What’s the most helpful fiction craft guide that you’ve read? For me, it’s the Modern Library Writer’s Workshop, by Stephen Koch. Though not among the most widely-known books on how to write fiction, a striking portion of its reviewers on Amazon, Goodreads, and elsewhere describe it as “the best” or “one of the best.”
Stephen Koch draws from decades of experience: he taught graduate and undergraduate writing students at Columbia University and Princeton for almost thirty years. But, this book isn’t simply one man’s advice. He’s collected insights from more than two hundred successful authors, both contemporary and classic, spanning all genres from commercial to literary. These authors do not always agree. Sometimes, their tips even contradict each other, but when they do, the conflict is enlightening.
Despite its dry title, this book is conversational, addressing readers as though its author is sitting at your side encouraging you rather than standing off behind a lectern. This is not the kind of book that enumerates critical steps and ends each chapter with a set of exercises. Mr. Koch does not espouse formulas or foist acronyms (with one humorous exception for self-editing notes: MEGO=“my eyes glaze over”). He does scrupulously reference scores of other writing professionals. He is particularly useful on the subject of overcoming self-doubt, getting started, completing your first draft, and on revisions.
Though rich with insights, the book is only 246 pages long, with chapters titled “Beginnings,” “The Writing Life,” “Shaping the Story,” “Making Characters Live,” “Inventing Your Style,” “The Story of the Self,” “Working and Reworking,” and “Finishing.” Above all, this is an encouraging book, a book that inspires confidence in its intended audience: rookie writers. It addresses not just the craft of writing but the life of the writer, recommending how to improve one’s daily productivity. This is a book worth keeping close at hand and rereading.