Image: Matthew Loffhagen
When it comes to Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘inimitable’ is the first word that comes to mind. Multi-time winner of the Hugo Award, Nebula Award, Locus Award, and World Fantasy Award, and author of The Earthsea Cycle, The Left Hand of Darkness, and The Word for World Is Forest, her novels are genre-busting spectacles and her poetry explains why poetry is still alive in the 21st century. She’s prolific, celebrated, progressive, fearless. She’s a legend. Having always generously dispensed writing advice, I trust Le Guin will not object if we mine her work for inspiration. ‘Shoot for the top, always,’ she told The Paris Review. So, let’s.
1. Be an explorer of the human condition
In response to John Rechy’s attack on three commonly abused ‘rules’ for writing, Le Guin pens a few words in defense of sympathy:
Sympathy doesn’t mean liking. It means feeling with, suffering with… the characters of novel and short story fascinate us slowly, deeply, by their passion, their pain, their moral and psychological complexity.
In Le Guin’s estimation, sympathy is the opposite of one-dimensionality. Psychologically complex characters (likeable or otherwise) will arouse readers’ sympathy because they are realistic. People aren’t flat or, as Le Guin would put it, ‘jejune.’ They are perplexing and unreliable, good and bad, vulnerable and profound.Great authors find, and inspire, a kind of sympathy for their protagonists.Click To Tweet
In that sense, having a cultural anthropologist for a father must be the authorial equivalent of Hollywood’s having Goldie Hawn for a mother. Says Le Guin of the many-splendored guests that her father entertained on their Napa Valley ranch:
Just having these people from a truly other culture – it was a tremendous gift. A lot of people never have [the experience of ‘the other’], or don’t take the chance when offered.
Le Guin’s interest in human psychology and exposure to a variety of worldviews contribute to her intricate and convincing characters.
2. Dare to imagine
Writing ‘what you know’ – another FROG (‘frequently reiterated over-generalization’; yes, I just made that up) – doesn’t limit authors to their own life experience or even to the realm of reality. Le Guin’s secret formula for writing what you ‘know’ = imagination + observation. All writers operate from this base. An alien world in which people’s sexuality is contextually driven and only manifests monthly (as in The Left Hand of Darkness) is not knowable. Rather, it combines observations about society with ‘what-if’ questions and launches into a groundbreaking narrative that pushes boundaries and still feels genuine.
Le Guin’s got a word for what she does with observation and imagination: playing.
My impulse is less questing and more playful. I like trying on ideas and ways of life and religious approaches. …A novelist is always ‘trying on’ other people.
Rather than seeking solid answers, whether universal truths or Grandma Austen’s recipe for writing good fiction, Le Guin approaches her craft with what she calls ‘intellectual energy and curiosity’. She’s not on a quest for truth. Like a child, she plays with her imagination. Combined with intimate anthropological observation and a dedication to honing her talents, her work is speculative but never ignorant.A playful, experimental attitude can unlock new levels of inspiration.Click To Tweet
3. Listen to the right people at the right time
A writer with their ears plugged is going to get about as far in their (a)vocation as a bull on a treadmill. Listen to the right people at the right time to take your writing to the next level.
Listen to your story
Le Guin says that a novel begins with ‘a voice in the ear’. Of Lavinia, she says, ‘That first page I wrote, which the novel progressed from, is simply Lavinia speaking to us – including me, apparently.’
Sometimes, a story has its own life. Attend to it. Don’t try to coerce it. Work in tandem, adopting Le Guin’s playful approach, like kids trying on costumes and voices and personas until they settle into a rhythm and the story unfolds organically.
Listen to your writing
Le Guin’s advice on the mechanics of writing ranges from punctuation (don’t underestimate its power) to modifiers (‘adjectives and adverbs are rich and fattening; the main thing is not to overindulge’). Her admonishment against repetition is worth repeating (yes, I did that on purpose) verbatim:
Repetition can indeed be awkward when a word is emphasized for no reason: ‘He was studying in his study. The book he was studying was Plato.’ This kind of thing comes of not listening to one’s writing.
You might think she’s exaggerating, but this is incredibly common. It’s natural for first drafts to wax redundant. First drafts.
