By Vyvyan Holland
I found this article many years ago in the June 1958 edition of Harper’s Bazaar (in those days it still carried adverts in French!). Written by the son of Oscar Wilde, in an age before creative writing courses, it remains one of the most amusing accounts of how writing is done and deserves to be rescued from oblivion.
It has often been said that in the mind of everyone of us there is the material for at least one book, and there are few men and even fewer women of education who have not, at some period in their lives, contemplated trying their hands at authorship, particularly if they enjoy a reputation among their friends for wit, or for being good conversationalists and raconteurs. They do not realise how many differences there are between the spoken and written languages of civilised nations. Yet although the world abounds in Art Schools, Musical Academies and Schools of Dramatic Art, there are no serious establishments in which a man who aspires to be an author can learn even the rudiments of his trade; he has to rely upon his natural ability, if any, and to proceed by the method of trial and error; mostly, error.
There is no royal road to authorship. No two writers go about their business in the same way. Each develops along lines of his own until he eventually acquires what comes to be known as his individual style. Many popular authors seem to write to a kind of formula, the origin of which they have long since forgotten. Some authors, indeed, write almost automatically and can practically do it in their sleep; or so it would appear from their books. Unfortunately for the popular author, his public expects his work always to conform to the same pattern; I once asked Michael Arlen why he no longer wrote novels, and he replied that he was tired of writing about the same thing all the time. Authors who weave all their books round the same character or subject soon come to hate them so much that they cannot go on any more. Conan Doyle took such a poor view of Sherlock Holmes that at last, in desperation, he killed him; not that that caused him any lasting relief, as he was later bullied into reviving him.
Like any other manufacturing process, successful writing depends largely upon what is known in commercial circles as “know-how” and, judging from a great number of the books that are offered in the bookshops for sale, it is surprising how few modern authors seem to possess this. I have perhaps been fortunate in that I have known a great many writers, and I have always made a point of questioning them about their work; and I have found a vast difference between the ways in which they approach this very difficult business. For a very difficult business it is, and the more straightforward and simple a book appears to be, the more sure you may be that the writing of it has been most intricate and complicated, and that it has only been achieved by infinite pains. If a book appears to be a learned one by reason of its long and involved sentences, this is usually a sign that the author’s mind has been full of confused thoughts and ideas which he has not been able to sort out or unravel.
What is the urge that makes anyone want to write? Is it divine inspiration? Is it the desire for self-expression? I often feel it is merely a hankering after immortality. And yet a well-known author once confessed to me that the reason he wrote was because he admired his own handwriting so much that the mere tracing of the letters gave him a feeling of creation. It is a curious fact that authors have either extremely good or extremely bad handwriting. The worst hand-writing I ever came across was that of the late Professor George Saintsbury, who wrote so many good books on both English and French literature and, incidentally, one of the best books on wine ever written, in his Notes from a Cellar Book. His hand-writing was so bad that no-one could read it, and he was eventually persuaded to buy an old typewriter and to learn how to use it. However, this did not really improve matters very much, because in the course of its vicissitudes the typewriter had lost its letter “E.” Nothing daunted, the Professor put an “x” wherever an “e” was needed, so that a word like “exceeding” started “xxcxx.”
It is a waste of time for the writer to sit down in front of a blank sheet of paper and wait for an inspiration. A friend of mine with literary ambitions once started writing a book with no particular scheme in view. The book began as a philosophical treatise, but it gradually degenerated into an autobiography. As he could remember very little of his past life, he had to turn the autobiography into a novel. Because of lack of sufficient material, the novel shrank to a short story. I never heard what happened to it in the end.
Alec Waugh tells me that when he starts on a new book he sees it as a long and rather pleasant walk to a charming castle on a distant hill. The castle itself is quite clear and well-defined and he even knows how it is decorated inside. And, which is more, he knows whom he is going to meet there, usually some irresponsible and exotic female. He has no very precise idea of whom or what he is likely to meet on his journey and he very often has to turn back and start again; but the objective—the “castle”— remains the same.
This brings me to the point that it is not only essential to know how your book is going to end, but that it is, in my opinion, a very good thing to write the end of your book first, so that you can never run the risk of losing sight of your castle, but can press eagerly on towards it. I have known several would-be novelists, mostly young ladies, who have succeeded in writing three-quarters of a novel and have then had to abandon it because they did not know how to finish it; which proves, of course, that they ought never to have begun it. In one case, I myself assisted a distraught young lady to finish a novel. I must admit that it was never actually published, but I like to think that was not because of the ending.
Having settled this, you return to the beginning. One of the most difficult tasks that many a writer has to face is getting started; particularly in the morning. He dawdles over his bath and his breakfast and even deludes himself into believing that it is bad for him to start work immediately after breakfast on the ground that it might interfere with his digestion. So he sits down and does the crossword puzzle that is best suited to his mental capacity; and the morning is half gone before he settles down to writing.
