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!

The Essential Christianity of A Wrinkle in Time

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Madeleine L’Engle’s Christian faith informed her imagination. It was the lens through which she saw the world and wondered, and it was this sense of wonder that led her to contemplate Einstein’s theories. In her Newberry Medal acceptance speech she stated:

“In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth…The extraordinary, the marvelous thing about Genesis is not how unscientific it is, but how amazingly accurate it is. How could the ancient Israelites have known the exact order of an evolution that wasn’t to be formulated for thousands of years? Here is a truth that cuts across barriers of time and space.”

Scientists can indeed prove now that the celestial stars that make up our expanding universe existed before the formation of the providentially hospitable rock we call our home planet. The earth is full of terrors as well as wonders, and so in A Wrinkle in Time the problem of evil takes on the appearance of a shadow that threatens to darken the globe. Mrs Whatsit assures the child protagonists that great fighters came right from our little planet, all lights by which to see by. Who are these lights?

“Jesus!” Charles Wallace said. “Why of course, Jesus!”

“Of course!” Mrs Whatsit said. “Go on, Charles, love. There were others.”

The others listed by the children are: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Bach, Pasteur, Madame Curie, Einstein, Schweitzer, Gandhi, Buddha, Beethoven, Rembrandt and St. Francis.

L’Engle’s faith was not considered pure enough by some. A Wrinkle in Time was banned in some schools because Jesus is named next to other philosophers, scientists, and artists as if he is equal to them, a blasphemy. I do not think this is the case at all; by naming Jesus first perhaps L’Engle is signaling that if the man made God is the Truth, then every person who contributes in any way to human knowledge is a participation in this first Truth. It’s also possible that she’s being a good liberal: her instinct as a Christian to name Jesus as a luminary is probably because most people could agree that he was a good man who preached the Golden Rule.

For today’s modern reader, the mention of Jesus at all is a bit too overt. There appears to be an unspoken consensus that religion doesn’t belong in material meant for children. (I’m not sure where this puts other Newberry winners of the past that are about the life of Buddha, or deal with Hinduism.)  Ava DuVernay’s cinematic adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time omits the Christianity in the book completely, for instance.

Existential retellings of stories with strong religious elements usually fall flat for me. This is because they refuse to contend with or represent a major piece of the puzzle that is the story we all love in the first place. The film Troy (2004) fell into this trap: no pagan gods show up. The result was certainly an entertaining movie, but not one that accurately represented the Iliad of Homer at all.  “What god was it then set them together in bitter collision?” the poet asks in the opening lines of the epic. The gods meddle and manipulate the humans and start the war in the first place.

I suppose we modernists are uncomfortable with unseen truths. For instance, were I to state that as a Christian I believe in the human soul, I might be scoffed at. What if I were to state that all humans had rights? I’d get no blowback for that, because our current culture has reached a consensus on that subject. This is a truth we all acknowledge even though human rights do not have mass or occupy space. How do we know we’re not just making it all up?

Our belief in rights might be looked upon as skeptically by future historians as we do the tales of Apollo and Athena and Zeus. Not being able to understand the faith that informs the imagination of a writer or poet isn’t an excuse to omit it. The human experience is vast and wide and diverse, and that diversity includes that of religious experience.

It’s dishonest to pretend that it does not exist; to treat it as if it is disposable.

I’ll close this with more from L’Engle’s acceptance speech, where she speaks glowingly of this diversity in the human family and the importance of including all of it in children’s literature.

 “What a child does not realize until he is grown is that in responding to fantasy, fairy tale, and myth he is responding to what Erich Fromm calls the one universal language, the one and only language in the world that cuts across all barriers of time, place, race, and culture. Many Newberry books are from this realm, beginning with Dr. Dolittle; books on Hindu myth, Chinese folklore, the life of Buddah, tales of American Indians, books that lead our children beyond all boundaries and into the one language of all mankind.”

Let’s not censor any part of the universal language of humanity. How could we be so arrogant?

 

Rendezvous with Rama: The Limits of Human Arrogance

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The POV of a novel always sets the tone, and the omniscient All Knowing Voice of Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama (RwR) is of the liberal enlightenment. Before you read on, know this: I use “liberal” as a descriptive term, not as a pejorative, and certainly not in reference to American Democrats. A liberal is merely someone who believes in rights.

Rights-based philosophy has its troubles. It erases the cultural lines that differentiate us in the hope of avoiding greater evils (violence). The characters of RwR aren’t real people, they’re bundles of attributes and peculiarities that are all subsumed into the greater mission of science and discovery. It’s possible that Clarke is just not good at characterization, so maybe this impersonal voice says more about him as a writer. The exchanges between Commander Norton and Laura Ernst, for instance, are painfully awkward and terrible. Readers are shown what Norton thinks of lady astronauts: they’re too distracting, on account of their boobs floating about in low gravity. (Go ahead, giggle like a 13 year old.) It’s perhaps a blessing that for the rest of the book, Clarke doesn’t feel the need to make the reader privy to Norton’s other thoughts.

