Navigating the Ocean of Story: Session 1, Continued

Ursula K. Le GuinSelected from questions 51-97. They aren’t in order as they came in, because I am grouping questions with a common or similar subject together.

Roccie: My question concerns the backstory. I find one of the hardest things to do is to include it without it sounding like notecards, however gracefully I might write it.  Some backstory is essential, but it is so very hard to make it organic.  How do you determine what is depth of character and what is mere backstory?  At some point in drawing a character, every fact becomes relevant.

Ursula: Back when The New Yorker was funny, they had a little feature called The Department of Fuller Explanation, where they put truly grand examples of unnecessary explaining. Many of us tend to live in the Department of Fuller Explanation as we write our book, especially the first chapters. We are telling ourselves backstory and other information, which the reader won’t actually need when reading it. A lot of Fuller Explanation in the first draft does no harm. Don’t worry about it. Just put in whatever you need to understand the situation and the character, fitting it in wherever and however is possible. Then – when you have a complete first draft — go through it, go over and over it with an eye for whatever is superfluous or really wastes time. Cut it, or fit it in more indirectly, more sneakily.

Thank you, Roccie, for saying, “As a young woman I wanted fortune and a little fame, but at the age of 63, I find that the words are their own reward.” I like that.

oOo

Benjamin: “Show, don’t tell,” is advice one hears a lot. But how do you think one should handle presenting information about secondary worlds to the reader, when it’s too mundane in the context of the setting to reasonably have characters talk about it (“As you know, Bob, the currency of our nation…”), and too tangential or complex to conveniently show as background in a scene? (“We walked past blossoming orange trees, the religious and historical significance of which…”) Is it sometimes better to simply divert momentarily and do a straight-up infodump, or do you have a more elegant solution? Is the solution simply, “if the significance of orange trees isn’t great enough to devote a proper scene to it, don’t bother telling the reader”?

Ursula: This problem is pretty close to Roccie’s: how to stay out of the Department of Fuller Explanation, how to avoid the Expository Lump and the Infodump, while supplying necessary background and information. The first thing is to decide — or find out when revising — whether the information is actually necessary. If not, don’t bother. If so, you must figure out how to work it in as a functional, forward-moving element of the story, enriching scenery and character while informing the reader that orange trees are sacred.

Giving information indirectly, by hint and suggestion, can be fun to write. “I saw only a few blossoms on the orange trees as we walked past the grove, but the fragrance took me back to the Teulia Festivals of my youth, the solemn procession to the sacred grove as the priests chanted the history of the Orchard Wars, the taste of the wine, the the warmth of summer twilight, everybody a little drunk, laughter among the trees as night darkened and the stars came out like orange blossoms. My mind was a long way from what we’d been talking about when Tayu said impatiently, “Well, do we kill him or not?”

oOo

Kitty: I’ve mainly enjoyed writing speculative fiction of all kinds (and some mystery), but I have the most trouble writing science fiction. Perhaps I lack confidence? I feel like I can’t always tell when I’m writing science fiction, or that it isn’t science fiction enough. I try to emulate what I read, but it never feels quite right, as though I’m missing some quota of “science” to go in my fiction. Currently, I’m working on a novel incorporating bleeding-edge computer technology and the emotional/mental impact using it has on the developers,  but that still doesn’t feel like I’m writing science fiction. Is there some set of generally accepted guidelines I’m missing? Am I simply lacking confidence and practice?

Ursula: Your book sure sounds like science fiction to me. Anyhow, these days sf overlaps with other genres, it crossbreeds shamelessly, it mutates overnight — nobody knows what it is any more (except the people who proclaim, “I never read science fiction.”) So my advice is, write what you like and call it what you like. When you come to market it, probably the market will tell you what to call it.

