Tuesday, June 21, 2011

George Martin, Jim Butcher, and How Long Fans Should Wait

The long-awaited fifth installment in A Song of Ice and Fire.

 George Martin’s A Dance With Dragons is done. If it isn’t the most anticipated novel of the decade, it’s certainly the one that has the most ardent fans screaming at the guy whose work they supposedly adore. George Martin (or “George R.R. Martin” to people who know many more George Martins than I do) is the creator of The Song of Ice and Fire series, recently adapted into an HBO television show featuring as many bare female asses as possible. Martin is notorious for leaving the film and television industry to write books of scopes that their budgets couldn’t accommodate. He is also notorious for taking his sweet time. The previous book in his series was published in 2005, and fans have clamored for the next one ever since. Leading up to this announcement I joked that the HBO series was a boon to us: even if he co-wrote every episode, a successful adaptation would require him to finish the series so they could film it.

Dear readers, I make you this pledge: if it comes to it, I will drive you every bit as mad as George Martin. Barring duress or the unforeseen, I will not publish a book that isn’t done. That means taking the time to get the story right, and diligence in every ensuing draft, however many it takes. I will not sell you a half-assed book just because it’s faster. If I have the tremendous luck to achieve Martin’s success, I will keep millions of readers waiting until the book is worth their time.

Jim Butcher also made a big announcement this year. Originally his Ghost Story, the next installment in his bestselling Dresden Files series, was due out in April. At MarsCon he announced he was taking a few extra months to polish the novel and would instead release it July 26th. Fellow Fantasy novelist Patrick Rothfuss was actually filmed giving the news a double thumbs-up. This was great: a writer who could abuse his audience’s wallets instead asked them to please wait so he can release the book he wants it to be.

Martin’s and Butcher’s are different scenarios. To be fair, Martin announced he’d probably finish his book “in a year” about four years ago. Butcher’s delay was easier to handle, and not only because it was shorter. He came out in public, in front of fans, explained some reasons he wanted more time, and gave a specific date that was only a few more months away. If you can’t accept an author doing that, I don’t know what to do for you.

None of the harassment I’ve ever received over my writing has been from deadlines. I’m apparently punctual. That’s not why I hold this opinion. Larry McMurtry spent over a decade coming up with Lonesome Dove. If he was pounding the typewriter to make an annual deadline, we wouldn’t have that classic Western. The same goes for the lifetime Harper Lee put into To Kill a Mockingbird, and all the years Mark Twain eyeballed the unfinished Huckleberry Finn. In retrospect it’s funny to imagine the American canon getting angry fan mail to release that damned classic already.

Tardy authors can be hounded, petitioned and even threatened over their release schedules. Stephen King once received a photograph of a teddy bear and a note saying it would be dismembered if he didn’t get the next Dark Tower installment out soon. King jokingly thanked that fan in the ensuing Foreword. I don’t know if I’d be so jovial, but then we don’t know what his initial reaction was, and he’s dealt with worse. His wife once woke up to find a mad bomber had broken into their house. Luckily he was more mad than a bomber, and the explosives were actually pencil erasers.

Enthusiasts can be overwhelmed. The worst I’ve ever done was pretend I was rectangularly pregnant in order to sneak a 12-pack of Pepsi into The Phantom Menace. People get overwhelmed and do regrettable things. All anger over delays is regrettable. You don’t get those hours of negativity back, hours you could have spent reading a new author, doing your taxes, volunteering at a soup kitchen, or whatever you like to do. Whatever negative affirmation we get from nerd raging isn’t worth the time, and often comes from a disturbing sense of entitlement over other people.

George Martin has been called lazy, flighty, even abusive to his fans for not finishing the book in that original year. All this by people who’ve never met him. The celebrity culture aspect of this disturbs. It goes beyond people thinking that their 99 cents or $29.99 for the previous book entitles them to a steady feed of sequels.

What if George Martin succumbed to schizophrenia in 2006? How do you know he isn’t dying of some obscure disease and decided to keep it private while he arranged his affairs? Forget possibly writing himself into a corner, or needing to recharge his batteries, or going through an extensive re-drafting process that is not actually uncommon in the history of English literature. Instead ask if his wife didn't get acute cancer and he spent all the time since then shuttling her from appointment to appointment, cooking special meals, essentially living for two and jotting down chapters when he had the emotional energy left?

Even if you subscribe to their RSS and Twitter feeds, you don’t know the reasons authors are late. Authors have descended into suicide their families didn't see coming. You can't believe that Facebook updates give you all the inside information.

I suffer from a neuromuscular syndrome that gets so bad there are days I can't get out of bed. It’s been getting worse all week and I know that by the weekend, I’ll have at least a few days when productivity is impossible. If some day this grows severe enough that I fall months behind on composition, angry letters won't help anybody. In my case, the stress will actually feed through my system and make me sicker.

