Navigating the Ocean of Story, Session 1, Part 5

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

Session 1, Part 5

By Ursula K. Le Guin

Alper: A lot of times, when I am writing or thinking a story, a scene just pops up. The scene seems powerful, touching, or somehow important, so I want to include it in my story.

So far so good. The problem is at this point the plot may be mostly set and characters already well developed. It won’t be easy to fit this scene into the current form of the story. Its length may be a few paragraphs or pages but to make it plausible you possibly need to tweak the characters and the events. May be you found a way to do that but then wonder if this new additions spoil the integrity of the plot and characters, make them less organic. Of course you can forget the scene and write your story as it is. No reader can know it is missing. But at the same time you want to include it, for you it seems like it belongs to the story.

My question is what are your tactics to make such decisions? Is this another false dichotomy? When and under what conditions are you giving up on such scenes or forcing things to include them in your story?

Ursula: Length is a consideration. A short story can’t keep tucking in new bits without getting very lumpy. But novels — well, there’s the race car novel: sleek, stripped-down, speed-and-end-oriented – and there’s the camel caravan novel, which can contain all sorts of discrepant stuff, explore byways, take on baggage, stop to rest at oases, just so long it keeps on going.

How fully do you plot out your story before you start writing it, and do you use that outline as a blueprint or as a rough sketch? If you’re working to a blueprint, you can’t suddenly add a bedroom to the second floor without redesigning the entire house. If your plan is a rough sketch, it’s flexible and probably, with some rewriting, can contain the new scene without strain.

You say, “when I am writing or thinking a story.” That sounds to me as if you’re not a blueprinter, but work from a flexible conception. If so, I’d advise you not to start writing before you’ve done a good deal of thinking and sketching out. But once you’re well into writing this book, these new scenes that come into your head may be an integral part of your invention. If they introduce entirely new characters and action totally separate from the main direction of the story, just make a note of them and put them aside; but if they want to work themselves into the story, and can do so, let them. They may have come to you for a reason the story knows better than you do. On final revision, if they really don’t belong, or slow the impetus of the story too much, you’ll see it, and can take them out again.


Julie: I have written a couple of long novels. I would like to again but seem to be stuck in short story land. They have a different pattern, language and they end when they “feel” done. This is usually before I’ve tied up all the loose ends. There’s a few many things could happen trails leading off into the distance but the story insists it’s finished.

Now, while I don’t have a problem with leaving things sorta undone because the character has had their episode, I would like to go back to longer stories. Do you have any ideas on how to jump start the whole process?

Ursula: “Jump start” is a phrase I see often in advice-about-writing. I don’t really know what it means. To jump start a car, you need jumper cables and a working battery. What are the metaphoric cables and battery that can jump start a story? If there’s no story yet in your mind, what is being jump started?

(Here we are in the stone tower – thunderstorm crashing – Leyden jars bubbling, lightning bolts arcing across the laboratory – Igor lurching around the table as Dr Frankenstein prepares to activate the monster – But where is the monster?)

OK, seriously. I know the yearning to be at work on a novel! But still, if you’re writing stories, be glad you have stories to write.

I agree that writing a short story is very different from writing a novel, but the activities aren’t totally unrelated. Sometimes novels grow from short stories. (See Dreamsnake.) Or the same characters or the same location begin to turn up in different stories, till you have a novel made out of stories (see The Country of the Pointed Firs, or Cloud Atlas). Or if you have an idea worthy of becoming a story that doesn’t have the weight needed to become a novel, you might consider that beautiful form the novella. It’s different from both the short story and the novel, with the economy of one yet the spaciousness of the other. (The trouble with it is, it’s hard to market. But in this workshop we’re ignoring Capitalism and considering only Art.)

Anyhow, I think when you have a novel to write again, it will begin visiting you, whispering, “Write me.” Till then, no jumper cable, not even a lightning bolt, can bring it into being.


Juniper: I am in the middle of writing my first novel, a “young adult” fantasy. This is my second attempt to make a career of writing, I first tried to write this same fantasy book in my 20s, but the attempt fizzled out due to lack of discipline. Now that I’m a mother I’m much better at discipline! This book WILL be written. However, I’ve recently had stirrings of inspiration for an entirely different book, a contemporary sci fi. I wrote most of the first chapter and the ideas just keep coming. Do you ever find yourself torn between projects? Do you just follow the muse, or do you find it better to finish what you start before giving in to that temptation? I find myself trapped between two dangers — not making progress on my first book, or losing productivity anyway by not following my inspiration. My summers tend to be unproductive with the kids constantly at home, so this fall I’m tempted to go with the muse until I’m really “back in the saddle,” but I’m curious to hear about your experiences with juggling multiple ideas. Thank you for any advice!

