Category Archives: Lessons from Great Writers

Jospeh Conrad – A Writer Must Believe

“Every novelist must begin by creating for himself a world, great or little, in which he can honestly believe.” ~ Joseph Conrad

We all have a manuscript lying about in various stages of “unfinished”. Some are close to done with an ending just out of reach. Most are just fragments of characters or scenes stillborn on a handful of pages. Yet, nothing except the belief of the writer can bring these ideas to their eventual conclusion.

A writer must believe.

A writer may spend years looking for their belief. They may start and stop time and again. Many travel or undergo hardships and forge their beliefs from painful or exalted experience. Others look deep into the souls of fellow writers, drinking in their words and sifting through the dregs for the core of their own beliefs.

Then, there are those who scarcely trust that they exist at all except for the fact that they rise each day and move through the world. They do not feel alive nor do they wish for the grave. They pine for silence. They pray for belief, which is a foolish prayer that will go unanswered.

Yet, to achieve something singular and important, a writer must believe.


Conrad was 16 years at sea before retiring and taking up the pen. He wrote from what he knew and what he knew was the sea. He wrote from experience. He was a writer believed in the world because he had seen much of it with his own eyes, but even still he knew that a writer’s role was to peel back the layers of what appears to be and show something more.

That is the task, but also the reward.

“Where a novelist has an advantage over the workers in other fields of thought is in his privilege of freedom–the freedom of expression and the freedom of confessing his innermost beliefs–which should console him for the hard slavery of the pen.” ~ Joseph Conrad

Find Your Belief

It is true that each writer struggles in their own way to find their craft. We pick up bits and pieces from those who have come before us or we slavishly imitate those we admire. We struggle to find the meaning and the belief that is so apparent in the books we hold dear.

After all, there they are!

Books bound in paper or cloth, leather or electrons. Their very physical presence in the world demonstrates the indisputable belief of one mind forging a story, striving for connection with another person through the craft of writing.

And yet, finding belief is the most difficult task a writer faces. It isn’t the words or the style. It isn’t the dreary pace of pages piled day after day. The real challenge is finding the belief to press forward. When we have that on our side, the work itself becomes secondary to all else.

Here is perhaps the simplest answer to finding belief:

“Of all the inanimate objects, of all men’s creations, books are the nearest to us, for they contain our very thought, our ambitions, our indignations, our illusions, our fidelity to truth, and our persistent leaning towards error. But most of all they resemble us in their precarious hold on life.” ~ Joseph Conrad

If we are to write we must believe in ourselves, because books are reflections of who we are and what we have experienced as human beings. To believe in your story or your work is to be at your most fragile and human self.

If this is not enough, I turn to Joseph Conrad’s thoughts of Stephen Crane, the author of Red Badge of Courage.

One day Mr. Pawling said to me: “Stephen Crane has arrived in England. I asked him if there was anybody he wanted to meet and he mentioned two names. One of them was yours.” I had then just been reading, like the rest of the world, Crane’s Red Badge of Courage. I was truly pleased to hear this, and on my next visit to town we met at a lunch.

I saw a young man of medium stature and slender build, with very steady, penetrating blue eyes, the eyes of a being who not only sees visions but can brood over them to some purpose. He had indeed a wonderful power of vision, which he applied to the things of this earth and of our mortal humanity with a penetrating force that seemed to reach, within life’s appearances and forms, the very spirit of life’s truth. His ignorance of the world at large–he had seen very little of it–did not stand in the way of his imaginative grasp of facts, events, and picturesque men.

But this stirring rendition of one author’s appreciation for another is not why I shared this with you. Rather, it is just an opening to the second part of the story…

I saw Stephen Crane for the last time on his last day in England. It was in Dover, in a big hotel, in a bedroom with a large window looking on to the sea. He had been very ill and Mrs. Crane was taking him to some place in Germany, but one glance at that wasted face was enough to tell me that it was the most forlorn of all hopes. The last words he breathed out to me were: “I am tired. Give my love to your wife and child.” When I stopped at the door for another look I saw that he had turned his head on the pillow and was staring wistfully out of the window at the sails of a cutter yacht that glided slowly across the frame, like a dim shadow against the grey sky.

