I’m reading The Fellowship of the Ring right now. No big deal for a sci-fi/fantasy geek, right? Well, the crazy thing is I’ve never read The Lord of the Rings before. I don’t even know how this happened. How did I go through life this way? I’m the kind of guy who knows the difference between a halfling, a hobbit, and a kender. Everyone should read through Tolkien at least once. So I’m making things right, starting now. And I have some thoughts about what we can learn from Tolkien as aspiring authors.
I’m not gonna lie—reading Tolkien is slow going for me. I just blew through all three books in The Magicians trilogy, which was like super-fast brain candy compared to Tolkien’s literary pot roast (damn hobbits, making me think of food all the time). I loved The Magicians by the way, including the Syfy show, and I might write about Lev Grossman’s incredible world-building in another post. But back to Tolkien.
Tolkien likes to linger. I don’t know how many pages I just read of Tom Bombadil singing and dancing along the river Withywindle. And the hobbits are always eating (hot soup and cold meat with blackberry tart and buttered bread!), which makes me hungry. I can’t sit through a long reading of Tolkien without wanting to heat up some Ellio’s Pizza or Hot Pockets or something, but maybe that’s a personal problem.
Anyway, the fantasy genre is rife with notorious lingerers. George R.R. Martin, “The American Tolkien,” comes to mind. But the prevailing wisdom for new writers is to keep the story moving. The fantasy setting and the fact that you can get away with a higher word count is not an excuse to spend a million years dancing in the Old Forest.
I see this a lot in writing groups with aspiring fantasy authors. Everyone wants to produce huge tomes with lots of lingering. And I get it, I do. It’s exciting! You’ve created this awesome world, and you want your characters to spend tons of time making their way along the winding Withywindle, listening to Tom Bombadil and his wife singing their songs and telling their tales and preparing bread and fresh cheese for hobbits. I’m not saying to cut out your Tom Bombadil completely. Just make sure you’re applying the rules of good writing, even to the lingering. Is this going to pay off for the reader at some point in the future? Does it have some value greater than “look at how cool this place is?” Keep the story moving!
Some lingering is okay; you just have to find the sweet spot. Writing can be a self-indulgent activity, and I think that’s where some of the temptation to linger comes from. Moderate yourself, and your future agent and editor will most certainly thank you.
Now excuse me, I’m going to preheat my oven.