The big idea carries the narrative, not the people in it. People are ants in the grand scheme of things. Humanity is constantly befuddled by the wonder of the cosmos and plagued by questions that go unanswered. The ship dubbed Rama doesn’t appear to be altered by human presence. It’s just passing through, defying Newtonian physics in a tantalizing way.

So what do I think? Well, I won’t read the sequels. I’ve heard that they’re terrible anyway. I don’t really want to read on, since the stakes aren’t personal enough. I don’t much care to know where all of those characters end up. The book ends without answering big questions, because sometimes there aren’t answers. I am ok with that. The limits of human understanding are mystery enough. Science is better off when it passively observes in order to learn, but our enlightenment mode of thinking can make us arrogant. Rights-based language has given us much, but it’s fundamentally a language of power. We’re more likely to ask, What power do I have over things in nature? instead of What should I do to preserve things in nature? 

The All Knowing Voice seems to think, with some certainty, that contact with intelligent life outside of Earth is inevitable. It lacks humility. The act of study only illuminates our ignorance, and so we ought to remain optimistic yet humble. The real question to ask is this: Are we stewards of or mere subjects of the universe? Clarke might be uncomfortable with the responsibility of stewardship.

What would have happened, for instance, if the Raman’s in this book were refugees? I think the story would have been more bleak. But Clarke makes it clear that they are wise and advanced, almost godlike, and that therefore they could care less for humanity. Our solar system is their gas station. Humans are off the hook: in this book, we aren’t the adults in the room.

Will we only respect an alien race if it’s more powerful than we are?

Star Trek Discovery!

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The JJ Abrams aesthetic has overridden the classic campy look, but I’m hopeful for a character driven show that packs a punch. Star Trek has always been at its best when it focuses on the individuals that make up Star Fleet.

Star Trek has the charm of a stage play: soaring rhetoric, grand visions, and character dilemmas that carry the show. This is because each series only uses three major reoccurring sets: the bridge, the mess, and crew quarters. These setups serve to emphasize the claustrophobia of space.

I know Kirk’s love interests, and Spock’s inner struggles. I learned how principled Picard became when he was tortured.  Sisko learned that being a father was probably more important than being a good commander. Worf showed me what it’s like to be caught between two cultures.

The ship is also a character. This is something the JJ Abrams shiny reboots don’t get: it’s not a prop to blow up.

Discovery started off with lots of explosions.  That’s sort of thrilling and eyeball-punching to be sure, but as viewers, we have no attachment to a ship yet. Sensational explosions can be a way for shows to distract from plot issues.

For instance, the crew of the Shenzhou beams a bomb onto a fallen Klingon warrior being retrieved by his commander. The body blows when it gets back on the Klingon ship, which makes for a clever move of sabotage by Star Fleet. However, directly after, Captain Georgiou and First Officer Burnham are beamed onto the Klingon ship to take prisoners. Why not just do that with the bomb in the first place?

Perhaps there was some hand-waving to explain this away, but I missed it, because BOOM goes the Klingon ship! Fight scene! Don’t think about it!

This is my worry, going forward. I don’t want a show that tries to build tension off of bad or questionable decisions made by the characters.  Discovery is going to be slick, shiny, and it’s going to show off its budget. I contend that this is not the show’s strength.

So, what’s working for this show? Burnham’s character, for one: a human raised by Vulcans because her parents were killed by Klingons. While I think Sonequa Martin-Green needs to grow into the character a bit, I think she’s up to the task, and that Burnham has the potential to move viewers by showing us the inner conflicts of her heart. (A few lofty lines delivered by Martin-Green fell a bit flat for me, but I think she’ll get there. For instance the whole, “Sculpture is spirituality given form” might look nice on paper but the delivery was so-so.)

Burnham’s mutiny carried the dramatic punch it should have, and I hope the show dwells on her betraying Georgiou, because I want this to be more emotionally devastating for the viewer as the show progresses. Georgiou cannot merely be collateral damage, like the rest of the blown-to-smithereens Federation fleet that we’ll forget about in a week.

Now, a note on the Klingons: I’m wondering if we’ll see more human looking tribes with less brow-ridges? There’s a frustrating scene in Deep Space Nine where the crew goes back in time to the Enterprise. Worf looks very different than the Klingons on the Enterprise, and his crew-mates ask him why.

“We don’t talk about it,” he says cryptically, signaling to the viewers that the writers don’t care about continuity, or are unwilling to bridge the gaps. What a missed opportunity!

