Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Ursula K. Le Guin: Steering the Craft

In 1996 Ursula K. Le Guin ran a workshop for writers. Subsequently she turned the workshop material into a book, Steering the Craft; the subtitle is 'Exercises and discussions on story writing for the lone navigator or the mutinous crew.' In other words, this is a writer's how-to book.

Just in case you don't know, Ursula K. Le Guin is a well known author in what we have to call, I suppose, the fantasy cum scifi field. She has published some sixteen novels, eight collections of short stories, and lots of other stuff, so she is well qualified to offer advice.

So far so good. The book was recommended to me by an established writer who told me that it contains the most lucid explanation of the use of point of view in fiction that he had ever come across. And indeed chapters seven and eight do cover point of view rather well. I have to say, however, that I prefer my own explanation of this subject, which I published in this blog in five parts from 4 to 10 November 2004 (see archives). But other readers may find Ms Le Guin's explanation preferable. It's all a matter of taste. Either way, the use of viewpoint is something that a writer has to master, and it sure ain't simple.

As the subtitle tells us, Steering the Craft is intended for use either by individuals or by writers' groups, with or without a formal teacher. I have never been keen on writers' groups myself, and those who share my prejudice will derive comfort from the introduction. Here the author tells us: 'One can attend many writing workshops and be a member of many peer groups and yet get no closer to finding one's voice as a writer than one might do working alone in silence.' Amen to that.

As for the overall shape of the book -- well, there are ten chapters on various aspects of the writer's craft. In each, a short introduction to the topic is given by the author. There then follow extracts from the prose work of assorted famous writers, such as Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, and so forth. And finally there are practice exercises which can be undertaken by the tyro writer who is keen to develop her skills. Suggestions are made for discussion by those working in groups.

There is no doubt that Ursula has a smart way with words. 'Prose writers,' she tells us, 'are mostly interested in life and commas.' And later, re the notion that the only good sentence is a short sentence: 'This is true for convicted criminals.'

Despite these rays of light, I have to confess that, overall, I was not too thrilled by this book. But that is probably because I am old, grumpy, male, and English; and I am resistant to people who suggest that writers should do exercises. If I was young, keen, ambitious, female, and living in sunny California, I would probably think Steering the Craft was terrific.

You'll just have to try it and see.

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