The Way to Finish a Book: Three Questions with Bruce DeSilva

Bruce DeSilva

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a mystery writer?

My years in journalism taught me that writing is a job—something you do whether you feel like it or not. You do not wait to be inspired. You do not search for your muse. You just plant your ass in your chair and write. The corollary for a novelist is to set a daily goal and stick to it. For me, that means writing 2,000 good words a day. If I do it in two hours, I get the rest of the day off. When the writing comes hard, I stay behind the keyboard until I reach my goal. That’s the only way I can finish a book.

What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

That I have learned much of what I know about my craft from musicians. I could ramble on at length about all I have learned about tone, mood, pacing, story architecture, characterization, and economy of language from the likes of Otis Redding, Carol King, Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan, and hundreds of others. I am obsessed with how different the same song can be when it is performed by different artists. When the Chiffons belt out “One fine day, you’re gonna want me for your girl,” you KNOW it’s going to happen. But when Natalie Merchant croons the same lyrics set to the same melody, you realize it’s just a pipe dream. There are hundreds of examples of performers taking someone else’s song and making it their own. This, more than anything else, helped me find my voice as a writer.

If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a mystery writer, what would it be and why?

As a journalist, I was a planner. I often outlined, and I usually wrote the ending first so I knew where I was going. As a novelist, I never plan. I just start with a general idea of what a book will be about and set my characters loose to see what happens. As I move from paragraph to paragraph, from chapter to chapter, I’m like a scent hound. (I know that’s a simile, not a metaphor, but I’ve always been a rebel.) I stop to sniff at every bush, every character, every turn in the road. Like a dog on a walk, I explore the world I am creating, discovering my story as I go. If I knew how it was going to end before I started, my desire to write the book would evaporate.

Bruce DeSilva grew up in a tiny Massachusetts mill town where the mill closed when he was ten. He had an austere childhood bereft of iPods, X-Boxes, and all the other cool stuff that hadn’t been invented yet. In this parochial little town, metaphors and alliteration were also in short supply. Nevertheless, his crime fiction, which include “Rogue Island,” “Providence Rag,” “Cliff Walk,” “A Scourge of Vipers,” and most recently, “The Dread Line,” has won the Edgar and Macavity Awards; has been listed as a finalist for the Shamus, Anthony, and Barry Awards; and has been published in ten foreign languages. He has reviewed books for The New York Times Sunday Book Review, the New York Journal of Books, and The Associated Press. Previously he was a journalist for forty years, most recently as writing coach world-wide for AP, editing stories that won nearly every major journalism prize including the Polk and the Pulitzer.

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