Tolkien, for all his vaunted designs, only got to The Good Stuff when he was IN it, really working the text of the novels (or novel, if you consider The Lord of the Rings one big book). He could not worldbuild his way into a workable story; he had to muddle and discover and revise, just like the rest of us….
In a single stroke, we get: a mythic backstory, a grand MacGuffin, a sense of language and history, the sublimely satisfying train of magic numbers — three … seven … nine … ONE! — plus something graphically weird and beautiful on the page.
It’s all just tremendous — the perfect kernel of Tolkien’s appeal.
And, guess what:
Not only was the inscription missing from the early drafts of LOTR … the whole logic of the ring was missing, too. In its place was a mess. The ring possessed by Bilbo Baggins was one of thousands the Dark Lord manufactured, all basically equivalent: they made their wearers invisible, and eventually claimed their souls. They were like cursed candies scattered by Sauron across Middle-earth.
Tolkien’s explanation of this, in his first draft, is about about as compelling as what I just wrote.
It’s fine, as far as it goes; he could have made it work, probably? Possibly? But it is not COOL in the way that the final formulation is COOL. It has none of the symmetry, the inevitability. It does only the work it has to do, and nothing else. It is not yet aesthetically irresistible.
There are several revised approaches to “what’s the deal with the ring?” presented in The History of The Lord of the Rings, and, as you read through the drafts, the material just … slowly gets better! Bit by bit, the familiar angles emerge. There seems not to have been any magic moment: no electric thought in the bathtub, circa 1931, that sent Tolkien rushing to find a pen.
It was just revision.
I find this totally inspiring.
I find it totally inspiring, too.
This reminds me of this Guy Gavriel Kay quote which I’ve posted before and will now post again:
I learned a lot about false starts in writing. I mean that in a really serious way. His [Tolkien’s] false starts. You learn that the great works have disastrous botched chapters, that the great writers recognise that they didn’t work. So I was looking at drafts of The Lord of the Rings and rough starts for The Silmarillion and came to realise they don’t spring full-blown, utterly, completely formed in brilliance. They get there with writing and rewriting and drudgery and mistakes, and eventually if you put in the hours and the patience, something good might happen. That was a very, very early lesson for me, looking at the Tolkien materials. That it’s not instantly magnificent. That it’s laboriously so, but it gets there. That was a huge, huge, still important lesson.
This one came from wanting to write a story with virtual reality involved (which admittedly ended up being more of a bystander in the finished piece) and then my recent experience with my dad took over and became the main driver, though the details in the story are all quite different.
New story: Bag Field. About twenty pages long, fantasy.
I started writing this story in March 2021 but didn’t get very far. Picked it up again at the end of August and here we are. Ten minutes of writing a day is still working well, by the way, especially when I look back at the year — six stories finished, roughly 90 pages together. Much better than not finishing anything. (That said, I do hope to spend more time on writing going forward.)
New story: Unlocked. About fifteen pages long, fantasy.
This one was surprisingly easy to write, and I really enjoyed the process. The story originated with my Edge of Magic web novel (the one I abandoned years ago), went through several upheavals as I tried to figure out what to do with it, and landed with a completely new story. The only thing in common is the name of the main character.
I started working on this story back in 2016 but it didn’t come together at the time. This story is wildly different from that early draft, with the characters’ names (Dagh and Maria Bonita) being about the only parts that have survived.
We’re overdue for some kind of general life update, I think. Weeknotes-that-are-not-weeknotes:
The health issues I referred to in May are still largely unchanged, though I’ve come to terms with it enough that I should probably stop using it as an excuse for lower productivity. (I do need to rest more than I used to, but I also feel like I’m spending proportionally less time making things than is warranted. I’m now tracking my time using a completely rewritten version of Momentum, so I should hopefully have more actual data to work with soon.)
We’ve also had a month of worrisome family medical issues (including two late-night ER visits) that have been weighing me down.
On the plus side, I got some lab results that finally motivated me to start exercising more and make real changes to my diet. I’m three weeks in and the lifestyle adjustments seem to be sticking. Fingers crossed.
The rising case counts and Delta situation certainly is discouraging. My faith in humanity in the aggregate has eroded significantly over the past year and a half.
In spite of a spectacular lack of public results, I’m still writing, slowly. (Much more successful at avoiding it.) In the middle of figuring out a process that consistently gives me a) results that b) don’t make me cringe.
I’ve been trying to keep artmaking to the weekends so I have more of a chance at making progress with my writing, but it doesn’t seem to be working as well as I’d hoped.
Another thing I’ve been itching to do is get back into making web-based art tools like Cirque (which needs a lot of improvement). Several ideas here I’m excited to work on.
Alan Jacobs on blog gardens. I’m particularly intrigued by the idea of writing about the same topic in depth over longer periods of time as a way of organically writing what effectively amounts to a book.
Joel Hooks on blogs and digital gardens — this makes me want to finish my revamp of Slash so I can more easily add an actual digital garden to this site (and at some point I’ll write about that revamp since I don’t think I’ve gone into any detail on it)
Amy Hoy on how blogs broke the web — it’s not quite as bad as the headline sounds, but still some good food for thought (you could say this is another way of looking at stock vs. flow)