Featured George R. R. Martin Interview

Video: George R.R. Martin on why he’s more of a gardener than an architect

(Photo by Tiffany Rose/Getty Images)

George R.R. Martin has talked often enough about gardeners vs architects — a metaphor for writers who develop the story as they go along vs those who plan it all out beforehand. Although there’s inevitable crossover, he considers himself more of a gardener, which is one explanation for why he’s taking a while to finish his Song of Ice and Fire series. Were the story all outlined ahead of time, he would presumably be writing it faster.

But that method doesn’t interest him, and he explained why a couple of weeks ago when he interviewed author Carrie Vaughn at the Jean Cocteau Cinema, a movie theater he owns in his native Santa Fe. The video is long, and mostly dedicated to exploring Vaughn’s work on Martians Abroad, her new novel. It’s all stimulating stuff, but Martin starts talking about gardeners vs architects at 53:40.

“For me, when I go architect, when I try to outline something, if I’m successful in doing it, it almost feels like I’ve written the book, and now I don’t wanna write the book anymore.” And we don’t want that to happen.

You can look at The World of Ice and Fire…my book of fake history…and there’s a lot of stuff in there about what led up to Game of Thrones, all the preceding kings and the conflicts of their era and all that, and people have said to me, “You have 50 other novels in here. You could write a novel about Aegon’s conquest, and all that.” And yes, I could, but I don’t think I will because I already wrote those 20 pages about Aegon’s conquest and that’s the important stuff that happened in Aegon’s conquest…I’ve made up the fun stuff, and the twists and the characters and the cool lines of dialogue, you know? I skip over the boring lines of dialogue…The few times I actually quote dialogue it’s great lines of dialogue said by famous historic figures at fraught points. There’s very little of “Hey, what’s for dinner?”

Martin describes the “Hey, what’s for dinner”-type lines as the kinds of lines “you have to do when you’re doing a fully fledged novel to make the characters come alive.” Anybody who’s read the Song of Ice and Fire novels knows they’re replete with that kind of detail.

And of course I love the fully fledged novels, so that’s why I’m mostly a gardener when I write a novel. I know that highlights. I haven’t written them yet, though…and I’m getting from one cool thing to another cool thing.

On top of all that, the stuff he does plan doesn’t always work out the way he’d like: “Sometimes the cool things are very very difficult to write, because they’ve existed in your head for some time and they’re awesome. And then you put them in words and they’re less awesome.”


That’s a pretty enlightening look into Martin’s process. Is it a good way to write a book? There are arguments for and against it, I think. On the one hand, Martin’s organic world-building and character-building is a big part of the reason the Song of Ice and Fire novels are so engrossing. On the other, I wonder if more planning would have helped trim the fat from A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, but that’s a whole other discussion.

There’s one other part of the video I’d like to draw attention to. A few years back, George R.R. Martin edited a volume of science fiction stories entitled Old Mars. The collection celebrated the kinds of stories written about Mars in the years before we discovered that it’s, y’know, a dusty horrible dead place. Think about Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter stories, about a guy who gets transported to Mars and swash-buckles his way through an advanced civilization — as Martin points out, there was a steep drop-off in those sorts of stories after we learned more details about what Mars was really like.

Martians Abroad, Vaughn’s book, is an example of “New Mars.” In other words, it’s more based in real-world science. That led Martin into an impassioned monologue about why science fiction doesn’t always have to be scientifically accurate. His monologue starts around 1:12:00. “Right from the beginning of the genre, the fact that it was named “science fiction”…created a mindset among some that it had to scientifically plausible, up-to-the-moment science,” he said. “Of course, science is always changing. Does that mean you have to keep changing the kind of stories that you write?”

We’re almost the only genre that has this compulsion to be scientifically accurate or realistic or plausible. If you look at other genres — Look at the mystery genre and the sheer number of books written about private eyes. They’re all bullshit. Real private eyes don’t solve murders…Then the West…the gunslinger story in the Old West that dominated Westerns for so many years. In the entire history history of the West, there’s one — one, one — confirmed historical case of two guys meeting in the middle of the street to have a fast-draw gunfight. It was Wild Bill Hickock and some guy whose name I forget because Wild Bill Hickock killed him. And it’s all based on that incident…It’s all bullshit but we love the trope…There’s something so romantic and dramatic about it…There’s poetry in that, and there’s poetry in Old Mars and Old Venus and all of these other things, too. So if these other genres don’t have to worry about realism and making it up-to-the-moment accurate, I don’t think we should be bound to simply because we have “science” in our name.

Whether you agree with Martin or not, that was a pretty awesome impromptu speech. He even gets applause.

h/t Not a Blog


    • I don’t think that being more of a gardener than an architect means you can’t plan some things, though. I mean, it’s not like he sits down in front of the computer and is just like, “Okay, time to make up a story from nothing.” He’s always had guideposts and ideas, some of which–like the Hold the Door thing–are probably better developed than others.

  • One of things that I have come to enjoy and respect about GRRM is just the way he thinks…the way his mind works. He’s a fascinating guy.

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