Trollope’s pearls of wisdom, part two

Another installment of the lessons authors can learn from Anthony Trollope’s autobiography.

We’ve already learned that a plan of work can be a useful thing: no claiming to be a tortured genius, no overindulgence (would a cobbler go to work drunk and expect satisfactory results?), just sit down at your desk every weekday and write as though it were your job. Trollope apparently was not an author who particularly planned his story beforehand, however (which I find encouraging because neither am I) – he would have a plot idea or the life-story of a character in mind and then would sit and write the story as it came to him, and once finished would go through it at least another 3 times. No doubt it depends on the author’s personality but I find that if I start wondering how this scene ties in with something that needs to happen later I freeze, I can’t write another word, whereas if I write freely and then worry about inconsistencies at the end I get a much better result (this is why my attempts at writing crime fiction have so far kept getting stuck – having to decide early on what the murder weapon was, for instance, just kills the spontaneity and I blank).

In his autobiography, Trollope expressly encourages aspiring authors to persevere – he makes the point that some of Byron’s early work was dismissed by critics, and that no-one can tell from reading one of your manuscripts what you might be capable of in time (a cheering thought when you’re staring at another rejection email). Whereas a first novel usually arises from having a story that’s burning to be told, Trollope warns us to beware later novels arising from needing to tell a story – you cast around for a subject and try and write about it when there’s no passion behind it (I’ve done that before, and found I gradually became less enthusiastic and eventually gave up). As your career progresses there’s a danger that (while you may be technically a better writer) your powers of observation wane and your writing loses those little touches that add realism – don’t stop carrying that notebook around and listening to conversations on the bus just because you think you’ve cracked it, in other words.

Although some of the advice he gives is no longer relevant (those parts relating to the modesty of female readers, for example) plenty of it is timeless: a good novel should be both realistic and sensational; without identifying with the characters, no aspect of the plot will affect the reader; characters must be as well-known to the author as if they were real people, alive in his head at all times and thus changing and growing as the story progresses. As far as language goes, Trollope considered readability more important than correct English (you can be correct but dull, and whereas people persevere with non-fiction despite the writing style, they rarely stick with a novel for the plot alone. Though I tend to do that with Philip K Dick), but he emphasised the importance of using precise words and imagery, however tempting it is to be a bit vague in places and hope no-one notices. Every word of every sentence should add up to tell your story, no adding side-episodes because you have a point to make or want to show off a nice scene (this from the man who inserted a fox-hunting scene in almost every novel, often with no furthering of the plot and occasionally breaking the flow. I can forgive him because he’s generally a joy to read, but it does seem a tad hypocritical).

An important point that Trollope makes is that if writing’s an enjoyable pastime you’ve lost nothing if your output isn’t published – at least you’ve entertained yourself in the meantime, which is probably a good way to look at it since very few of the thousands of people who write in their spare time will ever make a big impact. So, go off and entertain yourself, have a chat with the characters in your head or just sit back and watch their lives – care about them, write about them from your overwhelming need to share their story, and you too could still be in print after 150 years.

Trollope’s pearls of wisdom, part one

For the modern writer, Anthony Trollope’s autobiography may not seem the obvious place to seek inspiration and advice. While it’s true that unless you have a fondness for Trollope already (as regular readers will know that I do) you might not find it the easiest or most entertaining read, there’s still a lot to be learned.

Anthony Trollope was 28 when he started writing his first novel, and 32 when it was published, which in itself is reassuring to those of us who might feel like we either started this writing lark a little late, or are getting too old to make a proper go of it. Even then, his first few novels saw little success and his publisher advised him to give up; Trollope was sustained by a belief in himself, a degree of stubbornness and an understanding (gained from his mother’s experience as a popular novelist) that it’s often the vagaries of the market rather than the quality of the writing that dictate the success or failure of a book. Given his eventual and long-lasting success and popularity, it just shows that you shouldn’t let a mountain of rejection slips put you off.

Despite his prodigious output, Trollope continued to work for the Post Office (he notes that stone-breaking would have been a more profitable pastime, and that by 1857 writing had earned him £55 for 10 years’ hard work, which would be roughly £3000 now) until he was in his 50s, often writing in the early morning or on the train as he went about his official business. While it wouldn’t work for everyone, Trollope saw writing as a second profession which should be taken just as seriously as his primary one: at the start of a novel (once he’d built up some experience of how long a novel took him if he set his mind to it and worked hard) he set out a period of weeks in which to write, and allocated a reasonable number of pages per day (now with electronic assistance we’d probably set a word-count) then each day wrote down how many he’d actually completed. If I had the discipline to write this sort of plan in the first place, this might work for me as a method of keeping on track – one of my major failings is that I’m not always aware how much time’s passed or how much I’ve achieved, but seeing on a calendar that it’s now 3 weeks since I began and instead of 15000 words I’ve written 800 might spur me on a bit (or alternatively render me unable to work due to being weighed down by feelings of guilt and inferiority. Depends on mood, weather, and biscuit consumption).

Which brings me neatly (or maybe not) to the end of part one. Heavy rain splashing onto the window behind me being somewhat distracting, and more time than I intended having been spent on this post already, it’s time to break for tea and biscuits and I’ll return to this topic later.

