By Kenechi Uzor—
December 15, 2015 is the submissions deadline for the Saraba Manuscript Project. We are excited.
We trust that those yet to send in submissions are in the final redrafting or editing stages. Be encouraged, for we presume the judges won’t be too particular about many things except quality, and maybe excellence.
At the stage of fine-tuning and pruning, it is good policy for writers to acquaint themselves with the rules, strictures and boundlessness of good writing. The application or conscious disregard of these rules is the writer’s discretion and separates the fine sand from gravel.
Until the deadline, we will remind prospective applicants of writing rules by great writers.
Because rules are best when given in the good spirit of humour, we would begin with Mark Twain’s hilarious rules of writing. Mark Twain died 105 years ago, and gave his undying writing tips years before he did so. The Saraba Manuscript Project is open to writing that will survive 100 years hence, hopefully more.
Mark Twain’s literary rules
- A tale should accomplish something and arrive somewhere.
- The episodes of a tale should be necessary parts of the tale, and should help to develop it.
- The personages in a tale should be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader should be able to tell the corpses from the others.
- The personages in a tale, both dead and alive, should exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there.
- When the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk should 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 neighbourhood 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.
- When the author describes the character of a personage in his tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage should justify said description.
- 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 should not talk like a negro minstrel in the end of it.
- Crass stupidities should not be played upon the reader by either the author or the people in the tale.
- The personages of a tale should 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
- The author should make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he should make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones.
- The characters in a tale should be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency.
- A writer should say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
- Use the right word, not its second cousin.
- Eschew surplusage.
- Not omit necessary details.
- Avoid slovenliness of form.
- Use good grammar.
- Employ a simple and straightforward style.
- Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.
- The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is that you really want to say.
- The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.
- The more you explain it, the more I don’t understand it.
And this last one was found in a letter Mark Twain wrote to D.W. Bowser:
- “I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English—it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.”
The first 18 rules were Mark Twain’s critique of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer. The Deerslayer, a romantic fiction, was highly praised by critics and literary authorities of the era. To get the humour and the full import of the rules read Fennimore Cooper’s Literary Offences. You may also read Mark Twain’s hilarious advice to little girls and his 1879 lecture on masturbation.
Most of Mark Twain’s works are available online for free, including his all-time classic, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Kenechi Uzor is web editor of Saraba Magazine
The photo of Mark Twain by Mathew Brady is in the public domain.