The real explanation for that long delay in George R.R. Martin's next book?

Illustration for article titled The real explanation for that long delay in George R.R. Martin's next book?

Fans have been waiting years for A Dance With Dragons, the fifth book in George R.R. Martin's Song Of Ice and Fire series. A vocal minority have gotten snarky about it. But really, they misunderstand the reasons for the delay.

I've been reading the Song Of Ice and Fire books for the past few weeks, and I've gotten up to midway through A Storm Of Swords. They're pretty amazing, in the way that a lot of Charles Dickens is amazing — there are a ton of characters, almost all of whom are memorable, managing to live in on your mind long after you put the books down.

And it seems like the series is, to some extent, about modernity — the characters are at the end of a period of stability, in which ordinary people felt secure and the law seemed to protect everyone. And as the world slides into chaos during the books' central power struggle, there's a lot of debate over what, if anything, the people in power owe to everybody else. Is a knight just a guy with a sword and a horse, or is he someone who protects the helpless? As social institutions are torn down in the endless fighting, their nature and value is debated over and over. The very slowness of the social disintegration in Martin's world provides fodder for discussing the nature of society, and you wonder if this society will ever have its Magna Carta.


But the series is also intensely chaotic, and one of Martin's main defenders/explainers, Shawn Speakman, says that's why Martin has run into trouble with finishing the next book. Over at Random House's Suvudu blog, Speakman wrote recently:

I believe the lateness of A Dance With Dragons has very little to do with George's time away from the keyboard and his extra-curricular activities-time he was taking before Feast when the books were coming out more timely-and more to do with writing himself into a possible corner. For years George has wrestled with the Knot and it has defeated him at almost every turn. In short, if he hasn't found a solution to the Knot by now, he may never...

We know Dance has been difficult to complete because it is the middle part of the series where characters and events have to be lined up just right for the march toward the eventual climax of the series. ... What's changed for George since 2000 is the complexity of the series and entering the all-too-important middle part of the story where delicate care must be given. That's why, in my opinion, these last two books have been difficult to write. When freewriters enter those parts of their stories, it causes chaos because they have given no forethought to what comes next.

I'm not sure what Speakman means by the Knot, but the references to Martin "writing himself into a possible corner" are a little alarming — at the same time, though, Speakman also says Martin's "finishing some of the final POV chapters in the book," although a number of them remain to be finished.

By coincidence, book reviewer extraordinaire Matt Hilliard posted a long review of the first four ASOIAF books at his blog Yet There Are Statues, and he delves into the reasons why Martin may have gotten himself stuck. Hilliard claims this series was originally planned as a trilogy (a claim Wikipedia supports) and says that the novel defies plot as we traditionally understand it. The main plotlines, including the story of the ancient evil beyond the Wall, the sorceress Melisandre and the progress of Daenerys, barely advance, and only account for about 15 percent of the first four books. So what accounts for the bulk of the books' storyline? Let Hilliard explain:

[M]ost of the series has been devoted to the titular game of thrones, as countless nobles struggle for power in Westeros. Unlike the plotlines I just described, this main thread does not follow normal conventions. It is almost completely without structure. Events happen one after another without any kind of cohesion. It's not that they don't make sense… everything seems fairly logical and Martin proves to be a very inventive spinner of intrigue and conspiracy. Yet this all proceeds outside of the narrative structure that has characterized western literature for centuries. There is no development, there is no sense of progression of any kind, there is no climax. It's the plot equivalent of someone banging an endless series of chords, each unrelated to the next, on a piano. Now I readily admit to being far more interested in the way stories are constructed than the average reader, but I think this has many important downsides even for those who aren't consciously aware of the dissonance.

What was immediately noticeable to readers of the first book in 1996 was the way they had no idea what was coming next. Why should they? Long experience has taught us how plots work in almost all fiction, but here was a book that was resolute in ignoring these conventions. To be sure, the immediate result is a fairly refreshing feeling of suspense. But these narrative conventions exist for a reason. Although A Feast for Crows has other shortcomings, I think one of the biggest reasons it wasn't as well received as the first three books was that without a sense of where the narrative is going, the reader doesn't feel any momentum. Since there's no plotline developing and advancing towards a climax, the reader realizes there's no reason why the intrigue surrounding the throne of Westeros can't go on indefinitely. And if the plot goes on indefinitely, then the individual events are completely deprived of meaning....

