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Why Won’t George Let George Finish ‘Winds of Winter’?

The ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ mastermind says he desperately wants to finish his trademark series’ next installment. So why does he keep putting other projects first?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Wednesday morning, HBO’s official Game of Thrones Twitter account cryptically tweeted, “Winter is coming.” And as soon as they saw it, countless A Song of Ice and Fire fans, burned by years of false rumors and misleading potential teasers for The Winds of Winter, thought, “No, it’s not.”

This Saturday will mark the 10th anniversary of the airing of the first episode of Game of Thrones. This past Tuesday, another milestone passed mostly unobserved: the 10th anniversary of the publication of an interview in which author George R.R. Martin, fresh off the announcement of the release date for A Dance With Dragons (the fifth book in his beloved fantasy series), said, “Hopefully, the last two books will go a little bit quicker than this one has, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to be quick. Realistically, it’s going to take me three years to finish the next one at a good pace. I hope it doesn’t take me six years like this last one has.”

If only it had. A decade later—and roughly 11 years after Martin mentioned the first chapters ticketed for the penultimate installment of his series—Winds is still vaporware, aside from a smattering of sample chapters released long ago. At this late date, it’s almost amusing (if you’re into dark comedy) that Martin’s readers, spoiled by the two-year gaps between A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings and Clash and A Storm of Swords, were up in arms about the five- and six-year halts, respectively, between books 4 and 5. To paraphrase Old Nan, “Oh, my sweet summer children. What do you know of long waits?”

As Martin’s tomes tell us, words are wind. But when will words be Winds? Martin and most of his readers are well past the point of predicting when Winds will be out. Even the matter of whether Winds will blow has been raised so often, and remains so uncertain, that asking the question seems passé. My colleague Miles Surrey once recounted every instance of Martin promising or supposedly prioritizing the completion of Winds and then breezing (pun partially intended) by whatever target he’d set. Miles made a long list, and that was almost three years ago. At this point, it’s probably best to abandon all hope and be pleasantly surprised if Martin ever does deliver the book.

Martin’s failure to finish Winds (let alone its anticipated sequel, A Dream of Spring) isn’t really a rich text on its own. There’s only so much to say about the ongoing absence of something. Most of the latter-day discourse surrounding Winds stems from such fresh affronts as Martin commenting about the book—admittedly, often at the public’s prompting—or devoting his time to other tasks. “Work on Winds of Winter continues, and remains my top priority,” Martin blogged in June 2018. “It is ridiculous to think otherwise.” Rightly or wrongly, though, it’s actually easy to think otherwise, because Martin has been busy writing or consulting on so many projects other than the one he says is foremost on his mind.

If the author’s output had simply ceased, then we could consign the last two volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire to the fantasy scrap heap. Martin would be far from the first artist whose creative tap turned off. Alternatively, if Martin had decided that he didn’t intend to finish Winds—you know, because the David Benioff and D.B. Weiss ending to the saga was so satisfying that it would be impossible to top—then his readers could mourn and move on. Billy Joel (just to name another once-prolific, 70-something, tri-state area icon) hasn’t released an album of original songs since 1993, and he’s made it clear that he doesn’t want to. When he shows up to play the hits, nobody boos him because they haven’t forgiven him for deciding to stop recording after River of Dreams.

Martin doesn’t fit into either the involuntarily tapped-out or the voluntarily checked-out categories. His imagination is at once a wasteland (if judged solely by finishing Winds) and a fecund domain (if judged by his whole output). More than four years ago, I estimated how much writing Martin had published via his blog and various other projects in the five-plus years since the debut of A Dance of Dragons. Answer: more than half a million words’ worth—and that was before the 2018 release of the 700-plus-page Targaryen history Fire & Blood.

Writing encompasses a small portion of the projects whirling through Martin’s mind, only some of which are Westeros-related. “I cannot seem to keep out of the news these days,” he noted in March. Weeks after making that remark, Martin signed a five-year overall deal with HBO, which is frantically trying to populate a Thrones small-screen universe. Martin is executive producing and working with the writers of five prequel projects set in the world he conceived, in addition to the House of the Dragon series that is set to premiere next year (not to mention the late, lamented prequel not named The Long Night that never made it past the pilot stage). Martin is also developing and writing the story for an international, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child–esque “live stage spectacular” set during the Great Tourney at Harrenhal and featuring famous characters from A Song of Ice and Fire.

