This Year You Write Your Novel

index My husband saw me reading this book and said, “Please tell me you’re not thinking of writing a novel…” After a moment’s reflection on the fun to be had by letting him think I was, I explained why I was taking this little detour into the world of fiction. (The book is only 100 pages long and a very quick read. The guy knows brevity.) Mosley reflects on how important it is for fiction writers to know something about poetry because the precision and creativity of word-use demanded by poetry can improve their fiction. It may be important for academic writers to know a little something about fiction writing, as we can pick up tips that will vastly improve our prose. Here are a few I picked up:

Mosley speaks of the limitations created by “false aesthetics,” which he defines as misplaced or out-of-date things we learned either in school or by imitating other writers—even the past masters—too closely. No matter how great these things are or how well they worked for others, this approach to writing is not fresh and denies you your own voice. It’s a good way to get your readers to tune out.

Mosely emphasizes the importance of engaging your reader, making her care about and become invested in the characters and the plot. The same goes for an article on the Dead Sea Scrolls, a monograph on Pentateuchal composition, or even a short note on an obscure point of Akkadian lexicography or a text-critical problem in Isaiah. Even if our readers come with a pre-packaged interest in what we’re writing about, hooking them is a good way to get them to remember and assimilate what they’ve read. Mosely talks about creating a narrative voice as a key way to do this. A good way to grasp the importance of voice is to think about a conversation with the most boring person you’ve ever met, and then with the most interesting person you’ve ever met. The latter could make a conversation about a postage stamp interesting and memorable. Other than narrative voice, showing your subject matter rather than telling it is also incredibly helpful.

I was also intrigued by his thoughts on dialogue. On the surface of it, this seems the least applicable to academic writing, because we don’t have characters in our prose. Ah, but wait… yes we do. Every time we represent another scholar’s views or, better yet, quote another scholar, we’re inviting voices other than our own into our prose. Often we do this without thinking about why, what we gain from allowing conversations to happen in academic prose. I haven’t fully thought this out, but my sense is there’s a lot to be gained by using quotes more deliberately, both to tap into the benefits of another voice (who perhaps worded something very elegantly) and to move our “plot” along.

A lot of these thoughts dovetail with what Joseph M. Williams, and others have to say about academic prose in this book and this one. While we in academia can’t apply the techniques used by fiction writers in the same way we can use Williams’ books (i.e., like a manual), they can help us think about our writing in a new way. I’m thinking about these things now as I write, and I hope you will, too. Let me know if you have ideas about how to apply them.

This Year You Write Your Novel, by Walter Mosley, Little, Brown, and Company

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