“Writers and artists aren’t machines.”

Hello again.

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I know I said I’d decided to leave off doing the themed posts, but this super cool chick said she digs the writing posts, and I dig writing them. So here I am!

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Heads up — this is gonna be a long one.

I follow Neil Gaiman on Facebook. The other day, he posted a link to one of his old blog entries — from waaaay back in 2009 — called “Entitlement Issues,” which he brought up because the same issue that inspired its composition has once again reared its ugly head. I’ll use the same excerpt below that he used on FB; it sums up his blog post nicely (though I highly recommend reading the post in its entirety).

People are not machines. Writers and artists aren’t machines.

You’re complaining about George doing other things than writing the books you want to read as if your buying the first book in the series was a contract with him: that you would pay over your ten dollars, and George for his part would spend every waking hour until the series was done, writing the rest of the books for you.

No such contract existed. You were paying your ten dollars for the book you were reading, and I assume that you enjoyed it because you want to know what happens next.

If you haven’t already guessed, the “George” he’s referring to is George R. R. Martin, author of the extremely popular Game of Thrones book series. Gaiman wrote this in response to a missive from a fan of Martin’s who subscribed to Martin’s blog but became “frustrated” by the lack of news about the next book in the series. Other people have made snide comments recently, as his latest installment is not yet finished, about how they’ve seen Martin out and about. Living his life. *Gasp* How dare he?

As an avid reader, I understand full well how hard it can be to wait for the next book from an author you love. I also understand how it feels to end one book in a series and immediately want to tear your own face off because you have to wait for the next one. It’s tough.

But…

As a writer, I believe that every point Gaiman makes in his post is true. No artist is beholden to their audience to produce work on demand. That’s not how good art is generally made. If you’re a professional writer, as in producing work for public consumption, you are putting something very personal out into the world to be viewed, judged, and commented upon. Wouldn’t you want it to be something you felt good about?

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. — Neil Gaiman

Several opinionated articles have been written about Martin’s failure to meet his book deadlines. One (that kind of grated on me) concluded that Martin is in danger of becoming irrelevant to the series that he created since the show is set to outpace the novels. That to me is ridiculous. For one thing, the two are completely different projects in different mediums which have now veered away from one another plot-wise (according to this and other articles I’ve read). For another, I tend to agree with the last lines of yesterday’s Guardian article on the subject: “David Benioff and DB Weiss, the producers of the television show, may be ahead of him, story-wise. But those characters and events will always be his.” He created this world that people are obsessing over. And there will always be a population of readers who appreciate him for that.

Another interesting point brought up by the Guardian article was the idea of “the muse.”

“In the four years from 1996 to 2000 he published three books; in the 15 years since he’s published part of one,” wrote Tim Marchman at Deadspin, in a piece published a few days before Martin’s admission. Plainly, this line of thinking held, Martin is physically and intellectually capable of producing faster. Does he ever plan on finishing the thing, before he dies?

Well, the muse doesn’t quite work like that, most writers would cluck.

The muse actually has very little to do with it. Many writers will tell you that if you aspire to any kind of writing career, you need to get over that whole “but I’m just not feeling inspired” thing. I’ve heard and read that piece of advice more times than I can count. You just have to DO it. But that doesn’t mean that once you do, the words will come flowing out all shiny and chrome. It also doesn’t mean that you’ll see every story through to the end. Sometimes you just don’t feel connected to what you’re working on anymore. In his apology to fans, Martin wrote, “I am months away still… and that’s if the writing goes well. (Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn’t.)” And that’s true. You might write 5,000 words of utter garbage one day, and the most perfect 200-word paragraph known to man the next. The artist is the only one who knows their vision. Therefore, only they know what, of the work they’ve done, is ready to be seen by others (or if the whole thing should just be scrapped).

When a person has a career in the arts, people seem to think that 1) they only ever work on one project at a time, and 2) they just sit around scratching their privates all day until they “feel like” doing some work — but the actual work only takes, like, an hour, right?

Making any kind of art is fun, but it can also be a real challenge to bring your ideas to life. Especially when you really care about getting it right. And even in those moments when you aren’t actually working on a particular project, you’re thinking about it. Every artistic passion has its difficulties. And the artist creating the work is going to be harder on themselves while making it than any critic or reader or viewer could ever be, because only THEY know what their goals are for their work.

And, hey! There’s also the fact that George R. R. Martin has to write a book series AT THE SAME TIME EPISODES OF THE TELEVISED ADAPTATION ARE BEING MADE AND BROADCASTED. That’s a lot of pressure… and a lot of promotion to do…. and a lot of events to attend. And this is on top of any engagements he has that are purely book-related, and any non-GoT projects on the burner. Most authors likely have more control (overall) over what gets done when. But then, most authors aren’t competing against adaptations of the work they’re writing…as they write it. I’d be pulling my hair out and punching people in the face if it were me. Just sayin’.

