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With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

Last week I finished up the edits on the third book of my trilogy, and heaved a massive sigh of relief. If I hadn’t written the whole thing at once, without taking a break, I fear post-publication stress would have greatly interfered with the writing of the sequels. While I was shopping book one around to agents and publishers, I was hard at work on books two and three. By the time I landed an agent, the series was finished, and I never had to endure the pressure of Living Up to the First Volume.

With the constant influx of communication that our modern technology affords us, it is, in some ways, a wonder that any follow-up novels get written at all. There are blogs to write, reviews to read and emails to answer. Loop chats, Twitter, Facebook fan pages. And did I mention the pressure? As soon as the first handful of fans begins to clamor for the sequel, anxiety can easily trigger writer’s block. It’s a whole different ballgame, once you have readers. Those quiet hours spent in front of a computer with nothing to do but write are long gone. And yet…we authors began a story. And we better damn well finish it.

It is my belief that as soon as that first volume is written and sent off to the world, there is an unwritten promise of follow-through. A good story is not just a story – it’s a magical gateway that transports us to another world with characters that become a part of our lives for days or weeks. When there’s a jarring ending without closure, we’re left wallowing in agony until the next installment. So unless the book falls through the cracks and does not attract any sort of fan base whatsoever, an author has an obligation to his or her readers to give them the complete story in a reasonable timeframe. And it’s not just an obligation for the sake of the readers, but for the writers as well. If they take too long to deliver a sequel, they run the risk of losing their readers’ interest. Let’s face it: we are not a particularly patient generation.

So what’s a reasonable timeframe? I think anything much over a year, really, is pushing it. And if a writer is running behind, they should at least post a release date and stick to it. We’ve been waiting for A Dance of Dragons for how long? Okay, I looked. A Feast for Crows, book four in George R.R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire, was released in 2005. His last update regarding book five was in 2008, which was to say the book was not finished. Here we are 2011, and with not even a recent update and no release date, we’re left to conclude the book is still not finished. All I can say for Martin is, thank God he’s got the HBO adaptation of A Game of Thrones coming out in April, otherwise who even remembers who the hell these people are? Martin can’t even really blame writer’s block; he’s been very busy editing anthologies, writing unrelated novels and co-authoring yet even more unrelated work. But I do think he is suffering under the pressure? Oh yeah. He gets a gazillion emails applauding his work and demanding more. Who wouldn’t feel that pressure?

I think Patrick Rothfuss could tell us about pressure. When his debut novel The Name of the Wind took the world by storm in 2007, I don’t think he was mentally prepared for instant fame. But at least, unlike Martin, he has a release date for his sequel – which is exactly four years after the first one. And four years’ time is a lot to ask of your readers’ patience. Both Rothfuss and Martin could afford to take lessons from authors like Terry Goodkind, whose sequels were never much more than a year and a half in coming, and there were a few times when he delivered two of them within the same year.

Naturally, that begs another question: At what point are writers cranking them out too fast? Goodkind’s critics were fairly harsh toward the end of his Sword of Truth series. But I’ll leave that for another day.

At some point, writers need to acknowledge that fulfilling that promise of a complete story is more important than blogging, and even marketing their other novels. And anyway, there is no better way to market your first, than to release your second (or fifth, Mr. Martin). If they need to shut out the world, then so be it.

Readers too have an obligation, and that is to try to be on our best behavior. Yes, we’re impatient and angry that we have been deprived too long of our beloved characters. However, this does not give us permission to act like animals. Do you really think that posting on George R. R. Martin’s website, “Get off your fat ass and write,” is going to make him drop everything else he is doing and finish A Dance of Dragons? Let’s remind him instead how we’ve fallen in love with his characters, with his story, his rich prose. Let’s ask nicely. And then we need to back off, and not take up any more of his time.

After all, he’s got a story to finish.

Note from Overlord: Ashley wrote this at the end of February. Today G.R.R. Martin announced the release date of A Dance with Dragons. Brilliant timing Mr. Martin!

Title image by mlephotos.

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18 Comments

  1. Avatar Khaldun says:

    While I think it is financially smart for authors and publishers to attempt to release novels on a consistent basis, it isn’t absolutely necessary for everyone. I think that when you’re first starting you do need to release novels basically on a yearly basis in order to build momentum and establish yourself in the industry (Joe Abercrombie is one success story). GRRM already has a presence in the literary world and I suspect he will become even more popular with the HBO adaptation. Sure, I’d love to see Dance with Dragons now, but if I have to wait to make sure it’s as good as it could possibly be, I’ll do it. I am always hoping that he’ll find the time to bring the series to completion, but no amount of whining on my part will force him to write fast, so I’ll just keep on waiting (and reading Abercrombie, Lynch, and Rothfuss as I do so).
    Thanks for the interesting article!

