How Tolkien Thwarted my Novel for Decades (Finding Your Voice, Part 1)

This is – probably- a two part series on overcoming some of the most significant internal obstacles that new writers face as they struggle to complete (or maybe even start) that first novel. 

I’m sure this will sound familiar to many writers out there (timelines are condensed, but you’ll get the idea):

The Reigning Champion

It’s evening, and the time to finally start my first novel has come. I have my new notebook (or blank word document) open before me.  I have the proper snacks and drinks on hand, and no one to bother me.  It’s time to get to work.  Let’s see…well, I guess I need to flesh out my characters.  I have a hard boiled warrior, a wise wizard, and a dark lord.  And a magic sword.  And elves. And armies massing to battle each other. And dragons.

So my story has already fallen into the well trodden tracks of the writer who I admire the most: JRR Tolkien. My draft outline is sounding like a rip off of The Lord of the Rings. But you know what?  That’s fine…it’s just a starting point.  I’ll make it more original later.  Now I need names.  You know what a cool name is? Aragorn.  And Gandalf.  Actually, my names really suck compared to those names.  But worry about that later.  Get the idea on paper!

Fast forward three pages.  Wow, that took a lot to get started, but it’s finally starting to flow.  Let’s take a look. Hmmm.  My warrior is talking like a Shakespearean moron.  And the wizard isn’t wise…he’s restating the obvious.  Nothing like Gandalf.  In fact, my story is so trite and unoriginal that it’s an insult to say it was inspired by Tolkien.  This is going to the trash NOW, before anyone sees it.

For years, this was the fate of nearly all of my attempts to write a novel.  Instead of just being motivated by some of the literary greats of my beloved genre, I found myself using them as an unyielding standard for my own writing. And so hours of work would be wasted, and any momentum towards finishing my novel stymied

The worlds of Middle Earth and Arrakis were my inspirational playground for years. The motivation that I drew from literary masters like Tolkien and Frank Herbert helped power my desire to write for decades. So it was a complete surprise when I finally realized that these two were also some of my greatest obstacles to becoming an author. In fact, the unrealistic comparison of my work with my favorite writers is one of the chief reasons I never allowed myself to write more than nine or ten pages at a time.  Invariably when I reviewed them (never edit your draft until it’s complete!) I would ask myself “would Tolkien write dialogue like this?” The answer of course was “no,” and in frustration I’d toss my work aside.

The more experienced writers out there already know this, but it’s worth stating plainly for novice writers who are struggling with your first manuscript: you’re not Tolkien, or Herbert, or any other author than yourself.  You have your own voice, and you have to be willing to use it, to nurture it, and let it mature.  When I finally admitted to myself that maybe I didn’t actually need to write “the next Lord of the Rings” I was able to finally use the inspiration that those books had planted within me to finish my own novel. To my shock, my first completed manuscript wasn’t even a fantasy story at all.  But I have come to love it.

I found it difficult to separate the inspiration that Tolkien’s books instilled from the quality of the books themselves.  This may sound ludicrous, but when you’re trying to find your own writing rhythm for the first time, it can be tough to see the writing forest from the already written trees.

So the first piece of advice is: find your voice, and when your book is finally finished, you may find that you’re no Tolkien, but you’ll be fine with that. Once you realize this, you’ll feel liberated, and your own words can start to flow. Good luck, and happy writing.

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8 Responses to How Tolkien Thwarted my Novel for Decades (Finding Your Voice, Part 1)

  1. Jen Kirchner says:

    Great advice! I remember facing this kind of defeatism a lot when I first started writing. Sometimes it still rears its ugly head!

  2. I still have this problem with a few authors in particular; my mom (a high-school English teacher and back in the day my No. 1 reader) once told me that I’m a literary chameleon, taking on the characteristics of my “surroundings” almost unwittingly.

