I don’t think writers should abandon reading in their genre, but I love reading books about writing.
I’ve read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Stephen King’s On Writing. I learned the writing craft from books about writing nonfiction and fiction, plays and poetry, and even screenwriting (by the way, if you want to write for the silver screen, Save the Cat is the essential guide).
But yesterday, I finished the best book about writing I’ve ever read.
Finding the Best Writing Book
I ran across Stephen Koch’s book, The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction, in the syllabus of a Stanford writing class and thought, “Well, if it’s good enough for Stanford, I might as well skim it.”
Have you ever read a book that makes you realize how little you actually know about a subject? I thought I knew something about the writing craft. After all, I’ve been studying it since I was seventeen and writing about it on this blog for the last two years.
This book made me realize how much more I have to learn.
Here are three reasons I loved Stephen Koch’s A Guide to the Craft of Fiction:
1. Write Your Story in One Sitting
John Steinbeck said, “Write freely and as rapidly as possible. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down.”
When writing a story, whether a short story a story in a novel, write the first draft in one sitting, says Koch. I’ve heard the rule to write your first draft quickly, but honestly, I’d never thought of applying this advice to short stories. This works because it harnesses the natural storyteller in you. Every storyteller hates to get cut off before she gets to finish telling her story, and you will write faster and longer in order to get the end.
The day after reading this advice, I wrote a 2,000 word story. I normally write very slowly, rarely more than 1,000 words a day, but the next day I wrote a 3,000 word story. Same with the next. Finally, on the fourth day, I wrote a 3,500 word story that I’ve been trying to write for two months.
2. Quotes… Hundreds of Quotes
Nearly every writing book has an authority problem. “That’s how you write, but who are you anyway?” Koch was a professor at Columbia University, one of the country’s top writing programs, but he rarely stands on his own authority. Instead, he lets the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed authors in the 20th century speak about the craft themselves, filling the book with hundreds of quotes from dozens of authors.
I especially liked when he pitted these authors against each other, showing how they disagreed, for example, about point of view or how to write a first draft. It was like being in a giant conversation—one that occasionally broke out into arguments—with the best writers of the century.
Here are just a few writers involved in the conversation: Michael Crichton, Ernest Hemingway, Gabriel García Márquez, Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov, John Le Carré, Truman, Capote, John Gardner, and Mark Twain.
3. Fast Drafts, Slow Drafts
“As we have said, you may be someone who does your first draft very quickly,” says Koch. “If that is true, your second draft should probably be slow moving…. If the one draft is fast and reckless, the next should probably be slow and painstaking.”
Writing quickly gives confidence and allows you to make daring experiments and intuitive leaps. Writing slowly, on the other hand, allows you to thoroughly define your characters and their voices, to develop the setting, and fill in holes in the plot.
Most professional writers, Koch explains, write three drafts. The first draft is usually fast, though not always. Some writers, Gabriel García Márquez, for example, write very slow, complicated first drafts, full of tangents and false starts. For these writers, a fast second draft can unify the story and bring vitality to the prose. For fast first drafters, a slow, laborious second draft brings depth and subtly. Fast draft, slow draft; slow draft, fast draft: a good practice.
A Guide to Fiction
Stephen Koch’s Writer’s Workshop isn’t one author’s guide to creative writing. As I mentioned before, it’s a conversation between the best authors in the world about what it means to write and how to do the job well. If you’re looking for a good writing book, I highly recommend it.
How about you? What is the best book about writing you’ve ever read?
Write a story in one sitting. Write as quickly as you can, and if you get bogged down, just skip that part and move on. Just make sure you get to the end.
When you’re finished with your fast draft, post a section (no more than three paragraphs) the comments section. And if you post be sure to comment on a few practices by other writers.
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