Annie Proulx: 5 Techniques for Good Craftsmanship

Bafta, Brokeback Mountain, Golden globe, Milano, Postcards, Pulitzer Prize, The Shipping News, U.S. National Book Award, Uncategorized

Annie Proulx (born August 22, 1935) is an American journalist and author. Her second novel, The Shipping News (1993), won both the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction and was adapted as a 2001 film of the same name starring Kevin Spacey, Judi Dench, and Julianne Moore. Her short story “Brokeback Mountain” was adapted as an Academy Award, BAFTA and Golden Globe Award-winning major motion picture released in 2005. She won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for her first novel, Postcards.
Proulx didn’t start writing until she was in her fifties and her method is slow and measured, as you will see. She has written many short stories, as well as novels and she has five pieces of advice which, she says, contribute to producing a quality product. Here they are:
1.     Proceed slowly and take care.
This piece of advice would militate against those writers who prefer to power through the writing of a novel or short story with the intention of going back later and sorting any anomalies. Of course the problem with the blast-it method is that if you’re not careful you can end up writing a load of irreparable twaddle and have to scrap it and start again.
On the other hand, if you decide to take Annie’s advice, there is a danger if you take things too slowly that you lose momentum and possibly even interest, and abandon the project before you reach the end.
What’s needed, it seems, is a balance where you write carefully, but steadily, keeping the thrust and energy you have for the project high. That way you can potentially get the best of both worlds: a quality product finished on time.
2.     To ensure that you proceed slowly, write by hand.
I don’t think I could do this now. I’m so used to typing what I write that it would seem unnecessarily redundant to write by hand and then type up what I had written. There’s also the problem of handwriting. Quite often I can’t read chunks of what I wrote in the first place because it’s just a scribble or a scrawl, so the exercise would be pointless. You might argue that if you’re writing slowly  – which handwriting a text would definitely achieve for me – then I would have time to write coherently and in a way that is legible afterwards. You may have a point. Nevertheless, it’s a big ask. A solution might be to simply make sure that when you write, you think about how you are writing as well as what you are writing. In other words, type away by all means but be careful to make sure, as you go along, that each sentence is the best it can be.
It’s true that you can always go back later and edit what you’ve written in the hope that you can improve it. But what I’ve found is that if the material I’m working with isn’t of a high quality to begin with, no amount of tinkering will improve it sufficiently to be satisfactory.
3.     Write slowly and by hand only about subjects that interest you.
I guess this goes by the principle that if you’re not interested in what you’re writing about then neither will your readers be. Fair comment. On the other hand, I usually find, if I’m writing a novel, say, and I come across a part of the story that I need to research, then I may not start out being interested in that subject to begin with. But then as I research a subject I begin to get more interested and gradually become a minor expert – or at least informed amateur. For one of my novels, Milano, I needed to research how to pick locks, which I had very little interest in at the start. I ordered the requisite manuals online which told me how to go about it and about the different types of locks etc. I even went so far as to order a set of lock picks and had a go at opening every locked door in the house. I found out that if I happened to be locked in a room and my life depended on my ability to open the door with improvised tools, then I was a goner! Nevertheless, I learned the principles and that was enough to represent it convincingly – and even enthusiastically – in the novel. As it turned out the novel didn’t go into a lot of boring detail about it – thank goodness – but gave enough detail to sound plausible.
4.     Develop craftsmanship through years of wide reading.
It’s interesting that she talks here about craftsmanship and not just reading for the fun of it. It goes without saying that you should read the genre of writing that you want to write yourself. But here she’s talking about wide reading. I guess reading even nonfiction is on the cards and so is poetry, novels and short stories. But it’s not just reading for reading’s sake. It’s studying the craftsmanship that other writers possess, how they achieve their effects, the quality of their words, phrases and sentences. Then it’s a case of trying to achieve the same in your own writing.
5.     Rewrite and edit until you achieve the most felicitous phrase / sentence / paragraph / page / story / chapter.
Editing is a skill in itself and only becomes useful through practice. It is almost impossible to competently edit something you’ve just written – although that is exactly what I used to do as a freelance journalist when time was pressing and deadlines loomed. It helps if, once you have finished a piece – be it a short story, a novel, a poem or a piece of nonfiction, you leave it for a while and detach a little from it. After all, you have spent maybe weeks or months on the thing and may find yourself very reluctant to sully its pristine perfection with amendments. Nevertheless, it pays to be brutally honest. If something doesn’t work, cut it out. If you haven’t got quite the right word or phrase to describe what you mean to say, spend some time coming up with a better one.
Like most advice, Annie Proulx’s is more or less difficult to put into practice depending on who you are, how serious you are about writing, how long you have been writing, and whether you care much about the quality of your writing in the first place.


