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How to Write an Award-Winning Novel starring… The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

March 15, 2015
(image via wikimedia)

(image via wikimedia)

In some ways, it’s better to write an award-winning novel than to be a best-selling author.  You might make more money with a best-seller, but in a few years your book could be forgotten, lost in the ash heap of other replaced best-sellers.  On the other hand, if you win an award like the Pulitzer Prize, your book will be on that list forever.  Even if your Pulitzer Prize winning novel isn’t read much after a few decades, the title will still be on the list.  As long as there are literary critics, there will be a Pulitzer, and as long as there’s a Pulitzer, your book title and name will be on that list.

Reading a Pulitzer Prize winning novel isn’t always easy.  In 7th grade I was forced to read The Yearling by Marjorie Rawlings.  Yeesh!  Does anybody read The Yearling anymore?  Back then, I disliked it, and I haven’t gone back to see if I was wrong to dislike it.  In 9th grade we were forced to read To Kill a Mockingbird, but at least nobody hated it.  If kids hated it, they kept it to themselves.  Even then, students knew it was wrong to hate that book.

As an adult, I read The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara because I went through a Civil War phase (without growing a long beard and dressing up in old musty uniforms).  I read The Shipping News because everybody else in my writers group had read it (but I don’t remember a thing about it).  I recently read The Road by Cormac McCarthy and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz.

Writing a novel that’s considered for a Pulitzer Prize isn’t easy either.  An author usually has to do more than just tell the story.  An author has to use literary devices that catch readers’ and judges’ attention.  If devices like symbolism and figurative language aren’t enough, authors then have to throw in some literary gimmicks too.  A gimmick is a device that’s easy to do but doesn’t really add anything to the story.

For example, some Pulitzer Prize winning novels (The Road and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) don’t use quotation marks for dialogue.  Maybe leaving out quotation marks makes dialogue more meaningful than dialogue with quotation marks, but I’m not sure.  I’ve always used quotation marks with dialogue.  That’s how I was taught, but I’ve never won a Pulitzer Prize.

The Road also used nameless characters like “the man” and “the boy” (I probably shouldn’t have put them in quotation marks since the book doesn’t use them at all).  Plus, there was a double space between every paragraph, even the one sentence dialogue paragraphs that didn’t have any quotation marks.  I don’t know if The Road would have won a Pulitzer if the characters had had names, or if the spaces between paragraphs were normal, or if the author had used quotation marks.  It still probably would have been a good book.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, along with no quotation marks, used several other literary gimmicks.  The novel had really long sentences with lots of Spanish and Dominican slang thrown in too.  The story was told out of order from several different characters’ points-of-view.  Plus, there were lots of nerd culture references.  Even though I’m a fan of nerd culture references, I thought there were way too many nerd culture references in this book.  Even nerd writers for The Big Bang Theory probably think there were too many nerd culture references in TBWLOOW.  I’m not saying you need to use nerd culture references to win a Pulitzer.  You need to pick a topic and drown your novel in references, like Donna Tartt did with the topic of art in The Goldfinch.

But if you want to emulate a Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction that uses a ton of literary gimmicks, try  A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.

A Visit from the Goon Squad uses six literary gimmicks (that I noticed):

  1. Telling the story out of order.
  2. Switching points of view (3rdto 1st to 3rd…)
  3. Switching tenses in various segments (past to present to past…)
  4. a chapter of only power point/ flow charts (don’t use an e-reader for this book)
  5. lots of stream-of-consciousness
  6. And the worst gimmick ever… 2ndperson present tense!  I call it the worst gimmick ever because I tried using it in a college writing class, got yelled at by my writing instructor for using it, and then two months later Bright Lights, Big City became a bestseller. Now I’m biased against 2nd person present tense.

At any rate, six literary gimmicks is a lot for one book.  There were so many literary gimmicks, I expected the author to resort to the 1st person present tense narration death scene.  I was wrong.  Instead, she used the 2nd person present tense narration death scene.    I hate being wrong.

Having so many literary gimmicks in one novel makes it look (to me) like the author is trying too hard.  My writing instructor might have declared that using all these gimmicks took away from any merits A Visit from the Goon Squad had as a story.  But he probably would have shut up once he realized the novel won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

*****

What do you think?  Is using so many gimmicks good story-telling, or is it trying too hard?  What other literary gimmicks have you noticed in award-winning novels?  How many literary gimmicks should an author be limited to?  What literary gimmicks do you dislike the most?  If you were limited to one literary gimmick, which one would it be?  If you had a choice, would you rather write a bestselling selling novel or a major award winning novel?