Life irritating art

Life seems to have elbowed writing to one side lately, which explains the long gaps between posts, and the fact that I have very little to report when I get here. I have been (very slowly) reading Anthony Trollope’s autobiography, filled in every chapter with pearls of wisdom (as well as his wonderful style and a few random anecdotes). I’m not going to recommend it to anyone who doesn’t already have a well-established soft spot for him, but when I have more time/motivation/organisation I may well start a series of Trollope’s Pearls of Wisdom posts where I share and discuss the views of one of my favourite authors (I bet you can’t wait).

In the meantime, you can read a very short story by my friend D (I have no particular reason for the use of the initial, but since it was an arbitrary rule I can arbitrarily adhere to it). It’s in a horror magazine, but in this instance I would say it’s more horror by implication, so don’t let that deter you if horror’s not really your thing.

Satirical longevity

Having previously commented on how quickly some novels can date, I’ve been thinking today about how some can seem contemporary even when they’re pretty old. And having been reminded of The Way We Live Now (not that it’s usually very far from my thoughts, bizarrely fond of Trollope as I am) it occurred to me that satire seems to have the longest shelf-life.

On the face of it, political comment and specific complaints about society as it exists at the time of writing don’t look like they’d stand the test of time, but unfortunately whatever their nominal leaning, one politician is generally very much like another, and the same can be said for numerous other categories of people at the top (greedy bankers, for instance – always good for a spot of lampooning). Trollope’s satire, heavy-handed as it sometimes is, is not only funny but often gives the impression that it could have been written yesterday. Strip away the conventions of Victorian society, and his interminable descriptions of fox-hunting parties, and Trollope could stand in for Simon Hoggart in the Guardian. A couple of years ago, with Blair still in Number Ten, there was a BBC radio adaptation of one or some of the Palliser novels, and whether or not that was the intention of the producer, I seem to remember the Guardian’s radio reviewer drawing striking parallels between Trollope’s original and the goings-on in Downing Street that month.

The book that set me off on this train of thought was Evelyn Waugh’s The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, or specifically the second short story which accompanies that novella, Love Among The Ruins. It’s a none-too-subtle dig at the Welfare State, which in 1953 was still largely in its infancy with the NHS a mere six years old (don’t get me started on the 1945-51 Labour government). However, ‘in the new Britain there are no criminals, only the victims of inadequate social services’, prisons like luxury hotels, and a Britain where it’s considered a boon to be from a broken home could have emerged from the keyboards of any number of tabloid journalists in 2009.

I can’t quite decide whether it’s all an illusion and every age sees itself in past literature, or we really don’t learn from our gruesome mistakes.

Stories Without Words

Yesterday I went to see a ballet of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities; I say this not as some kind of cultural oneupmanship, but because it set me thinking about the differences between stories and writing.

I don’t like Dickens, not that I’ve read much of his work, but every TV and radio adaptation I’ve encountered over the years has served to put me off even further – mawkish plots, stereotyped characters, unrealistic settings in an England that only ever existed in the author’s head. I went to the theatre having never read the book, with no idea of the plot, just a love of ballet, a fondness for heavily-brocaded eighteenth century coats and an interest in the French Revolution. It was an enjoyable couple of hours, and although various subtleties were lost on me (what was the significance of the scarf with the letter E embroidered on it, that several characters waved around with triumph or remorse?) I got the general gist. It didn’t make me want to read the book, however, partly because I now know how it ends, but partly because I’ve never taken to his style. And that’s what really got me thinking (don’t expect any conclusions, I’m just pondering in public).

Unlike my experience with Dickens, I took to Anthony Trollope’s style from the start, and have now happily worked my way through a good many of his novels, loving almost every page of them. However, most adaptations of the Barchester novels have left me cold – strip away the narrator’s asides, the satirical, topical references, and concentrate instead on the main plot which inevitably centres on a clergyman in a small town or country village, and his daughter/niece/ward who eventually marries a nice young chap after a hundred or so pages of complications, and it’s as bad as Dickens, and not something I’d want to spend time on. On the whole, I read Trollope for his writing style, the personality that shines through the prose, and not necessarily for the story itself (though He Knew He Was Right, The Way We Live Now, and the Palliser novels for instance are light on clergy and strong on plot).

Philip K Dick on the other hand is pretty much the opposite: his plots are, on the whole, interesting and original, though often his characters are weak and his prose style uninspiring. Like Trollope, he’s another prolific writer whose canon I’m slowly working my way through, but in this case I’m definitely reading for the story; if the plot hasn’t gripped me in the first few pages, there’s nothing in the way it’s written that will keep me reading, and I give up.

There are authors whose novels I’ll read even if the story’s nothing special, and authors whose plots keep me hooked even though the prose is almost clunky in places, but these days I’m a lot less tolerant of badly written books with rubbish plots. A few years ago someone gave me The Da Vinci Code, and I persevered to the end, optimistically expecting it to pick up at some point, but I think if I came to it for the first time now, it’d be in the charity shop bag before the end of chapter 1.