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.