Steering the Craft: A Twenty-First-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story

Steering the Craft: A Twenty-First-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story

by Ursula K. Le Guin


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A revised and updated guide to the essentials of a writer’s craft, presented by a brilliant practitioner of the art
Completely revised and rewritten to address the challenges and opportunities of the modern era, this handbook is a short, deceptively simple guide to the craft of writing. Le Guin lays out ten chapters that address the most fundamental components of narrative, from the sound of language to sentence construction to point of view. Each chapter combines illustrative examples from the global canon with Le Guin’s own witty commentary and an exercise that the writer can do solo or in a group. She also offers a comprehensive guide to working in writing groups, both actual and online.
Masterly and concise, Steering the Craft deserves a place on every writer's shelf.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780544611610
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 09/01/2015
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 160
Sales rank: 56,910
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Over the course of her career, URSULA K. LE GUIN has published more than sixty books of fiction, fantasy, children’s literature, poetry, drama, criticism, and translation. She is the winner of many awards, including the PEN/Malamud Award and the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.


Portland, Oregon

Date of Birth:

October 21, 1929

Place of Birth:

Berkeley, California


B.A., Radcliffe College; M.A., Columbia University, 1952

Read an Excerpt

The Sound of Your Writing
The sound of the language is where it all begins. The test of a sentence is, Does it sound right? The basic elements of language are physical: the noise words make, the sounds and silences that make the rhythms marking their relationships. Both the meaning and the beauty of the writing depend on these sounds and rhythms. This is just as true of prose as it is of poetry, though the sound effects of prose are usually subtle and always irregular.

Most children enjoy the sound of language for its own sake. They wallow in repetitions and luscious word-sounds and the crunch and slither of onomatopoeia; they fall in love with musical or impressive words and use them in all the wrong places. Some writers keep this primal interest in and love for the sounds of language. Others “outgrow” their oral/aural sense of what they’re reading or writing. That’s a dead loss. An awareness of what your own writing sounds like is an essential skill for a writer. Fortunately it’s quite easy to cultivate, to learn or reawaken.

A good writer, like a good reader, has a mind’s ear. We mostly read prose in silence, but many readers have a keen inner ear that hears it. Dull, choppy, droning, jerky, feeble: these common criticisms of narrative are all faults in the sound of it. Lively, well-paced, flowing, strong, beautiful: these are all qualities of the sound of prose, and we rejoice in them as we read. Narrative writers need to train their mind’s ear to listen to their own prose, to hear as they write.

The chief duty of a narrative sentence is to lead to the next sentence—to keep the story going. Forward movement, pace, and rhythm are words that are going to return often in this book. Pace and movement depend above all on rhythm, and the primary way you feel and control the rhythm of your prose is by hearing it—by listening to it.

Getting an act or an idea across isn’t all a story does. A story is made out of language, and language can and does express delight in itself just as music does. Poetry isn’t the only kind of writing that can sound gorgeous. Consider what’s going on in these four examples. (Read them aloud! Read them aloud loudly!)

Example 1
The Just So Stories are a masterpiece of exuberant vocabulary, musical rhythms, and dramatic phrasing. Rudyard Kipling has let generations of kids know how nonsensically beautiful a story can sound. And there’s nothing in either nonsense or beauty that restricts it to children.

Rudyard Kipling: from “How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin” in Just So Stories
Once upon a time, on an uninhabited island on the shores of the Red Sea, there lived a Parsee from whose hat the rays of the sun were reflected in more-than-oriental splendour. And the Parsee lived by the Red Sea with nothing but his hat and his knife and a cooking-stove of the kind that you must particularly never touch. And one day he took flour and water and currants and plums and sugar and things, and made himself one cake which was two feet across and three feet thick. It was indeed a Superior Comestible (that’s magic), and he put it on the stove because he was allowed to cook on that stove, and he baked it and he baked it till it was all done brown and smelt most sentimental. But just as he was going to eat it there came down to the beach from the Altogether Uninhabited Interior one Rhinoceros with a horn on his nose, two piggy eyes, and few manners. [. . .] And the Rhinoceros upset the oil-stove with his nose, and the cake rolled on the sand, and he spiked that cake on the horn of his nose, and he ate it, and he went away, waving his tail, to the desolate and Exclusively Uninhabited Interior which abuts on the islands of Mazanderan, Socotra, and the Promontories of the Larger Equinox.
This passage from Mark Twain’s early story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” is totally aural/oral, its beauty lying in its irresistible dialectical cadences. There are lots of ways to be gorgeous.

