Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

Writing Tips from Le Guin


My reading has changed this year. Right now, I don’t want to read luscious contemporary fiction. It might me jealous or want to give up writing or feel like a fraud. So instead I’m reading non-fiction (Diamonds, Gold and War: the Making of South Africa by Martin Meredith) and historical fiction (March by Geraldine Brooks). Last night, while holding up a door that my husband was trying to refit to a cupboard, my mind strayed from the job at hand to the nearest bookshelf and there I chanced upon an old favourite: Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew by Ursula le Guin.

Later, once the cupboard had its door again, I read it. I thought I’d share some gems that I discovered.

Last week, literary agent Nathan Bransford wrote about similes, saying that while some writers do them well and should be allowed to keep their similes, most writers should stick to one or two similes per book. “One or two!” was my startled reaction. In the long and amusing discussion that followed his post, there was another suggestion: adverbs – avoid them. Having chewed on these two shocking suggestions all week, I was interested to find that Le Guin more-or-less agrees:

Adjectives and adverbs are good and rich and fattening. The main thing is not to overindulge.

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

Then a little later, after warning against the lazy use of words that have become meaningless through literary overuse (“great”, “suddenly”, “somehow” – Le Guin really hates “somehow” and says it should be banned), she says this:

I would recommend to all storytellers a watchful attitude and a thoughtful, careful choice of adjectives and adverbs, because 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.

There are excellent, detailed sections on point of view, voice and plot. Le Guin says that while there may be a limited number of plots, there is no limit to the amount of stories. This in particular made me jump for joy:

I say this in an attempt to unhook people from the idea that they have to make an elaborate plan of a tight plot before they’re allowed to write a story. It that’s the way you like to write, write that way, of course. But if it isn’t, if you aren’t a planner or a plotter, don’t worry. The world’s full of stories … All you meed may be a character or two, or a conversation, or a situation, or a place, and you’ll find the story there. You think about it, you work it out at least partly before you start writing, so that you know in a general way where you’re going, but the rest works itself out in the telling. I like my image of “steering the craft”, but in fact the story boat is a magic one. It knows its course. The job of the person at the helm is to help it find its own way wherever it’s going.

Right now, I know where my craft is going, but I’m not sure how we’re going to get there. I have a place, a multiplicity of characters, a situation, a trajectory, many conversations, but I don’t have a cut and dried plan. All I have to do – as another favourite writing guide of mine, Julia Cameron, likes to say – is turn up at the page.

You’ll forgive me if I turn up less here. I’m going to be busy turning up there, steering my boat towards the end of its journey.


Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

13 thoughts on “Writing Tips from Le Guin

  1. Good luck in reaching the the harbour. Very interesting advice from Ursula Le Guin. I’ve realised that what I’m writing for my web content client is extremely fattening, but then I think it has to be to distract from the lack of plot…loads of empty calories temptingly displayed in the baker’s window….and now I’ve used up my simile allowance too!

  2. I don’t like to adhere to too many “rules” when it comes to writing (truth be told: when it comes to ANYthing), but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the use of adjectives and adverbs. I love this notion of their being fattening, so using them sparingly.

  3. I regularly edit transcriptions of lectures that were given by a German-speaking man from the 1890s to 1920s. Someone else has previously translated them into English (sometimes recently, sometimes back in the 1940s), and my job is to “modernize” the language. I can’t tell you how fattening those long, clause- and phrase-strewn sentences are! In this case it’s a function of the original German in all its floridity and multiplicity of thoughts crammed into each paragraph. But oy! I need to really be a hard taskmaster on those flabby, unmuscular sentences.

  4. This is very good stuff, Charlotte, and very true — I believe in strong nouns and verbs. It’s just that sometimes I can’t THINK of them! Have fun with that story.

  5. Sounds to me like you’ve got all the tools. Now you just have to do it.

  6. Ah, Ursula le Guin is a huge favourite of mine, purely because of the wonderful and extremely realistic world she managed to create in the Earthsea stories. Not many fantasy writers can successfully pull that off. So I am happy to take her advice, which makes absolute sense.

    Writing for muscle rather than fat, what a descriptive way of putting it!

    And Julia Cameron, ditto for me ~ she is a good guide to have on the creative journey.

    Thanks for sharing, Charlotte. You go turn up on that page and make it muscular!

  7. Wow – that was fascinating. I’m a terrible overindulger in adverbs and adjectives (as that sentence alone will tell you). It’s getting well and truly sick of dry academic prose that does it! I’ll try and rein it in from now on!

  8. We are going through defining our styles in photography and it feels like it is about defining my character right and who I am right now. It works for me because it allows me so much passion in what I do because I can feel so much in the creative process because it is so close to my heart. Perhaps I can suggest you do that in your writing style too.

    Jeez that is just too much for me. Hope you get it or at the very least it makes you laugh!

    Just so you know you have given me such a complex about punctuation that I have stopped using it completely bar capitals and full stops. They taught us some rules at school (as they always do) but they also taught us that some of the time we could make up our own rules or the rules didn’t work and I liked that better. Just me I suppose. Just another little piece of that personality shining through.

  9. That sounds like it would be a useful book for a high school English teacher. Hmm…

  10. I love the utter extremists, like Robert Parker (writer of the Spencer novels), whose style is as pared down (hard-boiled down, even) as I think it is possible to be without actually turning into an outline rather than a novel. Very, very lean muscle and bone.

  11. How interesting. I know that often my blog is written terribly self-indulgently, and exactly the way I’d speak. This is both a blessing and a curse – blessing because I think it gives the writing an immediacy that is appealing on a blog, and a curse because it means the writing is peppered with filler words that I use (and overuse!!) in everyday speech. I have developed a natural aversion to adjectives as a reaction to my father’s rampant use of them when I was growing up – every little mishap was an ABSOLUTELY DEVASTATING DISASTER etc etc. I find Ms Le Guin’s description of the writer beign the captain of a ship beguiling – gives me hope for one day taking my skipper’s ticket myself 😉

  12. No, I will not obey to the commandments of any “show don’t tell” fetishist such as Le Guin. I like adverbs and will always use them abbundantly and orgulously.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s