Editors Will Pay for Articles that Play

Me, in the outfit I wear when I write first paragraphs

This writing life is serious stuff, with its cold deadlines, its fusty grammar rules and its dense packagings of data. But readers in most corners are showing less of an appetite for data density, and more for the conversational, the playful, the light touch that can still deliver information, but deliver it with some sweet sprinkles on top. Editors seem to have more appetite for sprinkles these days.

Obviously, some publications—the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders comes to mind—don’t care much for sprinkles, and rightly so. But if you’re a freelancer like me, who writes for newspapers, magazines and online business publications, it’s heartening to know that editors are more enthusiastic than ever to accept pieces that weave in some humor with their copy threads.

To demonstrate that I’m not making this up, here are a few opening paragraphs from three pieces of mine for which some bewitched editor paid actual money. All establish a certain tone from the outset, and hopefully would make you want to read further.

5 High-Proof Truths That Whiskey Is the Key to a Better Life
There’s advice everywhere on how to be a better person. Meditate, be nice to children, pat puppies on the head, eat arugula. But those things are so superficial, and some are plain tedious. We have more practical advice: drink Whiskey.

Drinking Whiskey will make you a better person. And it’s much more fun than arugula. Here’s why:

That’s the beginning of a blog post for Flaviar, a spirits purveyor that writes about all things booze. Their style is irreverent and somewhat arch, which is fun to do. It gave me the chance to practice that writing trick of jab, jab, punch, with the setup lines and then the punch delivered in the last line of the first paragraph. This piece will come out on their blog sometime in the next couple of weeks.

Trail Mix: An Oahu Hike — Plus Margaritas
I can forgive you, if you’re on Oahu, all excited about taking a shoreline hike. You toss on the shorts, throw a small snack, some binoculars and sunblock into a backpack and — knowing that there are water bottles in the car — drive all the way up the westside toward Ka’ena Point where the road ends, and get out to begin your hike in the sizzling sun. And then you realize that one water bottle is empty and the other half-filled.
I can forgive you, because my girlfriend and I did just that.

This intro is a slight variant on the first trick, using the sustained second-person direct address to put the reader in the driver’s seat—and then pull the driver’s seat out from under the writer with the last line. This is from a short piece recently published in the San Jose Mercury News.

How to Properly Diagnose a Failed Email Campaign
As Mark Twain said after his latest marketing promotion, “The reports of the death of the email campaign are greatly exaggerated.” As any marketing maven knows, email lives, with a vengeance, and remains one of the biggest hammers in any marketer’s toolbox.

But as you know all too well, bad email promotions are death warmed over: email done wrong does your promos and your products a lethal turn.

This one has to take a more businesslike tack, since it was written for The Content Standard, an all-things-content-marketing publication. But still, anytime you can open a piece with a [fake] Mark Twain quote, you’re in good hands.

All of these writings establish a sportive, impish slant from the first lines, which works in the context of each piece. This isn’t writing for the ages, but it’s fun to do, and if someone will pay me for it, I’ll type it up.

If you can produce this kind of work without it seeming labored or too corny or shallow (and perhaps that’s how these ledes struck you), it could be a good approach to your freelance pieces. As I’ve said before, it’s often useful to pitch an editor with what you foresee as the actual first paragraph or two of a piece, so they can taste what they’d be getting.

Do any of you use this kind of breezy style in your work? (If you do, don’t pitch my editors—they’ll be on to you.)

Writers All Start Out as Drooling Eeegits


The image above is from a four-page brochure, published by the Hawaii Promotion Committee in Honolulu. The Hawaii Promotion Committee was a tourism organization formed in 1902 and replaced by the Hawaii Tourist Bureau in 1919. So, the brochure stands a good chance of being over 100 years old, but Twain’s writing of the glories of Hawaii is much older than that.

Twain spent four months in the islands in 1866 as a correspondent for the Sacramento Union newspaper, not long after his 31st birthday. This brochure excerpts one of Twain’s 25 “Letters from the Sandwich Islands” published in the Union, devoured by California readers hungry to read of such far-off, exotic lands.

