In Defense of George R. R. Martin

 

This long article is about author George R. R. Martin and, more importantly, the misgivings and negativity some of his more vocal fans have concerning the lateness of his forthcoming book, A Dance With Dragons.

George really needs no introduction. Since the release of A Game of Thrones in 1996, he has been a growing fixture in the fantasy genre, his fan base growing with every release of his series, A Song of Ice & Fire. In November 2005, Time magazine branded George the ‘American Tolkien.’ While I believe that remains to be seen—after all the series is not yet finished and I must read the entirety of it to truly give such a grand title associated with J.R.R. Tolkien—the one thing I am certain of is A Song of Ice & Fire is an extremely powerful story that invokes passion in all who read it.

That passion is a double-edged sword, able to cut an enemy as quickly as its bearer. While the four books and two short stories that comprise A Song of Ice & Fire are universally garnered as being some of the best storytelling ever, animosity swirls around George. The fourth book, A Feast For Crows, took five years to be published and it contained only half of the characters fans have come to love. Upon publishing A Feast For Crows, George posted that he was near to completing the other half of the story, A Dance With Dragons, with the novel coming to bookstores quickly.

That was three years ago and A Dance With Dragons is still not complete.

This has aroused a great deal of anger for many of George’s fans. Five years is a long time to wait for a sequel to arguably one of the best fantasy series of all time, especially when most writers are able to produce sequels between one and three years. But as I’ve come to discover, anger is one of the least logical emotions we possess; it can lead people to conclusions that are not wholly accurate—if not down right wrong. Much of the animosity I see written about George and his lateness is colored by that kind of anger and, while I believe there are two instances where fans of A Song of Ice & Fire are more than allowed their ire, most of it lacks any authenticity whatsoever.

This article hopes to dispel some of those erroneous angry feelings and assumptions out there—or at least give a different side to things that most readers probably have not thought of.

Tall order, I know.

THE ORIGIN OF CONCLUSION

To understand how I’ve come to my conclusions, you deserve to know where my bias and knowledge lies. Most of the people who disparage George are readers who have no other associations with him or other ties to the publishing industry. I have been a sci-fi and fantasy reader for twenty years like many of those readers, but I also come at this from the publishing and writing side, giving me what I hope is a unique perspective.

In 1996, I began one of the first fantasy websites, a dedication website to author Terry Brooks, which opened the door to meeting and closely befriending dozens of other writers. At almost the same time, I became a manager at one of the largest bookstores in the world, giving me a view of the industry from the retail side. While at the bookstore, I oversaw numerous author events and met even more writers, each unique, each bringing their own experiences into my life. Seattle is a hotbed for visiting writers and I’ve listened to countless of them answering questions about their work and, more importantly, their craft of writing.

I also began The Signed Page, a website devoted to helping sci-fi and fantasy fans from all over the world gain signed or personalized books for cover price. I have welcomed many writers into my home—George R. R. Martin being one of them, I’ll be honest and up front about that—and listened to them speak about their work and learned from all of them in some way or another.

A few years ago, I was essentially dared to write a novel by one of my author friends. Having learned a great deal about the craft of writing and the publishing industry from my various friends, I decided to try it. I hope to finish my current novel, The Dark Thorn, in two weeks and begin the hunt to have it published to bookstores by a major publishing house in 2010.

My more than twelve year resume may not seem like a lot, but it is what it is.

I have seen almost every facet of the publishing industry, from working with editor in chiefs to editing for continuity to maintaining several author websites and interacting with fans to writing my own novels to working as a bookseller. I come at this particular article with a far different viewpoint than many.

So take what I write with a bit of understanding—or salt.

WHY FANS SHOULD BE ANGRY

All right. Let me begin by relating my opinion on why these fans do indeed have a valid argument to be downright nasty and rancorous.

First, every professional author writes to a contract. Contracts can be for any number of books in a series and usually must be delivered by a certain agreed upon date. This is a business, after all, and the publisher needs to have some kind of assurance that the writer will deliver on time. Publishing schedules are set sometimes a year in advance and from a business point of view a publisher doesn’t want to publish two high profile books in the same month—might ruin sales for both. Contracts keep the publisher and writer on the same page and help the publishing industry move smoothly.

When a writer delivers a book late, it skews the entire publishing process and hurts the entire publishing industry. Bestsellers help drive the industry’s economy. Bestsellers keep bookstores open. Bestsellers give publishers the ability to find the next big author from the slush pile. When a writer delivers a book late, it hurts a lot more people than just the writer, than just the reader.

