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Art of the Genre: The Age of Perfect Creation

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012 | Posted by Scott Taylor

martin-300Perhaps some of you know of my utter disdain for George R.R. Martin. There are various reasons for this feeling, but this week I had a friend call me to complain about A Dance of Dragons, a book which I’ve refused to read. I must say, however, that I felt a great deal of satisfaction at his ire toward the novel because somehow that made my own dislike of Martin’s post-2000 work all the more valid. My friend’s thoughts were echoed by the bulk of Amazon reviews, and as I did a bit of research on what people were thinking about A Dance of Dragons I remembered my own experience with its predecessor in the Song of Ice and Fire series.

You see, the last Martin book I read was A Feast for Crows. I took it with me on vacation to St. Croix and read it under the tranquil skies of the Caribbean just a few months before my son was born. When I got to the end of the book, there was a note of apology placed there from Martin concerning the text I’d just read. Now I’m no rocket scientist, but if an author has to apologize to a reader AFTER they read his book, then you know you’ve been taken for a ride.

At that point I swore I’d never read anything by Martin again, no matter how much I loved A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, and A Storm of Swords. In that promise to myself, I was vindicated by my friend’s words concerning A Dance of Dragons. Yes, at last a true victory for being a stubborn ass was mine to enjoy!!!!!!

However, after hearing this news concerning the latest volume, a couple of remembered quotes I’d read concerning writing started doing the rockem sockem robot dance in my head.

The first of these random quotes concerns Martin’s publication dates, and his extreme time lag between.

I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words. That’s 180,000 words over a three-month span, a goodish length for a book — something in which the reader can get happily lost, if the tale is done well and stays fresh.

– Stephen King, On Writing.


Stephen is preaching to the choir here, and as the Song of Ice and Fire was delayed, and delayed, and delayed again, I couldn’t figure out what the heck was the problem. First I blamed the author’s success, his whims, his newfound wealth, and then I had fell into the whole mess of Neil Gaiman and his infamous ‘George R.R. Martin is not your bitch’ rant about authors not owing their fans anything, so if they [the author] chose not to finish a series, that’s not the author’s problem and the fans should get over it.

Now as distressing as I found Gaiman’s diatribe on the subject, I couldn’t readily accept that Martin was simply being a diva about Song of Ice and Fire, or that Neil was truly hitting the nail on the head with his venom toward fans. Sure, he might have been in the ballpark, but he wasn’t really ‘there’. I mean, George didn’t come off like an uncaring sod in interviews, so I kept digging deeper, and then one day I found this quote:

I don’t believe that young minds can yet begin to grasp all the complexities involved in writing good stories. Young writers regurgitate, they don’t originate or innovate. Quantity and quality are not the same thing. It often takes years of practice before a person matures enough to write anything worthwhile. A writer needs to learn about life before he can hope to accurately recreate it in fiction.

– Terry Goodkind, 2007

fellowship-300Now Terry Goodkind is certainly a diva, but he’s still a smart one [much like Gaiman for that matter]. After reading the above, and having gotten on in years myself, it certainly made sense to me. I mean, there are certain facts that just ‘are’, and until you get to that point in life you will not be able to truly ‘get it’. This really, and I mean really, pisses young people off, but I suggest it’s like the whole kids debate. Until you have children, you just won’t understand what it’s like, and I can’t possibly make you or anyone without them understand. You simply have to have done it, period, and for people without kids, well I guess they’ll have to stay pissed that people are telling them they can’t comprehend a feeling. Ignorance is bliss, and in most cases bliss = youth which is why old people are usually such downers because they’ve seen their share of disappointment and it wears on them.

Anyway, using Goodkind’s wisdom as my guide, I looked closer at the possibility that if people needed age to help them write wonderful, thoughtful, and deep works, then couldn’t it be possible that age might also be a detractor in the art of writing?

Martin, God bless him, took 10 years to write the two most recent novels in the Song of Ice and Fire, and both of them are complete rambling turds. Why is this the case? What happened between Game of Thrones and Dance of Dragons that makes one a Top 10 fantasy book of all time and another a cautionary tale? Well, when I got right down to it, there wasn’t any real mystery… the problem here is age.

Sure, I’m going to get some flak for saying this, but the reality is we all have an expiration date. I mean somewhere on our bodies there really should be a label that says, ‘best if used by’.

You see, Game of Thrones was released in 1995, which means Martin probably wrote it as late as 1994, when he was 46 years old [and Wiki says he began work on it in 1991, which means age 43]. That, for all you scoring at home, is undoubtedly a writer’s prime.

To help prove this I’m going to make the dreaded sports analogy here. Professional athletes hit their prime in most sports around age 28, and by 32 are in decline. Those four short years define their career, but it’s usually in that window that we see the magic happen. Sure, there are exceptions, NFL Quarterback Brett Farve had his best statistical year in 2009, at age 39, and was one bad pass away from the Super Bowl, but this lightening in a bottle doesn’t happen often. [The following year, at 40, his career tanked, he had his worst year as a pro and did permanent damage to his legacy…]

Writers have a window of ‘perfect’ production, and although it’s much more forgiving than the 4 years of an athlete, it still exists. I mean, there’s a reason you know famous works by authors and yet don’t know what they’ve done in the past 20 years of their lives until their obituary is plastered all over the internet.

the-white-dragon-300There comes a time where you need to retire, you need to hang up your cleats, or in this case, your keyboard, and sail into the sunset. It sucks for everyone, sure, and it’s sad to see them go, and yet isn’t it more horrible to pick up an author’s latest work and think ‘wow, what happened?’ Wouldn’t you rather remember them in the light when their words could do no wrong and each sentence was linguistic gold?

