06 Sep 2017
Mark Twain said “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”I think writers go through the same process, although it swings from admiration when you read their works as a youngster, to viewing them with a cocked eyebrow when your learning your craft.
Every generation of writers grows up this way. In 1903, a 21-year-old Cambridge student, A.A. Milne, took tongue in cheek and pen in hand to write this piece of novel writing advice. It was published in “Granta,” at the time an undergraduate magazine and not the showcase for young international writers it is today.
(By the by, the magazine was co-started and edited by R.C. Lehmann, who would write for Punch a cycle of Sherlock Holmes parodies (that were collected and published in The Early Punch Parodies of Sherlock Holmes.)
This story was pulled from a public domain copy of “The Granta and Its Contributors 1889-1914,” courtesy of the Internet Archive.
The Complete Novel Writer
First of all, a title. So much advice has been given on this subject that I propose to say only a few words. The important thing to remember is this: Your title must have no meaning. Suppose you select “Grape-Nuts.” Then “Grape-Nuts” may be the family name of the heroine, or her pet name for the hero, or it may have some subtle meaning like “‘Wormwood.” Anyhow, it will be a pleasant puzzle for your readers to discover where the Grape-Nuts come in; and if, in the end, it turns out to be an advertisement, then it will be somewhat in the nature of a surprise to them.
Another popular class of title takes the form of a question, “Ought she to have done it?” or “Did he expect it from her?” In this case your novel will devote itself to answering the question in some hundred pages. If you and your public discover that she most certainly ought not to have done it, then in your new edition you may change the title to “How was it she didn’t do it, supposing, for the moment, that she ought to have done it?”
There may not be room to get all this in on the back, so call it “A Wayward Woman” for short.
Having selected a title for the book, the next thing is to find one for the hero. Call him Lord Walton-on-the-Naze, if you like; but don’t specify whether he is a viscount or a baron or an earl or anything else. It really isn’t safe. You had better make all your characters of noble birth. It may seem strange at first for your bootboy to be a retired Duke, but he will get used to it and so will you. When your foreign Prince (don’t let him be English, or they will identify him and run you in for libel) wants to murder someone incog., let him disguise himself as a baronet. It is so much more genteel.
Now you are ready to begin.
The first chapter must describe an old country house “in the most beautiful corner of Blankshire.” Any guide book will do. Kenilworth Castle and Hampton Court Maze between them should give you all you want. Don’t mention any of the characters until the last few lines. Then finish up like this: “Such was the scene that spread itself before the eyes of the youthful Lord FitzBadly in the glamour of a golden evening towards the middle of June some twenty years ago; perhaps the fairest scene that mortal eye had ever gazed upon since the days when . . .“
Don’t describe Lord F.B. You won’t want him again. And no one else will. This brings us to
Start with a new character. “Lord Grasmere was a middle-aged man of some thirty summers.” When you have been all over him, from the way he parts his hair to the town address of his bootmaker, then leave him and pick up someone else. Let it be a lady. Describe her and let them talk. Let them talk in the ordinary way that two such people would not talk in, but finish up like this if you can.
“At this moment a man rose from his chair and glided noiselessly out of the room. Lady Dorothy got up hastily and held her breath.
“‘Do you know who that is?’ she whispered.
“‘No, do you?’
“‘It is John Bloggs!’”
Don’t mention John Bloggs again.
“When Lord Henry Dent de Lion went down from Cambridge with a third class in History and a reputation for bad cigars, not even his best friends thought . . .” Describe him. You might almost be funny at the expense of Lord Henry. Say that “those who saw him, for the first time, told themselves that after all there might be something in the Darwinian theory.” It is neither original, nor humorous, nor remarkable for its good taste—but never mind that.
Having said all you want to about Lord Henry, put him away somewhere where you will know him again. He may come in useful later on. You car always refer to his features when you feel in a humorous vein. By the way, Lord Henry might be a second cousin on his mother’s side to the Prince Aloyau de Bocuf. Haven’t you mentioned him? Then do it now.
“Prince Aloyau de Boeuf was as handsome as he was high-born. His friends called him familiarly ‘Prince’”—this was rather original of them, all things considered—“and his nickname suited him. For he was a Prince.” (You have just said so before, of course, but there is no harm in repeating it. You don’t meet a Prince every day of your life.)
Be very careful as to the way you describe him. When you have finished, leave him till Chapter XV. In Chapter XV important developments take place, and you will want all the spare royalty you can lay hands on.
For the next nine chapters, introduce as many new characters as you can. Always start a chapter with a new one, and then end it with another, if possible. This brings us to
A new character. The aged King of Malaria, dying of asthma. Also his son, the youthful Prince Consort. Don’t describe either of them. The next chapter is twenty years later in point of time, and in twenty years the king will be dead, and his son so much altered that it wouldn’t be much use wasting time over him now, would it?
When you have finished raving over his beautiful chestnut hair, your readers would have turned over the page and discovered him, with his iron grey locks, in
Twenty Years After.
By this time you have some twenty members of the aristocracy present—and John Bloggs. But you won’t want him. Begin like this:
It was the Fancy Dress Ball of the season, and the Duchess of Billingsgate was waiting at the head of the kitchen-stair to receive her guests. Among the more notable people present were —”
(Then run through your chara1ers again.) “Little did any of them think that this night was fraught with dreadful possibilities for more than one of them.”
At this point collect all your MS., tie it up in a parcel, and send it to any respectable home for the incurable blind. It wouldn’t be much fun going on.