George R.R. Martin in 2010. Credit: Julle
George R.R. Martin in 2010. Credit: Julle

So, what kind of obligation does a writer have to his fans?

I couldn’t help thinking of George R.R. Martin after watching a trailer of Baz Luhrmann’s production of “The Great Gatsby.”

That might seem like an unexpected leap, but it’s not a big one. Thinking about “Gatsby” made me think about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last novel, the unfinished “The Last Tycoon,” and then, “The Last Tycoon” made me think about Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” saga.

When he died in 1940, Fitzgerald left behind notes and outlines for “Tycoon.” He didn’t complete the manuscript, but he left a pretty good idea of what he wanted to do and how he planned to get there. Edmund Wilson put together Fitzgerald’s outlines and notes in an edition, and you’ll find richer insights on how to write a novel there than you will in any book or class titled “How to Write a Novel.”

That brings me to Martin. There are two more books to go in his saga, and he’s working on the sixth, “The Winds of Winter.” Plenty of his fans worry that we’re heading for a Robert Jordan situation — Jordan died before he could finish his epic “Wheels of Time,” and Brandon Sanderson finished it for him.

If something like that were to happen to St. George — God forbid! — would any outlines or notes exist like Fitzgerald’s? (For anyone who can’t believe that I’d speak of the sublime Fitzgerald and Martin in the same breath, oh, get over yourself.)

I keep thinking that Martin should do the same thing, if he hasn’t already. Even if he changes his mind on some of the details of what’s supposed to happen to Tyrion Lannister, Daenerys  Targaryen, the poor, afflicted Starks et al., he knows where his story is supposed to end. He’s always said so to interviewers.

So, here’s what I’d suggest to George:

One afternoon, why don’t you sit down at your desk with a plate of honey-dipped walnuts baked in a cookfire, pour yourself a flagon of brown bitter ale, and sketch out the basic plot points of  books 6 and 7 like Fitzgerald? Then, next time you’re running errands around downtown Santa Fe, stop by the bank and leave them in your safety deposit box in case of emergency.

Then, another writer — like Patrick Rothfuss, Daniel Abraham, or even David Benioff (producer of the HBO series and a novelist himself) — could give us the conclusion that Martin wanted, not one imagined by somebody else, even if the words aren’t entirely his.

That gets me back to my question at the top. Does Martin owe his fans anything?  Probably not. Even with everyone breathing down his neck — including HBO — he should be writing the story for himself.

On the other hand, writing is one of those situations in which a special relationship develops between a writer and reader. There’s a special bond there, a contract. Any of you who have traveled to Westeros and have aligned yourself with Starks, Lannisters, the Night’s Watch, etc. know what it means to be fiercely loyal. When it comes to his fans, George probably does too.

My friends, I welcome your thoughts!


  1. I listened to the first two books and most of the third on Audible. The production was amazing and I was hungry for more. The only problem was that it consumed my life. I thought about his characters all the time. It made it difficult to work or write or anything… So I stopped. I put it down because it was too good.Perhaps when my life is more stable I will try and go through it.

    As to writers owing readers anything, I’d have to say that they owe readers nothing more than any human owes any other. If he dies before his work is done and leaves nothing behind then we should take it as an opportunity to reflect on how shitty death is. And, for that matter, how shitty life is. But that’s just me, I guess.

    I write for readers. No doubt about it. But I write for readers who are the sorts of readers who will want to read what i want to write. It’s a long way of saying that there exists a very interesting relationship between readers and writers. If I start to write for readers by intentionally not writing for myself I do everyone a disservice.

    I may change my mind about this, but for the moment, I have to say that if I think of what I owe my readers then I will cease to be able to give them the best that I can.

  2. I may have been living under a rock, but I didn’t know that The Last Tycoon was published posthumously. Now I’m dying to go buy a copy and read it!

    As far as squirreling things away in a safety deposit box, you’ll be happy to know that Richard Ford (a speaker at Squaw Valley) informed us that he puts envelopes of stories he’s setting aside to steep in the freezer, so he always knows where to find them when he’s ready to work on them. “Canada” sat in his freezer for 20 years as an 11 page “start” before he started working on it again in 2008.

  3. I’m going to have to send you a subsidy, Jil. I don’t want you to go broke. If we were neighbors, I’d readily loan you my copy! I think the Edmund Wilson edition is the standard one, but just double check before you buy a copy. You definitely want to see F’s outlines and notes to himself.

