As many of you well know, there has been a recent spate of “pro-George” articles on the many GRRM- and fantasy-themed blogs squatting around the internet. These articles take disgruntled fans to task for their opinions, tactics, and general attitudes towards the big guy, lambasting those of us who would dare to criticize a man for his blog, his hobbies, and his long, long awaited novel. These articles include writings by JamesL, Wert, Aidan, and Graeme. You may have already read these, and if so, read on. If you haven’t read them, you may want to glance them over to be clear on what I am talking about today.
However, most of these recent articles seem to have spawned from a single source (nice alliteration there, eh?), a lengthy article by Shawn Speakman entitled “In Defense of George R.R. Martin.” Now Speakman is a nice guy, and I think he does his best to make at least a passing attempt at fair play, citing a couple reasons why fans should be angry with George. However, Speakman makes his biases clear from the beginning – he is a GRRM apologist, and he generally thinks the criticisms levied at the Master Procrastinator are invalid. I understand where Speakman is coming from, but as you might expect, there are many points of his with which I disagree. So, in the interest of having the voice of the disgruntled rabble heard, here is my response to Speakman’s article.
Now before I get to Speakman’s commentary, I will point out that he begins with an ethos-based argument, citing his background in the world of fantasy. For those of you unfamiliar with the world of rhetoric, aka the art of persuasion, here is a very quick (and VERY simplified) primer:
Logos – persuasion through logic
Ethos – persuasion through the reputation of the speaker
Pathos – persuasion through audience emotion
To explain, an ethos argument is one in which you try to convince an audience of your point by showing them how much you know, how experienced you are. Basically, you flaunt your resume and push the “expert witness” button. This is a very old and well-established argument style, and I do not deny Speakman’s credentials. However, unless you actually are George R.R. Martin, I don’t think anybody else’s credentials really matter when it comes to the issue of George’s delay.
However, since Shawn believes that credentials are relevant when discussing this matter, I will give you some of mine. Like Shawn and the rest of you, I have been reading fantasy novels for over twenty years. I have a bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing from a Big Ten university, and during my tenure there I worked with countless novelists and poets and was directly instructed by them on the ins and outs of writing and publishing. I wrote my first (and only) novella during that time, an occasionally-amusing, but mostly unimpressive, Bradbury-meets-Patrick McManus-style intertwining of stories surrounding a small town. Think Dandelion Wine meets The Night the Bear Ate Goombaw and you’ll probably be in the right territory, as awkward as it is. But nevertheless, for a few years, I got to sit down with Pulitzer Prize winners and National Book Award winners and have them explain to me why everything I wrote totally sucked, which is a valuable, if entirely humbling experience.
Post-college, I worked as a copywriter, then returned to grad school to earn an M.A. in Rhetoric, hence why I know fancy terms like “ethos.” (Side note: If you are interested in the fun world of rhetoric, I recommend a recent book by Jay Heinrichs, Thank You for Arguing. Fun and accessible ways of seeing rhetoric at work in mainstream pop culture.) During my time in grad school, I worked with, yes, even more novelists, and I completed (and threw away) my first novel as well. (Something to realize about me: I am almost never satisfied with my own work. In two or three years, I will probably wish I could rewrite this whole blog.) I worked in – yes, get ready – one of the largest bookstores in the world, where I got to hobnob with the elite of the publishing world, which usually consisted of hack authors on book tours shilling titles like Fifty Fun Knitting Projects for Rainy Days and How to Eat Your Own Husband…and Lose Weight Doing It. However, unlike Shawn, I never, ever invited these authors into my home.
After that M.A., I earned myself a M.Ed., and now I spend most of my time teaching kids where to put commas and explaining to them exactly why reading Othello is necessary if one wishes to have the full and enriched life. I have created and ended more websites than I can recall, I have thrown a packet of non-dairy creamer at David Lynch’s head, and I have been interviewed by Seventeen magazine. Truly, my life is a model to which all others aspire.
