October 11, 2016

How to write a best-seller

WHEN PEOPLE ASK ME how to write a best-seller, I usually point them at E. Annie Proulx, who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1994 for her novel The Shipping News.
This book deals with the two subjects I know best, boats and newspapers. 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 find it very hard to 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 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. E. Annie must have known this because she was careful to describe her hero (um, well, main character, anyway) as fat and disheveled, 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 the 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

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


SV Pelagia said...

"suspend belief"?

... then you really haven't been to Newfoundland (and Labrador)

Eric said...

Wow, what a complicated process.
Wouldn't it just be simpler to be a crippled, black, hispanic, female, orphan, non-Christian/Jew, with undefined sexual preferences, who was bullied, can't read or write yet wants to be a writer, who just happens to produce a one time, completely unrealistic, over-long story filled with words everyone has to look up, writing about social situations in which individual integrity is less important than group acceptance, while having some un-provable connection to the voting committee?
Yes, the "judges" are absolutely honest.
Just write a story "they" want to project to the world, and be THE person, "they" want to make famous. it's that simple. (it will help if you are part of the "borg")
Frankly, the PP has been a joke since they awarded the prize to Harper Lee in 1961, for a story Truman Capote wrote over a weekend, after he saw her useless manuscript To Set A Watchman and his/her publisher spent six months filling in the blanks of his 5000 words.

Mike K said...

It's the same in my neck of the woods. Can't be a serious award winning writer unless you can '├žonstruct' dense novels with 'complicated' characters exhibiting all manner of emotional scars and vices, all due of course to being a member of an oppressed and marginalised minority within a cold and uncaring society and a storyline as dark as possible.

Meanwhile I have a tradition of reading great stories to my daughter over many years. We've done The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, bought all of Arthur Ransome's books and have got through Swallows and Amazons, Swallowdale, Peter Duck, Winter Holiday and are currently reading Coot Club. Wonderful stories full of adventure. Yes Ransome's are a little sanitised (the matter of ablutions while boating/camping is conveniently forgotten), and sometimes unrealistic (Peter Duck) but the characters have a sense of genuineness about them, the imagery is vivid, what is hinted at and left unsaid is often delightfully rich and the tales are uplifting rather than the depressing/violent/sexually interwoven dirges that seem to abound these days. They have inspired her into learn to sail courses (though being able to wear a gold, two silver and a bronze medal belonging to our recent Olympic sailors may have also been a contributing factor!)
Meanwhile Mr. Ransome's books are sneered at as superficial/idealistic/ probably racist and naive by the learned literary figures of today. No matter. We've still got quite a few to go and will enjoy them all.