101 Comment Starters

[I posted this earlier today to Tumblr. I would like it to be more permanently/easily available, so I’m going to crosspost it here as well. Reactions in both places are welcome!]


I began working on this last summer. Like many veteran fanfiction authors, I lament the decline in commenting that I’ve seen in my fandom, the Tolkien fandom. I’m also a humanities teacher, so I spend a good part of my day teaching young people how to write, and one lesson I’ve learned the hard way is that each type of writing involves unique skills that have to be learned. And commenting is a unique form of writing and one that comes with added stresses around social expectations and public performance. My research on the Tolkien fanfic community confirms this: Many people want to comment, but they simply don’t know what to say.

As a teacher of writing, I often use  sentence starters or mentor sentences. The writer uses these to jumpstart their thinking and writing, until they become comfortable enough to begin working independently. “101 Comment Starters” is built around this research-based strategy of teaching writing.

Some of the comment starters are simple enough that they can be merely copied and pasted. Others require filling in some blanks or providing some elaboration. In some cases, a because can be dropped if the reader isn’t comfortable providing that level of elaboration yet. In other cases, a more experienced commenter can add the because and elaborate more on their comment.

They also differ in their level of praise. They range from simple statements of how the author made the reader feel to compliments around an aspect of the author’s writing or their work in general. I’ve tried to limit words like really, very, and so as much as possible, except when it made the comment feel wooden. You’re welcome, of course, to add those words in if you feel they more accurately help capture how a story impacted you.

If you’re just starting to comment, please keep in mind that the vast majority of authors will love to hear from you! They don’t care how long or elaborate your comment is. They don’t care if your English is perfect or if you’re a little awkward. They just want to know that you’re reading and enjoying their work.

Finally, please feel free to reblog and share and add your own comment starters!

101 Comment Starters

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The Author of the “Quenta Silmarillion”–and Why I Think He Was Elvish

[This essay has also been crossposted to Tumblr. Reactions in both places are welcome.]

Who wrote The Silmarillion? It’s a question with a more complicated answer than it seems on the surface. Yes, of course, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote the book that I picked up from a Barnes & Noble fourteen years ago, that is now on my desk with its cover coming off and its corners rounded from being read so many times. But who, in the vast imagined world within its pages, is telling the story? The narrator of The Silmarillion is so distant as to be barely discernible at all; it is possible to believe he doesn’t exist at all. Indeed, in at least my first two readings, I did not think much of him. I assumed a distant, omniscient presence recounting what happened in plain, incontestable terms. Just the facts, ma’am.

The fact is, though, that J.R.R. Tolkien–the Silmarillion author whose name is on the cover–always imagined and constructed his stories not just as stories but as historiography: documents written by someone within the universe in which the history occurs. This complicates things: gone is the distance, the omniscience, and perhaps most importantly, the impression that the stories happened exactly as they are told.

This wouldn’t be a problem–in fact, would be quite simple, as most fiction has point of view that is biased or unreliable–but for the fact that this isn’t simple: This is Tolkien. So naturally, he had this idea that he wanted to write his stories as historiography, with a loremaster or chronicler who was himself a part of that history, but he couldn’t make up his mind who this person was. In fact, he changed his mind several times, reversals that are documented in The History of Middle-earth for fans and scholars to angst and argue over.

I’m going to make the case that the “Quenta Silmarillion” is part of the Elvish tradition. This is contrary to the belief of Christopher Tolkien and other Tolkien scholars, who assign it to the “Mannish”–namely Númenórean–tradition. (Ingwiel has an excellent discussion of the evidence for this approach.) I understand why they did this, but I think that if you look deeply at the texts and the evidence those texts provide, there is not much to support that the tradition originated with the Númenóreans. (I am willing to concede that Elvish texts may have passed through Númenórean hands on their way back to Elrond and, eventually, Bilbo, but I persist in believing they are nonetheless predominantly Elvish texts representing an Elvish point of view.)

