George R.R. Martin is most famous for writing the book series that “Game of Thrones” is based on - but he's also infamous for the fact that he’s yet to finish writing the books after more than two decades.
But that may be, in part, because Martin isn't as obsessed with writing the books as his fan base is with reading them.
"Game of Thrones" fans know everything there is to know about the show and the "A Song of Ice and Fire" book series. But what they may not know is that writing novels has never fully been the 69-year-old writer’s dream.
And that is precisely why he's stalled when it comes to finishing his page-turners, leading his once loyal fanbase to turn against him.
Hollywood found him
Martin began his career at 21 when he started selling science fiction short stories. He found great success critically, but struggled to pay his bills. In 1987 he dipped his toe into Hollywood when one of his novellas, “Nightflyers,” was made into a movie. While it wasn’t a big hit at the theater, it made him enough money to continue writing professionally. The story holds relevance today as Syfy recently picked it up for an upcoming TV series.
He continued to struggle as a novelist until producer Phil DeGuere wanted to bring his failed novel “The Armageddon Rag” to the big screen like “Nightflyers.” While the film never happened, DeGuere kept the author in mind when staffing the writers room for the “Twilight Zone” revival. Martin moved to Hollywood for 10 years after realizing that he could still use his imagination while making enough money to live comfortably. He got jobs on shows including “Max Headroom” and “Beauty and the Beast” before turning his eye to the extra-lucrative world of developing shows.
“They were paying a lot of money for these pilots but none of them got made,” he said in a 2014 interview (per IndieWire). “We shot one pilot that didn’t get picked up. We developed three or four other pilots but none of them ever got made. But I eventually learned something about myself during those five years of development, and that was that I’m an entertainer. I want an audience. Spending a year of my life creating this world and setting up characters only for the studio to decide not to do it was awful. Nobody ever saw these works except for four guys in a room. I don’t care how much money they pay you, it’s just so not emotionally satisfying to be in development.”
Martin’s desire to be an entertainer above all led to his big issue when it came to developing TV - scope.
You can't do that on TV
In the late '80s and early '90s, the New Jersey-born author found himself constantly on the wrong end of logistical discussions with TV producers that usually ended with him having to sacrifice a major part of his story. To satisfy himself, he turned back to the world of novels, opting to write a sprawling story filled with magic, clashing armies, dozens of characters and subject matter that would never pass cable standards. In 1996, he published a 700-page volume of a projected three-book series titled “A Game of Thrones.” Eventually, the projected volume number became 7 books that will make up the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, a number that plagues the famed author to this day.
Three years after the first book was released, the next one, “A Clash of Kings,” came out. A year later “A Storm of Swords” was released. But then the story stalled for five years.
“A Feast for Crows” hit bookshelves in 2005. By this time, the little fantasy story that could had gained a sizeable following in the literary community. As a result, many were surprised to find that the fourth book was only half of a story. After book three, Martin found himself with a 12,000-page tome that was still incomplete. That’s when the decision was made to release books four and five as a single story taking place in the same time frame, but focusing on different characters in different parts of the world.
“A Dance with Dragons” would eventually come out six years later in 2011, the second largest gap between two books in the series. It was the first sign of the story ballooning beyond a place that Martin could control.
“I have to ask myself, ‘How long is it going to take this character to get from point A to point B by ship? Meanwhile, what’s happened in the other book? If it’s going to take him this long, but in the other book I said that he’d already arrived there, then I’m in trouble. So I have to have him leave earlier.’ That kind of stuff has driven me crazy,” he wrote on his blog in 2010. “I know perfectly well that as soon as ‘Dance’ is published, some of you out there are going to attempt to correlate its chronology with that of ‘A Feast for Crows.’ ... Well, it may well make your head explode. It did mine. The ‘Dance’ timeline alone is a b---- and a half.”
It's not TV, it's HBO
As Martin struggled with the novels, the problem he had with the television industry was fixing itself by way of HBO. Where once the game was cable-friendly programming that needed to be made regularly and for a budget, the premium service was reshaping the landscape with high-budget, critically acclaimed shows like “The Wire,” “The Sopranos,” “Deadwood” and “Boardwalk Empire.” Suddenly, thanks to showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, Martin’s sprawling fantasy epic seemed a bit smaller and a bit more manageable. The same year “A Dance with Dragons” came out, Season 1 of “Game of Thrones” debuted.
It quickly became an unexpected hit for the network. Just like that, the struggling novelist finally found the success in TV he always wanted, without compromising the scope of his work. The only problem was, despite the show’s immense fan base, book readers were still clamoring with surprising vigor to see the next two books completed.
Since 2011, Martin has found success that other writers like him can only dream of. However, his fame has transitioned into infamy as fans wait for him to buckle down and finish the books. Rather than bask in his success, he's now asked to apologize for it.
From hero to villain
Martin cannot write a blog post, appear in public or even watch a football game without people angrily demanding that he’s procrastinating the completion of his book series and demanding, often rudely, that he get behind a keyboard and bang out the next two books. According to a 2011 article in The New Yorker, sites like “Is Winter Coming” and a contingent calling themselves “GRRuMblers” emerged for the sole purpose of discussing the notoriously slow writer’s lack of finished works.
When the founder of “Is Winter Coming,” Remy Verhoeve, was asked if the books we’ve seen so far would be good enough in the event Martin never finishes the series, his response was curt.
“Yeah. I guess it is. Though sometimes I wish I had never read those books.”
In 2018, fans are still waiting for the sixth book, "The Winds of Winter." As “Game of Thrones” prepares to enter its eighth and final season, those who have watched the show since Season 6 officially know more about the events in Westeros than those who stuck to the books, as even the slow-to-produce series surpassed Martin’s novels.
Now the better part of a decade into dealing with a toxic, parasocial relationship with his fans, Martin seems to have grown somewhat comfortable with persevering with his passion in the face of the negativity.
Writing what he likes
In July of 2017 he announced on his blog that he’ll produce two books based on the world of Westeros in the coming months. Neither of these books however will be the next installment in "A Song of Ice and Fire."
Instead, Martin is backtracking to the world of Westeros before the events of “A Game of Thrones.” He announced “Fire and Blood,” a projected two-volume anthology that will cover how the world was shaped in the decades before the action of “A Song of Ice and Fire.”
“And, yes, I know you all want to know about ‘The Winds of Winter’ too,” he wrote. “I am still working on it, I am still months away (how many? good question), I still have good days and bad days, and that's all I care to say. Whether 'Winds' or the first volume of ‘Fire and Blood’ will be the first to hit the bookstores is hard to say at this juncture, but I do think you will have a Westeros book from me in 2018... and who knows, maybe two. A boy can dream…”
While fans were dismayed to hear that the author has yet another distraction standing between him and completing the novel series, in addition to his various editing, writing and producing projects, Martin seems content to be working on the things that excite him, which doesn't appear to include "Winds."
Winter will come, relax
Meanwhile, “Game of Thrones” will end after six more episodes in 2019 and the man who describes himself as an “entertainer” rather than a "novelist" will have seen his wildest dream come true - a show with no limits that is beloved by fans.
As for his thoughts on the end of his book series, which feels more perfunctory with each passing day, a quote Martin gave during a conversation with Penguin House in 2016 may, in context, sum up his feelings on finally having the homework of the novels behind him.
“I’m not going to tell you how I’m going to end my book, but I suspect the overall flavor is going to be as much bittersweet as it is happy.”