“Keep Dialogue Short”

This article is fairly explorative and contains long passages from literature. Enjoy.

Across blog posts, forums, and subreddits, there seems to be an almost universal rule in the online writing community. That notion that dialogue should be kept short, or even avoided. It isn’t as common as advice like “show don’t tell” or “don’t use the passive voice.” All three rules of thumb are fairly effective, but they can have important exceptions. “Telling,” for example, is very useful for summarization and transitions. When it comes to brevity of dialogue, the exceptions can be even greater.
I’ll begin by stating that I agree, for the most part, with the advice that “often, less dialogue is more.” Dialogue can be a something of a trap for a writer, and I think the reason is that dialogue is interesting. A writer (such as myself, on occasion) could, maybe subconsciously, assume that if dialogue is so interesting, anything spoken by a character must also be interesting. But, the problem is that like any prose or poetry, dialogue can be tedious and pointless.
The idea of limiting dialogue is one that even writers such as Ernest Hemingway agree with. He states, “Good dialogue is not real speech—it’s the illusion of real speech.” Further, the Iceberg Theory that emerged from his writing style is highly reflective of this mode of thought.
“If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water” (Earnest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon, p. 171).
As useful and interesting as the rule might be, I simply cannot see it as absolute. What if you need a scene with long dialogue? Do you therefore also need a giant iceberg beneath it? Should you cut it down, or turn some of the speech into description? Would that not be editing out “showing” and replacing it with “telling?” I wonder about these kinds of things.
When I read Jane Austin’s novel, Pride and Prejudice the mental playing field shifted. It seemed to me that Austin does a terrific job of contradicting a lot of the “write minimal dialogue” advice I’ve contended with. Below is a very good example of effective, but also long dialogue with little prose interrupting it.

“How delighted Miss Darcy will be to receive such a letter!”
[Mr. Darcy] made no answer.
“You write uncommonly fast.”
“You are mistaken. I write rather slowly.”
“How many letters you must have occasion to write in the course of a year! Letters of business, too! How odious I should think them!”
“It is fortunate, then, that they fall to my lot instead of yours.”
“Pray tell your sister that I long to see her.”
“I have already told her so once, by your desire.”
“I am afraid you do not like your pen. Let me mend it for you. I mend pens remarkably well.”
“Thank you–but I always mend my own.”
“How can you contrive to write so even?”
He was silent.
“Tell your sister I am delighted to hear of her improvement on the harp; and pray let her know that I am quite in raptures with her beautiful little design for a table, and I think it infinitely superior to Miss Grantley’s.”
“Will you give me leave to defer your raptures till I write again? At present I have not room to do them justice.”
“Oh! it is of no consequence. I shall see her in January. But do you always write such charming long letters to her, Mr. Darcy?”
“They are generally long; but whether always charming it is not for me to determine.”
“It is a rule with me, that a person who can write a long letter with ease, cannot write ill.”
“That will not do for a compliment to Darcy, Caroline,” cried her brother, “because he does NOT write with ease. He studies too much for words of four syllables. Do not you, Darcy?”
“My style of writing is very different from yours.”

“Oh!” cried Miss Bingley, “Charles writes in the most careless way imaginable. He leaves out half his words, and blots the rest.”

“My ideas flow so rapidly that I have not time to express them–by which means my letters sometimes convey no ideas at all to my correspondents.”

“Your humility, Mr. Bingley,” said Elizabeth, “must disarm reproof.”

“Nothing is more deceitful,” said Darcy, “than the appearance of humility. It is often only carelessness of opinion, and sometimes an indirect boast.”

“And which of the two do you call my little recent piece of modesty?”

“The indirect boast; for you are really proud of your defects in writing, because you consider them as proceeding from a rapidity of thought and carelessness of execution, which, if not estimable, you think at least highly interesting. The power of doing anything with quickness is always prized much by the possessor, and often without any attention to the imperfection of the performance. When you told Mrs. Bennet this morning that if you ever resolved upon quitting Netherfield you should be gone in five minutes, you meant it to be a sort of panegyric, of compliment to yourself–and yet what is there so very laudable in a precipitance which must leave very necessary business undone, and can be of no real advantage to yourself or anyone else?”

