Novel Writing Tips & Advice From Annie Proulx.

Sep 17, 2017
 

There is a commonality to the writing writer’s writing life. It is a love of reading and the joy of the craft and getting better at it.

The joy of the craft comes from daily tickling. Tickling that joy with good habits and wise reading is what we do at The Novelry for 90 days on the trot, then it’s there for life.

A funny bone, on the house.

It took Annie Proulx almost 60 years to write a novel. In the video interview, she says she's still learning; it's her life.

Proulx briefly went to college in the early 1950s, but left to get married. There were two further marriages, all of them unhappy. She raised three sons alone. It was a time of grinding poverty.

'I had a talent for choosing the wrong people . . . I'm just the sort of person who should never be married. I like living by myself. It's odd, but I think in my whole life I have had almost no one understand what I was trying to do with the writing, or why it was so intensely important to me. So it was always something that I kept to myself; not a secret vice, but certainly a secret pleasure.


 'I was always a reader - an omnivorous, greedy one. It's probably natural for readers to move into writing, and that's essentially what happened to me. When I finally did have some time to explore what I liked to do, I knew it certainly wasn't going to be an academic life of any sort. Creating people out of nothing and putting them on paper seemed like an amusing and interesting thing to do. And I could continue with research. So it was more a redrawing of myself in another persona.'

To write, Proulx rises at 4am, lights the fire and makes coffee. She writes by hand, adding phrases and looping new words into the margin; she claims that it is easier to make a natural judgement of the material that way. She writes until about 11am, and in the afternoon types up what she has written. She reworks over and over, attacking each slack sentence sometimes 30 or 40 times.

Her life is sustained by books. And books - novels, dictionaries, biographies, mysteries and scientific arcana - spill out of every shelf.

'Writing novels is a great deal of fun. The play element in it for me is very large.'

The Shipping News was an experiment in writing a novel with a happy ending, after Proulx had received feedback that her first novel seemed dark. She set out to explore a kind of happiness based on the absence of pain instead of the presence of euphoria or glory.

 ‘The entire book is set up to make a lack of misery seem like blinding happiness. At the same time, that is what most of us settle for in life -- a situation that may not be ecstatically glorious and joyful but is nonetheless not painful. ‘

She likes to place her characters against a backdrop of great "mass"—whether it be an overpowering social change or a massive landscape.

Proulx credits The Ashley Book of Knots for helping this novel idea take shape. She found the book at a yard sale for 25 cents. The Shipping News took three years to write. It began with her first trip to the Great Peninsula in 1988, where she was totally overcome by the uniqueness of this geographic setting. The book was the result of nine extended trips to Newfoundland. She felt deeply fascinated by the harsh living conditions and the warmth of the old fishing families. The rising tension between centuries of isolation and the invasion of modern civilization offered her a natural conflict around which The Shipping News came into being. By the time Proulx finished her manuscript, the northern cod stock were at a point of near-distinction. The fishing industry that had sustained Newfoundland for hundreds of years is at a point of disrepair.


Why is writing  good for us?


‘Imagination is the human mind's central life strategy. It is how we anticipate danger, pleasure, threat. The imagination is how our expectations are raised and formulated; it excites and ennobles our purpose in life. The imagination blocks out hunger, bodily harm, bad luck, injury, loneliness, insult, the condition of the marooned person or the orphan, grief and disappointment, restlessness, desperation, imprisonment, and approaching death. And from the imagination spring the ideas, the actions, and the beliefs that we hold.’

Let's recap:


1. A novel doesn't get written in 90 days, a first draft does. But good habits take shape in 90 days, and the writing life will take hold of you.

 2. Annie Proulx waited 55 years to live her life the way she wanted to. You may well be ahead of her?

3. Because she so loved writing, she gave her only son. (Poor old Quoyle.) She gave him her first ever happy ending (his too.)

None of us are going to write like Annie Proulx. Or Tolstoy. We're going to write like only we can about things only we can, because our experiences and natures are unique. That's more than good enough. It's wonderful.

Here's what's happened to my writing thanks to Annie Proulx:

Annie Proulx's writing is intensely constructed such that every single line is a mind blower. It's poetic. It's bizarre. It's honest. It's imbued with the method of a painter. It takes a lot of work. There is no throwaway sentence or at least I haven't found one and I challenge you to. This is derived from her long-standing and painstaking work as a short story writer. When it comes to firework poetics, I don't think there is a writer who can hold a candle to her.

