Let’s face it – if you have had anything to do with a recent fandom, you’ve probably been there. Queuing in the rain, most likely with an unwilling parent, watching harried booksellers unpack boxes of the latest Twilight…the latest Harry Potter…the latest Song of Ice and Fire. Perhaps. Because I’m sure George RR Martin is feeling the pressure of a thousand waiting readers just as Rowling and any other popular series writer does, even those whose fans wait at home by Amazon rather than queuing outside Waterstones at silly o’clock for the first glimpse and smell of the coveted new volume. He bears up well and holds out but I can’t pretend I haven’t heard a lot of grumbling about ‘why won’t he hurry it up’? Were but that it were so easy, reader!
The weight of pressure and more to the point, the very public demonstration of this pressure by fans, seems to me at least to be a new vogue. Long epic book series are nothing new. I remember reading mid-90s David Eddings’ hulking Belgariad series and managing to wait patiently without too much frustration for the companion Belgarath and Polgara novels that were subsequently published. The fantasy genre is a particular serial offender (oh dear) because by its very nature, you need a lot of characters. Not to say that there aren’t other genres that produce long, expansive series – history, romance, humour – there is no end to the potential for characters that work and you can bring back to the joy of readers. There’s no doubt that the merge of books with films, TV series and the internet is the largest factor contributing to the hype. Would A Song of Ice and Fire be so popular without the TV series? Would so many people who don’t usually read pick up a Harry Potter book unless a friend had taken them to the film to see Harry zapping evil on the big screen? Of course, this is only a positive in and of itself – more people should read. Visual adaptations are no substitute for original written words. It does however mean that when a long series is in the offing, there are a lot more people who aren’t prepared to be patient for so long, and they can share and talk about their frustrations. In a world of fast food, instant communication and high-speed travel, waiting for a process as long as writing a book to be complete is not as appealing as it might have been once. Writing a novel is not however making a burger. Things take time. Lord of the Rings fans should have been happy that their long book series was already complete for their post-film fix, but no, I also heard people wondering why Tolkien hadn’t written more in his lifetime! The Hobbit film apparently has the potential to be another trilogy and out of such a short book, that speaks volumes about how people just want more of what they love, and fast.
So where does this leave the writer struggling to perfect his craft before unleashing it upon a baying public? No-one sees the writer at work the way you see an actor or a singer. There is no reality TV show for novelists, so unless you yourself write, it’s hard to understand the process. And it’s different for every person. I imagine George RR Martin has a MASSIVE organisational chart for the many characters and plotlines he has in play – or a superhuman memory. I remember the aforementioned David Eddings once proclaiming his love for his editor because without one, some cheeky fan will delight in picking out the mistakes you make with your characters’ histories (I might be that fan. I spot a few sometimes and yes, it bothers me…). Writing a story is a lot harder than those three simple words. Editing, re-editing, changing scenes that don’t work, making sure your characters are in-character, that the plotlines connect, typos, grammar, that the throwaway line you mentioned about your hero’s sister doesn’t come back to haunt you when his quest depends on his being an only child…there are many pitfalls. The dream is to sit down, type for an hour or two a day, then meet other writers and drink champagne and chat about cover art. The reality is sitting in the middle of a web of points of view, events and timescales which you are meant to be in control of, but most of the time, run away with you. No wonder it is a long process!
It is a great honour to have characters that are beloved by many. I can’t imagine a successful writer would change it for the world. But I am sure it can be hard. Fans can be fickle, especially in the modern age – in all honesty, will people remember Twilight in ten, twenty, fifty years’ time? Well, we can hope not, but the reason is, there is always another writer snapping at your heels to take your top spot away, as with everything. Stars rise and fall. The saddest thing in the world must be to publish a final volume of a once-beloved saga that no-one cares about any more, but where do you substitute speed for quality? What about personal satisfaction? Some writers genuinely do write for themselves. Why should they rush? There are more than a few books about recently that could have stood for a good edit – how many publishers just forced them to finish and put the book out to satisfy the demand for vogue and the fast-lane fans? I say this as a fan: waiting is hard. No-one enjoys being left hanging. But I also say this as someone who knows writers: writing is hard. Knowing people are waiting can be inspiring but it can also be high-pressure which can be in turn, counterproductive.
So when you hop online to see if the Mighty Bearded Glacier has put up ANY more hints about what Theon Greyjoy might be up to today, give him a break – he’s trying. Theorise, chat with other fans, but remember: patience is a virtue. In the meantime, there is always space for another writer in the world. Pick up the pen, turn on the computer and enter your own world. Who knows, you might be the creator of next big series that everyone is craving the next instalment of!