reading, world-building, writing technique

Problems, Problems.


Hmmm. None of the available images look too hot. I guess they do that on purpose.

This still is from the movie Camelot, in case you haven’t guessed.


On top of the push and shove of every day, we here have taken it on ourselves to try to write. To try to write something that matters. Something that goes somewhere. Something that will be read. Well, you can see what kind of mood I’m in. Sounds like a few of you are in the dumps also.

I’m struggling on many fronts. I’m pushing my way through chapters six and seven of Sly. (Used to be chapters five and six. Another chapter has magically appeared.) This story is a game of whack-a-mole. That’s problem number one.

My house is a mess, per usual. Work is slow, I’m short bunches of hours and it’s eating into my vacation time. It’s not yet May and my garden is already out of control. What else can go wrong? Oh yeah, my husband had a stroke. (A little stroke humor there, he’s doing very well.)

I should be counting my blessings. I need an attitude adjustment big-time.

This is the first year, after five years of trying, that my damn orange phlox has taken hold and looks like it might survive. My fifty dollars worth of an unusual yellow allium, planted last fall, seems to be coming up. I’ve been holding my breath all winter. You never know. Why did I sink fifty dollars into a plant I’ve never tried? That’s a big no-no in my book. I lusted after them, and the mail-order nursery wouldn’t let me place an order for less than fifty bucks. OK, this isn’t really what I wanted to talk about. I’m working up to it. I want to talk about Ursula Le Guin. She’s a problem for me also. Because I really expected she would be right up my alley.

I’m reading Worlds of Exile and Illusion, three short(ish) stories in one book. The blurb in the front says, “Le Guin is the ideal science fiction writer for readers who ordinarily dislike science fiction.” That’s me, all right. I like character-based stories, and that’s not sci-fi, in my experience.

So I’m reading Ursula and, guess what? I don’t like this much either.

Oh, I like her style. Literary. Poetic. Too poetic. Flowery as hell. A little of this for flavor, fine. But it’s on every page, and it’s wearing me down:

“. . . Yahan stood up with a lyre of bronze with silver strings, and sang. He sang of Durholde of Hallan who set free the prisioners of Korhalat, in the days of the Red Lord, by the marshes of Born; and when he had sung the lineage of every warrior in that battle and every stroke he struck, he sang straight on the freeing of the Tolenfolk and the burning of the Plenot Tower, of the Wanderer’s torch blazing through a rain of arrows, of the great stroke struck by Mogien Hall’s heir, the lance cast across the wind finding its mark like the unerring lance of Hendin in the days of old.”

“. . . in the pallid fog that surrounded them in a dome of blindness.”

“. . . the cold, ruinous, resplendent fortress of their race.”

The dialogue is too . . . I don’t know, too epic. Nobody talks like that. The charm wears off real fast. Try this on for size:

“I am Olhor, the Wanderer. I come from the north and from the sea, from the land behind the sun . . . I go south. Let no man stop me.” Okay, he’s speaking to hostile strangers in an unfamiliar language. But a little of this goes a long, long way.

I’m having trouble keeping my species straight. Some peoples are at the bronze-age level, some zip across the galaxy in induced comas, and return home barely older than when they left, though their loved ones are on the brink of death from decrepitude. Some read minds, communicate that way, some hunker around campfires in filthy rags and grunt at each other. These are not branches on a family tree. Where did these tribes come from?

And, this overload of information is not the information I would love to hear. Where are the stray thoughts that we all have, that I scatter through my own thing like the weeds poking up in my garden? (Those weeds are out there, doing their cake-walk through my beds, singing their heads off: It’s May! It’s May! The lusty month of May!)

Le Guin’s often medieval-sounding description is kind of like my tons of fake history, that has enough real embedded in it for one back on Book Country to tell me, “I can’t take any more of this. I didn’t know I was going to be plunged into a history class.”

Is this typical of her? I thought at first that I could learn from her, how to overdo on the detail (’cause it’s so much damn fun) but keep it from getting mind-numbing. Nope! I’m thrown back on my own devices. Which means, generally, lots of playful intrusion, to jolt you awake, in case you’ve zoned out. That’s my answer.

I’m stealing some neat words here. So that’s good. Byre, what’s a byre? Has something to do with cattle. Ah! A cow barn/cow shed. I can use that for Sly, for flavor. I’m all for flavor, but I don’t want to drown in it.

Now you all can explain to me how/why I’ve just made an idiot of myself. Le Guin is, after all, in the writer pantheon. She’s the one with the awards, and the legions of fans, not me. But this sort of heroic/epic quest/event-driven storytelling is simply not my style.

The tone feels Arthurian to me. Mystical. There are run-down castles and, instead of elves, various tribes of little people. We have a touch of magic in the mind-reading, and in legend-based premonitions. The framework is that this fairly primitive planet is brutally invaded. A hidden base has been established from which to launch a counter attack against distant forces. But that’s the least part of the story, coming in very near the end. The hero doesn’t reach the base until page one-hundred of a one-hundred-twelve page story. Most of the tale chronicles the lengthy trek across challenging terrain and, for me, it gets tedious, beautiful imagery notwithstanding. Maybe I’ll come to appreciate Le Guin more as I read on.

