Monday, May 14, 2012

Writing Tips Courtesy of Mark Twain

The official title of this original piece is interesting; Twain's Rules of Writing (from Mark Twain's scathing essay on the Literary Offenses of James Fenimore Cooper). I'm not sure what Mark Twain had against the author of The Deerslayer and other classic tales of early Americana. I do know that his rant reveals a treasure trove of writing tips.

1. A tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.
2. The episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help develop it.
3. The personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.
4. The personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there.
5. When the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject in hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say.
6. When the author describes the character of a personage in his tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description.
7. When a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven-dollar Friendship's Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a Negro minstrel at the end of it.
8. Crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader by either the author or the people in the tale.
9. The personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable.
10. The author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones.
11. The characters in tale be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency.
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  1. Ha! Excellent advice... Thanks for sharing that.


  2. Having read The Deerslayer, let's just say I know exactly what Twain had against him. His thoughts on Austen, however, I don't agree with. ;)

  3. What a brilliant post! Love it. Thank you.

  4. 1. A tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. : There goes all those blockbuster Dystopian novels/movies. Mark Twain just cursed them.

  5. Well, to be fair, Twain wrote this list before the advent of Postmodernism. ;)

  6. I haven't read The Deerslayer. However I did read and enjoy The Last of the Mohicans. Despite the old language, I found it quite entertaining - though perhaps the old language is what kept me from recognizing places where the dialect of the characters varied from one paragraph to the next.

    What didn't you like, about Deerslayer, Katie?

    1. Even in my quest to read all the classics, I was only able to make it through three of Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales (and if you know how OCD I am about these things, then you know that's a big deal!). Last of the Mohicans was definitely the best of the three I read. In a nutshell, I disliked the books because they were exceedingly windy. The main character, Natty Bumppo, is repeatedly referred to as the strong and silent type, but he rattles on for absolutely pages of solid dialogue.

  7. Love this! Yes, it's full of excellent advice (though much of it is hardly new) but the style in which it is delivered is simply delightful...

  8. #1 and #8!!!! Please say that again. I love it!