Navigating the Ocean of Story: Session 1, Part 3

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

By Ursula K. Le Guin

Session One, continued: Part Three

Selected from questions 80-97.

Jordan: The characters I create, while full of intrigue in my original mental conception of them, lose their life as their tales get written down. As the creator of my characters, I know their complexity and the worthiness of their respective journeys. Readers encountering them for the first time, however, are naturally ignorant of the qualities within the characters that make them compelling. Instead of being drawn into my characters they can find them flat, especially towards the start of story when not much is known about them.

It is important to me that I allow the more intimate parts of my protagonists’ personalities to be gradually flushed out as the story progresses; it seems improper to reveal the depths of a character’s soul right off the bat. But my readers don’t have enough initial enthrallment with them to invest the needed time to get to know them and the lovable aspects of their personalities revealed throughout the story. Without prematurely divulging the essence of my protagonists, how would you recommend I help my readers to be as riveted with my characters at the start of a story as I am?

Ursula: I don’t know who your readers are. You may simply be developing characters more slowly than these readers are used to; people widely read in fiction might disagree with them.

Anyhow, I’d say: don’t withhold. Don’t save up. Go for broke. Put everything you know about your characters into their behavior and speech from the start. You think you know all about them, but you may well find that you don’t — that they have depths and qualities you never thought about, which you will discover as you write, if you give them all you have and let them be all they are, all the way.


Joe: I’ve been writing since I was very young. I was published in local magazines while in college, but for many years I wasn’t writing as much as I should have been, and now I’m returning to my fiction writing.

While my story is coming along, I find myself struggling to regain my voice and create sentences of complex structure. When I read over the writing I produced at 15, I’m pleasantly surprised by some of the interesting sentences I managed to create; in comparison, the sentences I produce now seem clipped, brief, lacking in “some elusive thing” which I used to produce on the page by pure instinct.

Is this something time and practice will rectify, or something I should worry about in subsequent drafts while polishing? Are there just some writers who go back and add layers during editing, in antithesis to Stephen King’s trimming away an entire quarter of his first draft?

Ursula: Many contemporary writers avoid complex sentences and write what I call Macho Staccato. That may have influenced you. I suspect you’re mainly just out of practice. And you’ve changed some, after all, since you were fifteen. Don’t worry about what Stephen King or anybody else does, just keep working toward your own natural rhythm and pace — what feels right to you.


Michael: My question is about style. Your work is often quite lyrical and written in rather long sentences, but the sentences are ultimately still easy to read. How can I develop the ability to deliver complex sentences in a way that reads as easily as less poetic prose?

Ursula: Practice! The ideal is flexibility, a balance of different sentence lengths, longer and shorter sentences depending on what they do, what they’re about.

And read! When you read really good prose, you’re living in that vital balance, and it begins to be natural to you. For example, do you know Patrick O’Brian’s sea novels? Even his fast-moving action scenes often contain quite long sentences; they are always absolutely clear, and full of impetus.


Timothy: I’m 43 and I am starting out on my first serious writing project (am I too late?!). I have good characters, really good characters that I’ve thought about and formed in my head and on paper for over a year. I am so confident that my characters are good they are driving my motivation to find a story for them, that’s the problem — story and plot, I’m faltering. I tend to write chunks, ideas that are always character led but the finished chunk never fits with the other chunks. I’m not very good at starting at the start or ending at the end. I would be very pleased and thankful if you could offer me a guiding hand.

Ursula: You are NOT too late. Prose writing seems to be the art that develops slowest. Musicians can be great at 14 and singers at 18 and poets at 20, but many prose writers don’t amount to much before they’re thirty. Many only hit their stride at fifty. José Saramago’s great novels were all written after he was sixty.

At this point, why not let the chunks be chunks? Consider them practice, like a pianist playing etudes. If your characters continue to fascinate you, they may begin relating with one another, within in a chunk, or between chunks. So a story will begin to appear. Don’t push it. Just follow the path into the forest, as far as it goes.


Racheal: Plot. What does it really mean? I have characters, I have scenes, I have ideas. Tying them altogether with a string and saying ‘yes, this is what the book is about’, that is where I fail magnificently. How does a writer decide what plot is and if one has it? Anytime I start to think about my plot and what my driving force in the story is and its reason for existence, it all falls to pieces. I’m not trying to say anything just tell a story. Or is this merely a case of a writer being asked what their story is about and leaning in to say, ‘what is it about to you?’

Ursula: As I see it, a plot is a series of events connected so as to tell a story in a certain way. It’s not a story, nor a story’s reason to be.

From my own experience, the time to ask or be asked “What is this about?” is a) When you’re really stuck and can’t get the story to move forward, b) After you’ve finished the first draft.

An answer to “what am I writing about?” can answer the question “how do I move on from here?” Asking the whole manuscript “What are you about?” is a good guide to making useful revisions, cuts, and additions.

But thinking about such questions while you’re in the heat of composition can be fatal — taking you out of your story, into the distanced position of a critic. While you’re writing, that Internal Critic should be quietly thinking and trying to keep the story on course, but not orating about it!