“Nay,” cried Bingley, “this is too much, to remember at night all the foolish things that were said in the morning. And yet, upon my honour, I believe what I said of myself to be true, and I believe it at this moment. At least, therefore, I did not assume the character of needless precipitance merely to show off before the ladies.”

“I dare say you believed it; but I am by no means convinced that you would be gone with such celerity. Your conduct would be quite as dependent on chance as that of any man I know; and if, as you were mounting your horse, a friend were to say, ’Bingley, you had better stay till next week,’ you would probably do it, you would probably not go–and at another word, might stay a month.”

“You have only proved by this,” cried Elizabeth, “that Mr. Bingley did not do justice to his own disposition. You have shown him off now much more than he did himself.”

“I am exceedingly gratified,” said Bingley, “by your converting what my friend says into a compliment on the sweetness of my temper. But I am afraid you are giving it a turn which that gentleman did by no means intend; for he would certainly think better of me, if under such a circumstance I were to give a flat denial, and ride off as fast as I could.”

(From Pride and Prejudice, chapter 10; By Jane Austen, 1811)

The section quoted above contains short and banter, but is also a quite perfect depiction of Darcy’s introversion. Then, very shortly after this passage, the dialogue goes on for a couple more pages, with characters throwing entire paragraphs of dialogue at each other.
It’s an example of long dialogue from a classic—a classic in the literary canon nonetheless. And it isn’t just her. Anyone familiar with Leo Tolstoy would know that he’s no stranger to long dialogue himself. I think the way that he gets away with it is by only writing out explicit speech when the characters are saying something important, or in a specific manner. At other times, it seems, he leaves communications in prose.

This first quarrel arose from Levin’s having gone out to a new farmhouse and having been away half an hour too long, because he had tried to get home by a short cut and had lost his way. He drove home thinking of nothing but her, of her love, of his own happiness, and the nearer he drew to home, the warmer was his tenderness for her. He ran into the room with the same feeling, with an even stronger feeling than he had had when he reached the Shtcherbatskys’ house to make his offer. And suddenly he was met by a lowering expression he had never seen in her. He would have kissed her; she pushed him away.

“What is it?”

“You’ve been enjoying yourself,” she began, trying to be calm and spiteful. But as soon as she opened her mouth, a stream of reproach, of senseless jealousy, of all that had been torturing her during that half hour which she had spent sitting motionless at the window, burst from her. It was only then, for the first time, that he clearly understood what he had not understood when he led her out of the church after the wedding. He felt now that he was not simply close to her, but that he did not know where he ended and she began. He felt this from the agonizing sensation of division that he experienced at that instant.

(From Anna Karenina, Part 5 Chapter 17; By Leo Tolstoy, 1877)

Here, most of Seryozha’s lesson explanation and not dialogue. It could easily have been dialogue, but instead Tolstoy focused on the actions and emotions, rather than the words that were said.
Despite this example and its effectiveness, I should point out that, in both Anna Karenina and War and Peace, there are often large strings of dialogue, sometimes entire chapters devoted to conversation. Tolstoy doesn’t write communication all the time, but I thought this style was very interesting.
From my experience with these two writers I’ve gathered a few things: Like any other part of a story, dialogue must either advance/address the plot, or reveal character. By my recollection, all the dialogue in Pride and Prejudice follows the two rules, and by reverse, a lot of the impressions and opinions the characters express in that novel could only be properly conveyed through dialogue. Leo Tolstoy shows (occasionally) that sometimes explaining what a character is trying to communicate through prose can be more effective than dialogue.
Impressions, opinions, and… emotions. I think that a solid overarching reason for why the dialogue in Anna Karenina and Pride and Prejudice is so effective is because it offers a direct emotional conduit between the character and the reader. The long passages of dialogue in either work will often cover an emotional arc. One of the speaking characters will often be feeling strong emotions that shift and change as they talk. It keeps their words engaging, and it allows the reader to tune in and empathize with the speaker directly.
This sort of effect isn’t always possible through non-dialogue prose because that comes from (or through) the writer, whereas dialogue feels more like direct quotation from a character. That isn’t to say that a reader shouldn’t connect to a writer, or a writer’s ideas. It just means that dialogue could be a better medium than prose if a writer wants their reader to connect with a character.
But then again… there’s always “revealing character through action.” Aren’t actions supposed to be louder than words? Well now I’ve sort of come full circle.
I think it’s clear that there are few universal rules in writing, and that “keep dialogue short” probably isn’t one of them. It’s a good rule of thumb, but if you can strongly justify your dialogue’s place in the story, then you might have an exception on your hands.

