by Kevin Carollo
Coming in at around half the length of Chris Baty’s novel-in-a-month plan No Plot? No Problem!, Walter Mosley’s deliberately slim tome on writing a novel over the course of a year is an odd bird. The difference in approach between the two can be glimpsed in the titles alone. Mosley’s uses no punctuation, while Baty’s avails itself of a question mark, an exclamation point, and follows with “A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days.” Both books aim for the creation of shorter, manageable novel lengths (50,000 words or so), and both offer useful advice to the beginning novelist about getting started, developing characters, and taking the next step once the first draft is completed.
There is decidedly less velocity and caffeine in This Year You Write Your Novel, which, like the title of the short story collection You’ve Got to Read This!, can be read either as motivational or as a mild form of punishment. Mosley saves the exclamation points for some shining moment off the page in the uncertain future—and, curiously enough, for this slightly threatening exhortation to the reader at the outset: “If you want to finish this novel of yours within a year, you have to get to work! There’s not a moment to lose. There’s no time to wait for inspiration.” Gee, Mose, do I have to? But the “congratulations” he offers on page 95 don’t get an exclamation point. This must be because his answer to the question “When am I finished rewriting?” doesn’t have one either: “Never. The novel never attains the level of perfection. No matter how much you rewrite and rewrite again . . .” He’s right, of course, and by now we get it. Mosley seems so intent on not getting anyone’s hopes up, so invested in being the staid practitioner, that one becomes curious as to why he wrote the book in the first place.
To be sure, novels are odd birds, and the idea of writing about how to write a novel rather than actually writing a novel is perhaps an even odder undertaking. And now you’re reading something about reading books about writing books, and this, too, seems odd. What will make readers turn the next page of your writing? Moreover, what makes you, the first reader of your work, want to write the next page? Having penned 25 books, Mosley understands the charge that comes with writing electrifying fiction, and he knows the intensity and intimacy of the craft. He may wear his age on his sleeve a bit, but overall his pointers are sage, concise, and grounded. Where Baty encourages turning the internal editor off for the first draft and month, Mosley gets us looking at the trees in the forest, and the forest reflected in every tree. The rewrite is where the real writing begins for him. The charge is up to you.
Mosley insists that one should write every day, for at least an hour and a half. That’s every day, 52 weeks a year. Still reading? To write is first and foremost to commit to writing. Mosley also confesses to taking six poetry seminars during his MFA days, and he “still can’t write even a passable poem.” He does this to champion poetry and poetry workshops as a way for novelists to get close to language and make every line of their prose sing. Reading poetry and reading widely is great advice for everyone, and specifically validating for those who naturally love to explore multiple genres.
After providing an array of examples on crafting a paragraph, Mosley offers a solitary exercise aimed at revising “flatness in the prose.” By this point, he is confident that readers can turn the following three sentences of “flaccid prose . . . into something more”:
I went to the store and bought a dozen apples. After that I came home and decided to call Marion. She told me that she was busy and so she couldn’t make it to the dance.
I realize I’m writing a book review and not a novel right now, but let’s see what happens if I try to harden these lines up:
After two months wandering the produce section of Ultra-Max, I finally decided on a dozen apples, my least favorite fruit. I called Marion in the parking lot to tell her how they found me and what I’d seen, but she was too preoccupied with the fact that her nails and hair had stopped growing to care. She was afraid she might be dead and not know it, and this would somehow interfere with our apparently busy schedules as citizens of Greater Max. “Can ghosts still dance?” she asked hopefully. I couldn’t remember.
It will never be perfect, but I like it so far. It makes me want to say “Thank you, Mose!”—with an unnecessary exclamation point and everything. Now go write your novel, and have a blast.
Note: The reviewer of This Year You Write Your Novel has just finished writing an awesome crime novel entitled Pull Tabs. He is currently writing a book tentatively entitled You Will Never—And I Mean Fucking Never!—NOT Write Your Awesome Novel Now!!! It will never be published, or completed. Never! Please send tax-free ten-dollar donations to Rain Taxi for your free personalized excerpt (lengths may vary). Somewhere on your check or in your email, write “YWN-AIMFN!-NWYANN!!!” Brief personal information or anecdotes about your situation are also appreciated. I’m totally serious.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007