Sunday, January 18, 2009

Look who's Tolkien

Bad puns aside, I recently came across a story a writer had put up for critiques. The story began with a long description of how a god created the world and the various races in it.

When other critiquers explained that this was likely to deter readers, the writer was surprised. Wasn't that how Tolkien's book started out? Didn't the film version of The Lord of the Rings begin with a prologue?

The thing is, though, we aren't Tolkien.

The Lord of the Rings was written before 1950, and acceptable writing styles were different then. Especially in speculative fiction, readers were more willing to plow through paragraphs of description and backstory at the start. Everything changes, though, and these days readers want to be involved with the characters right away.

Also, Tolkien was more than a storyteller - he was a poet as well, and his prose has a beautiful, lyrical feel to it. Great writing covers a multitude of sins, but most new writers aren't likely to match this level of voice.

But the most interesting thing, for me, is that Tolkien's most famous books don't begin with the history of the world and how the gods created it. The Hobbit starts with a simple and personal introduction to Bilbo (a character, not a country), and The Fellowship of the Ring starts with Bilbo's party. Frodo - and the reader - has to wait until later to learn about the Ring and about the splendid and tragic history of Middle-Earth.

The Silmarillion is the definitive example of a book with a Genesis beginning, but even that isn't an encyclopedic entry. Instead of being dry and factual, it's woven through with emotion - Melkor's jealousy, Aule's love for his creations - and lyrical descriptions of the Valar.

And the book was published after the other two, when readers wanted more of Middle-Earth. It wasn't an introduction to the epic or a prologue which explained all the worldbuilding.

When I first began writing fantasy, I used prologues to describe both the world and the (usually portentous) birth of the protagonist. After a while, I realized these were both dull and cliched, and now I just start in media res. Works a lot better.


Angela Ackerman said...

This is a tough lesson to learn, unfortunately--but better the author learn it now than after subbing it to agents/editors...

Kami said...

What Angela said! Unless one of them commented on it (highly unlikely) the author would not necessarily ever learn why it wasn't getting any attention.

Learning from or even imitating the masters can work, but I think it's harder to make such things your own. It's also harder to make them interesting to agents and editors, who look at (probably on a daily basis) many retellings of Romeo and Juliet and Tolkien knockoffs and novels set in the world of Jane Austen because a movie came out or someone took a class on Shakespeare or someone discovered a great short story for the first time and wanted to expand on it. When you're working in disparate time periods, that only makes it harder.

colbymarshall said...

it's true...writing styles are different now than then. Live and learn, I s'pose

Marian Perera said...

Kami - I started off imitating Richard Adams, since I love Watership Down.

That meant I started every chapter with a quote of poetry, some of which I wrote myself and some of which I didn't (only learned much later that there were copyright concerns). And some of that poetry was long.

Eventually I realized that agents and editors want to see your writing, not Sylvia Plath's. Besides, if you can only send, say, five pages, you want to make every line of those five pages count, rather than wasting space on a quote which could easily be included once they accept the book.

Marian Perera said...

Angela - the writer took that very well, but now we're into "why not start with a prologue?" Heh.

Marian Perera said...

Colby - And if a writer's going to imitate styles of the past, the book had better be the next Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

JH said...

...if a writer's going to imitate styles of the past, the book had better be the next Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

Or better yet, the next Mason & Dixon.