One of the writers I’ve always admired is Robert Louis Stevenson. His characters are vigorous and vital; his scenes are thrilling; and his plots are perfect. He enthralls me even more as an adult than he did as a child because I can now see the inimitable artistry in what he does. I can see it but I can’t copy it.
I recently read through a collection of his short stories and I found them quite difficult and tiring. Perhaps that’s why he’s seen as a children’s author. The young have the energy for him.
But it’s easy to forget just how much effort those books cost him. He wrote a number of books before he wrote his first novel and his first novel only came after a dozen false starts.
That novel was Treasure Island and, in an essay on how he came to write it, he explains what a huge challenge it was. It’s an essay I never tire of reading. I find it very comforting, like a chat by the fire with an old friend. Today I need his words more than ever because I’ve just started the long uphill struggle of rewriting my latest novel and I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed.
“Sooner or later, somehow, anyhow, I was bound to write a novel. It seems vain to ask why. Men are born with various manias: from my earliest childhood, it was mine to make a plaything of imaginary series of events; and as soon as I was able to write, I became a good friend to the paper-makers. Reams upon reams must have gone to the making of ‘Rathillet,’ ‘The Pentland Rising,’ ‘The King’s Pardon’ (otherwise ‘Park Whitehead’), ‘Edward Daven,’ ‘A Country Dance,’ and ‘A Vendetta in the West’; and it is consolatory to remember that these reams are now all ashes, and have been received again into the soil. I have named but a few of my ill- fated efforts, only such indeed as came to a fair bulk ere they were desisted from; and even so they cover a long vista of years. ‘Rathillet’ was attempted before fifteen, ‘The Vendetta’ at twenty- nine, and the succession of defeats lasted unbroken till I was thirty-one. By that time, I had written little books and little essays and short stories; and had got patted on the back and paid for them — though not enough to live upon. I had quite a reputation, I was the successful man; I passed my days in toil, the futility of which would sometimes make my cheek to burn — that I should spend a man’s energy upon this business, and yet could not earn a livelihood: and still there shone ahead of me an unattained ideal: although I had attempted the thing with vigour not less than ten or twelve times, I had not yet written a novel. All — all my pretty ones — had gone for a little, and then stopped inexorably like a schoolboy’s watch. I might be compared to a cricketer of many years’ standing who should never have made a run. Anybody can write a short story — a bad one, I mean — who has industry and paper and time enough; but not every one may hope to write even a bad novel. It is the length that kills.
“The accepted novelist may take his novel up and put it down, spend days upon it in vain, and write not any more than he makes haste to blot. Not so the beginner. Human nature has certain rights; instinct — the instinct of self-preservation — forbids that any man (cheered and supported by the consciousness of no previous victory) should endure the miseries of unsuccessful literary toil beyond a period to be measured in weeks. There must be something for hope to feed upon. The beginner must have a slant of wind, a lucky vein must be running, he must be in one of those hours when the words come and the phrases balance of themselves — EVEN TO BEGIN. And having begun, what a dread looking forward is that until the book shall be accomplished! For so long a time, the slant is to continue unchanged, the vein to keep running, for so long a time you must keep at command the same quality of style: for so long a time your puppets are to be always vital, always consistent, always vigorous! I remember I used to look, in those days, upon every three-volume novel with a sort of veneration, as a feat — not possibly of literature — but at least of physical and moral endurance and the courage of Ajax.”