I’m going push my argument with some stats and let you be the judge. Inside these stats you’ll see I’ve included a defining award, and I’ve done this because typically an award showcases the very best of an author’s work, thus, that should be the barometer for the high point of a career.

Let me give some examples:

    Michael Moorcock [Born 1939]: Definitive series Elric 1965-1979, Nebula Award Behold the Man, 1967. Prime writing years Age 26-40.

    Orson Scott Card [Born 1951]: Definitive series Ender 1985 – Ongoing [but can you name a book after Xenocide, 1991?], Nebula Award Ender’s Game, 1985. Prime writing years Age 33-40.

    Stephen King [Born 1947]: Definitive series [Fantasy] Gunslinger 1982-Ongoing, Bram Stoker Award Misery 1987. Prime writing years Age 30-50 [ending with The Green Mile].

    Piers Anthony [Born 1934]: Definitive series Xanth 1977-Ongoing [I dare you to name all 36 current volumes!], Award Nebula Nomination A Spell for Chameleon, 1978. Prime writing years Age 32-52.

    J.R.R. Tolkien [Born 1892]: Definitive series Lord of the Rings 1940+ [written], Published 1954, Award International Fantasy Award 1957. Prime writing years Age 40-57.

    Arthur C. Clarke [Born 1917]: Definitive series Odyssey 1968. Hugo Award 1956 ‘The Star’, Prime writing years Age 40-55.

    Robert Jordan [Born 1948]: Definitive series Wheel of Time 1990-Ongoing [Jordan died in 2007 at age 58], Locus Award Nominee Lord of Chaos, 1995, Prime writing years 40-50 [before the wheels came off Wheel of Time].

    Isaac Asimov [Born 1920]: Definitive series Foundation 1942, Award Nebula The Gods Themselves, 1972, Prime writing years Age 22-65.

    David Eddings [Born 1931]: Definitive series Belgariad 1982-1984, Locus Poll Best Fantasy Novel Nominee Pawn of Prophecy, 1983, Prime writing years Age 50-60 [in which he wrote both the Belgariad and the Mallorean]

    Sue Grafton [Born 1940]: Definitive series ‘is for’ [A is for Alibi] 1982-Ongoing, Anthony Award ‘B’ is for Burglar 1985, Prime writing years 42-55 [ending sometime around ‘M’ is for Malice]

    Anne McCaffrey [Born 1926] Definitive series Pern 1968-2001 [before she started co-authoring the series], Hugo Award Weyr Search, 1968, Prime writing years Age 42-65 [ending around All the Weyrs of Pern].

foundation03This could go on until the cows come home, but the essence of it breaks down to a set of years that ‘most’ great writers produce their best work, which is typically sometime between age 35 and age 55, a very comfortable twenty year window. Yes, yes, all points can be argued, all dates debated, but remember I’m talking as a whole.

The above is an average, but I believe my point is sound, that being that A Game of Thrones was written in Martin’s prime. Martin was born in 1948, so in 1994 he was 46 which pretty much puts him smack dab in the middle of his prime years. You add 17 years to that publishing figure for the release of A Dance of Dragons and all of a sudden you’ve slipped WELL past your golden creative window to the age of 63 [even the great Asimov was just doing novellas at this point in his life].

Now before you get all upset like I’m an ‘ageist’, remember, I’m 40 and I’ve yet to be published. Even if I had the chops to be out there contributing to the world of fantasy literature I’ve got a decade or less before whatever menial skills I have start to degrade. For me, the writing is on the wall as much as it is for anyone. Sure, I’d like to be Tolkien or Clarke, boast being a late bloomer and have fifteen years of important writing left in me, but let’s face it, there aren’t too many Tolkiens or Clarkes in any given generation.

Age catches us all, and if anyone is out there thinking about writing something but hasn’t found the time, I’d suggest you get on it. Going 5 to 10 years between volumes of your work, like Martin, will turn your creations from grand castles into a house of cards at the stroke of midnight.

If Martin publishes another volume of Song of Ice and Fire, at the current torrid pace he’s set in the new millennia, he will be 68 by that time. If you use my numbers, that simply means it’s not going to be a great piece of literature. Remember the only above listed author, working as a solo project novel, to have gone to press in a series at that age or later is Anne McCaffrey with The Skies of Pern in 2001 at age 75, and that book wasn’t 1978’s The White Dragon… let me tell you.

Now you might be asking where I’m going with all this? Well, at the core I’m saying if you wanted Song of Ice and Fire finished ‘the right way’, it’s just not going to happen, if it happens at all. I mean, Martin has already proven with the latest two volumes that he’s lost it, just as George Lucas did with his dreaded prequel Star Wars trilogy [which he both wrote and directed at age 53 to 59, his very best work coming at age 30-45 as he was an early bloomer]. If you have high hopes for whatever comes after A Dance of Dragons, just remember Attack of the Clones and save your $34 on the newest Martin hardcover if it actually ever makes it to a book store near you.

That’s not a trash of Martin, it’s really not his fault, and after a decade of hating on the guy I finally realize I was wrong. He wrote three incredible books before the bottom fell out and he ran out of time. I, like I’m sure many of you, just wish Song of Ice and Fire had been a trilogy that somehow ended with A Storm of Swords in 2000 [when he was 52]

Like Anthony, King, and Jordan before him, Martin’s expiration date looks like age 50, so although he might still be there next to the rest of the condiments in the door of the refrigerator, someone needs to turn him around, check the time stamp, and realize… ‘wow, ketchup really does go bad… I thought my last hamburger tasted funny last week…’

At this point, we’re all better off making up our own ending to the literary epic of the Stark family, and in mine Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen get hitched and rule Westros from the Iron Throne as King and Queen with wolves and dragons at their side. Yep, that’s about all I need…

54 Comments »

  1. Wow…

    nice safe topic…

    ;)

    I have a suspicion that Martin delayed Dance with Dragons a couple of years to coincide with the release of the mini-series. I have no proof, but since I am evil I dont need any.