Finally, exposition isn’t evil. Le Guin seconds John Rechy’s renunciation of the oft-repeated, well-intended, and occasionally applicable adage ‘show, don’t tell’. Though most of the time blunt exposition is too dry to float a story, authors who veer too far in the opposite direction are missing the point. Imagery and diction create a great scene. Check your writing for verbal gymnastics and other convoluted attempts to avoid ‘telling.’ Sometimes, yes, show it, paint a picture, turn a phrase. Other times, though? Just spit it out already.
Listen to your characters
Point of view (POV) can be a tricky thing to master, since the author’s POV is inescapably omniscient. We want to have someone hiding in the closet and somehow find out that the bad guys in another part of the house just zipped a corpse into a body bag. The secondary action isn’t big enough to warrant its own scene, but the information is vital. Juggling POV and plot in this way can be complicated. Le Guin suggests writing the same scene from multiple POVs to practice sticking with just one, and – bonus! – getting to know your characters better.
Listen to your audience
Writers without an existing fan base less-than-love this advice because they don’t know who their audience is. Le Guin’s way around this conundrum?
We are silent performers in an empty room. So, does the writer consciously try to imagine a reader? An ideal reader? A whole lot of readers? Or are we each our own audience, writing a book we’d like to read, the way we’d like it written? Or do we seek a peer-group for the feedback? Such choices are entirely up to you the writer. And nobody can say what the right balance of conventionality and expectability, challenge and originality, is for you. Tailoring your writing to a specific audience/market is good for writers to whom salability is a prime value, for others it can be demoralizing, a sell-out.
– ‘Navigating the Oceans of Story’, Book Review Café
This wide-open advice can be whittled down to one word: balance. The key isn’t borrowing somebody else’s ideal; it’s being attentive to your own. Le Guin suggests imagining your audience as ‘intelligent and sympathetic’, which seems like a good principle for respecting whoever you decide your audience is.Pay specific, deliberate attention to every aspect of your writing. Study your reasons and methods and you’ll start to understand their music.Click To Tweet
Listen to yourself
In her early years, Le Guin says she was writing like ‘a woman pretending to think like a man.’ When she embraced her identity in the literary world, she recognized that her contribution to that world hinged on her authenticity as a writer.
I saw that women don’t have to write about what men write about, or write what men think they want to read. I saw that women have whole areas of experience men don’t have — and that they’re worth writing and reading about.
Her personal revelation was gender-driven, but the sentiment applies broadly: whoever you are, your areas of experience are worth writing and reading about.
Listen selectively to trends and absolutes
As a person who refuses to be pigeonholed, it comes as no surprise that Ursula Le Guin rejects any advice that’s too stringent.
Most such rules [about what’s currently trendy or saleable] are hogwash, and even sound ones may not apply to your story. What’s the use of a great recipe for soufflé if you’re making blintzes? The important thing is to know what it is you’re making, where your story is going, so that you use only the advice that genuinely helps you get there. The hell with soufflé, stick to your blintzes.
We make something good, a blintz, a story, by having worked at blintzmaking or storywriting till we’ve learned how to do it.
– ‘Navigating the Ocean of Story’, Book Review Café
The work is still there. Practice is still required. Your first sloppy batch of blintzes are not beta-ready. But as we’ve reiterated in a series of myth-buster articles, advice must be applied where it’s needed; shoes must be worn where they fit.
Listen, explore, play
Writing is, on the surface, output. Yet Le Guin’s best tips on writing are input-driven and interactive. Listen. Explore. Play. The key to quality output is quality input. Never stop looking for that balance, the back-and-forth of what you experience and what you want to see, what you imagine and what is.
Writing… is made of words, and words are bodily, made with the body and the breath, received by the body, felt with the body, and the rhythms of words are bodily rhythms.
Let your whole imaginative self get into this rhythm, ‘trying on’ things, pushing back, laughing at yourself, writing bravely, studying the world, engaging people. Be open. Be a good listener. Be a good imaginer. Let yourself be inspired.
What about you? How has Ursula K. Le Guin left her mark in your writing life? Let me know in the comments below, and check out Get To Know Your Characters Better With This Novel Device and 6 Ways Margaret Atwood Can Help You Improve Your Writing.