As for the science in your science fiction, the best guideline I know is: If the science or technology in your story exists now, it should be accurate. It should not contradict “what is known to be known,” as S.R.Delaney said. If you invent the science or technology, if it doesn’t yet or can’t actually exist, your job is to make it as plausible as possible (or else use accepted sf conventions such as FTL travel, well-established hokum that nobody questions).

oOo

Tim: Perhaps this is absurdly specific, but I really struggle with describing people’s appearance, especially their faces. After eye colour, fat/thin, tall/short, I’m more or less out. Is there some way I can refine my authorial eye and get better at capturing the distinct physical suchness of characters? Or is it futile busywork that would be more prudently devoted to advancing the story?

Ursula: Many writers let the reader imagine people’s looks, and that may be the best tactic for you. It’s what Caleb does – he wrote: “What do you think about describing character’s appearances? I tend to not do it, and the reader can imagine them however they like.”

This is perfectly legitimate, but it may leave some readers feeling that the characters have voices but not bodies. Anyhow, it’s not just facial features — a way of moving, a voice quality, can “embody” a character. Specific features or mannerisms (even absurdly specific ones!) can help fix a minor character in the reader’s mind when they turn up again. Morag is the lean woman with watery, pale-blue eyes, Alvina is the dark one who frowns and looks away when she talks.

To work on this skill, you might try describing people you see on the bus or in the coffee shop: just do a sentence about them in your head, trying to catch their looks in a few words.

oOo

Anthony: Recently I’ve had issues of structure and genre. I’ve had an ongoing (perhaps too ambitious) project wherein I seek to harmonize the elements of science-fiction with those of fantasy; not necessarily genre fusion, but an eirenicon of sorts. In what would be my first novel, I’ve encountered a lot of seemingly conflicting elements. I want to tell a sword-and-planet story which undermines the “sword” in favor of the wonder-filled “planet” aspect. The setting is primal-fantastic; the world isn’t a globe in space, but an infinite expanse of land and ocean. The “sky” is actually a visualization of a virtual realm which can be reached by crossing “bridges” from the world into the sky. These bridges are aurorae. They transport the traveler to the virtual realm of the stars and planets in the “cosmos” like a virtual reality helmet would seem to immerse the viewer in a world unlike this real one.

My question(s): is this too much? Do the elements conflict in a way that doesn’t work? I’ve not had any published work and I fear I may be too unskilled to realize this project. Should I stave off ambition in favor of simpler stories?

Ursula: I think it’s not a matter of “staving off ambition,” but of learning how to use it. Your ideas sound grand. They’ll be best served by a serious ambition to practice and learn your art – writing, story-telling – before launching into a giant, genre-bending novel with cosmic horizons. This learning will involve not only writing, but reading good novels, great examples of the art.

oOo

Marion: I’m writing a sci-fi/fantasy type of novel; no magic, so I’d say more on the sci-fi side, without much of the traditional technological stuff. The biggest issue I have is world building. I’m mostly focusing on story right now, but I’m concerned that without all those details, it is going to be a huge pain to go back and edit. If I don’t have the world(s) fully developed, should I stop the narrative and spend time doing that, or just forge ahead and build it in later?Also, do you have any tips for world building in general?

Ursula: It sounds as if your characters are moving around in an undeveloped world, a blurry world without details. That worries me. Event requires location. Where we are affects who we are, what we say and and do, how and why we say and do it. It matters, doesn’t it, whether we’re in Miami or Mumbai — even more whether we’re on Earth or in Made-Up Place? So, I don’t know if it would work to try and build up a world– “all those details” – and tack it onto what you’ve written. If inventing a world isn’t your thing, OK. Stick close to this world, or use readymade, conventional sf and fantasy props and scenery. They’re there for all of us to use.

oOo

Betsy: I have several well-received novels and a memoir in print. I teach fiction writing.  New novel is, I think, my best, and I know it succeeds as a work of fiction. But there have been editorial responses to the effect that despite admiration for the writing, the main character isn’t sufficiently appealing as a person. One editor “didn’t fall in love with him,” another editor “didn’t care enough about him.” The novel is not going to be published until someone feels differently. I doubt male novelists are as equally expected to provide readers with characters with whom they want to be best friends or fall in love with.  What do you think I should do? I think I can see some ways to revise with this particular issue in mind, without feeling like a total sellout. But the character is drawn this way for all kinds of reasons that serve the novel. Revising for this reason feels cynical and unliterary. What do you think I ought to do? My wise agent is supportive of whatever I decide, and isn’t pushing in either direction.

