Are you tackling National Novel Writing Month, and just hitting the point where it feels like November is at least 8 months long? If so, I have some excellent writing tips that will hopefully do more than ease your pain—they’ll make you eager to get back to the keyboard again. Last year, I gathered up some of my favorite pieces of advice from Charlie Jane Anders (EIC of io9, of some great short stories here on Tor.com, and the author of the forthcoming novel All the Birds in the Sky.), and now I’ve found even more excellent ideas from her Writing Advice column!
Obviously, we’re thinking right now of National Novel Writing Month, but one great aspect of these articles is that they’re short story-specific, which is nice, since shorter fiction truly is its own art. A great case in point is Anders’ article “How To Create A Killer Opening For Your Science Fiction Short Story” which walks you through opening scenes from well known stories, analyzing why each of them works to pull a reader in. It’s a great, practical tactic that shows you just how many options you have, which is always a welcome relief when you’ve been working on a story for a while.
One of the best aspects of the column is that Anders is not afraid to face up to some hard truths in the writing life. For instance:
…writers are really good at spinning bullshit and convincing you that their made-up story actually happened—and that means that bullshitting yourself is an occupational hazard. It’s easy to bullshit yourself that you’ve made two pieces fit together when there’s actually a really awkward gap.
She discusses the danger of this in a great column, “The Difference Between a Great Story and a Shitty Story Is Often Really Tiny”, and talks about all the small details that can throw a piece off course. She also cops to her own years of writing practice in “I wrote 100 terrible short stories that I’m glad you’ll never read” which chronicles her early days writing stories about FTL drives that run on human guilt and… cactus genitalia? (I think I want to read that one…)
Are you a renegade writer who likes to scoff at the rules? Well, Anders has compiled a list of rules that are particularly fun to break! This is probably the most SFF-specific column on this list, since it talks at length about the uses and abuses of magic and faster than light travel… although if you’re adding FTL to your Carverian literary fiction, I want to read it. Actually, even if you aren’t writing Carverian literary fiction, you can still incorporate your life experience into your work. Even if you’re writing about a dragon-herder, if you and that dragon-herder have both been dumped abruptly, you have an emotional trauma in common that can help your reader empathize.
Are you writing about the future? You’ll definitely want to look the “10 Ways to Create a Near-Future World that Won’t Look too Dated“. Nothing is worse that reading a story that prominently features a long-extinct trend, and Anders deals with that, but there are also lots of smaller pitfalls to avoid while building a world. And whether you’re writing the future, the past, or trying to capture NOW, you’ll need to put thought into your worldbuilding. How can you take your setting from a matte painting to a fleshed-out, lived-in society? Anders has an excellent column on this topic, arguing that by paying close attention to your characters’ privilege, pain, ideology, and technical ignorance you can get them to create a world that the reader will see through their eyes.
Anders is also great at pointing out helpful advice from other writers, for instance Chuck Wendig’s tips on how to deal with the flashlight-wielding velociraptor that all writers must defeat as they plot their stories…well, OK, that’s a slight exaggeration, but you will need to get your characters in and out of trouble. Which could always involve velociraptors. Are you working on book with a lot of action? Anders has rounded up some tips from some of our favorite action writers in SFF, including Daniel Abraham, David Weber, and Karen Traviss. Are you writing any sexytimes for your characters? Anders has some great advice for that potential minefield, helpfully illustrated with Star Trek characters. Do you need to torture your characters to move the story along? Of course you’re going to feel guilty, but remember: You’re a writer, and you understand that misery is a crucible.
Say you want to get under your writing’s hood, and really dig into craft? Anders has some advice about dialogue in general, adverbs in particular, and the word ‘grim‘ in, um, even more particular. Now say you’re following all of this advice, you have a story that’s OK, but just doesn’t quite come to life the way you want? Anders has a tip for that, too! Actually, two of them. And since we’ve already talked about beginnings, we might as well head to the other end of your story:
Just look at the language we use to talk about endings. Nobody ever accuses the beginning of a story of being a “cop-out,” or a “cheat,” or of “falling flat.” Beginnings don’t have to pay off anything, or explain everything. The beginning of the story hooks us, and makes a bunch of promises—and then the ending has to deliver on all those promises. So perhaps it’s not surprising that it’s slightly easier to make promises than to deliver on them.
While Anders can’t promise a silver bullet that will fix every ending, she does have tips on endings that might help jog a good conclusion from your brain-meats.
Finally, Anders is willing to take on the dark side of the writing life. Most people, no matter how hard they work, are going to be met with at least some criticism. The trick is turning that into a platform for better writing. The odds are also good that you’ll be rejected, probably quite often when you’re starting out. Anders has some great advice on how to incorporate that into your writing practice without turning into a basket case.