Thoughts on The Shipping News

Posted on May 13, 2013. Filed under: Books | Tags: , , , , |

Last week I finished reading “The Shipping News” by E. Annie Proulx.  I realize I am about 15 years behind on that trend, but a friend lent me the book and I remember hearing it was supposed to be good.  And it was very good. I highly recommend reading it.

The reason I wanted to write about it, as opposed to the many, many books I read and don’t blog about, is because I thought the style of writing was so unique that it seemed worth mentioning.  The book is about Quoyle, a 30 something man with a pretty unsuccessful life that he’s been a bit of a bystander to.  A series of events occur and he ends up moving with his aunt and two daughters to Newfoundland, where the way of life is a bit different.  Then his life changes.

That’s a very quick summary of the plot because this book was more of a character study than a plot heavy novel.  The first novel I worked on, which I worked on for years and never really felt was successful, was a character study.  My writing group told me that the writing was great, but there needed to be more of a plot, or more of a development, for people to want to keep reading it.  I heard that enough times to realize there was some truth in it.  But this book, “The Shipping News,” doesn’t have a great deal of plot, and yet it is successful and I wanted to keep reading.

So my question then is why? Why did this story succeed where mine seemed to not be succeeding?

I think what stood out was the uniqueness of the change that happened.  It wasn’t a huge plot change. There wasn’t a lot of action. But taking a character who has been established as somewhat safe, or boring, and moving him to a new and different environment, where the reader gets to experience that environment through his eyes, gave the character’s development an interesting course to follow.  In other words, we were distracted, in a way, from the fact that the character was growing and changing by the shiny lights of Newfoundland and it’s eccentricities.

I don’t know if that’s exactly a rule of thumb, but I am thinking if I want to write a character driven story again, in novel format, it would probably help to find that shiny object of uniqueness – set the book in a different time or space, or give the main character a hobby or career that very few people know much about but a lot of people would want to.

The book I am working on now is action based. It’s all plot.  There are lots of shiny objects and the critique I most often hear is “we need to know more about the characters.” So, at the moment, this doesn’t apply so much to my own writing. But down the road, one day, I may return to and revive my last work of fiction, or start another character piece, with just some shiny sprinkles along the way to keep the reader interested.


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