Fans of Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicle, George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones series, or Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora have waited years—even the better part of a decade—to read the next installments in their favorite series. Patrick Rothfuss’s Book Three, The Doors of Stone, does not yet have a release date, and neither does Martin’s The Winds of Winter. (Scott Lynch, on the other hand, has
announced July 21st, 2016 as the publication date for The Thorn of Emberlain.)
Patrick Rothfuss took four years after publishing The Name of the Wind to finish the sequel The Wise Man’s Fear, and has now taken more than five years to work on the final book of his trilogy: at the very least, it will have taken him a decade to publish three books. Contrast this with Brandon Sanderson, who in the same period of time has published twenty four books—admittedly, some were short, but of those twenty four, thirteen were nearly a thousand pages in length.
George Martin took five years between his third and fourth books, and six years between his fourth and fifth. Fans have been waiting for the sixth book for five years, and there is no end in sight—Martin’s pace has actually been so slow that his HBO series has moved ahead without him, spoiling book six for any who watch the sixth season or hear about it on forums or social media.
Scott Lynch took six years between his second and third books, but has now picked up the pace, publishing his fourth book only three years after his third.
You will notice I have merely been using the word “waiting” to describe their fans, not adding any adverbs like “patiently” or “with understanding.” There is a very good reason for this: a small portion (yet large number) of their fans have joked about marching on their houses with torches and pitchforks, chaining them to their desks, and whipping them until their books are done. What’s more, some of them aren’t joking.
This urge ultimately comes from a place of love—the books have been so masterful, so suspenseful, that the fans have difficulty holding themselves in line while waiting for the authors to finish writing. But that’s like saying sexual molestation ultimately comes from a place of love, from wanting someone to do something so fiercely that you just can’t resist trying to help them along. It’s true, in a simplistic, base way…but knowing the motive really doesn’t help. It’s still wrong.
I am not accusing (most) fans of being the literary equivalent of sex offenders. Asking authors when their next books are coming out is neither illegal nor on the same level of offense as reaching into their pants and pulling out a different kind of sequel—but, when done with too much frequency, rudeness, or ignorance, it still isn’t good.
Many of you disagree with me. Fortunately, truth is not decided by a majority vote. You have grievances about these authors, and Rothfuss and Martin are too close to the subject for you to listen to their responses. So, let’s discuss this. Furthermore, let’s discuss this calmly and rationally.
Can we do that? Good.
Avoid Lynching Scott Lynch
Scott Lynch’s debut novel, The Lies of Locke Lamora, was fantastic—so, when it took him six years to
publish The Republic of Thieves, his fans were displeased. They thought they might never hear the end of Locke’s story, and wanted explanations.
I address Lynch first because his situation is quite different from that of Rothfuss or Martin. Lynch came out with his second book a year after his first, proving he can write at a quick pace. The reason he took six years to get his third book out was not a matter of thorny plot issues or character problems—it was because he was cripplingly depressed, underwent a divorce, and lost his grandfather to liver cancer.
Depression is a disease that strikes writers (and other artists) somewhat more often than it strikes members of other professions. It’s primarily biological, not an issue of lifestyle, but the pressures of a writer’s life, and Lynch’s life in particular, likely compounded the problem:
- The value of your work is ethereal, not concrete—while a salesperson can count the number of sales calls made in a given day, and an architect can watch her building be built one story at a time, it is remarkably difficult for a writer to judge the quality of his own work. Often, a day’s writing needs to be thrown out or heavily revised to become publishable, so it isn’t as simple as counting the words written each day. In other words, it is often more difficult for a writer to feel the satisfaction that comes from productive daily work.
- After an extremely successful debut novel, readers’ expectations are high. Orson Scott Card defines writer’s block as what happens when a writer attempts to write a story that is beyond her skill level. When the pressure is as high as it was for Lynch (or as it is for Rothfuss or Martin), the tendency is to push oneself to create the best possible work—which often means not creating any work at all. This becomes even more of a problem when you realize that your fans judge your books in comparison to each other, not on an objective scale—when Lynch published a wonderful, but still slightly lesser, second book, his fans were disappointed, because they compared it in their heads to his first book.
