Twain’s Attack on Cooper

In 1895, Mark Twain published “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” a lengthy criticism of James Fenimore Cooper’s writing, especially his novels The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer. Since it’s one of the more famous examples of literary criticism, let’s explore it, as well as the overall reasons for such criticism.

Twain vs CooperIn Twain’s acerbic style, he starts by accusing three Cooper-praising reviewers of never having read the books. He then lays into Cooper, saying, “…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.” Twain asserts there are 19 or 22 rules “governing literary art in domain of romantic fiction” and says Cooper violated 18 of them. He lists those 18 rules.

Twain scorns Cooper for over-using certain favorite “cunning devices, tricks, artifices.” He also slams Cooper for some improbable events involving shore water undertows, cannon ball rolling, and footprint erasure by erosion.

At length, Twain ridicules Cooper for creating a forest stream of varying breadth, for conjuring a boat so big as to be unlikely to navigate the stream, and for having five Indians lay in wait for this giant craft and yet miss it when attempting to jump aboard. For several paragraphs, Twain then takes Cooper to task for scenes involving implausible target-shooting with rifles, and eyesight beyond human capability.

In Twain’s judgement, Cooper’s dialogue is inconsistent, and his word choices “dull” and “approximate.”

That’s the summary version of the “Literary Offenses.” Twain’s writing style is humorous and satirical, making the essay fun to read and accounting for its lasting popularity.

Once published, Twain’s essay itself became subject to criticism, and one fine example of this is “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Defenses,” by Lance Schachterle and Kent Ljungquist of Worcester Polytechnic Institute.  Schachterle and Ljungquist take Twain to task for attempting literary criticism while accomplishing little more than sniping at the physics of certain scenes. Twain, they say, gets some of his physics wrong, and in the case of the river craft and the awaiting Indians, fills in his own details to prove that Cooper’s scene wouldn’t work.

Laying aside the particulars of the criticisms, why would Twain write such an essay at all? Cooper couldn’t respond, having been dead some forty-four years. (In fairness, Twain didn’t reserve his barbs only for deceased authors. He criticized his contemporaries George Eliot and Robert Louis Stevenson as well.) That gap in time is illustrative, since Cooper wrote in the Romantic style, a style no longer in vogue in Twain’s time.

Was Twain trying to tarnish Cooper’s reputation? That was unlikely to suffer, Cooper having become a best-selling author whose works remained popular well into Twain’s era, and even now.

I suspect Twain, like many writers, chafed at the inexplicable popularity of other authors who didn’t write the way he did. In a sense, he’s criticizing the book-buying public. He’s saying, “Americans, here are the rules for literature, and I adhere to them in my stories. Why do you keep buying books by Cooper, who violates them at every turn?”

Still, who can explain why readers line up to buy certain books and ignore others? What makes a book popular? Strict adherence to Twain’s self-imposed rules doesn’t seem to be the answer; otherwise, we’d be reading little else but Twain.

Similarly, Jules Verne criticized H. G. Wells’ book The First Men in the Moon for using a fictional anti-gravity metal. Wells did not obey rules Verne imposed on himself, and Verne couldn’t understand why readers would accept that.

Authors are free to comment on other authors, of course, but should be wary of applying their own criteria of merit on others, or of assuming readers use those same criteria in their book-purchasing decisions.

I must admit, I’m glad Mark Twain never had the chance to criticize any books by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

One more thing: remember Smashwords is selling many of my books at ½ price through the end of this month. These deals don’t come along often. Buy two or more!

10 Reasons You Really Are Good Enough to Write Fiction

Perhaps you have a story inside you, but you feel too scared or intimidated or inadequate to believe you could ever write fiction.  Here are some ways to banish those feelings.

First, there are at least three levels of fiction-writing.  (1) These days you can write and publish something yourself without an editor, at near zero cost.  (2) You can get your writing accepted by a publisher, but not make enough money to live on.  (3) You can write fiction as your sole means of support.  I’ll limit myself to discussing level (2) today.