The Idea of the “Mannish” Tradition

The Elvish loremaster Pengolodh was first introduced as the primary author of the “Quenta Silmarillion” prior to 1930, when he was assigned author of the Annals of Beleriand (HoMe IV). Pengolodh was a tenacious character: Texts written as late as 1960 were still being assigned to him. So what happened?

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Beleriand Light & Power: Or Musings on the Silmarils, Capital-L Light, and the Hoarding of Resources in The Silmarillion

[This post was written in response to a conversation on Tumblr, when I realized that after a decade of thinking about and researching this issue, I had never committed my ideas to any public space. It is crossposted to Tumblr here. Reactions in both places are welcome.]

Beleriand Light and Power company logo

“‘power’ is an ominous and sinister word in all these tales”
~Letter 131 to Milton Waldman


 

The idea that Light-with-a-capital-L–the Light that went into making first the Lamps, then the Trees, and was eventually collected into the Silmarils–was a created versus subcreated1 entity was suggested in Tolkien’s earliest works. In The Chaining of Melko, found in the Book of Lost Tales 1, Light is a primal entity, flowing freely available “about the airs”:

Light and beautiful is Valinor, but there is a deep twilight upon the world, for the Gods have gathered so much of that light that had before flowed about the airs. Seldom now falls the shimmering rain as it was used, and there reigns a gloom lit with pale streaks or shot with red where Melko spouts to heaven from a fire-torn hill.

BoLT1 is a very old text. The Chaining of Melko, according to Christopher’s commentary, was followed by a poem that JRRT composed in 1915. Much of BoLT1 was rejected when JRRT pared the Silmarillion story down to the bone with the “Sketch of the Mythology” and rebuilt it from there into the Silmarillion, so this passage is not in and of itself strong evidence. (Nor is it entirely clear that Light is created by Eru versus subcreated by the Ainur.) However, in conjunction with later texts, it is interesting, I think, in its suggestion that Light was primal, not brought into being by the Valar with the building of the Lamps.

Those later texts are much later, appearing in the Myths Transformed section of Morgoth’s Ring, and make explicit the idea of Light as a created entity. These texts were written after the publication of LotR and contain some of JRRT’s last works on The Silmarillion. MT contains some radical reimaginings of The Silmarillion–the revision of the flat-world mythology chief among them–but this particular excerpt dovetails easily with contemporaneous texts used to construct the published Silmarillion:

As a shadow Melkor did not then conceive himself. For in his beginning he loved and desired light, and the form that he took was exceedingly bright; and he said in his heart: ‘On sch brightness as I am the Children shall hardly endure to look; therefore to know of aught else or beyond or even to strain their small minds to conceive of it would not be for their good.’ But the lesser brightness that stands before the greater becomes a darkness. And Melkor was jealous, therefore, of all other brightnesses, and wish to take all light unto himself. Therefore Ilúvatar, at the entering in of the Valar into Eä, added a theme to the Great Song which was not in it at the first Singing, and he called one of the Ainur to him. Now this that Spirit which afterwards became Varda (and taking female form became the spouse of Manwë). To Varda Ilúvatar said: ‘I will give unto thee a parting gift. Thou shalt take into Eä a light that is holy, coming new from Me, unsullied by the thought and lust of Melkor, and with thee it shall enter into Eä, and be in Eä, but not of Eä.’ Wherefore Varda is the most holy and revered of all the Valar, and those that name the light of Varda name the love of Eä that Eru has, and they are afraid, less only to name the One. Nonetheless this gift of Ilúvatar to the Valar has its own peril, as have all his free gifts: which is in the end no more than to say that they play a part in the Great Tale so that it may be complete; for without peril they would be without power, and the giving would be void. (Myths Transformed, “Text II,” emphasis mine)

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A Comparison of Silmarillion Sections across Sites and Time

The conversation here and on my tumblr lately has focused on comments and the history of commenting in the Tolkien fandom. (See this conversation with Simaethae on Tumblr for discussion of how commenting has changed in the past twelve years.) I’ve also been thinking a lot about commenting data and how it is best to collect and interpret this data.

