Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Another de rigueur title, writers...

This Year You Write Your Novel
by Walter Mosley. NY: Little Brown & Co., 2007.
ISBN:0316065412 9780316065412

Michael Sedano

I suppose the number one reason to read Walter Mosley's self-help book for would-be novelists is the "Also by Walter Mosley" page opposite the title page. Ten Easy Rawlins books, thirteen not-Easy fiction titles, and three nonfiction, not counting the present volume. A second reason to read Mosley's words of friendly advice is by reading this book you can kill time not writing that novel this year. Luckily, Mosley's compacted seriously good advice into a small package.

Mosley's first lines give one a heap of motivation, even if one is already a published novelist, I would guess. Mosley writes, "Here I will give you all the knowledge I have about writing, and rewriting, fiction." And the last lines, on page 103, just prior to an eight page index: "That's it--everything I know about novel writing in less than 25,000 words. The work is up to you."

This little how-to book offers an hour and half or so of fascinating reading and collegial good will. Mosley constantly reminds his reader about that one year thing. "Every character we meet in this year's novel must have something uniquely human about them" he tells us in the discussion of character development. Again, "Depending on the demands of your story, you may have either similes or metaphors--or both--in your novel (the one you are writing this year)" he notes in the section on showing and telling using rhetorical tropes. And earlier, the famous novelist observes, "My advice is that you use the third-person narrative to write your novel (this year). But of course you will do as your heart tells you to."

No one can force you to sit down and write. Nor to write well. Mosley's first and enduring advice that he returns to at the final page is write every day for a set amount of time. Not that the novelist takes a prescriptivist stance. He distinguishes between the intuitive or unstructured writer who discovers her character, story, motives in the process of laying down the words, and the writer who outlines and crafts a story with so much precision that a reader could ask, "what's going to happen to Lester at the end of the story?" and the structured approach novelist will be able to explain in exact detail what's going to happen in the parts that he hasn't yet written. (Mosley shifts the personal pronoun from "he" to "she" to the occasional "they", as a way of escaping gender bias).

Although Mosley doesn't take a stand on which of these two approaches--structured v. intuitive--works better, his discussion put me in mind of Ana Castillo's talk at IMIX Books in early August, when Castillo described her discipline of writing every day and knowing what was going to happen next in The Guardians, and how her novel would end. I contrast this to Graciela Limon, who, queried why she is so damn tough on her female characters, like Jocasta Ana Calderon, relates, I don't know, I have to wait for my characters to tell me.

Writers and teachers of writing will find This Year You Write Your Novel a provocative resource for exploring bifurcations like the above, and for Mosley's explanations. The novelist doesn't take the Mt. Olympus approach saying to his audience, "take my word for it" when he makes a stand. Sometimes, his explanations fall back on the ineffable, "Details will devour your story unless you find the words that want saying." Le mot juste, and ay 'sta la detalla, isn't that? But more often, Mosley's insights are, if not explict, at least lucid and accessible. For example, the segments on showing and telling clearly illustrate what these phrases mean, apart from the apparently eponymous content of the words themselves:

"Lance Piggott was a large, violent man. His secretary, Verna-Mae Warren, avoided him whenever possible."

That's telling. Now read, in part, what showing looks like:

"Lance Piggott 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 Piggott was indeed an explosion about to happen. His secretary, Verna-Mae Warren, would lean away from him whenever he apporahced her desk or stomped up to her side..."

Mosley will surprise some reader-writers when he talks about the level of detail effective writing requires. He uses a term that some will react to as pejorative: pedestrian. It's all those tiny details of the everyday--pedestrian stuff--that give a character and story enough life to engage a reader and have them turn the page: "The accomplished writer achieves this level of realism by using language that is active and metaphorical, economically emotional yet also pedestrian." He illustrates this per se as well as modeling it throughout the text.

As he starts wrapping up the work, Mosley addresses one of two key issues facing the hungry writer, ignoring the second. The first is writing workshops. "I'm not sure if they are necessary for anyone. Trial and error is how we learn. Workshops are based on failed experiments. You bring in your story or chapter, and everyone, regardless of his or her level of expertise, weighs in on what you did right or wrong." The benefit of a workshop experience, at any rate, what Mosley finds most useful, "was what people, especially the instructor, said about the problems in other students' work" because the writer's ego isn't at stake listening to another's critique, but likely has the same problems.

Mosley doesn't raise what strikes me as the elephant in the room. The writing contest. Mosley admits that getting published requires a literary agent. Winning contests might attract attention, who knows? But how many $20 and $50 entry fees does it take for a writer to discover she has a talent for writing checks? Mosley's own career evidently begins with a bolt out of the blue, "I was studying writing at CCNY when my mentor there, Frederic Tuten, gave the manuscript for Devil in a Blue Dress to his agent. She agreed to represent me. This certainly does not make me an expert on publishing strategies."

Ragged claws upon a ragged ocean writers, let's call this Freshman English, would benefit greatly from reading This Year You Write Your Novel. Composition teachers could readily adapt Mosley's pointers to help kids develop a sense of excellence in term papers, on the theory of "today the term paper, tomorrow..." After all, a teacher can lecture endlessly on Aristotle's canon of invention, arrangement, style, delivery, memory, as the essence of any communicator's method. Building on classical truths, such a teacher can then go on to deconstruct Strunk and White, then toss in a few papers from rhetoric and composition societies. Wonderful stuff all that. Yet, any healthily skeptical kid is going to chafe under the weight of all that theory. Voilá a 100 page book by a hugely accomplished novelist who cherry picks key details that fit somewhere in the profe's syllabus. Go ahead, kids, listen, take notes, ask your TA good questions, study those text books, that's called "telling". Then read the Mosley text, that's showing. Put them together, have a good story, a consistent narrative voice, and ... quien sabe. "The rest is up to you".

"If I knew how to write a great novel, I'd just write the novel instead of telling you about it," goes an old refrain. Walter Mosley, who's written several great novels--A Little Yellow Dog is my personal favorite--turns that bit of folk wisdom on its ear and in the process has crafted an excellent, readable book about a process that, shucks, here I'll give Walter Mosley the last word: "you will write a novel that works. This process will transform you. It will give you confidence, pleasure, a deeper understanding of how you think and feel; it will make you into an artist and a fledgling craftsperson. Maybe it will do more."

Pues, ay 'sta. An inspiring work from one of Unitedstates literature's giants. And here we are, the first Tuesday of September, a day like any other day, except, we are here. See you next week.

ate, mvs

Blogmeister's note: La Bloga's blogueras and blogueros were delighted to learn the president of the Modern Language Association said some interesting things about La Bloga. The address of the association's president recently came to market in this PDF. We appreciate the notice.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Damn, Sedano, making the MLA take note is an achievement.

How you gonna top that?