Vocational Vivications

Love and Friendship – Critiquing Modern Tropes While Practicing One’s Craft

A Possible Clue in Jane Austen’s Glasses. Did Arsenic Kill Her? - The New York Times

It has been a while, but some time ago, I read an older copy of Jane Austen’s Love and Friendship. For those who do not know, Love and Friendship* is not a full-blown novel. Nor was it published during the authoress’ lifetime. She probably would have been highly embarrassed to see it in print.

Love and Friendship is a collection of stories written by Jane Austen between the ages 11 and 18 – the first of which is written as a series of letters – about various characters in Regency England. It is rightly interpreted as a window into Austen’s future novels, but from the perspective of one trying to learn the craft of writing, it offers more. It shows how a beginning author can, will, and should wrestle with learning how to write effectively for an audience.

The first story in Love and Friendship is hilarious. It is also painful in the extreme to read. You can easily tell that this was a young woman’s writing as it is filled with far more spelling errors than would ever be acceptable in a book meant for public consumption. The characters are little more than cardboard satire pieces, and the plot rushes past at a clip that would keep pace with a five-year-old. In other words, it is quick enough to run out into traffic before you can catch and hold it back.

Why is Love and Friendship worth reading if it is, from the view of a well-written story, so bad? It is worth reading because it shows an author hammering out problems in the current fiction of her time to figure out what she believes and how she ought to write it so others will see her point while they enjoy her story. It also functions as a good tutorial on how to begin writing. Although one can write without knowing what one believes, this is not conducive to good storytelling.

Kit Sun Cheah discusses this point in various ways on his site, but he refers to those who consume fiction without thinking about the various stories they read, watch, or hear as whales. This is because, like whales, they simply scoop up their fiction without savoring it or considering it deeply.

For authors who want to stand out to some degree from the crowd, writing fiction just for it to be consumed will not work out well. As Mr. Cheah points out in various articles, writers who produce without deep thought are not remembered. They may get better pay than individual authors, but they will be condemned to be forgotten after they receive their paycheck. If Jane Austen had told stories simply for the sake of telling stories and not infused them with what she believed, she would have been forgotten and we would not have any of her excellent novels to read – nor would we have Love and Friendship.

Authors starting out need to write, write, write, and write some more. Whether it is fan fiction, a daily journal, a diary, or just a series of snippets from imaginary people who won’t stop renting out space in their heads, writers write. They can no more help it than a mathematician can help thinking of numbers all day or an engineer could stop considering how best to build that new gadget or improve the old one. People who love cooking think about cooking all day even if they are not the ones making the meal, just as authors are constantly pulled to put down words on a page.

The problem for most of us when we begin in this business is figuring out how to make our stories like the ones we love to read. Fan fiction does not have to be and often is not up to industry standards. If someone is reading a diarist’s entries without their permission, then there is a whole host of problems, writing skill being the least of them. With no audience to win and no reason to be especially careful, some writers just write to get the voices in their head to quiet down for a while.

Before anyone says anything, I am not attacking or mocking those authors who do this. I am making a point; if you write for yourself, you are the only person who needs to be impressed. If you write for a small circle of friends or for other fans of the same franchise, then once again, the bar for winning their adulation is not as high as if you were seeking a national or international audience.

Furthermore, if one is writing for fame or a steady paycheck, there are ways to do that while mentally checking out of the job. See a variety of Hollywood, comic book, and other authors for examples of this – they write to get paid, and while they may talk about the craft, craft speaks for itself. It does not need to trumpet its appearance from the rooftops because it shines so brightly you can see them from down the street. Or from space, if it is that luminescent.

Jane Austen in Love and Friendship writes like a person dissatisfied with the current offerings of her literary era. She was born, raised, and wrote in the Romantic Era – the time when the belief was rampant that all evil would eventually dissolve into goodness and no one was ever really bad or would go to hell. The term is typically applied to the poetry of this time period, but novels from the same era show the mark of it as well. We are experiencing a renewal of that belief now and have been for some time. In point of fact, because humans are creatures of habit, the idea will never die, in part because you cannot kill an idea.

That does not make it a right or good idea, though, and Love and Friendship shows Austen trying hard to understand why it does not work and why she is so dissatisfied with the fiction of her time. The titular story is indeed a satire of the tropes of the Romantic movement in fiction, as the blurbs for the book say. Austen had seen others producing and absorbing such fiction seriously and she thought it foolish, so she began lampooning this attitude in Love and Friendship in part to figure out why she instinctively believed it was erroneous.

Pride and Prejudice (TV Series 1995-1995) - Posters — The Movie Database (TMDB)

She continued to do so in a more mature manner in the rest of her novels, most notably Pride and Prejudice*, where Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet are the complete opposite of romantic heroes and heroines of the time. Jane Bennet and Mr. Bingley are less well-remembered and liked by fans of the story precisely because they are in the Romantic roles. They are both good and kind to a fault, even tempered, and can say nothing bad about anyone unless pressed to the extreme. Austen did this on purpose, and astute readers of the Regency era likely figured out why, leading them to enjoy the book and the rest of her novels even more than we do now. Her books went against the common trends of her day and were more true to life, blending Romaticism and Realism in a manner that many writers of the period did not as they were swept up in the Romantic movement and writing for the “whales” of their era.