Ursula: I’m hesitant to advise a professional novelist who teaches fiction-writing, but, for what it’s worth: You believe in your reasons for having an off-putting protagonist. You have a supportive agent who’s willing to go on looking for an editor who understands your book. Change nothing, and count your blessings!

You have a point there about gender expectations. Maybe you and your agent could plan, after 99 rejections on the grounds of unlovability, to send the book around again using a male pen name?

oOo

SOME FALSE DICHOTOMIES

Excerpts from three letters:

Kay: For years, we were told to polish our prose in the hopes of capturing an editor or an agent’s attention. Many of us did this diligently, eager students to the craft. Years’ worth of effort yielded very little success. With today’s technology making it possible to release our works through other means, how do we learn to strike the balance between raw storytelling and the smooth, clean prose we were taught to maintain?

Maureen: When I started to study writing, I was taught that it’s important to pare down unnecessary information and streamline the narration. Succinctness, at least in contemporary writing, seems more effective than verbosity when the goal is to move readers. I find it hard to strike a balance between creating tension in a snappy narrative and giving the writing a chance to breathe—particularly in short fiction. Sometimes I feel like I edit a piece to the point where I smother the spark out of it. Can long-winded writing create a more satisfying reading experience?

Alison: Is there a rule of thumb for successfully pacing a novel – a certain proportion of scenes of dialogue or introspection vs action; or reflection vs conflict?

Ursula: You three writers are wrestling with different problems, but I see the root of them as the same: a false dichotomy or dilemma established by simplistic mental and verbal “rules” of “good writing.”

Look at the black/white oppositions:

• “raw storytelling” vs “smooth, clean prose”
• “unnecessary information, long-winded writing” vs “creating tension in a snappy narrative”
• “introspection vs action,” “reflection vs conflict.”

These conventional oppositions conceal value judgments. The minus values are in the first item (raw, unnecessary, introspection, reflection), the plus values in the second (smooth, clean, tension, snappy, action, conflict).

Maybe we’ve heard enough about the all-importance of conflict and the imperative of maintaining continuous tension. Conflict is one possible element of a story, intense suspensefulness is another, but neither is an obligatory ingredient of narrative. Unnecessary information is, obviously, unnecessary — but that doesn’t mean you must sacrifice everything interesting to “raw,” headlong, nonstop action, or that all description is “long-winded.” Above all, reflection and action, character and action, are not opposites! What people do arises from what they think and who they are. And the world’s great stories are demonstrations of why we do what we do because of what we think and what we are.
It seems to me each of you knows the answer to your problem as well as I do. Kay speaks of “striking the balance,” Maureen of “giving the writing a chance to breathe,” (I love that), and Alison of “successfully pacing a novel.”

How each of you can do that, I can’t tell you –– your recipe depends on your ingredients. But you are absolutely right in seeking balance, deep breathing, and varied pacing in your narration.

oOo

WRITING ABOUT THE OTHER

Excerpts from two letters:

Jennifer: It seems I am driven to write about the Other, as it is fashionable to say. No matter how much research I do, I’m not always able to feel I’ve achieved a story that will be perceived as respectful to readers from those other cultures. I torture myself with this worry. Should I give up on real others and write about aliens instead? This would feel safer. But I don’t know if I want to feel safer.

Rani: Do I shut off or listen to that voice in my head that begins censoring my work, even as I am writing my first draft? This question comes up especially when I am writing about characters that are not from my own social-economic milieu. When I write about someone who’s from the marginalized section of the society, for instance, when I have no lived experience as someone from that setting. The voices in my head range from: not politically correct, too privileged, too cliched, too serious, too silly, too controversial, too unreal, too fictitious (ironically) or, questions like, will this ruffle some feathers? Is that what I want to do with this story?

