Ursula Le Guin Gives Insightful Writing Advice in Her Free Online Workshop

ursula k le guin writing advice

Image by Gor­thi­an, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Toni Mor­ri­son Dis­pens­es Writ­ing Wis­dom in 1993 Paris Review Inter­view

Hear Ursu­la K. Le Guin’s Pio­neer­ing Sci-Fi Nov­el, The Left Hand of Dark­ness, as a BBC Radio Play

Hear Inven­tive Sto­ries from Ursu­la LeGuin & J.G. Bal­lard Turned Into CBC Radio Dra­mas

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


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  • Marcia Peterson says:

    Before any words come to mind, I see all the action play­ing out like a movie, in col­or with sound. Is this a com­mon func­tion for writ­ers or a quirk? Com­ments to my email wel­come. Often, I’m alone in writ­ing and not shar­ing what I imag­ine.

  • Kimberly Hartman says:

    Mar­cia, I do the exact same thing, includ­ing smells, weath­er con­di­tions, all that. It’s why I have to be alone when I am actu­al­ly writ­ing (not just tak­ing notes to myself or research­ing). I immerse like a bystander, ide­al­ly, and want to write the words that will have the read­er stand­ing right there with me.

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