    Comment by TW - January 25, 2012 2:08 am

  2. Ten points for bravery, sir. I wish you well!

    Comment by harryangelsmith1 - January 25, 2012 3:18 am

  3. Interesting take. I never really thought of it that way before, but now the seed has been planted. Another example was Hugh Cook who sadly dies in 2008. His Chronicles of an Age of Darkness started with much promise but then started to ramble and become pointless excercises of patience to read – as he got sick I expect.

    Comment by Tiberius - January 25, 2012 5:15 am

  4. Hi Scott,
    I read your essay with great interest and several things occurred to me. I mostly agree with what you say. I think though that you place too much emphasis on age and not enough on the nature of the writing mind itself. There are many other reasons besides age for the difference in quality. The first few books by an author are fresher because the plotting and characters are like that, not because of their youth but because their creative energy and ideas are fresh. When they’re in the “groove,” some authors have said it’s like having their main character sit on their shoulder and tell the story. All they have to do is write it down. But that doesn’t last forever. Fans don’t care about that though. They still want the same old thing. I loved the Pern stories but how many times can you tell the same story and with the same enthusiasm?

    This process affects all creative people I think, not just writers. Case in point is Bob Dylan. Unlike most singers, his constant re-inventing of himself has kept his material fresh and so during his career, he lost some of the “old* fans who wanted the same thing over and over again, but he gained new ones and stayed on the charts for decades. Basically, he disregarded what his fans were screaming for and paid attention to what was inside him.

    Another consideration is that people change. They see the world differently. Their writing reflects these new values.

    There’s also the problem that authors as they get older are no longer *hungry* for the money, fame or whatever drives them. This happens especially to successful writers. They don’t need to sit at their desks and write. They can afford to go to Florida or Europe for a vacation or finally spend time with families.

    Summing it up is that old adage, “it isn’t your age, it’s your attitude.” If I’m right, it doesn’t matter that you are 40 years old when you start out. Your best years will be the ones when your plots are fresh, well written and you’re willing to dedicate hours each day at a computer typing away and don’t mind the aloneness that your craft demands. And, most of all, you stay in touch with that internal Muse.

    Interesting discussion. Thanks for the article,
    Barbara

    Comment by Barbara Barrett - January 25, 2012 5:23 am

  5. I’ve no problem with how Gaiman “put things”. Despite his abrasive tagline, he was much more reasonable within the text, and I don’t necessarily disagree with him, to a point.

    But GRRM’s lag times do seem particularly horrendous, especially if you’re a fan, waiting on tenterhooks for the next installment (I’ve not read any of them, not my thing)

    I guess my disagreement with Gaimain’s position is that while the words “owe” and/or “obligation” may be a bit strong, I do think the fans who have repeatedly plunked down good money and have waited as patiently as possible for the next installment “deserve” to have their faithfulness rewarded with a more reasonable release schedule.

    There was that nice enough? But we’re not supposed to be discussing that, but your post instead.

    And while I don’t necessarily disagree with your position, I certainly hope you are wrong, at least in my case, because it’s something that has already occurred to me.

    In a few months I’ll be forty-nine, and hopefully done with the first pass at what looks to be a 180,000 word draft (it will pare down, trust me), which means I’ll likely be pushing fifty before its ready to be submitted for agent-ing.

    But my production schedule is … slack. I write almost exclusively on Saturday nights (others game, I write), with occasional typographical corrections (there are always many) on Sunday morning when I get up. I try and start by 7 PM (8 at the latest) and write until I no longer can, usually around 1 or 2 in the morning. The rest of the week, I think; about the upcoming scenes, about the story further down the line, etc.

    During this first draft, I actually have painted my house, and my neighbor’s house, and done all the other things that my life currently requires (wife, kids, job, etc.), so my current production schedule is the best I am willing to support.

    But if I were a full time, professional writer, I’m pretty sure I could crank out subsequent installments in a year or so; possibly sooner, if I could get the degree of output described in the King quote.

    Current WIP is a series, not for “filthy lucre” as John once said (sorry John, but for some reason that stung ^-^) but because, now nearly done with the first installment, and seeing just how many words it’s taken for this first book, I’m guessing I’ll need four or five books to tell the whole tale.

    That means I’ll be … oh … fifty-six-ish, or older, by the time I finish the last one. Even older if I go ahead with the epilogue tale that falls a bit outside the current story.

    And I certainly hope I’m not senile by then, with my best work behind me, because that will be when the story will need my very best work, when I’ll need to be at my sharpest …

    And I am confident that I will not be tired of the tale by then. I’m one of those poor unfortunates with a very particular story burning inside me, one that must be seen through to the end before anything else can be attempted.

    But I do wonder if that’s what has happened with GRRM, et al, who get caught in the throes of an overly long tale. They just get tired of it, and meander, and procrastinate, and possibly, if they wait too long, they begin to go off the rails …

    I read someone say that about Heinlein, of all people. The poster said “I liked his earlier work, until he entered his ‘senile’ period”.

    Ouch.

