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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.