This summer I finally read Steering the Craft, a book on writing by one of my very favorite writers, Ursula K. Le Guin. Le Guin’s writing speaks to me because, with wisdom and beauty, it brings to the table of genre fiction so much human activity that is left behind in standard heroic fantasy. People in Le Guin’s novels farm and fish and trade, they exist in worlds of deeply felt gender, class, and cultural norms. Her books are still transgressive in the genre due to writing about societies of people whose skin is a color other than white. I’m still not as well read in contemporary adult speculative fiction as I’d like to be, having gotten started somewhat late, but it’s been a struggle to find books set in imagined worlds that are as thoughtful and challenging as hers are.

While Le Guin has influenced the kind of settings and characters I write about, I had never considered the matter of plot. That is, I had taken it for granted that fantasy novels can pretty much only have one kind of plot – highly structured, full of conflict, mystery, and danger, involving high stakes, and usually featuring a young character coming into his or her own. This kind of plot has certainly been wildly successful in the ever-burgeoning young adult fantasy genre, of which I am a big fan. It’s the kind of story I’ve always been taught to write, epitomized in the famous writing advice, “Get your protagonist up a tree. Throw rocks at him. Then get him down.”

So Le Guin totally BLEW MY MIND with the following seditious advice about writing plots: (more…)