However, as I said, it's intense. It's a touch tiring to read it. A touch defeating. Until you forget about it and accept that's how she writes and it's meant as a gift to see how she sees.

When you get over the genius of it, this is what happens to you without knowing it; you wake up, and you see. 

I feel like my slumbering cast got the early morning alarm clock in their ears. I am seeing them more lucidly and truly and they don't have to behave to my regimen anymore, they can have their own lives. 

My biggest insight of this writing year I give to you.

I love writing, just like Annie Proulx does, and I hope to write a lot better than I do now. THIS is the life I want. Writing daily. reading nightly. I love the craft. I do a day job, I treat the kids and cat with the same mixture of buffoonery and care, and I write and I hope to get better at writing.

Perhaps your goal is to be published, 'famous’ and feted. It’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Maybe you have all you need right now?

Proulx explains it... 


'It's not good for one's view of human nature, that's for sure. You begin to see, when invitations are coming from festivals and colleges to come read (for an hour for a hefty sum of money), that the institutions are head-hunting for trophy writers. Most don't particularly care about your writing or what you're trying to say. You're there as a human object, one that has won a prize. It gives you a very odd, meat-rack kind of sensation. In terms of interruption of work it's absolutely devastating -- unless one can say no. At first I couldn't say no and I did a lot of things that I shouldn't have. When you get through with travel and hassle and rushing about and shaking people's hands, that "one hour" usually translates into three days. And if you're working on a piece of writing, once three days are torn out it can be quite difficult getting back to where you were before the interruption came. It is possible to make a living not through writing but through celebrity appearances. Some writers do it. But writing is utterly absorbing for me, and I resent anything that pulls me away from it.'

I'm not writing to bag the golden egg. I've got it in my basket. 

You have the life you want, go write.

(Don't miss the video clip in the image above!)

There's a time for brushstrokes, and there's a time to paint by punching.

Perhaps you're working too finely, that's all well and good when you're laying down a first draft with uncertainty but when you've got wind of your story you need to land a few blows on the 'characters' in your work in progress.

Let insults pelt the page, and injuries accrue upon the person leaving behind a dense impression of a life being lived the way we live them - in suffering - punctuated with occasional rare joys.
 
Look at your 'main character' the person pushing your novel and see a slow-moving morass of personable misery. Suited. Booted. Custom made, their plight tailored to them by your prose. We want to see the lumpen shape of slow-moving misfortune. Your job is to wound him or her, in order to get them to wake up and live the life they've been given against their wishes.

Annie Proulx's Pulitzer Prize winning 'The Shipping News' delivers a masterclass in 'character' creation via the hapless, gormless, Quoyle. By the second page, we have this monstrosity still-born and walking:

'Quoyle shambled, a head taller than any child around him, was soft. He knew it. "Ah, you lout," said the father. But no pygmy himself. And brother Dick, the father's favorite, pretended to throw up when Quoyle came into a room, hissed "Lardass, Snotface, Ugly Pig, Warthog, Stupid, Stinkbomb, Fart-tub, Greasebag," pummeled and kicked until Quoyle curled, hands over head, sniveling, on the linoleum. All stemmed from Quoyle's chief failure, a failure of normal appearance.

A great damp loaf of a body. At six he weighed eighty pounds. At sixteen he was buried under a casement of flesh. Head shaped like a crenshaw, no neck, reddish hair ruched back. Features as bunched as kissed fingertips. Eyes the color of plastic. The monstrous chin, a freakish shelf jutting from the lower face.'

If you've been patient with your 'character' thus far, it's maybe time for your patience to run out.

If your book's carrying deadweight, if it's flat and listless, it's his or her fault.

Use your prose to pummel, insult, perturb, embarrass, deny, abuse and kick your character from page to page. Put your petty and painstaking brush away and use your fists. Get rough with your subject, bully, cajole, push, surprise them but have them live the goddam life you've given them. Please be rude. Your book will be the better for it.

By the second chapter of The Shipping News, Quoyle has found love and been disabused of it's majesty too. 

“It was not Quoyle’s chin she hated, but his cringing hesitancy, as though he waited for her anger, expected her to make him suffer. She could not bear his hot back, the bulk of him in the bed. The part of Quoyle that was wonderful was, unfortunately, attached to the rest of him. A walrus panting on the near pillow. While she remained a curious question that attracted many mathematicians.

‘Sorry,’ he mumbled, his hairy leg grazing her thigh. In the darkness his pleading fingers crept up her arm. She shuddered, shook his hand away.

‘Don’t do that!’

