What Tolkien Taught Me About Writing

As anyone who reads this blog with any regularity knows, I am both a fan of Tolkien and an aspiring writer of epic fantasy. In fact, it was first reading Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings that in part inspired me to try my own hand at not just writing an epic fantasy, but undertaking the work necessary to create an entire world–with its own histories, mythologies, religions, etc.–in which to set that epic. Even now, so many years later, I continue to find much about Tolkien’s process that I find inspiring and motivating. 

Those who have read the History of Middle-earth published by Christopher Tolkien know that he has laboriously and meticulously excavated his father’s voluminous manuscripts no doubt know how much LotR changed as Tolkien fiddled with it, often clinging to names long beyond the point where they didn’t match the characters to which they belonged. Reading these history books, one also sees just how complex Tolkien’s process was, how he allowed the story to grow and develop rather than adhering to some strict vision.

What’s more, you have to admire the profound depth of Tolkien’s legendarium. This is a man, remember, who created a world with its own internal consistency: replete with languages, histories, genealogies, and the like. And, taking a rather meta stance for a moment, it’s also true that his work has a textual history as rich and varied and contradictory (and frustrating) as any real-world mythology. There are still vagaries and inconsistencies that trouble those of us who like things to arrive in neat packages.

For the past two years now I’ve been working on an epic fantasy novel, and you know what that entails. Not only do you have to keep multiple plot-threads straight in your mind–for both the novel you’re working on and for the series as a whole–but you also have to develop your own world and make sure that it is both internally consistent and that it comes out properly in your novel. Neither of those is very easy to do, let me tell you, but the rewards are so satisfying. 

Just as importantly, you have to make sure that your characters have a depth and richness to them that makes them become something more than stand-ins for epic archetypes. While some have criticized Tolkien for not giving his characters a great deal of interiority or self-reflection, I think that grossly underestimates how much we get to see into the minds of the hobbits, particularly Sam and Frodo. 

In the end, I suppose that the greatest lesson I’ve taken from learning about Tolkien’s process is to allow yourself the time to revise what you’ve written. Very rarely does an epic spring fully-formed from its creator’s mind. There are going to be missteps, and that’s okay. At the same time, I’ve also learned that there comes a time when you simply have to let it go, that no matter how much you revise you are not going to reach a state of perfection (trust me, that is much harder than it sounds).

I’m now reaching what I believe to be the end of the first draft of my first novel, and I hope one day be worthy of following in Tolkien’s footsteps. Only time will tell!


Dissertation Days (57): An Overdue Update

Since I realized that it’d been over 2 weeks since I’d written an update on the Dissertation, I thought I’d take a hot second and do so. Things continue apace. I’m getting ready to submit a revised version of parts of Chapter 3 to the adviser, while I continue finishing up the readings themselves.

And, fortunately, I continue to make some really good progress on Chapter 4. The writing has been coming remarkably smoothly these last few weeks, and that is a huge relief. I now actually feel like I can get this whole project done and defended in the next 7 months, and that is also a tremendous relief.

There is something poetic about writing about the lost dreams of a a powerful woman and the feeling of melancholic utopia that that generates in the wake of 2016. It’s not that everything in the world has to line up neatly with the election and its aftermath, but it’s funny how very different it feels to write this dissertation now that an eminently qualified woman and her dreams of a better future were dashed. Not to mention the fact that when I began writing about a period in which an entire country trembled before the possibility of nuclear war I never dreamt I would be living such a reality.

Such, though, are the vagaries of a project that takes a couple of years to complete. Now that I’m almost done, I can take a bit more time to reflect on those larger questions. If nothing else, they’ll make a nice anecdote with which to open or close the book (when I finally get around to changing this beast into a monograph).

Overall, I’m very happy with the way this dissertation has taken shape. I’ve worked long and hard on it, and I feel like I’ve intellectually accomplished something. There are still a few more mile-markers to cross, but I do believe I can see the finish line, over there in the distance somewhere.

I plan to continue these little updates until the very end, but they may be a bit more sporadic. I have a lot of other writing projects going on, both on this blog and in the outside world, and I want to make sure they get the attention they deserve. In the meantime, you can always check my Twitter, since I usually tweet diss updates there.

Well, I’m off.

Keep writing, my beauties!

