Charlotte Yonge's article on
This article first appeared
in September 1892.
It was reprinted in 1893 in
Charlotte's crisp direct voice
and practical message are fresh and relevant today perhaps some
of today's amateur "creative writers" could benefit from reading
We sometimes hear of amateur authors. What this means
at the present day there is no knowing. In former times it was clear enough.
It was the persons who had something to say avid were desirous of saying
it to the public at their own cost; nay, who thought it almost derogatory
to accept any remuneration. Horace Walpole was the type of these.
But now there is no one who is not willing to obtain,
if not appropriate, the profits of the sale that is hoped for as a testimony
of success; and there are great numbers of writers, not always dependent
on their earnings, but finding them an important addition to their income,
and thus becoming more and more professional.
There is really no rule as to whence the impetus comes
that leads to success. It is not always the sheer love of the expression
of thoughts, or of setting the puppets of ones imagination to work,
though this was so entirely my own case that I long believed it essential
to the commencement of original composition that (as Mr. Keble used to
say one could not help it. But to dwell on women alone, how different
was the motive in each case. Fanny Burney, Jane Austen, and the Brontë
sisters, were all instances of the same kind of instinct, of need of expression;
but Maria Edgeworth was the exponent of her fathers thoughts, and
her earlier works were exercises under his superintendence. Mrs. Trollope,
now almost forgotten, but a considerable power in her day, wrote under
the most unfavourable circumstances, late in life, for actual maintenance,
arid at the bedsides of a dying husband and son. Yet her factory tale
was in its way almost as effective a protest against white slavery as
Uncle Toms Cabin was against black slavery; and Mrs. Beecher
Stowe really only began to write by the advice of her mother-in-law, who
thought her strength and ability wasted in trying to make puddings and
mind three baby children at the same time. It was from no burning partizanship
of the negroes that she began the story, but the facts grew on her after
the serial was started. Her other books show her to have had real power
and imagination. Mrs. Gaskell began as a distraction to her mind after
a heavy domestic grief, when her youth was over, and thus learnt the charm
and developed the faculty. Breadwinning actuated George Eliots earlier
work, so likewise Dinah Muloch (Mrs. Craik) and Louisa Alcott, both of
whom worked up through mere pot-boilers to success. Miss Alcott
was found a year or two ago to be the most popular author in America,
judging by the amount of sales, but it remains to be proved how far this
was an ephemeral matter.
One very unpalatable piece of counsel I would give. Do
not try to publish very early in life. Many people have a gift of narration,
and when they have plenty of leisure, they are much inclined to use it;
and there is no reason against their practising it in home MSS. and competitions,
but at the very best, they are really incapable of using it to the fullest
effect without some experience. Their knowledge of life cannot help being
limited, and if taken from books, their work is imitative. They may have
indeed the noble freshness that depicts a character after an ideal standard,
but if they make him and his doings impossible, the effect is destroyed.
Or else they ramble into the commonplace for want of knowing that the
notions, to them pathetic and lovely, are the most hackneyed. The real
idea, if there be any good and original germ in it, is wasted by being
put forward with inadequate powers, and cannot be used for fear of repetition
when after-years have given the faculties needful for carrying it out.
Meantime, it is quite well to write. Translation is excellent
practice. I once translated the whole of Manzonis Promessi
Sposi for a very fastidious man to read and enjoy it. When I returned
to writing original stories, I found my facility of correct composition
greatly improved. Translation, as regards the purse, is not apt to be
profitable, and those who expect to depend on it are often sorely disappointed;
but if carefully executed, not too literally, yet not too freely, it is
excellent training. It has the advantage, too, of drawing the translator
out of habits of slip-slop.
Almost all the writers we have enumerated had the training
of letter writing in a time when it was disgraceful not to write a grammatical
letter, with something positive in it. They did not scratch down a little
careless slang, but felt it due to the recipient, who bore the expense
of postage, to say something worth having. Thus they learnt the habit
of thinking and writing good English, and it occurred to them without
effort. Questions are sometimes asked about style. Good grammar and attention
to punctuation, with a little common sense and avoiding of repetitions,
ambiguities, or abrupt turns, are the secret of style. To read aloud and
mark what jars on the ear, or is liable to be misunderstood, is a great
help. A real kind, critical listener is the chief benefit, really the
chief of all, but even Molières old woman is better than nothing.
