Ten More Writing Tips from J.R.R. Tolkien

In April of 2012 I spent a good two weeks digging through Tolkien's letters to find writing advice that he gave to friends and colleagues to whom he corresponded.  That post was called "Tolkien's 10 Tips for Writers" and has apparently helped a lot of writers.

The previous post and what follows is directed at indie publishers or writers who have a day-job because even though Tolkien published traditionally he often lamented about wishing he could write full time.  In fact, in a letter to Hugh Brogan dated 31 October 1948 Tolkien wrote:

This university business of earning one’s living by teaching, delivering philological lectures, and daily attendance at ‘boards’ and other talk-meetings, interferes sadly with serious work.
— (Tolkien 131)

I assumed that on a second reading I would find even more, and of course I did.  Over the next few weeks I'll post (when I can) another round of advice from the master of Middle Earth gleaned from his letters to friends and colleagues

So here is this round of 10 tips with references.  It is, like LOTR, rather lengthy.  In the spirit of Tolkien's correspondence, I will not apologize for length.

1. Leave the Illustrations to Artists - Tolkien was a gifted writer, but he was not very gifted when it came to art.  Check out Tolkien's illustration of what he thought the Crown of Gondor should look like (and I'll admit, it looks like something my kids would draw in middle school):


In a letter to C.A. Furth of Allen & Unwin dated January 17, 1937 Tolkien is discussing the maps for The Hobbit.  In the letter he writes that he had trouble with reducing the maps he drew down to a "passable shape" and that was due to his "inability to draw anything else."  Later in a subsequent letter to Furth dated February 5th of the same year he writes: "In the 'Hall at Bag-End' I misguidedly put in a was shadow reaching right up to the side beam.  This has of course come out black (with disappearance of the key) though not right up to the beam" (Tolkien 15-16).

I used to do my own covers, but I realized right away that I'm not really an artist.  I might be a stellar writer, but I'm no cover designer.  I am fortunate enough to have a cover designer who will work for what I can pay him, and for that I'm grateful, but all indie writers should hire a cover designer unless you also have a degree in graphic design.  Even then I'd consider it.

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2. Get Feedback from People Other Than Your Mom - In a letter to Stanley Unwin, Chairman of Allen & Unwin (Tolkien's publisher) he states that he "should rather like an opinion, other than that of Mrs. C.S. Lewis and [his] children, whether [The Hobbit] has any value in itself, or as a marketable commodity, apart from hobbits" (Tolkien 24).  

He goes further to discuss a possible sequel to The Hobbit, even though he really didn't want to do it in his heart-of-hearts.  Of course, once he got going on The Lord of the Rings he enjoyed himself greatly, but that is for another post.  One of the most important things a writer can do, according to Tolkien, is to find suitable critics of one's work.  These people must make the writer dig down deep, counter any foolhardy ideas, and generally shape the writer into a better craftsperson.


3.  Your Plot Must Be More "Elemental" - In another letter to Mr. Unwin dated 16 December 1937, Tolkien discusses the character of Bilbo: "Mr. Baggins began as a comic tale among conventional and inconsistent Grimm's fairy-tale dwarves, and got drawn into the edge of it - so that even Sauron the terrible peeped over the edge.  And what more can hobbits do?  They can be comic, but their comedy is suburban unless it is set against things more elemental" (Tolkien 26).  If The Hobbit were more of a comic tale, it would have had a different tone entirely and probably would have been a footnote in literary history.  However, what makes The Hobbit so great is the deep cultural and philosophical messages woven throughout, the "elemental" nature of the story.  In turn, our plots should be deeper than just a simple adventure story, romance or comedy.  In order to have lasting value they should delve deeper and comment on cultural and philosophical mores.