So now you know a bit about me. And, in my opinion, none of that really amounts to a hill of beans when it comes to this issue at hand, the issue of GRRM’s attitude, productivity (or lack thereof), and general inability to follow up on expectations and deadlines. So I will address Shawn’s points one by one, and like he says, you can “take what I write with a bit of understanding – or salt.”
#1: WHY FANS SHOULD BE ANGRY
My response here will be short because….well, Shawn and I agree here. George clearly missed deadlines at several points along the way, and he misled fans into thinking that AFFC would come earlier, that ADWD was basically finished, and that ADWD would be following AFFC rather expeditiously. Obviously, none of these things happened. George let down his publisher and his fans, and has displayed a huge lack of professionalism in this area. Shawn, high five, we are on the same page.
#2: WRITING IS NOT A SCIENCE
Here, Shawn argues that writing cannot be boiled down to a strict methodology, that what has happened previously cannot be expected to happen in subsequent occurrences. Just because an author writes two books in four years doesn’t mean that the next book will take two years to write, as well. I can agree with that.
However, where Shawn and I diverge comes in his follow-up point about Freewriters versus Outliners. If you haven’t read the article (and you should, it’s about as good as it gets from the “pro-GRRM camp,” IMO), Shawn states:
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.
Okay, now I can agree in part with what Shawn is saying here; while perhaps we can’t strictly divide writers into two types, from the authors I know and have read, these seem like pretty accurate titles. Some writers have to know the story’s end before they can begin (John Irving is famous for this, for example. He knows the last line and works backwards. Dickens was like this too.) Other writers just sit down and have to see where the story takes them, and they will clean it up or adjust it or refine it afterwards.
However, if we accept these ideas to be true, then I believe GRRM can be held to task for a couple reasons:
1) If you want to start, and finish, a series, you have to be an Outliner, at least to some degree. ASOIAF was clearly set up with some sort of definite ending in mind. We have prophecies, and clear plot development, in the first three books. Characters’ functions are clear and, despite George getting hampered down in descriptions of clothing and food, the story seems to be moving along towards a definite conclusion. Do I know what that conclusion is? Of course not. But as we all know, there are infinite numbers of guesses regarding who the “dragon with three heads” is, and who is “the prince that was promised,” and things of that sort. George was clearly setting up certain ideas and characters to be meaningful in the long run.
That being said, writing a fantasy series is not a task of randomly creating stories about a set of characters. To clarify, think about television shows like Lost, or Heroes. (If you are all nerds like I am, you probably watch one of these shows.) While there are episodes and plotlines that may veer off on occasion for entertainment’s sake or character development purposes, it is clear that the writers know where the story is going to end. (At least, it is clear in Lost. I have watched all of Lost, but only that first season of Heroes. And even there, every episode pushed towards the final confrontation with Skylar.) In other words, you can’t start a series without having some idea about where it is going to end. This isn’t like the Terminator, where somebody wrote a script, and then fifteen years later somebody decided to create a sequel. No, George started this series, at the time intending to make it a trilogy; he had a firm idea of what the story would be, at least in general, from beginning to end. Or if I am assuming too much, then I will say that he did a fantastic job of faking it for three books. Now clearly the story got bigger than he intended, but unless he was completely hopped up on SweetTarts and Yoo-Hoo, I have to believe that at least the general concept of what he was going for is still in these books. So you cannot be a Freewriter, just “seeing where things go,” if you are trying to create a series. You have to have an outline to some degree, and if you don’t, you are just an irresponsible writer. Which could be the case; maybe George just got lucky and kept us all on the hook for three books. But I doubt it.
However, this brings me to point #2 against Shawn’s argument regarding writing as a science. Shawn points to one of my favorite writers, Stephen King, as an example of a “Freewriter.” Now King will be the first to admit that his writing is the “literary equivalent of fast food,” (I think I’ve quoted that before), but King also demonstrates a very important point: that writing is, in large part, a science.
