"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Saturday, January 21, 2023

The Modern Library Writer's Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction by Stephen Koch (2003): Reading notes

"You must persist"

Anyone interested in reading or writing fiction will find The Modern Library Writer's Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction by Stephen Koch

(2003) scintillating. In particular, the sixth, seventh, and eighth chapters contain methods and ideas of real power and insight. It's the best "manual" I have read since Writer's block and how to use it (1985) by Victoria Nelson.

*   *   *

Chapter 1 Beginnings

[....] "One must be pitiless about this matter of 'mood.' In a sense, the writing will create the mood.… Generally I've found this to be true: I have forced myself to begin writing when I've been utterly exhausted, when I've felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for another five minutes … and somehow the activity of writing changes everything." [Joyce Carol Oates]

[....] You prepare in your notebook, both before and while you do the main work. You should be "preparing" all the time, and "preparing" for more than one project. A writer should always be writing. At any given moment in your writing life, some main project should be on the front burner. But other possibilities should also be brewing on that back burner of the literary life, your notebook.


     Do it. Hemingway said that the only thing that really matters about a first draft is getting it done. You are looking for the sound and shape of a story, and this is the only place you can hope to find them. So get to it.

     Do it quickly . Eloquence, according to Cicero, resides in "an uninterrupted movement of the mind," a motus animi continuus. Stephen King, admittedly a wildly prolific writer, claims that writing the first draft of a novel should never absorb more than a single season; three, maybe four, months. If you are writing a short story, write the entire first draft, if possible, in a single sitting. If something has to take up lots of time, let it be the second draft, and then proceed to a finishing draft in a single sustained push, following the rhythm Eudora Welty used to recommend: "My ideal way to write a short story is to write the whole first draft through in one sitting, then work as long as it takes on revisions, and then write the final version all in one, so that in the end the whole thing amounts to one long sustained effort."

Chapter 2 The Writing Life

[....] The two most dangerous enemies of a young writer's productivity are his or her mismanagement of time and an undue vulnerability to self-doubt and self-criticism. Both must be dealt with firmly. Paul Johnson is right: "A bad novel is better than an unwritten novel, because a bad novel can be improved; an unwritten novel is defeat without a battle. A writer as long as he lives faces the difficulty of striking a balance between an overcritical view of his work and complacency. In my view, a young writer should err on the side of complacency while he is writing, then sit in judgment afterwards. He must keep the typewriter going, and watch the pile of blank pages on his right gradually diminish and filled pages on his left rise. Thereby he acquires confidence, and in writing, as in all art, confidence is the beginning of skill."

Chapter 3 Shaping the Story


     Two final points: Embrace drama.

     Just as important: Embrace improbability.

     Above all, don't fear either one of them. Verve in fiction almost always means a readiness to seize upon—and love—either drama or improbability or both. Drama rests on improbability, and taken together, these two are our prime means for uncovering—for "inventing"—the unseen significance of things. On their forking path can be found those "exceptional happenings" that Truman Capote called the writer's business. They are your levers for lifting the carapace of banality to reveal meaning. All drama is based upon unlikely events surging up into ordinary life and changing it. All narrative is engaged, at some level, with the improbable. Part of your job, of course, is to make the improbable credible. Then, once you have made it credible, you proceed to make it inevitable. And then you may have art.

[....] improbability is the basis of drama, if for no other reason than that drama is based upon the exceptional. When they pop up in your story it is not bad news. It is often—not always, but often—a gift from the muse.

[....] Drama is not melodrama.

[....] inability to distinguish melodrama from its plainer cousin is simply disabling to a writer.

[....] disdain for drama is somehow a sign of "good taste." [....] sign not of good taste but of artistic insecurity.

[....] Lifelessness is not a form of elegance you should pursue.

[....] improbability is a necessary concomitant of any and all drama. [....] The best way of dealing with it is with the maximum of brio; make sure that no one misses it."


[....] All of these elements, from the most intuitive to the most carefully calculated, must work together in a kind of synchrony that not only begins in intuition but ends in it, too.

[....] The sense of rightness and the sense of what is wrong have no independent existence: Each is the other's reverse side.

[....] that inner voice [....] is your art's best friend, the other voice of rightness. You must listen to them both, trusting that your intellect is capable of responding to their cues and discerning at least many of their mute meanings. They will be in play every hour you spend at your desk, and they alone can guide you on your path from perplexity, complexity, and conflict to the inevitable. That movement from the improbable to the inevitable is the truest course of a story, and it defines your path.

Chapter 4 Making Characters Live

[....] what does supply unity, if not point of view? Aristotle's answer is simple and strong. Coherence comes from "unity of action." That is, coherence comes from finding the dramatic conflict of some true protagonist, putting it into play, and pursuing it to its outcome. This is what really endows a narrative sequence with wholeness.

[....] voice, the mind, and the "sensibility" of the novel itself.

[....] The work sees, comprehends, and conveys all kinds of meaning that are quite inaccessible to any given character. They belong to the work alone. It is the mind not just of Jane Austen but of Pride and Prejudice that tells us that "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."

