Though it’s sometimes regarded as a pretentious-sounding term for genre writers who don’t want to associate with genre, I’ve always liked the phrase “speculative fiction.” J.G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick, Shirley Jackson, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman… A touch of surrealist humor, a highly philosophical bent, and a somewhat tragic sensibility can be found among them all, and also in the work of Ursula K. Le Guin, who does not shy away from the genre labels of science fiction and fantasy, but who approaches these categories in the way of, say, Virginia Woolf in her Orlando: as feminist thought experiments and fables about human ecological failings and inter-cultural potential.
That’s not to say that Le Guin’s writing is driven by political agendas, but that she has a very clear, uncompromising vision, which she has realized over the course of over five decades in novels, short stories, and children’s fiction. LeGuin’s writing takes us away from the familiar to worlds we recognize as alternatives to our own.
Like those in ancient epics, her characters undertake journeys to realms unknown, where they learn as much or more about themselves as about the alien inhabitants. And though we experience in her stories the thrill of discovery and danger common to fantasy and sci-fi, we also enter a world of ideas about who we are as human beings, and how we might be different. For Le Guin, fiction is a vessel that can carry us out of ourselves and return us home changed.
Le Guin stated last year that she no longer has the “vigor and stamina” for writing novels, and having given up teaching as well, said she missed “being in touch with serious prentice writers.” Thus, she decided to start an online writing workshop at the site Book View Café, describing it as “a kind of open consultation or informal ongoing workshop in Fictional Navigation.” In keeping with the metaphor of sea voyaging, she called her workshop “Navigating the Ocean of Story” and declared that she would not take reader questions about publishing or finding an agent: “We won’t be talking about how to sell a ship, but how to sail one.” Reader questions poured in, and Le Guin did her best to answer as many as she could, posting advice every other Monday for all of the summer and much of the fall of 2015.
The first question she received was a doozy—“How do you make something good?”—and her lengthy answer sets the tone for all of her counsel to follow. She is witty and honest, and surprisingly helpful, even when confronted with such a vague, seemingly unanswerable query. The dozens of questions she selected in the following weeks tend to deal with much more manageable issues of style and technique, and in each instance, Le Guin offers the querent a clear set of coordinates to help them navigate the waters of their own fictional journeys. Below are just a few choice excerpts from the many hundreds of words Le Guin generously donated to her reading community.
- The problem of exposition:
In answers to two readers’ questions about providing sufficient backstory, Le Guin refers to an old New Yorker feature called “The Department of Fuller Explanation, where they put truly and grand examples of unnecessary explaining.” Most of us, Le Guin writes, “tend to live in the Department of Fuller Explanation” when writing; “We are telling ourselves backstory and other information, which the reader won’t actually need to know when reading it.”
To avoid the “Expository Lump or the Infodump,” as she calls it, Le Guin advises the writer to “decide—or find out when revising—whether the information is actually necessary. If not, don’t bother. If so, figure out how to work it in as a functional, forward-moving element of the story… giving information indirectly, by hint and suggestion.”
- The problem of description:
When it comes to describing characters’ appearances, Le Guin suggests getting specific:
It’s not just facial features—a way of moving, a voice quality, can ’embody’ a character. Specific features or mannerisms (even absurdly specific ones!) can help fix a minor character in the reader’s mind when they turn up again…. To work on this skill, you might try describing people you see on the bus or in the coffee shop: just do a sentence about them in your head, trying to catch their looks in a few words.
- The problem of setting:
Le Guin answers a reader who confesses to trouble with “world building” by pointing out the central importance of setting:
Event requires location. Where we are affects who we are, what we say and and do, how and why we say and do it. It matters, doesn’t it, whether we’re in Miami or Mumbai — even more whether we’re on Earth or in Made-Up Place? So, I don’t know if it would work to try and build up a world– “all those details” – and tack it onto what you’ve written. If inventing a world isn’t your thing, OK. Stick close to this world, or use readymade, conventional sf and fantasy props and scenery. They’re there for all of us to use.
- The problem of dialogue:
Le Guin offers some very practical advice on how to make speech sound convincing and genuine:
All I can recommend is to read/speak your dialogue aloud. Not whispering, not muttering, OUT LOUD. (Virginia Woolf used to try out her dialogue in the bathtub, which greatly entertained the cook downstairs.) This will help show you what’s fakey, hokey, bookish — it just won’t read right out loud. Fix it till it does. Speaking it may help you to vary the speech mannerisms to suit the character. And probably will cause you to cut a lot. Good! Many contemporary novels are so dialogue-heavy they seem all quotation marks — disembodied voices yaddering on in a void.
- Getting started:
Many readers wrote to ask Le Guin about their difficulty in getting a story started at all. She replied with the caveat that “no answer to this question is going to fit every writer.” While some writers work from “a rough sketch, notes as to where the story is headed and how it might get there, with more extended notes about the world it takes place in,” for others, “a complete outline is absolutely necessary before starting to write.” Whatever the method:
A story is, after all, and before everything else, dynamic: it starts Here, because it’s going There. Its life principle is the same as a river: to keep moving. Fast or slow, straight or erratic, headlong or meandering, but going, till it gets There. The ideas it expresses, the research it embodies, the timeless inspirations it may offer, are all subordinate to and part of that onward movement. The end itself may not be very important; it is the journey that counts. I don’t know much about “flow” states, but I know that the onward flow of a story is what carries a writer from the start to the end of it, along with the whole boatload of characters and ideas and knowledge and meaning — and carries the reader in the same boat.
There are dozens more questions from readers, and dozens more insightful, funny, and very helpful answers from Le Guin. Whether you are a writer of science fiction, fantasy, speculative fiction, or none of the above, much of her advice will apply to any kind of fiction writing you do—or will give you unique insights into the techniques and trials of the fiction writer. Read all of the questions and Le Guin’s answers in her “Navigating the Ocean of Story” posts at Book View Café.