Never be a writerTrue, some people aren’t cut out to be writers at all.  My purpose today is to keep you from cutting yourself out of the running at the start.  Let’s look at ways you might think you’re not fit to be a writer:

  1. I just know I could never be a writer.  Where is your resistance to writing coming from?  Do you immediately think “I could never do that” when presented with other opportunities in life?  Maybe this isn’t about writing at all, but your general negativity toward trying new activities.  How many amazing human initiatives haven’t happened because somebody said, “I could never do that,” hmm?
  2. I don’t know anything about writing.  Don’t let this stop you.  That’s the part you can get help with, through critique groups, writing courses, books about writing, writing conferences, etc.
  3. I’d never write as well as [insert your favorite famous author’s name here].  Stop comparing yourself to the great authors.  You can’t know today how you’ll stack up against them one day.  So what if you’re not quite as good?  You can still get published and win over some readers.
  4. I’m unknown, and people only read books by known authors.  Think about it; all published authors started off unknown.  What if your favorite author had talked herself or himself out of writing?
  5. No editor will read my stories because I’m unpublished.  Not true.  Consider that latching on to a new, undiscovered top talent is every publisher’s dream.  All they need is one (you?) to make their career.
  6. Novels seem so hard to write.  No need to begin with a novel.  Try a novella, a short story, flash fiction.  Do blog posts for a while.
  7. My teacher told me I’d never be a writer.  Is one long-ago English or Language Arts teacher still in your head criticizing you?  Keep that teacher in your mind, but dedicate yourself to showing how wrong he or she was; sweet revenge will be yours one day.
  8. My story idea seems trite, or already used, etc.  At this point your idea is just a story concept; it might match hundreds of already-published stories.  Once you flesh it out and write it down, it becomes uniquely yours, different from all others, and possibly publishable.
  9. It takes too long to write a story.  True, writing takes time.  But, of all the skills and abilities you’ve developed in life, how many did you master in a day?  Let the strength of your story idea sustain you.  If it’s truly grabbed you, you’ll persevere until you write it all down.
  10. I couldn’t stand being rejected or getting a bad review.  That does stink, no denying it.  Any creative endeavor requires a thick skin.  Look at editor’s rejections as permissions to send your story elsewhere.  As for bad reviews, remember it’s far easier to be the critic.  At the worst, the reviewer may actually have a valid point you can use to improve your writing for the next story.

See?  You are good enough to at least try being a writer.  Shake off those negative emotions.  Let your imagination soar.  Allow yourself to try it out.  Someday, when you’re a famous author, be sure and give partial credit to—

                                                Poseidon’s Scribe

November 17, 2013Permalink

15 Writing Virtues

Many people believe you aren’t just stuck with the way you are now, that you can better yourself by persistent act of will.  I’m one of them, but let me just focus on self-help as it applies to the writing of fiction.

Benjamin_Franklin_1767Benjamin Franklin was an early example of someone who developed a program of self-improvement.  His method was to list thirteen virtues along with a brief description, then he would set about to focus on one virtue per week.  Franklin actually kept a log of this, giving himself a black mark on days he fell short.  Presumably, by focusing on one virtue at a time, it did not mean he was abandoning the others during that week.

Examples of his virtues include:

1. Temperance.  Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.

4. Resolution.  Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.

In the spirit of Benjamin Franklin’s list of virtues, I’ll offer some virtues of writing fiction.  I’ve grouped them into ‘process’ virtues dealing with how you write, and ‘product’ virtues dealing with aspects of the manuscript itself.

The Poseidon’s Scribe 15 Virtues of Fiction Writing

Process Virtues

1.  ProductivityFill hours with writing, not researching or time-wasting activity.

2.  Focus.  Turn off your inner editor during the first draft.

3.  Humility.  Seek other trusted people to critique your work; be receptive.

4.  Excellence.  Only submit work you’re proud of.

5.  DoggednessBe persistent in submitting to markets; be unshaken by rejections.

Product Virtues.

6.  Relevance.  Ensure your work passes the ‘So What?’ test.

7.  AppealHook readers from the first paragraph.

8.  Engagement.  Put your characters in conflict with something or someone; make the story about conflict resolution.

9.  Empathy.  Create vivid, engaging characters.

10.  Action.  Weave logical, interesting plots with appropriate causes and effects.

11.  Placement.  Provide clear but unobtrusive descriptions of the story setting, without overshadowing character or plot.

12.  Meaning.  Ensure your story’s theme explores eternal human truths.

13.  Style. Seek your own voice, then follow it.

14.  Communication.  Ensure your characters’ dialogue is appropriate and advances the plot.  (Mentioned here, here, and here.)

