Last week, George R. R. Martin caused a stir among A Song of Ice and Fire fandom’s watchers on the Wall when he offered a desultory status update on The Winds of Winter, the long-awaited sixth book in his planned seven-book series. Questioned about the book by a reader of his LiveJournal site, Not A Blog, way back on June 1, 2011, Martin had committed to being noncommittal, commenting, “I have given up making predictions about such things. It only gets me in trouble.” Yet last Tuesday, in another comment at the same site, he cracked, producing a prediction of sorts.
“Not done yet, but I’ve made progress,” Martin wrote. “But not as much as I hoped a year ago, when I thought to be done by now. I think it will be out this year. (But hey, I thought the same thing last year).”
It wasn’t the most inspiring message, but it rekindled anticipation among longtime readers who’ve already watched with dismay as Martin’s epic work was leapfrogged (and in some instances, spoiled) by the HBO series it spawned. The second and third books of Martin’s brainchild came out within a little more than four years of the first, but his pace has slowed considerably as the plot has grown increasingly complex. Book 4 took more than five years to arrive, and Book 5, A Dance With Dragons (which came out in July 2011), required close to six. The wait for The Winds of Winter will set a new series record on April 6.
Martin doesn’t hold back from broadcasting the many ways in which he spends time not writing The Winds of Winter, which only makes his readers antsier. As he commented in 2015, “I have always been a slow writer. I have always done book tours, attended a half dozen [science fiction conventions] each year, watched NFL games in the fall, travelled for business and pleasure. I have always had more than one project going at any one time: novels, short stories, anthologies, Wild Cards, what have you. Expecting me to drop all that seems entirely unreasonable to me.”
It seems pretty reasonable to some of his readers, who greet any news of Martin’s non–Winds of Winter activities with rueful resignation (at best). Impatient fans could forgive the glamorous distractions that threaten to sidetrack every celebrity. But does Martin have to spend so much time blogging about the Giants, the Jets, and “Evil Little Bill” Belichick? Does he have to directly respond to readers who visit his site to ask him “Is Game of Thrones really that good?”; or to see whether he’ll look at a relative’s manuscript; or to offer to give him a book he edited himself, in case he “missed out on a copy”; or to verify whether it was Martin they saw sitting at another table at brunch. (Are there that many people who look like this?) Does he personally have to arrange individual $9.99 sales of autographed books? And most galling of all: Does he have to watch The Big Bang Theory? At least he’s given up video games and doesn’t play fantasy football.
Martin has multiple personal assistants, whom he calls “minions,” but he still cops to an “excess of optimism about how much work [he] can actually get done in a certain period of time,” which leads to a tendency to “take on more than [he] can easily chew.” As he put it in 2012, “there’s just too damn much.”
With no Winds of Winter to take up their time, fans have been free to fret about whether the stout 68-year-old will live long enough to finish (“fuck you,” he says in response), to question whether he has any pages, or to calculate how many readers have already died during the two-decade slog to Book 6. Others have turned their statistical talents to modeling The Winds of Winter’s most likely ETA.
But one exercise has so far escaped Martin scholars: quantifying fans’ frustration by measuring the effort Martin has expended on other projects while we’ve been waiting for urgent word from Westeros (and while Martin, perhaps, has had trouble resolving his massive story). Excluding sample chapters of The Winds of Winter, some of which were written before A Dance With Dragons was done, how many words has Martin published, on any topic, since he announced the fifth book’s completion in April 2011?
To find out, I did a deep dive on any recent written work I could find that was bigger than a book blurb, including Martin’s LiveJournal posts and comments, his introductions to the anthologies he’s edited, his own novella- or novelette-length contributions to two of those collections, the three Game of Thrones scripts he completed during this period, and a few odds and ends. The cumulative word count from his 1,100-plus posts came from a scraper written by Ruhee Dewji, and the word count from comments came from hours of exciting searching, copying, and pasting by me and a few Ringer interns. For all other sources, I pasted text from digital copies into a web-based word counter. Most of these words differ dramatically from A Song of Ice and Fire in both content and tone, but as Martin himself asserted in a 2015 comment, “When you write something down and put it on the internet, it counts as ‘writing.’”
All told, Martin has published more than half a million words since he slew his last big book. For reference, the longest installment of the series so far, 2000’s A Storm of Swords, ran 424,000 words, which means that Martin has produced much more than one giant book’s worth of prose for public consumption in addition to whatever portion of Winds of Winter he’s hoarding.
One caveat: The scraper couldn’t distinguish between Martin’s words and quotes he copied and pasted, so it may have inflated his totals for certain posts in which he reproduced, say, a publisher’s or merchandiser’s description of a forthcoming product. In every other respect, though, my word-count quest could only have underrated his output.
In certain posts with no punctuation between paragraphs, the scraper probably missed a few words, and for the HBO episodes, I relied on online transcripts that reproduced the dialogue but omitted most of the other trappings of teleplays. Most significant, I took the strictest possible approach to assessing Martin’s work in The World of Ice & Fire, a 2014 “world book” that serves as a companion to the series. Martin churned out hundreds of thousands of words of Westeros history while working on the book, some of which were repurposed in other publications I counted. But the vast majority are unpublished and ticketed for Fire and Blood (colloquially called the GRRMarillion), a history of House Targaryen that Martin plans to complete if and when The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring are finally behind him. Although that work informed the condensed and rewritten text that makes up much of The World of Ice & Fire, my count included only the smaller sections that Martin’s coauthors have claimed came directly from him.
Martin wrote all of these words, plus many more we haven’t seen, while attending an endless succession of far-flung conventions, signings, meetings, and awards ceremonies; fielding a deluge of fan mail (which he still tries to read and sometimes responds to); and doing countless interviews to hawk his creations. Considering the constant demands on his time — only some of them self-imposed — Martin hasn’t actually slumped in the past several years. If anything, he’s been extraordinarily productive. Just not in the way we all want.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.