- Sequels are more difficult than first books. In the first book of a series, the feeling of newness pervades: every chapter is a discovery, it is your readers’ first time in the world, and you’re still in the honeymoon phase with your characters. But then you have to follow up on your first book with another, and all those advantages disappear: your plot is more complex (because it has to pick up the threads of the first book), your characters are nothing new, and there is no sense of wonder or discovery. You neither have the allure of a beginning nor the excitement of an ending—just the plain old middle.
- Lynch’s life has been in shambles from 2007 onward. It is improving, because he got help and started taking medication, but his depression led to his wife of fourteen years leaving him right after his grandfather died of liver cancer. For a few years, he was addicted to World of Warcraft, which served as the only thing that could get him out of bed in the morning.
Sometimes, life happens. You can be on your way to a clean, successful career, and then shit hits the fan, and you have to stop everything and recover. Patrick Rothfuss did his final edits for The Name of the Wind while his dad was “in the hospital after getting his lung removed. I remember red-penning corrections into the manuscript while he slept in the ICU, the tubes everywhere and a machine helping him breathe.” And, earlier that year, his mother had died—also from cancer.
Scott Lynch’s situation is the least controversial of the three, so I won’t spend more time on it. Hopefully, you accept that disaster striking can delay creative writing.
Winter Is Coming…Slowly
George R. R. Martin is the most famous of the three, and also the most renowned for writing at the pace of a dying turtle/sloth hybrid climbing up a slime-covered wall on a lazy Sunday afternoon on a planet with 100x Earth gravity, while the wall falls into an exploding underwater volcano filled with eucalyptus leaves and unicorn vomit. (Or, at least, that’s how I most commonly hear him described.)
There are three main grievances leveled at Martin, which I will address individually:
1. He spends a lot of time and effort working on side projects instead of The Winds of Winter.
An exaggeration. Since A Dance With Dragons, he has published two novellas—short books, each around a tenth the length of his normal books. He also published A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms…except, oh wait, that’s just a collection of three short works he wrote from 1998 to 2010. Not new.
How about The Ice Dragon, his 2014 YA novel? Nope—that was originally published in 1980. Only new thing is the illustrations, which he did not do. And those five anthologies of other authors’ short stories he edited? Well, for one thing, he was only one of two editors—Gardner Dozois also worked on those anthologies. Furthermore, he only actually published two short stories in those anthologies. “Editing” an anthology means inviting other authors to contribute stories, reading them, accepting the ones you like and asking the authors to rewrite the ones you don’t like, and then getting your publisher to print them. Not a massive time-sink.
He wrote two Wilds Cards installments, but those are also short and simple. In all, his publications during the past five years amount to a fifth the length of one of his novels, and a tenth the requisite time investment.
However, pointing out the falseness of this accusation simply misses the point: even if he had spent a significant amount of time working on other projects, that would be OK. The Winds of Winter is a massive, extraordinarily complex story with over a hundred moving parts to juggle, and spending some time refreshing himself by working on other things is actually beneficial. It allows him to look at Winds with fresh eyes, such that he actually gets more done than if he had labored solely on it for the past half a decade. The fact that he managed to get some creative writing diversity into his life through short story anthologies and two novellas is a good thing for his productivity.
It is true that an author has an obligation to finish a series once it has been started. Both a contractual obligation and a moral one. It is not true, on the other hand, that an author must be shackled to that one series and never do anything else.
2. He doesn’t update his fans on his progress.
Again, simply false. He is very upfront about how his writing is progressing, as is shown here and here and here. Sure, he doesn’t have a percent-completed progress bar on his website like Brandon Sanderson does, but Sanderson’s writing is a work of creation instead of transformation. Martin (and Rothfuss) is not primarily having problems writing words; he is having problems revising his words until he is happy with them. That’s not a quantifiable process: “The Winds of Winter is 91% heartbreaking and 82% suspenseful, but only 37% arousing; must add more nutmeg.”
3. He may not live to finish his series if he continues at this pace.
What’s your point? He cannot control the passage of time, and working any faster on his books would mean sacrificing quality. Sure, he could eat more healthfully and exercise more, but that’s not to prolong his life so you can finish his series before he dies—it’s because everyone is responsible for taking care of their own health.
Robert Jordan died before he could finish The Wheel of Time…but the books written by Brandon Sanderson, using Jordan’s notes, were some of the best of the series. (Admittedly, Sanderson will not be finishing A Song of Ice and Fire in the event of Martin’s death.)
Plus, Martin is only 70. He probably has twenty years left, and—assuming seven years for A Dream of Spring, his final book—that means a decade of flipping off his fans after his series is finished.
