I just began reading The History of the Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien and Christopher Tolkien. It is a fascinating exploration of the genesis and development of J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterwork, The Lord of the Rings. Aspiring writers will find it of interest, among other things, as proof of the often stated truism that “writing is rewriting.”
Few novels spring forth in final format the first go-round. Newbie writers quickly learn that writing a novel truly is not a matter of sitting down, banging at a keyboard, and getting up 10 chapters later with a masterpiece. They may find this frustrating, but in actuality, the need for patience and process in crafting a work of fiction is a blessing in disguise. It means writing is a skill, and a skill is learnable – something that can be exercised, honed and improved. Writers passionate about writing and willing to put in the time and effort will improve.
Which brings me back to The History of the Lord of the Rings. Did you know that in the earliest versions of The Lord of the Rings, Aragorn (a.k.a. Strider), the romantic hero of The Lord of the Rings originally was a hobbit – one of the likable but homely and very small folk (with large hairy feet) who provide as much comedy as they do drama in the novel? Only in later revisions did J.R.R. Tolkien transform Aragorn into one of the tall kingly “men of the West” (a Dúnedain). Oh, and his name as a hobbit? It was Trotter. Strider, I think we’ll all agree, is a much cooler nickname for a romantic hero.
Another book aspiring writers will find of interest is John Curran’s Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks. Culled from 73 of Agatha Christie’s notebooks, the book provides a glimpse of the process by which Christie – one of the best-selling authors of all time – crafted her meticulously plotted novels. Readers can pretty much see the authorial wheels grinding in these jotted notes – Christie playing with several ideas, then deciding on the one she’ll use. An example: In her “notes to self” as she prepped to write Murder Made Easy, she jots down, “How about this,” “A good idea would be,” and the age-old questions Curran calls “the essence of detective fiction”: “Who? Why? When? How? Where? Which?”
The notebooks also show how she would think through several variations in plot lines and how she would make a list of suspects to decide on who the murderer would be. In planning for Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, for example, she noodled up nine possible murderers coded 1A, 1B up through 5A, 5B, etc. before settling on 1B.
Again: Writing is rewriting.
Screenwriter Hal Croasmun gave some very good advice on the rewriting/revision process in his article, “Take Control of Your Creative Process.” The advice he offers screenwriters – to go through a minimum of six drafts – applies to novelists as well. Draft 1 is where you get it on paper (after, of course, outlining your story – See “How to Write a Pageturner Novel: Step 3 – Write a ‘Beat Sheet’ “). In drafts 2 through 5, you fine tune different aspects of your work. Draft 6 is where you work to make it perfect.
Diamonds in the rough look like rocks, don’t they? It’s the skill of the diamond cutter that brings out the beauty of a polished gem. So too, a writer needs to apply patience and craft to Draft 1, his “diamond in the rough.”
Image: photosteve 101 via Flickr