Walter Mosley’s Advice to Novelists (from Poets & Writers Magazine)

Best-selling author Walter Mosley lays out some strategies for the first-time novelist in the latest issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. The full article is not yet available online, but all the writers who read this blog should be subscribers anyway — what are you waiting for? Here are some highlights to whet your appetite:

The most important thing I’ve found about writing is that it is primarily an unconscious activity….I mean that a novel is larger than your head (or conscious mind). The connections, mood, 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 in the first place.

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….

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….

The writer, however, must loosen the bonds that have held her back all these years. Sexual lust, hate for your own children, the desire to taste the blood of your enemy — all of these things and many more must, at times, crowd the writer’s mind….

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.”

Not so.

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….


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 friends as models for the characters they portray….She (the writer) wades in, telling the story in all of its truth and ugliness but then, feeling guilt, backs away from it, muddying the water….

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….

[But] you should wait until the book is finished before making a judgment on its content. By the time you have rewritten the text twenty times the characters may have developed lives of their own, completely separate from the people you based them on in the beginning.

A whole book of writing advice from Mosley, This Year You Write Your Novel, is forthcoming from Hachette Book Group in April. (But do I have time to read it and follow his advice to write 90 minutes a day? And here I felt so proud of myself for writing once a week!)

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