Her powers of imagination are incredible. I am mesmerized, if not necessarily delighted, by her dense description. I write little physical detail myself and am very conscious of that lack. I’ve been trying to rejigger my way of thinking in that direction for a while now, so far with very modest success. I have to see if I can incorporate some of this approach into my own style.


My husband has just read Rocannon’s World and says it’s one of the best pieces of science fiction he’s ever read. I had to explain to him who Ursula Le Guin is, he’s never heard of her. (He has not read sci-fi for decades. He’s into history, politics, science, nonfiction generally.) He is very impressed with her world building, and thinks the plot being almost incidental is no big deal.

I will read her next story with that outlook. Maybe when you read her you have to park your expectations.

God knows I can relate to that.


9 thoughts on “Problems, Problems.

  1. Kris says:

    I’m sorry to hear that your husband had a stroke but glad he is recovering. Sometimes life’s challenges bring us to Despair’s rocky cliffs. Those moments force us to step back, and that’s what I’ve inferred from this post. Sorry I’ve been a crappy Writers’ Coop member. I’m catching up – slowly but surely. These past few months have been a slog… Know that you are not alone; my house and yard is in disarray too – almost like the place was hit by mini-hurricanes. I find myself repeating this mantra: housework will still be there tomorrow. Maybe in time, we’ll learn to let go of guilt and accept things as they are; or, in LeGuin’s terms, find our iahklu’.

    Iahklu’ is loosely tied to the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends.” Reading your post reminded me that much of her early work is like that – flowery, epic description. Her later works tend to, but are not always, more concise in the description department. If you’re looking for a leaner work of LeGuin’s, check out _The Lathe of Heaven_. I have my students read it because it’s LeGuin Lite, and most of them seem to find something they love within its confines. Some of them even take it to a tin-foil hat place and consider the main characters as the embodiment of Freud’s theory of personality (id, ego, and superego) such that the story is but a dream unfolding as someone sleeps. Others read tension between tenets of Eastern Mysticism and Western Humanism… There’s a lot to consider for such a short book, and I think these aspects are why _The Lathe of Heaven_ won the Locus and was nominated for the Hugo and Nebula.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. Perry Palin says:

    Thanks for the reaction to LeGuin. I’m not a sci fi reader and I don’t know her.

    We each have to find our own voices. My writing is pretty spare. I usually cut about a third of everything in a first draft, adverbs, details, that sort of thing, and I think the writing is better for it. I’ve begun a rereading of A MOVEABLE FEAST. Hemingway, the prince (maybe the king) of the short declarative sentence.

    I’ve just read THE MALTESE FALCON, the early detective novel, and I was lost several times with all the characters and plot twists, blind leads and a couple of red herrings. This has me rethinking the 22 characters with speaking parts in my unpublished novel.

    Reading Le Guin has you thinking about your own writing, and that’s good. If you don’t like something she’s done, and you know why, it will help your own stories.

    I didn’t know you were a gardener. We have 17 acres of weeds, and we spend plenty of money and time on experiments to bring in perennials that will feed the bees and the butterflies and the hummingbirds. My best luck has been to forget about buying seeds, and just bring home wild stock from my fishing afternoons, various milkweed species, and a blue aster that grows wild an hour north of here, but that we don’t have at home.

    Good to hear that your husband is mending.

    Liked by 7 people

  3. atthysgage says:

    Mimi. An interesting analysis. I haven’t read Worlds of Exile and Illusion, though it doesn’t sound particularly typical of LeGuin, at least not the LeGuin I read. She was never a huge favorite of mine, but I have a lot of respect for her ability and her approach. I liked the sci-fi stuff (Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, Lathe of Heaven), or at least I did several decades ago when I was much younger. I also liked the Earthsea Trilogy.

    Anyway. Hope you are doing all right. Our yard is in a near constant state of chaos. We live on the edge of a forest and the forest never lets us forget who’s boss. I probably would’ve just let it all revert to nature years ago but my wife keeps me honest, one of her many jobs.

    Hope your husband continues mending. Take care of yourself. And keep writing.

    Liked by 5 people

  4. mimispeike says:

    Kris, thank you for your recommendation of Lathe of Heaven. I am going to read it after I pull myself together. Another health problem (unrelated to the stroke) may have cropped up. I’m not coping very well at the moment.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Oh, dear, more ignorance on my part and another to add to my list. But from your post, Mimi, I think I might agree with you. I’m more with Perry and The Moveable Feast on the whole.
    ‘Tis indeed the time of year when gardens get out of control. Ours, I’m afraid, is more LeGuin than Hemingway.
    Get well soon, Mimi.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I am so sorry to hear that; I don’t think any of us would be coping well with what’s going on. Everything is infinitely more difficult without health. I hope the doctors help get that sorted, and I wish you and your husband well. *virtual hug*

      Liked by 2 people

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