Most of Walter Mosley’s advice in This Year You Write Your Novel is standard to almost every book on writing or writing class, explaining point of view, going over dialogue and description, and expounding the merits of showing versus telling.
His segment on showing versus telling, for instance, is one of the better ones that I’ve read. Mosley concisely explains why showing is preferable, in most instances, to telling.
I know that there are the sticklers out there among you who will say that everything expressed in words is told, not shown. After all telling is a function of speaking, and writing is nothing but an extension of speech. This is true. But there’s a difference between explanation and verbal action.
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.”
. . . .
“His name was Ishmael” is a flat statement that does not, on its own, draw us in. It is merely a piece of information.
The first example shows something to the reader, or, more accurately, it attempts to include the reader by engaging the reader on a personal level.
Besides drawing the reader into the novel’s world, Mosley explains, narrative that shows adds a “human aspect to its repertoire and, in doing so, includes the reader either emotionally or physically.”
Mosley’s book is also one of the first I’ve read that encourages fiction writers — or any prose writer for that matter — to study poetry seriously. Poetry teaches the writer, Mosley says, to appreciate the subtleties of language.
“Of all writing,” he says, “poetry is the most demanding . . . .In poetry you have to see language as both music and content.”
I was also impressed by Mosley’s differentiating between intuitive writers — those who basically plunge in and discover the story as they write —-and structure writers, who know the whole story from beginning to end, and don’t plunge in until they know it.
Some writing books, as Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream, favor one method over the other. Butler suggests to some extent that the intuitive approach is the only approach that will allow a writer to tap into the creative zone necessary to write without restraint and create art.
“The intuitive and structured methods are equally valid,” Mosley says.
Truthfully, Mosley says, there are probably few writers who are strictly intuitive or structured.
One of my favorite sections of the book is a digression on genre. Mosley doesn’t stash any genre into the literary suburbs. It’s a refreshing outlook—in a refreshing book on writing — not always present in other books on writing, which seem to encourage writers to aspire only to literary writing, whatever that is.
“A novel is a novel is a novel,” he writes. “A crime story is a novel. A romance is a novel. . . .No one who is serious about literature would dismiss One Hundred Years of Solitude for being a fantasy. No one would write off The Stranger because of its courtroom or crime details.”