It always strikes me as odd, in this age of you-must-plan writing, that the greatest novel of the twentieth century wasn’t planned at all
Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings grew, as he explains in the preface, with the telling. At times – as when he had got his heroes to the gates of Moria, he had no idea what would happen next.
Yet at the end of the process the novel was brilliantly structured, the quintessential definition of epic. The story was also very broadly supported in a huge mythos – Middle Earth – which grew up as Tolkien wrote his masterwork.
How did Tolkien do it? That became evident later when his son began publishing the first, second, and twentieth drafts. Tolkien tinkered. He re-wrote. He re-re-wrote. He pondered the story and re-structured it. Repeatedly.
Tolkien also wrote vast supporting material which only partly saw the light of day in the appendices – though much of it has been published since. That too went through iterations. And that was why the writing took so long.
That was also why the quality of the fantasy world he built was so high. By the end of it, Tolkien had crafted a tale of astonishing depth, and part of that came from the fact that he had worked, re-worked and re-thought the story over such an extended period.
It seems to me that this kind of depth cannot be obtained any other way,
But does this mean that we should dump our spreadsheets and shoe-boxes of index cards, our Scrivener files and all the other ways we plan?
Not at all. One of the things we forget about Tolkien was that publication was incidental to him. He had to be prodded into finishing anything. He was a hobbyist. He could afford to tinker, make false starts, re-cast, and re-cast again.
Can we? Probably not, if we’re serious about wanting to write in today’s world. I’ve argued before that Tolkien probably wouldn’t have been published in today’s market. The Lord of the Rings was marginal anyway – the publishers broke it into three books, and if you look at the early print runs, it didn’t do sparklingly well for a long time. Today the pressure is on, the bar has been raised – it’s much, much harder to break in. Even self-publishing doesn’t change that, because a bad self-published book will certainly vanish. Whereas a really good self-published book has a chance of being found and floating to the top.
So how can we reconcile that with Tolkien’s big lesson – that repeated iterations, musing and pondering pays dividends in the very long run?
To me the answer – as always – is ‘do both’. Plan the novel. Set it all out. Write it. And then stick it in a drawer for a while. Take it out again – ponder, reconsider, and re-write it. That will take time. But the story should be well ahead in the first place, because of the planning.
Best of both worlds. I like it. Do you? What works best for your own writng?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012