Fantasy Writers: What We Are Up Against — Tolkien Edition

Writers can be a skittish, self-deprecating, woefully self-conscious, if not all-out-depressing group of people.  In discussions with other writers, I’ve often spoken to people more about concerns about publishing and success than the business of actual writing.

Above all, we are always comparing ourselves to others and worrying: do I measure up? 

With this in mind, I’ve decided to start a series of posts that highlights some key facts about the careers of those ‘who’ve made it.’  My intention with this is inherently contradictory.  I want to both calm fears and exacerbate them.  I want you to realize how inherently silly a lot of your fears are, and allow you to superstitiously worry that what I’ll write below actually means something.  Why?  Because that’s the game.  We love to compare ourselves for peace of mind and we love to compare ourselves to drive ourselves crazy.

Papa Bear and His Pipe

So let’s start by comparing ourselves to the Granddaddy of all Fantasy Writers.  Papa Bear: J.R.R. Tolkien

As a writer, what’s one major thing we are up against?  The answer to that is the answer to my favorite of Gollum’s riddles:


This thing all things devours:

Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down.

The answer is time.  

I’m always intimidated by people who say things like, “I’ve been writing books since I was six” or “I published three stories when I was in High School” and so on.  I hear those things and I think: If I haven’t done those things by now then maybe I’ll never do them!

Let’s see how long it took Tolkien to get his writing out there, so you can play the game of seeing how you compare.

Papa Bear was born in 1892.

He began writing The Silmarillion in 1917.  In other words, this is more or less when he created Middle Earth, the locale that would be the basis for his career as a writer.  He was 25.  

If you are younger than 25 you have some time to get your big idea.  If you are older than 25 and don’t have it yet, you’d better get cracking.

Papa Bear began writing The Hobbit in 1930.  He was 38.  This would be his first published novel.

If you are younger than 38 you have some time to get started on what will be your first published novel.  If you are older than 38 and don’t have it yet, you’d better get cracking.

Papa Bear published The Hobbit in 1937.  He was 45.  It took seven years between starting to write The Hobbit and publishing it.  If you are working on what you think will be your first published novel, you have seven years to finish, if you want to keep pace with Papa Bear.  If you have already been working longer than seven years then you are late by Papa Bear’s standards.

Papa Bear published The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers in 1954.  He was 62.  If you have published a book, but are waiting to publish ‘the one you will be remembered for’ then you have until age 62 to find it–according to Papa Bear’s standards.

How does that make you feel?  Better, worse?  What are your current anxieties? Discuss below.

The Most Important Choice You’ll Make Before Writing

First Person, Second Person, or Third Person?  Aly Hughes has an insightful discussion of the issue on her blog.  In particular, her focus on the way each different type of narration does (or does not) allow for the reader to feel an intimate connection with the narrative is quite helpful.  Take a look!

…and I’d add that in addition to choosing your narrative voice, one of the most important stylistic choice you’ll make as a writer is what form your story will take on.  See essential Writing Habit #5.