In the course of doing the latter, I’ve begun posting again to FanFiction.net, mostly to have access to the very specific statistics they collect about comments. I heard from a few people, when I wrote on my journal about trying this, that they were considering posting again to FanFiction.net because they believed they might get some comments on their work there, whereas they were not receiving many comments on AO3. (I had stopped posting at FanFiction.net when the administration refused to take any action against bullying, especially against teenage authors.)

This made me wonder: Do authors get more comments on FanFiction.net than elsewhere? Is there something of the older fandom culture there? One of my theories about why feedback has decreased in the Silmarillion fanfic community is that, ten years ago, there was a wide perception that people wrote fanfic in order to improve as writers, and we tended to perceive ourselves as all helping each other toward that goal. FanFiction.net still expresses that philosophy, once near-universal in the Tolkien fanfic community, in their Story Guidelines that are available when posting a new story to the site:

3. Respect the reviewers. Not all reviews will strictly praise the work. If someone rightfully criticizes a portion of the writing, take it as a compliment that the reviewer has opted to spend his/her valuable time to help improve your writing.

4. Everyone here is an aspiring writer. Respect your fellow members and lend a helping a hand when they need it. Like many things, the path to becoming a better writer is often a two way street.

The idea that we are all writing because we are aspiring toward writing excellence seems far less prevalent today than it once was, and I wondered if this was behind the drop in commenting in recent years.

So I decided to take a look to see if there is a difference in commenting across the Silmarillion sections of multiple sites. I looked at An Archive of Our Own (AO3), FanFiction.net (FFN), Many Paths to Tread (MPTT), and the Silmarillion Writers’ Guild (SWG). All of these sites make it possible to filter out only the Silmarillion stories.

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The Great Comment-Click Debate: A Teensy Insight?

We’ve been talking a lot lately here about commenting. Now that most sites give their authors access to stats for their stories, one of the natural first places to head in that discussion is to look at how many comments a person receives per number of clicks. I do this myself all the time. My most recent non-Silm40 stories on the SWG received one comment per thirty-seven clicks, and my five most recent stories on AO3 receive one top-level comment per seventy-three clicks. I often wave my hands at such stats and draw sweeping conclusions from them.

At which point, numerous people usually remark on what unreliable, bad data click-comment ratios are. They point out the myriad ways that one user can register multiple clicks on a single reading of a story. I’m which point I’m forced to concede that they’re right because I have no data on visitors, just clicks, and the two can be very different numbers, at least hypothetically.

However, while making a rare appearance on Fanfiction.net, looking for data for a completely different purpose, I realized that in the course of ignoring that site for years now, the data I want is actually right there. Fanfiction.net, if it has one advantage, probably collects the best data of any fanfic archive. Among the data it collects, it tells you clicks and visitors, by month and by story.

Now the main problem here is that I have not used FanFiction.net for years, and their stats only go back to July 2008. However, in 2011, partly as a dare and partly out of morbid curiosity, I did post my Tolkien-Lovecraft crossover Hastaina there, just to see what the reaction would be. So I do have one set of data for a new, single-chapter story on FanFiction.net.

Clicks per Vistor for Hastaina on Fanfiction.net

What the data shows is that, on Fanfiction.net, for this story, the average reader clicked on the story 1.3 times in the course of reading it. Or, looking at it another way, if you have three readers, one of them will click twice for whatever reason.

Now this is one story on one site. It doesn’t prove much, and data could look very different on other sites, which are set up differently and may, through the vagaries of design, send a reader more or less easily to the same story twice. (For example, when you leave a comment on a story on the SWG, you have the option of returning to the story, which if chosen, then records two clicks. Of course, that assumes that the reader is leaving a comment …)

It’s also possible that this data has changed over time. Glancing over the Silmarillion section of AO3, my sense is that, if anything, long multi-chapter stories have become more popular, and I don’t see many “ficlets,” much less the once-ubiquitous drabbles, which suggests that perhaps people are reading (and accustomed to reading) longer stories. Although, if true, this could go either way: Increased stamina could mean fewer clicks to finish a story, or a proclivity for longer stories could mean more clicks as readers develop the habit of reading a story over multiple sittings.