Discovery’s Klingons are cool. I really like them. They look like dark elves with the convictions of Spartans. But if I were writing this, I’d take Worf’s hand-wave dismissal as a challenge, and definitely go there. We’ll see?

I have high hopes. Let’s see what the show can do.

Never Talk Back to Your Beta Reader

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An actual tire fire. Curtesy of Mstyslav Chernov

So, say you’ve asked someone to read over a story you wrote.  What you’re looking for is reader reaction: how much enthusiasm does the average reader have for what you’ve written?  If something doesn’t work for them, they need to tell you so that you can figure out how to fix the problem.

It’s not a beta reader’s job to fix what didn’t work for them.

Read that again. Seriously. A reader is going to bring all of her own experience to your writing and it is going to form her opinion. If you get a bad review, better you know about it sooner than when that draft on the professional market. As you get better at writing, you are also going to be able to discern between actual problems with your story and an unreasonable misreading of your ideas.

And your job is not to fight a reader about their opinion.

And yea, that happens. I critique a few stories a week. Some authors are better than others, so if the author is pretty good I focus my review on their concept and point out things that I don’t think fit, always with the caveat of, “this is just my opinion.” And sometimes I get emails back from the author contesting my opinion.

Don’t. Do. That.

I don’t care if the opinion is rude, or says something insensitive like, “This story is a tire fire. Give up writing and go into middle management.” Beta readers are giving you their time and energy so that you can improve yourself.

The only things you need to say is THANK YOU, and then move on.

Kris Rusch and Terrible Contracts for Writers

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I realize that the debate between traditional publishing and self-publishing can be a bit divisive. I honestly don’t know what to think myself, as I’ve just started to look into the major differences. Self-publishing looks like a lot of work, but the bottom line might be worth it if the author has any business sense. But that’s the key, right? Most authors think agents will do all the work, and that’s probably not entirely true. What I do know is that traditional publishing has a dark side. Creators are cogs in the wheel, often cut out of royalties.

Kris Rusch, former editor of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and author of several short works and novels, has a great post about contracts and what to watch for:

These discount clauses—which the authors have freely signed—are the way that publishers are increasing their bottom lines. This is also why so many #1 New York Times bestselling authors are seeing their royalty rates decline. It’s not because the books sell fewer copies (although that’s happening as well); it’s because the authors are being paid less per copy sold—significantly less… If you insist on selling your book to a traditional publisher, especially one of the Big Whatevers, then accept that you will lose that book for the term of the copyright, and you will not get rich off that book’s sales even if the book is a bestseller.

So what’s a writer to do? If someone as established as Kris Rusch is blowing the whistle, then I think the answer is to go hybrid if you want to make a living at all:

If your goal is to be validated while you work another job, then go ahead, sign contracts with big traditional publishers. If your goal is to be a professional writer with a long-term career as a writer and no other job, you have to stay away from contracts and clauses like these.

Six SF/F Women Authors to Read This Summer

I’ve read some great stuff recently and thought I’d share my recommendations for those of you looking to find good reads this summer!

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Uprooted, Naomi Novik

Clear your schedule before reading this exciting, heartwarming, and utterly compelling fantasy: you will not put the book down until you have reached the last page.

I found myself transfixed and beguiled; I eschewed all personal hygiene, eating and sleeping (even ignoring the demands of my children) in order to see what would happen next. Novik’s writing style is easy and light without sacrificing gravity. Most fantasy novels that I’ve read bog me down with world-building: such-and-such a political structure is explained, a magic system’s rules listed like it’s a cookbook, long journeys where characters do nothing but eat and sleep and describe forests or sing songs that, quite frankly, I just skim over. Uprooted demands attention with every paragraph, the world and its rules fit the characters like comfortable sweaters, inviting the reader to become the story’s confidant. It is a tale that is at the same time grim and dark and seeped in magic of the old world, yet light and amusing and full of vivacious characters that resonate.

We follow the heroine Agnieszka (ag-NYESH-kah), a peasant girl who lives in a valley haunted by a treacherous power called the Wood. The valley is watched over by a wizard called the Dragon who resides in a tower cut off from the people. Every ten years he takes a girl from the valley to his tower, for an unknown purpose. The girl is always allowed to leave, but she never returns to her home. The story begins here, when the Dragon comes to choose the next girl, and all of the parents huddle in trepidation, hoping it won’t be one of their daughters.

 

shardsShards of Honor, Lois McMaster Bujold

A solid, clean, sci-fi adventure filled with intrigue, romance, and engaging planetary exploration. That sounds like a typical sci-fi plot, with all of the right ingredients, but the book doesn’t feel like that when you’re reading it. Bujold manages to write engaging dialogue that is informative and weighty without being obviously expository. There are little pearls of wisdom sprinkled throughout the book, things like, “The inept need rules for their own protection,” or, “Leadership is power over imagination,” to mention a few great quotable lines that struck me.

