Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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August 11, 2014

10 Bits of Stellar Writing Advice from J.R.R. Tolkien

Tolkien Last week, I saw an infographic in GalleyCat titled, J.R.R. Tolkien’s 10 Tips for Writers, and was so inspired. What if he'd never written his books? What if there had been no Hobbits and no Gandalf, no Legolas or Frodo? The world of story would be an entirely different place.

Our stories matter. They really do.

10 Tips from the “Master of Middle Earth”:

1. Vanity is useless.
Truly, Tokien wrote his books to please himself and answer the writer inside him. He expected them to go “into the waste-paper basket” after they left his desk, not live on in popular culture. I'm not saying we don't need to learn good story craft however, if you entertain yourself, at least you know one person that enjoyed the hell out of your book.

2. Keep writing, even through adversity.
It took the man SEVEN years to write The Hobbit. He balanced a demanding day job, illness, and worry for his son who was away in the Royal Navy. I'm reminded of Laura Drake, her brick wall, and her 400+ rejections.

3. Listen to critics you trust.
When his editor said, “Make it better,” he didn't throw the advice away. He read and re-read, and he tried his best.

He credits listening to knowledgeable feedback, and working to make it better, for what he considered the best scene in the Lord of the Rings: “the confrontation between Gandalf and his rival wizard, Saruman, in the ravaged city of Isengard.” Oh, and the editor he listened to? C.S. Lewis, the creator of the Chronicles of Narnia.

4. Let your interests drive your writing.
Tolkien's original interest was in languages. He took that and created new languages, and then an entire culture, around it. Our own contributor, Kathryn Craft, was a dancer, choreographer, and dance critic. She tapped all that experience to write The Art of Fallingexploring themes of love, dance, friendship, and distorted body image. that passion and truth will resonate with readers.

5. Poetry can lead to great prose.
When he could not express his thoughts in the prose he wished for, he wrote much of it in verse. Authors as diverse as Charlotte Brontë and Langston Hughes started in poetry before moving to longer mediums. Next time you get stuck, you might try Tolkien's trick of writing your scene as a poem first.

6. Happy accidents.
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.”

Gollum7. Dreams give us inspiration.
All of us have dreams so strong, they push us to the page. But what about literal dreams? Angela Ackerman at Writers Helping Writers did a great post called How to Mine Your Dreams for Story Gold.

When Tolkien dreamed of drowning, he channeled the experience into motifs and prose for his stories. His "letters" describe how that drowning dream morphed into the drowning feeling of Mordor’s invasion of Middle Earth and the drowning of Isengard.

8. Real people make great characters.
Tolkien drew on real people to populate Middle Earth. You can draw on people you know for your stories as well. Real people do amazing things, both big and small, and rarely do they recognize themselves on the page. It’s a win-win for authors.

9. You may be the next bestselling author.
Tolkien did not expect the acclaim he received from his first book, The Hobbit. He felt like it was a happy accident. Here are fourteen bestselling books that were repeatedly rejected by publishers. You won't know until you send it out. Perhaps your cross-dressing unicorn superheroes will be the next phenomenon. (Yes, I made that up.)

10. Books you write may seem trite.
We can’t see our own work. A scene we find melodramatic, the reader might find moving. Tolkien believed that if you learn some craft and pour your heart and imagination onto the page that the work will resonate. I believe that too.

What tip would you love to pass on to other writers? It can be one you received from someone else, or a philosophy of your own. Let's inspire each other down in the comments!


Note: Here's a link to Tolkien's work in its entirety. The aforementioned infographic summarized material from a wonderful post by Roger Colby at Writing Is Hard Work, outlining his research on writing advice shared by the Lord of the Rings author in the book, “The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.”

About Jenny

By day, Jenny provides training and social media marketing for an accounting firm. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction and short stories. After 15 years as a corporate software trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.

When she’s not at her personal blog, More Cowbell, Jenny can be found on Twitter at JennyHansenCA or at Writers In The Storm. Jenny also writes the Risky Baby Business posts at More Cowbell, a series that focuses on babies, new parents and high-risk pregnancy.

photo credit: kugel via photopin cc

60 comments on “10 Bits of Stellar Writing Advice from J.R.R. Tolkien”

  1. So much gold here! I had never heard of number five and will try it next time I'm stuck. I love poetry and even though I'm a horrible poet this trick might help me find some symbols to use in the prose.

    Number ten is timely for me because just last night I was berating myself that my books are filled with melodrama. Hopefully, readers will see it differently. That's so true that you can't really judge your work.

