As someone who occasionally reads and writes fantasy and has a great appreciation for fantasy RPGs, it’s hard not to acknowledge how important J.R.R. Tolkien’s contribution to the literary (and entertainment) world have been.
From D&D to Nethack to Harry Potter to the Final Fantasy series, Tolkien’s work has influenced nearly every aspect of high fantasy, low fantasy, and everything in between.
We look at the world he created and the mythos surrounding it. He defined how modern fantasy views elves, wizards, dwarves, and dragons.
We think of Tolkien as the world-builder. The God of Middle Earth. But a lot of us overlook Tolkien as a writer.
A few year ago a list of “Tolkien’s 10 Tips For Writers” began circulating, derived from The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, originally published in 1981. I first read them in a post by Jenny Hansen at Writers in the Storm.
Since so many other writers shared their thoughts on this list, I figure I would be fun to share mine, as well as how they relate to myself and other new writers. Note that my view of these items are solely my own and, who knows, maybe I’m totally missing Tolkien’s point on a few of them.
With that out of the way, here’s the list!
1. Vanity is useless.
Indeed. One of the first things I learned after Holy Fudgesicles was published that friends and family who knew about my writing but weren’t all that interested were suddenly interested. And even now, when I talk about my writing to someone who is unfamiliar with it, I catch myself slipping into bragging mode. “Hey look at me! I’m a writer!”
But where does that vanity get you? Nowhere. It doesn’t help you sell any books, and it certainly doesn’t help you write any books.
And if you’re writing for fame alone, well keep writing, I guess, but just know that most writers don’t get famous, and even if you gain enough attention in your local community to become a big fish in a small pond, that’s still not enough to make a full time living doing it.
2. Keep writing, even through adversity.
This is perhaps one of the most important pieces of “writing advice” you’ll ever hear. Writing is one of the hardest things you’ll do and it may literally take you years to see the rewards. Life can and will get in the way–constantly. You’re friends, family, co-workers, and everyone else on the street who is not a writer will not understand your passion. Oh yeah, you’ll also get about a hundred rejection letters to every one acceptance letter.
So what’s the lesson? Keep at it. The writers who make it are the ones who don’t quit. And no matter how much you want to quit, ask yourself it you’ll be able to live with yourself if you do. Chances are, if you’re reading this post, you can’t. So keep writing. No matter what.
3. Listen to critics you trust.
Stress on that “you trust” part. Anyone can criticize your work. And sometimes it might be a good idea to have “anyone” criticize it, as you prepare it for mass-reading. But when you’re in the writing and revising stages, you be better off picking early readers that understand the writing process and will be honest with you.
You need to trust that they won’t end up worried about hurting your feelings and going easy on your writing, but also trust that they won’t be intentionally hard on writing and only show you the bad stuff. So just be careful, and really think about who you choose for early readers.
4. Let your interests drive your writing.
Remember this one. It’s not “write what you know,” it’s “write what you’re interested in. There’s not a whole lot else to say about this one, other than the fact that if you’re writing about something that you have no emotional investment in, your story will read more like a term paper and a reader will be able to tell that right away.
5. Poetry can lead to great prose.
Poetry is so much not my thing, I’ll just have to take Tolkien’s word for it.
6. Happy accidents.
I’m wasn’t entirely sure what they meant by this, but here’s what Jenny Hansen had to say:
No matter how much you plan, happy accidents occur on the pages of every book. Jennifer Crusie calls it “the girls in the basement,” saying they hand her up treasures as she writes. Others might call it “the muse.”
One more kick in the pants from our own Laura Drake: If you don’t put your butt in the chair and do the work, you won’t have any “happy accidents.”
I think I get it. When you’re working on something, cool ideas will occasionally pop up onto your page. And when they do, don’t let them slip away.
7. Dreams give us inspiration.
This can have two mean, can’t it? Your dreams and goals inspire you to keep writing and keep chasing that writing dream. You can also gain inspiration and ideas from dreaming. I’ve written a few stories based on dreams I had, and even published a couple of them, so I know it works.
Which reminds me; I need to start keeping an idea book by my bed. How often do you wake up from a dream and say “that would make a great story” but then the idea is gone before you’re even out of the shower?
8. Real people make great characters.
Real people make great characters indeed. But I think it’s better to “borrow” character traits from real people, and not the whole person. You don’t want to Mary Sue yourself, or your friends. You also don’t want to get hit with a lawsuit.
9. You may be the next bestselling author.
You just might be. So don’t stop writing ever.
But you also might not be. That doesn’t mean you still can’t achieve measurable success writing and still reach most of your writing goals.
10. Books you write may seem trite.
I think this is a nice way of saying: “Your writing might not be any good.” And that very well may be the case. But that doesn’t mean it won’t get better. Just like anything else, keep practicing and keep learning.
And that is it. I I always enjoy reading lists like this and getting a quick glimpse into how some of the masters view the craft of writing.
Tolkien’s was no different, and I hope some of the stuff said in the post can help inspire you to keep on chasing that writing dream. So until next time, I’m off to try to talk myself into giving those ridiculously long Lord of the Rings film adaptations another chance.