Navigating the Ocean of Story, Session 1 Part 4

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

By Ursula K. Le Guin

Session 1, Part 4


Hannah: I started writing my only, unpublished, novel after retiring in 2006… I have 3 protagonists, one of whom, Norman, I started not liking, then developed and came to value . . . An intelligent friend I respect who read it commented that he ‘developed nicely, the rat!’, but she did not find the same of the two women. I acknowledge they were both based on aspects of myself, whereas he was spun out of my guts and experience. Although I have been rewriting it for so long, I fear I need yet another go. I do believe my loved book to be a thought provoking story worth telling. Your advice on how to distance myself to make these two women come to life better would be treasured!

Ursula: You offer an opposition – the women “were both based on aspects of myself, whereas (the man) was spun out of my guts and experience.” I keep pondering on this. Aren’t your guts and experience aspects of yourself?

Or, by “aspects of myself” do you mean what you see when you look at yourself from outside, as it were – distancing your eye, perhaps judgmentally – ‘this is the sort of woman I am, this is what she thinks, this is what she does.’ If that’s the case, you don’t need to distance yourself from your two women, do you? Just the opposite. Maybe you need to come closer to them, take them into you, let their “guts and experience” be yours, instead of yours being theirs. Experience what they are experiencing in your story, without expectation or judgment, just as it happens.

If this makes sense to you, fine, but if it doesn’t, ignore it!


Julie: There’s a story I’ve been poking at on-and-off for two years that’s giving me trouble. I started writing it as a restless, overly-ambitious young professional, when my own restlessness and ambitions were driving me crazy, and writing about these characters was an escape. Partway through the writing, I realized that I was actually writing an (admittedly thickly-veiled) satire of restless, overly-ambitious young professionals in my field, and became annoyed because I dislike satire.

So I backpedaled, and I’ve been spending time developing my characters and the setting, writing short scenes between them, etc. I love my characters now, but I don’t know what happens to them. They’re all so smart and determined and hungry that it feels like it should be headed toward disaster, but how that happens is unclear. Maybe I just don’t have the experience/perspective to know what the end of their striving looks like; I’m not much older than most of them. But I can’t shake the sense that this story is important; how can I bang these rocks together to make it come out?

Ursula: “They’re all so smart and determined and hungry that it feels like it should be headed toward disaster” – Why?

Disaster is so predictable in a story about bright ambitious young people that I thought right off: what if Julie flouts expectation and let one of them end up genuinely happy? – not by going off to an ashram or something, but by doing exactly what he or she is good at, with the right people, in the right place….

If you don’t want to tell that story, that’s fine. But I think one thing you might consider trying is to concentrate the whole story increasingly (maybe from the start) on one of the group. Figure out what happens to him or her, and why: that is, what in his or her character invites this destiny. Once you have that clear, it may illuminate what the fates of the others will be.


Esme: Could you please tell us something of what success feels like and how it has changed over your career. I am specifically interested to know the before and after of your first publication. Did it get easier?

I write daily for at least an hour, often in journals, out of which come stabs at short fiction and personal essays. As yet I am unpublished, save for a small piece online. This year I started a novel with the goal of finishing a complete draft by the end of the year. I wrote about 30,000 words and spent some time intensely outlining. But I find myself stuck. I have returned to both short fiction and personal material looking to a) become aware of my “voice” and b) prove I can finish something.

Because I’m not yet published my main concern is finishing something I feel is my best work and sending it out into the world. Yet I have heard published authors who still don’t feel successful. When did you start to feel successful as a writer?

Ursula: Esme, I think the word success confuses people. They get recognition mixed up with achievement, and celebrity mixed up with excellence. I rarely use the word – it confuses me. I didn’t want to be a success, I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t set out to write successful books. I tried to write good ones.

Receiving recognition is very important to a young artist, but you may have to settle for achievement with very little recognition for a long time. You ask about me. I wrote and submitted my work to editors for six or seven years without getting anything published except a few poems in poetry magazines – as near invisibility as you can get in print. It kept me going, though. Then I got two short stories accepted within a week, one by a literary quarterly, the other by a commercial genre magazine. From then on I had some sense of where to send the next story, and began to publish more regularly, and finally placed a novel. Each publication added to my self-confidence. Growing recognition added more. But the truth is, I always had confidence in myself as a writer – I had arrogance, even. Yet I had endless times of self-doubt. I think what carried me through was simply commitment to the job. I wanted to do it.

Talent is no good without commitment. I’ve had students who wrote very well, but weren’t willing to commit to write, to go on writing, and to go on writing better. But that’s what it takes.

“Feeling successful” – well, that’s something you have to work out for yourself, what it means to you, how important it is. You’re quite right that very good and highly celebrated writers may not feel “successful.” Maybe they have unhappy natures, and the Nobel Prize would just depress them. Or maybe they aren’t fully satisfied with what they’ve done so far, don’t feel they’ve yet written the best book they could write. But they have the commitment that keeps them trying to do it.

