I’ve been thinking a lot about George R.R. Martin’s recent post: Last Year (Winds Of Winter). It’s a bit of a mea culpa in which he admits that he has missed his last two deadlines to turn in Winds Of Winter. In other words, it will not be out before Game Of Thrones returns to HBO next season. He takes full responsibility for this…well, sort of. He takes responsibility in that he doesn’t blame anyone other than himself and he wishes he could have made the deadlines. But he also implies that it was literally impossible to meet the deadlines while still producing a book that is up to his personal standards. He then goes on to declare that while he will finish the book he will no longer adhere to or even entertain any deadlines. It’ll be finished when it’s finished.
For me, his post speaks to a fundamental question that all novelists have to contend with:
Is writing an art or a business?
Yes, yes, I know. It’s obviously both. But to what degree is it art as opposed to what degree is it a business pursuit? If it’s primarily an art then deadlines are only useful in their motivational qualities. For instance, if you’re in a writer’s block but the threat of the deadline scares you out of it (much like a good scare might frighten off the hiccups) then deadlines are great. And the pressure of a looming deadline might make you less likely to fall down the rabbit hole that is Google. But if your work isn’t crafted to its full artistic potential by the time the deadline rolls around then, as an artist, you have a responsibility to flip that deadline the bird and keep writing until you’ve created something truly beautiful and hopefully somewhat life changing for both you and your readers.
However, if its primarily a business pursuit then you have to take an Apple Inc. approach to your work: get a new version of your product out into the market before your customers are done with their last version and start shopping for Samsung. We as consumers are easily distracted by the newest, shiny thing and Apple makes sure that the newest and shiniest thing out there is always created by them. Those who take their time between releases risk being forgotten, a lesson Blackberry learned the hard way before scrambling to introduce a whole slew of new products in short order. There are many authors who take this Apple approach to writing, coming out with two, three sometimes even four or five books a year. And like the iPhone 6, each book is often a different versions of the same story or theme that they released before it. And you know what? I applaud them for it. Could their work be better or more unique if they took a little more time to nurture each manuscript? Maybe, maybe not. But what’s clear is that their readers aren’t complaining. Those Apple authors are making people happy and making a very nice profit to boot. That my friends, is capitalism at its glorious best. So if your writing is primarily a business then you really have to make your deadlines…
…unless you’re George R.R. Martin or his equivalent in which case your work is so valuable to the publishers and the reading public you can pretty much get away with anything in that regard without taking a hit.
And that might be the most important point of all. If you are primarily an artist, and your work is not only great but also resonates with a large number of people, you don’t necessarily have to be that great of a business person. You may disappoint readers by taking a long time between releases, but they will wait because they recognize the quality of what they’re waiting for. Despite all their grumbling, I doubt George R.R. Martin lose a single reader over this missed deadline because the REASON they’re so anxious for the next book is because they love his books. Romance novelists usually are expected by both readers and the publishing industry to put out three to five books a year. And yet one of the most successful romance authors (and certainly the most critically successful) is Jojo Moyes who averages one book a year. And if it took her two years to write her next book, it would still sell like hotcakes. Donna Tart can take another ten years to write her next Pulitzer Prize winner and she’ll be fine. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about literary fiction or genre fiction, if the artistry is powerful enough it will transcend the normal business model. George R.R. Martin knows this, otherwise he would have submitted a mediocre book to his publishing house in order to make his deadline.
I know it too. I probably shouldn’t state this in such a public forum, but I am not known as a writer who is really great about deadlines. I don’t hate them and I do find them motivating and sometimes I make them. But sometimes I don’t. After only a few years into my career I decided that if a manuscript didn’t have the level of artistry necessary to satisfy me, I wasn’t turning it in. That means that there have been times when I’ve found myself begging and pleading with my editor for an extra few months so I could keep nurturing, molding and changing my work until it lived up to my standards. I’m not as big as Martin, Moyes or Tart. When I take my time releasing a book it takes a toll on my sales and, at least in the short term, my career. But at least I’m proud of everything that’s out there. I would be perfectly comfortable giving any one of my romance novels to a critic of literary fiction and then defying him to find a weakness in my prose. That’s not conceit talking. That’s the love, passion and conviction that is born from the time I’ve spent with each of my manuscripts.
I really, really wish I was a better business woman than I am. I honestly admire those who knock out book after book thereby keeping readers smiling all year. But the hard truth is that I’m more of an artist. I’m just going to have to hope that I’m able to overcome my weaknesses in the former category with my strengths in the latter.
And Martin? On the off chance you’re reading this, I think you should take all the time you need.