Essential writing skills: it’s OK to write square mountain ranges

It’s almost a cliche these days to say that modern fantasy writers all stand in J R R Tolkien’s shadow. Or George R R Martin’s.

But it’s true. Obviously, having two middle names beginning with R is a pre-requisite for greatness in the genre. And it was Tolkien who really defined the field for so many author who came after – the languages, the complex world-building, the maps.

A 1905 map showing Europe at the height of the last glaciation, with modern names overlaid. Public domain.

A 1905 map showing Europe at the height of the last glaciation, with modern names overlaid. Public domain.

Maps are an excellent way to help a fantasy novel along. They make it possible for readers – and author – to orient themselves – and, more crucially, help suspend disbelief. Realistic geography makes the world more real. I’m talking about having rivers fall from mountains into valleys, thence into alluvial plains; by having swamplands in depressions, and deserts on the far side of mountains and the prevailing wind. A lot of authors deliberately build their worlds along these lines.

The odd thing is that the master in whose shadow we all stand didn’t do any of that. The geography of Middle Earth, like the stories, grew in the telling – and was essentially dictated by plot. The Misty Mountains divide the wilderness in two – ruler-straight, in The Hobbit version of the map – as a barrier for the heroes to overcome. Then comes Mirkwood – another massive barrier.

It’s no different in The Lord Of The Rings, where half the tension comes from the fact that Mordor is guarded by impassable mountains, conveniently blocking easy entry to the country from three sides. Unless you’re in Switzerland, real geography isn’t likely to hem you in that way, of course. Tolkien explained his geography by its internal history: Mordor’s mountains were raised by Sauron, deliberately, in that shape. But to me, at least, it’s always been irksome.

Part of the fantasy world map I devised, with friends, for our RPG. This is the bit I managed to digitise.

Fantasy geography. Part of the world map I devised, with friends, for our RPG.

But then it occurred to me. In The Lord Of The Rings, especially, Tolkien was always describing real geography – details of the landscape, often down to the highest levels of fidelity. And he often did so by revealing how it affected the mood of his characters – making it completely real, in a literary sense.  The Dead Marshes; the pleasant woodlands of Ithilien; the horror climb over the Mountains of Shadow; all these things became real because of the way the hobbits experienced them – and thence, of course, the reader.

Part of the way he did that was by taking real things and inserting them into the story. Old Man Willow was apparently based on a real willow Tolkien used to sit under. The Dead Marshes were, explicitly and graphically, a description of the Western Front, where Tolkien served with the Lancashire Fusiliers.

This was how Tolkien made his geography work. Writing is all about transfer of emotion – and by writing landscapes that he drew emotion from – and by making the response to the landscape emotional, Tolkien also gave his wider geography a credibility that could not have been gained any other way.

Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014 

 

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So is it muddle earth and not Middle Earth?

Viggo Mortensen’s recent suggestion in the British Telegraph that filming on Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings was chaotic got me thinking about how a book of that scope can be adapted to the screen, anyway.

This was the best aisle of craft stalls. That's also because it was the only aisle...

People at the 2012 Hobbit craft market in Wellington, New Zealand. Click to enlarge.

Some years ago I had a chance to hear Phillipa Boyens, the script-writer, explain how they’d done Fellowship, the only movie out at that time. Tolkien’s novel couldn’t be translated direct to a movie. The pacings were wrong for film. That’s true, of course, of any book.

Boyens didn’t discuss The Two Towers or The Return of the King, but it seems to me that adapting them couldn’t have been straight forward. They were structurally different from The Fellowship of the Ring – the story broke into two linear threads. If that had been made directly into a movie, it would have been peculiar – effectively, two movies jammed together. So it had to be reorganised. I got the impression that was quite a task, and one for which there was no obvious answer. The original cinema cut of The Two Towers was radically different from the DVD version – I saw both editions, and they were very different movies.

The Return of the King, it’s worth noting, was also inconsistent with the other two stylistically – Tolkien, quite deliberately, shifted to more epic tones during the climactic sequences. Another challenge for film-making.

A point to discuss. And I’d be inclined to agree with Mortensen’s reported observation that Jackson’s series of Middle Earth movies have been progressively captured by special effects. The Hobbit bears only a passing resemblance to the book, and the second one – particularly – was virtually all CGI. Nice eye candy, but I missed Tolkien’s original story.

Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

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Inspiring culture – the meta-literature of Tolkien

It occurred to me the other day that one of my favourite authors – J R R Tolkien – has probably had more written about him than he actually wrote himself.

I had to prone to take this picture. 'Get up,' She Who Must Be Obeyed insisted. 'People will think you're dead.'

I had to prone to take this picture in the Hobbit Artisan Market in 2012. ‘Get up,’ She Who Must Be Obeyed insisted. ‘People will think you’re dead.’

Certainly that’s true if you consider the books Tolkien published in his lifetime. There were, after all, only two Middle Earth books plus a few other bits and pieces. But even if you add in the endless sequence of ‘first drafts’ churned out of the voluminous Tolkien papers by his son and one or two others since the elder Tolkien’s passing in 1973, the fact remains that the amount of stuff triggered by Tolkien is even larger.

I happened to be prowling the Tolkien shelves of my local bookstore the other day and spotted, apart from various editions of Tolkien’s own work, at least a complete shelf of analyses, of books-about-the-films, of books about the mythology behind Middle Earth, about the artwork – in all its flavours – and at least two send-ups. The Harvard Lampoon’s Bored of the Rings (a comic novel in its own right) and a more impenetrable spoof of The Hobbit written by someone else.

That’s apart from the plethora of Tolkien biographies – which, based on what I have in my own collection, range from the ‘definitive’ general biography by John Carpenter through to more specialist studies of Tolkien in the First World War. I also have a semi-biographical snapshot, published as a book, based on the observations of a fan who was so taken by drafts of the Silmarillion that he sought out, and visited, the elderly Professor in the early 1970s.

Not to mention the music. Tolkien himself worked with Donald Swann to set some of his Middle Earth songs to music. Since then his mythos has inspired everything from Bo Hansson’s album Music Inspired By The Lord Of The Rings (1969), through to Led Zeppelin’s Battle for Evermore, and more recently Nightwish numbers such as Elvenpath or Wishmaster. The latter, with some of the lyrics actually in Tolkien’s High Elvish, isn’t exactly subtle. And there are reasons why a lot of Norwegian rock is known, colloquially, as ‘heavy mithril’.

All of which, to me, underscores just what a massive influence Tolkien actually was. And, of course, still is. None of it, of course, was planned or intended; the whole thing grew, to use a Tolkienism, in the telling.

I suppose next we’ll find books discussing the books that discuss Tolkien. Meta-meta literature? Or maybe not.

Do you have any ‘meta Tolkien’ literature – or music – in your collection?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

What writers can learn from fantasy RPG’s

Back in the early 1980s I used to do role-playing games. It began with the old classic, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons™, which came with hardback rule books, dice and long evenings with friends where everything was defined by random die roll:

Dungeon Master: You enter a room and [rattle of dice] find a wardrobe.
Player: My character opens the wardrobe and [rattle of dice] steps in. Are there fur coats?
Dungeon Master: [rattle of dice] The wardrobe is a shape shifted Gob Monster. Make a saving throw.
Player: [rattle of dice] Failed.
Dungeon Master: You’ve been swallowed and are about to pass through the [rattle of dice] duodenum.
Player: My character says [rattle of dice] “Aaaargh”.

Part of the fantasy world map I devised, with friends, for our RPG. This is the bit I managed to digitise.

Part of the fantasy world map I devised, with friends, for our RPG. This is the bit I managed to re-draw and digitise. Similarity to the coast of Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, is entirely coincidental. Honestly, officer.

However, our little group balked at the way the whole was framed around hack-and-sorcery stereotypes, into which had been droozled elements of Tolkien. Then there was the way characters were ‘aligned’ to a nine-space cliche morality grid. Even as young twenty-somethings, we knew human reality was a tad more complex:

Player: My character backstabs the Elf and steals the magic dingus.
Dungeon Master: You can’t do that, you’re Lawful Good.
Player: Haven’t you heard of the law of the jungle...and it’s good for me.

We shortly ditched the game and swung into creating our own, which was very different and built around telling the story of characters in a fantasy world, largely via what amounted to improvised theatre between the players – collaborative creativity. Character names varied from the German slang for ashtrays to a brand name of analog synthesisers. Place names commemorated 1980s synth-pop bands and motorcycle part makers. The rest came from Bored of the Rings

The panel of one of my analog synths... dusty, a bit scratched, but still workable.

This brand of analog synth became a character name. I own the synth pictured here…but it wasn’t my character. Anybody care to guess the name?

