Friday, September 18, 2009

They Were Just That Good

I am a big fan of nineteenth-century British literature, namely Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and Elizabeth Gaskell. (By the way, if you haven't read Elizabeth Gaskell, you are missing out.) What amazes me now, as I write my first draft, is that they did everything by hand.

I mean, that seriously limits the editing possibilities, and to rewrite your whole first draft was no easy feat. Let's see, my copy of David Copperfield is 870 pages. How many pages is that handwritten? And then to edit it and copy it for publishing? It boggles my mind.

So I have reached the conclusion that these authors and authoresses must have gotten it pretty close to right the first time. They were that incredible. The brilliant prose and wit just slipped from their fingers onto their paper.

Maybe they were just smarter then. I mean, we have more knowledge now, but they were languge-smart. They could think of an emotion or a circumstance and just translate it into words that everybody would know and understand...for years to come.

So I have determined that I must settle for my mediocrity and just be glad to be blessed with their genius, and maybe a little sad that if it weren't for Addison's disease, coronary artery disease, and cerebral hemorrhages we would have many more of their masterpieces to read and love.


  1. No kidding. It's definitely amazing to think of how people pulled it off with no word processor.

    It makes you wonder if that's why they were so brilliant. With no delete key, they had to choose each word very carefully. They had to make sure that they knew what they were doing when they sat down to write.

    Personally, I don't have the patience. So mediocrity it is. :)

  2. By the way, I see your word count is steadily rising! Woo hoo! :)

  3. Whoa there, I don't think that's necessarily true. I believe they put a lot of years into those works. They didn't just get it right the first time—they just went through a lot of paper.

    I don't think we should ever write ourselves off to mediocrity.

  4. Natalie-I hope I don't demean the effort and sweat they put into their works of genius. I mean, Dickens wrote something like 23-24 (some novel lists are up to 30) novels between 1837 and 1870. No matter how incredible you are, it takes lots of hard work, your life's work actually.

    Like Renee said, they had to choose their words carefully because they didn't have the liberty of just erasing as easily as we do. Also, both Dickens and Gaskell wrote some episodic novels, so they couldn't go back and change the beginning.

    In a lot of ways they had to work harder for what they did because they didn't have certain writing luxaries we have now. I stand in awe of what they, and really all authors of their time, managed to write.

    However, these are the immortal authors. These are the ones that transcended centuries, and no matter how much I can smile at what I write, I will always wish for a little of their brilliance.

  5. Oh and thanks for the cheering section, Renee. I hope to be half-done with my novel today.

  6. Great post. Very thought-provoking. I, too, wish for a little of their brilliance.


  7. Thanks, Shelley-and there are definitely other writers that can be added to that list.

    David-I know that Gaskell and Dickens were contemporaries and went about in the same literary circles. Gaskell publihed in Dicken's Household Words. I know that authors formed relationships (Gaskell and Charlotte Bronte were friends) but I wonder if they critiqued each other's works. Austen, who died when the others were still children, didn't ever publish under her name in her lifetime, although people began to know who she was anyway. However, I know her family was very involved in her work, and maybe her sister Cassandra was her favorite critic. :) I'm no expert of their lives by any means, just a fan.

  8. I get what you're saying about them—I'm just saying I think it's wrong to think we can't do MORE with the tools we have.

    I think we have far more potential now to improve our work BECAUSE of our ability to edit further. Who says we can't make every word count just because we type into a computer?

    Great literature isn't dead. We just don't know yet what our predecessors will deem great.

  9. It's hard not to be impressed that they wrote on paper with ink pens. I remember the typewriter days. In fact, I learned to type on a typewriter, and I still can't imagine writing my novel on that.

    Maybe they took more time, thought about the words carefully before committing them to paper, or maybe it came easier to them. Hopefully one day it will come easier to me.

  10. Patti-I learned to type on a typewriter in 8th grade. You remind me that word processing is still pretty new, and it wasn't long ago writers were using a typewriter to write their novels. In 20 years our kids will probably shake their heads at us and wonder how in the world we managed with just archaic word processing. What's next?

    Kasie-If Charles Dickens was a wax statue, would you pose with him?

  11. Excellent point about the mind boggling thought of editing 870 pages. Yikes!

    I listened to 3 NY Times best selling authors the other week and one of them was writing back in the 1980's. She said that her first few books were like pop art: all cutting and pasting (physically, with scissors and paste!). And that insuring them in the mail was like insuring a car!! One can only imagine!!

  12. Terresa-ooh, cutting and pasting? Actually sometimes I have to really visualize things so you may be onto something there...

    Shelli-too bad. you will have to sign lots of books when your book sells.

  13. I guess genres weren't as fractured in those days - perhaps for that reason. H.G. Wells and Jules Verne wrote for everybody.

    Didn't Dickens write by hand, then bring it to a scrivener for fair copy?

    Let's never accept mediocrity. When we consider our work perfect an editor may decide it only has potential - and if we submit something we call mediocre it may be a form reject.

  14. You are probably right about Dickens-he had his own weekly magazine after all. I'm sure he had copy help. Good point about the mediocrity equalling form reject.