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One dreary day, a professor was sitting at his desk when a fateful event occurred. As he marked examination papers, he noticed that a student had left a page blank. For some inexplicable reason, he jotted down a sentence: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
This line sparked J.R.R. Tolkien’s idea of The Hobbit, which was published in 1937. It was an immediate success. Stanley Unwin, the Chairman of the publishing firm, asked him if he had any other similar stories to meet public demand.
In response, Tolkien wrote a full account of tales and named it The Silmarillion. Some of the tales were sent off to Unwin, who decided that they weren’t commercially publishable. Instead, he asked Tolkien if he could write a sequel to The Hobbit.
Disappointed, Tolkien agreed to Unwin’s request and went back to work. The publishing firm did not expect a profit and decided to incur a probable loss of 1,000 pounds. But when they published the story during 1954 and 1955, what came next surprised them.
The trilogy immediately captured the public eye. It was adapted to radio the following year, and has since then gone on to sell over 150 million copies. Later, The Lord of the Rings was turned into one of the highest-grossing and critically acclaimed film series of all time. The trilogy is considered one of the greatest book series of the twentieth century.
The Complex Process of Creating a World
It took J.R.R. Tolkien over a dozen years to plan and write The Lord of the Rings.
If you’ve read the trilogy, you can see the level of detail put into creating the world of Middle-earth. The world contains many different peoples, languages, regions, geographies, and histories, amongst other elements.
So how exactly did he manage to complete such a gargantuan task – and write weaving storylines on top of it all?
In his words, he “wisely started with a map, and made the story fit”. To create the map of Middle-earth, he sketched small pieces here and there. Some were hasty outlines scribbled onto the corner of a page, while others were painstakingly drawn in detail.
Tolkien revised his maps repeatedly. Over the course of multiple sketches, Saruman’s tower changed from round and tiered to a more severe structure. This change is reflected in The Two Towers, where his final description of Orthanc reads: “A peak and isle of rock it was, black and gleaming hard: four mighty piers of many-sided stone were welded into one.”
While the maps were the foundation of the story, the plot later shaped what the map looked like as well. For one, Tolkien took care to ensure that Frodo and Sam’s traveling speed and location matched the map dimensions. He also accounted for mountain slopes and steepness.
Why? It was important that the two arrived at Mount Doom at the same time Aragorn led his army to battle at the Black Gate. To fit his evolving storylines, Tolkien placed new maps over old ones throughout the course of his writing.
Tolkien’s Strategies For Creating Good Work
What I found most interesting about Tolkien’s process was that he didn’t simply sit down and write. Before he began writing the first novel, he planned, drew, and revised the world of Middle-earth.
So what can his approach show us about creating good work? Three things:
1. Lay the groundwork.
Tolkien’s writing wasn’t just based on words. They were the result of imagery that he pictured, sketched, and perfected. To describe objects and places, he first had to visualize them on paper.
Before you start on a project, you need to set the foundation. Understand the basics first. For instance, if you’re a beginner in tennis, you don’t start by competing against an opponent. You have to understand the rules of the court, the game set-up, and the right posture. There’s a lot of preparation that comes before you hit your first ball.
2. Perform little failures.
Tolkien looked at his drafts with a critical eye, calling them “amateur”. He frequently changed the names of places and peoples and routes for his characters. He sketched out places knowing full well that they would be revised repeatedly until they suited his liking.
Testing out concepts helps us create something concrete we can use and build upon. We can figure out whether our design makes sense and how to improve it. Finding a business idea uses the same process of testing the validity of an idea on a small scale.
3. Let the work reveal itself.
It’s hard to believe that an individual created a volume of work like The Lord of the Rings. At one point, Tolkien offered the trilogy to a rival publisher, which backed away when they saw the scale of his creation.
As for his writing process, Tolkien didn’t see himself as creating a story from scratch. Instead, he let the story gradually unfold on its own: “I have long ceased to invent…I wait till I seem to know what really happened. Or till it writes itself.”
Sometimes the work you create takes on a life of its own, and that’s a good thing. We can only plan up to a certain point. Situations change and new ideas sprout up along the way. You may end up going down a path that you hadn’t expected before.
Start With the Foundation
Tolkien must have had a lot of patience to spend over a decade building a world and creating a story within it. Even though his story grew longer and more complex than expected, he managed to put everything together into a finished product.
In life, many of us want to go right to the end result without doing the important work first. For instance, we want to:
- Earn money without figuring out how to provide value.
- Perform at a concert without practicing our music.
- Become fit without evaluating our environmental factors.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed and drained when we think about all the steps we have to take to get to a destination. These feelings can make it hard to make any sort of progress. We focus so deeply on the end result that we forget where to start.
You don’t know exactly where your journey will lead you. Instead of fixating on every single detail, work on the things that are within your reach. Lay the groundwork first.