Mark Twain's Secret to Success: "Use Better Words"

One of the best-known quotes to come out of the Mark Twain Factory of Famous Aphorisms is: “Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.”

That’s good advice for young writers, because money is scarce when writers are starting out, so it makes sense to use cheaper words. But as a writer matures and the royalty checks start rolling in, limiting oneself to cheap words is no longer an economically advisable or professionally pragmatic way to proceed.

The truth is, if you ever want your writing to improve, you have to start investing in more expensive words. Or, to put it another way, if you want your compositional labors to yield the most awesomely maximal dividends, you are therefore obligated to purchase at a premium price point the various adjectives, verbs, gerunds, and descriptors you use to obfuscate reality so adroitly and efficaciously on a daily basis.

I can hear the English teachers out there yelling: “No, that’s not what he meant! What Twain was saying was that good writing is not about flowery language, it’s about clear, concise communication. Short words that say exactly the right thing are much better than long words that say the same thing, but with a plethora of unnecessary extra syllables.”

As if.

Now, I’m sure Mark Twain had his reasons for saying what he said. But I’m also fairly certain it had nothing to do with advising other writers how to do their jobs better. Twain was a savvy businessman, and one of the most successful writers of his time. He could also do remedial math. So it stands to reason that if Twain could convince all the other writers of his time to buy up all the inexpensive words, he’d have all the premium luxury words to himself. Such a tactic would also limit the number of writers trying to compete for those all-important fantasmagorical super-words that go into “literature,” because no one else could afford them.

The truth is, Mark Twain did not become one of the richest and most famous writers of his era because of what he wrote. No, he became a literary legend because of his shrewd manipulation of the vocabulary market, and by leveraging his status and success to hoard higher-priced words, thereby limiting their supply and driving up their value.

How did this scheme work? Well, let’s say Mark Twain wrote a sentence with five five-dollar words, three two-dollar words, and four fifty-centers. That sentence would cost Twain thirty-three dollars. Now, suppose another writer wrote the same thing, but could only afford a couple of one-dollar words and ten fifty-centers. That writer would only pay seven dollars for his sentence.

Conventional wisdom would have you believe that the writer who used the cheaper words got the better deal. But—and here’s where Twain’s true genius kicks in—these aren’t sunk costs, they are investment dollars. Five-dollar words may cost more, but the rate of return on a five-dollar word is ten to a hundred times greater than that of a mere fifty-cent word. The average rate of return on a fifty-cent word is about ten percent, so the writer who uses a fifty-cent word is only going to make a nickel off it. But the rate of return on a five-dollar word is anywhere from a hundred to a thousand percent. That means every time Twain used a five-dollar word, he made at least five dollars off it, and sometimes up to five-hundred dollars.

If you do the math the way Mark Twain did, the writer who only invested seven dollars into his sentence made a mere seventy cents, while Twain—who invested thirty-three dollars—got anywhere from $33 to $3,300 back. Throw in the multiplication effect of a review in the New Yorker and a national literary prize, and one five-dollar word by Mark Twain could amount to as much as $10,000. Adjusted for inflation, that’s close to a million dollars a word!

Mark Twain used this simple economic principle to become one of the greatest writers of all time. The more he made, the more he invested in better words, eventually buying up all the ten- and twenty-dollar words as well. Rumor has it he even had a gold-plated, thousand-dollar word mounted in his smoking room. By the end of his life, in fact, Twain controlled ninety-nine percent of all the nation’s literary vocabulary, leaving all the other writers of his time to fight over the remaining one-percent of words available. No one could compete.

When, on occasion, his fellow writers complained, Twain’s rejoinder was, “Cheer up, it’s not like I own the alphabet. Yet.”

So go ahead, be a chump and use fifty-cent words if you want. But if you really want to crack the big time, it’s time to escalate your fiduciary commitment to polysyllabic syntactification. Trust me, you don’t want to live in a world where only a handful of best-selling writers control all the best words. Telling a good story isn’t easy if all you have to work with is the vocabulary no one else wants.


Beyond Lake Wobegon: Setting Stories in Minnesota

Settings in fiction are very important, because without a setting, characters in a story would just drift around in space, wondering where the bathroom is. But there can be no bathroom—or anything else—without a physical dimension in time, and it is the writer’s responsibility to provide this dimension, because forcing characters to hold it for eternity is just cruel.

