What G.R.R. Martin’s Minimalist Writing Process Teaches Us

by
Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin

To say George R.R. Martin has some peculiar writing habits is an understatement. We’re living in a time where we’re expected to use the latest tech tools to make ourselves more productive, yet the man behind the wildly popular fantasy novels that inspired the HBO series Game of Thrones works in a completely opposite way.

By using unbelievably outdated tools, Martin proves that a brilliant mind rather than top-tier tech and a high-intensity attitude can lead to unparalleled success. His slow approach and long-term view to writing, however, comes with years-long delays that have driven some of his fans absolutely crazy.

Much like the weapons wielded by some of Martin’s characters, the author’s creative process is a double-edged sword. That process is something we can learn from.

The Writer’s Tools

The first book in Martin’s best-selling A Song of Ice and Fire series debuted in 1996, but the computer he still uses is even older than that.

He has written nearly 2 million words (more than three times the length of War and Peace) using the WordStar 4.0 word processor that debuted in 1987. He backs up all his work on floppy disks. The series still has two books remaining, so this bare-bones program will be used for years to come.

Martin, who is admittedly a “dinosaur” when it comes to tech, defends his methods on his similarly outdated blog. “Mock if you must… but WordStar and DOS are both stable as rocks, and never give me the sort of headaches I get from Windows. (I won’t even talk about Microsoft Word, about which I have nothing printable to say),” he wrote in a 2007 post.

His dedication to WordStar 4.0 shows that, for some of us, newer isn’t always better. Martin likes the word processor because it can only be used for writing without any of the distractions that come with newer computers. We’re so easily distracted that there are modern writing programs that mimic the look and feel of old word processors for the sake of productivity.

Delays Upon Delays

If Martin is particular about what he writes on, he’s especially beholden to his writing process. He has to be at his medieval-themed New Mexico home in order to write and he won’t do any writing on the road. The success of his series and the TV show, however, means that he’s often attending conventions and other events. The more popular the series gets, the more obligations he has to leave home.

This has caused some painfully slow progress on the series.

In the afterword to 2005’s A Feast for Crows, he assured fans that the next book would be out in a year. The fifth, and latest, installment in the series didn’t actually release until 2011.

The delays have gotten longer with almost every entry in the series. Now the show, which just debuted its sixth season, is ahead of the books it’s based on. The show creators have a rough outline Martin’s plans for the books and are forging ahead with their own interpretation.

Martin stresses that there are some huge differences between the shows and the books, but many expect the most important events to be the same. Readers who have been invested in the series for 20 years are now getting spoilers from a show that first premiered back 2011. This is a surprisingly emotional development, both for Martin and his fans.

A Massive Undertaking

The delays can be attributed to Martin’s perfectionist writing process, but the sheer scope of the series also has something to do with it. There are nearly 2,000 characters mentioned by name so far and a number of interwoven plotlines.

Initially, the series was supposed to be a trilogy. Now there are seven books planned with some fans wondering if more are needed to close up all the ongoing plotlines.While Martin had a vague plan to begin with, he isn’t beholden to his initial ideas.

In Martin’s view, there are two types of writers. The architects have everything planned with a blueprint. From the start, they know how many rooms the house will have, what the roof will look like and so on.

Then there are the gardeners that, ”dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows.”

Martin, unsurprisingly, considers himself a gardener. He just happens to be an especially unhurried horticulturist who is particular about his tools.

The Importance of Quality

Fans have been waiting for five years for the penultimate installment of the series. Some of them aren’t taking the wait too well, especially in light of the show overtaking the series. Other fans, however, are more than willing to wait. Isn’t it better to wait for something amazing than to read something that feels rushed or incomplete? Such lengthy delays would kill the momentum of any series, yet the books are more popular than ever thanks to their quality (and also the popularity of the show).

Martin’s writing delays are almost as legendary as some of the character’s he’s created, but he’s doing what works best for him. He’s a throwback to another era, for sure, but his methods also have something to teach us. A little stubbornness is fine as long as we’re still producing great results.

Martin, for all his delays, is doing just that on his own terms.

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