4.  Write Several First Chapters - In a letter to C. A. Firth dated 17 February 1938, concerning publishing a story entitled "Mr. Bliss", Tolkien wrote: "They say it is the first step that costs the effort.  I do not find it so.  I am sure I could write unlimited 'first chapters'.  I have indeed written many.  The Hobbit sequel is still where it was, and I have only the vaguest notions of how to proceed.  Not ever intending a sequel, I fear I squandered all my favorite 'motifs' and characters on the original 'Hobbit'" (Tolkien 29).  He wrote The Lord of the Rings at the behest of Stanley & Unwin, but protested, then wrote several first chapters just trying to get a feel for the story.  If it's good enough for Tolkien, then it's good enough for me.  I usually write several treatments or first chapters, trying different points of view, different narrative styles, until I land on one that really works for me and which (most importantly) drives the story forward.

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5.  Make Sure That Crazy Setting Is Readable -  Middle Earth is probably one of the most complex fantasy environments ever created.  Not only are there maps and descriptions of towns and races, but there are whole histories created for each of those races complete with individual languages. In a letter to his editor (Stanly Unwin) dated 4 March 1938, Tolkien discusses this using an example from C.S. Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet.  For context, he was responding to a reader's report which read: "Mr. Lewis is quite likely, I dare say, to write a worth while novel one day.  This one isn't good enough - quite."  The reader judged the creatures of the planet Malacandra to be "bunk" (Tolkien 32).

In response, Tolkien writes: "I realize of course that to be even moderately marketable such a story must pass muster on its surface value, as a vera historia of a journey to a strange land.  I am extremely fond of the genre ... I thought Out of the Silent Planet did pass this test successfully" (Tolkien 33).  The point is that even though Tolkien's Middle Earth is vast and complex, the world makes sense or is "marketable" to a broader audience.  It doesn't matter that a reader doesn't understand the Elven culture, but a reader easily understands the motivations for why Galadriel would send the ring to be destroyed.  Sure there is a great deal of backstory, but the deeper reader will want to know that stuff and the surface reader will not but will still enjoy the story.

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6.  Don't Quit Your Day Job - In a letter to his editor dated 4 June 1938, Tolkien wrote: "Thank you for your comforting news.  It is indeed comforting, for in spite of unexpected strokes of luck, such as the American prize, I am in considerable difficulties; and things will not be improved in September, when I vacation my research fellowship.  That will mean, of course, that the pressure on my writing time will be less, except that as far as I can see I shall have to return to the examination treadmill to keep the boat afloat" (Tolkien 36).  As I write this I'm a high school English teacher in a state where our pay is the least of any others.  Our front-loading washer just went out and I had to lay down $200 on a used washer using a credit card because I don't have savings.  

Yeah, I feel ya, Tolkien.

I love writing, but as of now it's not paying the bills.  I will be on that "examination treadmill to keep the boat afloat" for some time, I suppose.  But keep going.  You could write that gripping fantasy epic that makes you famous!

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7. Don't Be Afraid of Shifting Routine - All of us have a writing routine if we are true writers.  I've said it a thousand times: If you are a writer, you write.  Stanley Unwin's elder son David had read Tolkien's story "Leaf by Niggle" in the Dublin Review and had called it an "exquisite piece of work" (Tolkien 112).  Tolkien, in a response dated 18 March 1945, wrote: "...the story ("Leaf") was the only thing I have ever done which cost me no pains at all.  Usually I compose only with great difficulty and endless re-writing.  I woke up one morning (more than 2 years ago) with that odd thing virtually complete in my head.  It took only a few hours to get down, and then copy out.  I am not aware of ever 'thinking' of the story or composing it in the ordinary sense.  All the same I do not feel so detached as not to be cheered, indeed rather bowled over by your son's comment.  The only notice of, or observation on the 'Leaf' that I have ha at all, outside my own circle" (Tolkien 113).

As a writer, we should let our drive take us wherever it leads.  Getting in a routine can sometimes get us in a rut.  The short story "Leaf by Niggle" is a wonderful little story which most people miss because they usually only focus on his Middle Earth epics.  It came to him almost in one sitting and was a refresher (as he goes on in the letter) to getting back to working on The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion.  People who write novels should write a short story now and again as a break in the monotony, especially if the writing is beginning to bog down as the letters which surround this letter denote.

