The novelist Paul West has had the greatest influence on my development as a writer. I first had the great fortune of encountering this member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, winner of the Prix Médicis and the Lannan Literary Award for Fiction, Literary Lion of the New York Public Library system, and so on in an advanced undergraduate fiction writing course, one of the last undergraduate courses he taught, at Penn State in 1985. I later had the pleasure and honor of working with him at the graduate level, also at Penn State. The memory Paul telling an undergraduate me, as if astonished, “You can write!” still has the power to revive my spirit and resolve, even in an age when, as Paul might say, the latest thriller is dissected on NPR as high art, or, worse, when we should be happy if the number of educated readers in the world is fifteen thousand because soon it will be ten.
While Paul’s teaching methods veered away from the lecture and toward the conversation, perhaps sensing there’s more to be learned in thoughtful digressions than in a prepared agenda, he occasionally offered direct advice on matters of craft. In 1985, he handed out a a two-page numbered list with the simple heading “Fiction” that presented what I would call “tips and tricks” for aspiring writers. Several years later, he handed out this same document to members of his graduate fiction writing seminar (you can read about us in his memoir, Master Class), the list having grown to 51 items.
Here I present the first few of Paul’s tips, perhaps with a comment of my own added in brackets. Look for more of these tips in future “Craft Notes” posts.
Paul West’s Fiction List, Part I
- Sometimes suppress an aspect of your subject or theme so as to reveal it later; reader may compare his guess at it with the fact.
- Instead of editorializing, exemplify; let the reader construe your images and your selectivity. [I find the best way to do this is to really imagine yourself into your characters and present the story from the inside out. This can be done even in third person. For instance, don’t call a character a slob or slovenly, show him moving the debris, described in detail, away from the card table he uses for dining before sitting down to a meal of boxed macaroni and cheese and canned tuna. Ed.]
- Don’t neglect the irrelevant; bring it in now and then, to turn the reader’s head away; then he will force it back with a renewed sense of the world outside the story.
- Always ask: Is there a greater degree of specificity than the one I’m committing myself to? Usually is. Contrawise, now and then set a vague image in the midst of fanatical precisions!
- Keep asking what the reader, with little prompting, can supply for himself; then omit it. Make him an industrious accomplice.