Top tips from Tolkien – iteration vs planning

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


25 thoughts on “Top tips from Tolkien – iteration vs planning

  1. I usually do a small outline and see how far I can plot. I stop outlining when I run out of steam, and start writing. I’ll find a bridge around it when I get to the unknown.

    1. Sounds like a practical plan. My own outlines tend to evolve once I’ve written some of the book – and that’s true of any writing, I’m in the middle of that now, with a non-fiction proposal I’m putting together.

  2. Great post!

    Doing both is pretty much what I always do. Which is why my second, third, etc. drafts end up being quite different from the previous ones – not necessarily in terms of the overall plot, but often the backstory, some characters, and various parts of the world change dramatically.

  3. I’m on my first novel, so I can’t say what works best for me, but I like the idea of having some sort of plan in place when starting a piece of writing, with the realization that the plan is a guide, and not a straightjacket that prevents exploration.

  4. I find that it’s like cooking. Most dishes need not just the ingredients, but a specific period of time as part of the production process to bring out all the flavours and textures. You can’t make instant bread – you have to let the dough mature. Writing improves too with extra time spent on it. But dammit I wish I could churn out slick little pot-boilers and make a fortune!

    1. Yah – me too! Trouble is, to write one, I’d first have to read a few, and I was kind of put off the genre by Dan Brown (you know, the guy who, Bill Bailey sells us, randomly arranges words in the shape of millions of dollars).

      Love the bread analogy – seems spot on to me.

  5. I never knew that about Tolkien. I’m obviously in his camp. Often I have a rough idea in my head where something is headed but I’ve no idea how it will get there until I start writing. Most of the time I just get to writing and hope something comes out. (It usually does – even if I have to edit the hell out of it for a while). Really enjoyed that post, thanks. 🙂

  6. I fly by the seat of my pants. I can’t plan at all — can’t connect my creativity to it. I find that even if I try on a completed draft, I end up losing the creativity that pulls out the great and unexpected parts of the story.

  7. I have taken more than a few notes from Tolkien’s playbook, but the one I use the most is careful planning. If I can work within a framework that is carefully structured, I can certainly produce work that is my best effort. I know exactly where the characters and plot are going, but how they get there is up to my creative effort along the way. I also have three “nevers”: Never settle. Never think you are producing your best writing. Never quit.

    1. Tolkien absolutely left us some fantastic writing tools, if we care to look for them. I am not sure he did so intentionally. And he planned some things very meticulously, notably the languages and the epic scope of what he had in mind. But he always had trouble with the structure of his plots. He apparently said of ‘The Lord of the Rings’: “I find it only too easy to write opening chapters–and at the moment the story is not unfolding. I squandered so much on the original ‘Hobbit’ (which was not meant to have a sequel) that it is difficult to find anything new in that world”

      Everything, in any case, was up for iterative change – names (no character named ‘Bingo’ in any of his final books, but it;’s in the drafts). Even the maps – which he used to write to – shifted; Christopher Tolkien has published a fantastic reconstruction of the original Middle Earth map – done in chalks and layered like papier mache with overlays where Tolkien had revised the geography to suit a new plot idea. All of which, in the end, gave his world an unparalleled depth and richness that very few other authors have been able to match.

  8. I’ve been lurking here for some time and have found your writing advice very helpful, Matthew. I’ve tried several options-no outline, a partial outline, and a really detailed outline (most of which never made it into the final draft) for my three novels. For the fourth, I chose a short outline with a few key sentences describing each scene so that I am reminded of what I must accomplish in those scenes to move the story forward. That leaves plenty of room for the creative side of things. That sort of outline reassures me that I will always know where I’m going, but still leaves scope for deciding how to get there.

  9. I hadn’t really thought about how I’ve been writing my epic, but I seem to have been taking the Tolkien line without being aware of it. He seems to have permeated my creative process completely, since I was 8 years old… And I find this reassuring. It WILL work!

    1. There’s a lot of stuff online about Tolkien – how he worked, and what he was doing. it’s also worth having a look at the published ‘first drafts’ of The Lord of the Rings and his other works, which Christopher Tolkien edited. They reveal a very great deal about ‘how to’ from the Tolkien perspective.

  10. I love this topic, Matthew, as until recently, I have just written to see what happens. The result of that approach is a novel buried in back story. For the last year, I have looked at various planning approaches and as you say, I think writing requires both planning and pantsing, perhaps creating one’s own hybrid, which is where I am now.

    Specifically, I began writing essays–may actually have a collection emerging–for the essay form is comfortable for me and usually leads to story. This past week that very thing happened, and a story is beginning to form. My plan is to give the story some space–until I can see it–at which point I will draft a possible structure and write to plot twists and scenes.

    Clearly, my goal is not publication but writing a story. Of course, I will be happy if publication happens, and I do recognize and appreciate how incredibly fortunate I am in this regard.

    As always, great post, Matthew.

  11. We shall see – mine has been sitting in the drawer. I now have some beta reader feedback and will start working seriously on draft 2 shortly. I’ve tinkered here and there. I think the break has been good, but……………. we shall see.

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