Tuesday, 6 September 2016

A Song of Ice and Frustration: Fictitious Release Dates & Non-linear Writing for THE WINDS OF WINTER

Amazon France have caused consternation by giving their pre-order page for The Winds of Winter a new release date: 9 March 2017. As is predictable, the fans have gone wild and George R.R. Martin's publishers have issued a statement shooting down the date as fictitious.

This isn't the first time this has happened. When A Feast for Crows was published in 2005 and Martin (highly erroneously) announced that A Dance with Dragons would follow a year later, Amazon.com put a placeholder date for the latter book as 2008. The idea was that the publisher would unveil the real date and they'd bring the date up to the correct one. They weren't expecting the book to be that late and forgot to change it, resulting in confusion and then anger in less net-savvy fans when 2008 came and went without the book being released. Responding to fan anger and complaints from the publishers Amazon changed the release date...to 2032, suggesting either a great sense of humour or perhaps going overboard on contingency planning (the book was eventually released in 2011).

These issues could be avoided if Amazon could have simply put a "TBC" release date on books, but for some reason back then they couldn't. Learning their lesson, neither Amazon US nor UK has a page for The Winds of Winter at all. Obviously Amazon France hasn't learned from their example.

At this point it may be of value to look into why it takes such an immense amount of time for Martin to write these novels.

What the manuscript of A Dance with Dragons looked like in its raw form, all 1,520 A4 pages of it.

These are big books

The average novel, when we consider all genres, is between 80,000 and 100,000 words in length (which translates to roughly 300-350 pages in paperback, depending on formatting) and takes about a year to write. Science fiction and fantasy novels are usually longer, with 200,000 words (600-700 pages in paperback) taking two to three years not being unusual. The shortest novel in A Song of Ice and Fire is 300,000 words long with the longest - A Storm of Swords and A Dance with Dragons - both being around 420,000 words each. Those novels come in at well north of 1,200 pages in paperback.

Obviously some writers can churn out big books very quickly: Brandon Sanderson writes his Stormlight Archive novels (which clock in at around 400,000 words exactly) in three to three and a half years each, Peter F. Hamilton produced the 450,000-word The Naked God in two years and Steven Erikson produced 3,116,000 words of The Malazan Book of the Fallen (not including the first novel, which he wrote many years earlier) in just over eleven years, averaging 283,000 words a year during that time. On the flipside some authors are considerably slower: Suzanna Clarke took ten years to write the 308,931 words of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell and J.R.R. Tolkien took ten years to write the 455,125 words of The Lord of the Rings (and, arguably, sixty years to produce the 130,000 words of The Silmarillion, although that was only a summary of the much greater amount of work he produced in that time).

Writing without an outline can result in marvellously naturalistic and unforced character arcs and plot turns. On the other hand, it can also result in...less serendipitous writing events.

They are not written in a linear fashion

Martin's writing process is non-linear and unplanned. He writes several chapters in a row from one character, switches to another, writes several chapters from them, switches to a third and so on. At certain points he'll switch back to a previously-written character, but will then realise that new story points he has created elsewhere will now require a thorough rewriting of previously-drafted chapters to reflect these changes. As the novel continues and gets larger, this butterfly effect can be considerable: a late plot decision executed in what ends up as Chapter 48 may entail the complete page-one rewrite of Chapters 3, 6 and 12, the partial rewriting of Chapters 18, 23 and 32, and the re-ordering of several other chapters.

The writing process for A Song of Ice and Fire bears more than a passing similarity to chaos theory. However, it is not unprecedented. J.R.R. Tolkien executed The Lord of the Rings in a similar fashion, describing it as "waves coming up the beach...each time the waves reach a little higher" after rewriting the opening four or five chapters of the novel at least four times to accommodate tonal changes (from something closer to The Hobbit to something darker) and character shifts (from using Bilbo's son "Bingo" as the protagonist to junking him and bringing in a new character called "Frodo").

Martin's non-linear writing style has been criticised and it has been suggested that he employ an outline. However, Martin has famously said that he distrusts outlines, feeling that they sap the narrative energy from writing. Stephen King, Tolkien and Robert Jordan have also disdained outlines and produced, between them, several of the biggest-selling, popular and enduring works of fantasy ever written, so he may be onto something.

That said, Robert Jordan did produce an outline whilst planning the final Wheel of Time novel to help focus him on bringing the story to a conclusion (which proved tragically beneficial when he was later diagnosed with a fatal blood disease), indicating that other fantasy authors have seen some value in changing up even their long-standing writing habits to increase writing efficiency and speed as their series reaches the wrapping-up phase.

