Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Robert Louis Stevenson on Writing

In honor of my friends who are tackling NaNoWriMo this year, let me share some encouragement and insight from Robert Louis Stevenson—it's his birthday today (November 13, 1850).

He wrote his first novel, Treasure Island, when he was 33 years old. He had been writing short stories and travel essays for ten years. Echoing feelings many writers have felt, he said of this time:
“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.”
“I remember I used to look, in those days, upon every three-volume novel with a sort of veneration, as a feat... of physical and moral endurance and the courage of Ajax.”*

But it's so hard! (said in a whiny voice)

If you have not written a novel yourself, have you considered the scope of the task? I have so much more admiration for those who have, after reading this:

“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!”

I hope that wasn't discouraging. Obviously successful writers must have determination. He mentions another tool every writer should use, a map.

The Sun Rises Where?

The idea for the novel Treasure Island came to him from a map he drew with his stepson. It's one of the most famous maps in literature.

In the development and research process nothing grounds you quite like a map. Now in our age of Google Earth we can zoom right to any area we need, and once there, enter street view and get a fuller sense of our character's surroundings. I can't afford to travel to Robert Louis Stevenson's native Edinburgh, but I did the next best thing and zoomed over there and took this screenshot.

Using a map will help you avoid errors in your characters' timetables and directions. Robert Louis Stevenson tells how maps have helped him in his writing.

“It is, perhaps, not often that a map figures so largely in a tale, yet it is always important.  The author must know his countryside, whether real or imaginary, like his hand; the distances, the points of the compass, the place of the sun’s rising, the behaviour of the moon, should all be beyond cavil. ...But it is my contention - my superstition, if you like - that who is faithful to his map, and consults it, and draws from it his inspiration, daily and hourly, gains positive support, and not mere negative immunity from accident.  The tale has a root there; it grows in that soil; it has a spine of its own behind the words.  Better if the country be real, and he has walked every foot of it and knows every milestone.  But even with imaginary places, he will do well in the beginning to provide a map; as he studies it, relations will appear that he had not thought upon; he will discover obvious, though unsuspected, short-cuts and footprints for his messengers; and even when a map is not all the plot, as it was in Treasure Island, it will be found to be a mine of suggestion.”

And one final thing, here's a poster of RLS with a thought-provoking quote on writing.

*All quotes are taken from Robert Louis Stevenson's Essays in the Art of Writing.