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.

9 thoughts on “Creating your own literary ‘ear worm’ – like Tolkien and Rowling

  1. When I was 14 years old I read The Witches of Karres by James H. Schmitz. It was one of the books that inspired me to write. If I had my druthers I’d live in the Imperium, eking out a precarious living as captain of a risk-run cruiser just like Captain Pausert of Nikkeldepain…sort of like Mal in Firefly or Han Solo in Star Wars.


    1. I never read those books…I should have. I think we had copies in my family home. One of my childhood inspirations – other than Tolkien – was always Heinlein, whose ‘juveniles’ were simply wonderful. I still think so, actually.


  2. Last summer, we went to the tavern where Tolkien wrote some of his books. It was in the Cotswolds in a very Hobbit-like town. Wouldn’t it be great to know how to use ear-worm magic so our books would become best-sellers?


    1. Very cool. The Eagle and Child in Oxford? Regular meeting place of Tolkien and his Inklings writing group. Various members of my family have been there. I haven’t…yet… It’s amazing to think that to this day we can sit down where the great man sat and have a Brit pub meal and a pint of warm beer like he did. If only walls could talk.


  3. So much of it seems cyclical – an idea that doesn’t resonate well now can be a best seller in a year or two and what is hot now can be anything but in another six months.

    Tolkien was undeniably an extremely talented writer, but I wonder how much of his phenomenal success was planned and how much was due to good timing. Did he plan to write a book that would tap into popular psyche of the 1960s, or was he just writing about an imagined world that he was passionate about? In an alternate universe would the works of an equally talented Tolkien be ignored because they didn’t resonate as well with the masses at the time?


    1. I think it was passion – and helpings of chance and dumb luck. I believe he never really wanted the fame. I guess there are a lot of great writers whose works languish in unknown-unknown land. Then they get discovered, decades later – and the world realises what it missed, but usually too late.


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