Ursula Le Guin on "Good" Writing


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  1. #1

    Ursula Le Guin on "Good" Writing

    Celebrated, multi award-winning SFF author Ursula K. Le Guin passed away this year, at 88 years of age. She left behind mourning fans and fellow authors, who commented not only on her writing talents, but also on her grace as an individual.

    She was an advocate for encouraging aspiring authors, and believed that books were essential to nurturing our humanity. "We read books to find out who we are," she said. "What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel … is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become."

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    In 2015, she responded to a rather vague and lofty interview question, "How do you make something good?"

    Here was her answer:

    Well, you could start with butter and fresh farm eggs, it’s hard to go wrong from there, unless you’re a vegan. All right, I’ll try to be serious — it’s a serious question. But an awfully big one. I hope to get some smaller ones, such as, “Do I have to outline my plot first?” or “How often can I split an infinitive?”

    I guess the way to make something good is to make it well.

    If the ingredients are extra good (truffles, vivid prose, fascinating characters) that’s a help. But it’s what you do with them that counts. With the most ordinary ingredients (potatoes, everyday language, commonplace characters) — and care and skill in using them — you can make something extremely good. A lot of memorable novels have been made that way. Even with undistinguished language and predictable characters, if a story has interesting, convincing ideas or events, good pacing, a narrative that carries the reader to a conclusion that in one way or another satisfies — it’s a good story. A lot of memorable sf has been made that way.

    Inexperienced writers tend to seek the recipes for writing well. You buy the cookbook, you take the list of ingredients, you follow the directions, and behold! A masterpiece! The Never-Falling Soufflé!

    Wouldn’t it be nice? But alas, there are no recipes. We have no Julia Child. Successful professional writers are not withholding mysterious secrets from eager beginners. The only way anybody ever learns to write well is by trying to write well. This usually begins by reading good writing by other people, and writing very badly by yourself, for a long time.

    The poet Theodore Roethke said it: “I learn by going where I have to go.”

    There are “secrets” to making a story work — but they apply only to that particular writer and that particular story. You find out how to make the thing work by working at it — coming back to it, testing it, seeing where it sticks or wobbles or cheats, and figuring out how to make it go where it has to go.

    At this stage, having the opinion of readers qualified to judge, or a trusted peer-group, can be tremendously useful. Other eyes can see what you’re too close to your work to see, give perspective, open up possibilities.

    On the other hand, the pressure of opinion — from readers, classmates, teachers, in a MFA program or a workshop, from an agent, from an editor — may end up as worse than useless. If your manuscript doesn’t follow the rules of what’s currently trendy, the rules of what’s supposed to be salable, the rule some great authority laid down, you’re supposed to make it do so. Most such rules are hogwash, and even sound ones may not apply to your story. What’s the use of a great recipe for soufflé if you’re making blintzes?

    The important thing is to know what it is you’re making, where your story is going, so that you use only the advice that genuinely helps you get there. The hell with soufflé, stick to your blintzes.

    We make something good, a blintz, a story, by having worked at blintzmaking or storywriting till we’ve learned how to do it.

    With a blintz, the process is fairly routine. With stories, the process is never twice the same. Even a story written to the most prescriptive formula, like some westerns or romances, can be made poorly, or made well.

    Making anything well involves a commitment to the work. And that requires courage: you have to trust yourself. It helps to remember that the goal is not to write a masterpiece or a best-seller. The goal is to be able to look at your story and say, Yes. That’s as good as I can make it.

    And then, once in a while, none of that sweat and trial and error and risk-taking is necessary. Something just comes to you as you write. You write it down, it’s there, it’s really good. You look at it unbelieving. Did I do that?

    I think that kind of gift mostly comes as the pay-off for trying, patiently, repeatedly, to make something well.

    -----

    What do you think of her response?

  2. #2
    Another great speaks truth. She sums it all up in there, it really is that simple. But simple doesn't mean easy.
    “Fools” said I, “You do not know
    Silence like a cancer grows
    Hear my words that I might teach you
    Take my arms that I might reach you”
    But my words like silent raindrops fell
    And echoed in the wells of silence : Simon & Garfunkel


    Those who enjoy stirring the chamber-pot should be required to lick the spoon.

