Featured April 13, 2021

These Old Books - "On Writing" and "Steering the Craft" + my own thoughts on writing & writing advice

By Maria Haskins
Mar 17, 2021 · 2,634 words · 10 minutes

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From the editor:

Maria Haskins delves into writing advice from Stephen King, Ursula K. Le Guin, Jane Friedman, and more, sharing what has inspired her as a writer and as a reader, including what led to her wonderful “Weekly 5” series. 

From the author: My thoughts on two books on writing, and my thoughts on writing advice in general.

For this month’s “This Old Book”, I’m featuring two books on writing, and also incorporating some of the writing advice I’ve found most useful since I got back into writing around 2015.

The two writing books that helped me when I started writing again after a decade long absence were Stephen King’s ‘On Writing – A Memoir of the Craft’, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘Steering the Craft: A Twenty-First-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story’. Both are excellent, and I highly recommend both books to anyone looking for inspiration and practical tips on how to become a better writer and how to steel yourself for the various trials and tribulations of being a writer and submitting your work.

When I read these books, I read them back-to-back and that was a rather interesting exercise. Because King and Le Guin are such different writers, I thought they would have radically different approaches to writing. And there are many differences (not least in tone and style), but they also have some things in common. Both authors are big proponents of editing your first drafts in a rather merciless fashion. Neither is a big fan of “plot”, preferring to talk about the importance of “story”. Both stress that writing is a craft: King often refers to it as “the work” – not in a derogatory way, but to emphasize that it’s something you learn by doing, rather than something that comes to the writer mysteriously from on-high. And both stress the importance of writing, writing, and more writing, as well as reading, reading, and more reading.

Both books contain excerpts and examples of good (and bad) writing, exercises to hone your writing skills (Le Guin’s book is laid out like a workbook of sorts, with exercises included in each chapter), and plenty of advice and tips for writers on editing, grammar, developing your own voice and style, and much more.

Le Guin is one of my all-time favourite authors and reading her thoughts on the importance of listening to how your writing sounds, and how to use different points of view in a story was inspiring. I’m not as big a fan of King’s work, but ‘On Writing’ gave me a deeper appreciation for him as a writer: his no-nonsense approach to the struggles in his own life, his thoughts on “the work”, and what it takes to make it as a writer (especially handling rejection—something he got used to early in his career) are insightful and often hilarious.

When I read these books in 2015, one of my big takeaways from On Writing was that being rejected did not mean I was bad writer or that I was a failure. Instead, King makes it clear that rejection is part of the process and you have to be ready for it and not let it crush you. Reading that, was part of what made me think I might be able to handle submitting work again, knowing full well I’d be facing a LOT of rejections.

One of my biggest takeaways from Steering the Craft, was that there are many ways of telling stories beyond the usual “three acts” and “journey of the hero”. There are many different ways of telling stories, Le Guin makes clear, and she emphasizes the importance of finding and listening to your own voice as a writer, and she places great importance on how to edit and rewrite your work effectively.

Here are some of my favourite quotes from both books—quotes that have absolutely helped me get through some rough patches as a writer.

From On Writing:

“…stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.”

(I remind myself of this particular quote a lot, and it reminds me that this is just a part of the process, and if I keep going, I’ll get past it and be able to finish my story.)

From ‘Steering The Craft’:

“An awareness of what your own writing sounds like is an essential skill for a writer. — Narrative writers need to train their mind’s ear to listen to their own prose, to hear as they write.”
“Plot is a marvelous device. But it’s not superior to story, and not even necessary to it.”
“We don’t have to have the rigid structure of a plot to tell a story, but we do need a focus. What is it about? Who is it about?”

Some thoughts on writing tips and advice

There is a lot of writing advice out there, and it’s important to remember that what works for one person might not work at all for another. A lot of the time, people who state categorical opinions like, “you have to write every day if you want to be a real writer!” or “show don’t tell!”, are doing it with some kind of good intentions, but there are no irrefutable laws for writing or the writing process, and one big piece of advice from me is to sift through and try different kinds of advice and tips and use what works for you.