Example 2

Mark Twain: from “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”
“Well, thish-yer Smiley had rat-tarriers, and chicken cocks, and tom cats and all them kind of things, till you couldn’t rest, and you couldn’t fetch nothing for him to bet on but he’d match you. He ketched a frog one day, and took him home, and said he cal’lated to educate him; and so he never done nothing for three months but set in his back yard and learn that frog to jump. And you bet you he did learn him, too. He’d give him a little punch behind, and the next minute you’d see that frog whirling in the air like a doughnut—see him turn one summerset, or maybe a couple, if he got a good start, and come down flat-footed and all right, like a cat. He got him up so in the matter of ketching flies, and kep’ him in practice so constant, that he’d nail a fly every time as fur as he could see him. Smiley said all a frog wanted was education, and he could do ’most anything—and I believe him. Why, I’ve seen him set Dan’l Webster down here on this floor—Dan’l Webster was the name of the frog—and sing out, ‘Flies, Dan’l, flies!’ and quicker’n you could wink he’d spring straight up and snake a fly off’n the counter there, and flop down on the floor ag’in as solid as a gob of mud, and fall to scratching the side of his head with his hind foot as indifferent as if he hadn’t no idea he’d been doin’ any more’n any frog might do. You never see a frog so modest and straightfor’ard as he was, for all he was so gifted. And when it come to fair and square jumping on a dead level, he could get over more ground at one straddle than any animal of his breed you ever see. Jumping on a dead level was his strong suit, you understand; and when it come to that, Smiley would ante up money on him as long as he had a red. Smiley was monstrous proud of his frog, and well he might be, for fellers that had traveled and been everywheres all said he laid over any frog that ever they see.”
In the first example the more-than-oriental splendor of the language and in the second the irresistibly drawling aural cadences keep moving the story forward. In this one and the next, the vocabulary is simple and familiar; it’s above all the rhythm that is powerful and effective. To read Hurston’s sentences aloud is to be caught up in their music and beat, their hypnotic, fatal, forward drive.

Example 3

Zora Neale Hurston: from Their Eyes Were Watching God
So the beginning of this was a woman and she had come back from burying the dead. Not the dead of sick and ailing with friends at the pillow and the feet. She had come back from the sodden and the bloated; the sudden dead, their eyes flung wide open in judgment.

The people all saw her come because it was sundown. The sun was gone, but he had left his footprints in the sky. It was the time for sitting on porches beside the road. It was the time to hear things and talk. These sitters had been tongueless, earless, eyeless conveniences all day long. Mules and other brutes had occupied their skins. But now, the sun and the bossman were gone, so the skins felt powerful and human. They became lords of sounds and lesser things. They passed nations through their mouths. They sat in judgment.

Seeing the woman as she was made them remember the envy they had stored up from other times. So they chewed up the back parts of their minds and swallowed with relish. They made burning statements with questions, and killing tools out of laughs. It was mass cruelty. A mood come alive. Words walking without masters; walking together like harmony in a song.
In the next passage, Tom, a middle-aged rancher, is coping with the early onslaught of the cancer he knows will kill him. Molly Gloss’s prose is quiet and subtle; its power and beauty come from the perfect placement and timing of the words, the music of their sound, and the way the changing sentence rhythms embody and express the emotions of the characters.