    Our job as writers is to make readers dream, to infiltrate their minds with our words and create a new reality; a reality not theirs, and not ours, but a new, unique combination of both.

    Visit Amazon and the Kindle Store to check out Reflections in a Black Mirror, and Chase

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  3. #3
    Quote Originally Posted by Terry D View Post
    Another great speaks truth. She sums it all up in there, it really is that simple. But simple doesn't mean easy.
    Laughing, it's almost like we see things differently, Terry. We agreed once? Really?

    For me, reading that was like eating sugar. It was inspiring, and it could make people feel good, but didn't really have any practical advice. But, if that was useful to anyone, great. It's just not my style of useful advice, and I wanted to explain how I saw it.

    (I suspect it was not fair to serious cooks.)
    Useful information you can't find anywhere else. Hidden Content s Hidden Content

  4. #4
    Successful professional writers are not withholding mysterious secrets from eager beginners. The only way anybody ever learns to write well is by trying to write well. This usually begins by reading good writing by other people, and writing very badly by yourself, for a long time.


    Practical advice, simply stated.

    There are “secrets” to making a story work — but they apply only to that particular writer and that particular story. You find out how to make the thing work by working at it — coming back to it, testing it, seeing where it sticks or wobbles or cheats, and figuring out how to make it go where it has to go.


    Practical advice.

    At this stage, having the opinion of readers qualified to judge, or a trusted peer-group, can be tremendously useful. Other eyes can see what you’re too close to your work to see, give perspective, open up possibilities.

    On the other hand, the pressure of opinion — from readers, classmates, teachers, in a MFA program or a workshop, from an agent, from an editor — may end up as worse than useless. If your manuscript doesn’t follow the rules of what’s currently trendy, the rules of what’s supposed to be salable, the rule some great authority laid down, you’re supposed to make it do so. Most such rules are hogwash, and even sound ones may not apply to your story.


    Practical advice with a cherry on top. But I believe that you don't see it because you want there to be some mysterious complexity to writing fiction. There isn't. There's no one-size-fits-all way of creating good stories and books.
    “Fools” said I, “You do not know
    Silence like a cancer grows
    Hear my words that I might teach you
    Take my arms that I might reach you”
    But my words like silent raindrops fell
    And echoed in the wells of silence : Simon & Garfunkel


    Those who enjoy stirring the chamber-pot should be required to lick the spoon.

    Our job as writers is to make readers dream, to infiltrate their minds with our words and create a new reality; a reality not theirs, and not ours, but a new, unique combination of both.

    Visit Amazon and the Kindle Store to check out Reflections in a Black Mirror, and Chase

    Hidden Content






  5. #5
    Quote Originally Posted by EmmaSohan View Post
    Laughing, it's almost like we see things differently, Terry. We agreed once? Really?

    For me, reading that was like eating sugar. It was inspiring, and it could make people feel good, but didn't really have any practical advice. But, if that was useful to anyone, great. It's just not my style of useful advice, and I wanted to explain how I saw it.

    (I suspect it was not fair to serious cooks.)
    I agree with Terry that the "stop looking for the magic secret" advice was pretty useful!

    It's hard to be useful to someone who's looking for something that doesn't exist, other than by telling them to stop looking.

  6. #6
    Quote Originally Posted by Kyle R View Post

    In 2015, she responded to a rather vague and lofty interview question, "How do you make something good?"

    Here was her answer:
    Well, you could start with butter and fresh farm eggs, it’s hard to go wrong from there


    I would have said bacon…but that’s just me.

  7. #7
    Quote Originally Posted by Bayview View Post
    I agree with Terry that the "stop looking for the magic secret" advice was pretty useful!.
    It's natural to like something you agree with. Bur for this to actually be useful to you and Terry, it would have to be something you somehow didn't know or didn't believe.

    Then, whatever time you and Terry would have spent looking for magic secret advice during the next month can be used more profitably.

    I don't think any searchers expect the advice to be actual magic, like a magic spell, and if they are reading it, perhaps it is not a secret either. Perhaps they want a simple idea that quickly improves their writing substantially. Do you think that's better way of phrasing it? I think I would have had a better reaction to that.
    Useful information you can't find anywhere else. Hidden Content s Hidden Content

  8. #8
    The only way anybody ever learns to write well is by trying to write well. This usually begins by reading good writing by other people,
    That's contradictory, right?

