Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Stephen Koch's The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction

Welcome guest blogger Carol Owens Campbell. Carol is an MFA student studying fiction at Pine Manor College's Solstice in Creative Writing program. Her current work in progress explores the turbulent echos of the Kent State Massacre as seen through the eyes of a young college student.
In this first of two installments, Carol considers a popular fiction writers reference book: The Modern Library Writer's Workshop.

The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club merits acclaim in the pantheon of sports as the place where Major Walter Clopton Wingfield invented the game of lawn tennis. Now known as “Wimbledon,” it hosts the only Grand Slam tennis tournament in the world still played on grass. It is also where the term “Centre Court” originated.

The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction by Stephen Koch merits acclaim in the pantheon of books about the craft of writing for within this book Koch assembles a lawn full of stellar writers to encourage those just beginning. Now known in this annotation as “TMLWW,” it is where Koch’s words play out on pages bound by a cover of vibrant green, the color of summer grass and the color most associated with “beginning.” This book is also where the word “invent” serves as a writer’s central focus.

A Writer’s Central Focus: To Invent

Wingfield honored the Greek heritage of the game of lawn tennis by calling it “Sphairistike” (Greek for “skill at playing at ball.” Source: Wimbledon official website, “About Wimbledon”). In TMLWW, Stephen Koch quotes Paul Johnson who addresses a writer’s skill. “In writing, as in all art, confidence is the beginning of skill.” (203)

Koch also honors the heritage of the word, invent. “The Latin root of the word invent means to discover.” (58) Koch supports a writer who wants to tell a good story by urging the novice to “Begin. Begin right now. Begin with whatever gives you the impetus to begin – anything at all that arouses your imagination. The rightness of things is generally revealed in retrospect.” (3, 4)

Koch is persuasive in his argument that a story must be discovered as a writer writes it. A story, he insists, is not something a writer-storyteller knows in advance. Rather it is through the discovery process that a writer “invents” the story s/he most wants to tell. “Let’s get one basic thought into play right now. You can make up a story only by finding it, and you can find a story only by making it up.” (14)

Quoting scores of famous writers, Koch joins their chorus urging a writer to invent characters, story, plot, style, voice, conflict, structure, and, in a revelation to this writer, one’s Reader. “This mute attention, this imagined experience of someone else hearing and grasping what you have to say, inevitably guides any writer’s work. Your prose must be shaped in part by your understanding of how the Reader is listening to it. And this – all of it – is something you must also invent.” (182)

Other treasures of wisdom to be discovered in this book include:

“A bad novel is better than an unwritten novel, because a bad novel can be improved; an unwritten novel is defeat without a battle.” Paul Johnson (43, 44)

“Sometimes – many times – the muse appears wearing the mask of a deadline.” Stephen Koch (44)

“You will recognize her or him (your protagonist) by the way you care.” Stephen Koch (93)

“First drafts, even pretty good ones, can be excruciatingly hard for anyone but their authors to read. The primary issue, line by line, is not their higher meaning. It is their basic meaning.” Stephen Koch (173)

To Score or Not to Score

Major Walter Clopton Wingfield proceeded to give meaning to the sport of lawn tennis in 1873 by creating a scoring system that includes the terms, “love, deuce, match.”

One hundred and thirty years later, in 2003, Stephen Koch offers what this Reader considers a “scoring system for writers” that could employ these same designations.

Love reflects a writer’s passion, obsession, and desire to write. In TMLWW, Graham Greene is quoted: “Talent, even of a very high order, cannot sustain an achievement, whereas a ruling passion gives to a shelf of novels the unity of a system.” (31)

Koch agrees. “Your talent will go to waste unless it is sustained and strengthened by the nagging, jagged, elusive thing called obsession, that stone in the shoe of your being known as a calling, a vocation. Call it dumb persistence. Call it passion. Call it fire in the belly or the madness of art. It is less the ability to write than the insistence upon writing.” (31)

“Katherine Anne Porter said, ‘This thing between me and my writing is the strongest bond I have ever had – stronger than any bond or any engagement with any human being or with any other work I’ve ever done.’ ” (31)

“Betsy Lerner observes, ‘If the voices keep calling, if the itch remains, no matter how punishing the work or inhospitable the world, then you must take a long hard look at all the writing you’ve been attempting to do all your life and commit to it.’ ” (32)

Koch states, “If you are lucky, writing will be and will remain your greatest pleasure; intense, surprising, a kind of lifelong love story.” (53)

Deuce refers to the distinction between two near synonyms, “story” and “plot.” In a tour de force explanation of the distinguishing characteristics of these two often-batted-about terms, Koch states: “A story is an account of any real or fictitious sequence of linked events. Yet in order to be fully told, every story must have a plot. The plot will consist of whatever makes the story move.” (65) He then references the story summary and plot movements of “Hamlet” proving the brilliance of Shakespeare and also the acumen of Koch, the former chair of Columbia University’s graduate creative writing program.

“Feeling the story,” Koch writes, “followed by figuring the story – can start working together in a dynamic reciprocity from which the real shape of the story can emerge in an alternating shimmer of certainty and surprise.” (67)

Of course, another example of “story” and “plot,” that Koch cites is more succinct. “The cat sat on the mat’ is not the beginning of a story but ‘The cat sat on the dog’s mat’ is.” John LeCarre (74).

Match refers to the Writer and Reader relationship. “You create the Reader with your style,” Koch states. (118) “This invention of ‘the Reader,’ the secret sharer of your every syllable, is a defining element of style. It ends up as a relationship. As a writer, you have a great deal to say about what this relationship is to be. But it is not entirely in your hands. It is ultimately a collaboration, an exchange. Whatever the relationship, it should offer the real person reading your prose the gift of some larger, richer consciousness.” (119)


The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction, Stephen Koch, 2003, Modern Library, an imprint of Random House Publishers.


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