Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Anthony Trollope

Quote of the Day

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[Literature] is a business which has its allurements. It requires no capital, no special education, no training, and may be taken up at any time without a moment’s delay. If a man can command a table, a chair, a pen, paper, and ink, he can commence his trade as a literary man…It is an idea that comes to very many men and women, old as well as young—to many thousands who at last are crushed by it, of whom the world knows nothing.

Anthony Trollope, Thackeray

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March 16, 2018 at 7:30 am

The art of distraction

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Walden Pond

If you were to ask most writers what they thought of distraction, they’d probably say that they needed a lot less of it. I’ve noted elsewhere that in theory, writing a novel is easier today than ever before: whether you use Microsoft Word, Scrivener, or even WordStar, the physical act of putting words down on a page has never been more straightforward. We have software to check our spelling and help us outline our stories; the process of revision, even at the most granular level, is close to seamless; and even if we write our works by hand, the range of other conveniences at our disposal can’t be denied. Online research gives us access to information that would have been difficult, if not impossible, to find in the past, to the point where authors like Jonathan Franzen have argued that the idea of research itself has been permanently devalued. In terms of looking for inspiration, we have whole libraries of quality content available for free, with more being added every day, all of it searchable and retrievable from anywhere. If all that stands between us and decent work is a series of practical obstacles, these hurdles have been gradually filed down, until almost nothing separates us from the performance itself.

In practice, of course, that isn’t the case. A decent novel takes about the same amount of time to write today as it ever did, whether you’re an accomplished hack or a diligent artist. (Whether a novel takes six weeks or six years to complete is more a function of the author’s personality, and this fact hasn’t changed since the days of Anthony Trollope.) Elsewhere, I’ve said that this can partially be explained by a variation on Blinn’s Law, which states that the amount of time it takes to render a single frame of animation remains constant, even as technology advances. Animators have a certain baseline level of patience that doesn’t change much; if the hardware becomes faster, they simply ask their computers to do more and more. Word processing software, in turn, might seem like it saves time, but whatever a writer gains in the process is offset by the many little revisions and corrections that he or she might have skipped on a typewriter. Whether or not such infinitesimal changes make any difference is debatable—they’re often touches that even the most diligent reader wouldn’t notice—but it means that the minimum time a novel has to percolate in a writer’s head will pretty much stay the same.

Jonathan Franzen

Another part of the explanation lies in the increased possibility for distraction that technology affords. Writers have always found ways to procrastinate, but the temptations we have these days seem qualitatively different, thanks largely to the very same innovations that have granted us so much potential freedom. It’s often pointed out that the most successful forms of online content—Wikipedia, Reddit, Twitter, even the web itself—arose less out of an overarching vision than from a set of convenient tools that allowed users to easily shape the results from the bottom up. Publishing a picture or a comment is so effortless that it can almost be done without thinking, which turns the screen in which we spend much of our lives into a jungle of ephemera. It includes a lot of garbage, but with a few basic filtering mechanisms in place to separate the good from the bad, we end up with an incredibly seductive menu of constantly updated diversion. For writers, the process works in both directions, with the ease of generating content colliding with the ease of consuming it, and the two halves meet on the laptop. And because we spend so much time there, we’re more vulnerable to it than people whose jobs require them to occasionally get out of the house.

Writers all develop their own ways of dealing with this, often taking the form of a conscious rejection of technology itself, whether it’s Franzen’s computer with the Ethernet port glued shut or Michael Pollan’s writing shack. Most of us find ourselves somewhere in the middle, with the time we spend on actual work alternating uneasily with checking email or clicking through the newswires on The A.V. Club. And the first step to living with distraction is acknowledging that it has its place. Obsessive singlemindedness can be as dangerous to a writer as its opposite; every meaningful project includes elements of delay, avoidance, and postponement. The form it currently tends to take is a little more insidious, since it can’t be distinguished at first glance from much of what we do when we’re being productive—as any office worker knows who has ever quietly switched over from a spreadsheet to ESPN.com. But it’s impossible to cut ourselves off from it entirely without separating ourselves from the useful tools that it simultaneously provides. And if nothing else, we can take consolation in the fact that when you average out the forces of acceleration and distraction, we end up more or less where we’ve always been.

Written by nevalalee

November 19, 2014 at 9:51 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

April 11, 2013 at 7:30 am

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A writer’s secret weapon

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I don’t feel much like writing a blog post today—I imprudently chopped a hot green pepper into my breakfast omelet, and it still feels like my head is on fire—but I’m going to write one anyway. Why? Because I’ve now posted something every day, without fail, for close to a year now, and it feels strange to skip it, in much the same way that I feel vaguely uncomfortable whenever I’m not working on a larger writing project. And I’m grateful for this. This blog has granted me all kinds of unexpected rewards, but perhaps the most useful consequence of all has been the habit of sitting down to write upwards of five hundred words every morning, on top of my other duties as a writer, to the point where I’d no more think about going a day without posting than I’d skip brushing my teeth.