    It leaves out reading advice, which I suspect is the main issue here. To give one example, it seems to me that most writers do not have the concept of the awesome moment, and those that do usually do not know how to write it. And then some do and write these great moments in their books. It seems to me there must be some way to give useful advice about that. I could be wrong, but I did try. I can also give advice of very minor value, but to me that's part of writing -- I want to think deeply about using exclamation marks or for as a coordinating conjunction.
    Useful information you can't find anywhere else. Hidden Content s Hidden Content

  9. #9
    Quote Originally Posted by EmmaSohan View Post
    It's natural to like something you agree with. Bur for this to actually be useful to you and Terry, it would have to be something you somehow didn't know or didn't believe.

    Then, whatever time you and Terry would have spent looking for magic secret advice during the next month can be used more profitably.

    I don't think any searchers expect the advice to be actual magic, like a magic spell, and if they are reading it, perhaps it is not a secret either. Perhaps they want a simple idea that quickly improves their writing substantially. Do you think that's better way of phrasing it? I think I would have had a better reaction to that.

    It was very useful the first time I read it -- not this interview specifically, but the 'no magic solutions' advice in general. So, I think it's damned good advice for new writers who might be reading it for the first time. It doesn't matter how you phrase it, the point is, there are no quick ways to dramatically improve your writing. It takes reading and writing.

    Quote Originally Posted by EmmaSohan View Post
    That's contradictory, right?

    It leaves out reading advice, which I suspect is the main issue here. To give one example, it seems to me that most writers do not have the concept of the awesome moment, and those that do usually do not know how to write it. And then some do and write these great moments in their books. It seems to me there must be some way to give useful advice about that. I could be wrong, but I did try. I can also give advice of very minor value, but to me that's part of writing -- I want to think deeply about using exclamation marks or for as a coordinating conjunction.
    Not contradictory at all. The reading advice is right there "This usually means reading good writing by other people." Even bad writers perfectly understand, what you insist on calling, "the awesome moment". Enjoying those moments in their favorite books is probably why they wanted to start writing to begin with. I doubt anyone thinks of effective scenes as "awesome moments", except you, but those emotional highs and lows are what writing is all about. Have you ever completed the writing of a novel? If not, I'd suggest you try it. You'll find that you learn far more by the act of writing that book than you ever will by contemplating punctuation, or trying to generate new verbiage for common writing concepts. That's all Le Guin was saying, "To be a writer you must read and write."

    It's the same thing a very long list of successful writers have said for many years. I know you won't believe them, but, IMO, it's foolish to keep trying to prove them wrong.
    Last edited by Terry D; January 26th, 2018 at 08:46 PM.
    “Fools” said I, “You do not know
    Silence like a cancer grows
    Hear my words that I might teach you
    Take my arms that I might reach you”
    But my words like silent raindrops fell
    And echoed in the wells of silence : Simon & Garfunkel


    Those who enjoy stirring the chamber-pot should be required to lick the spoon.

    Our job as writers is to make readers dream, to infiltrate their minds with our words and create a new reality; a reality not theirs, and not ours, but a new, unique combination of both.

    Visit Amazon and the Kindle Store to check out Reflections in a Black Mirror, and Chase

    Hidden Content






  10. #10
    Quote Originally Posted by EmmaSohan View Post
    It's natural to like something you agree with. Bur for this to actually be useful to you and Terry, it would have to be something you somehow didn't know or didn't believe.

    Then, whatever time you and Terry would have spent looking for magic secret advice during the next month can be used more profitably.

    I don't think any searchers expect the advice to be actual magic, like a magic spell, and if they are reading it, perhaps it is not a secret either. Perhaps they want a simple idea that quickly improves their writing substantially. Do you think that's better way of phrasing it? I think I would have had a better reaction to that.
    I guess you're right - if hearing it from an acknowledged master isn't compelling evidence, then this article isn't too useful to you.

    But I'm wondering what would be useful. What would someone have to say in order to convince you that there's no point looking for a simple idea that quickly improves your writing substantially?

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