    Over the years, I’ve realized that there are certain books or authors that I just shouldn’t read while I’m in the middle of writing: Salman Rushdie, whose characters and diction I tend to rip off atrociously; David Foster Wallace, whose plots (and footnotes) I rape and pillage unabashedly; and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose voice (particularly his rhythm and grammatical patterns) I tend to adopt for my narration of events. All these things work for those authors; for me, they just make my writing sound trite and derivative. I think the moral of the story is that it’s important to make a distinction between learning from someone else’s technique and copying it completely. At least from a standpoint of finding an original and genuinely intriguing voice, it makes all the difference.

  3. GarryRogers says:

    How do you find your voice?

    • W.E. Linde says:

      That’s a deep question, Garry. Thanks for asking. I don’t claim to have the absolute best answer, but here’s my take on it. I posted a second part to this (wow, it’s been a couple of years now), called Who Cares What You Write? Only One Way to Find Out (Finding Your Voice, Part 2) (you can find it here: https://welinde.com/2011/05/04/ if you’re interested). The condensed version, which of course is based on personal experience, is that a writer has to 1)identify what he or she is passionate about, and 2) practice writing it, no matter how hard it might seem at first. It sounds like a cop-out (“be yourself and don’t give up”), but fundamentally it’s true. There has to be something that excites the writer, and once he/she is liberated from the notion that his/her rough draft is not being judged by the ghosts of Tolkien, Lewis, and Herbert (or their fans), then a certain freedom is attained that allows for growth. At least, that’s been my experience. Through diligent writing, with an eye towards what the writer is passionate about, growth will eventually happen, and the voice will eventually be established. Thanks again for your reply!
      WEL

  4. GarryRogers says:

    I think you are right. You have to learn what you like. As an avid photographer, I recall the point after about 10 years and thousands of photographs when I realized I knew what I liked. Even then, it was hard to put into words. Some elements that I liked in a scene or photo stood out, but there were subtleties that remain illusive. For writing, the same sort of thing would be stated as writing and rewriting until you like what you’ve written. Combining that with studying the works of other authors might hurry the process along, but it might just be confusing. Some people say that writing voice is the same as spoken voice, and that you can test your writing by reading it aloud. I think this helps. Perhaps a linguistics scientist out there has defined grammar in such a way that we can quantify voice. Let’s agree to post that information when we find it! (;o).

  5. J.P. REEDMAN says:

    I had to laugh when I read this post because I identified with it so much! I was recently looking at an unpublished draft of a novel I worked on back in the 80’s, and although it has a few good points, it was indeed suffering the ‘Tolkien clone’ syndrome. I eventhought at the time that I was able to do the ‘high tone’ dialogue well; but in retrospect it was stilted and even cringeworthy. I think I found my ‘voice’ in earnest after returning to writing about 4 years ago, after a long gap. I still write fantasy, and there may be a nod or two to Tolkien (or other masters), but there is no overt similarities in plot or writing (except maybe for my visual imagery–my strongest point as it was JRRT’s. I am a great lover of countryside.) Two of my novels are set in the British bronze age, a period I have studied for 30 years, and my forthcoming YA book is dystopian and has a setting based on a 70’salternative world Canada!

    • W.E. Linde says:

      First of all, I apologize for the lateness of my response. I have been knee deep in my coursework, and I had to step away from the blog for a week.

      Secondly, I know exactly what you’re talking about! I think there were many who wanted to sincerely replicate the depth of Tolkien’s world, and language was such a fundamental part of his work. So we naturally wanted to follow that pattern, not realizing that we’re at best “recycling” Tolkien, if not outright “reusing” his ideas. It also sounds like you and I had similar experiences in that we matured by stepping away from such writing for a while. A lot of my writing efforts were in college, and the years immediately after. I effectively took a decade long break from fantasy writing when I joined the Air Force, and it was probably the best thing for me own voice. When I returned, I found inspiration from Tolkien still motivating me, but the need to replicate Middle Earth had been left behind.

      Thanks for your comment!
      WEL

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