There are many books with elaborate theories of narrative structure, or top ten ways to create memorable settings/living characters/powerful dialogue. But many easily overegg, or go off at tangents, or create second-order systems that take over and stop the real writing coming through. At the root of all writing is, um, writing, and the basics of writing lie at the core of Steering the Craft.
Ursula Le Guin is of course the author of dearly beloved and ground-breaking novels such as The Left Hand Of Darkness and The Wizard Of Earthsea. She’s also a very generous critic, who reviews for the Guardian, among other publications. Look at her recent review of The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, for example. Read any of her reviews, in fact: warm, joyful, encouraging of both readers and writers. No snark. This is what reviewing should be. What a dream. Also take a look at this Paris Review interview.
No wonder Ursula Le Guin just received a Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation. (Note that fellow recipients include those two other writers in the trenches of genre who’re also the writers of what I consider two of the most useful other works on writing: Ray Bradbury, author of Zen In The Art Of Writing, and Stephen King, author of On Writing. When it comes to writing on writing, genre writers rock.)
Back to St Ursula. All of her creative and storytelling brilliance aside, Steering The Craft is her most useful work for writers of fiction (and nonfiction) looking for practical advice as well as inspiration. It’s a short book, and deceptively simple in what it has to say. Everything it contains is pure gold.
Perhaps it’s easiest simply to give the self-explanatory titles of the ten chapters:
* The Sound of Your Writing
* Sentence Length and Complex Syntax
* Adjective and adverb
* Subject Pronoun and Verb
* Point of View and Voice
* Changing Point of View
* Indirect Narration, or What Tells
* Crowding and Leaping
Additional sections cover verb forms (in case we need to brush up), provide a glossary of working literary terms, and offer tips on running a writing group (very handy). And its subtitle is Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew.
Such delights! It’s full of many bon mots. Here are just a few choice points.
* Unlike many other guides for writing fiction, St Ursula devotes space to grammar and usage, as you might gather from the list above. But rather than dwelling on technicalities, she gives commonsense principles to work by, interrogating the idea of ‘correctness’, yet still caring about commas – but in the most enabling and graceful of ways:
If you aren’t interested in punctuation, or are afraid of it, you’re missing out on a whole kit of the most essential, beautiful, elegant tools a writer has to work with.
Who could resist that?!
* Writers get bored of apparent experts telling us to ditch the adverbs and adjectives, but at the start of the chapter devoted to them St Ursula gets the point across directly and easily (see, I use them too!):
Adjectives and adverbs are rich and good and fattening. The main thing is not to overindulge.
The bakery shop of English is rich beyond belief, and narrative prose, particularly if it’s going a long distance, needs more muscle than fat.
* Her chapters on point of view include incredibly practical working definitions, e.g.: observer-narrator in first person; observer-narrator in third person; the detached author; and a term she prefers to omniscient narrator – the involved author:
This is the voice of the storyteller, who knows what’s going on in all the different places the characters are at the same time, and what’s going on inside the characters, and what has happened, and what has to happen … It’s not only the oldest and the most widely used storytelling voice, it’s the most versatile, flexible, and complex of the points of view – and probably, at this point, the most difficult for the writer.
Once upon a time …
* Her thoughts on the idea that stories are driven by conflict are extremely important for all writers to think about:
Conflict is one kind of behavior. There are others, equally important in any human life, such as relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing. Change is the universal aspect of all these sources of story. Story is something moving, something happening, something or somebody changing.
So: how are your characters relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing?
You can sample more of her discussion of story on her own site. Pure gold.
In practice, in much of the work I do as a book doctor or an editor I find that I can make a very quick judgement about the writing on the basis of sampling the voice in a page or two, and I probably have more time or inclination (and patience) than busy agents or editors. Writers who want to be published: you need to get this stuff right. Some of this is about right or wrong, but some of it is about more subtle stuff that has no easy solution. The counsel of St Ursula might just help you get there, though. This is not only a fantastic book for apprentice writers looking for resources as they are getting started, but also an excellent guide for more experienced writers; its clarity cuts through some of the clutter and contradictions in a very level manner, and it will also provide an epiphany or two along the way. It’s a book to read and reread whenever you need clarification and affirmations.
Okay, so book reviews should be useful, but this one isn’t in one very important way. This book was first published at the end of the last century by a small press in the US, and it does not have a UK publisher. I think I picked it up in the Boulder Book Store’s excellent writing section some ten years ago (because I love St Ursula, nay I worship St Ursula – I holiday in Ursuline convents, in fact). I’ve been recommending it for years, and British writers could order it online. But now I see that it’s trading for, like, £33.18 used and £72.33 new! And I can’t see an ebook. Perhaps readers overseas could order a print copy direct from the US? Though I see it’s hardly cheap there … (Update, March 2015: I since discovered a new edition is coming later this. Very exciting – maybe even more exciting than the new Harper Lee?!)
I think we need to ensure this book is brought into print in an edition that is available internationally. I shall badger publisher friends working at suitable imprints, and I shall ask friends in Portland if they ever run into her in the legendary Powell’s. And maybe I shall email St Ursula and her representatives with a copy of this post, and ask what can be done?
Really, this is one of the best of books on writing, and probably my favourite. It tops my list because of its writer’s voice: reassuring, wise, good-humoured. It makes you want to be in this writer’s presence, but on reflection, in fact, it succeeds in bringing you into her presence. That is something any writer or reader wants to achieve.
Thank you, Ursula Le Guin.
* Ursula Le Guin, Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew (Eighth Mountain Press, 1998)
Update: This edition seems to be out of print, but a new edition with a new subtitle appears to be coming from Mariner Books on 1 September 2015: Steering the Craft : A Twenty-First-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story.