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

4.24  ·  Rating Details ·  514 Ratings  ·  72 Reviews
“Make [your] characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.” —Kurt Vonnegut

“‘The cat sat on the mat’ is not the beginning of a story, but ‘the cat sat on the dog’s mat’ is.” —John Le Carré

Nothing is more inspiring for a beginning writer than lis
Paperback, 246 pages
Published April 1st 2003 by Modern Library (first published January 1st 2003)
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Friend the Girl
Aug 29, 2007 Friend the Girl rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: all writers everywhere
Shelves: yearly-reread
The most inspiring book ever! The amount of useful information in here is overwhelming, and I would highlight passages in my copy, except the entire book would be yellow. I'm actually going to colour-code highlight to make sure I don't miss anything. I dare you to read this book and not feel the overwhelming urge to write, even if you don't consider yourself a writer.

Edit: I'm currently re-reading this while participating in NaNoWriMo, and it's all the motivation I need. Thanks to my crazy brain
Jan 15, 2013 N rated it it was amazing
Recommended many a time by a professor and friend, I finally got and read this book, and it is all I was told it would be. I can't think of a writing book that was more encouraging, more thoughtful, more energizing than this.

Although Koch is extremely well read, he rarely lapses into snooty intellectual verbiage. He uses personal anecdotes and quotes from many writers, ranging from Edith Wharton to Stephen King, to talk about the process of writing. And process is key in this book. This isn't a
Feb 06, 2015 Heila rated it it was amazing
Shelves: writing
INVALUABLE. This book is like a Master Teacher holding your hand as you go along with your own writing -- flailing and struggling or sitting and dreaming, and then scrambling to get the words down. I read it *as* I worked on my own first manuscript, and IT WAS STUNNING THE WAY THAT EACH PART I WORKED ON, THE NEXT CHAPTER OF THIS BOOK ADDRESSED. I can't describe enough his level of scholarship, depth of knowledge, and perfect tone (it's kind but demanding - just like the best educators). The tech ...more
Jan 17, 2014 Caitlin rated it it was amazing
This book was fascinating, encouraging, and insightful to me as both an aspiring writer as well as a simple reader. The author's voice is friendly and easy; reading this is like having a relaxed chat with your favorite laid-back English professor. There are many voices in this book, however, as the author has compiled the advice and observations of many well-known and successful writers of great literature. As I read, I kept wanting to leave the book and get started on a writing project. (I did ...more
Jun 09, 2015 Robin rated it it was amazing
Echoing what others have said here: I really wish I'd read this years ago.

I've never been published and barely even finished a novel, so take my opinion with a pinch of salt, but everything I know to be true about writing--and several things I'd forgotten--was in here. The rest of it, the majority, arrived like epiphanies. "Good god yes I could do THAT!" I couldn't wait to get writing again.

I've spent years getting tangled up with plot, structure and style and its all its done is kept my idea f
Feb 04, 2008 Leslie rated it really liked it
I like this book but my rating is 4-star because I'm using it as a text for a beginning writing class, and my students had a hard time with and took offense with the second chapter. And I do wish there were less warnings here, so close to the beginning, when students may just be on the first or second date with their writing and don't need a lecture on commitment.

I do think it's a fine book for someone a little further into the relationship. Still looking for the book that combines support with
Nov 11, 2014 Mary rated it it was amazing
I wish I'd had this book years ago. I'm a decent writer in terms of the mechanics of writing, and my mind is often crowded with bits of ideas for stories, but I had absolutely no clue about how to capture and grow those bits and eventually turn them into something. (I've started a bunch of short stories and even a novel, but all my projects eventually ran off the rails because I wasn't sure how to proceed.) I feel much better prepared to work with my ideas now, and also much more motivated and e ...more
Aug 08, 2010 Ryan rated it really liked it
Though I've not ventured far into the forest of fiction writing, Stephen Koch's guide to writing it has prepared me to do so. And though nonfiction writing is where I spend most of my time, Koch reveals the closeness of the two when he says, "It lurks near the secret heart of many a project. 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 embar ...more
Mark Hennion
May 27, 2015 Mark Hennion rated it it was amazing
On my overburdened shelf of how-to's, there are a few permanent members, some of which I read at least once a year. Among them are Stephen King's "On Writing," John Gardner's trio "Art of Fiction/Novel/Moral Fiction," and The Modern Library Writer's Workshop by Stephen Koch.