  2. Avatar Khaldun says:

    Also, GRRM just announced the release date as Tuesday July 12th, 2011!

  3. Thanks for the great comment! I was chagrined to see the release announcement today, but at the same time, thrilled since I’ll finally get to read it!

  4. I’m torn on subject. As a writer, I stand with taking as long as you needed to finish. My reader side demands the book sooner rather later.

  5. I prefer the sequels to come out regularly, too, but . . . I’d rather they get it right than rush it. On the flip side, more than a couple of years and I might forget what I was waiting for.

  6. I think hassling a writer is poor form. What do we want as readers, something rushed out or the best work the writer can provide?

    • Avatar Overlord says:

      I think it depends. I have no problem with people taking months, years writing a book – one problem I have though is when an author says ‘the book will be out on Nov 2007!’ and then until March 2011 you here no more about it… I think that is a little bit harsh on fans in some respects. I certainly relate to you saying that we should not ask for ‘rushed’ work though 🙂

  7. Avatar Patrick Samphire says:

    I couldn’t disagree more. I would far rather have something great than something rushed and crappy just to fit an artificial deadline of a year. Or two. Or three. Or whatever.

    The truth is that writers write at very different speeds, and few writers can spend 8 hours a day working on the same piece. They need variety (and, yes, that includes social activities like cons, blogging and travel) to keep the inspiration flowing. They need to clear their minds from time to time. Sometimes they just have to write something else while the ideas and problems marinate for a while.

    Add to that that in Martin’s case he is writing one of the most complex, detailed and believable fantasy series in recent times and the idea that he should produce a (900 page) book in a year is absurd.

    • Avatar Overlord says:

      Rothfuss did something that annoys me… he said: “The book will be out in a year!” and then 4 years later he released it. However… he un-annoyed me constantly and even pleased me by constantly posting on his blog what he was doing, why it was taking so long and so on. He would tell you that the reason things were taking so long was because he edits things to a really excessive manner to make sure they are perfect… cool! I want a perfect book! He would say when things are pushed back… aww man… OK… but I understand because of what you said there. He’d constantly post about literature and discuss the books throughout the years… keeping the story alive… it was cool.

      Martin on the other hand kind of distanced himself and hid away – I think that was why people got mad. He would say it’s out in 2007! no… 2008! no… 2009! no… 2010! and whatever and then just kind of drop the subject. Also he never said why really… he worked on other things, which annoyed people and didn’t really give an indication on why he dropped the series they were so closely following…

      Honestly, I have no problem with authors taking time to write novels, writing is such a tough process and building that creativity is very difficult… editing is also as important or more so than writing… But I can see why the author of this article may be annoyed at delays and broken promises in some respects 🙂

    • No, I don’t want anything rushed and crappy either. But seven years…I think it’s too long.

      • Avatar Patrick Samphire says:

        I’m not sure it’s up to you (or anyone else) to say how long is too long. It takes as long as it takes. Sometimes things flow out; sometimes every page is a grind. This is an art, not filing paperwork (and I’ve done plenty of that in my time).

        It can be too long for you as a reader (in which case you are welcome to stop reading, and some will), but only the writer can know if it’s taking longer than necessary.

  8. Avatar Codony says:

    “Both Rothfuss and Martin could afford to take lessons from authors like Terry Goodkind”

    Funny how I would have completely reversed that sentence…

    While as a reader I indeed appreciate not having to wait geological ages for a sequel to come through, the truth is that I wholeheartedly disagree with you. I’d rather wait for a great book than have an average one in a short time. Having said so, GRRM is stretching the situation a little to much… Rothfuss, on the other hand, is a slow writer and you know what? It works for his novels, which are pretty full of details and minutiae. He took many years to write his first book, we can’t expect him to rush through the second now (which, by the way, I have begun reading today).

    Maybe you have read Neil Gaiman’s opinion on this subject?: http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2009/05/entitlement-issues.html

  9. This articles is interesting, but flawed as it talks about a very general subject (how fast should a series come out) and then tries to shoehorn very specific series and incidents – Martin and Rothfuss – into that general framework. Neither author is writing a conventional fantasy series and they both set up unrealistic expectations and failed to meet them.

    In Martin’s case, we actually know the specific problems he ran into, and how to some extent he’d been storing up trouble since Book 1 of the series and trying to sideline those issues for years before being finally forced to confront them in Books 4 and 5, leading to writing chaos. I also note there’s no mention of the various side-issues, like Martin not using detailed outlines or his decision to abruptly mid-stream change the structure of ADWD whilst having to do it in a way that doesn’t contradict AFFC, which partially shares the same chronology. These are not the problems of your average fantasy series.

    “So what’s a reasonable timeframe? I think anything much over a year, really, is pushing it.”

