Navigating the Ocean of Story (2)

Ursula K. Le Gunby Ursula K. Le Guin


Adina: I read your work over and over in sheer fascination at the lyricism you manage to put into everything, the descriptions, seemingly simple lines, characterizations. When I look at my own writing, no matter how hard I try, it feels flat. Simple question that feels a little silly, but how do you build that skill? I feel I don’t have enough words to manage the poetry in prose that I want to reach for. How do you suggest I build that?

UKL: The way we build up any skill is by doing something, thinking about it, doing it over, doing it, and again, singlemindedly, till it gets so deep in our whole mind and body that we can do it without rules, without recipes, without conscious thought. Playing the piano or playing soccer, dancing the tango or making soup, skill is the product of experience.

In the case of literary writing, the experience isn’t only that of writing. Reading is fully as important. Real writers read. They read a lot, and they read the best stuff they can find. You learn an art by doing it – and in the case of literature, doing it means reading it as well as writing it.

If you feel that you “don’t have enough words” to do what you want, the best way to get more words is by reading them – reading whatever you love to read – and writing them. Live with words, play with them, work with them, till they begin to do what you want them to do. You probably don’t really need any more words than you have. You just need to learn how to let them speak in your true voice.

It will take a while. And there is ALWAYS more to learn.

Nicole: I have a question about world-building in fantasy/sci-fi (that is, using cultures and worlds of your own invention):

How do you determine which aspects of a world/culture are best described overtly and which should be implied?

It seems to me, broadly speaking, that finding a good balance between those two approaches is what helps immerse readers in the world of a story, but I find I often struggle with world-building.

I have been writing seriously for about five years, and I have had about ten short stories published, mostly in nonpaying markets. I am a beginner looking for ways to improve my writing.

Bayla: I’ve been writing fantasy for a number of years, and I consistently feel that my world-building falls short. I tend to world-build in pieces — culture, money, religion, maps — and yet there always seems to be some piece that feels like it might not fit. Any tips on creating rich, believable worlds? How do you go about doing it? How much do you rely on the way cultures in our world actually work? Do you spend a lot of time building the world before trying to write the story set within it? I never seem to stop worrying that my world will feel “wrong” in some of the details, even if it’s in a wholly created universe.

UKL: I put your questions together, Nicole and Bayla, because they’re pretty similar. Unfortunately, like Adina’s question, they are very general. Generalities about writing are – generally – either platitudes or hokum.

So I’ll try to answer your questions by inventing a planet called Teg and a place in it called Horb to use as examples of world-building.

How to find the balance between how much to describe and how much to imply?

Well, consider how much you can imply in a description.

“Horb is on the coast of the southernmost of the nine continents of Teg” — This general description implies very little.

“The traders take their windships out of the ports of Horb as soon as the ice barrier melts in the austral spring, carrying voor-pelts and diamonds to Veu and other continents” — We learn, as we did from the first sentence, that Horb is on the coast of a southern continent and that there are several continents; we also learn that it’s icebound in winter, that it has a long-established trading economy, that there are creatures called voor whose pelts are valued elsewhere, that diamonds are also valued, etc…

The difference is in specificity. What’s important is to know what you want to tell about Horb, and then tell it by “embodying” it in concrete, vivid details – packing your sentences with specifics, not with generalities.

How much to rely on the way cultures in our world work?

This largely depends on whether you want your readers to be comfortable on Teg, or challenged by it.

“Vig spurred his horse through the narrow streets of Horb at a gallop, drawing rein only at the Palace gate.” – Well, here we are in Horb in the European Middle Ages, all very cozy and feudal. Nobody has to do any thinking about it at all.

“Vig argued with his reinsteed for a while at the entry-fold of Horb, but it was useless; Hul hated the city, she would wait here, and Vig would have to walk.” – This can’t be fully understood by easy reference to any Earthly society. A disagreement between a man and an animal is understandable, but an equality, perhaps an actual discussion, between them is implied that is not familiar on Earth. And what is an “entry-fold”? The reader will learn what it is, but may have to wait a while. Lazy readers find waiting uncomfortable. Fortunately, a lot of sf readers expect to be challenged, and will suspend comprehension in hopes of a good pay-off. Just be sure they get the pay-off.

Do you spend a lot of time building the world before writing the story?

Yes. I do.

If Teg or Horb differ in any important way from the world-as-we-know-it, the implications of that difference have to be thought through pretty carefully beforehand. If not, anomalies and huge inconsistencies will multiply, visible cracks will appear in your Secondary World, and your story will fall into one of them.

Reading around for pleasure in anthropology and travel books can raise your consciousness of of how vastly human societies differ (let alone alien ones), and what a vast difference just one element of a culture can make – the existence or non-existence of a technology, or an assumption, or a gender….

But, having thought out your society and technology and all, don’t worry too much. You can fake quite a lot or leave it unsaid, so long as your world looks and smells and tastes real, so long as it has complexity, emotional weight, and integrity. If it is real to you and grows more real as you write it, if you’re living there as you write — you’re well on the way to making it real to your reader.



Navigating the Ocean of Story (2) — 1 Comment