Updated: Aug 24, 2020
George Raymond Richard Martin is a New Jersey based author who wrote the famous series “A Song of Fire and Ice” (i.e. Game of Thrones) together with thirty-nine other novels and short stories. From teaching journalism and chess, to writing TV scripts, he took up many different roles in his career to financially support himself but according to him, nothing satisfied him as much as writing.
Like many other authors, he suffered from writer’s block, as well. Although he admitted publicly many times that he is not a fast writer, there was an immense pressure from his readers and the TV audience of his book’s series. They were asking him to finish his last two books of the series “The Winds of Winter” and “A Dream of Spring”. However, despite the fact that the TV series already ended, he is yet to finish the sixth book “The Winds of Winter” since 2011. This is the longest it took for him ever in his career. In this post, I would like to study Martin’s writer’s block that he encountered in his 6th book and investigate what may have caused it.
Background and Childhood Years
George R.R. Martin was born in New Jersey in 1948. Although he came from a wealthy family, his parents suffered from great depression terribly just like the rest of the country those days. As a result, when he was 4 years old, they moved into an apartment of their own in the brand-new low income housing projects with his parents and two younger sisters (1).
In his own website he admits that walking to the school 5 blocks away everyday was as far as he could go. He found it boring as he always wanted to travel and see different worlds (1). Later he would admit that this is why he became an avid reader. He was reading a lot of fantasy books, comic books and he was selling the monster stories that he wrote to the neighborhood children. These stories were about mythical kingdom populated by his pet turtles. Once he realized his turtles kept dying in their toy castle, he thought they were killing each other off in "sinister plots." Nobody knew he was actually giving hints about what his future plots were going to be like.
Although he didn’t like the fact that his high school was all boys, he became the editor of the school newspaper there and he graduated as the class valedictorian. His reading habit improved in high school tremendously. The creator of Marvel Comics, Stan Lee, Shakespeare and J.R.R. Tolkien had become his biggest influences. In order to see more of the world farther from five blocks from home, he applied to Northwestern University in Illinois located in just north of Chicago. After earning his BS and MA degrees in journalism there with summa cum laude (Highest honorary grade), he objected the draft that asked him to serve in Vietnam War. Instead, he did alternative service work for two years as a VISTA volunteer (2) in order to help people fight with poverty.
Although he was writing short stories and novels, in mid 70s, Martin was barely making money. So he started teaching journalism and English at Clarke University (Now Clarke College). Also, he was working as a tournament director of Continental Chess Association. But in 1977, with his close friend and author fellow Tom Reamy’s death, he reevaluated life and made a series of radical decisions. He quit his job at the university and went back to writing full-time. According to the resources, that is when his writing really took off. He also moved to a warmer climate, Santa Fe with his wife in 1979. The same year, the couple got divorced (1)(2).
His books sold many copies and his novella was purchased for film adaptation. But after the failure of The Armageddon Rag in 1984, all editors rejected his upcoming novel, which might have paved the way for his writer’s block years later. He started working for television as a writer-producer.
Another interesting point in his life happened in 1991. Although he was making good money from working in television, he felt as if his imagination was limited. TV channels were cutting his plot short due to budget and time restrictions. So, he went back to writing again, where he could be completely free. That is when, the epic “A Song of Ice and Fire” series was born. In 2005, his 4th book in this series became a number one best seller. In 2011, when he published the 5th one, it became a best seller again. These commercial successes are followed by a deal signed with HBO to turn his novels into TV series. The 6th book, “The Winds of Winter” is still on the way. The producer of the TV series already did the series finale, airing their own plot since they couldn’t wait for him to finish.