[....] The voice of the novel belongs to everyone and no one. It can be in the third person or the first, and, incidentally, it has nothing whatever to do with "omniscience" in any philosophic sense. "Omniscience" is always raised in these discussions, and it is a red herring, a waste of time. The voice of the novel is grounded in the narrative intelligence of the prose. This intelligence will always have some set of limitations

[....] Inflating point of view, often at the expense of such a voice, is really a hobbyhorse of the modernist movement in its middle, most tepid, academic, and now exhausted phase.

[....] little more than a rather priggish critical fantasy, launched mainly on the strength of Percy Lubbock's idolatrous relation to Henry James's late fiction popularized by E. M. Forster in his immensely influential Aspects of the Novel. [....] not even an accurate insight into how most novels work. Forster himself knew perfectly well that Lubbock simply did not make sense on this subject.

[....] A novelist can shift his viewpoint if it comes off, and it came off with Dickens and Tolstoy. Indeed, this power to expand and contract perception (of which the shifting viewpoint is a symptom) … [is] one of the great advantages of the novel-form, and it has a parallel in our perception of life."


[....] We've said the thing to do is to focus not on plot but on character, and above all to focus on a search for your protagonist. Find the character in the conflict whose fate matters to you most. Once you know whose role is in that top spot, you can begin to determine the roles of all the other characters. But not until—because the identity of the protagonist defines all other roles.

[....] you may have to live with the story awhile.

[....] You can't shape the story without a protagonist, and without a shaped story you can't find your protagonist. Are you trapped? The only way out of this chicken-egg dilemma is to feel your way to the outcome, watching as you work, and waiting—waiting with the absorbed attention of a predatory beast.

[....] You must persist.

[....] all fiction, all drama—see and recognize individuals only through the prism of types.

[....] We are none of us sui generis. We are all typical of something; in fact, we are typical of many things. At the same time, we are all also absolute individuals: uniquely ourselves, facing our fate in the universe alone.

[....] hero or heroine is always in some sense equipped with purpose.

[....] Round characters, then, are round because they come "equipped with purpose." Something they want or need that makes them capable of change. They can succeed.

[....] Tragedy depends on roundness, while comedy favors the flat 

[....] Characters are always some elusive combination of yourself and others. Even if you're flying on pure fantasy, something in that fantasy is sure to touch on someone you've really known.

[....] You can't depict what your imagination doesn't see and hear, and most of us see and hear ourselves rather poorly.

[....] autobiographical fiction fails because the author has not been able to "invent"—"invent" in our sense—a workable persona. You must see yourself as a character; you must endow the "yourself" on paper with a vivid separateness from the real "you."

[....] a distinction between you the imaginer and all that you imagine, including "yourself."

[....] Most characters begin as little more than an evanescent flicker in your mind. You start with that flicker. One early step for endowing it with some concreteness would be to endow it with a few vital statistics.

[....] You may begin to get a glimpse of what your evanescent flicker is going to do when she or he happens to meet another evanescent flicker, somewhere, somehow.

[....] When all goes well, the original material soon disappears, and a character who belongs to the book and nowhere else emerges.

[....] Henry James [....] "Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost."

[....] how much more we "know" than we think we know.

[....] The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life in general so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it—this cluster of gifts may almost be said to constitute experience, and they occur in country and in town, and in the most differing stages of education. If experience consists of impressions, it may be said that impressions are experience, just as (have we not seen it?) they are the very air we breathe.

[....] it's generally best to move from impression to information, rather than the reverse. First imagine your character. Then dig up the facts you need to confirm or correct the picture....

[....] write it first, then research it.

[....] VOICE

[....] the sound of her or his identity.


[....] It should be reserved for the culminating moments, and regarded as the spray into which the great wave of narrative breaks in curving toward the watcher on the shore."

[....] merger of the "voice of a novel" with the voice of a character is one of the form's most potent techniques, and only fiction has it.

[....] use the prose to mimic the otherwise inarticulate inner speech of a character, and you can do it, lightly, in small ways, or you can drench everything in the sound of the character's mind, articulating thoughts she or he would never be willing or able to put into words.

[....] Indirect discourse in the third person is a more usable and supple method. In it, the narrating voice of the novel begins to sound like the character's voice and mind, and articulates her or his otherwise inarticulate thoughts.

[....] "indirect discourse" is a grammatical convenience that sidesteps direct quotation by presenting spoken words in the third person. Direct discourse: "'I refuse to go,' Maurice replied." Indirect discourse: "Maurice replied that he refused to go."

[....] a voice that is neither theirs nor yours, but which reaches beyond the characters' explicit words and thoughts to become the voice of the fiction itself, making consciousness a unity.

[....] "Love your characters—but not aloud."

Chapter 5 Inventing Your Style

[....] Style.... is the way you get your story told, and it therefore consists of all your language and the whole manner you bring to its use.

[....] complete sound of what you write. Not just the fancy parts. All of it. And as you write, you are going to have to "invent" it—invent in "our" sense—by working once again in that realm that lies between making it up and finding it.

[....] style you end with will have a kind of synthetic unity, but most styles are in fact composites of many voices.

[....] a merging of focused control and loose letting it happen.

[....] style is the unseen something that makes any given sentence able to stand up all on its own.

[....] whatever lifts what a writer has to say out of the "subjective" into the "objective."

[....] Your style is what your writing will sound like after you have finally finished the seemingly endless internal argument over the rightness and wrongness of every detail on every page. It is nothing more, but also nothing less, than this rightness.

