WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD. DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVE NOT WATCHED GAME OF THRONES BUT INTEND TO.
As the bells of King’s Landing rang loud signaling the Queen’s surrender, the aspiring Usurper’s lips curled into an evil river and her green eyes grew into spheres of rage. After years building her following as The Breaker of Chains, The Mother of Dragons, and the Rightful Heir to the Iron Throne, the petite blonde Khaleesi did what all her advisors begged her not to do. With the other-worldly power of her dragon’s fire, she spent the better part of an hour launching an aerial attack on the capital of her kingdom, burning thousands of innocent civilians alive on her way to recapturing the Crown. Along with 18.4 million other Americans, I watched as the visually captivating, but narratively horrific scene unfolded. But it was the first Game of Thrones episode, save the Pilot, that I had actually watched. Yet, while the rest of the world condemned the episode voraciously (a petition to remake the final season had 1.6 million+ signatories at last check), I was enthralled. I was eight years late to the GOT party, but I was now hooked.
When I finally arrived, I too fell down deep into the vortex. At one point I watched seven episodes per day for three days straight. That’s a lot of time to live in that dark world and I found myself wanting to pick a sword fight with anyone who cut me off in traffic. When I wasn’t watching the actual show, I was reading countless articles about its creation, analyzing critiques, sampling YouTube videos explaining the history and geography of Westeros and Essos and generally geeking out in the epic universe that George R.R. Martin had created.
But one thing that truly stood out to me through all of it was George himself. While the show has made him all of the things an aspiring artist dreams about — rich, famous, revered, and in-demand — the peculiarity of the show having outrun the books forced a lot of people to proverbially turn to George and ask, “Was this how it was supposed to end?” What they really mean is, “Why haven’t you finished the damn books yet?” I’m sure George is sitting there asking himself the same question. And man, do I feel for him right now.
First, a little background on my history with Game of Thrones and the book series it is based on, A Song of Ice & Fire, as it likely skews my thinking on the subject. First of all, I have not read a single one of the books in the ASOIF series, though I certainly hope to. I recall the show first came into my consciousness in the summer of 2013, when a young British woman at a beach party in Montauk kept drunkenly walking around screaming, “Where Are My Dragons?” I was binge watching Breaking Bad at the time in anticipation of its finale that fall, but I made a mental note to check out this crazy dragon show next. After Breaking Bad’s largely well-regarded finale, I fired up the Pilot of GOT and I was…confused. Admittedly, I was also underwhelmed. There was just too much information being presented too quickly with too little actual action to fully capture my attention, though I was curious about this “winter” that was coming. So, I stopped there. I made another valiant attempt a few winters later and again, felt no less confused or engaged.
But the show really started to pick up steam throughout the years and I definitely had major FOMO when my friend’s attended watch parties that I was rightfully absent from. This FOMO hit a fever pitch this winter, just before the final season was set to air. My wife and I took a weekend trip to Santa Fe, NM where George has resided for decades. Needless to say, his presence in town is everywhere. He even showed up in a New York Times Travel video on YouTube outlining a good weekend itinerary in the city. For all of its charms, we mainly went to Santa Fe to attend the immersive art exhibit Meow Wolf, and I must say it was genuinely the most entertaining thing I’ve ever experienced. Seriously, for all of its hype (it’s #4 on Time Out’s List of the Best Things To Do IN THE WORLD), I would argue it’s underrated. I hope that MW takes over the whole country and I can attend installations in every city in the country. The exhibit takes place in an abandoned bowling alley in an industrial part of town. When I learned that it was George who had bought and renovated the alley for $2.7 million to allow the artists’ collective to run wild with their imaginations, a soft part in my heart opened for him. Later, we went to the historic Jean Cocteau Cinema that George now owns and spent a lot of time in the book store. I seriously contemplated buying the first book in the series, A Game of Thrones, right then and there and spending the winter reading the whole series before finally watching the television show, but the sheer weight of the book, the size of a small dumbbell, overwhelmed me. (If I was that overwhelmed by the prospect of reading the books, I can only imagine what it would be like to write them.) I didn’t purchase the book but I resolved to get into the show soon, if for no other reason than as an appreciation for all the support that George was giving to the arts community in his hometown, and for birthing Meow Wolf, an institution that I believe will become a worldwide phenomenon that will have a profound influence on the world of art for generations to come.