How so? Stephen King writes 3,000 words a day. Always. Every day. Read his book On Writing if you haven’t already, because it’s brilliant. But King proves what every novelist and writing instructor has told you time and time again: if you want to be a writer, and a good writer, you have to write every day. King notes that the only time he didn’t write was during his recovery from being hit by a van, and as soon as he was able, he was back at the keyboard. Discipline is key to being a productive writer, and even though King is a Freewriter, always working on multiple projects at the same time, he still keeps putting out material. And even in the case of a series like The Green Mile, he delivered one novella a month for six months straight. Sure, they’re a lot shorter than ASOIAF, but the point is, he knew where it was going from beginning to end. Same with The Dark Tower series; once it became clear that there was a growing fanbase for the Gunslinger, and people wanted to know more, King got cracking. Now those books took a longer time than ASOIAF, right? The difference is, those books were not begun with an ending in mind; King meandered about with Roland and the gang, weaving in characters and storylines and seeing where things went. If that’s the case with ASOIAF, then fine, but I don’t believe the books have been presented that way.
So in short – I know, I say that, but I never mean it – George either (1) SHOULD be an Outliner, if he has lost where his series is going, or (2) he needs to follow every other writer’s and professor’s advice and write every day to get over that dreaded writer’s block that we all suspect he has.
#3: THE CREATIVE WALL
This point of Shawn’s makes a huge assumption: namely, that George is working on ADWD, or some other creative work, every single day. I do not buy this.
George has made it clear that he can only write under very specific conditions: in his special chair, with the room at exactly 70 degrees, with his special floppy writing hat on, a basket of circus peanuts in his lap, whatever. George has pointed out that he can’t write on the road, he can’t write during sci-fi cons, he can’t write because of this, because of that, etc. And to me, that’s just somebody making excuses. I get the same thing from my students when they tell me they can’t read twenty pages of Cuckoo’s Nest because of x, y, or z, or they couldn’t write a whole paragraph last night because of blah blah blah. You can write if you make yourself.
As Shawn points out in his previous paragraph, some readers believe that George just needs to spend a certain time at a keyboard to produce a manuscript. That is exactly what he needs to do. Any writer will tell you that you don’t overcome writer’s block by avoiding writing. You push and push and you force your way through it. Shawn assumes that George is hitting “The Creative Wall” like so many authors. For me to believe that, I have to know that George is first setting foot in the park. From what I can tell, George isn’t anywhere near the wall. He’s out in the parking lot, chatting with the fans and hobnobbing with the press. He’s meeting with the Albanian mobsters who publish his calendars and watching football and doing interviews with any news outlet that will give him some attention.
Of course, Shawn points out that if George just sits at a keyboard and plunks away, with no regard to anything else, he “would result in a book not worth reading. The Wall prevents it. The book would lack the magic that has come before.”
Summarily, Shawn asks:
None of us want that lack of magic, do we?
None of us want a mediocre book, I hope?
And no, we do not want that lack of magic. We do not want a mediocre book. But in case you haven’t noticed, we already got a mediocre book. It was called A Feast for Crows. And “mediocre” is being generous.
So whatever process GRRM is using to finish off the series, to me, it seems like it ain’t working. Time to try some new tactics if you want to bring back the magic.
#4: THE MERCHANDISING OF HOBBIES
In this point, Shawn states the following: “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, to me, is a contradiction to what has been argued in earlier points. Many assumptions are at play here:
- It assumes GRRM is working on ADWD “every day”
- It assumes that, “every day,” George is hitting a “creative wall”
- It assumes that George has “many hours” for non-ASOIAF related activities
Let’s consider these ideas. For one, if George has “many hours” every day to devote to swords, Wild Cards, and pewter miniatures, then he probably isn’t spending too much time working on ASOIAF. If the task of completing a book that is "magical" and worth reading is so difficult, one would think that working on it takes more than an hour or so a day.
As mentioned above, I don’t buy the “Creative Wall” argument when it comes to this author. But if I am supposed to accept that, how come George isn’t hitting that “creative wall” in regards to all these other supposed “creative” projects? Because the last time I checked, George hasn’t mustered up much creative writing in the non-ASOIAF department since the release of AGOT. We have:
- Wild Cards, which everyone has noted doesn’t involve him writing
- Hunter’s Run, which is an expanded version of a 2004 novella, which in turn was expanded from a short story originally created by Gardner Dozois in 1976. From what I have read, George hasn’t contributed much of anything to this three-author book since 1982.