Ursula: These questions take us beyond the craft of writing to a great moral issue a modern writer must, almost unavoidably face. Jennifer and Rani are wrestling less with a problem than with an angel, like Jacob in the bible. After wrestling all night, with his hip broken, still Jacob told the angel, “I will not let thee go except thou bless me.” And the angel blessed him.

Every fiction writer who writes about a person or people belonging to a gender, a social or economic class, a “race” or a nationality considered inferior by the writer’s gender, class, “race,” or nationality, or which the writer’s people have currently or historically enslaved, conquered, oppressed, exploited, colonized, missionized, insulted, or otherwise treated as inferior, is writing about The Other.

Writers who accept the prejudices of their people write about Others as less than fully human: as stereotypes. Positive stereotypes are no better than negative, for to idealize the Other (saintly Woman, noble Red Man, etc) is merely to sentimentalize injustice and perpetuate exploitation.

Writers who refuse the prejudices of their people and try to enter honestly and compassionately into the experience of the Other will find a very fierce angel waiting for them and had better be ready for the wrestling match.

And even if the angel blesses them, the Others who read their story may not. People who have been treated as inferior, as property, as things, people who have had little or no way to speak for themselves, to say what they think, are very seldom grateful at having thoughts ascribed to them and words put into their mouths. They are likely to be bitterly and vocally resentful.
Jennifer and Rani know this, and that’s the great thing. They’re aware of the risk they’re running, the chance they’re taking – that even scrupulous respect and honest compassion may not be enough. It’s entirely up to them whether to take the risk or not. If they do, may the angel bless them.

(Personal: As a young, White, upper-middle-class writer, I chose, in Jennifer’s terms, to play safe. Most of my characters in fantasy and sf are people of color, but they’re in the “future,” or on another planet. Heather in Lathe of Heaven is Black, but it’s in the “future.” Genly Ai in Left Hand of Darkness is a Black man from a future Earth, nobody in the story has white skin, everybody is definitely Other — but “alien” in the sf sense, not in the sense of cultural alienation. You could say I dodged the angel.

But I did ask for a blessing. Fantasy allows a freedom of imagination that is not just evasion. In A Wizard of Earthsea, I didn’t say that everybody in the Archipelago is colored somewhere between black and copper, and only the (alien) Kargs are white-skinned. I just let it appear gradually as the book went on. My purpose was simple and sneaky: to get the young and, at that time, almost certainly White reader to identify with Ged, to feel comfortable in Ged’s skin, and then mention the fact that the skin is a dark copper brown. I think a lot of White readers missed it entirely. I don’t think any Black reader ever did.

Commercialism, however, doesn’t like risks. Most cover artists gave Ged a long, long dip in the Clorox. A Hollywood movie that used the book’s title and some names from it presented us with two classic racial stereotypes – the Wise Old Black Man and the Exotic Asian Beauty – everybody else white as a lily.)

oOo

William: How much do you think about your audience, if at all, when you’re writing? I have been trying to write books that people will read but that are also challenging and original. I’ve probably found more success with the latter of those goals than with the first. How does a writer balance her unique voice against convention–some of which may be useful–and against the expectations of an audience? Is it a matter of courage and determination, or is it more about a careful mixing of elements? Or something else altogether?

Ursula: “Audience” literally means “the people listening” – which tells you what an odd business writing stories down is. We are silent performers in an empty room. We lack the instant feedback that maintains and sharpens the story-teller’s consciousness of and relationship with the audience. So, does the writer consciously try to imagine a reader? An ideal reader? A whole lot of readers? Or are we each our own audience, writing a book we’d like to read, the way we’d like it written? Or do we seek a peer-group for the feedback? Such choices are entirely up to you the writer. And nobody can say what the right balance of conventionality and expectability, challenge and originality, is for you. Tailoring your writing to a specific audience/market is good for writers to whom salability is a prime value, for others it can be demoralizing, a sell-out.