However, this story is also on the longer side for a short story. It is 6,049 words as counted by Fanfiction.net. The ten newest one-chapter stories in the Silmarillion section on AO3 as of writing this average 1,675 words, so this piece was definitely on the longer end of a one-chapter Silmfic. This could possibly elevate the number of clicks per visitor as visitors read it in more than one sitting.

But regardless, I think even this single example does show two things: 1) Readers do click more than once on a story in the course of reading it but 2) the number of clicks per reader is not astronomical–it is not even close to double, which is my usual “for the sake of argument” hypothetical–even on a longish story. (So the anecdotes of people who click four and five times on one-chapter story just to read it once do not appear, from this very limited data, to represent common practice.)

Now here is my request: If there is anyone out there who has posted a one-chapter Tolkienfic story to Fanfiction.net since July 2008, would you be willing to share your data with me so that I can get a better picture of this? If you are willing, please send me the number of views and the number of visitors for the first six months the story was posted on Fanfiction.net, as well as the story’s word count and the date it was posted, I’d be super grateful. I may publish the data but will not identify you or your story in any way. I can be reached at DawnFelagund@gmail.com and on all my social media. (Fanfiction.net hides this particular data under Traffic Stats -> Story Stats for your account. Select your story first, then you can look at the data month by month using that dropdown.)

And I can’t believe I’m saying this but I’m thinking as well of crossposting some of my own work to Fanfiction.net, which I’ve avoided for the better part of a decade now. For science, of course. 😉

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More on Tolkienfic Comments: Authors Who Don’t Comment

As I’ve analyzed the data on commenting in the Tolkien fanfic community, there has been one group that repeatedly caught my interest: authors who do not leave comments. 13.5% of authors who responded to the survey replied that they did not leave comments on Tolkienfic–not a huge number but nonetheless surprising to me, who assumed that nearly all authors would recognize the value of comments and would therefore comment on others’ work. (And, for the record, all of these authors replied that they did read Tolkienfic.) For some time now, I have wanted to look closer at this group, but other sets of data beckoned and seemed more important, so I kept setting this work to the side.

But the discussion on my most recent post Please R&R! … or the Practices and Perils of Leaving Feedback on Tolkien Fanfic made this group a priority because I think they can shed some light on the questions raised in that post and the detailed, thoughtful discussion that followed.

This is an interesting group because they negate many of the reasons people often give for why readers do not comment on the fanfic they read. These readers are comfortable enough with the craft of writing to compose fan fiction. Among those who publish their fanworks, they clearly have the self-confidence to share that writing. And they possess a device on which they can write and access fandom spaces, negating the claim of many non-commenters that they only access fanfic on their phones and cannot comment on their phones. Presumably, this would be the zero-excuse group that should be churning out comments left and right, no?

As “Please R&R” claimed, however, commenting is a unique writing skill that is perhaps more difficult and intimidating than some authors acknowledge. The comments on that post also emphasized the role that community plays in opening the floodgate of comments: When one feels like one is a part of a community, it is easier to reach out to authors than if one feels disengaged. Yet, on archives anyway, becoming a part of the community often involves, well, commenting, inciting a chicken-and-egg cycle where one doesn’t feel comfortable enough with the community to comment and yet needs to comment in order to become comfortable with the community. Authors who don’t comment would seem to be the closest we have to a perfect group for testing these ideas.

Experience and Confidence

Demographically, authors who don’t comment are very similar to authors as a whole. They are a median 23 years old; authors as a whole are a median age of 24 years. They have a median three years of experience writing Tolkien-based fanfic, compared to four years for authors as a whole.

However, authors who don’t leave comments show a lack of experience using other measures. After all, one can participate in the fandom in varying degrees: reading the occasional story and writing a few, or diving full in, reading constantly, and writing frequently.

The data suggests that authors who don’t comment do not write as many stories as authors who do. Non-commenting authors had written a median of five stories, compared to ten stories written by authors as a whole. Perhaps these fans are simply less involved in the Tolkienfic community, which also creates an apathy around engaging with other authors through comments.

