Thursday, 29 January 2009

A Defence of Dragons, Part 2

Actually, this post title is a bit of a misnomer. The intent here is not to talk about or 'defend' the controversy but to actually look at the work itself. Between the howls of the denied and the rationalisations of the defenders, the actual book itself and the complexity involved in writing it tends to be forgotten.

Last time, I revisited the point that the fourth book in the series, A Feast for Crows, was never supposed to exist in the original plan for the series. Instead, there would have been a five-year gap with the original planned Book 4, then called A Dance with Dragons (this is where confusion sets in; I will refer to this version of ADWD as ADWD v1), picking up afterwards. GRRM's motives for this writing decision seem to be pretty straightforward: he regretted making the younger characters so young when the series started, and wanted to be able to write about Dany as a 20-year-old, Jon in his early twenties, Arya and Bran later in their teens, Rickon would be older than Bran was when the series began and so on. However, several problems presented themselves. Several storylines still in motion when Book 3, A Storm of Swords, ended seemed to require more immediate resolution. It seemed unfeasible that Brienne would spend five years wandering around Westeros without learning something about Arya or Sansa, and more to the point, it was unlikely that Dorne would sit still for five years after Prince Oberyn's death without taking action. Readers and fans have also pointed out that after five years of relative peace, the realm would have been able to recover somewhat from the war and also that Dany's presence in Meereen would have become common knowledge and neither situation would really fit in with the idea of the series escalating and building to a climax.

So A Feast for Crows was introduced to the mix. Originally, all the characters were together in AFFC, and A Dance with Dragons was still intended to be the book that followed it. For the interests of clarity, I shall refer to the version of AFFC with all the characters in as AFFC v1 and the version of ADWD intended to follow after AFFC v1 as ADWD v2. At this point you may start to understand where the complexity and confusion issues begin to arise.

AFFC v1 was supposed to follow immediately after the end of ASoS and chronicle the adventures of all the previously-established POV characters. It does appear early on that a problem emerged: the stories that 'needed' to be told in the former gap seem to have been written pretty straightforwardly. These would be Cersei's, Brianne's, Dorne's, the Iron Islands' and so forth. The ones that didn't, weren't. GRRM wrote several Daenerys and Jon chapters early on, but seemed to revisit and revise them constantly. Chapters from these characters read at conventions as early as 2002 show noticeable changes and shifts between different versions. It can be surmised that GRRM felt that the interim stories, the stories of 'the gap' as it were, which needed to be told immediately were for those characters primarily in southern Westeros in the aftermath of the War of the Five Kings. This makes sense. This was the main theatre of action, both military and political, in the first three novels and where the situation was left unresolved at the end of ASoS. However, Jon and Daenerys' stories were 'plateaued' at the end of ASoS. Jon was now Lord Commander of the Night's Watch and Daenerys was now Queen of Meereen, intending to learn the art of rulership before returning to Westeros. It was clear that the next logical move in both their stories is to pick up on them five years later, with Jon now an experienced Lord Commander ready to face the threat of the Others and Daenerys as an experienced ruler, ready to embark on her grand expedition to return home, or perhaps being forced into it by outside forces.

AFFC v1 was split in May 2005, and GRRM announced that the 'new' AFFC (v2, the published version) would only feature the POV characters in the south of Westeros, as those were the chapters he had finished. This was reasonable. However, at the same time he announced that those characters not included in the book would now be moved into a new novel, but that book would still bear the title of A Dance with Dragons (v3, the version that will be published hopefully in the not-too-distant future). At the time I remember the announcement being met with both relief and bemusement, but not a huge amount of discussion on the significance of the title for the next book in the series being retained. When GRRM released the page-counts for how much material he had amassed for the ADWD characters, an interesting picture emerged.

When GRRM split the book, he had over 1,600 manuscript (MS) pages ready. Approximately 500 of these were cut off and held for Book 5, whilst the other 1,100 form the published Feast for Crows (1,100 MS pages roughly equal 700-odd pages of an actual novel in hardcover, not counting the appendices and maps). With Book 5 also intended to come in at the 1,100-page count, GRRM thus had almost half the book already in hand. That still meant he had to write half of a full novel, and as the months passed there were indications that the planned fifth book was going to be longer (maybe 1,300 MS pages, maybe more), shrinking the completed material to maybe a third of the total book. Then, as discussed in Part 1, it appears that most of that material was comprehensively rewritten.

