8 Writing Techniques to Win You a Pulitzer

Pulitzer Prize

Today’s guest post is from writer Joe Bunting, who blogs at The Write Practice.


We all know there are novels and then there are “literary” novels. When you read Margaret Atwood, it just feels different than when you read Tom Clancy. And for some reason, these literary novels are the ones that win all the most prestigious awards like the Pulitzer Prize, the Man Booker Prize, and the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Literary authors are known for their unique voices and experimental styles. You might have learned not to write run-on sentences in school or to avoid beginning a sentence with “and,” but literary writers often seem to flaunt their rule-breaking ways.

This is both good and bad. Literary novels can be difficult to understand, but they can also be beautiful to read, like poetry.

So if you’re salivating to win a Nobel Prize, and just don’t think your diplomacy skills are good enough to win the Peace Prize, here are eight techniques you can use to make your writing more “literary.”

1. Write long sentences.

Long sentences can make for beautiful, complex prose that you want to read again and again to fully appreciate.

Hemingway, Faulkner (both Nobel winners), James Joyce, and all those 1920s modernist authors were known for their long, run-on sentences, full of conjunctions and lacking “correct” punctuation. Contemporary writers, like Cormac McCarthy and Tim O’Brien, do the same. Here’s a quote from O’Brien’s The Things They Carried which illustrates it clearly:

Now and then, however, there were times of panic, when they squealed or wanted to squeal but couldn’t, when they twitched and made moaning sounds and covered their heads and said Dear Jesus and flopped around on the earth and fired their weapons blindly and cringed and sobbed and begged for the noise to stop and went wild and made stupid promises to themselves and to God and to their mothers and fathers, hoping not to die.

Isn’t that beautiful?

2. Write short sentences.

Writing long sentences can get old. If you follow up an extremely long sentence with a short snappy one, you can whip your reader to attention. Notice how Cormac McCarthy does it in Suttree:

One thing. I spoke with bitterness about my life and I said that I would take my own part against the slander of oblivion and against the monstrous facelessness of it and that I would stand a stone in the very void where all would read my name. Of that vanity I recant all.

Try reading it aloud. Notice how that last sentence feels like a gavel, cracking in a loud courtroom?

3. Be lyrical.

Literary writers are interested not just in what their words mean, but in how they sound. The technical term for this is phonoaesthetics, the study of the sound of words and sentences. Like poets, literary writers want their words to melt on their reader’s tongue like rich, dark chocolate. They want their readers to stop and say, “Mmm,” and stare off into the distance contemplating all that is beautiful.

There are a few techniques writers use to make their writing more euphonic, including alliteration, assonance, and consonance, but the best way to develop your “ear” for lyrical writing is to read other lyrical writers very slow. You might pick up some Annie Dillard, William Faulkner, or Virginia Woolf.

4. Make an allusion to the Bible or Moby Dick or Milton.

Literary writers are well read. They realize their writing doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and so they subtly pay homage to the classic writers who have gone before them, which also deepens the meaning of their own work.

To make an allusion, you use an image, character, or even a direct quote from another work of literature. These act as portals, coloring your story with the meanings wrapped up in the work you’re referencing.

Also, it makes those who “get it” feel special.

5. Use an eponym to name your characters.

Another way to use allusion is to name one of your characters after a character in another work. This technique works as a kind of literary pun, and creates an implicit association, a shared relationship, with the character in the other work.

6. Be specific.

Literary writers often study the vocabulary of the subject they’re writing about. They want their writing to be precise. For example, if they’re writing about nature, rather than just talking about the trees, they might describe the tulip poplar, the white oak, the eastern red cedar.

If they’re writing about birds, they might avoid describing them as the red bird or the blue bird, but rather the kingfisher, the painted bunting, or the yellow-bellied sapsucker.

7. Write a story within a story (or a story within a story within a story).

The story-within-a-story is one of the oldest literary techniques, and it’s a simple way to create rich, multi-layered stories.

It works simply by having one of your characters tell another character a story, and this second story becomes the main story of the novel. Think Arabian Nights, where Scheherazade tells the Sultan story after story and eventually manages to make him fall in love with her.

Or Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, where the story of Petruchio “wedding and bedding” Katherina is set within another play about a drunk tricked into thinking he’s rich.

Or Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, where the protagonist writes his memoirs as he narrates them to his mistress.

8. Have a wide scope.

Literary novels tend to have a wide, national or international scope, even if they portray local events. Hemingway, for example, often set his novels within the context of great wars, like World War I or the Spanish Civil War. Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby is considered a portrait of the “Lost Generation” and the Roaring 20s because of its memorable characters who were caught up in the decade’s debauchery. Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is about the rise and “fall” of India, from Independence to Indira Gandhi’s injustices.

You may not want to win a Pulitzer, but if you do want to give your writing a touch of literary flair, these techniques are a good place to start. By far, the best way to learn more about these techniques, though, is to read more literary fiction. Here are a few good titles by authors I’ve mentioned:

  • For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
  • The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
  • Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
  • Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
  • Absalom! Absalom! by William Faulkner

What’s your favorite “literary” writing technique? Did we miss any?

Posted in Guest Post, Writing Advice.

Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting loves to write and to help other writers improve their careers and craft. He can be found at The Write Practice, an online and offline community for creative writers, and also on Twitter.

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Vrleavitt
Vrleavitt

Great advice. Getting to work on this right now… 😉 Pulitzer, here I come.

John R Worsley

“Literary novels can be difficult to understand” ha ha!  I’m guessing your characterization “ever so slightly tongue-in-cheek” was itself tongue-in-cheek, Jane.  I love this post!I have also loved long sentences, and the effects one can achieve with varied sentence length, since I was forced to read literary novels in high school.  In fact, my love for long sentences and complex constructions reaches out of my writing and into my speech.

