Book Editing: Killing Characters With Mark Twain’s Deadly Well

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Mark Twain (pen name of Samuel Clemens)

Mark Twain (pen name of Samuel Clemens)

“Kill your babies” is sage advice followed by any writer who needs to edit and polish their manuscript. It refers not only to ruthlessly cutting excess verbiage, but also to pruning subplots and even characters as needed to strengthen the story.

Mark Twain exercised this practice quite literally. One of his classics, Pudd’nhead Wilson, started life as a short story called Those Extraordinary Twins, inspired by a famous pair of conjoined twins. As he wrote, it grew in the telling and soon turned into a tangled book-length tale instead. Secondary characters like Wilson became dominant, and the story about the twins was stalled. To fix this, he  drowned characters in a well to get them off the stage, and ended by teasing apart two separate stories that had muddled into one.

I’ve been thinking lately about revising a particular book draft, and realized I will probably have to kill far more of my babies in the process than I had at first anticipated. Mark Twain’s account of his experience in this regard is entertaining and instructional, and so warrants a little closer examination.

The Tocci Brothers

The conjoined twins who inspired Twain’s original story are an interesting historical byway in their own right and well worth a novelist’s attention. The author was not alone in his fascination with them. Giacomo and Giovanni Tocci captivated the attention of the masses in Europe and

The Masters Tocci by James G. Mundie.

The Masters Tocci by James G. Mundie

America in the last two decades of the 19th century. The Italian brothers were joined at the sixth rib, being two separate individuals from that point up, but sharing one torso, one set of genitalia, and one pair of legs. They could balance in place with the aid of a wheeled device, but muscular atrophy and a clubfoot prevented normal walking. One brother loved to drink beer and the other preferred only mineral water; they were were artistically talented and spoke several foreign languages. They were the subjects of intense interest and repeated medical examinations throughout their touring and performing lives; at the height of their popularity they were making as much as $1000 a week (~$25,000 in today’s money). They retired in 1897 at age 20 and bought a walled villa in Venice that afforded great privacy. They made headlines again when they married two separate sisters; the Italian press, knowing of their shared genitalia, were scandalized and considered the women ‘vulgar’. It is no surprise that the Toccis lived in seclusion for the rest of their lives, until they passed away at age 63.1

The Deadly Well

Twain’s original story in Those Extraordinary Twins featured conjoined twins very similar to the Toccis, presenting them with farcical challenges and a problematic love affair. But minor characters soon took over the main storyline and pushed the twins offstage. He wrestled with the draft novel until he realized that, like the twins, he had two stories that had grown intertwined, one serious and one a farce. Editing required radical surgery to separate one from the other, prompting him to drown characters in a well to clear the stage of extraneous actors.

His description of this is classic Mark Twain, both a cautionary note and a hilarious commentary on the writer’s process, and so I quote at length here:

When the book was finished and I came to look around to see what had become of the team I had originally started out with…I found them stranded, idle, forgotten, and permanently useless. It was awkward all around; but more particularly in the case of Rowena, because there was a love-match on…I didn’t know what to do with her…I finally saw plainly that there was really no way but one–I must simply give her the grand bounce. It grieved me to do it…

Still it had to be done. So, at the top of Chapter XVII, I put in a “Calendar” remark concerning July Fourth, and began the chapter with this statistic:

“Rowena went out in the back yard after supper to see the fireworks and fell down the well and got drowned.”

It seemed abrupt, but I thought maybe the reader wouldn’t notice it, because I changed the subject right away to something else. Anyway it loosened up Rowena from where she was stuck and got her out of the way, and that was the main thing. It seemed a prompt good way of weeding out people that had got stalled, and a plenty good enough way for those others; so I hunted up the two boys and said “they went out back one night to stone the cat and fell down the well and got drowned.” Next I searched around and found old Aunt Patsy Cooper and Aunt Betsy Hale where they were aground, and said “they went out back one night to visit the sick and fell down the well and got drowned.” I was going to drown some of the others, but I gave up the idea, partly because I believed that if I kept that up it would arouse attention, and perhaps sympathy with those people, and partly because it was not a large well and would not hold any more anyway.

Whether this manner of “killing his babies” was something he literally did in a draft of the book or was simply a Twainish metaphor remains unclear, but the end result was the same: when he had cleared out the unnecessary characters and separated farce from drama, he was left with the soon-to-be-classic Pudd’nhead Wilson. Later he finished Those Extraordinary Twins as a lighter story that concentrated on the twins as initially envisioned. Both tales benefited from the necessary triage he’d done.

Mark Twain’s account of his drowning spree is given in the introduction to Those Extraordinary Twins. I admit I found this manner of jettisoning unwanted characters to be highly amusing – but the greater trick that he accomplished was to see the difference between the light story and the serious one, and to disentangle the threads (including characters) of stories that were more appropriately separate tales. Truth be told, I am also a little gratified that a storytelling master like Sam Clemens could finish a novel and still be unhappy with it and yet struggle to put his finger on exactly what was wrong with the plot. If Clemens writing as Mark Twain had this much difficulty revising a completed novel, then us lesser mortals need not be pulling our hair out when we grapple with similar issues.

Here’s hoping I can simply drown a few bothersome folk, and that will fix my problems. I have the well ready. Now who to drop in it…?


1 If you are interested in reading more about the Tocci Brothers, they are the subject of many specialized sites around the web. I recommend two that have a respectful and considered treatment not only of these twins but of many other differently abled persons who were public figures in the past. One is The Human Marvels: Presenting Peculiar People, where the proprietor J. Tithonus Pednaud takes a decidedly 19th century stylistic approach to presenting his information that feels quite appropriate to the subject matter. Another is artist James Mundie’s intriguing collected studies of “freaks of nature” called Prodigies.  Inspired by the individuals and their life stories, his site features striking hand-drawn portraiture along with a thoughtful recounting of the pertinent details of their deformities and history. He also includes references to books with more information on the persons covered. The illustration of the Tocci Brothers that appears on this page is reused with kind permission from Mr. Mundie and originally appeared here. I especially recommend his site for an artist’s sensitive take on this unusual subject matter.

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