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 third 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 previous installments:
Paul West’s Fiction List, Part III
11. Eschew periphrasis, roundabout locution, unless staging (after Dickens) a deliberate exercise in the mode for purposes of irony, etc. Use the fewest words possible, thus providing space for more telling where the excisions were made.
12. Decide on the style that suits you best. Make sure you know if you’re being florid or austere, laconic or lavish, etc. Your job is to make the familiar seem new, the new not a mere gimmick.
13. Back to dialogue: use the indirect method; have characters answer with irrelevances or questions; play long against short; have a few interruptions; interrupt the speaker yourself; instead of answers, reveal someone’s face or hands; occasionally give an answer to an unposed question.
14. Don’t set up a theme and then drop it; if you aren’t interested in it, take it out. If you find yourself, after the first few pages, still resorting to categorical placings (e.g., “the elderly lady”), something’s gone wrong, and you’re wasting details already provided.
15. Don’t be afraid to keep saying “said”; don’t resort to elegant variations: “he proferred,” “he ventured,” “he offered,” etc. Use the verb to denote tone and manner, as well as the vocal strategy. Thus, murmured, especially if you know what kind of murmur, and mock-sneered, especially if you can get into the motives.