As the spring unfolded, news of viewer outrage at how the final season of GOT was playing out was hard to miss, but it only intrigued me to watch it even more. And then the night of the penultimate episode, The Bells, came. I was in New York staying with a friend who invited me to one of those watch parties I had so sadly missed. Despite having missed the prior 70 episodes, I was in. On the way over, we noticed a string of people clearly rushing home to get in front of the TV before the show started. In this age of streaming and general entertainment disaggregation, it occurred to me that only the Super Bowl could draw viewers to their TV at the same time as this. As some have said, GOT will likely be the last “water cooler” TV show ever. I asked one of the passersby to give me an “elevator pitch” of the show so I could catch up on all 7.5 seasons in two minutes. To her credit, the woman gave it a valiant effort, but there was just too much information to convey too quickly. In hindsight, she actually did a good job telling me about Daenerys Targaryen building an army in Essos so she could recapture the Iron Throne in her home country of Westeros. In the weeks that followed, the best summary I heard of it simply said, “It’s about a Civil War in a medieval kingdom”.
The show began, and I was immediately blown away. Let’s be honest, it was the dragon. More velociraptor than Toothless, my childhood sense of wonder was violently awakened as I watched him burn down the gates of a medieval city to start an epic battle. I had no idea who these characters were, how they had gotten here, or what they meant to the dedicated viewers of the show, but the sheer cinematic joy of it was crystal clear as an elegantly braided blond woman lay waste to a repurposed Dubrovnik atop her fantastical beast. The rest of the party’s despondent reactions fell on my deaf ears. I didn’t care if they didn’t like it, I knew I wanted to watch it, all of it, now. I had a week until the finale.
Of course, I didn’t get it all in time. With 73 hours of footage to watch, it would ultimately take several weeks to make it all the way through (much like this New York Times reporter), but with a particularly rainy Spring on hand in Denver and a rather slow period at work , my wife and I got to it, and we learned why everyone was so in love (at least at first). The world is utterly captivating, with sword fights, and dragons, and zombies, and zombie dragons (I freaking loved that part). Throw in some Manhattanites in stilettos and some blue methamphetamine and you’d have every television delight in recent history wrapped up into a neat little package.
But as I went down the rabbit hole, I started reading a lot about George’s struggles to write the sixth and seventh books in the series. Some important history — as I understand it, George was born and raised in Bayonne, NJ (my father’s hometown) just outside of New York City in the 1950s. He found his love for sci-fi, horror, and fantasy writing early, but seeking to make a living he moved to Des Moines, IA to become a teacher and a chess tournament manager. When his mentor died suddenly, he decided he needed to focus his life on his love of writing, and he moved to Santa Fe in his thirties to become a full-time writer. A fair amount of success followed in his niche but stints in Hollywood ended in frustration when his scripts weren’t actually getting made. So, he resolved to go back to Santa Fe and write with his imagination unbound. The year was 1991, twenty years before GOT would first air, and the image of the Stark boys finding a litter of direwolfs popped into his head. A Song of Ice and Fire was born. But it would take five years, and nearly three hundred thousand words for that first novel to get published. Keep in mind that a typical commercial novel’s word count is approximately 100,000 words, or a 1/3 the length of Martin’s first book in the series. By comparison, this article is approximately 3,200 words, less than 1% the length of that first book.
The second book, A Clash of Kings, clocked in at nearly 320,000 words and was published three years later in 1999. Book #3, A Storm of Swords was a whopping 415,000 words, but somehow only published a year later, in 2000. George was on a roll. Book #4, A Feast for Crows was back to the original book’s size of nearly 300,000 words and published five years later in 2005. Shortly after, with the success of the Lord of The Rings films, Hollywood was calling, and George started exploring adaptation options. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss won the contest by proposing the show as a television series and correctly identifying a piece of trivia that would only be known to someone who had read all of the books in detail. For what it’s worth, I believe the question was “Who killed King Joffrey”? Book #5, A Dance with Dragons, the longest one yet, was released six years later, in 2011 just as GOT was starting to air on HBO.
Everyone, including George himself, figured he’d have Book #6, The Winds of Winter, done by the time the show got there if it ever did at all. It probably felt like a safe bet, but in hindsight, it wasn’t. With the exception of Book #3, it generally took George 3–6 years to write, edit, revise, and publish each novel. He could have reasonably predicted that The Winds of Winter, would come out in 2015 or so, but at his pace, Book #7, A Dream of Spring, was likely not coming until 2019. It would be tight.