As you can guess, if it was silly, it usually happened. A lot got written down. And therein is the lesson. It was good practise. The rules and scenarios demanded creativity, and an ability to write in ways others could follow. Afterwards, we got down to writing down the adventures. None of it is publishable – or readable outside the playing group, now scattered. (The guy that developed the map and game with me, these days, is an indie film-maker in the UK, for instance.)

I last played our RPG©®™ nearly 30 years ago. We’d come to the end of the world scenario, and our characters had gone through their development arcs. We deliberately ended it with a final adventure that wrapped up the characters. The end. It was fun at the time, but I don’t miss it. What counts – now – is the way it created writing experience. Part of the million word journey from unconscious incompetence to making writing part of your soul.

Did you play AD&D™ or its variants? Did you write down those adventures? Or is there something else you’ve done that has captured your imagination and got you writing?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

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Essential writing skills: we all need to write Tolkien’s appendices

One of the ways J R R Tolkien broke new ground with The Lord of the Rings was through his massive back-story, partly published at the end of The Return of the King in the form of appendices.

I had to prone to take this picture. 'Get up,' She Who Must Be Obeyed insisted. 'People will think you're dead.'

I had to go prone to take this picture of The Hobbit artisan market in 2012. ‘Get up,’ She Who Must Be Obeyed insisted. ‘People will think you’re dead.’

That story was better there than interspersed through the text – ‘information dumping’ is the biggest turn-off to readers – but it underscored the sheer depth of Tolkien’s master-work.

In the 1950s it was unusual for this sort of thing to be published. Tolkien, of course, re-defined the genre and now the notion of back-story has become passe. Authors are almost expected to be able to have a complete world behind their story, to create chronologies, maps, gazeteers – even to provide swatches of cloth for their characters’ clothing.

Few, I suspect, can ever get the detail that Tolkien did, without an equivalent amount of work. He began crafting Middle Earth in the trenches of the Western Front. That framed a good deal of the darkness in his mythos. His world also grew from the languages he developed – two full languages and several partial constructions. And it grew from repeated iterations – endless work, which he put into it in university holidays, of evenings, even scribbled on the back of old exam papers. Lines like ‘In a hole in the ground lived a Hobbit…’ expanded into – well, I don’t need to repeat that story, do I?

It would be difficult to repeat such a tremendous construction. But we can approach it, and I think every fantasy story deserves to have a fair back story.

That’s where e-publishing comes into its own. One of the ways to sell books these days is to have ‘extras’ available online.  And what better place to put the back-story than as extra tales, stories and appendices online?

It’s a thought. What do you figure?

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, science geekery, humour and more. Watch this space.

Creating your own literary ‘ear worm’ – like Tolkien and Rowling

Ever had a song stuck in your head – usually, the catchy riff or chorus the composer deliberately engineered for the purpose? They’re called ear-worms.

Weta's 10-metre high Gandalf above the Embassy theatre, Courtenay Place, Wellington.

Weta’s 10-metre high Gandalf above the Embassy theatre, Courtenay Place, Wellington, December 2012.

It’s apparently been discovered that the way to kill them – for a third of us anyway – is to listen to Thomas Arne’s eighteenth century ditty God Save The Queen.

Truth be told, I’m not sure that dislodging mental wheelspin with something horrible is a discovery. Back in the 1970s, for instance, Kiwi gentlemen knew that if they became transfixed by posters of the latest glamour pin-up de jour (Farrah Fawcett or, given that New Zealand was still 98.5% British back then, Caroline Munro), all they had to do for instant antidote was glance at a picture of our Prime Minister of the day, Robert Muldoon.

For writers the problem is the exact reverse. We have to figure out how to create a literary earworm – a concept or idea that keys so deeply into popular psyche that it sticks. I hesitate to call it a ‘book worm’. It’s one of the keys to sales.

To my mind the guy who did it – in spades – was J R R Tolkien. Not intentionally. What he was consciously doing with his Middle Earth mythos was creating a new mythology for Britain. And for a long time, nobody noticed – he couldn’t get the Silmarillion published, and Rayner Unwin was dubious about the viability of The Lord Of The Rings. A judgement borne out by dismal early sales figures.

But then something happened. In 1965 – after nearly a decade of bobbing along in mediocre-sales-land – it took off. The break-through came with a guerilla edition produced via copyright loopholes in the US. Tolkien hastened to get an authorised ‘second edition’ pushed into the market. That sold like hotcakes.