    I had no idea that Ford did that for 20 years! 20 years? I used to treat all writers like demo-gods (and I still do, to some degree) but it’s wonderful to see their human side. It just makes me happy thinking that some draft pages for “Canada” sat next to a box of Eskimo pies!

  4. Eric, this is really great. Your comments, especially in the last two grafs, say it all. “If I start to write for readers by intentionally not writing for myself I do everyone a disservice.” —- I couldn’t agree more with you, man. But I think when you walk into a bookstore and look at the shelves that have the thriller and mystery series, you see that mistake being made all the time. When I was at the paper, I’d receive tons of galleys of stories featuring a recurring detective or something. You could feel the writer’s love for his/her main character in some of these series; in others, you could see right away that they were just chasing after what they thought readers would like. I’m with you. It has to mean something to you first before it means anything to someone else.

  5. Ha! Ford is a bird hunter, so his envelopes sit under a pile of frozen pheasants and ducks. 😮

    No worries about subsidizing my addiction. I don’t buy clothes very often, so you could say I have my priorities. 😮

  6. I agree with Eric up above, I think – a writer owes everything to the story that’s being written, and is owned only by the story that they’re telling, at least in an ideal world. I imagine it often doesn’t work like that though! Success brings pressure (I guess, I’m not speaking from experience!), and I *really* hope Martin’s story doesn’t become compromised by time pressure, or appealing to demographics, or the need to meet the constraints of television.

    Having said all that, I wish he’d hurry up already! 🙂

  7. I agree with you and Eric and Jil… Writing should always be for oneself first. The pressures on Martin must be truly incredible.

    If someone had to pick up and finish it for him, who would you suggest? I mentioned Rothfuss, Abraham or Benioff as possibilities. Or would you be satisfied if no one finished it for Martin? Right now I’m sort of feeling that makes more sense than bringing in someone else… And let’s pray that never happens!

  8. I like Rothfuss a lot, I’d love to see how he’d write the same story – more lyrically, maybe? It’s interesting to think about – what kind of story would emerge if different writers entered different worlds, like Martin entering Middle Earth, for example. But then again, I’ve been left hanging by The Wise Man’s Fear as well, so maybe Rothfuss should just concentrate on that! 🙂

  9. “Does Martin owe his fans anything? No, not a thing.
    “Does Martin owe his readers anything?” Well, perhaps.

    What is owed will differ from situation to situation. As a blogger who posts mostly essays on a weekly basis, I have readers I’ve come to know over time, people with whom I’ve established relationships. We have a history together. I know many of their concerns, and they are kind enough to remember some of my stories. Because I’ve worked to encourage dialogue, many readers return to each entry a second or third time just to read the comments. While I write what I please, I write it for “them” – the commenters, and all the invisible ones my statistics tell me are there.

    Sometimes, in the midst of it all, I remember what it was like when a blogger I knew only as ellaella suddenly disappeared. She’d served as a WordPress forum volunteer. She encouraged me with my writing, and she maintained a marvelous blog of her own. She was funny, generous and delightful – and then she was gone.

    We searched for her for over a year. And then we found her. Her name was Donna Penyak. She was a well-respected journalist and radio personality. She was part of the morning drivetime show on 93KYS in Washington, DC, and a CBS news broadcaster in NYC. Despite all that, the dear friend I knew only as ellaella died homeless and alone after landing on the streets and living in her car. You can read about her here.

    It traumatized a lot of people for a good while. It also made many of us think about this new phenomenon we call blogging, and the human realities it entails. The experience convinced me I owe my readers more than a sudden disappearance. If, in the face of disease, old age or penury, I can end my blog myself, I will do so. But if something happens to me – an accident, a sudden death, a mistaken drone strike originally meant for the drug-running tattoo artist down the street – there are people who have my password, who can post a final entry with answers to the inevitable questions, and then close the comments.

    At least people will know how the story came to end.

  10. This has been something I’ve thought about a lot. A handful of my readers are people who I feel I have real friendship with and the thought of dropping off the face of the earth without saying a real goodbye… Well, it stirs some pretty deep emotions.

  11. Oh I definitely agree about Rothfuss staying in his own story. I’m not even sure if a guy like him would be interested in picking up someone else’s story. I’ve just always like to ask what-if questions, though I definitely wouldn’t like to see it really happen in the case of Martin! I’m so glad to hear from another Rothfuss fan. There’s a great interview between him and Rebecca Lovatt at her WP site, The Arched Doorway. You’ll have to check it out when you have time!