What a prospective author today can learn from reading Love and Friendship is fourfold. First, if there seems to be something wrong with a particular trope or archetype as it is currently presented, and you don’t like it, figure out why you think that way about it. Like someone attacking a problem from a practical angle, that means you have to write. You cannot simply sit and/or walk and think about it; you need the practical, “hands on” experience of putting together a story.

In a discussion with a friend some time ago, I expressed frustration with a number of “how to write” books I read. The books were helpful in some ways but utterly unhelpful in others since they did not specify which tools one would need to tell a good story. It was, in essence, like being given a manual to change a tire when what I wanted was practical demonstrations of how to use the tools to actually change the tire. Then I could get the practical experience from that by practicing, but the “how to write” books did not offer much in the way of either demonstrations or describing the use of the tools well.

One could easily blame this fault in “how to write” books on the modern emphasis on literary fiction. As Richard Wheeler noted here, “Lit Fic” did not exist prior to the 1960s and 1970s. He was born in the 1930s, so he should know. All tales written before Literary Fiction’s inception were simply fiction, and there were established tools for writing a good story. You had to master them, of course, but they were not out of reach of even the most meanly educated person on the planet. All you had to do was apply yourself to the study of the written word and the craft of writing, which could and would take time. But it is time well spent if you WANT to tell a good story and win a paying audience (or if not a paying audience, in the case of fan fiction or an online diary, then one that will at least talk to you about your writing while enjoying your work).

Literary Fiction as taught for decades puts the practical tools on the shelf, out of reach, and insists you study the manual on how to write. Now, while the manual is important, divorcing it from the tools gets you nowhere. Knowledge without practical experience usually ends with whoever can recite the manual back verbatim thoughtlessly getting hurt somehow. A large number of present-day authors are hurt because they were never taught how to actually change the tire; they were simply told to memorize the manual for doing so, and then repeat it back to the teacher letter-perfect.

Austen in Love and Friendship is doing the practical exercises to write better. She is doing the work, and beginning authors ought to follow her example. You need to put in the time to learn how to use the tools. Refer back to the manual by all means, but do not treat the tools as if they are unnecessary byproducts. They are no such thing. The manual is there to give you directions in lieu of having a skilled teacher stand over and correct you. So yes, manuals come in handy. I am not saying they do not.

What I am saying is that following a manual and doing no practical exercises means nothing. I can read a book cover to cover on how to repair a propeller plane, and that will help me write a novel where this information comes in handy. But unless I talk to or read the words of prop plane mechanics and pilots to get the benefit of their experience, my recitation of the facts will be missing a key component. It will have no “life” because I have put none in it by refusing to countenance that there is more than the manual needed to repair a prop plane. The manual is the guide; the hands of the mechanics and the pilots are what offer the real world, practical effect of the words on the page.

Sense and Sensibility [DVD] [1995] - Best Buy

Second, Austen is asking philosophical questions of the genres and tropes prevalent in her time through satire in Love and Friendship, as satire is part of her character and a mode of thinking for her. If you are not a naturally satirical or cynical person, or you simply do not like either attitude, you can ask these types of questions of the tropes and archetypes your own way. Austen was as witty as her heroines and heroes, as well-versed in the quick quip and scathing politeness as anyone of her time. She relied on that to probe the trends of her era and figure out where they were deficient.

Love and Friendship carries the germ of the ideas that flowered in Sense and Sensibility*, Pride and Prejudice, Emma*, Mansfield Park*, Northanger Abbey*, and Persuasion* because Austen plunked down in front of her desk and said, “Okay, I know there’s something wrong. I just don’t know how to say it in the most economical and accurate way possible.” So, using the tools we discussed above, she went to the metaphorical hammer and anvil and started trying her hand at storycrafting by pounding out nails.

The “nails” were the short stories in Love and Friendship, which grow progressively better as one reads them, even though they are not up to the standards of her polished novels. Of the bunch, the titular Love and Friendship is the most juvenile and satirical. The rest show Austen’s progress as she figures out, “No, that’s not how I want to say this. This is a MUCH better way of doing it. It carries exactly what I mean, fits the characters and situation perfectly, and it moves the plot forward.” Her writing is still inferior to what it would become later, but it does show improvement from where she started. The practical exercises she has engaged in, in other words, are bearing fruit.

Modern day writers call this second key practice finding your voice. It means finding out how to say things your way rather than echoing or sounding like the storytellers you admire – and those do not have to be writers. A storyteller who tells his tales orally is as good a teacher, if not better, than an author. Oral storytellers have to keep their visual audience engaged, which means they cannot afford to mince words or go on long tangents unless their audience is willing to go with them.

