On the day I sat down to start writing the third book in the Dave Cubiak Door County Mystery Series, I came across an insightful comment about the process of writing a novel. “It is like reconstructing the whole of Paris from Lego bricks. It’s about three-quarters-of-a-million small decisions. It’s not about who will live and who will die and who will go to bed with whom. Those are the easy ones. It’s about choosing adjectives and adverbs and punctuation. These are molecular decisions that you have to take and nobody will appreciate, for the same reason that nobody ever pays attention to a single note in a symphony in a concert hall, except when the note is false. So you have to work very hard in order for your readers not to note a single false note. That is the business of three-quarters-of-a-million decisions.”
The comment comes from Amos Oz, an international award-winning writer and author of nineteen novels. Oz sets a very high bar and it’s up to us as writers to decide whether to accept the challenge or not. It’s easy enough to get by, to dash off a thought or a scene or even an entire book with barely a glance back, with little regard for what he calls “the small decisions.” But should we? Doesn’t that cheat the writer of the opportunity to excel and deprive the audience of an enjoyable read?
Writing a good, solid book is hard work. Writing well demands concentration, dedication, and perseverance. We’re all capable of doing better, and perhaps that’s the challenge to embrace as the new year unfolds. Not to settle for the mundane. Not to allow ourselves the luxury of good enough. But to strive to write the best we can. To focus on quality not quantity. To create complex characters and intriguing plots. To carve out descriptions rich in detail. To write crisp, realistic dialogue. To research and learn facts essential to the story. And then when we’re finished to go back and rework again and again until the words dance off the page.
Even then, the job of writing isn’t finished. We need to publish, to promote, to slip from the comfortable anonymity of the writer’s cave and venture into public places like bookstores and libraries where readers await with questions and comments. And we need to accept that we are fallible and to accept with humility the typo and the awkward phrase that have slipped past the censure of the author, the editor, and the publisher. Mea culpa, we say and then strive to do better the next time.
Amos Oz is correct. Writing a novel is about making decisions. Good decisions burn the brain. But, oh, the thrill of getting it right! The joy of receiving an email from a stranger who says “I loved your book.” Or of having someone whom you’ve never met approach you after a reading and say “When’s your next book coming out? I can’t wait.”
I love reading really good books. As a writer, I feel an obligation to readers to offer them a well turned story. Even as I can’t wait to get started on book three, my brain aches at the prospect because I know it will be a tough process. But I also know it will be worthwhile because, in the end we reap what we sow.
So it’s onward to making the tough decisions. Onward to good writing in 2015.
Patricia Skalka’s debut novel Death Stalks Door County was short-listed for the Chicago Writers Association 2014 Book of the Year Award and named one of the year’s best mysteries by Kings River Life Magazine. Death at Gills Rock, the second in the Dave Cubiak Mystery Series, will be released in June 2015.