It is the length that kills…

Is it presumptuous of me to be editing an essay by Robert Louis Stevenson? Of course! But what’s the point of being a writer if you’re not going to be presumptuous?

I decided to do this little project tonight because my NaNoWriMo project is at a standstill. I had it going yesterday but today I’m all thumbs. I figure there’s plenty of people out there doing the same thing, and wouldn’t you know it… The same thing happened to RLS!


By Robert Louis Stevenson
First Published in the Idler, August, 1894
This version, edited by Jamie Grove November, 2009 (with apologies to RLS)

Treasure Island was far indeed from being my first book, for I am not a novelist alone. But I am well aware that my paymaster, the Great Public, regards what else I have written with indifference, if not aversion. So, when I am asked to talk of my first book, there’s no question that what is meant is my first novel.

Anyhow, I was bound to write a novel. It seems vain to ask why. Men are born with various manias: mine to make a plaything of imaginary series of events.

By that time, I was thirty-one I had written little books and little essays and short stories; and had got patted on the back and paid for them – though not enough to live upon. I had quite a reputation, I was the successful man. But still there shone ahead of me an unattained ideal: I had not yet written a novel (although I had attempted the thing with vigour not less than ten or twelve times).

All my attempts, my pretty ones, had gone for a little, and then stopped inexorably like a schoolboy’s watch. I might be compared to a cricketer of many years’ standing who should never have made a run. Anybody can write a short story – a bad one, I mean; but not every one may hope to write even a bad novel.

It is the length that kills.

The accepted novelist may take his novel up and put it down, spend days upon it in vain, and write not any more than he makes haste to blot. Not so the beginner. Human nature has certain instincts that forbids that any person should endure the miseries of unsuccessful literary toil beyond a period to be measured in weeks. There must be something for hope to feed upon.

The beginner must have a slant of wind, a lucky vein must be running. He must be in one of those hours when the words come and the phrases balance of themselves – even to begin. And having begun, what a dread looking forward is that until the book shall be finished!

For so long a time, the slant is to continue unchanged, the vein to keep running, for so long a time you must keep at command the same quality of style: for so long a time your puppets are to be always vital, always consistent, always vigorous!

I remember I used to look, in those days, upon every three-volume novel with a sort of veneration, as a feat – not possibly of literature – but at least of physical and moral endurance and the courage of Ajax.

In the fated year I came to live with my father and mother at Kinnaird. I walked on the red moors and by the side of the golden burn. My wife and I created a joint volume of logic stories, for which she wrote ‘The Shadow on the Bed,’ and I turned out ‘Thrawn Janet,’ and a first draft of ‘The Merry Men.’ I love my native air, but it does not love me. The end of this delightful period was a cold, a fly-blister, and a migration to the Castleton of Braemar.

There it blew a good deal and rained in a proportion; my native air was more unkind than man’s ingratitude, and I must consent to pass a good deal of my time between four walls in a house known as the Late Miss McGregor’s Cottage. There was a schoolboy in the Late Miss McGregor’s Cottage, home from the holidays, and much in want of ‘something craggy to break his mind upon.’ He had no thought of literature; it was the art of Raphael that received his fleeting suffrages; and with the aid of pen and ink and a shilling box of water colours, he had soon turned one of the rooms into a picture gallery.

My more immediate duty towards the gallery was to be showman; but I would sometimes unbend a little, join the artist (so to speak) at the easel, and pass the afternoon with him in a generous emulation, making coloured drawings. On one of these occasions, I made the map of an island; it was elaborately and (I thought) beautifully coloured; the shape of it took my fancy beyond expression; it contained harbours that pleased me like sonnets; and with the unconsciousness of the predestined, I ticketed my performance ‘Treasure Island.’

I am told there are people who do not care for maps, and find it hard to believe. The names, the shapes of the woodlands, the courses of the roads and rivers, the prehistoric footsteps of man still distinctly traceable up hill and down dale, the mills and the ruins, the ponds and the ferries, perhaps the Standing Stone or the Druidic Circle on the heath; here is an inexhaustible fund of interest for any man with eyes to see or twopence-worth of imagination to understand with! No child but must remember laying his head in the grass, staring into the infinitesimal forest and seeing it grow populous with fairy armies.

Somewhat in this way, as I paused upon my map of ‘Treasure Island,’ the future character of the book began to appear there visibly among imaginary woods; and their brown faces and bright weapons peeped out upon me from unexpected quarters, as they passed to and fro, fighting and hunting treasure, on these few square inches of a flat projection. The next thing I knew I had some papers before me and was writing out a list of chapters.

How often have I done so, and the thing gone no further!

But there seemed elements of success about this enterprise. It was to be a story for boys; no need of psychology or fine writing; and I had a boy at hand to be a touchstone. Women were excluded. And then I had an idea for John Silver from which I promised myself funds of entertainment; to take an admired friend of mine, to deprive him of all his finer qualities and higher graces of temperament, to leave him with nothing but his strength, his courage, his quickness, and his magnificent geniality, and to try to express these in terms of the culture of a raw tarpaulin.

