3 Writing Quotes from Ursula K. LeGuin

ursula1.  …life and commas

“The poet Carolyn Kizer said to me recently, ‘Poets are interested mostly in death and commas,’ and I agreed. Now I add: Prose writers are interested mostly in life and commas.” (Ursula K. LeGuin, Steering the Craft, Portland, The Eighth Mountain Press, 1998, p. 31)

2. Cut the dazzle

“As a narrative sentence, it isn’t serving the story well if its rhythm is so unexpected, or its beauty so striking, or its similes or metaphors so dazzling, that it stops the reader, even to say Ooh, Ah! Poetry can do that. Poetry can be visible, immediately dazzling…. But for the  most part, prose sets its proper beauty and power deeper, hiding in the work as a whole. In a story it’s the scene–the stetting/characters/action/  interaction/dialogue/feelings–that makes us hold our breath, and cry…and turn the page to find out what happens next.” (Ibid. p. 39, 40)

3. Say that again:)

“…I am inclined to fault journalists and schoolteachers, however well meaning, for declaring it a sin to say the same word twice, driving people to the thesaurus in desperate searches for far fetched substitutes….[T]o make a rule ‘never use the same word twice in one paragraph,’ or to state flatly that repetition is to be avoided, is a to throw away one for the most valuable tools of narrative prose.” (Ibid., p. 53)

My Comments:

Above are three great quotes from a great writer <and yes I did use repetition>.

In my twenties I devoured Le Guin’s Earthsea  books and other science fiction stories she wrote. When I heard she’d written a craft book, I had to read it. Her comments are powerful. She uses wonderful examples from great writers that made me drool and want to jump up and run to the bookstore (Tolkein, Mark Twain, Jane Austin Rudyard Kipling – just to name a few).

Here is a snippet from a Rudyard Kipling excerpt “How the Whale Got His Throat’ from Just so Stories, in her discussion about pace, movement and rhythm. The beauty of Kipling’s prose weakens my knees.

“Noble and generous Cetacean, have you ever tasted Man?”

“No,” said the Whale. “What is it like?”

“Nice, said thsmal ‘Stute Fish. “Nice but nubbly.”

“Then Fetch me some,” said the Wale and he made the sea froth up with his tail…” (quoted on p. 21)

I chose these three comments, because they resonate with my struggles with words. I have an ongoing battle with commas, a nasty habit of using metaphors and similes (because they’re fun to write) and I like the freedom to use any word to tell a story and to use it more than once if it fits.

Your Turn. What do you think of Ursula’s Comments?

Author: Jo-Ann Carson

Jo-Ann Carson writes a saucy mix of fantasy, adventure and romance. Her latest stories are in the Gambling Ghosts Series: A Highland Ghost for Christmas, A Viking Ghost for Valentine’s Day, Confessions of a Pirate Ghost and The Biker Ghost Meets his Match. An anthology of the novellas will be coming out this summer. Currently she is working on Midnight Magic, A Ghost & Abby Mystery, the first book in a spin-off series from her Viking ghost story. Jo-Ann loves watching sunrises, playing Mah Jong and drinking good coffee. You can chat with her on social media: You can find all her links on her website - http://jo-anncarson.com

18 thoughts on “3 Writing Quotes from Ursula K. LeGuin”

  1. Great post Jo-Ann, that’s something I’m working on also. I was just told on a class I’m taking with Laura Drake that the ‘3’ comma rule is out. No comma after a list before and. So much to learn, lol, my head feels like it’s going to explode. (simile)

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    1. Ha ha
      Love your comment Jacquie
      I know how you feel. My head’s bursting too. Just when I thought I’d got a handle on the traditional use of commas, Whamo…they changed the rules. lol. But I’m determined to get there.
      Thanks so much for stopping by and adding to the conversation, Thanks also for the sweet tweets. Hope to see you Tuesday and/or Saturday
      Best Wishes
      Jo-Ann

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  2. These rules, particularly the never repeat rule, are good for sloppy, unsophisticated, or beginning writers, but there are many tried and true literary devices that break all the rules. Margie Lawson loves the repetition for effect rule. I don’t remember the name of it or any of the other devices, but you know them when you hear them.