Dissertation Days (56): Handwriting

It’s been a while, hasn’t it? What can I say, I’ve been enjoying the time to actually write my Dissertation rather than just write about it, and I’m happy to say that I’ve made tremendous progress on both Chapter 3 and Chapter 4. And boy, does that feel good.

One thing that has really helped lately is taking my chapters and writing the introduction out by hand. This really frees my creativity and thinking in a way that typing on the computer just doesn’t do. I won’t go so far as to say that it’s better, but I do find it particularly useful when I’m struggling to get all of my ideas to fit together on paper the way they do in my head.

I have to say that I’ve been making the best progress I’ve made with these chapters since I finished Chapter 2 a year ago. I think I have finally started to see the flaws in my writing, how those flaws affect my intelligibility, and how to correct them (as much as possible). I do tend to use the word “seem” a lot, which I suspect is a way of disowning the ideas that I’m putting on paper. It’s a bad habit that I’ve gotten into, and I’m determined to break it.

As I work through my revision of Chapter 3, I’m also noticing how very, very wordy I am. It’s not just that I like long sentences and complicated syntax (though that’s true); it’s that I tend to bury my ideas so far into the sentence that whatever claim I’m making is almost totally obfuscated. So, a lot of revision has been about chopping bits and pieces here and there, pruning in order to let the ideas show forth in all of their conceptual glory.

Chapter 4 is also coming along quite nicely (FINALLY). I’ve found the core foci of the chapter, the basic structure, and the way I think it’s going to end up coming together. Now that that heavy lifting is done, I think the rest of it should start congealing. In a way, it feels more like Chapter 2 did as I was writing it, so that is (hopefully) a very good sign indeed.

Tomorrow there is a lot to get done, but I’m confident now that I’ve finally found a groove that works. Maybe, just maybe, I can get this beast done and defended by April.

On second thought.

I will.

Dissertation Days (55): Where We Are Now

Well, it’s been a hot minute since I posted an update. I guess I got caught up in, you know, actually writing my Dissertation. Imagine that! So, I thought I’d give everyone an update that’s a little longer than usual, in order to tell you how things are going and how they stand now.

Fortunately, the revisions for Chapter 3 are moving along at a brisk pace. I’m actually enjoying slicing out the bits of extraneous material that don’t move my argument forward. For someone who is as word-conscious as I am, that can be quite a liberating experience. Hopefully, by the end of this week (or next week at the latest), the contextualization sections–both historical and theoretical–will be ready for resubmission. Then it’s on to the close readings. Luckily, I think those are in pretty solid condition, though of course a little pruning won’t hurt. That should be done by the end of the month (at the very latest).

Chapter 4 is also coming along surprisingly well, considering this has been the chapter that has given me the most conceptual trouble. Right at the moment I’m sort of toggling between the historical context section and the close reading of the film Cleopatra. I hope to continue making some solid progress on that for the rest of this week. I had to start yet another document that is misleadingly titled “Final Version of Chapter 4,” but hopefully this time it’ll actually turn out to be true (at least until the revisions from the Adviser are handed back).

I had a bit of a panic moment last week, when I sort of forgot what it was that I was saying about Fall of the Roman Empire that set my own interpretation apart from what’s come before, but I think I overcame that little struggle. If I maintain the focus of my chapter on the tensions that I am locating, and on the affect that such tensions seem intended to create, I think I can push the existing discourse in some new and interesting directions.

My Dissertation Days posts may be a bit more sporadic than normal this month, since I’ve basically got my head down trying to finish all of this. Still, I’m going to try to remain at least somewhat consistent, since it does help me keep to my writing schedule if I know that other people are also keeping tabs on me.

So, basically, we’re holding steady. Had some productive conversations with my Adviser about both the Dissertation and the job search, and I feel at least somewhat confident about both of those (as confident as one can be about the job market, anyway). I just have to make sure that I stay disciplined, and that I also learn the necessity (and value!) of pruning my very wordy prose, and I think I might actually have a career ahead of me.

This week is going to be a busy one, but I’m confident that I can meet the goals I’ve set for myself. It just takes a bit of determination.

So, onward we go. Much to be done, but it CAN be done.

