Writing Tips from Famous Authors

Today’s Surprise Guest Blogger: Robert Louis Stevenson 

Writing tips from famous authorsRobert Louis Stevenson is the author of Treasure Island, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Kidnapped! among many others. He died in his home on Upolu, Samoa from a cerebral hemorrhage on December 3, 1894 at the age of 44. Today he is one of the 26 most translated authors in the world and has graciously agreed to add his thoughts to Writing Tips from Famous Authors.

For quite a time, I have listened to your world’s clash and clamor of progress, the hubbub and waving fists of politics and cruel beheadings. These horrors of mankind are nothing new, really. It is the incessant, shared communications, the sheer bloody glut of it, which is such a troubling spectacle. And that same ugly surfeit infects the world of literature, which is a rueful shame, since books—for me—have always been the refuge, the garden, the solace of first and last resort.

I am not alone in thinking this; Twain, Baudelaire and Sappho were complaining of it only yesterday. It seems that everything must be effortlessly available, nothing denied. The world has become a fat, truculent child, rather like one of the Tweedle brothers from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, stinking of spun sugar and sticky hands.

Of course, Twain is the barbed wit, not I. I would rather this job of hectoring you from the ether had fallen to him, but unfortunately we drew straws and you and I have been dealt the short. Here then is my meager advice:

1. Take time with your craft

My old nurse, Cummy, (whose name did not seem near so unfortunate at the time) was a pious woman, a Calvinist of great conviction. Through sheer repetition and force of will, she chiseled the key words of 1 Timothy in my young heart: money is the root of all evil.

So in her name, I exhort you to banish from your mind all thought of shortcuts, or of slap-dashing your way to wealth and glory. Instead, be patient. Reveal with painstaking care such gems as nature places in your palm. They are your gifts and legacy. Do not contribute a single syllable to the world’s morbidly over-abundant diet of dull literature.

2. Stimulate the senses

Bring readers into your world with every one of their senses and they will wish to remain. Yet to write of the senses, you must feed your own. Close your eyes and let a dark pub brew suffuse your palate. Cook your own foods. Get lost in the chop and the mince, or the vibrant blush of a bell pepper. Listen to your food sizzle and crisp in a heavy, iron skillet that has become black with use, and like a blind man recognizing old friends, smile as each aroma is released. Pay attention and you will be able to give it all to your readers.

3. Write for pleasure

480px-Tropical_Palm_TreeThe grandees of publishing say to follow the “market” and “what is trending,” but I disagree. I wrote of David Balfour and Long John Silver because I delighted in their company. I lived in Scotland, America, France, Tahiti, and Samoa and composed more than 120 musical pieces because my heart took me to them. And I enjoyed friendships with King Kalākaua and the Abemama tyrant-chief, Tem Binoka, because I was moved to do so.

This modern market changes altogether too quickly for you to be its follower. The only way to get ahead is to lead with your heart. A passionate, well-told story is the vehicle for capturing the readers’ imagination and, indeed, their patronage. Though it constricts my throat to use the term, I believe you will sell more “units” this way than in any other, and what’s more, you will please yourself in the process.

In closing, let me say that it is possible you think the dead literati are unconcerned with your work, but there you are wrong. As you write, as you read—even now, it may be—we support your endeavors. Open your heart to beauty and let us whisper our encouragements.

Readers interested in learning more about Robert Louis Stevenson can visit the RLS Website, dedicated to education about his life and work.

  • An interesting piece and a fascinating exercise to extract a series of precepts from a writer’s works—Sarah Bakewell did it for Montaigne with How to Live, or a life of Montaigne. One could do the same for Stevenson, or as you do: precepts for writing (which is one form of living, and perhaps in some way living more fully). Here’s some more rules I would add for Stevenson:
    4. Be light: play with language and the reader, realize that ultimately nothing is important, make patterns
    5. Be involved, write with gusto (this has connections with 2. Stimulate the senses)
    6. Upset expectations, challenge conventional thought
    7. Create a relationship with the reader: complicit, camp, charm, game-playing
    8. Write language that has a lot going on, is varied, works at various levels

    • For any of you fortunate enough to scroll down to this comments section, Professor Richard Dury is retired from teaching at the University of Bergamo in Italy and, among other things, handles the archives and academic matters for Robert Louis Stevenson.org.

      Richard, thank you so much for these insights into the author’s mind. I love all the points you raise and am honored that you chose to share them here. I am particularly drawn to #7. I find this idea of an actively flirtatious relationship with the reader inspirational.

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