I realize gossiping about Charlie Sheen and judging Sarah Palin is cathartic for millions of people, but it’s also entirely illusory. People have always felt entitled. I get it, I even do it - though I've tried to weed it out of myself. Now we have the unparalleled capacity to think we know the existences of strangers. It goes beyond Neil Gaiman’s defense that “George R.R. Martin isn’t your bitch.” It’s a dismissal of your fellow human being, and in these cases, a fellow human being who is working on something you like.

In ways, you and I are strangers. I’m ignorantly assuming things about you – that you and anyone blessed with the love of literature can show amazing heart and patience to your fellow humans. It’s that kind of encouragement that drives many authors who’ve long since gotten rich enough to stop. I believe that we can be better to each other. And if that’s still too much, I believe there are other books to read while we wait.


  1. I've had people bug me about when the next installment of my serial will be up, but no one has ever threatened a teddy bear on my account. Maybe one day...

  2. Very well-written, and well said. Absolutely hit the nail on the head.

  3. I've never understood the anger. There are more books that I want to read than I can possibly fit into a lifetime. I can wait, and I'd rather wait for something good than disappointing.

    PS I can also wait as long as I need to for the beta read. Don't feel guilty about it and I hope you feel better soon! I'm happily completely absorbed with novel 2 in the meantime ;)

  4. This post struck very close to home for me, John. I have some of the same issues with my work, how long I've been working on things and why I can't churn it out. I love Mr. Martin's work and listen to the audio books once a year or so. Of course I'll be happy when the new book comes out, but as you and others have said, there's plenty to read out there. No one is entitled to anything. Could you imagine if authors turned it around and said to readers, "Hey, you bought my first book, so now you're obligated to buy any other book I put out - right away!"

  5. not really a huge fan of george martin but patrick rothfess - his second book kept getting pushed back and back and back until I wondered if it would ever be published. But I have to say, if I want the book badly enough (and I wanted the wise man's fear very badly) I will wait a long time for it.

  6. Thanks for the kind words so far, folks. I'd like to address a couple of specific topics.

    Sonia, I've yet to begin reading Rothfuss's Kingkiller Chronicles. I will say, though, that four years for a 1000-page novel of any degree of complexity feels pretty reasonable. That's a lot to balance. He did an interesting interview with Tor.com about how well he thought he was progressing, and then his editor giving him a reality check.

    I grasp the disappointment with push-backs. You get psyched for something, set your attention on a date, and then it isn't met. That's no fun. But especially as I've grown up, seeing a videogame (like Mass Effect 3), film (like Star Trek 2) or a novel get delayed with vocal concerns to ensure quality feels like a good thing. Especially if artists think they need more time to fix a thing, gosh, let them fix it.

    TS, thanks for the time allowance. No telling when I'll finish, though I'd very much like to get it all back to sooner than later.

    Pam, it would be pretty funny to have authors banging on doors that way. Relieved that it isn't the case, though fears of having audiences ditch them have definitely spurred authors into unhealthy overproduction before.

  7. [Insert me trying to go "Finish your d**n book already!" in between chuckles.]

    I remember reading about the teddy bear. I think in the end, King did succumb to pressure because the Dark Tower ending was (to me) most unsatisfactory. Then he jokes about critics saying he could get his grocery lists published… like I heard someone else say recently, established authors don't have to hew to the standards the rest of us do.

    So the drivel that is the preceding paragraph is just to say, good move. Release no book before its time. (I think my books will escape rather than me "releasing" them.)

  8. Mr. FAR, I will defend King's Dark Tower. I don't like the ending, either, and no "it's the journey, not the destination" argument makes it better. But I believe what he succumbed to was doctors telling him he'd go blind in a few years. Since the series was so important, he rushed to get the last two books done while he still had his vision. Since then he's been able to remain productive and more sighted than anticipated, and there are rumors he'll revise Book 7, just like he revise Book 1. I really hope so.

  9. All I can say is, after seeing Robert Jordan and David Gemmell die, before completing the series they'd each been in the midst of, I vowed never to read another series in progress again ... which is why I haven't read any of George R.R. Martin's books yet.

  10. George R.R. Martin used to be a regular at Archon, the St. Louis area SF convention. Always fascinating to listen to and always easy to approach. He is right to take the time to finish the book to his satisfaction. Not all authors have that latitude with their publishers. If he does, he's a lucky man indeed.

    Like Anonymous, I avoid unfinished series. That way I never feel compelled to nag an author. :)

    Hope you're feeling better soon.

  11. Several of my favorite authors have kept me waiting for installments in series. If an author takes the time to write a novel they are proud of, I am willing to take the time to wait for it.

    That doesn't mean I won't voraciously devour the darn thing in 3 days, 1,000 pages or not. The longer I wait for a novel, the shorter time it ends up taking me to read it, because I *have to know* what happens.

    I'm planning on re-reading the entire Harry Potter series this summer and actually taking my time with it this time, because I think I missed a lot of the writing just getting to the key plot points so they wouldn't be "spoiled".

    Great essay on waiting for installments! I do my best to wait patiently, I promise not to threaten any stuffed animals for novel previews.


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