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8. Once It Is Done, Leave It Alone - In a letter to Stanley Unwin dated 24 February 1950, Tolkien wrote about finishing The Lord of the Rings.  After writing about typing the 600,000 word document himself to save the 100 pounds it would take to hire it out (which he did not have), he writes: "And now I look at it, the magnitude of the disaster is apparent to me.  My work has escaped my control, and I have produced a monster: an immensely long, complex, rather bitter, and very terrifying romance, quite unfit for children (if fit for anybody); and it is not really a sequel to The Hobbit but to The Silmarillion.  My estimate is that it contains, even without certain necessary adjuncts, about 600,000 words.  One typist put it higher.  I can see only too clearly how impractical this is.  But I am tired. It is off my chest, and I do not feel that I can do anything more about it, beyond a little revision of inaccuracies.  Worse still: I feel that it is tied to the Silmarillion" (Tolkien 136).

Tolkien labored tirelessly on The Lord of the Rings, a book that would end up gaining him eventual fame.  However, he knew when it should end.  As writers we must finish a work, revise it again and again, but there comes a time when we have to leave it alone.  Probably that is the point when you become "tired" or when the work on the narrative is wearing you out.  

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9.  Marketing Is Sometimes a Riddle in the Dark - There is a series of letters written in 1950 between Stanley Unwin and Tolkien regarding the publishing of The Lord of the Rings.  Unwin wanted to split LOTR into three to five volumes so that they could sell the book piecemeal rather than charge customers a hefty sum all at once publishing LOTR as a single volume.  Tolkien was against the idea, and as a matter of fact in a letter dated 10 March 1950 Tolkien "made a strong point that the Silmarillion etc. and The Lord of the Rings went together, as one long Saga of the Jewels and the Rings, and that [he] was resolved to treat them as on thing..."(Tolkien 139).  The fact is that marketing a book of that magnitude would surely be financial suicide for the publisher, something Tolkien eventually came around to understanding.  The lesson here is to listen to those who know marketing and try to work with them.  Tolkien went round and round with Unwin about LOTR, eventually fielding another publisher (Waldman).  It would have been foolish to publish LOTR as one volume since his short fable Farmer Giles of Ham had only sold 2000 copies at the time.  In 1950 Tolkien did not have the following his works enjoy at present.

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10.  If You Get Published Traditionally, Make Proper Compromises - Tolkien, from his correspondence, seemed to be a fellow who liked to control every aspect of his work.  Of course, as an author, this is your baby.  You've bled over it, sweated over it, have been awakened in the night with feverish ideas that have to be written down before you forget them.  Tolkien's frustration can be seen in several of his letters to his editors.  For example, in a letter to Allen & Unwin dated 1 August 1950, he writes about how he was surprised that in an edition of The Hobbit the original text for chapter five "Riddles in the Dark" was substituted for a "specimen of rewriting" he had sent them in 1947 which was not intended for publication.  In another letter to Milton Waldman, Tolkien pleads with Waldman to publish both The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings together.  Waldman tries to accommodate Tolkien's request, but in the end is not able to do so even after Tolkien wrote a 10,000 word letter proving why the two books should be published together.  (Tolkien 143).

The problem exemplified in these early letters is that Tolkien didn't understand marketing.  He didn't understand that publishers have to make money and publishing a hefty, textbook sized novel was not going to sell well.  What we have to do if we get that publishing contract is to give and take with a publisher who wants to publish our work, but understand that there will be compromises.  Welcome these.  You are getting published traditionally.  You are experiencing something that not many writers get to experience.  They are offering you publicity, a platform to market your book to an audience you would otherwise not have if you publish independently.  If you work together with your publisher you will be more successful.

All quotations taken from:

Tolkien, J. R. R., et al. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Houghton Mifflin, 1981. 

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