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Sunday, August 14, 2011

Shadowing Walter Mosley

This Year You Write Your Novel

By Hugh Gilmore

            April 22, 2009. You may recall that in January of 2008 I invited the public to join me in the daily rigors of writing a novel. Though I had wanted to write a novel for a while, my all-or-nothing attitude had blocked me. If I couldn't create something as deeply artistic as Dostoevsky or Flaubert, or good old "F. Scott," I couldn't bear writing something superficial. Or merely "entertaining."
            I got over that when I read Walter Mosley's entertaining and useful little book, This Year You Write Your Novel (112 pages, 2007). I had read numerous writing guides before, but Mosley's book has the special virtues of being simple and patient. He understands all the things that can get in the way of writing a book and offers a sympathetic, and knowing nod. But then he rattles the cage.
            You either want to write or you don't. Everybody has obstacles, problems, crying kids, leaves to rake, other work to do. Yes, that's too bad. Write every day for at least an hour. Same time of day, if possible. First thing you do on arising, he suggests. If you can't think of anything to write, you must at least sit in your writing chair for an hour. Get in the habit. If you write a page or two a day, it adds up soon.
            So, I did. I decided to write a mystery novel. I worked on the book first thing every day, putting in between two and six hours a day, rain or shine. By the end of March last year I had written the entire story, more than 90,000 words. A mere three months to finish a novel!
            But it wasn't very well written. I decided the problem lay in my having chosen First Person point of view to tell the story. Didn't feel right. Plus, First Person limits your ability to say what's on someone else's mind, unless you know a variety of narrative tricks. In April I began rewriting the book using Third Person point of view. I finished that version in mid August.
            "Finished" is a relative term here. The novel continued to need plot doctoring, dialogue sharpening, and character developing. And cuts. Oh boy does that hurt. You can't help but fall in love with clever lines or daring scenes you've written, even if they don't belong in your book and would do better in a book about life on Mars. Out they went. Perhaps some day when I'm dead, but famous, an aspiring Ph.D. student will "discover" the original versions in my saved files. Then the world will admire my wit for creating those clever lines and my good taste in omitting them. The best of both worlds. Too bad I won't be here, but anticipation is its own reward sometimes.
            From August 2008 till late January 2009 I rewrote and revised every day. That process is tedious most of the time and seldom feels like the creative funkiness people envision when you tell them you're writing a novel.
            By the beginning of February, I had taken the story as far as I could. I needed other people's perspectives. For the first time, I let someone read it. My wife, Janet, was the first reader, as she is a good editor and is insightful. She read the book in four sittings and offered suggestions. I rewrote again.
            Janet said she enjoyed the book, but her opinion didn't count since she likes me. I wrote to four other people I knew and asked if they'd read it and comment. They agreed. Three of them are Hillers — Bethany Maloof, Peg Smith, and Tim Moxey — and I met with them on successive nights at the warm and cozy Hill Tavern. I met with Mt. Airyite Shawn Hart at his kitchen table.
            I'm not sure what I had in mind before I met with them, but I supposed I'd take their suggestions about comma placements, or errant spelling, and make some quick changes. They had much more substantial comments than that, however, and I had to work long days for another six weeks to incorporate their ideas. I pared 312 pages, 118,000 words down to 275 pages, 90,000 words. Thirty-seven brilliant pages sacrificed to the god of deletions, but now a polished and gleaming story! So I hope.
            At the end of March, I was finally done. But done what? I now had a box sitting on my desk that contained about 280 pieces of paper. Where do I sign up for fame and fortune? What kind of jacket photo should I use? Maybe I'll go for the Walter Mosley, man-of-mystery look: dark overcoat and snap-brim hat, peering from the harsh shadows.
            In the movies, the aspiring author sends his book off to the publishing company in the morning and waits for the afternoon mail. "Dear Mr. Doubleday," right?
            My real education as a writer of novels was just beginning. Any dolt can write a book. Getting it published is a whole other story.
            To be continued ...

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