George R.R. Martin has created a swords and sorcery world that people can’t get enough of: “a Song of Ice And Fire” series has sold 24 million copies in print, while the HBO adaptation has captured the country’s interest. The premier of season four brought in 6.6 million viewers — the most for a premium channel since “The Sopranos” went off the air.
In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Martin shared details on his creative process. Strikingly, they mirror lots of entrepreneurial wisdom. Here’s a look behind the scenes at how Martin works.
It’s not about ideas.
When asked where his imagination came from, Martin replied that “ideas are cheap.”
“I have more ideas now than I could ever write up,” he says. “To my mind, it’s the execution that is all-important.”
This is the same philosophy held by the late tech innovator Steve Jobs, who said thinking that a great idea is 90% of the work is completely wrong. “There is just a tremendous amount of craftsmanship in between a great idea and a great product,” he said.
It’s not about originality.
Creativity isn’t about having the most orginal idea ever. Instead, it’s a matter of combining what already exists.
“You look at Shakespeare, who borrowed all of his plots,” Martin says. “In ‘A Song of Ice and Fire,’ I take stuff from the Wars of the Roses and other fantasy things, and all these things work around in my head and somehow they jell into what I hope is uniquely my own.”
Apple, again, provides a killer example. The iPod wasn’t the first mp3 player; it was just the most beautiful one. Like “Steal Like An Artist” author Austin Kleon says, creative theft can be incredibly positive, so long as it’s honouring instead of degrading, crediting rather than plagiarizing, and transforming instead of intimidating.
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George R.R. Martin
If you can’t shake it, you have to do it.
When Martin was starting on “
A Song Of Ice and Fire,” he was still working in Hollywood. Between the screenplays and the writer’s rooms, he just couldn’t shake the need to write the book.
“I still pitched shows in Hollywood,” he says, “but this ‘Ice and Fire’ thing wouldn’t leave my head. I kept thinking about it and scenes for these characters. It was just never far from me. I realised I really want to tell that story.”
You see the same pattern in entrepreneurs. Pencils of Promise founder Adam Braun knew he wanted to start an education nonprofit since he spent his early 20s backpacking around the world. Even though he was on the fast-track at elite consultancy Bain & Company, he left to launch an education nonprofit — one of the most innovative in the world.
It is about inspiration.
Sometimes, inspiration does come on its own. As Martin tells Rolling Stone, the opening scene of the book came to him in a vision:
It was the summer of 1991. I was still involved in Hollywood. My agent was trying to get me meetings to pitch my ideas, but I didn’t have anything to do in May and June. It had been years since I wrote a novel. I had an idea for a science-fiction novel called Avalon. I started work on it and it was going pretty good, when suddenly it just came to me, this scene, from what would ultimately be the first chapter of A Game of Thrones. It’s from Bran’s viewpoint; they see a man beheaded and they find some direwolf pups in the snow. It just came to me so strongly and vividly that I knew I had to write it. I sat down to write, and in, like, three days it just came right out of me, almost in the form you’ve read.
The greatest leaders are visionary: Elon Musk imagined an infrastructure for electric cars, now he’s building it (and civilian space travel, too). Richard Branson imagined an airline that took care of its customers and helped make it into reality. Lyft CEO Logan Green wanted to make a better form of public transit. The company is on its way.
It is also about friendships.
When Martin was making the “Song of Ice and Fire” universe real, he had a big question: How magical should this fantasy world be? Lots of spells or not too many? Then the big question: Should there be dragons?
“Should the Targaryens actually have dragons?” Martin recalls. “I was discussing this with a friend, writer Phyllis Eisenstein — I dedicated the third book to her — and she said, ‘George, it’s a fantasy — you’ve got to put in the dragons.’ She convinced me, and it was the right decision. Now that I’m deep into it, I can’t imagine the book without the dragons.”