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Writing Advice from Kurt Vonnegut and 3 Other Writers

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In the 1980s, a group of great thinkers, authors and communicators penned a series of How To's for honing one's writing skills. The source of these amazing troves of advice was an ad campaign put out by a paper company.

“Today the printed word is more vital than ever," read a box at the bottom of each full-spread advertorial. "Now there is more need than ever for all of us to read better, write better and communicate better. International Paper offers this new series in the hope that, even in a small way, we can help." And sure, International Paper probably also offered that new series in the hopes that, even in a small way, it set them apart from their competitors and inspired you to purchase their paper. But that doesn't diminish the value and insight contained in the following. In fact, these days, you can buy a compilation of all the ads in paperback form.

1. Kurt Vonnegut on how to write with style


via The Paris Review Tumblr. Click to enlarge.

Tips include "find a subject you care about" and "have the guts to cut."

2. George Plimpton on how to make a speech


via PaperSpecs [PDF]. Click to enlarge.

He gives advice for how to plan what you say and how to sound spontaneous.

3. John Irving on how to spell


via PaperSpecs [PDF]. Click to enlarge.

"You must remember that it is permissible for spelling to drive you crazy," the author of The World According to Garp wrote. "Spelling had this effect on Andrew Jackson ... when you have trouble, think of poor Andrew Jackson and know you're not alone."

4. President and Editor-in-Chief of Forbes magazine Malcolm Forbes on how to write a business letter



via PaperSpecs [PDF]. Click to enlarge.

Address the person you're writing to by name. Spell it right. Don't put on airs or exaggerate! And other tips from the editor-in-chief of Forbes magazine.

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literature
10 Facts About The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On its surface, Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a straightforward story about a boy and a runaway slave floating down the Mississippi River. But underneath, the book—which was published in the U.S. on February 18, 1885—is a subversive confrontation of slavery and racism. It remains one of the most loved, and most banned, books in American history. 

1. HUCKLEBERRY FINN FIRST APPEARS IN TOM SAWYER.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a sequel to Tom Sawyer, Twain’s novel about his childhood in Hannibal, Missouri. Huck is the “juvenile pariah of the village” and “son of the town drunkard,” Pap Finn. He wears cast-off adult clothes and sleeps in doorways and empty barrels. Despite this, the other children “wished they dared to be like him.” Huck also appears in Tom Sawyer, Detective, and Tom Sawyer Abroad, as well as the unfinished Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians.  

2. HUCKLEBERRY FINN MAY BE BASED ON MARK TWAIN'S CHILDHOOD FRIEND.

Twain said Huck is based on Tom Blankenship, a childhood playmate whose father, Woodson Blankenship, was a poor drunkard and the likely model for Pap Finn. “In Huckleberry Finn I have drawn Tom Blankenship exactly as he was,” he wrote in Autobiography. “He was ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed; but he had as good a heart as ever any boy had." 

However, Twain may be exaggerating here. In 1885, when the Minneapolis Tribune asked who Huck was based on, Twain admitted it was no single person: “I could not point you out the youngster all in a lump; but still his story is what I call a true story.”

3. IT TOOK TWAIN SEVEN YEARS TO WRITE THE NOVEL.


University of Virginia

Huckleberry Finn was written in two short bursts. The first was in 1876, when Twain wrote 400 pages that he told his friend he liked “only tolerably well, as far as I have got, and may possibly pigeonhole or burn” the manuscript. He stopped working on it for several years to write The Prince and the Pauper and Life on the Mississippi.

In 1882, Twain took a steamboat ride on the Mississippi from New Orleans to Minnesota, with a stop in Hannibal. It must have inspired him, because he dove into finishing Huckleberry Finn. In August 1883, he wrote: “I have written eight or nine hundred manuscript pages in such a brief space of time that I mustn’t name the number of days; I shouldn’t believe it myself, and of course couldn’t expect you to.” The book was published in 1884. 