My mini-history lesson has a literary point, which I’ll arrive at after a bit more throat-clearing. The letters were collected into a book called Mark Twain’s Letters from Hawaii, and it’s a mongrel dog—not without a dog’s charm—of reading, with occasionally a mongrel scent.

Mark Twain, Hack
I almost feel like a traitor with this one: Twain is my favorite writer (and I think the greatest of American writers), but the jumbled, episodic nature of this work—something I so often love in Twain—didn’t sit that well with me. I had read some of these letters before, but never in a collection, and they way they jumped from wry anecdote to ledger-detail commercial appraisals of Hawaiian business opportunities for the US marred any continuity.

And there’s a bit too much of “the savages are restless” language too. Twain wrote these when he was in his early thirties, still making a name for himself, and his broad views on racial justice—which he expressed eloquently in many other later pieces—aren’t to be found here.

Some of his descriptions of Hawaiian vistas and charms are manna indeed, with inventive prose and perspective. But, being a travel writer myself, and having succumbed to the temptation to write about cloud-capped vistas and purple majesties more than once, I know the road-often-traveled mechanism of it. Sometimes you stitch in a lovely view here with a savory sandwich there and a glance from a fetching lass there and voila: a travel story!

Working Words with Multiple Coats of Polish
It’s not that Twain phoned it in (and not just because phone service was lousy then), but that he wasn’t inspired in the way that later travel works, like Innocents Abroad (published just three years later) demonstrated: a man in full command of his word-roping powers, who could ride backwards on a galloping horse of words, have his hat fall off and snare it with his literary lariat while with his other he lit a weedy cigar.

And now, that promised point: some of the Twain’s writing of this period was mundane, or unexceptional. The boon for writers here is to know that Twain, the pen behind Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, the pilot of Life on the Mississippi, was writing serviceable material, not deathless prose. The key is that Twain kept writing. He kept wrasslin’ words, no matter if they were wiggling in short stories, essays, lectures, speeches, travelogues or novels.

He kept pumping them out. His work got better and better. Even though I’m many burnt biscuits past Twain’s callow 31, and undoubtedly have more forgettable, throwaway lines in my future, I’m heartened to think that there’s fair evidence if you keep at it, keep writing, your writing will get better. (Of course, you might become an evil weasel too, but you’ll have good company among other writers.)

Damn, it’s almost worth it.

PS By the way, Twain was an unheralded surfer. Before many mainlanders had any sense that water-sprite Hawaiians were riding gigantic, impossibly heavy wooden boards on the waves, Twain saw it first-hand, and decided to try it himself. He set down his cigar long enough to paddle out to wait, as he had seen naked locals do, “for a particularly prodigious billow to come along,” upon which billow he prodigiously wiped out. “None but natives ever master the art of surf-bathing thoroughly,” he wrote.

Yeah, but Twain’s punctuation was better. Keep writing, my friends.

Editing Your Work: Very, Very Good Is Very Bad

The first documented Sasquatch capture. Actually, my hair, circa 1975, much in need of editing

The first documented Sasquatch capture. Actually, my hair, circa 1975, much in need of editing

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the very best thing you could do for your writing is to tighten it up, just a little. Still with me? With apologies to Jane Austen, the first sentence here that clogged your pores is a gasbag, a dirigible without a destination. Why? Because it’s filled with unnecessary words and phrases. It’s filled with air, not substance. But this is air that doesn’t breathe life into your reader’s lungs—it suffocates them.

Consider: any sentence that has a qualification, a dodge, is a sentence that whimpers. Words like “very” and “really,” which seem to be intensifiers, are the opposite. They are diminishers. They are the celery left a year in the cellar: no snap. And a clause or phrase like “It’s a fact …” or “just a little” might seem to refine a sentence, give it some razoring of thoughtful gradation, but instead it hobbles it.