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  3. Very true Judy. Margie Lawson particularly likes things to be repeated three times. I often think two would be better although the examples she gives always work very well.

    Rules are good but sometimes I think we forget fiction does allow more latitude than an essay or traditional business letter. I was once worried that something sounded better and read better but wasn’t a perfect sentence. It worked with the alliteration but when you made it ‘correct’ it sucked the life out of the sentence. The editor at the time had no hesitation in saying go with what works. She totally agreed with me.

    Now, not only would an editor be afraid to say that, but as a writer I’d be afraid to put it out that way. Sadly, I don’t think this attention to grammar is making for better stories.

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    1. Hi Pat
      Thanks for stopping by and adding to the conversation. Loved your line about correctness sucking the life out of the sentence. How true.
      Best Wishes
      Jo-Ann

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  4. I found a quote that shows the repetition of three and some well placed commas. ‘He kissed her then, one of his soft, haunting kisses that weakened her bones, emptied her lungs, and filled her heart.’ It’s from E.C. Sheedy’s ‘Without a Word’. I won her book as
    a door prize at a workshop by Margie Lawson. But it’s much harder to get it right myself. Thanks for the great post.

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    1. Hi Helena
      I love E.C.’s line. OM goodness can she whip up emotion with a few words. And I like the commas too:)
      Thanks for adding to the conversation (even when you’re sick).
      Best Wishes
      Jo-Ann

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  5. I find Ursula’s second comment strange. Many of the classics subordinate the characters to ideas. Many of them are witty and filled with compelling complex passages, often depicting the beauty of nature. I think U’s advice is demeaning to her readership. Are readers really so dim that a well turned phrase turns them away from the trajectory and characters of the plot.
    The plot of pride and prejudice is subordinated to the brilliant social analysis and superb prose. Elizabeth and Darcy are people of pristine virtue at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end. The plot revolves around a misperception which is resolved. The story ends with the preordained marriage. Do you begrudge Jane Austen her wit.
    If you can write soaring beautiful prose, if your wit rivals that of Oscar Wilde, your readers will love it and not forget for a moment the trials and tribulations of your characters.
    Peter Denton

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    1. Peter
      Love your comment.
      I struggle with cutting my similes and metaphors and often leave them in. I like reading them and I figure others must too. They elevate the prose when they’re done right. Hearing your comment made me even more sure that that’s the right decision for me.
      I’ll never rival Oscar Wilde, but I will listen to my muse and let the words flow.
      Thank you so much for your perspective. You’ve added a lot to the conversation.
      Best Wishes
      Jo-Ann

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    2. Hi Peter
      Somehow my first response to your comment got lost.
      Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. You’ve added a lot to the conversation.
      I love “soaring beautiful prose,” and I agree there are others who do too. So I’m just going to keep on writing “my best” work and see what happens.
      Best Wishes
      Jo-Ann

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  6. Hey, Jo-Ann. I love rules and I became so frustrated when I first started writing with the sense that yes, there are rules, but you can ignore them. As Allison Brennan said in some post somewhere, “Know the rules, but know when to break ’em.” So sometimes, despite many people’s dislike of the word “it,” I use it. (Ha!) But only if I’ve tried other things and not to use makes the sentence convoluted.
    As for the Oxford Comma: You go with whatever your publisher wants. Fortunately for me, since I like it, my publisher prefers that usage. (Notice how I refrained in that instance from using the word “it.”) Mainly be consistent in your choice. Good post, Jo-Ann.

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    1. Hi Marsha
      When we finally do meet, we should have a burn the rule book ceremony.
      It’s not easy for those of us who are used to living by rules, but I agree – so necessary in writing. It’s all about knowing when, and that’s where I’m still struggling. I guess you could say I’m learning to be good at breaking rules. lol.
      Love your It story. I didn’t realize some comma’s are called “Oxford”. I’ll google that.
      Yes, I dream of only worrying about what my publisher wants. Hope your editing is going well. Thanks for stopping by.
      Best Wishes
      Jo-Ann

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  7. Interesting. I was very attracted to the ‘cut the dazzle’ comment. Sometimes I know if I’m in the dazzling zone and sometimes I don’t.
    I think all of us want to ‘dazzle’ in our own special way.
    I’m attracted to authors who offer me unexpected ‘dazzle’.

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