You Never Know

My younger daughter caught an infectious disease from her group of theater friends. The disease is called “A Game of Thrones.” You may have heard of this designer contagion created by George R. R. Martin. She binge-watched the first four seasons a couple of weeks ago and I tried to catch some of it with her, but it was too violent for me. Yeah, I know; I’m the guy who watches Reservoir Dogs — the uncut version — a couple of times a year and eats Sonic hamburgers during Sons of Anarchy, but A Game of Thrones is way too over the top for me. I want to talk a bit about it, however, because Thrones didn’t come out of nowhere, and neither did its author.

George R. R. Martin began his career as a science fiction, fantasy and horror author in the mid-1970s, writing short stories, and very good ones they were, and still are. His novella “Sandkings” remains a classic of the genre, surviving as such notwithstanding a truly wretched adaptation in 1996 for the revived edition of The Outer Limits. It was full-length novels that paid the bills, however, so Martin went that route as well. His first, DYING OF THE LIGHT, remains one of the best books I’ve ever read. I even painstakingly hunted down his telephone number — this, in the mid-1970s, before the internet — and spent ten minutes or so telling him just that. He was somewhat speechless, given that the book never quite acquired the commercial success it deserved, but was quite gracious nonetheless. Since then, we didn’t exactly, uh, stay in touch, but he had some ups and downs. “Down” took place in 1983 when his fourth novel, THE ARMAGEDDON RAG, unexpectedly tanked (even though it remains in print to this day). He took to writing television screenplays and continued to write short stories, and even midwifed a multi-author series called Wild Cards which continues to be published. Martin still had a book or two in him however, and some ten years after writing his last novel conceived a series which he titled A Song of Ice and Fire, with the first novel being the now world-famous A GAME OF THRONES, which was ultimately published in 1996. You know, or at least know of, the rest. The television series which has grown out of it has actually caused some people to return to the literary source material, so there is this snake-swallow-tail effect going on, the kind that we authors love most, especially when they happen to us.

I might be wrong, but I doubt that when Martin sat down and began writing A GAME OF THRONES that he envisioned a success even remotely similar to what has occurred. One hopes, realistically, for benevolent notoriety at least, and a living — hopefully a comfortable one — at most. But your name on the cover of Rolling Stone? That’s living large.

There is a lesson here for everyone. If you have an idea inside of you that’s screaming to get out, don’t let your inner gatekeeper hold it prisoner. Get it out there, even if you think that no one will ever regard it with the same wonder that you do. Share. And if you’ve amassed one or a score of rejection slips, try for that score plus one. And two. And three. You may never see your writing adapted for film, but I doubt that Martin thought it would happen, either. I mean, his career was over in 1983. Right? You never know. Maybe in twenty years, someone’s daughter will be binge-watching video adaptations of your work, and might actually read the source material — your book —as well. You never know.

20 thoughts on “You Never Know

    • Joe, thank you for the thank you and the kind words. BTW, I can picture your work as as ripe for being adapted for film. Keep us posted on that front.

  1. I heard or read that Stephen King threw away his first draft of ‘Carrie,’ which his wife found, read, liked and asked why he threw it away, he replied because it’s terrible, no one would want to read it.

    • Mark, I’ve heard the same thing, and if you look at the state of the industry at that point in time you can see why he might have felt that way. I think what he may have meant (assuming the truth of the story) is that no one would want to PUBLISH it, as opposed to read it. Big difference!

      Though people (including myself) don’t always think of it, it is hard to quibble with the proposition that without Tabitha King there wouldn’t have been a “STEPHEN KING.” Thanks for sparking the reminder.

    • This was true, at least according to Stephen King. It was in his memoir book, On Writing. He also acknowledges that Tabitha King is responsible for retrieving and encouraging him to publish Carrie. Goes to show you what the love of a good woman can do! 🙂

    • Oh, Rebecca, that was the least of what she’s done. Tabitha walked the plank and set up an intervention for King when his drinking tipped over from recreational to regular (I believe that was in ON WRITING as well) and, following his long recovery from that near-fatal accident, set up his writing space better than it was before. Everyone who ever read and enjoyed a King novel should genuflect in her direction.

  2. Martin fans in Texas might be interested in seeing the exhibit of his memorabilia at Cushing Library at Texas A&M: manuscripts with notes, prototypes of props used in the shows, correspondence, etc. He was involved in Aggiecon, one of oldest and largest sci fi and fantasy conferences in the country, many years ago. (Texas A&M has one of the world’s best sci fi collections.)

