Ursula K. Le Guin is one of the finest writers of our time. Her books have attracted millions of devoted readers and won many awards, including the National Book Award, the Hugo and Nebula Awards and a Newbery Honor. Among her novels, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed and the six books of Earthsea have attained undisputed classic status; and her recent series, the Annals of the Western Shore, has won her the PEN Center USA Children’s literature award and the Nebula Award for best novel.
To celebrate Gollancz Festival 2015 she agreed to answer your questions!
Meghan Ellis: Worldbuilding – how do you do it? How much do you add? The Archipelago of the Earthsea quintet had a fully fleshed world; when did you say “enough is enough – the reader will never think about, nor need to know, any of this?”
Language, currency, government, history, politics – that’s all important, but to what extent?
Ursula Le Guin: Depends on what kind of book you want to write. If plot, action, adventure is your focus, you can use a more or less readymade background and not spend much time developing the fictional world or setting. The novel of ideas likewise – it’s all in the head…. But if the interplay of individuals and society(ies) and the physical world is central to your novel, your fictions must be embodied — that world must be fully imagined to draw the reader fully into it. Which means that you’ll know a lot more about that world than you ever put into the book. Only your own judgment as you write and revise can tell you what’s necessary, what intensifies the reality of the story and what clogs it, and when enough is enough.
By the way, there are six books of Earthsea! The fifth is Tales from Earthsea and the sixth and last is The Other Wind.
Michael Buckley: Lots of writers go through pains to create and form a solid character for their novels, does writing characters come easily and does it depend on each character?
Ursula Le Guin: The kind and degree of pain varies enormously. Some writers draw up meticulous descriptons and biographies of their characters before they write the story. Others conceive of a character as an existing presence – complete, like an actual person you meet — with characteristics and biography most of which are discovered/revealed in the process of writing about them.
I do it that way. It’s somewhat mystical: I can’t write about the person until I know what their name is. Sometimes they won’t tell me.
T. Shepherd: What’s your process of revision? (What do you look for in the rough draft? How do you make something better? How do you know it’s done?) Thank you!
Ursula Le Guin: Again, writers are all different. What I do is absolutely no model for how to do it. And what I do differs greatly from story to story. I’ve rewritten a novel entirely five times, taking over 20 years to do so. I’ve written a novel in six weeks and changed nothing substantial in revision, only made minor adjustments of wording –- a process I enjoy so much I have make myself stop it.
The book is done when you say it’s done. It’s entirely up to you. It’s your responsibility.
Keegan Spindler: When I write, I find that I use the same word a lot over and over again, but when I go back and change some of them it immediately feels like I’ve gone through the text with a thesaurus and feels completely unnatural. This is a problem that often crops up with pronouns or names as well. Is there any way I can avoid being repetitive without breaking the natural flow of my work?
Ursula Le Guin: Pedants and journalists have instilled in us a horror of repeating words. Repetition is one of the secrets and strengths of all art. Fear not! Repeat freely! – so long as you aren’t doing it carelessly, without noticing. (And you will, we all do, but then we catch it in revision.)
With names and pronouns it’s a matter of cutting repetition to, but not below, what’s needed for clarity.
Tim Cassford: How much of your story do you know when you start writing?
Ursula Le Guin: I know where it starts; I think I know where it ends; I have a fairly clear idea of the trajectory it will follow. And I have written stories that proved every one of these “knowledges” false by the time it was finished.
Andrea d’Angelo: First of all, thank you for your poetry in the form of novels. Second, how do you achieve your powerful synthesis?
Ursula Le Guin: Thank you – I wish I could answer your question. Any achievement in the arts takes a good deal of luck and a hell of a lot of commitment. All I can say is, it took me about ten years to learn how to write a story I knew was something like what I wanted to write. In the sixty years since then I’ve learned how to do some more of what I’d like to do. But never all.
Lilian Darvell: What inspired you to start writing? And what are your recommendations for new writers who are struggling to start?
Ursula Le Guin: I guess what inspired me to start writing was learning to read and write. I liked it, so I wanted to do it. Still do.
Corporate capitalism is stony soil for a starting writer, as the only value it places on writing is as a commodity, reducing a craft to a market competition, winner take all. If your deep commitment is to your writing, rather than to success in selling it, you’ll have one sure profit: the pleasure of doing real work well and knowing the value of it. Not much compared to an eight-figure advance, a Hollywood contract, and the blaze of fame, I know.
I can’t make any recommendations — I just wish you the joy of reading for the love of reading and writing for the love of writing.
And good luck to you all! –Ursula K. Le Guin