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Sunday, October 17, 2010

"George R.R. Martin is not your bitch"

Since we have been talking about whether Robert Anton Wilson lived up to fans' expectations for finishing the Historical Illuminatus series (and whether any criticism is really fair), I thought I would pass on a classic blog posting by Neil Gaiman, the prominent fantasy writer, after a reader wrote to him to complain that another genre writer, George R.R. Martin, needed to get busy and finish his next novel.

The complete posting is here, but here is the relevant exchange:

Hi Neil,

I've recently subscribed to George RR Martin's blog ( in the hopes of getting some inside information regarding when the next "Song of Ice and Fire" book is due to be released. I love the series but since subscribing to the blog I've become increasingly frustrated with Martin's lack of communication on the next novel's publication date. In fact, it's almost as though he is doing everything in his power to avoid working on his latest novel. Which poses a few questions:

1. With blogs and twitter and other forms of social media do you think the audience has too much input when it comes to scrutinising the actions of an artist? If you had announced a new book two years ago and were yet to deliver do you think avoiding the topic on your blog would lead readers to believe you were being "slack"? By blogging about your work and life do you have more of a responsibility to deliver on your commitments?

2. When writing a series of books, like Martin is with "A Song of Ice and Fire" what responsibility does he have to finish the story? Is it unrealistic to think that by not writing the next chapter Martin is letting me down, even though if and when the book gets written is completely up to him?

Would be very interested in your insight.


My opinion....

1) No.

2) Yes, it's unrealistic of you to think George is "letting you down".

Look, this may not be palatable, Gareth, and I keep trying to come up with a better way to put it, but the simplicity of things, at least from my perspective is this:

George R.R. Martin is not your bitch.

This is a useful thing to know, perhaps a useful thing to point out when you find yourself thinking that possibly George is, indeed, your bitch, and should be out there typing what you want to read right now.

People are not machines. Writers and artists aren't machines.

You're complaining about George doing other things than writing the books you want to read as if your buying the first book in the series was a contract with him: that you would pay over your ten dollars, and George for his part would spend every waking hour until the series was done, writing the rest of the books for you.

No such contract existed. You were paying your ten dollars for the book you were reading, and I assume that you enjoyed it because you want to know what happens next.

It seems to me that the biggest problem with series books is that either readers complain that the books used to be good but that somewhere in the effort to get out a book every year the quality has fallen off, or they complain that the books, although maintaining quality, aren't coming out on time.

Both of these things make me glad that I am not currently writing a series, and make me even gladder that the decade that I did write series things, in Sandman, I was young, driven, a borderline workaholic, and very fortunate. (and even then, towards the end, I was taking five weeks to write a monthly comic, with all the knock-on problems in deadlines that you would expect from that).

For me, I would rather read a good book, from a contented author. I don't really care what it takes to produce that.

Some writers need a while to charge their batteries, and then write their books very rapidly. Some writers write a page or so every day, rain or shine. Some writers run out of steam, and need to do whatever it is they happen to do until they're ready to write again. Sometimes writers haven't quite got the next book in a series ready in their heads, but they have something else all ready instead, so they write the thing that's ready to go, prompting cries of outrage from people who want to know why the author could possibly write Book X while the fans were waiting for Book Y.

I remember hearing an upset comics editor telling a roomful of other editors about a comics artist who had taken a few weeks off to paint his house. The editor pointed out, repeatedly, that for the money the artist would have been paid for those weeks' work he could easily have afforded to hire someone to paint his house, and made money too. And I thought, but did not say, “But what if he wanted to paint his house?”

I blew a deadline recently. Terminally blew it. First time in 25 years I've sighed and said, “I can't do this, and you won't get your story.” It was already late, I was under a bunch of deadline pressure, my father died, and suddenly the story, too, was dead on the page. I liked the voice it was in, but it wasn't working, and eventually, rather than drive the editors and publishers mad waiting for a story that wasn't going to come, I gave up on it and apologised, worried that I could no longer write fiction.

I turned my attention to the next deadline waiting – a script. It flowed easily and delightfully, was the most fun I've had writing anything in ages, all the characters did exactly what I had hoped they would do, and the story was better than I had dared to hope.

