Navigating the Ocean of Story – Session 1

Ursula K. Le Guin, photo by Marian Wood KolischNAVIGATING THE OCEAN OF STORY

Selected from questions 1-50 (in order as they came in).

Laura: …. ‘Genre’ provides useful hand-holds for readers, but I work across academic and fiction genres and one complaint (aside from the ‘you can’t do that’, which I ignore) is that people feel like the rug has been pulled. I am finishing a book that tacks between genres: a gazetteer to future energy islands, based on my academic research, which has both entries on ‘fuel’ and ‘wandering monsters’. I don’t think this is anything new — it’s a story suite — but I want readers to be drawn into this world, not repelled or dropped between the genre-gap. If I polish the genre hand-holds (‘this bit is sci-fi’ and ‘this bit is anthropology’) then it feels clunky, but without some genre hints readers feel all at sea. Suggestions for a boatbuilder?

UKL: Sf has been using the social sciences for a long time now, and it sounds as if you have a moderately sophisticated readership in view. Some editors may still demand that a book fit in an easy-to-sell formula, but if your story makes sense on its own terms, I think worrying about conventional genre expectations is unnecessary.

Lynne: …. I have a problem with how to show the difference between what my characters are thinking to themselves, and what they are thinking as a message or conversation being sent mentally to another person. I have been putting the messages in italics, but I am now reading that italics are frowned on by publishers, who think that readers don’t like them.

What do you think? Do you have any ideas of how to show this difference? And where I would use “said” for spoken speech, and “thought” for private thoughts, what could I use for mentally projected speech?

UKL: For signalling mentally projected speech, italics are OK, but they do make a speech look super-important. You could drop the italics and signal telepathy with a verb like “send” or “message,” or make up a word you like better. (I did that until everybody in my fictional universe suddenly stopped “mindspeaking,” because I’d realized I didn’t believe in it.)

Anthony: …. I published my first book this past April, one that was intended to start a trilogy. However, I find myself stymied by mistakes I made with the characters in the first book. There are new characters in Book 2 that I enjoy more; but the overarching plot was left unfinished and necessitates that I continue the story of the characters from Book 1. Many of my readers have commented that they like the story, but find the main characters unlikable. And they’re right in not liking them — both are a rough bit of road from beginning to end! How do I recover characters for which even I have trouble finding redeeming qualities? Or do I make them secondary characters in their own story and focus on the new characters I do like? I’m afraid that if I do that, I’m just avoiding the issue with my main characters to play with my shiny new toys instead.

UKL: Why not focus on the new characters in the new story? Readers may be surprised by the cast change, but I’ll bet they won’t object.

Reading a book full of unlikeable people is like being in a room full of unlikeable people – pretty soon you want to go somewhere else. Very generally speaking, one real villain per story is enough. And mostly the creeps, jerks, dweebs, and bores do better in secondary roles.

Lisa: How do you know when a story is done? Not just the plotting, or the character work. How can you tell that it’s ready to go out in the world? When any further changes would be for the sake of making them, rather than a genuine improvement or refinement? Or is there no such point, only a decision to put down the pencil and send the story out?

UKL: Well, this varies so much from writer to writer that I don’t dare generalize. My own experience is that experience helps. If you keep on doing it, you begin to know when to stop doing it….

Fiddling and fiddling with a text because you’re vaguely dissatisfied with it, it “isn’t perfect,” can be obsessive, even destructive. Better go on and start another story. Come back to this one later. Maybe you’ll see what was wrong or incomplete.

But going over a story that you feel is all there, that you basically feel pretty good about — rereading it to find the holes and the rough places, places you can look at now and think about and see how to do better — that’s necessary, satisfying, enjoyable work.

But eventually — yes: you have to stop revising, say OK, and send the story out.

A.C.E.: How much of the energy you put into a novel was logical vs. emotional vs. physical? I have been writing for a few decades and published 3 novels, and what I find hardest of all is writing something worth reading when my emotions are jumbled — regardless of my physical shape or reasoning faculties. For a longer piece, I find all three faculties must be sustained, and I wondered if there was one or the other that you thought most important to make a solid piece of fiction (understanding that the loss of any three would prevent the completion of a novel). And as a corollary, if one or the other flagged while you were in the middle of a project, the weakness of which one hurt the quality of novel writing most?

UKL: I could answer if I knew if by “logical” you meant intellectual/rational thinking — if by “emotional” you meant intuitive/nonrational thinking — and if by “physical” you meant the writer’s health and/or energy.

If so, I’d say they’ve all got to be pretty much operative and pretty much in balance to produce anything as big as a novel. But the balance will differ vastly from person to person — and book to book.

