There are a lot of books on writing fiction, so many that I wonder just who’s buying them all. They’re either disproportionate to the people who actually sit down and write, or publishers can always count on writers (published and unpublished and self-published) to buy these books to the degree that releasing one is always a safe investment. Or else I’m missing something about the marketplace completely.
Bafflement comes out of bias; I haven’t found many of these books very helpful for my own writing (but I keep on going back to read them, natch). The same applies even when they come from authors I like—Jane Yolen’s Take Joy should have been great, I thought when I bought it, but it largely describes a writing approach completely divorced from my own. I can find tidbits of useful advice, sure, but those are buried between the same general pointers and vaguely mystical musings on creativity/unleashing-your-inner-artist these books all share. Drawing and painting books can have this problem too, but at least they’ll have some solid technical demonstrations and pretty pictures to look at; of all the arts, writing has to have the most varied set of approaches and what works for one writer most likely won’t work for you unless you’re keen on imitating someone else’s style. Thus the skepticism towards “rules of writing” I’ve peppered on this blog over the years.
I wasn’t aware until this year that Ursula K. Le Guin also wrote a book on writing, but I had to read it once I’d found out. Based on her essays, I knew she wouldn’t go down the conventional route.
In many ways, Steering the Craft is exactly what I expected from Le Guin but is completely unexpected for the how-to-write genre as a whole: a book dedicated almost entirely to the technical side of things, the way you put words together in a sentence and then the ways you assemble those sentences. Steering the Craft is about rhythm, and tenses, and commas and semi-colons; about choosing a point of view and how to deploy it; just as much about seeing these principles at work in passages from classic literature as it is about telling you what those principles are. Le Guin isn’t out to set rules of storytelling, she’s more keen on making writers think about various techniques. There are multiple approaches to writing a passage, how will those approaches play out when you write them? That seems an infinitely more useful way to teach writing: awakening awareness instead of creating an arbitrary structure.
Since Steering the Craft is so intensely focused on prose style and writing exercises, it’s also very short, Aristotelean in its directness. There isn’t much about plot, or believable characters, or satisfying endings; Le Guin seems to say that if you master ways of storytelling, that mastery will flow out to the how of it. And if you want to know about how plot works, well, Aristotle’s Poetics will have you covered.
True to the title, there is only so much she can teach: the craft of writing, and the rest is up to you.