Describing a setting that exists in real life can be tricky, though, because readers are always on the lookout for mistakes.

Suppose your story takes places in the year 1993, and you describe a character ordering a Butterfinger Blizzard from the Dairy Queen on West Seventh St. in St. Paul, Minnesota. If you haven’t researched that particular DQ carefully, some annoyingly alert reader is going to pipe up and point out that the DQ on West Seventh didn’t start selling Butterfinger Blizzards until 2001, so there.

Then they’ll wonder: If you couldn’t get that simple fact right, how can they trust the accuracy of other details in the story? Furthermore, doesn’t the blunder of the bogus Blizzard cast a shadow of suspicion on everything you have ever written? Do you think us readers are stupid?, they’ll say. Do you think we’ll just sit here quietly while you go around making shit up? From now on, is it going to be necessary for us to fact-check every detail in your stories? We don’t have that kind of time, they’ll whine. And besides, isn’t it the writer’s responsibility to do at least a scintilla of research before tossing in details, like the Butterfinger Blizzard, that can be easily checked by calling Dairy Queen headquarters and requesting a menu from 1993, or by locating someone—someone like St. Paul resident Josephine Parker—who worked at the Dairy Queen on West Seventh for fifteen years, from 1995 to 2010, and knows exactly which Blizzard concoctions were rolled out and when? Isn’t that your job, writer-man?

Writers in the Twin Cities get these kinds of complaints all the time, because—as several polls have shown—Minneapolis and St. Paul are the most literal cities in the country. It has something to do with all the colleges and universities here, combined with a climate so unforgiving that it cannot be accurately described with figurative language. In Minnesota, when people say they are freezing their ass off, there is a high probability that their ass cheeks are literally frozen and, if they don’t get inside soon, will turn black and fall off in hand-sized slabs of frost-rotted ass-flesh.

Likewise, when comedians come to town, it is often so cold that they can’t even think of a joke. There’s no room for hyperbole or exaggeration, because everything in Minnesota is so amazingly great/awful/weird/sad/beautiful/smart/terrifying/virtuous that simply reporting the fact of its incredibly awesome extremes is difficult enough. In Minnesota, entire newspapers are devoted to reporting the many ways in which Minnesota out-does every other state in the union, and every local magazine at the grocery store is a “best of” issue. There’s no gray area, no in-between—it’s either the best goddamn hamburger you’ve ever tasted or the worst blizzard or tornado or flood in history. Literally.

Because Minnesota readers are so highly literal and fact-bound, many Minnesota writers prefer to invent fictional settings rather than set their stories in real places. The most famous of these imaginary hamlets is, of course, Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, “the little town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve.” (That’s how you can tell Lake Wobegon is in Minnesota—because it’s so fantastically perfect that it can’t get any better.)

As place names go, “Wobegon” is a great one because it is pronounced “Woe-bee-gone”—as in, get out of here, you goddamn bees—and because it sounds vaguely Indian, even though the residents of Lake Wobegon are German, Swedish, and Norwegian. But it’s not necessary to give your fictional town a ha-ha-that’s-clever name. Sinclair Lewis, another Minnesota writer that time has forgotten, invented all kinds of silly-sounding towns—Gopher Prairie, Banjo Crossing, Tuttleville, Zenith—and placed them all in a whole new state, Winnemac, which sounds more like a lottery scratch-off game than a state worthy of fictional America. And he won a Nobel Prize!

The thing Minnesota writers must always be wary of is inventing a name that sounds too real, because many towns in Minnesota sound like someone made them up. Coon Rapids, Embarrass, Sleepy Eye, Motley, Pillager, Nimrod, Climax—all of these town names are disturbingly real, so inventing one that sounds more real (but isn’t) can be a challenge. That’s why, when the founders of Minneapolis/St.Paul were looking for a clever name to describe the unique character and quality of these charming, river-straddling metropolises, they said, “Fuck it, let’s go with Twin Cities.”

Sure, some people objected: “They’re not twins. They couldn’t be more different. And they’re barely even cities. Don’t you think it’s over-stating things a bit?”

