Tolkien's Process

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Matthew Colville

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I find the creative process fascinating in all its forms. But the thing that prompted me to start this thread was the completely bizarre way Tolkien, responsible for a pretty popular and influential work from a few years ago, wrote. It seems like the kind of thing this forum might dig.

On paper, it's a method I would have bet cash money would never produce a finished manuscript. You can read about in in the 4 volume History of The Lord of the Rings, itself confusingly contained withing the eleventy-billion volume History of Middle Earth.

It's sometimes a little boring because the odds are you don't care about all the stuff Tolkien thought was important...like the exact phases of the moon the different characters in different areas of his world would have seen at the same time, but I read it so you don't have to. :D

The dude never had an outline. He had no idea what story he was writing at any given point. He just sat down and started writing. And he kept writing, primarily working on keeping his characters physically moving. He saw his challenge as finding good and dramatic reasons to get his characters out of whatever comfortable Inn they were at tonight.

Whenever he got stuck, wrote himself into a corner, or otherwise couldn't come up with a good next bit, he stopped writing and thought. Sometimes for months! He'd open up the manuscript and write down notes. His thoughts. Ideas and solutions. What if this character was really a bad guy? What if there were three of these dudes instead of one? Maybe this giant is really a tree. Literally stuff like that (although not literally those words).

Then, when he had a solution, he started writing again. I mean he started writing again. From the beginning, the whole thing, like the previous draft never existed. He almost never picked up from where he left off. Stuff that was FINE before, stuff he liked! It all had to be rewritten.

And in this process you see ideas that he'd loved and lived with, suddenly change just because he apparently got sick of writing it. :D Strider is called Trotter for an alarmingly long period of time until as far as I can tell he just got bored with the name.

I bring this up because I find this incredibly inspiring. From where I sit, a ridiculous way to write anything. But holy crap look at the results. The whole thing, seeing Tolkien working out problems on paper, writing notes to himself about motivation and character and plot, is amazing.

Anyway, I'm new here. Might be something everyone's already knows about. In which case, ignore me!
 

Jettica

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I didn't know this. What a long, tedious way of going about things. Clearly it worked, the world he created is wonderful and brilliant.

I do see the value in just rewriting everything, otherwise something that huge can seem disjointed with all the new ideas.

I find myself wondering how much editing he had to do of the finished manuscript. You'd think the storyline and characters, at least, would be near perfect.
 

seun

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It's an interesting story that really boils down to different processes work for different writers. Some outline. Some don't. Some edit as they go. Some wait until the first draft is done. Basically, what worked for Tolkien was good for him.
 

Mr Flibble

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He may not have outlined (and I can't recall about him rewriting everything, been a while since I read those books), but he did periodically write out 'where I see the story going from here' which were often radically different to what ended up happening. Aragorn and Eowyn originally were going to end up in love. With a sad ending.(again IIRC)
 

Phaeal

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Heh, my writing partner also has a thing about knowing which phase the moon is in during each scene. But it makes sense in the context of her magical world.
 

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My 2-bits is that all great art is personal, and comes from what Jung called the Unconscious. I write the same way... I start writing with only a very basic outline (in my head), and only a few thoughts about where the story and characters will end up. I got stuck for years with what my MC was going do after a life-changing experience. So I wrote around him... I rewrote parts I had written earlier, and I found lots of wonderful sub-stories my other characters could live out, all the while thinking, thinking, thinking about the MC's problem. The solution FINALLY came to me about 3 weeks ago, and I'm red hot to write him again.
 

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Wow, talk about an OCD method of writing. Well, now we know why Tolkien produced so few books for all that time and effort.

Keep in mind that he was also a professor.
 

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What an awesome post, Matthew; thanks for sharing! I knew how tediously and painstakingly Tolkien built his world, but I had no idea he scrapped so many drafts. It's interesting to hear about the different approaches everyone takes during the writing process...

My favorite anecdote is the one Stephen King used in "On Writing" where he said he viewed his stories as fossils buried in the ground. He felt they already existed somewhere independent of him, and it was simply his job to use the right tools to get those bones out of the ground and assemble them the way they were supposed to be assembled.

My plotting and planning and obsessing relaxed a LOT when I started using that analogy myself... :)
 

MAP

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That is an interesting post.

I get why he rewrote everything. He wrote LOTR in the the 1940's right? I'm assuming on a typewriter. If he wanted to change a name from Trotter to Strider, he would have to retype the whole thing which is a lot more work than doing find-replace in Word.