Ursula: Juniper, I never had but one idea at a time. Like whichever President it was who could walk, or chew gum, but not both at once. (I believe there’s a dirtier version of that, but never mind.) However, I will say, on the basis of what you say:

If you’ve got a book that’s writing itself, let it! Follow it as far as it takes you, as hard as you can. Forget the willpower business. The older book has been waiting a long time; it can wait some more. Maybe that book belonged to that period in your life and just can’t be brought into this period of your life. Maybe it will find a new form. But right now, the kids are back in school, and you have a book to write, ma’am. Go on and write it.


iurgi: I’ve always admired the way your books challenge the reader, explore ideas and tackle big issues without the reader ever feeling like he/she’s being lectured. When writing I’m always careful that I don’t put too much of my thinking, values and ideals into the writing. I don’t want the reader to feel like I’m being too didactic. But then, I’m undermining myself, watering down a story that could be much stronger? How do you get that balance? Any tips?

Ursula: This subject is a very large and deep one, that goes way past anywhere a “tip” could take us. For a serious writer seriously concerned about any moral, social, political, environmental issues, it is a major concern. I’ve been wrestling with it ever since I was 18. Crudely, it comes down to: “There are some things I believe need saying, that I’d like my story to say — but it’s not a lecture, it’s a story.” Well, you have that clear in your mind, iurgi. And that’s good. Right there, you probably have found the balance you want. You fear that by refraining from direct statement of your thoughts, you may end up with a story that does not express them at all. I haven’t read your story, but I‘ll bet it does express them. You don’t have to. Let your story express them for you.


Deborah: How do you know where to start the story? Usually, I jump into the middle of the first action, but that means I usually end up with 20 or 30 pages of backstory which no one but myself knows, and which I need to explain to the reader throughout the story.

The current story I have in hand I think needs to start at the beginning, before the real action, and I keep reading it over and think it’s horrifically boring.

There is at least mental and then physical action in the scene — a ten-year-old girl must make up her mind to defy her aunt, and then she must physically get out of the house and follow through on her decision.

Naturally, I’m stuck on trying to set up the world without info dumps and with making her decision and the steps to follow the decision interesting.

Ursula: Without having read the MS, I can’t answer your question, but I’ve got two questions for you:

  1. You say, “the story needs to start at the beginning before the real action.” Huh? Child defies and escapes aunt? Sounds like real action to me. Also like a good beginning to a story.
  2. Why keep “reading your beginning over and over?” Anything you do that to will get boring! Try just assuming it’s OK and let it be for now. We can’t always judge the effectiveness of opening scenes until we’ve written the closing scenes.


Linda: I’ve been working on my pacing skills. Comments say my pacing is uneven. This doesn’t seem to be a topic that craft books discuss in much detail beyond “write short sentences.” I’ve typed out a thousand words of James Patterson to see what it told me, which was a great tool. Is there anything you recommend that I could also try?

Ursula: Any book that tells you to “write short sentences” probably doesn’t contain any sentences worth reading.

Narrative pacing is a complex matter, of which sentence length is one element.

There are no rules concerning sentence length. I suggest that you try for both variety and appropriateness. That is, a mixture of shorter and longer sentences, the length of each sentence being suited to what and how much it has to say, and in what context.


Evil Overlord: How do you judge the appropriate level of pathos in a scene? I’ve written scenes that make me cry every time, but then I know the characters and what they’re really feeling, not just what may come through to a reader. I’m told my writing is understated, yet when I leave more obvious emotional cues, the writing feels crude and blunt. Any clever ideas on how to balance this — other than via beta readers?

Ursula: An Evil Overlord who weeps over his own sad stories sounds like my kind of Evil Overlord. But without having read his evil works to find out whether or not I weep, what can I say?

You’re told your writing is understated. What does that mean? Understated compared to what? Who are the people telling you this? What makes them cry? What do they read? Do they read good writers? Do they read The Grapes of Wrath? Do they read The Once and Future King? Good writers get you interested in a story and some characters, and maybe they write emotionally, maybe they write quietly, but as you read you suddenly find yourself struggling with tears, because you are really feeling what these people feel.


John: Does fiction need to be simpler than real life? I’m struggling in an attempt to fictionalize some sequences of events from my own life and I keep thinking, “no one would believe this.” (My first thought is that maybe I’m still too close to it. I’ve been writing fiction and journalism for two decades, but that has always involved telling stories about other people, never about myself.) Have you ever taken events from your own life as a jumping off point for your fiction, and if so did you need to find a separation between reality and story?

