) and I scampered out of the dojo early yesterday to drive down to Huntington Beach to catch a signing by George R. R. Martin. I had once had breakfast with him in what was supposed to be a business meeting to discuss him doing a project for the Jim Henson Company, only due to some complicated tangle of circumstances, my boss never showed up and was unreachable by cell phone, and then we all got laid off from Henson immediately afterward so there was no follow-up. I enjoyed having breakfast with him, but as a meeting it was pretty disastrous.
When I was having my book signed, I reminded him of our meeting, and he said, "Oh, yeah, that was the one where your boss never showed up." "Yes," I said. "Actually, she meant to come to this signing, but... well..."
He talked for quite a while about the evolution of "A Song of Ice and Fire." He had just started writing a new novel, Avalon
, when he got the idea for the first chapter of the first book, with the Stark kids finding the dire wolf pups in the snow, and started writing that instead. Then he got TV offers and set the book aside for several years. But unlike most books he set aside and then tried to return to, which previously had meant that he'd forgotten his initial inspiration and could never finish them, ASOIAF was just as fresh in his mind when he returned to it as if it had been put down the day before.
He also talked about how the series turned into a bestseller, which I found quite interesting though I don't know if the rest of the audience did. He said the first volume didn't do that great in hardcover, despite a fair amount of publicity and a book tour-- at which several stops had three people there, and one, at the bookshop cafe, had four people there, who fled as soon as his presence was announced. At another, he was upstaged by Clifford the Big Red Dog. But the paperback did better, and at that point started generating good word-of-mouth. Also, people who read the paperback and liked it frequently bought copies to give to their friends, and if their friends liked it, they bought copies to give to their friends, and it snowballed from there. Naturally, I found this very encouraging.
There was a big crowd-- about 250-- and we were given numbered wristbands for the signing, so I whiled away the time by reading books on sushi. (Jody read books on soup.) Then I wandered off to SF, and there I found the infamous venom cockbook
, Touched by Venom
I can attest that not only does the phrase "venom cock" appear in the book, it appears three times on page eight alone. Also, if you open it randomly, you are guaranteed to find one or more of the following:
a) A scene of off-putting violence.
b) Unintentionally humourous sentences, like "Understand, women do not revere the venom cock as men do."
c) Dialogue ending in "hey-o."
d) Unintentionally humourous words or phrases, such as "venom cock," "dragonwhore," or "hey-o."
e) Disgusting and obscene scenes of dragon-on-human cunnilingus and other forms of dragon-human bestiality.
f) Characters with names like "Nng-Tnk." (I read bits aloud to Jody, and at my attempt at pronouncing "Nlg-Tlc," or whatever the six-letter vowelless name was, she said, "Is that what you say when a dragon sticks its tongue in you?")
Now, if you open one of Martin's books randomly, you are very likely to find a scene of off-putting violence. You may also find a name with dodgy spelling, like Petyr or Lysa, though you will not find a name like "Nng-Tnk." But you are just as likely to find some arresting image or gripping situation or intentionally humourous dialogue. An extensive flip-through may convince you that you don't want to buy the book, but it's unlikely to prompt you to read passages aloud to your friends prefaced by "I can't believe someone published this thing." And somehow, I don't think that people who read Touched by Venom
are going to press copies upon their friends.
You can write a book full of brutal violence, rape, and bad things happening to children, like Martin did. You can write a book where sex is going on in the vicinity of dragons, like Anne McCaffrey did. You can write a book with a lot of "perverse" sex, like Jacqueline Carey did. And you can write a book full of funny names, like lots of fantasy writers have. But you had better write in pretty prose like Carey's, or pile on the wish-fulfillment like McCaffrey, or tell an incredibly gripping story full of interesting characters like Martin.
Some people will be sufficiently turned off by the S & M or the violence or the man/beetle-headed woman sex or whatever off-putting elements you've included that they won't read the book no matter how good it is. But if there's enough good stuff to offset the subject matter, or you write it so that the subject matter becomes, for the space of the book, compelling or even attractive, you will get some sub-section of readers anyway-- sometimes enough to get a bestseller.
But if the prose isn't good, and the dialogue is more goofy than snappy, and the sex is ugly and disturbing, and there's lots of creepy violence, and the names and dialogue are laughable, AND the concept is freaky... you're probably going to be best-remembered as "the venom cock book." And I don't think any of us want that.