Ever since Game of Thrones was published in 1996, fans of George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series have ceaselessly asked “Hey Georgie boy, Georgie from the block. Mr. R.R. Martin, when’s the next book coming out?” His responses, summed up, have been usually something like “Heh. Well, soon. Not yet, sorry about that.”
Years of effort are put into crafting each volume of the series. The last release, A Dance With Dragons, came out in 2011 after six years of writing, editing, and rewriting by Martin. Now, six years later, fans are eagerly awaiting The Winds of Winter, book number six in the series, to appear on bookshelves across the globe.
Recently Martin responded to the masses of adoring, impatient fans, saying that “The book is not done yet, but I’ve made progress. But not as much as I hoped a year ago, when I thought to be done by now. I think it will be out this year, but hey, I thought the same thing last year.” It’s not a case of writer’s block, he says. “I don’t get writer’s block in the conventional sense, but I do get derailed by distractions. I do my best writing when I’m not distracted.”
And fans have called him out on that, namely with his involvement in the hit HBO show which spawned from his books. Has fame and fortune gone to his head? Maybe, but probably not in the way you would expect.
In this episode I will explore how the fear of failure, of not being good enough, effects every writer, including mega-successful authors like George R.R. Martin. I am Arthur McMahon, and this is Paracosms.
I tried, I promise you. I failed.
I’ve talked about my own fears on my blog many times. Finishing a draft of a story is a huge accomplishment for me, but it also serves as a road block, stopping my creative progress dead in its tracks. Knowing that I now have to try and make that writing better, make it good enough for other people to enjoy, is a daunting prospect. I tend to distract myself and spiral into a creative depression because I fear the next step in the process. I fear that I can’t make it better. I fear that what I’m making will never be good enough.
It’s something you’ve most likely heard about authors, and creatives in general, if you’ve ever read their biographies or have seen any of the countless movies where writers write about writers who complain about how hard it is to be a writer. We’re a bunch of depressed, pill-popping alcoholics, at least stereotypically. And it’s all born out of the fear of not being good enough.
We’re scared. Plain and simple. Even the most prolific of us.
George R.R. Martin blogs regularly, recently he’s been working pretty consistently on the Wild Card novels, he’s been helping out on TV shows, advocating charities, promoting lesser-known authors, volunteering in his local community— he’s kept himself busy over the years, all of it, though, has been serving as a distraction, keeping him from completing Winds of Winter. I’m not saying that he wouldn’t be doing all of those other things anyway, but he certainly is using these smaller accomplishments to feel better about himself, to excuse himself from not finishing the project he started many years ago, the one the fans have been begging for, the one that puts money in his bank account.
George R.R. Martin is afraid of finishing Winds of Winter, he’s afraid of attempting to wrap up the Song of Ice and Fire series over the next couple of books. Because he thinks he’s not good enough and he doesn’t want to disappoint his fans. It’s the same fear I have, that all writers have.
Here’s what Martin said in a blog post from January of 2016, nearly a year and a half ago.
You wanted an update. Here’s the update. You won’t like it.
THE WINDS OF WINTER is not finished.
Believe me, it gave me no pleasure to type those words. You’re disappointed, and you’re not alone. My editors and publishers are disappointed, HBO is disappointed, my agents and foreign publishers and translators are disappointed… but no one could possibly be more disappointed than me. For months now I have wanted nothing so much as to be able to say, “I have completed and delivered THE WINDS OF WINTER” on or before the last day of 2015.
But the book’s not done.
Nor is it likely to be finished tomorrow, or next week. Yes, there’s a lot written. Hundreds of pages. Dozens of chapters. But there’s also a lot still left to write. I am months away still… and that’s if the writing goes well. (Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn’t.) Chapters still to write, of course… but also rewriting. I always do a lot of rewriting, sometimes just polishing, sometimes pretty major restructures.
I suppose I could just say, “Sorry, boys and girls, still writing,” and leave it at that. “It will be done when it’s done.” Which is what I have been doing, more or less, since… well, forever.
Unfortunately, the writing did not go as fast or as well as I would have liked. You can blame my travels or my blog posts or the distractions of other projects and whatever, but maybe all that had an impact… you can blame my age, and maybe that had an impact too…but if truth be told, sometimes the writing goes well and sometimes it doesn’t, and that was true for me even when I was in my 20s. And as spring turned to summer, I was having more bad days than good ones. Around about August, I had to face facts: I was not going to be done by Halloween. I cannot tell you how deeply that realization depressed me.
My publishers made plans to speed up production. If I could deliver WINDS OF WINTER by the end of the year, they told me, they could still get the show out before the end of March.
I was immensely relieved. I had two whole extra months! I could make that, certainly. August was an insane month, too much travel, too many other obligations… but I’d have September, October, and now November and December as well. Once again I was confident I could do it.
Here it is, the first of January. The book is not done, not delivered. No words can change that. I tried, I promise you. I failed. I blew the Halloween deadline, and I’ve now blown the end of the year deadline. The days and weeks flew by faster than the pile of pages grew, and (as I often do) I grew unhappy with some of the choices I’d made and began to revise… and suddenly it was October, and then November… and as the suspicion grew that I would not make it after all, a gloom set in, and I found myself struggling even more. The fewer the days, the greater the stress, and the slower the pace of my writing became.
