Sitting here in 2017, we know that the HBO show surpassed the books and has spent the last few seasons revealing plot twists that Martin set up in the books more than twenty years ago. So what happened?
Clearly, Martin is suffering from one epic case of writer's block. Martin's case will surely be remembered as one of the worst cases of writer's block, not only because there are so many people waiting on him to release the final books, but because he's in the unique situation of having one of the most watched shows on television outpacing him and revealing the ending of his books before he is able to.
This chart really tells the story of Martin's writing troubles (and it's already confirmed that Winds of Winter won't be out this year). His first three books came out one after the next-A Game of Thrones in 1996, A Clash of Kings in 1998, and A Storm of Swords in 2000. Those three books are the best in the series. They do a fantastic job of telling a fast-paced, complex story with a humongous cast of characters while still managing intricate world-building.
But then Martin began to struggle with something he called the "Meereenese knot," a place where he was stuck in the plot of the story. He came to describe the fourth book as a "monkey on [his] back" that he needed to shake off. Martin was originally going to jump forward five years in the story, but then he thought that wasn't working, so he started rewriting the story through that five years, and the whole thing gave him a lot of trouble while his fans became increasingly impatient at the five-year gap between books.
When the book was finally published, many were upset that Martin left out the main characters. Gone was the excellent pacing of the first three books, as the book plodded along, introducing a cast of secondary characters who didn't advance very far into the overall story. Martin assured his readers not to worry because he'd decided to split the book in two, and all of the main characters would be in the next book. Since he'd split it up, he said this next book was essentially written, and it would be out next year.
But as Martin struggled in the writing of the fifth book, the years ticked by, and rather than coming out the very next year, it turned into a six-year gap. And his struggles with the plot are reflected in the book, as even with the main characters back, they find themselves mired in situations, the plot moving at a crawl in comparison to those first three books. Martin even admits this to some degree, "At 1,040 pages, Dance is Martin’s longest book in the series, yet is actually shorter than the author intended in terms of the amount of story that’s covered. There’s at least one large battle sequence that Martin didn’t have time to include, and several character threads end in tantalizing cliff-hangers."
GRRM has sometimes been very open about these struggles: "But writing is hard. I mean I sit there and work at it. Boy, there are days where I get up and say 'Where the hell did my talent go? Look at this crap that I’m producing here. This is terrible. Look, I wrote this yesterday. I hate this, I hate this.' And I can see a scene in my head, and when I try to get it down in words on paper, the words are clunky, the scene is not coming across right. So frustrating. And there are days where it keeps flowing. Open the floodgates, and there it is. Pages and pages coming. Where the hell does this all come from? I don’t know."
Something happened to Martin in the writing between the third and fourth books. "I never had the sort of writer’s block where I didn’t go near the typewriter," Martin says. "But I had days where I would sit there and couldn’t write and I would spend all day answering emails, or I would rewrite and couldn’t go forward."
Throughout history, people have attributed different causes to writer's block. The protagonist of George Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying is attempting to write an epic poem, and his challenges are described thus: "It was too big for him, that was the truth. It had never really progressed, it had simply fallen apart into a series of fragments." This sounds similar to the issues Martin was having with his Meereenese knot, and similar challenges must exist to this day. After the completion of his last book, he said, "Why did I have to make it the Seven Kingdoms? Wouldn’t Five Kingdoms have been sufficiently complicated?"
When I met George RR Martin in 2011, he said his office wasn't filled with elaborate charts and character trees, although it probably should be.
But there are also many internal, personal factors that contribute to writer's block, and it seems that Martin struggles with this as well--fighting off the feeling of being a failure despite his many successes. He said to Stephen King about his daily writing routine, "You always get six pages? You never get constipated? You never get up and go get the mail, and think ‘Maybe I don’t have any talent and should have been a plumber?'”
Another factor is the pressure to actually produce the work, which can be a vicious cycle as books are delayed. In Martin's case, he already had this enormous pressure from all of his readers clamoring for the new book, but it became even worse with the addition of the HBO show. That ratcheted up the whole situation with new episodes catching up to and surpassing the author's story. Related to all of this is the additional pressure of having to live up to his previous successes, which must be made worse by his last two books not being as well received as the first three.
And recent research suggests that there are likely physiological factors occurring in the brain to contribute to writer's block. In a study by Rosanne Bane, she writes that neuroscientists have proven that when someone is stressed (like GRRM clearly is with all of these factors weighing him down), control of the brain switches from the cerebral cortex to the limbic system, which is instinctual and will trigger a fight-or-flight response. "Without significant input from the cerebral cortex, the individual is temporarily deprived of the ability to perform nuanced analysis and creative thought." Writer and neurologist Alice W. Flaherty argues something similar in her book The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer's Block, and the Creative Brain.
GRRM hates it when people talk about him not living long enough to finish the books, which is understandable and rude to say to his face. But valar morghulis, so if the books go unfinished, A Song of Ice and Fire would actually stand alongside some of the greatest works of literature because being finished isn't actually a requirement. Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales comes to mind immediately. He sets up an elaborate structure in the prologue, but of the 120 proposed tales, Chaucer only finished 24. Franz Kafka is one of my all-time favorite novelists, but he never finished a single novel. There are countless examples, but of course we have to remember J. R. R. Tolkien, who Martin is heavily influenced by. Tolkien continuously rewrote The Silmarillion and didn't have a completed version when he died (his son acted as editor for the version we have).
And if the books go unfinished, fans will endlessly debate the multitude of theories, everyone will debate how the HBO show ending differed from Martin's original vision, and we'll see film and television reboots continually coming out and proclaiming to be the definitive version of Martin's original vision. Time will tell if this goes down as one of the most epic cases of writer's block in history.
It's time to admit it: You’ve been one–a bookstore hobo. Lingering too long among shelves of books. Sitting between the aisles reading a book you know you don’t have the money to buy. So why don't you read my novella The Bookstore Hobos? Published in the Eunoia Review, The Bookstore Hobos is the story of Zaid, who tries to live in a bookstore when he finds himself unemployed. His adventures will take him to New York City, where he must attempt to apply what he's read to the real world.
Joseph Patrick Pascale - How to Get a Promotion When Your Boss Is Trying to Kill You (Accurate Accounts of Office Work: Book 1), a comic literary novel coming from Waldorf Publishing in July 2018.