Novel Weekends (11): Progress

The novel has taken a bit of a backseat this past week, as I’ve geared up to get some hardcore dissertation writing done, but I was bit by the writing bug this weekend and feeling a bit disenchanted with academia (a rejection from a journal will do that), so I wrote quite a lot in my little fictional universe.

I am now in the midst of Chapter 7. The preceding chapters are in various stages of completion, but I hope to get them into shape relatively soon. After that, I’m going to charge full-steam ahead.

So far, I’ve written chapters focused on the POVs of 5 of my principals (Theadra, Eulicia, Arshakh, Talinissia, and Antonius). I have one more major character to introduce and a couple of minor ones, and then the full cast will be there. I’m still not sure if any of them are villains in the typical sense, but I think that’s probably a good thing. There is one character who’s unpleasant, but that’s not quite the same thing.

I also really enjoyed getting to know my character Arhsakh this weekend. He’s a lot more complicated than I had previously thought. He’s a survivor, and a schemer, but he also has weaknesses and foibles, just like anyone, so we’ll see what happens to him. I see a bright future for him, but that could always change.

All in all, I’m happy with both the progress I’ve made and with the general trajectory of the plot. I think I have an interesting story to tell, and I think my story does and says something, so I think that’s a pretty good basis. It’s very easy to write shitty fantasy, but I like to think I’ve at least hit mediocre.

So, with that happy note, I’m off.

Until next week!

World Building (11): The Old Ones

The following is a synopsis of a segment of The Chronicles, a book of history compiled by Varassed, the Chronicler to Shah Yamin IV (compiled around F.D. 2500).* 

In all the legends and lore that surround the origins of Haranshar, none occupy as privileged a place as the Old Ones, according to legends the first humans who were able to build a civilization on the vast continent of Aridikh. Though their origins are in truth unknown, the priests of Ormazdh and the other tenders of knowledge have taken to calling them the Old Ones. The oldest records state that they came from across the Eastern Sea, from the fabled Middle Kingdom.

Regardless of from whence they came, the Old Ones soon conquered the various tribes that had been living on Aridikh, bringing them under the rule of what would become known as the Hegemony. From Hamarkhan in the furthest west of the continent to what would become Aspaña in the west, the Old Ones ruled supreme, their many powerful lords, kings, and princes existing in peace and harmony with one another.

Under the Old Ones, the world was reportedly full of technological achievements the like of which had never been seen before and which have not been matched since. They were able to make the arid lands of the western parts of Haranshar blood, reputedly even forming the great rivers that would nestle the most fertile lands in the world between them. They planted seeds and cities alike, and there were rumours that the greatest among them, the Shahs (of which there were reportedly 30) could communicate with one another across vast distances. Their courts and cities were full of singers and craftsmen, priests and sorcerers, beautiful women and men and others who were neither or both, and all lived in harmony.

Their faith was one based on a celebration of the material world and all of the pleasures that it offered. The world was divinely ordered, so their priest said, and there was nothing to be gained and everything to be lost by looking beyond it. There was in this theology no concept of an afterlife or a spiritual realm, which may in part explain the events that would soon bring this halcyon world crumbling into ruin.

For, as with all pinnacles, it was only a matter of time before the Old Ones fell prey to the desires of each other to conquer the others. They started the Great War, in which each mighty house was turned against its neighbour, and each and every one thought that it had been given the sole right to rule unchallenged all over the continent. The Shahs declared war one upon the other, even as their own lords and vassals declared war on them in turn. Rebellions and revolutions erupted in every province and kingdom, and even the common folk rose up, led by a series of wandering priests who declared the ways of the Old Ones to be hopelessly corrupt. The world, they said, needed to be purged by flame, and in this rebellion was sown the seeds of the faith that would eventually become known as Ormazdhism, though at this early stage it was merely part of the fires of chaos.

The conflagration soon spread out of all control, and the great civilization that the Old Ones had built collapsed into utter oblivion. Their wars raged across the entire continent. Civilization began to collapse into barbarism and cruelty, as neighbour was turned against neighbour and even families were torn asunder as their loyalties switched between various sides of the conflict.

There are no accurate records of what happened after the great culture of the Old Ones collapsed into anarchy and barbarism, for the great libraries that they had built to preserve their knowledge for the future were one of the first casualties. There is much that even now, with all that we have managed to achieve, that we do not understand about how they build their world and how they were able to stay in power for so long. All that is known is that there are still great towers and ruins scattered across Haranshar and the Imperium, testaments to their achievements. And we have a few tattered parchments and the legends of the singers that emerged after the Fall, when the world at last began to knit itself back together.