Bottom line: if George R. R. Martin didn’t care (as some disgruntled fans claim), the series would be over by now, long before its time. He would’ve crapped out a bunch of nonsense, bound it up, said “There ya go,” and went on his merry way. When an author takes their time with a story, it’s a good sign they’re making something that they — and by extension, their readers — can be proud of. It’s what I imagine most authors mean when they say that they write first and foremost for themselves. That’s the kind of work I want to read — a story the author is proud of.

I haven’t read a single GoT book yet (though I intend to), but from what I’ve gathered, the stories are long and the world is complex. I doubt any of his readers would be cool with a watered down version of the world he’s created in exchange for having the book in their hands faster. It doesn’t seem worth it to me.

Writers are human beings. They have lives. They have good days and bad days. Sometimes you’re pumped and can’t stop churning the words out; sometimes you’re mentally defeated and can’t even bring yourself to crawl out of bed, let alone write. And there’s everything in between, too; there’s life to deal with. Everyone should be allowed to work at their own pace. Everyone should be allowed to make mistakes. Martin missed his deadline. It happens. It doesn’t mean that he or any other author who does the same is lazy or doesn’t care about their readers.

In fact, they’ve probably missed their deadline because they do care.

It will be done when it’s done. And it will be as good as I can possibly make it.George R. R. Martin

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6 thoughts on ““Writers and artists aren’t machines.”

  1. You’re right. One of the things I hate now is that we are “expected” to write series of books if we want to be successful. But what if your novel is a one-Booker? I’ve only written a few short stories, but I know that that is what they are: one-offs. However, on the other hand, to para-phrase the words of Madonna, “We are living in a commercial world and I am a commercial girl.” I guess it depends how much you need the money.

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    • I find literary trends to be a somewhat unfortunate aspect of writing — primarily in fiction. There’s always that one book that is doing something interesting that comes out, then immediately after that a slew of similar titles flood the market.

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  2. I read this on the train the other day, which was not conducive to long rambling comments. So here goes:

    Mark always says that even though you might have a day of nothing but bad ideas, it’s good to get those out of the way. I think this applies to graphic design, drawing, writing, anything creative. Basically you only know those 5,000 words are utter tosh because you wrote them and then realised they aren’t helping the story. You pulled at that thread and now you know not to do that. You had to write them to learn that, coz if you knew it already you wouldn’t have bothered writing them. With this new info you can then go on to write that amazing 200 word paragraph. It’s a direct product of those 5000 words of nonsense teaching you what not to write.

    The problem is business and commercial interests wanting to treat creatives like any other hourly waged employee. “I’ll hire this unicorn for 8 hours and they can do 8 hours of solid rainbow farting”. Nope. Creative work is not the same as working on an assembly line, no matter how hard the accountant who has come in to reformat the company wants it to be.

    I’m sure George has a general idea of the direction he wants to go, he just needs to work all the bad ideas out. He needs the breathing space to do that. Frankly he’s in a place now where he has the luxury of working at his own pace and saying “no, not yet” to his publishers. He doesn’t have to just get something out there coz that gas bill ain’t gonna pay itself, y’know? That can be a two headed beast, of course and it’s quite possible that the pressure of being adored and being powerful enough to ignore deadlines isn’t George’s best friend right now. But that is George’s dragon to slay and if there is one thing living in England has taught us, people named George are usually good at slaying dragons. Eventually.

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    • Yes to all of this. Every aspect of an artist’s life is part of their work. There’s no “clocking out”; no “x amount of hours should always yield y amount of product.” I think if the same people who tried to put art-making on a par with factory work tried it for a week, they’d see how ridiculous their expectations are.

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  3. Great post! I think it’s the right of anyone following a series – series which in itself does promises to have many instalments – to be frustrated and want to read the next book as soon as possible, it is after all a big compliment that through years and thousands of pages, people are still following. However I totally see Gaiman’s point! Everyone who has done writing knows how difficult, tedious, long it is and those who don’t perhaps can’t appreciate that sadly. Harry Potter is the only series of more than 3 books I’ve ever read and to be honest, I’m okay with that. It’s commitment to follow along longer series.

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    • You’re right — taking on a book series is a commitment for readers and writers! I don’t generally read book series b/c of how frustrating it is to wait for the next book, haha. It’s funny though how people sometimes think art is a service industry, like the writers, musicians, actors, painters, etc. whose work they enjoy somehow owe them something in exchange for their enjoyment, when really the transaction was concluded as soon as they consumed the product. Pretty unfair, that.

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