I will delve deeper into his writing process and writer’s block in the next section but from this background information, we can definitely see that Martin fits Csikszentmihalyi’s (1996) description of a creative person (3). First of all, looking at all the stories and characters he created, one can easily say that he has great imagination. Second, his success in academic life shows his discipline and wisdom. His high grades show responsibility whereas his procrastination hints some irresponsibility. By refusing to join Vietnam War, he shows his rebellious side. Lastly, Csikszentmihalyi (1996) mentions the openness and sensitivity of creative people. I believe Martin’s life decisions right after losing his best friend such as changing the location, getting a divorce, quitting his job indicate his sensitivity in his personality. All this data I gathered about his personality confirms what we have learnt about creative people’s common behavior so far in the course.
The Problem with His Creative Process – Writer’s Block?
After he published the first book of the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series in 1996, he kept publishing a book in the series every two years successfully. But once his 4th book became a best seller in 2005, his 5th book took 5 years to come. In 2011, that one became a best seller and he made the deal with HBO the same year. After that signature, despite the pressure from the readers and audience, the 6th book has never been finished. It has been 9 years. There might be three main reasons for this long wait which I will try to explain in detail.
From this chronologic evidence, what we understand is that as Martin’s books became more popular, the pressure he felt to do a better job had weighed on his shoulders more heavily. With all his “openness” in his interviews he confesses: “I know there are a lot of people out there who are very angry with me that Winds of Winter isn’t finished,” Martin tells Entertainment Weekly. “And I’m mad about that myself. I wished I finished it four years ago. I wished it was finished now. But it’s not. And I’ve had dark nights of the soul where I’ve pounded my head against the keyboard and said, ‘God, will I ever finish this? The show is going further and further forward and I’m falling further and further behind. What the hell is happening here? I’ve got to do this.'” (4) In his interviews, he also claims that he has never liked deadlines. In order to avoid them he chose to be a fiction writer, instead of becoming a journalist (5). Knowing his own pace and how he reacts to deadlines, for many of his books he made a deal with the publisher saying “no contract and no deadlines”. He says, “No contracts, no deadlines, no one waiting. Write at my own pace and deliver when I’m done. That’s really how I am most comfortable, even now.” (5) But it didn’t happen the same way this time with the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series. As the novels gained fame, the expectations increased and so did the pressure about deadlines.
Susan Kolodny (2000) claims that writers might build up resistance based on their transference to their readers or fans (6). She describes transference as the writer’s unconscious expectations and fantasies about the others who will read their work. For Martin, the thoughts about what the readers will expect from him after the success of the last two books and the TV series must have kept him up at night. Kolodny (2000) also adds that transference expectations might be based on real negative experiences the writer had or on how they interpret or revise these actual experiences. The fact that after the failure of his book “The Armageddon Rag,” he was rejected by publishers might have caused this transference issue for him.
Here you see Martin giving the finger to his impatient readers.
In one of his interviews he describes the problem with his writing process as follows: “I never had the sort of writer’s block where I didn’t go near the type writer. But I had days I would sit there and I couldn’t write, spend all they answering emails, I’d re-write and couldn’t go forward.” In her research, Victoria Nelson (1993) describes this as “procrastination” instead of a writer’s block, but it can be as dangerous (7). Nelson’s (1993) stud also talks about how procrastinating comes from self-loathing. During a live talk that he did with Stephen King, Martin asked him this question: “How do you write so fast? You always get six pages a day? 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?” (5) Then he goes to explain that he hates what he writes sometimes so much that he feels not talented. This type of self-loathing, and his past failure with his book “The Armageddon Rag” probably caused his procrastinating behavior.
Speaking of this bad experience, according to behaviorists (Flaherty, 2004) once they are negatively rewarded in their lives, authors find it hard to get themselves back on writing (8). She also discussed in the same research that tight deadlines help writers to keep themselves on track, however, the publishers are not as strict to the authors as the newspapers are to journalists. So, novelists can find themselves in this procrastinating stage. Nelson (1993), in “The Myth of Procrastination” chapter of her book discusses that procrastination is not laziness but it is a reaction to an inner state of imbalance. According to Nelson, the writer’s unconscious is doing this in an effort of protecting itself from further abuse (In Martin’s case, this abuse is from the audience and readers) by closing down all the channels of communication (7). Martin’s behavior might show a lack of self-love but not of self-discipline as his previous academic success in his past proves this point. She claims that self-distrust and compulsive control are common among so-called procrastinators. Martin’s interviews reveal that he doesn’t trust himself or the work he produced, either. From the information I have on Martin, I can see that he has the master slave relationship (7) since his series have become a best seller. He couldn’t find a middle ground between his ego, who is anxious due to deadlines, and his unconscious, who wants to create and imagine but whenever he wants to. Once on his blog he responded to his fan who asked why even though he met his wife in 1981, they got married in 2011, half-jokingly he responded: “What can I say? I’m slow. With writing and with … ah … other things.” (9)
Martin asked King "How do you write so fast??"