Right from the beginning, I should admit I have a *slight* bias; I am a graduate of Columbia University and was naturally drawn to Koch for his venerable career there. All pleasantries dismissed, I am also pleased to say that
Creative A
I have been reading a lot of how-to writing books lately, and I have to say this one just stood out. It's the kind of book that you highlight and scribble notes in. His advice was clear, smart, and profound, and he doesn't just try to make you learn a particular method - he teaches you how to develop your own method. Also, when he talks about the rules, it doesn't feel like the same information that everyone else repeats. He quotes thoughts from other authors and then discusses the benefits/draw ...more
Scott Lee
Feb 20, 2012 Scott Lee rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is my second time through Koch's wonderful book (I read it once before, part of a workshop on creative nonfiction actually) and it is, if anything, better than I remembered.

What's so very nice about Koch's book is that he avoids direct prescription by discussion of possibilities, an exploration of options. And here is someone who clearly practices what he (and many other wonderful writers, with whom he (as writer) and the reader converse at great length on all sorts of subjects in this won
Kerry Allen
Aug 05, 2012 Kerry Allen rated it it was ok
Shelves: donated
Early chapters are heavy on author quotes which are inspirational, if seldom practically applicable. They're worth getting them directly from the source, in the context of the authors' experience, rather than from an aggregator.

When those quotes thin out, the pretentious droning and taking 10 pages to expound on a concept that warrants a paragraph are given free rein, consigning this to the category of "one of THOSE writing books"--nothing new, and nothing that hasn't been said better elsewhere
May 09, 2016 Miggy rated it it was amazing
One of the best books on writing I've ever read. It is breathtakingly inspiring and accessible.
Maryana Pinchuk
May 10, 2016 Maryana Pinchuk rated it really liked it
The perfect, practical guide to getting down to the weird business of writing – and not feeling so abjectly lonely and/or crazy while doing so.
Apr 27, 2014 Amy rated it it was amazing
The best book of this genre I've ever read.
Nikki (Lazy Book Lovers)
Nov 12, 2015 Nikki (Lazy Book Lovers) rated it really liked it
As a writer, this was very helpful.
May 05, 2016 Sarah rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
very encouraging and practical. i'm buying this so i can have my own copy.
Jun 21, 2016 Dave rated it really liked it
Shelves: writing
Putting the Work in The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop.

Two things led me this book. First, when I read ‘Tree of Smoke' by Denis Johnson, I didn’t understand why such a critically acclaimed and award winning novel could be so bad. Second, I want to improve my writing skills. After researching some the better books on writing such as ‘Bird By Bird' by Anne Lamont, ‘On Writing' by Stephen King, and some works by John Gardner, this book won the day.

Steven Koch headed up the creative writing progra
Graeme Roberts
Nov 08, 2016 Graeme Roberts rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Libby Kessman
Essential reading, and frequent rereading, for every writer. Although the book concentrates on narrative, the line between fiction and nonfiction is blurry at best, and so much of his advice applies equally to both. To think of any writer taking on a novel, or even a short story, without learning from Koch first seems very sad. He could save them from so many mistaken assumptions, make the experience far less lonely, and perhaps rescue those who give up in despair.
Jon Stone
Jan 18, 2017 Jon Stone rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2017
This was an enjoyable read.

It's very high-level. No in-depth specifics on the various topics covered. But it makes up for it in presenting a few different views on various parts of the writing process.

I particularly enjoyed the sections on revision and the play between nonfiction and fiction. Gave me some thoughts to consider and recommended reading I'll be adding to my queue.

I see this being a book I'll reread, both as motivation and for a bit of clarity if/when I feel lost in the process.

Richard Hensley
Nov 16, 2015 Richard Hensley rated it it was amazing
What’s the most helpful fiction craft guide that you’ve read? For me, it’s THE MODERN 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 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 i
Sep 09, 2015 Tim rated it really liked it
After the incredible Wonderbook, several Goodreaders recommended Stephen Koch’s work as the next thing to read. I was not disappointed. The author starts very strong and immediately begins giving away great, practical advice, as if you’re in Koch’s writing classes themselves.
The book follows the classic structure (beginning, the writing life, shaping the story, making characters live, inventing your style, the story of the self, working and reworking, finishing) which follows in the writing from
Aug 16, 2016 Paula rated it liked it
The book is often encouraging, reminding the writer that every story they write is a new creation, not to be prejudged. There is some good advice in the book, like that it is the "writer's job to stage confrontations, so the characters will say surprising and revealing things." I thought the explanation about the three stages of drafting a piece of writing, or of creating drafts, was sage advice. It would be a useful read for someone starting out. I didn't quite find what I was hoping to find, b ...more
Apr 15, 2011 Mark rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: writers
This book is small (about 200 pages) but thick with helpful advice for writers. Koch has sections on the writing life, shaping the story, characters and style. But where this book really shines is the section on revisions.