Deb Atwood
Deb Atwood

Great points! I would add one more: the manipulation of voice to define character. The best “voice” novel I have read is The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. I highly recommend it.

 

Sarah Allen

I love this! Really good advice here. I want to post these points up above my desk.
Sarah Allen: http://fromsarahwithjoy.blogspot.com/

(my creative writing blog)

Chris Owen

Were any of these writers writing to win awards? I think not.

Nimrod Christ Nimrod

Interesting, informative article.  Thank you.

Pamala Knight
Pamala Knight

Oh I LOVE this article! Absolutely fabulous advice and I’m off to go practice my Dylan Thomas impression straight away ;-).

Taylor Collins

I’m not sure if these techniques would ever help “me” as in “I” win a Pulitzer as I first need to overcome the basic hurdle of having anything accepted for publication, but your insight is thought provoking and, one could add, hope instilling which is both refreshing and welcomed at this time of year where lists play such a prevalent role in our lives and make it easier to grasp basic concepts quickly.  Thanks. 

marion

Very interesting, Joe. Thanks for sharing. :]

Jim Woods

I find this post very inspiring and useful. Well done! 

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[…] will be complex and intriguing, and perhaps, it will win. Read the article sited and more here. And comment below! Tags: 8 writing techniques, jane friedman, joe bunting, Pulitzer prize, […]

Florence Fois
Florence Fois

Perhaps Virginia Woolf, certainly the snarky JD Salinger and please no more references to Holden … I mean his Nine Short Stories. Bless my eleventh grade English teacher, with her high neck blouses and her proper shoes … recited Tale of Two Cities. Too many wonderful things to fill up a lifetime of reading. One thing that never occured to me was “how” they did it … I’m just grateful they did.

Jackson Daniels
Jackson Daniels

Great article and observations. I never took punctuation seriously anyway.

Frances Bean

Punctuation is a suggestion for me, lol. 

Brian D. Meeks

I can’t recall a time when I’ve read a blog post and had my world view shaken.  Up until seven minutes ago, I felt that the worst label I could ever find plastered upon my noggen was “Literary”, which I defined as “Unreadable drivel written to impress elitist snobs who wouldn’t care for my choices in haberdashery.” I was mistaken.  Each of the elements described are often the tasty morsels that make a piece of work memorable to me. This was a great post and I will be less quick to look down my nose at those I assumed were… Read more »

AKA Alfred T Fox

Noted and done, but still not famous 🙁

Jon10101
Jon10101

I think they just wrote what they believed and trusted in. I agree and don’t think any of these were writing to win anything.

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Book Bits #97 – California reader privacy law, Manjoo’s firestorm, Nancy Pearl’s picks | Malcolm's Book Bits and Notions

[…] 8 Writing Techniques to Win You a Pulitzer by Joe Bunting – “We all know there are novels and then there are “literary” novels. […]

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[…] Click to read 8 Writing Techniques to Win You a Pulitzer… Posted in Just a thought… […]

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[…] From Jane Friedman: 8 Writing Techniques to Win You a Pulitzer. […]

Shari Lopatin

All great tips, but I think above all else, one major point was missing: write with your heart. You could touch on all these techniques, but if you’re not writing with passion, with conviction, your words will fall upon dry eyes and deaf ears.

Otherwise, great advice! I’ll try putting some of these to work. Thank you!

Shari

Vivid Rare1
Vivid Rare1

That’s my queue! Thank you very much 🙂 Look out world because I’m coming out!

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[…] 8 Writing Techniques to Win You a Pulitzer | Jane Friedman Literary novels tend to have a wide, national or international scope, even if they portray local events. Hemingway, for example, often set his novels within the context of great wars, like World War I or the Spanish Civil War. Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby is considered a portrait of the “Lost Generation” and the Roaring 20s because of its memorable characters who were caught up in the decade’s debauchery. […]

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[…] all of the cri­te­ria, this may be the piece most in your power. Beautiful writ­ing requires only dogged edit­ing, the will­ing­ness to write and rewrite a thou­sand times until […]

mcrumph
mcrumph

It’s extremely refreshing to see someone talk about how to focus on literary writing as opposed to all those popular but hideously penned novels out there. Keep up the good work, Joe.

mcgrimus
mcgrimus

I don’t think this is good advice at all. In fact, I wasn’t sure the writer was even serious. Also, I think James Joyce and Faulkner are terrible places to start if one’s aim is to make one’s own writing better. Read them, sure, and be inspired by them, but best not to imitate their styles.

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[…] 8 Writing Techniques to Win You a Pulitzer | Jane Friedman. TELL SOMEBODY ABOUT THIS!FacebookTwitterStumbleUponGoogle +1PrintLinkedInTumblrPinterestEmailDiggRedditLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. […]

Random Person on Stumbleupon
Random Person on Stumbleupon

….. I would say write and write and write, having someone else criticize your work until it no longer sucks. If it still sucks, write teenage romance novels and be content with being rich.

Tickikue
Tickikue

Very interesting. Will definitely practice these points. Great post.

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[…] have enjoyed this post that appeared on Jane Friedman’s site, 8 Writing Techniques to Win You a Pulitzer by Joe […]

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[…] didn’t understand why until I read Joe Bunting’s article on what characterizes that style of writing (see below). You may see yourself in them. That’s […]

Ann V. Friend

Excellent information to know. Thank you! Blessings and enjoy your day!

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[…] Allusions to Milton and other ways to win a Pulitzer. […]