This Year You Write Your Novel
Walter Mosley

The first thing you have to know about writing is that it is something you must do every day — every morning or every night, whatever time it is that you have. Ideally, the time you decide on is also the time when you do your best work. There are two reasons for this rule: getting the work done and connecting with your unconscious [dreaming, Robert Olen Butler, JH] mind. p. 7

The writer, however, must loosen the bonds that have held her back all these years. Sexual lust, hate for her own children, the desire to taste the blood of her enemy — all these things and may more must, at times, crowd the writer’s mind. p. 10

The story you tell, the characters you present, will have dark sides to them. If you want to write believable fiction, you will have to cross over the line of our self-restraint and revel in the words and ideas that you would never express in your everyday life. p. 11

You will not become a writer by aping the tones and phrases, form and content, of great books of the past. Your novel lies in your heart; it is a book about today, no matter in which era it is set, written for a contemporary audience to express a story that could only have come from you. p. 11

A young woman who has had a difficult time with her mother may render a tale in which the mother seems overly harsh, maybe even heartless. She (the writer) wades in, telling the story in all its truth and ugliness, but then, feeling guilt, she backs away from it, muddying the water. Maybe she stops writing for a while or changes her subject. Whatever it is she does, the novel suffers. p. 12

Also you should wait until the book is finished before making a judgment on its content. By the time you have gone through twenty drafts, the characters have developed lives of their own, completely separate from the people you based them on in the beginning. And even if someone, at some time, gets upset with your words — so what? Live your life, sing your song. Anyone who loves you will want you to have that. p. 13

The process of writing a novel is like taking a journey by boat. You have to continually set yourself on coarse. If you get distracted or allow yourself to drift, you will never make it to the destination. It’s not like highly defined railroad tracks or a highway; this is a path that you are creating, discovering. The journey is your narrative. Keep to it and there will be a tale told. p. 14

Showing and telling:

Lance Piggot had a great bulbous face, with black pinpoints for eyes and pasty white skin. He spoke in short bursts like a semi-automatic weapon. The bloated leather of his shoes seemed about to burst open from the pressure of his bulging feet. Monsieur Piggot was indeed an explosion about to happen. His secretary, VernaMae Warren, would lean away from him whenever he approached her desk or stopped to her side when she was pulling files from the green metal cabinets. The skittish secretary feared she would be obliterated by the mere proximity of her juggernaut of a boss.


Lance Piggot was a large, violent man. His secretary VernaMae Warren, avoided him whenever possible.


The strong scent of pine tar and eucalyptus stung Mary’s nostrils. The woodlands were alive with the racket of life. Insects clicked and buzzed; what must have been a bird gave a strangled cry, while somewhere a creature, hidden by the dense green-and-gray forest, crunched away, causing the young woman to imagine an ogre gnawing on a tree trunk. All the while the sun seared her skin. Mary felt a deep satisfaction with the lancing pain and dissonant woodland sounds. It was as if, she thought, she were a wild thing set loose in an unremitting Eden.


The sun-beaten woods were rank smelling filled with dissonant sounds. Oddly, Mary felt at home there.

p. 32

For instance, “Call me Ishmael” is the well-known first line of the American classic Moby Dick. Contrast this sentence with “His name was Ishmael.” p. 33

So I suppose the clearest difference between telling and showing in fiction is, generally, the difference between a purely informational statement and one that attempts to add a human aspect to its repertoire and, in doing so, includes the reader either emotionally or physically. p. 34

Most of the details are pedestrian. Why, you might ask, would we want to make the experiences of our character ordinary? Because everyday experiences help the reader relate to the character, which sets up the reader’s acceptance of more extraordinary events that may unfold. If your audience believes in the daily humdrum physical and emotional experiences of your character, then your readers will believe in those characters’ reality and thus can be taken further. p. 37

Lemon Turner was a lion among sheep. Whenever he entered a room, men and women shied away, huddling together behind tables and glancing nervously toward the exits. p. 37

The simile tries our credulity less tan the metaphor; it also creates a weaker image. p. 39