Ursula: An interesting and legitimate question, but I’m not the person to answer it. I have deliberately, and almost successfully, avoided any conscious use of myself or anyone I know in my fiction.

Of course everything I invent, every character, every story, comes from my experience, just as a zucchini comes from compost — Where else could it come from? But that’s not what you’re asking about.

If your problem is that your truth is stranger than fiction, I’d say: So what? Go ahead, tell it. Some readers will say knowingly “Oh, that couldn’t be!” And you can say quietly to yourself, Ha ha.


dinesh: Hi, I have question about endings. You know the kind of stories where it ends as if with a click, like a box closed with a finality that leaves you with a sense of satisfaction, yes, that’s how it should have ended, that’s the only way it could have ended. How do I end my stories like that? My stories seem to end in a meander, sometimes.

Ursula: I really like some stories that end Click! and really dislike others. Some stories that end in a meander are disappointing, others are satisfying, because “that’s the only way it could have ended. “

Of all the ways to write stories, no one way is The Right Way — but any way may be the right one for this story.


Tamara: I’ve been writing novels for a long time and short stories for the last two years; I’ve sold three short stories to professional genre markets.

My question: a lot of first readers tell me that my short story drafts are too crammed with ideas, and I need to give my stories more length to let them “breathe.” But I am not sure what I should add, because I guess I’ve been indoctrinated by all the writing advice telling you to cut everything unnecessary, and so anything I can add, my brain subconsciously sees as needless fluff I should cut. Or I add more of what I know of the world, or add another subplot, which means that my stories are several thousand words longer, but according to second-draft readers, still just as crammed! Do you have advice on how to expand a story that, pacing-wise, needs to be longer, while adding instead of padding?

Ursula: Your first-draft readers tell you your stories are “too crammed with ideas,” and so – if I understand you — you want to space out the ideas with passages that aren’t all ideas. But the commandment Cut Everything Unnecessary tells you that everything but ideas is extraneous, is fluff, which must be cut. So, I gather, the only way you allow yourself to expand the stories is by adding intellectual complications. Then your second-draft readers complain that your stories are too crammed with ideas.

Not being one of your readers, I can have no opinion on whether their judgment is right or wrong. But I can’t resist suggesting that perhaps what your stories need is more fluff. Nobody complained of fluff, did they?

I guess what I’m saying is you may be cutting the wrong things. And that shows precisely what’s wrong with a “rule” like Cut Everything Unnecessary. Of course it is, in a vast, vague, trite, useless way, true. Of course a work of art should contain nothing unnecessary to it. But to you, your ideas are necessary to your work. So you try to space them out, to make more room for them. But the truism pops up squawking Adding is Padding! Adding is Padding! And you go into defensive position and start cramming in subplots and more ideas — because anything else is padding, is fluff…

You already know your story needs an easier pace. That means moments of relief and relaxation — passages that aren’t of intense intellectual interest, but that “merely” describe what the world looks like, smells like, sounds like — episodes that let the characters react to one another, or to their situation, with humor, or with terror, or affection, or envy, or admiration, or desire, or disgust, or resignation, or delight – whatever — the physical, emotional, and moral responses that are the lifeblood of ideas, and of fiction. None of that is padding.

It’s story-telling. Trust your own instincts, Tamara, and when that wooden-headed truism pops up, whack it down, and go ahead.


Tamara’s question gives me an opportunity to ask you and all the others sailing with us a question.

I gather there’s now a widespread practice, via the Internet, of writers sharing their work in draft form with other people, who read it and respond with criticisms, opinions, and advice.

Almost all the people writing me with questions cite the judgments and advice of these readers — alpha readers, beta readers, first-draft readers, second-draft readers….

Writers seeking critique of work in progress used to turn to family members or friends, or a small peer-group of writers, or members of a class or workshop. Such a group normally shared some common interests and values, and was on the same general level of skill.

Evidently many writers are now putting out their work on the Net in a way that invites anybody who happens to visit a site to read it and deliver judgment on it. So you may not know what qualification these readers have for giving advice, on how much experience in writing, or even reading, their judgment is based. You may not know whether they’re responding honestly to your work, or playing at being experts.

It worries me that so much of the reader-response cited in these questions doesn’t sound like the reaction of the normal fiction-reader (who, after all, is probably not a writer.) It reads like “rules” they read in a book about writing. All too often it repeats the dreariest clichés of academic writing manuals, or the fatuous panaceas of the latest vendor of snake oil — Write-A-Bestseller-In-One-Week!