Fans who make this (charming and supportive) complaint evidently think writing fiction is like bricklaying, where your productivity is a direct, linear result of the time you put in. This is simply untrue. There is a problem of diminishing returns—the fifth hour of writing is almost always far less productive than the first four, because the mind’s resources are quickly exhausted by the focus and strain required for generating quality fiction. In this way, writing is more similar to practicing an athletic sport, a musical instrument, or the dark arts—the point is not to spend all your waking hours doing so, but to return to the task with absolute focus every day.
Fussing Over Rothfuss
I save Rothfuss for last because he is the closest to me. The same week I first read The Way of Kings, I read The Wise Man’s Fear overnight in the middle of the woods in a campground filled with bears, mosquitos, and extended family—this experience was what made me realize I needed to become a fantasy writer. Those two books showed me the true untapped potential of the genre; they hinted at what could truly be achieved, and so I set out to write the books I wanted to bring into the world.
I idolize Rothfuss more than any other fans I have encountered, and so I have encountered every single mewling screed his “fans” have posted urging him to publish Book Three. For the most part, they are crude, rude, and ill-formed:
This reflects 98% of the complaints of this nature. Occasionally, Rothfuss even complains to himself in order to pre-empt these fans during Q&As or AMAs on Reddit:
Hey there Pat, I really love the first two books in your series.
I know it takes time to produce quality books (especially books of the size you tend to write, which are easily 2-3 times larger than many other novels). But still, I’m quite eager for the third book. Do you happen to have a publication date?
Thanks for asking Pat,
Unfortunately, there is no publication date right now. What’s more, I really don’t want to guess at one.
You see, when the first book came out, I was very new to publishing, and I foolishly told people they could expect the next book in a year.
Later, when I realized I needed more time to make the second book as perfect as I could, I was forced to break that promise, and people were unhappy. And this is understandable: They felt as if they’d been lied to.
I’m trying to avoid making that mistake again. I screw up constantly, but I try to avoid fucking up in the same way twice in a row.
Rest assured that when there is a publication date, I’ll make a big announcement.
Thanks for the quick answer, Pat.
I’ll admit I’m a little disappointed at the lack of a firm date, but I appreciate your artistic integrity and your desire to give us the best book possible.
Also, while it’s true that my interaction with you almost entirely revolves around the books you produce, I also recognize that you are a fellow human being. I imagine that you are similar to me in that you have a busy and complex life.
While I enjoy your books a great deal, I’m guessing that being the father of two young boys takes up a great deal of your time, to say nothing of the charity which you help manage.
And while I’d like nothing better than to read a hundred billion books from you, I’m guessing you probably have hobbies, too. I respect that. You probably like playing video games, watching movies with friends, and occasionally walking somewhere with no purpose at all, other than enjoying the feel of cool spring grass beneath your feet.
Let me take this opportunity to encourage you to enjoy your life. You have produced art that makes me happy. Because of this, I would like you to be happy as well.
Does that make sense? I hope I’m not overstepping myself here. But it seems like the only alternative to this treating-you-like-a-human thing is to be a frothy entitled dickhole and bitch at you on the internet. Would you like that better?
The purpose of this exchange between Rothfuss and himself was to get it out of the way so he could respond to other, more interesting fan questions about his books. It is very useful, however, in understanding what Rothfuss thinks on the subject: He works on the book at a reasonable pace, and it would be unreasonable to push him to work further. Furthermore, he feels hurt, because he is the reason his fans have enjoyed his first two books, and that means they should want him to be happy in return—instead, he experiences a very vocal minority of his fans demanding that he turn into a workhorse so they can read The Doors of Stone as soon as possible.
I agree with him. Rothfuss has made my life so much better, and I really would like him to be happy in return. I want him to take his time with the book, and only deliver it to us when he is proud of it: “What I have right now is good, but it’s not the best book possible. I want to give you a great book. A book that is as perfect as I can possibly make it. I want you to read it and laugh, and cry, and be horrified.” I want him to be able to write in peace, with an army of patient, understanding fans.
However. It would not be entirely honest to give only one side of this argument. Let’s venture into some slightly darker territory, shall we?
