Week twenty-five: Get in the magic boat

It is week twenty-five of 2019. How was the writing this week? Did you do anything to mark the solstice this week? Depending on whether you live in the northern or southern hemisphere, Friday was the longest or shortest day of the year. I love time markers of all kinds, which is why I always note which week of the year we are in at the beginning of these newsletters. It is a reminder that each week is a new opportunity to get something done, to reach a milestone, to start something new, or to just rest in the sun.

As Ursula K. Le Guin tells us in this week’s book, Steering the Craft: A Twenty-First-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, we have to be ready when the stories find us:

“Some people see art as a matter of control. I see it mostly as a matter of self-control. It’s like this: in me there’s a story that wants to be told. It is my end; I am its means. If I can keep myself, my ego, my wishes and opinions, my mental junk, out of the way and find the focus of the story, and follow the movement of the story, the story will tell itself. Everything I’ve talked about in this book has to do with being ready to let a story tell itself: having the skills, knowing the craft, so that when the magic boat comes by, you can step into it and guide it where it wants to go, where it ought to go.”

Le Guin warns that her book is “not for beginners,” and I would agree with that assessment. Le Guin covers many of the expected topics – how to adjust sound and syntax, how to marshal adjectives and adverbs, how to control verb tense and point of view – but she assumes some prior knowledge of all of these topics. Le Guin doesn’t just hand us her wisdom on a platter; she often makes us work for it. In some sections, a well-chosen example or two are all the explanation we get. In others, we are asked to learn by doing exercises, which Le Guin follows with advice in the guise of critique notes or questions.

Le Guin does provide clear and helpful guidance on the question of whether to choose past or present tense for your story: “I see the big difference between the past and present tenses not as immediacy but as complexity and size of field. A story told in the present tense is necessarily focused on action in a single time and therefore a single place. Use of the past tense(s) allows continual referring back and forth in time and space. . . . The difference is like the difference between a narrow-beam flashlight and sunlight. One shows a small, intense, brightly lit field with nothing around it; the other shows the world.” As she notes, present tense is currently in vogue, but you should base your choice on the needs of your story.

The best chapter of the book is that on point of view. Le Guin is clear and systematic in this chapter. She defines six different points of view – first person, limited third person, involved (omniscient) author, detached author, and observer-narrator in first person and third person – and describes the advantages and limitations of each. Even better, she creates a tiny scene and rewrites it in each of the points of view, which gives you an immediate feel for how each one works. I think this chapter alone is worth the price of the book.

I also loved her chapter about what she calls “crowding” and “leaping”: “By crowding I mean also keeping the story full, always full of what’s happening in it; keeping it moving, not slacking and wandering into irrelevancies; keeping it interconnected with itself, rich with echoes forward and backward. . . . But leaping is just as important. . . . There’s got to be white space around the word, silence around the voice. . . . Some say God is in the details; some say the Devil is in the details. Both are correct.” Amen.

Le Guin describes Steering the Craft as a workbook, and the exercises, which she calls “consciousness-raisers,” are the best I've seen. As she says, “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.” If you want to develop a writing course for yourself or for a group, I think starting with the exercises in Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction, if you are more interested in structure, or Brian Shawver’s The Language of Fiction, if you are more interested in sentences, and then moving to Le Guin’s book would be an excellent way to proceed. Le Guin also provides an entire chapter with useful guidance on how to run a successful peer critique group.

Le Guin is enjoyably tart on some topics (“Somehow is a super-weasel, a word that betrays that the author didn’t want to bother thinking out the story”; “the adjective or qualifier fucking is a really big tick”; “Too many people who yatter on about 'you should never use the passive voice' don’t even know what it is”), but she also believes that nothing is off limits to authors. As she notes, “good and careful writers will blow all Rules of Writing into bits.” She is also, as I expected, scrupulously neutral when it comes to the literary fiction / genre fiction divide we have traced in other writers, nor does she take sides in the great plotter vs. pantser debate: “If you aren’t a planner or a plotter, don’t worry. The world’s full of stories . . . . I like my image of ‘steering the craft,’ but in fact the story boat is a magic one. It knows its course. The job of the person at the helm is to help it find its own way to wherever it’s going.”

Here’s to sailing the magic boat, y’all,

Next week: It will be week twenty-six, which means we will be halfway through the year. I’ll be doing a recap of what I’ve read and give you a peek into what’s coming up. I’ll also be asking for more recommendations, so get them ready for me!

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