One of the great writers of the twentieth century offers an exhilarating workout for writers of narrative fiction or nonfiction. With her sharp mind and wit and a delightful sense of playfulness, Le Guin has turned a successful workshop into a self-guided voyage of discovery for a writer working alone, a writing group, or a class. Steering the Craft is concerned with the basic elements of narrative: how a story is told, what moves it and what clogs it. This book does not plod through plot, character, beginning-middle-and-end. Nor does it discuss writing as self-expression, as therapy, or as spiritual adventure. Each topic includes examples that clarify and exercises that intensify awareness of the techniques of storytelling.
I'm an experienced author with two series with a Big 5 publisher, a Nebula nomination, and a whole lot of publications with my byline. This book taught me something new in every chapter. For me, a great deal of writing is intuitive. I don't know all of the rules of grammar, and I still shudder at the thought of the diagramming I did in 8th grade. Le Guin gently explains matters like pacing and points of view and shares fantastic examples, and she gives names to the techniques that I utilize in ignorance.
This is a book that really should be done in a small writing group; there is a lot to be gained through sharing different approaches to the exercises and discussing why some of them are incredibly challenging. Highly recommend this to all writers who want to push themselves to learn more about their craft.
I did read in an amazon review that there's "not enough material for the price" (£7 in the UK, $10 in the US) -- no personal experiences, no explanation of the difference between a short story and a novel, no attempt to explain the market. That's definitely not what this book is about: it's entirely about language, and about the reader getting stuck in and playing around. Much as I love Le Guin and would be interested in her observations of the genre, I think it's better this way.
Steering the Craft is a book that is aimed at those writers who look at writing as an art, as a craft. People who are interested in writing as a skill. With this in mind, Le Guin discusses the sound of language, punctuation, syntax, the narrative sentence and paragraph, rhythm and repetition, adjectives and adverbs, tense and person of the verb, voice and point of view, implicit narration: imparting information, crowding, leaping, focus, and control. She also offers a nifty glossary full of terms that writers may not know or may not remember, as well as a lovely appendix on the peer group workshop and an even better one on forms of the verb.
It's a good book for all writers, no matter where they are in their craft, to have and refer to. Le Guin provides a great many exercises that I of course did not participate in (I have issues interrupting my reading, so sue me), but plan to use in the future. There's a lot of stuff in here that made better sense to me now after hearing my mentor harp on certain things for so long, which made me wish I'd had this book right when I started working with him, so that I'd have another point of reference to go to.
The book is also filled with a number of examples for each topic, mostly pulled from literature, and while I'll admit I would've liked to see some more modern examples of the same thing, I understand the reason Le Guin used the examples she did. So many writers aren't familiar with the classics, or are afraid of them, and it's a cool thing when you can read something out of your time and still understand it. Better still, when you can study the craft and learn something from it. I'm no stranger to classical literature, and I even enjoy it from time to time, but since I rarely read it anymore, it's not a bad thing I was forced to look at those examples.
There's so many good things in this book, though I'll be the first to admit that there were some sections that felt woefully short. At times, I'd turn a page to continue reading and then flip back, thinking I missed something. But on the whole, I feel this will be an excellent resource to have as I continue to work on my own craft, especially when it comes to revision. Again, I really should've read this book long before now.
Le Guin makes several important statements through-out the book in regards to writing and writers. But the most important, in my personal opinion, was this (emphasis mine):
Ultimately, you write alone. And ultimately you and you alone can judge your work. The judgment that a work is complete . . . can only come from the writer, and it can be made rightly only by a writer who's learned to read her own work (8).
In some ways, this book can teach writers how to "rightly read [their] own work," and will also encourage writers to seek out environments that will help them to do so.
With excerpts from authors as diverse as Rudyard Kipling and Patrick O’Neil, or Zora Neale Hurston and Jane Austen, with exercises that feed into and build on each other, and with a nicely nuanced approach to grammar and other tools of the trade, the author assists our writing, so our writing can assist other people’s reading, and so the whole will be something worth both reading and listening to.
Memorable one-liners stay in the mind long after reading. Authors are reminded to take responsibility for what they write—nothing happens “somehow” without the author’s intervention. Memorable asides make lessons long-learned finally make sense—did you know grammar and punctuation exist to assist sound? And each reader will surely have their favorite lesson and favorite point. For me, the reminder that story comes first, not conflict, is a lesson that will ease my conflicted writing of tales.
Highly recommended; enjoyably readable; and filled with the sort of exercises every writing group should take time to tackle; Steering the Craft is a must-add to any writer’s bookshelf.
Disclosure: My thanks to the friend who loaned it to me from her shelf.
However, if you want to get at the complicated things that LeGuin does so well, like mesh plot, theme and world-building, you won't find much help here. And the experienced writer, who has already worked themselves out of a number of revision problems, will probably find themselves by the end saying, "But I've already done stuff like this exercise. Is doing it again going to help me?" My answer, at least this time, was, "No."
Ursula Le Guin describes Steering the Craft, A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, as “A handbook for storytellers - writers of narrative prose and not for beginners.”
Indeed, it is not a book for beginners as much of what she addresses would be beyond the comprehension of novices. What it does concentrate on are those problems that challenge writers and impede the tone an flow of the narrative.
For example, she asks you to listen to the sound of your writing which involves diction and syntax.
Sophisticated consideration is given to verbs: person and tense, as well as point of view and changing point of view.
Indirection narration or what tells including avoiding expository lumps is discussed in depth.
There’s an excellent chapter entitled Crowding and Leaping which involves the necessity of focusing on some areas while leaping ahead in other parts while still following a fixed trajectory.
Steering the Craft is primarily a workbook with “exercise consciousness-raisers that aim to clarify and intensify your awareness of certain elements of prose writing and certain techniques and modes of storytelling."
These exercises are challenging but illuminating. I particularly benefitted from one called A Terrible Thing to Do that involved writing a narrative of about 500 words and then cutting it by half still keeping the narrative clear and not replacing specifics by generalities.
The book also includes the best advice I’ve read on running peer group writing workshops.
This slim volume has profound insights on writing and presents them with grace, charm an wit. The goal, according to the author, is to help you develop skills that free you to write want you to write.
Or as Le Guin puts it so that you’re “ready to let the 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.”