4. LIKE HUCK, TWAIN CHANGED HIS VIEW OF SLAVERY.

Huck, who grows up in South before the Civil War, not only accepts slavery, but believes that helping Jim run away is a sin. The moral climax of the novel is when Huck debates whether to send Jim’s owner a letter detailing Jim’s whereabouts. Finally, Huck says, "All right, then, I'll go to hell,” and tears the letter up. 

As a child, Twain didn’t question the institution of slavery. Not only was Missouri a slave state, his uncle owned 20 slaves. In Autobiography, Twain wrote, “I vividly remember seeing a dozen black men and women chained to one another, once, and lying in a group on the pavement, awaiting shipment to the Southern slave market. Those were the saddest faces I have ever seen.”

At some point, Twain’s attitudes changed and he married into an abolitionist family. His father-in-law, Jervis Langdon, was a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad and housed Frederick Douglass.

5. EMMELINE GRANGERFORD IS A PARODY OF A VICTORIAN POETASTER.

Huckleberry Finn parodies adventure novels, politics, religion, the Hatfields and the McCoys, and even Hamlet’s soliloquy. But most memorable may be Emmeline Grangerford, the 15-year-old poet. Emmeline is a parody of Julia A. Moore, the “Sweet Singer of Michigan,” who wrote bad poetry about death. So does Emmeline, according to Huck: “Every time a man died, or a woman died, or a child died, she would be on hand with her "tribute" before he was cold. She called them tributes.” Along with bad poetry, Emmeline paints “crayons” of dramatic subjects, such as a girl “crying into a handkerchief” over a dead bird with the caption, "I Shall Never Hear Thy Sweet Chirrup More Alas."

6. A PENIS DRAWING ALMOST RUINED THE BOOK.


University of Virginia

Twain, who ran his own printing press, hired 23-year-old E. W. Kemble to illustrate the first edition of Huckleberry Finn. Right as the book went to press, someone—it was never discovered who—added a penis to the illustration of Uncle Silas. The engraving shows Uncle Silas talking to Huck and Aunt Sally while a crude penis bulges from his pants. 

According to Twain’s business manager Charles Webster, 250 books were sent out before the mistake was caught. They were recalled and publication was postponed for a reprint. If the full run had been sent out, Webster said, Twain’s “credit for decency and morality would have been destroyed.” You can view Kemble’s original illustrations here.

7. MANY CONSIDER HUCKLEBERRY FINN THE FIRST AMERICAN NOVEL.

“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” Ernest Hemingway wrote in Green Hills Of Africa. “There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since." 

While this statement ignores great works like Moby-Dick and The Scarlet Letter, Huckleberry Finn was notable because it was the first novel to be written in the American vernacular. Huck speaks in dialect, using phrases like “it ain’t no matter” or "it warn’t no time to be sentimentering.” Since most writers of the time were still imitating European literature, writing the way Americans actually talked seemed revolutionary. It was language that was clear, crisp, and vivid, and it changed how Americans wrote. 

8. THE END OF THE BOOK IS OFTEN CONSIDERED A COP-OUT.


University of Virginia

A major criticism of Huckleberry Finn is that the book begins to fail when Tom Sawyer enters the novel. Up until that point, Huck and Jim have developed a friendship bound by their mutual plight as runaways. We believe Huck cares about Jim and has learned to see his humanity. But when Tom Sawyer comes into the novel, Huck changes. He becomes passive and doesn’t even seem to care when Jim is captured.

To make matters worse, it turns out that Jim’s owner has already set him free, and that Huck’s abusive dad is dead. Essentially, Huck and Jim have been running away from nothing. Many, including American novelist Jane Smiley, believe that by slapping on a happy ending, Twain was ignoring the complex questions his book raises.

9. THE BOOK IS FREQUENTLY BANNED.


University of Virginia

Huckleberry Finn was first banned in Concord, Massachussets in 1885 (“trash and suitable only for the slums”) and continues to be one of the most-challenged books.