But the name stuck, because all the best bad names were already taken.

The lesson here is that the name of your fictional setting is not as important as the quality of your descriptive prose and the overall feel people get when they read about the place you have invented. There are many ways to achieve this important aura of verisimilitude, but in general every good fictional town must have a café where people can meet, a church where people can argue, and a discreet place where teenagers can procreate. It also helps to have a small local radio station that’s unregulated by the FCC, and at least one creepy person who stays in their house all day so that people can invent rumors about them.

The next challenge is filling your fictional town with all kinds of eccentric but harmless people who are quirky enough to be interesting, but not so quirky that the police need to get involved. Loveable grumps and slightly naughty nuns are good characters to include, as are artists who work in unconventional mediums (ice, auto parts, mud slurries, roadkill, etc.), gorgeous young teachers in search of true love, and judges who wear surprising things under their robes. The key is to populate your fictional town with people whom readers wouldn’t mind having as neighbors in real life. Remember, fiction offers an escape from the daily drudgery of people’s lives, and everyone hates their neighbors, so providing them with a steady supply of people who aren’t as deranged and annoying as the people next door is comforting.

The driving force of any good story is conflict, though, so every good fictional setting needs heroes and villains. As an example, here’s a brief description of a fictional city I am currently developing for a comic-book series that I hope to spin off into a movie deal. I haven’t mapped out all the details yet, because it’s a whole city, not just a town, but these are the basics:

The setting: Gollum City. It’s a dark, lonely metropolis where the sidewalks are empty and every time you step outside it has just rained. Wet, glistening streets reflect the tail lights of passing cars through fingers of steam rising through holes in the street—holes that visitors mistake for manhole covers, but really are gaping craters in the pavement. Criminals run the city, and the government is corrupt (villains all)—but there is one man (our hero) who is dedicated to fighting these villains. Our hero does his work at night, and wears a costume to hide his true identity, so the citizens of Gollum have named him after another nocturnal creature of the night: the wily skunk. Skunk-Man cruises the city in a tricked-out diesel Oldsmobile that spews clouds of greenhouse gases, and he neutralizes evil-doers by spraying them with noxious fumes that paralyze the perp’s nervous system just long enough for the authorities to arrive. Also, there’s something in the water supply that makes the criminals of Gollum look weird. Often, they take the form of an animal—a duck, lizard, or beagle. The regular citizens of Gollum aren’t affected, so it’s fairly easy to tell who the criminals are—though they, too, sometimes disguise themselves as household pets. Specifically, gerbils and goldfish.  

Again, I haven’t worked out all the details, but as you can see, Gollum City is a visually compelling place with quirky, interesting characters—and, because the city is policed by the story’s hero, the actual police are little more than an afterthought. And yes, Gollum City is in Minnesota, but it doesn’t sound anything like Lake Wobegon because that’s already been done and, frankly, everyone is sick of it. Also, I pride myself on originality. It would be unethical (not to mention illegal) of me to borrow ideas from other writers. Besides, as everyone who lives here knows, life in Lake Wobegon is nothing like real life in Minnesota. Through Gollum City, I am trying to invent a fictional cityscape that more accurately reflects Minnesota as it is today—but in a fake, made-up way that only sounds real.

I just hope readers can tell the difference. This is the Twin Cities, after all—the most literal place in the country, figuratively speaking.


Why Readers Would Rather Cry Than Laugh

All writers want to be taken seriously, but not all writers have the gravitas for literary greatness. If you want people to take your work seriously, however, there is one universal rule that cannot be broken, and that is: Under no circumstances should you ever try to make people laugh.

Comedy and literature simply don’t mix. Think about it: How many comedians are respected novelists? And how many novelists are doing stand-up?

None, that’s how many. In fact, only one person in history has ever successfully crossed the threshold of gloom, and that person was Mark Twain.

Twain’s secret was that he called himself a “humorist,” not a “comedian.” The difference between a humorist and a comedian is that the humorist makes you laugh inside your head, whereas a comedian makes you laugh out loud. Serious writers can get away with a little humor now and then, but the moment they actually make people laugh—the second someone has a convulsive physical response to their writing, not just a tingle in the brain that says ha ha, that’s clever—their reputation as a serious writer is over.