[....] Patricia Highsmith.... : "Most beginning writers think that established writers must have a formula for success.…There is no secret of success in writing except individuality, or call it personality. And since every person is different, it is only for the individual to express his difference from the next fellow. This is what I call the opening of the spirit. But it isn't mystic. It is merely a kind of freedom—freedom organized."

[....] Style is the personality of your writing, and you find your personality in prose, as in life, through interaction with others.

[....] the sound of prose, even the prose of your own voice, is something you have got to hear.

[....] One becomes the Reader while also remaining oneself. Every writer's Reader differs. The Reader of Virginia Woolf is exquisitely attuned to every nuance. The Reader of Elmore Leonard has a mean, tough, get-down mind.

[....] This invention of "the Reader," the secret sharer of your every syllable, is a defining element of style. Like everything else in your writing, it will be pieced together from all kinds of remembered scraps and tags of language: books, voices, people, moments of wonder, whatever. It ends up as style: That is, it ends up as a relationship , and that relationship is always between two invented beings, exactly as, at this moment, I am inventing you and you are inventing me.

[....] it should offer the real person reading your prose the gift of some larger, richer consciousness.


[....] A voice can be exactly the lever you need to lift a story into existence, functioning in very much the same way that the story itself leverages a character into life.

[....] You are going to be influenced.... Whether they know and admit it or not, all writers without exception work under the influence of other writers. Don't ask whether you are going to be influenced by other writers. Ask how. You learned to talk from other talkers, and the talk of others is still teaching you. It's where you got your fluency, your accent, your vocabulary, your slang—just about everything—and all these things are continually refreshed by—more talk. Well, in just the same way, other writers will teach you how to write, and they are going to keep on teaching you as long as you keep going.

[....] because style is an exchange, the place to find your voice is among the voices of others and through the love of them.

[....] The tie that binds is not resemblance but passion. And when you fall in love with any writer, it is usually the style you fall for.

[....] Just as you can find yourself only through the coordinates of your human relationships with others, so will you find your voice, your style, your sound, only by zoning in on it through and among the voices of others, the styles and sounds that matter to you and sing silently in your own mind.

[....] You must be guided by your own excitement, your own sense of felicity, and your own happiness with what comes out right. John Updike, with perhaps the best ear of his generation— the virtuoso—speaks of the key role of this sense of rightness and how it functioned in his early work. "Most came right the first time—rode on their own melting, as Frost said of his poems.


[....] Woolf often likes to end on a kind of high-style one-phrase stinger.

[....] Those last little clauses about thunder and laurel are sudden subtle snatches at sublimity.... always very grand.

[....] middle style.... Austen herself, at the turn of the nineteenth century, was the first to perfect it as a narrative medium. George Eliot and Trollope are eminent among its nine-teenth-century masters. It is the voice that talks to us about love and money in that famous first sentence of Pride and Prejudice.

[....] Because the middle style, as Samuel Johnson pointed out, is conversational, it is endowed with a seductive ability to maintain a balance between impersonal clarity and the individual voiceprint of any writer who happens to be using it.

[....] It has no gender inflection—a fact that may partly explain why, from the start, many of the style's greatest masters have been women.

[....] accurate, fair, clear, attentive to others, truth telling, and reliable.

[....] quiet control is its fetish.... Capote, who served his apprenticeship at The New Yorker and wrote a minor masterpiece of the middle style, In Cold Blood , called it being "in control." "I mean [by control] maintaining a stylistic and emotional upper hand over your material.

[....] A manner that declines ever to become unduly excited is a poor vehicle for conveying—as opposed to talking about—overwhelming passion.

[....] Faulkner, Walt Whitman, Solzhenitsyn, Kerouac, Dostoyevsky, Poe, Céline—all these figures are too large, too passionate, too driven, too possessed by their material, too overwhelmed and overwhelming, ever to settle for the middle style.


[....] Style triangulates the reader and the subject

[....] flaws in that relationship have been viewed as the leading cause for faulty style.... [leading] writers to tinker, more and more obsessively, with form

[....] Style triangulates the reader and the subject, and its flaws can also lie in its relation to the subject.

[....] frigidity.... "The fault Longinus identifies as 'frigidity' occurs in fiction whenever the author reveals by some slip of self-regarding intrusion that he is less concerned about his characters than he ought to be.…Strictly speaking, frigidity characterizes the writer who presents material, then fails to carry through—fails to treat it with the attention and seriousness it deserves.

[....] coldheartedness.... writer's inability to recognize the seriousness of things in the first place, the writer who turns away from real feeling, or sees only the superficialities in a conflict of wills, or knows no more about love, beauty, or sorrow than one might learn from a Hallmark card.

[....] frigidity seems one of the salient faults in contemporary literature and art.

[....] Frigidity is, in short, one of the worst faults in literature, and often the basis of other faults.…"

[....] style—in the sense of a highly developed and polished prose manner—is not even a necessary element of greatness

[....] One sweats one's guts out. The fact remains that the four greatest novelists the world has ever known, Balzac, Dickens, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevksy, wrote their respective languages very indifferently.

[....] if you have sincerity and passion, it doesn't matter a damn how you write. All the same, it's better to write well than ill.

