Here’s a bit of writer’s advice by multiple award-winning author Walter Mosley from his 2007 book on writing, This Year You Write Your Novel, published by Little, Brown and Company.
An excerpt from the first chapter follows.
The General Disciplines That Every Writer Needs
Writing every day
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 mind.
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. Getting your words down on the page takes time. How much? I write three hours every morning. It’s the first thing I do, Monday through Sunday, fifty-two weeks a year. Some days I miss but rarely does this happen more than once a month. Writing is a serious enterprise that takes a certain amount of constancy and rigor.
But will and regularity are only the beginnings of the discipline and rewards that daily writing will mean for you.
The most important thing I’ve found about writing is that it is primarily an unconscious activity. What do I mean by this? I mean that a novel is larger than your head (or conscious mind). The connections, moods, metaphors, and experiences that you call up while writing will come from a place deep inside you. Sometimes you will wonder who wrote those words. Sometimes you will be swept up by a fevered passion relating a convoluted journey through your protagonist’s ragged heart. These moments are when you have connected to some deep place within you, a place that harbors the zeal that made you want to write to begin with.
The way you get to this unconscious place is by writing every day. Or not even writing. Some days you may be rewriting, rereading, or just sitting there scrolling back and forth through the text. This is enough to bring you back into the dream of your story.
What, you ask, is the dream of a story? This is a mood and a continent of thought below your conscious mind-a place that you get closer to with each foray into the words and worlds of your novel.
You may have spent only an hour and a half working on the book, but the rest of the day will be rife with motive moments in your unconsciousness-moments in your mind, which will be mulling over the places your words have touched. While you sleep, mountains are moving deep within your psyche. When you wake up and return to the book, you will be amazed by the realization that you are further along than when you left off yesterday.
If you skip a day or more between your writing sessions, your mind will drift away from these deep moments of your story. You will find that you’ll have to slog back to a place that would have been easily attained if only you wrote every day.
Some days you will sit down and nothing will come-that’s all right. Some days you’ll wish you had given yourself more time-that’s okay too. You can always pick up tomorrow where you left off today.
In order to be a writer, you have to set up a daily routine. Put aside an amount of time (not less than an hour and a half) to sit with your computer or notebook. I know that this is difficult. Some of you live in tight spaces with loved ones. Some of you work so hard that you can’t see straight half the time. Some of you have little ones who might need your attention at any time of the day or night.
I wish I had the answers to these problems. I don’t. All I can tell you is that if you want to finish your novel this year, you have to write each and every day.
Learning how to write without restraint
Self-restraint is what makes it possible for society to exist. We refrain, most of the time, from expressing our rage and lust. Most of us do not steal or murder or rape. Many words come into our minds that we never utter-even when we’re alone. We imagine terrible deeds but push them out of our thoughts before they’ve had a chance to emerge fully.
Almost all adult human beings are emotionally restrained. Our closest friends, our coworkers, and our families never know the brutal and deviant urges and furies that reside in our breasts.
This restraint is a good thing. I know that my feelings are often quite antisocial. Sometimes I just see someone walking down the street and the devil in me wants to say things that would be awful to hear. No good would come from my expressing these asocial instincts-at least not usually.
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 many more must, at times, crowd the writer’s mind.
Your protagonist, for instance, may at a certain moment despise his mother. “She stinks of red wine and urine,” he thinks. “And she looks like a shriveled, pitted prune.”
This is an unpleasant sentiment, to be sure. But does it bring your hero’s character into focus? This is the only question that’s important. And there’s no getting around it. Your characters will have ugly sides to them; they will be, at times, sexually deviant, bitter, racist, cruel.
“Sure,” you say, “the antagonists, the bad guys in my book, will be like that but not the heroes and heroines.”
The story you tell, the characters you present, will all have dark sides to them. If you want to write believable fiction, you will have to cross over the line of your self-restraint and revel in the words and ideas that you would never express in your everyday life.
Our social moorings aren’t the only things that restrain our creative impulses. We are also limited by false aesthetics: those notions that we have developed in schools and libraries, and from listening to critics that adhere to some misplaced notion of a literary canon. Many writers come to the discipline after having read the old, and new, masters. They read Dickens and Melville, Shakespeare and Homer. From these great books of yore, they develop tics and reflexes that cause their words to become stiff and unnatural.
Many writers, and teachers of writing, spend so much time comparing work to past masters that they lose the contemporary voice of the novel being created on this day.
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.
Don’t get me wrong-you can read anything and learn from it. But your learning will also come from modern songs, newscasts, magazine articles, and conversations overheard on the street. A novel is a pedestrian work about the everyday lives of bricklayers and saints.
Another source of restraint for the writer is the use of personal confession and the subsequent guilt that often arises from it. Many writers use themselves, their families, and their friends as models for the characters they portray. 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.
This would-be novelist has betrayed herself in order that she not tell the story that has been clawing its way out from her core. She would rather not commit herself to the truth that she has found in the rigor of writing every day.
This form of restraint is common and wholly unnecessary.
To begin with, your mother is not reading what you have written. These words are your private preserve until the day they’re published.
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 may 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.
Don’t let any feeling keep you from writing. Don’t let the world slow you down. Your story is the most important thing coming down the line this year. It’s your year-make the most of it.
Avoidance, false starts, and dead-end thinking
Many writers-in-waiting spend a lot of time avoiding the work at hand. The most common way to avoid writing is by procrastination. This is the writer’s greatest enemy. There is little to say about it except that once you decide to write every day, you must make yourself sit at the desk or table for the required period whether or not you are putting down words. Make yourself take the time even if the hours seem fruitless. Ideally, after a few days or weeks of being chained to the desk, you will submit to the story that must be told.
Straightforward procrastination is an author’s worst enemy, but there are others: the writer who suddenly has chores that have gone undone for months but that now seem urgent; the diarist who develops a keen wish to write about her experiences today instead of writing her book; the Good Samaritan who realizes that there’s a world out there that needs saving; the jack-of-all-trades who, when he begins one project, imagines ten others that are equally or even more important.
Forget all that. Don’t write in the journal unless you’re writing a chapter of your book. Save the world at 8:30 instead of 7:00. Let the lawn get shaggy and the paint peel from the walls.
For that time you have set aside to write your novel, don’t do anything else. Turn the ringer off on your phone. Don’t answer the doorbell. Tell your loved ones that you cannot be disturbed. And if they cannot bear to live without you, go write in a coffee shop or library. Rent a room if you have to-just make the time to write your book.
A final note about process
The process of writing a novel is like taking a journey by boat. You have to continually set yourself on course. If you get distracted or allow yourself to drift, you will never make it to the destination. It’s not like highly defined train 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.
(continued in the book)