Timeless Advice from Mark Twain on the Art and Craft of Writing ~ Suzanne Woods Fisher


Suzanne Woods Fisher
is a bestselling author of Amish fiction and
non-fiction, the host of a weekly radio program called Amish Wisdom and a columnist for Christian Post. She has twenty-one books under contract
with Revell–eight published, thirteen to come…she’s contracted
all the way into 2016. The Waiting was a finalist for a 2011 Christy
Award. The Choice was finalist for a 2011 Carol Award. Amish
Peace: Simple Wisdom for a Complicated World 
and Amish Proverbs:
Words of Wisdom from the Simple Life 
were both finalists for the
ECPA Book of the Year (2010, 2011).

Her interest in the Amish began
with her grandfather, W.D. Benedict, who was raised Plain. She has many,
many Plain relatives living in Franklin County, Pennsylvania, and travels
back to Pennsylvania, as well as to Ohio, a couple of times each year
for research.

Suzanne has a great admiration
for the Plain people and believes they provide wonderful examples to
the world. In both her fiction and non-fiction books, she has an underlying
theme: You don’t have to “go Amish” to incorporate many of
their principles–simplicity, living with less, appreciating nature,
forgiving others more readily–into your life.

When Suzanne isn’t writing
or bragging to her friends about her first grandbaby, she is raising
puppies for Guide Dogs for the Blind.

Keep up on Suzanne’s latest
news on 
FacebookTwitter and on her blog!

Timeless
Advice from Mark Twain on the Art and Craft of Writing
by Suzanne Woods Fisher

“Clothes make the man. Naked
people have little or no influence on society.” Mark Twain
 

Can
you call up a Mark Twain quote from memory? Bet you can, even if you
might not realize he had coined it: “Age is an issue of mind over
matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter” or “The reports
of my death are greatly exaggerated” or “The coldest winter I ever
spent was a summer in San Francisco.”

See?
You know more than you think you know.

Even
in 2012, Mark Twain is just as relevant as in 1884, when The Adventures
of Huckleberry Finn
(considered his masterpiece) was first published.
Mark Twain has been credited for transforming American literature into
something purely American by his original use of language, setting,
and colorful characters.

But
were you aware that Mark Twain was sought after for his advice on the
art and craft of writing? Here are a few memorable suggestions he offered—some
serious, some not—that are just as timeless today as they were in
the 1800s. (Note: Whenever possible, I cited the quote’s source.)  

The Best Time to Start Writing: 

“There are basically two
types of people. People who accomplish things, and people who claim
to have accomplished things. The first group is less crowded.” 

“The time to begin writing
an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that
time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is that you
really want to say.” -Mark Twain’s Notebook, 1902-1903 

Finding the Right Word: 

“The difference between
the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning
and a lightning bug.”  

“Use the right word, not
its second cousin.”  

“To get the right word in
the right place is a rare achievement. To condense the diffused light
of a page of thought into the luminous flash of a single sentence, is
worthy to rank as a prize composition just by itself. . . . Anybody
can have ideas–the difficulty is to express them without squandering
a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering
paragraph.” -Letter to Emeline Beach, February 1868 

On Verbosity:  

“The more you explain it,
the more I don’t understand it.”  

“As to the Adjective:
when in doubt, strike it out.” -Pudd’nhead Wilson, 1894 

“I notice that you use plain,
simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to
write English–it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t
let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective,
kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them–then the rest
will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give
strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse,
flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of
as any other vice.” -Letter to D. W. Bowser, March 1880 

On Revising: 

“You need not expect to get
your book right the first time. Go to work and revamp or rewrite it.
God only exhibits his thunder and lightning at intervals, and so they
always command attention. These are God’s adjectives. You thunder and
lightning too much; the reader ceases to get under the bed, by and by.”
– Letter to Orion Clemens, 23 March 1878 

Mind your Grammar:

“There is no such thing as the Queen’s English. The property has gone
into the hands of a joint stock company and we own the bulk of the shares.”
Pudd’nhead Wilson, 1894

