Friday, October 18, 2013

Mark Twain Tells Us How to Write

Mark Twain didn't like James Fenimore Cooper’s writing. Wait, that was far too mild of a sentence. In his article “Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses,” Twain ridicules, lacerates, and skewers Cooper.

Here’s a small sample: 
Cooper's art has some defects. In one place in "Deerslayer," and in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record. There are nineteen rules governing literary art in domain of romantic fiction -- some say twenty-two. In "Deerslayer," Cooper violated eighteen of them.

This 1895 article made me laugh out loud, but besides humor, I saw something else in the article. If all of the criticisms of Cooper were rewritten as positive statements, they would make a great guide to great writing. I believe this list can stand prominently next to Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing.

So … with clemency from Twain, I present the "18 Commandments of Writing," by Mark Twain.

  1. A tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.
  2. Episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it.
  3. 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. 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 at 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 the 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 in 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. 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 in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones.
  11. Characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency.
  12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
  13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.
  14. Eschew surplusage.
  15. Do not omit necessary details.
  16. Avoid slovenliness of form.
  17. Use good grammar.
  18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.

Great list, huh? Anyway, I’ll let Twain conclude this post with his conclusions about Cooper: 
I may be mistaken, but it does seem to me that "Deerslayer" is not a work of art in any sense; it does seem to me that it is destitute of every detail that goes to the making of a work of art; in truth, it seems to me that "Deerslayer" is just simply a literary delirium tremens. A work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are -- oh! Indescribable;  its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language.
Counting these out, what is left is Art. I think we must all admit that.

Remind me never to get on the bad side of Twain. 

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