Tag Archives: Mark Twain

Quote for the Day

“The secret of getting ahead is getting started.”

— Mark Twain


How simple is that? How wise? Because he was absolutely right. Too often, people allow themselves to be intimidated when it comes to writing, or even starting a manuscript of any length.

I see twenty-year-old students afraid to write because they might do it wrong.

I meet seventy-year-olds afraid to write because they think it’s too late.

I chat with thirty-year-old moms afraid to write because it’s been so long since they took a writing course and now that their children are starting school and they finally have some spare time, they believe they are too rusty to try it.

I deal with fifty-year-old divorcees afraid to write because although they’ve always wanted to they no longer believe in themselves or in reaching for their dreams.

And I coach myself every time I’m about to start a new project, talking myself past being afraid to write it because I know I can do it if I’ll only try.

Early in my career as a novelist, I wrote books that I’m proud of and books that are quick, disposable reads that paid the bills. Either way, I wrote a lot of them and they were published. When I look back over my publication record, I am sometimes astonished at what I accomplished. But when I was a starry-eyed kid of nineteen and twenty and twenty-one, getting my first agent and my first publishing contract, I didn’t know I couldn’t do it.

And that’s the spirit we have to carry within us every day. We can’t know–or think about–what we cannot do.

We just have to set our sights on our objective . . . and start.


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The Censorship of Sensitivity

After a summer spent working on a new book on plotting, I am ready to begin a fiction project. I have been weighing the merits of writing a western versus a science fiction story. Not so much one instead of the other, but more of which one to begin first.

The western idea presently is developed more than the SF, largely because I plotted it at the beginning of my summer break, and it’s more ready to go. However, I set it aside in May to do the nonfiction manuscript. Now, especially in light of recent controversies and riots, I find myself pausing. Is my proposed manuscript insensitive to anyone? Is my story premise going to offend anyone? I don’t want to denigrate a person, a gender, or an ethnicity. I want people to enjoy my stories, not be hurt by them.

So I’ve begun to second-guess my idea. And now I’m second-guessing my second-guessing. My artistic temperament has flared up. I feel constricted and rebellious. Instead of concentrating on my characters and story events, here I am wondering if I’m going to hurt some random reader’s feelings by something a character does or says.

After all, a western has a historical setting. Behavior toward minorities was anything but sensitive in the 1870s.  Consequently, now there yawns before me the chasm of indecision. Do I stick with historical accuracy? Or do I sanitize history lest the wrath of someone come down on my head?

In a day and age so crazy-sensitive that some people think it’s wrong for a Caucasian to cook a burrito, here I am, in effect, censoring myself. I can ditch my western and just write the SF story instead, but does that make me a coward? I can toss my plot and start over, but does that do justice to a solid premise? I can jettison accuracy or omit an ethnicity altogether, but does that respect the setting?

And so I find myself tied in a Gordian knot of indecision and dithering.

When I was in high school, my Civics class taught us that our individual freedoms ended where another’s began. In other words, I have the right to say what I please, unless my words hurt another individual deliberately. I have the right to walk where I wish, unless I trespass on another person’s property. An individual has the right to criticize town property, but not destroy what taxpayers have paid for. A person has the right to conduct a civic protest, but not smash windows.

There is a quote in my campus office that says, “Closing books shuts out ideas.” It was issued in support of banned books and celebrating the freedom to read.

But if writers are shut down at the source, unsure or too timid to write what grips their imaginations, will there even be books to ban?

My mind goes to HUCKLEBERRY FINN by Mark Twain. This book has stirred controversy through much of the twentieth century. Yet was Twain trying to be insensitive? I don’t think so. His focus was elsewhere. His words, dialects, dialogue, and comments reflected the times in which he wrote. They were accurate to the era. They mirrored the general attitudes of the culture and place Twain knew. Does that hurt some readers today? Yes it does. Should the book be banned? Should we say, “Twain never should have written this racist book” and hate him because he did? No we shouldn’t. We don’t have to force anyone to read it, but neither do we have to avoid facing the hurt it has engendered or avoid discussing that openly.

When did the public become so weak that it cannot bear to face the mistakes and wrongness of the past? When did the public become so fearful that it cannot accept any opinion but its own? When did the public become so spineless that it allows suppression of expression and wants only carefully edited history lest anyone be embarrassed or offended?

If I decided that I wanted to write about the Mississippi River delta in the nineteenth-century, what would I mention? What would I leave out? Must I tiptoe past so-called trigger words or omit them altogether?

Writers of modern children’s fiction are facing such issues daily. They want to include diverse characters, yet they must avoid descriptive racial tags. Are there ways to do this? Somewhat, of course, but it’s challenging to say the least.

Writers of women’s fiction might long to address the topic of weight and body image, yet will they inadvertently generate fat shame if they do so? It’s a statistical fact that Americans are becoming increasingly overweight–to the endangerment of their health–yet no one is allowed today to criticize another individual regarding obesity. While fat shame can spawn extreme reactions such as anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders, is it such a terrible thing if it keeps a mother from allowing her child to overeat and emulate Honey Boo-Boo?

