia’s answer to Stonehenge, a suitably mystical location where Aslan sacrifices himself at the hands of the White Witch. And finally the happy ending takes place at Cair Paravel, a seaside castle.

The six sequels introduce new characters and lands, ensuring that Narnia never gets dull or repetitive. Each book takes place in a different time period too, sometimes the time between each book can span hundreds of years and the adventures you read about in the previous book are now apart of Narnian legend. This all amplifies the fact there is one star of the Narnia series- Narnia itself. The only character to appear in all seven of the books is Aslan, though in many of the stories he pops up only as a guide, only really getting his hands (or perhaps paws) dirty in the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, thanks to having to intervene to save Edmund’s life from that wicked witch who causes so much trouble in Narnia’s early history.

Sadly, when Hollywood came calling a decade ago they totally missed the point with these stories. While The lion, the witch and the wardrobe turned out to be a fairly decent film, the producers really messed it up with the sequels. Why? They were trying to pigeon hole the series into a Harry Potter-esque franchise making the stories similar to Harry Potter, failing to realise that Narnia is the inspiration for Harry Potter and doesn’t need to be squished into a formula it’s superior to.

That’s right I said it, Narnia is superior to Harry Potter. Well, in my opinion at least. Fans of Harry Potter read that series because they are invested in what happens to Harry. It takes a writer of tremendous skill to chop and change his main characters throughout a series and have the reader still invested in what happens in the novels. Likewise with Rowling’s Voldemort, he is the leading villain throughout all seven of her volumes. In Narnia there is no leading villain, each book has a different antagonist to overthrow, whether it be an evil queen, a vulture headed demon or wicked ape (yes, you read that correctly.) Narnia is ever changing and ever evolving, the reader gets a panoramic view of it’s entire history.

Lastly, a word about the reading order of the series, a subject of much debate. I’ll try and make this quick and simple. The order the books were published in are as follows:

1. The lion, the witch and the wardrobe

2. Prince Caspian

3. The voyage of the Dawn Treader

4. The silver chair

5. The horse and his boy

6. The magician’s nephew

7. The last battle

However the chronological order is:

1. The magician’s nephew

2. The lion, the witch and the wardrobe

3. The horse and his boy

4. Prince Caspain

5. The voyage of the Dawn Treader

6. The silver chair

7. The last battle.

The argument for reading the series chronically is simple; it’s less confusing to read them that way and apparently Lewis approved of this reading method. However these novels were not preplanned like Harry Potter. Lewis made the stories up as he went along and therefor it often makes more sense to read the series as it evolved. Also it’s hardly confusing reading them in published order, the first four books chronically follow each other anyway, and then we jump back in time to two ‘prequels’ if you like, before returning to the last battle which ends the series in both orders. But the main reason I believe the published order is superior is because all the mystery and intrigue with the early Narnia novels are destroyed if you read them chronically. When you read the lion, the witch and the wardrobe you’ll already know why the wardrobe transports you to Narnia, why there is lamppost in the middle of a wood and why the White Witch is such a tough old broad. There is much more joy in discovering these answers later in the series when you’ll have an ‘aha! That explains it’ moment. But read either way these novels are like the land of Narnia itself, endlessly magical.

Phew! That turned out to be a bit of an essay, but such is my love for the land of talking lions and umbrella owning fauns. Next time I’ll be gushing over another classic Watership Down, a great novel about cute little bunnies- but beware- it’s not for the faint hearted…

The tale of how an aspiring author (almost) managed to hook an agent…

Listen carefully. Once upon a time I nearly managed to hook an agent. Not only that but it was the first agent I sent my manuscript to! Who replied the very next day! Asking to see my entire manuscript! Yes, it sounds like a dream come true…

I hope this tale will give anyone reading some tips on how to achieve the same magical result I experienced after sending out my work. But beware! This is also a cautionary tale. That agent who was so desperate to see my manuscript? In the end she declined it. I’m going to tell why. That way you won’t make the same mistake I did.

But back to the start. I was just as surprised as anyone when I got a response from a very successful and prominent agent, regarded as one of the best, asking to see my whole novel. She even went as far as to say she ‘really liked these pages,’ and wanted to know if I’d sent it out to other agents. It’s the kind of email aspiring authors dream of and I’ll tell how I think it managed to come about.

Firstly I looked up every agent I could find, the way most people do, using ‘The Writers and Artists Yearbook’. It’s one of those books everyone in the publishing industry- or everyone who wants to get into the industry- should just have. But the book only serves as a beginning. The internet is where the real information on planet agentslies, as I’m sure everyone knows.