    FWIW, I do agree with those who say you need a bit of ageing under your belt before you have something worthwhile to say and the ability to say it. And while that has not been the case for some of the authors you’ve listed, it certainly was for me. Plus, I had to wait or my kids to get old enough (one gone, the other nearly grown), my job secure enough, and so on, and more to the point, the story needed time to ripen in my mind before I could begin to write it all down.

    For me, and others like me, let’s hope we’ve not waited too late.

    Comment by Gruud - January 25, 2012 8:48 am

  6. I agree that Feast For Crows was a steaming turd, but Dance With Dragons was enjoyable though not without flaws.

    Jack Vance (born 1916) published a number of very strong works after age 60. For example,

    Demon Princes series between age 48 and 64.
    Cadwal Chronicles between ages 70 and 76.
    Lyonesse series between ages 67 and 73.
    Cugel’s Saga / Rhialto the Marvellous at age 68.
    Night Lamp (age 80!) is a strong work, though subsequent works (Ports of Call / Lurulu) are less so.

    Personally I regard the Cadwal and Lyonesse trilogies as among his strongest works, and I am glad he didn’t retire at 65.

    Comment by Lugo - January 25, 2012 11:44 am

  7. TW: I have a suspicion Martin delayed Dragons because he was filthy rich and wanted to enjoy his later years as he felt he deserved, which is fine for him, but that doesn’t help his rabid fans. Yeah, sometimes you have to take a step beyond what’s safe. ;)

    Comment by Scott Taylor - January 25, 2012 11:57 am

  8. Harry: Thanks, let’s hope I survive this duel with the dragon!

    Comment by Scott Taylor - January 25, 2012 11:57 am

  9. Tiberius: It’s certainly not the complete take, but I do hope I’ve planted a seed in others minds as well.

    Comment by Scott Taylor - January 25, 2012 11:59 am

  10. Barbara: When you write articles like this, you have to stay on task, so I didn’t want to go into ALL creative people and ALL the reasons that might contribute to a down-slide, but as I said everyone still has an expiration date. Certainly writing dozens of books in the same series can’t keep if very fresh.

    And I would agree that struggle, hardship, heartbreak, and money woes make for better writing, and I REALLY agree that’s true with songwriters who very often have that one breakthrough album only to fade away afterward because its hard to be angry at the world when you’re a millionaire. ;)

    Comment by Scott Taylor - January 25, 2012 12:06 pm

  11. Gruud: Indeed, Gaimain’s argument is a tough one, but it’s well thought out. I contend that if someone helps with your success you do own them ‘something’, but I would also contend that fans being ass****s about what or when you write is not acceptable.

    My suggestion is still the same, start writing as soon as possible if that’s something you want to do because time will catch us all.

    Comment by Scott Taylor - January 25, 2012 12:11 pm

  12. Lugo: Nothing is hard and fast, and there is always an exception that proves the rule ;)

    Comment by Scott Taylor - January 25, 2012 12:12 pm

  13. I read this article with great interest, and it gave me something to think about. As a writer, having an “expiration date” is a terrifying thought–and I’m 27. I don’t want to think of my ability to write suddenly giving away, not after working so hard to develop what skills I have. Thinking of how quickly time passes and how I want to do something with my life before my time passes away has always motivated me to write.

    As to George R.R. Martin, I love his writing, but I do feel like he needs to finish his story. I want to feel like the story is going somewhere, that the author knows the direction, and that we will arrive at our destination eventually. When I start to doubt this fact, I start to pull away from the book emotionally. That’s probably why I haven’t felt the need to read his latest book–I’ll wait for paperback.

    Comment by Reddragonfly85 - January 25, 2012 2:04 pm

  14. Some fans are just too obsessed. I patiently waited through all the long delays without an issue. I understand art can’t be rushed. But some people are too emotional and obsessed to wait.

    So when the last 2 books were a little underwhelming, I wasn’t too upset. The story seems to have outgrown its bindings and now Martin is trying to wrangle it back in. I think that’s what happened in the last 2 books.

    But I don’t think the magic is gone yet. The Dunk & Egg stories have still been great and help show what an amazing world GRRM has built.

    I’m a bit of an optimist. I just find it stupid not to be. So I think the final book will come out in 2018 and Martin will finish off with great energy and passion. :P

    Comment by 2sdays - January 25, 2012 2:58 pm

  15. My thinking regarding Dance of Dragons’ release echos TW’s first comment. However I also think its highly likely that before HBO produced the TV series that they needed some kind of assurance from GRRM that the books would be completed.
    I can’t imagine HBO would invest the money without a guarantee there would be a conclusion. (probably along the lines that if GRRM didn’t finish them, they would get someone else too.)

    Comment by kid_greg - January 25, 2012 4:28 pm

  16. Legendary. Something tells me this is another one of the Black Gate gems that gets serious talk about the genre going, all flames and bile and hear-hear!

    I’ll have to do some thinking on this one, but my intuition tells me you are spot on. Everybody’s got an expiration date, and writers are lucky that theirs come later in life. Some friends and I have had an almost identical discussion around the famous directors. The other factor that you didn’t mention is the I’m-Popular-Enough-For-REAL-Themes effect. Lucas and Spielberg are both victims of this degenerative illness, wherein they trade the willingness to create powerful stories for a Platform. Lame.

    In any case, maybe us oldsters (I’m 37) might have a chance to get in a few before they roll us into the recycle bin.