Then there are the other HBO projects he’s executive producing: TV adaptations of Nnedi Okorafor’s 2010 novel Who Fears Death and Roger Zelazny’s 1979 novel Roadmarks. There’s the Peacock adaptation of Martin’s Wild Cards shared universe, which was originally envisioned as “several interlocking series.” (The 30th entry in the written Wild Cards series—many and more extensions of which are on the way—is due out in July, and as Martin wrote last week, “do not believe the assholes out there who are saying I no longer edit these books.”) There’s the feature film adaptation of Martin’s 1982 short story “In the Lost Lands,” the other feature film adaptation of his 1979 novelette Sandkings, and the animated film adaptation of his 1980 book The Ice Dragon. There’s Friends Forever, the first of four shorts Martin hopes to film (pandemic permitting). There’s Elden Ring, the video game crossover between Martin and the developers of Dark Souls. Martin also serves as “Chief World Builder” for Meow Wolf, the Santa Fe–based arts and entertainment collective that operates multiple immersive rides and exhibits. He owns and helps operate a bookstore and a theater. And although his plans to build a small medieval castle on his property were thwarted last year by a local review board, Martin did manage to purchase a piece of a fricking railroad. I guess that’s going well?

Small wonder, then, that Martin’s listed moods at the bottom of his blog posts of late have often been “busy” or “tired.” Considering all of the projects competing for his attention—and the personal losses he’s suffered recently—it’s a minor miracle that, according to a February blog post, Martin managed to write “hundreds and hundreds of pages” of Winds in 2020 (though he tempered that update with the observation that he had “hundreds of more pages to write”). Martin doesn’t owe his readers the rest of A Song of Ice and Fire, but based on his many musings on the subject, he seems to feel like he owes it to himself. And so the mystery remains: If Martin really wants to finish Winds, why does he do so much work that doesn’t help him finish Winds—and, in fact, appears to prevent him from doing so? Let’s consider several possible explanations.

Maybe he has trouble saying no.

Let’s accept Martin’s statement that Winds is no. 1 on his work call sheet. Why is the list below it so long? As Martin wrote in February, “My plate is full to overflowing. Every time I wrap up one thing, three more things land on me. Monkeys on my back, aye, aye, I’ve sung that song before. So many monkeys. And Kong.” (“Kong” being Martin’s nickname for Winds, not a reference to yet another attraction on HBO Max.) For good reason, Martin regularly returns to the topic of being absolutely buried by work; just this week, he wrote, “I am hugely behind right now, and the prospect of trying to catch up is feeling increasingly oppressive.”

Martin’s level of involvement in the above books, movies, TV shows, and other business ventures varies, but conservatively speaking, we’re talking 20 other projects that are taking some of Martin’s time and attention. He hasn’t had to attend the Emmys in a while, and even pre-pandemic he’d cut back on conventions, but being sequestered in a cabin hasn’t stopped suits and storytellers the world over from beating a digital path to Martin’s door in search of the next priceless piece of IP. In many cases, he hasn’t turned them away. Maybe Martin just wants to be helpful. Maybe he likes being the belle of the ball in a way that he wasn’t before his breakout. Maybe he values variety. (“I like to do many different things at once,” he said last year.) Maybe the money is too good to turn down. Whatever his reasons, the result, thus far, is that Winds still isn’t out, which leaves Martin’s signature series (and his long-term legacy as its author) in the same development hell that consumed many of his early TV projects—and, as Martin is well aware, at risk of joining the pantheon of infamously unfinished works.

To address this dilemma, I’m offering my services to Martin as Ser Lindbergh, Lord Commander of the Knights Who Say “No!” You know those apps that cut off access to social media, theoretically allowing users to focus on whatever work they’re trying to do? (Until they stop pretending that they want to go cold turkey, return to TikTok and Twitter, and delete the apps from their phones.) That would be me with Martin, except instead of restricting access to social media, I would block any attempts to enlist his services as a consultant, producer, or editor until he’s finished with Winds. All opportunities would be routed through me, and whenever one came in, I would swiftly send his regrets. He could, of course, take time off from work whenever he wanted. But when he was working, he’d be working on Winds.

Granted, Martin doesn’t seem to have any interest in appointing me (or anyone else) to this position. He has the power to clear his plate and remove all or most of those monkeys from his back, and he hasn’t done so. Plus, saying no to a series of development deals would cost him millions. But perhaps he’d thank me later, when the manuscript was submitted.

Maybe he’s awful at estimating how much work he has left.

