Write it now, part 17: Tolkien’s lessons about writing a best seller

How do novels become not just sellers, but best sellers – and hyper-sellers?

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

Quality’s important, but not always a criteria. Seldom have I read a novel as incompetently researched and clumsily styled as The Of Vinci Code (I know what I said). I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey, nor do I want to, but I’m sure somebody’ll comment about what I am told is, well, derivative dribble.

I posted the other week about how genre becomes popular because it keys into changing social ideals – and last week about how types of genre become specifically popular on the back of particular social trends.

The best-sellers are the ones who float to the top of those heaps. The thing is, they’re usually transient. But every so often a book transcends that – becomes not just a best seller, but a lasting best seller. A classic.

Something everybody has at least heard of – even if they haven’t read it – and which stays in the public mind for years – even decades.

Like The Lord Of The Rings. In just a few heady years during the late 1960s,  J R R Tolkien’s epic effectively mainstreamed fantasy. His mythos was embedded in western popular literature even before Peter Jackson’s movies (filmed in my country and my city, bwahahahaha) catapulted his creation to stratospheric popularity.

This was the best aisle of craft stalls. That's also because it was the only aisle...
Hobbit market, November 2012 – Tolkien, mainstreamed.

An astonishing achievement for a modest and retiring Oxford don who had to be nudged into finishing anything for a publisher.

Tolkien never planned it that way. His publishers didn’t anticipate it either. The book he presented Allen & Unwin with in the early 1950s was barely publishable – they broke it into three parts to spread the risk, and a glance at early print runs reveals it shifted only a few thousand copies.

Then, in the mid-1960s, it took off. Kicked into life by a pirated American edition, followed by Tolkien’s authorised edition. It kept on selling. And on. And on. And on….

What happened?

His themes struck chords with a new generation, particularly the idealised pre-industrial England of the Shire and the hippified, natural Earth-spirit lifestyle of Tom Bombadil. The link between Bombadil and counter-culture values was lampooned with all the subtlety of a sledge-hammer in Bored Of The Rings.

Rohan. No - central Otago. No, Rohan...oh, I give up...
Rohan. No – central Otago. No, Rohan…oh, I give up…

This was a generation that read a lot of fantasy, partly because fantasy had become an element of their fabric of escape. Tolkien met their need on both counts. Genre tastes, in short, had caught up, though his own motives were different in many respects (eerily, also similar – every generation found reason to object to industrialisation).

Other authors tried to imitate him. Tolkien, in short, had created a new genre, about a generation ahead of its time.

Hutt River or Anduin. Well, maybe the houses are the give-away.
Hutt River or Anduin. Well, maybe the houses are the give-away.

As if that wasn’t wonderful enough, the book gained an enduring public audience. Part of that was due to the way that 1960s youth ideals were mainstreamed. Part of it was the scope of Tolkien’s vision, engaging symbolisms at a fundamental level. And that wasn’t surprising. He was trying to write Britain’s missing mythology; he wrote to fundamental themes – capturing our cultural framework in soaring battles between total good and utter evil; the symbolisms of mythic heroism.

All was given a dimension that ordinary people could identify with, through the ordinariness of the hobbits – little folk who, inevitably, were more heroic than anybody could imagine.

A stunning achievement. And not something that can be easily repeated – certainly, I suspect, not by design.

What do you figure?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Next time: getting down to the nuts and bolts of novel writing.  More humour, more writing tips – and, well, more. Watch this space.


16 thoughts on “Write it now, part 17: Tolkien’s lessons about writing a best seller

  1. Tolkien was a master, He achieved what a lot of us writers cant even dream of. Can his feat be repeated, I highly doubt it, but it gives us hope that we too can write something that is as resonant as the Lord of the Rings Triology.

    1. Many have tried – the publisher decision to split The Lord of the Rings into three books created the :”trilogy” phenomenon…I think Tolkien’s secret was that he never stopped revising, not ever, and in many ways his work emerged from his larger mythos – he didn’t simply whip up a background just for the story. You can’t get that kind of quality any other way, I suspect. A complete work of genius by any measure!

      1. True. The revising counts for much. I fear with self-publishing, many writers are not paying as much attention to revising as they should, its hard to see how, when there are those writers that self-publish more than four books in a year.

        1. You’re right. From what I’ve seen, some self-pubbed stuff is about half finished – a lot of it needs the ‘stick it in a drawer for a month’ process. The editorial process that goes with commercial publishing is extensive, but it does work – not only in terms of eliminating literals, creating consistencies and so forth, but also in terms of improving the overall written quality. I think most commercial authors woujld be hard put to top two books a year. I once had three (plus a reprint) released by commercial publishers, but I didn’t write them all at once.

  2. I admire Tolkien’s books–but certainly not his writing speed! Can you imagine what he would’ve done if he hadn’t spent like a dozen years making up a language.

    1. He spent seven years or more writing The Hobbit, quite apart from the rest. As I understand it, much of what he wrote was squeezed in between the other things he was doing.

  3. I think Joss Wehdon hit a similar chord with his Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series. I watched an interview with him on one of the DVDs for that series, and remember him saying (during the writing of the series) that he just wanted to create something good that was meaningful to others. I think, as writers, that’s the best we can do. Tell the best story we can in the best way possible, and hope that it touches the hearts of others.

    1. I never saw that series. I saw the 1982 movie of the same name, which was so dreadful I never bothered with the TV adaptation. I did hear it was very good, hard to believe it was the same guy writing it.

      1. Joss Whedon thought the movie was dreadful too, which is why he left during the production (and he was the original screenwriter on the project). The TV series was everything the movie wasn’t. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not comparing it to the mastery of Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring. Rather how, like Tolkien’s trilogy, the Buffy TV series had an unforeseen impact on society that continues on today.

  4. Tolkien had an idea, a concept. He wrote simply to release it into the world, and it shows. When someone is writing to appeal to the masses that shows too. Tolkien will last for yet another century because of brilliance. Books appealing to fads will be forgotten in mere months.

    1. Absolutely. I’ve found, too, that the more I look into what Tolkien did, the more brilliant his work becomes – the layers, depth and vision is simply tremendous.

  5. ‘…not by design.’ – there lies the crux. I suspect the great classics were written from a place of passion rather than profits. We’ll never know if we have a best-seller on our hands (a true one, not these modern media induced ‘best-seller for 2 hours on a Sunday night’ versions). We just have to be true to ourselves, do the best job we can with the skills we have and put it out there. Failure is just another step on life’s learning ladder. 🙂

    1. I’m certain that Tolkien wrote from passion – he never actually finished anything. Even The Hobbit went through post-publication revisions, to the point in 1960 where he was contemplating a fairly complete re-write, harking to the style and scope of The Lord Of The Rings. An astonishing achievement in any event.

  6. Loved this post. I’m a huge Tolkien fan myself, but I suspect that was influenced by a particular era of my life. The “fabric of escape” as you said, is certainly embedded in our culture. You certainly see some of the same “unlikely hero” tropes in Rowling, making Harry and Frodo easy targets for the readership’s affection.

    1. I think the unlikely hero was one major key to Tolkien’s success – first Bilbo, then Frodo – and, of course, all the other hobbits at various times. Reflections of humanity in many ways. I never stop marvelling at the depth and scope of what Tolkien achieved.

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