SFF Writing Advice from io9’s Charlie Jane Anders

Writers are a special type of human. They write because they feel like they have to—very few of them actually enjoy it. Because of this, the internet has spawned an entire cottage industry of writing columns, ostensible to give advice, but really to offer frustrated wordsmiths a (slightly) less guilt-inducing form of procrastination.

Many of these columns focus on “literary” writing, but one of our favorites is a genre-writing crash course taught by Charlie Jane Anders. Anders, co-editor of io9, Tor.com contributor, and author of the Hugo Award-winning “Six Months, Three Days,” offers “Writing Advice” posts on io9 that deftly pull off the most difficult trick: they actually make you want to pick up pen or keyboard, and dive into the work!

Let’s start with a basic one: often you’ll be told to “write what you know.” Fine for literary folks—they’re forever stubbing out cigarettes and gulping whiskey while gazing into the middle distance and brooding over lost loves. We’ve all done that, and we can all write about it. But how many of you have ridden a dragon? Visited an undersea kingdom? Experienced cryosleep? Considerably fewer. Anders addresses this well-worn tip in one column that is sure to reassure SFF-smiths. She also tackles one of sci-fi’s own bugbears: Heinlein’s advice not to revise. As Anders points out, quoting Patricia Wrede, not even Heinlein stuck to this one:

“Late in his career, Heinlein himself admitted that he did, in fact, revise/rewrite his work before sending it out, but he never, to the best of my knowledge, explained why he had laid down this particular rule.”

Anders is also comfortable giving more general advice, including discussions on how to craft dialogue and manage tone:

She also has absolutely practical tips on making it as a professional writer:

If you feel your novel has gone off course, Anders calls in a few experts to give you encouragement and advice, as well as a painful (but effective) method to fix your novel if the draft still seems wonky, and a simple, word-search-based assessment you can make before you send it out to agents.

She also covers some short story tips for those of you who are into the whole brevity thing, having written “over a hundred of the little fuckers.”

And, maybe best of all, she digs into topics that genre writers need to focus on, far more than their hoch-literary siblings. In her “Seven Deadly Sins of Worldbuilding,“ for instance: “You’re not just constructing a society, you’re creating an economy.” She gives us a step-by-step guide to torturing fictional people, and gleefully reminds writers that people should suffer for a variety of different reasons:

“One trick that I’ve found interesting sometimes is to show a character who appears to be suffering for no reason at all—and you don’t realize for a while that he or she actually did something to deserve this, but is unaware of it.”

Some of the best of these are when Charlie Jane unpacks the things people do wrong instead of what they do right. Anders dives in with droll examples of what not to do, and suddenly better options for writing become clear. For instance:

“If your pitch is, ‘It’s just like our world, except everybody can turn invisible at will,’ then you’ve already failed. Because if everybody could turn invisible at will, it wouldn’t be anything like our world. Especially if this power had been around for more than a few months.”

And then she gets into the really fun stuff with topics like:

Plus, since the io9 community jumps in to discuss their writing in the comments, the column truly does become a workshop for people who are learning to write SFF. Peruse the whole series here, and happy (or at least less agonizing) writing!

Leah Schnelbach welcomes writing advice from SFF writers, literary writers, magical talking cats…pretty much anybody. Tweet at her! 


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