Daniel Triumph.
Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina (as well as Alice in Wonderland and War and Peace) are in the public domain, meaning that you can legally find them all, in their entirety, online for free.

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P.S: For readers of The Solune Prince (or any of my other fiction)

I’m still coming up with a schedule for the release of The Solune Prince.

If I can get rigid writing schedule down, then I might be able to manage once a week, but it would likely be at the expense of other kind of post, or at least any other kind of quality post.

Once every two weeks seems decent, but that might be too long between chapters. What might end up happening is a “minimum of one chapter every two weeks.” Or I might tighten the blog down to just chapters of The Solune Prince for the summer, and then loosen up around when university re-opens.

For now, know that, exactly as before, the schedule is up in the air. (But I’ll get that nailed down in the future.) Either way, Chapter 2 will be released next Thursday.

(also check out https://danieltriumph.com/the-solune-prince/ for the first chapter.)

P. P. S.: This is the original Anna Karenina quote I had. I switched it for the marriage one, since it was a better (and perhaps more interesting) example.

“You understand that, I hope?” said his father.

“Yes, papa,” answered Seryozha, acting the part of the imaginary boy.

The lesson consisted of learning by heart several verses out of the Gospel and the repetition of the beginning of the Old Testament. The verses from the Gospel Seryozha knew fairly well, but at the moment when he was saying them he became so absorbed in watching the sharply protruding, bony knobbiness of his father’s forehead, that he lost the thread, and he transposed the end of one verse and the beginning of another. So it was evident to Alexey Alexandrovitch that he did not understand what he was saying, and that irritated him.

He frowned, and began explaining what Seryozha had heard many times before and never could remember, because he understood it too well, just as that “suddenly” is an adverb of manner of action. Seryozha looked with scared eyes at his father, and could think of nothing but whether his father would make him repeat what he had said, as he sometimes did. And this thought so alarmed Seryozha that he now understood nothing. But his father did not make him repeat it, and passed on to the lesson out of the Old Testament. Seryozha recounted the events themselves well enough, but when he had to answer questions as to what certain events prefigured, he knew nothing, though he had already been punished over this lesson.

(From Anna Karenina, Part 5 Chapter 27; By Leo Tolstoy, 1877)

Charlotte’s Web: Good Mother

Daniel Triumph


English 26-205

31 March 2018

The Good Mother

When I started reading Charlotte’s Web, my first reaction to Charlotte’s treatment of Wilbur was one of concern. She started with little things, “ ‘Let Wilbur alone! … He has a perfect right to smell considering his surroundings’ ” (White 61), but then Charlotte began to solve Wilbur’s problems for him, “ ‘Oh, I’ll work [the web] out alone,’ said Charlotte” (64), and following his orders to please him, “ ‘Tell me a story!’ So Charlotte, although she, too, was tired, did what Wilbur wanted” (102).

Œdipal Considerations

The psychoanalytic portion of my mind began to think in Freudian terms. Would Wilbur become overprotected and incapable of living on his own in the future? Freud states that the Œdipal complex is innate (Armstrong); perhaps that is what was happening here. Was Charlotte a devouring mother type character?

Further reflection proves this idea to be false. There is a point up to which it is okay to do things for your child; specifically when they cannot do it themselves. Peterson believes that you should not “do anything for your children that they can do for themselves” (“Strengthen the Individual” 00:20:36 – 00:20:39). Wilbur has a problem that is beyond his control, but is within the ability of Charlotte, his maternal figure. The Œdipal issue does not come into relevance unless a mother is taking power away from her child; so if Wilbur never had the power in the first place, then Charlotte’s actions are not Œdipal. In this context, the relationship is more like that of a mother to her toddler. What got me confused was likely his difficult to determine age.