Mark Twain is beloved as a humorist because, ironically, his writing wasn’t all that funny. Go back and read Huckleberry Finn, and you’ll see what I mean. Ol’ Huck has a charmin’ way o’ talkin’, sure, and he’s kinda wise even tho’ he don’t got much in the way o’ eddication—but every time he says something kinda funny and you think you’re about to laugh, ol’ Twain pulls back and makes you think about something serious, like race relations between black and white people, or the moral difference between “borrowing” and “stealing.”

The reason Mark Twain stopped short of actually making people laugh is that he knew the dangers involved. All it takes is one or two guffaws to get a book pulled off high-school reading lists. And if, as a writer, you go all the way and make someone spit their coffee all over the carpet—well, let’s just say Terry Gross is never going to invite you into the NPR studios for a chat.

The reason for this antipathy toward laughter is that people who read books are, for the most part, a bunch of neurotic, self-loathing crybabies. They like to think of themselves as “intellectuals,” and in the world of intellectuals, the sadder and more depressing a subject is, the better. In fact, most intellectuals spend the bulk of their time consuming information that makes them sad (from The New York Times, Slate, CNN, The Atlantic, All Things Considered), then countering all that sadness with anti-depressants and weekly therapy sessions, all so they can go back out into the world and consume more sadness.

Around and around it goes. That’s why intellectuals love books with sad names, like Bleak House, The Crying of Lot 49, or Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—books that make you wonder if life on the speck of star dust we call Earth has any meaning in the vast cosmic scheme of things. That’s as far as it goes, though. The moment you, as a writer, take the “s” out of cosmic and suggest that life might actually be a joke—or worse yet, the moment you tell a joke about life—your literary cred is toast.

The trouble is, intellectuals equate “seriousness” with honesty, sincerity, and anything having to do with World War II. And because they live in their heads and take so many pills, they lend a great deal of importance to anything that makes them feel an emotion through all that medication. If you can make them cry, they’ll give you a Nobel Prize. Intellectuals also love to crunch their eyebrows and shake their heads with disapproval when they read. But that’s all the motion they can handle, because if they move their heads any more than that (by laughing, say), they’ll lose their place.

The point of all this is that if your goal is literary greatness, shelve the funny stuff and dig right into the morbid and blue. Use a little humor if you must, but only to lighten the mood before descending again into the darkness, where the smart cave people live, waiting once more for a chance to weep.

My Writing Journal: An Inside Look

Ever since I was a young, I have kept a journal—of thoughts, observations, story ideas, overheard conversations, stuff people write on bathroom walls, etc.—as a means of fueling the creative process. Some journal entries get fleshed out into stories or get included in a narrative somehow, but most do not. Most writers do not share the contents of their journals, either, for fear that their raw, unprocessed thoughts might betray the true chaos of their inner life.

But I am not most writers, so—in the interest of full disclosure, and to help my biographer understand my own creative process—I thought it might be instructive to share a few recent entries from my journal:

Thought: If there are ever golf courses on Mars, the sand traps will be red, so it will be easier to find your ball.

Observation: Unless you own a helicopter, it is impossible to look at both sides of a cloud.

Story idea: A woman who eats so many French fries that she actually becomes a Yukon potato. Then she decides she wants to become a zucchini. The national veggie council says no, that’s illegal, but you can become a yam. This she does. When her friends ask her why she’s not a potato anymore, she shrugs her shoulders and says, “I yam what I yam.”

Seen on the street: A man letting a dog drink water from his hat.

Question #1: How did the man get my hat?

Question #2: When did the man steal my dog?

Question #3: Why is my wife yelling at the man?

Question #4: Can I get this man to mow my lawn and pay my mortgage too?

Question #5: Why didn’t I think of this sooner?


Thought: Illness and disease are the universe’s way of saying that you are sick.

Occurrence: This morning, I cut my finger and it bled. But the blood wasn’t red, it was green. This doesn’t seem right.

Observation: There are no meat-flavored ice creams.

Million-dollar idea: Meat-flavored ice cream.

Thought: Life has no meaning. But it does have pizza. Balance is everything.

Question: When the Greeks said, “Everything in moderation,” did they intend it to apply to Costco?

