9 Things We Can Learn From Ursula K Le Guin About Writing

Learning about writing from Ursula K Le Guin

Hey! Welcome back.  On the 27th of this month, the United States Postal Service (USPS) will be releasing their annual entry for their Literary Arts stamp series, and this year it is none other than speculative fiction legend Ursula K Le Guin. How cool is that! Le Guin was an American author who helped pioneer the science fiction genre and published over 20 novels and more than 100 short stories. She was also an inspiration for many well-known authors including Neil Gaiman. Her best known works include her ‘Earthsea Cycle’ series and the stand-alone novels set in her Hainish universe.

In this post I’m going to break down Le Guin’s writing advice from her non-fiction work Steering the Craft: A 21st Century Guide to Sailing The Sea of Story, which has become one of my personal favourite books on writing. Incredibly helpful advice is laced with humour as well as exercises to help you hone your writing, examples of techniques from literature, and the proper etiquette for being part of a workshop (which I covered in a previous post). Le Guin firmly believed that you cannot write well if you are not an avid and explorative reader. I’ve broken her advice down into 9 pieces; let’s take a look.

‘A writer who wants to write good stuff needs to read great stuff. If you don’t read widely, or read only writers in fashion at the moment, you’ll have a limited idea of what can be done with the English language.’

Listen to the sound of your writing

When writing, ask yourself the question: does my sentence sound right? Le Guin says that the basic elements of language are physical: they are the noise that words make, the sounds and silences that make the rhythms marking their relationships. It is important for every writer to train their mind’s ear to listen to their own prose. She goes on to say that it is the sentence that keeps the story going; that each sentence has a duty to lead the reader to the following sentence (Stephen King argues that it is the paragraph, not the sentence, which is the basic unit of writing. Well, one does lead to the other, but who do you agree with? You can check out more of King’s advice for writers in my previous post).

‘In a narrative, the chief duty of a sentence is to lead to the next sentence. Beyond this basic, invisible job, the narrative sentence can of course do an infinite number of audible, palpable, beautiful, surprising, powerful things. In order to do them, it needs one quality above all: coherence. A sentence has to hang together.’

Be aware of your sentence length and structure

There is no hard and fast rule for sentence length, but there are problems that will arise when a sentence is not structured correctly. The most common problems in sentence design are:

  • Misplacement – you need to find the best way for the parts of a sentence to fit together
  • Danglers – these lead to misunderstandings in what the sentence is actually trying to say
  • Conjunctivitis – stringing short sentences together with conjunctions. This is a legitimate stylistic manner, but if not used well can result in an ‘infantile drone’.

Short sentences can be effective, but prose that is entirely made up of short sentences can come across as choppy and annoying. On the other hand, long sentences have to be carefully managed and constructed so that they flow and carry the reader along effortlessly.

‘There is no optimum sentence length. The optimum is variety.’

Ensure punctuation and grammar are correct

Punctuation and grammar are vital to a successful story (and a pleasant reading experience) because they tell the reader how to hear your writing. Le Guin gives the following definitions: ‘The period means stop – for a moment. The semicolon means pause; and the comma means either pause very briefly or expect some change. The dash is a pause that sets a phrase apart.’ Her preferred grammar manual is The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White (which is also Stephen King’s preferred reference manual).

Next, Le Guin reflects on the importance of always telling your reader the truth (something Neil Gaiman emphasizes in his Masterclass – find out more from Gaiman at my previous post). She links this to your use of language.

‘Lying is the deliberate misuse of language. But language misused through ‘mere’ ignorance or carelessness breeds half-truths, misunderstandings, and lies. In that sense grammar and morality are related. In that sense a writer’s moral duty is to use language thoughtfully and well. In written prose, incorrect usage, unless part of a conscious, consistent dialect or personal voice, is disastrous.’

Your voice as a writer may be conversational and that’s ok! But you still need to adhere to correct grammar if you want to convey thought or emotion of any complexity. And if you’re going to break a rule? Know them first and break them purposely.

‘And that’s the important thing for a writer: to know what you’re doing with your language and why. This involves knowing usage and punctuation well enough to use them skilfully, not as rules that impede you but as tools that serve you.’

Repetition is ok

There is a ‘rule’ that teachers and journalists follow that instructs the writer never to use the same word twice on the same page. This often leads writers to turn to the dictionary for different words to replace the original word. Yet these forced words will often stick out in your prose and change the tone of your work. Le Guin comments that to follow this rule is to go against the very nature of prose.

Know when to use adjectives and adverbs

Le Guin states that adjectives and adverbs can be wonderful additions to prose when used in the appropriate places. She specifically warns against the use of the word f*cking. In dialogue and interior monologue, the word f*cking is tolerable, however can be grotesque when read literally in some circumstances, and actually weakens and invalidates your prose. In writing, f*cking is about as useful as the word umm.

‘When the quality that the adverb indicates can be put in the verb itself (they ran quickly = they raced) or the quality the adjective indicates can be put in the noun itself (a growling voice = a growl), the prose will be cleaner, more intense, more vivid.’

Consider your genre when choosing tense

Le Guin states that while fiction written in the first person is a standard practice, it is in fact an odd and artificial imaginative process for both the writer and the reader. She asks, ‘who is this I?’ It’s not the writer because they are writing as a fictional character, and it’s not the reader either, even though they may identify with the character.  She comments that writing in the third person is the least troublesome form of narration as the author is able to move freely about, telling the story from a ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘they’ perspective.

