Writing a novel: 8 writing tips from Ursula K. Le Guin

Writing tips from Ursula K. Le Guin

The esteemed fantasy and science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin has often provided great advice for writing a novel. In interviews, public speeches, essays and her writing manual Steering the Craft, Le Guin provides many insights into how to write better and master your prose. Here are 8 of Le Guin’s best tips for writers:

Study every aspect of your craft, including punctuation

Punctuation is important for guiding the reader over your sentences and avoiding confusion that results from having multiple possible meanings. A simple comma makes the difference between a panda bear being a trigger-happy diner (‘eats, shoots and leaves’) and a herbivorous animal (‘eats shoots and leaves’). In Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew, Le Guin adds that punctuation is ‘a whole kit of the most essential, beautiful, elegant tools a writer has to work with.’

Le Guin suggests expanding your palette using manuals that discuss punctuation such as Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. An exercise Le Guin suggests is to write a page of narrative and not put in any punctuation. Read it over. How does the rhythm sound? Then go back to the piece a week later once you have sat with it and punctuate it consciously.

Vary the length of your sentences to create interest and rhythm

As Le Guin points out in her writing manual, writing only brief, ‘choppy’ sentences becomes monotonous quickly. The same goes for long-winded run-on sentences. It’s a matter of striking a balance. As she says, ‘In revision you can consciously check for variety, and if you’ve fallen into a thumping of all short sentences or a wambling of all long ones, change them to achieve a varied rhythm and pace.’ This is good advice to keep in mind when drafting your novel, as any choice you make early on in terms of sentence structure doesn’t have to be conscious. The final choice in the revision is what will shape the flow of your story.

Be careful of tiring repetition

Lending too much emphasis to a particular word can make it stand out. This might be something you consciously do for comedic or dramatic effect, but many novice writers do so unconsciously. As Le Guin says, ‘Repetition can indeed be awkward when a word is emphasized for no reason: “He was studying in his study. The book he was studying was Plato.” This kind of thing comes of not listening to one’s writing.’

Le Guin’s advice raises an important practice you should make a part of your writing routine: reading aloud. Reading dialogue aloud is a great tactic for seeing whether your characters’ speech sounds authentic and interesting. But you can also read aloud any standard prose passage to see if any words are over-weighted.

Take advice to ditch all adverbs lightly

One of the most common pieces of advice writing instructors will give you is to cut out all adverbs. In Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, he writes: ‘I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day… fifty the day after that… and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s—GASP!!—too late.’

Ursula le Guin on using adverbsLe Guin takes a more nuanced view: ‘Adjectives and adverbs are rich and good and fattening. The main thing is not to overindulge.’ As she points out, don’t use a verb and adverb duo where there is a verb that can concisely express in one word what you’re saying with two. Instead of writing ‘she ran hurriedly up the stairs’, you can simply say ‘she hurried up the stairs’. Adverbs can give shape and colour to more abstract actions, though. Compare ‘she thought’ to ‘she thought, wistfully’. If the preceding actual thought is ambiguous, a well-chosen adverb can give the mood and sense you want.

Le Guin does offer some suggestions for adverbs to ban from your writing. Although it’s debatable, she suggests that ‘Suddenly seldom means anything at all; it’s a mere transition device, a noise.’ Whether or not you agree with this, compare ‘he was walking down the road when, suddenly, he saw her’ to ‘he was walking down the road when he saw her’ or ‘as he was walking down the road she appeared.’ Le Guin’s advice to avoid overused adverbs is worth considering.

Use writing exercises to master point of view

One of the challenges many aspiring writers face when writing a novel is handling multiple points of view. In Steering the Craft, Le Guin provides a practical suggestion. Write a passage from a particular character’s point of view, and then re-write the same scene from the viewpoint of another, secondary character in the scene. This will strengthen your ability to stick to a single point of view and not confuse perspectives. What’s more, you’ll get a real sense of your novel having multiple voices, a sense of its polyphonic quality and this will enrich your writing.

Don’t make plot your focus if it’s not crucial to your story

A great plot which consists of a sequence of causes and results or consequences can drive the pace of your novel. But as Le Guin points out, a complicated plot isn’t essential for telling a story. Many successful books have hardly any plot to speak of. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway covers a single day in the lives of multiple characters. Mrs Dalloway is going to throw a party and she sets out to buy flowers. Yet Woolf crams in beautifully sketched characters and observations about life, post-war uncertainty, madness and more in the brief novella. Planning the events of your story is helpful. Yet your story won’t necessarily be a flop if these events don’t add up to a one-of-a-kind plot.

Join a writing group

In her appendix to Steering the Craft, Le Guin shares some advice for joining a writing group. She cautions against giving in to some of the challenges of writing groups too: ‘Experienced writers may feel bored and exploited having to critique beginners’ work, while beginners may be daunted, and wrongly dismissed, by more experienced writers.’ Keep in mind when you join a group that every bit of critique you give or receive can help to hone your craft. also learn to spot when something is unconstructive, and avoid being unconstructive in the critiques you give.

All this aside, a writing group gives you a space to share and connect with other writers and engage in mutual learning and support. Le Guin’s advice for critiquing:

  • Each critique should be brief
  • Centre on some important aspect of the piece
  • Keep nitpicking short and sweet
  • Stay impersonal – no character judgments or assassinations
  • Criticism should lead to the possibility of revision as much as possible

Don’t buy into ‘show, don’t tell’ too absolutely

Man walking on road - picture to illustrate return of the native.In her essay, ‘On Rules of Writing, or, Riffing on Rechy’, Le Guin cautions against the commonplace writing advice, ‘show, don’t tell.’ Says Le Guin: ‘Thanks to “show don’t tell,” I find writers in my workshops who think exposition is wicked. They’re afraid to describe the world they’ve invented. (I make them read the first chapter of The Return of the Native, a description of a landscape, in which absolutely nothing happens until in the last paragraph a man is seen, from far away, walking along a road. If that won’t cure them nothing will.)’.

Essentially, writing advice can be useful for writing a novel. Le Guin’s own advice is often practical and very well reasoned. Knowing all the rules, studying punctuation carefully and practicing writing exercises will all help you to write a better novel. Yet also be careful of following all writing advice you read without considering any other possibilities. This will help you remain alert to finding the system of writing approaches that works best for you.

If you’ve found some actionable, helpful tips and are ready to start writing, try the Now Novel Story Builder to flesh out a flexible blueprint for your novel.

 

Images from here and here

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  • These are great tips. I think everyone knows the common “join a writing group” piece, but barely anyone I talk to does it! I just joined my first, so I’m not judging too harshly.

    • Thanks Ben. That’s great! As for groups – watch this space 🙂 I agree, and it’s good to get feedback from writers of all ability levels.

  • As a fiction editor, I recommend “show, don’t tell” a whole lot, but I also do explain when it works–because it really does sometimes! I’m going to check out the beginning of “The Return of the Native.”

    • Hi Lauren, I agree! It’s especially important for writers who are starting out. Many people err on the side of over-explaining to the reader. This can be a little uninteresting at best and at worst can read as condescending. I must admit I haven’t read it myself, but I think that’s an intriguing opening.

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