Justin: Is it weird to add in themes after a story has been written?

I wrote a short horror story about a demon summoning, and I gave the characters Indian names. Now I want to research Indian myths and gods, and find one that would be appropriate to plug in, instead of the generically-named demon I used.

But that feels dishonest to me, like I’m tricking readers into thinking that this story was carefully crafted with Indian culture and a god in mind, when it’s actually just an after thought.

UKL: “Indian.” Hopi? Pima? Aymara? Quechua? Hindu?

If you meant Hindu, there are plenty of Hindu demons already named.

But I’m worried by your statement about “researching Indian myths and gods” for a name to ”plug in” — as if these names were just game-pieces to play with, instead of sacred elements of a living religion practised by about 15% of the people in the world.

If you meant native American, I’m still worried. “God” and “demon” aren’t words that really fit the entities and powers of New World mythologies and religions. And appropriating their names will be deeply, and rightly, resented.

Yay for you for wanting your story to be honest!

You’ll find it helps to keep away from people and cultures you don’t know much about. Trust your own imagination to come up with names.

Sylvia: …. I would love to see an answer to the question “What is literary fiction?” that defines it by what it is and not by what it is not. I’ve read many definitions of literary fiction. They all leave me scratching my head. I love writing cozy mysteries. (I publish them independently, but I work hard to make my stories the best they can be.) I would also love to write more “serious” fiction, perhaps even literary fiction. But in the end, I will have to assign the story to a category. How will I know whether or not to categorize it as literary fiction?

UKL: You will scratch your head and then call it what you want to call it. It seems to be what we all do.

A couple of years ago I wrote a blog about Genre Fiction vs Literary Fiction in which I stated Le Guin’s Hypothesis:

Literature is the extant body of written art. All novels belong to it.

I find this saves a lot of head-scratching.

Gary: …. Issue: When it comes to novels, I find myself starting one, then abandoning it several chapters in. I need to get past that, but I find something about the novel writing process incredibly daunting, to the point that even starting anew is difficult.

Question: When you would start a new novel, was there anything in particular you did to prepare (ie. did you wire-frame your plot, or did you find a concept you liked and see where it took you)? And was there anything in particular you found when writing your first novel that might help a fledgling writer complete their first?

UKL: What I did is irrelevant, Gary, because every novelist does it differently, and different novels may need different starting procedures. All I can say is that setting out on a novel IS daunting — it’s a big commitment.

I know the mantra is “write every day,” etc. But (for what it’s worth) I learned that when a novel started building itself up in me, rather than rushing into writing it I should wait — hold back, let myself think and feel the story. Finally the impetus, the weight of it, would drive me to write — and then I could let the story lead me.

You say you’ve written and published short stories. If story rather than novel turns out to be your gift, don’t knock it! Think Chekhov….

Patricia: …I’m as yet unpublished but have finished my novel and, quite frankly, point of view is driving me crazy. I have three main characters who all want to make their point of view known. Sometimes a minor character also pipes up with something and I regularly get rapped on the knuckles about it in writing group or classes. Recently a friend in my writing group was told she must limit her “point of view characters” to no more than three. I’ve also been told 3rd person omniscient is no longer in vogue and only appears in older books. If I change points of view within a chapter, I see that it can be confusing but isn’t there some latitude about changing point of view within the novel, itself? Thank you.

UKL: Thank you, Patricia, for permitting me to rant. And to do some quick PR for my book Steering the Craft. There’s a lot in it about POV.

In brief: Changing the point of view from one character to another is an essential element of the modern novel — a technique a novelist (or a novel-reader) needs to be easy with. It embodies fiction’s capacity to move the reader from a single perception of reality to a multiple one — a psychological de-centering like the cosmic de-centering of Copernicus and Galileo.

Limited third person, unlimited third person, and first person narration are all capable of almost anything — in the right hands. Henry James is largely responsible for installing “limited third person narration” as the dominant fictional voice of the 20th century. It’s easier to write, and may be less demanding of the reader, than the authorial viewpoint (rather sneeringly called “omniscient”) characteristic of the 19th century, which developed into the unlimited moving from mind to mind throughout a novel that is now one of our most versatile options.

Distrust anybody — fellow writer, agent, editor — who tells you that fiction must use only limited third person.

It’s trendy at the moment, sure. But the surest way to go out of vogue is to be in it.

As currently practiced, limited third person is (like the present tense) a kind of flashlight beam — it gives a brilliant, narrow, simplifying intensity of vision. It’s well suited to many short stories and to the kinds of novel where a fast pace and a tight focus are prime values. It lends itself to detachment and irony.