For example, two commonly shared sets of writing tips / rules are George Orwell’s tips for writers, or Stephen King’s 20 rules for writers. You can take some useful information from both, but don’t see them as Absolute Truths. One of the most fundamental and important writing tips that works for me, is something I mentioned already and something Le Guin talks about a lot: to pay attention to what my writing sounds like.

Recently on Twitter, I shared some thoughts on the importance of rhythm and flow in prose for me as both reader and writer. This is something I think about a lot. I think it’s always been extremely important to me, though I wasn’t always able to express it in words but reading Le Guin’s thoughts on writing has helped me understand it more clearly.

For example, in an old interview with NPR, Le Guin said:

“Writing is a kind of way of speaking, and I hear it and I think a lot of readers hear it, too. And so the sounds of the language and the rhythm and the cadence of the sentences are very powerful.”

This also echoes Virginia Woolf’s thoughts on writing (and it’s worth noting that Le Guin was a big fan of Woolf):

“Style is a very simple matter: it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words. But on the other hand here am I sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can’t dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing (such is my present belief) one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it. But no doubt I shall think differently next year.”

(I love this entire quote so much.)

I read my work – out loud, or whispering, or mumbling – all the time. It’s a great way to spot all sorts of grammatical and spelling errors, and it’s also the best way to edit and fix the way I’ve shaped my sentences, paragraphs, and dialogue. If it doesn’t flow, if it doesn’t have that rhythm that both Le Guin and Woolf mention, then I try to find that flow and often, a big part of my writing process is spent in search of that rhythm (which is closely related in my mind to what’s often called “voice” and also “writing style”).

Rhythm is important in poetry of course, but it is (I think) equally important in prose, both in fiction and non-fiction.

In the post ‘Change The Language, Change The World’ over at TOR.com, author Fran Wilde has some interesting thoughts on the importance of language and a writer’s choice of words, and while her focus is more on how writers can think more deeply about the language they use, the following quote fits into my thoughts on flow and rhythm, and the importance of listening to what you write:

“The more we see and say the words, the more carefully we hone our usage, the more our experience will open up each unique setting, and within those settings, each unique person.”

It’s difficult to provide any solid tips or snappy rules for how to find and capture that flow, that sound, that rhythm. And each writer’s preferences and choices will be different, of course. But the one tip I do live by as a writer is to be aware of the rhythm of my prose, to pay attention to it, and to listen to my own words.

That’s why I often mumble as I’m writing. I want to hear the words, I want to feel them, I want to listen to them: Does the prose flow? Or does each sentence feel somehow obnoxious and dead and wooden?

Like I said, it’s hard to give any snappy rules for this process, but one great “cheat-sheet” of how this works is this (by Gary Provost):

“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals—sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”

Another common tip for writers is to “read more”. For example, there’s Ray Bradbury’s famous line, urging writers to “read intensely”. Variations on this tip crop up everywhere, and with good reason: it’s pretty self-evident that reading feeds your imagination and helps you hone your craft.

A few years ago, I read a blog post at Jane Friedman’s website that had a huge impact on me at the time because it provided some specific reasons as to precisely why reading is so important for writers. The post is called:  3 Ways You’re Sabotaging Your Chances with an Agent, and it’s written by editor and writing coach Rebecca Faith Heyman. It’s a great read in its entirety (whether you’re currently looking for an agent or not), and this is what she writes about the importance of reading:

“Advice-mongers are always telling authors to read more, because that is the single best piece of advice anyone has ever given an author, other than “Write more.” – – –
“Writing is a conversation,” agent Noah Ballard of Curtis Brown told me. “If you aren’t reading books that are being published now, how do you expect to be relevant?”
Familiarizing yourself with current and canon successes in your genre will help you think critically about your own writing. Who are you similar to stylistically? How are you bringing a fresh idea to a popular theme? – – –

[Note: I do have quibbles with this next bit, but it is still useful in principle...]