Sometimes it happens like that. You don't choose what will work. You simply do the best you can each time. And you try to do what you can to increase the likelihood that good art will be created.

And sometimes, and it's as true of authors as it is of readers, you have a life. People in your world get sick or die. You fall in love, or out of love. You move house. Your aunt comes to stay. You agreed to give a talk half-way around the world five years ago, and suddenly you realise that that talk is due now. Your last book comes out and the critics vociferously hated it and now you simply don't feel like writing another. Your cat learns to levitate and the matter must be properly documented and investigated. There are deer in the apple orchard. A thunderstorm fries your hard disk and fries the backup drive as well...

And life is a good thing for a writer. It's where we get our raw material, for a start. We quite like to stop and watch it.

The economics of scale for a writer mean that very few of us can afford to write 5,000 page books and then break them up and publish them annually once they are done. So writers with huge stories, or ones that, as Sandman did, grow in the telling, are going to write them and have them published as they go along.

And if you are waiting for a new book in a long ongoing series, whether from George or from Pat Rothfuss or from someone else...

Wait. Read the original book again. Read something else. Get on with your life. Hope that the author is writing the book you want to read, and not dying, or something equally as dramatic. And if he paints the house, that's fine.

And Gareth, in the future, when you see other people complaining that George R.R. Martin has been spotted doing something other than writing the book they are waiting for, explain to them, more politely than I did the first time, the simple and unanswerable truth: George R. R. Martin is not working for you.

Hope that helps.


Alias Bogus said...

What an excellent post!

Thanks so much for that. I loved RAW and studied with him online, at the end, when writing books or even going on lecture dates had started to become difficult.

I can only say I missed the fourth volume, too, but know that other things happened to intervene, and that (as a Writer) he was still very much available for social networking feedback, with ideas and encouragement and (unlike most 'gurus') kept pointing us outward from his own work to other things he loved - not just his own influences, but also modern connections, and even our own creative output.

Neil Gaiman nails that whole thing in this brief but elegant response.

michael said...

I agree. Gaiman said more than everything I thought I wanted to say to the person who criticized RAW for "selling out."

When I think of the suffering - physical as well as mental - that RAW had to endure from 1998 (when Arlen's health problems became very serious)to 2007, I'm surpised he was able to do anything. In 2000 his PPS kicked in with a vengeance. He still made himself available to the Maybe Logic guys, all kinds of interviewers (including myself, and Eric Wagner, among many others), and put out the Encyclopedia, TSOG, and Email to the Universe. He continued to write introductions to other writers' works...and he gave his time to the Maybe Logic Academy courses, among other things. RAW was no one's bitch, that's for goddamned sure.

How easy, how FATUOUS to suggest RAW sold out.

Eric Wagner said...

Cool post, and cool comments Bogus and Dr. Johnson.

I remember my distress at the slowness of the last dozen issues of Sandman. I had become obsessed with the series, and I haunted the comic book stores waiting and waiting for the end of the series.

Anonymous said...

But presumably you would agree that there's a world of difference between Gaiman being late with a few issues "Sandman," and Gaiman abandoning "Sandman" around issue 60 to write "American Gods"? The former was mildly irritating; the latter would have been devastating, not just to his fans - those who considered Gaiman their bitch and otherwise - but to himself, and to his Story, and to his continued reputation.

Eric Wagner said...

No. While Sandman sold a ton of comics and made Mr. Gaiman a lot of money, multiple companies involved with the Historical Illuminatus series went out of business (through no fault of Bob's) and the series didn't sell that well. Just as Pound didn't finish the Cantos, Chaucer didnt' finish the Canterbury Tales and Spenser didn't finish the Faery Queen, Bob didn't finish this series. Instead he remained true "to himself, and to his Story, and to his continued reputation" and wrote what seemed best to him, according to his reason and intuition, etc.

Anonymous said...

"While Sandman sold a ton of comics and made Mr. Gaiman a lot of money..."

I think we're back where we started.

Vincent Murphy said...

I seem to recall Uncle Bob quoting on occasion that no masterpiece is ever finished it is simply abandoned.

As for deadlines I heard an interview with Geoffrey Perkins the Producer of the original Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy where he said that Douglas Adams 'often only finished writing the episode a couple of hours after the audience had gone home!'