The Game of Thrones might have just ended a few weeks ago, but the Dance with Dragons will be starting a few weeks hence.
There is much anticipation amongst the fandom community, as one can imagine after having been forced to wait six long and grueling years for this next installment, and Tower of the Hand, one of the première fan sites on the web, has been ramping up for the big event for the past month, including a countdown of the most-hated characters and a series of essays recapping where all the various story threads currently stand. (Afraid that pursuing such articles might ruin future books/television seasons for you? Don’t worry – one of TOTH’s most distinguishing factors is its scope filter, a magic wand that removes all references to future developments. Read easy, friends.)
But the heart of the site lies in its encyclopedia of chapter-by-chapter breakdowns of the books, character biographies, and in-depth essays on thematic developments and narrative interpretations. That’s a lot of material to produce, particularly given the intensity of author George R.R. Martin’s ravenous fanbase, which led me to a very simple question: just who the hell is responsible for creating and maintaining all this stuff, anyway?
Johnny Jasmin and Alex Smith, co-founders of Tower of the Hand, were nice enough to indulge my flights of fancy. Below is our little nerd-tastic chat, which will help kill some time until Dance with Dragons’s release or Game of Thrones’s second-season premier.
All right, first things first: who’s responsible for all this?
John Jasmin, the Captain of Code and Bastard of the Blog:
My first attempt at an Ice and Fire site began in 2001. I typed all the names from the first book’s appendix into an Excel spreadsheet and tried to programmatically generate family trees from it. It was more a proof of concept (and geeky challenge) than anything else, but it grew into my Blood of Ice and Fire site the following year. Around 2004, I wanted to expand on this and offer something more polished. Chris Holden had written a series of popular FAQ articles and he agreed to collaborate on a new site. We named it Tower of the Hand, though we didn’t make much progress beyond that.
Alex Smith, Lord of the Chapters and Keeper of the Keys:
I first conceived of my site in fall 2003 because I loved the Encyclopedia WOT for Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time and was disappointed that nothing similar existed for ASOIAF. My site layout was pretty much an exact copy of theirs because I really have no web design skills, but I did contact Bob Klutz and Gary Kephart first to receive their blessing so they would not think I was just thoughtlessly ripping them off if they ever stumbled across my work. I began creating the site in October 2003 and posted it a year later once work on A Game of Thrones was finished. I kept adding to it over the next year until John contacted me about Tower of the Hand.
Yeah, it wasn't until mid-2005 when I discovered Alex’s encyclopedia and asked him to join, too, that things really took off. By then, I had a design and a framework in place, but it was Alex’s content that ultimately defined the site. We officially launched on November 8, 2005, the day A Feast for Crows was released in the US.
With that said, walk us through the update process for each new novel. Do you make additions to the site or notations in the book as you read, or do you wait until you've completed it? And just who is responsible for writing the chapter summaries?
The chapter summaries as well as the reference pages for all the characters, houses, etc. are written by me. As I mentioned before, when the site launched, the first three books were already out, so A Feast for Crows is the only book that has been added since. For that book, I plowed through the text in two days, which gave me a general idea of how all the chapters and characters fit together, and then I did a close reading of each chapter, one at a time, doing the summary as I read, and then filling out the individual character and other reference pages for that chapter before moving on to the next one. Because all the important information for each chapter is written as I go, there is no need to annotate, because I can just refer to what already exists on the site to know where to go if I have to go back and check something. I like to update the site chapter by chapter as they are completed rather than wait until the end. In the case of AFFC, the entire process took a little over four months. While I hope to plow through this material a little faster, the timeframe may still be about the same since there are substantially more chapters.
How many iterations does each chapter summation/character bio go through?