The unlimited third person, the de-centered, flexible, moving point of view, is natural to stories and novels in which character and emotional relationships and interactions, cultural contrasts, etc., are important, in which problems aren’t solved by a gunshot or a bomb but by being worked out (or not worked out) over time.

Forcing such a narrative into a single POV will limit it and may cripple it. Write your story the way it wants and needs to be written. Change your POV when you feel like it!

Only, be really, really sure that you know how to do it….

For some discussion about how-to, see my book. For some examples of perfect how-to, read some Jane Austen or Virginia Woolf.

Kristen: …. About sentence variation, do you have certain structures that you tend to rely on/overuse [as I find I do] and what can be done about it?

UKL: Isn’t your own awareness of the problem your solution to it? Vary the pattern — play around with the order of words, the connections of sentences. Read them aloud…

Voss: I’ve been writing and publishing since 2011, so long enough to start noticing some trends in my own writing. My biggest issue at current is having strong character motivations. I tend to write very strong plots, but sometimes at the expense of realistic motivations, which then causes a lot of extra editing work. Is there any advice you can give on strengthening character motivation?

UKL: To invent and write about interesting characters who behave believably, you have to be interested in them. You can’t fake that interest.

If what people do interests you, but why they do it doesn’t – if you value action over motivation and plot over character – OK! Lots of readers do too. Follow your strength.

Jo: Is an outline for a short story or novel-length work strictly necessary? Is it best to begin knowing the ending?

UKL: An outline is a vital necessity for some fiction writers, and the breath of death for others. Nobody else can tell you how you work best — you have to find that out for yourself.

I think it’s a good idea to begin a short story knowing pretty clearly where it’s going and how it might get there.

As for a novel, I’ll say only that I think it’s best, before you begin writing it, to think you know where it’s going and how it’s going to get there.

Jack: Do you have advice on introducing characters such that readers care about them, while still balancing elaborate world-building?

My novella is about four family members trapped in a very strange landscape. According to critiques I’ve received from professional writers, the last two thirds of the story propel readers very credibly. But most readers (and editors!) never make it that far. A common comment is that “Stuff is happening to these characters, but I don’t understand why I should care about them.”

I’ve tried cutting the first scene to get to the “true” beginning. I’ve reorganized and rewritten the first third several times. The result is the same: editors reply that they “thought there was interesting world-building, but the story didn’t feel like it had enough focus and lost momentum”.

I realize it’s difficult to answer this question precisely without the manuscript. Nevertheless, I think a master’s general answers about generating reader interest at the beginning would always useful.

Lastly, and there’s no non-strange way to say this: I breed ball pythons. I name them after science fiction authors. Your namesake is especially pretty. Would you like to see her? (If this idea completely repulses or alarms you, please disregard…)

UKL: I have no masterful suggestions beyond this: if you’re not passionately interested in the story and the people you’re writing, but are more into “generating reader interest,” your readers will probably get uninterested pretty soon. And quite right too.

What you are “generating” is a story.

Any story well told will interest readers.

You’re right that I can’t answer without reading the MS, but I do have one wild idea: You might cut the whole first third, the problematic part. Fit the bits of it you need into the rest of the text where the story is running on its own momentum.

I don’t very much want to meet Ursula Python, but I would like very much to see a picture of her. Thank you!

Peter: After completing a writing workshop, I found I had a number of ideas for stories to write. I wrote and shared them with my critique group and submitted one to a few magazines. Now I find myself struggling to come up with additional ideas. I doubt I’ve run my well of ideas completely dry, but do you have advice for replenishing that reservoir?

UKL: Some writers need a professional program of some sort to keep their juices flowing. Many find a peer-group workshop, whether in person or via email, a great stimulus. And some of us just need a whole lot of patience while the well refills.

Wm Henry: My question is about resonance in novel-length fiction. There seems to be a point after a novel takes shape in terms of plot where all of a sudden all these places pop where you could insert a bit of something (a word, an image, an action, a gesture, subplots, minor characters) that resonates with other bits that are forward or backward in the text. Should one indulge or resist that desire? At some point do such echoes all become too tidy and/or too much? If so, how do you know when you’ve reached that point?

UKL: Indulge, indulge! Do it! As Keats said, “Load every rift with ore.”

It sounds like what’s happening is that as you work on it/in it, you’re seeing/feeling the interconnections of your story ever more clearly. Trust yourself. If you overdo it, you’ll probably know it. But so much of the strength and richness of a good novel is in those resonances, hints, half-repetitions, echoes, foreshadows, reminders — true signs that every part of it is organically connected to every other part. A novel is a living architecture.