Of course, I read the submission guidelines and made sure each query letter was tailored to each agent, like anyone else would. But then I decided to do more. Every agent I planned to send my work to I typed their name into google and added the word ‘interview.’ Sometimes this gave me lots of results some times it didn’t. But most of the time you would be quite surprised to discover just how many interviews are lurking about online regarding certain agents. And this is the strange part, when I began researching agents this way I discovered even more agents I didn’t even know existed. The next part of my plan was to stalk their twitter. Yes, I mean stalk. You’d be surprised by how much you can learn about a person from reading their tweets. The more you know about an agent the better. You can really begin to get a good idea if your work is the kind of thing they’d be interested in. Afterwards I went back to google and typed in the agents name and then typed ‘wish list.’ This is where I got some of the best results because the answers that popped up matched exactly what I had written in my novel. An agent declared a ‘children’s fantasy novel for middle grade set in our own world’ is what they want? Great! I knew exactly where to send my work.

There were even more things I did before sending off my beloved story. Some agents have blogs. Sometimes on these blogs they will go into great detail about their likes and dislikes when receiving a submission. You would have to be an idiot not to make use of that kind of information! Some agents even pop up on youtube where they go into even more detail about what they want from a submission. My advice would be to literally wring the internet dry on each agent, till you have read every possible thing you can. I even found information on what agents look for in the opening paragraph to a manuscript. Then I changed the opening of my manuscript accordingly. Why not? And here’s the thing, once I did make those slight changes the opening was all the better for it. Eventually, between tweaking my manuscript and selecting an agent who was looking for the type of novel I’d written to begin with, I found the perfect agent. What she was looking for was exactly what I had written. The funny part is she wasn’t even on my original list for some reason, but I’d managed to discover her along the way. From reading her twitter, interviews, wish lists and looking up every single one of her existing clients and even reading a book by one of them, I knew she would be the perfect agent to send my novel to.

So I did. I wrote the email. I attached the first three chapters. I clicked ‘send.’ Scary isn’t it?

As scary as it was I was totally elated the next day when I got a response. She wanted to read the entire novel! I’d been imagining a long three month wait only to receive a rejection so when I got this eager and super-speedy response I was quite literally over the moon. I danced around with the dog in my flat. I went into work and caused everyone to ask ‘what’s going on with you? Why are you so happy?’ Let me assure you, when an agent asks to see your full manuscript it’s as good as you imagine it to be, times about a trillion. And that putting it subtly.

Then a few days later the dream ended. She wasn’t interested in taking it further. Why? One simple answer.

THE MANUSCRIPT WASN’T READY!

After all the effort I had gone to in researching agents I had forgotten- no, neglected- to go over my manuscript those final and essential last few times. The first 3 chapters might have been good enough but I hadn’t shown the same care and attention to the rest of the novel. The story, according to the agent, tended to be long winded at times and didn’t drive through in the way she wanted it to. While she assured me I could write and was onto something she wasn’t interested in pursuing the novel any further. Crash! Bang! Burn! Yep, I’d come hurtling back down to earth with a thundering thud. Ouch. I felt like Frodo might have if he finally got to Mount Doom, was about the throw the ring into the fiery abyss… only to have a orc jump out, grab the ring and hurry back to Sauron, leaving Frodo-me standing uselessly on the precipice, waving my fist at him as he disappeared with the ring and my literary dreams.

And here’s the lesson of the tale. Don’t send your work out till it’s ready. And if you think it’s ready, guess what, it’s not. Take a break for a month. Come back to it and edit. Take another break. Come back and edit again. I can see now how right the agent was about my work. I went through and deleted over 5000 words. Some of them were sentences but most of them were merely words clogging up sentences. Imagine if your manuscript managed to get 5000 words lighter? No scenes or story lines need to be cut out, just the useless words that don’t even need to be there in the first place.

So there you have it. My tips on how I managed to intrigue the very first agent I sent my work to… and my warning on how not to mess it up.

How do they do it? Great writers and great characters

Everyone wants to write and sell the next Harry Potter. Imagine! World wide fame and praise for your international best selling novel! Did J.K Rowling dream of such dizzying ambitions when she was writing Harry Potter? Probably not. What she DID do however was create a cast of colourful characters that people came to love. Her readers wanted to find out what happened to Harry, Ron and Hermione. From big and cuddly Hagrid to slithery and sneaky Draco Malfoy, every character was unique and yet believable. You might have a riveting plot in your novel but if the characters are not engaging then no one will care what happens to them.

