Writing Advice From a Grand Old Pro
Only a very few writers and their works endure for decades—even centuries—beyond their deaths. Shakespeare, Willa Cather, Virginia Woolf, and poets like Keats and Thoreau and Emily Dickinson can still move us with their words written long ago.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens died in 1910, yet his works and his pen name Mark Twain live on. His book The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has often been classed among the greatest American novels. He presented the following fiction writing commandments in his inimitable wry style. They are unarguably salient for all of us who write fiction but much of the advice applies equally well to other kinds of writing:
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 the reader shall always 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 shall be 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, hand-tooled, seven-dollar Friendship's Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a Kentucky hillbilly 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 the author shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones.
11. The characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency.
The author should:
Say what he or she is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
Use the right word, not its second cousin.
Not omit necessary details.
Avoid slovenliness of form.
Use good grammar.
Please mask up and distance. We have a ways to go before we're out of the dark woods.
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