Mark Twain's Rules of Writing

Way back in 1895, Mark Twain, the greatest writer who ever lived (we'll argue about it later) wrote a piece titled, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses". This was a critique, of sorts, of his contemporary, Fenimore Cooper's novel, "The Deerslayer". Armed with his considerable wit, Mark Twain slays the Cooper dragon and his work in that essay.

The most famous and oft-quoted portion of that 1895 piece has often been redistributed as "Mark Twain's Rules of Writing" which I will now present with but a small introduction from the master himself.

It seems to me that it was far from right for the Professor of English Literature at Yale, the Professor of English Literature in Columbia, and Wilkie Collins to deliver opinions on Cooper's literature without having read some of it. It would have been much more decorous to keep silent and let persons talk who have read Cooper.


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. These eighteen require:


1. That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. But the "Deerslayer" tale accomplishes nothing and arrives in air.


2. They require that the episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it. But as the "Deerslayer" tale is not a tale, and accomplishes nothing and arrives nowhere, the episodes have no rightful place in the work, since there was nothing for them to develop.


3. They require that 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. But this detail has often been overlooked in the "Deerslayer" tale.


4. They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there. But this detail also has been overlooked in the "Deerslayer" tale.


5. The require that 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. But this requirement has been ignored from the beginning of the "Deerslayer" tale to the end of it.


6. They require that when the author describes the character of a personage in the tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description. But this law gets little or no attention in the "Deerslayer" tale, as Natty Bumppo's case will amply prove.


7. They require that 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. But this rule is flung down and danced upon in the "Deerslayer" tale.


8. They require that crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as "the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest," by either the author or the people in the tale. But this rule is persistently violated in the "Deerslayer" tale.


9. They require that 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. But these rules are not respected in the "Deerslayer" tale.


10. They require that 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. But the reader of the "Deerslayer" tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.


11. They require that the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency. But in the "Deerslayer" tale, this rule is vacated.

In addition to these large rules, there are some little ones. These require that the author shall:


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. Not omit necessary details.


16. Avoid slovenliness of form.


17. Use good grammar.


18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.


Even these seven are coldly and persistently violated in the "Deerslayer" tale.


There you have it, my friends. Should you be interested in reading the whole piece, may I direct you to Project Gutenberg where you will find a copy of the complete essay in several different formats.


Too Many Sites?

Too many notes? How about too many sites?

I've always had trouble focusing, at least for long periods of time. Focusing long enough to get this job done or writing an article, is well within my capabilities. Perhaps it's more a question of too  many interests. When I fill out a questionnaire that asks for my 'Interests', I don't know where to start. You see, I'm interested in everything!

  • science fiction and fantasy
  • religion
  • Linux and open source software, including Android
  • space exploration
  • genetics and epigenetics
  • politics
  • sex
  • psychology and the theory of mind
  • ethics and morality
  • superstition and mythology (which could go under religion)
  • libraries, data storage, and archiving content
  • history
  • movies
  • physics . . . oh might as well add science as a general category
  • books
  • music, which includes rock, opera, classical, baroque, big band, blues, and pretty much everything else
  • silliness and various ephemera

I could go on and on and on . . . but as you can see, I really am interested in everything. I'm an information addict. Worse, my passions are equally widespread. How is a guy supposed to function under these crazy conditions? How are you, dear reader, supposed to follow my work if you happen to be interested in Linux and free software when only every tenth post is on that subject. Or religion, or politics, or science fiction.

To be honest, I find it hard to keep up with me and this does pose problems when it comes to organizing my thoughts, whatever that might mean. Since I run a company that does Website hosting, among other things, I tend to create new Websites. I have a general Website under the marcelgagne.com (you are likely here) banner and various others depending on where I think I should be concentrating certain types of content, like Linux and Open Source. Heck, I even have a Website for those things that interested me only briefly (Look! A Shiny Object!) before I move on to the next distraction.

And yes, all this means that I have a dozen or more domains registered that are basically all for my own writing.

What about you? Am I the only one who has decided to create Websites as he sees fit? Is this just plain crazy or a normal part of blogger/journalist evolution?

If you are part of the eternally distracted set with countless interests, tell me how you handle all this. I'm genuinely curious.


Minds Writing Minds

A Tiny Short Story by Marcel Gagné

Mervin was depressed. The down to the wire existence of his work life, the floundering bank account, and his disastrous love life had all but pushed him over the edge. Though he hadn't gone to the doctor, Mervin strongly suspected that his cough might be a sign of consumption.

His dream of being a famous writer had left him like a scorned lover two years before when everything in his life was going extremely well. The president of his company, then delightfully impressed with Mervin's work, increased his salary to a comfortable seventy-five thousand per year. Catherina, his lovely and devoted wife, was lovely and devoted. With all this cash coming in and life being so amazingly marvellous, Mervin put aside the pen, er, word processor.

Then came the layoffs and the cutbacks. Mervin, now far too at ease in his position, layed off, and consequently was layed off. He took another job with their competitor for less than half of his accustomed salary. He became miserable and drank a lot. Catherina left him because he was a constant downer. For her, it wasn't the money. It was Mervin's attitude.

Mervin retreated further into himself. Friends stopped seeing him--not that he had any more. Convinced that things could not get any worse, Mervin went home to discover that the bank was giving him two weeks to make a payment before they foreclosed.

One day, when all seemed lost, and Mervin was ready to jump off the Second Street bridge into the icy cold Fast River, he was seized with the desire to pour it all out, to scream out to the world, "I have suffered. My trials have been hard and this is where they have taken me!" Struck thus, he climbed back over the railing and headed for home where the nearly violent desire to forever ensnare the words that were his pain could be satiated.

As he walked, words flowed like a raging emotional river. Their raw, naked power filled him. From the depths of his torment, a fervent excitement began to take shape. Excitement. Purpose.

This was the heart of art, he knew. Pain. Sorrow. Depression.

By the time Mervin arrived home, he felt so good that his muse left him for someone more distraught.

The End

Note: This 'piece' is the result of a quick response to yet another incarnation of the 'all writers are basically demented, emotionally scarred, verging on insanity recluses' discussion. A group of netizens were arguing that these failings were somehow necessary to feed the muse and allow True Art(tm) to flow from the obviously tormented psyche. Now, I am a generally happy person. My life has its ups and downs but that's part of life. According to the discussion in progress, it was clear that I should give up writing now because I was far too well-adjusted to ever pen anything worthwhile. While "Minds Writing Minds" may not be worthwhile, it was however my response to this discussion. Strangely enough, the discussion came to an end almost immediately afterward. Hmmm..... Incidentally, this discussion, and me writing this story, happened many years ago.


Marcel on the Linux User Show

About two weeks ago, I was interviewed by Jon Watson, producer of the Linux User Show podcast. We talked about my new book, the second edition of "Moving to Linux : Kiss the Blue Screen of Death Goodbye!", Linux, and occasionally even other operating systems [ insert appropriate smiley here ].

Jon was a great host. The show was a lot of fun though occasionally quite silly.


Subscribe to RSS - Writing