[....] In place of unfailing stylistic elegance, each of these writers had a large-spirited and unequivocal absorption in the world he was creating, and that absorption mobilized their enormous linguistic gifts to make a world in which the Reader can move with unprecedented freedom.

[....] Every great or even very good writer makes the world over according to his own specifications.

Chapter 6 The Story of the Self

[....] difference between fiction and nonfiction is obvious, omnipresent, crucial, and not always as important as everyone says.

[....] two opposites are more alike than they are different. They walk on the same two legs, breathe the same air, and see the same world through the same eyes. They are different in their sameness. They are the same in their difference. Fiction and nonfiction are united in difference

[....] pure fiction, pure nonfiction, or something in between—has no choice but to embrace its facts through the imagination. The nature of that partnership assumes various forms, but it is always there.

[....] There is an unwritten novel silently brooding over most works of nonfiction, just as there is a true story lurking in the shadows of almost every novel or short story. The two hover near each other. To embark on one is to sense the other. This is because of their common source in the merger of imagination and fact. Reach into it and you will touch something alive, something central to the whole art of storytelling.

[....] Every Memoir Must "Invent" Its Story. I mean "invent" in our sense, of course. No crude collection of cold facts has ever once told a story all on its own. Every story, be it fiction or nonfiction, must be found among the facts and then be shaped from them.

[....] invention, be it in fiction or nonfiction, is a search only a storyteller can make.

[....] The Subject of Your Memoir Cannot Be "You." Not you all alone, anyway. A memoir must be about you and something —and that something should usually be your relationship to something intrinsically interesting and bigger than you.

[....] Your Memoir Cannot Recapture the Past.... The story, though it may seem implicit in the facts, must be put together from the past in the present. The past is not static; it is linked to the present; it is in a state of constant, dynamic change.

[....] seen through the eyes of the persona you "invent" here and now to play the part of the "you" that lived, and vanished, back then.


[....] reconstruction of a world.… facts can exist without human intelligence, but truth cannot.

[....] mere accuracy alone cannot define the truth

[....] What defines the truth of the facts—as distinguished from their accuracy—is the story.

[....] The story is your principle of selection; the story is your standard of relevance; the story is your test of meaning. Yes, every fact in your story must be able to survive the tests of accuracy. But only the story can be tested for that broader criterion of the truth, its authenticity.

[....] "Memoir writers must manufacture a text, imposing narrative order on a jumble of half-remembered events. With that feat of manipulation they arrive at a truth that is theirs alone, not quite like that of anybody else who was present at the same events."

[....] your memoir is your impression of your life.

[....] Here, we want the conclusions of the witness; we want your guesses; we want your fantasies and dreams

[....] a memoir is not a biography, but an art form.... That perfect but never-spoken line, the one you "made up"—or was it "found"?—is infinitely more revealing than the banal nothing that really got said.

[....] Henry Louis Gates Jr. "When you write an autobiography or a memoir you're indulging yourself in your own sentimentality. So I found ways to guard against that: by using irony and wit and self-deprecation, and also by being honest, or revelatory, about pain and fear."

[....] The problem lies not in the excess of the author's persona. It lies in its absence , or more exactly in its failure to be persuasive, vivid, and truly imagined. Virginia Woolf saw this with her usual unerring vision: "Here I come to one of the memoir writer's difficulties—one of the reasons why, though I read so many, so many are failures. They leave out the person to whom things happened. The reason is that it is so difficult to describe any human being. So they say: 'This is what happened'; but they do not say what the person was like to whom it happened."

[....] It is the dreary un-persona at the center—undeveloped, undramatic, and unseen—that sinks the enterprise. The figure that occupies the most space isn't really depicted at all. The prime job in any autobiography consists in shaping a sharp, firm, vital persona—a character —out of the amorphous mass of Everything we call "you."

[....] Russell Baker "I had made a grievous mistake in trying to write a book about myself in which I didn't appear."

[....] Ernest Hemingway shaped the "Hemingway hero" from the fighter in his lifelong losing battle with himself.

[....] The created "Marcel" endowed the real Proust with the sanity and balance he needed to produce his book

[....] Any "character," properly conceived, will give you access to some part of yourself that is "superior" to "you," superior even in intelligence, even in insight, even in ability to reach the truth. Without "inventing" that character, you might never reach the part of yourself that is capable of these things.

[....] It teaches the power of observed reality. It shows that large transfusions of real life freshly observed can revitalize tired literary forms. Facts seen in a new way are a wellspring from which prose recovers its spent force.

[....] war between tired fantasy and robust fact is the heart of the comedy in Don Quixote.

[....] Martin Amis: "Tom Wolfe … said that writers are neglecting the real world.… He suggested a ratio of 70 percent research, 30 percent inspiration. But the trouble is that the real world probably isn't going to fit into the novel. In a sense, it's better to do the research in your mind. You need detail, you need pegs, but you don't want too much truth, you don't want too much fact. I would reverse the ratio: 30 percent research, 70 percent inspiration. Perhaps even 30 percent research is too much. You want a few glimmers from the real world, but then you need to run it through your psyche, to reimagine it. Don't transcribe, reimagine. Mere fact has no chance of being formally perfect. It will get in the way, it will be all elbows."

[....] Every artist can and must find her or his balance between the factual and the imagined.

