On the Craft of Writing

Those who refuse to listen to dragons are probably doomed to spend their lives acting out the nightmares of politicians. We like to think we live in the daylight, but half the world is always dark; and fantasy, like poetry, speaks the language of the night.
Ursula K Le Guin
An acquaintance directed me to an article recently, which led me to another (better) article, which referenced an essay by Ursula K Le Guin called “Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown.” The topic of the essay intrigued me, and so I went looking for it. I had gone out of my way to acquire a bunch of Le Guin non-fiction a few years back, and I quickly located the essay in a collection called Language of the Night, which had been sitting on my shelf for almost four years. The essay was so good that I decided to read the entire book cover to cover.

Seven years ago, when I got serious about my writing and was looking for resources to help me understand and hone my craft, the primary advice I received was to read Steven King’s On Writing. I found that book next to useless. Language of the Night, on the the other hand is a treasure trove. Le Guin reinforces many principles that I have learned the hard way over the last seven years.

One example is that writing is a very ‘free and open’ craft. There are very few rules. Each writer has to make up their own structural rules, their own style. Attentive readers can tell immediately when one’s style is stilted or awkward, or if one violates (knowingly or not) the patterns one builds within a work. A dictionary and basic grammar reference contain the only hard and fast rules. Everything else is a matter of style.

Another major thread that my reinforces my experience is that of science fiction and fantasy being themselves primarily literature. Despite genre traditionalists who snub their nose at the genres, and despite pressures from within to keep SF/F as stylistically and intellectually decrepit it was during the so-called “golden age of science fiction” (more of a dark age, if you ask me), science fiction and fantasy are primarily literary genres, which reward intellectual investigation.

And finally, the essay “The Stalin in the Soul” is a superb exploration of what it means to be free as a writer. Its principles are especially important to remember in the age of digital publishing and Amazon advertisements, Kindle free days, and all such things. Freedom does not just mean the lack of a censor. People can censor themselves. If the writers spends all their time optimizing their categories and their keywords, and crafting their writing to the market, and spending their money on digital advertising—all that is time and resources that they weren’t using to craft something expressive, something nuanced, something complex, something important. A writer doesn’t need a Stalin throwing them into a gulag in order to end up in a situation where they have never written the work that only they can write. We all carry around the ability to oppress ourselves.

This isn’t to say that I’m against digital publishing or Kindle sales or anything like that (I just completed a Kindle sale, for those who are keeping track). What is important is to remember that these activities are only useful in as much as they support us in the really important work of producing the best stories we possibly can and communicating those stories to readers. We, as writers, should grow attentive of ourselves and learn to recognize when we are sliding into the unhealthy habits of focusing primarily on promotion, attention, and/or money rather than the writing.

I own the 1989 hardcover edition of Language of the Night. This unfortunately appears to be the last printing, which is really too bad, because this is easily the best book on the craft of writing I have ever read.