The Booklover’s Bench contest ends the 18th. Don’t forget to enter.
Last Saturday, I had the pleasure of participating in the Author Showcase at a local library presentation, called “Mountain of Authors.” (The showcase part sounds a lot more exciting than it was–there were about 20 or so of us who were given the chance to speak for one minute about our writing, meet readers, and sell books which helped raise money for the Friends of the Library)
There were two panels and a keynote speaker, Stephen Coonts, and I’m going to report on his talk first. He addressed topics including the publishing industry, but his discussion of an essay written by Mark Twain about the writing of James Fenimore Cooper was the highlight. Twain, according to Coonts, wrote the first “modern” novel–Huckelberry Finn. In the essay Coonts quoted, Twain laid down some ‘rules’ for writing, and they hold true today. As Coonts pointed out, they should be common sense, but we often need to be reminded.
I’m posting the first section here, with some of Coonts’s comments. There’s a link to the full article at the end.
Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses
by Mark Twain
“The Pathfinder” and “The Deerslayer” stand at the head of Cooper’s novels as artistic creations. There are others of his works which contain parts as perfect as are to be found in these, and scenes even more thrilling. Not one can be compared with either of them as a finished whole. The defects in both of these tales are comparatively slight. They were pure works of art.
The five tales reveal an extraordinary fullness of invention. … One of the very greatest characters in fiction, Natty Bumppo… The craft of the woodsman, the tricks of the trapper, all the delicate art of the forest were familiar to Cooper from his youth up.
Cooper is the greatest artist in the domain of romantic fiction in America.
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 [note: this was the term used for what we call “commercial fiction” today] 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. [Coonts reminded us that we’re storytellers. We have to tell the tale.]
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. [Don’t include unnecessary stuff]
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. [The characters have to be believable]
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. [Don’t have too many characters. If a character hasn’t returned for four or five chapters, rethink the need for him/her to be there. If it’s important enough, remind the reader who the character is—they may have set the book downs for days between chapters and won’t remember who it is]
5. They 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. [Dialogue must sound realistic]
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. [Characters must be consistent]
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. [Dialogue must remain true to the character]
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. [Keep things realistic]
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. [Don’t stretch the truth beyond belief; even in fantasy, there are rules of the universe you create]
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. [Readers have to care about your characters—they make the book]
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. [Characters should become real to your readers]
There are more of these ‘rules’, including using the right words, avoiding excess while including necessary details. You can read the entire article here.
Causes Terry Odell Supports
Pro Literacy Worldwide, The Nature Conservancy, The Adult Literacy League, The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society