[....] What did Chekhov say was absolutely indispensable to the writing of fiction? "Truth in the description of characters and things." Trollope likewise insisted that what connects the reader to the page is factual truth: "It all lies in that. No novel is anything … unless the reader can sympathize with the characters whose names he finds upon the pages.

[....] Stephen King: "Now comes the big question: What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want. Anything at all … as long as you tell the truth. "

[....] Anyone immersed in Jack Kerouac or Marcel Proust—or for that matter, that fine autobiographical novel Winnie the Pooh —will read sensing, knowing , that in some way much of what's happening on the page is taken from real life. Yet precisely this awareness of fact is what heightens the awareness of fiction. 

[....] fiction's relation to its facts that endows it with its "honesty."

[....] You must find some balance between a freestanding "invented" character on the page—a being with a distinct, limited, significant set of traits—and the real person called "you." Here your own "honesty" may be tested by the rules of fact versus truth.

[....] Leave out or change certain things, and you may open a vista on the truth. Leave out certain other things, and you will be just plain lying. Perhaps you are the only person on earth who will ever know that you are lying. But you will know.


[....] Shelby Foote: you're working with facts that came out of documents, just as in a novel you are working with facts that come out of your head or most likely your memory. Once you have control of those facts, once you possess them, you can handle them exactly as a novelist handles his facts.... certainly no historian is allowed to be false to his facts under any circumstances. I've never known, in at least a modern historical instance, where the truth wasn't superior to distortion in every way."

[....] Two phrases stand out among these very wise words. Foote speaks about " getting control of the facts" and about "possessing" the facts. Mere information is never enough. But then, neither is mere imagination. Two reliable signs of a healthy imagination are a hunger for facts and a will to satisfy that need. If you do not feed your imagination with facts, it will starve. It will try to feed on itself—and that will make it sicken and maybe even die. Yet mere facts alone are useless. We live in a limitless universe of them; most of them are dead as doornails.... make them live on a page.

[....] Visualize. Conceptualize. Remember. Invent a context. Give it language. The job will be done only when the fact is talking to you, even in your dreams.

[....] whether you're writing about people or dragons, your personal observation of how things happen in the world—how character reveals itself—can turn a dead scene into a vital one."

[....] Do not write what you know. Write what you have come to take control of and possess as your own.

[....] Mere personal experience is, generally, quite dull.... You have to become attached to the thing you're writing about—in other words, 'love it'—for it to have any real meaning.


[....] memory alone has the sovereign power to tell us what things felt like.

[....] your memory will lose all this power and become a bumbling incompetent when it comes to comprehending what you recall. Memory doesn't have the capacity to comprehend anything. It only remembers. And even a quite good memory is likely to be a very poor source of facts.

[....] Memory makes associations, but it is likely to fail in the search for the structure that you need to give your recollections shape. Your organizing narrative intelligence must do that. Nor can memory, unassisted, show you a story's meaning. It is a feeble philosopher. You must do these things.

[....] The miracle of Proust goes well beyond his dazzling capacity for recall: More impressive even than that is his ability to subsume all that recollection in one controlling, stylistically coherent narrative flow, and nothing more persuasively demonstrates the power of his controlling intelligence.

[....] "To write a novel," says John Braine, "is, above all, to remember. You must learn to be quiet, to compose yourself, to let the memories enter. Apart from the time which you spend writing, you must have quiet periods, during which you can empty your mind of the day's events, shut off the present. Quiet places aren't necessary...."

[....] get one thing right—one thing that you really want to say.


[....] You must learn to defend your ideas from those who are inclined to go on the attack, even if one of those attackers is yourself.

[....] almost any idea can be killed by that abuse in the first stage.

[....] Any story idea that happens to strike you will be unoriginal in some way. This is good, not bad. Familiarity may form the bedrock of interest.

[....] shaped by the classic deep narratives of humanity: the primal stories of quest; redemption; exile; struggle and war; homecoming; rebirth; romantic love.

Chapter 7 Working and Reworking

[....] Early Drafts and the Techniques of Revision

[....] You rarely if ever start out knowing exactly what you are doing or what is to come, and by the time you reach the middle, you rarely know how you are going to get out alive. The project must be your guide, and it will not be finished teaching you the job until the day you type the final page. Then, if you're lucky, it will let you go.

[....] I have read all too many almost good pieces of work, published and unpublished, that betray their promise simply and solely because their authors did not have the stamina or the determination or the time to run them through another draft or two.

[....] writing lives off a two-stroke heartbeat of release followed by taking control.

[....] as David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker puts it, "revision is all there is."


[....] A "draft" is a version of your whole project written out from beginning to end. It can be the draft of a whole short story, a whole novel, a whole memoir, a whole chapter, a whole essay, a whole anything. The operational word is whole. A completed movement from beginning to end defines a draft.


[....] Single-drafting is not necessarily anything like careless writing or even rapid writing.

[....] successful single-drafters.... revise as they go, and revise a lot.


[....] Malamud: "I love the flowers of afterthought."


[....] you may be someone who does your first draft very quickly. If that is true, your second draft should probably be slow moving.

[....] If the one draft is fast and reckless, the next should probably be slow and painstaking:

[....] where one rides on its self-permission, the next should be self-critical. Where one is guesswork, the next should be researched.