Nearing the Archetype

By the end of the story, Charlotte’s positive virtue comes to be beyond question. She takes on the symbolic role of an ideal parent to Wilbur. She gives a sacrifice and by dying she, in a manner of speaking, sacrifices Wilbur to the dangers of the world. To me, this is deeply reminiscent of Abraham’s symbolic sacrifice of Isaac to God (or to the “transcendent”) in Genesis (King James Bible, Gen. 22). The ideal parent, by this definition, is the one that is willing to sacrifice their child, and their relationship to them as “strictly parent,” to the independence of that child’s adulthood. In Charlotte’s Web, Wilbur’s independence is put upon him in a very literal sense. First by his separation from Fern: “Mr. Zuckerman did not allow her to get into the pigpen. But he told Fern that she could sit on the stool and watch Wilbur” (15-16). The second because of Charlotte’s death. Afterwards, Wilbur has no option but to grow up and become autonomous. A weak connection can be drawn between the Biblically archetypal nature of this story and Locke’s wishes for a more optimal and interesting way of introducing the Bible to children (Locke 260-261). The Biblical ideas of growth, independence, selflessness, and sacrifice are valuable and likely intriguing to a child, even if they are presented in alternate, and perhaps more appealing stories.

Growing Children

Wilbur’s ascension, his growing from childhood to adulthood, is shown in three distinct stages. The infancy stage is when Wilbur’s parent is Fern, and she does nothing but care for and love Wilbur (White 8), an appropriate thing to do with an infant. As a baby piglet, Wilbur lives in “a large wooden box full of straw” (9); a small room. The second stage is something similar to childhood. Wilbur outgrows his infantile life and moves into Zuckerman’s farm (12) where he meets other animals that are different from him (15-17), like a child in kindergarten. This is the reflective of two to four year old humans, who are ready to socialize with other kids, “your job as a parent is to make your kids socially desirable by the age of four” (Peterson, “Biology and Traits: Agreeableness” 30:55-31:00). The first thing Wilbur does is to listen to the barn goose and escape. He then quickly realizes that he would rather not upset his new owner (18), and that he would much rather be safe in Zuckerman’s farm where there is food, than to be free (23). This is somewhat interesting; perhaps safety is more important than freedom… Although I would say that statement functions specifically for a child, in reference to their guardian.

The Sacrifice of the Parent

The final stage is at the end of the story, after the death of Charlotte. Wilbur is something of an adolescent now, and he becomes another symbolic parent for the book; a parent to Charlotte’s children. This is made explicit in a couple places. First is when he protects the egg sac (170), and the second when he re-lives Charlotte and Fern’s experience of letting their children go. “This is our moment for setting forth” (179), one of the baby spiders informs the distraught Wilbur. Luckily for the pig, three spiders stay behind and, able to fend for themselves (and therefore technically adults), they remain with Wilbur and become his friend. Wilbur is rewarded with an ideal Lockien parenthood, one of a parent’s friendship with their adult children (Locke 145).


The conclusion is quite unique. Usually a story ends with an allusion the beginning. Charlotte’s Web does something similar, but it goes a step beyond, giving Wilbur, as God gave Abraham, many nations. He not only re-lived the story of the book, but he also re-lived parenthood repeatedly across the short lifecycles of a spider, and became not just a parent, but a grandparent and a symbolic ancestor.

Works cited

Armstrong, Richard. “Oedipus as Evidence: The Theatrical Background to Freud’s Oedipus Complex”. PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts, 1 Jan 1999, http://www.psyartjournal.com/article/show/armstrong-oedipus_as_evidence_the_theatrical_backg.

Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. ed. Roger Woolhouse. London: Penguin, 1997.

Peterson, Jordan. “2017/03/11: Strengthen the Individual: Q & A Parts I & II.” YouTube, YouTube, 16 Mar. 2017, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_UL-SdOhwek.

Peterson, Jordan. “2017 Personality 17: Biology and Traits: Agreeableness.” YouTube, YouTube, 29 Mar. 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G1eHJ9DdoEA.

King James Holy Bible. King James Version, 2004, http://www.gpbc.ca/kjvbible.pdf.

White, E. B., Charlotte’s Web. Harper, 1980.

© Daniel Triumph 2018.

This is an essay I wrote for my Children’s Literature course. I’m far more proud of the connection of the unlikely ideas than the essay itself. Charlotte’s Web is a wonderful work of fiction.