- The “novelette” of “A Night at the Tarn House.”
- Various “collections” of old material
Shawn repeatedly makes the point that he is “a writer who has listened to dozens of writers talk about the process,” and that “the craft of writing is far more complex than what most readers think”. Well, I’m also a writer who has listened to dozens of writers talk about the process, and I disagree with the assumptions being made here. The craft of writing is not some amorphous enigma that only a select few are privy to comprehending. There are far too many writers out there who have proven that it is possible to treat writing like a job, because that’s what it is for them. You write every day. You meet your deadlines. You push yourself through the “creative wall,” because guess what, people are depending on you, both fans and business associates. Seriously, if GRRM hadn’t written these novels, but had instead done this as a TV series for HBO from start to finish, do you think he would have had trouble staying on schedule and finishing it up? And if he had, do you think HBO wouldn’t have just dumped him for somebody else? Writing fiction may be a more unique job than some, but it’s still a job.
To conclude this point, Shawn notes that “[t]he 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.”
Shawn may have a point, but the fact is, nobody has any evidence that these things are positively affecting ADWD. In fact, if we look at AFFC as a sample of how these other hobbies affect George’s creative life, I think we have plenty of evidence to the contrary: namely, that George’s creativity, and creative output, is suffering.
#5: THE EVOLUTION OF THE TRILOGY
This is a long section of Speakman’s article, but I am going to try and pare it down to the core arguments, which I believe he makes here:
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.
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… 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.
In regards to Speakman’s first point, I think that once again, the argument is self-defeating. If George had a course of action he originally planned, then he is an Outliner, and he clearly did not do a very good job of outlining if it required him to throw away that much work. And honestly, I feel like AFFC would have been better off if it had been left unwritten. The amount of relevance it seems to have to the series is sparse, at best.
As for the second point, I agree that you can’t make mathematical arguments about how long it “should” take someone to write a book…up to a point. I believe there is a point where one can reasonably argue that a writer worth his or her salt should have been able to churn out a second book – especially in a series, when half of the work (plot, characters, setting) has already been set up. It’s not like ADWD is something entirely disparate from the ASOIAF series. (Or at least I hope it isn’t. Gods be good, Ned, what the fuck is this new book about?) ADWD and (allegedly) AFFC are both novels based in Westeros and its surrounding lands regarding the prophecy about the dragon with three heads and eunuchs and sellswords and Myrish priests and the Lannisters and everything else. When all that stuff is laid out for you, writing is, in fact, much easier. Now that’s not to say that new material and characters and plotlines won’t arise along the way – of course they will. But there is a big difference in someone telling me “Write me a fantasy novel” and “Write me a story about Eddard Stark, his kids, and the land of Westeros in which ___ and ___ and ___ have taken place…”
Another point back to Speakman’s argument: he tells us to remember that “this is a writer who can write six chapters over two months.” Here’s a bit of math for you:
Info taken from the always-depressing Westeros forums:
Manuscript pages of AFFC: ~1100
Words per manuscript page: 300
# of Chapters: 46
Let’s do some math:
1100 pages x 300 words per page = 330,000 words
330,000 words/46 chapters = ~7,100 words per chapter
Six chapters = 6 x 7100 = 42,600 words
42,000 words/2 months = 21,300 words/month = 21,300 words/30 days = 710 words per day.
710 words per day.
That’s about two pages. Typed, double spaced.
George is really hitting that creative wall pretty quick, don’t’cha think?
For comparison purposes, I have been writing this post in two forty-minute sessions, and right now I am at word 3,890. So if it’s taking George two months to write 42,000 words, then he needs to approach his job with a bit more dedication and discipline, in my opinion.