[....] Guy de Maupassant's advice on first drafts: "Get black on white.… Idon't give a hoot what the writing's like; I write any sort of rubbish which will cover the main outlines of the story, then I can begin to see it.… I just write roughly what happened.…"

[....] Speed does not work, either psychologically or creatively, for everyone.

[....] You may quite willingly crawl through a first draft, only to move like the wind through the second or third. There is a kind of slow draft that I tend to call the "research draft."

[....] desirability of alternating fast drafts and slow drafts was borne in on me so often that it became in my mind almost a kind of rule.

[....] advantages of speed: beating your inner censor, coming unblocked, getting narrative momentum.


[....] King puts it nicely: "Give yourself a chance to think while the story is still like a field of freshly fallen snow, absent of any tracks save your own."

[....] come to it cold, and so a little time off, tinkering with another project can be healthy.

[....] trying only to get enough distance from it to see it again later through fresh and rested eyes. You are trying to get away from your role as writer so you can be your own first reader.

[....] read through the whole draft. This should be done in one sitting or something as close to it as you can arrange.

[....] "read it with the cold detachment of a doctor looking at an X ray."

[....] Your twin friends, the sense of rightness and wrongness, are going to be your guides, and they are going to be busy. What you hear that voice— wrong, this is wrong —don't cringe, just make a simple note: "wrong," "cut or improve," "needs work," "sentimental." And keep going.

[....] Boredom is always pointing to trouble. 

[....] Fight down both panic and ecstasy. You are going to fix all these problems. Just keep making those terse notes. Get to the end.

[....] TAKING CHARGE OF THE STORY. The most typical problems are sketchiness, shallow characterization, undepicted action, and vague description.... wavering, unclear voice.

[....] you may have to tell yours several times before you settle on the right way for it? This may be the moment to try some of these retellings. You certainly do not want to retell the story each time in a full draft. Life is short.

[....] This [after reading first draft] may be the moment to write a scenario. That is, you may be able to write a short but detailed précis or paraphrase of the story that's been forming in this draft. And that scenario may turn into a map for the second draft.

[....] You were in no position to write a scenario before you'd done the first draft. You did not know the story well enough for that.

[....] Paraphrase is one of the mind's most potent instruments of understanding: What cannot be paraphrased has probably not been understood at all.

[....] Tell yourself your emerging story again and again until you have, in capsule, a potent credible version that is propelling you into the new draft.

[....] Keep each summary short and try never to devote more than a day's work to any one of them.

[....] summarizing.... testing....

[....] If your project is a short story or novella, don't produce one syllable over 350 words. If you are writing a novel, the summary should not be more than 3,000 words.

[....] Work quickly. Don't get bogged down. With each new version, reconsider, change, tighten, revise.

[....] The narrative will have an organic unity; it won't be a bundle of loosely linked episodes. And it will flow compulsively; it won't stop and start, run and stagger."

[....] you will have a map for your second draft.


[....] you are about to rewrite—not polish, rewrite—your entire project.

[....] plan on rewriting in depth.

[....] Do not polish a mess. Polishing can't give your story its shape. Polishing can't show you what action you need or reveal your characters' roles. Polishing can't even give you the sound of your dialogue or your voice.

[....] With or without the help of your scenario, you are going to be dealing with structure. It will be hard work, but the nice thing is that once it is done, it is likely to stay done. You will not be restructuring much in third or final drafts. That is when you'll be polishing.

[....] REVISE FOR STRUCTURE FIRST. Redrafting should begin by solving the problem of sequence. Always.

[....] There is an implicit sequence in everything you do.

[....] there is a necessary sequence: of blocks of information, of events, of sentences. No other will do. You must find that sequence, and you must be looking for it all the time. Logic will give you some of it. Intuition will give you some more. The indispensable editorial impulse to simplify the order of things will give you more. As if with a safecracker's sandpapered fingertips, you must feel the tumblers of the right combination falling into place. That order, incidentally, is always there.

[....] everything in a first draft needs to be made more vivid, more coherent, and more powerful.

[....] you gain momentum through expansiveness.

[....] REVISE FOR PLOT.... give your full attention to this concreteness, finding and getting down the exact ways the events in your story happen, and how those changes drive the story forward.

[....] How do the twists and turns of this story work, exactly? Aristotle spoke of the "reversals and recognitions" in every story. What are your "reversals and recognitions," and what is the precise way they take place?

[....] REVISE FOR CLARITY. The single most destructive force dooming most first fiction to failure is simple unreadability. As we have seen, the heart of readability is your relationship to your reader. Clarity must be an essential element of that relationship.

[....] 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.

[....] Your reader is not stupid. You are not being understood, and it is your problem.

[....] it is simply impossible to be too clear.

[....] If clarity reveals that your scene is really too simple, if it unmasks your dialogue as really humdrum, then clarity will have done you a very great service. It's pretty easy to cut the "obvious." On the other hand, if your scene is rich and elusive and rare, clarity can only crown those virtues with perfection. Murk—mere murk—sinks.

[....] leave the pretensions of the classroom behind: No piece of literature has ever been better merely because it is unreadable or obscure.

[....] it will be galling when somebody you respect tells you that they "just don't get" that shimmering paragraph, the one you think may be the most mysterious and beautiful you ever wrote. You've got to get over it. They are doing you a favor.


