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Steering the Craft of Fiction

23 October, 2007

Le Guin’s writing bookI have been reading a classic how-to book on fiction writing, Ursula Le Guin’s Steering the Craft: Exercises and discussions on story writing for the lone navigator or the mutinous crew. It was published in 1998 by Eighth Mountain Press. ISBN 0-933377-46-0.

Many of the current American how-to books on fiction writing list Le Guin’s book as a ‘must read’.

Is it good? Yes!

So many writing books regurgitate the same information and advice that it’s difficult to find anything new. Also, they are often huge books that try to cover everything.

In creating her book, Le Guin drew on her experience of leading a workshop for ‘experienced writers interested in their craft–people who had already thought about writing as a skill and wanted to think and talk about it some more’.

The result is a small book (172 pages) that includes discussion topics and writing exercises. These can be completed alone (‘the lone navigator’) or in a peer group (‘the mutinous crew’). Her interest is in fiction, but she includes ideas for people interested in memoir-writing.

She limits her book to the elements of fiction that she thinks cause writers the most trouble: word choices, punctuation, sentence length, syntax, repetition, adjectives and adverbs, subject pronouns and verbs, point of view, voice, indirect narration, and pace.

In an appendix, she gives her ideas for maintaining a successful peer writing group. But she cautions that group work isn’t for everyone at different times in their writing life.

She tells what she has found to be practical and workable. She rejects the idea that fiction has the same ‘rules’ as journalism and school essay writing, e.g., short sentences are best. She points out that sticking to short sentences creates stultifying prose.

I liked her suggestion that writers train by imitating pieces of prose they admire in order to find their ‘own voice’. Imitation is a technique once highly regarded but now too often ignored.

Steering the Craft reminds me of Strunk & White’s classic, Elements of Style, in being pithy and personal. It’s a book well worth hunting for.

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