Ursula K. Le Guin’s Rules to Break and Rules to Follow

This post originally appeared on /r/writing here.

Today I’d like to talk about another of the best speculative fiction writers out there, Ursula K. Le Guin. I’m a particularly big fan of her because she’s so vocally anti-capitalist and I call what I write Marxist fiction.

On her website here you can find an article she wrote in response to John Rechy’s essay, “When Rules are Made to be Broken”, in which he “attacks three ‘rules of writing’ that, as he says, go virtually unchallenged in most fiction workshops and writing classes: Show, don’t tell — Write about what you know — Always have a sympathetic character for the reader to relate to.’” Le Guin agrees with Rechy in some cases and disagrees in others, making this article well worth the read.

Moving on, I couldn’t find a list of rules created specifically by Le Guin, but the good people at the Write Practice website have put together this list of 10 rules which they’ve mined from the plethora of articles, interviews, and essays by Le Guin that can be found on her site here. Here’s the list from the Write Practice link above (with a few minor edits to make it more readable on reddit):

  1. “Show, Don’t Tell” is for Beginners: Thanks to “show don’t tell,” I find writers in my workshops who think exposition is wicked. They’re afraid to describe the world they’ve invented.… This dread of writing a sentence that isn’t crammed with “gutwrenching action” leads fiction writers to rely far too much on dialogue, to restrict voice to limited third person and tense to the present.
  2. So Is “Write What You Know”: As for “Write what you know,” I was regularly told this as a beginner. I think it’s a very good rule and have always obeyed it. I write about imaginary countries, alien societies on other planets, dragons, wizards, the Napa Valley in 22002. I know these things. I know them better than anybody else possibly could, so it’s my duty to testify about them.
  3. Do Your Job as a Writer, and Do it Really Well: But when people say, Did you always want to be a writer?, I have to say no! I always was a writer. I didn’t want to be a writer and lead the writer’s life and be glamorous and go to New York. I just wanted to do my job writing, and to do it really well.
  4. Shoot for the Top, Always: When asked what authors she measures her work against, Le Guin says: Charles Dickens. Jane Austen. And then, when I finally learned to read her, Virginia Woolf. Shoot for the top, always. You know you’ll never make it, but what’s the fun if you don’t shoot for the top?
  5. Write Like Who You Are: Hey, guess what? You’re a woman. You can write like a woman. I saw that women don’t have to write about what men write about, or write what men think they want to read. I saw that women have whole areas of experience men don’t have—and that they’re worth writing and reading about.
  6. Learn from the Greats: It was Borges and Calvino who made me think, Hey, look at what they’re doing! Can I do that?
  7. Writing is All About Learning to See: A very good book tells me news, tells me things I didn’t know, or didn’t know I knew, yet I recognize them— yes, I see, yes, this is how the world is. Fiction—and poetry and drama—cleanse the doors of perception.
  8. Begin Your Story with a Voice: When asked how one should begin their story Le Guin answered: With a voice. With a voice in the ear. That first page I wrote, which the novel progressed from, is simply Lavinia speaking to us—including me, apparently.
  9. Focus on the Rhythm of the Story: I want the story to have a rhythm that keeps moving forward. Because that’s the whole point of telling a story. You’re on a journey—you’re going from here to there. It’s got to move. Even if the rhythm is very complicated and subtle, that’s what’s going to carry the reader.
  10. Don’t Waste Time: And one of [the things you learn as you get older] is, you really need less… My model for this is late Beethoven. He moves so strangely and quite suddenly sometimes from place to place in his music, in the late quartets. He knows where he’s going and he just doesn’t want to waste all that time getting there…. One is aware of this as one gets older. You can’t waste time.

And finally I’ll leave you with this speech Le Guin gave while accepting the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the 65th National Book Awards on November 19, 2014. I put this here to again bring up her anti-capitalist tendencies because what’s learning without a little good propaganda? 🙂


[Click here to find more writing advice for beginners.]


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