Elizabeth: From today’s work session, a multi-viewpoint novel with three major point-of-view characters. Sometimes a minor character offers the best POV to convey information to readers when they need it. Even a short POV section needs some backstory on that character — a sense of who she is, why she’s there, what her motive is. Not enough & character is just a plastic mask over a microphone. Too much & character is unbalanced. Any suggestions on finding the right balance?

Been writing decades, well-published, but still working on getting better.

UKL: No useful suggestions, except perhaps to think of the Minor Character as a person, rather than as a function in your novel? If alive to you, Minor Character will be alive to the reader, in an appropriately minor way.

Personally, I wouldn’t be afraid of unbalance. Some great novel characters are totally minor as far as plot is concerned. (I’m thinking at the moment of Mrs Gamp in Martin Chuzzlewit. Second-rate Dickens novel — first-rate character. I’d re-read the whole book for the moment when Mrs Gamp tells them to leave the bottle of gin on the mantelpiece, so that she can “place it to her lips when so dispoged.”)

Bo: My question is about the very early stages of the novel-writing process. To use your sailing analogy, how do you determine the heading for your story-boat before you begin? Out of the whole ocean of possibilities, how do you decide which story to start writing? I’m an aspiring novelist at the very beginning of the process, and I’m having a lot of trouble with this. I can’t decide on a set of characters, or even which potential version of those characters, I should write about. Nor can I decide what the main plot/story-goal should be. I feel paralyzed by all the choices and I find myself going in circles in the pre-planning process, jumping between potential stories and characters, starting, and then petering out each time. I’ve had several false-starts now and I’m getting discouraged. How do you get started on a story? Thank you very much.

UKL: You say you’re starting out as a novelist. Well, setting up complicated plot-lines and making lists of characters is like a beginning artist who tries to design and paint a huge mural before even practicing drawing.

Slow down. It takes a while! Try writing very short pieces, a paragraph, a page, not complete stories. Just describe a certain scene, or put a character into a situation of some kind and tell what they do, what they feel.

The novels will come later.

Terry: I have a long list of story/character ideas, but when I start to flesh out the arc of the story, I usually fail. Either I can’t visualize the ending or I haven’t solidified the main character’s problem. Do you have a clear vision of the ending before you think about the beginning? If so, how do you shape that ending as a target?

UKL: I wonder if part of your problem is the same as Bo’s — lots of planning, but not much actual writing?

Anyhow, yes, you need to know where your story is going, in a general way, before you begin writing it. But I don’t advise thinking of the end of the story as a “target.” You aren’t shooting at something. You’re making something.

Some stories have great endings, but great stories are great all the way through.

Paige: I have been writing fiction (fantasy, light sci-fi) for several years now, and my question is the age old one about showing not telling. My narrator is telling his story through a journal that shuffles back and forth in time. How can he tell his story without “telling” as much as showing? Thank you for any advice or guidance you can offer.

UKL: No matter what sacred laws the Moseses of the Iowa School of Writing handed down on their stone tablets, the fact is, stories are not shown, but told.

Movies show stories, graphic novels (partly) show stories, but we story-tellers tell them.

“Show don’t tell” is good advice for beginning writers, and for preachy writers. And it reminds us all not to lose the onward pace of our narrative among infodumps.

But if your narrator has a complicated story to tell, let him tell it. Let it be as concrete, as visual, as vivid as possible, of course. Keep it always moving forward (or in your case, sometimes backward!) — in any case, moving.

Showing can be quite static, after all; but telling always involves moving on.

Jeremy: How do you evaluate whether the first page of a story is working? I find I struggle most with getting the ship into the water. Do you have a series of questions you ask yourself to evaluate the launch? A general protocol you follow? A particular goal in mind? I’ve tried many approaches but haven’t yet found my way to one that feels right. I’ve been writing for about thirteen years, five of them years of serious work, and I’ve published a handful of stories (which tend to get knocked, pre- and post-publication, for their soft beginnings).

UKL: How can you judge how well the first page of a story works until you’ve done a first draft of the whole story? There’s no way you can tell until the whole thing is, however roughly, there.

And then, more often than not, you find the first page, the first several pages, are just throat-clearings. Necessary preliminaries. Clearing stuff out of the way. Circling around, nose to ground… till finally you pick up the scent and you’re off into your story like a bloodhound on the track.

So then when you revise you throw away the whole beginning.

If you don’t trust me, trust Chekhov. He said you can always throw away the first three pages of a first draft. I didn’t believe him till I tried it.