There was no recapturing the past glories of the Old Ones, however, and there were none of the great Shahs left after the collapse of their hegemony. It would be many centuries before the people of Aridikh began to pull themselves back together, and it would take one who claimed to be of the proud blood of the Old Ones (though the veracity of that claim was disputed then and is still questioned) to finally reunite them all. He would be the one who was known as Kharyush, the first of the Shahs whose reign over Haranshar (including the domains that would later become the Imperium) was complete.

Most provocatively for the present, however, there is a belief among the Korrayin, handed down from these dark days, that it was at the Pillar of Creation, the great mountain that stands at the center of Korray, that the Old Ones first came to be enlightened. The Pillar is said to be riddled with caverns and secret parts that no man has fully explored,

Furthermore, it is believed by some among the Alchemists that it was the Old Ones who first perfected the Art of Binding, and that it was through their use of the Bound spirits that they were able to bring about the great culture that was their accomplishment, and there are some among the priests of Ormazdh that believe that through recapturing that technology those who live in the present can regain their past glories. That, however, remains to be seen.

*The Haransharin follow a different dating system from their counterparts in the West. They date everything from F.D., which is short for First Dynasty, after the original dynasty to rise after the fall of the Old Ones.

Dissertation Days (53): A New Day, A New Office

Well, I finally moved into my new office at the Humanities Center here at Syracuse, and I have to say: I LOVE IT. It’s really quite a nice space, and it makes me feel like a genuine academic.

In that spirit, I was able to get quite a lot of work done during the hours I was there today, including 1,000 good words of Chapter 4, some perusal of Chapter 3, and a submitted SCMS proposal. I also started (finally) working on a book chapter that needs revision.

Chapter 4 continues apace. I’m now at the point where my momentum keeps me moving forward. There are still a few gaps that will need filling, but I see no reason why I can’t have a draft of this to the Adviser by the end of September, if not sooner. I have to say, this chapter is coming along much more smoothly than the previous one, ad I’m not sure yet whether that is a good thing or a bad thing. Hopefully it just means that I’ve finally hit my stride and the whole project is finally starting to gel.

Sometime soon, I’m going to have to both get down to brass tacks in terms of revising Chapters 1 and 2 and start working on my Introduction and Conclusion. Now that I’ve got a firmer grasp on what Chapter 4 is doing, I think that sounds like a good idea. Some parts of Chapter 4 may get bumped into the Conclusion, but that remains to be seen (as it depends on how the rest of Chapter 4 shapes up).

I may not have a chance to get much done tomorrow, but I am going to come in to the office on Saturday to carve out a bit more writing. I also have a book chapter due Monday, and I have to make sure my job materials are in order. It’s gonna be a bit of a working weekend, but that’s okay. I’ve had enough fun time in the past couple of weeks. It’s time to really buckle down.

Today, in other words, is one of those days where I feel really good about life, about writing, and about my scholarship. I’m sure there will be some rough days ahead, but I have to remember my motivation. I want to finish, get a TT-job, and start building a life with my Beloved Aaron.

I can do this. I know I can.

World Building (10): The Tragedy of the Zervan Dynasty

In the annals of the Imperators, there is one dynasty whose fortunes have never recovered from their time upon the throne. While the Zervan Dynasty was, in origin, from the lands of Haranshar (the province of Eshurya, to be precise), they had moved to the West in the hopes that they could establish their fortunes by hitching themselves to the wagon of the first Imperators.

As a result, they were able to marry themselves into the powerful first dynasty, with the favoured daughter Dominysa marrying Kavaros, the fifth son of the first two Imperators. They would go on to have two sons, Karaktus and Gratian. Meanwhile, Dominysa’s sister Martinya was consolidating the family’s wealth, building a powerful base of support that, she thought, would ensure that her family remained enthroned for a thousand years.

Kavaros, at his wife’s insistence, managed to displace the children of his elder four brothers. Their Houses would come to have a significant part to play in the downfall of Kavaros’ descendants and successors, but at the time of his accession they were far too busy squabbling amongst themselves to really do much to prevent his seizure of power, and still less so when it became obvious that this stern man and his equally indomitable wife (to say nothing of her ruthless sister) was in fact a very capable ruler in his own right.

