Navigating the Ocean of Story

Ursula K. Le Guin, photo by Marian Wood KolischNavigating the Ocean of Story

Ursula K. Le Guin

An Experiment

I have enough vigor and stamina these days to write poems, for which I am very thankful. It takes quite a lot of vigor and stamina to write a story, and a huge amount to write a novel. I don’t have those any more, and I miss writing fiction.

Reliable vigor and stamina is also required to teach a class or run a workshop, and so I had to give up teaching several years ago. But I miss being in touch with serious prentice writers.

So in in hope of regaining some of the pleasures of teaching and talking about writing fiction with people who do, I’m going to try an experiment: a kind of open consultation or informal ongoing workshop in Fictional Navigation, here on Book View Café.

I hope it will work its own process out as we go along, but here’s how I plan to start:

I invite questions about writing fiction from people who are working seriously at writing fiction.


Note: Due to enthusiastic response, the question submission form has been disabled for now. Once the current round of questions has been dealt with, it may be reactivated.


DO NOT send manuscripts or samples of your work.

Send me one question, of 200 words or less. (Getting your question down to under 200 words may be part of the learning process. The more specific and exact it is, the better.)

Your question should concern only fiction — stories, novels, of any variety.

A question about the craft of writing fiction, the art of telling stories in prose.

A difficulty, a problem you have met, or keep meeting as you write. A question of technique. An uncertainty about how to write something you want to write. A puzzle: Is it bad if I do X? Do I really have to do Y? Can I get away with Z? My story-boat is stuck on a sandbar, how do I get it afloat again?

No autobiography, please. But it’s helpful to say how long you’ve been writing, and if you’ve published much.

Questions about how to publish, finding an agent, selling a book, self-publishing, marketing, etc etc, will be ignored. We won’t be talking here about how to sell a ship, but how to sail one.


If I have what I think is a useful answer for a question, I’ll post the question and my answer. I’ll keep the answer as brief as I can, but some topics will require or deserve discussion at some length.

If you think you can offer a better answer than mine, or offer a different approach, send it (as brief as you can make it!) and if I think it’s useful, I’ll post it.

If I think a question is a good one, but don’t have a useful answer, I’ll post it, inviting others to answer it. If you have what you think is a good answer, send it to me (as brief as you can make it!) and if I agree that it’s useful, I’ll post it.

That’s the whole idea, so far.

This is a trial voyage. We want to launch this little Q&A boat and find out how it sails. We’ll try to run it regularly on every other Monday, but at first there may be some delays, while we accumulate a cargo of questions, and the crew gets the knots out of the rigging, and the captain hastily learns how to navigate.

Workshops always use first names, so I suggest we do the same, or use pen-names.

I’m tempted to flatter myself by using the honorable name of William Bligh. He was one of the great navigators, and his reputation for flogging his crew mercilessly for slight faults is mere slander. You will find that I, too, use the lash only when forced to it.



Navigating the Ocean of Story — 48 Comments

  1. This is astonishingly generous of you. What a gift to the writing community. Thank you!

  2. In appreciation for the wealth and richness of your writing and what it has meant to me and the students I taught. Than you. Nancy J. Smith

  3. Thank you, William Bligh. I need your navigational skills.
    I’m working on a book of short stories. My question is about theme, links, segues, etc. Does the collection need to have these, or can each story be an island unto itself?

    • Think about record albums. Sometimes they’re strung together to tell a story. (Often they have deliberate segues, but that’s much easier to do in music than in fiction.) But even when they have neither, they’re ordered in a sequence that has some dramatic structure, and the opening and closing songs set the tone for the album (think Dark Side of the Moon). Even if the stories have unrelated content, you can order them so the sequence of moods they invoke has a structure. Think of a Beethoven symphony.

  4. What a blessing that you are availing yourselves to questions on craft. I’m eager to glean from a mentor like you. =)

  5. The chance to say thank you for your offer is itself a great gift. I will be thinking (and not only because of the challenge you set us to imagine alternatives to capitalism!).

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  8. Most generous.
    Here’s my question. How would you write a hanging scene where it is a young man who is made to pay for an older man’s violation of rules. Setting is China during The Cultural Revolution.

    Thank you so much for your time.

      • If a question is answered, will the author of the question be notified (beyond response being posted here on the blog)? Thank you for your time!

        • We will post a notice in this comment thread showing that a question has been answered and providing a link. If you subscribe to comments in this thread, you will get a notice. But we will not be notifying people directly about the questions that are answered.

  9. What a lovely thing to do — thank you very much, Ms. Le Guin.

    I’ve submitted my question and I hope very much that it’s worth answering. Even if it’s not, thank you for reading it, and for considering open questions.

  10. How wonderful! So glad my sister sent me this link. And another favorite author shows up in the comments section! Really excited for this.

  11. Dear Ursula Le Guin,

    I don’t have a question but I want to take this opportunity to tell you how much I have loved your writing (especially those on gender), and how much A Wizard of Earthsea inspired and shaped the thoughts of my own writing (without my knowing, back then). I read it the year it was published and I was seventeen.

    I look forward to your responses, and join with others to thank you for your generosity in offering this opportunity to writers, and to the writing world at large.


    Shelley Souza

  12. What a wonder you are – it is profoundly generous of you and so in keeping with your writing and human practice. Thank you for being so consistently awesome.

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  17. Thank you for this opportunity. What are your feelings about the role of “mythopoeia” in fantasy (myth-making, archetypes, dreams, personal exploration, Joseph Campbell hero-journeys, etc)? It seems like a wide open genre that fewer are exploring in fantasy literature today compared to the past.

    Thank you Ursula,


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  20. so kind to offer and only hope you get some personal pleasure at seeing how many respect you enough to reply… from a keen irish scribbler

  21. Dear Ms. Le Guin,

    Thank you for your generosity. I also wanted to thank you for many years of reading enjoyment. The Left Hand of Darkness had a powerfully profound impact upon me in a very positive, life changing manner.

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  25. Culled wisdom and rare insights flowing from your words and so does lifting mischieviousnes in a phrase here and there and a word from someone who has travelled the waters, dived with its currents and stared at its marine creatures and phantoms. We hear you here in Bagamoyo Tanzania

    • This may be my favourite comment in praise of Ursula K. Le Guin. Around the world all rivers flow, and carry within their waters Ursula’s words–she whom my friend Tina Hoggatt calls “a wonder.”

      We hear you here in in New York, Bagamoyo Tanzania.

  26. Thank you so much for sharing with us! I found your book Steering the Craft enormously helpful. Look forward to reading along with your answers to questions here.

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