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 eighth installment of Paul’s tips. There are still a few left, so 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 VIII
35. An extraordinary word in an ordinary-looking sentence can work wonders of attention-getting. It signals the reader. E.g., If someone wakes and waits for his confidence to congeal, then the reader has been told a lot. Make the mot juste work structurally, too.
36. It’s sometimes useful, if you have several characters, to site the telling in one of them, without warning: best done late in a story. you can draw attention to yourself if you wish, by equipping a character with information which, according to the conventions of fiction, he cannot possibly possess. As in Beckett’s Watt.
37. If you repeat a character’s name in full, the effect is one of aloofness: he seems so special he can’t be abbreviated; he is always to be discovered as a stranger.
38. If using long sentences, provide oases of contrast, interjection; even an exclamation will work the trick. E.g., “Oho,” “inhale here,” “only five hundred yards to go!”
39. Sometimes show a character in silhouette; it complements straightforward description. Or seen upside down, in x-ray, naked, etc.