In addition, Stephen King once experimented with using an outline in response to fan criticism that his improvised writing style often resulted in subpar endings. The result was The Dead Zone, a reasonably well-regarded book which has been adapted for the screen twice. However, King said he hated the experience and has never used an outline again.

George writing on The Machine.

Martin's computer is steam-powered

Okay, it isn't. But it is pretty old. George R.R. Martin writes his novels on WordStar 4.0, a word processing programme released in 1987. The PC he uses is of similar vintage. WordStar is a non-WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) programme, like Microsoft Word, and requires the author to move around the cursor using the keyboard and enter lines of code to enact formatting such as bold or italics.

Martin has used this stuff to write all of his short stories and novels on since the late 1980s and is at this point institutionalised to its use. Still, although it's perhaps a little more labour-intensive to use such a system it's not that much slower. It's still a way of getting words on the screen. What might be a bit more work is outputting the chapters in a format that can be emailed so George's editor can read them on her more up-to-date computer in New York City. And of course there's what happens when a 30+ year old computer stops working, as happened during the writing of A Feast for Crows: a legacy PC engineer named Stephen Boucher saved the day and the novel was dedicated to him.

Update: At some point in the recent past, Martin stopped using his old 1980s vintage machine and switched to a modern PC running WordStar 4.0 in a DOS emulator.

Writing white-on-black is something that would drive me crazy, making me want to murder every single character I was writing...wait a sec.

To summarise, Martin's writing style does not permit easy estimations of when he will be finished, especially given the heavy overlap where chapters are moved from the end of one book into the start of the next. Given the numerous missed dates on A Dance with Dragons and the resulting insane levels of vitriol, Martin has decided not to issue any predictions for Winter at all. He's also, unlike during his work on Dragons, not issued any page or word counts, perhaps feeling that this could also be misleading and people would be reaching all sorts of wrong conclusions.

The Winds of Winter is not done as of today. Martin and his publishers will confirm when it is, and when the book will be published. Based on precedent, this will be between 3 and 5 months after its completion is confirmed.


Anonymous said...

Sorry, I just can't accept your kind analysis of GRRM. If GRRM managed to write 1 page per day and only worked 100 days per year, less than 1/3 of the year, then in 6 years he would have finished a 600 page book.

GRRM's slowness is partly due to the valid production reasons you cite, but it is also frankly because of his focus on other things (the TV show, Wild Cards, numerous other book projects he is involved with, conferences, fan service). This is confirmed by checking out his Not A Blog website, which lists endless outside activities, but little or nothing on the next book.

I wouldn't mind so much if GRRM was 40 and in good health. In general an author should be free to write their work in their way, and damn the griping fans. That certainly is GRRM's attitude, as he has regularly said.

But GRRM is 67, and actuarially he doesn't have another 18 years to finish the series (at a rate of a minimum of 3 more 600 page books). So it seems most likely that GRRM will leave us after another book and a half, and poor Brandon Sanderson, or more likely Ty Franck, will have to finish the damn thing after he is gone.

I think that's really sad. The fan community saw the same thing with Robert Jordan (though the quality of Jordan's writing tapered off significantly in a way that GRRM's has yet to do) and I hate to watch the tragedy repeat itself as farce.

GRRM could correct this anytime he wanted to by refusing outside commitments and focusing on the books that will define his legacy, but he's taken this blue collar, New Jersey, eff you all kind of attitude with any fan who's dared to call him on it. The genre of fantasy fiction will be lessened because he has purposefully taken this stance.

Lastly, your comparison to Tolkien is really very apt. It isn't fair to condemn a writer from the pre-Internet age for not having modern tools, but JRRT could easily have written multiple additional trilogies in the Middle Earth, or an entirely new work of genius, if he hadn't spent those 60 years endlessly polishing the Silmarillion (and ultimately failing).

Sigh, why do the authors that give us the greatest fantasy fiction ever also cause us the most grief?

Paddy said...

It's actually probable that using WordStar helps George to write faster than if he were using a more modern word processor.

WordStar had a reputation for allowing those who were competent with it to manipulate and traverse their text with much greater speed than WYSIWYG editors could permit.

Modern word processors shy away from requiring complicated commands to use because they make them harder to learn and intimidate first time users.

In other words, most word processors prioritise the casual user over the expert. WordStar has a reputation for prioritising the expert user over the casual.

