October Hodgepodge 2013

Here are a few thoughts (about creativity and the writing process) to savor:

”Inspiration usually comes during work rather than before it.”
– Madeleine L’Engle

“You climb a long ladder until you can see over the roof, or over the clouds.  You are writing a book. You watch your shod feet step on each round rung, one at a time; you do not hurry and do not rest.  Your feet feel the steep ladder’s balance; long muscles in your thighs check its sway.  You climb steadily, doing your job in the dark.
When you reach the end, there is nothing more to climb.  The sun hits you. The bright wideness surprises you; you had forgotten there was an end.  You look back at the ladder’s two feet on the distant grass astonished.”
Annie Dillard, in The Writing Life

No matter how hard you work on your writing, there will always be other writers who are better, faster, deeper, more popular, richer. And that’s fine.”
– Jane Yolen, in an interview in the Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast blog

“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”
– Albert Einstein

“There are painters who transform the sun to a yellow spot, but there are others who with the help of their art and their intelligence, transform a yellow spot into the sun.”
– Pablo Picasso

“The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease forever to be able to do it.”
– J.M. Barrie, in The Little White Bird, “Peter Pan” chapter

“To learn something new, take the path that you took yesterday.”
John Burroughs, naturalist (1837–1921)

Six Writing Tips from J.R.R. Tolkien

Are you a fan of The Hobbit? A Lord of the Rings geek?

Perhaps you just enjoy a good story, well told.

If you’re a writer, here are some tips drawn from Tolkien’s work. Even if they don’t magically transform you into a writer whose work develops a worldwide cult-like following, as did Professor Tolkien’s . . . nonetheless, attention to these principles will improve your writing.

1. Keep those scraps of ideas.

A familiar story to those who follow Tolkien’s biography is that The Hobbit “began” many years before its publication in 1937 when, in a moment of odd inspiration, Tolkien jotted down an strange phrase that popped into his mind. It would become the opening line of The Hobbit:

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

He scribbled it on the back of a page from a student’s exam booklet (a free source of scratch paper that Tolkien like to use). Of course, he had no idea of what a hobbit was. Nobody did. But Tolkien realized that the curious phrase held some form of delight for him.

The key: Be observant. When you encounter an intriguing item, save it. Record those snippets. Cut out those tales of the weird and stick them in a file.

And keep them.

Snippets are lovely phrases. Curious thoughts. Interesting observations. Overhead bits of memorable conversation. Strange sightings.

Anne Rice admitted she has awakened at night to scribble half-dreamt ideas on her room’s wallpaper to make sure she recalled them in the morning. Others keep a small notebook with them to jot down daily thoughts and random phrases.

Novelist Susan Henderson, in a post on her website LitPark, once wrote:

Write down every idea before it’s gone. Use the backs of envelopes and gas receipts if you’re driving. On one of those slips is your breakout story:
. . .
“Mother dances salsa in front of the mirror in a stolen dress.”
. . .
If you don’t write it down, you’ll waste [that] gift.

I drive with a pen between my teeth, holding the paper against the steering wheel when I write. Never mind the honking. I roll the windows up or the hundreds of story ideas littering the passenger seat will blow onto the highway, and then someone else might write my breakout story.

2. Master the trick of particularity.

In talks for writers, I’ve often praised the beginning paragraphs of The Hobbit. They reveal two aspects of brilliant technique. First, although the hobbit is one of Tolkien’s great artistic inventions, he chose to start by describing not a hobbit but a hobbit’s dwelling. We quickly come to know a lot about hobbits as we go in the front door, down the hall, and into the hobbit’s cozy den of comfort.

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats – the hobbit was fond of visitors.

Besides the choice of what to describe, notice the specificity of the small number of details. We see the round door “like a porthole, painted green,” the yellow knob in the “exact middle.”We go down the hall with its inviting pegs on the wall. These are the tricks of fiction. The author chooses a small number of details, and somehow, this convinces us that there is a “real” place (albeit in a fictional world of a book) with believable characters doing things of importance. The odder or more precise the detail, the more convincing.

Dorothy Sayers, scholar and mystery writer, in discussing Dante’s The Inferno, calls this “the trick of particularity.” Dante mastered it, she says, as did other great writers. Why is there a lamppost in the woods in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia when the Penvensie children arrive for the first time? And why do we soon spy a faun carrying an umbrella? Something about it offers a concreteness to the scene. And we start to see it in our mind’s eye.

Fantasy writers are by no means the only ones to use the trick of particularity. It’s just that in fantasy it’s so noticeable because so much of it is implausible, like the glow of a dragon’s fiery breath in a deep cave, as a small hobbit creeps forward, closer and closer to the sound of its breath:

“a sort of bubbling like the noise of a large pot galloping in the fire, mixed with a rumble as of a gigantic tom-cat purring.”
. . .
There he lay, a vast red-golden dragon, fast asleep; a thrumming came from his jaws and nostrils, and wisps of smoke, but his fires were low in slumber. Beneath him, under all his limbs and his huge coiled tail, and about him on all sides stretching away across the unseen floors, lay countless piles of precious things, gold wrought and unwrought, gems and jewels, and silver red-stained in the ruddy light.

