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Steering the Craft: A Twenty-First-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story Paperback – September 1, 2015
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“There is no better spirit in all of American letters than that of Ursula Le Guin.” — Slate
“Le Guin is a writer of enormous intelligence and wit, a master storyteller with the humor and force of a Twain. She creates stories for everyone from New Yorker literati to the hardest audience, children. She remakes every genre she uses.” — Boston Globe
From the Back Cover
Le Guin is a writer of enormous intelligence and wit, a master storyteller with the humor and force of a Twain. She creates stories for everyone from New Yorker literati to the hardest audience, children. She remakes every genre she uses. Boston Globe
A modernized, new edition of an essential guide to the writing craft, presented by a brilliant practitioner of the art
Completely revised and rewritten to address the challenges and opportunities of the modern era, this handbook is a short, deceptively simple guide to the craft of writing. The ten chapters shed light on the most fundamental components of narrative, from the sound of language to sentence construction to point of view. Each chapter combines illustrative examples from the global canon with Ursula Le Guin s own witty commentary and an exercise that the writer can do solo or in a group. Le Guin also offers a comprehensive guide to working in writing groups, both actual and online.
Masterly and concise, Steering the Craft deserves a place on every writer s shelf.
Over the course of her career, Ursula K. Le Guin has published more than sixty books of fiction, fantasy, children s literature, poetry, drama, criticism, and translation. She is the winner of many awards, including the PEN/Malamud Award and the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters."
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Overflowing with valuable insight and inspiration, 'Steering the Craft' is among the best single-volume works on writing I’ve ever read—and I’ve read a lot of them over the decades, positively devouring anything I can get my hands on. If Stephen King’s wonderful ‘On Writing’ is a helpful and encouraging introduction to the subject—call it Writing 101—Le Guinn offers a more advanced and rigorously focused 200-level course that will be most helpful to those already-experienced writers in search of self-improvement and a more acute understanding of how story works.
There is a difference, Le Guinn tells us, between the kind of straightforward expository prose we all learned to write in school, and the language of effective fiction—a distinction far too many aspiring storytellers have yet to grasp. The important thing for a writer, she says, “…is to know what you’re doing with your language and why.” She then proceeds to enlighten us in the most pleasing of ways, gently but firmly, never dogmatic, often with humor, stressing fundamentals without coming off as a snob or a “correctness bully”. “To break a rule you have to know the rule,” she says. “A blunder is not a revolution.”
Le Guinn challenges received and conventional wisdom at every turn. For instance, where Stephen King tells us that “the road to hell is paved with adverbs,” Le Guinn gently insists that adjectives and adverbs “add color, life, and immediacy … They cause obesity in prose only when used lazily or overused.” And again, she points out, “It’s a myth that short-sentence prose is ‘more like the way we speak’ … The marvelously supple connections of complex syntax are like the muscles and sinews of a long-distance runner’s body, ready to set up a good pace and keep going.” And there were so many more wonderful, refreshing observations throughout the book, I found myself obsessively marking and underlining to a point where my copy could never be resold—not that I would ever part with it!
I very much appreciate the way Le Guinn draws parallels between music and prose, stressing the essential importance of rhythm and the physical sound of language: “The similarity of … incremental repetition of word, phrase, image, and event in prose to recapitulation and development in musical structure is real and deep.” Elsewhere, punctuation is brilliantly demystified as it is likened to the use of rests in a musical score.
The volume is designed as a workbook, and includes a number of skill-enhancing exercises, with copious examples of the various concepts discussed, drawn from classic works from the Brontë sisters to Dickens, Hardy and Virginia Wolfe, always with fascinating, trenchant commentary from Le Guinn.
‘Steering the Craft’ is a treasure! Enthusiastically recommended.