15.  Skill.  Salt your tales with symbolism and appropriate metaphors.

Your list would likely be different.  One way to go about it is to examine critiques of your fiction you receive from members of your critique group, from editors, etc.  Are there repeated criticisms?  Turn them around and express them as a positive affirmation or goal, not as a negative to avoid.  Those goals represent things to work on, and would be on your own list of virtues.

George Carlin fans would likely point out to me that there’s no such thing as self-help.  People who get their list of virtues from their critique group, or from this blog post, aren’t exactly engaged in self-help, since they got help from others.  Moreover, if beginning writers truly helped themselves get better, then they didn’t need help.  Witty gags aside, it can be a comfort to a struggling writer that there exist methods for improvement, but all I offer is a framework for starting; the writer must shoulder the burden of actually doing the work to improve her writing.

I’d love to hear if you’ve found my list useful, or if you’ve developed your own list, or even if you’ve embarked on a completely different method of improving your writing.  Let me know in your comments to this blog entry.  For now, back to improving his writing goes—

                                                            Poseidon’s Scribe

Suffering the Slings and Arrows

Think you can take criticism well?  How about when people you trust denigrate something you worked very hard on, and are proud of?  Aye, there’s the rub, don’t you think?

Taking CriticismI’ve often discussed critique groups and how much I value them (here, here, and here), but today I thought I’d help you prepare for receiving criticism at your critique group meeting.  Believe me, the first few meetings will be tough when they’re poking holes in your story.  At such times, it’s difficult to remember that group members are (1) being honest, (2) criticizing your work, not you, (3) on your side and want you to succeed, and (4) telling you what readers and editors would think.

Are you supposed to just sit there and take it?  In a word, yes.  The very best thing you can do is be silent and listen.  I don’t mean pretend to listen while thinking of what you’ll say next.  I mean really listen.  Get outside yourself, beyond your ego, and see your work through the critique group members’ eyes.  Suspend your doubts about their intelligence and assume, at least for the moment, that they might just be right.

You’ll feel a powerful temptation to explain why you wrote something the way you did, to help these deluded group members comprehend the brilliance of your prose which they somehow missed.  You’ll even want to defend your story against these attacks, and possibly argue with these formerly intelligent friends who’ve suddenly caught an ignorance virus.

After all, who are they to tell you your story’s hook is boring; your protagonist lacks depth; your plot doesn’t make sense; your setting is like a room with plain, white walls; and the story’s central conflict could have been resolved by a first grader in seconds?  Worse, the passages they’ve recommended cutting are your favorite parts.

No, it won’t be easy to sit there and take it.  But the old adage ‘you can’t learn with your mouth open’ is true.  So you need to develop a thick skin, grow up to adulthood, and listen.  And when you’ve suffered their slings and arrows (without taking arms against that sea of troubles), then what?  Then, my friend, you will thank these critique group members.  Yes, you will express sincere gratitude for the help they’ve provided.

At what point, exactly, did they provide help, you ask?  How can I call it help when your manuscript lies twitching and bleeding on the floor, unloved by all but you?  Here are just some of the ways your group members assisted you:

Free of charge, they’ve given you—

  • a fresh perspective from which to see your work, without the rose-glasses filter of your biases;
  • information you can use to decide whether to change your manuscript, since changes are still your decision, but now these decisions will be based on facts, not guesses, about how readers will likely react;
  • an improved ability to endure criticism.  More negative criticism will come later, from editors and from readers.  But those later critiques won’t upset you, thanks to the way your critique group prepared you.

Here’s an excellent blog entry by Joanna Penn on the subject of taking criticism, and she offers even more thoughts.

So, has this blog entry made you a bit “nobler in the mind?” As always, please leave me a comment with your thoughts.  My next critique group meeting is coming up soon.  My fellow group members will know then whether “practice what you preach” is advice well followed by—

                                                    Poseidon’s Scribe

 

 

 

Giving and Receiving…Critiques

‘Tis the season for giving and receiving, so I thought I’d discuss critiques of fiction manuscripts.  Last time I did so, I said I’d let you know how to give and receive critiques.  My critique group meeting 2experience is based solely on twenty years of being in small, amateur, face-to-face critique groups; not writing workshops, classes, or online critique groups; so the following advice is tuned to that sort of critique.