The only advice I can offer is tentative: If you imagine your “audience,” your readers, imagine them as intelligent and sympathetic — ready to read you if you give them the chance.

oOo

GETTING A STORY STARTED

Excerpts from four letters:

Evan: How does your story develop?  Do you start with an interesting character, throw a situation at her, and just see where it leads?  Or, conversely, do you have an idea for an interesting plot and then try to figure out what qualities the character would most likely have to possess in order to drive the action in that direction?

Karla: Often I find that if I plan and research a novel, that things roll along but then start to feel contrived and cliche leaving an unnatural feel.  If I don’t plan a novel, it wanders and meanders through the pointless forest. So while the characters and story feels natural, it is unsatisfying and boring.Is there a happy medium? How do you balance planning and seat of your pants writing to find that way of letting a story unfold naturally?

Brian: Where do I start? When I try to start writing fiction, I am immediately paralyzed by the possibilities. It’s like stuttering – I want to speak, but the possible words all try to rush out at once, and nothing coherent emerges.

I have published a small novel’s worth of advice columns, and I have no trouble in narrowing down all the things I might say. It’s just a matter of which three or four ideas are most important to communicate in 800 words or less.

I’ve tried starting small, with writing just a description of a place or a person, but all the things I’m leaving out crowd in and I give up in hopelessness.

What can I try, to make the project seem possible in scope, yet deep enough to be appealing? Or, how do I find that ” flow state” where I can write without over- analyzing?

Alexandria: I’ve been writing since I could hold a pencil and study it now in my fifth year of university, but I’ve never been officially published. My dream is to one day write a fantasy novel that inspires people, so I’m so happy for the opportunity to ask you a question, because your novels–all of them that I’ve read– have been a fount of inspiration. That said, where do you start? How do you move from research and plot lines and character sheets to words on a page? Every time I sit down to start, I get overwhelmed.

Ursula: I put you four together hoping your misery loves knowing it has company. The trouble is, no answer to this question is going to fit every writer. I don’t know the answer for even one of you.

My own experience of starting is different for every story and every book. In my teens and twenties, I made endless enthusiastic starts to dead ends. Gradually I learned that if I got thinking about a place or a situation that felt like there was a story in it, and if I hung on to that place and that situation, put my mind on it, then people and what they’d do (their behavior, the events, the plot) might begin growing out of it. Sometimes quite rapidly, as if the story was actually all there already and just needed to be written. Sometimes only with a long time of pondering, brooding, working it out, making notes, rethinking. Occasionally, as I got more experience, my first glimpse of a story was like seeing a trailhead. What I had to do was start following that trail (in the person of a character) and discover as we went where we were going. (“I learn by going where I have to go.”—Roethke.) I call this “writing the way through the forest,” the same metaphor Karla uses — and I honestly do not recommend it to an inexperienced writer.

A rough sketch, notes as to where the story is headed and how it might get there, with more extended notes about the world it takes place in, is enough for many of us to start out with. But to many writers a complete outline is absolutely necessary before starting to write. An outline of the plot or at least a point-to-point sketch of the story-line can prevent the flooding in of irrelevant details that bothers Brian.

A story is, after all, and before everything else, dynamic: it starts Here, because it’s going There. Its life principle is the same as a river: to keep moving. Fast or slow, straight or erratic, headlong or meandering, but going, till it gets There. The ideas it expresses, the research it embodies, the timeless inspirations it may offer, are all subordinate to and part of that onward movement. The end itself may not be very important; it is the journey that counts. I don’t know much about “flow” states, but I know that the onward flow of a story is what carries a writer from the start to the end of it, along with the whole boatload of characters and ideas and knowledge and meaning — and carries the reader in the same boat.

oOo

Sara: What do you do when you’ve written yourself into a corner or just can’t think of how to make an important scene work?  I’ve left the protagonist of my SF novel sitting in an airlock for months now.  (There are some demonstrably bad people with mysterious intentions on the other side of the door.  The latter part is why she doesn’t just turn around and head the other way).  It’s about 1/3 through the probable length of the book…. Do I retreat and pick a different path?