Undoubtedly, George had a contract for A Feast For Crows and more than likely he missed the deadline for delivery of the finished manuscript to his editor. He undoubtedly also has a deadline for A Dance With Dragons and has more than likely missed that deadline as well.

The pain is felt everywhere.

As this is a business, and contracts are a reality, deadlines must be kept. To not do so is to be unprofessional. Fans have every right to be upset about George being unprofessional. That is a very valid argument and one I believe as well.

Second, the moment George turned in A Feast For Crows, he told his fans how the book had been split asunder, his reasons for doing it, and that A Dance With Dragons would be released relatively soon. He hoped to finish A Dance With Dragons by the end of 2006, according to his website, which would have been a year after the publication of A Feast For Crows. His words, not mine.

That self-imposed deadline by George was also not met. It misled his fans into believing the next book would be published within a year after A Feast For Crows. Whether that is just poor planning by George or a lie, no one knows—I prefer to think the craft of writing George employs gave him poor judgment and that there was no malicious intent on his part to mislead his fans. Disappointment is hard to swallow though; it festers and won’t let go in those who aren’t practiced at it. Those fans feel lied to, maybe even manipulated, and they certainly have another valid argument there I cannot disagree with.

So rise up, those fans who rage! Be angry over the lack of professionalism George has displayed and not being up front with his progress.

You certainly won’t get an argument out of me.

WRITING IS NOT A SCIENCE

Now, on to the assumptions many of these fans use against George that I feel are unwarranted and in some cases just plain mean.

Many people try to look at the release history of A Song of Ice & Fire and plot out or gauge when George should be releasing his books. They look at the first three books and, using simple arithmetic, seemingly know when A Dance of Dragons should be published.

But I am here to tell those people that writing is not a science.

Not for some writers, anyway.

I’ve discovered two different kinds of writers in all my years being around them. There are those I call Outliners and those I call Freewriters. They are very different. Outliners think their story through to the end before they even write one word. Sometimes they only know key points in the novel; sometimes they outline the individual chapters. All of them usually know where they are going while at the keyboard. Being an Outliner prevents writing oneself into a corner or having that evil thing known as Writer’s Block. It also allows for a writer to know essentially how long their story is and they can estimate how long it will take to write. As an example, Terry Brooks is an Outliner.

A Freewriter knows very little about where the story is taking them. When they sit down at the keyboard, they act almost like a medium, a vessel where the story comes through them onto the written page. They don’t outline but instead write what comes to them in the moment with very little planning if any at all. Often Freewriters are reduced to using deux ex machina or having to backtrack their way out of situations they have written themselves into. As an example, Stephen King is a Freewriter.

I am an Outliner.

George is, from what I understand, a Freewriter.

So, what does that mean? Well, it means George does not plan in advance what he writes. As a result, George will often write several chapters, which takes up several weeks, decide on a different and better course of direction, and have to erase those chapters—and quite possibly several others that came before them. Those weeks are gone with no output to show for it other than having a better sense of where he is going. According to him, that very thing has happened several times over the course of the last few years, delaying A Feast For Crows and now A Dance With Dragons. Unlike King, who sometimes has lackluster endings to his novels due to, in my opinion, lack of planning, George is an editor who will not publish something unless it is done right. The manner in which George writes can be volatile to the reader who believes George just needs to spend a certain amount of time at the keyboard to produce a manuscript.

But writing for George is not a science. He is a Freewriter. To try to make him other than that is folly—and disrespects the earlier work that has given such joy.

More on that at the end.

THE CREATIVE WALL

When I was only a reader and had not dabbled in the craft of writing or spent any time around those who use it, I always imagined that all a writer had to do was sit at a keyboard, hit keys for hours a day, and at the end of a year a book would exist. Seems plausible, right? Perfectly logical.

The reality is quite different—and more complex.

Every writer I have spoken to comes to a point in their creative day where, no matter how much they wish differently, the written word just does not happen the way it should. The writing becomes stagnant; it becomes useless and is simply not good enough to be published. No matter if the writer sits and tries to hammer their way through, nothing changes. To sit at the keyboard during that time is a waste of time.

I call it the Creative Wall.

All writers come to that Wall during their writing day, at least all writers I know. The average amount of time differs between writers. For instance, Terry Brooks spends between five or six hours a day before he is simply burnt out. Steven Erikson, on the other hand, doesn’t come to his Creative Wall until seven or eight hours have passed. For me, it is four or five hours. Every writer is different; every writer deals with it.

George comes to a Wall during his writing day too.

