Warning: this post contains spoilers for Ursula K Le Guin’s book Steering the Craft
With this review, I guess I’m writing about writing about writing. At least, I think that’s the right number of layers. You know, I’ve never really had much in the way of formal writing education. I took a grand total of one creative writing course in high school, and I only took one English course of any kind in college. In my defense, my studies of astronautical engineering were somewhat time consuming. However, I’ve never done a lot of reading about writing, either, especially considering my penchant for teaching myself things by reading books on them. Part of that is because I have trouble finding the right resources when it comes to writing genre fiction. The other part is that I have found, consistently, that as with many things in life, the only real way to learn about it and improve at it is to do it, to practice, again and again and again. Even I can tell that my writing has improved drastically since when I first started trying to write stories in elementary school. Indeed, part of the reason that I decided to go forward with the Blood Magic project on this site is because I knew that it would force me to write more, to write more consistently, and to write in a variety of ways. In other words, you’re all my guinea pigs as I experiment in an attempt to improve my writing.
However, I have found a few resources that have helped to inform my writing process. Orson Scott Card has a couple of books on writing genre fiction which I found informative, as does Terry Brooks. I’ve also found the Writing Excuses podcast to be helpful. I will now add Le Guin’s Steering the Craft to that short list. It is practical, direct, and most importantly, it isn’t afraid to present what some would consider unpopular opinions. The format is a lot like a ten week writing class, and perhaps has even been used for such. Each chapter is focused on a single, large topic that Le Guin considers key to good writing, and contains an explanation, a handful of good examples from various genres, and an exercise related to that topic. Each exercise is then followed by discussion points and follow-up exercises to further develop the skill involved.
Perhaps what made me most receptive to the book was the way Le Guin treats the English language. If you’ve been following the site for awhile, you may know that I have a bit of a love affair with the English language. Although many people criticize it for not making sense, for having weird rules and exceptions to every rule (“i” before “e”, except after “c”, or when sounded as “a” as in “neighbor” and “weigh,” except in words that are weird, like “weird”). English classes have left teaching grammar, syntax, sentence structure, and the jargon of language behind, in favor of teaching about analyzing what has already been written. That makes them culture classes, not English classes. Language is a tool, just like any other, and to use it well you must understand how it works, and what doing certain things with it will do to the whole piece. Le Guin emphasizes that idea throughout her book.
It’s not at the rules of language are set in stone. As Le Guin says, language rules are there to provide a starting point, a set of basic tools with which to work, and if you use them the way they are made, they will provide consistent, quality results. Going against the rules is allowed, but doing so unintentionally can ruin a piece. It’s the difference between an amateur and a professional. The professional sculptor will occasionally use the chisel the “wrong” way, and the result is a masterpiece. The amateur will also use the chisel the wrong way, but it will only serve to ruin the piece.
This is a bit of a niche read. If you’re not interesting in writing or language, I’m not sure if you’ll get a lot out of it. On the other hand, we all write for some purpose or another, even if it’s just writing a letter to a friend, and some of the advice in this book can even be useful in conversations. Steering the Craft‘s advice is also not limited to genre fiction writers. I hope you consider reading it.