Formatting is MLA, limited only by WordPress’s blog formatting.

A Testament for Habits

Humans are creatures of habit. Not a shocking proposition, for most of human history our lives have been nothing but the same thing over and over. As a ‘sort of’ uncle of mine used to say, we “eat, sleep, shit, and work;” a succinct formula for our lives.

But it’s even more important for those like myself. Low in conscientiousness, and with a mental illness deeply linked to habit. Bipolar disorder is strongly linked to the circadian rhythm. Mess with your sleep? You’re going to feel it worse than others. And we probably all, at some level, already know this. But what you may not have known is that it goes that deep into biology. Another thing liked to the circadian rhythm is eating, so if you want to get next level about it, eat at the same time, and sleep at the same time as much as possible.

Don’t beat yourself up about it though. Use who you are today as a ruler for success. Just setting “better than before” as a goal is an actual, meaningful improvement, because now you’re seriously oriented upwards instead of across. The “ideal” can forgive the mistakes you make along the way to reaching them.1

Habits are powerful tools twofold. First, once you set a habit in place, you essentially start doing it automatically. I did this with fiction writing a year back when I was in my “year off” of University. Since I returned, I post weekly instead of daily. Another, more relevant habit I’ve constructed is… breakfast! I thought, what’s the easiest, and highest in fat/protien (the best morning [and life] nutrients) food that makes a good breakfast? Coffee! No. Coffee and peanut butter! Yes!! Wonderful! Now I have breakfast nearly every day.

The second superpower of habits is that, once one is in place, it’s super easy to build on it. It’s like… well, it’s sort of like building a house. Once you have the framework in, it’s not too difficult to nail down some dry-wall. Maybe add some siding? Pain the inside? Hell, it’s so nice now you might as well buy some imaginary furniture and move in to the damn place. But, there’s no rush. Do it right, do it at your own pace.

Just make sure that you’re oriented upwards, instead of across, and that’s where you’ll end up even if it’s by process of absent-minded strolling.

Further Watching on the topic of Habits:

  • Jordan Peterson – Daily Structure Keeps You Sane – “So you do the math, so we’ll say five hours a week for the sake of argument just to keep it simple. It’s 20 hours a month. It’s 240 hours a year. That’s six 40-hour work weeks. … Mostly what you want is to have [in life is] a routine. It’s discipline. It’s predictable and bloody well stick to it. You’re going to be way healthier and happier and saner if you do that … the world is too complicated for you to keep it organized all by yourself … So we outsource the problem of sanity.”
  • Simon Sinek – Do You Love Your Wife? – “It’s about transitions. … If you go to the gym and you workout and you come back, and you look in the mirror, you will see nothing. And if you go to the gym the next day and you come back and you look in the mirror, you will see nothing, right? … Or if you fundamentally believe that this is the right course of action and you stick with it, like in a relationship. I bought her flowers and I wished her happy birthday and she doesn’t love me, clearly I’ll give up. You know? That’s not what happens. … You could screw it up, … you know it allows for that. But if you stick with it consistently, I’m not exactly sure what day, but I know you’ll start getting into shape. … It’s not about intensity it’s about consistency. … It’s the daily practice of all the monotonous, little, boring, things like brushing your teeth that matter the most.”

1 Yes, that is a Jesus reference. Idk what else to say about it.

Maybe I’ll do a post on goal setting later.

Daniel Triumph.

Alice and Finch: The Archetypal Recapitulation

In this article, I write about Northrop Frye’s theory of myths and archetypes, specifically comedy, using my manuscript of Alice and Finch as a comparison and example. It may contain spoilers, but nothing I thing would ruin the experience of reading the novel.

Nine months ago, I powered through the first chapter of a three-part short story series. (I’m not sure what it is I have with short story series’.) That series is what later became the “Dawn” section of Alice and Finch. It was a very strong trilogy compared to my other work, and it eventually spawned my current best piece of writing, Inck. But then, three months later in late July, I finally finished the first draft of the novel. After that, I started tying up loose ends with a few epilogues, and I also realized major a flaw. As I looked back, I realized that I hadn’t really finished the story properly.

