Hello friends! Not much to report this time around. It’s November 9 and I am, predictably, knee-deep (or possibly neck-deep) in NaNoWriMo. It’s going well so far! Well. As well as NaNo ever does, which is to say the words that are gushing into my document are disjointed and confused but occasionally good enough that I can convince myself that I might, actually, know what I’m doing. I am regretting the fact that I didn’t have time to plan this one out like I did last year’s project, as I suspect it would be making a number of things significantly easier, but the little bit I had structured out in my head is holding pretty steady, and I’m liking a lot of the possibilities with this project. So yay!
Alright, friends. The time has come. I’m going to argue today in defense of why Tom Bombadil fulfills an important role in the saga of The Lord of the Rings (the books, not the movies), and how the hobbits’ encounter with him is more than a quirky side quest. Naturally, all the rest of this post is going to be full of various spoilers for the trilogy, so if you haven’t read it and don’t want it spoiled, you should avoid the rest of this one. Otherwise, read on!
So. Tom Bombadil. At a glance, it’s easy to see why he is a figure met with such confusion and so much shrugging. He’s a strange character who speaks in “nonsense” and weird rhymes, and he appears completely unconcerned by the fact that the rest of Middle Earth is in dire peril despite the fact that he seems to have strange powers that could help in the fight against Sauron. In fact, there’s a reason he almost feels more like a cameo than anything else.
And while I grant that he exists in the narrative for the reasons mentioned in the article above (tldr: Tolkien wrote him in when he still imagined LotR as an episodic children’s story much like The Hobbit, and Bombadil was a character who was well known by his own children), I would also argue that the finished narrative we all know and love benefits from his inclusion.
First, the fact that he was there to rescue the hobbits (twice!) is a way to show us readers how dangerous things are beyond the Shire while still having a way for our heroes to survive and continue their journey in one piece. Second– and I recognize that some might view this as an argument against his inclusion– having a character exist beyond Sauron’s influence the way Bombadil does makes a statement on the nature of evil itself without changing how important it is for the quest to succeed for the sake of Middle Earth. And finally, he is the first of three major encounters throughout the saga where an unfamiliar entity is found in the woods and proves to be a friend.
If you’ve read the books, you probably remember that the hobbits meet him almost immediately after leaving the Shire when they decide to go through the Old Forest instead of following the road in an attempt to avoid the Black Riders. The trouble with this, of course, is that they end up running into Old Man Willow who does his level best to end their journey right then and there, and would have succeeded if Tom Bombadil hadn’t come along at just the right moment to save them. From a storytelling perspective, this does two things: one, much like Bilbo and the Dwarves’ encounter with the trolls in the second chapter of The Hobbit, it shows the reader that the adventure has well and truly begun and the characters will need to be on their toes from here on out; and two, it shows that the characters are not alone. They might not have Gandalf with them, but there are people out there who can and will help them when trouble inevitably comes knocking.
It’s also a way to ease us into what will be an epic tale that takes the characters into great peril and darkness. The adventure might have started and the dangers might be entirely real, but we are still quite close to the Shire. And while we, like the hobbits, might have no idea that the Rangers are the ones responsible for keeping that delightful country safe, we do know that the Shire is a uniquely good location in Middle Earth. Doesn’t it make sense that even a half awake forest so near its borders would have a benevolent force like Tom Bombadil in it?
Putting that aside, let us come to the fact that the Ring seems to have no effect on Bombadil, and what that in itself means for the story. I can understand the argument that Tom’s apparent immunity to the powers of the Ring hurts the stakes of the story. After all, if anyone exists beyond the reach of this great evil, doesn’t that lessen the danger? The answer to that, of course, is that it doesn’t. Not for those who do have to contend with it, which is why Frodo’s quest is so important. But having Sauron and the Ring’s reach be something less that absolute is an important statement of Tolkien’s worldview: evil might be great and possessed of overwhelming power, but even at its worst its reach is not complete. Evil is not the greatest power in creation.
