The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: My Favorite Writing Guide.
It’s July 25th, 2017.
I made a resources list of good writing books that I refer to on a timely basis. It contains books that I use and would recommend to others, and one book stood out ever since I was introduced to it on Joe Bunting’s blog, “The Write Practice.” It’s called “The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop, by Stephen Koch.
This book is a “how-to” writing book that also doubles as a motivational speaker. It enforces a thought into your mind that defends the use of being a panster for a first draft. In fact, the first line in the chapter “Beginnings” goes like this:
“The only way to begin is to begin and to begin right now. If you like, begin the minute you finish reading this paragraph. For sure, begin before you finish reading this book.”
It seems a bit unusual that a book, right off the bat, would tell you to jump in blindly and write whatever comes to mind, however bad it may seem. That’s not necessarily what he’s trying to say, but there’s some element of truth to this.
For some, especially for me, you have to jump into things blindly. Of course, you could make an outline at the start, and I have tried that before, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve veered off course. I tried doing that for my upcoming novel and the end result became something different than what I had planned.
In addition to his writing, Mr. Koch includes advice from other established authors. Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut and so on. Each of the many authors, both living and dead, contribute to whatever he happens to be talking about at the time. Sort of like, “don’t take my word for it,” and allows the authors to give their two cents. It’s a unique take and shows you that you’re not alone. I think this is a wonderful part of the book and doesn’t take too much away from Mr. Koch’s own voice.
Each chapter explains something different:
Beginnings is there to explain that you’re capable of writing and it’s okay to go at it without any sort of knowledge of where your book will end up. After all, how can you map out an entire book that you haven’t written yet and ultimately end up with a different product in the long run? You don’t.
Now there are plenty who enjoy the outline method first, and I do outline stories when I complete them, but I ask many of them, how often have you made a novel that ended up different than your first idea? That’s what I imagine he’s trying to say. That you have to start blind and work your way up.
Imagine an artist drawing a few rough thumbnail sketches of a piece they’re working on. It bears some semblance to what they started, but the final product is cleaner and might end up different than what they imagined. And that’s okay. This is what this chapter is trying to say.
The book goes on discussing how to find your story, keeping a notebook and writing that first draft. You have to write it now, and as quick as you can. Depending on the length, it takes me anywhere from a day up to three to write a complete first draft of a short story and two or three months to write a novel, depending on how confident I am in the overall plot currently. Note I said currently because I will think of a better plot for my works down the line.
The second chapter talks about living as a writer. Holding a main job in addition to your writing job, how hard it is to be a writer (believe me, it’s hard) and the five important aspects of writing. Imagining, Remembering, Observing, Reading and, of course, Writing. This is another pep talk to get you cracking at that computer.
The third chapter is how to get that story into your mind. It talks about conflict and the difference between plot and story. The story is what the basic gist of the book or work is. The Plot is the actual chain of events as you see them. He also mentions, in ALL CAPS no less:
“YOU CANNOT “PLOT” A STORY THAT YOU DO NOT KNOW.”
And how true it is. How are you able to understand the entire workings of a book before you’ve even written it. Even if you make an outline, you’re assuming what will happen rather than knowing what will happen in the final product. You assume the story, but not the entire sequence of events. You imagine pockets, but until you start writing, that plot is nothing but a vision in your head.
On the topic of remembering, I always let an idea stay in my head for a while before I actually write it. It might be different for some, but in my opinion, if I can’t remember an idea after a long time, then it wasn’t a good idea, to begin with. That’s how I see the concept of ideas.
I won’t go into every chapter, but only the notable ones. The others are fairly straightforward, such as character, style and a chapter on memoirs and writing about yourself. The seventh chapter is about editing and this is where I got the most value out of it. It’s one of the most comprehensive editing overviews I’ve ever seen in a how-to book, which tends to understate how important editing is. It tells you exactly what to look for and what to revise. The 10 percent rule is something that seems simple enough, but it’s the best thing I got out of it.
Simply put, cut your entire work by 10 percent. It forces you to cut your work down to a manageable amount. When I make my drafts, my second draft is always longer than the rough. Sometimes twice as long. So being able to cut that to a realistic level and eliminate parts that don’t contribute to the final product is essential.
The final chapter is finishing up. Who to send the works to for review, making those final touches on your draft and so on. The book is detailed in its subject matter backed by established authors who share like-minded thoughts. It’s one of the best purchases I’ve made in regards to my writing and if you have an interest in how to write, you can’t go wrong here.
That’s all for today. Take care, and remember, the inn is always open.