[....] Fred Astaire once gave this advice to a young filmmaker: "Make it as good as you can. Then cut ten minutes."

[....] have a bunch of pages—any bunch of pages—that needs work? They have not been worked on until they have been washed and preshrunk in the 10-Percent Solution.

[....] The best and wisest guide to all cutting is your own boredom.

[....] Do your eyes glaze over as you read? Cut. Are you not held? Cut. Been there? Done that? Cut, cut, and cut again. When you are bored—really bored—don't even try to fix the passage. Just cut. Is there maybe one lively sentence somewhere in there? Good. Save that one sentence. And then cut. Forget the transitions and the explanations: cut bravely. Are you afraid some boring passage is also essential? If it really is essential, it will eventually make its way back onto your page, though we hope in a more lively form.

[....] We all have our favorite ways of showing off, and they rarely serve us well. When you have identified your own grandiosity, do not be kind.


[....] the ear is a wonderful editor—and usually a much sharper, smarter, and livelier editor than the eye.

[....] You will hear what's right and wrong on your page before you see it.

[....] If it can't be read aloud, it's no good.

[....] "You must learn to reread your own sentences," says Richard Bausch, "as a stranger might. And say everything aloud. Listen to how it sounds. "

[....] Your prose is not yet polished enough to be read aloud to anyone but yourself.


[....] Some bad prose is a tar baby. Touch it and you just sink deeper into tar.

[....] quickly write out the whole thing again, from scratch, and from memory.

[....] When you are mired in a manuscript, rewrite from memory.

[....] And it works for little things as well as big ones


[....] Your job in revision is to recapture that first excitement and know it again, no longer as a promise but as a promise redeemed.

[....] Never condemn your own prose. Redeem it. If you do, the original excitement will come back, but it will come back fulfilled and alive with a power that will be new to you.

Chapter 8 Finishing

[....] Now that you are plunging into second, or middle, and finishing drafts, the time has come for you to strengthen your grasp not only on your story but also on its meanings. What is this story about? What is it saying? What does it imply? The meanings you deal with now will be the meanings that you "invented"—"invented" in our sense—as a consequence of inventing the story itself. You are finally, and for the first time, in a position to become really conscious and much more fully in control of what your narrative signifies.

[....] Back then, you were lucky to get the story told at all, and since you did not know it yet, that meant getting the story to tell itself through you.

[....] every once in a while the story has suggested to you this or that significant implication.

[....] You would have been well advised to keep yourself a passive vehicle for both, letting the story lead.

[....] "Your job in the second draft—" says Stephen King, "one of them, anyway—is to make that something even more clear. This may necessitate some big changes and revisions. The benefits to you and your reader will be clearer focus and a more unified story."

[....] time has come to tighten your grip on meaning. Just don't make it a stranglehold.

[....] Some themes will be fully formed in your mind, while others may flicker there half-obscure. The way they flicker may change as you revise, but it is unlikely that you will ever totally "know," in a fully conscious way, their whole significance.

[....] keep all your meanings, both the clear and the obscure, the explicit and the implicit, the dominant and the secondary, at work sustaining and enriching the story that they are helping you revise.

[....] You are not revising in order to clarify your ideas. It's the other way around. You are using these latent thematic ideas to help clarify your story: to make it more coherent, more compelling, more powerful, and—yes—more meaningful. But you are not trying to turn your story into an argument illustrated by an anecdote.

[....] meanings are always subordinated to the story. They always emerge from it, rather than the other way around.

[....] pursue that idea through the story, and not the reverse.

[....] In the first draft, your initial idea is likely to develop and change in unexpected ways. It may even be transformed, as Dostoyevsky's original idea about alcoholics in Saint Petersburg was transformed in Crime and Punishment.

[....] Some of the "somethings" glowing within the halo of significance will have resonance and overtones that, even to you, may remain finally only half-definable and obscure, partly present and partly not, partly articulated and partly not.

  This is as it should be.

  You will never understand everything about your own story.

[....] Meaning exists only as an exchange, a transaction.

[....] implied relation between the writer and the writer's "invented" interlocutor, the Reader.

[....] only partial control, at best.

[....] Each reader is going to bring to your page her or his own responses and fantasies and associations, and you cannot—you should not—have much control over how those things come into play.

[....] element of uncertainty—call it indeterminacy if you like—is going to be an omnipresent and inevitable formal aspect of the work because it is an omnipresent and inevitable formal quality of language itself.

[....] it is there above all in one of the prime attributes with which you have endowed that Reader: the Reader's silence.

[....] Reader's unspoken attention—and the Reader's imagined understanding—helps to shape and define the story itself, just as at this moment my words are being guided by my silent sense of how you are understanding me.

[....] I like, need, and demand significant coherence in everything I read. Life is simply too short for me to spend it wandering alone in the desolate wastelands of gnomic implication.

[....] vitality of the work can partly be measured by the way some of its meanings and implications remain elusive, resonant but not pinned down, implicit in the Reader's elusive, silent, individualized comprehension.

[....] a competent critic ought to be able to supply a perfectly plausible, albeit partial, summary of what those meanings might be. But these narrative images are too vital to be coextensive with such a summary. They live silently in the mind; they generate meaning the way life itself generates meaning.