But perhaps more intriguing–and important?–is that authors who don’t comment publish their fan fiction at far lower rates than authors as a whole.

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Please R&R! … or the Practices and Perils of Leaving Feedback on Tolkien Fanfic

Tolkien fanfic community feedback practices infographic


 

One of the key areas of interest in the Tolkien Fanfic Survey has naturally been what it tells us about feedback: how and why people leave it and, maybe more importantly, why they don’t.  (more…)

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Tolkien Fan Fiction Sources (Or, “The Silmarillion” as a Gateway Drug)

It’s been a while (too long!) since I posted Tolkien Fanfic Survey data. I’m not going to make my usual mistake of promising regular posts at a certain interval, but while I’m on summer break, I’d like to get more of this information out there.

This week, I took a look at the sources Tolkien fan fiction writers use when crafting their stories.

What sources do Tolkien fanfic writers use infographic

If you prefer the same information in text form, you can find it–and discussion of the data–below the jump.

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The New LiveJournal Terms of Service and Why They Matter to the SWG

A couple of days ago, I posted to the Silmarillion Writers’ Guild’s various online spaces, soliciting member feedback on what we should do about the new Terms of Service on LiveJournal. I have been honestly taken aback by feedback I’ve received that, in a nutshell, asks, “Why does it matter?” So here it is: my view on why it matters.

If you’re not familiar with the latest LJ debacle concerning their Terms of Service, you can read the post I linked for more information (and please do take the survey linked in that post if you have not already) but, in a nutshell, LJ now requires journals and communities to label adult content, as deemed by the laws of Russia (where the company that owns LJ and now the web servers reside) at the penalty of possibly having the post or the journal/community deleted. Previously, when SixApart introduced the adult content labels, they didn’t mandate their use but reserved the right to apply those labels to a post if a user “flagged” the post; there was no penalty for having one or one hundred posts flagged and investigated, and I don’t know anyone this happened to. The SWG didn’t change their policy under the SixApart rules. (Nonetheless, I wasn’t wild about that change either.)

What does it mean to label something on LJ as “Adult”? First of all, individual posts or an entire journal/community can be labeled as Adult. Doing so either hides the content from LJ users under 18 or requires a click-through age verification to view the post/journal/community for anonymous users.

“Not a big deal!” a lot of people have said. Some have pointed out that there is a long tradition of underage users either 1) lying about their age when registering their account or 2) logging out and just clicking that they’re eighteen. Yes, I know this is a thing and has been almost a rite of passage for some old-school fandom participants who started as teens, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t think it’s beyond time we moved past teens having to engage in white lies to access art.

But really, the lack of access to minors–while a problem for me–is not the biggest problem with this new ToS. But I’ll tackle it first.

I have two qualms with blocking access to minors. First is that it is not my place to decide what content another person should be able to view. I am not the minor’s parent, and many teens are more than able to “handle” the kind of adult content they’d find on a site like the SWG.

My biggest problem is the very fact of pearl-clutching over teenagers “handling” fan fiction. Stories. Art. Let’s keep this in perspective. Between 2000 and 2010, 167,000 children under the age of 18 were married in the U.S. … and those are the confirmed numbers because many states don’t keep data. The nonprofit Unchained at Last estimates the number at closer to 248,000.

Children can own guns in 30 U.S. states and fire weapons like submachine guns.

And we think they can’t handle art?

What’s really at stake here is that art–including fan fiction–presents ideas and content (especially sex) that adults are uncomfortable thinking that young people know about. As a middle and high school teacher, I hate to break it to them: They know about it. Keeping them from art will not prevent them from unknowing it or never learning about it, just like we oldtimers managed to learn all sorts of illicit things pre-Internet. I refuse to pander to the idea, in a world where we are okay with children getting married and bearing children and caring for their families and acting as breadwinners and choosing to drop out of school and owning weapons, that reading fiction is the dangerous activity here.

But, as I said, this is not my main problem with the new Terms of Service.