    Oh, and I'm off to check Angela Ackerman's blog post about dreams.

    Thanks, Jenny!

    1. Thanks, Deb! And truly, we can't see our own work. Give that melodrama to a critique partner, so THEY can guide you about what is too much or too little.

  2. Excellent, Jenny. Thank you. Poetry is the soulmate of many an introvert. How delightful to imagine Tolkien with his poems and his language. I read and wrote poetry long before I tackled narrative non-fiction and later fiction and still think in short spurts of the poetic, especially when I feel overwhelmed or am hunting up the mot juste. Through poetry, I fell in love with words, with their meaning and their sound. This is a wonderful list--would that we could each have a CS Lewis in our life.

    1. Thanks, Normandie! I too started with poetry and I wish I still had the knack of writing it. I plan to try that tip the next time I'm stuck in a scene. And YES to the wish for a C.S. Lewis, although I have the gals here at WITS and they're amazing editors.

    1. You are welcome, Laura! And obviously I heard you in my head (saying "Did you write today?"). You inspire me, so I've got to pass that on. 🙂

  3. Great points from a master, Jenny! I struggle most with #4 and #10--I don't believe that my interests are interesting to anyone else, and that *everything* I write is trite. It helps to know I'm not the only one who thinks that!

    1. Elizabeth, I think your interests are COOL. And honestly, you share the language know-how with freaking J.R.R. Tolkien...how can you not think that will take you places? Go, girl. Wriiiiiiiite!

  4. "Partially gleaned" is a little bit of an understatement I think. I did ALL THE WORK finding those nuggets from Tolkien's letters. Essaymomma plagiarized and so did you.

    1. Roger, I discovered your post from the Essaymamma infographic, and loved it. It must be wonderful to know that something you wrote inspired enough people that we all put our own twist on it and credited you, thereby driving traffic to your site.

      1. Sorry Jenny. I just thought that since I did all the research which took about three weeks of solid work perusing Tolkien's letters and writing original commentary, "partially gleaned" kind of rubbed me the wrong way. Mine is an original work, and the fact that a site like EssayMomma (who write original essays for lazy people who do not want to do the work in college necessary for the degree) should be getting ANY credit for what I did is appalling.

        1. I don't blame you a bit, Roger, and I've changed the way it's referenced down at the bottom of the post. You did amazing work, which is why I pulled your post specifically out of the links in the infographic. What pushed you to originally study "The Letters?"

          1. I have studied Tolkien for nearly 15 years. I read LOTR each year after spring term ends and have every hard bound book he produced. Back in 2012 I wanted to know what made Tolkien tick, so I dug through his letters looking for any scrap of advice that he might have for writers. What came of it was an analytical journey into the mind of the master. It turns out that he had many of the same fears and struggles that all writers have. He'd just figured out ways of plowing through them like Merry and Pippin through Farmer Maggot's garden. I knew I had to share those with the world, so I wrote the blog post after several weeks of study. I'm just glad people can benefit from it. I have never received any monetary gain from it, and if offered I shall refuse.

              1. That is fascinating. Thank you, Roger! And thank you Jenny for bringing this forward.

            1. Roger, I went and read your original post. What a wonderful blog! Thank you for doing the research and distilling the wisdom of the master!

  5. He's inspired me so many times, Jenny, and now your post has helped me see him in yet another new light. We don't know who our stories will touch. What a shame if we don't get them down, if we don't listen to our hearts.

    1. I'm so glad to hear it! The more I've read about him, the more I admire him. And I really do believe that the world needs our stories. You'd love the infographic - I took the 10 points from it, then made them my own.

  6. Just shows that great writing never goes out of fashion and neither do the lessons we can learn from it. Good job Jen.

  7. Lots of good stuff here. I read The Hobbit in college, although I've never gone back to the rest of the series. I may have to.

      1. I haven't seen any of the movies, but from what I've heard, they were accurate to the books.

  8. People often ask me how I get so much writing done. My secret: I write in the cracks. Translated, I write when I don't have to be doing something else--even if it's just a 15 minute window. While I'm driving or doing some other mindless task, I'm thinking about what comes next in the story.How I'll write it. Where to set the scene. Who says what in dialogue. Add up the cracks and it turns into books!