Image result for northrop frye
Northrop Frye 1912 –1991

According to Canadian literary theorist Northrop Frye, “The theme of the comic is the integration of society, which usually takes the form of incorporating a central character into it” (Frye). The integration can be broken down into individual, family, and society. I’m not so sure that I succeeded in this regard, but I think I made a good effort. In fact, in my own epilogue for Ilias, I somehow managed to subconsciously notice my own mistakes! Here’s a clipping with a limit on spoilers: Ilias came up with something of “… a solution neither Finch nor Alexandre had thought of …” (Triumph). This is an example of one of the many loose ends that I want to tie up; not in the band-aid epilogues, but in the actual story. Continue reading “Alice and Finch: The Archetypal Recapitulation”

Can You make a Living as a Writer?

In a long continuance of poverty, and long habits of dissipation, it cannot be expected that any character should be exactly uniform. There is a degree of want by which the freedom of agency is almost destroyed; and long association with fortuitous companions will at last relax the strictness of truth, and abate the fervour of sincerity.

Samuel Johnson (on William Collins)

There was a long period of time when I categorized creative writing as a job, like any other. As I grew up though, it became more and more obvious that this simply was not the case.  They don’t work steady hours, they often work from home, or at the very least not out of an office. They often take years, or fractions of years, to put out content.

Really, you could have a lot of fun with this line. Writers often don’t get published. They’re often rejected many times first if they actually are published. It’s a flooded market, because everyone thinks it’s easy to write a novel. Even if you do manage to push out 50 000 words or more, it’s not easy to make them any good. And even if they are good, good isn’t good enough, especially for a publisher. Especially for the market. Especially for history. What was I getting at?

Right. So you put out a book. Does it even sell well? Maybe you put out another? I read that it took one writer eight novels to start making a livable income.

The more I learned about it, the less likely it seemed that someone anyone was about to list “writer” as their occupation. It’s just so unlikely.

The Split

It wasn’t until nearly a year ago that I realized that there’s a split in books. It’s going to seem really obvious when I say it, but I’m really good at not noticing obvious things so I’ll lay it out for you.

Number 3 on Amazon on release!

I had been listening to Gary Vaynerchuk for a long time. Eventually I had gotten his entire message down, and he was starting to get repetitive. (Gary, for those of you who don’t know, is marketing entrepreneur who sells the “work hard” message, and talks about how it’s way easier to “make it” now that the internet exists.) I got his first book, Crush It!: Why NOW Is the Time to Cash In on Your Passion on audible, and I listened to it at work. It’s a pretty compelling title, right? The book essentially encapsulates on how to execute on the idea of what is now known as “influencer marketing.” You make a blog, or a youtube channel, or something. Then you become an expert on a topic. Then you just put out content as frequently as you can and build an audience. Apparently it works, because he’s released an updated book on the same thing complete with success stories.

Back to the split. I decided, hey, I can do that. Thus, this blog was started. It wasn’t too long later that I started to realize what I was doing wasn’t the same kind of thing as other influencer blogs were. I’m not talking about anything. I don’t have a specialty. I don’t really have a “brand.” I’m not influencing anyone on anything, not really. I just write stories. Unless I build an audience, nobody’s going to advertise on that, and advertising revenue is kind of the whole thing. It’s hard enough to build a financially successful blog, but building a financially successful fiction blog is essentially unheard of.

To be honest, I don’t know much about fiction blogs. I don’t think you can monetize them in the same way as informational blogs (no affiliate ability, products you can create are limited), so I can’t be of much help. I’m sorry!

— An email reply to my question of how to monetise.

And that’s the split.

Non-fiction is a lot easier to sell than fiction, and as far as I can tell, this extends out of blogs and into books. It’s a lot easier to get a non-fiction book published and have it actually make money. People seek information and solutions to problems a lot more than they seek stories. Those who read for pleasure are a minority; even if you give it away for free, as I and a few other bloggers do.

Let’s keep going.

Great Writers

Studying English Literature at University, I noticed something surprising. A lot of the fiction writers that I studied also had some other job. I can’t really remember many off the top of my head, but I compiled this cool chart. As my definition of “great” I chose people in the canon, and the canon I used was the first one I could find online. You think there’d be a more official list than Wikipedia, but this isn’t really an academic paper, so you’ll have to excuse my use of the free encyclopedia. (Actually, if anyone has a good link to an English or Western canon list, please tell me.)