Thank you all for all these questions! I love shop talk. — Ursula.



If you want to submit a question for consideration for a future post, use this form.



Steering the Craft, Second Edition, by Ursula K. Le GuinSteering the Craft – the new, completely revised edition – will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on September 1, 2015. There’s more about it at



Navigating the Ocean of Story – Session 1 — 15 Comments

  1. “When it comes to novels, I find myself starting one, then abandoning it several chapters in.”

    One thing I found helpful is sitting down with a stack of such half-finished works and reading them all in one big burst.

    (If I could tell you what you were looking for, you wouldn’t need to read them. 0:)

  2. Pingback: Have Writing Questions for Ursula K. Le Guin? | Book View Cafe Blog

  3. Thanks for the answers, Ursula! (& thanks to everyone else for the questions)
    I want to see a picture of the unusually pretty python, too.

  4. Ursula wrote: “You’ll find it helps to keep away from people and cultures you don’t know much about. Trust your own imagination to come up with names.”

    Or, if the story wants to feature a culture you don’t know much about, then research the hell out of it before starting to write. Trying to add spray-on diversity after the story is written, however, is usually a very bad idea.

  5. i see a trend here, where most writers detach themselves from the readers. You ARE the readers, you must be!

  6. I especially enjoyed your answer: “Showing can be quite static, after all; but telling always involves moving on.”

    I write in a corner of my kitchen on a high counter between the wall and the refrigerator, on which I post quotes about the craft of writing. This will be my newest addition. Thank you.

  7. Pingback: Craft talk from Ursula K. LeGuin | Lisa Manifold

  8. Many many thanks for “Steering the Craft” AND your blog AND this project – I’m 9 chapters into my first novel, and I owe you a great debt of gratitude!

    I started writing this novel more than 20 years ago, but threw away everything I did until about 5 years ago. None of it felt right. The characters were shallow and derivative of everything else I’ve ever read, the plots were corny, I could never get past the third chapter… One day, I was listening to one of your books on audiobook, and in the introduction you spoke a little of your writing style. You talked about discovering your characters, like a historian, rather than inventing them. That description resonated with me, so I just made up one character that intrigued me – imbued her with characteristics that I find compelling, then “studied” her. I have a rough idea where I’m sailing, but hey – the wind can be fickle! “Facts” emerge as I learn more about this new world. These “facts” will certainly alter the course my novel sails, so I can’t say which port we’ll put into, but I’m sure having fun along the way! It’s a very freeing way to write, and seems to be working well for me.

    Just wanted to share that with the folks who are struggling with knowing where their story is going, or wondering how to start, in hopes that it helps them too.

    To use a very old, tired, overused term that I really hate: Maybe you have to think “outside the box”

  9. I love your response to Wm Henre inre: resonance – “Indulge!”

    I also appreciate the “Distrust anybody . . .” comment inre: 3rd person POV. I was set back a couple years by receiving that advice in a workshop.

    Your name has come up a couple of times as a mentor (worshipfully) so I’m about to order your books on craft as well as subscribe to this blog. Thank you for sharing.

  10. [note: this is a reply to Le Guin’s 27 July 2015 post, Navigation Q1: How do you make something good? I’m compelled to comment but can’t find a “Leave a Reply” form on that page]

    Ursula, your cooking analogies speak to me. I’d like to suggest an alternate, narrow answer to the question, which is “follow recipes!” Writing may not have a Julia Child exactly, but writing is a more transparent art than cooking: a story is its own recipe in a way that a soufflé is not. To make a good story, read enough stories, and re-tell them (follow the recipes).

    In this line, I’m always interested by the ways different disciplines weigh “originality.” Musicians and actors have little trouble re-presenting old material, and there are separate categories– composers, playwrights– for making new music and plays.

    As a painter myself, I understand that visual artists, like writers, are generally supposed to make absolutely original work… except when they don’t, like Jeff Wall’s photograph A Sudden Gust of Wind, or any number of other examples. David Malouf’s recent novel Ransom is a partial transcription of one of the oldest bits of material we have; your own Lavinia is another!

    In my studio, I often work to invent new things, but I’m just as likely to find old things to re-make. Same in the kitchen.


  11. As an alumnus of the Univeristy of Iowa, I got a kick out of your commnet about the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (which I did NOT attend–I’d never presume to apply). In your answer on how to make a novel good you recommend reading good writers. Regarding point of view, you mention Jane Austen and Virgina Woolf; Keats regarding resonance and Chekov regarding tossing out the beginning pages of a novel. When the question form is available again, I want to ask which other good writers you recommend.