Charlie Jane Anders is writing a nonfiction book—and Tor.com is publishing it as she does so. Never Say You Can’t Survive is a how-to book about the storytelling craft, but it’s also full of memoir, personal anecdote, and insight about how to flourish in the present emergency.
Below is the third chapter, “Embrace Uncertainty: The Joy of Making a Giant Mess”—you can find all previous chapters here. New chapters will appear every Tuesday. Enjoy!
Embrace Uncertainty: The Joy of Making a Giant Mess
I can still remember the last time I felt like a total confused noob as a writer.
It was a couple weeks ago.
I had just begun writing a brand-new story, and realized that I still know nothing about how to start things. That blank white screen was taunting me with its milky emptiness, and I couldn’t find a way in. I had some neat ideas, a vague sense of an opening scene, a sliver of a main character…but the story wasn’t even getting out of the gate. This happens. Like, all the time.
We talked before about the joy of getting lost in a story—finding a character you want to follow around, creating a world that you want to live inside—but the flipside of that pleasure is the discomfort that can come from total confusion. Especially when you’re starting a new piece of writing, it can be intimidating: you’re making the map at the exact same time as you’re venturing into the territory.
Even people who’ve been writing for decades still have trouble finding their way into a new story, and getting over that initial angst about getting started. After a few drinks, most writers will confess that they never really learn how to write in general—they just figure out how to write this particular piece of writing, mostly by trial and painful error.
We’ll talk later about what to do if you get stuck in the middle of a piece of writing, but this feels like a different issue. When you’re at the beginning, everything is up for grabs—and that means that ground is likely to shift under your feet as you make (and unmake) decisions. You’re bound to keep changing your mind about your story’s characters and premise and setting, and the whole thing is going to feel rickety AF.
Especially during a time like right now—when nothing in the real world makes any damn sense, and the facts keep shifting every day—it can be really frustrating to work on a story that also doesn’t make sense and contains unstable information.
As far as I know, there’s no way to avoid that sense of confusion and doubt—but it’s possible to get used to it, and even comfortable with it. And even though this feeling isn’t as pleasant as falling in love with your characters and worlds, I really believe that being okay with some creative unsteadiness can help you to cope with being alive right now.
In the intro to this essay collection, I talked about how when you write your own story, you get to control every aspect—and that’s true. But the truth is, writing is slippery, and control is often illusory. Your mind is a machine for rendering reality, but it’s full of bugs and glitches, and they tend to jank everything up.
When you try to create a story that makes sense (in a way that reality often doesn’t), you’re going to end up doing a lot of mental gymnastics—and like real gymnastics, they will help you become more flexible in general. Plus you might just get to glimpse the ways that your particular brain is a little wonky at turning blobs of information and sensory detail into a smooth narrative, which in turn can help you troubleshoot when the real world gets glitchy. (Is it your brain? Is it the outside world? Probably both. But it’s helpful to have some sense of the exact ratio of each.)
You can figure out the ways you’re likely to screw up as a writer, and maybe screw up a little better.
Or to put it another way, when you write a story, you have to deal with a lot of uncertainty, which might just make you a little more able to deal with uncertainty in the real world. The hero of your story rides a flying motorcycle—no wait, the motorcycle can’t fly, because then she could just zoom over the top of that barricade. Also, maybe she doesn’t ride the motorcycle—maybe it’s her friend’s bike and she sits in a little sidecar. Or maybe the motorcycle is a unicycle? Also, what if she has a giant head and they don’t make a helmet that size? And so on.
Even when the facts of your story are set in stone and you have a detailed outline, there’s always the question of what to include and what to leave out, and how you’re going to launch this story into motion. It can be fun to screw around with different scenarios, but it can also be incredibly demoralizing to feel as though you can’t get any traction.
I often find the process of starting a new piece of creative writing goes like this:
- Whee a whole new world—let’s find some cool image or idea to throw out there and see where it goes! So exciting much potential yayyyyy
- Aaaaa what happened??? I’m stuck—why is everything going backward instead of forward? Where’s my laudanum I must retire to my daybed bring my fainting couch I hate this
- Oh wait, what if I…This could work! This could…Ugh. No. This didn’t work.
- These characters have been sitting and drinking tea for five pages and I’ve run out of ways to describe the flavor of lapsang souchong and nothing is happening send help!!!
When I was starting out and wrote dozens of short stories, I would try to get around this problem by introducing a conflict or central idea right in the opening sentence. Like, “The phoenix egg finally started to hatch, but my space cruiser was only three minutes away from blowing up.” Like doing a cannonball into the freezing water, sort of.
I found that the more of a situation I could cram into those opening words, the greater the sense of momentum I could create, that could carry me through the rest of the story. (And then I had to go and backfill motivation, backstory, worldbuilding, etc., as the intrepid hero was rushing to get the baby phoenix into an incubator, and off the exploding starship.) I still use that approach sometimes; it’s how my story “Six Months, Three Days” begins, for example.