“Great books are weighed
and measured by their style and matter, and not the trimmings
and shadings of their grammar.” -Speech at the Annual Reunion of the
Army and Navy Club of Connecticut, April 1887 

“I like the exact word, and
clarity of statement, and here and there a touch of good grammar
for picturesqueness.” –The Autobiography of Mark Twain, 1924 

“I am almost sure by witness
of my ear, but cannot be positive, for I know grammar by ear only, not
by note, not by the rules. A generation ago I knew the rules–knew them
by heart, word for word, though not their meanings–and I still know
one of them: the one which says–but never mind, it will come back to
me presently.” –The Autobiography of Mark Twain, 1924  

The Importance of Reading
Good Books:
 

“Let us guess that whenever
we read a sentence & like it, we unconsciously store it away in
our model-chamber; & it goes, with the myriad of its fellows, to
the building, brick by brick, of the eventual edifice which we call
our style.” – Letter to George Bainton, 15 Oct 1888  

“The man who doesn’t read
good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.” 

The Writer’s Life:   

 
“Write without pay until
somebody offers pay. If nobody offers within three years, the candidate
may look upon this circumstance with the most implicit confidence as
the sign that sawing wood is what he was intended for.” 

Gran Torino and the Atypical Hero

I love it when a movie packs a powerful message, but it’s even better when I can learn something about writing from the story. Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino is one such movie. At first glance, it’s a rough movie with a not-so-likable, atypical hero. It is filled with violence and foul language which might turn off many people, but I gave the movie a chance, and I’m glad I did because not only did it touch my heart, it showed taught me several lessons about storytelling.
Writing the Atypical Hero
Clint Eastwood’s character, Walter, a racist, foul-talking, cantankerous old man, is not what you’d think of when you think of a hero. But a hero he was in the end.  I’m not going to give away any spoilers, but I do want to share a few points on how I think an offensive guy like Walter can play the heroic protagonist.
The Power of Characterisation 
Walter’s use of foul-language and racism had a place in this gritty, gang-infested movie. It was raw and hard to listen to at times, but it wasn’t over done. The movie opens at his wife’s funeral, but Walter’s hardened disposition to life was well solidified before his wife’s death. Despite his in-your-face bigotry, you can’t help but like the man. Mainly because those he’s “bigotring” can’t help like him. And that softens his character and turns him into a likable hero.
A Lesson in Character Growth
Little by little you see Walter’s redeeming qualities sneak out. Though still cantankerous and demeaning in speech, his actions reveal his heart and betray his hardened exterior. He’s growing as a character and touching the lives around him (the same people he demeans) in a profound and life changing way.

Spiritual Symbolism
When the movie starts, Walter wants nothing to do with God. But as the movie progresses you see the struggle he has with wanting redemption. Though he claims to not need any, he desperately wants it. You see his struggle with his own sin and how, in the end, he plans on earning his forgiveness.

Though the story doesn’t give a Christian message that “there’s forgiveness in Christ alone,” it’s spiritual symbolism is touching and poignant. It’s a great example of how a gritty, ugly, story can present the gospel in a subtle but powerful way, and how an unlikable character can touch our hearts and be a hero.

How about you? What movie has taught you about writing? 

And if you saw Gran Torino, what did you think? SPOILER ALERT: Don’t read the comments if you want to be surprised by the movie!


Gina Conroy, a.k.a. “the other Gina,” is a monthly contributor to Novel Rocket. She’s the founder of Writer…Interrupted and is still learning how to balance a career with raising a family. She is represented by Chip MacGregor of MacGregor Literary, and her first novella, Buried Deception, in the Cherry Blossom Capers Collection, released from Barbour Publishing in January 2012 with her second novel Digging Up Death recently contracted with Stonehouse Ink and will be available this fall.

Looking for Love (And Other Weird Things)

We’re nearing the last lap of our Launch Pad Contest. But if you’re a romance writer and have never published that sweet novel you’ve been working on, it’s not too late to get in on it. We’ll be taking entries in the Contemporary Romance category up through September 10.

