Thursday, April 4, 2013

Anthony Trollope's Advice to Novel Writers

I love Anthony Trollope. He's been a literary inspiration to me. He lived from 1815 to 1882.
That's some beard!

I'm reading his autobiography. It's not a "story of my life" kind of book. He does talk about his childhood and employment, but only as it contributes to his aspirations as a writer. He came from a somewhat literary family, but Trollope, unlike many novelists of his time, was a common worker, a toiler who clocked his hours at the post office for decades.  He rose through the ranks and eventually traveled round the world, managing postal deliveries and organizing routes. But he was a prolific, creative, and respected novelist as well, rising to a place where his books routinely demanded a good price from the magazines of the day that published them.

Trollope attempted to write a history of English novelists and their work, but found the effort beyond his strength. In his preparation for this book, he read and studied more widely perhaps than is contemporaries, which is saying something.  I will note this about Trollope:  he is not enamored of the weary intricacies of plot. Plot is merely the thin palate upon which he paints his rich characters' portraits and the luscious scenes where they live. Barchester is a living city; I feel I've resided there myself, among Trollope's lovely and familiar populace.

So, his advice. His first word of wisdom rang true for me. He says that novelists should write novels when they have a tale to tell -- not when they merely want to tell a tale. What's the difference? When a novelist begins, he writes because he has a story he longs to tell. It has formed in his mind, possessed his thoughts, and he must tell it. After his readers have received and loved it, in his enthusiasm, he feels he must tell another one, even if (unfortunately) he doesn't yet have a tale to tell again. Thus, the novelist's second attempt is often a disappointment to him and his fans. He began with a tale to tell. Later, he only wanted to tell a tale, any tale. So sad. This is why my sequel to Three Against the Dark has yet to materialize. I've tried twice, and failed. I don't have the tale to tell yet, and I refuse to simply write for the sake of churning something out.

It's a relief to me to read this from Trollope because I did think perhaps he was a churner-out of novels. He seemed like a machine, writing every day, writing on the train, producing book after book. But he only told a story when he knew he had a good one to tell. Others didn't always agree, of course, but that's alright. His reputation is established on his Barchester and Palliser novels alone.

I'll follow with his next words of advice to novelists, in a later post.


  1. Apparently I need to get my hands on some Trollope! Do you think less of me knowing that I've never read him? :)

    Blessings, Debbie

  2. Not at all, Debbie!! :) He's a contemporary of Thackaray and Dickens, but many might consider him a "second tier" novelist. I (of course) disagree - haha. I like his light-hearted humor. If you read him, do the Barchester novels. Barchester Towers is a very good place to begin :)

  3. What impresses me most is he wrote while he held a full time job. So many "writers" complain and whine about lack of time when it's simply a poor use of the time they do have.

  4. True, Sandra. In the next post about him, I'm gonna write about his writing schedule in the next post. It's very interesting.


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