Writing advice from Ursula K. Le Guin

The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination as a collection is something of a hodgepodge, but there are many valuable nuggets to be mined, so it’s a worthwhile book for any aspiring writer to consult from time to time. The personal essays in the first section, “Personal Matters,” are especially worth reading because Le Guin is a terrific writer and an interesting person. Other essays throughout the book, particularly Le Guin’s thoughts on gender, are also interesting. Do what I did–leaf through the book and read what catches your fancy. It’s sure to be worth your while.

The final section deals specifically with writing and contains several terrific insights. As ever, most writing advice generally comprises the same few basics dressed up in different ways. What stands out is when the adviser frames this in a different way guaranteed to light some bulbs over some heads, and I think Le Guin achieves this. Here are some specific insights I gleaned from different essays, but I recommend reading them for yourself.

“A War Without End” is a rather long and rambling piece on the power of story to make change imaginable and is worth reading to remember why we read and why we write. Here’s a snippet:

The exercise of imagination is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal, not necessary.

Having that real though limited power to put established institutions into question, imaginative literature has also the responsibility of power. The storyteller is the truthteller.

In “A Matter of Trust,” Le Guin explains that in order to write a story, you must trust first yourself, then the story, and finally the reader. The only way to build trust in yourself as a writer is to — you guessed it — write, write write. Commit yourself to learning the craft.

Trusting the story means being willing not to have full control over the story as you write it. In order for this to work, a pre-writing stage of semi-conscious gestation and/or conscious planning is required. Don’t rush to the writing–that won’t work. (This idea is fleshed out in a subsequent essay.)

Once the writing is done, you must again trust yourself to make the story better. You must be willing to go over it until it goes right. This means revision, people! Dull drudgery, I know, but absolutely necessary. Only after careful and deliberate revision, Le Guin says, will you know what the story is about and why it had to go the way it went. Trusting the story also means that you can’t conceive or manipulate the story to serve a purpose outside itself, because then it will not be true. (This is also expanded on in a later essay.)

Finally, trust the reader. This means thinking of the reader as an active, intelligent, worthy collaborator. Think of the story as a dance, and the writer and reader as partners in it. Revision — again! — clears unnecessary obstacles away so the reader can receive the story. Le Guin is talking about respect here, and as a reader, I completely agree. A lazy writer, a sloppy writer, a didactic writer is a disrespectful writer, and there is no reason why any reader should have to engage with that kind of writing.

In “The Writer and the Character,” Le Guin warns both writers and readers that characters are not stand-ins for the writer. If you are using your character to fulfill your own needs or to trumpet your own ideas, they can’t be themselves and they can’t tell the truth. They will be puppets, and readers will recognize them as such. If the author’s point of view exactly coincides with the character’s, then the story is not fiction; rather, it is “disguised memoir or a fiction-coated sermon.”

“Unquestioned Assumptions” is a terrific essay that discusses the biases inherent in writing, in which the writer assumes that “us” is “everybody.” In other words, we are all men, we are all white, we are all straight, we are all Christian, we are all young. Le Guin gives this advice:

All I would ask of writers who find it hard to question the universal validity of their personal opinions and affiliations is that they consider this: Every group we belong to–by gender, sex, race, religion, age–is an in-group, surrounded by an immense out-group, living next door and all over the world, who will be alive as far into the future as humanity has a future. That out-group is called other people. It is for them that we write.

Finally, “The Question I Get Asked Most Often,” is of course about the secret that all successful writers must know:

The question fiction writers get asked most often is: Where do you get your ideas from? Harlan Ellison has been saying for years that he gets ideas for his stories from a mail-order house in Schenectady.

When people ask “Where do you get your ideas from?” what some of them really want to know is the e-mail address of that company in Schenectady.

That is: they want to be writers, because they know writers are rich and famous; and they know that there are secrets that writers know; and they know if they can just learn those secrets, that mystical address in Schenectady, they will be Stephen King.

Here is the secret, as Le Guin reveals it:

For a fiction writer, a storyteller, the world is full of stories, and when a story is there, it’s there, and you just reach up and pick it.

Then you have to be able to let it tell itself.