5 rookie mistakes when writing a novel

Lab Rat, Milano, novel writing, Oscar Wilde, outline, punctuation grammar, Uncategorized
“I quite admit that modern novels have many good points. All I insist on is that, as a class, they quite unreadable.” Oscar Wilde




They say that everyone has a novel inside of them. Could this be the reason for the epidemic of heartburn that pharmaceutical companies are constantly telling us about? It may be true that many  people think they have an idea for a novel, but there are very few people who actually take the brave step of going ahead and writing one. If you feel that you have a story that you would like to write, before you start it is worth bearing in mind the following obstacles to successfully getting it down in writing.
1. Not having a clear idea of where the story is going
The first novel I wrote, Lab Rat, was created mainly during lunch breaks. The company I worked for allowed employees an hour for lunch and during this generous time endowment I would sit at my desk and type away at the rate of about 500-600 words per day. When I got to around the fifty-thousand-word mark I stopped to consider what I was doing. Basically I was busy creating a monster of a novel that had more cast members than Ben Hur and meandered along its merry way creating problems that were never really solved by any of the characters. I had no idea where the story was leading and there was not even the slightest hope of plot resolution even in the distant future. It was at that point that I decided to draw up an outline and follow it to conclusion. Well, eventually I finished writing the novel and left it for several years before I went back and tried to grapple with it again. It was a mammoth task knocking it into shape, that involved cutting out about thirty characters, conflating timescales and eradicating from the text passages that seemed pretty good but were irrelevant.
There are a lot of people who say that to write a novel all you need to do is start writing. They talk about the author discovering the story as he or she goes along and allowing the characters to dictate the plot. That is all very well but quite often what you end up with is a primordial soup of a novel that needs so much work to rectify its deficiencies that it’s like writing it all over again. Either that or you end up with a novel that is unreadable and ultimately unsatisfying for the reader.
I’ve nothing against trying out a chapter or two first, without any clear aim in mind, but what I’ve found is that the sooner you sit down and write out an outline of the plot the better the book will be and the fewer drastic changes that are needed when you’ve finished.
2. Not tying up loose ends
It’s a tricky exercise writing a novel and it is easy to get lost in the labyrinth of plot points and forget to bring to completion some part of the action that you kicked off earlier. That’s another good reason to come up with an outline. With one novel I wrote, Milano, about an art heist, I even went so far as to draw up a chart of each scene. The succession of events was complicated and the chart helped me to keep track of everything that was mentioned early in the novel and make sure that it was brought to a satisfactory solution in the end.
3. Not finishing what you started
There must be thousands of desk drawers throughout the world containing the manuscripts of novels that were never finished. This can happen for a number of reasons. Many people dabble at writing a novel but don’t have enough confidence in their ability or they are daunted by the apparent immensity of the task before them and the endeavor slowly fades into nothingness.
One thing I’ve found that helps is treating writing as a professional activity rather than a pastime. That way, you can justify the time you carve out for writing without feeling guilty about it. Conversely, it also places some responsibility on your shoulders and forces you to write when you’re supposed to, without shirking.
Another thing that helps is if you plan to write a certain amount each day, or each weekend, or whenever it is that is a good time for you to write. That gives you a target to aim for and also gives you a sense of achievement when you’ve completed the task.
It also helps if you tell other people about your novel-writing project. It gives you some accountability, since they well might ask you how it’s going. You might even end up writing because you’re ashamed to face what other people might say if you give up. Which is all grist to the mill.
4. Including characters who are too similar
This is more to do with the nuts and bolts of your novel, rather the writing process itself. I don’t know about you but if I come across characters in a novel who have similar sounding names I get confused. I get confused even if the names have the same initial letter. In my own novels what I have tried to do is come up with a set of names that have different initial letters just to keep it clear in the mind of the reader whom everybody is.
Of course, that doesn’t really help much if two characters are very similar in other ways. For example, you might have two tall, dark, brooding protagonists who have a similar line in dialogue. That too can confuse the reader.
The same thing can happen if your novel involves a cast of family members. Sometimes that too can be difficult to straighten out in the reader’s mind.
The key is to give each character not just different names, but different characteristics and make sure that you periodically refer back to those characteristics. It can also help if you reiterate their relationship to the other characters by referring to previous incidents that have occurred in the novel that they were involved in.
5. Bad punctuation and/or grammar
Ah, this is a bit of a bugbear, isn’t it. Basically, if you produce a novel that has defective grammar and/or punctuation, it is never going to get published – unless you decide to publish it independently yourself. But even then, it will most likely garner one-star reviews if there are glaring textual defects like that.
If you are not very good at grammar and punctuation, it is a good idea to study it. One of the best grammar and punctuation manuals, I’ve found, is the Chicago Manual of Style. It goes into detail about every aspect of correct usage and syntax. A different edition is published every year or so, but you can purchase previous editions very cheaply from online bookstores.
If you are still stumped about how to write proper English, don’t despair. You can always write your novel and then hand it to an editor to correct for you. Yes, it might cost you a few bucks but you have the satisfaction of knowing that when you submit it to a publisher at least it’s in decent shape.
So if you have a novel inside you, don’t just reach for the Zantac. Get it down in writing – or typing – but remember the above points. They could just save you hours of heartache and pain.