Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Look To Your Front

by Robison Wells

I’ve been on a bit of a Tolkien kick lately, and I recently stumbled across something that made me think about the business of writing.

Through circumstances that I can’t exactly remember, I downloaded a podcast by Dr. Tom Shippey, an aquaintance of Tolkien’s and a scholar on medeival literature. The podcast was a recording of Shippey speaking at Swarthmore College on the subject of the recent Lord of the Rings movies. He had been a consultant on the films and was asked to speak on the differences between the text and the screen. (Not the nitpicky details, but the larger questions about whether or not the changes actually altered the meaning of the books.)

One subject he discusses is the Palantiri. If you’ve seen the movies, you’ll remember the basketball-sized black stones through which people communicate (willingly or unwillingly) with Sauron, the dark lord.

In some ways, a Palantir is not unlike a video conference, where people can look at each other and chat over long distances. But Sauron also had control over the stones, and while he couldn’t make them lie–he couldn’t show viewers things that weren’t true–he could definitely mislead viewers with selective images.

Okay, Rob, quit being a nerd. What does this have to do with writing? (I’m getting there. Hang on.)

Shippey states that, in the Lord of the Rings novels, the Palantiri always represent a sort of poor speculation. In every specific instance in which we see their use, the viewer (whether it is Sauron or someone else) sees real, true images, but–without exception–draws the wrong conclusion.

For example:

  • Saruman looks into the stone and sees Sauron’s frighteningly huge preparations for war, and Saruman concludes (WRONGLY) that there is no hope of resistance.

  • Pippin looks into Saruman’s stone, and Sauron sees Pippin. Sauron knows that the One Ring is being carried by a hobbit, so Sauron concludes (WRONGLY) that Pippin has the ring and Saruman has captured him.

  • Aragorn looks into the stone, and Sauron sees him. Sauron now thinks (WRONGLY) that Aragorn has the ring.

  • Denethor looks into the stong and sees Frodo captured by the Orcs in Mordor. He concludes (WRONGLY) that Sauron has the ring, that all is lost, and Denethor promptly kills himself.

What everyone sees is true, but they all draw the wrong conclusions.

Shippey gives his explanation as to what this all means. He uses the old motto of the British Redcoats: “Look To Your Front.”

Says Shippey: “Look to your front. You don’t look to the sides. Don’t look to see what your mates are doing–you don’t need to know that, because if you’re looking to see what they’re doing, then they’ll be looking to see what you’re doing and you’ll all frighten each other in no time. Certainly don’t look behind you. Look to your front. Or, another way that it’s put–the way Gandalf puts it early in the book–’all we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’”

So, Rob, again, what does this have to do with writing?

I recently had a conversation with an aspiring author. He figured that, if all went well, he’d write a book in six months, get a publisher in six months, and have it released two years after that. So, he asked me, what did I foresee in the cultural zeitgeist three years from now?


His logic was that his book would be a bestseller if he could only foresee the trends and anticipate what would be HOT HOT HOT in 2014.

Now, this is an extreme example, but lesser examples are so common as to be almost unavoidable in authors’ forums. We may worry that the novel we’re writing is too similar to a novel some other author is writing. Or we may worry that first-person past tense is getting passe and we need to follow the trend toward first-person present tense. Or we may try to jump on the latest literary bandwagon, be it bad-boy vampires, or teenage wizards, or Masonic conspiracies.

Whatever the issue, I think that authors–the majority of whom already have anxiety issues and fragile self-esteem–can be paralyzed with fear as they try to guess what the market will do a few years down the road. It’s understandable–we invest so much into a book that we want it to be perfect, we want it to sell, and we speculate as a way to mitigate risk. The problem (with speculating about writing, as well as speculating about almost everything else) is that even if you could accurately identify trends and follow them, you’ll still just be following others. And you’d waste a lot of time doing it.

So instead of speculating, Look To Your Front. Write what you want to write, write it well, and don’t worry about the things that you can’t possibly control. That’s not a guarantee that your journey will be easy (or even successful), but you’ll be writing on your own terms, true to your own vision, and you won’t be wasting a lot of time and effort second-guessing.


At 6/29/2010 9:30 PM, Blogger Jennie said...

You've given writers some sound advice. Excellent blog.

At 6/30/2010 1:23 PM, Blogger Nancy Campbell Allen said...

Love this, Rob. Excellent advice. I've always thought about that whole, "if I could have seen this moment ten years ago, what conclusions would I have drawn" and nearly always, you can't just take little snippets of time or images at face value.

Anyway, love your post, and it applies to writing and so much more. :-)

At 6/30/2010 5:11 PM, Blogger David J. West said...

I liked that a lot Rob, and Shippey has had a lot of amazing insights.

At 7/01/2010 1:12 AM, Blogger Jolene said...

Well said. Thank you very much.

At 7/01/2010 1:52 PM, Blogger Gale Sears said...


At 7/03/2010 11:16 AM, Blogger Jon Spell said...

I'm going to predict what will be a hot topic in 2014: chick lit.

(Seems to still be going strong.)

I have to confess that I'm aware of another author's work in a certain theme and I've carefully avoided reading the books in order to not have it influence me. I'd sure like to read them through a Palantiri. ;)


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