I do not know within what hours it happens—that is something I will ask him the next time I talk to him—but assuredly he has a limit like all other writers I know. It means any time he spends after he has hit the Wall is worthless to the outcome of the novel he is working on. The next day he would merely have to delete what he had written and start over again.

I only bring this up because many of his fans who wish to see A Dance With Dragons published yesterday think it only takes George sitting down at the keyboard, foregoing all other interests, and pounding his way through the book. I believe for him to do that would result in a book not worth reading. The Wall prevents it. The book would lack the magic that has come before.

None of us want that lack of magic, do we?

None of us want a mediocre book, I hope?

A lot more goes into writing a book than the average reader knows. I think it is important not to lose sight of that when wishing to so readily and easily chastise George.

After all, people should only argue what they know, not what they think they know.

THE MERCHANDISING OF HOBBIES

Probably the most abundant gripe I hear from fans about why A Dance With Dragons is not finished deals with the other projects and hobbies George has in his life. George is writing A Dance With Dragons but he also happens to edit several projects throughout his work year, most notably the Wild Cards series. He requires time to edit these projects, to contact the other people who are a part of them, and ensure they are done up to his high standards.

That is time fans believe he should be writing on A Dance With Dragons.

That would be disastrous.

Every day, after George has hit his Creative Wall, he has many hours where he can work on other projects and enjoy his other hobbies. This is time he can’t use on A Dance With Dragons, as I’ve illustrated; once he has come to that Wall, any time spent writing is pointless. What his hobbies and additional projects give George, however, is far more important than anyone realizes. They allow him to recharge those creative batteries so he can return the next day feeling refreshed and ready to write on A Dance With Dragons again. Removing those hobbies from his life would result in the same stagnation that comes about when a writer hits their Creative Wall.

Assumptions. Assumptions. Angry fans assume that George can just push forward and finish A Dance With Dragons despite how the craft of writing works. I am here to tell you, as a writer who has listened to dozens of writers talk about the process, that the craft of writing is far more complex than what most readers think.

Don’t fall prey to those assumptions.

To be fair, there might be some bleed over from those projects into A Song of Ice & Fire. Maybe. We don’t know. I am willing to admit I’m not a mouse hiding in George’s house watching his every move and how his writing matches up against what came before. Perhaps when George sits down to write on A Dance With Dragons he is still thinking about a short story anthology he is editing and the writing suffers. Perhaps the days he is traveling to a convention are days he doesn’t spend time writing anything at all. Logical, right? But my overall point is no one knows how George actually spends his time and I see too many people acting as though they know for a fact when they only carry assumptions.

The next time these fans chastise George for not using his time the way they think he should, they should think about what those hobbies, conventions and other projects do for George and his creative life.

And how they positively affect A Dance With Dragons.

THE EVOLUTION OF THE TRILOGY

Time to switch gears a bit from the last few points I’ve made. So much goes into writing a book, let alone a series, and I am trying to hit all of the points in a logical manner.

  • A Game of Thrones – August 1996
  • A Clash of Kings – February 1999
  • A Storm of Swords – November 2000
  • A Feast For Crows – November 2005
  • A Dance With Dragons – ?

A Song of Ice & Fire began as a trilogy. George started writing A Game of Thrones in 1991. While writing it he realized the first book he imagined was going to be quite a bit longer than what a physical book spine could hold. He published A Game of Thrones in 1996 but at the time of its publishing he already had 400 pages of A Clash of Kings done. In essence, he had a great jump on the second and third books in the series. By the time A Storm of Swords was published, the head start George had been given was gone.

When one looks at the math between 1991 and 2000, it took George nine years to write three books. Those first three books probably took him, on average, three years to write apiece. Three years is a long time.

We are at three years right now for A Dance With Dragons.

So why did A Feast For Crows take five years? Why did A Dance With Dragons have to be split from it?

This speaks to those people who think that George has only just now started splitting books—as well as those fans who seem to think he could write A Storm of Swords in a year and a half and he should be able to write further volumes at the same pace. A Feast For Crows was not the first time George split a book. As George has said, A Game of Thrones was originally quite a bit longer than it is published now. Some of it, at least a third but maybe half, ended up in A Clash of Kings, split off from the original book. A Dance With Dragons went the same way as A Clash of Kings once upon a time; George felt it best to split the pages and this is something he has been doing from the beginning.

This of course angers many people. Five years spent waiting and to have only received half of the book they were promised is aggravating. On top of that, A Feast For Crows did not have many of the point of view characters readers have come to love; they have been relegated to A Dance With Dragons. To add more insult to perceived injury, George related he had several hundred pages of A Dance With Dragons finished when he published A Feast For Crows, meaning he should have been well on his way to finish that next book.

