JSB: So You Want to Be a Novelist
I recently read the autobiography of the nineteenth century English novelist Anthony Trollope. What a horrible childhood he had. Right out of Dickens. Coming into adulthood convinced he was unfit for any “respectable profession” (he did go to work for the British postal system), he decided the one thing he might be able to do was write novels.
So he set out to do it. He started work on his first novel in 1843. He had not yet formulated the famous quota system that served him the rest of his writing life. In 1847 he took the finished manuscript to London and it was taken on by a very small publisher who promised him fifty percent of the profits. It was published, but Trollope never heard from the publisher and never got an accounting. It later turned out this guy tried to confuse the public into thinking that Trollope's mother (who was a novelist herself at one time) was actually the author. In any case, the book sold no more than 50 copies.
Trollope finished another novel and got a different publisher. This time he did get an accounting. The publisher printed 375 copies, and sold 140. The publisher sent Trollope a letter, which said, in part, "Thus, you will perceive it is impossible for me to give any encouragement to you to proceed in novel writing." Trollope says of his reaction, "I did not doubt the wisdom of the advice given to me in the letter, though I never thought of obeying it....I would have bet twenty to one against my own success. But, by continuing, I could lose only pen and paper, and if the one chance in twenty did turn up in my favour, then how much I might win."
So he went to work on his next novel. He got 20 pounds as an advance. But the book was another failure, selling under 350 copies. "Alas, alas, years were to roll by before I should earn by my pen another shilling." After the failure of his third novel, "I began to ask myself whether, after all, that was my proper line. I had never thought of questioning the justice of the verdict expressed against me. The idea that I was the unfortunate owner of unappreciated genius never troubled me....But I was clear in my mind I would not lay down my pen."
He tried his hand at a play, and sent it to an old friend who had theater connections in London. He got a letter in return, his friend stating that he had had "great hopes" for the play, but the lead character was so unbecoming that she "meets but little sympathy. And this, be assured, would be its effect upon an audience." This, coming from a friend, was like a "blow in the face!" But to his credit, in later years Trollope re-read the play and concluded his friend was right. At the time, though, it was another crushing rejection of his work.
So Trollope wrote a travel book about Ireland, and was invited by a publisher to submit it. He worked his tail off and submitted the book and didn't hear anything for nine months. Finally he shot off an angry letter, and got the rejected manuscript by return mail.
For the next two years the demands of his job precluded novel writing. But Trollope kept turning plot ideas "over in my head." On a visit to the cathedral city of Salsbury, he came up with the character of an Archdeacon, and was moved to write because of he was outraged by twin "evils"--the purloining by dishonest clergymen of funds that were intended for the poor; but also the vicious attacks by the news journals on honest clergymen who did their work though poorly compensated. He completed the novel, The Warden, and though it did not get to a second printing, it sold enough copies to finally earn him some return. His assessment of its merit (other than the passion he had for the subject matter that I perceive here) was due, he said, to being able to put well drawn characters "so on the canvas that my readers should see what I meant them to see. There is no gift which an author can have more useful to him than this."
He wrote a second Cathedral novel, Barchester Towers, which is the one that began his literary reputation. It is also the novel that started his quota system--a discipline to write a certain number of pages each day. Barchester Towers came out in 1857, 14 years after he began as a novelist. The success of the book enabled him to begin getting good advances, and he never looked back.
He became one of the most productive novelists of all time because of his famous quota system. He rose every morning at five o'clock and wrote for three to four hours in order to meet a self-imposed weekly quota of approximately forty pages. He kept a meticulous record of his production, always meeting the quota.
And this is true: when he got to the end of a novel, and had not met his daily quota, he would take a breath, remove a clean sheet of paper and write “Chapter One” and keep writing. He always had another project cooking in his head as he wrote.
So you want to be a novelist? You would do well to learn some lessons from Anthony Trollope:
1. Develop a passion that won't let you quit, even if it looks as if the road to publication is as far off as a hit sitcom for Jason Alexander.
2. Give yourself a quota. Write a certain number of words each day and keep a weekly goal (so if you miss a day, you can make it up on another). This is what served Trollope so well, and for me it was one of the earliest, and still the best, pieces of advice I ever got on the writing life.
3. Keep turning plot ideas “over in your head.” Most new writers I encounter have a single project in hand. I tell them to get to work on their next project. If their present manuscript is still being written, I say “Finish it, and as you do be developing your next book, and getting ideas for the ones after that.” Keep an idea file, where you jot down one or two line concepts that you might want to develop later. Go over this file from time to time and nurture the most promising ideas. In this way, you’ll never run out of things to write about.
4. Go for those “well drawn characters.” That was Trollope’s secret. Also Dickens’. Also any great novelist I can think of. Characters are how readers connect to stories. This goes for literary, commercial or genre writing.
5. Don’t get discouraged. Look how long it took Trollope. He just kept writing. So can you.
6. Don’t quit your day job. At least not yet. Trollope found time to write and made the most of it. Do this every day, and you’ll generate more than enough material to make it. Many a successful novelist began this way, writing in the hours before going to work, or late at night, or on weekends. The quota system is like compound interest—the rewards grow almost like magic.
Writing a novel is a mix of art and craft, inspiration and discipline, hope and hard work. Go for it.
James Scott Bell’s website is http://www.jamesscottbell.com/