Now, as I've probably announced on this blog before, I'm a classic pantser: I don't plan my novels before I write them. I make my best discoveries when I don't know where I'm going, so generally I just sit down and write. With Book Three, I had a little more of a plan--most of the characters were in place, plus Book Two ends on a cliffhanger that needed to be resolved, plus the whole thing needs to be resolved in a way that I have at least an inkling of--but still, I'm mostly pantsing it, waiting to see what will happen.
And it's a comfort to me in this process to learn that my favorite author of all time, J. R. R. Tolkien, was something of a pantser too.
Here's the story: Tolkien published The Hobbit in 1937. It was moderately successful, and his publisher asked for a sequel. Tolkien sat down to write a follow-up, with the same genial tone, the same whimsical characters, the same children's storybook feel. (Hence the first chapter of what would become The Fellowship of the Ring, which has a much lighter tone than the rest of the novel.) But somewhere during the writing, the book veered into the deeper, darker past, and it became the trilogy we know.
It took nearly twenty years for the book to evolve. Fellowship wasn't published until 1954.
What led this "tale to grow in the telling" (as Tolkien put it), no one is quite sure. Tolkien's son, Christopher, who's performed the invaluable service of publishing and commenting on many of his father's unpublished manuscripts, describes the unfolding of Tolkien's magnum opus in the four-part History of Middle-Earth series beginning with The Return of the Shadow. He traces the evolution of his father's manuscript, the many changes that led to the finished product. But he can't account for the element that shifted the manuscript irrevocably toward its final form: the appearance of a Black Rider on the road to Bree.
At the time Tolkien introduced this character, his son speculates, he likely had no idea what it was and how it related to Sauron and the Second Age. It may only have been a complication Tolkien threw in to make the journey more interesting. But once it appeared, and once Tolkien started to think about its implications, the book would never be the same.
It's funny to note all the changes that took place from early drafts to finished product. Here are only a few:
- Frodo was originally named (ahem) Bingo
- Strider/Aragorn was originally a hobbit, Trotter, who had (??) wooden feet
- Treebeard was originally an evil ogre who captured Gandalf
- Saruman was a late addition to the manuscript
- There was no balrog in Moria
- Gollum was nothing more than the funny little creature he'd been in The Hobbit. In fact, Tolkien had to rewrite the "Riddles in the Dark" chapter (which had originally included Gollum's willingness to give Bilbo the Ring) after Fellowship was published to make it accord with the later book. He did so, ingeniously, by suggesting that the previous version was Bilbo's tale, concocted to justify his possession of the Ring
There's much more to the story--I strongly recommend the History books for those who are diehard Tolkien fans--but you get the picture. One of the greatest works of imaginative literature of all time was written by a guy who was basically winging it.
Of course, it was only a genius like Tolkien, a man who'd immersed himself in invented languages and histories for years, who could wing it so brilliantly. I'm not at all disdaining those writers who plot things out beforehand, nor am I suggesting that pantsers are invariably more successful than planners. I'm simply pointing out how mysterious the writing process is, how unexpected and wonderful.
There are no Black Riders in Skaldi City. But I wonder what will enter without my conscious intention and make the book what it finally turns out to be.