Such psychical surgery is, I think, a common way of ‘making character’; perhaps it is, indeed, the only way. We can put in the quaint figure that spoke a hundred words with us yesterday by the wayside; but do we know him? Our friend, with his infinite variety and flexibility, we know – but can we put him in? Upon the first, we must engraft secondary and imaginary qualities, possibly all wrong; from the second, knife in hand, we must cut away and deduct the needless arborescence of his nature, but the trunk and the few branches that remain we may at least be fairly sure of.

On a chill September morning, by the cheek of a brisk fire, and the rain drumming on the window, I began The Sea Cook, for that was the original title. I have begun (and finished) a number of other books, but I cannot remember to have sat down to one of them with more complacency. It is not to be wondered at, for stolen waters are proverbially sweet.

I am now upon a painful chapter.

No doubt the parrot in my tale once belonged to Robinson Crusoe. No doubt the skeleton is conveyed from Poe. I think little of these, they are trifles and details; and no man can hope to have a monopoly of skeletons or make a corner in talking birds. The stockade, I am told, is from Masterman Ready. It may be, I care not a jot. These useful writers had fulfilled the poet’s saying: departing, they had left behind them Footprints on the sands of time.

Here, then, was everything to keep me up, sympathy, help, and now a positive engagement. I had chosen besides a very easy style. It seems as though a full-grown experienced man of letters might engage to turn out Treasure Island at so many pages a day, and keep his pipe alight. But alas this was not my case!

Fifteen days I stuck to it, and turned out fifteen chapters; and then, in the early paragraphs of the sixteenth, ignominiously lost hold. My mouth was empty; there was not one word of Treasure Island in my bosom; and here were the proofs of the beginning already waiting me at the ‘Hand and Spear’!

I was indeed very close on despair; but I shut my mouth hard, and during the journey to Davos, where I was to pass the winter, had the resolution to think of other things and bury myself in the novels of M. de Boisgobey. Arrived at my destination, down I sat one morning to the unfinished tale; and behold! it flowed from me like small talk; and again at a rate of a chapter a day, I finished Treasure Island.

But the adventures of Treasure Island are not yet quite at an end.

I had written it up to the map. The map was the chief part of my plot. I sent in my manuscript, and the map along with it, to Messrs. Cassell. The proofs came, they were corrected, but I heard nothing of the map. I wrote and asked; was told it had never been received, and sat aghast.

It is one thing to draw a map at random, set a scale in one corner of it at a venture, and write up a story to the measurements. It is quite another to have to examine a whole book, make an inventory of all the allusions contained in it, and with a pair of compasses, painfully design a map to suit the data. I did it; and the map was drawn again in my father’s office, with embellishments of blowing whales and sailing ships, and my father himself brought into service a knack he had of various writing, and elaborately forged the signature of Captain Flint, and the sailing directions of Billy Bones. But somehow it was never Treasure Island to me.

It is, perhaps, not often that a map figures so largely in a tale, yet it is always important. The author must know his countryside, whether real or imaginary, like his hand; the distances, the points of the compass, the place of the sun’s rising, the behaviour of the moon, should all be beyond cavil. But it is my contention – my superstition, if you like – that who is faithful to his map, and consults it, and draws from it his inspiration, daily and hourly, gains positive support, and not mere negative immunity from accident.

The tale has a root there; it grows in that soil; it has a spine of its own behind the words. Better if the country be real, and he has walked every foot of it and knows every milestone. But even with imaginary places, he will do well in the beginning to provide a map. As he studies it, relations will appear that he had not thought upon. He will discover obvious, though unsuspected, short-cuts and footprints for his messengers.

And yet, even when a map is not all the plot, as it was in Treasure Island, it will be found to be a mine of suggestion.

The original essay comes from Project Gutenberg. If you like, you can read it there, but I’ll warn you that it’s dreadfully dull. Maybe this isn’t any better, but it is shorter. 🙂

4 thoughts on “It is the length that kills…

  1. I read dozens of classics of world literature before I went to school. Treasure Island was the only one I didn’t make through. It’s been two decades so I can’t remember what was the problem, but I guess it was too boring.

  2. Jen, It’s RLS’s, I remember reading this text some 10 years ago in Russian. I was a huge fan of Treasure Islands and RLS then and read these thoughts of his 20 times I think. Reading it in English now gave me a weird feeling: the text seems new but at the same time you know it. Also, nostalgie, a nice feeling.
    Thanks a lot!

  3. What a great post. I enjoyed reading this a lot.

    “But what’s the point of being a writer if you’re not going to be presumptuous?”

    ROFLOL! I’ve finally figured out why of all the writing blogs in this universe, I like Jamie’s best. It’s because of your wacky sense of humor! That what makes a lot of what you write a pleasure to read.

    Also, you seem to know when to not take things too seriously. Writers who never do that tend to be BOOORING. It makes you seem more like a human being. (Assuming you are one, I mean 🙂

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