It's at this point that the chances of the book making it out comparatively quickly after AFFC disappeared. Clearly GRRM had changed his plans for the new book from simply being the other half of the story told in AFFC v1 into something else. The fact that the new book retained the same title as the one meant to succeed it suggest to me that GRRM had decided to merge the two together. My conclusion is that the version of ADWD (v3) that is to be published is the story of what would have happened in the former version of ADWD (v2) after 'the gap'. It will now simply be happening a few months after the end of ASoS rather than five years. This process clearly began in the published AFFC: Cersei's downfall and arrest by the Faithful would likely have come after the five-year gap in the original plan, as would the arrival of winter and Brienne's capture by Stoneheart. ADWD will likely take this to new extremes by downplaying some of the 'gap' material in favour of moving the story forward more dynamically (although we do know that some of the 'gap' material, such as Dany consolidating control of the city, will be retained).

But do we have any additional proof that this is the case, not just supposition? We do. GRRM has continued his practice of reading chapters from the novel at convention appearances, and last year there were opportunities to compare some of these chapters to earlier iterations (all such chapter readings are collected here for easy reference). Of particular interest were the chances to hear both the latest versions of the prologue, which GRRM has admitted struggling with since its introduction after the split, and also of Jon's second chapter (the first is currently up on his website). Both are noticeably superior to their earlier versions, especially Jon's second chapter. The original version of this chapter was as well-written as ever, but notably slower in forward storyline developments and consisted of lots of discussion, and planning. The newer version is more dynamic and features a (relatively) major character death which I suspect a lot of readers would not have been expecting for some time yet. The result would indicate a ramping-up of the stakes and of the pace of the series in the newer, revised version of the book.

To conclude, the primary reason for the delay in A Dance with Dragons is an intent to make the book better. This is a complex process, since GRRM has to achieve the following goals all in the same volume:

  • To begin the process of convergence that will be needed to get all of the POV characters back in one volume for The Winds of Winter and, not only that, but to also ensure the timelines match up. GRRM has previously stated that ADWD will cover more time than AFFC, which makes re-synching the storylines for Book 6 tricky.
  • To ensure, for both the publishers and possibly HBO, that the series does not expand to eight volumes. GRRM has said that if the story demands that the series does expand once more, he will do it but I'm guessing this would not be the preferred option. How the stories in ADWD unfold will likely be crucial in determining if this happens or not.
  • Whilst meeting the above technical and structural goals, to simultaneously deliver a reading experience that lives up to the series' heritage which includes, lest it be forgotten, a novel (ASoS) that vast numbers of fans have proclaimed the best individual epic fantasy book since Lord of the Rings.
So, no pressure there, then.

In the acknowledgements section of A Feast for Crows, GRRM says that "This one is a bitch,". I suspect stronger language may be used for A Dance with Dragons. This book started out as the second half of a book that was never supposed to exist which then got folded into storyline developments planned for later in the series and is now running out-of-synch with the other half of the cast of characters. Bringing the entire thing back on track without it sprawling out of control Wheel of Time-style is an immense undertaking, and the fact that the author has gone several years over his projected timescale with it is not surprising. Whether the author succeeds or not in resolving these issues and delivering a worthy fifth novel in the series can only be determined when the book is finally published, but the indications we have so far are extremely positive.

Note: This article is somewhat speculative in nature than Part 1. It is a conclusion drawn from GRRM's comments over the years and changes in those chapters which have been made public. None of this is based on any kind of inside knowledge. I may be way off-base with some of this speculation. Nevertheless, the problems I outline that resulted from the ditching of the five-year gap and which need to be overcome to bring the series to a successful conclusion are definitely real, and are certainly the primary reason for the delays on the book. The purpose of this article is to illuminate that fact, which is often forgotten by the critics who simply think that this was just another book and could be written in a matter of weeks if the author chose to do so.