And this kind of habit is something I’ve always tried to cultivate, trusting that it will see me through whenever inspiration or craft fall short. Everyone knows that a writer should write something every day, but I’m not sure if everyone understands why. As I see it, there are three good reasons for writing every day, from the least to the most general:

  1. It increases the odds of a particular project being finished.
  2. It gets you closer to the million words or 10,000 hours required to achieve mastery.
  3. It accustoms you to the habit of writing.

And this last point is perhaps the most important. A true writer is someone who is used to writing, who does it all the time, and who can’t imagine going more than a few days without it. And if anything separates a professional from a gifted amateur, it’s that the professional feels strange whenever he or she isn’t working.

This sense of uneasiness between major projects is something that nearly every writer can understand, and it’s responsible for such monsters of productivity as Isaac Asimov, who wrote something like five hundred books simply because he was happiest in front of a typewriter. And I’ve always felt that one’s goal as a writer should be to follow the example of Trollope, who wrote a fixed number of words each day and, if he finished a novel halfway through the day’s work, simply took out a new page and began another. It may seem hard at first, but as as Tom Wolfe says in this morning’s quote, writing generally comes out the same whether you’re forcing it or not. And looking back at my own work, I know that there have been mornings when the writing seemed to flow by magic, and ones where every sentence was a struggle, but when I read over the finished manuscript, I can’t tell the difference, at least not after a few revisions.

Habit, I’m convinced, is the secret weapon in any writer’s arsenal. Much of what we call talent, virtue, or even good taste merely amounts to the tedious cultivation of daily habits of work and thought, gained and nurtured by simple repetition until they become close to unconscious. Habit alone won’t guarantee good writing, but it’s safe to say that a writer without good habits won’t produce much of anything except by luck or accident. It may not be sufficient, but it’s definitely necessary, and even on the most basic level, habit can work wonders. I rarely feel like writing when I start each morning’s work, but by the time I’m at my desk for five minutes, I can’t imagine doing anything else. And it can solve other problems, too. Looking at what I’ve done this morning, I see that, somehow, I’ve written a blog post, and no longer feel that hot green pepper reverberating through my skull. Isn’t writing great?

Written by nevalalee

October 20, 2011 at 10:27 am

Anthony Trollope on productivity

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There was no day on which it was my positive duty to write for the publishers, as it was my duty to write reports for the Post Office. I was free to be idle if I pleased. But as I had made up my mind to undertake this second profession, I found it to be expedient to bind myself by certain self-imposed laws. When I have commenced a new book, I have always prepared a diary, divided into weeks, and carried it on for the period which I have allowed myself for the completion of the work. In this I have entered, day by day, the number of pages I have written, so that if at any time I have slipped into idleness for a day or two, the record of that idleness has been there, staring me in the face, and demanding of me increased labour, so that the deficiency might be supplied. According to the circumstances of the time,—whether my other business might be then heavy or light, or whether the book which I was writing was or was not wanted with speed,—I have allotted myself so many pages a week. The average number has been about 40. It has been placed as low as 20, and has risen to 112. And as a page is an ambiguous term, my page has been made to contain 250 words; and as words, if not watched, will have a tendency to straggle, I have had every word counted as I went. In the bargains I have made with publishers I have,—not, of course, with their knowledge, but in my own mind,—undertaken always to supply them with so many words, and I have never put a book out of hand short of the number by a single word. I may also say that the excess has been very small. I have prided myself on completing my work exactly within the proposed dimensions. But I have prided myself especially in completing it within the proposed time,—and I have always done so. There has ever been the record before me, and a week passed with an insufficient number of pages has been a blister to my eye, and a month so disgraced would have been a sorrow to my heart.

Anthony Trollope, An Autobiography

Written by nevalalee

May 1, 2011 at 10:15 am

Posted in Books, Writing

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How much should you write every day?

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According to his own autobiography, the novelist Anthony Trollope wrote a thousand words an hour, between 5:30 and 8:30 every morning, and if he finished a novel before the day’s work was done, he took out a fresh piece of paper, wrote Chapter One at the top, and began another. Max Brand, the incredibly prolific author of westerns, wrote fourteen pages at a sitting—and in only two hours per session. More recently, in his book On Writing, Stephen King advises beginning writers to write at least 2,000 words a day, which is also the recommended pace for participants in National Novel Writing Month. (And judging from King’s legendary productivity, it’s likely that his own pace is much higher).

