During her extraordinary career as a novelist and poet, Ursula K. Le Guin won more than eighty literary awards including among others multiple Nebula, Locus, National Book, Jupiter Awards, and the Pulitzer Prize in 1997. She published novels, poetry, essays, translations, children’s books, chapbooks, edited volumes, and anthologies. Additionally, Le Guin produced a short book on writing—Steering the Craft: A 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story.
I read the second edition of Steering the Craft which is based on years of writing workshops that Le Guin presented and feedback from participants she received. Her 141 pages on the craft of writing provide solid direction to aspiring writers. The volume presents ten topics: The Sound of Your Writing, Punctuation and Grammar, Sentence Length and Complex Structure, Repetition, Adjectives and Adverbs, Verbs: Person and Tense, Point of View and Voice, Changing Point of View, Indirect Narration or What Tells, and Crowding and Leaping. An appendix “The Peer Group Workshop” follows. She ends her book with a Glossary of essential writing terms.
In the “Introduction,” Le Guin emphasizes that the book is not for beginners but rather for writers wanting to improve their craft. She points out the difference between expository writing and narrative. She explains that narrative writing—storytelling—requires scenes where something is happening: an act or an action. She emphasizes that storytelling is about change. She also encourages aspiring writers to read the classics, not just contemporary fiction.
In “The Sound of Your Writing,” Le Guin provides four examples to be read aloud. She emphasizes the physicality of language: saying that its sounds, rhythm, and pace create the meaning and the oral and aural pleasure of the reader. She states that “A good writer, like a good reader, has a mind’s ear.” She then provides exercises to encourage writers to experiment with writing while attending to the sounds and rhythms of words and sentences they produce.
In the chapter, “Punctuation and Grammar,” Le Guin emphasizes that writers need to use the elegant tools at their disposal. She states that “…punctuation tells the reader how to hear your writing.” She mentions that because copy editors are an endangered species these days, it is up to writers to be competent in punctuation. She stresses that grammar and punctuation go hand in hand and that it takes craft to write well. It pleased me that in this chapter she called attention to the modern misapprehension of the use of the passive. Le Guin’s sense of humor is visible in this chapter.
In her chapter on “Sentence Length and Complex Structure,” Le Guin focuses on what a sentence does rather than what a sentence is. She says that the duty of a sentence is to lead to the next sentence in a coherent fashion. She then goes on to give examples that break these rules: misplacement of words, dangling words, and what she terms “conjunctivitis.”
Le Guin’s chapter on “Repetition” illustrates through literary examples how repetition can be used to enhance meaning, rhythm, and the structure of a work.
In “Adjectives and Adverbs“, Le Guin reminds writers to keep prose clean, intense, and vivid.
In her chapter on “Verbs: Person and Tense,” Le Guin emphasizes that the person and the tense of the verb tell the story. She explains how to decide in which person and in which tense an author can best write the narrative and the dialog. She also criticizes those who complain about the use of the passive voice without even understanding its function.
Le Guin’s chapter on “Point of View and Voice” clarifies the difference between the point of view character and the author’s voice. She describes diverse ways to approach the narrative point of view: the reliable narrator, first-person narration, limited third-person narration, the omniscient or involved author, the detached author, and the observer-narrator, explaining and giving examples of each one.
In her next chapter, “Changing Point of View,” Le Guin argues that shifting points of view are only for the brave and skilled writer and explains why.
In “Indirect Narration or What Tells,” Le Guin asserts that plot is “not superior to story and not even necessary to it.” She also emphasizes that action can interfere with storytelling. She explains that there is a limited number of plots but a limitless number of stories. She also discusses world-making in this chapter.
“Crowding and Leaping” is a fascinating chapter. Le Guin explains a narrative technique that has to do with details and focus. She exhorts writers to avoid “flabby language and clichés” by carefully selecting appropriate words that keep the story moving. She prefers prose that is “…crowded with sensations, meanings, and implications.” Le Guin views “leaping” as having a clear idea of what needs to be left out—leapt over—whether in the language or in the story itself.
For those who might like to use Le Guin’s Steering the Craft as the basis for a group workshop or critique group, in “The Peer Group Workshop,” she provides guidance on using her book as a resource to build your writing skills. She ends this jewel of a book with a “Glossary” on writing terms.
I find Ursula K. Le Guin’s short book on writing to be one of the most useful I have ever read. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to write novels (or poetry) and to write them well.
My Writing Goals for 2023
Continue to work on my poetry.
I have continued to write a poem per day this month.
Submit poetry to contests/awards:
I sent one book of poetry off to a contest.
Finish, request feedback, and send my first novel out for review:
The feedback I have received on my novel being workshopped in our critique group includes the following comments: “I want more details.” “In this section, a lot of it is kind of staccato.” “…some scenes are too detached. We are not experiencing them the way the characters would be…” So, back to the drawing board, as they say.
Continue to work on my other novels:
No new work to report.
Continue to develop a network of kindred spirits in the world of writing and publishing:
Boulder Writers Alliance: This month I attended our Write to Publish, Publish to Sell session presented by Jennifer Wortman on publishing in literary journals. I also joined the BWA Happy Hour Group at the Corner Bar. I hosted a BWA Poetry Circle which featured the poetry of Ursula K. Le Guin. I enjoyed reading her poetry.
I also participated in Gary Alan McBride’s Writers Who Read group in which we discussed The Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel. I also watched a good interview with the author on YouTube which inspired me to read her previous books, so I read Station Eleven and The Glass Castle.
Denver Woman’s Press Club: I read the newsletter and worked to recruit a new member.
Women Writing the West: Our critique group discussed two thousand words for three members of the group. One person was unable to participate.
Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers: I read the RMFW newsletter and listened to a podcast Mark Stevens recommended: the Collaborcast by Ben LeRoy and Jason Bucholz at Collaborists.org. They discussed “Writers! Let’s dive into the Subconscious.” Their podcast was about a workshop-style get-together in which a small group of writers used painting to clarify writing issues they were having. They conveyed ideas from their novels in color on an artist’s canvas with the goal of discovering the magic going on between the writer’s unconscious mind and the writer’s writing mind. They found it to be a good process for writers who hit a place where they are looking for a significant breakthrough and need a solution. View Ben and Jason on Instagram at THECOLLABORIST.
This year I plan to monetize my blog:
No progress on this goal yet.
Document my writing progress through my blog and post it on the seventh day of each month, one blog per month 2023:
Today is the seventh day of May. I am posting my fifth blog for 2023. After such a cold dreary winter, I am so happy to have the warmer temperatures return. Tulips are finally blooming in my garden. I am beginning to feel a return of the energy of summer. May the summer colors stir my unconscious writing mind!
May 7th in History
On May 7, 1997, Luc Besson’s sci-fi film “The Fifth Element” was released.