Everyone faces the same steep learning curve when it comes to writing genre fiction. There are a lot of moving parts in a science fiction or fantasy story, and they all take tons of practice to master. The good news is that everybody, even novices, already has things that they’re good at—like you might have a knack for snappy dialogue, or a proficiency at worldbuilding. The bad news? The things you’re good at could become traps, if you rely on them too much.
That’s why, at least sometimes, it’s better to lean on your weaknesses as a writer. Your strengths will still be there when you need them, but often the only way to get better at writing is to develop the skills that you lack. This can be scary and frustrating—after all, part of what makes writing fun is that sense of mastery that you get when you know what you’re doing—but vulnerability and insecurity are often where the greatest rewards come from, as a writer.
I started out my career in science fiction as an author of zippy gonzo comedy stories, most of which appeared in small-press zines and tiny, now-defunct websites. (One of my best early stories is “Not to Mention Jack,” which appeared at Strange Horizons in early 2002, and it’s only that good because the Strange Horizons editors worked incredibly hard to help me improve it.) I took a few years just to master the basics of plotting and character arcs, and then I had a type of story that I was good at: fast-paced, silly, full of quippy dialogue. I wrote dozens of those stories, most of them pretty terrible.
I had a blast writing in a style that was long on humor and clever ideas, and short on almost everything else, but I couldn’t level up as an author until I learned to develop the areas where I was deficient. I did this partly by dialing back the humor in some of my fiction and leaning instead on character and emotion, and partly by exploring other genres, including literary fiction, erotica and romance. Experimenting in other genres made old habits harder to stick to, and forced me to approach how I tell a story differently.
Writing is one of the few areas where the better you get at it, the harder it becomes.
This is partly because “getting good at writing” requires you to have more awareness of the weaknesses in your own work. But also, you can’t get better after a certain point without going outside your comfort zone. And there are questions you don’t even think to ask about your own work, until you’ve been forced to think about them.
Plus, writing imaginative fiction requires a weird form of double consciousness. On the one hand, you have to be arrogant enough to believe that you can create a whole new world out of nothing, and that your story is so brilliant that it deserves to be told and that people ought to pay money to read it. You have to be a little bit of an egomaniac to think your imaginary friends are worth sharing with random strangers.
On the other hand, you need to be humble enough to recognize that your writing has flaws and that you probably screwed up all over the place. And you have to be able to hear criticism of your work, and accept all the ways you may have fallen short, without retreating into the shiny fortress of “but you don’t understaaaand, I’m a geeeeniusss.”
Still, once you’ve been doing this for a while, you get better at holding both ideas in your head at once. And you get used to feeling like a screw-up, but also understanding that doesn’t mean you have nothing to offer.
So, assuming you know what your strengths are as a writer, you can value them and appreciate their awesome power, but also understand that you need more devices in your utility belt. The good news is, strengthening your weakest abilities will probably make your strongest skills work better as well—like, if you already had a gift for worldbuilding but you put a lot of work into your plotting, your worldbuilding will shine even brighter once you have some cool plots to unspool inside it.
The reward for abandoning your comfort zone is often even more insecurity and anxiety—because once you’re no longer writing the kinds of stories that “come naturally” to you, you’ll only get more aware of all the ways your writing still has to improve. But eventually, you may look back and be shocked at how much better your writing is now, compared to before.
How to court discomfort
Luckily, there are degrees of “abandoning your comfort zone,” and you don’t necessarily have to leap into a whole other genre, or style of writing.
At one end of the spectrum, you could just focus more intently on whatever aspect of your writing needs the most work. More often than not, this means being aware of when you’re skipping over things or sweeping stuff under the rug—or taking the moments that you rush past, and stopping to focus on them. Like, say you’re really bad at describing people physically (which is one of my many, many issues as a writer)—you could make more of a conscious effort to include a really vivid description of every character as you introduce them.
A lot depends on what kind of strategies you’ve developed (conscious or unconscious) to cover for your weaknesses as an author. Like, if you’ve been using lightning-fast pacing or abrupt scene transitions to avoid having to deal with intense emotional moments, then you might have to slow the pace down, or spend more time in an important scene. Or if you use pages of worldbuilding detail to compensate for holes in your plotting, you might need to trim the details about the world to make the plot more central.
Even beyond just de-emphasizing your strengths in order to focus on your weaknesses, sometimes you need to dismantle a whole slew of coping mechanisms.
But let’s say that just focusing more intently on your weakest skills isn’t enough to develop them. That’s when you might want to think about trying to write different kinds of stories for a while. (This is always a good idea anyway, because trying something very different is both fun and a great way to challenge yourself.) If you have a hard time writing relationships, try writing romance stories for a while. Or just a story that’s all about a friendship between two people.