Really, Just Very Bad

Remove some of the fluff, and you get a working-class sentence: “The best thing you can do for your writing is tighten it.” But wield the scalpel again, and you get something crisp: “Tighten your writing.” That sentence, which turns a key in a lock, implies that the tightening will improve the understanding, rather than making it bloatedly explicit.

Of course, if you’re an essayist, a fiction writer, a vaunted creative, you might chafe at the constraints. There are times when sentences need luxuriant branching, elliptical orbits to trace their flight across the heavens. But even then, the “verys,” the “justs,” the “reallys,” the “it’s clear that’s”—those blackguards rob your writing of vigor. Vigor = good. Languor = bad.

All Modifiers Are Not Created Evil

Sometimes modifiers can add nuance to a sentence so their absence is loss, not gain. “He took a few, halting steps, expelled a gust of breath and took a voluptuous fall.” If there is intent behind your diction, your use of “voluptuous” (and even “halting” in this instance) could serve a narrative purpose. At least it’s arguable. But the actually here: “Actually, I couldn’t stand him” actually, factually, does nothing. Same with “quite” and “rather”—something that’s “quite exciting” fails to excite.

I am very guilty of veritable volumes of verys in my writing; for me, “just” is also just a spasmodic touch-type away. One of my favorite Mark Twain quotes is, “Substitute damn every time you’re inclined to write very; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” Verily.

Adverbs Under Editing Threat!

There’s been a threadbare-but-broad blanket of denunciation of adverbs and adjectives thrown over prose the last few years, but that’s employing a squinty eye blind to when modifiers can add color and spark to a page. All of those urchin adverbs and adjectives aren’t bad—just the ones that are padding, or those that substitute for strong verbs and nouns. Used with discretion, they are ketchup with fries. (Or sriracha, if you need more kick.)

But when you have expressions like “loud explosion” or “violent vomiting” (or “loud explosion of violent vomiting”), you have redundant words that put a wrapper between you and the reader. Fewer words say more. Or as our lad Twain said (with a wink) in his evisceration of James Fenimore Cooper’s writing: “Eschew surplusage.”

Big Words, Big Deal

One category of surplusage is big words, the pomp-and-circumstance diction that declares that the writer is educated, sophisticated, and a wee bit smarter than the reader. But if you aren’t writing for your reader, you are writing for no one. I am the guiltiest of wordslingers here: I love words, love the chewy ones, love some with peacock flair or sly intimation. Sometimes the right word is the big word, but sometimes when you write fornication, you should write—oh, never mind.

I’ll let some stylists smarter than me put that in perspective:

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

— Strunk and White, The Elements of Style

But gosh, is it tempting to gussy up a sentence or two. I can’t always resist.

Tools for Tightening

There are a couple of interesting online tools that can help with your editing: the Hemingway app highlights overly complex sentences, long words, and those cussed adverbs. The Natural Reader is an editing approach from a different angle—your ears. The software reads your work to you aloud, which lets you hear, sometimes painfully, sentences that plod, or wander, or die a slow death from pulling a bulging cart of wayward words.

A useful exercise is to take a 1,000-word piece of your writing and condense it to 700 words. It’s enlightening (and lightening) to take the frosting off your phrasings and get to the actual cake. And then take that same piece down to 500 words: the cake is still spongy and sweet, but denser, deeper. Chasing the “littles” and the “sometimes” and the “oftens” out of sentences—and putting some caffeine in passive-voice phrasings—removes fat and makes muscle.

But the most powerful tool is focus. Inspect your paragraphs and sentences for diction, flow, grammar and clarity: is the expression of your ideas crisp, cliché-free, clean? Do verbs have verve? Does a subject play hide and seek with its predicate so that even a sugary gingerbread trail of subordinate clauses can’t lead the way home to understanding?

Keep in mind that when you clean up your writing, you’re not scrubbing it of the voice that makes it distinct and delightful. You’re clearing your throat so that voice sings out strong and true.

