Understanding the ‘Tolkien effect’ – and making it work for you

One of the plus sides of a contest like National November Writing Month is the enforced deadline. Writers have to finish to time – which is the nature of writing, once you have a publisher and contract deadlines. Mostly.

1197094932257185876johnny_automatic_books_svg_medThe greatest challenge when writing anything is knowing when it’s over – knowing when to stop working on your project. Some authors don’t, including J R R Tolkien who kept revising his material even after it was published. The quality kept going up with every iteration, with stunning results (I am a HUGE Tolkien fan). We can’t complain about that. But it meant very few of Tolkien’s books and stories were published in his lifetime.

Winston Churchill crashed into the other problem. He was finally persuaded to send his history of the Second World War to his publishers – they were screaming for it – but he pursued the manuscript with a relentless series of revisions, which he called ‘overtakes’. Streams of them. Including re-writes of re-writes. Again, all improvements – but for publishers, a nightmare, It took a second edition of the book to clean up the mess.

Publishers are well aware of the issues. Every contract I’ve signed has a clause to extend the delivery date by negotiation. There are also ‘amendment’ clauses. If an author wants to materially change the text during the proofing and typesetting process (a cost to the publisher), the author pays. The usual threshold is ten percent.

My take is this: the onus is on authors to be professional – especially given the way the publishing world has been turned upside down. One way to do that is by delivering work to specification and on time. And that means planning. It also means knowing when to stop – knowing something is finished. It happens in three ways:

1. Pre-planning. Knowing what the book will comprise, knowing how long it will take to do particular tasks, and working to that. The plan, sensibly, should also be adaptable – by including a built-in period to reorganise the book if needed – if that inevitable ‘good idea’ comes along.

2. Confidence. A fair number of post-fact changes are to wording, rather than substantive content. The way to minimise these is to be confident in your ability – to know that, outside of any egregious errors, the text as submitted is good to publish and can stand your own review of it. This takes practise.

3. Letting go. It’s your baby…but there will be others. There comes a point where you have to draw a line in the sand and let the book go.

These techniques also work when it comes to writing itself; they help things move along, and help you get unstuck on particular passages or chapters. That’s especially handy when trying to produce content to time.

What it boils down to, I guess, is doing the hard yards, making that writing happen – and, above all, having faith in yourself.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013


7 thoughts on “Understanding the ‘Tolkien effect’ – and making it work for you

  1. So very true. For a 50k word novel that took me 35 days to write I was in rewrite for almost two years on and off and finally said, “That’s good enough.”


    1. It’s impressive to get the 50k words out in 35 days – no easy feat! I believe some authors (and some artists generally) keep working on their stuff until it’s torn away from them. But there is, indeed, a point to stop.


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