Ones own ear may be awake to blunders, even if the critic be perilously
And of all things to be avoided is any kind of ready-made
facetiousness. Allusions to Scripture, such as fearfully and wonderfully
made, or the last state of that man is worse than the first,
are absolutely profane, and can only be excused by supposing the writers
ignorant or thoughtless; but there are many others adopted as a sort of
cheap liveliness; for instance, slept the sleep of the just,
was, we believe, once a clever turn in a French book, but it has come
to be used merely for slept soundly, and amuses no one, any more than
does, the light fantastic toe in a county papers account
of wedding festivities.
Mr. Besant recommends writing poetry (not always for publication)
as a training in rhythmical expression. He is right; it is a help to good
prose, and the masters of the art wrote prose that may be actually read
as poetry; witness The Rose and the Ring, and Dickenss
higher descriptive pages. But let no one try to publish poetry, even
in a parish magazine, without trying it by the rules of measure and metre.
Native wood-notes wild, may, by the help of a tolerable ear,
and likewise imitation, sound well for some time, especially when they
are an unconscious parody of a familiar hymn; but by-and-by comes an unmanageable
word or thought, which is crammed by the head and shoulders into the
unfortunate stanza which has to swallow it. Half our aspirant poets do
not know that verses ought to be capable of being scanned, and as to
their blank verse, it is prose measured off in lengths. To put down
verses as they rise in the mind or fancy, by the ear, is a very pleasant
occupation, and even more, it often relieves the mind of strong feeling,
whether high, meditative, or sorrowful. If so, it has the soul of poetry,
but it cannot have the body without conforming to rule, any more than
a sweet voice and good ear will make a real singer without knowledge of
music. Whoever wants to make any real use of poetic talent, should try
the compositions by rules, such as are to be found under the head of Prosody
in an Encyclopaedia, and in one of the National Societys manuals,
On the Art of Teaching English Literature, No. 1; by Canon Warburton.
The cost is eightpence. It would be no small benefit to editors if all
would-be poets would try their verses by the rules here given.
There are books, generally the first works of some really
powerful person, written in gaieté de coeur or with real meaning.
Such are many books now classics; and later, Peter Simple.
Harry Lorrequer, Southeys Doctor, Pickwick,
which carry one along by their swing, without much plot. John Inglesant
may be numbered among these, perhaps, but as a rule a plot is needful,
a central aim, to which the characters must work, and which has to produce
its fruits. Even a childs books, in spite of the beloved examples
of Frank and Rosamond, needs to drive at something definite, and indeed,
in Rosamond, each chapter is a little, well-pointed tale in itself, only
all strung on the same heroine.
Another thing required of an author is summed up in a
verse of Eccelesiasticus: Be not ignorant of anything in a great
matter or a small. Verify whatever you may have set down. Then we
should not have full moons twice in a month; Orion shining on summer evenings;
birdsnesting in September; primroses and poppies in the same nosegay;
rattlesnakes in India; tomatoes in Italy before the discovery of America;
cygnets shaming the whiteness of their parents; ladies smelling lovely
bouquets of sea anemones, or a philanthropic glow-worm, anxious to be
of use, lighting the epitaph on a headstone in a consolatory manner; and
lucifer matches in the days of John Wesley.
Methods and ways of working vary, and no rule can be laid
down. Some can write best by dashing on, and correcting afterwards; others
go step by step; some plan out the contents of every chapter, as did Harriet
Martineau; some go on as the characters lead them; some can only write
when in the vein, others can perform their daily tasks, like Trollope,
without dependence on mood. The point is really the pains, the polish,
and the conscience of the work; and by conscience there is much implied.
