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
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
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
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
, 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
4. Develop craftsmanship through years of wide
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
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.
Labels: Bafta, Brokeback Mountain, Golden globe, Milano, Postcards, Pulitzer Prize, The Shipping News, U.S. National Book Award