When we speak, our words are a sort of Magic Eye hiding our ideas. We have to look past them, through them, to see what they contain, and it’s hard to maintain focus on the words themselves while you’re trying to make a coherent point. That’s how you get your faux pas, your gaffes, your blunders.
But there’s no running clock for a line of prose, and that extra time is what lets us write characters who are sweeter, nastier, wittier, or more perceptive than we are. We are constantly in the escalier, scribbling observations. So once the time constraint of verbal production is removed, we rather naturally impose a quality constraint.
If my buddy says antidote instead of anecdote I don’t mention it, because maybe he’s driving at the time and anyway I know what he means. If George R.R. Martin is describing the execution of Viserys, in which a pot of molten gold is poured over his platinum blonde hair, and he describes that gold as iron –
The sound Viserys Targaryen made when that hideous iron helmet covered his face was like nothing human.
– well, it’s just not. I still know what he means, but there’s less excuse.
You might say: you’re a writer, most of us don’t care about that picayune stuff; give me a good plot over a good sentence any day.
Fair enough, and something I have no issue with. But if Martin were a more precise writer, you wouldn’t groan when you saw certain character names in the chapter header. We wouldn’t need sophisticated analysis about the Meereenese Knot to explain to us why ADWD was in fact not tedious. If the plot was slow, he could still tug us through a scene, sentence by sentence.
Before I lay out some examples, let me pause here and throw some water on these torches laying around: Martin is imprecise, not incompetent. There’s no question that he can string together sentences, and that’s a big deal. Flow between sentences is the litmus test for a successful author – not great individual sentences – and Martin passes. Also, these are gigantic books, and I’m going to be cherry picking a small handful of moments. Okay, enough preemptive defenses, let’s take a look:
Shadowcats prowled those passes, rock slides were common, and the mountain clans were lawless brigands, descending from the heights to rob and kill and melting away like snow whenever the knights rode out from the Vale in search of them.
Snows melt slowly, over weeks and months. Mist evaporates quickly, or smoke.
“Enough!” the king roared, rising from his seat, his voice thick with irritation. Silence fell. He glowered at Arya through his thick beard.
Glowering is a verb for watching, suggesting that his beard is covering his face. Echoing of thick is unfortunate.
Ned and the girls were eight days gone when Maester Luwin came to her one night in Bran’s sickroom, carrying a reading lamp and the books of account.
We know which night this is. Instead: “On her eighth night without Ned and the girls, Catelyn was visited by Maester Luwin…”
I need about 50% less about the cold here.
Inside, Jon hung sword and scabbard from a hook in the stone wall, ignoring the others around him. Methodically, he began to strip off his mail, leather, and sweat-soaked woolens. Chunks of coal burned in iron braziers at either end of the long room, but Jon found himself shivering. The chill was always with him here. In a few years he would forget what it felt like to be warm.
The weariness came on him suddenly, as he donned the roughspun blacks that were their everyday wear. He sat on a bench, his fingers fumbling with the fastenings on his cloak. So cold, he thought, remembering the warm halls of Winterfell, where the hot waters ran through the walls like blood through a man’s body. There was scant warmth to be found in Castle Black; the walls were cold here, and the people colder.
Anger is sometimes cold too. Except when it is flaring hot.
Jon’s anger flared. “He said my mother was—”
“—a whore. I heard him. What of it?”
“Lord Eddard Stark was not a man to sleep with whores,” Jon said icily. “His honor—”
“—did not prevent him from fathering a bastard. Did it?”
Jon was cold with rage. “Can I go?”
I extend this imprecision to his occasional redundancies. These may happen because he’s so focused on the target he’s not sure which arrows he’s pulling from the quiver.
Jon told his uncle in a low, quiet voice.
Benjen gave Jon a careful, measuring look.
“My name is Brienne,” she repeated, dogged as a hound.
Jaime sat at table with Cersei and the children, talking in low, hushed voices.
He took another sip of ale, and began talking lovingly of breads and pies and tarts, all the things he loved. Arya rolled her eyes.
At sunset on the second day, a great bell began to ring. Its voice was deep and sonorous, and the long slow clanging filled Sansa with a sense of dread […] The slow, endless clanging filled their room, as mournful as a dirge.
Here Martin describes his polishing process.
I did my sweat. That’s a technique I learned in Hollywood, where my scripts were always too long. “This is too long,” the studio would say. “Trim it by eight pages.” But I hated to lose any good stuff — scenes, dialogue exchanges, bits of action — so instead I would go through the script trimming and tightening line by line and word by word, cutting out the fat and leaving the muscle. I found the process so valuable that I’ve done the same with all my books since leaving LA. It’s the last stage of the process. Finish the book, then go through it, cutting, cutting, cutting. It produces a tighter, stronger text, I feel. In the case of A DANCE WITH DRAGONS, my sweat — most of it performed after we announced the book’s publication date but before I delivered the final chapters — brought the page count down almost eighty pages all by itself.