Fans of A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones may have suffered whiplash as two different sources offered pessimistic and then optimistic news on the progress of The Winds of Winter, the sixth and (planned-to-be) penultumate novel in the series.
First off, George R.R. Martin's UK editor Jane Johnson tweeted that The Winds of Winter was not on their schedule for 2015. This was taken by some to mean that the book was definitely not coming out next year. Johnson later clarified that the book was merely not scheduled at this time. Given the rapid turn-around on the previous novels (two months for A Storm of Swords, five for A Feast for Crows, three for A Dance with Dragons) this is not quite as bad as it first sounds, as those books weren't on the early schedules for their respective years either.
Then, at the San Diego Comic-Con, Martin himself offered some optimistic news. He confirmed he has not written a script for Season 5 of Game of Thrones and will not be undertaking any new set visits or other travelling obligations beyond those that he has already agreed to. This is all specifically designed to give him the maximum amount of time needed to finish The Winds of Winter. However, Martin would still not give a precise update on how much of the book he has completed at this time.
Whilst this sounds great, we should also recall that Martin skipped the 2007 Worldcon to finish A Dance with Dragons, and the book still took more than three years to come out after that point. It would seem unlikely that Winter is that amount of time away, but it is always best to exercise caution with any of this news.
Previously, on Winterwatch:
Martin completed the fifth book in the series, A Dance with Dragons, in early 2011. Several complete chapters were removed from the novel and added to the start of The Winds of Winter. The amount of material is unclear, but seems to be a minimum of five or six chapters, totalling somewhere between 150 and 200 manuscript pages.
In February 2013 Martin delivered a further 168 manuscript pages to his American publisher. This would rise the completed total to around 318-368 manuscript pages. In April 2013 Martin said he had approximately one-quarter of the novel finished, and expected the novel to come in at around the same size as A Dance with Dragons, which was 1,520 manuscript pages. One quarter of that amount would equal approximately 380 manuscript pages, so this tracks pretty well.
Since April 2013 Martin has not offered any concrete information on his progress, instead preferring to make positive comments that he is writing fast and needs to stay ahead of the TV show. He has confirmed that he is doing far less rewriting on The Winds of Winter than the previous novel in the series, the constant editing and re-editing of which (particularly the knotty events in Meereen) was the principal reason for the delays to that volume. Although a cause for optimism, Martin has cautioned that the book is still incomplete, meaning that further rewrites cannot be ruled out for further down the line.
During the writing of previous novels in the series, Martin had offered more frequent updates on his progress, along with firmer figures on how many pages he had completed. In his parlance, "completed" means the pages in question have been written, re-written to his satisfaction and given at least an initial editing pass by his American editor. With Martin not having sent any further material to his editor since February 2013, he is possibly unwilling to put a hard figure to his progress. It may also be that with Dragons, the constant re-structuring of the novel meant that chapters and pages he declared completed and counted had to be rewritten again and again, meaning that the value of declaring them finished was dubious. For this reason, it may be that we won't start getting more precise figures on Winter's progress until the book is a lot closer to completion.
As for a release date, late 2015 would appear to still be possible but the door is starting to close on it. With Season 6 of Thrones likely to start drawing on Winter storylines and material, he really needs to release the novel before April 2016 to ensure the TV show does not overtake him. However, with the TV series currently projected to only last seven or eight seasons, he would not then have very much time to write the (currently) final novel in the series.