Writer Artistry Other Occupation
Jonathan Swift Poetry, Prose Priest, Essayist
Samuel Taylor Coleridge Poetry Philosopher
Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) Prose Entrepreneur, lecturer, publisher
Edgar Allen Poe Prose Critic*
William Shakespeare Poetry, Plays Actor*, editor
Charles Dickens Prose
William Wordsworth Poetry
Fyodor Dostoyevsky Prose Military engineer, journalist
Arthur Conan Doyle** Prose Physician, Fancy Moustache
John Milton Prose Polemicist, civil servant
Emily Dickinson Poetry Lived with her parents
Ernest Hemingway Prose Revolving door of rich wives
John Donne Poetry Priest, lawyer
William Blake Poetry, Painting Printmaker
Miguel de Cervantes Prose, Poetry Soldier, accountant
Geoffrey Chaucer Poetry Bureaucrat, diplomat
Virginia Woolf Prose Publisher, critic, essayist

Image result for canterbury tales*May not count
** Not in a canon

The man who managed to make it into the canon with an unfinished book was the first person who tipped me off. For whatever reason, I remember Geoffrey Chaucer being introduced in class as a banker. but this was two years ago, so, looking at my chart, it seems that I mixed that up. Chaucer was a bureaucrat and diplomat, and he “audited and kept books on the export taxes, which were one of the Crown’s main sources of revenue” (Greenblat 189). I guess he did do something with money.

So, once you realize that people, even the people you learn about in academia, are working as well as writing, you start to think. At least I did. I started to notice more of them here and there. Although, I didn’t much pay much attention to it. Not until this year, when I was researching Poe.

Edgar Allen Poe managed to scrape his gothic self into two separate courses of mine this year. And, looking into him a bit, I learned that “Poe was the first American writer, as Alexander Pope had been the first in England, to support himself entirely by his writing” (Mayers 138). This quote is kind of cool, because it shows that in two separate countries, making a living writing was unusual… for centuries.

Continuing with Poe, however, it seems that even after he “made it,” he continued to struggle financially.

A young author, struggling with Despair itself in the shape of a ghastly poverty, which has no alleviation — no sympathy from an every-day world, that cannot understand his necessities, and that would pretend not to understand them if it comprehended them ever so well — this young author is politely requested to compose an article, for which he will “be handsomely paid.” Enraptured, he neglects perhaps for a month the sole employment which affords him the chance of a livelihood, and having starved through the month (he and his family) completes at length the month of starvation and the article, and despatches the latter (with a broad hint about the former) to the pursy “editor” and bottle-nosed “proprietor” who has condescended to honor him (the poor devil) with his patronage. A month (starving still), and no reply. … At the expiration of six additional months, personal application is made at the “editor’s” and “proprietor’s” office. Call again. The poor devil goes out, and does not fail to call again. Still call again; — and call again is the word for three or four months more. His patience exhausted, the article is demanded. No — he can’t have it (the truth is, it was too good to be given up so easily) — “it is in print,” and “contributions of this character are never paid for (it is a role we have) under six months after publication. Call in six months after the issue of your affair, and your money is ready for you — for we are business men, ourselves — prompt” (Poe).

Poe struggled because editors avoided paying him, and because of a lack of international copyright law. Publishers and magazines could literally just steal works from other countries like Britain, instead of paying the American for his stories. As far as I know, neither of these issues exist anymore. At least, I hope not.

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Cricton got an MD from Harvard before switching to writing.

A lot of the great writers had jobs… in fact, if my quote has any weight to it, all writers born before the eighteenth century in England, and the nineteenth in the United States had jobs. For me that means a couple of things. The first is that writing “on the side” is normal. The second is that, even (especially?) if you happen to be extremely artistic, writing anywhere except on the side mightn’t ever factor in.


While I was researching for this, I found a an entire Wikipedia (again) page on physicians who write. I’m not sure why this is a thing, but it’s common enough to have its own page. Mental Floss also did an article on it. So, why not go be a doctor like your parents (may have) wanted you to? Make a six figure income and write in your fancy home during your off hours. Ahah.

Novels are a Business

There isn’t enough money to go around… sort of.