If I had to retype the whole thing word for word for small changes, I'd probably just rewrite it instead, with the hope of making it better.

Thankfully I've got Word.
 

Rhoda Nightingale

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I heard about this in the extras for the movie. Totally blew my mind. "Wait, he started over? From scratch? Every time?"
 

erin_michelle

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I think Steinbeck worked like Tolkien, rewriting a scene a bunch of times in longhand. Robert Louis Stevenson burned his first draft of The Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Nabokov wrote everything on note cards before he typed up a manuscript. Just goes to show that every author has their own process. It might be head scratching to some of us, but I'm sure some of our methods look crazy to other people.
 

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Bizarre. Just plain bizarre.

I know that if Tolkien had come onto AW (had he been in this time) we likely would have torn him to shreds for it, or at least I know I would have. If it hadn't produced such an incredible result (yet) I know for certain I'd be harping on him just to finish the damn book and be done with it.

Just goes to show that writing is extremely diverse, but man oh man - I don't envy him to be honest. I can't stand to rewrite a single sentence - one of my downfalls. I do envy his ability, though!

Great post, thanks for sharing!
 

Medievalist

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Bizarre. Just plain bizarre.

I know that if Tolkien had come onto AW (had he been in this time) we likely would have torn him to shreds for it, or at least I know I would have. If it hadn't produced such an incredible result (yet) I know for certain I'd be harping on him just to finish the damn book and be done with it.

I wouldn't have. For one thing, Tolkien had a full-time job as a scholar and teacher. He taught, graded exams and papers, and directed graduate students. He also wrote and published a number of books, monographs, and papers, and contributed to another fifty or so books.

He wrote what is still the single most important essay on Beowulf. He produced what is still the standard edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. He contributed more entries to the MED than any other person until about 1992. He produced the only in depth glossary of the West Midlands Dialect. He published the only study of the Mercian dialect of Old English.

For another, Tolkien's methods aren't so different from a number of other successful writers--principally Faulkner, Sterne and Elliot.

Tolkien wasn't interested in the book; Tolkien was interested in producing the cultural artifacts--the languages and myths. The novels were an artifact, for him.
 
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Maxinquaye

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Bizarre. Just plain bizarre.

I know that if Tolkien had come onto AW (had he been in this time) we likely would have torn him to shreds for it, or at least I know I would have. If it hadn't produced such an incredible result (yet) I know for certain I'd be harping on him just to finish the damn book and be done with it.

Just goes to show that writing is extremely diverse, but man oh man - I don't envy him to be honest. I can't stand to rewrite a single sentence - one of my downfalls. I do envy his ability, though!

Great post, thanks for sharing!

I wouldn't have. In the end it's the product on the table that's what matters, not the method of getting there. The only thing I would have chided him for would be if he'd talked about writing the thing, but never actually doing it. Because, it's the manuscript at the end of the process that matter, not how you get to that point.
 

Aylaa

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I've started my first novel over from scratch about 5 times. I think every time I did that, I change and perfected my style little by little.
 

Nick Blaze

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I didn't know this. What a long, tedious way of going about things. Clearly it worked, the world he created is wonderful and brilliant.

I do see the value in just rewriting everything, otherwise something that huge can seem disjointed with all the new ideas.

I find myself wondering how much editing he had to do of the finished manuscript. You'd think the storyline and characters, at least, would be near perfect.

A cliche in the martial arts world is "you must empty your cup" to learn more. Forget how much you know so you can learn more. In a way, rewriting every manuscript is just this. He learned, he gained, then he go stuck. He thought, filling the cup. Then he emptied the cup and started over. It is proven to work in the martial arts, so why not writing?
 

DeleyanLee

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I find the creative process fascinating in all its forms. But the thing that prompted me to start this thread was the completely bizarre way Tolkien, responsible for a pretty popular and influential work from a few years ago, wrote. It seems like the kind of thing this forum might dig.

On paper, it's a method I would have bet cash money would never produce a finished manuscript. You can read about in in the 4 volume History of The Lord of the Rings, itself confusingly contained withing the eleventy-billion volume History of Middle Earth.

It's sometimes a little boring because the odds are you don't care about all the stuff Tolkien thought was important...like the exact phases of the moon the different characters in different areas of his world would have seen at the same time, but I read it so you don't have to. :D

The dude never had an outline. He had no idea what story he was writing at any given point. He just sat down and started writing. And he kept writing, primarily working on keeping his characters physically moving. He saw his challenge as finding good and dramatic reasons to get his characters out of whatever comfortable Inn they were at tonight.

