So you can read my books

Friday, July 9, 2010


A hearty cackle of laughter awakened me. I smelled pipe smoke. Now what? My eyes obeyed my order to open ... but reluctantly.

Mark Twain.

He was sitting in his ghost chair by my bed laughing so that his gray/blue eyes were wet with tears. I saw a thick book in his hands. A dented book. My heart sank. He was reading THE PASSAGE. The same book Marlene Dietrich had thrown down in disgust ... twice.

"Marlene warned me. Why this bejiggered paragraph goes on for miles," he chuckled. "Miles and miles and miles."

"Hi, Sam," I yawned. "So you hate THE PASSAGE, too?"

"Hate it? Son, I love it! Why this Cronin fella gives me more ammunition than James Fenimore Cooper ever did."

Gyspy, my cat, frowned at his smoke-reaming pipe. Mark Twain smiled a crooked smile and put it out. He shook his head, flipping two pages.

"Why this blessed paragraph is a veritable blunt instrument of prose. It assaults the eye, dulls the brain. With a paragraph that winds on for twenty pages, the words just fuzz together, don't you know?"

He smiled wide. "This Cronin boy sure seems in love with his words, don't he? He went and forgot the first rule of writing :

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."

Gypsy jumped in his lap and curled into a purring ball beside the book. Mark Twain's face softened with a slight smile. He began petting her.

"This Cronin fella forgot that the time to begin writing your book 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."

I half-covered a yawn. "Well, he certainly says a lot in that book."

He jabbed his pipe at me. "And that's the bejiggered trouble, Roland. He says the story. He doesn't show it."

He punched the open pages with his pipe stem. "Take this here section. Why he goes on and on SAYING the story. There's fragments of history. Whole blamed generations of folks just talked about in too many pages. Then, there's Peter, his father, Arlo, Milo, Theo."

He shuddered. "I'm afraid to go on lest I see Hi-Yo and his sister, Silver."

He thumbed the pages, stopped, and yelped, "Lord God All Mighty, I see dialogue. Real honest to politician, quotation marked dialogue."

His face screwed up as if he had bitten into a sour lemon. "Not great dialogue. Not even good dialogue."

"Tepid, huh?"

"Tepid? Hell, son, it ain't even tepid. You'd have to scald it some to get it to tepid."

His gray/blue eyes suddenly lit up. "It comes to me!"


"Why ain't he the clever one? He beats you over the head with page after page of blunt prose, saying the story, not showing it, until when he finally relents and grudgingly gives you some dialogue, you don't care if it has all the kick of a dusty tombstone, you're just so blessed relieved to see some, you start to cry."

"You really don't like his dialogue, do you, Sam?"

"Like it? It all sounds the same. All the men sound the same. Amy sounds like Auntie who sounds like ...."

He scratched his head. "I rightly don't know of any non-drooling girl that sounds like Auntie. Why, she's a little girl, right? But old Cronin has her spouting deep philosophical mutterings like some opium-addled poet. Sounded nice ... just not from a little girl. It jarred like nails across my mind's blackboard, don't you know?"

He wrinkled his lips. "Oh, Cronin did half-decent with that Wolfgang character."

"Gast, sir."

"You got gas, son?"

"Never mind."

"Where was I? Oh, yes, Wolfgang and Amy. He could have made all the time spent on his endless backstory worth it, if he had infected the man just a little. You know, making him the eternal father to the eternal little girl. Like THE ROAD but happier, don't you know?"

He fixed me with piercing eyes. "I think I might just have a ghost heart attack if that Cormac McCarthy ever writes a happy tale. Being an ar-teeest doesn't mean you have to depress the bejeesus out of us all the time."

He scratched behind Gypsy's ears. "It's clear there's one man who hates this book more than us, Roland."


"This Cronin fella."

"But he wrote it."

"Yes, and it's clear he didn't want to. Why he goes off on tangent after tanget before he finally drags his feet over to the horror that he promised. It destroys the book. Downright destroys it."

He stroked his moustache. "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."

He cackled a dry laugh. "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."

His eagle eyes turned to me. "You have a poet's flair, son. And even better, despite the lyrical beauty of your turn of phrase, I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences."

He jabbed his pipe at me again. "That is the way to write English - it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; if you're going to put flowers in, at least arrange them in neat rows. When you catch a stray adjective, kill it. No, I don't mean utterly, but kill most of them - then the rest will be valuable."

He nodded as if to himself. "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."

He glared at THE PASSAGE. "You know the first rule of writing is that a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere."

"Ah, you already gave a first rule of writing, Sam."

"Who's the highly praised, beloved genius in this room, son? Like I was saying ... The episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help develop it."

"That's not exactly what you were saying ...."

The rest of my words withered under his stare. "I was saying that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others. Even in the case of vampire stories, the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there."

"That's an awful lot of first rules," I muttered.

Mark Twain stonily ignored me and thumped the book with his pipe. "Old Cronin went and forgot that."

His face lit up. "Ernie. I think I'll take this book to Ernie."

I went cold. "Ernie as in Ernest? Ernest Hemingway? Why he'll ...."

Mark Twain smiled wide and evil. "Yes, he will. Oooh, I sure wouldn't want to be in this Cronin's dreams tomorrow night."

He rose and softly deposited a sleeping Gypsy on my bed. "Mind if I take this durned book?"

Thinking of all the midnight guests I wouldn't be having, I smiled. "No. Take it, please."

His eyes suddenly twinkled. "I'll have Ernie bring it back."

"No," I groaned.

But Mark Twain was already gone. Gyspy opened one bemused eye then went back to sleep. Ever have one of those nights?
And here is Thea Gilmore with an audio lesson on how to paint with words :


  1. Heh. Nicely done, good sir. I quite like how you packed the lesson in with the commentary from ol' Mark.

    Poor Justin, is all I'm sayin'. He did his best. :)

  2. That song is lovely!

    The post itself raises a lot of good points and I love how they are presented this way.

  3. Very good work and a reminder I needed. Hope they don't disturb your sleep too much. Do let us know how the second visit turns out.

  4. I thought I was the only one who had conversations like that. =) Nicely done, Roland.

    Loved the song, by the way.

  5. Very clever way to get across some key points! Have a great weekend...hopefully you'll be able to get some rest. :)

  6. Great dialogue! Genuine and heartfelt and original.

    I don't usually read posts that long, but I read every word of this one.

    - Eric

  7. Hauntings from the great writers - I envy you!
    Great key points! Loved the video. More so with the captioning. (Hugs)Indigo

  8. I was talking to a friend today and we were discussing how difficult it is to write dialogue, especially good dialogue. This read like listening to a conversation. How do you do it!?! It's also a good thing no one can sue Mr. Clemens for liable...

  9. ...wonderful post, Roland.
    Coaxed a giggle on a day when I would've thought it impossible. Thanks so much:)

  10. That was excellent! I love your stories, they always brighten my day. Your writing is superb!

  11. I loved the lesson. Very clever and very uniquely done.