Under Kavaros, the Imperium was able to exert its sphere of influence over larger portions of Korray, and there were even a few successful incursions into the territory of Haranshar. Unfortunately, Kavaros was stricken down while he was still in his prime, a man whose reign would for several generations come to be seen as the height of imperial accomplishment. While it might have seemed to many that the throne should pass to either the children of his elder brothers or to one of his sisters who were still living, that would not be the case. Such was his popularity among both the other Great Houses and among the commons that the throne was passed peacefully to his twin sons.

They, unfortunately, were not cut from the same mold. Karaktus and Gratian were notorious for their mutual loathing, and they went at each other with a vengeance as soon as the diadems were placed upon their heads. Though their mother Dominysa tried to broker a peace, she was unsuccessful, and Karaktus, always the more ruthless brother, had his brother assassinated in his mother’s arms. Dominysa threatened to go into seclusion and take the veil of a nun, but her son threatened her with further reprisals if she dared to do so, and so she was forced to become an unwilling partner in her son’s reign. In fact, it was largely as a result of her still-sterling reputation that he was able to hold onto the reigns of power at all.

Karaktus was not a well-loved ruler, however, and despite the fact that he offered full citizenship in the Imperium to the conquered territories, he was roundly repudiated and the Korrayin declared their renewed independence. As a result, the commons and the nobles began to turn against him, and it was only a matter of time before he was assassinated, reputedly while he was relieving himself at the side of the road.

There was a brief interregnum, when a brutal commoner known as Sokophanes seized the throne for both himself and his son. He had failed to reckon with the remaining dynasts, however, and both Dominysa and her sister Martinya rallied the troops to their cause. Though Dominysa would die in the midst of this, Martinya would continue on her younger sister’s mission, and with the aid of the legions and the Church she was able to elevate her eldest grandson to the throne. Though he had, technically, no connection to the blood of Kavaros, she was able to convince enough people of the lie that the youth, Varyus was in fact the product of a liaison between Karaktus and her daughter Vassiana.

Things at last seemed to be going well for thedynasty. The family matriarch, Martinya, was a canny strategist, and she had averted catastrophe by elevating her grandson Varyus to the throne. Her daughter, Vassiana, was now the most powerful woman in the Imperium. She even had another daughter and grandson lined up, should some unforeseen illness strike the first two.

Then, things began to go horribly wrong.

Varyus, seduced by a sun-priest from the lands of Korray, decided that it was time for the old Church to be thrown down from its lofty perch. He declared that the faith of El-Garvel be the law of the land and, to demonstrate his scorn for the Church, he forcibly took a Prefect as his wife. He then embarked on an orgy of unrivaled scope, taking both men and women to bed and caring nothing for the strictures and cycles of celibacy that were a key part of the Church.

His mother Vassiana was a willful and often spiteful child, and she had spoiled her son to an extraordinary degree. She did nothing to rein him in, and in many cases she was even seen to encourage him. She wanted to be the one wielding all of the power in the Imperium, and she did everything in her power to sideline her mother and to delegitimize her younger sister and her son Exkandros, who she rightly saw as a threat to her own hegemony.

Ultimately, Varyus’ own grandmother turned against her grandson and her daughter, neither of whom were capable of ruling and who would clearly destroy the dynasty if they were not stopped. She bribed the Imperial Guard to betray their charges and, in the orgy of bloodshed that followed her daughter and grandson were brutally killed, their bodies thrown into the river and never recovered. Though this may not have been what Martinya intended, it was the unfortunate fruit of her own sowing.

All was seemingly not lost, for she ensured that her other grandson Exkandros came to the throne, though once again it was mother, Yvita, who wielded most of the power. Though he restored the Church and was, seemingly, a corrective to his cousin, he was still seen as less than brave on the field of battle, and the death of his grandmother early in his reign removed a potential source of strength and stability.

Matters came to a head when he offered humiliating peace terms to a rebellious tribe of Korrayin, who had made incursions into the western borders of the Imperium. It was no secret that they had been funded and encouraged by Haranshar, and the Imperator’s caving to their demands was seen as the worst sort of weakness. The soldiers with whom he had surrounded himself rebelled, and he was assassinated, along with his mother.