“Ideas come from the world through the head,” she says. Fiction is “imagination working on experience.” In other words, it’s not just enough to write what you know. You experience and read and learn a lot of things, and let it all synthesize and compost in your mind, and apply imagination to it, and that is what you write. This is not a quick process. Again, don’t be in such a rush.

Also, writers must read! A writer who doesn’t read is a charlatan. That’s because writers stand on each other’s shoulders; they use each other’s ideas, plots, and secrets. They don’t plagiarize, but they expand, adapt, react to, and comment on what has come before.

Before Le Guin can start a story, she says, she must be able to see the landscape and know the principal people by name. The story has to find its voice. Wait for it, and it will give itself to you. Writing, above all, requires patience, a willingness to sit still every day and wait.

The core of this is the same writing advice that all successful writers give: Write every day. Learn your craft and practice. Read a lot. Don’t rush it. Revise. Le Guin’s spin on this advice is thoughtful and different, and it can possibly help make that a-ha! moment happen for aspiring writers.

 

 

The bleak futures of Octavia Butler…

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I have put together a retrospective of Octavia Butler’s forward-looking science fiction and added my thoughts about Butler’s vision of the future of humanity. Read it on my other blog, Sci Femme.

Recommended Reading: A Head Full of Ghosts

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Finally, I have a new book to recommend, and it’s a really good one: A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay. When she was eight years old, Merry’s big sister Marjorie developed severe schizophrenia–or perhaps, as their dad came to believe, she was possessed by a demon. Desperate for both money and a cure, Marjorie’s parents agreed to let a reality TV show film her exorcism, with disastrous results. If you love anything to do with horror, you will love this book.

My North Carolina State of Mind – The New York Times

Here is a beautiful eulogy by author Allan Gurganis memorializing Nancy Olson, the owner of local independent bookstore Quail Ridge Books, and reflecting on the recently passed controversial law that, among other things, eliminates protection from discrimination for members of the LGBT community state-wide. This moving piece reminds me why I keep loving my home state and why it’s a great place to live despite the way our elected legislators seem determined to drag us down.

I moved back home in 1993 to fight bigotry. We are both still here.

Read: My North Carolina State of Mind – The New York Times

Reading Journal: Beginning of April

It’s been over a month since I’ve posted a reading journal update. Most of my reading has lately not-so-inspiring–although I did enjoy reading Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor so much that I wrote a rather long response to it. That’s posted at my blog Sci Femme.

far_north_therouxAnother post-apocalyptic book I enjoyed was Far North by Marcel Theroux. It is set in post-climate change Siberia and is also about a woman’s journey. Also recommended is John Scalzi’s Lock Inwhich is a near future thriller with a lot of intriguing ideas.

Newer fiction was a bit of a letdown. The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins is buzz-worthy dark fantasy, and the style reminds me quite a lot of Neil Gaiman, but it seemed too heavy on the horror with not enough emotional connectivity to fully engage me. Ditto for the post-apocalyptic novel The Dead Lands by Benjamin Percy–strong shades of The Stand and Swan Song, but not nearly the emotional punch of those classics.

Some horror by women: A romance-heavy ghost story by Alexandra Sokoloff, The Unseen (which is set very near where I lived in Durham, NC), came across as muddled. The Cipher by Kathe Koja is much better written horror, but somewhat overlong for the premise. It’s about a hole (a “Funhole”) that’s a portal of sorts, and it changes things … and people. This is a concept that’s hard to summarize. However, I did think it should have been closer to novella length.

26883558Victor LaValle’s new novella, The Ballad of Black Tom, is very well written, and interesting in that it is both an homage to H.P. Lovecraft and a refutation of his racism. It is a retelling of one of Lovecraft’s most notoriously xenophobic stories, “The Horror at Red Hook” (amusing summary here). LaValle very cleverly turns Lovecraft in on itself to offer a different version of events, one that underscores the racism of the time as it really existed and in the writing and reading of Lovecraft and others. However, it is still Lovecraftian, and I have never been a fan of anything Lovecraft. If you are, it is worth a read.

Both The Cipher and The Ballad of Black Tom have a cipher; a portal into nothingness; a figure inside that you do not want to see. It was interesting reading them back-to-back.

