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.