What matter is that you hook the readers on Bob’s predicament (in this case, a crisis) and make them intimate with his limitations and the issues he has to resolve in order to overcome the impediments in his path. There is no novel unless Bob experiences a transition. And there can be no meaningful transition unless we feel deeply for Bob. p. 45

The mistakes we make in life are what makes us interesting. The errors your characters make, more than any other thing, will drive the engrossing aspects of your novel. p. 47

Stories are often lies. More often, they are only partial truths. p. 49

As a novelist I have often wished that I could tell my stories to each and every one of my readers and critics. “If only I could explain to them exactly what this phrase means,” I think. But this is not possible. The oral storyteller has me beat. He has a whole repertoire of physical tools not available in print. So when I’m telling a story I have to re-create the winks and nods, insinuations and emotional outbursts, with words alone. I have to create a world for the reader that is just as intimate as that watercooler setting. p. 49

The structured writer knows from the outset that the novel is about Marissa, that Trip and Love, and people like them, are two sides of the same impediment that has always kept Marissa from flowering into a realized person (whatever that means). The act of writing is just finding the right way to tell the story. I mean, even an accomplished watercooler orator must tell his story in such a way that the listener will be entertained. The oral story teller might practice his tale a dozen times on as many individuals before he gets just the right delivery. The intuitive writer, on the other hand, must discover the subject of his story. he follows Marissa from Love’s ranch-style house to the jailhouse to Victor’s apartment — where she’s running an errand for the imprisoned Trip. In this way the writer slowly gets to know his subject. The more he writes (and rewrites), the clearer the story becomes. This instinctive method of writing is random in appearance, but that is not to say that it is less ordered. Discovering knowledge from your well of unconscious information looks sloppy, but we must always remember that there are no straight lines in the chaos of our hidden minds. p. 52

From the moment that Love looks at Marissa’s chipped red nails and says, “Either put the nail polish on or take it off,” and Marissa replies, “Yes, Mama,” putting her hands in her jeans pockets, we know that these people have a story in their lives. p. 55

The best way to understand this potential strength of surprise in plot is to look at the structure of most jokes. In a joke you are given a great deal of storylike information up front, but by the end that information comes together in an altogether unexpected way. p. 59

The poet seeks perfection in every line and sentence; she demands flawlessness of form. If the fiction writer demands half of what the poet asks of herself, the the writer will render an exquisitely written novel. p. 63

My only ritual for writing is that I do it every morning. I wake up and get to work. If I’m in a motel in Mobile — so be it. If I am up all night and morning is two o’clock in the afternoon, well, that okay too. The only thing that matters is that you write, write, write. It doesn’t have to be good writing. As a matter of fact, almost all first drafts are pretty bad. What matters is that you get down the worlds on the page or the screen — or into at a tape recorder, if you work like that. p. 66

This, I believe, is a good example of what can come from re-writing. Our questioning of every phrase and every element of the novel will blend together and bond into a story that will do us well. p. 81

Details will devour your story unless you find the words that want saying. p. 83

The only details that should be put in any description are those that advance the story or our understanding of the character. p. 84

You must investigate each sentence, asking yourself, “Does it make sense? Does it convey the character properly? Does it generate the right mood? Is it too much? does it get the narrative voice right?” Every sentence. Every sentence. p. 87

Every time characters in your novel speak, they should be: (1) telling us something about themselves; (2) conveying information that may well advance the story line and/or plot; (3) adding to the music or mood of the scene, story or novel; (4) giving us a scene from a different POV (especially if the character who is speaking is not connected directly to the narrative voice); and/or (5) gives the novel a pedestrian feel. p. 88

Dialogue in your novel is not just characters talking. It is sophisticated fiction. p. 90

No one will tell you how to score your novel so that mean you have to discover the music for yourself. “How can I do that?” you might well ask. The answer is simple. Buy a tape recorder, and when you’ve done all the writing you can stand, read your book out loud into the little microphone — yes, the whole book. It will take you seven or eight morning sessions, but it will be worth it. When you listen to yourself while reading, when you play back the words you read, the sound of the characters and their world will come to you. You will understand how you want Aunt Angie to sound. You will see what you are missing from those scenes on the street. You will remember birds and transistor radios and the blustering walruslike attitude of the surly man who saved your protagonist’s life. p. 93

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