And finally, Tom Bombadil’s existence is the first example of help unlooked for appearing in the woods. Because while forests, particularly old forests, might not be safe in any way, neither are they beholden to Sauron. This is something that occurs again and again throughout the entire trilogy, starting with Bombadil and happening again when Merry and Pippin are found by Treebeard after escaping the Uruk-Hai. Given what they do to Isengard after being roused there’s no doubt that the Ents are incredibly dangerous– to their enemies. To the hobbits and those working against Sauron they are strong allies. And the pattern continues when Frodo, Sam, and Gollum meet Faramir in Ithilien, and even to a lesser extent when the Rohirrim are helped by Ghan-buri-Ghan and his people to reach Gondor in time. And with the exception of Faramir, the rest of these encounters, like Bombadil himself, are more or less contained to their smaller corner of the grander story. Yet, like Bombadil, they add to the story as a whole.
So, there you have it. My arguments for why Tom Bombadil is a worthy inclusion in the epic trilogy, and not just a strange leftover that somehow remained. Given the different pacing necessary in a film adaptation, I understand and agree with his exclusion from Peter Jackson’s movies. Movies are an entirely different medium with different pacing requirements. But in the novels? He is a perfect fit.
So! The first takeaway I have from the grand experiment that was me actually planning the project I worked on this past November is: I must be a planner after all. My friends. I cannot overstate just how much easier it was for me to write throughout the month. I didn’t get stuck. I didn’t waste time wondering where I needed to take the story next. It just didn’t happen, and that was weird and wonderful and I’m never going back.
That being said, it wasn’t without its hitches, which is why I’m not actually sitting here with a complete first draft of my new novel. In fact, if I’d had to go past 50k this past month, I almost certainly would have gotten stuck. And despite the wordcount I reached, I didn’t get all that far into the story. (That, at least, is normal: my first runs through new stories always run long as I figure out what I’m doing.) The difference being that I know why I got stuck. I didn’t have a clear vision of the weird, wacky world I was throwing my poor character into, which, naturally, made it difficult to write about.
And the other half of knowing why is knowing how to fix it. Roughly speaking. It’s meant that I made the decision to step back and return to the structuring/outlining phase, and I may or may not be able to repurpose the stuff I wrote during November, so in some ways I’m sure it doesn’t look all that different from previous years with regards to what I actually managed to take away from the event. But instead of having a huge mess of words and no clear idea of where to go with it, I have a huge mess of words and a much stronger idea of where my planning went wrong and what I need to do to fix it. If nothing else, I’d call that progress.
Additionally, it’s made it clear that all my other projects could benefit from the same treatment. Specifically, Tanner and Miranda. I’m not gonna like, I’m currently in the thrall of this shiny new plotting/planning thing, so there’s absolutely a huge part of me that wants to say that this is exactly what I needed in order to finally finish the darn thing. And who knows– maybe it is going to make all the difference, and I’m not just making like James Garner in Support Your Local Sheriff (I refuse to let this story become my own personal Australia).
In short, I’m excited. So excited. I write better when I plan like this, and reaching the “end” of a project seems like it’s within reach as opposed to just being some mystical, theoretical state of existence that my projects have no real hope of ever reaching. I suspect I’m going to have to learn how to balance some elements of both– half of the excitement of writing comes from the times the characters take over and decide to do their own thing (this November his name was Locksley and my sister got all kinds of texts of me complaining about his hijacking of the story)– but I think this is another one of those “you have to know the rules in order to know how to break them” cases. And it’s really, really cool to be getting a better handle on the rules of my craft.
Hey guys! Apparently it’s December now. 2021 is all but over. Weird.
Anyway! So, NaNo is over and I hit the 50k goal on the day before Thanksgiving (yay!) despite work busyness and such. The whole planning thing went remarkably well, to the point where I’m pretty sure it’s going to affect how I write novel-length things from here on out. More on that next week!
I hope all of you are well as we head into the holidays, and that you get to spend good time with friends and family. Merry Christmas!
((Technically, this is not something I wrote last month. However! It’s currently the first three paragraphs from that project, so I thought I’d share them here with you.))
Complexity Jones must have slept, because the soft green numbers on the bedside clock read 6:12 AM. It had been just after three-thirty the last time she had looked and given up hope of getting any rest, but maybe that had been what did it. Besides, these days two and a half hours was the best she could hope to get. Even so, her body ached. Whether that was because of the physical work she had thrown herself into the day before or just the wages of however many months of lost sleep she couldn’t say. And it didn’t matter. Either way, the result was the same.