Each chapter summary was completed in one pass, but I have since been slowly (emphasis on the slowly) going back through and revising them because since finishing AFFC, I have developed a new philosophy of including most information in the summary itself rather than putting historical and cultural information in notes at the end. Character bios iterate by chapter, and expand as I complete each summary. In general, since I know what happens throughout the book, I try to anticipate the sentence/paragraph structure and do not have to rewrite too much earlier material as I move forward. Once again, these are in a state of flux right now as I move more information out of the notes into the main body of each summary and add more chapter references, as well.
How important a part does feedback emails, such as corrections on facts or the small details, play?
User feedback is a great source of information for corrections and small details. While I catch a fair number of mistakes on my own, the sheer amount of text I have written while feeling pressure to post new material as quickly as I can has led to a great deal of typos, which our readers are often kind enough to point out through our internal message system. I fix those whenever I can. We also have a proofreader, Kohl Liang-Weissgerber, who has been going through my text over the last couple of years to fix what he sees, as well.
You started the site with this particular section. But how long, exactly, did it take for everything to get up and running?
Yeah, when Tower of the Hand first appeared, this pretty much was the entire site. John and the essay writers he has established a relationship with have taken the site in many other fun directions with quizzes and analysis and frequent blog postings, but in the beginning, the site was basically a union between John’s family tree work at Blood of Ice and Fire, my chapter and character summary work at An Encyclopedia of Ice and Fire, and Chris Holden’s textual analysis at his Song of Ice and Fire FAQ. Like I said, I began work on my original site on October 6, 2003, and posted the first version of the Encyclopedia online a year later to the day after I had completed all the information for A Game of Thrones. I completed the second book in July 2005 and was still working on A Storm of Swords when John contacted me a month or two later to see if I was interested in merging our content to form Tower of the Hand. I then worked furiously to have the entire series finished by the time we opened our doors on November 8, 2005.
It amazes me how quickly that first official version of the site came together. By the time Alex came on board, the site’s design and framework were in place. We targeted November for our launch, figuring three months to be enough time to get everything else up and ready. How naïve. Alex spent the whole time editing and reformatting the chapter and character summaries, and I was redesigning and fixing bugs until the very last minute. We’ve since added several interactive features to the site, but the encyclopedia remains Tower of the Hand’s biggest draw. Recently, we launched a mobile version of the site so readers can quickly access the encyclopedia from their phones, and we hope to release apps for the iPhone and Android, too.
There are a number of background/preparatory essay writers who help contribute to the site. How did they come about signing up?
I’ve always thought analytical essays would be a perfect addition to all the reference material we provided. When Chris was unable to contribute more than his original set of FAQ articles, I managed to coerce some of our more brilliant commenters to post a topic every now and then, or to participate in a roundtable or two. Eventually, and to our great fortune, people started coming to us, asking if we could post an essay that they’d written. Miles Schneiderman (ghostlovesinger) was the first and he’s since delivered a wonderful series of essays that follows up on our now-outdated FAQ. Stefan Sasse similarly authored an exhaustive look at the major houses through the first four books, a perfect recap leading into A Dance with Dragons. We’ve been so lucky to feature all these talents on our site, and we look forward to hearing everyone’s thoughts on the new book.
Yeah, John signed up all the essay writers and the like. I am responsible for the artwork on the site. I was always a fan of Roman Papsuev (Amok)’s character portraits and I noticed that several sites around the web displayed versions of them, so I wrote him an email and asked for permission to use them on Tower of the Hand as well, which he was fine with. When it came to heraldry, I knew that Westeros.org did not give permission for people to use their extensive collection for the understandable reason that they worked closely with Martin himself to design heraldry for every last house in the series and want to protect the integrity of that body of work. I had actually first approached Stig Greve (Cadmus) to use his designs back when I was working on An Encyclopedia of Ice and Fire, where I used the shields of each POV character’s house to add a little color to the chapter summary page. He was even nice enough to create a Night’s Watch shield for me for that purpose. After Tower of the Hand was up and running for a bit, I decided to contact him to see if we could use his heraldry on our house pages as well, and he was happy to oblige.
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