Friday, February 8, 2008

Stephen Koch (My favorite books on writing)

Stephen Koch, The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop.

Is it possible to come up with a less-appealing title? Possibly, but you’d really have to apply yourself to the task. Nonetheless, hidden beneath that ugly title, and between the shocking safety-green covers (makes it easy to find on the shelf, I must admit) is one of the best writing books ever, well, written.

As well as being a novelist himself, Koch was long the head of the creative writing program at Columbia University (the one in New York City, not the one in Bogota), and the mentor of many other novelists. Yet the book is far from academic, and Koch is one of the least dogmatic of teachers. If there is any single philosophy he embraces, it is the belief that what works, works.

Most writing books, intentionally or otherwise, situate themselves somewhere in the Great Chain of Prose; the authors tend to value precious, MFA, lit-magazine prose on the one hand, or assume that you want to be Dan Brown on the other. Not so with this book: Koch joyously embraces the full spectrum of literature, and he peppers his arguments with quotes from Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Stephen King, Vladimir Nabokov and Patricia Highsmith, Truman Capote and Edith Wharton…and about a hundred other writers. (Indeed, his habit of quoting so many snippets from interviews with writers has irritated some readers. I think it’s one of the great things about the book, and led me to many interviews I never would otherwise have read.)

This probably isn’t the best book for a true newbie writer. It doesn’t give assignments, it doesn’t do case studies, it doesn't mess about with definitions of the obvious. Moreover, it assumes you are well-read, and, perhaps more important, widely read. It doesn’t teach technique or the details of craft, but instead discusses concepts. Because of this, it tends to be of more value to, and enjoyed more by, those writers who already have a fair amount of writing experience behind them.

Koch makes a sharp distinction between “story” (which he considers essential and fundamental) and “plot” (which he believes consists of the details of how the story unfolds, and is therefore a matter of both craft and choice). He also has fine discussions on drama/melodrama, the problem of the improbable, and the “invention of your style.”

This is not the place to come if you want lessons on past and present tense, or how to craft POV, or why to avoid the passive voice. This is a book for writers who want to sit down and enjoy a wide-ranging discussion of all the issues in writing that lie somewhere between art and craft—in other words, where we all really live and work. I've bought copies of this book for many writer friends, because it's a sure thing; within a few days I have calls or e-mail telling me how much they are enjoying it.

One of the unusual strengths of Koch's book is his chapter on revision. One is constantly reminded that "writing is mostly rewriting," but the process of rewriting is often treated as the most mystical part of the process. Koch attacks the problem with real verve, but he recognizes that writers produce their first drafts in very different ways. He suggests that drafts should alternate in speed: If you're a fast first drafter, who slams the words down the way a potter gets the clay onto the wheel, then you should count on a slow, meticulous second draft; if, like me, you're a slow first drafter, then you should pick up the pace when you revise, to avoid getting mired in your previous work.

If you do get stuck in revision, he has tactics to consider--for example, Rewriting From Memory:

Some prose is a tar baby. Touch it and you just sink deeper into tar. If your battle with some passage is leaving you bleary-eyed and frustrated, it's often best simply to return to your original inspiration and without so much as a backward glance, quickly write out the whole thing again, from scratch, and from memory.

At the same time he advises a certain ruthlessness, however, he also cautions:

Cut, but don't cut out your heart...From the very beginning, the definition of your job has been to trust your own excitement and make it pay off. It still is. Never condemn your own prose. Redeem it. If you do, the original excitement will come back, but it will come back fulfilled and alive with a power that will be new to you.

So much for the refrain of cut, cut, cut! First, do no harm.


Janet said...

Ah! I like the comment on revision time. My essay-writing style as a student was a very slow first draft and minimal revision. I hope it holds true for my fiction too; that first draft took forever!

It really does sound like a good book. I should hate you. My reading list is already a gazillion books long.

Tim Stretton said...

Damitty, this is another one I need to buy...

I'm halfway through Lawrence Block's "Telling Lies". It's great stuff. Is his fiction any good at the end of it?

Alis said...

I was ripe for those words on rewriting - i keep looking at my 80% finished novel at the moment and thinking 'it's OK, there's the second draft to come...' Looks like i need to get this book. Thanks for the recommendation, David.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Janet--

Yeah, I've got a big stack, too. But trust me, this one's really useful...!

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

Yes, Block's fiction is pretty good, too. His "Eight Million Ways to Die" (the number comes from the population of New York City) is up there in the noir pantheon with the best of Chandler and Hammett.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Alis--

One of the things that Koch argues about drafts is that you don't know a story until you've told it, and therefore you can't really plot it until you've told it once. I find that to be an idea that's both useful and confusing!

Janet said...

I like that comment too. I am just about to embark on my first-ever outlining-a-novel-in-advance experiment. I discovered from the last one that winging it with just the central story idea and a vague idea of the ending was downright traumatic for me. But I think Koch is right. So I will not build my structure with metal girders, but with Tinker Toys. I expect there will be a lot of shuffling as I actually write the thing.

Sam Taylor said...

"I find that to be an idea that's both useful and confusing!"

...and yet so very very true. :)