It takes a good deal of experience in reading, in writing, and in thinking about writing, to say what’s necessary to a story and what isn’t, what belongs and what doesn’t.

I’m not knocking non-expert readers. Undogmatic, good-natured amateur response can be tremendously useful, particularly when it’s about specific elements of the story. “I think their whole argument about the sofa cushions could go out — it just repeats what their quarrel about Higgs bosons did better” – That’s a critique worth heeding, particularly if more than one reader says the same thing. But the reader who tells you to “cut everything unnecessary” is just parrot-squawking some useless “rule” they read somewhere.

And I’m hearing lot of parrot-squawk. It worries me.

So my question to you all is:

Do you consider it a good idea to offer your work in progress to numerous and/or unselected critics? If so, how do you decide which criticisms are valid and useful?

I just spent about 400 words asking the question, so let’s call 400 words the limit for answers. Submit your answers through this form. If enough answers come in, we’ll post them sometime later this fall. I look forward to reading them.

UPDATED: I have decided this conversation would be better carried on in comments on the blog. You can find the discussion here.  The form has been turned off.



Navigating the Ocean of Story, Session 1, Part 5 — 5 Comments

  1. One of the problems with critics is that a lot writing groups are made up of beginners. The beginners have all read the same things, like “Cut all the fluff,” so they see a paragraph of description as fluff and tell the writer to cut it because that’s a “rule.” Unfortunately, most of this advice also comes from people who haven’t pushed past the beginner level. I just saw one of those “10 Things You Shouldn’t Do” kind of articles online, and it said not to spend any time on the setting; not to do five senses; and description shouldn’t be more than two sentences. Just really stupid stuff. All of the writers praised it as being useful. When I said it was bad advice, I was informed that I was “not doing myself any favors” by not following it. This can be the level of people that turn up in a lot of critique groups.
    About two years ago, I made up a list of all the junk I’d heard over the years for a workshop I was in. It was 70 items! I was horrified! I realized that all this advice, rather than being helpful, was messing up my writing. As a result, I had to drop out of writing online groups because I realized I knew some of the advice was bad, but because the beginners kept repeating it, the advice was filtering subconsciously into my stories. I also looked at that list and threw it all of that advice out in my head, and since then, almost every story has had one round of a rejection with personal comments from a pro-rate editor. It made me realize how much all that advice was actually hurting me, and the worst part is a lot of looks like it makes sense.

  2. One useful note about the beta readers is that they are far more likely to be right about WHETHER there is a problem than they are to be right about what it is.

    Too crammed with ideas — I suspect, though obviously I can’t tell, that the ideas may not be fully incorporated into the story. Are they throw away bits like raisins in rice pudding? Are they things that characters merely talk about?

  3. Ursula, the second part of your question, “How do you decide which criticisms are valid and useful?” would make a great discussion topic all by itself. We need to learn how to do this no matter where the criticisms come from. I, for one, could use help cultivating discernment!

  4. Pingback: Navigating the Ocean of Story: What Do You Think About Online Critiques? | Book View Cafe Blog

  5. I’ve been eight years in a local writing group, and two years taking part in an on-line group. In both cases, the utility of critiques offered and received has depended on participants’ development of a shared critical sense and vocabulary. It has depended on our familiarity with the craft of fiction, and on our ability to perceive and discuss aspects of craft.

    The on-line group is very large, and ‘out front’, the chances of receiving an understanding skilled critique of the rug one is offering for sale are low. Too many people speaking too many different languages, looking for too many different things, with too many kinds of motives. I was about to give up, when I discovered that in the small quiet little shops back in the interior of the bazaar, more informed discussions were happening. There were, in fact, a few people there who’d seen what the sort of thing I’d woven before, and could offer skilled detailed critiques. Not everyone in the conversation were trying to weave like I was, but I think we’ve all learned from the consideration of our differences.

    It was lucky someone motioned me toward the back, though. If that hadn’t happened, I’d still be out there trying to figure out how my carpet could be both too busy and too bland; how a scene I’d written could be both too hurried and too slow, say. More likely, I’d have walked away and not gone back. Participants’ profiles often list their favorite books, which can give an idea of their critical values, and help one to understand their critiques of one’s work, but someone who considers H. Potter the end-point of literature in English may not have a lot of help to give to someone who’s looking somewhere very different.

    The local group is face to face, which implies a level of engagement, one to another, that calls up conversation rather than cacophony. But in a rural area, there may not be that many people who have the skills.

    Finding that small shop, a small group within a site, or developing it over time, whatever the context is, is critical. On-line offers no advantages, otherwise.