On the other side of the bed, Kemp still slept, his breathing slow and even, a comfort in the quiet morning. She’d given up envying him for it. Better that one of them get a little rest than for both of them to exist in this miserable, exhausted haze. And she was used to it. The nightmares had started shortly after the Distortion had first appeared, and she hadn’t slept well since then. Five years, give or take. No wonder the dark circles under her eyes made it look like she’d lost a fist fight. No wonder her body rebelled when she had a day off and she spent twelve hours in dreamless blackout.
But this wasn’t her day off. And there was no reason to try to beg and borrow and steal another useless moment with her eyes shut and her mind spinning and awake when it wouldn’t do her any good. Better to start the process of coaxing her body back to something functional.
In the process of outlining next month’s novel, I’ve been paying a huge amount of attention to the basics of structure. By which I mean I’ve been working my way through my copy of Jessica Brody’s Save the Cat Writes a Novel, which is itself a rendition of Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat which was written specifically on how to structure a screenplay. Both books are utterly brilliant and thoroughly helpful, and are basically expansions on the best writing advice I’ve ever received: “The three most important things in writing are structure, structure, structure.”
First off, I’d like to say that I’m a little embarrassed at how long it took me to start figuring out even the most basic structure. And by that, yes, I do mean grade school beginning, middle, end type structure. Oh, sure, I could have told you that stories needed all three, but beyond that… not much. And I was (and am still more often than I’d like) categorically bad at actually including all three of those oh-so-important parts.
Look, I said I was embarrassed about it.
But! I’m also getting better. Way better! And following a proper beat sheet is a part of that, which is part of why I’m so excited about this upcoming month. It’ll be the first time I go in with a complete plan instead of trying to implant structure afterwards. Which might– might— mean I come out of this with a usable first draft, instead of the glorified planning phase I usually end up with. And I have nothing against the glorified planning phase! It’s fun! It’s often helpful! It’s part of why I’ve been doing NaNo for so many years. But I think going in with an outline is the next step. And I think I’m ready to take it.
It’s kinda funny, but after averaging well over a thousand words a day in November, having just over seven hundred words doesn’t seem like it would be such a big deal. But it feels like it– and I think it is. Because while the first draft (though maybe that’s a… generous term for the manuscript I currently have) is a decent start, this second draft is already shaping up decently, and I’m really excited. I don’t know that I’ll finish it by the end of the month like I’d hoped (I’ll still try, Dad! I promise!) but it’s definitely got forward momentum, and right now that’s enough.
A friend of mine recently asked me why I like writing. Or rather, why I continue to write when I spend at least as much time actually putting pen to paper as I do moaning about the fact that I ought to be writing. And the answer to that is simple: despite evidence to the contrary, I enjoy writing, and there are stories in my head that demand to be let out.
This does raise a further question, though. If I enjoy wordcraft as much as I say I do, why do I complain about it so much? Part of it, of course, is that it takes discipline to write, and discipline is hard. But there’s more to it than that. The bigger part is that certain parts of the creative process are more enjoyable than others.
For me, writing is the most fun when I’m coming up with ideas for new stories or once I finally get caught up in the flow of the action on my way to the climax of the story. Those are the things that niggle in the back of my brain and demand I find a way to make the words on the page match the epic scenes I have playing out in my head. The problem is that neither of those take up the bulk of writing.
That spot would be taken up by the work of getting from point A to point B to point C in a believable and interesting fashion. Which, despite what it sounds like I just said, is often enjoyable in its own right– it’s just also hard, for me, at least, if not for writers in general. It requires good pacing, a (more or less) complete knowledge of the ins and outs of the story so as to avoid plot holes, and there’s also a whole lot of false starts as you figure out what’s really important and what doesn’t actually figure in to the story.
Or, put another way, it’s where the work of writing happens. And it’s hard work. Rewarding, certainly, as anyone who has ever finished a story will tell you, but hard all the same. And that, my friends, is why I grumble about it and why I’ll never give it up either.
When it comes to writing, I like to think of myself as a panster*. I much prefer coming up with a vague idea and running with it, mostly because by the time I come up with something that excites me, I really just want to go play with it, not hammer out all the details. (In other news, I also have trouble rationing out a stash of candy for any length of time. The two might be related, but I’m not admitting nothin’.)