RobB said...

Another level-headed piece, Adam. Of course, it only has me more eager to hear of a publication date so I can schedule my re-reading of the series.

Anonymous said...

Another excellent post on Martin and ADwD. Your very detailed and almost academic charting of the (possible) writing process reminds me a lot of the art historical books I read for work. You're a shoe-in for the authority of all things ASOIAF. *hehe*

Longasc said...

Most of your article is an educated guess, but it still does not explain why this takes so long. Martin is not ill, like Jordan was for example. The series is indeed very complex and keeping up the level of the previous books is hard, for sure.

A Feast for Crows was not nearly as exciting as the previous books, if you ask me we are already in the dreaded Wheel-of-Time spiral. you say a major character is supposed to die, no wonder.

Reduction, putting together the plot, coming to an end shows that things clearly did not develop as planned, as the whole existence of the book that never should have been at all shows.

But one could assume that releasing the next book would not take that much time.

You said this is not really a defence, but an attempt to explain why it takes so long.

But do you really believe this explains why GRRM needs so much time to deliver? Maybe the HBO deal is a blessing that forces him to come to an end. Even at the cost of some quality.

I am pretty sure this would be better overall than trying to keep up the standard by stretching the series over even more books and a longer period of time.

Adam Whitehead said...

Longsc, I'm not entirely sure of your point here. It is true that Robert Jordan became gravely ill towards the end of his life, but this only affect the writing of the last book, not the ones before it and certainly not the ones that caused him the largest structural problems on the series (Books 8-10). If I had to draw a comparison I would say that whilst Jordan went blazing on regardless of the problems he had created in timelines and character arcs and this led to a large three-book tangent from where he went to be, GRRM seems to be much more aware of the similar problems that face ASoIaF and has deliberately attempted to avoid that. Or to put it more baldly, he doesn't want to put out a book that gets ripped as much as AFFC was, and I am convinced that if he had continued along the path he was with the book when the split happened, that is what would have happened.

Shawn's article linked in Part 1 addresses a central problem that GRRM has, which is the same as the one that Jordan and Tolkien had: he is a 'freewriter' who does not have a strict outline to write to but makes things up as he goes along with a general feeling of where he wants the series to go. Shawn's article suggests that this has caused a lot of the problems with AFFC and ADWD and the wait involved for them and I generally agree. When you are in Book 1 of a series you can shoot off in a random direction and see where it takes you and back up and do something different if the fancy takes you. In Book 5, with 3,000 pages of backplot behind you and maybe 2,000 more ahead, course-correcting becomes immensely more difficult and can entail significant delays.

Anonymous said...

Excellent posts, Adam, both this and the previous one.

I'm used to waiting for books for years and I imagine most fantasy fans are as well. I can't understand the people who get angry or abusive about this. There are plenty of other books to read out there, go enjoy them while you wait.

Anonymous said...

Great two parts analysis!

Anonymous said...

I hope GRRM doesn't sacrifice one iota of quality in exchange for expediency, even if it means we have to wait another decade for the series to finish. If the end holds up to the promise of the beginning, this is a work of art that will endure and be loved by generations long after George has passed from the world.

Anonymous said...

Adam, really enjoy your site. I just got ino reading sci-fi/fantasy in the past year or so and have been dying to read the ASOIAF books. I've sort of reluctantly decided to simply wait until the series is done, and then read the whole thing. If it is going to take years in between books, I'm afraid I won't remember all the details of the plot while I wait for each new one to come out. I can barely remember the last book I read, let alone one from 5 years ago! What do you think of this strategy for someone who has yet to begin the series?

My other question is, everyone seems so focused on this next book and the long delay, but then there are going to be, what, two more after that? That have't even been written yet? Dance with Dragons aside, is there a serious concern about the series itself being completed? Slightly morbid territory, but Mr. Martin must be in his 60s or 70s, and if it takes him years to write each book...I mean, do the math...

Anonymous said...

I see no reason to delay reading the series - it is excellent and though we might wait awhile for the remaining novels thus provides an excellent excuse to go back and re-read the previous books when the new one finally is published. There are so many layers and details that you are bound to miss something in the first reading.