In Steering the Craft, Ursula Le Guin talks about all the things that make good prose such as the sound of the language, rhythm, descriptions, story verse plot. She brings up all the rules we have heard over and over again such as: show don't tell; write in active voice, not the passive voice; don't use "be" verbs; and more -- and then tells you how to break them. She talks about grammar only to explain how not to be afraid of the semicolon or comas. She slices through so much of the bad advice I see over and over again online with an effortless logic that had me laughing at the truth of her statements. This is not a humorous book, but I tend to laugh at things gives me relief. Writing as contortionist around such arbitrary rules is tough! This book gives you the license and freedom to use all the tools the English language provides without fear or guilt.
This book is orchestrated in such a way that it could be used in a writing group. Every chapter has exercises at the end to help you explore and learn the concepts by doing them. I am not a great team player, but I can see these activities would be beneficial for me to do on my own. I intend to go back and do them.
This book makes a lot of sense once you are already writing and discover that something just doesn't sparkle. It is specifically for fiction writers and covers a lot of the vague frustrations of crafting elegant sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. I honestly would understand how vital her advice in this book was before I started writing. It is like learning to paint or play an instrument; certain lessons on make sense after you have been doing it some. So if you are a writer, I highly recommend this book!
Top international reviews
This week's sad news of the death of its author makes my review of this little book even more daunting. Where even to start?
Ursula K Le Guin wrote so many excellent books that have entertained and informed me. They taught me about story, they influenced my writing style, and they showed me aspects of thought and politics in that ever-so-subtle way of dropping details into plots that was one her trademarks.
So, with this background I started to read "Steering the Craft". And I did not like it! Here was a successful and respected author telling me with the lightest of touches that I should practice my writing, hone my skills, and pay more attention to what I do. And she put exercises at the end of each chapter. And she illustrated her points with extracts from famous (although typically long-dead) authors. It was really too much!
Surely you don't teach advanced aeronautics to a hawk. You don't explain gliding, swooping, and hovering to a magnificent bird of prey. But I am not a hawk; I am not even a pigeon; to be quite honest with you, I can't actually fly. That I spend some time in the air is probably only thanks to having climbed a particularly tall tree with a fine view, or perhaps I am like Amélie Nothomb in "Fear and Trembling" looking out from the window high above Tokyo and imagining myself flying.
And it took a while for me to come round to Le Guin's tutelage. But, at the end of the second chapter she said: "Writing a sentence that expresses what you want to say isn't any easier than plumbing or fiddling. It takes craft." And I started to get the point.
But I am a slow learner. Those things that I flatter myself I already do passably well seemed like needless inclusions, while those things that are beyond me appeared to be irrelevant and frustrating.
The single thing that resonated most was the metaphor of the story as a magic craft. You don't have to lean into the tiller and plot a detailed course; you can simply step aboard and lightly help the boat follow the path along which it already wants to sail. This is both a comfort and a challenge! It is nice to know that as writers we can relax a little and let the story take charge, but it is also disconcerting to be told that we still need to learn the skills of seamanship.
But anyway, the image of the magic boat adrift in the sea of story so resonated with my image of Ged aboard Lookfar sailing the West Reach in Earthsea that I was quite won over and started to pay attention.
Maybe I would have liked to see more encouragement to read. Of course, Le Guin does provide examples and suggestions, and of course this book is about writing, but it is surprising (to me) how little and how narrowly many would-be authors read. Osmosis is a fine principal, and authors may subconsciously develop their style and their repertoire simply by watching and learning. On the whole I found the examples to be heavy and rather American in style (even when they are from British authors), but perhaps that is just personal taste.
At the end of the day, however, I suspect this book is rather good at being what it sets out to be: a guide for groups or individuals who seriously want to work at understanding and improving their writing skills. I think it would work better as a workbook for a group of committed collaborators (what Le Guin calls "The Mutinous Crew") where there is a support organisation and peer pressure to do the exercises and provide critiquing feedback, than it does for an under-motivated individual ("The Lone Mariner"). Although I believe I have learned a lot from the book, I must confess that I have not attempted any of the exercises.
Ursula's insight is unique and changed how I viewed some common writing tropes. It's rare that reading a book makes you a better writer, but in this case just seeing her perspective helped. The exercises are good too!
It has aspects that I will be working on for some time.