But even the pirate edition wouldn’t have taken off if it hadn’t keyed into what society wanted, just then.

Tolkien’s rusticated Hobbit society – and his faerie imagery with Tom Bombadil – harked to ‘Merrie England‘ and, to some extent, the arts-and-crafts movement of the nineteenth century. But by chance it also keyed directly into the values of 1960s counter-culture, which drew from similar inspiration. Mix that with epic-scale setting, the huge operatic scenario of good and evil – imagery that ran to the heart of western culture – and he had a winner.

The Lord of the Rings, in short, became a literary ‘ear-worm’. J K Rowling did much the same thing – using, in this case, classic ‘magic’, blended with much the same epic-scale themes – with Harry Potter.

So that’s how it’s done. The problem is that in both cases, luck played a role. But, as I’ve said before, that’s always part of the calculation.

Have you ever read something that stuck in your mind – that impressed you hugely? And have you ever read a book that’s left you stone cold – the ‘anti-earworm’ of literature?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing and publishing tips, science, history and other stuff. Watch this space.

Essential writing skills: mastering word count

Welcome to 2014 and a new year of writing tips – quick essential skill tips on Fridays, longer posts Saturdays, and sometimes other stuff during the week. I’m going to cover a fair number of things in coming weeks and months, including editing techniques and ways to publish.

Where it all began - the newspaper office that gave me my first break as a writer.

Where it all began for me – the newspaper that gave me my first break as a writer. Click to enlarge.

First off – word count. Those who’ve been reading this blog for a while know it’s one of my little hobby horses, and it’s a good way to start 2014 because to me, everything keys from it. Sort of. I’ll explain. As a writer I often bewail the focus these days on word count. Despite the profusion of word-o-meters built into software, it’s not actually a goal or even a measure of completion.

It’s a tool. Editors commission through word count, journalists write to it – and authors, certainly when writing short stories and features – are frequently paid by the word. Publishers contract books on the basis of the word count, because it’s a gauge of scale that allows them to calculate costs. There’s some flexibility in that, but not a lot.

For authors, word count is a tool in a different sense. It’s a way of controlling structure. Any writing – irrespective of scale – must have a proper structure, meaning certain lengths of material in the correct places; and word count is a way to meter the proportions – keeping them under control. If you’re writing a 70,000 word book and the ‘beginning’ billows to a third or more, it’s probably out of whack structurally. And yes, readers will notice. So will editors.

Writing to meet specific word count, in short, is a key skill authors must master – one of the many skills. But it isn’t an end point of itself.

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: Tomorrow,’write it now’; next week – more writing tips, science geekery and more. Watch this space.

If you think of Jackson’s ‘Hobbit’ as a fan-fic video game it makes more sense

I finally caught up with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Part two of the trilogy – and don’t we know it. The film ended – splat – in the middle of what was structurally the build-up to the dramatic finale.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was – you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian’.

It also confirmed what I pretty much understood from watching the first instalment, The Hobbit: Leaving Bag End and Getting As Far as the Front Gate. Once upon a time I read a wonderful book by J. R. R. Tolkien. A few scenes in these movies bear passing resemblance to one or two passages in the book, but I think we have to accept that this movie trilogy isn’t really Tolkien’s wonderful kids’ tale.

To me this instalment – particularly – came across as a cross between high-budget fan fiction and a shoot-em-up video game, with plenty of set-piece chase sequences and puzzle-solvers, melodramatic cliff-hangers in lieu of real tension and cliched game-style characters (I’m talking about you, Tauriel). But it had little in the way of tight plot, characterisation or true dramatic tension.

Possibly Smaug. Possibly not.

Possibly Smaug. Possibly not.

Judged on its own merits – and accepted as the middle third of a nine or ten hour story – The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug was OK. It’s very much in line with current trends, like X-men and other SFX spectaculars. But I know Jackson’s capable of better than this. He did a stunning job on The Lord Of The Rings. Wonderfully scripted, structured and paced.

What happened? I fear the market happened. The Lord of the Rings was over a decade ago. The big studios don’t seem to be taking major risks these days – it’s why multi-parters and franchises rule. It’s why movies appeal more to the video-game set now than they ever have in the past.