Another reason of his block could be his perfectionism. He mentions many times how he re-writes a lot. He says sometimes it is grammar but sometimes it is big structural changes. Martin says the 5-year gap between the 3rd and the 4th book is the fact that he was originally going to jump forward 5 years in the story but then he realized it wasn’t working. So he re-wrote everything (10).
Nelson (1993) points out two facts about perfectionism both of which fit Martin perfectly. One variation of the perfection phenomenon is “Fear of Perfection.” In this scenario, the author starts so well, writes so perfectly that in the middle he gets the fear of not being able to keep the quality the same for the rest of the book. In his own account, many times Martin mentions that he couldn’t finish many stories because of that. Not that he wasn’t skilled to do it, but he didn’t believe he could. The second effect Nelson mentions is called “Reverse Midas Effect.” With this one, the writer finishes the first draft but when he goes back to the beginning, once what was seen a perfect story suddenly has so many flaws or looks dull. In this case, the author either tosses the story away or makes unnecessary revisions or revisions that turn the work into an average one. This might have happened with his 4th book, which took him 5 years to publish. When the book was finally published, many fans were really upset main characters were missing in the book. Also, the perfect pacing of the first three books was missing and the book introduces so many secondary characters who didn’t advance very far into the overall story. Martin’s explanation was he divided the story into two and the main characters would be in the next book, which would eventually take him 6 years to write (10). Finally, his perfectionism might have caused obsessive rewriting. Nelson (1993) says many writers during their revision process start to have the feeling of ultimate closure. But the obsessive reviser never experiences closure. This is a way to avoid criticism in case his work doesn’t meet the expectations. “You can never be judged for what you have not finished,” Nelson says.
Now that the TV series is over, the extra weight on Martin’s shoulders has been lifted. However, he knows that his fans are still waiting for the 6th book impatiently. Having analyzed all the interviews he gave to the press, and his published biographies, I couldn’t find any conditions from his childhood or early development stages that would affect his writing behavior. But it is obvious that he procrastinates and he loves to work on his own pace. He is a perfectionist with occasional self-loathing so it takes him much longer to finish than others. His bad luck – ironically best luck as well – was his series was turned into TV show and that created extra strain on him which impacted his writing even more. A lot of criticism caused so much stress, but he has never given up on the quality of his writing. On Martin’s defense, the famous author Neil Gaiman said on his webpage once: “It seems to me that the biggest problem with series books is that either readers complain that the books used to be good but that somewhere in the effort to get out a book every year the quality has fallen off, or they complain that the books, although maintaining quality, aren't coming out on time.” This is a quite true statement as many series writers, including J.K. Rowling went through similar struggles. I would like to finish this post with another line from Gaiman: “People are not machines. Writers and artists aren't machines.”
PS. As a fan myself, I am patiently waiting for the Winds of Winter!
(2) Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_R._R._Martin
(3) Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity: The Work and Lives of 91 Eminent People. New York City, NY: HarperCollins.
(6) Kolodny, S. (2000), The Captive Muse: On Creativity and Its Inhibition. Madison, CT: Psychosocial Press, pp. 154.
(7) Nelson, V. (1993). On Writer's Block. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Publishing Company, pp 191.
(8) Flaherty, A. W. (2004).The Midnight Disease. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Publishing Company, pp 320.