    How do you stand on the length of the book? An author should be able to get a 200-page book out every year, no problem, but a 1,200-page one? Does the fact that one author – Steven Erikson – can do that mean that every author should be judged by an outlier standard? Should authors maybe consider writing more, shorter books and releasing them more often instead?

    “And if a writer is running behind, they should at least post a release date and stick to it. We’ve been waiting for A Dance of Dragons for how long? Okay, I looked. A Feast for Crows, book four in George R.R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire, was released in 2005. His last update regarding book five was in 2008, which was to say the book was not finished. Here we are 2011, and with not even a recent update”

    Martin decided to leave his update page untouched until it was done. However, large and substantial information has been revealed on his blog. I agree a lot of this info should have been on his update page (particularly the February 2010 one about the changes in the structure of the novel), but it’s not the case that GRRM has not talked about the book at all since January 2008, he’s just been talking about it in a different venue.

    “Martin can’t even really blame writer’s block; he’s been very busy editing anthologies, writing unrelated novels and co-authoring yet even more unrelated work.”

    He’s edited anthologies and written a couple of short stories (exactly 2 unrelated to ASoIaF in 16 years though), but he hasn’t written any new novels in that time period. I’m curious where that notion came from, or what the ‘unrelated work’ refers to.

    “I think Patrick Rothfuss could tell us about pressure. When his debut novel The Name of the Wind took the world by storm in 2007, I don’t think he was mentally prepared for instant fame. But at least, unlike Martin, he has a release date for his sequel – which is exactly four years after the first one.”

    He did have a release date. He told the world that when THE NAME OF THE WIND came out Books 2 and 3 were already completed and done and would be published at 1-year intervals. It was part of the publicity and marketing drive for the first book. Sure, he apologised for that and has kept us updated on his blog about what’s going on, but frankly Rothfuss’s raising of expectations for how fast Book 2 would come out hugely eclipsed that of Martin.

    “Both Rothfuss and Martin could afford to take lessons from authors like Terry Goodkind, whose sequels were never much more than a year and a half in coming, and there were a few times when he delivered two of them within the same year.”

    Er, talking about Rothfuss and Martin and then dropping Goodkind into the conversation is like having a literature conversation involving Joyce and Dostoevsky and then someone interjects to mention Dan Brown. And Goodkind’s books were terrible because he cannot write, not because of his writing speed.

  10. Avatar Tracy Falbe says:

    This need to satisfy readers is precisely why I am sitting on the novels of my next fantasy series until the series is completely written. Then I can publish them all at once, and when readers get into the first book they can immediately obtain the others and finish the epic. Right now I am working on a 4-part epic and I have three of the novels written and am working on the fourth and final book. This series will complement the one I already have published, The Rys Chronicles. I know how much readers appreciate having all the novels of a story ready and waiting for them. It is very hard for me to wait to publish the first installments of my new series. I desperately want to get more novels out to my readers, but I don’t want to lose readers mid-series because they have to wait a year or two for the next part.

  11. In one of his books, Tad Williams has an intro where he talks about how he’d love to write a series and then publish it once it was done. Unfortunately, as a full-time novelist with no other job, he can’t do that as he needs to eat.

    Some readers will only buy or read a series once it’s done as well, but that only works if a small number of people are doing that. If everyone did, series would not exist as Book 1 wouldn’t sell enough copies to warrant a sequel.

  12. Two other things to take into account:

    1) Most writers are contracted to have the next book in by a specific date. Many writers make that deadline, some don’t. Of those that don’t it’s still usually a matter of months, as opposed to years, when you are talking delay. Nor do most writers have the kind of clout to keep pushing the date back. Rothfuss and Martin are more the exception than the rule if you look at the field as a whole in terms of series turn-around time. As such, I’m not sure they should be the benchmarks of comparison when it comes to publication timelines.

    2) Waiting until a series is done before putting it out is not only a creative decision, it is also a business one. I’ve seen schools of thought on both sides (“I want to get it all done first, before I send it out” vs. “I don’t want to write four books until I know the first one has sold”). However, the former is usually an option only open to the new writer. As Adam points out, once you’re on contract for your next/second series, you usually don’t have the luxury (financially or contractually) to finish the whole thing before any of it sees print.

  13. I don’t have a problem waiting for the next book to come out in a series. There’s plenty of other stuff to read and many long established writers that I have yet to read. Once a release date is issued I do get a zap of excitement as a reader and I do look forward to my share like anything that Joe Abercrombie writes.

    As a writer myself I do find it in bad form to badger a writer regarding a release / completion date. It’s done when it’s done. GRRM would have had far worse feedback had he rushed it and turned something in less than stellar. I think the fans deserve to get he best and in some cases that means waiting.

    As Douglas Hulick pointed out most books are in on time but there are exceptions. Looking forward to your book Douglas!

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