Neil Gaiman on the Limits of the Reader-Writer Contract

I love this post by Neil Gaiman about entitlement, especially as concerns readers upset that George R.R. Martin hasn’t finished his latest novel in the bestselling series. It ain’t a science, the rate of burn-out is high, and anyone who thinks that just churning out novels is a good idea–either for readers or writers–is full of crap.

Deadlines in this business are always approximations, and always getting broken to some extent, or revised because of circumstances beyond a writer’s control.

People are not machines. Writers and artists aren’t machines.

You’re complaining about George doing other things than writing the books you want to read as if your buying the first book in the series was a contract with him: that you would pay over your ten dollars, and George for his part would spend every waking hour until the series was done, writing the rest of the books for you.

No such contract existed. You were paying your ten dollars for the book you were reading, and I assume that you enjoyed it because you want to know what happens next…And sometimes, and it’s as true of authors as it is of readers, you have a life. People in your world get sick or die. You fall in love, or out of love. You move house. Your aunt comes to stay. You agreed to give a talk half-way around the world five years ago, and suddenly you realise that that talk is due now. Your last book comes out and the critics vociferously hated it and now you simply don’t feel like writing another. Your cat learns to levitate and the matter must be properly documented and investigated. There are deer in the apple orchard. A thunderstorm fries your hard disk and fries the backup drive as well…

The primary engine that runs your writing life is your imagination–and the ability of your imagination to assimilate new catalysts, new information from the world, and then turn it into something worth putting on the page. It’s a renewable source, but you can run out of it if you don’t give yourself time to recharge. Sometimes, too, thinking about a novel or story is important. Too many writers, I think, start writing before the story or novel is ready to be written.

Anyway, Gaiman’s post is also an important push-back against the idea of what constitutes a “professional” writer. To me, a professional writer doesn’t just put something out to put something out. A professional writer protects his or her imagination when necessary, even if it means being a little late on something. Beyond considerations of peripheral professional behavior–treating people with respect, etc.–all I owe myself and readers is to write the best I can, and to be silent when I have nothing to say. Honestly, we’ve got this one life. If you’re devoted to writing, don’t screw that up with a mistaken idea of what a “professional” does. Just make the writing good. There’s no do-over after you’re dead.

Not a plug, but Booklife deals with this whole issue, too.


  1. says

    As a man desperately trying to write a book which life is constantly getting in the way of, I sympathise completely. And I’m not even a published author with a clammering fanbase.

    there is a certain level of ignorance out there that actively hampers the creative effort, and I’ve no doubt it takes a phenomenal effort of patience and resilience to get even one book published, never mind a series. To then be whacked by even less-than-ideal reviews must be a brutal blow.

    [I recently discovered, via a little more research, that the entire first section of my own effort is historically inaccurate. It cannot have happened the way I wrote it, and I thought I had it nailed. Characters, location, narrative, context and lead-off all have to change. That’s 6 months of slow driven effort meaningless because of one page of a historical record I picked up in a second hand bookshop for £2.50. I’m extraordinarily relieved to now *know* what I have to write, battered senseless by the fact i have to re-write it.]

  2. says

    I’m working on a first novel and I’m really enjoying proceeding at my own pace. I can get an idea and develop it, or change the first chapter into a prologue. I’ve put that prologue and a few chapters online, I’m waiting for someone to ask me to hurry up.

    I’m not sure if that will be a blessing or a curse. It’s nice to be read, but as you say – it’s more important to write well. I’ll probably send any “hurry up choir” to this page.

  3. says

    You’ll forgive me I hope if I say that I find all that a little too precious. Imagination is an important element in many jobs, but people still arrive at 9 in the morning every weekday and do a full day’s work.

    I have no sense of entitlement as a reader – I’ve loved A Song of Ice and Fire and if there’s never another book it still will have been worth reading and I won’t complain. But there’s another sense of entitlement out there that Gaiman doesn’t address – the sense of entitlement on the part of writers. The sense that they should be treated like some sort of Ming vase (“I can’t write today because I have a cold…”, as I read in a certain someone’s blog earlier – as if engineers or lawyers or doctors or teachers never get colds). It’s all part of the mystique that some creative types like to cultivate about themselves. That the delicate genius cannot possible be disturbed by the minutiae that the hoi polloi concern themselves with, lest it throw off the entire creative process. Gimme a break. I’ve experienced most of the problems Neil Gaiman cites, but I don’t remember any of them preventing me from doing my job.

  4. Hellbound Heart says

    a good book, a really good book transports you and makes you want to read even though it’s 12:30 at night and you have to get up for work in 5 and a half hours’ time and you crave more when it’s finished…if you have the ability to do that then you are blessed and you make so many other people’s lives that little bit better….thanks, jeff….

