What I learned from Ursula K. Le Guin

Some writing books are for beginners, but I found myself hungry for a book about narrative prose that assumed I was already working hard on my craft and needed the next step. Lots of authors write books about writing: they give financial advice, formulas they use to chart plots, etc.

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Thing is, some of that advice didn’t work for me, and I found myself buffeted by a fusillade of opinions I had no ability to judge. It was Ursula K. Le Guin’s book that I found immensely helpful.

When I decided to try to write fiction professionally, I picked up Orson Scott Card’s book and did a write-up on this blog to internalize what I learned. I’d like to do the same for Le Guin’s book here.

So here’s what I learned from Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story :

Rhyme isn’t rhythm; and your prose should sound nice when read aloud. Narrative momentum and pacing are very important to story, and a key way to achieve this is rhythm. Read your writing out loud! Does it sound right? Trust your ear a bit, and if you suspect your own ear then read good writing to get a sense of how a good narrative sounds. Onomatopoeia, alliteration, repetition, dialect, just write paragraphs practicing these without using a meter or a rhyme, and see how you do.

Grammar is beautiful! Punctuation tells the reader how to hear your writing. Pauses have to be in just the right spots. The wrong choice alters the meaning; punctuation choices should be deliberate.

Don’t be afraid of repetition. Don’t run to the thesaurus all the time; skillful repetition gives power to prose and gives the themes of a story solid ground. Repeat words, images, and phrases to drive a dramatic point home. If writing humor, repetition can be a tool that sets up reader expectations and consistently delivers catharsis over the course of a long work.

Try some self-editing that removes all adverbs: Figure out what your bad habits are. A first draft is always terrible, reading like a surreal fever dream on the second pass. So deliberately practice wording things in different ways. Are you using adverbs or adjectives as a crutch? Using superlatives too often? “She’s very pretty and so nice!” is weaker than “her eyelashes caught the light as she helped the child off the ground, dusting his jacket while telling him he was brave for not crying over a scraped knee.”

Imitation isn’t plagiarism. Imitate great writers in order to learn. Artists and musicians copy the masters, so writers should too. Just remember that imitation is for practice, and an essential learning tool! If you show it to someone else, say the piece is “in the manner of so and so” and that’s fine.

The book is full of exercises and assignments that can be completed on your own or with a peer group. I’ve done a few of them twice, three times, and learned something new every time. I’m still a “baby writer” in the sense that my latest work is better than my earlier stuff (as is natural), and I’m just starting to break into publishing after a few years of hard work and several failed attempts. The hard work is paying off! One of my short stories was recorded for an episode of Starship Sofa last year, and I have a few short pieces forthcoming with other outlets. (Hopefully published this year!)

This book is going to be a staple of my writing diet. I can’t recommend it enough!

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