Alexandra Duncan

Science Fiction. Fantasy. Feminism.

Learning to Steer the Craft

One of my aspirations as a writer is to never stop improving, or at least trying to improve. Every writer develops their own style and gets into a space where they feel confident telling the stories they want to tell, but that's not the same thing as allowing your craft to stagnate or falling back on tired formulas. To paraphrase Dune, complacency is the mind-killer.

Publishing is known for its hurry-up-and-wait schedule, and right now, I'm in a holding pattern while I wait for my editor to read my current manuscript. I'm too anxious to make much progress on my next novel during this period of the process, so I decided to use the time to read Ursula K. LeGuin's Steering the Craft: a 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story and attempt the writing exercises she outlines there. (I have been a huge LeGuin devotee since I discovered The Left Hand of Darkness in high school and realized that women could write science fiction.)

I thought I would share the outcome of some of my exercises here. These will likely not be good. In fact, some them might be hot messes. But then again, I've found that when you take up a challenge, you sometimes pleasantly surprise yourself. 

So, here is what I wrote in response to one of the prompts in Ch. 1, where LeGuin challenges writers to try to match the rhythm of the action or emotion they're describing to the structure of the sentences and sounds of the words. 

She nudged her feet against the horse's flanks, and it surged forward into a gallop. She leaned down low, cutting the wind's resistance. The horse's black mane slapped at the air, and it snorted its hot breath in reply. Over the dirt they thundered, hooves beating the earth and raising it in clouds of dust to mix with the air.

Like I said, not perfect. What I was trying to do was gradually increase the length of the sentences to match the increasing speed of the horse, and looking back at it now, I can see that I wasn't entirely successful. I also have some common writing mistakes such as doubling up on and repeating words and sentence structures. Ah ha! But that's what editing is for. Let's take another crack at that same paragraph and see if I can improve it.

Marcella nudged her feet against the stallion's flanks. It reared and surged forward into a gallop. She leaned low, cutting the wind's resistance as they streaked through the desert. The horse's black mane slapped the air, and he snorted his hot breath in reply. Over the dirt they thundered, hooves beating the earth and raising it in clouds of dust to mix with the air. 

What did I do? Let's break it down.

  1. Giving my protagonist a name cut down on the repetition of "she" throughout the paragraph. Similarly, specifying the type of horse kept me from repeating "horse."
  2. "Leaned down low" doubles up on words that mean the same thing. "Leaned low" resolves that problem and brings out some nice consonance.
  3. I modulated the length of the sentences more than previously. I started with a short, simply constructed sentence, similar to the action contained in it, a nudge. The following sentences gradually increase in length (8 words, 13 words, 15 words), until the final sentence, which contains 20 words and three clauses.
  4. Modulating the lengths of these sentences also cut down on repetition in sentence structure. Too many of my sentences in the first attempt were made of two clauses of equal length, separated by a comma. I found it a helpful challenge to gradually increase the sentence lengths while varying the sentence construction.
  5. I used specific, evocative verbs, such as "surged," "streaked," "slapped," and "snorted."
  6. I tried to include two syllable verbs, to replicate the tha-thump beat of a heartbeat or a horse running. Ex. "leaned low," and "thundered."

A lot of times, what writers do is invisible to them. I didn't consciously recognize everything I describe doing above until I sat down to analyze why I had chosen the words and sentences structures I had chosen. Learning to write well is like learning a language. At first, you have to be careful in order to communicate what you want to say correctly, but over time, those lessons become second nature. (And even if you become fluent, you shouldn't become complacent.)

I'll post again as I do more exercises. In the meantime, I highly recommend Steering the Craft for writers and writing groups wanting to improve their prose. Ursula LeGuin is a smart and beautiful writer, and if you learn from her, you are learning from the best.

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