  5. JeffV says

    heh. it is ironic to have a calling that is as essential as breathing to some people and yet no one could say it’s essential. so in that sense anything serious said about process will seem precious. yet if you are going to devote your life to something you damn well better take it seriously. and what you fail to take into account is that fiction takes a vastly different kind of very solitary imagination that being, say, a doctor. not to mention the fact that a doctor serves a practical, clear function. his/her job is to diagnose, cure, heal, etc. within a careful and objective set of frameworks and processes. burn-out occurs for reasons i’d argue are somewhat different than what’s typical for a writer, and a patient-doctor contract is also different than the writer-reader contract. so, no, not buying what yer sellin.

  6. JakeM says

    Interesting comments, it puts me in mind of an interview I read yesterday with China Mieville about his upcoming “The City and The City”:

    “People who like florid language and the monsters may not like this book – that is legitimate.

    You can’t expect readers to follow you whatever you do. You can ask them to do you a favour. To a certain extent this book teases people who followed my previous work.”

    You can read the entire interview here:

  7. says


    I find your statements a little misleading. No, people don’t always arrive at 9am and do a full day’s work. I used to be a supply teacher – the only reason I worked is because lots of your tough 9 to 5 teachers took days off. They didn’t wake up with a cold and say “hey, I feel bad, but by golly nothing will stop me from getting my work done today.” No, they said “Hey, I feel like shit, and I’m not going to work today.” Or, let’s be honest, they said “Shit, I can’t face the little blighters today, so I’m gonna call in sick and go play golf.” So why can’t a writer take a day off if a teacher does? Or a lawyer? Or a Doctor?

    I think that sort of idealized view of the working class is just as skewed as the idea of prissy intellectuals flitting around looking for inspiration. People are people, whatever they do. Regardless of task, some will work through rain, fire and earthquake, while others will toss it in at the first opportunity.

    And frankly, in the case of most writers (like George R.R. Martin), I’m guessing the problem is much less that they’re not working on it (and taking time off) as it is the simple fact that they’re having trouble with it. Problems = more time spent. Most of the entitled readers seem to equate lack of progress with laziness. Where, in reality, it’s probably more about the sort of writing failures that go into just about every book. Being stumped is not being lazy. Being stumped is a problem one has to work around.

    I think the comparison, really, is more apt if it concerns a doctor’s failure to properly diagnose a health problem in a patient. It’s not that the doctor is failing to show up for work, or is being lazy, but rather that he can’t figure out what’s causing those particular symptoms. He might work on it for a year and be no closer to figuring out a cause. And sometime during that year he might take a few days off for health reasons himself. Or, god forbid, take a vacation.

  8. says

    I’m a lawyer — particularly a lawyer who specializes in research in writing. Hell, about all I do is research and write motions and briefs. I spend all day every day at my computer. I’m a writing machine.

    When I’m not writing motions and briefs, I’m writing book reviews.

    But what I really want to write is scholarly work about literature, literary essays and fiction. And you know what? They’re a HELL of a lot harder to write. WAY harder. Ideas aren’t just lying around free on the ground, for one thing. And it’s lonely work, for another. And it’s almost entirely self-driven, for another; it takes self-discipline at levels that no other job requires, at least no job I’ve come across (and I’ve been self-employed for some time now, being paid only for the hours I work, so I know something about that).

    While I agree that you never hear of a carpenter talking about “carpenter’s block” or the like, I also think that there’s something inherently different about writing that means that one is *always* writing, even when one is watching a football game. Heck, I write in my *sleep*, and I’m not even really the kind of writer I want to be (not yet, anyway). I write when I drive, I write when I eat, I write when I exercise, I write just about all the time. About the only time I’m not writing is when I’m reading, and then I’m feeding the writing. So give GRRM (and Brian Sanderson, and Patrick Rothfuss, and whoever else is writing a series you want the next installment of) a break. Let them live, for God’s sake. In fact, let them live for *your* sake — unless you want them to write crap.

  9. says

    A lot of jobs don’t require the kind of imagination that some writers use to do their work. I’ve gone back to college, taken care of a baby all day, sick parents, tutored, lots of all-day stuff that drained my energies for writing.

    It’s not a 9-5 job. If it is, it’s typing.

    I’ve written crap for money. I’ve done decent work for money.

    What I write now requires more of me than I can give some days. Those who don’t understand what Gaiman is saying, well, maybe they lack imagination. Sign me exhausted.

  10. says

    Back when the Cat Piss Man cause du jour was to pillory Harlan Ellison for not getting The Last Dangerous Visions out, I started asking a very important question: “You say that you can’t wait for this book to come out. How would you have reacted if you’d never heard of it?” Then, when I’d get a faceful of fumfuhs and whines about how “he OWES us, man!”. I’d ask the other question: “What’s keeping you from sending in money to Ellison to buy your own copy in advance?” That one always stopped them dead: as with the Martin whiners, they may whimper and wheedle about how they’d crawl on hands and knees through an open sewer to get a copy of that long-awaited book, but then you find that they don’t really want to read it, or even to own it. They want something to bitch about.