With the death of Eskandros, the dynasty came to an ignominious end. His body and that of his mother were thrown in the River Tiver, as had been the case with his aunt and cousin. His successor, the usurper Maxhimos, had all vestiges of his predecessors utterly obliterated, before he too was overthrown and one of the legitimate heirs of Kavaros’ elder brothers claimed the throne as Claudianus I, the first of the Claudian Dynasty.

The Chronicler Arodius, one of the chief sources for this troubled period of Imperial history, had this to say of the Zervan Dynasty: “Never has a dynasty so quickly risen to power, and never has a dynasty flared so brightly. Yet with such glory comes great despair, and so it proved to be for the Zervani. Let them be a warning to all who would let greed and avarice cloud their judgment.”

Bitter words, indeed.

Dissertation Days (51): Good Days

Today was a good writing day. I managed to ingest just the right amount of caffeine, so I was ready and able to get going on the production of good writing. I really hit my stride, and I’m really happy with the way that the theory section is coming together.

I’m still a little concerned about the historical section. There’s still a bit of beefing up I need to do with that section, but I think I’ll be able to accomplish that in the next week or so. I really need to get that piece wrapped up soon, but I’m confident in my ability to do so.

Speaking of that context…I realized the other day that there was an important node of context that I had overlooked but which needs to be folded into the analysis. I’m a little worried that it might derail the discussion that has come so far, but I’m sure with a bit of determination I can make sure that the pieces all start to fit together in a way that makes sense and that lead naturally to the discussion I have on the films. That’s always been a weak spot, but at least I’ve gotten to the point where I can see it and (hopefully) effectively address it.

I really think I’m onto something with this discussion of spectacle and narrative and the relationship between them. I’ve always been a little frustrated by the way that people talk about spectacle, almost as if its’ one of those things that is just there and doesn’t need explanation, still less any kind of sustained analysis as a container of meaning. There has been some really interesting work done on this lately, though, so I’m very much looking forward to nuancing and developing that work to produce something compelling about the films I’m looking at.

So, tomorrow I’m going to keep on as I have been with Chapter 4. There’s still some way to go, but it’s definitely getting there. I feel more confident about this draft than I have any of the previous ones, so that’s definitely something. What’s more, I’ve been able to keep on track with this one in a way that I haven’t with any of the previous ones.

As I always say, any progress is good progress. I can do this. I just have to keep reminding myself of that central fact.


Dissertation Days (48): I’m Tired of Thinking About Cute Titles

Today was an extraordinarily productive day. I was able to churn out 1,500 words of Chapter 4 (most of which was quite good, I think). I focused mainly on the historical context, though I wrote some introductory material for what will eventually be the theoretical section.

Overall, I think that the historical context is a strong section, perhaps the strongest and most cohesive that I’ve written since Chapter 2. I’m looking at the ways in which the postwar political order that was so desperate to attain a measure of stability was always thwarted by the tensions of the postwar period, whether it was the escalating conflict between the US and the Soviet Union or the growing independence movements with all of the violence that entailed.

As I move forward, I just have to make sure that I continue drawing explicit connections between the context I’m laying out and the readings of the films. This has been my Achilles’ Heel since I began this dissertation, but I would like to think that I have avoided it (or at least addressed it) with this chapter. That, however, very much remains to be seen.

I also continued my effort to make some commentary on Chapter 1. I’d prefer not to wait until the last minute to do that, even though I have to admit that it is my least favourite part of the whole dissertation-writing process. It’s quite remarkable, though, to see how very different this chapter is from the ones that followed it. I do think that I am onto something, but the writing is a bit clunky at spots, and I can see there are points where what I really mean isn’t expressed as clearly as it should be. Of course, I just have to remind myself that that is what revision is for, to gradually distill one’s ideas down until they emerge in their clearest and most coherent form.

Tomorrow, I’m going to continue making progress on Chapter 4, and I hope to make my way through 10 pages of Chapter 1 (and make the appropriate commentary). At the pace I’m currently keeping, I should have a draft of Chapter 4 ready by the middle of September (which is my very ambitious goal). I just have to stay focused.

I can feel the finish line growing closer and closer. I just have to remember that I can do this.

I got this.

Let’s go.