JRR Tolkien

This is the first post of authors that have inspired me or influence my writing.  First up, JRR Tolkien.

Before I get started, let me get one thing out-of-the-way: the overall story arc of  The Lord of the Rings is fairly predictable.  Let’s face it.  Does anyone have any doubt after chapter two that somehow the ring is going to be destroyed?  By the time we get through the council of Elrond, is there any question that Frodo will make it to Mordor or that Sauron will be defeated?  I suppose that is an occupational hazard of writing an adventure quest with a specific goal.  But why then does this story have probably millions of fans (including me)?

Lesson number one for me is that the journey is perhaps more important than the destination.  There are of course important caveats to this statement.  But it can still be compelling fiction even if the final goal is known from the beginning.  Because who would have guessed the fall of Gandalf, or the roles that Gollem,  Merry or Pippen played in story?

Lesson number two is that the book needs to take you to a place you want to go.  Tolkien spent decades building a world that his readers can literally get lost in.  It is so rich, so expansive, that readers are completely drawn in.  And when I read it, I can’t help but get the feeling that this is just a tiny window into a world that is so much larger than could possibly be described in the book.  It is very clear that he believed in it.  I think the world is so real to us, because it was so real to him.

Lesson number three is that the climax is not the end.  I have mentioned before that this is a pet peeve of mine.  Many authors I have read would have had Gollem fall into Mt. Doom, and then write an epilogue that said, Aragorn was crowned king, Frodo and Sam went home, and they all lived happily ever after, the end.  While this would have been okay, how much more satisfying it is to have the houses of healing, the scouring of the Shire, and the Grey Havens.  Also, it is significant to know that while there was a general happily ever after, there were harmful consequences of the conflict that did not just disappear as soon as it was resolved.

It seems obvious to me that Tolkien did not simply write, he created.  And he did so for the sheer love of creation.  That is why his story is classic.

30 day novel

For those who have not heard, I was inspired by the national novel writing month. I thought, what better way to get started writing? I was right; it was a good way to start. Unfortunately for me, I have never been much of a writer or reader for that matter.

Lessons Learned – I will blog in more detail later about these 7 lessons, but for now here they are.

1st – Good stories take time. Most of the 30 days I was developing mythology, history, and learning who my characters are. Now that I know I can start telling the story.

2nd – I lost heart about chapter 5. I had a good story, but I could see my ability to translate that story into words was weak.

3rd – I am more creative when I am happy than when I am stressed or afraid. It was hard to find my voice from stress and fear of failure.

4th – It is very helpful to have support when you lose faith in yourself. Someone who can put things into perspective and cheer you on.

5th – Even though I didn’t like what I produced, it is not wasted. Even if I have to remove those chapters from my book. I learned about some of my characters, my writing style, my mistakes and can improve now that I know.

6th – The rules for entertaining are very different when your performance is dependent on the words you choose for your book, than the visuals, lighting, music and sounds on the stage.  I need to take time to learn how to apply entertaining rules to writing.

7th – Disabilities can be a strength if we let them. You can’t let anything hold you back.  Being unique can attract new readers.

Life Happens – Just because I want to write a book in 30 days doesn’t mean life stops or even slows down.

1st – Some times life gets busier. Christmas time is not the best month for me to take on a 30 day novel. I want to have family time more than writing time.

2nd – I home school my toddler, preschooler, and kindergartener. Finding time to write with 3 kids under 6 can be difficult; add homeschooling to the mix and it can be near impossible.

3rd – Starting more than one writing goal in the same month can be overwhelming. I also decided to start blogging this December. Consequently I spent most of my writing time blogging not noveling. I have heard that blogging is kind of like a warm up for the big things like a novel.  So I don’t feel bad about it.

4th – Another factor that was difficult for me was the fact that this novel was to be a gift for my husband. I was not able to create with him or share really any of my story ideas with him. I have found I am more creative when I have someone to create with me and bounce ideas off of.

So Now What?