  12. I feel really lucky to be connected to folks like you, Shoreacres, and my other friends on WP. The story you share in this thread about another blogger is so moving. And powerfully instructive — you’re so right. Usually I’ve only heard the arguments that blogging and the internet encourage anonymity and snarkiness, and that’s basically what I experienced at the newspaper. People mostly reached out to complain or point out shortcomings, not create a positive dialogue. But what you’re reminding me about is that we do owe something to the people who read us, and vice versa for who we read. If I’m going to say that Martin has an obligation, well, I’ve got to remember that I have one too even if I’m talking to a mega-smaller community than Martin’s. Your story is really stunning. Thank you for sharing that. I’m blown away.

    thank you thank you thank you

  13. Thanks for your followup commment, Eric. You and Shoreacres are totally in sync. All I can say is Amen to that. I feel the same way. This is a conversation definitely worth continuing in the future. Hope you’re having a great day.

  14. That’s a nice interview, thanks for pointing me in the right direction!

    I followed a link to “10 things Kvothe absolutely needs to do in Day 3 of the Kingkiller Chronicles”, and Rothfuss and Kvothe do have their work cut out for them! Thinking about it, unless the third book is three times the size of the other two put together, I don’t see how it can be ‘finished’ – there are probably going to be a whole host of unanswered questions, and innumerable ‘holes’ in Kvothe’s narrative, which could raise as many questions as answers. I think that’s the same for The Game of Thrones as well, and probably why I like both series so much. Even after they finish, unexplored connections and paths will stretch out, to the past, the future, the side – all around, really! It’s a lot like life, I suppose; no matter how much we want a neat ending, more often than not, it just doesn’t happen; and however much we might want to know ‘the whole story’, it’s just not possible, because the story is endless.

    I wanted to thank Shoreacres as well, for letting me share at least a part of ellaella’s story…

  15. Sorry for the delay in getting back to you. It might be summer, but it still feels pretty busy! I’ve only read rothfuss’ “Name of the Wind” (I know, how could I stop there?), and I really appreciate your deep sensibility for his work. If you ever post anything additional on his books, please let me know! Not only do I want to read more of what you have to say, but I’ll alert the folks on my blog.

    This part of your comment really struck me:

    “It’s a lot like life, I suppose; no matter how much we want a neat ending, more often than not, it just doesn’t happen; and however much we might want to know ‘the whole story’, it’s just not possible, because the story is endless.”

    Stories really are better when they’re messy, aren’t they? I think that’s why a messy novel can be a fantastic bestseller even when it gets savaged by critics. Most book critics have this weird classroom attitude to fiction: The story has to accomplish points A, B,C, etc. But the readers out there who actually buy the book and support the author are judging the story by their experiences. I can’t remember if Rothfuss has ever been heavily criticized by a reviewer, but I can easily see critics misunderstanding him, just as they’ve misunderstood Martin for years!

    Onward, my friend, what a thoughtful comment you provided. Definitely raised the currency value of this blog when you did!

  16. I have a feeling that he is going to write these faster than the last couple, because: a) he has the pressure of the TV series, b) It seems like the last two novels were setting up the pieces on the board. Now all the characters are where he wants them, they are now going to move towards their conclusions.
    I think that if anything were to happen to him, the show would finish it off. I wouldn’t like that, but with the popularity of it, I’m sure that’s what will happen.

    It would be hard for any writer taking over to match his style. I think Jordan had a little more of a generic style of writing, whereas Martin’s is unique in its wit and unexpected detail.

  17. Ianthecool, your point about the difference in Jordan’s and Martin’s style is right on. Both are great storytellers, but I wouldn’t want to be the guy charged with picking up where Martin left off. His voice is really too unique for anyone to imitate.

    I hope the pressure of the HBO series doesn’t force him to hurry too much, though (not that I wouldn’t mind seeing an announcement about “Winds of Winter” in 2014!). The details in each character’s story don’t seem, to me, at any rate, like the kinds of details that could be produced quickly under a deadline.

  18. I think that is a wonderful proposal and I am sure GRRM does have a lot of notes..just because I don’t think he himself could finish the series with all that information in his head. And I would love for him to finish the series himself, and take his time with it. The series is so good, it would be a shame to spoil it by rushing the end.

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