A recurring phenomenon in fantasy-related spaces on the internet these days is a collective whine over two famous authors: George R.R. Martin and Patrick Rothfuss. If you are at all familiar with fantasy, you have probably heard of their work.
George R.R. Martin, popularly known as GRRM, has written the as of yet unfinished epic series A Song of Ice and Fire, known to most people as the books behind the HBO tv series Game of Thrones.
Patrick Rothfuss is the author of the as of yet unfinished epic trilogy The Kingkiller Chronicles, starting with The Name of the Wind. Even though Rothfuss is not (yet) as famous as GRRM, he signed a contract last year to have his books converted to television format under Lin Manuel Miranda, which means it’s just a matter of time before he, too, is brought into the limelight.
You may have already spotted the common denominator: both series are unfinished. And to many people, this is the issue.
Martin began writing A Game of Thrones, the first book of his series, in 1991. It was published in 1996. He had planned a trilogy, but realised the story was bigger than he had first thought, and now he estimates the number of books in the final series will be seven. The latest book, #5, A Dance of Dragons, was published in 2011.
Rothfuss spent 15 years writing The Name of the Wind before it was published in 2007. The second book in the trilogy, The Wise Man’s Fear, was published in 2011.
It’s been seven years.
Yes, it has. I’m sure it’s as unpleasant to them as it is to you.
No, actually, that’s a lie.
I imagine this is a lot more unpleasant to George and Patrick than it is to their average reader.
How does the delay of their upcoming books, GRRM’s The Winds of Winter and Rothfuss’ Doors of Stone, affect your daily life?
There are two stories in the back of your mind that you don’t know the ending of.
So? Does that keep you awake at night? Does it give you anxiety? Keep you from performing well at work? No?
Patrick Rothfuss made the mistake after his first book was released, to say that all three books were already written. Fans (‘fans’, hah!) have held that against him ever since.
I’m sure he meant it at the time, but do you remember those 15 years he took writing the first book? Most of that time, he spent learning how to tell a good story. Tension, conflict, story structure. He had to create new characters and introduce new problems along Kvothe’s rambling journey to make it interesting and, in the end, a rewarding read.
My guess is, the draft he had of the third book back in 2007 when his first book was released, needed the same treatment.
And what’s happened since? He released another book, The Wise Man’s Fear, in 2011, which has been criticised, and rightly so, for having no real conflict. It’s a meandering tale that doesn’t precisely lead anywhere. Kvothe gets a few more experiences and learns a few more tricks, but in the end, there’s no main conflict. We don’t even get any hint as to what king Kvothe will kill — a deed that apparently warrants naming the whole series for it.
Still, people love the books, both the first and the second one. I do, too. Both have sold amazingly well and been well received by fans all over the world.
Rothfuss is successful.
What, then, causes his delay?
Well, what if he realised, somewhere along the way, that his third book isn’t the epic finale it needs to be in order to do justice to his first and second book?
What if he realised it’s not good enough, and he’s been reworking the storyline, rewriting, rethinking, remaking the whole book ever since?
George R.R. Martin let his fans know some time ago that he was down to ‘only’ 3000 pages of content for his sixth book. His goal for the finished product is 800 pages.
Do you know what the process looks like when you have to cut your story by more than two thirds? Cutting, revising, killing your darlings?
You may have to take out scenes, even whole chapters, if they aren’t absolutely crucial to the storyline. Dialogue, story, conflict, and background that you poured your heart into, that fills out the world and fleshes out the characters. All of it: out, out, out.
You may have to take characters out or merge them. How do you decide which character to keep and which to throw out? Does the character you keep have the right personality to do the job of the other characters, too? Without being diagnosed with split personality disorder, that is. If not, you have to change even that one you still have, effectively removing two or more characters and replacing them with a whole new one that’s capable of doing everything the others did.
Cutting all these things you spent endless hours creating is a painful process. The point is to strip the story down to its bare bones. To only keep the core: the most essential bits.
You’re supposed to leave the heart of the story in there, but sometimes it feels like the heart is exactly what you’re taking out. It’s painful and many writers hate it, me included. Sometimes I’d rather let a short story sit in my drawer and rot, than go over it with the knife.