Table of Contents

Introduction ix

1 The Sound of Your Writing 1

2 Punctuation and Grammar 11

3 Sentence Length and Complex Syntax 20

4 Repetition 36

5 Adjectives and adverbs 43

6 Verbs: Person and Tense 47

7 Point of View and Voice 61

8 Changing Point of View 87

9 Indirect Narration, or What Tells 94

10 Crowding and Leaping 117

Appendix: The Peer Group Workshop 127

Glossary 136


1 Being Gorgeous 8

2 Am I Saramago 18

3 Short and Long 32

4 Again and Again and Again 41

5 Chastity 45

6 The Old Woman 58

7 Points of View 71

8 Changing Voices 89

9 Telling It Slant 97

10 A Terrible Thing to Do 124

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Steering the Craft: A Twenty-First-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
RodRaglin More than 1 year ago
Profound insights on writing presented with grace, charm and wit. Ursula Le Guin describes Steering the Craft, A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, as “A handbook for storytellers - writers of narrative prose and not for beginners.” Indeed, it is not a book for beginners as much of what she addresses would be beyond the comprehension of novices. What it does concentrate on are those problems that challenge writers and impede the tone an flow of the narrative. For example, she asks you to listen to the sound of your writing which involves diction and syntax. Sophisticated consideration is given to verbs: person and tense, as well as point of view and changing point of view. Indirection narration or what tells including avoiding expository lumps is discussed in depth. There’s an excellent chapter entitled Crowding and Leaping which involves the necessity of focusing on some areas while leaping ahead in other parts while still following a fixed trajectory. Steering the Craft is primarily a workbook with “exercise consciousness-raisers that aim to clarify and intensify your awareness of certain elements of prose writing and certain techniques and modes of storytelling." These exercises are challenging but illuminating. I particularly benefitted from one called A Terrible Thing to Do that involved writing a narrative of about 500 words and then cutting it by half still keeping the narrative clear and not replacing specifics by generalities. The book also includes the best advice I’ve read on running peer group writing workshops. This slim volume has profound insights on writing and presents them with grace, charm an wit. The goal, according to the author, is to help you develop skills that free you to write want you to write. Or as Le Guin puts it so that you’re “ready to let the story tell itself; having the skills, knowing the craft so that when the magic boat comes by, you can step into it and guide it where it wants to go, where it ought to go.”
KaneH More than 1 year ago
Though Ursula LeGuin passed away not long ago, her work lives on. In this book about writing, she tells us why her chosen path matters and what is important. It is a brilliant glimpse into the mind of a person who was a master storyteller, who created brilliant characters and engaging, enduring tales. Writers will find much to absorb in this thin little book with many lessons. Required reading for those desiring to be writers.
SheilaDeeth More than 1 year ago
Ursula Le Guin’s Steering the Craft is so much more than just another book on writing. This craft is a yacht steered on ocean waves, not a rubber toy bobbing in the tub. And this book is filled with wise advice, clear and well-described examples, and great exercises for people who don’t just want to write—they want to write well. It’s a book for people who love “the sound of language” and long to remove whatever is “ugly, unclear, unnecessary, preachy, careless... what doesn’t work” from their own pages to make them sound like music. With excerpts from authors as diverse as Rudyard Kipling and Patrick O’Neil, or Zora Neale Hurston and Jane Austen, with exercises that feed into and build on each other, and with a nicely nuanced approach to grammar and other tools of the trade, the author assists our writing, so our writing can assist other people’s reading, and so the whole will be something worth both reading and listening to. Memorable one-liners stay in the mind long after reading. Authors are reminded to take responsibility for what they write—nothing happens “somehow” without the author’s intervention. Memorable asides make lessons long-learned finally make sense—did you know grammar and punctuation exist to assist sound? And each reader will surely have their favorite lesson and favorite point. For me, the reminder that story comes first, not conflict, is a lesson that will ease my conflicted writing of tales. Highly recommended; enjoyably readable; and filled with the sort of exercises every writing group should take time to tackle; Steering the Craft is a must-add to any writer’s bookshelf. Disclosure: My thanks to the friend who loaned it to me from her shelf.