An homage of a different sort is James Maxey’s Bad Wizarda return to Oz. This self-published book is a lightweight adventure that takes place after Dorothy is all grown up. Like the LaValle, it’s a cheap buy for Kindle.

Currently, I’m back to horror, reading the enthralling A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay. I hope to be reading more new fiction over the next few months and posting reviews more regularly. I hope you find something in this roundup that catches your fancy!

Literary elephantiasis…

Recently, I attended a panel discussion of local writers on something entirely unrelated when one of them said something that confirmed a suspicion I already had. He said that an editor had actually asked him to shove 10,000 more words into his manuscript. Apparently, long books look more substantial on bookstore shelves, so I guess it feels like you’re getting more bang for your buck or something. I had already suspected this a while ago after reading The Goldfinch, which I thought was several thousand words too long. It used to be that editors edited. Now, apparently they bloat. That only adds to my stubborn determination to avoid books over 500 pages unless I have a damn good reason to read them. This piece in The Guardian only  reinforces my view, and it includes a nice list of short books if you’re tired of “literary elephantiasis.” Do you think novels are too long these days?

By the way, here’s my previous rant on long books. Since I wrote that, here are a few popular novels I’ve passed up reading because they’re too damned long: A Little Life; The Luminaries; Wolf Hall; The Paying Guests; Seveneves; and I could go on (and on and on).

Six identities, six stories

As I was reading Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead,  it hit me that the six identities of the writer she explores can also be interpreted as six story archetypes. Almost every story I could think of fit at least one of the archetypes, and many took elements from several of them.Clearly, these are stories that resonate deeply with us.

It’s no accident that Atwood gives many examples from horror fiction to support the archetypes she identifies in her book. Horror, which confronts both our fear of and fascination with death, is the most primal of literary genres. It is also most closely tied to our oldest kinds of stories: myths, legends, and fairy tales. Following Atwood’s lead, I have chosen horror novels to illustrate each of the six archetypes. I have found at least one famous classic work of horror literature that perfectly exemplifies each category.

Categorizing is fun, as well as a human compulsion. These archetypes provide an interesting and, I think, useful way of thinking about stories. (But of course, it is not the only way.)

(1) Realization story: The protagonist realizes something critical about his/her own nature and undergoes fundamental change. Best known as the coming-of-age story.

Example: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte is a perfect example of a coming-of-age and self-realization story.

(2) Duplicity story: Dual natures, whether internal or external, are placed in opposition to one another. Includes stories of good versus evil, rivalry, tricksters, doppelgangers, and shapeshifters.

Example: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson is the prototypical split personality story, exploring the warring dark and light sides of human nature.

(3) Devotion story: The protagonist is dedicated to something higher than him/herself and pursues it, no matter what the human cost. Includes stories of playing God, pursuing art for art’s sake, giving oneself over to the gods or the muse, and self-sacrifice.

Examples: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley is the story of a scientist who pursues his quest to create life and winds up creating a monster with horrific consequences for him and everyone he loves.

(4) Temptation story: The protagonist is tempted to violate what is ethical or right in exchange for personal gain. Includes stories of deals with the devil, falls from grace, black magic, and forbidden love.

Examples: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is about a man who gives into a life of hedonism and eternal youth, the effects of which show only on his portrait, but ends up losing his soul in the process (also Doctor Faustus and all its variants).

(5) Outsider story: The storyteller is a stranger or stands apart from the world in some way and reports what s/he witnesses or discovers something that must be told. Dystopias often fall into this category.

Examples: The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells is about a scientist who makes himself invisible and becomes a hated and feared exile from society as a result.

(6) Descent story: The protagonist journeys to a strange land outside of normal human experience or encounters the supernatural on a quest to bring back something of value or to save or avenge someone. Includes stories of the hero’s journey, overcoming the monster, and many ghost stories.

Examples: Dracula by Bram Stoker begins with a journey to a foreign land, where Jonathan Harker encounters the supernatural vampire, and ends with a quest by a band of heroes to destroy Dracula and save Mina Harker (also The Odyssey  and Beowulf).