I just read the series a few months back - and I can't wait to re-read them. Jay Tomio on is currently re-reading "A Feast for Crows" and posting his thought chapter by chapter - it's quite illuminating for me to be pointed in the direction of minor details that I didn't pick up in my first reading.

Anonymous said...

You should really try to avoid using 'whilst' so often, it's a pretty terrible word. 'While' works quite well.

Adam Whitehead said...

"That have't even been written yet?"

GRRM did say he was working on a Sansa chapter a while back, and she is one of the characters who wasn't supposed to be in Book 5, so there has been some speculation that GRRM may have done some preliminary work on Book 6 as well. It is more likely that she has simply been moved into Book 5.

"Dance with Dragons aside, is there a serious concern about the series itself being completed? Slightly morbid territory, but Mr. Martin must be in his 60s or 70s, and if it takes him years to write each book...I mean, do the math..."

It has been said before, but it doesn't mean much. Whilst GRRM turned 60 a few months ago, his favourite author Jack Vance completed his last novel three years ago at the age of 90 and Gene Wolfe is still producing new novels at 77. This is not a major concern of mine, I have to admit.

As for reading the books, I'd say go for it. The first three almost form a self-contained trilogy anyway (there was supposed to be a five-year gap after Book 3, so there's no cliffhanger with the character's life left in the balance, as there is at the end of Book 4).

Anonymous said...

What's wrong with Whilst? It's a perfectly perfect word :p

Anonymous said...

'You should really try to avoid using 'whilst' so often, it's a pretty terrible word. 'While' works quite well.'

Oh for Christ's sake; Adam used it 4 times in over 1850 words, is that really particularly excessive?

Very good article, and quite illuminating.

Anonymous said...

This whole thing has reached farcical proportions. First, GRRM refuses to comment on the status of ADWD anymore. Then the website he is most affiliated with bans discussion of the release date. Now we're getting full-fledged articles in his "defense".

And now I read on his website, where he can't even get a calendar (perhaps the most time-sensitive of publications) out the door on time. Oh, I know...he's not directly responsible for shipping the calendar...but still, the irony is downright comical.

Adam Whitehead said...

Actually I think it is fitting the shoe is on the other foot. For the last year or so the 'antis' have been allowed to run riot with their inaccurate, ill-informed and plain wrong observations, so people getting fed up with it and coming back at them is somewhat overdue.

No-one (least of all the author himself) is saying GRRM isn't significantly late, that some bad calls haven't been made and that some over-optimistic release dates have been given that shouldn't have been. But at some point you have to move on. GRRM would have kept on with the updates but certain commentators made that impossible, so they only have themselves to blame.

Anonymous said...

The really funny thing is that you claim to be objectiv, while your opinion is clearly clouded by your personal sympathy for the man. There are always two sides of a coin.

Longasc said...

While I dislike anonymous commenters in general, I have to agree to the one above me and Keith. You are very defensive of Mr. Martin, and while I see no proper reason for hate postings because he fails so blatantly to deliver, there is really no point in trying to explain why he needs so much time and still is not finished.

To put it bluntly, you made good points which still do not explain why he needs so damn long to finish the next book.

Martin does not want to post updates because he cannot deal with a lot of annoyed fans? The evil "antis" ruin the series and cause the delays in the end, too?

Did Martin say this? Did you say this? Whoever said this, come on.

People change over longer periods of time. My perception of the series changes, Martin changes, the whole world changes.

As I love the series, I really fear he dies before it is finished and that the quality in the end does not justify such a long wait.

The planned TV series gives me some hope that he might get back to work.

Where is the enthusiasm? If he tried to perfectionize "A Feast for Crows", I really did not notice it, I rather felt disappointed, especially after the long wait.

No wonder people get angry. Fanboys and "Antis" alike probably share the sentiment that this development is a tragedy! :(

ErrantBard said...

Some good points, even if we lack a critical perspectiv:

Martin has no obligation to finish the series, he gave us three good books and a Jordan-esque fourth book. We should be pleased and content with that. If he wants to stop writing, he should do that.