There is the resolution to let no need of gain lead to pandering to the
popular taste when it is for evil; the determination to deal with nothing
but what is purifying, truthful, and elevating; the further withstanding
of temptations to irreverence, and the honesty of giving thoroughly good,
sound, unscamped work, such as may not swell the flood of worldliness
Woman can often speak with great effect to her own generation,
even if her achievements do not obtain lasting fame, and this should be
her aim. I have written hitherto only of her work in fiction; where she
can deal with more solid subjects, her pen can be most valuable. Essays
like Anne Mozleys, histories, memoirs, science teachings made comprehensible
to the popular or the childish mind, all these are subjects in which women
can worthily excel. A good school book is a very profitable article till
it is superseded, as it is sure to be in these days of progress.
For now we come to the business side of the matter. Mr.
Besant has written excellent advice to authors, and experience for self
and friends fully confirms what he says: the first start is a difficulty,
but real merit will in time find its level.
Magazines seem, at first sight, the safe region for trying
the wings, but they are so overcrowded that rejection often only means
that there is no suitable opening. A paper of any superiority is, however,
sure to find entrance somewhere, but there is a profusion of writing ower
bad for blessing, and ower good for banning, and a good many refusals
generally (though not always) show the MS. to be of this quality at least.
The same may be said of offers to publishers. Some decline because their
hands are full of other matter of the same kind, or because the subject
is not in their own line, so that it is better to try, try again and again.
But on no account let eagerness to gain a hearing induce
a novice to undertake to advance a sum for the printing or publishing.
Such a plan does not, as a rule, come from the superior and trustworthy
houses. They take a book on their own risk or not at all, and there are,
unhappily, many eases on record where the aspirant has not only never
had any return for the money laid down, but has never seen any more of
the production itself.
A person who has no veteran litterateur to advise and
direct the first venture, will do best to consult the Authors Society.
The address is 4, Portugal Street, Lincolns Inn Fields, the subscription
a guinea a year, and there a candid opinion may be obtained as to whether
a MS. is worthless or marketable, and likewise, where it may be best and
most safely disposed of. There is a fee for having a MS. read, but this
is well worth paying to spare hope deferred in the case of a mediocre
one, or to assist a worthy one.
When a paper is accepted by a magazine, it is desirable
always to be char whether the payment is for first appearance or copyright.
This differs in many eases, and it is wiser, except in special instances,
to retain the copyright, though at some sacrifice of present gain. If
the author arrives at the honour of collected works it is
very troublesome to have to deal with varied claims of passing publications,
and worse still to see their reappearance with no control over them.
Literature, like other avocations open to women, is all
the worse for those really dependent on it, because they are under-sold
by those to whom remuneration is unimportant, and this out of ignorance
and desire to gain a hearing. Therefore, it is right to insist on a fair
price, and not to close in haste with any offer for less. Magazines have
stated tariffs for the writing in their pages, and this will enable one
to estimate the value of his works; but name, fame, and success go for
so much that first undistinguished efforts can only bring moderate profits,
unless they make a hit.
It is wiser to have agreements looked over before signature
by an experienced eye. Such, the Authors Society offers, and it
is invaluable in preventing errors, and where the house is not
one of the great ones, free from all suspicion in keeping a check
on the publishers. Coleridge
and Southey spoke of the thriving bookseller as like him
who sate like a Cormorant
Perched on the tree of knowledge.
And the unguarded now and then receive circulars sent
forth from varieties of cormorants crags, which they would do wisely
to consign immediately to the waste-paper basket.
The accredited means of publishing are either selling
the copyright at a fair price, which of course is all that the author
can ever expect, or which is the method most in favour for a young
untried writer for the publisher to take the whole risk and half
the profits, giving the other half to the author. This involves no loss
to the author, and often is very satisfactory in the hands of any one
of the higher and more honourable men of the trade. But there is a possibility
with others of heavy percentages on sales, and charges for advertisements
which mulct the author heavily. Sometimes the publisher offers a royalty
a round sum on a specified number of copies arid after they
are sold, a fixed amount for each copy in proportion to the price; but
this is not often done unless the authors name is a guarantee, or
the subject is one certain to command popularity.
Again, the author can publish at his own expense, allowing
a percentage to the publisher, and inspecting the accounts, but this is
unsafe except where the authors position is established, or
as sometimes happens in the case of books intended for distribution
where it is to be sold at a price below the ordinary rate.
