Monday, April 07, 2008

As writers and readers, we should always be open to experience. The "Why Should I Read...?" list is not a fixed canon, although it contains many books I have loved for twenty years or more. But there are always new books to read, and some of those strike such an immediate chord. I came across one last week (with apologies to David Isaak, whose original post on the subject set me scurrying to find it).

"Why Should I Read...?"

The Modern Library Writer's Workshop
Stephen Koch, 2002

"How to write" books are ten a penny. Most contain some germ of useful knowledge (although some are wholly meretricious), and many of them I've read and profited from. Orson Scott Card's How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy is one of the best. But nothing prepared me for Koch's double-distilled vintage.

Koch taught for many years on a prestigious American university creative writing programme, and his book is, above all else, practical. His prose is cool and lucid, and on first reading his insights, and the observations from other writers he sparkles throughout the text, seem unremarkable. That's because he's stripped away the semi-mystical trappings of many guides, to concentrate on what you need to do to set about creating prose fiction. (His approach has many similarities to the classes run by Greg Mosse, about which I've blogged elsewhere).

All of Koch's book is recommended. In particular, I've never seen better on point-of-view and redrafting. On point of view, he trenchantly argues that in getting hung up on having a unified point of view, you're sacrificing the great advantage the novel has over other forms of narrative--the ability to switch distance and viewpoint in the interests of the whole. For redrafting, he suggests a slow second draft to counteract a rapid first one, and vice versa; and he argues that the focus of the second draft should be primarily for structure. And don't worry if it comes out longer, because it will be cut away in third draft. (He cites he 10% rule: the final draft should be 10% shorter than the first, whatever length you're working at).

Koch is not, though, a doctrinaire teacher: if what I'm saying doesn't work for you, he says, ignore it: for his only real rule is that you should just get on and do it. Especially, don't put off starting because you haven't worked out the story yet: Koch argues that you can't establish the story until you work it out be writing it. This seems perverse, undisciplined--but the more I think about it, the more sense it makes. Every story I've ever written, I know the end, and sometimes not much more. Doing more work in advance, as I'm doing with the follow-up to The Dog of the North, doesn't make things any easier (in some ways, it makes it more difficult). Koch's views help me understand why this is the case.

This is a book for writers. If you haven't written, or attempted to write, a sustained piece of fiction, the insights are no more than academic. But for the practising writer, this is gold-dust.

How has it influenced me?
Hey, I only finished it yesterday. Give me a chance! Already I can see some specifics which will help kick off my next piece of work, and the idea of that you can only understand your story by writing it is what management consultants call a 'paradigm shift'--a moment which at once alters and clarifies the way I think about the question.

This is a book which will be on my bookshelf for some time to come--so that lurid green cover is no bad thing after all...

Lessons for the aspiring writer
(too many to summarise, but:)
  • you don't need to know everything about your story to start writing it
  • indeed, the story only comes into existence as it is written
  • point of view is a liberation, not a constraint
  • "the cat sat on the mat is not the beginning of a story; the cat sat on the dog's mat is" (quoted from John le Carre)


David Isaak said...

Yeah, I think this one is a gem. The quotes scattered through the text are worth the price of the book.

But I doubt that it has sold well. What a godawful drab title...!

Tim Stretton said...

The title and cover seem wilfully perverse(although in spite of myself I quite like the garish cover).

But between the covers, Koch is an exponent of the school of pragmatism -- an approach with much to commend it, in life and art.