Mark Twain’s 10-Sentence Course on Branding and Marketing

Tom's Twain Tattoo

Yeah it’s real, and it’s on my bicep. Lucky that cigar isn’t lit.

I’ve discovered the secret of good writing: write about a famous writer, and use his actual words to build all the basic layers—and the frosting—of the essay cake. I don’t even have to attempt to be lamely clever if I can steal the cleverness of others.

There’s a reason why this guy’s face is tattooed on my arm.

Thus, my post at Marketing Profs today: Mark Twain’s 10-Sentence Course on Branding and Marketing.

Mr. Twain Explains Heaven and Earth

Captain Stormfield's Visit

Note: Book Does Not Include a Map

A month ago, I wrote about the death of my neighbor, and how mutton-headed I’d felt about never having even thought about discussing writing with him, a retired professor of American literature. Recently, my gal pal Alice and I were invited by James’ widow, May, to look though his big book collection to see if there was anything we wanted before she donated the books.

There were many works that I would have greedily grabbed in other days, but as it was, I just selected a few Scott Fitzgeralds, an old volume of Proust’s Swann’s Way and the sweet book you see pictured above. I’d read Captain Stormfield long ago, but hadn’t known it was the last story published before Twain’s death in 1910. The long story was serialized in Harper’s Magazine a year or two before its publication by Harper and Brothers in 1909. It’s a nicely bound volume, in great shape, still with the intact tissue paper before the title page. I didn’t realize it was a first edition until Alice pointed out its copyright page.

Cranberry Famers: Heavenly Experts

So, I get my first first edition of Twain from a Chinese professor of literature who taught on Taiwan. Twain himself would have found that amusing. The work is nothing short of amusing, much of it a conversation in heaven between the good captain and a cranberry farmer, who disabuses Stormfield of those quaint notions that heaven was all piety and angelic song. It’s a nice counterpoint to Twain’s Letters From the Earth, which was published posthumously by Twain’s estate, when the world was perhaps more prepared for some its hot-pepper views on religion. Here’s Satan speaking about man from one of the letters, and also on God’s view of man.

Man is a marvelous curiosity. When he is at his very, very best he is a sort of low grade nickel-plated angel; at his worst he is unspeakable, unimaginable; and first and last and all the time he is a sarcasm.
He took a pride in man; man was his finest invention; man was his pet, after the housefly . . . .

It pleases me to think that James left behind that slim volume of Twain’s, and that it’s now moved into my hands, an unexpected neighborly connection where my long-dead favorite author makes the link live. I do hope that whatever version of heaven James moved to doesn’t have a lot of off-key singing.

PS George Jones, RIP

In consideration of people who could probably only get into heaven if they snuck in in the back of a potato truck (and would surely then make vodka out of the potatoes), George Jones died the other day. I’m more inclined to rock and roll for my daily diet of noise (and in country, more toward Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson), but you can hear more angel and devil in George’s songs than pretty much any singer. Jones probably never saw a drink he didn’t like, but he made some music that had a whole lotta soul. Here’s looking at you, George.

Peeling Mark Twain’s Onion: You’ll Never Truly Get Under His Skin

Mr. Twain Sucking the Life Out of a Defenseless Stogie

Mr. Twain Sucking the Life Out of a Defenseless Stogie

One of the intrigues about being an enthusiast about a subject or person is that once you start poking about, there seems to be a bottomless rabbit hole of information. And that hole can be well off the main road of what’s normally shared among the broad population. Now I’m not talking about true obsession, where perhaps you know more about the Morpho butterfly than its mother did, where you skip lunch then dinner sitting on the floor of a bookstore a continent away from your home because you’d heard they had a dusty tome by the premiere 18-century entomologist who also skipped most meals in favor of studying the Morphos. Not that kind of obsession, my pretties.