1. The fault lies mainly among the common fact that most fantasy authors have too-young-a-characters, had everybody been 5 years older, much would have been easier to deal with.

2. Feast shouldn't have been written, the only reason I read it was that it was in the ASoIaD-world but it has signs of many of the problems Jordan runned into. Ofc, as the die-hard Jordan-fans couldn't see this, it's perfectly natural that the same applies to those who are die-hard Martin-fans. We're all human.

3. I find it quite naive to think that HBO would actually make 7 seasons, 3 at the most is my bet. The odds for more is astronomical. If one think anything else you let your love for the books blind you. Of course, if the series is HBO:s biggest hit ever it might happen, but otherwise? Not likely...

I'm happy if Martin gives us Dance and that's it. The first three books are great and he shouldn't sacrifice his well-being just because idiots says so. I think it would be nice if he let the series rest after that. The War of the Five Kings was always the most interesting anyways.

Anonymous said...

"GRRM would have kept on with the updates but certain commentators made that impossible, so they only have themselves to blame."

While your "Defense" posts have put some things into perspective for me (I was actually in the process of trying to piece everything together myself- thank you for that), I must say that "impossible" is not an appropriate description.

He could've disabled any comments to his updates (which he did).

He could've chosen to ignore the naysayers, and continue to update despite them.

He could have even shortened any progress reports to "felt sick last week, didn't write. Finished a chapter this week".

He could have shown some respect for the majority of fans who did not defame him and posted something since January of 2008 on his update page.

Further updates, in some form, were and are still quite possible.

Instead, he gave in to the vocal minority (no matter how numerous they may have seemed).

And now those of us who are semi-patiently waiting have nothing except constantly pushed-back Amazon pre-order dates.

Adam Whitehead said...

I would agree that the update situation could be handled differently. The problem is that GRRM has made lots of updates in the past, given dates, not him them, and now feels reluctant to do the same thing again.

The reason for this is probably due to a faulty perception of the Internet that a lot of people in the online SF community suffer from. The publishers I have spoken to all seem to agree that the people who post things on message boards and form the online SF community are a tiny minority - between 5 and 10% - of the total numbers of people who actually read books. Of that grouping, the number of people who are actually complaining enthusiastically about the series are again a tiny minority. And as I have said, there plenty of new fans joining the online discussions almost daily who have no idea about what has come before and are being hit by a wall of negativity when they ask a reasonable question.

So I would say that the 'antis', although very vocal, represent such a tiny minority of people who read the books that their comments shouldn't be taken to heart by GRRM, leaving the majority of fans and even casual readers bereft of information. But clearly he has made that choice and isn't going to be dissuaded from it.

Anonymous said...

It may very well be age which has slowed him down. If GRRM is approx. 60, then pictures of him show a man who has aged considerably more than that.
I have a friend who had some contact w/ him and his partner in Santa Fe, NM in the early '80's, and I was told that they 'partied' pretty hard.
I would be somewhat concerned about his durability. I sure hope he finishes the series, but as has been previously remarked, what he produced in the first 3 books is epic in and of itself.

Hiroshi Sato said...

Hypothetical Update from GRRM if he had continued posting updates (compeltly fictional content and speculatuive in nature.)

"Been feeling very depressed lately, haven't written anything because being constantly reminded that the book I am writing is not out many many years after i said it would be... as if I didn't know... Don't feel motivated to write, maybe I will go out for a bit to clear my head and write after."

[some time later]

"Got back and felt a bit better, but then saw 999,999,999,999,999,999 emails and posts copmplaining about me taking time out to clear my head and not writing. Feel depressed again... maybe I will sleep."

The anti-fans should jsut go jump off a cliff or something.. I eman the book and the series will eb finished when they are finished, not before... I am one who hopes he doesn't sacrifice his own quality for the minority of dickheads who wail and gnash their teeth mightily over their idioticies. Also if he does die before he finishes, then that is jsut a tragedy we will have to deal with, nothing we can do about it. I mean he could be 20 and then get hit by a bus tomorrow and it would be the same.