[....] What pleases is never mere meaning. What pleases is a coherent image of life, and life is always both communicable and incommunicable, simultaneously freely given away and present to us alone.

[....] You are not a critic or scholar of your own work. "It is hard enough to write books and stories without being asked to explain them as well," Hemingway.... "Read anything I write for the pleasure of reading it. Whatever else you find will be the measure of what you brought to the reading."


[....] Yet you will get a grip on your meanings only through revision.

[....] embrace drama and improbability. A storyteller has to be a specialist in the unlikely. Fiction is made—depending on how you define them—from "exceptional happenings." Almost every really interesting story is rooted in the improbable in some quite striking way. And that is not merely because fiction is riddled with "improbability." So is life.

[....] you cannot leave it on your page in all its raw improbability. That would wreck the story.

[....] from being credible and convincing, you must go on to make it inevitable.

[....] The true enemy of your fiction is not improbability but imaginative unbelief.


[....] You cannot really know what you're saying until you reach the end. It's an unbreakable rule of narrative. You must come to a conclusion.

[....] many writers neglect endings. They get lazy. Or hasty.

[....] The first test of an ending is the feeling of finality.

[....] next test of a potential ending's strength should be how strongly it manages, whether subtly or not so subtly, to serve as a narrative magnet, pulling all the major elements and events of the story toward itself.

[....] If you are writing short stories, be particularly careful of the all-too-familiar (in fact, generic) ending that is so often called in creative-writing classes an "epiphany." This is the term James Joyce contrived to describe of the climactic or critical moments in his collection of short stories, Dubliners: moments of bleak lyricism in which the protagonist's depression condenses into a moment of intensity that reveals the impasse of her or his life. Joyce's academic prestige has made this impasse and the antilyric "epiphany" that defines it a classroom cliché, incessantly popping back to demonstrate yet again that weary old chestnut, the emptiness of modern life.


[....] You are going to be doing another fast draft, but remember that your quickness now should be a new kind of speed. Back when you were careening through your first draft, if you wrote recklessly, you could be proud of it. No more. Your speed now should not have a trace of haste or even a touch of recklessness. You should never be anywhere near being out of control. No more streaking past the demons of your self-doubt, no more lightning raids on your creative unconscious. Yes, keep up the momentum, but festina lente. Make haste slowly. Do not slump into inaction. But do not race.

[....] OTHER PEOPLE'S ADVICE.  "Only when a piece of work is done should the writer pile on the critical pressure," says Paul Johnson. "Then, indeed, he should reread it through the eyes of his worst enemies—on what particular weak points would they pick?"

[....] You know where your story's jugular lies. If you can find solutions, if you can find a way to protect and strengthen your story, do it now. Find solutions. Consider concessions. Forge your defense.


[....] reader of a first draft should concentrate on large structural issues and on defining the elements 

[....] The first-draft reader must see through first-draft faults and see the idea animating the whole project. Big questions count. Is this story tellable and worth telling? Is it too cumbersome? Or too simple? How long should it be? What is its proper scale? How interesting is it in its current form?


[....] By now, your story should have the right beginning, the right ending, and the right protagonist pretty much in place. 

[....] expository problems—who, what, where, why, and when—should be solved.

[....] most typical fault of a middle draft is that it has lost the first draft's freshness and momentum. It is top-heavy. The simplicity of its story is buried under heaps of narrative information.

[....] need now is a way to transform the mastery the second draft has given you back into freshness and speed.

[....] every time you bring in outside readers, whether early or late, it's a useful idea to ask them to summarize the story for you. Nothing fancier than that.


[....] final draft is one that has been cleared, one way or the other, of all the clutter typical of middle drafts.

[....] The 10-percent solution has been applied and reapplied. Every page has been read aloud 

[....] Now that the basics are fully in place, the fine ideas of the finishing touches will start coming to you, and they can be invaluable and exhilarating.

[....] now the book has taught you how to write it. Now you know. Philip Roth describes it: "The two years it generally takes to write a book means a long running start to get the pitch, and then the leap of the last three or four months. And I come out here nights then, or I'm taking a shower and halfway through I have an idea and rush off in my bathrobe to come back out here and have yet another go at the book. Those last months are wonderful."

[....] Back when you began, you had no choice but to entrust your enterprise to forces and feelings that often seemed maddeningly vague. But now—at this late stage of work—you have brought yourself to a level of almost uncanny acuity and depth of focus.

[....] honed grasp of the relevance and exactitude that shares with your groping early phase only that it too is difficult to put into words. But it is wonderful. The time is golden, and you have what feels like a golden touch. It can make you feel like the blessed of the earth. The architect Walter Gropius thought God is in the details. Well, God can certainly seem to be in those dazzling wonder workers, the last details.

[....] What they give me is not only their criticism, but along the way they describe the book to me, and that is really the best of it—hearing words unlike those with which you have been describing the book to yourself as you went along, finding out how it register on an intelligence that's not your own."

[....] you will want to move through the manuscript one last time, polishing and perfecting, and hearing the first sound in your ear of a real audience.

[....] Your project has taught you how to write it; you finally feel you have mastered it.

[....] "No book," says Patricia Highsmith, "when it is finished, is ever exactly like the first dream of it." You will never be so close to this thing again, and it will be hard to say good-bye....


21 January 2023

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