Thursday, January 12, 2012

Interview with David Barr Kirtley up on Black Gate

Today's blogpost is on, where I've posted an interview of David Barr Kirtley, who is best known as the host of Geek's Guide to the Galaxy. He is also an artist and writer, and is one of the most analytical and methodical craftsmen I know. To give you some idea, here's part of the interview:

When I attended the Odyssey writing workshop in 2001, the program’s director, Jeanne Cavelos, encouraged us to take a short story we admired and retype it, paying particular attention to the punctuation, sentence structure, point of view, number of adjectives and adverbs, etc. After the workshop I went home and retyped one of my favorite stories, SANDKINGS by George R. R. Martin. I could definitely see how that was a helpful exercise. If I were just to read the story the way I usually did, the characters and places would come alive, and I would move through the events in a dreamlike trance, and later if someone were to ask me whether the sentences were long or short, I would have no idea. But when you spend an entire minute looking at one sentence, because you’re retyping the whole thing, you’re a lot more likely to pay attention to stuff like that. The following summer I read George R. R. Martin’s A GAME OF THRONES, and was totally enraptured by it. The book was so textured, and had so many characters and settings and emotions, that I remember thinking, “Forget retyping a short story. If I were to retype this whole book, I’d learn everything I’d ever need to know about prose.” So I decided that that’s what I’d do.
But I was already spending enough time at the computer as it was, and didn’t feel that I needed any more carpal tunnel-inducing typing than I was already getting, so I decided I’d copy the book out by hand into a spiral notebook. The first night I made it through about four pages before I had to quit because my hand was cramping so badly. I looked at how far I still had to go (the book is about 800 pages long), and it just seemed ridiculous. I decided I’d go until I hit page 100, and then re-evaluate. But as I worked through the book, day after day, I got so that I could do ten pages at a stretch, then twenty. I made it to page 100 and didn’t feel like stopping, so I kept going. When I first started, I viewed the prose as so accomplished as to be almost mystical, and I regarded its level of detail and polish as something I could never hope to equal. I made mental notes as I went: “These sentences are a lot longer and more complex than mine.” “These paragraphs are a lot longer and more detailed than mine.” My use of commas had always been haphazard, and it got beaten into me through sheer repetition where they should be placed within these long, complex sentences. Many chapters begin with a character thinking back over everything that’s happened to them since we last saw them, and that’s actually a fairly difficult thing to pull off in prose, so it was good to have a chance to study that over and over again. As I worked my way through the book, I began to understand the prose much better, and felt that its level of depth and complexity was not wholly beyond my grasp. In fact, as I neared the end of the book I began to notice a few things that I thought could be improved.
The only other person I know who's written Game of Thrones word for word, is George R.R. Martin, and he did it on a computer. Head on over to see the complete post!


  1. Another fascinating interview -- thanks!

    Copying out the entire book by hand? Holy cow! My fingers start to ache just thinking of it! And although I'm sure I've learned a few things by translating books into German, I'm sure I haven't learned that much. I'll have to hunt around for a short story that I can type out ...

    I had to laugh at Dave's paragraph about Chuck Palahniuk's version of hell, with telemarketing (yes definitely!) and showings of The English Patient (well, maybe, but it does have Colin Firth AND Ralph Fiennes AND Naveen Andrews in it, so it can't be all bad, can it?)

  2. I thought English Patient was good eye candy, but if I had to watch it nonstop, that would be hell for me. Isn't Dave great, though? I will never, ever be as polished in my craft as he is. It'll be a looong time before I read George RR Martin prose and think I can improve upon it.