Life is short and brutal. You must find your belief or watch as your visions are washed away beneath the waves. You must believe in your work and press forward.

A writer must believe. Do you?

Mark Twain – Words Matter (Huckleberry Finn)

It’s just a little over 100 years since Mark Twain died and here he is right smack in the middle of a national debate on Race. There’s no doubt in my mind the man’s playing billiards in Hell and pleased as a cock who’s just woken up half a town of drunks on New Year’s Day. If nothing else, he’s probably laughing as cash registers ring up sales of Huck Finn and fuming as Project Gutenberg downloads heat up because Mark Twain was first and foremost a man concerned about getting his rightful coin for every word.

Obviously, it’s hard not to wade into the current discussion of Huckleberry Finn. After all, I’m working on a book that is unabashedly modeled after Twain’s classic twist on the Odyssey (and by twist I mean total rip off). I’ve spent a lot of time with Huck and Jim and the words of their chronicler. I am not, however, a Twain scholar. I’m a writer, a two-bit scribbler of words and tales.

As a writer, I understand why Twain used the word in question. Yes, it was “natural” for the time but that’s not why he selected the word. He chose the word explicitly to incite a reaction in those who could discern the meaning. He was making a point. If anyone thinks the Mark Twain chose that word as just a natural part of speech they are fooling themselves.

If anyone in Twain’s circle was going to complain about the dehumanization of Jim or the use of the word in question, it would be his wife. Olivia Langdon Clemens grew up in a family that was religious, reformist and above all abolitionist. As my previous (completely serendipitous) post reveals, Twain read the book to his wife, her mother, and her aunt. These Yankee women of the time, did not complain about the use of the word and my guess is that they understood exactly why the author had used it and used it frequently.

Do I feel the same about the use of the word? Do I feel it is necessary? I do.

Words Matter

In my book, I have a similar word. No human alive today could possibly take offense to this word, but a century or two from now, who knows? It might be expunged if I am so lucky as to finish the damn book (and twice as lucky again to see it published). Yet, I chose that word specifically for the same reason that Twain chose his and I am using it to reach the same means.

I do understand the feelings of those who cannot read Huckleberry Finn because of the word in question. I understand because I’ve read Malcolm X, and while I don’t lay claim to understanding Malcolm X in the way a black man would. I do understand the emotion that wells up each and every time “white, blue-eyed devils” appears in By Any Means Necessary.

By Any means Necessary is not Huckleberry Finn and yet each book has an author and each author made very specific choices when they wrote their respective books. Each author sat down put those words on paper and thought about them carefully. Each author read and reread those words, shaped and sculpted the prose to produce very specific reactions.

As much as it angered me to read those words (because I did not feel they were fair or applied to me), I kept on reading till the end. I also saw the effect just carrying this book around had on people, black and white. In the end, I didn’t read Malcolm X just because I thought his ideas were important. You can get the basic premise of it quick enough. I read By Any Means Necessary because of the impact the words had on me, the way the words made me reevaluate my white, middle-class upbringing. I read it for the lesson the book taught me about careful word choice.

What Would Tom Sawyer Do?

That’s what Huck asks himself time and again and in his heart, Twain was always Tom Sawyer not Huck Finn. Tom Sawyer always knew how to turn a situation to his advantage (if he wasn’t already in control of the situation in the first place, which would be almost never). So what would Tom do?

My take on this is pretty simple. If there was a buck to be made, Tom Sawyer would have the word out of the book so fast it would make Samuel Clemens’ head spin. But we’re still talking about this book 125 years after it’s publication for a reason and because of that I don’t think he’d remove it. Twain would do the same and keep it in because there was an advantage to it both commercially and artistically.

That’s it. No great cry of censorship or sensibilities. No indignant ire as one of my heroes is vilified by those living in times more than a century removed from the events in Huck Finn.

And if there is any question about Twain’s reaction, I point to a letter he wrote on the subject in 1907 when his book Eve’s Diary was banned because of the illustrations it contained:

The truth is, that when a Library expels a book of mine and leaves an unexpurgated Bible lying around where unprotected youth and age can get hold of it, the deep unconscious irony of it delights me and doesn’t anger me.