Whenever he got stuck, wrote himself into a corner, or otherwise couldn't come up with a good next bit, he stopped writing and thought. Sometimes for months! He'd open up the manuscript and write down notes. His thoughts. Ideas and solutions. What if this character was really a bad guy? What if there were three of these dudes instead of one? Maybe this giant is really a tree. Literally stuff like that (although not literally those words).

Then, when he had a solution, he started writing again. I mean he started writing again. From the beginning, the whole thing, like the previous draft never existed. He almost never picked up from where he left off. Stuff that was FINE before, stuff he liked! It all had to be rewritten.

Please don't take this wrong, but your youth is showing.

Speaking as someone who started writing before the advent of personal computers, none of what you're saying about Tolkien sounds odd to me at all.

Back in the days of handwriting or typing novels, if you screwed something up, changed your mind, if anything about what you'd written had altered, you had to start over and rewrite/retype every page. There was no choice. There was no delete key, there was no cut-and-paste (getting tape/paste that would actually stick didn't happen until after he finished LOTR and not really until I was a teen).

If you'd written something and it was working, then you kept it in. If you thought it added to the story, then you kept it in. Retyping/rewriting was something you did when the changes were great enough to warrant it. Likewise, I thought longer and harder before I wrote a word when it was all by hand/typewriter than I do now that I write on a computer. What you've said about Tolkien makes total sense to me. Been there, done that, still have the t-shirt.

There was also no "how to write" community, so there was no one to talk about outlining, or anything else taken for granted nowadays. Figuring out how to tell a story was done by reading and thinking about stories that had already been written, and authors tended to be influenced by what they'd read and understood. Certainly true in Tolkien's case, and he was conscious of the influences from what I heard.

To me, what you're talking about with Tolkien was standard in days gone by. Nothing odd or weird at all. And that process certainly produced some marvelous books for many hundreds of years.
 

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I wouldn't have. For one thing, Tolkien had a full-time job as a scholar and teacher. He taught, graded exams and papers, and directed graduate students. He also wrote and published a number of books, monographs, and papers, and contributed to another fifty or so books.

He wrote what is still the single most important essay on Beowulf. He produced what is still the standard edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. He contributed more entries to the MED than any other person until about 1992. He produced the only in depth glossary of the West Midlands Dialect. He published the only study of the Mercian dialect of Old English.

For another, Tolkien's method's aren't so different from a number of other successful writers--principally Faulkner, Sterne and Elliot.

Tolkien wasn't interested in the book; Tolkien was interested in producing the cultural artifacts--the languages and myths. The novels were an artifact, for him.

All things I didn't know.

I retract my previous statements, yet leave them there as a sign of my ignorance - and why judgmental thinking is so damn horrid! Thanks for the correction, and I mean that whole-heartedly!
 
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Wow, talk about an OCD method of writing. Well, now we know why Tolkien produced so few books for all that time and effort.
Thank God for that. I've never read such a wordy bunch of crap as the first 180 pages of LotR, which is all I've managed to plough through.
 

Reziac

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Please don't take this wrong, but your youth is showing.

Speaking as someone who started writing before the advent of personal computers, none of what you're saying about Tolkien sounds odd to me at all.

Back in the days of handwriting or typing novels, if you screwed something up, changed your mind, if anything about what you'd written had altered, you had to start over and rewrite/retype every page. There was no choice. There was no delete key, there was no cut-and-paste (getting tape/paste that would actually stick didn't happen until after he finished LOTR and not really until I was a teen).

I also hale from the age of manual, non-correcting typewriters... and I've seen a number of original manuscripts from pros of that era (and before, when all was handwritten). And that's not how it was. You didn't start completely over until your final draft; only then was a clean copy from the beginning necessary. However, errors or changes to any given page... that page might be replaced if someone was a neat freak, but more likely would have all manner of handwritten notes crammed into it -- the doublespaced manuscript was largely for the convenience of the pre-computer writer, not so much for the copyeditor.
 

blacbird

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Thank God for that. I've never read such a wordy bunch of crap as the first 180 pages of LotR, which is all I've managed to plough through.

Ever try E.R. Eddison?

Seriously, I've come to believe that Tolkien has a lot to answer for in terms of inflicting on aspiring Fantasy writers the unholy urge to fill their prose with turgidity and pretentious excess. Maybe I've just reviewed too many manuscripts.
 
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