*****

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38 Comments
  1. I think gimmicks are safer for established authors who know they can get them published and know they can (usually) pull them off. I once wrote a story in 2nd person present, but it was in high school. I consider that the role-playing tense and it seems like every paragraph should end with “What do you do?” as in: “You walk into your house and find an ogre stealing your dishwasher. What do you do?” Hopefully 2nd person will never catch on in literature.

    • Dang it! I wish I’d thought of the 2nd person as a role playing game story when I was getting mocked by my college writing instructor.

      Maybe Bright Lights,Big City was meant as a role playing game, and nobody ever figured it out. Role playing games were big in the 1980s when it was written. I mean, I’m probably wrong, but maybe.

  2. There is approximately zero chance of me becoming either a best-selling or award winning author, but if I had a choice, I’d choose the latter, because, after all, the books are written for the readers, not for the critics. If the critics find you worthy of an award but barely anyone actually enjoyed reading your book, isn’t that kind of a failure for a writer?

    • It depends whose opinion you value more, I guess. I think there are writers who believe the critics (or some of them) are smarter (or “deeper” or whatever the right word is) than the average reader, so those authors would rather have the awards and the literary accolades.

  3. I write science fiction, and I am NOT willing to declare my stories “not science fiction” (as in ‘MY stories are not science fiction, because MY stories have Literary Merit’), so nothing I write would ever be eligible for a Pulitzer Prize or similar award, no matter how good it was. A Newbery, on the other hand, would be just barely possible, because occasionally a science fiction or fantasy novel gets one of those or is at least nominated (A Wrinkle in Time, The Hero and the Crown, The Giver, The Black Cauldron, The Grey King — these are just the ones I can name off the top of my head). I don’t write YA fiction, but I’d rather do that than turn traitor to the genres I love just so I could get some uppity literary award that would probably keep anyone from reading my books for purely enjoyment ever again if I DID get it.

    I’d rather have a best-seller than an award-winner. Neither is likely to happen, and I didn’t become an author to get rich — that’s what being an editor is for (he said with sarcasm) — but I want my books to be read and enjoyed by people who LIKE the kinds of stories I write, not a “must read” for people who need some sort of “It’s okay — this isn’t actually sci-fi” before they’ll touch it.

    Also, I dislike gimmicks.

    • I’m not as familiar with science fiction as you probably are. Have you noticed any trends (or gimmicks) in the science fiction novels that have won science fiction awards? Or have there been any controversies in the Hugo or Nebula winners recently?

      • There have been MANY controversies in the Hugo and Nebula winners recently. Too many to mention here, much less discuss (plus, some of those discussions got ugly, as far as I can tell from occasionally observing from the sidelines). Google them and I’m sure you’ll find a lot of details.

  4. If you’re going to use a literary gimmick, you better be able to pull it off. Like if you are telling a story out of sequence, or jumping from past tense to present, or using 2nd person “you” tense, you better damn well know what you are doing and be able to make it worth somebody’s time. Because that’s why we have these no gimmick rules. Not because we need to follow rules, but because usually when the rules not being followed it means an under-talented writer is in charge and is about to waste our time.

    • I wish I’d kept my second-person point-of-view story from college. I’d like to see if I was wasting everybody’s time or if I actually knew what I was doing. I mean, I probably know, but still…

      • Yes, I have a couple of lost ones that I’d like to be able to look at again, too. By the way, I re-read my comment and it seemed like it read a little nasty, which was not my intent. Sorry for that. I hope it didn’t rub you or anyone else the wrong way.

  5. Alex Hurst permalink

    Very good points. I think when I can start to “see” the gimmicks, you’ve gone too far. The most nefarious of these is “Special Snowflake Punctuation.” The lack of quotations in the books you mentioned would have left me with an eye twitching, haha.

    • What is “Special Snowflake Punctuation”? At first, I thought it was a book, but after Amazon came up with no match, I realized you were talking about a really bad literary gimmick, but I don’t know what it is. Sometimes I’m slow.

      • Alex Hurst permalink

        Haha, sorry. The quotes were there to imply it wasn’t a real thing.

        Special Snowflakes are people who believe they are special and not beholden to the same rules are plane of existence that the rest of us are. So, not using dialogue marks (“…”), or using punctuation in a special way because they think it’s clever ( …?, Or ….!,) is what I consider special snowflake punctuation. 😛

  6. I though Cormac McCarthy’s writing style was perfected tailored to “The Road” — broken prose reflecting the broken world of the story. Then I read “No Country for Old Men” and found he did the same thing there. I didn’t think it worked nearly as well.

    • I hadn’t thought about that. Should an author use a gimmick for only one book? Should an author be gimmick-shamed for using the same gimmick in two or more books?

  7. Would rather be a best selling author because at least I know my message is reaching more readers

    • In the short term, you’re definitely right. But if you win a Pulitzer (or some other awards like Man Booker or others I can’t think of), you MIGHT reach more readers in the long term because they stay in the public’s view for longer.