Most of us know people (and some of us are people) who are habitually late. Most habitually late people don’t intend to be late. Right up until they’re actually late—and sometimes even after that, if they have trouble with clock management—they believe they’ll be on time. A lengthy track record of tardiness isn’t enough to convince them that they won’t be punctual next time. That’s Martin’s way with Winds. Time after time, he’s expressed his hope that Winds would come out—not just someday, but soon. (As in, within the next few months, as long ago as 2015.) Knowing what we know now—that it’s 2021 and Winds still isn’t done or, as far as anyone knows, very close to coming out—it’s hard to discern how he could have considered finishing by fall of 2015 plausible during the summer of 2015. He must have some capacity for self-deception when his workload is concerned, which might even be an adaptive trait when juggling dozens of commitments and trying to resolve a series that’s thousands of pages long and could otherwise look like an insurmountable undertaking.

Like many novelists, Martin is to some extent spinning this yarn as he goes along, but he’s said for years that he knows how the story ends, and he spilled his secrets about the broad strokes to Benioff and Weiss in 2013 (unless, like Littlefinger, he was scheming and making things up to throw them off the scent, sabotage Season 8, and burnish his own reputation—in which case, well done). Maybe Martin takes on so much non-Winds work because he believes, despite all evidence to the contrary, that he’s almost finished. If he’s stuck in a permanent state of thinking that he’s months away from the finish line, despite all evidence to the contrary, then why not take on another lucrative, time-sensitive project or two?

Maybe Winds isn’t actually his top priority.

Martin has proved categorically incapable of hitting a deadline for his next novel, but he hasn’t deviated from identifying the book as his number one boy. (“Winds remains my priority,” he reiterated in October 2019.) What this hypothesis presupposes is: What if it isn’t his top priority? I don’t mean Martin is lying. The statement was certainly true at one time, and after saying it for so long (whether to restore his sense of purpose or to appease impatient fans), he probably believes it. But maybe, after more than a quarter century of working on this series—and after being beaten to its climax by Benioff and Weiss—his heart isn’t in it the way it once was. The new and novel must be enticing compared to the same old millstone, and HBO made Martin a household name. He might even entertain a bigger audience via multiple prequels than he would with Winds alone.

Ultimately, we are what we do. And what Martin does is continue to take on new projects without finishing the one he insists takes precedence.

Maybe he’s hopelessly stuck.

Unless Martin’s penchant for crafting fiction extends to his progress reports about the book, and the whole yearslong Winds of Winter affair is some sort of mummer’s farce, he has pagesplenty of pages, in fact. But Martin has struggled to finish stories since his childhood, and perhaps he still doesn’t know how to set this dragon down. As TV viewers learned, this behemoth isn’t easy to end. In which case, distracting himself with other scripts and screenplays may be his way of working it out—or, at least, moving forward in some way instead of standing still. “This is just part of his process,” we would say with some understanding, if another part of his process were finishing Winds within, say, five (or six, or seven) years.

When most writers are blocked or progressing more slowly than planned, they procrastinate. Martin makes other stuff. In that sense, he’s a victim of his own restless creativity; from afar, it seems as if his other work is delaying Winds, but maybe that constellation of non-priority projects is a symptom of his hardship, not a cause. It’s easy to say that if he’d written the same number of words for Winds and Spring that he has on his blog and in his other post–Dance With Dragons books, he’d be finished with A Song of Ice and Fire by now. But the man has a muse, and maybe which words were coming wasn’t entirely up to him. As Martin admitted last July, “This writing stuff is hard.” Or, as he put it last January, “When I write novels, I immerse myself completely in a fictional world. It takes up all my imagination, I have to live through it. Editing a draft text, working on films as a producer or simply being a cinema owner is easier compared to writing a novel.” Unless someone is saying no (again, I’m available), the temptation to take the path of less resistance and have something to show for it in a matter of days, weeks, or months would be difficult to turn down.

Maybe he’s responding rationally (or at least understandably) to economic incentives.

Martin stands to make a vast sum of money for finishing Winds, but people are already paying him handsomely not to. It may be tough to pass up the prospect of making more money, even though he’s sitting on a sizable fortune already. Martin makes bank now—his new HBO deal alone is reportedly worth “mid-eight figures”—but he wasn’t always wealthy. He had a humble upbringing, and it took years for him to start supporting himself as a full-time writer. It took many more years after that for him to become a big success. Martin’s HBO deal sure seems like a setback for Winds, but you try turning down mid-eight figures in favor of finishing something that’s already taken 10 years. Even so, Martin must know that you can’t put a price on writing “The End.”