Saturday, 6 December 2008

Just Stop Dancing, Already!

So I spent some time yesterday afternoon on the SFX Forum whining about how impatient and increasingly hopeless I feel about Dance of Dragons ever getting released, and it occurred to me that my ranting was so extensive that it might serve as a post, thus allowing me another day in which I don't have to particularly engage my brain (still coughing, BTW, I think I may have loosened my filling). For anyone still not up to date with events in Westeros, fear not, this is an entirely spoiler-free rant.

The thing about George R R Martin is that I really do want to take his side on this. I may only be the most amateurish of amateur writers, but it doesn't seem unreasonable to me that the massive chasm that exists between our respective talents doesn't change certain fundamental principles about the nature of our desire to write. Namely, that we'd like to work on a bunch of stuff, rather than just the same novel day in or day out (right now I have two novels on the go, a third to be edited until the prose bleeds, and a short story and short film script halfway done), and that finishing a piece isn't quite as important as making damn sure it's a good as it can possibly be made. There's a reason for the old chestnut that art is never completed, only abandoned; eventually you can't think of a way to make it better, so you just put a conclusion in and hope you're next story is better.

None of that, of course, changes how frustrating it is to just be sat here twiddling my thumbs waiting for resolution. I didn't start reading the series until after A Storm Of Swords had been released, so I can't be entirely sure of this, but I'm reasonably confident that back then I wouldn't have minded how much other stuff Martin was working on, how many Wild Cards anthologies he was editing or Dunk stories he was writing, or what have you.

But A Feast For Crows took five fucking years (and wasn't entirely worth the wait, though that's a different kettle of monkeys) and, after being told A Dance With Dragons would only take another year or so to complete, we're looking at at a total writing time of at least four years. That's twice the time it took to write either A Clash Of Kings or Storm..., and moreover most of the book was supposedly already done. Which means Martin's effective writing speed[1] is somewhere between a half and a quarter of what it was. We were assured that the gap between Storm... and Feast... was due to an unavoidable course change, a necessary adjustment to a story that wasn't behaving itself (again, I can sympathise). All well and good, I guess. What about Dance..., though? Is there another complete overhaul going on? Because that doesn't sound particularly encouraging. How many times can the series survive needing to be radically re-jigged?

Regardless of the reasons for this particular delay, the fear is that if it takes four years to finish Dance... when it was estimated to take one, does that mean we'll be waiting eight more years for the next book? Another eight for the last? Martin will be seventy-six by then. I realise that writers, more so than many artists, can get to a fair old age before their work gets hit by "the brain-eater", but even if the quality remains constant (and there are reasons to doubt that), the quantity might well diminish, and we've got problems enough there as it is.

I think Martin, quite simply, fucked up. He came up with a brilliant idea for a series of books, started them, watched as people lapped them up, and then suddenly realised halfway through that he was going to have to seriously re-think the whole thing. Shit happens. But the resulting situation is that hundreds of thousands (millions?) of people have bought into this series under the very reasonable expectation that it will conclude at some point, and twelve years (and God knows how many sales) after the series began, there's still no end in sight, and only Martin's increasingly inaccurate word to go on that we're even past the halfway point. And that's before we start thinking about all the new converts the HBO series is liable to add to the mix, who (assuming it a) gets made and b) isn't shit) will also be keen/desperate to see the end of a series that doesn't have one yet.

At this point, I think there's a stark choice to be made. Martin can either cast aside as many other projects as he can to make sure ASOIAF gets finished, or he can keep juggling like he has been, and hope for the best. He has every right to choose the latter, it's his life, and certainly that choice is entirely understandable. But as one of potentially millions of people who have handed him money on the understanding of reading a story that actually has something prosaic as an ending, I reserve my right to be pretty pissed off about that decision.

Martin likes to point out that no-one talks about how long it took Tolkien to write Lord Of The Rings. The key difference, obviously, is we know that Lord Of The Rings got finished. He may not realise he's in a race, against the ravages of old age and diminishing talent and, frankly, the big brick wall that is death, but I suspect he's too smart for that to be true. Moreover, his argument that if a new idea makes a story better than it must be included only works as long as the price of that inclusion is delayed completion, rather than the risk of non-completion. I think we passed from the former to the latter a year or two ago, at least.

Lastly, it's also possible Martin would argue that he can't actually write Dance... any faster, that his various side projects are just filling up what would otherwise be dead space, that he can only concentrate on the same project for X hours a day, regardless. Which may be true. It might be that putting in X+1 hours a day would cause the narrative to suffer. I guess my position at this point is that I'm finding it really hard to care. I don't care if a new idea would make the book 10% better, and I don't care if an increased work-speed will make the book 10% worse. Sooner or later reality reminds you who's in charge. Just make it happen, would you?

Update: Over on the forum Werthead makes the point that neither Game... nor Clash... were written as quickly as I had thought, though that doesn't really address the "you'll only have to wait a year or so for A Dance With Dragons" issue.

[1] OK, I acknowledge that the term "effective writing speed" is almost entirely meaningless. All I mean is that his rate of publication is plummeting. Maybe that's because he's now working on such an ascended level of literary genius that things are taking longer. Of course, since Feast... is the weakest of the first four books, I'd be careful about drawing that particular conclusion.

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