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10 Bits of Writing Advice from J.R.R. Tolkien

August 18, 2014 by in category Blogs tagged as , , , , with 0 and 0
Home > Writing > Blogs > 10 Bits of Writing Advice from J.R.R. Tolkien

Tolkien by Jenny Hansen


What if J.R.R. Tolkien had never written his books? What if there had been no Hobbits and no Gandalf, no Legolas or Frodo? The world of story would be an entirely different place.

Our stories matter. They really do.

10 Tips from the “Master of Middle Earth”:

1. Vanity is useless.Truly, Tokien wrote his books to please himself and answer the writer inside him. He expected them to go “into the waste-paper basket” after they left his desk, not live on in popular culture. I’m not saying we don’t need to learn good story craft however, if you entertain yourself, at least you know one person that enjoyed the hell out of your book.

2. Keep writing, even through adversity.It took the man SEVEN years to write The Hobbit. He balanced a demanding day job, illness, and worry for his son who was away in the Royal Navy. I’m reminded of Laura Drake, her brick wall, and her 400+ rejections.

3. Listen to critics you trust.When his editor said, “Make it better,” he didn’t throw the advice away. He read and re-read, and he tried his best. He credits listening to knowledgeable feedback, and working to make it better, for what he considered the best scene in the Lord of the Rings: “the confrontation between Gandalf and his rival wizard, Saruman, in the ravaged city of Isengard.” Oh, and the editor he listened to? C.S. Lewis, the creator of the Chronicles of Narnia.

4. Let your interests drive your writing.Tolkien’s original interest was in languages. He took that and created new languages, and then an entire culture, around it. Our own contributor, Kathryn Craft, was a dancer, choreographer, and dance critic. She tapped all that experience to write The Art of Falling, exploring themes of love, dance, friendship, and distorted body image. that passion and truth will resonate with readers.

5. Poetry can lead to great prose.When he could not express his thoughts in the prose he wished for, he wrote much of it in verse. Authors as diverse as Charlotte Brontë and Langston Hughes started in poetry before moving to longer mediums. Next time you get stuck, you might try Tolkien’s trick of writing your scene as a poem first.

J.R.R. Tolkien6. Happy accidents.No matter how much you plan, happy accidents occur on the pages of every book. Jennifer Crusie calls it “the girls in the basement,” saying they hand her up treasures as she writes. Others might call it “the muse.” One more kick in the pants from my criitique partner, Laura Drake: If you don’t put your butt in the chair and do the work, you won’t have any “happy accidents.”

7. Dreams give us inspiration. All of us have dreams so strong, they push us to the page. But what about literal dreams? Angela Ackerman at Writers Helping Writers did a great post called How to Mine Your Dreams for Story Gold. When Tolkien dreamed of drowning, he channeled the experience into motifs and prose for his stories. His “letters” describe how that drowning dream morphed into the drowning feeling of Mordor’s invasion of Middle Earth and the drowning of Isengard.

8. Real people make great characters.Tolkien drew on real people to populate Middle Earth. You can draw on people you know for your stories as well. Real people do amazing things, both big and small, and rarely do they recognize themselves on the page. It’s a win-win for authors.

9. You may be the next bestselling author.Tolkien did not expect the acclaim he received from his first book, The Hobbit. He felt like it was a happy accident. Here are fourteen bestselling books that were repeatedly rejected by publishers. You won’t know until you send it out. Perhaps your cross-dressing unicorn superheroes will be the next phenomenon. (Yes, I made that up.)

10. Books you write may seem trite.We can’t see our own work. A scene we find melodramatic, the reader might find moving. Tolkien believed that if you learn some craft and pour your heart and imagination onto the page that the work will resonate. I believe that too.

Note: Here’s a link to Tolkien’s work in its entirety. The aforementioned infographic summarized material from a wonderful post by Roger Colby at Writing Is Hard Work, outlining his research on writing advice shared by the Lord of the Rings author in the book, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.

About Jenny

By day, Jenny provides training and social media marketing for an accounting firm. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction and short stories. After 15 years as a corporate software trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works. When she’s not at her personal blog, More Cowbell, Jenny can be found on Twitter at JennyHansenCA or at Writers In The Storm. Jenny also writes the Risky Baby Business posts at More Cowbell, a series that focuses on babies, new parents and high-risk pregnancy.

photo credit: kugel via photopin cc

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