Hang in there. And don’t push it. No hurry! Writing is a lifetime job.


Sue: I struggle with seeing my story from afar. I can get close to characters and scenes and kind of know where I want to go, but I’d like to approach my story with more purpose and seeing it as a whole. Any suggestions?

Ursula: If kind of knowing where you want to go isn’t enough, if you’re really uneasy not knowing every step of the way, then try sketching out a rough story-line. Don’t rush it. Take time over it. Make notes, make other notes. Let ideas arise, and maybe sink again. Think about the story when you’re going to sleep, or even better when you’re waking up. The story needs you to tell it. Don’t worry about its purpose, that will probably look after itself. Be patient with yourself and your story. Trust it to take you where you both want to go.


Basil: I have a big problem with the Main Idea of the story. I have a good script of adventures, I have planned characters, dialogs and the world very well, everything is fine, except one thing. After reading such a story people will ask – “So what did the author want to tell about? Is it just a story about heroes who reached from a point A to a point B? Where is the sense?” I know there are a lot of books of that kind. But how to make it more sensible? I know, that it is quite philosophical, but maybe you know some words to open my eyes…

Ursula: Privyet, Basil! I wish I had the magic words for you. But I don’t.

Maybe instead of thinking about what people will ask, you might ask yourself: “What is this story about? Why did I want to write this story, about these people, who go from point A to point B? Does their journey have a meaning to me?” If so, probably that meaning is in the story, and you need not worry about it.

But if you can’t answer the question “why did I want to write this story about these people,” then you should think about it, until you find the answer. Then perhaps you can write the story so that it contains that answer, though it does not need ever to declare it.


Peter: My question is about revision: when the thrill of a completed first draft cools off, I sometimes find myself not with “writer’s block” but “revision block.” Here’s this draft that I’m quite excited by, parts of which I’ve successfully tightened and tuned. But there’s one crucial chunk in the middle that’s not working in the first draft, but which I’m afraid to tug too hard at for fear of unraveling the whole rest of the thing I’ve built. It’s thrilling when I see a problem and have a sense of how to fix it; it’s demoralizing when I don’t. When do you give up on a story as fundamentally “broken” even if you’re in love with it? When do you keep pressing until you get it right? How do you know if you’re fixing the problem, or rearranging – and maybe breaking – the rest of the story to accommodate it?

Ursula: “Revision block” is a great phrase. Thank you! I never suffered from it, but quite a few people writing questions to this workshop do, and I hope you don’t mind if I borrow and use it.

I doubt there’s any all-purpose laxative for this form of literary constipation.

But in your case (though I really shouldn’t give any advice about a story I haven’t read), I’m struck by what you say about being afraid to “tug too hard” at a bit that you know isn’t working, because you fear could bring the whole thing down around your ears if you wiggle it too much.

Wiggle it. Tug it. Rewrite it. Remove it. Replace it. Whatever! Wear a hard hat. Be ready to revise whole stretches that came before it.

I mean, wottehell? As it is, you have no story. If taking this chance leaves the story wrecked, you still have no story, but at least you tried.

You just always keep pressing. You assume you will get it right, and go ahead. If it feels right, it is right. And if it won’t go, it won’t go. Put it away. If you forget it, it’s dead. If you think of it, that means it isn’t dead. In a week, or a month, or a year, or whenever, maybe you will think of it, and look at it and say, Oh, I see…!


Malika: I’m a writer who has been struggling for over a year with what I think is a problem of kindness; I believe every genre and story is a shape of some human kindness, but for some reason I have not been able to tap into the writer skill of inventing any such kindness for a long time. It’s as if the empathy of a storyteller has been lost to me in a fog, and all the terrains of the fantasy and romance and mystery I loved that dazzled me before are thorny brambles now – unkind things I can’t harvest myself. It has hurt my heart quite a bit to lose what I feel is an irreplaceable piece of a writer’s heart-set (sort of like a mindset for the writer’s heart?), and I wonder if you have experience on what to do when every form of story feels unkind for months on end? I am not used to having such venom for the wordsmith’s landscape, which I felt so a part of before.

Ursula: This is an existential or moral situation rather than an answerable question concerning writing, but I respect your struggle and your concern. It’s very hard to accept one’s own capacity for unkindness and cruelty, yet such self-knowledge may be essential to acting with kindness, and to the empathy which you feel you have lost. I think knowing that you’ve lost it is halfway to finding it again. It may take a while, but I think you will find the way through the thorny hedge into a new understanding.