But then GOT took off. It became one of the most successful TV shows in history and George wasn’t just watching on the sidelines. He was an Executive Producer and a Writer on the show. Busyness breeds busyness, and all of a sudden, he was majorly in demand, appearing everywhere from Comic-Con to a parody on SNL. Throw in the planned show spin-offs and Meow Wolf (thank you George!) and his “butt-in-chair” time was starting to be compromised. The musical Something Rotten has a hilarious bit about this where the villainous William Shakespeare laments that the success of his plays has robbed him of the time and concentration he needs to write more plays. Most aspiring writers moan about the nuisance of day jobs getting in the way of their writing, but majorly successful writers, while no longer dogged with fears of how to buy dinner that night, are also robbed of their best writing hours by the need to do press or wield to the pressure to consider side projects. George was being pulled in too many directions, and ASOIF suffered.
Amazingly, George was able to write another book while the show aired, Fire & Blood, a comprehensive history of the world of Westeros and Essos that George created. Published in 2018 and clocking in at over 700 pages, whatever “butt-in-chair” time George had, was likely largely spent on that. Why work on a history book rather than move the story along while the world is watching? I have a thought. Have you ever told a lie that you needed to keep up? Maybe you exaggerated a little on your resume for a job application or embellished your liking of a particular hobby to a prospective significant other. It’s ok, we’ve all done it. Do you remember how exhausting it was to keep up the lie? How much brain power it took up? Now imagine keeping that up for nearly thirty years over thousands of pages of written words while millions of people fall in love and become deeply devoted to your lie. That’s what George is doing. We have to remember, this a 100% pure fiction all coming from the imagination of one man. Sure, it has its roots in the real War of the Roses and a canon of medieval fantasy books (i.e. Tolkien) to lean on, but for all intents and purposes, this man has literally made all of this shit up. I’m sure the weight of it is exhausting and he probably wrote that history book just to get his story straight.
To be fair, George has written a fair amount of Book #6, The Winds of Winter and shared a lot of publicly, but this is just a first draft. Even a simple blog post takes three or four major revisions before it gets published, and it may be littered with typos if not carefully edited by a third party. Throw on top of that all of the time spent thinking about the story, outlining the narrative, tying the pieces together and arcing the story appropriately for a dramatic effect, it’s amazing this man has time to do anything else with his brain. As someone working on his first novel, I can tell you that I’m already sick of my characters (all three of them) and tired of my story, and I’m only on Chapter 3 (maybe I need a new story). And let’s not forget, this man is 71 years old. He started ASOIF when he was 40 something. He’s already well past the average retirement age of 62 and here we are waiting on two more epics from him. Vicious rumors started to spread that he had secretly finished the last two books but George himself did a great job refuting these theories.
Now that the show has run past the books and ended, disappointingly so to many, the world has turned to George and said, “So, is this how it was supposed to end?” The answer is probably “maybe”. While writers often write with the end of their story in the mind, the truth is it all subject to change as the story unfolds. TV is a particularly interesting beast. You have to juggle three story arcs at a time: one for the episode, one for the season, and one for the whole show. The last one is especially tricky since you don’t know when your show is going to get canceled. You have to be ready to wrap it up at any moment. True, as a novelist, George didn’t have such constraints, but he was asked to pick an ending long before he got to it. I’m sure that when he conveyed his original idea to the showrunners, it was where his head was at, but he’s been robbed of the creative license to change his mind as his story unfolds.
Of course, interest in the books has never been higher. Fans the world over, seeking a more satisfying ending have turned to George hoping for the ending they didn’t get. Can you imagine the pressure? Can you imagine the weight of those expectations? The desire to write the perfect article can paralyze me for months, and I don’t have an audience of millions. I can only imagine what George is going through. Yes, the world feels like they are owed, but let’s be fair, this man doesn’t owe us anything (though he may owe his publisher the books). I promise you there is no one in the world who wants to write the greatest novels in history to wrap this story up more than George, but he has lost the privilege of anonymity to write what he feels, no matter how sucky, and edit the story into competency if not greatness. We now demand creative perfection on the spot from him.
It can be hard to sympathize with a man who is reportedly worth $80 million from his creation, who has found a way to make a living and then some doing what he loves. But success can cause writer’s block more than failure can. So, we need to give the man room to breathe. Room to let his imagination run wild, room to create, room to fail, room to pursue other passions.
So, dear Mr. Martin, if you are reading this, like the rest of the world, I have fallen in love with your creation. I marvel at your genius, at your imagination, at your contributions to your community. I’m excited to see what you come up with next. But take your time, let your mind wander, try and fail. We’ll find new things to obsess about (I hear Chernobyl is pretty good) and when it’s ready, your audience will still be here. In the meantime, I’ve got several million words of your words to catch up on. Thank you for enriching our world and thank you for Meow Wolf. It’s early days yet, but I have a feeling this will be an even more influential creation of yours than ASOIF, especially with you joining the team as its Chief World Builder. Our world, and your world, is a better place for having you in it.