In order to make the audience travel with them, lecturers have to find their own voice and style of speaking to engage the audience and keep them from spacing out or getting up and leaving. Jordan Peterson goes into great detail in his lectures, but he is a very good lecturer precisely because he relies on stories to illustrate his points. He is not just reading from or reciting psychological manuals, he is using practical illustrations as tools and demonstrating their use to his audience on stage. In other words, he is not just reading the manual to them; he is referencing the manual as he is changing the tire in front of them.

Not everyone will use these tools effortlessly at once. That would be asking a lot. But they now have a practical demonstration of what Peterson means and how he works to build his ideas. Once they adapt it to fit themselves through trial and error, they can refine the process until they are able to “walk on their own,” as it were.

The third item Love and Friendship teaches is humility. One cannot read the book without realizing that everyone begins their writing career as an amateur. Jane Austen is one of the best recognized, renowned, and beloved authors of all time.

And she wrote terribly before she published her first novel.

Emma ~ A/E 1996 (With images) | Emma movie, Jane austen movies, Kate beckinsale

I love Austen’s stories. I can and will tell you that Love and Friendship is hilarious and worth the read. Were I to tell you it was as good as her later works, though, I would be a bald-faced liar. The collection is nothing more than the working scribblings of a beginning author practicing her writing with the tools, spirit, and gifts of intellect that God gave her before she was born.

Love and Friendship, in essence, is the private scribbles of an author who would have burned them if she thought they were going to be made public. Austen would hide her novel writing under other sheets of paper when people entered her room, not only because at the time novels were considered frivolous, but because she did not want anyone to see an unfinished and unedited product. She wanted a crystal-clear manuscript to be enjoyed by the public, not a half-baked or ill-written collection of pages.

This is where the fourth item to be learned from Love and Friendship comes into play: You are going to make mistakes, future authors. When you start practicing your craft, you are going to come from working on your stories with the equivalent of grease on your hands and oil all over the garage floor. It will be a mess; it will not be neat, tidy, or otherwise fit for sale at first. You will be critiqued by those who want to tear you down and those who want to build you up. Both those appraisals will hurt like hell.

You will need to discern the hurtful commentary from the helpful kind because (a) things said only to hurt are never worth keeping in mind, even though they may take time to dispel or ignore. And (b), a critic who wants you to improve is as valuable as the Hope Diamond, and not because he is invested in your work. He is valuable because he is invested in you.

Work and the character of the individual go hand-in-hand, as we see with the finished product. Put your heart and soul into building a toy or assembling a kit from the store, and it will show. Even if the parts are mass-produced, you will have left a specific, individual mark on the item you have put together. That mark will be made in blood – if only through flakes of skin – sweat, and yes, tears.

Man affects his work from the stumbling steps he takes to practice it all the way to the time he is a master who constructs a great magnum opus before he dies. Love and Friendship could not have been written by anyone but Jane Austen, just as Pride and Prejudice or Mansfield Park could not have been penned by anyone else but her. The finished masterpiece is only a masterpiece because the writer went to his desk and pounded out trashy “nails” first.

So, future authors, check out Love and Friendship when you get the chance to see what a master writer’s first stories look like. Then go back to your own desk and start making “nails” to figure out how to hold the tools, discover your voice, learn humility, and grow from your mistakes. If Jane Austen could do that with a quill pen, candles and daylight to read and write by, and no internet, then so can you!

*These are Amazon affiliate links. When you purchase something through them, this author receives a commission from Amazon at no extra charge to you, the buyer.

If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at www.carolinefurlong.wordpress.com. Her stories have been published in Cirsova’s Summer Special and Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth. She has also had stories published in the Planetary Anthology Series. Another story was released in Cirsova Magazine’s Summer Issue in 2020, and she had a story published in Storyhack Magazine’s 7th Issue, Cirsova Magazine’s 2021 Summer Issue, and another may be read over at Ember Journal. Vol. 1* and Vol. 2* of her series – The Guardian Cycle – is available in paperback and ebook as well. Order them today!

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9 thoughts on “Love and Friendship – Critiquing Modern Tropes While Practicing One’s Craft”

  1. In Katherine or the Bower, her biggest problem was that she posed an insoluble problem for two friends of the heroine in the opening chapter. Kitty herself fit a full novel.

    Love And Freindship itself had Parody Sue characters

    Liked by 1 person

    1. WordPress does not seem to appreciate my attempt to follow you. I’ve tried twice now and it says my email address isn’t valid. That’s bizarre – and, unfortunately, not unusual. I seem to have a fair bit of trouble following people these days. :frowns at screen:


  2. I spent more time than I had planned, reading this.
    Thanks for the discussion of writing, the history of ideas – and why “…Authors starting out need to write, write, write, and write some more…” is possibly the most-repeated advice to upcoming writers.

    Liked by 1 person

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