Monthly Archives: December 2013

The Dismal Science of Middle-Earth (TCWT December blog-chain)

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It’s been a long time, but the “Teens Can Write, Too!” blog-chain has returned. Hooray! And Miriam Joy has come up with a worthy prompt to get things going again.

Which fictional world would you most like to be a part of, and what role do you think you would fulfil within it?

For those of us who have long suffered high fantasy addiction — who, when we were young, imagined finding Narnia at the back of the wardrobe (though it never worked); who reeled in shock with Bilbo when a throng of dwarves appeared on his doorstep; who have drifted to Hogwarts in spirit when our own studies grew too dull — for us, this prompt has done nothing to help break our addiction. It has caused us to want to prove, rather — for better or worse — that fancy can cheat so well as she is famed to do, and that perhaps she is not so deceiving an elf after all.

The question of what world I would like to be a part of is not easy. Earlier bloggers have pointed to the inherent undesirability of most of these worlds — stemming from the high risk of being murdered by a fellow teenager, placed under an excruciatingly painful curse by an unsociable wizard, or living under the shadow of a villainous eye who raises hordes of ugly elf-mutations for the purposes of world domination.

While all of these are certainly drawbacks, I think this stereotype of fictional worlds is unfair. Take Narnia, for example. In The Last Battle, Jewel the Unicorn explained to Jill Pole that “In between [the visits of the Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve] there were hundreds and thousands of years when peaceful King followed peaceful King”. I think this is representative of fictional worlds in general: most of them aren’t really any worse than our earth. Thus, what I am really looking for is the world with the most depth, the most three dimensionality, the most interesting qualities in general.

Considering these factors, the world I decided on is Middle-earth. That land may have been the setting of many long and terrible wars, but in between those wars were long periods of peace, where men lived for long generations in relative happiness and prosperity. And Middle-earth is a land of such incredible depth; such rich and varied history; such sublime beauty (even if I wasn’t studying Romanticism just now). Of all the worlds I have ever read about, Middle-earth is certainly the most three dimensional and the most large-as-life. I would love to live in the realm of King Aragorn II, in the period following the Great War of the Ring.

So Middle-earth is the world that I choose, but what is my occupation? What role do I fulfil in Middle-earth? This part of the question was harder to answer. It started me thinking of things I like to do in the real world: could they be transferrable to Middle-earth? What skills would King Elessar need in his realm that I can offer? What skills do I have that are scarce in his kingdom?

I like writing, but there are writers enough in Middle-earth. Maths is cool, but I wouldn’t want a career based solely on Maths. History is fascinating, but how could I compete with the elves, having experienced so little?

What about Economics? I started studying Economics this year (in the real world) and it’s great. That wonderful subject that is all about common sense — about the choices people make because they simply can’t have everything in life. Surely Aragorn needs a good economist in his empire? Maybe, with study, I could be that economist. Even if I can’t predict anything that is going to happen, at least I can explain to the King why it happened, afterwards.

I would live in a lodge in the mountains west of Minas Tirith and commute to work in the city each day. Imagine how much fun it would be, being an economist in Middle-Earth:

“King Aragorn, after all those years of war against the East, your human capital is poor. I suggest you allocate more funds towards setting up schools in your Kingdom.”

“King Aragorn, you really must get rid of these tariffs on gold, gems and mithril from Erebor. All you are doing is making these things more expensive for your citizens — and encouraging Erebor to increase tariffs on our wheat and corn in retaliation. Globalisation — I mean, Middle-earth-alisation — it leads to lowest prices and greatest choice in goods and services for all of us.”

“King Aragorn, that big ugly new mill built by Ted Sandyman in Hobbiton is a prime example of a negative externality. It is beneficial for Sandyman to have his big mill right in town, and it’s beneficial for his customers in that flour is cheaper, but it has made Hobbiton a nastier place to live in for everybody! I suggest that you tax him in order to simulate the cost to the ambience of Hobbiton. Either that or … screw taxes, just shut him down already! I don’t like that guy.”

As you can see, being an economist in Middle-earth would be brilliant. Even if, due to his great wisdom, Aragorn would have done everything I suggested anyway. Even if, due to my encouragement, Aragorn lowers interest rates (with help from the Reserve Bank of Arnor), which contributes to a hobbit-hole price-bubble which bursts, precipitating aglobal Middle-earthal financial crisis. (Well, I don’t think Aragorn would let that happen. He’d be too wise to follow any of my not-so-good advice.)

Even so, I’d be busy as a dwarf in a goldmine, and as happy as one too… for a while. But then my fiftieth birthday would arrive, and I would grow restless.

