Paul West, swimming in the universe.
Paul West, swimming in the universe.
The novelist Paul West has had the greatest influence on my development as a writer. I first had the good 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 tenth and final installment of Paul’s tips. If you haven’t, I encourage you to look at the previous installments:

Paul West’s Fiction List, Part X
45.Don’t hesitate to exploit hyperbole. E.g., a character throws cigarette butts at a wire screen for 50 years, hoping to wear a hole in it. This would work as a parabolical commentary on him, the narrative, and you.
46. Ask: Has each sentence got enough in it? Each should further the whole. Cut out sentences that don’t.
47. Purge the text of adverbs and heavy epitheting. Turn the passive into the active. Work with verbs and nouns.
48. Acquire velocity, range, by widening enumerative span: e.g., a story divided up thus: 11:30 a.m.; 11:32 a.m.; Tuesday; third week; third month; autumn; 1973; 197-.
49. Make sure you know and exploit a character’s obsessions, his subconscious, his dreams.
50. Sometimes do the Frankenstein bit: create a monster from someone’s preoccupations. E.g., a harassed student of English Lit. who has to read a two-volume survey. One line from each author included makes up a literary monster. Same with anatomy book; phone book; bible; alumnus annual, etc.
51. Study each year one unusual subject: entomology, chocolate manufacture, national flags, etc.

I hope fiction writers stumbling upon this blog have found Paul’s tips as useful and illuminating as I have over the years.

6 thoughts on “Craft Notes: Paul West’s Technical Advice for Fiction Writers, Part X

  1. Just stumbled across this, and I wanted to thank you for sharing it. I was in a couple of his MFA workshop classes in the early 90s, and it was an amazing experience. I’m still inspired by what I learned from him.

    1. David: Sadly, I don’t recall your name but I suspect we must have crossed paths. I was in the MFA program at PSU and worked with Paul from ’91-94. Thanks for commenting. Ed.

      1. Yeah, I think I tagged along to Zeno’s a couple times after class with you and a tall guy named Jim. My memory is a little hazy, but I remember that the class was held in a hotel conference room on Allen or Pugh, and that Paul had to schedule one of them as a Literature class because he was getting shit for having too many workshops. We even had to do a paper at the end to fortify the illusion.

        I wouldn’t have been very memorable as a writer, because I still pretty much sucked at the time, but I do remember being a little in awe of your stuff, and Jim’s. I learned a lot from you guys as well.

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