A minor shit-storm has lately been brewing in the world of SF/F writing: George R. R. Martin, who is rather more famous than I am — and rather more overdue on his latest book, by a couple of years — finally issued a comprehensive response to the vocal and annoying fans who think he can pull a quarter of a million words out of his ass on demand. (And who get annoyed with him for being human enough to do other things, such as eating and sleeping and watching football, rather than spending 168 hours a week chained to a hot word processor.) John Scalzi adds commentary, and mostly calls it right. But nevertheless, lots of folks seem to be upset by the very thought that their favourite author might, heavens forbid, be late turning in installment n of a p-volume series. Why is it such a common problem? What's wrong with these authors?
Here's my take on it:
Firstly — and I only feel the need to emphasize this point because the peanut gallery seem to be comprehensively missing it — GRMM is not wilfully dragging his heels. If he doesn't turn in the next book in the series on time, he doesn't get paid.
We authors typically get paid in installments: first an advance against future earnings, then, once the book has earned out, royalties it has earned above and beyond the advance. The advance is typically divided into a number of tranches -- a chunk on signing the contract, a chunk on delivering the manuscript and the editor signing it off for production, and a chunk on publication. The point is, George won't get paid (at least, the last two chunks of his advance) until he hands the finished MS in. Given that the series in question is by far his best-selling work, I find it rather implausible that he's dragging his heels deliberately. So let me make it explicit: if he's way overdue on this book, it's because he's having real trouble with it.
So what might that trouble be?
Well, I haven't read "A Game of Thrones". Or rather, I got 150 pages in then bounced — it's not really my sort of thing, and there are a few thousand pages more of it before I could get to the coal face of an unfinished series — I'll probably try again when the series is complete.
But I do feel able to comment, insofar as I'm 80% of the way through writing book #6 of a series of my own that has some structural similarities, and I'm having difficulties of my own that resonate with things George has said in the past. So I'm not speaking specifically about George's problem here, but to the problems all authors writing this sort of series face ...
There are, to generalize wildly, two types of series novels. Let's call them type (a) and type (b).
The type (a) series consists of books that follow the same protagonist(s) through a series of adventures or incidents — but in which each book tells a self-contained story. Events in earlier books may be mentioned and may affect the background of subsequent books, but they don't actually continue — other than in the most generic manner (bad guy from book #3 re-appears in book #6 and has to be taken down again). Typically they follow a single viewpoint, or at any rate no more than two or three viewpoints. There is, in other words, a partial plot re-set after each book. It is possible for a new reader to dive into such a series in the middle and pick up the threads without too much difficulty. Examples of this sort of series? They're common enough; my own Laundry novels follow this model, and so do most series works.
The type (b) series consists of books that follow the same protagonist(s) through a continuous, developing story/world. While they may be structured as novels, they do not stand alone and a new reader who tries to jump in the middle will be lost. In effect, each book functions as a chapter in a larger work. There may be many viewpoints — in the case of GRRM's series I believe he mentioned counting 19 of them at one point — and the story unfolds on a mammoth scale. Examples of this sort of series: my own Merchant Princes books, GRRM's series, Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, lots of high fantasy series.
What I'd like to put to you is that writing a type (b) series is qualitatively harder than writing a type (a) series.
Reasons it is harder:
1. You can't go back and retcon problems in earlier parts of the series. Those books are already in print, and if you've set something up in book #3 that interferes with what you want to do in book #6 you have no alternative but to grimly push on and work with it, because it's part of the current story you're telling. Whereas in a type (a) series you can usually ignore earlier errors, or air-brush them out of the picture, because you hit the partial reset button at the end of each novel. (In "The Fuller Memorandum" I air-brush bits of "The Atrocity Archives" out of the picture, glibly pointing out that Bob is an unreliable narrator who was not privy to certain important information early in his career. Whereas in "The Revolution Business" I can't work around the nuclear theft subplot I introduced in "The Hidden Family", but have to engage with it directly.)
2. Viewpoints multiply. In a normal novel with three viewpoints, running to 120,000 words, each viewpoint character gets 40,000 words (about 120 pages) on screen. That's a great length, about equivalent to an old-time short novel; plenty of room to advance their story and show some action. But in a type (b) series with 8 viewpoints and a 120,000 word volume size limit, you've got 15,000 words per character — a mere novelette. Even if you bloat up to a 240,000 word volume (700-750 pages!) they only get 30,000 words. Telling each viewpoint character's story in parallel means that this 750 page book gets to advance the plot by the equivalent of 90 pages in a single-threaded narrative. This is why epic multi-viewpoint fantasy series seem to drag. My "The Clan Corporate" is 300 pages, 100,000 words. It was originally going to be a 300,000 word doorstep, before word came down that I had to work to a 300 page length factor. The subsequent book, "The Merchants' War" runs to 120,000 words but only pushes the action forward by the equivalent of 30,000 words due to this problem of viewpoint parallelism; indeed, books 3-6 should be read as a single novel, and if they were compressed down to a single viewpoint a mere 350-400 pages would suffice for the story. (Except that it wouldn't make sense because a lot of important stuff would be happening off-screen.)
3. Parallelism is hard for human minds to grasp. When you're telling a multi-viewpoint story, what you are doing in effect is equivalent to writing a whole bunch of short novels in parallel — one per viewpoint. And we are not good at doing this sort of thing. Humans generally don't multi-task well; we lose efficiency rapidly as we pay the price for switching context. I've found juggling eight viewpoints to be murderously hard, although in "The Trade of Queens" I've cut the problem back down to size by context-switching on alternate universes (of which there are only three of any plotworthy significance) rather than characters. GRRM doesn't have that luxury, but apparently must needs track over a dozen major characters at any time. I think it's a miracle he can make it work at all.
4. But the urge to multi-track your plot is a slippery slope. You don't realize what's going on at first. Minor plot threads are very more-ish; you want to illustrate some piece of the story that's happening away from your main protagonists' awareness, so you zoom in on a spear carrier. And the next thing you know? BAM — they're a protagonist in their own right, and you've got to keep following them! (If you don't follow them, your readers will want to know why.)
5. Closure is harder to achieve. Closure is what you get right before "and they all lived happily ever after" — it's the wind-down after the plot climax, the wrap-up that allows the readers to put the characters back in the toy box and walk away, satisfied with the way everything came together in the end. Do I need to explain why achieving closure to an entire squadron of novels flying in loose formation, at exactly the same time and in a manner that wraps everything up is harder than closing off a single stand-alone work? Lack of closure and/or messy endings is a perennial critique of Neal Stephenson's novels, but I'm inclined to say that his problems with closure actually arise from the length and structure of his works (which are structurally type (b) series works, even if they're sometimes shoe-horned into a single dust jacket). But without closure you can't end the series. (Not without your fans screaming at you.) The longer it goes on the harder it is to achieve closure, and without closure the harder it is to end: it's a trap and a snare. I attribute it to one of the strengths of the type (b) series: it is usually a vehicle for comprehensive world-building, but the real world that it strives to emulate doesn't give our life-stories closure — it just goes on and on until we die.
I can't say with any authority that these issues are the actual reason why George is late with his latest book — but they're besetting problems for authors of the class of series he's writing, and in his description of his own issues I recognize my own battle with these problems.
(As for the Merchant Princes books — #6 will close off the current series. There may be another series in this universe, but if so, I intend to write it as a self-contained trilogy, and deliver it in a single lump. I've learned my lesson and it's simple: finish the whole damn thing before you hand it in.)