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Elements of Fiction, by Walter Mosley

This entry is part 10 of 56 in the series 2022 Reads

As with other posts in this series, these #booksread2022 posts go anywhere from a few weeks to a month after I’ve read them. I read this particular book last week, though! 

Elements of Fiction was okay for what it is, but what is it?

It’s a followup to an earlier book by Walter Mosley, This Year You Write Your Novel. The title should tell you that this earlier book is aimed at someone early in the process of becoming a writer, and my impression is that Elements of Fiction is, too. It’s a very short read: the ebook I borrowed from the local library was only 93 pages long, and they went by quickly.  

A lot of Mosley’s thoughts are fine, I guess, but they’re ideas most people encounter in their first university writing workshop or writing group. (This makes it a bit ironic when he spends a page or two slamming academic Creative Writing programs. Then again, Mosley’s book costs less than a workshop course.) He’s right, though, that classes aren’t necessary to become a writer. I think he overstates it when he claims they can ruin one: I don’t know anyone who was ruined by a workshop, though I do know a few people who decided they didn’t want to write anymore and quit after one. He also makes the bizarre claim that instructors never tell students when they don’t need to take creative writing classes, which is nonsense. Off the top of my head, I can think of a several instructors who’ve told students, “You don’t need this class.”

(Hell, even one of my instructors told me that. To say so is not to brag: I had stuff I still needed to learn, but that course didn’t offer what I needed, because it was pitched to people earlier in their writing development. I’m just saying that I’m pretty sure this kind of thing happens a lot more than Mosley seems to think.1 In fact, when I’ve seen students enrolled in classes inappropriate to their level, it was almost always because administration required it…but Mosley’s picking on profs because they’re the public face of the university, I guess… or because they’re writers who didn’t “make it” enough to survive on commercial sales, maybe.) 

There are a few noteworthy observations, even if they’re more noteworthy because of how he phrases them: how prose fiction needs to have some “poetry” in it, or how there’s a “second voice” in a novel—the implied “voice” that whispers nuances, details, rhymes between situations or dilemmas into the text. I also also appreciated his discussion of improvisation as a writerly skill, how he quite naturally—without making a big deal out of it—noted some of the techniques and expectations for genre fiction differ from literary fiction, and that a lot of this has to do with what details the author chooses to include. (Mosley does sometimes write SF and mainstream fiction, though as far as I know he’s much better known for his mystery novels.)

The real issue, for me, is that a lot of the book ends up kind a loose grab-bag of homespun wisdom about various elements of fiction—that is, the “lore” of how to do “good writing.” I think writing education is hobbled by too much of that… but I also think that it can be handy for beginning writers to see a specific writer talk about the “rules” or best practices for traditional fiction writing, less because it drives home what the so-called “rules” are (though I guess the smart writer can start unlearning them sooner), than because of the volumes spoken by the omissions and inclusions each writer makes in relaying this lore.  

Overall, though, if you’re an experienced writer who’s participated in workshops or writer’s groups, or if you’ve read a reasonable number of books on the writing craft, this book probably isn’t intended for you. It won’t hurt you, but you’ll probably get less out of it than someone a bit earlier in their writing journey. 

I should confess: I’ve never actually read Mosley’s fiction. Curiously, my local library has a copy of this book for loan, but none of the man’s fiction work as far as I could find. (I’m limited to ebook loans right now, but maybe they have some in print, I don’t know.)

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  1. Another example: Sarah Schulman says that when she signed up for a writing class with Grace Paley, the day she shared her work Paley asked her to come to her office after class and then told her, “Look, you’re really a writer… You don’t need this class. Go home.” Profs don’t actually want a student in their class who has nothing to learn: they can be problem students, or intimidate others, or derail the class, or even just poison it with the eventual boredom. I know I’ve personally told students who didn’t need a class they were enrolled that it’d be better for them it if they took a course suited to their level, and once when I had an advanced writer enrolled in a beginner-level course because they needed the credit, for everyone’s sake I let that student pursue a semi-supervised course of independent study.)

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