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 fourth 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 IV
16. Use the present tense from time to time, either all thorugh or for contrast.
17. Watch always for cliches.
18. Beware of excessive personification (e.g., of weather, trees, buildings, cars). Don’t make your narrator a relentless anthropomorphist. Likewise, don’t credit inert objects with ambitions.
19. Beware of hackneyed attitudes to seasons of the year (e.g., fall); skirt the commonplaces, make them the unstated hinterland to your own point.
20. Examine every use of such words as “tree” and “flower,” etc. If you can’t name, find out, even if you don’t specify in the text.