The artist has the same dread of getting started, but he is in a better position than the writer, as he probably has a model or a sitter arriving at a definite hour, so he simply has to get down to work. Indeed, members of almost every other profession have to work to time, as they have appointments to keep and clients to interview who cannot be kept waiting. But as any stick is good enough to beat a dog with, so almost any distraction will serve the author as an excuse for interrupting or not starting his work.
Of course, there are exceptions. Compton Mackenzie, when he lived in Herm, in the Channel Islands, never started work until after dinner, but he went on until the early hours of the morning. Some people do their best work before breakfast The main object to strive for is to work at regular hours and to keep to the same hours each day.
H. G. Wells had a writing hut built for him at the end of his garden. The windows of this hut were too high up for him to be able to look out of them, and the hut was completely bare save for a table, a waste-paper basket, a desk about three foot six in height at which he used to write standing up. When he was working, he hung a red disc, clearly visible from the house, on the door-handle of the hut; when that was displayed, no one was allowed within twenty yards of the hut, under pain of death!
H. G. Wells wrote his books right through and corrected them voluminously afterwards; indeed, his corrections and additions were often so numerous and so intricate that no one but his daughter-in-law, who was also his secretary, could read the final product, and when she was away he sometimes had to re-write large parts of it all over again. On the other hand, Arnold Bennett made practically no corrections on his original manuscript, and he once gave me a very valuable piece of advice, which was always to leave yourself an easy piece of writing for the morning. The tendency is, of course, for the tired writer to say to himself; when he comes to a sticky passage: “Oh! I’ll go back to it tomorrow.” But what happens in practice is that you worry over the passage for half the night, and that next morning you are so alarmed by the problem before you that you avoid the whole issue and go and play a couple of rounds of golf instead, leaving the sticky passage for the evening—in fact, starting exactly where you left off, but with a delay of twenty-four hours.
Eleanor Smith wrote all her novels in ordinary exercise books, with scarcely any corrections at all, having got the whole book clear-cut in her mind, almost word for word from the beginning to the end. And there is a story told of Thomas Hardy that one of his friends, seeing him sit idly for two hours at his desk, asked him when he was going to begin. “Begin?” he exclaimed. “Why, I’ve practically finished it. I’ve only got to write it!”
Somerset Maugham reads a chapter of Addison every morning before approaching his desk. He says that it puts him in the mood for writing good prose; I confess I do not quite understand this. Michael Arlen always copied out the last page he had written the day before, to get himself back into the swing of his story.
Anatole France’s wife used to lock him up without food or drink until he wrote; and I am sure that my own output would be even more slender than it is, if I did not have a loving wife continually digging me in the back with a metaphorical hat-pin.
Oscar Wilde seldom corrected his manuscripts, but he rewrote a great deal. He wrote his first drafts in unruled exercise books, in hand-writing which was so scrawly that there were often not more than a dozen words to the page, and when he paused for thought he would tear little pieces off the page on which he was writing. This was really a primitive form of “doodling.” One can gauge the amount of difficulty he had over any particular passage by the condition of the page on which it was written. In subsequent drafts, the hand-writing became neater and the mutilations of the paper were less frequent. Like most other authors, my father would marshal his thoughts carefully before writing anything down, but once he got started he worked quickly. We have evidence of this from his own statement in De Profundis that the first Act of An Ideal Husband was written in a week and the remaining three Acts in about a fortnight.
The difference in the speed of writing of various authors is fantastic. You probably all know the story of Walter Pater appearing at dinner with a worried look on his face. When asked if he had had a busy day he replied: “Yes. I spent the morning putting in a comma and the afternoon taking it out.”
In contrast to this there is the story of Edgar Wallace receiving a cable from an American publisher on Wednesday morning, offering him a large sum of money if he could put the manuscript of a new novel on the mailboat sailing on the following Tuesday. As he had nothing ready, Edgar Wallace summoned two secretaries and began dictating. His wife, as was her custom, corrected the English, and a third secretary typed out the finished product, which duly travelled on the boat on Tuesday. The title of the book was The Strange Countess. It was by no means either his longest or his best written book, but it was a prodigious feat to have achieved.
Perhaps the most remarkable example of rapid book production occurred when Captain Lindbergh, as he was then, flew the Atlantic Ocean by himself. Before he landed in France on a Sunday, he was a completely unknown and obscure flying officer in the United States Army; but by the following Saturday a Life of Charles Lindbergh, 30,000 words in length, was on sale in the New York bookshops.
Some people, among whom I include myself, find that their ideas flow faster than the ink in their pens; so fast, indeed, that there is a danger of the ideas escaping and getting lost. So, for my part, I wield a very cunning scissors and paste. If I have a new idea, even in the middle of writing a sentence, I will grab a slip of paper and jot it down, and I may even interrupt that to make a third one, and so on, until, like the oysters in Alice Through the Loohing-Glass, “thick and fast they come at last, and more and more and more.” In this way, the ideas become tethered, and the slips of paper can all be sorted out later and pasted together to make a continuous narrative. Though one of the most frustrating checks that can happen to the jotter-down is to find subsequently that his notes have been so hurried and so sketchy that he has forgotten what he had in his mind when he wrote them.