Of course, not every novelist is a writing machine. Jerzy Kosinski wrote a page and a half per sitting. Nabokov famously wrote his novels one perfect paragraph at a time, on individual index cards. Even the most modest pace will eventually produce an entire book, like water wearing away stone. At one point, when I was struggling to balance my writing life with a full-time job, I reminded myself that a hundred words a day—that is, something substantially shorter than this paragraph—would produce a novel of 100,000 words in just over two and a half years. For all my good intentions, though, I never actually stuck to that schedule, and ultimately decided to quit my job first. Still, the principle seems sound enough.

These days, when I’m working on a first draft, I write a lot. Yesterday, which was my first serious writing day in a long time, I wrote an entire draft of the prologue of my novel, which is about 3,500 words long, over the course of seven hours of work. Now, I’m not saying that all these words were great, or even good. I had the luxury of writing from a detailed outline. And I expect that the prologue will eventually be cut to something like 2,000 words or shorter. But like John le Carré, to compare small things with great, I like to write a chapter every day. And I do believe that there are good reasons to push yourself to write, if not an entire chapter, at least a fully realized unit of your story at each session—whether it’s a chapter, a scene, or even a paragraph, if you’re a writer like Nabokov.

In something so long and complicated as a novel, it’s crucial that its units hang together fairly organically, and writing the first draft of each unit in one session strikes me as the best possible way to do this. In my own novels, the length of each chapter is largely determined by how much I can write in one day, which also happens to approximate, conveniently enough, the amount of information that a reader can process before pausing for a break. (Poe says something similar about the ideal length of a short story.) And there’s something gratifying about crossing an entire chapter off my outline when a day’s work is done, even if I know that the real work of revision is only beginning. When I’ve got fifty chapters or more to write, that kind of pace is often all that keeps me going.

So I guess I’d better get started again.

Written by nevalalee

March 8, 2011 at 9:02 am

Fooling yourself out of writer’s block

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As I noted yesterday, writer’s block arises from a collision between the two inescapable facts of an author’s life: writing a novel requires inhuman dedication and daily hard work, but it also depends on inspiration, which can’t be forced into a regular schedule. The key to overcoming writer’s block, then, is for the author to fool himself, at least temporarily, into thinking that hard work alone is enough—or that writing is less mysterious an act than it actually is. Because good writing is mysterious and magical. But sometimes it’s useful to pretend that it isn’t—at least until it is again.

If this sounds confusing, that’s because novelists have trouble agreeing on how much writing ought to be like a regular job. If writing is only a job like any other, then lack of inspiration is no excuse for inactivity. Anthony Trollope, whom Joan Acocella quotes in her New Yorker article on writer’s block, takes this point of view to its logical extreme:

Let [writing] be to them as is his common work to the common laborer. No gigantic efforts will then be necessary. He need tie no wet towels round his brow, nor sit for thirty hours at his desk without moving,—as men have sat, or said that they have sat.

That is, if an author approaches writing as just another job, without relying on the vagaries of inspiration, then the problem of writer’s block simply disappears. Which is probably true. But it doesn’t mean that good writing really is just “common labor”—merely that this is a convenient fiction that writers need to tell themselves. Like most convenient fictions, it’s only partly correct. There are, in fact, times when all the hard work in the world can’t compensate for a lack of inspiration. But sometimes the only way to get inspired in the first place is to pretend that it doesn’t matter.

This is why most writer’s block “cures” treat writing as a form of muscle memory. For example, the writer is advised to retype the final paragraph from the previous day’s work, or to free associate, or even to type a favorite page from another author. The idea, it seems, is that once a writer’s hands start typing, they’ll eventually produce something good. Which sounds ridiculous—and yet it usually works, at least in my experience. It’s as if typing alone is enough to bring the creative faculty to life, or at least to fool it into thinking that something useful is going on. (The same thing is even more true of writing by hand, as I’ve discovered when making mind maps.)

This is why it’s also important to begin each writing day with a plan, even if that plan turns out to be a fiction in itself. As I’ve mentioned before, I write massive outlines for my stories, but these outlines are less about determining the actual plot, which can change radically from one draft to another, as to make writing seem like less of a leap in the dark. When I start each day’s work, I generally have an outline, some notes, and a target word count—as if writing were about nothing more than meeting a quota. It’s the security that this routine provides, even if it’s an illusion, that allows me to discover things that have nothing to do with planning or preparation.

Of course, sometimes writer’s block shades into its more benign counterpart—those periods of inactivity that are essential for any real original thinking. Tomorrow, then, I’ll be talking about the joyous flip side of writer’s block: creative procrastination.

Written by nevalalee

March 3, 2011 at 9:01 am

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