Forget inflation rates, I want to see ents … and oliphaunts … and elves, sir.

So I would pack my bags and leave Gondor. I would visit the forest of Fangorn and drink a draught or two with Treebeard. I would travel to Laurelindorenan and join the elves, singing under the stars. And I would cross over the Misty Mountains cold, and come to Rivendell, the first homely house. There I would eat and sleep and tell stories and sing — and at times just sit and think.

What world did others choose? Follow the blog-chain to find out!

4th December ~ Against the Shadows
5th December ~ Deborah Rocheleau
6th December ~ The Little Engine That Couldn’t
7th December ~ Relatively Curious
8th December ~ The Magic Violinist
9th December ~ Laughing at Live Dragons
10th December ~ This Page Intentionally Left Blank
11th December ~ Kira Budge: Author
12th December ~ Brooke Reviews
13th December ~ Next Page Reviews
14th December ~ Susannah Ailene Martin
15th December ~ Musings from Neville’s Navel
16th December ~ Mirror Made of Words
17th December ~ Woah!
18th December ~ Lily’s Notes in the Margins
19th December ~ Tara Therese
20th December ~ Please Forget My Story
21st December ~ An MK’s Meandering Mind
22nd December ~ Miss Alexandria
23rd December ~ Unikke Lyfe
24th December ~ Miriam Joy

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Time-saving Tips, Post #1: Outlining (and Black Riders)

This is the first in what will hopefully be a series of posts aimed at helping me (and you) to save time. I fully realise the irony of world-class time-waster Leinad writing this series, but really what I am doing is trying to identify my own bad habits so that I can correct them. If someone else can benefit too, that’s a plus.

Today I want to talk about the dangers of writing overly thorough outlines. I am not talking primarily about writing outlines for works of fiction (I suspect, with fiction, the “correct” amount of outlining varies incredibly from person to person and from story to story). Instead, I am talking about writing outlines for school essays, blog-posts or whatever else you may be writing that requires a structured and logical approach. The common advice we hear is that we should outline so that our writing is structured and logical. But like so much good advice, taken too far to the extreme, this is bad advice. I have a tendency to take it to that extreme.

A typical two page English essay, for me, might take somewhere around 4 hours. This would be taken up by:

  1. thinking about the question
  2. jotting down points that could be used to answer the question
  3. trying to think how best to organise these points
  4. writing a brief chronology (one point per paragraph)
  5. writing a very detailed outline
  6. following the outline to write the essay
  7. giving the essay a quick edit (but only a quick edit because by this stage I’m running behind on my schedule)

In the end, my four hours gets me a pretty average essay. Not only does everything move slowly but, because everything moves so slowly (ostensibly for the sake of increasing quality), my mind has time to wonder to other matters, not related to the essay, slowing things down further. Two important things have to change.

The first thing that has to change (this is before I even begin) is that I have to move more quickly with my thoughts. Go into brainstorm mode. Don’t sit placidly waiting for the profound thought to come to you, chase the profound thought over hedges, through weeds and into ditches and don’t stop till you catch it. If you wait for profundity to come to you, you’ll be swamped by irrelevant and dangerously unproductive thoughts. (Think of Frodo: if he goes on to Rivendell by himself, he’ll find Gandalf — if he waits for Gandalf, all he will get is Black Riders)

The second important thing is not to write an outline which is a “For Dummies” book about my essay. After all, am I such a bad writer that I cannot write a good essay unless I’ve already half-written it in the form of the outline next to me? In practice, what this means is that I should vastly truncate step 5.

In September, for pretty much the first time, I had to write several essays in exams. In each of these essays, I wrote only an extremely brief outline (basically the brief chronology mentioned in step 4). Did this cost me dear in the quality of my essays? Not at all. I received full marks on the essay in my History exam, for which I had 60 minutes to handwrite probably 1200 – 1300 words. This was significantly better than I had scored on other history essays during the year where I had spent many, many hours planning, researching, outlining, writing and editing. Thus, while some kind of an outline is important (depending somewhat, even in non-fiction, upon your personal style), the actual writing is of far more consequence. We know how to write, so all we need is a brief reminder of our topic and of the main points we will use to support our viewpoint on that topic.

This is probably all complete common sense, but believe it or not I have got it wrong again and again. Maybe you don’t have the same problem as me. If so, don’t take this post as a warrant for stripping back the time you spend outlining if you don’t need that. Too much planning and you waste time, but no planning and your essay could turn out as long-winded and unfocussed as this post. The moral of the story is not “plan less” but “plan the right amount”. Usually I plan too much; for this post, in an attempt to shrug off all hypocrisy, I didn’t plan enough.

Also, beware of the Black Riders.