But I won’t make excuses. There are no excuses. No one else is to blame. It’s on me. I tried, and I am still trying. I worked on the book a couple of days ago, revising a Theon chapter and adding some new material, and I will be writing on it again tomorrow. But no, I can’t tell you when it will be done, or when it will be published.
I am going back to my stance from last March, before all this. It will be done when it’s done. And it will be as good as I can possibly make it.
It has been a year and a half since George RR Martin wrote that blog post, and Winds of Winter is still not out in stores, and there is still no official release date.
That fear of failure, of disappointing his fans, has surely frustrated Martin to no end. It’s all a mind game, a product of being stuck alone with your thoughts, with your own words for hours, days, weeks, months, years on end.
It’s easy to read between the lines, to see through Martin’s apologies and tears of disappointment. He tried, but failed. And he failed because he was afraid that Winds of Winter wasn’t good enough.
It’s not just George, and it’s not just me. All creative writers go through this. Dan Harmon has created successful TV shows such as Community and Rick and Morty. In giving advice to aspiring writer, Harmon said,
“The reason you’re having a hard time writing is because of a conflict between the GOAL of writing well and the FEAR of writing badly. By default, our instinct is to conquer the fear, but our feelings are much, much, less within our control than the goals we set, and since it’s the conflict BETWEEN the two forces blocking you, if you simply change your goal from “writing well” to “writing badly,” you will be a veritable fucking fountain of material, because guess what, man, we don’t like to admit it, because we’re raised to think lack of confidence is synonymous with paralysis, but, let’s just be honest with ourselves and each other: we can only hope to be good writers.
“We can only ever hope and wish that will ever happen, that’s a bird in the bush. The one in the hand is: we suck. We are terrified we suck, and that terror is oppressive and pervasive because we can VERY WELL see the possibility that we suck. We are well acquainted with it. We know how we suck like the backs of our shitty, untalented hands. We could write a fucking book on how bad a book would be if we just wrote one instead of sitting at a desk scratching our dumb heads trying to figure out how, by some miracle, the next thing we type is going to be brilliant.
“It isn’t going to be brilliant. You stink. Prove it. It will go faster. And then, after you write something incredibly shitty in about six hours, it’s no problem making it better in passes, because in addition to being absolutely untalented, you are also a mean, petty CRITIC. You know how you suck and you know how everything sucks and when you see something that sucks, you know exactly how to fix it, because you’re an asshole.”
That’s how writers learn to cope with being a writer, from other writers. They look to each other for help and advice. Who would someone as successful as George R.R. Martin turn to? Well, at a convention in New Mexico he had the opportunity to sit down with Stephen King. They shared stories and advice with each other, but there was one question Martin asked that stood out from the others.
Just to be clear, I’m not trying to impart upon you that writing fiction is the most difficult job in the world. It’s not. But it can suck, and often it does. Creative writing is romanticized in our culture, put up on a pedestal where it doesn’t belong.
“Everyone lies about writing. They lie about how easy it is or how hard it was. They perpetuate a romantic idea that writing is some beautiful experience that takes place in an architectural room filled with leather novels and chai tea. They talk about their ‘morning ritual’ and how they ‘dress for writing’ and the cabin in Big Sur where they go to ‘be alone’ – blah blah blah.
“No one tells the truth about writing a book. Authors pretend their stories were always shiny and perfect and just waiting to be written. The truth is, writing is this: hard and boring and occasionally great but usually not. Even I have lied about writing. I have told people that writing this book has been like brushing away dirt from a fossil. What a load of shit. It has been like hacking away at a freezer with a screwdriver.”
Ok, that’s enough quotes for now. We were talking about Game of Thrones, weren’t we? I could pull a line from just about every famous author in history about their failures in writing, but I think you get the idea.
The point is, the thing holding back Martin from finishing Winds of Winter is the same struggle that all writers face. He has to get over his fear. He needs to write his story for himself, not to please his fanbase.
And to all of the fans out there who think Martin owes them the book, that he is somehow letting them down by not yet releasing Winds of Winter— well, I could respond to that sentiment in no better words than the highly esteemed author Neil Gaimen did when he replied to this very topic on his blog. His response? George RR Martin is not your bitch.
This has been an episode of Paracosms, and it has turned out way different than I had expected. I didn’t even intend on talking about Martin or Game of Thrones, not initially. I had fallen into my own creative depression over the last couple of weeks and just started using this episode as a way to vent about my own frustrations. I was ranting off into the microphone about a bunch of nonsense, but it made me feel better, and it got me thinking about how I’d gone through this phase before, and that I’m not the only one out there who has.
This episode may give some of you insight into why most writers struggle to produce quality works at a break-neck pace, but I hope it also touches other writers, new or upcoming authors who feel like they aren’t good enough. We’ve all been there, and though we may be able to poke our heads above the waters every once in awhile to catch a breath of confidence, I don’t know if anyone has every made it fully out of the pond.
Thank you for listening to Paracosms. I hope you enjoyed this world and I look forward to seeing you at the next.
- In The Night (Game of Thrones Remake, J. Glaze Remix) by Kellee Maize & J. Glaze Productions
- Franz Schubert’s Fantasy in C Major “Wanderer” by Daniel Blanch