She did not say ‘Lardass,’ but he heard it. There was nothing about him she could stand. She wished him in the pit. Could not help it any more than he could help his witless love.
Quoyle stiff-mouthed, feeling cables tighten around him as though drawn up by a ratchet. What had he expected when he married? Not his parents’ discount-store life, but something like Partridge’s backyard – friends, grill, smoke, affection and its unspoken language. But this didn’t happen. It was as though he were a tree and she a thorny branch grafted onto his side that flexed in every wind, flailing the wounded bark.

What he had was what he pretended.”

By the second chapter, a lifetime subscription to misery has been granted him, unless the author and the reader working together can do something about it. Here is your reason to read on - using the full force of your compassion alongside the author's you can change this world of pages and maybe more.

Don't ask why you're writing a novel any further; this is why - humanity's sake. Because you're here.

Be cruel to be kind. After all it is only in real life that people get let alone to lead easy lives, in novels they get picked on, sullied, harried, battered, degraded, ruined and saved.


'What he had was what he pretended.'

You can write like Annie Proulx. You just need to work harder. Here's how:

 

Since 1975, when Annie Proulx left a Ph.D. program in history at Concordia University, she has been writing full time; she rarely lives in the same place for more than a few years. She has been married, she says, “too many times,” and has four grown children.  Proulx was in her fifties when she published her first short-story collection, Heart Songs(1988), but since then she has worked steadily, publishing four novels and three more story collections. Proulx tackles bleak themes with a sharp sense of humour and a master stylist’s sense of language— ‘the pill is never wholly bitter’ (Paris Review 2009).

 Her first novel, Postcards (1992), begins in Vermont, but it eventually comes to cover the entire country, following its central character, Loyal Blood, through a lifetime of odd jobs after he flees his family’s dairy farm. The novel won the PEN/Faulkner award. She won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for her next novel, The Shipping News (1993), a look at Newfoundland and the men and women cast adrift by the collapse of the fishing industry there. 

 Proulx considers her short stories to be a greater accomplishment than her novels. Her sentences are built by precision engineering. There is the same ‘flashlight’ approach to her depictions as we have seen in Kerouac, but the story is more solid, and driven by the plight of the persons in it (‘the main character’.)


On character names:

‘Sometimes they come halfway along, sometimes names get changed six or seven times. I keep a book full of names and keep adding to it… the reason I put out-of-the-ordinary names on characters is because the John Smiths of the literary world make me sick—Bob and Bill and Joe and Nancy and Sandy and Fanny and so forth. I started using distinctive names as a mnemonic device for readers.’

 Storytelling and Social Issues:

 ‘Storytelling trumps social issues. As I said, I’m primarily a reader, so of course I try to make the stories I write interesting and entertaining. I don’t write to inspire social change, but I do like situations of massive economic or cultural change as a background. We think of change as benign, but it chews some people up and spits them out. And fiction can bring about change.’

 
Process:

 ‘It starts with a lot of research, and an ending, which I write first. I write to the end.’

 
Do you write longhand?


‘Yes. Then after a certain amount is done, I put it on the computer because it’s so easy to switch things around. And then I start printing out drafts and adding in emendations and constructions and marginal notations and drawings and arrows and x’s and scribbles and that sort of thing.’

 
How do you know when a story is finished?


‘It is impossible to answer. You just know. I suppose it’s the thing Hemingway referred to as the built-in shit detector. I think one develops a built-in shit detector through wide reading of other people’s work. And if you can’t see the ghastly bits in your own writing you shouldn’t be a writer.’

 
About being a writer:

‘I never thought of myself as a writer. I only backed into it through having to make a living. And then I discovered that I could actually do it. I thought there was some arcane fellowship that you knew at birth that you had to belong to in order to be a writer.’

 
Do you think you had a late start when it comes to writing fiction?


‘Well, I did, yeah. But so what? Why should it bother anybody when somebody starts to write? …The world is spared lots of crap.’

 
On the work Itself:

 
‘There is difficulty involved in going from the basic sentence that’s headed in the right direction to making a fine sentence. But it’s a joyous task. It’s hard, but it’s joyous. Being raised rural, I think work is its own satisfaction. It’s not seen as onerous, or a dreadful fate. It’s like building a mill or a bridge or sewing a fine garment or chopping wood—there’s a pleasure in constructing something that really works.’

You know it's hard work, you're not surprised by that because you're working alongside 60 other novelists at The Novelry so you're sharing the experience, it's ups and downs, but make it harder, make it harder for your character and give us all a way through what we all know is going to get harder yet: this life. 

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