December 20, 2015

WRITING ADVICE (Part1) -- What Happened When I Read Ursula K. LeGuin’s Newly Revised Book, STEERING THE CRAFT: A 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story (September 2015) Guy Stewart #28

In September of 2007, I started this blog with a bit of writing advice. A little over a year later, I discovered how little I knew about writing after hearing children’s writer, Lin Oliver speak at a convention hosted by the Minnesota Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Since then, I have shared (with their permission) and applied the writing wisdom of Lin Oliver, Jack McDevitt, Nathan Bransford, Mike Duran, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, SL Veihl, Bruce Bethke, and Julie Czerneda. Together they write in genres broad and deep, and have acted as agents, editors, publishers, columnists, and teachers. Since then, I figured I’ve got enough publications now that I can share some of the things I did “right” and I’m busy sharing that with you.

While I don’t write full-time, nor do I make enough money with my writing to live off of it...neither do all of the professional writers above...someone pays for and publishes ten percent of what I write. When I started this blog, that was NOT true, so I may have reached a point where my own advice is reasonably good. We shall see! Hemingway’s quote above will now remain unchanged as I work to increase my writing output and sales! As always, your comments are welcome!

Addendum: Compared to Ursula K. LeGuin, most speculative writer’s work fall short of literary merit. But LeGuin won The annual 2004 Edwards Award, the panel noting that: “LeGuin ‘has inspired four generations of young adults to read beautifully constructed language, visit fantasy worlds that inform them about their own lives, and think about their ideas that are neither easy nor inconsequential’” (Wikipedia)

I started reading this book (the 2015 edition), which was originally published in 1998, a few days ago. I have found it slow going – not because it’s so badly written, but because every sentence invites me to pause and reflect.

Before her, only two other writers – and I mean no offense here – have inspired me to consider their non-fiction works with the same kind of attention. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and C.S. Lewis have given me such pause that it seemed to take forever to read THE COST OF DISCIPLESHIP and MERE CHRISTIANITY because I was marking, underlining, or commenting on two or three things on every page.

I mean no offense because I am well-aware of LeGuin’s opinion of religion, and of Christianity in particular, but my writing is almost as important to me as my faith – and LeGuin has forced me to think about my writing in a way I have never done before.

And so, to work: “The chief duty of the narrative sentence is to lead to the next sentence – to keep the story going.” (p 2)

For me, this is startling in its simplicity and one of the most difficult things I have ever attempted. I have had about ten percent of my work published. The other ninety percent languishes in my “dead files”. There are stories there that I loved that no one else wants. My question has been repeatedly “Why?”

I haven’t done a deep scan of my “failed works”, but when I’ve briefly looked at things that have been repeatedly rejected, I’m beginning to see a pattern. The stories are often just linked events – the story doesn’t keep going because IT’S NOT GOING ANYWHERE.

A quote that LeGuin has “pinned up over my desk for a long time” is what Socrates said: “The misuse of language induces evil in the soul.” (p 14) I only have to read posts on Face Book to guess the truth in this. Of course, there’s an implied corollary here, that if I use language well, then I might induce good in the soul – and perhaps the souls of others. We already know that words well-written can calm the soul. Look at writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. or Mother Theresa.

“You are the Pied Piper, your sentences are the tune you play, and your readers are the children of Hamelin (or the rats if you prefer).” (p 22) I have always been selfish in my writing, doing what “I want”; and while I can still do that, LeGuin points to a higher purpose. She doesn’t only point to it here where she is lecturing, however. Her work speaks loudly to many issues. Her craft is intentional and when she speaks people listen. As well, she does NOT lower the “intention bar” when she writes for children. CATWINGS is as profound as THE LATHE OF HEAVEN, though both touch on the same issue – racism – they are aimed at entirely different audiences and speak to them using language they can understand.

Last of all, “Nothing in your story happens ‘somehow’. It happens because you wrote it. Take responsibility!” (p 44) Looking at a story I wrote recently and sent out recently and was rejected a dozen times has this horrendous problem at its very core: “stuff” happens to my main character. He had no clear goal at the beginning except “go to the Moon for training”. Things happened to him and then at the end something MAJOR happened to him that is the crux of the novel he’s in. In the book I wrote, he’s much more intentional! I love the incident I wrote about – now I have to take responsibility and create a story in which I stop using the excuse that “somehow something happened” to him!

I’m half way through the book now, so I’ll share next time what else I learned.

Take away:

1) Keep the story going somewhere.

2) Use language well.

3) Point to a higher purpose.

4) Take responsibility!


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