If you use a typewriter, and I imagine that nearly all modern writers do use one, you should always take a carbon copy, even in the first rough draft. This may give you a little more trouble, but it pays in the long run, particularly if you are a scissors and paste writer; for, if you cut up your manuscript you may find that you have got your snippets mixed up, and then you become very grateful for an intact copy of the original. Also, you may find that you want to re-correct, or even to un-correct, certain passages, and that the top copy is in such a mess that you can do no more with it; here again your carbon copy becomes invaluable.
Do not try to correct each page as you write it; it is only waste of time. There is one thing of which most writers can be certain, and that is that when they come to the end, much of the beginning will have to be re-written. It often happens, for instance, that it suits you better for your heroine to be a blonde, instead of the brunette she was when she first appeared and it is a well-known fact that, in any given circumstances, blondes behave in a totally different way from brunettes!
I am sure that it is a mistake to try to write too much at a time. Two hours on end, without a break, is quite enough for any one; after which you need a rest or a drink or both; or, indeed, all three, if you have two drinks.
When I was a very young man, I knew Henry James quite well, and what little I know about writing I owe very largely to his teaching. The first short story I took to him he threw into the fire before he had reached the end; oddly enough, I have entirely forgotten what it was about, except that it was an attempt to be funny in a rather blatant way. The next story I showed him he sent to W. E. Barber, who was literary editor of the Morning Post and who printed it in his paper. Henry James was a severe critic, but he was always helpful and constructive. From advice given to me by him and by other literary men of his period I gathered the following principles concerning the art of writing:—
Chapters should be kept short, or, if they must be long, they should be broken up into sections. This enables your readers to interrupt their reading at any time that they want to do so. But in order to do this, you must keep your incidents short also; they can always be continued later on.
The rhetorical present should be avoided. This is usually only a device to tighten up tension, and must inevitably be followed by an anti-climax when you come down to the past tense again. Take this passage, as an example: “I look. What do I see? I am frozen with horror as I watch the blood oozing through the ceiling and dripping on the peaceful tea-table below.” You cannot immediately return to past tense from there. If your next sentence reads “I rushed to the telephone and rang up Scotland Yard,” it becomes an anti-climax. French authors use the rhetorical present a great deal, but it seems to fit better into their literary framework. Many translators do not realise this and, when translating from French into English, they fail to transfer the rhetorical present into the past, thereby making the passage sound artificial.
Beware of adjectives. Henry James told me that in descriptive writing, whether you are describing scenery, a battle, a cricket match or a human being, put in every adjective you can think of; then go through your manuscript again and cut them all out except those that are absolutely necessary. This is one of the best rules of all for good writing. Suppose you write:—”She was a big, proud, fine, upstanding, Junoesque type of English girl.” Your reader is apt to become confused about the clearly outstanding attractions of the lady. But if you say, simply:—”She was a big girl,” and leave it at that, your reader can conjure up the rest, and a lot more, in his imagination, and probably with more satisfaction to himself. Incidentally, when he comes to the end of the book he will think what a good descriptive writer you are!
Colloquialisms and current slang should be avoided, except in conversations. They will date your book and make it unreadable in a few years’ time.
The narrative should be kept clear, and too many characters should not be introduced early in the book. This is one of the most frequent errors into which even well-established and justly popular authors are sometimes apt to fall, and it is particularly noticeable in “thrillers,” in which the author often tries to conceal the identity of the actual criminal by surrounding him by a lot of irrelevant characters who all appear to be more suspect than the criminal himself. If, at the start of your book, a crime takes place in a country house in which a dozen people (not including the servants) are assembled, the reader will have great difficulty in keeping them separate and will have to waste time turning back the pages, in order to remember who they are. Whereas if you start with one or two characters and get them firmly established in your reader’s mind, he will have no such difficulty. The popular success of writers like Edgar Wallace, Sapper, Leslie Charteris and Peter Cheyney depends very much upon their simplicity in this respect. And it is even more apparent in the case of more serious writers like Thomas Hardy and Henry James.
All fictional conversations should be rehearsed out loud, with someone else taking the other part. That is the best way for you to discover whether they sound real or are stilted and artificial. And here I must repeat what I said at the beginning, namely that there is a great difference between the written and spoken languages, particularly in the matter of the telescoping of words, such as aren’t, don’t, shan’t and won’t, which should never be used in descriptive writing.
One most important point in good writing is always to use an Anglo-Saxon word in preference to one of Latin origin. Words like “commencement” and “termination” should not be used if “beginning” and “end” will do. Half the pedantic writing in the English language is due to the use of long words with a Latin source. Oddly enough, this does not apply nearly so much in the case of words originating in the Greek, for which there are often no Anglo-Saxon equivalents.
However depressed you may become in the course of writing your book, you may console yourself with the thought that of no profession more than that of writer is it more true to say that the darkest hour comes before the dawn. Just as you are beginning to despair of making your book sound convincing, all your characters suddenly leap into life and everything falls into place.
I have saved my most valuable piece of advice for the end. It is not my own. It was given to a young author by George Bernard Shaw, when he said: “No one but a fool ever wrote for anything but money.”