    Comment by jasonrec - January 25, 2012 5:04 pm

  17. Scott: This is an interesting post with which I strongly disagree. I mean, I never grasped the intensity of hate for A Feast For Crows, and I thought A Dance With Dragons was fine. Nor am I alone; that book got a number of good reviews, both from the mainstream press and also more genre-oriented people like Jeff VanderMeer. Obviously many people disliked it, but without having read it I don’t see how you can assume that it “proves” Martin has “lost it.” (Honestly, shouldn’t you actually *read* a book before you call it a “complete rambling turd”?) I also don’t agree that Gaiman’s piece showed “venom” toward fans.

    I think writers have different processes, and different kinds of books also require different approaches. Which is to say it’s good for King that he can get 180 000 words written in three months, but few writers have a publication schedule suggesting they can do the same thing. Why single out Martin for not being King?

    Mainly, though, I have to disagree with your main argument about age. I don’t think your proof here is very strong. It seems to me that your identification of definitive works is mostly a list of the best-known works by a writer; which is not necessarily the actual best work of a writer’s career. A writer’s best-known work, or series, might be be best-known because it was their first book; or, in the case of a series, because it’s the one they’ve spent the most time on over the years; or because enough time has passed since its publication that word-of-mouth has built the book up — time that by definition hasn’t passed for more recent work.

    I’ll be a bit more specific: I really don’t think Moorcock’s Elric stories are his best work. I think his Cornelius books are more significant, and I think Mother London, Gloriana, and especially the Pyat Quartet are all better than those. Elric’s best-known, sure, but that doesn’t equal definitive. (Actually, non-genre readers may be more likely to know Moorcock for the Pyat books; I seem to remember the last one getting some mainstream attention.)

    Even granted that some of the writers you’ve listed faded with time (I haven’t read most of them in depth, and can’t really say), a list of 11 writers doesn’t prove anything. That’s not a statistic, that’s an extended anecdote. Here are a dozen writers (off the top of my head, and consulting Wikipedia for details) who kept going with great books past 55, with a few relevant titles:

    A.S. Byatt (Angels and Insects, The Children’s Book)

    Ursula Le Guin (Always Coming Home, Lavinia)

    George Eliot (Daniel Deronda)

    Salman Rushdie (The Enchantress of Florence)

    Don DeLillo (Underworld)

    Gene Wolfe (Urth of the New Sun, and anything after; the Latro series, the Wizard Knight, etc)

    C.S. Lewis (The Silver Chair, and later Narnia books; The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe was first published in 1950, when he was 52)

    John Crowley (Daemonomania, Endless Things, Lord Byron’s Novel)

    Thomas Mann (Doctor Faustus)

    Iain Sinclair (anything in the last 13 years, including London Orbital, Landor’s Tower, and Dining on Stones)

    Guy Gavriel Kay (Under Heaven was published when he was 56, and so far as I can see was very well reviewed)

    Anthony Burgess (Earthly Powers)

    And, just for the heck of it:

    Dante Alighieri (The Divine Comedy)

    John Milton (Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, Samson Agonistes)

    William Blake (Jerusalem)

    So there are *more* writers than you put forward to prove your point. Mind, I don’t think this really proves anything either; what I’m saying is that lists are easy to compile. Some writers do fade before 55. Some don’t. It’s certainly true that writers, like anyone, are more likely to develop medical conditions or die as they get older, which naturally results in a slowing-down.

    But I see no reason to think that a decline after 55 is a given, or even especially likely.

    Comment by Matthew David Surridge - January 25, 2012 5:09 pm

  18. (Looking more closely, I see The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe was published a month before Lewis’ birthday, so when he was 51, not 52. Oops.)

    Comment by Matthew David Surridge - January 25, 2012 5:32 pm

  19. Red Dragon: You’re 27! A GREAT year in your life so GET WRITING :)

    Comment by Scott Taylor - January 25, 2012 6:31 pm

  20. 2sdays: Short stories are different, and have been proven so as they do not require that output a 1100 page manuscript does. Many of the writers on this list still dead great, and well awarded, shorts until the end of their lives. That’s a nice catch on your part!

    Comment by Scott Taylor - January 25, 2012 6:33 pm

  21. Jasonrec: Ah to be 37 again! Let’s hope its many years before we go into the recycle bin!

    Comment by Scott Taylor - January 25, 2012 6:34 pm

  22. Matthew David Surridge: It amazes me that a man of your intelligence and incredible writing ability can be so terribly wrong ;)

    Comment by Scott Taylor - January 25, 2012 6:35 pm

  23. Comes with only being 38, I suppose.

    Comment by Matthew David Surridge - January 25, 2012 6:43 pm

  24. I have two closely linked hypotheses to propose that might account for GRRM’s long lag times. Age might still be a factor, but consider these two problems of managing internal consistency that expand more than geometrically with manuscript length and number of volumes in a series:

    1) Bookkeeping about Petty Details
    In a short story, this task is still work, but as the manuscript expands, the sheer number of small details expands, and the number of appearances or potential appearances for each detail also expands. Not all readers will notice how long your protagonist has gone without feeding her horse, or whether you said your hero had left his house with empty pockets only to have him buy drinks for the house twenty pages later, but some reader will notice. Reviewers should notice. And, if you are slovenly about such details, on some level you notice, and your respect for your own craftsmanship corrodes. Keeping track of this stuff while you write a 300,000 word novel is different not only in degree, but also in kind, from doing so for 60 stories of 5,000 words each.

    2) Coherence of History
    If you’re wrangling a large cast and a complex backstory, you need each character’s connections with your world’s history to be consistent with every other character’s connections to it. The characters may disagree about the history, and some of them may be wrong or ignorant about it. Some elements may be secret from everyone but you as the author, and some you yourself may not know when you start out, but woe betide you and your story if your book goes to press and you have not done the work to keep your historical details as straight as you are able. GRRM is doing some spectacularly hard things in this respect, and even though he can now afford to hire as many assistants as he could possibly desire and his fans have written reference works about earlier volumes that he himself uses when he works on new volumes, ultimately it is the author who is responsible for any screw-ups.