Words matter, but only if you are willing to read them. Words matter, but only if you know how to use them.

Mark Twain – Revising Or Combing It All to Hell

There’s great truth to striking while the iron is hot, but in the end you have to set yourself to the drudgery of revisions. I’ll use Mark Twain as an example here. Below, Twain is writing to William Dean Howells as he started writing Tom Sawyer.

I have manuscript enough on hand now to be two-thirds done. I intended to run up to Hartford and take it along, but I find myself so thoroughly interested in my work, now (a thing I have not experienced for months) that I can’t bear to lose a single moment of the inspiration. So I will stay here and peg away as long as it lasts.

It took Twain several years to write Tom Sawyer. During that time, Twain actually stopped working on the book altogether and set it aside. Yet, you’d never know that by reading this comment. You’d think he was almost done. You’d think the fires of creation would keep him warm right through to the end, but in reality they burned him out.

Night before last I discovered that that day’s chapter was a failure, in conception, moral truth to nature, and execution–enough blemish to impair the excellence of almost any chapter–and so I must burn up the day’s work and do it all over again. It was plain that I had worked myself out, pumped myself dry. So I knocked off, and went to playing billiards for a change.

It’s something that happens to all of us as we write, and certainly Twain was no stranger to it. You can see that when he says that he hasn’t been interested in his subjects for months. Still, Twain also knows that this will not last and that eventually it will come to the revisions.

My present idea is to write as much more as I have already written, and then cull from the mass the very best chapters and discard the rest. I am not half as well satisfied with the first part of the book as I am with what I am writing now. When I get it done I want to see the man who will begin to read it and not finish it.

There’s a Time to Revise

On the whole, you have to be something of a freak to enjoy the process of revision. After all, you are taking some bit of art that has come from your soul and tearing it apart in the most merciless manner. More often than not you’re as likely to do harm as you are good.

Here Twain is giving advice to his brother, Orion, who was working on his own autobiography.

Stop re-writing. I saw places in your last batch where re-writing had done formidable injury. Do not try to find those places, else you will mar them further by trying to better them. It is perilous to revise a book while it is under way. All of us have injured our books in that foolish way.

Consider that for a moment before you run off headstrong in the belief that you know exactly what you “need to do” to a chapter or story before it is finished. Will you injure the story in some way that will harm the rest of the work? Will you destroy your creative fire by interrupting it midstream?

All of us have injured our books in that foolish way.

If it happened to Twain, it will happen to you.

Taking the Advice of Others

Of course, not all of us have a William Dean Howells in our pocket but it is important to have those you trust reading your work. Ideally, those you trust will be writers. Other writers will find things that you have overlooked a dozen times. They will find plot holes. They will find gross errors in structure and dialogue. They will find misspelings (yes, I did that on purpose).

There was never a man in the world so grateful to another as I was to you day before yesterday, when I sat down to set myself to the dreary and hateful task of making final revision of Tom Sawyer, and discovered, upon opening the package of MS that your pencil marks were scattered all along. This was splendid, and swept away all labor. Instead of reading the MS, I simply hunted out the pencil marks and made the emendations which they suggested.

And yet, there’s often a time when one shouldn’t take the advice of other writers just because it is convenient. Sometimes you have to read the public.

There was one expression which perhaps you overlooked. When Huck is complaining to Tom of the rigorous system in vogue at the widow’s, he says the servants harass him with all manner of compulsory decencies, and he winds up by saying: “and they comb me all to hell.”

Long ago, when I read that to Mrs. Clemens, she made no comment; another time I created occasion to read that chapter to her aunt and her mother (both sensitive and loyal subjects of the kingdom of heaven, so to speak) and they let it pass. I was glad, for it was the most natural remark in the world for that boy to make. When I saw that you, too, had let it go without protest, I was glad, and afraid; too–afraid you hadn’t observed it. Did you? And did you question the propriety of it? Since the book is now professedly and confessedly a boy’s and girl’s hook, that darn word bothers me some, nights, but it never did until I had ceased to regard the volume as being for adults.