    1. Have you ever read "Pen on Fire," Sally?! Barbara Demarco-Barrett recommends doing exactly what you do. Every time I've tried it, I get an extra 5-12 pages a week in. It's amazing. Writing sprints ROCK. 🙂

    2. I love your expression about writing in the cracks. It's what I have to do these days but you said it so well. 🙂

  9. Yo! Jenny! It's been so long since I've been online, I had to sign into WordPress again to comment. Great advice from Tolkien. Truthfully, I don't see poetry being my path out of a writing slump or block. What does seem to work for me is to switch a scene to first person POV.

    Once the character has to do and see and feel, the writing seems to slow and I can then convert to third person.

    1. Yo, Gloria! How fun to see you here, darlin'. That's a great tip, and definitely worth a try the next time I get stuck. I usually get "unstuck" by just writing another scene about something else entirely. It works every time. 🙂

  10. I am so going to try poetry as muse. I have come back to poetry late in my life but never thought to use it to nudge my prose. Thanks for a great post, Jenny!

    1. Barb, I was intrigued by that tip too. I would not have thought of it. BTW, on the romance side, Danielle Steel has said that many of her books were originally inspired by poems, and vice-versa.

  11. While I loved #4, lol (and thank you!), I have benefitted from every one of these so far in my writing life. This post was like revisiting old friends. Thanks, Jenny!

    1. You are welcome, and thank you for writing Penny Sparrow, and Angela. 🙂 I appreciated you allowing me to include a bit of your story in point #4 - it resonated with many of our readers!

    1. Elaine, we talk about this all the time, that EVERYONE has their journey. No one gets it all. You get just enough to push you to get the other skills you need. It was nice to know that Tolkien struggled like everyone else.

  12. This makes me so happy! One of the first things I did when I studied abroad in Oxford was make a pilgrimage to the Eagle and Child, where Tolkien met with the other "Inklings," and visit the house where he and his wife lived for a time. This is a wonderful list, and something that I really needed to see right now. Definitely food for thought. 😀

    1. Lena, a day I make you happy is a fine day indeed. What a fabulous pilgrimage to make! I'm the same way, when I got to a place with literary history. When I visited the Raffles hotel in Singapore, I had to go see the famous writers den that was on site. Now I'm gonna have to get myself up to Oxford some day... 🙂

  13. Excellent post, Jenny. I'm not a Tolkien fan, I'm afraid. Read him in college, but not a fan of the fantasy genre. However, it is so inspirational that someone as great as Tolkien also suffered and doubted his writing. So who are we to gripe when we feel those same doubts? And, imagine having C.S. Lewis as your editor/ mentor! I'll FB and Tweet. 🙂

    1. Marsha, I don't read a lot of fantasy either, but Fae Rowen does and Tolkien was special. His imagination astonishes me.

      I absolutely cannot imagine have C.S. Lewis as a mentor. However, I've got the gals here at WITS and I'd put them up against just about anyone - they are awesome. Thanks for sharing the post! We so appreciate it. 🙂

  14. I love what you shared about listening to your dreams when it comes to writing. That's how I got started. I already had the story in my head utill my vivid dream about writing on a golden scroll with a red feather quill . The dream kept repeating itself So I started to write the story I already had in my mind. It really just rolled off my pen and So far it's still flowing. I also write in the cracks and the one problem I have is when I'm on a roll and all the words are right there for a particular scene. I have to stop. It's frustrating to say the least .But as I reread my work I can usually find my place and redirect my thoughts again. I Love writing so any work associated to it is still a labor of love.

  15. Today is 18 August 2014 and I consider it an uber fortunate lucky day. Somehow I stumbled on Writers in the Storm and then over to Jenny's More Cowbell blog. Tolkien's 10 Tips for Writers is spot on and glad I read it, but more than that, so pleased to have discovered you, Jenny Hansen. I am knocked over at seeing all you accomplish in a day. Now I have to have a serious talk with myself about having dragged my tail feathers on my latest WIP. My writing group has nudged me (big time) and my muse has been bonking me but a look at a day in Jenny's life has finally sent me back to my computer desk. thankyouthankyouthankyou I'll stay tuned to your posts to keep myself on track. xoox

    1. Lovely to meet you, Karleene!! And we love to pay it forward here at WITS (and over at More Cowbell), because somebody inspired us enough to get to the page at some point too.

      You can only start with today. That's a lesson I'm still learning all the time. 🙂

  16. Lovely article, Jenny. I was struck by your comment about what the world would be like if Tolkien hadn't written his books. What a bland world it would be! Thank goodness that isn't the case, and a lovely incentive to continue.

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