I understand all of that. It is a lot to be mad about.

But here are two more facts that should be taken into account.

First, the book that would become A Feast For Crows was not even intended by George. Not originally. He had plans to jump ahead in the series by years, beginning what would be the fourth book at a time when the Stark children were older. After George had written for 18 months, he changed his mind, which eliminated 18 months worth of work. He began anew, deciding to change the course he had originally planned, and the book that would eventually become A Feast For Crows came into being. It took George a little more than three years to finish that book, which matches up with the “averages” we have seen for the earlier books—if you like math, which I don’t really.

Once again, the editing part of George decided to change course, a change of course that took time to finish.

Second, the averages say George should be able to write a book every three years, based on those first three—or four if you count Feast—books. But averages are just fancy math, nothing more, and I’ve already said science plays no part in a writer’s life—especially in a Freewriter’s life. But it turns out those pages of A Dance With Dragons George said he had finished when A Feast For Crows was published were mostly wiped out soon after the fourth book was published, according to his publisher, George once again destroying pages and pages and months and months of work because he decided to take the story in a different direction. Remember, this is a writer who can write six chapters over two months, decide to go a different direction, and erase those two month’s worth of work. That is the kind of writer George is; to deny it is to deny the truth of the matter.

To me, it looks like he is writing almost at the same rate now as he was back during the time period the original three books were written and published.

So much for hobbies and other projects preventing him from writing.

Then, riddle me this, you might ask: Why are these middle books of the series taking so long to write compared to those that came before?

If George is writing at the same rate, what has changed?

I have a theory that matches up with what we already know about George and how he writes:

It is the place George is at in the story.

The middle part of a story is much harder to write because of the amount of plot threads that have been brought together.

Imagine a story as a large tent, where the highest point of the structure is the middle. The tent rises at the beginning, comes to its height in the middle, and then tapers down toward the other end. A story does the same thing. A few characters are introduced at the beginning, more characters are introduced in the middle, and by the climax the number of characters have been reduced. Each character brought into the story must have a fully developed arc and those arcs take time to plan, to construct, and end correctly.

George, right now, is in the middle part of that tent, where he has the majority of characters his story will have, the majority of plot threads that can have any hundred ways of being completed in the climax. It was easy for him to juggle the few point of view characters he had in A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings, but with A Storm of Swords and A Feast For Crows—the middle books of the “trilogy”—the amount of point of view characters increased and the amount of ways his story could go increased as well. Each of those characters has a role to play in the overall multi-book story; each of those characters demand attention from George to be created, to live and hold their purpose accordingly. More characters equals more work—it has ever been so—and right now George is in the high point of that work.

No wonder it is taking him a long time to write these middle books.

And while in Spain last year at a convention, George essentially said the same thing. The amount of characters and plot threads have increased in these middle books, leaving a great deal more work for him to enact and consider.

Then, arguably, the characters to be featured in A Dance With Dragons are the characters people passionately enjoy reading about. Most of the series is driven through them. Care must be taken with all of the characters but I can see George wanting to make sure those characters in A Dance With Dragons are written correctly and are going the right direction. The rest of the series hinges on it.

Readers have missed those characters since 2000. So again, I can understand why they would be angry.

But when you couple all of those character threads and plot threads that are in the middle of the story with George’s propensity to rewrite and rewrite, trying to find his way as a Freewriter in a story that forces him to backtrack almost as much as he moves forward, it takes more time to finish a book than it did at the start of the series.

The trilogy that is no longer a trilogy. And yet it’s not really the amount of books that is published but the amount of words it takes to tell the tale. Sure, A Feast For Crows was split from the point of view characters in A Dance With Dragons, but all of those words and point of view characters are needed to finish the tale. As long as we get them, the story goes on.

Annoying, isn’t it?

Is all of that a valid argument? I don’t know. It is to me, having written a great deal and having heard other writers have the same issues in the middle of a story.

I hope you will at least consider it.

UPDATING BECOMES FOOLISH WHEN DARKNESS GATHERS

December 6, 2006 Not A Blog Entry: “What I will no longer do, however, is announce any more dates by which I hope to finish and deliver the book. All that those estimates ever seem to do is ratchet up my stress levels and get me more grief.”

Where do you think that stress and grief comes from?

A clue: It does not come from his wife Parris.

Tongue in cheek, people.

Some fans are angry at George for not posting more on his Not A Blog about where he stands in finishing A Dance With Dragons. Most writers, especially the younger writers who use the technology given them, update their fans about where they are at in the process of writing their next book. I know I do it for The Dark Thorn and I’m not even a published writer. For me, as an Outliner, it helps see the progress I’ve made and how much I have left. For readers, it helps gauge when they can expect the next book.

