Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Review of Steering the Craft, by Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin wrote the word lover's writing book. This book is for those who want to go beyond telling the story. It's advanced writing intended for those who want to craft, not just the story, but each word and line that goes into it. This is advanced writing. Diving deeper into the tool box.

I love this book because it gives me permission to explore.

As a beginning novelist, I've been told not to use the same word twice in close proximity. Often finding a suitable synonym or alternative way of wording something is difficult, but I can do it. Usually, when I repeat a word or phrase, it's for effect--and guess what? According to Le Guin, that's okay: ". . . to state flatly that repetition is to be avoided, is to throw away one of the most valuable tools of narrative prose." She illustrates verbal and syntactic repetition, and gives me permission to use them, if I use them properly.

She discusses the "sound" of your writing, something I've always loved. The rhythm and musicality of words brought together to illustrate a mood or enhance an emotion. She illustrates the different forms of POV, from what she calls "limited third person" (I always called it "deep third") to "detached author" (what I call "distant third"), gives examples of their use, and permission to use them. She also illustrates shifting POVs within a single scene. I'm not sure I buy that, because the examples she gave aren't from contemporary works, but I can see how handy the technique would be for anyone choosing to write in distant third.

I disagree entirely with her opinion of writing in present tense, because she's basing her argument on the idea that the only reason one would write in present is for "its supposed immediacy, its 'presentness.' " In my current work in progress, I use present tense to separate a character from the rest of the cast. I have a solid reason for wanting to do so, and it has nothing to do with "presentness." But she does have a terrific and valid point:

Present-tense narrative uses the same temporal vocabulary as past tense. We don't write, "She slaps the Velcro fasteners on her Adidas, now gets up and stretches." We write, "She slaps the Velcro fasteners on then Adidas, then gets up and stretches." Only if we were concurrently reporting a real event like a TV sports commentator, would we use now. We use then because this isn't the present, isn't actual. Fact or fiction, it's a story. Whether we're conscious of it or not, we know the difference between actuality and story, and we use the appropriate vocabulary.
The exercises in this book are challenging and are geared for both individual study and writers groups. In the addenda, Le Guin provides a glossary and an appendix of verb forms. I recommend this book for those who already know the "rules" of writing and who are ready to break a few.
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