Most fans post rude, ill-formed comments about book three on all Rothfuss’s social media accounts. Sometimes, though, we we get a more articulate, well-rounded response:
There was an unwritten accord between Rothfuss and his readers upon publication of Name of the Wind. Rothfuss had baldly stated that he was well into the story of all three books, and they would be forthcoming with no unanticipated delays. He laughed at George Martin’s inability to do the same.
Additionally, I believe that once a book series is published, it is no longer solely the author’s. Yes, it is the author’s creation and brainchild; it is nurtured by him; and it ultimately relies on him for life. But the reader (as any author would greatly hope) becomes deeply invested in the story–falling in love with the characters, waiting with bated breath for the next installment.
Even after such an optimistic attestation by Rothfuss before the first book, a wait between books would be expected. Of course it would be. The reader cannot be unreasonable; in the end and most of all, the reader cares for the story. But certain things about Rothfuss’ behavior trouble me. Why does he get so angry that fans are impatient for the story? Why does he refuse to update us, even if just to disappoint us?
By all means, pursue other projects. Live your life, enjoy the fame. But why not keep your readers, who love this story so much, in the loop? It almost seems as though he is scared of the series. This is what worries me. Rothfuss doesn’t like discussing Kvothe, which is so odd to me. He AVIDLY pursues other things. Authors of the most popular fantasy novels LIVE for the story; they don’t run from it. Look at Martin. J.K. Rowling. They’re always in their created worlds.
But not Rothfuss. I fear (and really, it’s fear. Because I love those books) that he is truly struggling to craft a worthy finish (and closing is the hardest thing to do). It’s for this reason that I do not find it selfish or disgusting for fans to be restless. They want the book, and the author has remained silent for a long time now. Of course they will be impatient–they’re human! So please, Pat, give us something. Anything. Put the story on the phone. I just want to know it’s ok.
It is true—after The Name of the Wind came out, Rothfuss and his publisher, DAW, were very vocal in saying that the second book would come out only a year later, and the last book a year after that. They were all finished, and it was just a matter of doing some edits.
In the weakest sense of the word, they were finished. But, only because Rothfuss had written through to the ending—the books were not of publication quality, and so they retracted all their former statements, apologized at length, and since then Rothfuss has refused to ever give any updates or projected publication dates for the third book (other than the occasional “one hundred years from now”). A reasonable way to ensure he never makes the same mistake he made before…but a bit of an overreaction.
His lack of updates of any sort is a major source of fuel for his fans’ irritation. To say he’s close-lipped would be horrid understatement—nothing comes out of him, of any sort. (Five years of extreme constipation.) Contrast this with Brandon Sanderson, who has progress bars for all his current projects on his website, posts long updates on his current projects, and comes out with an annual “State of the Sanderson” essay outlining his projected work plans and publication dates for the next year.
On the one hand, this makes sense. Sanderson and Rothfuss are about as different as two writers can get—Sanderson is a compulsive drafter, and Rothfuss is a compulsive reviser. His current wordcount for a story is an accurate representation of Sanderson’s progress, whereas Rothfuss’s progress is far less quantifiable—instead of working to actually write the book, Rothfuss is working to revise the book, polishing every sentence until it is the perfect incarnation of itself. He goes through hundreds of revisions, using scores of beta readers and responding to their reactions to each and every paragraph.
Rothfuss cannot reasonably be expected to have a “Percent Completed” bar on his website (nor should that be an obligation—Sanderson does it of his own free choice, but that doesn’t mean other authors should be pressured to do the same). And it wouldn’t even make sense, considering there are no hard numbers involved in his work.
He could still let us know how it is going, though, without spoiling any part of the book or giving us unreasonable expectations. He could post on his blog “Working on Book Three. Came across some new problems in the mid-section, and those will take me a couple weeks to sort out. Then I will continue to polish—don’t expect it soon, but know that progress is being made.” He could even post on his blog “Working on Book Three. Right now, it’s like a chocolate sundae, but the kitchen is out of cherries. Must find cherries.” Anything at all would make his fans feel like he cares about them. He does care, but his fans can’t really tell.
It’s like a marriage. We have entered into a long-term relationship with Rothfuss, and he isn’t communicating. He’s not willing to have “the talk.” It damages the relationship, on both sides, and is not a sustainable way to live our lives together.
We could also look at it as a parent/child relationship, where our Patrick has gone off to college and all we want him to do is tell us how his life is going and stay in touch. We don’t need to know the details—we just care about him, and feel rejected when he evades all questions, never calls us back, and is irritated when we ask how he’s doing.
