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 seventh 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 VII
30. As already said, first-person narrator traps you; but one way out of this bind is to have that first-person narrator imagine how a third-person narrator would do things. Within that contrast you develop a measure of control, of perspective; you can even feed comments in.
31. Take a hint from Leonardo’s Treatise: look at a splotch on a wall until you know it intimately; stare at it until it moves.
32. If you don’t want to specify, i.e., want to locate something in nowhere, you can get that effect by excessive specification. E.g., “He realized he was in Paris, Vienna, Dortmund, Oslo, Istanbul, Rome.” Similar effect gained by changing the name of a character whom police are after: they never catch up with his current name.
33. Always ask yourself which of the experiences you present is rare to the reader, which not. Fill in the former, be allusive with the latter.
34. Sometimes useful to have a text within the text; if you do, break it up and show how the character, or narrator, feels about it.