The objections are usually over n-word, which occurs over 200 times in the book. Others say that the portrayal of African Americans is stereotypical, racially insensitive, or racist.

In 2011, Stephen Railton, a professor at University of Virginia, published a version of the book that replaced that offensive word with “slave.” Soon after appeared The Hipster Huckleberry Finn, where the word was replaced with “hipster.” The book's description says, “the adventures of Huckleberry Finn are now neither offensive nor uncool.”

10. TWAIN HAD SOME THOUGHTS ABOUT THE BOOK'S CENSORSHIP.

In 1905, the Brooklyn Public Library removed Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer from the shelves because, as librarian wrote Twain, Huck is “a deceitful boy who said 'sweat' when he should have said 'perspiration.'" Here’s Twain’s reply: 

DEAR SIR:

I am greatly troubled by what you say. I wrote Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn for adults exclusively, and it always distresses me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean; I know this by my own experience, and to this day I cherish an unappeasable bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old. None can do that and ever draw a clean sweet breath again this side of the grave. Ask that young lady—she will tell you so.

Most honestly do I wish I could say a softening word or two in defence of Huck's character, since you wish it, but really in my opinion it is no better than those of Solomon, David, Satan, and the rest of the sacred brotherhood. 

If there is an unexpurgated Bible in the Children's Department, won't you please help that young woman remove Huck and Tom from that questionable companionship?

Sincerely yours,

S. L. Clemens

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Big Questions
What Is the Difference Between a Novella and a Short Story?
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We typically put fiction into one of two categories: It's either a short story, or it's a novel. But there is another variation that lands somewhere in between the two. Yes, the novella. What exactly separates a short story from a novella from a novel, you ask?

As with most art forms, the label is somewhat malleable. When it comes down to it, though, it's all about word count. Atonement author Ian McEwan, discussing his love of the form in The New Yorker in 2012, defined the novella as being between roughly 20,000 and 40,000 words. Writer's Digest says it can run up to 50,000 words. Around 30,000 is more typical.

Anything more than that 50,000 words is probably a full novel. Short stories, which are designed to be read in one sitting, are usually only a few thousand words long and written for publication in a magazine or as part of a collection. The highest word count many literary magazines will publish is around 10,000, but most stories are even shorter, under 7500 words or so.

This leaves the novella in a weird in-between space where it's too long to publish in a magazine or literary journal and too short to publish as a book. (Yes, there's another in-between category for those stories between 10,000 and 20,000 words: the "novelette.") For publishers, putting out a novella isn't a very attractive option. Novellas look pretty small once they're bound, and customers aren't always keen on spending hardcover prices for teeny-tiny volumes.

Some of the difference between the forms is just marketing, though. Novellas have been around since the Middle Ages, and some standard English class assignments are on the list. Even if you don't know it, you've surely read one, probably thinking that it was just an extra-long short story or a rather short book. Perhaps it was Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, or Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, or Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis. Maybe it was Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome or H.G. Wells's The Time Machine. All can be classified as novellas.

Despite the fact that these novellas turned into classics, you probably don't see a lot of contemporary examples at your local bookstore. Even the most popular writers have trouble finding a publisher willing to take on their in-between length stories. Stephen King, or example, struggled to get them out into the world until he finally published Different Seasons, a collection of four of his novellas, in 1982. And that had nothing to do with the quality of those stories; one was later adapted for the screen as The Shawshank Redemption.

In the afterword to the book, he wrote of the trouble he faced getting the novellas published because they were "too long to be short and too short to be really long." When he pitched his editor on a book of novellas, King recalled, the editor was polite, but "his voice says some of the joy may have just gone out of his day." In the end, he got the book published, but even for a hugely popular author, it was an uphill battle. Even for the biggest names in publishing, it seems, the novella is a no-go.

But that doesn't mean you shouldn't seek them out; according to McEwan, they're the "perfect form of prose fiction." Even if they go on a little longer than 10,000 words.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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