Do I write later sections of the story and then try to retrace how she got from the airlock to there?  Do I bash my way through the scene, let it stink or make no sense and fix it later? Something else?

Ursula: You got off the path through the forest, evidently. Retreat and rethink seems the only likely option. Go back as far as you need to find where the dead-end branch started, & maybe you’ll see why it did. My guess is that it has to do with the Demonstrable but Mysterious Villains, but maybe it has to do with Protagonist. If you end up back in the airlock, this time you’ll know how to get out.

oOo

Miriam: How can I make my protagonist and other characters be their own people, not thinly disguised versions of myself? They need to think differently, react differently, and I’m aware when I write that they aren’t.

Ursula: This often happens when an author’s chief interest is in expressing ideas, for which the characters are vehicles, mouthpieces. If the ideas are all the author’s, all the voices will be too. Is this your situation? If so, you’re aware of it, which is well on the way to to getting free of it.

Consider human character for its own sake, its irreducible, recalcitrant gnarliness, the infinite variety of human opinions and the voices that express them. Ideas are fine, but after all, what good are they without people to have them, and argue for and against them, and yell at each other about them, and die for them?

oOo

Jacob: I have a great deal of trouble with dialogue– I find it hard to understand and remember styles of speech in daily life that would be useful for me to employ in my writing, and my best attempts usually sound like someone reading a script. Even my ways of formatting dialogue seem awkward, and I freely admit that all I’m doing is trying to use the styles used by better authors– yours for one. So my question is this: Could you please describe a few ways to learn to write people speaking naturally? … I try to write every day, and though I still cannot stomach reading my own work, my retching sometimes seems to getting a little bit less severe.

p.s. I had a few words left: gimbal, quagmire, and the last two are for you.

Ursula: Fine words. And here are two for you, Jacob: fetlock, hindermost.

I’m going to have to see if I can find anything useful anybody has written about Convincing Dialogue. It keeps coming up. Maggie asked about it too, and it’s clearly part of Miriam’s trouble, and others.

All I can recommend is to read/speak your dialogue aloud. Not whispering, not muttering, OUT LOUD. (Virginia Woolf used to try out her dialogue in the bathtub, which greatly entertained the cook downstairs.) This will help show you what’s fakey, hokey, bookish — it just won’t read right out loud. Fix it till it does. Speaking it may help you to vary the specch mannerisms to suit the character. And probably will cause you to cut a lot. Good! Many contemporary novels are so dialogue-heavy they seem all quotation marks — disembodied voices yaddering on in a void.

oOo

Robby: Would you provide some advice on the parts of a narrative that are not dialog or action? How description or patterns within descriptive narration can be used to move the story forward? As an example of what I mean, I think the notion of “select, describe, render” is attributed to Henry James (but I could be completely mistaken on that point), in that the writer should select a stimulus, describe the character’s internal reaction which may involve recollection of past events, and then render this internal journey into something more solidified (a decision or an emotional state to which the reader can relate and the to which the character can react) that can be used as a stimulus for action in the following paragraph.

Ursula: If that advice is useful to you, use it – use any advice that is useful to you! To me it’s so intellectualized that, though it might help in analyzing a written story, I can’t apply it to the act of writing one. The degree of self-consciousness it involves would prevent me from entering the selflessness of absorption in composing. (In fact, I wonder at my presumptuousness in giving any advice, when my own procedures are so visceral and intuitional as to be almost inarticulate.)

Anyhow: what’s not dialogue or action is said to be “description.” But honestly — how do you separate action from description? Is this perhaps another False Dichotomy? The only way you can write an action scene is, after all, to describe it. And description without any apparent, overt action can carry a story powerfully, irresistibly forward. (Take a look at Thomas Hardy for that.)

oOo

David: I think there are few firm rules in writing, but many good, and worthwhile suggestions to be used or not, depending on what you are trying to achieve.  I have been writing for many years, with 50 short stories, 1 collection, and one Sf novel published. My own rules are:

1. Writers write.
2. There are no other Rules.

I sometimes wonder if I am wrong. Do you have any never to be broken rules?

