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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12 comments:

  1. Adding this to my wishlist right now. I'm interested in her thoughts on present tense, particularly right now when present tense has gained enough popularity to become a fad. I wrote my WIP in present tense because I felt it brought the correct tone to the story, one I wouldn't have been able to achieve with past tense. But I don't think I'll be using present tense again any time soon.

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  2. I think writing present tense would be hard. I'd not only have to shift gears, but change vehicles. :)

    Added this book to my list.

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  3. This sounds really interesting. I'm a big fan of the classics and I love to read prose and poetry, for the sound and rhythm of the words. But I don't know the rules well enough yet to break them...

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  4. She has quite an argument against writing in first person, and it really isn't the easiest POV to work in, but for The Cat Lady's Secret, it's necessary. Maybe I'll send her a copy when it's published and see what she says. :D

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  5. So glad to learn about this book! I admire Ursula Le Guin's work, and it's always refreshing (if somewhat rare) to get craft information from someone who writes in my genre.

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  6. Quinn, starting in June, we're planning a new category of genre-specific posts here at AuthorCulture. What is your genre?

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  7. Repetition is an important tool in any art, including music, storytelling (verbal), art (sometimes within a piece, sometimes over a series), and probably all the others.

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  8. Sounds interesting. Thanks for the insightful review, Linda! A really great book written in present tense is A Love for Larkspur by Kelsey Kilgore. Hilarious book! Sort of a chick-lit romance. It would be a great read if anyone wanted to see how present tense can be done really well.

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  9. Great review, sounds like a great book, thanks for sharing:)

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  10. I love, '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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  11. I'm a big fan of breaking the rules--but only if you know them first! :D

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