In the wider scheme of things, Jackson’s version of The Hobbit pretty much nails current market expectation. I fully expect to see a vid-game involving [spoilers!] a helter-skelter barrel chase while overcoming obstacles, pulling levers and dodging orc arrows; or a scuffle through Erebor jumping between platforms and moving conveyor belts, pulling levers and so forth in order to flood the bad guy with molten gold.

To me that tells us a lot about ourselves, about how society has changed, about how our expectations have been moulded. And Tolkien’s ouvre, I think, deserves more than this.

Your thoughts? Have you seen this part of the trilogy yet? What did you think?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More art deco holiday snaps, regular posts resume next week. Watch this space.

Guess which real-world place is most like Mordor…

Last week a British meteorologist at the University of Bristol published a weather analysis of Middle Earth. Tres cool.

Here’s a link to the paper: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/news/2013/10013-english.pdf

According to the report, the weather in The Shire was much the same as that of Lincolnshire – which is pretty much what Tolkien was envisaging. It’s also like Belarus, but that may be coincidence. The place in New Zealand where the weather is closest to The Shire is north of Dunedin. Curiously – though the report didn’t mention it – there’s an area there called Middlemarch, which sounds suitably Tolkienish.

Not really Mordor - this is a photo I took of the open cast coal mine on the Stockton Plateau, near Westport in the South Island of New Zealand.

Not really Gorgoroth – this is a photo I took of the open cast coal mine on the Stockton Plateau, near Westport in the South Island of New Zealand.

When it comes to Mordor, the real-world place I immediately think of is the open cast coal mine on the Stockton Plateau, which I visited earlier this year. Tolkien’s explicit imagery was First World War trenches and Birmingham factories. But that isn’t where the British meteorologist found Mordor weather. Oh no. turns out the places most like Mordor, weather-wise, are New South Wales, western Texas and Los Angeles. (That said, Tolkien also made clear that the gloom around Mordor was made by Sauron.)

It was spring when I took this picture of a railway station in Soest, Netherlands.

Ok, so it wasn’t raining when I took this picture in Soest, Netherlands…but it was overcast.

What struck me about the report was how close Tolkien got to what we’d expect from a scientific perspective, if his land was real. There is a reason for this – Tolkien was basing his world on Europe. The Shire was approximately where Britain lies; Gondor and Mordor in North Italy. The weather he described followed, especially the constant rain around Trollshaws in The Hobbit, a place geographically congruent to Soest, Netherlands.

All of which is pretty neat. And it goes to show that there is often a lot more in the creations of fantasy writers than they perhaps imagine when they come up with the concept.

What do you think of Middle Earth weather?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: More writing tips, more science, more humour and more Tolkien stuff. Not that I’m a fan. Well, I am really.

A bit of fun with Bram Stoker’s favourite word

I’ve often thought it kind of odd that vampires can only be killed by being staked through the heart.

Cydrean_Vampire_darkgazer_svg_medIn Bram Stoker’s original 1897 novel Dracula, the eponymous vampire was actually slashed to – er – death with Bowie and Kukri knives. So much for Buffy’s “Mr Pointy”.  Which brings me to the (ahem) point of this post, which is actually how English changes. Know what Bram Stoker’s favourite word was? It wasn’t ‘stake’ or ‘vampire’. Let me give you some clues from Dracula (1897):

“the bright voluptuousness of much sunshine”
“the ruby of their voluptuous lips”
“a deliberate voluptuousness”
“a soft, voluptuous voice”
“voluptuous wantonness”
“a voluptuous smile”
“with a languorous, voluptuous grace”
“the bloodstained, voluptuous mouth”
“the voluptuous lips”
“voluptuous beauty”
“the voluptuous mouth”
“so exquisitely voluptuous”

Fred Saberhagen put a good deal of time into lampooning Stoker’s over-use of this particular adjective in The Dracula Tapes.

Curiously, though, the modern meaning – let’s say ‘a full-figured and attractive woman’ – isn’t the one Stoker actually used. Its earlier meaning was closer to the Latin, volupas (pleasure) – and meant something pleasurable or given to pleasure or gratification. It could mean sunlight, as Stoker indeed used it.

The lascivious overtones were there, to some extent, but not in the way they are today. I’m not sure Stoker’s book was responsible for the transition, either.

For me it underscores one of the most interesting things about English. It changes – and often without intent on anybody’s part. That says a good deal about human nature – about the way we interact, for it is only through those interactions that the language can change.

The English language is – well, how can I put it? Voluptuous.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013