Thursday, November 24, 2016

Review of 'Steering the Craft' by Ursula K. Le Guinn

NOTE: EftBB is dedicated to improving the universal quality of erotic writing. While Ursula K. Le Guinn's Steering the Craft is not specifically geared to erotica, it will be, I think, invaluable to many erotic authors.  (TAS)

“Craft enables art” Ursula K. Le Guinn tells us in the introduction to her Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide toSailing the Sea of Story. “There’s luck in art. And there’s the gift. You can’t earn that. But you can learn skill ... You can learn to deserve your gift.”

Overflowing with valuable insight and inspiration, Steering the Craft is among the best single-volume works on writing I’ve ever read—and I’ve read a lot of them over the decades, positively devouring anything I can get my hands on.  If Stephen King’s wonderful On Writing is a helpful and encouraging introduction to the subject—call it Writing 101—Le Guinn offers a more advanced and rigorously focused 200-level course that will be most helpful to those already-experienced writers in search of self-improvement and a more acute understanding of how story works.

There is a difference, Le Guinn tells us, between the kind of  straightforward expository prose we all learned to write in school, and the language of effective fiction—a distinction far too many aspiring storytellers have yet to grasp. The important thing for a writer, she says, “…is to know what you’re doing with your language and why.” She then proceeds to enlighten us in the most pleasing of ways, gently but firmly, never dogmatic, often with humor, stressing fundamentals without coming off as a snob or a “correctness bully”. “To break a rule you have to know the rule,” she says. “A blunder is not a revolution.”

Le Guinn challenges received and conventional wisdom at every turn. For instance, where Stephen King tells us that “the road to hell is paved with adverbs,” Le Guinn gently insists that adjectives and adverbs “add color, life, and immediacy … They cause obesity in prose only when used lazily or overused.”  And again, she points out, “It’s a myth that short-sentence prose is ‘more like the way we speak’ … The marvelously supple connections of complex syntax are like the muscles and sinews of a long-distance runner’s body, ready to set up a good pace and keep going.” And there were so many more wonderful, refreshing observations throughout the book, I found myself obsessively marking and underlining to a point where my copy could never be resold—not that I would ever part with it!

I very much appreciate the way Le Guinn draws parallels between music and prose, stressing the essential importance of rhythm and the physical sound of language: “The similarity of … incremental repetition of word, phrase, image, and event in prose to recapitulation and development in musical structure is real and deep.” Elsewhere, punctuation is brilliantly demystified as it is likened to the use of rests in a musical score.

The volume is designed as a workbook, and includes a number of skill-enhancing exercises, with copious examples of the various concepts discussed, drawn from classic works from the Brontë sisters to Dickens, Hardy and Virginia Wolfe, always with fascinating, trenchant commentary from Le Guinn.

Steering the Craft is a treasure! Enthusiastically recommended. 

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