Procrastinating as I often do, I went book-hunting in the city library recently, looking for how-to books on writing. What tips could I pick up, what had I missed, where was I going wrong..?
Among the books I brought home was This Year You Write Your Novel by Walter Mosley (author of, among other things, Devil in a Blue Dress, later made into a Denzel Washington film which I haven’t seen but should – detection in 1940s LA, just my kind of thing). You can tell from the title that this is a no-nonsense book from a man who is not prepared to take any of your pathetic excuses, like the one that mentions how many writing books you need to read before you get going. It’s a short book (about 100 pages) but he could have made it shorter, maybe one page that said ‘Shut up and write. No-one else is going to do it for you’.
I don’t mean to make Mosley sound harsher than he is, I think it’s a good book. This isn’t a book full of exercises (in fact I think there’s only one), but it does give you pointers and lots to think about. Including the importance of poetry in writing fiction – not something I’d thought much about, and I don’t read poetry very often these days, but it’s true that it’s a good way of learning how to use just the right number of words in just the right combination to say what you mean (preferably with additional layers), as well as getting a feel for the rhythm of language. He uses an example story to keep coming back to throughout the book to illustrate different things, stresses the importance of a regular writing routine and gives useful, detailed advice on redrafting. Crucially for me, he also mentions 3 months (the deadline I’d given myself for the first draft of my detective novel) as a reasonable time in which to produce a first draft.
A complete contrast to Mosley’s angle is Writing Fiction by Linda Anderson and Derek Neale; it’s an Open University book, and you can tell. It’s two hundred pages packed with exercises and points to consider, enough to generate years’ worth of inspiration, and it sets about it all in a systematic teacherly sort of way which I found reassuring. Although I loathed and detested English Literature at school, I even found the sections of this book where they present an extract from a novel or short story interesting. A couple of paragraphs, or an exchange of dialogue, are laid before the reader with questions to have in mind beforehand, then a brief analysis afterwards. The key (for me) is that there’s no picking every word apart for meanings that aren’t really there, just a study of rhythm, pace, and technique which you can learn from. Even on a first read-through, without doing any of the exercises, I found myself jotting ideas down, and I know I’ll come back to this book when I’ve got more time to experiment.
Of course we all know by now where I was going wrong: I was reading about writing, not just sitting down and doing it. Back to the typeface.