Or, if you’re like me and give romance wide berth on your way to the Sci-Fi shelf (or fantasy, or horror, or anything else that fits into the “speculative” category), there’s room for you as well. That category closes on October 10.

So check out the official rules on the Launch Pad Contest tab, take a deep breath, and plunge in! If you have any questions, email us at NovelRocketContest @ gmail.com, and you’ll receive a prompt response. We’re swooning to hear from you!

When Yvonne Anderson isn’t writing fiction that takes you out of this world, she’s our contest administrator. WORDS IN THE WIND, second book in her Gateway to Gannah series, released August 1. She shares her wise words on a variety of subjects on her blog, Y’s Words.

Fiction . . . A Waste of Time?

Ruthie Lewis is an Author, Speaker & Life Coach. She resides in Edmond, OK and is the mother of two amazing
grown sons, and a daughter who was a life-long dancer and brought light into
the lives of everyone who knew her, and now dances with Jesus.

“Fireflies” is set for official release on Sept. 11.  Until then you can get your pre-release
autographed copy on her website: www.RuthieLewis.com

If reading this, it’s a
pretty sure bet you love books.  But let
me ask you: Do you read fiction? If not, why? Have you ever thought, or heard
it said, that reading fiction is a waste of time?

I’ve always been an avid reader but as I
walked into adulthood, committed to living a life pleasing to God, I
unconsciously tapped into a mindset that fiction was a waste of time and even
trashy. In fact, the more time went on, the more I wouldn’t allow myself to
read anything that wasn’t emphatically about God and faith. You know, books
telling you how you “should” live.
Oh,
there were times I would glance at a novel in the Christian bookstore and think
boring or waste of time.

And the truth is, at that
time, there was little to choose from except “prairie romance.” As my children
got older, I had more time to read and found myself actually searching for good
books. I began noticing the fiction section at the “Christian” book store
growing. I couldn’t help meandering through the section, giving in for a moment
long enough to scan a back cover. Can’t even tell you what the book was but as
I read the blurb, I was riveted.
Releasing the book back to
its space on the shelf, I went searching for the book I’d come for, but
couldn’t leave the store’s book section without going back to the novel. As I
stood staring at it, it hit me: You loved
fiction as a kid
. All the books I had read to my own kids were fiction. I
carried the book to a nearby chair. Delving into the first pages, I was still
trying to talk myself out of spending money on fiction. Money was really tight
and I probably shouldn’t have even been in the store in the first place.
Call
it a light bulb moment, call it whatever;
as my adrenalin
pumped, I heard that sweet voice I was so familiar with lighting up that place
in my soul. I could almost literally hear and see Jesus as he poured forth yet
another parable. I remembered Sunday School stories; I remembered my favorite
school teachers were those who had told stories or used powerful analogies – and
aren’t the most memorable and effective speakers those who weave in a story or
two?
I bounced from the chair,
purchased the book (forgetting about the other one) and hightailed it home. As I unveiled the book, allowing the bag to waft to
the floor, I landed in my comfy chair and was transported to another place. I
don’t remember exactly, but within a couple days, I closed the book washed with
a satisfaction I couldn’t describe.

Of course, everybody loves a
story. Where had my thinking about fiction come from? Little slivers of
religious teaching had carved away at my love of reading, especially fiction.
Why in the world would we read wonderful stories to our children, then suddenly
rip it away as they become adults. I even know people today that tout, “I don’t
read anything but the Bible.” Wonderful; but wow, are they missing out!

Today there is an amazing array of wonderful Christian fiction from young adult, to
contemporary, to historical, to Amish, to bite-your-nails-till-they-bleed
thrillers, all spilling words of life changing stories. My book shelves are
crammed with them, my own novel, “Fireflies” now among them. Maybe this time it
will be you who will pull a parable from the fiction section for the first time
in years.
Hmmm, I wonder what section
of the book store Jesus would wander through if you saw Him at Barnes and Noble
today?