First of all, to give the critique, keep the following points in mind:

  • Read the submitted manuscript straight through once, and just note where you were “thrown out of the story” for some reason.  Jot down why and come back to those points later.
  • Re-read the manuscript again. You could mark some of the grammar or spelling problems, but don’t concentrate on those.  The author wants you to find the bigger stuff.
  • Where there are stand-out positives (“Eyeball kicks” in TCL parlance) note those and praise the author.  The word critique should not have solely negative connotations.  A positive comment from you could keep the author from later deleting a really good description, metaphor, or turn of phrase.
  • Be clear and specific in the comments you write; avoid ambiguity.
  • Look for the following story elements and comment if they’re not present or they’re weak:

1.  Strong opening or hook

2.  Compelling, multi-dimensional, non-stereotypical protagonist with human flaws

3.  A problem or conflict for the protagonist to resolve

4.  Worthy secondary characters, different from the protagonist, who do not steal the show

5.  Vivid settings, not overly described

6.  Consistent and appropriate point of view

7.  Appropriate dialogue that moves the plot and breaks up narration

8.  Narration that shows and doesn’t tell.

9.  A plot that builds in a logical way, events stemming from actions that stem from understandable motivations

10.  A story structure complete with Aristotle’s Prostasis, Epitasis, and Catastrophe (beginning, middle, and end)

11.  Appeals to all five senses

12.  Active sentence structure, using passive only when appropriate

13.  Appropriate symbolism, metaphors, similes

14.  A building of tension as the protagonist’s situation worsens, followed by brief relaxing of tension before building again

15.  An appropriate resolution of the conflict, without deus ex machina, resulting from the striving of the protagonist, and indicative of a change in the protagonist

  • If your group shares comments verbally, do so in a helpful, humble way.

You think all that sounds pretty difficult?  Ha!  It’s much harder to receive a critique.  When doing so, here are the considerations:

  • Submit your work early enough to allow sufficient time for thorough critiques.  Be considerate of your group members’ time.
  • While being critiqued, sit there and take it.  No comments.  No defensiveness.  Just listen to the honest comments of a person who not only represents many potential readers, but who wants you to get published.

So, when it comes to critiques, is it better to give than to receive?  In contrast to most gifts, it’s harder to receive them, but it’s still a toss-up which is better overall.  But perhaps both are just a bit easier for you to deal with now, thanks to this post by—

                                                      Poseidon’s Scribe

December 30, 2012Permalink

Turkey City Lexicon

In any specific human endeavor involving more than one person, the people involved soon find themselves repeating the same phrases over and over.  It’s inevitable they should seek some shorthand way to avoid that.  So they develop jargon, specialized terminology suited to their activity.

Turkey City LexiconSome time ago, in science fiction writing workshops, the participants worked out a vocabulary of writing terms called the Turkey City Lexicon (TCL).  There is no authoritative source for the TCL, nor is it copyrighted.  It’s available on many websites; just search for “turkey city lexicon.”

I won’t reiterate the list here.  My purpose is just to introduce it to you and comment on its usefulness to me.  I encourage you to search for and read through the list, then come back to finish reading my blog entry.  Several of the items are humorous to read through.

A few TCL terms are more applicable to science fiction (The Jar of Tang, Abbess Phone Home, Reinventing the Wheel, and Space Western), but the vast majority of the terms are applicable across all fiction genres.  TCL might be useful to you even if you don’t write SF.

A number of the terms are disconcerting for me to read through since I’ve committed these errors before.  These include Burly Detective Syndrome, You Can’t Fire Me–I Quit, Fuzz, and Bogus Alternatives.

But that gets right to the value of this list.  Most of the terms describe deficiencies common to beginning level writing.  Worse, they describe failings even experienced writers can succumb to, like a bad habit.  Even just reading through the list periodically can refresh your resolve to avoid the bad habits.

I’ve found it vital to subject my writing to the crucible of my critique group just so they can identify faults I don’t see.  Once you’ve been accused of any of the items in the TCL, chances are you’ll hear that accusatory voice again in your head while editing all subsequent stories.  Thus will your writing improve.

My critique group has found three TCL terms to be the most useful—Infodump, As You Know Bob, and Telling Not Showing.  I’m not sure why those three dominate, but they do, at least for us.

Do any of the TCL items ring embarrassingly true for you as you think over your own writing?  Are there other fiction writing failings that should be recognized by the TCL but aren’t yet?  If so, leave a comment for me and let me know.  On a mission to improve own writing and that of others, I’m—

                                                   Poseidon’s Scribe

 

December 23, 2012Permalink