January 2, 2011

How to write a best-seller

I’M SURE YOU MUST HAVE WONDERED, as I often have, how to write a book good enough to win a Pulitzer prize. Well, wonder no more. I have the answer.

I have just read E. Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, published in 1993. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1994. I’m sorry it took me so long to get around the reading it, particularly as it deals with the two subjects I know best, boats and newspapers, but I have no reasonable excuse to offer. Anyway, here’s what I learned from E. Annie:

First you have to look up a lot of obscure little words that will impress the Pulitzer Prize committee with your knowledge of obscure little words. Here are some examples that E. Annie scattered around in her book: Ruvid, plangent, nacre, vetrid, thunge, drenty, sadiron, pelm, caliginous, strigil, and ichor. That’s just for starters. You need lots more than that.

Next you have to persuade your readers to suspend disbelief. There are those of us cynics who simply can’t believe that the main character, a non-swimmer, learned to swim in 15 seconds after his dinghy capsized in the remote freezing waters of Newfoundland and was rescued six hours later by his boss who just happened to be out fishing in his own skiff.

Equally, it would be hard to persuade us that another man, who was drowned, found, declared dead, and later placed in his coffin for the wake, woke up when his wife accidently stuck him with a pin, started coughing up water, and came back to life.

And then there was the man who had a farewell party that got so out of hand that a mob of his drunken friends took axes to his uninsured seagoing yacht in the harbor and actually sank it — and he didn’t mind. Didn’t mind. I ask you.

Furthermore, there’s this thing about knots that goes through the whole book. I have to admit that I believe Turk’s Heads bring good luck, but I simply can’t swallow the notion that knotted strings can cast witching spells, influence events, and foment bad occurrences.

So how you make your readers believe these things — or, at least not mind being told such big fibs? Well, it seems that you have to bombard them with facts.

E. Annie obviously did extensive research into Newfoundland fisheries, boatbuilding, weather, weak jokes, and the staggering incidence of incest and sexual assault in the region. And she never leaves out a fact she researched. Line after line of facts, real facts, whether they have anything to do with the plot or not. Well researched facts are plainly the things that earn Brownie points for pusillanimous Pulitzer wannabees. They cover up the pusillanimity, if you see what I mean. As far as the author is concerned, such lists of boring facts may well be no more than corroborative detail, intended to lend artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative (as Mr. Gilbert put it) but they do serve very well the task of pulling the wool over the eyes of the Pulitzer prize committee, and I commend this strategy to you.

But wait. There is more. If you are writing a love story, as this is, you must be careful not to make your main characters too lovable. I presume the Pulitzer people must have become too jaded after reading so many love stories about curvaceous blonde bombshells and handsome, dashing, muscle men. (Oh, yeccchh!) E. Annie must have known this because she was careful to describe her hero (um, well, main character, anyway) as fat and dishevelled, with a hideous prognathous jaw — a man, moreover, of “cringing hesitancy.” And who was attracted to this timid tub of lard? A middle-aged woman with calloused hands, gray, mended dresses, and “taut thighs like Chinese bridges.” Holy cow. Chinese bridges?

Finally, here’s a hot tip from E. Annie: learn to write shorthand, diary style, in between the long lists of facts and lengthy paragraphs of dialogue. Leave out verbs and other important words, and let your readers make up their own sentences. Here’s what I mean:

“Saw her. The tall woman in the green slicker. Marching along ... A calm almost handsome face, ruddy hair ... Looked right at him.”

Well, that’s the most of it. That’s how you write a Pulitzer winner. There’s only one more thing. You also need to be a genius like Ms. Proulx. You have to understand human nature and the subtle relationships between people; and you need the skill to convey their emotions to your readers, especially the PP committee members who are struggling to see through the wool.

I’ll never win a Pulitzer prize, that’s quite certain, but there may be some of you out there who will benefit from my advice here, and that is sufficient reward for me. I wish you the best of luck.

Today’s Thought
Excellence is the perfect excuse. Do it well, and it little matters what.
— R. W. Emerson

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #141
Diesel engine oil. The rule of thumb is that used oil from a diesel engine should be jet black, and no other color. If, after a few hours, it is brown, milky, or some other color, seek expert advice as soon as possible.

“What’s that mark on your nose.”
“I get it from glasses.”
“Why don’t you try contacts?”
“They don’t hold enough beer.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


M.F. Tedesco said...

After reading your article I must sadly conclude that even my fantasies of winning the "P" prize have left me.
This was my first revelation of the new year.




Mr Margaritamancy said...

All sounds much like mallemaroking to me.

John Vigor said...

Well Mr. M., you had me beat for a while there. But yes, mallemaroking sounds much like the kind of carousing that preceded the sinking of the yacht in The Shipping News. Wasn't in my dictionaries, though. Thank goodness for Google.

John V.