    When I wrote my first novel, now trunked, I produced a 300,000 word draft in a year. I had just finished writing my dissertation, 100,000 words in length, and that had taken me five years. One reason the novel was so much faster to produce than the diss is that writing something that is meticulously factual is a lot more time-consuming than writing something that needs only to be true. But novels in a series combine the hardest of both worlds.

    With the first volume in a series, an author can bend her worldbuilding to fit whatever details feel true and necessary. Once that first volume has gone to press, everything that was in it takes on, for the author’s purposes, the rigidity of historical record. If she wants to change any of it, she needs some kind of explanation to satisfy the reader.

    I recently immersed myself in a series in which the heroine had to hack off her very long hair in order to escape some dreadful physical peril. All the characters who saw her at the end of the first book of the series commented on how brutally short her hair was. The second volume began a mere three days later in the story’s action, and the heroine’s hair was extremely long again, long enough for elaborate braids and knots for her unwelcome wedding. I picked up the second volume within a day of finishing the first, so this inconsistency was extremely jarring, and every time her hair was mentioned for the rest of the series, I got knocked out of the continuous dream of the story. So far, GRRM has never done that to me. If it takes him several additional months, or heck, an extra year per volume to work with his trusted critiquers, assistants, copyeditors, or whatever to spare me that kind of gaffe, I’m grateful to him for taking the time.

    If I had to come up with an explanation for declining quality in the works of older writers…okay, first, I won’t be prepared to discuss the question of whether quality has declined in ASOIAF until GRRM has actually either finished the series or died, and second, I’m not assuming that quality even has a general tendency to decline as writers age, but in some cases it does. So, why does it happen in those cases? I’d speculate that it’s because established, successful authors are less likely to subject their work to rigorous challenge by editors, critique partners, spouses, etc., than unpublished and neo-pro authors are. Who among the authors you feel declined in the quality of their output as they aged continued, after they became successful, to seek out people who would push back on their drafts?

    Comment by Sarah Avery - January 26, 2012 12:36 am

  25. Whoa, that got long. Sorry.

    Comment by Sarah Avery - January 26, 2012 12:36 am

  26. It’s also a series, which may be a factor. Some authors can still write good books while trapped churning out books for the franchise.

    Comment by Mary - January 26, 2012 1:50 am

  27. Thinking about it, is the problem not GRRMs age (assuming there is a problem) (and let’s also remember the many people who are more than capable no matter how old they are) but the heroic task he’s taken in on writing a series that has sprawled all out of its original shape, AND leading a normal life that also involves a number of fingers in other pies, like conventions, appearances, a tv series et al? All that can distract – which may be the case for the perceived fall off in quality.

    Also, since the 1st book came out, what other writing has GRRM done (as a solo author, not editor or co-writer)? Has SOIAF cannibalised his fiction output?

    Comment by harryangelsmith1 - January 26, 2012 2:08 am

  28. Sarah: There is no doubt in my mind that Song of Ice and Fire is too big, but I guess my question remains, ‘is the cause his age?’ Writers need focus, direction, and good editing. Martin seems to have lost all these along the way. The first two could be attributed to age or a wandering mind in a land that is far too large for his original story, and the later, editing, I attribute to the George Lucas 2nd Star Wars syndrome of ‘you’re a god George, we won’t even try to tell you what to do’, because all the high ups know that no matter what is written or produced, the cash cow is still coming home so don’t piss off the creator, just get the money and run.

    Comment by Scott Taylor - January 26, 2012 11:13 am

  29. Mary: Indeed, an sometimes alternate universe books that diverge from a series are great to get the author going again, but this happens less and less as we age. Remember, Martin was still and INSANELY good writer 15 year BEFORE A Game of Thrones came out, and those had nothing to do with Westros.

    Comment by Scott Taylor - January 26, 2012 11:15 am

  30. Harry: SOIAF has devoured Martin, body and soul… although he did manage to get married in there someplace ;)

    Comment by Scott Taylor - January 26, 2012 11:16 am

  31. Two points; First, the book is titled “A Dance WITH Dragons”
    Second; Maybe if you would have read the book, you would have gotten at least that right.

    Comment by josephb771 - January 26, 2012 3:04 pm

  32. Joseph: AWESOME, someone noticed! You get a gold star pointing out me saying even getting the title right of this book wasn’t worth my time ;)

    Comment by Scott Taylor - January 26, 2012 3:12 pm

  33. Looks like pretty solid evidence. My son read Dragons and he enjoyed it. I have yet to find the time. I would like to propose another reason. Maybe it’s rambling because GRRM never meant the series to run this long. He’s writing what his publisher will pay him for, not necessarily what he wants. At his point he may be way beyond is finishing point and he’s just making it up as he goes along, hence the rambling. I hope that’s true, because I’m 51 and would hate to think I’m almost done. I’m too old to be a male model. Writing is all I got left. :-)

    Comment by Ndoro - January 26, 2012 3:41 pm

  34. It’s not age it’s sprawl as others say.

    He didn’t have the discipline to cut cut cut the next day or the day after that each new subplot that he followed gleefully as the number of words piled up providing a faux sense of moving forward.

    Which mean that he doesn’t have an innate sense of structure and composition — some writers do. Those who don’t need to be rigorous about plotting in fairly detailed manner — thinking always how this chapter connects to the one before it and is building out to the one after it. You have to outline in a fairly detailed way too.

