Saturday, February 24, 2018

Le Guin's Sailing the Sea of Story

I just finished reading another writing book, Steering the Craft, A 21st-century guide to Sailing the Sea of Story by Ursula K. Le Guin. Originally published in 1998, she rewrote the book “from stem to stern”, she said. This edition was published in 2015.
Le Guin writes that all storytellers work pretty much the same way, with the same box of tools. Her book is aimed at storywriters. Like Steven Pinker’s, (see my previous blog) it is not for beginners, but for serious writers wanting to improve.

“Toward the end of the last century, many of our schools all but stopped teaching grammar,” she writes. “Somehow we’re supposed to be able to write without knowing anything about the equipment we’re using.”
“How can a reader trust a writer ignorant of the medium she works in?” she asks.  Writing is “an art, a craft, a making.”

“One of the marvelous things about the novel is “its many-voicedness, its polyphony.” It’s not just impersonation or mimicry. “It’s a willingness to share control with one’s creation.”
Let your characters talk, listen and write. You are in control, she wrote. “You made them up. Let the poor fictive characters have their say - you can hit Delete any time you like.”

Story is change and narrative moves the story forward. Each chapter in this book includes a discussion of a specific topic, examples from good writers and exercises, (which she considers as practice in control).
She defines story as “a narrative of events (external or psychological) that moves through time or implies the passage of time and that involves change.” She defines plot as “a form of story that uses action as its mode, usually in the form of conflict…” But she stresses “the story is not in the plot but in the telling. It is the telling that moves.”

She also gives advice about how peer groups work, whether in person or online.
I found her advice interesting, especially usually the image of steering a ship through the sea; “knowing the craft, so that when the magic boat comes by, you can step into it and guide it where it wants to go, where it ought to go.”

I use many quotes in my blogs, but feel it is important for others to have an idea of how this person writes. Whether a subject is serious and detailed or light, how it’s written makes a difference in whether I want to read their book and to let you know about it.
You can find more about Le Guin at her website

Sunday, February 18, 2018

A Sense of Style

Originally, I  planned to start the year of 2018 out with a blog entitled “A New Year of Writing with a Sense of Style.” I just didn’t have time to finish reading the book mentioned below nor to get my thoughts in order. However, I decided not to keep waiting, so I will start with an introduction. 

Steven Pinker, author of The Sense of Style, The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, admits that writing guides are his favorite literary genre. He emphasizes that this book is not a reference manual. It is primarily for people who know how to write and want to write better and write with clarity.

Those who don’t read style books still have learned from other writers. “Good writers are avid readers,” he says.” Reading good prose is a more enjoyable and “effective way to develop a writerly ear than obeying a set of commandments.”

Pinker writes that style still matters for at least three reasons:

  • First, “it ensures that writers will get their messages across…”
  • Second, “style earns trust.”
  • Third, style “adds beauty to the world.”
Personally, he likes to read style manuals for the same reason, “that sends botanists to the garden and chemists to the kitchen: it’s a practical application of our science. I am a psycholinquist and a cognitive scientist and what is style, after all, but the effective use of words to engage the human mind.”

He praises Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, but points out that “for all their intuitive feel for style, had a tenuous grasp of grammar.” I also admire Strunk and White and you can check out my blog of September 10, 2017, and also find mentions of their book in other blogs.  

Pinker says that some classic manuals try to take all the fun out of writing. Many authors of classic manuals wrote as if the language they grew up with was immortal. They failed to cultivate an ear for ongoing change.

He writes that “style mavens throughout the centuries, have written about how young people are degrading the language and taking civilization down with it,” and gives examples from the 1900s, 1800s, 1700s, and even one from 1478.

There are so many kinds of human relationships. Speech and writing differ. Social interaction is instinctively verbal. We can monitor their faces and their posture. But people, who will later read what we have written, “are invisible and inscrutable, he says. “Readers exist only in our imagination.” We have to imagine ourselves in some sort of conversation with them.

A sense of style should be evident in all types of writing, non-fiction as well as fiction.  I love some of the examples he gives in this book, especially the obits on Maurice Sendak, Pauline Phillips (known for her column Dear Abby) and Helen Gurley Brown, written by Margalit Fox. It is hard to capture the life of a complex subject in 8oo words or less, but Fox was exceptional. She captured a person's life in a brief way that had me mourn their loss, but laugh at memories.

There is so much more I want to share, but I have to admit, I borrowed this book from the library and have to return it. It was very interesting and want to delve into his definition of style more deeply. I will purchase a copy for my home library so I can study and enjoy it at a more leisurely pace. If I find the rest of it as amazing as the first part, I will publish another blog about it.

For more information about this author, check out, sapinker@twitter and