Steve said...

I'd assume the other major component of the long wait would be the deadly combination of Martin only writing at home and his penchant for conventions, interviews and lengthy trips. Both are understandable, but I have to assume the amount of writing time he lost to his fame once the show became a hit is enormous. Months, if not years.

GoodOldSatan said...

Not that I, too, am not frustrated by length of time it takes Martin to finish books, but ...

Erik said...

I'm cracking up at the section on George's steam-powered computer. I mean, at least learn vi, so you're marginally faster than Word, right?

Anonymous said...

This is so depressing :(

What's your guess about the publishing date?

Anonymous said...

Come on Wert, call him out on it. He doesn't write when he travels, and he never wants to knock back any invites to conventions.
THAT is one of the main reasons imo why we are waiting so long.

The Hairy Bear said...

I think that when writing a complex saga (a single novel is a different issue) it is a huge mistake not to use an outline. The examples you suggest, in fact, show this very same think. The first book of LOT has big flaws in tone and theme (Tom Bombadil unaffected by the ring!) and both the Wheel of Time and the Dark Tower series have very uneven books, huge meanderings and lots of continuity issues.

Similarly, most people agree that ASOIAF highest point it's ASOS and the last half of ACOK. Precisely the part of the saga where George had outlined (as he revealed in some interviews).

Having an outline does not force you to follow it. If the story flows in another direction, you can always acomodate it or discard your initial plans altogether. But I think it's essential, and I'm convinced that George's writing would improve in quality and speed if he used one.

Gabriele Campbell said...

I can totally understand that No Outline thing. I've tried an outline once and it didn't work, so I went back to my messy no outline, out of order writing, using Martin as excuse. My advantage is that I don't have fans breathing down my neck about publication dates. :-D

At least we know he's still alive and working on Winds, something one can't say about J.V. Jones.

I'm also still mourning my old Atari. It was much easier to simply write a text on it - even with footnotes - than it is with all those Microsoft programs that start 'thinking' and get it wrong, and then you have to look for the feature to switch OFF that crap. Including the autocorrect that regularly produces a bloodbath when I write research texts with quotes in three languages. ;-)

Erik said...

Dear Anonymous, Anonymous, and Anonymous,

Okay, guys, cool your jets. Writing is not turning a crank on a meat grinder, and it's not limited by how fast GRRM can type. He doesn't owe the fans anything, and you don't have the right to dictate how he lives his life based on the fact that one time he wrote some books that you enjoyed.

Adam Whitehead said...

"I'd assume the other major component of the long wait would be the deadly combination of Martin only writing at home and his penchant for conventions, interviews and lengthy trips. Both are understandable, but I have to assume the amount of writing time he lost to his fame once the show became a hit is enormous. Months, if not years."

About six months each for AFFC and ADWD to signing tours. Maybe a few more months here and there. I think it would be benficial if there was no signing tour for TWoW - or maybe a very short one - to allow him to roll straight into ADoS. IIRC, Steven Erikson finished the penultimate Malazan novel DUST OF DREAMS and immediately started writing THE CRIPPLED GOD (the same day, even) without going on tour for DoD. He instead did a bigger tour once the series was completed.

"If GRRM managed to write 1 page per day and only worked 100 days per year, less than 1/3 of the year, then in 6 years he would have finished a 600 page book."

I'm not sure what your point is. He writes a 1,200 page book every six years instead.

There was a very angry Internet person who said it was outrageous that George didn't write at least one chapter every month. If George wrote a chapter a month he'd be happy. He hadn't worked out that George actually does write around a chapter a month, it's just that he has a hell of a lot chapters (73 chapters in ADWD, 73 months = 6.08 years, or slightly more time than it took to produce ADWD).

Anonymous said...

I remember it as if it was yesterday. Feast had just been released and I headed up to Michigan to attend one of his first signings. The place was packed! Well over 200 people! I got there very early though so I was one of the lucky ones who actually got to sit (3rd row seat at the campus library in Ann Arbor if you were interested).

It was very exciting! So many people, all with a common interest, jam packed into this building. It was very much like a big sporting event except everyone there was on the same team! Everyone was very friendly, and I remember commenting on what a diverse crowd it was...men and women, senior citizens, teenagers, long haired bohemians, professionals in suits, and everyone in between.

He talked for about 20-30 minutes maybe. I wish I could remember the story he told about his first book signing! It brought the house down! I learned later that he tells that same story at most of his book signings. Very funny!