How suppressed should writers be in the cause of sensitivity? I remember a time when people said what they thought and everyone rolled with the punch. Should writers be more sensitive, or should readers be less?

I know; I know–it’s all about balance. Which seems to be in short supply these days.

Meanwhile, I have a western to sanitize.


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SPARKLE: Punch Up Those Sentences

Remember the comedy film, THROW MAMA FROM THE TRAIN? Billy Crystal played a man with writer’s block. Over and over, he struggled with the opening line of his manuscript: The night was … He couldn’t think of the perfect adjective to complete his sentence, and he remained compulsively stuck there.

Funny? You bet!

Good writing? Absolutely not.

We’ve all been taught somewhere along the way to avoid as many passive sentences as possible in our copy. Passive means using the weak “to be” verb and its variations. Yet we all reach for it anyway because it’s easy.

(Whoops! I just used it.)

I admit to using “was” too often when I write, just as I eat too much chocolate and indulge in Lay’s potato chips (real, not the wussy baked) from time to time.

But just like eating junk food, the overindulgence of passive sentences leads to flab. Even worse, the weak “was” construction cries out for the usage of adjectives and adverbs. They weaken sentences, too. Just ask Mark Twain, who claimed that whenever he found an adjective, he killed it.

The night was soft. The air was fragrant. The dog was big and red. It was sniffing at the base of the pretty flowers. Jack thought maybe the dog was after something that shouldn’t be buried there. He decided he would walk gently and quietly over to it. He didn’t want to frighten the dog or call attention to the spot.


This paragraph is like an overripe apple which looks okay until you bite it and discover the rot beneath that pretty, red-blushed skin.

Let’s smash the “to be” verbs from Jack’s paragraph.

The night … soft. The air … fragrant. The dog … big and red. It … sniffing at the base of the pretty flowers. Jack thought maybe the dog … after something that … buried there. He decided he … walk gently and quietly over to it. He … not want to frighten the dog or call attention to the spot.

Now the paragraph looks dumb despite its promising situation. (Ever since Alfred Hitchcock released the film REAR WINDOW, the prospect of something buried in a flowerbed makes us blissfully uneasy.)

What we need is some oomph. This poor paragraph is too plain. Why not amp up the qualifiers?

The night air felt balmy, sultry. The air smelled lush and moist with the heady fragrance of jasmine vine mingled with gardenias. A vast, hairy dog–burnished like mahogany wood veneer–kept sniffing at the base of exotic, tropical flowers. Jack surmised the dog was investigating something buried there. He paused, debating whether to investigate, too. Then he sauntered toward the animal, not wanting to frighten it away.

Imagine a student handing me this paragraph. Imagine me slapping my forehead. Better yet, let’s imagine me giving this muck-maker a head slap instead.

Overdoing the qualifiers doesn’t create sparkling prose.

“But of course it does!” Bewildered Bart cries. “I’ve made it vivid. I’ve given it life! And I only used ‘was’ once.”

Ever hear of the phrase “purple prose?” It means overdone, and if you want examples of it, read a few passages penned by the Victorian novelist Bulwer-Lytton, a hot-selling writer of the 19th century.

Nope. Let’s back away from Bewildered Bart’s draft and try again. This time, we’ll remove the adverbs and adjectives, no matter how vivid and lively Bewildered Bart has made them.

The night … The air … The dog … It … sniffing at the base of … flowers. Jack thought maybe the dog … after something that … buried there. He decided he … walk … over to it. He … not want to frighten the dog or call attention to the spot.

This is looking as hopeless as patching a punky wood windowsill with a bottle of carpenter’s glue. Not much remains.

Solution? We gotta rewrite the sentences.

Soft air brushed Jack’s cheek as he peered through the shadows. He saw a dog–maybe an Irish setter–sniffing along the flowerbed at the Wilkins house. The animal’s intensity spiked Jack’s curiosity. He turned in that direction, his movement unhurried to avoid frightening the dog or calling attention to himself.

See the difference? Cutting the qualifiers forces us to select active verbs. Nouns become more specific. Specificity creates plausibility. This paragraph doesn’t serve up prize-winning prose, but at least we can focus better on the actual story event. If a reader decides her curiosity equals Jack’s, she’ll turn the page. If she tosses the story aside, it’s because of the premise and not flabby writing.

“But you left out the gardenias!” Bewildered Bart might say. “You cut the jasmine vine, and I wanted that imagery there. Imagine the moonlight shining on those white blooms, like tiny stars in the night.”

If we write about body parts buried in the flowerbed, we don’t need romantic imagery. Match your sentence tone to the subject matter. Edgar Allen Poe sure did, and he’s still in print. Just sayin’.

To reiterate, vary sentences in type and length, use strong voice, rely on specific nouns and precise verbs, avoid qualifiers, and match your topic’s tone. Imagery then becomes vivid, not because we’ve plied an excess of details the way a toddler paints herself with mommy’s lipstick, but because our sentences are clear and easy to read.

George Orwell said that good writing should be “like a pane of glass.” The sentences should fade from a reader’s consciousness, so that only the story is seen.

That, folks, is sparkle.


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