    This is how the originally planned trilogy turned into yet another and another book, how even a single volume couldn’t be a single volume and became two — and neither one really advanced things much if at all, but added whole new characters and considerations that didn’t exist before. I.e. a mess.

    This has nothing to do with age.

    Some people are much better at shorter forms and some are much better at longer ones.

    Also I know far too many really great artists from choreographers to poets who are doing even greater work in their later years. But — without the great work of their earlier years they wouldn’t be doing their great work now.

    One more thing: Poverty and other hardships are NOT conducive to creativity. The work may get accomplished in spite of hardships but if the art doesn’t pay off — and the pay off coming or not coming doesn’t have anywhere as much to do with the quality of the work as some might think — the creativity stops. One can’t work without eating, without a home, etc. If you are lucky enough then to find a job that can support you and children, you won’t have much left over for creative work.

    Comment by C - Foxessa - January 26, 2012 4:18 pm

  35. This is an interesting post with which I strongly disagree. I mean, I never grasped the intensity of hate for A Feast For Crows, and I thought A Dance With Dragons was fine.

    I am afraid you just undermined your own argument right there, Matthew. Although Dragons was worse than Crows. If you’ve ever read Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series, it falls right off a cliff with the fourth book. She was 59.

    As Scott points out, there are always exceptions. But the general rule is that 60 is pretty much it for most writers. I take your point, but even the likes of Eco is now noticeably on the downhill compared to his earlier work.

    Comment by Theo - January 26, 2012 4:37 pm

  36. Theo: Well, as I say, the rule will seem different depending on what authors you want to look at, and how you evaluate their fiction.

    The Dance With Dragons thing is interesting. Some readers like the book, some don’t. But what’s odd … I distinctly remember the reviews when it came out — overall very favourable. And indeed, double-checking to make sure my memory’s not going on me, that’s what I find: Jeff VanderMeer praised it in the L.A. Times. Lev Grossman loved it, saying Martin’s “skill as a crafter of narrative exceeds that of almost any literary novelist writing today.” The Daily Beast and Publisher’s Weekly both liked it. So did Salon.com. Thebookstore.net, a site that collects mainstream-media book reviews, has positive reviews from the Washington Post and the Christian Science Monitor. I mean, this was a well-reviewed book.

    Which isn’t to say that’s a proof of quality, but … it seems to me that fan “conventional wisdom” has turned against the book, and I’m not sure why. What is it in the book that appeals to the reviewers, but not the fans? VanderMeer and Grossman both know fantasy, and they loved the book, so it’s not due to cluelessness about the genre on the part of mainstream reviewers. As I say, people can like it or not like it, but I get the sense that most of the people who dislike it are part of the fan community.

    Now, granted, by the time you get to the fifth thick book in a series, people who didn’t like the basic approach of the story have already been weeded out. So fans and pro critics are pretty much all the audience left. Martin declining as a writer would explain fans’ dislike, but if Martin was stumbling so badly as a writer, you’d think pro reviewers would pick up on faltering craft. In fact, most published reviews praise Martin’s storytelling and technique. So I wonder why there seems to be a difference of perceptions between (what appear to be most) reviewers and (at least some) fans. Is he doing something, craft aside, that long-time readers don’t want or didn’t expect? I didn’t notice anything, but who knows?

    (Full disclosure: I’m one of those ‘mainstream’ reviewers, since I published a positive review of the book in the Montreal Gazette.)

    Comment by Matthew David Surridge - January 26, 2012 7:16 pm

  37. Matthew: I love your latest point. Could it be that Martin’s writing technique is still very sound but his story is fading, ala reviews see the merit in the ‘bones’ of the story while fans think it is a rambling diversion that fails to deliver on the story promised in A Game of Thrones?

    Comment by Scott Taylor - January 26, 2012 7:45 pm

  38. Theo: Wow, you agree with me… will wonders never cease? :)

    Comment by Scott Taylor - January 26, 2012 7:45 pm

  39. Ndoro: My personal trainer is 51 and when he weeds his garden across the street you’d think a 21 year-old is doing it, so perhaps your modeling career isn’t too far fetched ;)

    Comment by Scott Taylor - January 26, 2012 7:46 pm

  40. Foxessa: I couldn’t disagree with both your arguments and more if someone paid me to do so. :) However, I would say that all people react differently, and while some will crumble and fade in the face of diversity, therefore crushing all creativity, there are those who thrive on it and become greater than they could have ever imagined.

    Comment by Scott Taylor - January 26, 2012 7:49 pm

  41. But what’s odd … I distinctly remember the reviews when it came out — overall very favourable. And indeed, double-checking to make sure my memory’s not going on me, that’s what I find: Jeff VanderMeer praised it in the L.A. Times. Lev Grossman loved it, saying Martin’s “skill as a crafter of narrative exceeds that of almost any literary novelist writing today.” The Daily Beast and Publisher’s Weekly both liked it. So did Salon.com. Thebookstore.net, a site that collects mainstream-media book reviews, has positive reviews from the Washington Post and the Christian Science Monitor. I mean, this was a well-reviewed book.

    I don’t think it’s that odd. Few reviewers want to go against what they perceive to be the tide of popular opinion. Everyone was anticipating the book and was very excited about it. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve thought Martin was really good since Sandkings but I thought Dragons was absolutely dreadful by his standards.

    My cousin bought it on the first day in hardcover; he was tremendously eager. He could barely bring himself to finish it. But I do think the main problem is with the story, not the writing per se.