It also gives a formal accounting of where the writer is at in that writing process and shows the writer is actually making progress on the book.

Once upon a time, George was more up front about his progress. He would post what he had finished and when he hoped to be done. After that initial 2006 year when he said he’d have A Dance With Dragons wrapped up, however, things changed for George. The fans this article is mostly pointed at reared up and became more vocal, more angry. They sent their misgivings to George about A Dance With Dragons being late; they sent emails and made blog comments filled with rancor.

Those posts upset George. And why shouldn’t they? It took him a bit more than three years to write A Feast For Crows after changing direction and George had to feel good about that. To have his fans turn on him undoubtedly was painful—and probably made him angry. He realized there was no point updating his fans if every time he did it he would receive grief in his inbox and posted on his blog. So he stopped.

Now readers are angry George no longer updates his fans about his progress.

And they use it as an argument that he isn’t working on Dragons?

Catch 22, anyone?

But let us analyze his Not a Blog. George talked about A Dance With Dragons approximately 28 times in the two years 2007-2008. That’s quite often, in my book, more than once a month on average. Some of his comments are just him assuring his fans he is working on the book, but some of the posts are George talking specifically about what point of view chapters he had finished or was working on. A Tyrion chapter here. A Dany chapter there. A Bran revision completed. A Jon Snow total rewrite accomplished.

These are updates.

Even if there is no meter to see where those updates stand in the completion of the book.

To want George to add more information about the completion time of Dragons when readers throw that progress immediately in his face is mesmerizing to me. Why would any writer want to do that to themselves?

Why welcome the gathering darkness with open arms?

Where updates are concerned, the fans became their own worst enemy.

THE DRIVEN HYPOCRISY

What bothers me about most of the comments I see bandied about concerning the lateness of A Dance With Dragons is the utter lack of respect I see given to George. He has orchestrated and given countless hours of enjoyment for people and now some of those people are turning on the very man who gave it to them. It makes no sense to me. Those who decry the very writing process that brought them such great, enjoyable novels in the past are being hypocritical. Asking him to change that process to benefit the readers will only lead to books of lower quality.

Is that really what we want?

ANY CONCLUSIONS?

Here, at the end of all things, what have I solidified in my own thinking concerning George R. R. Martin and A Dance With Dragons:

  • George is unprofessional. People have a right to be angry at him for it.
  • Writing is not a science. Don’t force writers to maintain a math formula.
  • George is a Freewriter. It can slow his writing down.
  • George deletes much of what he writes. It is the editor in him making the story right.
  • There is only so much writing an author can do a day. The rest is bad writing.
  • Hobbies recharge a writer and do not necessarily take time away from a book.
  • Middle parts of a story take longer to write due to the greater amount of characters and plot threads to worry about.

When I add all of those things together, I can understand why A Dance With Dragons is late, although if you look at it closely it is not late. It very well could be on time for those people who use math formulas. I believe George is unprofessional but the anger I see sent his way has little to do with that and is mostly based on assumptions about how he spends his time, his hobbies, convention appearances or other projects.

Why do sheer assumptions lead people thus?

When the very nature of the craft of writing George employs to write each book answers every point and is far more logical.

I doubt this article will change the opinions of those who have thrown heavy gauntlets into George’s face. Readers merely want the book in their hands and when it isn’t they get grouchy; many really don’t care about the why of it being late but rather that it is late. Each of us brings our own experiences and our own opinions to the fold and I’m not asking that my opinions be so readily incorporated as fact. My own opinions are, however, founded in the industry and the craft of writing and should at the very least be thought on.

After all, my conclusions have left me comfortable with George taking his time to make A Dance With Dragons the best book it can be.

Can you say the same?

The simple truth is: If you are unhappy with George, choose not to buy his books.

That is your right as a consumer just as it is his right to choose whether to write or not.

As a side note, before I wrote this article, I sent George a fifteen-question interview concerning most of this and A Dance With Dragons. We correspond periodically and I thought it wise to offer him a platform to discuss the various spears being thrown at him. To his credit, he declined the interview for the moment, stating he would not answer the questions until after A Dance With Dragons was finished.

What is to come with A Dance With Dragons? I bet it will be published in early 2010. What of the next books, The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring? I don’t know but if my theory holds true the books should be written a bit faster than the middle books since the amount of plot threads should be reduced. Time will tell if I am right about that or not.

The question is after all of this: What do you think?