Revision can turn a good novel into a great one. Really. Read the rough drafts of F. Scott Fitzgerald or someone and see how much better the finished novel was. Koch has some innovative and very useful advice on revisions, including techniques I've never seen before.

Every write
Alan Hernandez
Apr 22, 2015 Alan Hernandez rated it it was amazing
This book is a must-read for any writer/storyteller. Koch, the head of the Creative Writing program at Columbia, provides the reader with numerous gems of writing wisdom, boxed in the words of some of the greatest writers. Koch brings together people like Ray Bradbury, Faulkner, Hemingway, and Garcia-Marquez for a writer's round-table where the fundamentals of writing and story-telling are discussed in detail and with vivid examples. Every chapter is insightful and Koch backs his main points wit ...more
Lea Taranto
Dec 07, 2016 Lea Taranto rated it it was amazing
I read this in spurts throughout a course and can't wait to buy my own copy. Koch is an earnest and friendly teacher with many useful notes on craft ranging from structure, to character development to final drafts.But one of his most important lessons is to have faith in oneself. If you feel that you have fallen short of telling the story you picture in your mind (which will always change somehow when in its final draft,) the best way to redeem yourself is through giving the story the time and w ...more
Oct 05, 2011 Paul rated it really liked it
This was a gret book for any writer, good practical information and examples. Not overly structured which has turned me off of other books like this. A writer friend of mine called it nuturing... I think that is a good word for it. I found it to be encouraging and inciteful about specific ways to strengthen specific writing tactics like characterization, scene writing, dialogue... etc.

The voice was strong with the didacticism that some 'instuctional' manuals can carry. In short, I highly recomm
Feb 24, 2009 Lise rated it really liked it
Definitely inspires the desire to write, and a feeling of confidence in writing. It empowers the writer to find her own style, while informing her of what works for others.

Although Koch clearly states what he feels are the 'best' methods, he also clearly states that writing is not a 'one size fits all' task, and that for every 'rule' there is a gifted and successful writer who breaks it enthusiastically.

There is also an extensive list of further reading, with enough about each work to judge whe
Mar 27, 2011 Ben rated it it was amazing
There's great stuff throughout this book. Koch has years of experience teaching writing at Columbia, but it's not all academic bluster, as he peppers the text with quotes from a plethora of writers. It's also refreshingly free of academic jargon.

Alas, I read several of the best lines in the book whilst without a pen to write down the damn page numbers, so I wasted your time by even typing this far.
Jan 20, 2013 Pete rated it it was amazing
This is a must-read book for anyone wishing to write fiction (or non-fiction, to a point; the book has a chapter on writing memoirs and biographies). Information is presented in a straightforward way that takes the reader through the aspects of writing books that are not just good, but great. Highly recommended.
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Madison Mega-Mara...: The Modern Library Writer's Workshop 1 3 Apr 22, 2012 09:29AM  
  • Fiction Writer's Workshop
  • Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide from New York's Acclaimed Creative Writing School
  • On Becoming a Novelist
  • The 3 A.M. Epiphany: Uncommon Writing Exercises That Transform Your Fiction
  • The Writer's Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life
  • Chapter After Chapter: Discover the Dedication & Focus You Need to Write the Book of Your Dreams
  • Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer
  • The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot
  • Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft
  • Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew
  • Techniques of the Selling Writer
  • Immediate Fiction: A Complete Writing Course
  • Making Shapely Fiction
  • How to Grow a Novel: The Most Common Mistakes Writers Make and How to Overcome Them
  • Characterization and Sensory Detail (Writing Active Setting #1)
  • The Writer's Guide to Character Traits: Includes Profiles of Human Behaviors and Personality Types
  • Revision & Self-Editing: Techniques for Transforming Your First Draft Into a Finished Novel
  • Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular
Stephen Koch is the author of The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction; The Breaking Point: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and the Murder of José Robles; Double Lives: Spies and Writers in the Secret Soviet War of Ideas Against the West; and other books. He previously taught creative writing at Columbia and Princeton universities for nearly twenty years.
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“Incredibly, there are people—smart people—who think a prim disdain for drama is somehow a sign of “good taste.” It is more often the reverse: a lamentable insensitivity to the essence of the art, a failure to “get it” on the most essential level. It is more often a sign not of good taste but of artistic insecurity. Not knowing how far to go, the writer goes nowhere. Lifelessness is not a form of elegance you should pursue.” 2 likes
“When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it's only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.” 1 likes
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