In deciding between present-tense and past-tense, Le Guin says that a story told in the present tense focuses on action in a single time and place. This places the story in a somewhat permanent state of emergency, which may work for action novels but is not suitable for every genre. The past tense however allows the writer to bounce back and forth in time and space.

‘The difference [between present-tense and past-tense] is like the difference between a narrow-beam flashlight and sunlight. One shows a small, intense, brightly lit field with nothing around it; the other shows the world.’

Adhere to one Point of View (POV)

‘Point of View (POV) is the technical term for who is telling the story and what their relation to the story is. This person, if a character in the story, is called the viewpoint character. The only other person it can be is the author.’

Before we take a look at the 5 principal POVs, Le Guin makes a note about the ‘reliable narrator’. In autobiography or memoir, the author is always the narrator. In this genre we expect the author to be reliable i.e. to tell us the truth or what they truly believe happened. But in fiction, the narrator is not real, and while most narrators are trustworthy (and we usually assume them to be), there is a growing trend towards unreliable narrators – those who either purposely or mistakenly misrepresent facts. Hello Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye! These unreliable narrators are almost always telling us something about themselves, and when the author informs the reader of the actual events, we are reminded of the many ways in which others view the world based on their own experiences.

Inconsistent POV can be a big problem in fiction. Unless handled with awareness and skill, frequent POV shifts can jerk the reader around and confuse the story. The principal POVs are:

  • First Person – these are novels written from the ‘I’ perspective. The writer can only share what the central character thinks, sees, feels, remembers etc. The reader can infer what other people feel and who they are based on what information ‘I’ shares.
  • Limited Third Person – the central character is ‘he’ or ‘she’. This is basically identical to first person as the writer can only share what ‘he’ or ‘she’ thinks, sees etc and the reader can infer what others feel or who they are based on information provided by ‘he’ or ‘she’. The character viewpoint can shift from chapter to chapter but Le Guin states that ‘shifts within limited person – from one character’s mind to another – call for awareness and care. A writer must be aware of, have a reason for, and be in control of all shifts of viewpoint character.’ Shifting limited third person is commonly used in the romance genre, where the central character shifts from one romantic lead to the other.
  • Omniscient Narrator – Le Guin refers to this viewpoint as the ‘involved author’. The story is told from the author’s POV, can jump from character to character and provide information that individual characters may not know.
  • Detached Author (Fly on the Wall) –The story is told from the author’s POV but they never enter a character’s mind and they only state exactly what they see; they cannot imply direct judgement.
  • Observer Narrator (first person or third person) – the narrator is one of the characters, but not the principal character. This is a story that they witnessed and want to tell us.

‘Any shift from one of the five POVs outlined above to another is a dangerous one. The shift will affect the whole tone and structure of your narrative.’

Let your characters speak through you & avoid information dumps

You don’t have to have a tight plot before you being writing – if that’s the way you like to write (hi Plotter!) then go for it, but if you’d rather just start and see where the characters take you (I see you there Pantser, what’s up?) then that also works. As long as you have an idea of what you want to write before you actually start, and you know the general way you want to go about it, the rest will work itself out as you go. And remember to not only listen to your characters, but let them talk through you. Don’t be afraid to do this – after all, you created them, let them speak. You can always hit Delete.

When it comes to providing information, make sure you don’t dump it all on the reader. This is a learnable skill and particularly important for fantasy and science fiction writers, as they have a great deal of information to convey to the reader. An Expository Lump is what science fiction writers call a barely disguised attempt at pouring information to their reader (a lecture between characters is an example, stemming from a transparent or stupid question).

‘Crafty writers (in any genre) don’t allow Exposition to form Lumps. They break up the information, grind it fine, and make it into bricks to build the story with.’

Have a focus and a trajectory

This was my favourite section as Le Guin talks about two big things that really bother me as a reader: the imbalance some novels have when they ‘overcrowd’ the reader with too much information versus when they ‘leap’ ahead without providing enough details for the reader to follow the story. This chapter also covers ensuring your story has a focus and the importance of sticking to a trajectory throughout your work.

‘Crowding… keeping the story full, always full of what’s happening in it; keeping it moving, not slacking and wandering into irrelevancies; keeping it interconnected with itself, rich with echoes forward and backward. But leaping is just as important. What you leap over is what you leave out. And what you leave out is infinitely more than what you leave in.’

‘We don’t have to have the rigid structure of a plot to tell a story, but we do need a focus. What is it about? Who is it about? This focus, explicit or implicit, is the centre to which all the events, characters, sayings, doings of the story originally or finally refer… and a story equally needs a trajectory – a movement to follow: the shape of a movement, whether it be straight ahead or roundabout or recurrent or eccentric. This trajectory is the shape of the story as a whole. It moves always to its end, and its end is implied in its beginning… Everything that is crowded in to enrich the story should be in focus. And every leap should be along the trajectory, following the shape and movement of the whole.’

What do you think of Le Guin’s advice? Have you come across any particularly bad examples of ‘crowding’ or ‘leaping’? What POV and tense do you favour when writing? Drop a comment below, I’d love to hear from you!

Until next time,

Nathalie

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