Martin surely was writing a conventional fantasy novel about an ancient evil and an exiled princess but somehow got distracted by what probably was summed up in some original one page outline in about one sentence ("Westeros monarchy weakened by infighting and succession problems"). Having fallen in love with what was supposed to be a bit of window dressing, he has continually expanded its role within the series even though it threatens to completely drown out what the series was supposed to be about in the first place. Is it any wonder that he has suffered from the contemporary genre's most famous case of writer's block?


Hilliard also contends that Martin doesn't actually deserve his reputation for killing off main characters — he just kills off characters who the reader has mistakenly decided were main characters. In any case, Hilliard's lukewarm review of Martin's series is worth reading in its entirety — I'm not sure whether I agree with it or not, but it's definitely thought-provoking. Put Speakman's and Hilliard's essays together, and you have one compelling explanation for why Martin may have run into trouble.

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On the one hand, he's certainly not "your bitch." There's absolutely no requirement for him to finish this book.

On the other hand, he has brought much of this criticism upon himself.

No one reacted to Jordan in anything like this fashion - and I am a long-suffering member of that fanbase, too - despite his production of a book (Crossroads of Twilight) that may be one of the worst books of all time.


Martin gives his readers an unparalleled look into his work habits, his schedule, and his frame of mind. What even a cursory study of NAB indicates is that the man is *constantly* complaining about attending Cons and going on trips and the New York Jets and needing time to recover from trips and needing time to prepare for trips and needing time to recharge his batteries. Moreover, he is shameless in flogging ASOIAF merchandise, as well as his past - generally failed - work, including, infamously, Wild Cards.

In this way, Gaiman and others are quite deliberately missing the point; they're setting up a straw man and beating the son of a bitch to death. Only a very, very small minority feels that Martin should do nothing but write ASOIAF.

What I, and others, by contrast are reacting to is largely Martin's *self-professed* lack of a work ethic, his constant pleas for his fanbase to feel sorry for his travails. He *publicly* complains about his busy schedule and how it leaves little time for writing. We respond that going to Cons or spending time on a Belfast set are fundamentally *his choice* and if he really thinks that they interfere with his professional life as a writer, then the simple answer is to cut back. I personally believe that ASOIAF is superior in many ways to WOT, but it is very hard not to contrast Oliver Rigney Jr's struggle to finish Knife of Dreams and A Memory of Light with Martin's foot dragging over first Feast and now Dance.

What Martin, Gaiman, and the whole host of Grrmlins ignore is that, just as his readers aren't entitled to his work, nobody *forced* him to start NAB. Nobody forced him to blog about each and every little thing in his life, nobody forced him to *constantly* shill for products that he could never have sold without his ASOIAF fame, nobody forced him to exhaustively catalog the casting of HBO's ASOIAF television series, and most important of all, nobody forced him to give us a blow-by-blow account of how very little time he actually spends writing.

Look, the man was simply not a success until ASOIAF, and it's totally reasonable to my mind that he would take the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of his labor.

But neither I nor anyone who feels like I do made the decision to publicize Martin's life. He did. He is reaping what he sowed.

At this point, I believe that, quite simply, the man has writer's block. In the past, and for the vast majority of popular writers, who don't have blogs detailing their every move, thought, and meal, this wouldn't have been a problem. It's not relevant how much time he spends on the book if he can't get it to work. I cannot help but feel a little insulted, though, by his cavalier attitude towards his fans.

And just to point out one last thing, Martin's not just dissembling to his fans, he's also been fairly dishonest with his publishers who - unless he's different from every other major author on the planet - have extended him a hefty advance for Dance. They have very real reasons to be upset with him, since they've been taken for a ride for the better part of a decade (Feast + Dance), and they are within their rights to demand the advance back. You'll notice that ole George has, recently, found himself unable to attend Cons and has at least partially recovered his work ethic. I don't think this is random.

Rather, the man can't lie to his publishers the way he might to anyone else. And now, there's an even bigger player in the room. The Home Box Office Network has *less than zero* interest in wasting literally millions of dollars on a series that has no end. The ASOIAF series is going to be ridiculously expensive.

The executives in Los Angeles and New York are not going to put up with even the shit that the publishers have. They're spending real money and probably putting their own careers on the line with this project. At this stage, they and the publishers represent the sole group capable of forcing Martin either to break through his writer's block or to move on.