Payal: There is a fantasy novel that I’ve been trying to write for, let’s see, six years now. It’s a follow-up to an already-published young adult fantasy adventure series, so world-building and characters are not a problem, but I just can’t seem to get my teeth firmly into the story. I feel I’ve got a good start and a good pace, with interesting enough things happening to the characters, but then, I get stuck somewhere around the halfway point or maybe two-thirds of the way. I’ve restarted at many points, gone off on various tangents, chopped of branches that were not working . . . and even considered giving up. But it seems like no matter what I do, I end up stuck; I just can’t find my way out of whichever corner I end up painting myself in. How do I know if I’m flogging a dead horse? I feel like I need to finish this book and I still feel it’s got some life in it. How do I find it?

Ursula: I can’t prescribe for a particular problem with a particular MS without reading the MS. We all get stuck in stories, but in different ways, for different reasons. There’s no formula for getting unstuck, alas.

You might ask yourself,” Why did I want to write this story?” If it was just to be a follow-up to a previous book, maybe that simply isn’t enough impetus, motivation, whatever, to carry you through it. You aren’t interested enough in the story itself, the people themselves.

Or, as I suggested to Basil, you might ask yourself, “What is this story about?” If you can answer that, maybe the answer you give yourself will show you where the story needs to go to get to where you want it to go, and do what you want it to do.


There have been so many questions from people who feel their story isn’t going well – they aren’t sure where it should go – maybe it’s going nowhere…that I asked myself: Here I am telling these people what to do, but how often did I feel that way, in the middle of a writing a novel? And what did I do about it?

I looked at my daybook, ten years ago, 2005, when I was writing Powers. “June 6. I am not sure the book has sufficient steam – pain – passion – It goes so slow, in little one-inch additions, and it will not suffer me to see a climactic or even a satisfying ending.” I was then 75 and had written at least twenty-five novels. So here I am, groping my way along pretty much as I did at 25, distrustful of what I’m doing and unsure where the story’s going.

I kept on adding the inches, however. On July 16 I wrote, “I think I finished Powers today about noon. Anyhow, Melle said, ‘It’s all right,’ and Gavir said, ‘I know it is,’ and that seemed to be it. Though I came at it perhaps too hurriedly – the ‘stampede to closure’? Well, we’ll see. This last week or so, ever since I saw them cross the river, I have diddled along with the story, figuring it was the last chapter, unsure how to write so undramatic a conclusion, and I think reluctant to conclude.”

So I did inch along to the end, still not quite sure even that it was the end, and not even really wanting it to end. . . .

I don’t know whether this is an encouraging example of a writer bravely persevering in the face of self-doubts, or a cautionary glimpse of a writer blundering through a novel like a cow in a blizzard. Whatever it is, I hope it’s useful to somebody.


21 September 2015



Navigating the Ocean of Story, Session 1 Part 4 — 6 Comments

  1. I just “friended” my first boss at Chapman University, who hired me to teach writing in 1997/8 or so … boy howdy did I not know anything! Around about that time I also decided I had better get experience teaching online, if I wanted to get established in a career writing and teaching. I decided to use Ursula’s book Steering the Craft and adopted several lessons. I wrote her a letter thanking her, and asked a few questions about things I didn’t understand in the book. She wrote back, informing me I was pretty cheeky thinking I could teach writing (since I had barely started out myself).

    Fast-forward to now. I do know a few more things now.

    These responses to each of the writers are about as perfect as could be. I would recommend that aspiring writers read every word carefully and ponder it. Both the writer questions, and the answers.

  2. Ursula, I loved what you wrote to Hannah about getting inside our characters ~ “Maybe you need to come closer to them, take them into you, let their “guts and experience” be yours, instead of yours being theirs.” That’s exactly it! It may sound strange, but my characters have taught me so much. Our relationship is definitely reciprocal. They constantly surprise by what comes out of their mouths.

    One idea for you Hannah, if your relationship with your women characters seems too cerebral, try choosing a “theme song” for each character. I’ve found that music often takes me to deeper places where the emotional/spiritual qualities of my imaginary people emerge. Instead of thinking up what’s going on with your characters, you begin to feel what’s going on with them. It all becomes more intuitive. Does anybody else do this?

  3. These daybook glimpses are so thrilling—and call to mind of course Woolf’s own journals. There’s something queer and wonderful about hearing the writing mind talking aloud to itself, right on the live edge of the work, that precarious place. (And I find it natural and also lovely that great workers in prose should soothe and steady themselves with still more, and private, prose… Poets don’t do that, that I know of, but novelists have to hold the flame high for so much longer.)

    At any rate, more daybooks please!

    • Agreed. Please, more of these daybook entries, and thank you for sharing it. Reading these doubts coming from an author such as you gives me a little hope. It tells me that I need to persevere through the self-flogging I do while/after writing.

  4. Thank you so much for your comments and your time. These question/answer sessions are filled with diamonds.