Thursday, April 12, 2012

Book Review: Steering the Craft

Today, I'm going to review one of the books on fiction writing I've collected over the years. This one is Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin, one of my favorite authors. The book has a long subtitle stating that it contains writing exercises either for "the lone navigator" or "the mutinous crew." I bought it because (1) Le Guin wrote it, and (2) I was intrigued by the thought of writing exercises you could do as a "lone navigator" (that is, by oneself).

In many ways, Steering is a typical "how to" book on fiction writing, in that it has chapters devoted to specific aspects of writing, each of which contains sample prose from other authors that Le Guin uses to make her points. I think there's a ton of good material in this book, so much that if you don't own any books on fiction writing, I think Steering would make a fine starting place. My problem was, I own quite a few books on fiction writing and I'm not sure this one showed me much that wasn't in at least one of the others.

My larger problem with Steering is that I think it's much more valuable for a group of writers than for any individual. I'm not convinced the exercises (which remind me of our own mini-contests, sometimes) are all that valuable if you don't have a more experienced or capable writer going over your work.

Writing isn't like bowling, where there's an objective scoring system that tells you if you're any good at the game. But to continue the analogy, how is a gutter ball-throwing beginner going to improve unless someone with more experience and skill shows the beginner a more effective way to bowl? Writing presents the same problem, except that with writing, it's easy to think you're knocking all the pins down when you're really only knocking down one or two of them. That's because many beginning writers have difficulty evaluating the words they put on a page separately from the story they carry around in their heads. They look at the words they wrote down, those words remind them of the great story in their heads, they say "what a great story I've got in my head," and then conclude they wrote great words down. We all do that to some degree, but beginners do it more.

So I question the "lone navigator" part of Steering's subtitle. I'm not sure the exercises are valuable unless you can get useful feedback on your results from another person. 

On the OTP yes/maybe/no/favorite rating scale, I give Steering a "maybe." I think it's a good book to start with if you don't have any others, but I don't think it's the best book out there. Furthermore, I think the exercises would be terrific if you could get useful feedback on your attempts at performing them, but I question whether anyone can evaluate their own writing well enough to improve meaningfully by doing them alone.

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