Twila: No matter how I try (outlining, not outlining, throwing words at the page in frustration), I keep losing momentum and story around the 50th page — it just dies on me. I want to finish, I have ideas about what the end should be, but I can’t get from here to there. I’ve been working on this for 20 years, and still haven’t found any way out. (I have tried writing various novels, none have made it past 50 pages.) Any words of wisdom on how to bridge that insurmountable gap?

Ursula: Well, you know, Chekhov never bridged that gap. I don’t think he ever tried to. He wrote short stories, a few novellas. And is considered the master of the form. I don’t want to discourage your ambition to write a novel, but you may be fighting against your own gift. Have you tried accepting it?


Jane: I’m writing a novel set in 15th century Spain (last Moorish king of Granada) from the viewpoint of a palace official who has always (to the world, and to readers) presented as male. Is it fair on readers for me to keep her gender secret till the very end of the book, thus making her an unreliable narrator in this aspect of the telling, at least, but maintaining a surprise; or should I bring readers into the secret earlier? Do I risk their fury/disappointment? I suppose this is about how far readers can/should trust a narrator and if this is in your view a fair trick to play.

Ursula: If the story is told entirely from the viewpoint of the woman who presents as a man — a very dangerous thing for her to do, given the mores of the time, place, and religion, so that she must be constantly, intensely aware of it as an imposture and of the risks she runs — how can you justify not including this awareness in a narrative consisting of what she does, thinks, perceives, and feels? I think it’s impossible. It leaves out too much, to no purpose except that of pulling a Gender Rabbit from the hat at the end. And I’m afraid I’d find it a pretty shabby rabbit.

Could you possibly tell the story from the POV of another person or other people — a friend, fellow courtiers — none of whom suspects her secret?


Swati: I have been training myself to write mindfully, and I believe I have succeeded to some extent and in some aspects. But there’s one aspect that I continue to struggle with: Vigor in writing. My story and scenes have (I think) good skeletal structure. My prose (I think) has glowing skin. But the flesh and blood seems lacking. The muscles feel toneless. My characters’ words and actions feel passionless — too cerebral, too academic. I wish to learn how to make my prose strong and vibrant and bursting with life. How to develop that skill?

Ursula: I wish I could tell you! But I am responding to your question only because I know it is heartfelt, and also because it’s a not uncommon problem, especially in science fiction. The imagination is working on an intellectual but not a bodily plane, so that the story proceeds rationally, satisfying the mind but not engaging the emotions or reaching much depth. Having a message one wants earnestly to deliver, or a brilliant plot device or conception, often leads to this kind of bloodless writing.

This is a crazy idea, I have no idea if it would help, but here goes: Imagine your reader as a very intelligent, warm, kind person, highly sympathetic, but not an intellectual, not highly educated — and try to write your story, try to portray your characters, for that person. I’m not saying “write down” from above to below — just the opposite! You will go down, and inward — trying to make yourself understood in a sense deeper than cerebral understanding, trying to reach compassion.


John: I am writing stories with hopes of telling them in front of audiences. Most of these stories come from my own life, or their subjects do. How does one tell a story about something very familiar (mothers, fathers; fights, etc.) without being trite? I don’t want to begin a story and have my audience roll their eyes, saying “Here we go again” with a sigh.

Ursula: Mothers, fathers, fights, etc. — You just described the story of Hamlet, or the story of War and Peace.

However, neither of those stories is autobiographical. Maybe your material seems over-familiar to you because you haven’t got enough distance from it to handle it yet? You can’t cook with your hands in the fire (Gethenian proverb).


T.A.: (with Ursula interlineating in italics): Naming characters who are not contemporary (ours) humans is crazy-making. Do you leave out vowels? Not unless you’re writing in Hebrew. Lots of apostrophes? What for? Assume “John” and “Mary” survive a thousand years into the future? Well, they’ve lasted for well over 2000 years now, but their forms keep changing.

And what about them “aliens”? Do sentient beings on planets 2,000 light years from Earth even bother with names? Depends on the sentience and the aliens.

Of all the things about writing SF/fantasy, naming characters is the hardest – even harder than understanding that hard disk drives are not going to be in use in the year 2525. Or that any of our hi-tech stuff is of no importance to a lot of people on earth now, and may be of no importance to anyone in time to come.

How do you come up with plausible names? Do you have a few key rules or guidelines? I don’t find naming particularly hard, characters mostly come to me with their names. If they don’t, then I know they haven’t really arrived yet, and I have to wait and try out names, sometimes for days and days, before I hear the right one. My only “rule”: avoid unpronounceable names (like Qfwfq), because your reader can’t pronounce them (even if you are Italo Calvino), and avoid sweet swoony names ending in –a (like Weena) for your heroine, because your reader may throw up (even if you are H.G. Wells).


Two questions:

Joseph (Question 64, held over): Some years ago, I diverted from writing prose into poetry, and while it’s been a wonderful time, I would like to make room for prose again. Looking back on (what I’ll charitably call) my old half-completed novellas of the uncanny, I feel that what I lacked, poetry provides: economy of language, uniqueness of metaphor, a certain urgency. However, I’m not sure how to fold the one into the other without creating a verbal mishmash.