Speakman’s other point in this section is that GRRM is at the central part of the story, and that more characters = more work. Again, most people including myself have noted that a significant amount of characters have no readily apparent purpose to this story (Arys Oakheart, Arienne Martell, Brienne of Tarth, Asha Greyjoy, etc., etc., etc.), so I do not sympathize with someone for stuffing their story full of unnecessary effluvia. Once again, Speakman comes back to the notion that he is a writer, and he’s talked to other writers, and they’ve all had the same issues with the center of a story. That could be, but once again, I think there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary that shows us that plenty of writers have dealt with similar problems and made their way through their tasks in a reasonable amount of time.
#6: UPDATING BECOMES FOOLISH…
Let’s get straight to the point on this one. Speakman argues that people are upset because he doesn’t use his NAB to update people on ADWD.
I argue that that is not the case.
In my opinion, people are upset because:
1) GRRM refuses to answer questions about ADWD, and even censors people’s comments asking about it;
2) GRRM consistently uses his NAB to attempt to sell things to his fans, which most people find offensive and extremely lacking in taste; and
3) George’s NAB seems to highlight the extreme lack of dedication and focus that GRRM is displaying in regards to ADWD and ASOIAF
In short, perhaps in the past, people were upset because George was not updating them every two days about progress on ADWD. And today, there are probably still some people who are upset about that. I am not one of those people, because I have long accepted the fact that the NAB will never deign to keep George’s fans informed about the one project that they all care about. But what I am upset about is the fact that the NAB seems to serve mostly as a conduit for sales pitches.
#7: THE DRIVEN HYPOCRISY
Shawn believes that there is hypocrisy afoot, that George is being shown disrespect by his fan base.
In my opinion, the fan base is simply returning the disrespect they have been receiving, disrespect in the form of having their speech censored, being treated like cash cows, and being told that their dedication and desire for an author’s work is little more than an annoyance.
And as for the “writing process that brought [us] such great, enjoyable novels in the past,” I once again point to AFFC. I wasn’t critical of George during the first three novels, and I held my tongue for a long time. But between the NAB, the clear dismissal of his fans and his craft, and the quality of AFFC, I think losing the respect of fans like me is something that should have been expected. Fans like me want to love George, we want to be excited about ASOIAF, and we want to have that great experience of enjoying an author and his work. However, desires like these come from readers who are used to feeling respected and honored by the people to whom they freely give their money. I don’t accept arguments that paint writers as benevolent humanitarians, who are being kind to us by giving us their words to enjoy, and we should thank them and never, ever criticize how or why they do what they do. Novelists do what they do to earn a living, or at least try to, and it is a business that involves production, supply, demand, all those fun Econ 101 ideas. Customer service isn’t an idea that’s restricted to video rental stores and computer help hotlines.
#8: ANY CONCLUSIONS?
My conclusions are that Speakman makes a lot of assumptions. I agree with him in part, in his points that many people make assumptions about GRRM and how he works. However, I diverge from this point of his:
Why do sheer assumptions lead people [to be angry]?
When the very nature of the craft of writing George employs to write each book answers every point and is far more logical.
To me, the “craft” George is employing at this point is illogical, when it is evident at all.
But then, asks Speakman, why not choose not to buy his books? A common argument, one I equate with the “If you don’t like the USA, then get out” argument. The fact is, if I had a time machine and I could go back and NOT start reading this series, knowing how AFFC would turn out and how GRRM would act towards his fans, I would gladly save the money I spent on these books. But I have invested my time and money in this series, of my own free will, and I did that under the impression that the author would be working in a timely and professional manner. I have spent that money, and GRRM and his publishers have taken it. And I believe that when an author tells me he is going to give me a series, that he wants me to buy his merchandising, that he doesn’t seem to be working, and that I am not allowed to ask about when it will be finished…well, I think anybody has a right to be offended. And if George chooses not to write, as Speakman claims it is his right to do, then I will say that I will not be shocked when he does so, because not writing seems to be his modus operandi.
In the end, I applaud Shawn for his efforts in writing a lengthy and cogent argument in defense of GRRM. However, I am afraid I don’t accept Shawn’s rationale. Especially when Shawn points out that GRRM declined to respond to an interview request for his article. What else did he expect?