  11. Stacey says

    Yeay Neil and Yeah you! It’s about time someone stood up for the writers who take their time and turn out good material, no matter how long it may take. I’m an avid series reader, and I get anxious for the next book, sure. But to think that the writer can’t just decide to quit when they want to is ludicrous! That’s like the readers who get angry when their favorite character gets knocked off or ends up in a way different than they imagined. May they go languish in fanfic hell, writing their OWN stories, not trying to dictate someone elses.

    It’s just not likely that someone who has never tried to do something artistic or creative on a regular basis will understand that while there is discipline involved, that insures output, not output worth reading or looking at or thinking about. It really is a different mindset.

  12. says

    I think it’s a little misguided to start bringing the trials and tribulations of everyday life into it all, it either invites the reader to take the position of employer/customer that’s pissed off because you “keep pulling sickdays” or to “cut you some slack” when to be honest it’s none of their damn business what>/i> you do with your time. I don’t think this is the right way to look at it at all, to make excuses in a sense when really none need to be made.

    There’s a reciprocal system of loyalty between writer and reader, and this is different from employer/employee, producer/customer. It doesn’t do anyone any good to reduce things to that kind of banal level.

  13. says

    That’s funny, and here I thought the writer’s contract was with the publisher. Although, with putting the author’s name so large on the book, the publisher is blurring the lines by marketing the name with a secondary market driver of the publisher and editors. When the reader buys the book, his contract with with the publisher (through the middle men of distributors and stores). That contract is “I’ll but this if you publish it.” But then, this is the same old complaint about Tor supposedly sitting on the entire “Wheel of Time” books by Jordan just to string out the readers.

    Now, if the reader and author wishes, they can enter into a direct contract where the author produces work directly for the reader (such as in the old model of artist and patron). However, I think those reader will find that $10 won’t get them much. (and include all the previous arguments about producing quality work which brings readers and builds their brand, and authors need to make sure their own product is of high quality and not just banged out).

  14. says

    This post can bring a long discussion, first you can think about what is really understanding between human beings, cause each one has its own unique internal representation and way of perceiving the word.
    There is also the medium through which the communication is made, that distorts or changes the message content. Finally you can think about Lacan’s theory that states that “there is not relation” between people, he says that everyone lives in it’s own word, therefore it’s impossible to really communicate between each other.

    Finally a nice quotation:
    “The illusion (if there is one) comes, on the contrary, from the impersonality of the work. It is a principle of mine that a writer must not be his own theme. The artist in his work must be like God in his creation — invisible and all-powerful: he must be everywhere felt, but never seen.”

    Congrats on the post, pretty interesting subject.

  15. Tim says

    While I am conflicted about the existence of the contract (I want the next book, but I don’t think a writer should be forced to write on a timetable dictated by supposed fans) I am concerned about another aspect of this. 13 years ago, when I was 16 and Martin’s A Game of Thrones came out, it was a world-altering experience for me. What a change from the Feists, Jordans, and Goodkinds.
    But by the time A Feat for Crows came out a few years ago, the world or my mind (or both) appear to be in a very different place. Martin is not the best writer in the world (i.e. someone who I don’t mind skipping paragraphs of if it is clear not a whole lot is going on, unlike M. John Harrison or yourself). What made A Song of Fire and Ice so incredible was the ‘grit’ the ‘realism’ the obvious love Martin had for his characters which did not prevent him from doing amazingly horrible things to them.
    But this is not 1996 anymore, and there are writers that write better than Martin and still do all those things that Martin, back then, was a pioneer of doing. In 2009, after R. Scott Bakker, Steven Erikson, after the new Battlestar Galactica, Martin’s world is starting to look tired, predictable, and at risk of becoming a parody of itself. This is what concerns me, is that a work that was stellar last century is in danger of becoming a stylistic footnote, destined one day to be read only because it was important in changing the tone and function of the genre.
    I am not sure if this is what will actually happy, but I know I myself have begun to not care, no matter how important those books were when I was in highschool, how excited I got about the one that was published while I was in college. I do not blame him for taking his time, would in fact disparage a rush to complete the series (like a certain Mr. King did, and who was lambasted for doing so) but I do wonder about fiction’s relationship to cultural context, and what a piece of fiction needs to transcend the moment in which it is written in order to have the staying power of the Lord of the Rings or Beowulf. I have the feeling A Game of Thrones was so influential that it might be drowned by its offspring.

  16. says

    Stephen King took decades to finish the Dark Tower series. He caught a lot of flak about that. He even, if memory serves, received letters from the elderly, the infirm, and in one case, someone on death row, begging for answers. He was pretty creeped out. I’d be too.

    Writers aren’t some special super-class of human. Life’s idiosyncrasies will out and all that. If you’re compulsive about endings or mystery wraps, the simple solution is: Don’t read a series until it’s finished. No one’s forcing you to, after all.

    Put another way: There’s a ridiculous lot of quality stuff to read, available right now. So go read it. And assuming the delay between Martin’s books is recharge-angled, the series will almost certainly be the beneficiary of the extra time in the shed.