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 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.