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 the second installment of Paul’s tips. Look for more of these tips in future “Craft Notes” posts. If you haven’t, I encourage you to look at the first installment.
Paul West’s Fiction List, Part II
6. Take complete charge of your story. Make it your own. Be ringmaster, strategist, puppeteer, and don’t hesitate to declare yourself in your own right. As narrator, don’t be afraid to intervene or to dominate. A thoroughly dominant telling gives greater illusion of characters’ autonomy than a slack one does.
7. If using first-person narrator, remember he traps you unless you invest him with some degree of self-consciousness (you might even have him speculate how a third-person narrator would do things, thus contrasting his own performance with that hypothesis).
8. Remember to say how things are done, how said, and during what; don’t halt, numb, stifle the world while staging dialogue–except for purposes of contrast (say 1 uncontexted dialogue to contrast with 3 or 4 contexted ones).
9. Contrast all the way; without it, nothing has definition or resonance. Even if you don’t always state a contrast, think of one, and its impress will often show up. For example, while describing a polar bear, think of a black tadpole, then you’ll report the bear with extra perceptiveness. While describing someone weeping, conjure up someone who’d laugh in the same situation.
10. Make sure a) you’re aware of all the pertinent material you possess, and b) you’re using the most exploitable, the most unusual, part of it. As in law, use the best evidence.