I can imagine George doesn’t exactly rejoice over the work he has ahead of him.
The television adaption of A Song of Ice and Fire diverged from the books in Series 5, based on the fifth book. Minor changes had been made before, but that is when it became obvious to those who had read the books that the HBO series was headed in a different direction.
Series 6 has since aired, without any sign of book 6 being released. How much will the TV series and the books share, and how much will deviate? We don’t know.
Perhaps good old George has lost interest in his books now that his story is being told through a different medium? Why tell a story twice, after all? Why take the knife to your beloved words when people are already happy with what they watched on telly?
And to this, add performance anxiety.
I don’t have to tell you GRRM is successful. When you have a show on HBO, people know who you are. Patrick’s Kingkiller Chronicle is about to become a show on Showtime. Their previous work has set the expectations high. People want nothing less than the very best from these two legends of their own time.
But what does this do to one’s creativity?
I know a lot about performance anxiety. In my latter school years, I went to my school’s music programme. For three years I had about 50% traditional courses. Maths, Swedish, English, history, etcetera — you know the drill. The other 50% were music courses.
But I didn’t quite fit in. What my classmates found easy, I struggled with. The things I found easy and fun, the others considered to be of little importance in the greater scheme of things. Being good at musical theory and analysis isn’t worth a whole lot to 17-year-olds. It doesn’t take you very far in the music business, either.
I only just made it through to graduation. The last year, at age 18, I suffered panic attacks and full-on fight-or-flight mode during band practice. I caught myself trying to calculate which exit was closest: the door or the open window. We were on the second floor. The window didn’t have a fire escape. My fear-stricken brain didn’t care. Thankfully, I never gave in.
That was almost two decades ago. To this day, I cannot play or sing when other people hear me. I don’t even enjoy it when I’m alone. It’s too deeply tangled in with anxiety. I’m my own worst judge and enemy.
What if a writer suffers from the same performance anxiety in relation to their work?
What if George and Patrick are afraid of failing their readers? What if their success has not improved their confidence, but sabotaged it?
‘You write with your head. You could break your leg and then still write. But if, say, your dog has fucking died, that’s in your head. If your relationship is a mess. If you have a mood disorder (which, statistically, you’re six to ten times more likely to have if you’re a writer). If you have either diagnosed or undiagnosed depression, or any of the myriad host of things that can legit go chemically wrong in your brain.’
Mental health issues generally don’t aid your creativity. They don’t increase your productivity. The myth of the suffering artist needs to die.
The average reader probably doesn’t know how incredibly hard — or indeed, impossible — it is to create something under these circumstances. You don’t even need to be in fight-or-flight mode to end up sitting there staring at a blank page. Or, perhaps more likely, you’ll leave that scary blank page and do something else to stop the feeling of guilt. There’s laundry to be done. The car needs a wash, the lawn needs mowing. Maybe clean the bathroom while you’re at it. No chore is too dirty or too heavy or too small. Mend that hole in your old work jeans. And when did you last dust those decorative plates your grandmother gave you before she died?
Eventually you run out of chores — even the stupid and redundant ones — and the blank page still sits there, taunting you.
‘Creativity is intelligence having fun.’
Perhaps, occasionally, an artist has enough ideas to carry them through some tough times, but broadly speaking, the quote above (author unknown) is more right than wrong.
Creative people need to feel safe. We need to eat, we need to sleep, we need to breathe the air outside sometimes.
And we need to have fun.
You cannot force someone to love you, and you cannot force the words, the stories, the dreams, to come to you.
We need to love what we do, not despise it or fear it.
Don’t you think George and Patrick want to get their books published, too? You need only browse through the comments of any article they post, or that is posted about them, to see the abuse they’re getting for not putting out the desired material. Do you think they enjoy interacting with their so-called fans? Don’t you think, if they could get out of their current predicament in a quick and easy way, they would?
The only reason I see that they haven’t already, is that they can’t.
So, to any reader who can see beyond their own entitlement to the well-being of the person behind the books they so crave:
Stop and ask yourself what George and Patrick could be going through, day after day, while you sit there with a bookshelf full of books, a Kindle full of e-books, accounts on Netflix, HBO, Hulu and Showtime, and complain in yet another comment section that their next book isn’t out.