      I have no facts to back that up. I’m just speculating.

      • hahaha…a few of assumptions there. And as you said; I can’t think of any fact/evidence to back your argument. But you certainly have a point there

  8. In some intuitive way I feel that if a technique stands out so much it distracts from the main character(s)’ pursuit of their goal, it is, by definition, a gimmick. A technique that contributes to the above wouldn’t be viewed as a “gimmick” by a majority of readers. It would enhance and not distract.
    I’m prepared to have my mind changed by another argument, but this is my gut reaction.

    • The only thing I remember about A Visit from the Goon Squad is the gimmicks and the phrase “Time is a goon.” If the only thing I remember about a book is a gimmick, then maybe the gimmick itself is a distraction.

      Then again, I often don’t remember anything from a book a year after I’ve read it, so maybe the gimmicks enhanced the book because now I remember it (and them).

      I still think the nerd culture references in Oscar Wao were a distraction.

  9. ramonawray permalink

    Great post 🙂

  10. its harder to dam a river at its estuary,take the source and divert it to where you want….how can we speak about great writing? like construction and architecture things survive and things dont and in even ruins trasures lie…we should celebrate the truth even in its ghastliness…true subjectivity reachs a point where critics are no longer needed and if they are isnt that just the education system all over again albeit in disguised form….great writing anyhow!

    • True, much of writing is (supposed to be) subjective, but I was brought up on rules, rules, rules! And I had enough of the education system when it WASN’T in disguised form. I don’t want to go through that again… haha!

  11. I rather write a best selling novel than an award winning novel. Books will be forgotten after a time Pulitzer or not. And what is the use of writing an award worthy novel if no one is reading it even the title is on the list. At least best seller novel even though it will vanish in forgotten land after a time I will have something out of it namely money which some say the root of all evil, perhaps, but people need roots no?

  12. So, I’ve just spent years trying to perfect the ‘correct’ way to right, when I could’ve plunged in, broken every rule in the book and won a Pulitzer?
    Where’s the justice, where’s the humanity?
    I s’pose there is the small point that you also need to be a brilliant writer with an unmissable story to tell and compelling characters…
    Back to the drawing board.
    Reblogged this on Word Shamble https://lynnmlovewords.wordpress.com/

    • I’m not sure you can break EVERY rule and win a Pulitzer. I think you need to pick and choose a little bit, but you’re right; Where is the justice and the humanity?

      I’m always looking for those.

  13. Reblogged this on Word Shamble and commented:
    For those of you yearning for a Pulitzer Prize to tuck under your belt, Dysfunctional Literature shows you how!

  14. Reblogged this on HELIOS.

  15. I think if you know, going into your writing, that you are using a gimmicky technique, it probably won’t work. Authors like McCarthy and Diaz are comfortable with their style and choose it exactly because it is how they want to write, as opposed to, “How can I make this stand out?” I don’t think critics are necessarily looking for the gimmick but how authors are pushing literary technique as well as challenging readers apart from the standard fiction structure. -Cheri

  16. As some others have touched on, the major difference between awards and sales seems to be relevancy. I’ve been made to and have chosen to read books awarded literary prizes, but not one of them was read more than any given long time bestseller. If thousands of people read one’s books he has a cultural sway that I think outstrips the beliefs of critics, regardless of the validity of their opinions. As a reader I’m more apt to trust a critic than I am a bestseller list, but as an author I’d rather be widely read than selectively touted.

  17. I’m going to have to go back and read a couple of these. The Road will be a new read…no quotation marks. “Seems like that would make for difficult reading,” she thought. Seems like that would make for difficult reading, she thought. Eh. Maybe it’s just something to get used to. Guess we’ll see! 🙂

    • There’s not a whole lot of dialogue in The Road, and I guess for some readers the lack of dialogue contributes to the mood (or tone) of the book. In the Oscar Wao book, I thought the lack of dialogue was just another trying too hard gimmick; there was enough other stuff going on so the author didn’t have to NOT use quotation marks … but he won a Pulitzer, so maybe other authors aren’t trying hard enough.

      • Maybe you get a Pulitzer for trying too hard. HA! Now we know their secret.

  18. Reblogged this on Illumination and commented:
    An interesting take on the difference between a good novel and prize-winning writing.

  19. Very interesting points here. I’m torn about literary “classics” myself. Some are good, and some only became great because some out-of-work lit critics desperately wanted to add something–anything–new to the cannon (e.g., The Great Gatsby). As for gimmicks, I sometimes feel I am sacrificing some of my novels’ content when I use them… but they can be great eye catchers and can at least give the appearance of potential greatness.

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