    • Thank you Annk! This sounds interesting and while I don’t read GRRM’s later work I still pull out his vintage stories every so often. This might be worth a road trip!

  3. As my friend from New York would put it: “Yuh, nevah know, Jimmy”

    I’ve never watched Game of Thrones and never will. Still, “YNK.” And here’s my takeaway for the old Quote Box:

    “If you have an idea inside of you that’s screaming to get out, don’t let your inner gatekeeper hold it prisoner.”
    — JOE HARTLAUB – You Never Know on The KillZone 04/26/2014

    • Adam, I’m honored that you would include my in your quote box. I have one on my own full to bursting which includes several offerings from all of my buds here at TKZ. Thank you!

  4. Wow. Thank you for posting that info, Annk!! I’ve been in Texas for decades and never knew that! Must go check it out now.

    Also thanks for a very inspiring blog, Mr Hartlaub. So very true, all around.

    Martin is a poster child for this wave of novels-spawning-TV series-and-movies.
    “Accidental” success like his is why I am looking very specifically for an agent who can understand contractual specification on media/movie rights. I don’t want to get left out in the cold when some director picks up my brainchild and does horrible things to it!

    Has anyone written a piece on the struggle of finding information and/or agents who are savvy to those kinds of details in contracts?

    • Cyn, I don’t recall if anyone has done a piece specifically on this topic, but I can tell you that it is extremely difficult for a author to maintain effective creative control over an intellectual property once the film rights have been picked up. Robert B. Parker once described the process as similar to selling your house; you can’t drive by the place three months later and say, “You can’t paint it blue.” Or, for that matter, that Tom Cruise can’t play the lead role. What I’d recommend that you do is choose your battles. If there is some specific element of your work that you absolutely feel must be in the film, ask that a clause to that effect –that is, preserving that element in any final cut — be included in the agreement. If its absence is a dealbreaker for you, so be it. Keep in mind, however, that the presence of such a clause may be a dealbreaker for the filmmaker, who will have their own unique vision of the house which will be built on the lot that you labored mightily over hour by hour, day by day, grading and shaping until you got it just right. Good luck!

    • Ah, it’s depressing just thinking about the battle when I’ve not even begun the war, but thank you for taking the time to reply!

      I was under the impression (meaning, I scanned it in a blog somewhere, back when…) that the current hype over YA fiction is causing a revolutionary change in movie-rights optioning for book contracts.

      I don’t write YA, but looking at examples like RR Martin, I know that TV series/movie rights need to be seriously thought out before handing over creative license.

      Of course all contracts are different, but is it seriously not possible for authors to retain film rights at publication?

    • Cyn, if an author has not assigned administration of the film rights to their publisher as a condition of their publishing agreement the author would retain those rights. If the author retains film rights — or any other ancillary right — they are free to keep their book off of the market as far as film options are concerned, in the same way that rock stars who own their master recordings can keep those recordings out of commercials if they so desire. If someone offers the author money for a film option on their book, the author can always ask that, as a condition of the agreement, they be given final creative control/approval of the project. The operative word here is “ask.” The answer will almost certainly be “no.” Such a provision will almost certainly be a deal killer given that an author could kill a project after several million dollars have been invested in it. Again, consider Parker’s home sale analogy: all other things being equal, you don’t have to sell your home. If you do, however, you can’t go back three months later and tell the buyer that they can’t paint it a different color. And to enlarge on that a bit, any sales contract containing a provision to that effect would almost certainly be a non-starter.

  5. My inner-gatekeeper is a drunken Westerosian soldier who once tried to flirt with a 6-ft tall Knight Chick, cuz he seriously thought she was hot, but was rebuffed because some Prince-dude who had banged his own sister then turned all nice guy and stuff managed to actually distract the attentions of said giant Amazonian Goddess from him, and then he turned to a life of absurdity, because his own life had become ultimately absurd after losing the chance at romancing the giant love princess of his dreams, and had gone on to serve the Dragon Lady instead but then found himself somehow manning the “The Wall” in some frozen frickin’ wasteland that was fighting against unseen spirits the turned people into blue-eyed zombies and ran away back to the nice warm southern places and got hired by me as an arctic qualified mercenary to protect my thoughts and other psychological properties.

    In other words…my gatekeeper doesn’t keep much out…unless it has to do with dragons, giant hot-chicks, or unseen demonic entities.

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