As noted above, now posts must be labeled as Adult if they contain content that is deemed “adult” under Russian law. I am not Russian and do not read Russian, and LJ has refused to release a legally binding Terms of Service in English. (Rhapsody asked weeks ago when the new ToS was first released and has received no response.) But I do know that, under this same Russian law, the recent Beauty and the Beast film was given an adult rating because of a few seconds in which two men dance together.

Many fans–myself among them–have interpreted LJ’s ToS as meaning, therefore, that any content depicting a same-sex relationship would be “adult” and have to be labeled under the new ToS. This puts the SWG in a unique position. We are not a group that draws a lot of adult content, at least compared to fandom as a whole, including parts of the Tolkien fandom. There are likely a few legitimately adult posts on our LiveJournal community; if labeling those was all that was at stake here, I would grumble but likely comply and mark those specific posts as Adult.

However, the SWG has always welcomed slash fiction. We’ve even encouraged it! We were an early adopter of the International Day of Femslash, and last year, we collaborated with silmladylove during Tolkien Femslash Week. We host hundreds of slash and femslash stories on our archive, and slash is regularly posted, discussed, and alluded to on our LJ community.

So that leaves us two choices in complying with the new ToS: 1) We can either require all slash stories or any post discussing slash or LGBTQ+ issues to be marked as Adult or 2) we can mark the entire community as Adult and essentially ask everyone to take on the same burden faced by our slash authors. I would absolutely refuse to do the first; the second is the 0ption on the table now.

But, while I’ve put that on the table as an option I’d consider, I have a major problem with that option too.

Let there be no doubt: If the SWG complies with the new ToS, it will be because of slash. Don’t pretend that it’s an abundance of PWP or torturefic on our LJ community; it will be because our community has always welcomed slash and discussions of gender and sexuality that Russian law finds abhorrent. It will be to comply with the views of someone who said of the Beauty and the Beast film:

I’m convinced that the main task of the state regarding children is to protect childhood and youth from the filthiness of the world, to preserve children’s purity, to block our children off from harmful and dangerous phenomena.

Someone who thinks that authors who represent the full range of human sexual orientations and genders in their fiction write “filthiness” that is “harmful and dangerous” to children.

It will be to shut those authors’ work just a little further off from the public.

I have a major problem with that.

I have a major problem with pretending that, in the year 2017, there is something shameful about writing about LGBTQ+ characters, or that the mere act of being gay in the presence of a child is somehow going to harm that child. I have a major problem with pretending that it is normal to comply with such a request, that it is normal to have a social media site where the LGBTQ+ people are closeted behind age-consent links and locked communities and not a visible, celebrated part of our communities and our art.

There are other issues at stake here. There is fandom history, which is something dear to me and something that concerns a lot of other people as well in this discussion. The idea of losing this venerable Tolkien community is upsetting for obvious reasons. There is pure sentiment, when I can remember clearly the day I set up the SWG community (the same day that I created my own, personal journal) with no idea of how to use LiveJournal but taking my first tentative steps into a fandom that would prove one of the joys of my life. I don’t want to see that end either. It breaks my heart that it might. But I can’t move past this.

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“Thus Wrote Pengolodh”: Historical Bias, Its Evidence, and Its Implications in The Silmarillion (Video)

This past weekend, I presented a paper titled “‘Thus Wrote Pengolodh’: Historical Bias, Its Evidence, and Its Implications in The Silmarillion” at the Tolkien at UVM Conference. The paper considered two big questions:

  1. Who wrote The Silmarillion? Or–is there evidence for the Númenórean tradition (beyond Tolkien saying more or less, “Hey, I think Númenóreans are involved in some way!), or is the Quenta Silmarillion essentially an Elven text? I argue that it is, looking at some new evidence for why the narrator must be Eldarin.
  2. What is the evidence for historical bias in The Silmarillion? I cover some of what was included in Attainable Vistas but also present some new evidence showing that The Silmarillion is a biased text that favors Gondolin and Doriath while going to lengths to downplay and negatively depict the Fëanorians.

The attached video is a recording (not live! made in the comfort of my own study) with the slides I showed at the conference.

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