I’m reading the autobiography of Anthony Trollope. I should confess here that I am not a huge fan. Back in the day I ploughed through Can You Forgive Her and half of Phineas Finn but without a great deal of pleasure. However, like most writers, I do like reading about other writers, so I thought I would give this a whirl. And I’m interested in Trollope because I know that he was both extraordinarily prolific and popular. I have to say it’s an unexpected scream of a book. The scream being more of the ‘Halloween’ than the ‘ha ha’ variety. It was written seven years before he died and intended to be published posthumously and reads like the book of a man who has the most monstrous chip on his shoulder. Which is a little bit surprising because at that point he was so successful you’d have thought he might have lightened up a bit. It is also in some ways an utterly charmless book maybe because he knew it would be published after his death and therefore couldn’t be bothered to modify the tone of what he wrote.
In the introduction it is described as:
‘This queer bleak text-book of the mechanics and economics of novel writing.’
And that’s a pretty accurate description. However, I decided to read it as if it were a Victorian self-help book for writers, a sort of Writing Down The Bones, not that WDTB by Natalie Goldberg is in any way odd or bleak, quite the reverse, and it’s a book I absolutely love.
I read the last chapter (The Fruits of Diligence) first and in it he lists every book he ever wrote (45) and what he made from each one. The total amount was £70,000 which would be about £3,300,000 in today’s money. He states he has not listed every book to be a show off but to encourage the young.
I’m not sure it has that effect on me but perhaps I’m not young enough!
Some of the most interesting material relates to his mother, who he obviously adored, although he comments of her she was “unable to avoid the pitfalls of exaggeration.” I know that feeling. A prolific writer herself, Frances Trollope, wrote like a demon getting up at four in the morning to do so and had taken up writing in her fifties to rescue the family from penury. Between the age of fifty and seventy-six she wrote 114 volumes. Trollope describes how even while she was nursing her husband and two children, who were to die of consumption, she kept writing.
‘The doctor’s vials and the ink bottle held equal places in my mother’s rooms.’
Depending on one’s point of view, this is chilling or admirable. What I find interesting is that he had a rôle model who would allow absolutely nothing to come in the way of her writing.
So what lessons can we glean from him? Has he got any tips? There must be some, mustn’t there? Surely this isn’t just a case of a grumpy old man settling scores? Incidentally, his assessment of Disraeli’s novels, (Disraeli was Prime Minister at the time he wrote the book), is absolutely poisonous.
Trollope had an absolutely ferocious work ethic. For each book he kept a diary and noted down the number of pages he wrote every week. The reason being that “if at any time I have slipped into idleness for a day or two, the record of that idleness has been there staring me in the face, and demanding of me increased labour…”
He writes 250 words to a page. The number of pages he sets himself to write a week is between 20 (5000 words) and 40 (10000 words) but sometimes rises as high as 112 (28000 words). So this is a man who is spectacularly industrious, never misses a deadline and always delivers to the right length. In other words he is highly professional. He is not interested in the glamour of the hare, he is the tortoise who plods away and knows he will win in the end. He is also completely scornful of the idea of “waiting for inspiration.”
ON WAITING FOR THE MUSE: To me it would not be more absurd if the shoemaker were to wait for inspiration, or the tallow-chandler for the divine moment of melting.
What else does he have to tell us?
ON CRITICS: Now I well know where I may look for a little instruction, where I may expect only greasy adulation, where I shall be cut up into mince-meat for the delight of those who love sharp invective.
Well, my own experience of being reviewed is that I could do with a bit more greasy adulation! Bring it on, in fact. Fortunately I’ve not experienced the mince-meat variety although one reviewer did, completely legitimately, point out that she thought it unlikely that Sam Falconer, my PI, would be willing to risk her life for another person’s chihuahua. The flaw in my plot was thus horribly exposed!
ON THE BITTERNESS OF FAILURE: The career (of a novelist) when success has been achieved, is certainly very pleasant; but the agonies which are endured in the search for success are often terrible.
Oh dear, well that has a vaguely familiar ring to it. Trollope does also state that in the first ten years of his writing career he didn’t earn enough to buy the pens, inks and paper that he was using. Given that he ended up a multi-millionaire that is quite encouraging, isn’t it?
His best tips come in the form of Latin quotations:
ON WRITING PRACTICE: ‘Nulla dies sine linea’ – Let no day pass without a line being written.
ON PERSISTENCE: ‘Gutta cavat lapidem non vi, sed saepe cadendo’ – A water drop hollows a stone not by force but by falling often.
So, there we have it. Write every day. Keep at it. And you too might turn into a grumpy old multi-millionaire just like Trollope.
Finally what does he have to say on plot and dialogue?
ON PLOTS: I am not sure that the construction of a perfected plot has been at any period within my power.
That’s a bit of a surprise. I’d have thought someone like Trollope would have been big on plot but he’s actually rather dismissive of them and in the process rather dismissive of poor Wilkie Collins!
ON DIALOGUE: No character should utter much above a dozen words at a breath.
Well, I’m sorry Anthony but that would be a bit bloody hard (my 12 words are up) to stick to so I’m definitely not doing that…
By the end of the book I actually felt quite sorry for him. He had a vile childhood in which he was mercilessly bullied at school. His father was hopeless and of him he said, “the touch of his hand seemed to create failure.” Yes, the book lacks charm but it is also quite bracing. A bit like a walk along the Norfolk coast on Boxing Day. You may lose all sensation in your face but you know you’re alive. This isn’t a man to wait for the muse to descend or to offer much sympathy to a stuck writer. His response would probably be to thrust a pen and ink bottle into your hand, place some paper in front of you and lock you in a room. Probably between five and seven in the morning. I can’t help feeling that he would thoroughly have approved of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) because that was how he wrote all the time. This is how he ends:
Now I stretch out my hand, and from the further shore I bid adieu to all who have cared to read any among the many words I have written.
It’s actually made me curious to go back and read his novels. So which one shall I start with? Any advice gratefully received but I’d prefer one without too much hunting.