Although I did not start and finish a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. I am happy with what I accomplished. It was what I needed to get started. I will someday tell the story I found in those 30 days, but for now it is not the most pressing goal I have in my life right now. I need to raise my kids and practice my writing and get blogging. Yes I will continue to work on my story but it will be a year-long project this next year.  I have a great start and look forward to finding the rest of the story.  What are the lessons you learned or advice you would give to a beginning author?

Rewriting Hamlet

My senior year of high school, we studied Hamlet in English class.  Of all the Shakespearean play we studied, it was definitely my favorite, but I didn’t like the end.  Of course, I didn’t want everyone to die, especially Hamlet.  I mean, he has worked all throughout the play to avenge his father’s murder, and has finally succeeded.  Then he dies?  Even worse for me was Fortinbras.  Who was this guy?  He didn’t even make an appearance until the very end, and he gets to just walk on the stage in the last scene and become the king?  It bothered me.  I thought Hamlet and Fortinbras should at least meet.  So when the teacher assigned us to write an essay about Hamlet, I instead rewrote the last scene.  In the process, I learned a couple things about writing.

Small Changes

I ended up keeping virtually all of the dialog from the original, and I only added one or two lines.  And yet, by simply rearranging the lines, that part of the story progressed in different direction.  I learned that very small changes can make a very profound difference to the final story.  There are two ways that this can affect writing.  First, if something isn’t working, a major overhaul may not be necessary to fix it.  Second, rewriting is a art, and if I’m not careful, I could change a lot more than I expect.

Being True

The biggest thing that I learned, however, was that I couldn’t make all the changes I wanted to.  I originally imagined Hamlet fighting (and defeating) Fortinbras, staying alive, and becoming the king.  As I tried to write it, I realized that it really wouldn’t work that way.  The story had been leading in a certain direction, and I couldn’t change it all unless I went back and rewrote the whole play.  In the end, although I had Hamlet fight Fortinbras and beat him, Hamlet still died.  Fortinbras still became the king.  Writing is about finding the story, not forcing it to be what I want.

Rule #3: Reality in Fiction, Part Two

I talked about making the characters in fiction real, but how real are the plot and the story?

A little bit of everything

When was the last time in life you only had one thing going on at a time?  In my life, I feel like I am constantly bombarded with something new before I have even addressed previous issues.  I never have a moment where there is only one thing I have to worry about.  Likewise, in a book, the characters need to have more business in their lives than only the primary conflict of the story.  While the book may not give any details for those other events, the events themselves need to be there.  Also, while the plot itself can only cover certain aspects of the action, the overall story needs to include virtually every emotion or type of story (comedy, adventure, romance, coming of age, tragedy, redemption, etc.).

Fortune

I am not able to control everything that happens around me.  There are often fortunate (or unfortunate) occurrences that significantly change the way my life is feeling.  The same should also hold for characters in a book.  Not everything that happens to them (or even that furthers the plot) should be in their control.  It may be some other character, divine providence, or just blind luck.

Another consideration is that the physics of the world need to be realistic.  The rules can be exaggerated or changed (for instance to include some form of magic), but must be consistent throughout the story.  The best explanation I have seen of this point is Sanderson’s First Law, which essentially states that the larger a role magic has in solving problems in the plot, the better it needs to be understood.

Time

Here is one of my personal pet peeves.  Characters are introduced at the beginning of the story, and for most of the book, readers are shown the characters’ flaws.  However, at the moment of the climax, or immediately after it, those flaws seem to have disappeared.  Now clearly, it takes time for a person’s character to change, and it will almost always happen gradually.  A very similar situation exists for virtually every major plot point as well.  It takes time to do most things.

Note that this does not necessarily refer to the storytelling itself.  The pacing of the story is one of the tools in an author’s arsenal to maintain reader interest.  I have found, however, that my interest is captured by an unpredictable plot better than nonstop action.  Also, the climax is not the end of the story.  I find that I am more annoyed than intrigued when a book is go-go-go-go-go-and done!  I want to actually see some of the resolution.

More than meets the eye…

A good book should feel like a window looking into a new world.  It should give a glimpse of what is there, but the best books also give a feeling that there is so much more just out of sight.