Ursula: Yup. Basic grammar & syntax. I don’t never not agree subject number and predicate, nossir. It don’t pay.

oOo

Angela: My greatest problem is writing long enough stories. I started writing short stories (of which a few have been published), and am trying to switch over to novels. I plan carefully, with multiple story lines, complex characters, and — according to my readers – wonderful setting. But I just can’t get a novel to over about 65 000 words. Do you have any suggestions for doing so in a way that doesn’t constitute padding? I would love to be traditionally published, and have lofty goals, but can’t accomplish them without getting enough words on the page to interest an agent/publisher.

Ursula: I know! (Sigh.) The commercial fiction market is always timid about of short-story collections (though anthologies do fine). And commercial novels are running longer than War and Peace. (The last six novels sent me to blurb would all make great doorstops. And one of them is a YA!) Till the fad passes, you might consider the novella, a beautiful form, which still has a magazine market at least in fantasy and sf; and the story suite — short stories linked by place/theme and/or by recurrent characters – which can have much the impact of a novel, and may not scare editors as badly as an unconnected collection.

oOo

Nilanjana: When you’ve set your novel and your characters in a historical past (or even in the future), what’s the best way to accurately imagine how much your characters’ belief systems, values/ perspectives would differ from our present time? Aside from histories of a city and newspaper archives from the period, are there any other sources novelists should be curious about? And at what point should you stop researching the period/ the imaginary world and start the actual writing?

Ursula: To me there’s a big difference between the historical novel and the novel set in an invented society/world. For the historical novel, you do research. Unless you steep yourself in the history, and the novels and poetry and biographies and letters and whatever else is available from that time, unless you’ve made yourself at home there, your novel can’t be accurate and vivid, your character’s thoughts and voices won’t ring true. (I get fierce about this, because I’m sick of historicals and pastiches set in the historical past that are utterly, arrogantly tone-deaf to the morals, the manners, the ideas, the opportunities, and above all the language of the period.)

But if you are inventing your world, your society, and the people who live in it, your “research” is all inside your own head. You get to make it all up. All you have to do is make sure it all hangs together….

And when do you stop? Well, the authors of The Lord of the Rings, or Islandia, never did stop making up their imaginary worlds. Their books were an integral part of the process of imagining, the way a peach is a part of the process of being a peach tree.

oOo

Kim: I wrote a short story, and won an award (3rd place, but still an award) in a short story contest. I feel like the story could be the start of a novel. How do I take this seed and make it grow? Or, to use the sailing metaphor, how do I turn this dinghy into a cruise ship?

Ursula: Well, Lt Bligh sailed an overloaded, 23-foot, open ship’s boat 4,000 miles. He knew how to navigate. And he just kept going. I’d say, forget the cruise ship. But do have in mind where you’re going, and how you intend to get there — and maybe why you want to.

Bon voyage!

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About Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin is a founding member of Book View Cafe. Her most recent BVC ebook is MY LIFE SO FAR, BY PARD, translated from the Feline by UKL. Library of America is publishing Hainish Novels and Stories and a number of her other books.
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4 Responses to Navigating the Ocean of Story: Session 1, Continued

  1. If you have a writing question for Ursula K. Le Guin, please submit it here.

  2. Pingback: Ursula Le Guin answered my writing question! | William Reichard

  3. William says:

    Thank you so much for this response. I will treasure it, particularly as I can already see it’s the kind of advice that will grow with my understanding and practice.

    I’m so grateful. Thank you again for what you do for the world.

  4. Rani Mangamma says:

    This made my day. And has also set me thinking. Thank you!

    I’ve felt that fiction can be the antidote to the ‘othering’ that is real-life. That it gives us a chance to see the world a little differently. And your answer takes me a little further in that belief. This will stay with me.