The Tolkien Syndrome

or: The Problem with Setting the Bar so High

or OR: Why Suzy Can’t Write High Fantasy

Let’s be honest with ourselves: Tolkien was a mad, crazy writing beast. If you look at his bibliography, you can see for yourself. The man created a wonderful world that fantasy writers still like to romp around in and/or shamelessly rip off. He even created his own damn language(s) to go along with his world. Sometimes its hard to NOT rip off Tolkien.

For a fantasy writer just starting out, it’s also hard to live up to that.

Look at it this way: its like your granddad is the first man in space, but also: took the first steps on the moon; designed the rocket to take it up; perfected the launch system; and wrote the computer codes that NASA still uses today. Then you come along, trying to do your own thing, and everyone’s like, “Oh your dad did it first. And he was awesome at it.”

“Well f*ck me sideways!” I would scream back. “Good thing I’m DOING SOMETHING TOTALLY DIFFERENT!”

But it doesn’t help, because there’s always that stigma in the back of your mind. Your granddad started something that influenced generations of  astronauts writers before you. So, what’s a kid in their dad’s shadow to do?

Well, not a whole lot really. You kinda have to suck it up and take it. Or you say “F*ck it!” and find a new profession to get into, cause who wants to live in their granddad’s shadow? NOT ME!

Well, let’s fall back on the old military/NASA saying: “Failure is not an option.” You have to keep writing.

“But my story has elves!” you whine. “Tolkien and every other high fantasy writer has elves!”

Yeah, along with dwarves, orcs, and talking trees. So does World of Warcraft. Wanna know how they got around it?

They also “borrowed”.

Yeah, I said it. World of Warcraft and every other high fantasy writer “borrows” from Tolkien. Its hard not too. If it bothers you, then you need to find either (a) a new world to write in or (b) a new measuring stick for your genre.

I’ve discovered that I can’t write high fantasy, or at least not pure high fantasy.  I’m inspired by Star Wars, Star Trek, and Voltron just as much as I’m inspired by Beowulf, Tolkien, and Terry Brooks.

I’m a hybrid kind of girl. I like my elves to be blue, come from space, carry blasters, and be conquerors. I like my humans to be spunk, my worlds to be populated my semi-mythical creatures, and my planets to ooze with mysterious powers. I want my characters to be rebels against the impossible odds they can slowly chip away at.

Tolkien drew from his surroundings; his stories are deeply entrenched in mythological origins, with some combination of real life inspiration. I draw from a mixture of sci-fi & fantasy, plus things that I’ve learned in college. In away, Tolkien and I aren’t far apart, but within the spectrum of writing, we’re probably total opposites.

So, I can’t write high fantasy because I feel I’ll be judged based on a man who died in 1973 and was recently published in 2009. I’ll get a new yard stick to measure myself with, thank you.


Slow and steady wins the race

That’s what she said. (Badum tish!)

If you know the work of George R.R. Martin, then you’re familiar with the long wait times between book releases. Martin himself even admits he’s a slow writer because of so many side projects, with a wait time as long as six years between book releases. His next book is coming out this year, with two more in the Song of Fire and Ice series listed as forthcoming.

For fun, let’s look at different writers approach.

Stephanie Meyer’s books were a product of what I’m going to call “rapid fire publishing”:  each book was published within a year of the last one (2005-2008). Meyer has published two other books, one in 2010 (Twilight related) and another in 2011 (non-Twilight related), but not to the critical acclaim (i.e. splattered all over the internet) that the Twilight series has had.

Now, how about we switch gears.

J.K. Rowling had a period of rapid fire publishing (1997-2000) with her first four books, but then a strange thing happened: a gap. Her next book wasn’t published until 2003, then a two year gap between the last two books. Thus far, Rowling has not explicitly stated that she’s writing anything new, but I believe she’s expressed an interest in new projects.

How about a writer that can probably school all of them?

J. R. R. Tolkien died in 1973, and his most recent publication came out in 2009, while his earliest piece of poetry came out in 1911. Its a safe assumption that Tolkien had something published pretty much every year starting in 1911, be it in fiction, poetry,  or academia. In addition to that, the man created his own language(s), a world, and a religion to surround it. J. R. R. Tolkien has become the model for almost every high fantasy writer (in my opinion). He’s set the bar so high, that its incredibly intimidating.

But let’s get back on point, shall we?

Take out what genre they write in, age, and gender, what’s the difference between all four of these writers?


Tolkien and Martin are not limiting themselves to just one genre/style of writing, they’ve expanded into other areas and grown their fan base. Meyer and Rowling wrote contemporary romance & fantasy books for tweens/young adults, but tweens and young adults grow up.  Rowling managed to preserve her fan base by having her characters grow up with the fans, something the Twilight series lacked.

I could go on about the Rowling/Meyer Differences, but I’ll spare you.

Point being that if you diversify yourself as a writer, you’ll attract more people. And your fans will probably forgive you for taking so long to write a new book.

I went on the internet

…and I found this. After reading it, I then asked myself a question: How many books do you have to sell to be a best seller? (part two is posted here)

Is getting the coveted “bestseller” status on the New York Times book list overrated? If you have a 26 year old author selling e-books and making a killing, is it even worth going through the normal channels to be a publish author? Continue reading