No, I’m referring to something more than the mere fan, but less than the stalker. As an aside, there are the rare polyglots who are able to tiptoe close to obsession’s stage while still staying out of its brightest footlights, and yet own another stage all their own. For example, going back to our fluttery friends, when Vladimir Nabokov wasn’t writing one of his remarkably layered, seriocomic novels, he spent serious time researching butterflies, publishing many monographs that professional lepidopterists recognized as authoritative. He once commented, “The pleasures and rewards of literary inspiration are nothing beside the rapture of discovering a new organ under the microscope or an undescribed species on a mountainside in Iran or Peru. It is not improbable that had there been no revolution in Russia, I would have devoted myself entirely to lepidopterology and never written any novels at all.”

Looking at Layers Leads to More Layers
This is a hide-and-seek way of getting to my main topic: how people and things are multilayered, and once you start pulling at the onionskin of a topic or character, there’s always another skin underneath. Case in point: one of the books I’m reading is titled, Twain’s Feast: Searching for America’s Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens. Now, were this work “… in the footsteps of Mamie Eisenhower,” I probably—and no insult to Mamie—would have picked it up with mild amusement and then let it flit from memory forever.

But because it’s Mark Twain, and I am more than a simple fan (though not obsessed, no, that’s not the beating of my hideous heart!), I’m reading it with great pleasure, for the author Andrew Beahrs combines his careful and light-hearted research into Twain’s writings on American food with Bearhs’ travels around the country trying to locate and eat that very food, which in the case of the prairie hens of Illinois proves ecologically difficult, and that of stomaching the ideal stewed raccoon a mite unpalatable.

From the Grubby to the Gracious
But it’s the flavor of Twain’s voice that comes through with spice, particularly when he lavishes angel-winged admiration on an American dish and contemptuous skewering on an insipid counterpart found elsewhere. His hilarious railings against spineless European coffee and expoundings on the glories of a stout cup of good American coffee do make one wonder what happened between Twain’s time and our parent’s days with the Folgers. Twain was uniquely suited to comment on the breadth of American food, for he palavered with the powerful in the boardrooms of the Eastern Seaboard, grubbed among the grubs in the grubbiest makeshift mining towns in dead-dry Nevada, and of course moved through the shoals and the high waters of foodstuffs up and down the mighty Mississippi, both in his boyhood and as a steamboat pilot.

I want to return to my original spiraling rabbit hole, for it’s in the reading of the table tastes of a famous person that you consider how layered a life is, how layered all our lives are. Twain could be, in turn, a kitten-loving sentimentalist, a flinger of flaming arrows against the establishment, a provocateur who spoke truth to power, and yet one who cultivated the company of barons of industry. A man of spectacular fame, yet of multiple spectacular failures and deeply public sorrows. His onion had many skins, and reading this off-center book tells me there are skins I’ll never know, on him and so many other subjects.

Yeah, Well, I Invented the Crossbow
Today I heard my girlfriend Alice tell one of my old friends on the phone that she had spent time a long while back to learn how to play the harmonica. Really! Who knew? Good instruction that, a reminder that thinking we know all that a person is about is a kind of blindness, because there are always layers unseen.

One thing though: Twain sang the praises of the 19-century oysters and mussels of the San Francisco Bay. That’s going much too far: I vigorously object. Oysters and mussels, gut-tugging expressions of some bronchial character, a kind of simpering slime. Though on the subject of maple syrup, I share his every sentiment.

How to Put a Time Machine in Your Writing

Time is a peculiar factor in writers’ lives. For all, there is the time when they are not known, tussling with words in obscurity, anxious of an uncertain fate. Then there might be a corona burst of notoriety’s light, where the author—often whose 20 years of work belies the falsehood of being termed an “overnight success”—enters a heady phase of fame. Think J.K. Rowling, Elizabeth Gilbert after Eat, Pray, Love, Brett Easton Ellis (though in a debut) of Less Than Zero. And for some, fame’s flare is not a comet that returns, but a thing that sputters and is still again.

