On 22nd January, the literary world bid a sad farewell to inspirational author, Ursula Le Guin, who died peacefully at her home in Portland, Oregon at the age of 88.
Although the multi-award-winning Le Guin was recognized as one of the world’s most widely-read sci-fi and fantasy authors, she was a feisty character who actively rebelled against any stereotyping of her work.
Responding to a question asking how she felt about her reputation as a science fiction writer, she protested: “I’m a novelist and a poet. Don’t shove me into your pigeonhole, where I don’t fit, because I’m all over. My tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions”.
Known for putting things bluntly, Le Guin is personally responsible for influencing a generation of writers, generously sharing her knowledge and skill to encourage others to put pen to paper. Through the successes of her career, she became what we call in the industry a writers’ writer, and without doubt, her legacy will continue to inspire writers for generations to come.
Le Guin often expounded her marvelous words of wisdom to budding novelists in interviews, public speeches and essays and also her own writer’s manual, ‘Steering the Craft.’ Her insights into the mind of a great author have proven invaluable to aspiring writers, eager to learn from the best how to hone their skills.
As our own homage to the late and extremely great Ursula Le Guin, we take a closer look at five examples of the most significant and even defining teachings she passed on to writers around the world during her lifetime:
#1 Study Every Aspect of Your Craft, Including Punctuation
Ursula Le Guin was incredibly hot on punctuality and recognized its power to change meaning and create confusion to readers. Just the positioning of a comma makes a complete difference to what you’re saying. The following example is taken from a magazine cover which included a feature article about American TV personality Rachael Ray:
“Rachael Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog.”
See where the absence of a comma after cooking leads the reader?
A great exercise Le Guin suggests in ‘Steering the Craft’ is to write some narrative without punctuating the piece at all. When you’re done, read it back and see how the rhythm of the words sound and then set it to one side. After a week, go back to the piece and punctuate it consciously and it will be a more natural process.
#2 “Repetition Can Indeed Be Awkward When a Word is Emphasized For No Reason.”
According to Le Guin, one of the most important practices a writer can incorporate into their routine is to read aloud what they’ve written because it avoids repetition. Repeating certain words too often gives them more emphasis, which can often throw the reader off-course from the main message. The example she uses is: “He was studying in his study. The book he was studying was Plato”. Not only does it sound unnatural and clumsy but repetition also stilts the action in the narrative, driving the plot to a sudden stop.
Reading prose aloud gives a greater sense of how the words and sentences flow from one to another and also serves to highlight how to punctuate the piece. Writing dialogue is also made much easier by taking Le Guin’s advice and reading it aloud after drafting. You can determine how authentic your characters sound and if they’re speaking in a way that shows the personality you have drawn for them.
#3 Don’t Make Plot Your Focus If It’s Not Crucial to Your Story
This is possibly one of the most insightful of Le Guin’s teachings and has no doubt released decent novels from many writers previously unable to get it quite right in the plot department. When setting out on drafting their first novel, many writers feel they have to have a complicated plot in order to capture the reader’s imagination, whereas Le Guin begs to differ.
Using the example of Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs. Dalloway,’ Le Guin tells how the plot covers a single day in the lives of several characters, in which the title character throws a party. Through the use of multiple characters within a narrow timeframe, Woolf crams in a huge amount of gloriously observational detail about life at the time the novella was set in.
#4 There is no Recipe for Success in Writing
Ursula Le Guin was constantly being asked what her ‘secret’ was behind her hugely successful and celebrated career and how her books achieved international cult status. She was always adamant that there is no secret ingredient in a good book, saying:
“There are “secrets” to making a story work — but they apply only to that particular writer and that particular story. You find out how to make the thing work by working at it — coming back to it, testing it, seeing where it sticks or wobbles or cheats, and figuring out how to make it go where it has to go.”
#5 Do Your Job as a Writer and Do it Really Well
Just as there is no secret path to a glittering literary career, perhaps the most golden advice from Le Guin is to be disciplined about writing; to take it seriously. Ursula Le Guin remained adamant throughout her career that she didn’t set out to be a writer in terms of monetizing her talents but through a desire to “do my job writing and do it really well.”
Sadly Missed but Forever Remembered: Ursula Le Guin, October 21, 1929-January 22, 2018
Ursula Le Guin was so much more than a sci-fi writer, reaching the hearts and minds of people from all backgrounds and nationalities, not only through her writing but also her force majeure personality. Her influence extended beyond the literary world, and she became a champion for women’s rights through her powerful voice. Although we will miss her presence on this earth, writers from all corners of the globe can be grateful for the extensive legacy of knowledge she has left us.