Smaug lay, with wings folded like an immeasurable bat, turned partly on one side, so that the hobbit could see his underparts and his long pale belly crusted with gems and fragments of gold from his long lying on his costly bed.

3. A Journey is a Marvelous Device.

“To a story-teller a journey is a marvelous device. It provides a strong thread on which a multitude of things that he has in mind may be strung . . . .”

So wrote Tolkien in a letter (included in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. by Humphrey Carpenter).

Both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings make full use of The Journey as a central device, as have countless other novels, from Don Quixote and Gulliver’s Travels to C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader to more recent works like Life of Pi.

Other novels use the journey metaphorically as a trip through a distinct segment of time. For instance, Dickens used the device in A Christmas Carol, as we “travel” through Scrooge’s past. It is the core scheme of coming-of-age novels like David Copperfield and of the Harry Potter novels, following students of magic through their years at Hogwarts.

The Hero’s Journey is the mythical form of this. Christopher Vogler and others have written of the fictional applications to popular books and movies.

The structure allows both writer and reader to stay on course, following a natural thread that becomes more familiar and emotionally rich for readers, as we travel along, following the steps of the journey being taken.

The inevitable structure of a journey (beginning, middle, and end) becomes departure, travel, and arrival. This plot aid can help a writer think more about the other elements of story: the character of those on the journey, the purpose of it, the revelations & surprises encountered on the way, and the transformation gained by journey’s end.

Tolkien’s subtitle of The HobbitThere and Back Again – is not as mundane as it might seen. It is a four-word summary of a grand adventure.

4. How does the story sound?

Many great writers, from Roald Dahl to Richard Adams (author of Watership Down), honed their storytelling skills and developed ideas by first telling versions of their stories out loud. In addition to telling bedtime stories to his four kids, in 1920, Tolkien began his wonderful Father Christmas Letters, annual illustrated missives delivered, complete with hand-drawn postage stamps, and read aloud to them when they were young, telling of recent escapades at the North Pole. Likewise, Lewis Carroll (Charles Hodgson) first spun Alice’s trip into Wonderland to entertain kids on a boating excursion.

In such tellings, ideas are field-tested, ideas played out, and writing cadences are refined.

Master writing instructor Peter Elbow has suggested that reading one’s work aloud is one of the most powerful tools to improve a work. The spurious word, the awkward phrase, cannot be hidden in a reading, even if you read aloud and alone in a room. It “gives you the vicarious experience of being someone else” hearing the words for the first time; it “brings the sense of audience back into your act of writing.” This, Elbow says, “is a great source of power.”

Susan Orlean agreed, saying that reading your work out loud is “the single best tool for self-editing.”

Try reading Tolkien’s description of Smaug the dragon out loud. You’ll hear what a gift it is for the mouth and ear.

Naturally, learning to tell stories first orally is a great way to start a writing career. But if you didn’t start that way, you can catch up now. Pick a page from your draft and read it out loud. And be sure to have your red pen of revision handy.

5. Take your time.

In today’s world, we often feel a rush to write, submit, get published, or self-publish if no agent or editor steps forward quickly enough. But Tolkien’s experience suggests that truly great works benefit from time.

Tolkien took much time. He returned years later to that scrap of paper to wonder what a hobbit might look like, what it might do, and why. He wrote and revised. He considered the back-story. He wrote background myths, and language, and poems and songs that the characters might sing. He drew maps. He drew illustrations. And he fussed over everything. In The Lord of the Rings, he charted the separate travels of groups of characters, and wondered if he had gotten it all right, so that the phase of the moon that one party was looking at on a given night was the same as that which another party saw elsewhere on the same night.

And, as Tolkien scholar Dr. John D. Rateliff noted, after long study of Tolkien’s manuscript drafts: Tolkien revised. And revised. And each time he did, the work got better.

Success lies in the skill of those revisions. Writing is rewriting. A manuscript can get better, with sufficient time to set it aside, rethink key passages, connect more dots, build the back-story, and deepen the thematic elements. One of the best things you can do is to set a piece aside to let it cool, before returning to revise with a fresher eye and ear.

6. Assemble a great writers group.

Tolkien was not a solitary genius. He spent much time in the company of fellow writers. At Oxford, he assembled frequently with an informal group called The Inklings, which included C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, and others of notable scholarship and creative ability. They read from their works in progress and talked and smoked and drank in sessions in Lewis’s chic-shabby rooms at Magdalen College at Oxford. They discussed literature over pints at the favorite pub.

A great book on The Inklings is The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community. In it, author Diana Pavlac Glyer shows how the Inklings worked and how much they influenced each other’s prose.

You may not easily assemble so lofty a group. But the better the writers you can associate with, and the deeper that literary friendship can become, the more chance you have to challenge yourself to produce better drafts, to read in public, to listen to yourself and others, to revise, and to help and encourage your friends. You can lift each other to higher achievements. The key is to find the best. Keep the groups small and informal. Better to find a good friend or two than to go to large gatherings of people you don’t really know or trust for their literary vision. There is no advantage to numbers. Quality rules, in friends and colleagues.