And then there is the unsteady—and often unpredictable—rise and fall of fame’s tide after an author’s death. I suspect that most authors want to leave a legacy, a body of ideas or characters that live on in the public imagination long after the pen or keyboard is stilled. That’s phenomena that goes in pulses: you’ll have some of Faulkner’s works out of print for years, then there might be a Faulkner resurgence, with universities assigning new classes to pick at the authorial bones anew. It’s happened with Hemingway and Fitzgerald. The reason I’m bringing this up is because I’ve started reading Mark Twain’s autobiography, published in 2010, the 100th anniversary of Twain’s death.

Can’t Get It? It Must Be Good!
Twain was no slouch when it came to marketing. He decreed that his autobiography couldn’t be published until 100 years after he lifted off this earthly plane, because he thought that some of the vinegar and piss with which he inked some of his opinions about politics, politicians, public figures and contemporary writers was just too sour. But setting that time restriction on his work created the scarcity factor in the public imagination—wow, this is a time capsule of thunder, surely worth waiting 100 years for! The University of California Press, the publishers of the work, were somewhat taken aback by the immediate sharp sales of the work, scrambling to meet demand. Or maybe Twain also mandated that the publishers pretend there was a shortage of the volume—that’s a tried-and-true technique that his own days as a publisher would have instructed.

The autobiography is a serious work of scholarship, the result of years of research by the Mark Twain Project at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library. The introduction alone is 63 pages, the explanatory notes in the back more than 200, and the body of the book is in small type. The reason it took a team of scholarly horses to draw Twain’s carriage was that the material was like an attic stuffed with oddments, rags, treasures and trifles, and with more works scattered in other literary outbuildings. Twain began his autobiography innumerable times later in life, and as with many of his writings (Huck Finn took more than seven years of on-off writing), dropped the project only to pick it up anew. His first efforts at a more conventional autobiography left him cold. It was only when he came up with the idea of dictating his life story that he moved forward with some vigor. Yet, that capture-the-spoken-word effort too meandered over a course of years, culminating very close to his death.

Fame, Who Needs It? (Did You Quote Me Accurately?)
Meandered spells it well: Twain didn’t settle for a crawling chronology in his dictation, but approached it in the manner of one of his storyteller’s speeches: He chose a subject to speak about, and played it out in his mind and then his mouth, as he lie in bed (where a good deal of the dictation was done). Thus the work is a series of impressions, sketches, anecdotes, and profiles, at kin with the range of his lifetime’s body of works. So the autobiography is a crazy-quilt of stitching and sorting; it would undoubtedly amuse Mr. Clemens to know that it took over 200 pages of annotations to set the story straight (or less crooked, as it were). And this is only volume one! Two more are planned, unless crafty Twain had another trove of scribblings that he deemed so scurrilous that they could only be released 200 years after his death.

A couple of posts back, I wrote about the almost overwrought flailing of despair and delight in the letters between Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg detailing their pre-fame literary efforts and crestfallen declarations over ever being published. I’m deeper in the book now, and it’s just after Ginsberg had his seminal Howl published, and he’s getting the attention that he’d craved. There had been an article in the New York Times that had discussed the poem and the poet, and Ginsberg referenced that article in a letter to Kerouac, saying, “Agh! I’m sick of the whole thing, that’s all I think about, famous authorhood, like a happy empty dream.”

To my mind, a “happy empty dream” seems like an apt description of fame. But maybe I’m tasting grapes gone sour—or something that will taste like wine over time. Oh well, at least I have the Twain tattoo…

One-Year-Old and Still Spitting Up Words

Indelicate as it may sound, what’s the worst thing about changing diapers on a writer’s blog? Obvious: it’s a load of smurshy adverbs and adjectives, plus what looks suspiciously like mashed-up peas. Why would I jar your sensibilities with such imagery? Because this blog is one year old, and it feels like screaming.

Well, perhaps just clearing its throat and smiling giddily for the camera. But instead of recounting my blogging triumphs and tribulations (oh, the hangnails!), and relating my tremulous beginnings, let’s have actual fun instead. Here, then are how three famous writers started their blogs.