Before opening it up for questions he read something from Dance, and then happily said: It may have been a long wait for Feast because of "The Knot", but the good news is I'm more than half-way done with Dance now so I feel confident I'll be here about this same time next year for It's release! Cheers rang out!! Lol!

Oh well. C'est la vie! I got all of my books signed (the guy sitting next to me had a foil cover first edition he got signed!), and I got my picture taken with him! Great day!!

ALTHOUGH...I have to admit that after the wait I decided not to read Dance until he finishes the series. I stopped watching the HBO show after season 3, and amazingly I've avoided spoilers thus far.

I love his books and as far as I'm concerned he can take as long as he likes to finish. There are a vast number of stories to read in the mean time. I just hope he does get to finish his story. I cried when Robert Jordan passed, and then I cried again when I read what BS did to his characters. GRRM has given so much to so many. He should in return be given as much time as he needs to complete his tales.

Anonymous said...

But it's not fans that threaten to take time away from him, it's death. He's a 67 (soon 68) obese man.
And everyone is willing to give him time enough to complete his tales, the problem is he's using that time to do other things.
He was supposed to deliver the book last September, then at the end of the year and he failed to do that. Of course we're worried.

Anonymous said...

And about being entitled, I think it's too easy to say that we're entitled to nothing.
Readers but also publishers paid GRRM because they thought the series would have a finale.
Would you really buy "A song of Ice and Fire: An unfinished series"?

Adam Whitehead said...

If you read Gormenghast, or Chronicles of Amber, or Tolkien's Middle-earth series, or even Discworld, you're buying an unfinished series. They were just a little more episodic so it's not quite as grating. Wheel of Time is finished, but not by its author. Douglas Adams never wrote the final Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy book, and someone else did it (but not from his notes, as he left none behind). SF and fantasy are littered with unfinished series that continnue to sell quite well.

And, fairly obviously, every single copy of ASoIaF published to date has been exactly that, a book from an unfinished series.

Anonymous said...

Discworld is a series of stand-alone novels (the same can almost be said of Hitch-Hiker's Guide). Robert Jordan released books at a steady rhythm until his health permitted him, noone can blame him for getting sick with a rare disease. Gormenghast, Amber and the Middle-earth stories never sold as well as ASOIAF and they don't do it today probably because we know they are unfinished series (even though they are very fine books). Frankly I don't believe LOtR would sell that well today if Tolkien hadn't wrote "The return of the king".
And it's not just us readers, HBO wanted to know the finale from Martin before buying the rights (even if they will change it somehow), they just made explicit an implicit understanding between readers & publishers and living authors.

Anonymous said...

GRRM himself pointed out his mistakes in writing and planning (the ADWD tour broke his artistic flow and he regretted not having started TWOW immediately), of course we question his decisions.

Anonymous said...

It's a bit absurd to say that microsoft word is more difficult to use than a program from 1987. If autocorrect bothers you, it takes 3 seconds to turn it off, and it will stay off. Using a 30 year old computer is just silly, and stubborn. Word doesn't have that many things which affect your typing/writing set to default on.

It's obviously his decision, but what could possibly be the reason to risk all of your work every single day to use that machine?

That is all.

Anonymous said...

"Douglas Adams never wrote the final Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy book, and someone else did it"

Douglas Adams wrote "Mostly Harmless", which concludes with the deaths of all the main characters, because he wanted to bring the story to an end. How much more final do you want it to get?

Adam Whitehead said...

Douglas Adams got a lot of negative feedback for MOSTLY HARMLESS and later relented and said he wasn't in a good place when he wrote it and it was kind of spiteful to kill all the main characters. He wanted to write a different ending and spent some years writing SALMON OF DOUBT (after he'd decided it wasn't going to work as the third DIRK GENTLY book) with the idea of bringing back the characters and giving them a different send-off. It was on that basis that Eoin Colfer wrote AND ANOTHER THING...

Anonymous said...

Every book takes a year longer for GRRM, that's the theory! This time next year ppl!

Seriously though, the man's lost the momentum, and since the TV series went nuts, he got all the adulation he needs. The TV show will end and at least there'll be closure and I won't have to deal with the contemptuous way that he has dealt with his fans. That Conan sketch was GOLD, but pretty much nailed the issues. GRRm is happy and less stressed doing anything else but finishing this story.

- paran

messy said...

as time goes on, that 2032 estimated publication date looks less and less comical and more and more realistic...