As I journeyed across France to Marseilles, and made thence a terribly rough voyage to Alexandria, I wrote my allotted number of pages every day. On this occasion more than once I left my paper on the cabin table, rushing away to be sick in the privacy of my state room. It was February, and the weather was miserable; but still I did my work.
In his Autobiography, Anthony Trollope – one of the Victorian era’s most prolific and respected writers – goes into quite some detail about his understanding of an author’s trade. He is refreshingly blunt about the concept of “inspiration”, and its role in the writing of novels:
There are those who […] think that the man who works with his imagination should allow himself to wait till—inspiration moves him. When I have heard such doctrine preached, I have hardly been able to repress my scorn.To me it would not be more absurd if the shoemaker were to wait for inspiration, or the tallow-chandler for the divine moment of melting.
[…] I was once told that the surest aid to the writing of a book was a piece of cobbler’s wax on my chair. I certainly believe in the cobbler’s wax much more than the inspiration.
Trollope held down a full-time job with the Post Office while producing a number of short stories, two plays, and a variety of non-fictional writings in addition to his famous novels, over the course of his writing career. This impressive rate of industry, according to his autobiography, is due in part to his preference for keeping busy: “I had made up my mind that I could be really happy only when I was at work.” Much of it, however, is likely to be due to the methodical way in which he approached his work, seeing it as a job rather than a vocation.
I had long since convinced myself that in such work as mine the great secret consisted in acknowledging myself to be bound to rules of labour similar to those which an artisan or a mechanic is forced to obey.
So what were Trollope’s tricks for getting words on the page?
Write early, and write often
It was my practice to be at my table every morning at 5.30 A.M.; and it was also my practice to allow myself no mercy. An old groom, whose business it was to call me, and to whom I paid £5 a year extra for the duty, allowed himself no mercy. During all those years at Waltham Cross he was never once late with the coffee which it was his duty to bring me. 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. By beginning at that hour I could complete my literary work before I dressed for breakfast.
It’s widely stated that if Trollope finished one book before 8.30, he would take out a new sheet of paper and start work on the next one. I can’t find any reference to this in the Autobiography – although it might appear somewhere else in his writing – but he does state that he, like a shoemaker, “had now quite accustomed myself to begin a second pair as soon as the first was out of my hands” (i.e. at his publisher’s).
We here on the project feel that having someone bring us coffee first thing in the morning would greatly add to our productivity.
2. Structure your writing time
It had at this time become my custom,—and it still is my custom, though of late I have become a little lenient to myself,—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 have been forthcoming as regularly as my watch went.
This level of discipline allowed Trollope to write, by his own estimate, “ten pages of an ordinary novel volume a day”, which over the course of ten months of a year should result in “three novels of three volumes each”. He acknowledges, however, that he didn’t usually reach quite this (somewhat daunting) level of output.
Rereading and editing, however, are equally important parts of the process:
But my three hours were not devoted entirely to writing. I always began my task by reading the work of the day before, an operation which would take me half an hour, and which consisted chiefly in weighing with my ear the sound of the words and phrases. I would strongly recommend this practice to all tyros in writing. That their work should be read after it has been written is a matter of course,—that it should be read 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.
3. Keep a record of your progress
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.
Trollope avoided any variation in the number of words on his pages – as many an undergraduate knows, “words, if not watched, will have a tendency to straggle” – by allotting 250 words to a page and actually counting as he went.
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.
We can vouch for the fact that this is quite a useful trick for getting your PhD word count up to speed, too.
But is this really the best approach?
Well… not everyone is a fan of Trollope’s work, it’s true. And he himself makes fairly modest claims in relation to his success.
It will be said, perhaps, that a man whose work has risen to no higher pitch than mine has attained, has no right to speak of the strains and impulses to which real genius is exposed. I am ready to admit the great variations in brain power which are exhibited by the products of different men, and am not disposed to rank my own very high […]
However, it can’t be denied that the man got results.
I therefore venture to advise young men who look forward to authorship as the business of their lives, even when they propose that that authorship be of the highest class known, to avoid enthusiastic rushes with their pens, and to seat themselves at their desks day by day as though they were lawyers’ clerks;—and so let them sit until the allotted task shall be accomplished.