Do you ever feel that you are trying to do two jobs? I’m struggling to complete my novel because I want to spend eight hours a day on it and I’m only finding half an hour here and there. I need a pep talk from a pro. Since I’ve just finished a jolly enjoyable novel by Anthony Trollope, I thought I’d spirit myself back in time and ask him how he managed to write it.
I caught up with him in the whist room at the Garrick club. “Frittering your time away playing cards, Anthony?” I asked him. “Shouldn’t you be writing your next best seller?”
“I completed my day’s literary work before I dressed for breakfast,” he replied cheerily.
“What, you get time for breakfast? Some of us have to work, you know.”
“Ha ha ha!” He realised I was joking and tolerated my impertinence with great good humour. “During the day I do the work of a surveyor of the General Post Office, and so do it as to give the authorities of the department no slightest pretext for fault-finding.”
“What? So you really squeeze your novel writing in before breakfast? It must take forever to finish anything that way.”
“Young man,” ( he was scarcely six years older than me I think, but never mind), “I feel confident that in amount no other writer contributed so much during the last twelve years to English literature. Over and above my novels, I have written political, critical, social, and sporting articles for periodicals without number.”
“Oh, but come on, Anthony. Journalism. That’s hack-work. What about something that will stand the test of time: a novel of quality?”
The literary lion leant back in his chair with a complacent sigh. “My morning routine allows me to produce over ten pages of an ordinary novel a day, and if kept up through ten months, will produce three novels of three volumes each in the year; which must at any rate be quite as much as the novel-readers of the world can want from the hands of one man.”
“Hmm. That’s quite impressive, I have to admit. So what exactly is your morning routine?”
“It’s my practice to be at my table every morning at 5.30 a.m.; and it’s also my practice to allow myself no mercy.”
“5:30! I’d need a strong cup of coffee to get my brain into gear at that unholy hour.”
“I have an old groom, whose business it is to call me, and to whom I pay £5 a year extra for the duty. I also allow him no mercy. Fortunately for him, he has never once been late with the coffee which it is his duty to bring me.”
“So that’s your secret, is it? I dare say if I could afford servants, I could be a successful novelist too.”
“I do not know that I ought not to feel that I owe more to him than to any one else for the success I have had.”
“But I suppose these days there are machines that can deliver a steaming cup of coffee at the crack of dawn. I’ll google it when I get back to the office.”
Mr. Trollope shook his whiskers at me in a distracted fashion as if he were impatient to get back to the whist table. Ignoring my last utterance, he opined, “All those I think who have lived as literary men, working daily as literary labourers, will agree with me that three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write.”
“Quite, quite,” I said. “If I had three hours in the day to sit and daydream … I can see that it actually might be quite pleasant to rise early, nibble on your pen and stare at the walls for a bit before breakfast.”
“You misunderstand me, Sir,” he said gruffly. He was beginning to show more and more impatience. “The literary tyro should so have trained himself that he shall be able to work continuously during those three hours, — so have tutored his mind that it shall not be necessary for him to sit nibbling his pen, and gazing at the wall before him, till he shall have found the words with which he wants to express his ideas.”
“That coffee must really do its work well,” I said.
“It has become my custom,” he said proudly, “to write with my watch before me, and to require from myself 250 words every quarter of an hour. I have found that the 250 words are forthcoming as regularly as my watch goes.”
“Oh! What, so you write 1,000 words an hour for three solid hours?”
“My three hours are not devoted entirely to writing. I always begin my task by reading the work of the day before, an operation which takes me half an hour, and which consists chiefly in weighing with my ear the sound of the words and phrases. I would strongly recommend this practice to all tyros in writing.”
“You mean writers should actually read what they’ve written? Oh, I’ve tried that. I don’t like it at all!”
“That their work should be read after it has been written is a matter of course, — that it should be read twice — “
“Twice at least before it goes to the printers, I take to be a matter of course. But by reading what he has last written, just before he recommences his task, the writer will catch the tone and spirit of what he is then saying, and will avoid the fault of seeming to be unlike himself.”
“What about this ghastly modern habit of rewriting everything?”
But before he could answer this perfectly reasonable question, Mr. Trollope was pulled from his chair by a couple of cronies and forced to make up a fourth hand at the whist table, after which, I’m sorry to report that I couldn’t get another syllable from him of any significance.
[All the utterances from Trollope, with some slight alterations, can be found in his Autobiography. No doubt he was inspired to write those passages after this stimulating interview.]
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