Musing: There ought to be a word for that feeling you have when the toilet won’t flush, and is rising instead, and people are outside waiting to use it. Current vocabulary options are inadequate and redundant.

Observation: The Golden Gate Bridge is really orange. And there is no gate.

Sad truth: Age discrimination tends to disproportionately affect people who are old.

Story Idea: A man in a clown outfit gets abducted by aliens, who get so scared that they leave Earth forever, taking the clown with them. Centuries later, on a planet far, far away, there lives a civilization populated entirely by clowns. In a bold attempt to communicate with life beyond their own planet, they build a giant bicycle horn, point it at the sky, and honk it. It does not work. This makes the clowns sad.

Reminder: The lasagna in the fridge is getting fuzzy.

Concern: The dogs do not look friendly today.

Thought: Hospitals are not very hospitable.

Conundrum: Where did my good pair of underwear go?

Observation: There are bats everywhere.


Facing Your Fears is the Worst Idea Ever

Common psychological wisdom suggests that in order to grow as human beings and overcome life’s obstacles, we should all face our fears—and presto, our fears will disappear.

Speaking from bitter experience, I can tell you this is a horrible idea, and it does not work. I found this out the hard way one day when, pushed to the brink of madness, I decided to vanquish my intense fear of marshmallows.

Now, I realize that most people are not afraid of marshmallows, but I am. Other people may see marshmallows as fun candy sponge blobs that add nostalgia and merriment to a night around the campfire, but I do not. Whenever anyone opens a bag of Jet Puffs and says those awful words, “Who wants s’mores?,” my gut starts to quiver, my chest tenses up, the saliva in my mouth disappears, and suddenly everything tastes dry and chalky. Ever since I was in Boy Scouts, my standard response to the s’more question has been, “No thanks, I’ll stick to gin.” But when I reached the age of forty, I figured it was time to do something about the terror that had crippled my childhood.

Small marshmallows don’t bother me much. It’s those big, fat, campfire marshmallows that terrify me. My fear is that if I put one in my mouth, I will accidentally choke on it. Somehow, it will get lodged in my windpipe, adhere itself to the walls of my esophagus, and kill me in a matter of minutes. Then my corpse will lie there for days, bloated and rotting. By the time anyone found me, the marshmallow itself would have melted and disappeared, puzzling the authorities and leading them to determine that my cause of death was “unexplained.” As my soul departed the physical realm, I’d be yelling, “No, no, a marshmallow did me in! Don’t you see?! You must warn the people!” Then I’d disappear into the light—the marshmallow-white light of eternity.

That’s my fear.

One day, I decided it was time to conquer my fear by facing it. So I bought a bag of Jet Puff Jumbos, put one in my mouth, and inhaled.

Lo and behold, precisely what I always feared would happen did—and, as it turns out, my fears were entirely justified. It was terrifying. The marshmallow got sucked half-way down my throat and lodged itself there, creating a tight seal that prevented me from breathing. My face turned red, then purple, but I could not call for help. I could not scream. I beat on my chest and tried to dislodge the marshmallow of doom by exhaling, but nothing worked. Soon, my vision telescoped into a dark circle—the tunnel of death collapsing on itself—there was a bright pinprick of light, then nothing.

I thought I had died, but my wife called the paramedics in time to prevent too much brain damage. On the ambulance ride to the hospital, I heard them say, “He’s going to live, but keep a close eye on him, just in case.” Ever since, my wife has been giving me strange looks and asking me if I’m okay? It’s creepy. Of course I’m not okay—a marshmallow almost murdered me!

The upshot to all of this is that, far from conquering my fear of marshmallows, I am now more afraid of them than ever. I can’t even go down the “snacks” aisle at Target now, for fear that a Jet Puff sighting will trigger a relapse and force me to relive the trauma of that day all over again.

So no, I don’t think facing your fears is a very good idea. In fact, I think it is dangerous nonsense. I’m also afraid of lima beans and full-time employment, but you won’t catch me trying to conquer those fears anytime soon. I’d rather stay afraid than die a stupid, unnecessary death, and I advise you to do the same. Trust me: Whatever you’re afraid of, stay afraid, very afraid, and maybe—just maybe—you’ll be lucky enough to survive.