Opinion

Terrific way to sharpen the pen

By John Lewis

I took time off last week to get in shape.

I badly needed to get rid of surplus fat, some vague and wobbly lines that I had been accumulating, and a general feeling of emptiness when confronted with the next marathon task.

Luckily, this involved a lot of sitting down.

When you write for a living, every once in a while you need to sharpen your tools and get fit.

And the way writers get fit is by reading.

So I looked around at my bookshelves and noted the biographies and the little collections of poetry and short stories, the slim novellas and the slightly thicker novels.

Nothing really stood out.

What I really needed was a big, fat, sprawling creamcake of a book jam-packed with words.

So I started reading George RR Martin’s blockbuster fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire — the first volume of which is called Game of Thrones.

Now if any book deserves the title of weighty tome — these books do.

The first two volumes are about 800 pages each.

The third volume A Storm of Swords in its original form stretched to more than 1500 pages and so his publishers went into battle to convince mighty George to cut it down.

Big George compromised and volume three is split into two parts.

Then came volumes four and five and the world is waiting for the sixth.

Well, when I say ‘‘the world’’ I mean the reading world, because I suspect there are far more people that know the Ice and Fire story through the HBO series than through the books.

Reading takes stamina and a lot of sitting down in place.

You have to stock up with electrolytes, chocolate and a good Fitbit heart monitor.

Look at those beautiful trees out there — wouldn’t it be nice to just go for a little walk?

Nope — you’ve still got 30 pages to go before the end of the chapter matey.

What’s on television? Forget it.

What about a coffee and a chat with your faithful dog?

Just get on with the task will you?

Luckily, Big George’s books make the task easy.

With the building blocks of words he creates entire worlds with people and animals, ghosts, trees, landscapes, buildings, weapons, clothes and food that appear as real as the real world.

For a writer, it can be rewarding, but also distracting to work out how he does this.

Big George doesn’t use any fancy literary devices, he doesn’t jump around in real time and he doesn’t push any post-modern literary boundaries with existential inner reflections.

What he does do is tell the sprawling story through the eyes of his main characters, giving each their own chapter.

He’s also big on detail — the colour of a person’s eyes, robe or jewellery, the smell of roast ox, the feel and sound of a moss-covered tree in a forest or a giant frozen wall, and mind-boggling family histories.

I got bored with fantasy after Lord of the Rings and Dune — but what makes Martin’s stories rise above anything else in this genre is his treatment of character.

Bad people are sometimes good, or at least vulnerable and human.

Good people are sometimes weak and cruel.

In other words they are human — and this is what makes you keep turning the pages.

So Mr Martin’s gigantic novels have been a terrific way to sharpen the pen and get fit by reading.

They have broken my habit of reading four pages in bed before falling asleep and taking three months to read a 250-page novel.

Reading 780 pages in a week takes dedication.

You have to read in the kitchen, in the shower, in the bush, in cafes, in the garden, in shops and walking Prince Finski.

I no longer have my head in a phone — it’s in a book.

I’m getting my reading chops back.

I polished off the first 780 pages of A Song of Ice and Fire saga last week and now I’m on to the second volume.

Mind you, things have slowed because I’m back at work, the garden is looking sadder than my dog, and the chocolate is running out.

On the plus side, it’s dark and gloomy outside and it’s raining.

That’s some terrific reading weather.

John Lewis is a News senior journalist.