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Writing Fiction Without the Nonsense

posted May 18, 2014, 6:33 PM by Timothy Vienne   [ updated May 18, 2014, 6:44 PM ]
Like most writers, I've learned to write from a variety of sources, personal, academic, journalistic, professional. It is rare, however, for me to sit down and read a book solely about writing. This kind of work seems almost kind of absurd: the best way to learn to write is to learn by doing, by trying, failing, and trying again.

I still think trying again is a best strategy for much of the learning part, but there are people, it turns out, who might be able to save you some time as you walk along the journey to authorhood. Stephen Koch's masterpiece, A Guide to the Craft of Fiction, is the best of what I've read so far in this genre.

Koch is a former creative writing prof at the University of Columbia, so he has long inhabited the mysterious academic world of fiction writing. Even at my own university, the creative writing program is walled off, their classes inaccessible to other graduate students, who would no doubt contaminate the rarefied air that "real writers" must breathe. The immediate connection I felt to Koch is precisely because he eschews the esoteric in favor of the relatable. Fiction is not to him primarily a means of producing colossal monuments to the human soul. It is rather a form for telling stories, developed in the late 18th century in the European continent. Of course there were monumental works before then (Shakespeare, Milton, etc.), but the most used form today, the novel, had its genesis at that time, coinciding in part with cheaply available printing. (Perhaps we now stand at the beginning of a new novel-writing revolution with the wave of self-publishing sweeping the corridors of Amazon).

Koch's book is able to move from high-minded thoughts about what fiction is, to more concrete points about the practice of writing. His perspective can be summed up in a pithy phrase: "you can make up a story only by finding it, and you can find a story only by making it up". This simplistic definition animates the entire book as Koch points out that stories do not come to people either in flashes of inspiration, as is commonly thought (and as J.K. Rowling claims about Harry Potter), nor do they only come about through the back-breaking work of diagramming plot lines. Rather, the writer has to reach for the story, to let the story come into her mind, and through repetition and re-telling, make the story whole.

Of course, it would be easy to wax philosophical at this point, speculating about a Platonic theory of stories in which people continually strive to find the ideal novel. That's not exactly the point. Rather, Koch is able to separate the act of recording words on a page from the profound act of creating a story. This deep perception is what I found attractive, because I have always thought of fiction-writing as part and parcel of the common human enterprise of telling stories. Indeed, one of the central obstacles to writing a good novel seems to be the artificial nature of typing on a keyboard or writing on vellum. The natural organ of stories is the tongue, not the hand. The best writers are able to take a gift at story-telling and mold it into the sterile form of a book without losing its vitality. Koch's book is able to help writers manage that perplexing task by learning to write in stages.

I think the most important message in the book along these lines concerns draft-writing. Koch wants the first draft to be quick, spontaneous if possible, directed only at completing the story. He is not a fan of critiquing early work (beyond providing some inspirational guidance). Rather, he wants the idea to be incubated, nurtured in the most protected environment possible. From there it can flourish into a draft which can be further revised to put in all the mechanics of style and character that are harped on in writers' conferences: point of view, dialogue, setting, plot. Koch points out that few stories are received tabula rasa, and they become better through retelling, just as our personal stories become better as we tell them again and again. The barrier to good writing is to get past the obstacle of the medium, and one of the best ways to do that is to write and rewrite. By doing so, the writer moves slowly back to the original art form of entertaining people through conversation.

One last pointer he brought out I wanted to highlight: in between the writing and re-writing of drafts, Koch emphasizes writing scenarios, or short (2-3 pages) synopses of the novel after a first draft has been completed. These scenarios allow the writer to explore every nook and cranny of creative possibility in the story before sitting down to an epic final draft. I plan to use this method to improve my own work in progress, Princess Arikovna

Good stories don't just happen, they are made. Koch's book is a powerful guide for those who want to learn that art.