    It can be tough to produce a sequel. I was 40k words into my third Eternal Warriors book when I realized it wasn’t going anywhere interesting. I had to trash the whole thing and start over. The six years it took Martin is a very strong indication that he literally lost the plot.

    Not so much the grand strategical plot, but the tactical plots of who is doing exactly what now.

    Comment by Theo - January 26, 2012 9:01 pm

  42. Theo: Unreal, first you agree with me and now I find myself agreeing with you! :)

    Comment by Scott Taylor - January 26, 2012 9:07 pm

  43. and while some will crumble and fade in the face of diversity, therefore crushing all creativity, there are those who thrive on it and become greater than they could have ever imagined.

    Scott — whatever do you mean by that? How did diversity get into this discussion?

    It will help if you provide examples of writers always crushed by diversity becoming

    …geater than they could have ever imagined.

    Comment by C - Foxessa - January 26, 2012 11:16 pm

  44. Foxessa: ‘diversity’ was a victim of the iPhone auto-correct. :( It was meant to say ‘adversity’! Sheesh, diversity makes it sound awful!

    Comment by Scott Taylor - January 26, 2012 11:27 pm

  45. lthough Dragons was worse than Crows. If you’ve ever read Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series, it falls right off a cliff with the fourth book.

    Nah. Caesar, October Horse and Antony and Cleopatra are all worth reading. The main problem with the last one is that Augustus is a less attractive personality than Caesar, who in turn is less interesting than Sulla and Marius. But none of that is the author’s fault, though she could perhaps be accused of liking Caesar a little too much.

    Comment by Lugo - January 27, 2012 2:20 pm

  46. some will crumble and fade in the face of diversity,

    That’s what happens when old authors get knocked off their bikes by “happy slapping” diverse thugs? =)

    (see http://voxday.blogspot.com/2012/01/sic-semper-pusillus.html )

    Comment by Lugo - January 27, 2012 2:23 pm

  47. Best thread ever!

    The root of this evil is Metaphysical.

    My Ultima Thule, my Holy Graal, my Golden City Far, my souls obsession…

    I am taken aback however that so many of the people here are just now looking at the fact that the cycle of life/death can be applied to anything within that macro-cycle.

    Yes a souls creativity will have a ‘life/death cycle.’

    There can likely be found an average age of ‘death’ for ones ‘creativity.’

    Just like anything.

    Lets all direct this wonderfully morbid, grim, and dark, ( maybe brooding too! What joy! ) energy into the ‘life of our work.’

    Hurry you could ‘die’ reading this…In many ways!

    But know that in some ways you are already dead.

    Comment by RadiantAbyss - January 27, 2012 4:48 pm

  48. An example from political science!

    http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/01/why-john-j-mearsheimer-is-right-about-some-things/8839/?single_page=true

    “The best grand theories tend to be written no earlier than middle age, when the writer has life experience and mistakes behind him to draw upon. Morgenthau’s 1948 classic, Politics Among Nations, was published when he was 44, Fukuyama’s The End of History was published as a book when he was 40, and Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations as a book when he was 69. Mearsheimer began writing The Tragedy of Great Power Politics when he was in his mid-40s, after working on it for a decade. Published just before 9/11, the book intimates the need for America to avoid strategic distractions and concentrate on confronting China.”

    Comment by Lugo - January 27, 2012 5:22 pm

  49. I wish I could remember where I saw a study on life expectancy for writers of major literary forms. Poets have a life expectancy of 62 years, playwrights 64, and novelists 66, as I recall. When I set aside poetry to return to fiction, I liked wisecracking that I’d increased my life expectancy by four years. But if my creativity as a novelist collapses while I’m in my 50s, I might as well switch back, since poets’ primes tend to run very late. (The possibility that I might add over a decade to my life expectancy by ceasing to write altogether is not worth considering. I tried giving up, but it didn’t work out, so I gave up giving up.)

    If that study has any validity, it may just be that writers (sedentary, isolated, financially unsound creatures in many cases) tend not to live that long past the years you’ve identified as their primes. It’s hard to keep writing at the top of your game after you’ve died.

    Comment by Sarah Avery - January 27, 2012 11:45 pm

  50. Lugo: Nice points and thanks for the link. I believe to pushes toward my point.

    Comment by Scott Taylor - January 27, 2012 11:52 pm

  51. Sarah: Even more interesting that different types of writers would have different lifespans… I’m not sure why that is…

    Comment by Scott Taylor - January 27, 2012 11:52 pm

  52. RadiantAbyss: Well, I survived the day so I’m feeling pretty good! ;)

    Comment by Scott Taylor - January 27, 2012 11:53 pm

  53. With all do respect to my fellow Black Gate blogger … while I too have noted that during some long writing careers there does seem to be a point where the works produced become less interesting … you’re making quite an unscientific leap, backed only by your own subjective judgements on various books, in trying to tie the arc of a writer’s career directly to the biological process of aging. The Goodkind quote is referring to accumulated experience, not the biological process of growing old.

    Consider this: David Eddings’ entire career as a fantastist lasted from when he was 51 until his death at 77.

    I think the much more likely explanation is that each writer only has so many extraordinary book ideas in them — no human being can be an infinite fountain of genius 24/7 — and a professional writer with a long career will be lucky enough, or unlucky enough, to have a chance to get all those extraordinary ideas out on paper while he or she still has some life left.

    Comment by Mike Allen - January 29, 2012 4:34 pm

  54. Mike: If I’m right or wrong doesn’t matter, all that matters is that my fellow Black Gate bloggers take the time to read my blog, so it looks like I WIN! :)

    Comment by Scott Taylor - January 29, 2012 4:37 pm


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