While I think it is very important that we recognize that he is not our bitch, and we need to be respectful in how we pester him about his next book…I also think this should not be so one-sided.
Rothfuss has changed, over the years. Six years ago, when he wrote the blog “unhappy announcement” to explain why The Wise Man’s Fear would not be coming out on time, he was so apologetic and sad to have to tell his fans he couldn’t give them what he wanted. Once the book was published, he became more and more hurt when his fans asked him about the third book—he compared those comments to “turds in his cereal,” and said it made him want to avoid interacting with us. Finally, more recently, he has begun to say truly hurtful things about those fans: when asked why, when given a choice between voting (via donations to his charity) for him to work on Book Three vs. for him to play Fallout IV, most people voted for the latter, he replied that “people who howl for book three aren’t as interested in donating money to make the world a better place. You can draw your own conclusions after that.”
He did not say that his fans primarily wanted him to be happy; he said outright that anyone who howled for Book Three was an intrinsically worse human being.
This was a low moment.
(Admittedly (as was pointed out to me in a comment by Spiros Mantzoros, below), he was referring to those who “howl,” not anyone who asks for Book Three. This is better, but still not by any means good – the fact that people didn’t vote for him to write Book Three over playing Fallout IV shows that his fans are kind and supportive, not that those who pester him about Book Three aren’t “interested in donating money to make the world a better place.”)
I will admit that I cannot come up with a legitimate reason, or even any reason at all, not to update us. Even if he doesn’t have anything to update us with. Simply telling us “I don’t know how long this will take, but I am working on it” would be enough. I don’t know his reason, but it feels like simple spite, protectiveness, and maybe, to some small extent, self-consciousness. It takes guts to own up to how long you have spent on a book, and how sometimes it feels like you’ll never make it to the end. It takes guts to admit that your expectations, and your audience’s expectations, of a book are so high you don’t know how long it will take for you to be satisfied.
And, let’s be clear—the stakes ARE high. This is likely the single most important work Rothfuss will ever write. He’s spent two decades on it, he only has four decades of expected life left, he’s exhausted by its scope and has talked about writing a smaller urban-fantasy series afterward, and outdoing himself would simply be so difficult that I would bet my life’s savings on him never publishing a book more central to his legacy.
Last books are dangerous. They’re where the stakes are highest, the expectations highest (especially after a decade of waiting), and mistakes are fatal. Remember Inheritance? Mockingjay? It’s not the case that Rothfuss’s first two books will stay good regardless of what happens in the last book. The third book can retroactively ruin the entire series.
And I’m not talking about an unpopular book—I expect that most fans will be disappointed by the ending, which I expect to be tragic and most readers expect to be heroic, but, like the How I Met Your Mother series finale, it can be perfect without being liked. (Here’s a controversial statement: I loved the HIMYM finale. But that’s a topic for another post.) And I am not saying I expect Rothfuss to mess it up. I trust Rothfuss as a storyteller more than I trust anyone (even Brandon Sanderson, whom I love beyond all reason, messed up two endings—Elantris and the overly dramatic spontaneous Middle-English “Stretch forth thy hand!” near the end of Words of Radiance). What I am saying is that Rothfuss has to be feeling this pressure. He has lived the life of a beloved celebrity, griping fans or no, for nine years now, and it’s the sad truth that that will dissipate a little bit when he finishes his trilogy. Even if it’s perfect.
Ultimately, I see this as the most likely reason he has been contributing to the deterioration of our relationship with him. We constantly nag him about something he’s afraid of and doesn’t want to confront, and he responds by shutting down completely. We’ve all reacted this way at times, and it always just worsens the problem.
I am nervous to post this. I idolize Rothfuss. I read a random chapter from his books every night, before I go to sleep. I think of the one time I talked to him—on my cell phone, at 4 AM, when I was on the East coast and my father was at his signing in California—as the most surreal three minutes of my life. He gave me this advice, which I have followed for the past few years and will continue to adhere to forever: “Just keep writing. You’ll get there.”
So, Pat, if you are reading this, I know you probably aren’t very happy with me. You think I got an aspect (or several aspects) of your motive wrong. Maybe I did—I’m not in your head, and much of this was guesswork. But is there any part of you that’s willing to see the side of the concerned fan? Most things in life are not one-sided; can you consider meeting us halfway?
Either way, just keep writing. You’ll get there.