And here’s where trying a totally different genre entirely could come in handy. Often, the moment you switch from urban fantasy to epic fantasy, or from steampunk to queer lit, the flaws in your writing immediately become easier to spot, and to fix. You have to reinvent your writing from the ground up,when you start writing detective stories instead of post-apocalyptic survival tales. So it’s not that much more daunting to put your worst foot forward in a brand new genre that has its own steep learning curve.
You can also experiment with writing a story that’s nothing BUT the thing you suck at. If you struggle with dialogue, try writing a story that’s just a scene of dialogue and nothing else. If you can’t do worldbuilding to save your life, try writing a worldbuilding sketch. As a bonus, these experiments probably won’t be something you’re going to try and publish, so you don’t have to put as much pressure on yourself to do anything but have fun with it.
And finally, if you come from the dominant group in mainstream culture, then one of your weaknesses as a writer is probably going to be including the perspectives of people from marginalized groups. For example, if you’re white, you probably struggle with including characters of color who feel like fully realized people. This is obviously kind of a special case, because no amount of “playing to your weakness” will fix this issue—instead, the only solution is to talk to lots of people, take some seminars, and hire a sensitivity reader. But the process has to start with being willing to work on having more inclusion in your stories.
This process never ends
I still have areas of my writing that come more naturally than others, and I suspect that’ll always be the case. I worked hard to get away from those quick-hit, funny, idea-based stories I started with, and develop more well-rounded characters, more fleshed-out worlds, plots that actually make sense, and emotional relationships. (That’s not an exhaustive list of the things that I have worked hard to get better at.)
But I still feel like I use glibness and cute ideas to skate over all the many patches of thin ice in my storytelling. Any time I have a choice between really digging into the emotional truth of a moment versus just distracting the reader with a whimsical comedy bit, I will go for the whimsical comedy bit every time. And oftentimes, I’ll go for a joke that undermines the characters or comes at their expense, rather than one that actually shores them up.
I still often don’t notice when I’ve cheated on the characters or the story, because I’m so good at tricking myself into thinking I’ve nailed it—which is why I’m lucky to know some amazing beta readers, and to work with some truly gifted editors.
But that’s also why I decided to try writing a novel without much in the way of humor. When I started working on The City in the Middle of the Night five years ago, I wanted to challenge myself to write about damaged, complicated characters without a lot of whimsical comedy to provide a distraction. I also tried to write it in a different style than All the Birds in the Sky or other books: more stripped down, less fancy. Of course, being me, I ended up still adding in a fair bit of humor and lightness and even silliness, in the course of revising—but starting out without madcap goonery was a neat challenge, one that forced me to stretch muscles that I hadn’t relied on as much before.
The lack of humor in my early drafts also made the worldbuilding very different in The City in the Middle of the Night, too—I wasn’t self-consciously creating an absurd or satirical world, but instead trying to create someplace that felt somewhat real. (But again, being me, I ended up with some absurdity here and there.)
I’m now back to cracking as many jokes as I can, but I think I gained something more or less permanent from the experience of writing that book. My utility belt is just a tiny bit more pouchy than before. And it’s good to know that I can do something really different without imploding.
And in general, being a more versatile writer could also come in very handy down the road, if the kind of stuff you normally write isn’t selling and you want to try and break into a new market. And it’ll also help you stave off burnout and boredom, when you’re writing your 200th short story or your ninth novel, and you know you have the flexibility to keep changing things up.
The more you get used to reinventing yourself, the more staying power you’ll probably have as a writer—because unless you’re George R.R. Martin, you’re going to have to keep proving yourself over and over. (And one of the people you’ll have to keep proving yourself to is you.)
Charlie Jane Anders’ latest novel is The City in the Middle of the Night. She’s also the author of All the Birds in the Sky, which won the Nebula, Crawford and Locus awards, and Choir Boy, which won a Lambda Literary Award. Plus a novella called Rock Manning Goes For Broke and a short story collection called Six Months, Three Days, Five Others. Her short fiction has appeared in Tor.com, Boston Review, Tin House, Conjunctions, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Wired magazine, Slate, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Lightspeed, ZYZZYVA, Catamaran Literary Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and tons of anthologies. Her story “Six Months, Three Days” won a Hugo Award, and her story “Don’t Press Charges And I Won’t Sue” won a Theodore Sturgeon Award. Charlie Jane also organizes the monthly Writers With Drinks reading series, and co-hosts the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct with Annalee Newitz.