For some reason, most of the writing books I like seem to be written by genre writers. Nancy Kress. Stephen King. Walter Mosley. Orson Scott Card. They still emphasize narrative. I just don’t buy the idea that modern literature has moved beyond narrative and we should be impressed with character studies and slice-of-life depiction and beautiful prose. I want a story! So I was surprised and pleased to find in The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop, by Stephen Koch, a spirited defense of fiction being about narrative.
Not only does this book embrace narrative and story, it’s willing to call Stephen King a writer of great imagination and force, if not a great writer. But then he also calls Dickens’ writing not so great. Maybe it’s more fair to say neither King nor Dickens are what I call “writerly”. There’s some interesting commentary in the Sources about some influential textbooks that elevated stories without plot, like the Dubliners stories that ended with a depressing epiphany instead of a climax. If you disagree with these judgments, you’ll probably be even more put off by the tendency to overuse italics and bold, which present an obstacle to taking it seriously.
The main message for me is: “You cannot know a story until it has been told.” That is, it advocates writing a quick first draft and then mining out of it the final story. When you first start writing, you have just an idea, or a scene, or a character. You won’t really be able to see what kind of story you’re telling until you’ve written it down.
To be honest, I’m not sure how well this idea is working for me. Right now, I can see different things in my stories every time I rake through the draft looking for its theme. Somewhere in there, I just know I’m making it harder on myself.
The idea I never heard of before was in the passage about how style and voice comes from a story’s interaction with the Reader. The Reader is a persona that your real readers put on when they read your book. That is, the same person can be the kind of person who reads Stephen King one day, and the kind of person who reads James Joyce the next.