So the question is: how do you deftly create characters that seem real without giving the reader a long winded info-dump. Gone are the times of classics when writers could go on for paragraphs and paragraphs about their central characters, giving you a long description of their likes, hates and history. Literature is more cut throat now- especially for children’s novels. You can’t lose a reader’s attention. Any character description will have to be a swift but detailed sprinkling of information about your beloved protagonist.

How to do it? I’ll give you a few examples.

Let’s start with the classic literature I just told you had the liberty of going on at length about its characters. A true statement, but even so, the literary legends of yesteryear still could manage to quickly give us a few accurate hints about the stars of their novels. Take this example from Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters.

…there lay a little girl; wide awake and longing to get up, but not daring to for fear of the unseen power in the next room; a certain Betty, whose slumbers must not be disturbed until six o’clock struck, when she awakened of herself ‘as sure as clockwork,’ and left the household in very little peace afterwards.

In this sentence we discover a lot about the two characters mentioned. There is a little girl, quite possible a good and obedient little girl because, despite her longing to get out of bed, she remains silent and still, partly due to her fear of the sleeping housekeeper next door. The housekeeper in question is described as a ‘power’ of the household who, if awakened, will leave no one in peace. This almost puts the reader in mind of some kind of sleeping dragon and indeed later on Betty is described by another character as a ‘dragon.’ But Betty is harmless really, just a bustling old housekeeper, and despite her fearful introduction in this paragraph there are hints that maybe Betty isn’t as bad as she seems. How do we know this? Because the ‘powerful’ Betty is being seen through the eyes of a meek little girl, who no doubt finds her more frightening than a fully grown adult would. There is also a hint of humour in the way ‘a certain Betty’ is described as some kind of unseen force, indicating that despite her fearful ways, perhaps Betty is thought of fondly. We later discover that Betty is used to having her own way and can sometimes be impertinent to her employers, but they love her anyway, most of all Molly, the little girl who seems to fear her so much in this introduction. All of this is subtly hinted at in just a few sentences. All in all it’s a stellar piece of work from Miss Gaskell.

Example two. We might as well take a look at Harry Potter since it’s characters are so beloved by children and adults alike. However the first characters introduced are the Dursleys, two perfectly horrid people. So how Rowling let us know that Mr and Mrs Dursley, despite being used as a welcome into the Harry Potter world, are in fact two very nasty people who the reader is supposed to hate? Let’s have a look at Rowling infamous opening sentence.

Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange of mysterious, because they just didn’t didn’t hold with such nonsense.

This sentence is being told in the voice of the Dursleys. It’s a cold voice, using a snappish phrase of ‘thank you very much.’ The Dursleys are proud that they are ‘perfectly normal.’ This tells us a fair bit about them in a single sentence. Firstly it clearly states the Dursleys are proud, not the most endearing of personality traits. It gets worse when we are told what the Dursleys are proud of: the fact they are perfectly normal. The word ‘perfectly’ aptly sums up how the Dursleys think of themselves- perfect. The word ‘normal’ tells us two things. From the Dursleys point of view normal= good. From the readers point of view normal= boring. This is clarified for us when Rowling explains that Mr and Mrs Dursley ‘don’t hold’ with anything ‘strange or mysterious.’ Quite boring, then.

Finally lets take a trip to my beloved Narnia to see how C.S Lewis does it. The opening chapter of the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe manages to quickly and subtly tell us two key facts about it’s two central characters Lucy and Edmund.

…he [the professor] was so odd looking that Lucy (who was the youngest) was a little afraid of him, and Edmund (who was the next youngest) wanted to laugh and had to keep pretending he was blowing his nose to hide it.

This sentence basically tells us that Lucy is a shy little girl, the youngest of her siblings, who can be timid and scared of something has harmless as an old professor. Edmund, the second youngest, is a nasty piece of work and pretty disrespectful to his elders. Instead of simply telling the reader this is a very boring fashion the way I’ve just done Lewis uses the meeting of the professor as a way of deftly showing us the characteristics of the two main characters. Lucy= nice, Edmund= nasty. A classic version of show and don’t tell.

Of course introducing the characters is just the first part of the journey. You have to sustain that momentum throughout your whole novel. Every character has to be different yet believable. A good book that I found helped me craft a distinctive cast of characters was 45 master characters by Victoria Lynn Schmidt. It takes a unusual approach of exploring varying character archetypes through the personalities of Greek gods, using examples of everything from Xena Warrior Princess to Shakespeare’s Othello. Using these archtypes you can create characters full of personality traits, fears and motivates that ring true to whichever type of character you are trying to bring to life.

Also this post on Write Like Rowling gives further examples of how classic literary characters were introduced with effortless ease. A great post on a great blog.