Write like Tolkien.

These six points of advice are not random ideas. They are key approaches to improving your writing. I have often pressed these thoughts to the attention of emerging writers, looking for advice.

I guess I could simplify those points and say, “Just write like Tolkien.”

As we say here in the American Midwest when we really believe something is true (and I could imagine hobbits saying something like it): “You could do worse.”

[This article is by Philip Martin, author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature (now also available for Kindle) and How To Write Your Best Story, and director of Great Lakes Literary and the Blue Zoo Writers site.]

The Map as Source of a Writer’s Inspiration

Here”s a bit of advice from Robert Louis Stevenson, in writing about the genesis of Treasure Island (from his 1905 short work Essays in the Art of Writing). He speaks to the imaginative power of starting by making a map!

The story begins in 1881 in the Scottish Highlands, during a rainy spell spent confined in a cottage, as Stevenson spends time fooling around with watercolors with his stepson.

There it blew a good deal and rained in a proportion; my native air was more unkind than man’s ingratitude, and I must consent to pass a good deal of my time between four walls in a house lugubriously known as the Late Miss McGregor’s Cottage. (. . .) There was a schoolboy in the Late Miss McGregor’s Cottage, home from the holidays, and much in want of ‘something craggy to break his mind upon.’ He had no thought of literature; it was the art of Raphael that received his fleeting suffrages; and with the aid of pen and ink and a shilling box of water colours, he had soon turned one of the rooms into a picture gallery. (. . .) I would sometimes unbend a little, join the artist (so to speak) at the easel, and pass the afternoon with him in a generous emulation, making coloured drawings.

On one of these occasions, I made the map of an island; it was elaborately and (I thought) beautifully coloured; the shape of it took my fancy beyond expression; it contained harbours that pleased me like sonnets; and with the unconsciousness of the predestined, I ticketed my performance ‘Treasure Island.’

I am told there are people who do not care for maps, and find it hard to believe. The names, the shapes of the woodlands, the courses of the roads and rivers, the prehistoric footsteps of man still distinctly traceable up hill and down dale, the mills and the ruins, the ponds and the ferries, perhaps the STANDING STONE or the DRUIDIC CIRCLE on the heath; here is an inexhaustible fund of interest for any man with eyes to see or twopence-worth of imagination to understand with! No child but must remember laying his head in the grass, staring into the infinitesimal forest and seeing it grow populous with fairy armies.

(. . .) Somewhat in this way, as I paused upon my map of ‘Treasure Island,’ the future character of the book began to appear there visibly among imaginary woods; and their brown faces and bright weapons peeped out upon me from unexpected quarters, as they passed to and fro, fighting and hunting treasure, on these few square inches of a flat projection.

The next thing I knew I had some papers before me and was writing out a list of chapters.

(. . .) Fifteen days I stuck to it, and turned out fifteen chapters; and then, in the early paragraphs of the sixteenth, ignominiously lost hold. My mouth was empty; there was not one word of TREASURE ISLAND in my bosom; (. . .) I was indeed very close on despair; but I shut my mouth hard, and [a bit later] down I sat one morning to the unfinished tale; and behold! it flowed from me like small talk; and in a second tide of delighted industry, and again at a rate of a chapter a day, I finished TREASURE ISLAND.

(. . .) I had written it up to the map. The map was the chief part of my plot. For instance, I had called an islet ‘Skeleton Island,’ not knowing what I meant, seeking only for the immediate picturesque, and it was to justify this name that I broke into the gallery of Mr. [Edgar Allan] Poe and stole Flint’s pointer. And in the same way, it was because I had made two harbours that the HISPANIOLA was sent on her wanderings with Israel Hands.

(. . .) I have said the map was the most of the plot. I might almost say it was the whole. A few reminiscences of Poe, Defoe, and Washington Irving, a copy of Johnson’s BUCCANEERS, the name of the Dead Man’s Chest from Kingsley’s AT LAST, some recollections of canoeing on the high seas, and the map itself, with its infinite, eloquent suggestion, made up the whole of my materials. It is, perhaps, not often that a map figures so largely in a tale, yet it is always important. The author must know his countryside, whether real or imaginary, like his hand; the distances, the points of the compass, the place of the sun’s rising, the behaviour of the moon, should all be beyond cavil.

(. . .) But it is my contention – my superstition, if you like – that who is faithful to his map, and consults it, and draws from it his inspiration, daily and hourly, gains positive support. . . . The tale has a root there; it grows in that soil; it has a spine of its own behind the words. Better if the country be real, and he has walked every foot of it and knows every milestone. But even with imaginary places, he will do well in the beginning to provide a map; as he studies it, relations will appear that he had not thought upon; he will discover obvious, though unsuspected, short-cuts and footprints for his messengers; and even when a map is not all the plot, as it was in TREASURE ISLAND, it will be found to be a mine of suggestion.

The take-away: draw a detailed map. You may be surprised what it adds to the richness of your story.