The problem is, not planning things out in advance generally leaves me with gaping plot holes and/or sticky corners in which to get myself stuck. It would be fantastic, I think to myself, if all of my characters charged down the hill towards the big bad monsters in epic fashion. And so I have my characters do just that, only to realize in the instants before they engage the enemy that such an attack is tactically unsound, and either their leader isn’t the strategic genius I thought they were or they have some sneaky plot up their sleeve… which I’m going to have to figure out before I write much further.
And so, I stall.
So when I tell you that I managed to tame my giddier impulses and actually come up with something of a decent outline for the first several chapters of That Novel I’m Still Working On, I hope you understand why I’m so convinced that it’s a triumph. We’ll see how it fares when I try to force that outline into actual prose.
* (noun) one who writes by the seat of their pants
I like books. If you’re here, I suspect you have at least a passing fancy for them as well, which means we’ve already got something in common. I imagine it also means you are familiar with the phrase “so many books, so little time”, and you may have even, in passing, considered having it engraved on your headstone. Or perhaps not.
What I mean to say is that we understand in our bones that we will never be able to read everything there is to read, because there’s just not enough hours in the day, days in the week, weeks in the month, etc. There’s not even enough time to read everything that you would enjoy reading, as evidenced by massive stacks of books and an outsized to-read list on Goodreads (or in your head or wherever you keep it).
And then, to add to the trouble, there’s the books you want read again. For me, those are the ones that get neglected the most, because when I start looking for my next book to read, I automatically go to the stacks of books I haven’t yet read.
I can’t speak to it’s efficacy, but I’ve tried to get around the problem by just reading more books at once. I used to try to stick to one or two at a time, one fiction and one non-fiction, just to keep things simple. I don’t remember exactly when I started breaking that rule, but once I started it’s been getting worse and worse, and right now there’s a stack of books almost a foot high on my bedside table.
The thing is, some books need to be reread. You’ll catch things you didn’t see the first time through, that you couldn’t have seen the first time through. Aspects of certain characters will suddenly make more sense. Foreshadowing will be that much more foreboding. Themes and symbolism will become that much clearer, and their arguments will be that much more potent.
Or, to put it another way, you’ll enjoy it even more the second time around.
All this is probably coming to mind right now thanks to the fact that I just finished my second read-through of Pierce Brown’s Red Rising (which if you haven’t read, I would highly recommend and suggest you follow it up with the rest of the series), and I noticed so many things that I didn’t see at all when I read it the first time. Heck, it even woke up my sleepy inner English major, and when I finished I had at least three ideas for short essays.
But I digress. Regardless of your feelings, if any, for the aforementioned book, the fact remains that there is great benefit in rereading. I don’t know about you, but that’s something I forget a little too often.
Happy New Year! To those of you who have been following me for a while, thanks so much– you mean the world to me! To anyone just stumbling across my little corner of the internet, welcome, and if you happen to like what you see feel free to stay a while.
Between the holidays and the end of my Armenia trip, December was another fairly quiet month around here when it comes to writing. Friday blog posts went up every week, but nothing much beyond that. But! I’m back in the States, and while I haven’t manage to settle into anything like a routine just yet, I’m looking forward to more time for writing and the chance to do some more work on my bigger projects, as well as getting back into the swing of two short stories a month.
Speaking of those bigger projects, there’s two I’m particularly excited about! The first is that I’ll be working to finish the second draft of a fantasy novel tentatively titled The Seven this year. Check out the teaser here, and keep an eye out for more information as the year progresses!
The second is that I’ve got more Tanner and Miranda stories in the works, with an eye towards writing a complete collection. The two stories I’ve completed so far (Under Whiskey Hill and The Ethan Lindsay Job) were so much fun to write, and I know there’s a bunch more adventures in store for the siblings. Hopefully, you’ll enjoy reading about them as much as I’m enjoying writing them.
That’s all I’ve got for now! I hope the start of your year has been a good one, and I look forward to seeing what happens in the months ahead. As always, drop me a line in the comments if you’ve got any questions, or just to say hi! I’d love to hear from you.
Until next time,