Image result for pareto distributionAccording to Price’s law, half of all scientific contributions are made by the square root of the total number of scientific contributors: thus, if there are 100 scientists within a given discipline, just 10 of them will account for 50 percent of all publications. The Price’s law describes unequal distribution of productivity in most domains of creativity (Gorny, emphasis mine).

The bigger you are, the more people recognise you. The more people recognise you, the more people buy your books. The more people buy your books, the bigger you get. The more people want to publish you. The more stores shelf your book. It’s a vicious cycle, and it’s present in the novelling, and almost any other market.

Most of us aren’t recognised at the top, in fact most writers probably aren’t making anything. There’s probably a large amount that are just writing for fun. Those that are making a living wage are what I like to call the exceptions.

The Exceptions

Image result for agatha christie

Writers like J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, and Agatha Christie are the exceptions. Especially Christie. If you want a good example of an exception to the rule, look no further than the woman competing in sales numbers with William Shakespeare!

Outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare, Agatha Christie is the best-selling novelist of all time. She is best known for her 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections, as well as the world’s longest-running play – The Mousetrap.

— http://www.agathachristie.com

From what I can tell, which isn’t much, it seems to me that there are two ways to actually make money writing. The first is to write a lot of things that are interesting to read. They don’t have to be particularly good, in fact being literary slows you down. Get rid of all that and just write a ton. That’s clearly what Christie did. One of the things that stabbed out of the page at me while reading Harry Potter was the unimpressive and sometimes just plain bad prose. Apparently King isn’t much better. But really, writing in this fashion clearly works if you have the content to make up for it.

There’s another group that manages to get by with fairly simple writing, the occasional grammar error, and lots of releases. It’s the indie publishers. Self publishinh directly to ebooks and cranking out two or three novels a year, these people are on a mission, and it’s paying off. Royalties are lower, if not non-existent if you indie publish, and because it’s digital you don’t even have to pay for printed books. But, the breakneck speed at which you have to release to make a living seems to cut into their quality. I’m not sure.


This is actually sort of an awful article, it spells out how almost exactly how unlikely it is that anyone will make a living writing. It’s the last thing I wanted to hear, that’s why it took a strong three years for me to come around and face it. But, I kind of cheated when I did.

The first thing I pointed out here, in different words, was that it’s unusual to make money doing art. I feel like that’s so obvious that it’s almost in the realm of common sense. Writing somehow falls to the side of that though, possibly because when people think “art” they don’t immediately think “novel.”

Anyway, my first point was that even a lot of the great writers from the canon also did other things, and that’s where I “cheated.” It’s unlikely that you or I will make a living writing. It’s unlikely that anyone will make a living writing. Especially if you want to take the time to put out something of literary quality. So the cheat is that… that’s normal. You don’t have to worry about it, or stress about how you’re going to do it.

I mean, feel free to try, just be careful that you don’t fall into the dead prose of mass fiction… or do, whatever works. As for me, I’m going to try what Margret Atwood did. (Although, I’m not a huge fan of Atwood, she definitely both made it, and is good enough that I read her work in university.) That is, get a “real job” and hope for the best after that. I think it beats being a starving artist working a minimum wage job anyway. And being educated certainly doesn’t hurt writing quality.

Further Reading

I found this article, I thought it was pretty cool. It’s a very strong resource for learning how to make money in art, although it’s geared a little more towards visual arts. The #1 Reason Artists Fail At Making a Living Selling Art (And What You Can Do About It)

I did a post a while back on theme. That might interest you.

Works Cited

Gorny, Eugene. “Price’s law.” Dictionary of Creativity: Terms, Concepts, Theories & Findings in Creativity Research / Compiled and edited by Eugene Gorny. Netslova.ru, 2007. http://creativity.netslova.ru/Price~s_law.html

Greenblatt, editor. The Norton anthology of English literature. Ninth ed., vol. 1 2, W.W. Norton, 2013.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Edgar Allan Poe: his life and legacy. Cooper Square Press, 2000.

Poe, Edgar A. “Some Secrets of the Magazine Prison-House,” Broadway Journal, February 15, 1845 (accessed at http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/poe/etext/smprison.htm)

Wikipedia. “Western canon.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 9 Feb. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_canon.

Daniel Triumph.

Please check out my most recent work of fiction, Mariça.