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 ninth installment of Paul’s tips. There are still a few left, so look for one more of these installments in a future post. If you haven’t, I encourage you to look at the previous installments:
Paul West’s Fiction List, Part IX
40. Combine modes of presentation; mythic with realistic, exaggerative with accurate. Sometimes suppress one of the senses for a paragraph. It will tilt or shift the presentation, make the reader attend hard to find out what’s missing.
41. Of 4 adjectives, (A) given three times gives uncanny force to (B).
42. Get behind the character’s eyes. If a tall man, show his vantage on things, then incorporate him into his own view. A movie trick, really.
43. Sometimes, list bones and organs behind the orthodox description. As when people shake hands.
44. Ensure you stay with your effects long enough: don’t give up too soon, don’t spend too long. During writing, one sometimes misdistributes emphasis: it depends on how long each thing takes to write. Make sure your clock doesn’t foul up the reader’s clock, the pace you want him to go at.