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 sixth installment of Paul’s tips. Look for more of these tips in future posts. If you haven’t, I encourage you to look at the previous installments:
Paul West’s Fiction List, Part VI
25. Don’t hesitate to make the reader wonder: the more you can make him your accomplice, the more you can attempt.
26. See that your work has topography (as if you were to shove a brick, or a body, underneath a sheet); incorporate items that will bulge, protrude.
27. When resorting to typographical gimmickry, make sure the reader won’t skid over the device: provide enough thought-provocation to detain and occupy him while the device works on him.
28. Go over your work and look for places where energy has waned, where the writing has fallen below your conception. Equally, be sure you can recognize when you’ve ended a story with a temporary ending–a cork in the bottle. The temporary ending will give you a sense of completeness, but go back and provide the ending the story has earned.
29. Stay alert for occassions when the narrator is more interesting than his material: in other words, recognize when you’re supervising a study in commenting consciousness.