Book Review, Books!, Inspiration, Signal Boost, Weekend Writer, Writing

Weekend Writer: Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin — Part One

Hey all, Dani here.

Happy Easter everyone! We’re having a pretty chill day here in our nerd home. I got a small ham, and I’m going to make up some mashed potatoes, mixed veggies, and dinner rolls, which should be pretty good, and then I think we’re going to play some board games for a little while. Of course we’ll probably also watch some movies, and I’m hoping to read some as well.

This month’s book is one that I picked because it was a shorter book, and I wanted to read a lot of fiction books, because of participating in a few different reading events. So I didn’t want a lengthy book on writing craft. But this one is proving to be pretty darn valuable and unlike so many of the books I’ve read that are light on the technical side of writing, instead choosing to focus on the inspiration and creativity side of things, this book, this one focuses on the technical details of punctuation, rhythm, syntax, etc. The gritty side of things for writers, and the author starts by saying that this is a serious book and not meant for beginners.

It would be really cool for all of us who want to write creatively (whether that is poetry, stories, novellas, novels, screenplays, RPGs, video games, whatever) to be able to help uplift and inspire each other, and keep ourselves motivated to strive for our dreams, so I decided to start this blog series here. This series will be a lot of me working through books on writing and creativity, maybe doing and sharing some writing exercises, and possibly doing some writing based discussion posts. It’s going to be an adventure for sure, and I hope it helps you as much as it is helping me.

Steering the Craft

Book Details

Format: Paperback

Pages: 160

Publisher: Mariner Books

Publication Date: September 1, 2015 (originally published April 1, 1998)

ISBN: 0544611616 (ISBN13: 9780544611610)


A revised and updated guide to the essentials of a writer’s 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. Le Guin lays out ten chapters that address 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 Le Guin’s own witty commentary and an exercise that the writer can do solo or in a group. She 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.

My Thoughts

In the introduction for this book, Ursula K. Le Guin talks about how it is set up, how there is a discussion of the topic for that particular chapter, examples from great writers, and exercises that offer guidance and help the writer to practice control and to find a sense of pleasure in playing a great word game.

The introduction then goes on to talk about being a lone navigator or part of a mutinous crew, obviously emphasizing the use of being part of a crew. As Le Guin says peer groups “put the writer into a community of people all working at the same art, the kind of group musicians and painters and dancers have always had.” Peer groups are useful for encouragement, the good and healthy side of competition, practice dealing with criticism, a place for useful discussion, and of course support when dealing with difficulties. These groups can be in-person or digital.

In the end, you write alone–even co-authors spend time writing their sections or chapters or whatever on their own. But group criticism can really help train your own self-criticism, so that is useful.

Le Guin then talks about how this book is a workbook, meant to heighten your awareness of different elements of writing, so you can practice them until they become skills.

“There’s luck in art. And there’s the gift. You can’t earn that. But you can learn skill, you can earn it. You can learn to deserve your gift.” –pg xiii

She also recommends that you think about the directions of the exercise for a little bit before attempting them, and then to set what you write aside for a day or two before trying to read over it critically. You can learn a lot about your writing from the revision process.

The first chapter is: The Sound of Your Writing.

The second chapter is: Punctuation and Grammar.

Obviously, if it wasn’t already understood that this is a technical guide to writing, the chapter headings alone should clear up any misunderstandings. These chapters cover about 35 pages worth of the book. Okay, are you ready to dive a little deeper into the chapters? Because I am. Let’s go.

“The sound of the language is where it all begins. The test of a sentence is, Does it sound right? The basic elements of language are physical: the noise words make, the sounds and silences that make the rhythms marking their relationships. Both the meaning and the beauty of the writing depend on these sounds and rhythms.” –pg 1

Honestly I think this is why children’s books are so effective. They have a rhythmic lyrical quality to them, with clear repetition and rhyming words and phrases. Some people then outgrow this interest and fondness for listening to the quality of how words and sentences sound. Thankfully, this is a skill that can be relearned or sparked again.

“A good writer, like a good reader, has a mind’s ear. We mostly read prose in silence, but many readers have a keen inner ear that hears it. Dull, choppy, droning, jerky, feeble: these common criticisms of narrative are all faults in the sound of it. Lively, well-paced, flowing, strong, beautiful: these are all qualities of the sound of prose, and we rejoice in them as we read. Narrative writers need to train their mind’s ear to listen to their own prose, to hear as they write.” –pg 2

The chapter then jumps into an example of vocabular, rhythm, and phrasing, by giving a passage of Rudyard Kipling from “How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin” in Just So Stories, from Mark Twain from “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras Country,” from Zora Neale Hurston from Their Eyes Were Watching God, and from Molly Gloss from The Hearts of Horses.

Le Guin then also recommends Alice Walker’s The Color Purple for the sound of its language, and for quiet yet powerful rhythm to look at The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett or Plainsong by Kent Haruf.

The first chapter then ends with two exercises. As with many of the past books, I’m not including the excerpts or exercises in these posts because if you think the rest of the book sounds useful, then perhaps you will purchase a copy or see about borrowing it from your library, so that you can try the exercises out yourself.

All right, chapter two: punctuation and grammar…and now I feel like I’m back in school.

“Once upon a time, sloppy writers could count on copy editors to put the commas where they belong and correct grammatical errors, but the copy editor is an endangered species these days. As for the stuff in your computer that pretends to correct your punctuation or grammar, disable it. These programs are on a pitifully low level of competence; they’ll chop your sentences short and stupidify your writing. Competence is up to you. You’re on your own out there with those man-eating semicolons.

I can’t separate punctuation from grammar, because to a large extent learning how to write grammatically is learning how to punctuate, and vice versa.” –pgs 12-13

What follows this is an opinion piece about correctness and morality, which dives into the morality of grammar, and how it isn’t correct or incorrect as a morality issue, but more that correct is determined by a group who speaks and writes English a certain way, which is often determined by a social and political and social class.

Standards of writing are different than standards for speaking, because of the difference in voice and expression and intonation. Making things clear in writing is a lot more work than simply talking face-to-face. This is why social media posts and e-mails can sometimes lead to failures in communication. People are in a rush, they don’t read over their writing, they get upset when others can’t understand them when they believe that their writing was perfectly clear. Le Guin says that it is dangerous to confuse self-expression with communication.

The opinion essay on correctness and morality then talks about fake grammar rules and instances where those rules were broken. There is a lot going on in the opinion piece, but it is all technical and wonderful.

From there we jump into the exercise, a small one involving writing with no punctuation or paragraphing or anything. Oh man, it seems like a fun exercise, even if it is one that would be a bit difficult for me. I’m so used to utilizing punctuation.

Part Two / Part Three

Links to Other Weekend Writer Posts

Introduction — Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer — Embrace Your Weird by Felicia Day — The Art of War for Writers by James Scott Bell — No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty — The War of Art by Steven Pressfield — On Being Stuck by Laraine Harris —  The Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding edited by Janna Silverstein — Light the Dark edited by Joe Fossler — Steering the Craft: A 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story by Ursula K. LeGuin —

Where to Get a Copy

If you found this writing advice helpful, you can pick up your own copy of this book from AmazonBarnes & NobleBooks-a-millionBook Depository, or your local independent bookstore through IndieBound.

You can also check with your local library.

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