Albert Camus
My blog was born today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be bothered. After the first few lines of the post, I felt exceedingly tired, and I put to rest. I answered the postman’s knock, and when he handed me a few fliers, I felt his look contained a judgment. I thought he was accusing me of something, perhaps even something indecent. I blurted out, “Yes, the blog, I’ll finish it. There is time!” But I closed the door on him without needing to see his reaction. Later, I felt poorly for having done it. Ennui.

Ernest Hemingway
He was an old man that blogged alone in a trailer off the California Coast, and he’d gone eighty-four days without a post. The first forty days a ragged old cat sat with him, waiting for the soothing sound of the keyboard. But even a cat loses loyalty after forty days. The old man was thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles on his knuckles from holding them over the keyboard. But still the words wouldn’t come. His mind always wandered to baseball, wondering why those damn Yankees were still in the league. But there was whiskey. The blog could wait.

Mark Twain
You don’t know me without you have read a blog called The Write Word, but that ain’t no matter. That blog is just as filled with lies as the rest of ’em, but it’s tolerable, if you’ve a taste for highfalutin hogwash. I’d just as soon blog about how a twist in a catfish tail tells you if you’re coming down with the gout, and whether spittin’ a glob of tobacco juice or a glob of vinegar is more likely to kill a roach. All that other hokum about blog traffic and targets is just fiddledeedee, and them other bloggers know it. My blog will be about graveyards and dead cats and haints—now that’s traffic! Lean on in now and I’ll tell you a story that will set your hair afire…

OK, they might not have done them exactly that way, but you get the idea. They were like all writers, common horse thieves who steal words and ideas. It’s just how they put them together that made the difference. Thanks for spending some time with me this past year.

I can’t wait for the terrible twos, when I really get to scream.

Mark Twain Needled Me (But We’re Still Friends)

Ignore the lack of muscles—
it's Mark Twain!

I read with interest (as well as gawked at) this Boston Phoenix piece (by way of Shelf Awareness) on a new book, The Word Made Flesh, about literary tattoos and their beaming bearers.

Besides it being provocative that some fangirl is willing to inscribe Kafka’s face and passages from his writings on her arm, I’m personally touched in that I have a lit tattoo myself, seen here in all its just post-poking bloody glory. Mr. Clemens has rested on my arm for a few years now, and he’s doing well, though he would like a fresh cigar.

I haven’t read the book, so I’m unsure of all the motivations behind needling your flesh with icons of the literary pantheon, but for me, it was an easy choice. I think Twain is the greatest American writer, for the astonishing breadth, depth and quality of his work: he wrote novels, short stories, essays, travelogues, speeches, poems and even a miserable play or two. He wrote straight journalism and crooked journalism, parody and commentary. He wrote stinging satire and fiery polemics, but also sentimental sketches.

Twain the Irascible Kitten Lover
He failed at many business enterprises, and always came back from his failures to try again. He was moody, irascible and delightful. And he liked kittens. I wrote about the power of his greatest work, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in an short essay that won a small writing contest some years back. I return to his writings again and again for the insights into people and their follies, the crisp, ever-quotable turns of phrase, and the out-and-out hilarity of his characters. He was a genius.

So, I stuck him on my arm. At first, I thought maybe I should put Rodney Dangerfield there, but I went with Mr. Clemens in the end.

Short Writers Have Reasons to Live

Photo by Can Berkol

Well, I’m not really referring to writers of diminutive stature. I don’t really have an opinion on them (though people with very tiny hands scare me). What I’m talking about is the art of brevity, specifically regarding paring down your work so that the point is not merely sharp, but that the point can be seen beneath the urge to put frilly hats on it. This is a black art for me, since I often take the Dickensian approach to getting to my point, larding my work with parentheticals and asides, long trilling notes and meanderings.

