Annotation: Steering the Craft

Despite being the first book I started reading this month, Steering the Craft was the last that I finished. This is not to speak ill of it, mind you, as it is an excellent book on writing, written with candor, honesty, and expertise. Nor is it long. It IS, however, chock full of exercises of varying length and difficulty, and in trying to do at least some of them, it took longer to complete than I had expected. I’m glad I took the time, however, and I hope to return to the exercises I did not complete in the near future. Ursula LeGuin is easily one of the best science fiction authors in the history of the genre. If science fiction authors were a royal court, she would not just be a dame or duchess — she would be the Queen. And justifiably so. He writing is eloquent and remarkable, and her knowledge of the genre and field of writing in general is awe inspiring. I hope very much to meet her at some point, given that she lives a mere two hours south of me, in Portland, Oregon.

One of the interesting aspects of Steering the Craft is that it is actually a how to book, a book about writing, unlike most of the other writing books I’ve read thus far, which really amount to writer’s memoirs. To top that off, the book is done well, unlike so many other books of its type. It includes a glossary of terms, and an appendix of tips and advice on handling common issues like the lie/lay/lay debacle (it is not simply a matter of laying something down and lying down, there is also the intransitive verb that requires an indirect object, with its own set of rules), and the use of tense. The chapters themselves are insightful, and handle the more substantial aspects of writing well (tense, point of view, rhythm, sentence structure). She does away with many of the more stolid (read: stupid) rules from grammar school, and explains the ones she chooses to keep. Basically, what it comes down to is that any rule can be broken, but if it is broken, it should be broken well, and for a reason.

The book can be used in a variety of ways. Each chapter can stand alone rather well, and can be referenced fairly quickly as a desktop companion. Additionally, it can be used as a textbook for a peer writing group (and one of the appendixes is how to find or start such a group), or simply slogged through individually (what I ended up doing). Because each chapter stands alone, it can be done at whatever pacing necessary, though she recommends trying to spend at least a few days to a week on each chapter. Something else that I find particularly encouraging is that she includes her mailing address, and encourages readers to contact her with opinions on the text, how we found it useful, what could be improved, et cetera. Given her list of achievements, talent, and respect within the field, she could very easily have handed this book down from “on high.” I respect her a great deal for choosing not to do so.

Some parts of the book were more useful to me than others. I already have a fairly strong grasp over point of view, and while I occasionally absent-mindedly slip, a good grasp of tense as well. That said, it was vindicating to hear someone I respect as much as LeGuin declare that there is nothing wrong with using some of the more esoteric tenses (future perfect and past perfect, for instance), if you understand how to use them (which I do — four years of Latin does have SOME uses), and that largely the current avoidance of them stems from many mainstream authors and journalists NOT understanding how to use them properly. Her comments on the use of passive voice was also insightful and directly relevant: I am notorious for using qualifiers and passive voice in my writing, which makes the writing instantly less personal than it otherwise would be. It also makes it seem more “scholarly”, which is where I picked up that particular rut. It’s a vicious circle: we spend 95% of our academic career learning how to write things in an “academic” manner, which then permeates the media through graduates entering the workforce, which spreads it to the rest of the world… leaving so much of the population’s writing dense and impersonal, lacking the ability to truly COMMUNICATE.

A chapter that I found particularly useful for my own writing and myself is the first chapter, “The Sound of Your Writing”. It’s not just a matter of the rhythm, but also a matter of the sounds each word makes, in your mind and out loud. Using strong words, onomatopoeia, alliteration, rhyming, the flavor of what you’re talking about can convey a different effect. Something else I noticed about it, however, is that the nature of the exercise encourages word association, which can lead your story in unexpected directions. Word association is like a backdoor, getting you past that guard-dog we call our self-censor, and can let you be honest in ways that might not have otherwise gotten out. When I did the exercise for chapter one, what had started out as a silly little exercise ended up being a somewhat angst-ridden prose poem, which led me to discover that I still have a lot of angst in me, for better or worse. It made me realize that maybe I’m not handling my depression as well as I thought, because it became clear that I wasn’t DEALING with any of it, just burying it. Now I’m actually trying to take a more proactive stance in dealing with my depression.

Another chapter I really enjoyed was chapter nine, “Indirect Narration, or What Tells”, mainly because it’s a weak point for me. I’ve spent so much of my writing life outlining or creating character sheets and histories and not actually TELLING THE STORY, that I really found the information in the chapter really useful. It discusses ways to work in personality and history (both of the characters and the world) directly into dialogue and narrative, without creating “expository lumps”. I’ve always found my dialogue to be somewhat flat or weak in my writing, and this chapter made me realize that what I need to work on is weaving history into the dialogue. This will smooth out the story, and add a great deal of depth to the dialogue. I’m still not very good at it, but at least I’ve realized a method of improvement and can work on it more. (This is far more useful advice than what Stephen King said about dialogue, namely, you either have an ear for it or you don’t, and no amount of practice will change that.)

This is a remarkable book, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in writing. In particular, I’d recommend it to writing workshops and teachers (in fact, I’m going to email my high school creative writing teacher and suggest it), as so many of the exercises in it are perfect for a workshop environment (LeGuin even marks the ones she feels are particularly suited for workshops). I’m greatly looking forward to returning to the book as the semester goes on, to visit and revisit some of the exercises within it. Like any other artistic endeavor, art is not just a matter of creativity, it is also very much a craft. I’m looking forward to refining mine.

LeGuin, Ursula K. Steering the Craft. Portland: Eighth Mountain Press, 1998.