And damn it all if Howells didn’t tell Twain that he’d missed that word and that he’d “have that swearing out in an instant.” And damn it all twice if Twain didn’t do it and change the dialogue to “They comb me all to thunder.”

If ever the word Hell belonged in a book it was that line said by that character in that very place. Here the author, in spite of his misgivings about a children’s book, has done his work severe injury. He should have listened to the silence of Mrs. Clements, his mother-in-law, and her sister. After all, if three women of the time who were also loyal subjects to the kingdom of heaven did not take offense then no one else would either.

Revision can be delicate work, which is an ironic thing to say because it’s a bludgeoning, bloody business, but it is up to the author to follow their instinct especially in times of fear.

When you are afraid of what you write, you are probably on the path to the truth.

Do you have problems knowing when to revise or how to go about it? What have you found that works for you? Have you ever injured your work be revising it and how did you know?

Charles Dickens – Three Principles of Writing

Only jolter-headed, conceited idiots suppose that volumes are to be tossed off like pancakes, and that any writing can be done without the utmost application, the greatest patience, and the steadiest energy of which the writer is capable.

~ Charles Dickens

To be fair, this quote took a little remanufacturing on the part of yours truly. The original quote comes from The Letters of Charles Dickens. In the original, Dickens was writing to Wilkie Collins to congratulate Collins on “Basil”. Dickens was delighted to find that the author took great pains to be discriminating and yet to also deliver casual blows to the aforementioned “jolter-headed, conceited idiots”.

Personally, I loved the idea of Dickens railing about people believing that writing was as easy as tossing off pancakes. If you consider the sheer volume of work produced by the man, you have to wonder just how he managed it.

Of course, there is just one answer to that… he wrote.

It’s true that Dickens lived in an age without electronic diversions, but it was not without any diversions. Still, he managed to create volume after volume by following the formula:



Of the three principles, the craft is the one I think most writers tend to gloss over when starting out. It sounds weird to say that of course. If you consider any other profession, it would be strange for one to simply dive in and have at it. Yet, this is how most writers get into the craft and like a surgeon who has no training the patients seldom see the light of day.

But the real application goes much further than training and practice. Writing is a lifelong pursuit of skill and knowledge. The writer must work within the medium but they most also read and learn from others practicing the craft as well, pick up new techniques, experiment, and seek opinion. Writers who fail to do this are as unlikely to get a letter of praise from Charles Dickens’ (he’s dead after all) as they are from the Charles Dickens’ of their day.


If patience is a virtue, then I’m afraid I’m going straight to Hell.

All writers have some method of beginning, some bit of inspiration that sparks the burning need to put words down and create something from the void. We write these beautiful, fevered phrases while hoping to catch all the vibrance of the vision before it fades. We scribble and scribble and scribble till our hands become raw and our minds race at speeds our words cannot hope to keep up with.

Then we get muddled.

We call this writing ourselves into a corner and it happens whether you cautiously plan your narrative or go straight at it free form. The writer with patience understands this happens. They wait and watch while the paint dries and then go back and fix things up. The rest of us (meaning everyone) just walk across the wet floor, leaving footprints everywhere and start over.


Write every day. The End.

Alright, that isn’t quite the end. It should be, but it’s not. You see, it isn’t enough just to say you need to write every day. Yes, “Steadiest Energy” implies that you must be consistent in the practice of the craft, but you must also apply sustained effort.

This means that you must develop the ability to do more than write the fevered words I mentioned in the last section. You must also learn to write all the other words that need to be said as well.

When I first wrote this little bit, it was just the opening quip:

Write every day. The End.

I was going to leave it at that because I thought it was clever. Then, as I was wrapping things up, I realized I skipped over the meaning of the phrase entirely. I wasn’t patient and I wasn’t adhering to the utmost application of the writing craft. I was coasting.

So, yes, you must write every day. However, you must apply a consistent effort across every bit of your practice. You must write and read and edit with equal vigor but also maintain a sense of calm about it.

It isn’t a race. It’s a practice.

Which of these three principles give you the most trouble? How do you deal with it?