The main character is Cordelia Naismith, a captain of a survey ship (basically: science officers) exploring a newly discovered planet. She ends up marooned with an injured enemy crewman, a commander left for dead by a traitorous political rival. The two have to work together, and end up in love.

 

doomsdayDoomsday Book, Connie Willis

This book is intelligent and engaging, a story about history, disease, and eucatastrophe. Time travel plots, in my experience, are either maudlin romances or cautionary tales that end in the utter destruction of the character or civil structure they inhabit. While Willis gives the reader catastrophe after catastrophe, it all comes together for a perfect ending that pulled on my heartstrings.

Willis gives us two time periods to follow and the two stories collide perfectly at the end, making the book very exciting and addicting. It’s hard to talk about the plot without spoiling it, but the concept is very well thought out and executed: Kivrin is a history student in the year 2054 who wants to get permission to go back in time to observe the 1300s while disguised as a local. Every precaution has been taken, but once she steps through, the people she leaves behind in the future come down with a terrible influenza epidemic. Did Kivrin let something through? Until they know, the academics shut down the time machine, trapping her. And that’s just the beginning.

 

broken-starsThese Broken Stars, Aime Kaufman and Meagan Spooner

I didn’t expect to like this book so much, but it’s a very well done character story, written for a teen audience, and I thought it was very nice. The setup is pretty predictable: a cynical war hero and the daughter of the richest man alive end up marooned on a planet after their spaceliner crashes. (And yea, the ship is named ‘The Icarus’ … what were they expecting?) They of course end up together, but the writing style is very engaging and light, unpacking a myriad of issues that can be discussed with younger readers that might be new to Sci-fi. The issues cover class and race, the consequences of colonization and industrialization, to name a few. If I was still writing high school level curriculum I’d be able to come up with great essay and discussion topics.

As for adults, they’ll just enjoy it, even if it’s a bit predictable at times.

 

Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers, Alyssa Wong (Short Story)

This was a short story published in Nightmare magazine, so if horror/SF mashups aren’t your cup of tea, you won’t like it. I think what struck me most about Wong’s style is how perfectly she captured the visceral sense of hunger and the sort of stomach-rolling descriptions of a character chewing, vomiting, or savoring a bite. The main character feeds on bad thoughts, so the worse the individual, the more pleasurable the meal. Check it out if you have the inclination!

If you have a woman SF/F writer you’d like to suggest, let me know in the comments!

Critiquing Terrible Writing

One of the drawbacks of signing up as a designated critic for a writing service is that sometimes, and only sometimes, I see writing so terrible that I just don’t know what to say. The honest thing to advise would be, “wow, go back to high school,” but I obviously can’t do that.PAPER

The trick is to be diplomatic, sure, but I also want to be genuinely helpful to the writer if I can be. It’s easier to help good writers that might have a few missing elements, like an unclear setting, bad tone, a confusing POV. For the bad writer, the one that doesn’t know the difference between its and it’s, there, their, and they’re, it’s so much harder to navigate. Do I redline every grammar mistake and ruin their dreams?

There’s only so many times I can soften the blow by bracketing my corrections with phrases like, “this is just my opinion” or “this struck me as odd but maybe that’s just me.” Sometimes I’ve really seen no other option but to say things like, “you need to look at the rules for commas; here are several places where you make the same mistake.”

Some people just can’t wrap their head around expository writing, which is essential for speculative fiction. I can’t count how many times I’ve suggested, “show, don’t tell” after reading a story where I’m told exactly what to think and feel by the author, which inevitably means I end their tale experiencing absolutely nothing.

I think editing projects are essential to becoming a better writer, so I’m happy to continue doing this as long as I can. I also think I could never be a professional editor, because I have a feeling I’m not good at being entirely diplomatic when I see egregious mistakes.

New Writing and Editing Projects!

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May is off to a good start: Futura Magazine, Medium’s Science Fiction short story collection, put up my Sci-Fi/ Horror short, “Arrogant Damned” . It’s about a murderer so know what you’re getting into before you leap! One of my beta readers for the story messaged me after reading the opening and said, “hang on I need to finish breakfast first.”

He was probably kidding.  😉

In other news I joined the New England Science Fiction Association (NESFA) and I’m now involved with NESFA Press. I’m currently working on a 240 pg editing project for them, which is very cool since it enables me to get a peek into the publishing process and work on something by a well-known SF author. I’ll be sure to share the work once it’s done and up for sale (and I can speak more freely to the specifics!)

Excelsior!