Posts Tagged ‘improvement’

I’d like to talk for a moment about J.R.R. Tolkien. If you don’t know who he is, what planet are you from and are you the vanguard of an invasion? Because that would be totally awesome. Not the death and suffering at the hands of our new alien overlords part, just the part that there are alien overlords.

Anyway, like many people, Tolkien was an inspiration. When he created Middle Earth, he didn’t do it half- assed. Not only did he pen a very complex history, the dude invented a couple of languages along the way. Now that’s dedication.

There’s been much debate over the years as to what Tolkien’s intentions were for creating The Lord of the Rings. Some say that it was a tribute to brothers-in-arms of the Great War. Other contend that he was trying to create a mythology for England. Still others insist that he was secretly gay and that he laid the groundwork for future generations of elf-on-dwarf manlove fiction. All I know for certain is that I totally made that last one up.

Regardless of what people think his intentions were, there’s no denying that what Tolkien did do was create a lush and vivid world. He used his words to paint a picture of a world and its people so detailed that it has inspired generations of authors and nerds with dice to create their own worlds, and essentially created the fantasy genre.

Reading his words for the first time, you instantly have a clear picture in your head of what Middle Earth is. You can see the hills of Hobbiton, the plains of Rohan, the ethereal beauty of Lothlorien and the twisted hellscape of Mordor as if you’ve been there yourself. You get a clear and distinct idea of what elves, dwarves, hobbits and orcs look like (the last three being words he even invented himself—the plural of dwarf is dwarfs. Tolkien used a v to differentiate them from human dwarfs).

This serves to illustrate my point. Tolkien never skimped on the details, and the details are what drove the narrative. When it comes time for the characters to actually do something, it doesn’t take long for them, in terms of word count, to get it done. The example of this that I often use is this: in The Fellowship of the Ring, there’s a good half a chapter devoted to describing the town of Bree, the hobbits entering it and getting into the Prancing Pony inn before they even meet Aragorn.   Skip ahead a few chapters to Moria and the iconic fight with the goblins and troll in the Tomb of Balin, beginning to end, takes a total of two and a half pages.

This is what I have come to call the Tolkien Effect. So far, everyone knows exactly what I mean when I use that term. It’s also how I describe my own writing style. Now, I’m not trying to be conceited and say that my writing is as good as Tolkien’s—just ask anyone I’ve ever worked with on a writing project, I’m the first (and usually only) person to say what I do sucks. I’m simply using ‘the Tolkien Effect’ to describe how I write, because in many ways it’s the same. I’ll take a huge paragraph or three to describe someone entering a room, the reaction of his senses, the way he holds himself and the thoughts going through his head… and then end it with ‘and then he pulled out a gun and shot someone.’

I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a huge challenge to me as a writer to write actions scenes that I’m 100% satisfied with. I always feel like there’s something lacking. My partner in crime V recently told me that she absolutely adores the way that I write introspective narrative, and that I “make it look so effortless.” I’ll agree with that last part. It is pretty effortless for me but I often worry that it borders on purple prose and the reader is saying, “Get on with it!”  In contrast, I’ve been working on a fight scene for our collaborative novel for almost a week now. I’ve reached a point where I’m so close to the end but nothing I get out satisfies me. If I were doing this with a typewriter, I’d have an overflowing wastebasket of paper balls.

I also hit this stumbling block rather recently on my latest short story. There was a 6,000-word limit, and I spent a good 5,000 of those leading up to the climactic scene. I would have been crushed by my editor’s first response of, “The ending feels very rushed” if I hadn’t completely agreed with him. I spent a good two days going back and trying to trim up my word count so I could squeeze in even a few more paragraphs to the ending before I even sent in the first draft. I succeeded in that, but I wasn’t satisfied with it and in the end fired it off to the editor in the hopes he could help (he did, by the way. His red pen is mighty vicious, but his suggestions were simple yet amazing in getting the story I wanted to tell onto paper).

At the very least, I recognize my shortcomings of the Tolkien Effect on my style of writing and strive to make it better. It’s something I know I can improve upon and not just a self-criticism of a problem that doesn’t really exist. I have a healthy respect—and just a hint of jealousy—for writers that can seamlessly blend description and action. And I hope that some day I can find a balance between the two in my writing style that satisfies both the reader and me.

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