Friday, April 5, 2013

More Advice from Anthony Trollope

Oh, what would Mr. Trollope say if he knew that his novels were still in print and widely read, and his own autobiography was the stuff of blog fodder? That his advice was being absorbed still by writers over 100 years later?
Anthony Trollope, 1815-1882
Okay, more advice:
The writer's language must be pleasant to the reader.
Allow me to give his meaning to you in his own words:
"Let him have all other possible gifts, imagination, observation, erudition, and industry, they will avail him nothing for his purpose unless he can put forth his work in pleasant words."
"He must be intelligible, -- intelligible without trouble; and he must be harmonious."
"The language should be so pellucid that the meaning should be rendered without an effort to the reader."  It should show "the very sense ... which the writer has intended."
"The language should be as ready and as efficient a conductor of the mind of the writer to the mind of the reader as is the electric spark which passes from one battery to another ...."
Part of this pleasant language is the learned skills of rhythm and balance. "He must so train his ear that he shall be able to weigh the rhythm of every word as it falls from his pen." "He will have appreciated the metrical duration of every syllable before it shall have dared to show itself upon paper." How many writers today show this much skill? This much care?
Another important aspect of pleasant language is to refrain from irritating the reader with "episodes," or digressions from the point of the story. "Every sentence, and every word used should tend to the telling of the story." (This reminds me so much of Poe and his philosophy of story-writing.) Trollope says the reader is wearied and irritated by digressions that pull his mind from the story's point and goal. Remember, these novelists were writing and publishing in episodic format to begin with -- in magazines. How much discipline it must have taken to avoid meaningless digressions in the middle of the plot!
Trollope admits of the importance of dialogue. "The dialogue is generally the most agreeable part of the novel, but it is only so as long as it tends in some way to the telling of the main story." A writer has failed if his dialogue wanders off into frivolous conversations not pertinent to the story. This is tempting, if one does not keep one's characters in check! "He may only do so by putting such words into the mouths of his personages as persons so situated would probably use." This is difficult! If the language is too correct, it won't sound real. But if it is too casual and familiar in the characters' mouths, it will not be intelligible to the reader. Trollope says the dialogue should "produce upon the ear of his reader a sense of reality."

Trollope paid a servant extra money to wake him religiously each morning early, so he could be seated at his writing table at 5:30 AM. He spent 3 hours each morning writing. The first hour he devoted to re-reading the text he'd written the day before, to correct any errors and to ensure that he continued his writing with the same feel, voice and style, familiarizing himself with his work. This is essential. Then he wrote for 2 hours, usually penning 250 words per 15 minutes, he says. He notes that a writer should not count sitting with one's pen in one's mouth, ruminating on ideas, as writing. The thinking must be done elsewhere, during one's day. The two hours are devoted to putting pen to paper. At this writing rate, he produced many excellent novels, all while working full time for the post office. When the three hours were up, he dressed, had breakfast, and began his day of work.

I do not write this way. I wish I did. I'm not saying I couldn't do it, but I don't wish to. Trollope was undoubtedly a most unusually disciplined man, and as with most such men, he had little tolerance for those who whine that they cannot do the same. For him, it was necessary because he wanted to be a novelist, and he wanted the additional income to free his life, engage socially with men of that class and intellect, and fund his favorite hobby, hunting. Trollope adored riding to hounds, as the British say. He loved good horses, good hard riding 'cross fields, and all that was needed to keep doing it.

He determined to retire from the post office before he turned 60 and could get his pension, if he'd saved enough money to secure an equally comfortable living without the pension. He succeeded. He had one or two "lucky breaks," but not much. The mid-1800s were a time for novel-writing. I wonder -- oh, I do -- how he might have negotiated the publishing world today, coming as he did from poverty, blue collar work, and being packed off to Ireland. Success is possible, but not likely.  How thankful I am that Trollope disciplined himself and fought against his disadvantages!


  1. Not having read him...what one work would you suggest?

  2. Jeannette, I'd read something from the Barchester series there are 6), and the most light-hearted and fun one is "Barchester Towers." His characters are very engaging in that, and the plot is interesting. After that "Framley Parsonage." My personal favorite is "The Last Chronicle of Barset," but it is very long, and a little tedious unless you love Trollope already :)


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