As someone who has explored both types of writing, what advice would you give for whisking poetry into prose? Or for not doing it: for stories set more-or-less on Earth of the present (with some… adjustments) do you think a focus on the poetic would distract from the potential for social commentary, or exclude the reader? And should one be extra careful not to lose other story elements (e.g. the plot; those pesky characters) when delving too deep into the language?

Deepthi: I fancy myself as a poet. But lately, I have been experimenting with prose. However, I am facing some difficulty in removing the personal experience or emotion from the piece of prose. In a poem, I am free to express myself as remorselessly as I want. But when it comes to prose, how do I alienate personal emotions or similar personal experiences from a story? Do I try and fit myself into a character’s shoes? Also, is there any technique to identify whether my value judgements are impacting a character, for example making the character unidimensional?

Ursula: As one who writes both, I’m often asked whether and how poetry influences prose (nobody has yet asked how writing prose might influence the poetry). In reply, I mumble. I really don’t know, beyond some obvious things. For instance, the poet’s ear for sounds, rhythms, and cadences, will carry over into writing prose. And so may the poet’s desire to make the words vivid, as exact and accurate, and as few as possible, telling much briefly. All this is good. But it can go too far. Narrative written by a poet is sometimes both over-elliptic and over-written — too aware of itself, not interested enough in telling the story.

Both Joseph and Deepthi are worried about characters. And lyric poetry, come to think of it, isn’t often about people as individuals. For a poetry that voices character, that embodies both idea and emotion in an individual, you may have to go to the Greek plays and Shakespeare. Not bad models for a story-teller. . .

It worries me a bit that Joseph calls characters pesky, that Deepthi asks if she should fit herself into their shoes. If you’re writing stories about people, it’s best to have a real interest in them as people, and some feeling about their feelings. You both know that characters used as pawns moved about at the behest of some message or some plot, or as puppets to voice the author’s opinions and values, will lack vitality, reality, humanity. The only way I know to supply this lack is to take a lively interest in your people — whether you like them or not, whether you agree with them or not. To write well and honestly about a person involves “walking a mile in their moccasins,” as the Cheyenne and Sioux put it.

I’m sure there is a lot more to be said on this subject.


Christy: I continue to run into passive voice issues. Do you have any suggestions on how to avoid this? Also, what makes passive voice so insulting to critics, readers and writers?

Ursula: I shamelessly take this opportunity to mention the fact that my book Steering the Craft, A Twenty-First Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, was published September 1, 2015. I want to quote from the book in answer to your question. On p. 56-57 is a little essay on the passive voice. It ends this way:

“People often use the passive voice because it’s indirect, polite, unaggressive, and admirably suited to making thoughts seem as if nobody had personally thought them and deeds seem as if nobody had done them, so that nobody need take responsibility. Writers who want to take responsibility are wary of it. The cowardly writer says, ‘It is believed that being is constituted by ratiocination.” The brave writer says, ‘I think, therefore I am.’

“If your style has been corrupted by long exposure to academese or scientific or ‘business English,’ you may need to worry about the passive. Make sure it hasn’t seeded itself where it doesn’t belong. If it has, root it out as needed. Where it does belong, we ought to use it freely. It is one of the lovely versatilities of the verb.”


Thank you all for your questions – not one of them was uninteresting, and I wish I could have answered them all. There were just too many in this first session! Next session I’ll hope to keep up better, and not be so far behind the new questions as they come in.


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



Navigating the Ocean of Story: Session 1, Part 3 — 7 Comments

  1. Twila: Here’s a method which might be helpful for someone who is neither an outliner nor a pantser:

    How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermanson.

  2. ” I keep losing momentum and story around the 50th page — it just dies on me.”

    Then you have a whole stack of such stories.

    Take said stack and sit down and re-read them in rapid succession.

    If I knew what you were looking for, I would tell you, but there’s no substitute for the read through.

  3. Ann: Thanks for your comment. We’ve replaced the link with the name of the author and the book, because I don’t want to seem to be selling books for Amazon, or endorsing a book I know nothing about. The comments I most welcome are suggestions rising from the writer’s own personal experience of writing.
    Sail on!

  4. I’ve been keeping up with every one of these posts, and each one of them has given me grain of something immensely valuable and useful in my own writing. Thank you so much for sharing your time and your wisdom!

  5. For Calvino’s original readers, w was almost as exotic as if you now included a greek letter in a character’s name: the Italian “alfabeto” contained 21 letters, missing j, k, x, y, w. Most (all?) of the other funnily named characters in the same book(s) contain one of the non-existing letters.

    I never felt Qwfwq was unpronounceable, not even when I first read Calvino as a young teenager. I just read aloud the first three letters pretending that w was just two v’s, so I read it as Coovoovooeff, with an accent on the third syllable.

  6. Pingback: Everyday heroes | William Reichard

  7. Pingback: There’s still hope | James Schellenberg