Of course, writing that has flowery little hillocks in it rather than a flat-line speedway can have its charms, but in this matter I’m speaking of taking the cold scalpel to your writing, when leanness offers an advantage. There’s a famous quote by Blaise Pascal that captures the spirit of my slant:

“I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had time to make it shorter.” (This quote is often attributed to Mark Twain; Twain merely penned 19,324 other oft-cited quotes, and was too busy playing with his cats to get to this one.)

What ol’ Blaise was getting at is that it’s often much more difficult to restrain your writing, hitting just the high notes, rather than putting in both the trumpet solo, the tinny triangle and the banging cowbell (with apologies to the “more cowbell” advocates).

Stories Under the Knife
Not long ago, I had to trim almost 500 words from a short story in order to submit it to a contest requesting stories 2,500 words or shorter. I groaned about it, as much because cutting that sharply from something is not only hard work, but because I was convinced that the gouging would gut the story, leaving only its fluttering pulse. Wrong.

Well, right about the hard part: it is work to delete from, shift sentences around in and reshape a written piece, particularly when you are prejudiced regarding its already inviolate integrity. But as for gutting the story, not at all—the work was distinctly improved, the dialogue more snappy, transitions sharper, fewer flat spots. I was surprised.

I didn’t remove the 500 words all at once. I initially looked for bigger chunks for deletion, maybe even an entire paragraph or two, but the editing didn’t turn out that easy. However, I did find full sentences that my editor’s eye winked away, descriptive material that was added (but unnecessary) color. And I moved from there to cutting out phrases, removing things that seemed parenthetical (because parentheticals are often puffery, don’t you agree?) or just word-candy to feed my sweet tooth.

Sifting with a Finer Sieve
It’s when you get to the “I still need 75 words removed” point that it’s sweaty: but that impels you to see that a sentence reading, “At sunset I wept, with feeling, wept with ferocity,” might be better served as “At sunset, I wept.” Not Hemingway, but still better than condensed milk. (Parenthetically—but not pathetically—aside: that isn’t an actual example of an edited story sentence. You’ll have to pay me for those.)

Writing succintly is a fun and focused exercise. Here are some examples of six-word stories I wrote for a Narrative magazine contest:

Finally published. No readers. Quietly perished.

Her crash survivor: James Dean doll.

Balding. No prospects. Wear brighter socks!

Cruise ship canapé: tight tennis whites

That smell. Where? Maddening! Soul rot…

And here’s another attempt at cracking Narrative’s 160-word iStories:

Cold Stone, Warm Tears

He patted the dirt around the stone. The hand-tools were fine, but he liked to touch the earth last—it sealed the deal. He pulled out his notebook and scribbled:

“Precious gift”

OK, he thought. Not as sharp as “We are lost” from the Russian kid’s stone last week. He’d collected the tombstone statements from children’s graves for a while, soon after beginning his gravedigger’s job. The first one—“God’s garden has need of little flowers”—made him laugh, so he wrote it down. He probably had 70 or so now. Maybe he could publish a little book, maybe sell it in the parlor. He could use the cash.

The next day, the call: set the stone for a nine-month-old. “So small, so sweet, so soon.” Good one. He read it twice, a third time.

He buried the notebook under the stone, and patted it in. Little guys need their rest, he thought.

Who cares if Narrative didn’t think that much of them (the pigs). Short-form writing is good practice at focus and intent, nonetheless.

Examples For, Examples Against
I subscribe to Bruce Holland Rogers’s “Three Stories a Month” emailings, and I marvel at how often he can summon up sharp feeling in a short piece, and across so many genres. But sometimes, editing away some of a story’s skin can remove a bit of bone too. I took 400 words off of this story, The Vial, in order to reach the desired flash-fiction 1,000. It did place among the Smashwords contest winners, but it felt like some of its windows had been covered in comparison to the original. (Note: the Smashwords link goes to the free, 40 flash-fiction stories ebook download.)

But editing well, whether fiction or non, can often boost a tale’s flavor. And if you can’t stand to cut your own typewritten toenails, just ask one of your literate friends to do it. They’ll cleave away entire characters and just laugh at your bleatings of pain…