"You can’t write a convincing antihero if you haven’t read Wuthering Heights and Moby Dick. You can’t—or shouldn’t—write a revenge story without first savoring The Count of Monte Cristo. Writing a space opera? I want to know that you’ve read Asimov, Orson Scott Card, Douglas Adams, Emily St. John Mandel, and the most recent stunner from Michel Faber. Bow to the masters, acknowledge your peers, and blaze a trail for yourself armed with the knowledge of what has come before.”

My quibble with that last paragraph is this: I don’t think you have to have read these specific works. Your “canon” / "old masters" does not have to include these particular works. It can be other works that you consider your own canon.

I read a lot of older works, so-called literary classics, sci-fi classics, and fantasy classics since I was a kid. I’d include The Count of Monte Cristo and other works by Dumas, various old-school Swedish writers, Bradbury, Tove Jansson, Le Guin, Umberto Eco, and various other books in that “canon”. I love those books, and for a long time I rarely ventured outside that landscape.

The biggest change to my reading habits since 2015, is that I’ve made a conscious effort to read more works by new writers who are working and creating speculative fiction right now. It has been exceptionally rewarding and inspirational and has also reignited and nourished my own desire to write, and (I believe) made me a much better writer. Part of the reason why I first started to do my monthly speculative short fiction roundups was for purely selfish reasons: it was a way of motivating myself to really go out there and read different writers and publications on a regular basis, and, well... I haven’t stopped since.

The main point is this: read as much as you can. I know that for me, on days when I feel like I can’t write for whatever reason, I do try to read something. It helps my writing process, and hey, it’s also hella fun to read good stories.

When it comes to reading advice, I’d say that it’s great to read as widely and deeply as you can, and to read things you like. Also, try to read something new-to-you every week or every month: a new writer, a new publication, a book from a publisher you haven’t checked out before. There is an astonishing wealth of incredible new speculative fiction published all the time, and while you can’t keep up with all of it, it’s a real treat to sample some of it at least.

Finally, I’ll share what is maybe the most useful writing advice I can dispense: finish the stories you start (I think Cat Rambo said this in one of the writing workshops I attended at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference). Sometimes while writing, I’ll get that sinking feeling that I can’t do it, the story is no good, and I should just throw it overboard and start working on something else. But if I push through those moments, if I finish the story, I usually end up with something that is actually not too bad. Not perfect, but OK. If I don’t push through, well, then I’ve got nothing but an unfinished story. I’ve learned a lot of writing-crafty things from finishing a bunch of stories, but maybe the most important and fundamental thing I’ve learned is how my own writing process works. So, next time I’m working on something and I feel that resistance, that “oh no, this is no good”, I can look back and tell myself that I’ve been here before and I can get through it.

To quote the wonderful Angela Slatter:

“The best friend of talent is persistence.”

Maria Haskins

Writer of fantasy, scifi, horror, and things in-between.

  • Tanya
    April 13, 5:59pm

    I love this so much! I also put a lot of stock in rhythm, or how the words feel and build on each other -- some writing advice that resonated with me was from George Saunders, an essay in the Guardian called "What Writers Really Do When They Write" (which, now that I think about it, seems to be a title destined for over-generalizations). But I liked this bit in particular: "My method is: I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with “P” on this side (“Positive”) and “N” on this side (“Negative”). I try to read what I’ve written uninflectedly, the way a first-time reader might (“without hope and without despair”). Where’s the needle? Accept the result without whining. Then edit, so as to move the needle into the “P” zone. Enact a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference: watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose (rinse, lather, repeat), through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts." It's always so interesting to me to think about how learned knowledge and skills build up over time until they feel like instincts, and there's really no substitute for just doing the thing over and over again. Thank you for sharing!



    • Tanya
      April 13, 5:59pm

      (Joke's on me, I really should've implemented paragraph breaks in comments, oops...)