Essential Books on Writing – Part 1: Steering the Craft, by Ursula LeGuin

I have a shelf full of books on writing I’ve collected over the years. Many of them were purchased in order to help me improve my teaching, to offer to my students insights on narrative craft beyond my own. Others, I bought for inspiration, when stuck in the mire of my own writing. Every now and then, a book comes along that changes the conversation, or at the very least deepens and expands it. One such book is Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, with which you are probably familiar. When I was just starting out as a writer, Annie Lamott’s Bird by Bird spoke to me, as it spoke to so many others who were desperate to fashion some kind of writing life. William Zinsser’s On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, serves as a primer if you are new to the craft and as a kick in the pants if you’ve been doing it for a while. There are so many others, and over the next few weeks and months, I’ll be sharing some of my favorites.

In 1998, Ursula LeGuin added her substantial voice to the canon with Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Writer or the Mutinous Crew. Many books about writing, oddly enough, are written by people who never had much success as writers. So it’s always exciting to find a book on craft by a writer you never imaged would write a book on craft–because that person is so busy being an actual writer, publishing books and being generally awesome in the world of literature. Steering the Craft was first published in 1998 with the mouthful of a subtitle , but an updated version, subtitled A Twenty-First Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, was released in 2013.

In the introduction to the new edition, LeGuin, whose work has always existed on the edge of the known world, explains:

I wanted my book to reflect the risks and chances of sailing the stormy waters of publishing–print and electronic–in this day and age, while never losing sight of the pole stars of the art of storytelling: how prose works and how a story moves.

LeGuin forgoes the typical craft breakdown (characterization, dialogue, plot, etc) and focuses on these aspects of storytelling:

  • the sound of language
  • punctuation, syntax, the narrative sentence and paragraph
  • rhythm and repetition
  • adjectives and adverbs
  • tense and person of the verb
  • voice and point of view
  • implicit narration
  • crowding, leaping, focus, and control

Evident here is LeGuin’s deep admiration for the sentence, her absolute certainty that every great story relies upon the language the writer chooses to convey meaning and mood.

The sound of the language is where it all begins. The test of a sentence is, Does it sound right?

So begins LeGuin’s beautiful foray into story, a book that will remind you of the finer aspects of voice and narrative vision. Steering the Craft is packed with excerpts and related exercises. It’s short and powerful. If you’re looking for a book to begin your education on writing, or if you just need inspiration, this is a great place to start.

My Interview with Elizabeth Strout, & her new book My Name Is Lucy Barton

Elizabeth Strout Interview

Following the publication of Olive Kittredge, I sat down with Elizabeth Strout at the JCC in San Francisco to interview her. I found Strout to be kind and very funny, generous with her stories, and a bit shy. She spoke of growing up in the end of a dirt road, and of her mother’s desire to be a writer. Her mother, a high school writing teacher, bought her notebooks and encouraged her to write everything down. “She’s the whole reason I’m here,” Strout said. The notebooks have not survived, as “we were not a sentimental family.” She also discusses the stage fright she felt when Amy and Isabelle was published, a stage fright she has since gotten over, and the difference between being a writer and an author.

When My Name Is Lucy Barton was published, I was surprised to find the voice of the narrator so different from the voice of Olive Kittredge and so similar to the voice of Strout, the author. I read the book in a single day, carried along by the unflinching way the narrator addresses her childhood, her marriage, and her life as a writer.

My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout

If you loved Olive Kittredge, read this. If you hated Olive Kittredge, read this. What this slim novel, My Name is Lucy Barton, shares with Strout’s blockbuster bestseller is an intense examination of the life of one woman. What differs is the tenderness of the voice. If Olive Kittredge is all (or most) hard edges, Lucy Barton is fragile, a woman capable of great love and even greater forgiveness. This is a story of mothers and daughters. It takes place almost entirely in the Manhattan hospital where Lucy is convalescing. Her mother, whom she hasn’t seen in many years, comes at the behest of Lucy’s absent husband to sit at her bedside. Over the course of their guarded conversations, made up of unanswered questions and rapidly told stories, we learn about Lucy’s childhood–made difficult both by poverty and by her parents’ great shortcomings. The mother who has never said “I love you,” and still can’t, who once locked the young Lucy in a truck for infractions real or imagined, who failed to keep her daughter safe or warm or clean or even properly fed, is seen here in her deep vulnerability and in her guarded love for the child she can’t understand.

In the second half of the novel, Barton tells of her accidental encounter in a Manhattan clothing store with a writer named Sarah Payne. Years later, Lucy takes a writing class with Sarah, who tells her that she must be fearless, that she must be honest and write her one story without the fear of hurting anyone. This novel feels like that story.

Buy the book.

Listen to my 2010 interview with Elizabeth Strout, following the publication of Olive Kittredge.

Ten Days of Beautiful Failure

Why You Should Embrace Failure as Part of the Creative Process

If you don’t try at anything, you can’t fail… it takes back bone to lead the life you want” – Richard Yates

I’ve been reading The Achievement Habit by Bernard Roth. One of the key principles that spoke to me in this book was the idea of the action bias. The action bias basically means that those who act instead of putting off action until “the time is right” tend to achieve more, even if there are many failures along the way.

It is better to start to do something and fail, than to do nothing…You do, you fail, and you learn…Don’t be afraid of failure. It is part of the price you pay for action.

For writers, failure is practically guaranteed. The very nature of writing requires one to take paths that may not pan out, to write sentences that will be cut, to write stories that won’t find a publisher or novels that may not find as many readers as we would like.

Any wise writer begins with the knowledge that revision will be part of the process. To revise is to accept that your first draft (or your second or your third) was, at least in part, a failure. From that failure, however, you learn something that will help you proceed with your revision.
Have you been putting off writing your novel, story, or memoir until “the time is right”? If so,I encourage you to take the leap, with the understanding that it’s perfectly okay to fail.

Sign up now for the free 10 Days of Beautiful Failure Challenge.

Each morning for ten days, you’ll receive an email with a writing prompt and inspiration to help you take action in your writing now, instead of when “the time is right.”


5 Writing Habits You Need to Cultivate Now

Develop these 5 Writing Habits for a More Productive Writing Life

Writing advice columns will often tell you to write every day, write a certain number of words a day, keep a journal, or find a writing group. While all of those practices are good, they may not work for you. During my 15 years as a professional writer (I count my years as a “professional” from the date of my first book publication), I’ve noticed a few writing habits that help me be productive and keep my writing practice fresh and lively. After all, when writing is your job, it can begin to feel like a job. That said, it feels like a job I’m very fortunate to have. Just like with any other job, though, I have good days and bad days, days when I can’t wait to get to work and days when I’d rather be hiking or sunning or running off to the movies.

On those days, good writing habits are key. (For an interesting look at habit formation on an individual, corporate, and cultural level, read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. For a more personal take on the importance of habits from a writer’s perspective, read Gretchen Rubin‘s Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives).

Click the play button below to listen to my five minute podcast on 5 Habits of Highly Productive Writers

For more podcasts like this and help for writers, visit Bay Area Book Doctor.