If none of these methods are open, there is nothing for
it but either to decide that literature is not the vocation of the aspirant,
or else to persevere till something is accepted, and the horsehair thus
let down by which the beetle is to ascend!
Then come the proofs. How delightful are the first, how
well they are revised probably with a pepperbox of commas ready
to drop on them, and sheer delight and diversion in printers errors!
By the bye, printers evidently do not love either colons or semicolons,
and many a sentence which ought euphoniously to be divided by the latter,
is either made to drag on with an ineffective comma, or cut short off
with a full-stop before the sense is concluded. Also, whether by their
fault or the writers is uncertain, the nominative absolute prevails.
A fair evening, the trees all lovely green, is no sentence,
nor is, A fine lad with a roguish mouth and pug nose. Every
sentence must have a verb, or it is no sentence at all a mere absurd
The book is out! Notices probably come in. They are not
apt to be such as once they were the fuller ones often valuable
and instructive in the way of criticism, favourable or adverse. There
is little time or space for such work now. One thing I would say: that
it seems to mean unworthy thing to solicit a favourable notice. Surely
ones book goes out to stand on its own merits, not to be pushed
and puffed. The point is, to learn whether it is good for anything, and
what mannerisms are to be avoided. Praise in a review is very delightful,
but it must be unsolicited to be worth having. Sometimes people actually
sent round in type their favourite sentences for the reviewers to insert!
This is a really absurd puff, pretty certain to prejudice the critics.
On one side, it is better not to be too eager for reviews,
or to pin ones feeling on them as Charlotte Brontë did when she
cried all night over what was said of Jane Eyre. On the other,
it is not wholesome entirely to avoid the sight. George Eliot was not
allowed to see unfavourable criticisms, and thus the chances of improvement
were missed. Keats death, through the Quarterly
savage and tartarly was a myth; and when Mrs. Wood made a malevolent
critic slay a book and its author by writing in all the reviews arid papers,
she forgot how unlike they all are, and how impossible the feat would
be. Depend upon it, a good book will raise its head above censure, or,
still worse, neglect, at the first. And when the name is made, come the
trials of overmuch work, leading to carelessness and to requests for performances,
more with a view to the space in the periodical than to the scope of the
tale, often leading to conclusions spoilt by crowding of incidents and
want of giving scenes their due development.
One thing more it may be well to say. There is at present
a taste for sensation, and a certain conventional distaste for a moral,
pure, and religious tone. It is a fatal thing to be led away by it. If
for every idle word we speak we (are to give account, how much more for
every word we write? Arid setting aside this awful aspect: what is written
without the salt of life does not live, or acquire fame. Even remuneration
is only ephemeral. Evil is a dead weight, sinking the performance.
It is true that womens good heroes are apt to be
called prigs. But be content to have them so. If you sacrifice your womanly
nature in the attempt at the worlds notion of manly dash, you only
sacrifice yourself, and mar the performance, unless it is only a very
slight sketch from the outside. A woman cannot do a man truthfully from
within, any more than one nationality can represent another from within.
And if the ideal given is often called a prig, it is because she is incapable
of the Carle-hemp in part, and also in part, because
a certain depth of self-respect and of self-assertion, often bordering
on self-conceit, is really a needful weapon of defence in the midst of
scenes of temptation. Boys and good poor people find it so. There is much
to be said for the so-called prig; but if you find your hero growing into
one, frankly own it, or else give him some loveable weakness.
Charlotte Yonge's Authorship appeared in
Ladies at work, papers on paid employment for ladies by experts in
the several branches, with an introduction by Lady Jeune.
H. Mary Wilson and R Wilson, from "Hospital Nursing."
Ladies at Work: Papers on Paid Employment for Ladies, By Experts in the
Several Branches. Ed. Lady Jeune. London: A. D. Innes, 1893.
For a review of this book of papers, see:
Marshall Paley M. (1893)
"Ladies at Work, with an introduction by Lady Jeune"
The Economic Journal, 3, pp. 679-680.
Who was Lady Jeune?
Lady Jeune = Lady St. Helier, Susan Marie Elizabeth Stewart-Mackenzie
who seems to have been a energetic and well-connected writer and activist.