But that’s just one workaround, and over time I found that it created some problems—like, sometimes the situation needs to build up more slowly, or be less clear-cut. And you might not want all of your stories to begin the exact same way. Plus of course, this doesn’t at all solve the problem of “oh, actually, the motorcycle doesn’t fly after all.”
And like I said, the long-term solution is to just get used to the assembling-an-IKEA-bookshelf wobbliness when you start something.
And I usually feel like that pain is worth it, because you end up with something that’s realer, or at least more interesting, than what you started out with.
You can never really control what your story is about, and that’s exciting as well as scary. You can keep getting deeper into your mythos or finding a better conflict than the one you thought you had. Like, that exploding-spaceship story could just be about saving the baby phoenix—or it could be about not feeling ready to become a parent to a magical space bird. Or maybe you realize that the baby phoenix actually wants to get blown up, so it can come back more powerful. Maybe the phoenix is carnivorous and wants to eat the main character. There are more ways this story could go than your bird has feathers.
This can be exhilarating as well as upsetting, if you can learn to revel in the mercurial wildness of your own storytelling.
Promises you make to the reader are also promises to yourself
So your brain is a faulty machine for rendering reality—but then you’re also creating something that might end up being loaded on other people’s faulty brains.
I find it really helpful to have an imaginary reader in my head as I write. This is not the same person as your “inner critic”—that voice that tells you everything you’re writing is garbage and you should quit now. Your inner critic is a manifestation of imposter syndrome, like we talked about last week. But your imaginary reader is picking up what you’re putting down. Sometimes literally.
Basically, your inner critic is a jerk whose negativity gets in the way of your process, but your inner reader is curious and delighted, and wants to know what’s coming next. You should tell your inner critic to go screw themself, but your inner reader can pull up a chair.
You can imagine surprising and delighting this non-existent other person with all the funny dialogue and startling turns of events you’re throwing into your story. Sometimes, it’s easier and more fun to tell a story, when you have a sense of who you’re telling the story to. Especially if you’re from a marginalized community, thinking of yourself as writing a story to, and for, other members of your community can keep you from worrying non-stop about what so-called “mainstream” readers will think.
Keeping an ideal reader in your mind helps you think about the promises you’re making in the text, in the form of hints, clues, dangling plot threads, foreshadowing, and so on. Like, if I mention in the third sentence of a story that the main character has a nemesis with a chainsaw neck, who tends to turn up at the worst possible moments, then it’s like a little post-it note reminding me a chainsaw-necked fiend ought to show up later in the story. (And they’re going to be in a really bad mood, because having a chainsaw for a neck tends to give you a nasty headache.)
And any promises you make to your reader are also promises that you’re making to yourself. Knowing that you left a shoe hovering in mid-air can motivate you to keep writing, because you have to get to the place where it drops.
Of course, you don’t have to share your writing with any real-life humans, unless you want to. But even if you’re the only person who ever reads your work, you can still have an imaginary reader in your head.
I only made it through writing All the Birds in the Sky by having a constant running dialogue with the reader in my head, who wanted to know what all this magic-and-science fuss was about. That weird question Patricia gets asked in the first chapter? Can’t forget about that. The supercomputer in Laurence’s bedroom closet? Probably gonna be something. In earlier drafts of the book, Laurence starts out by meeting some aliens who are operating out of a store called Jodhpurs & Jodhpurs, which only sells lentils and riding pants. And these aliens hint at huge secrets, which I figured I would pay off later. The riddle and the supercomputer stayed, but the alien shopkeepers had to go.
Even when my fiction was appearing in smaller markets and I wasn’t getting much feedback from real-life readers, I still kept an ideal reader in my head. I felt like I was in dialogue with this fake person. And as much as your characters can be your imaginary friends, I feel like the reader in your head can be one, too. And they can be a huge help when you’re in the trudging-through-squelchy-mud period of starting a new story.
The whole time I was working on All the Birds in the Sky, I felt like I was making a bargain with that inner reader—please hang with me while I throw in a bunch of witchy stuff and gadgets and assassins and other weird ideas, and in return I will keep this story focused tightly on these two characters and their relationship. For every wacky plot device, there will be a couple pages of emotional, personal, grounded stuff. I felt like that awareness of a potential reader helped keep me on track, because I felt like I was holding someone’s hand.
My own personal inner reader is kind of a cranky obnoxious weirdo who asks too many inappropriate questions, but it’s nice to have someone to talk to while I write.
So when I’m scrabbling for purchase on the edge of a brand-new piece of fiction, and I have no idea what I’m doing, I try to focus on the little details about the characters and the world, for clues about where things should go next. I pretend I’m the reader as well as the writer, and focus on what the text thus far is telling me. And sometimes I will throw out way too many promissory notes, like a drunken prospector at closing time, in the hope that some of them will spark something. Like the late, lamented Jodhpurs & Jodhpurs.
I feel like most of us have no idea what we’re doing most of the time, in life as well as in writing, but we’re supposed to pretend we do. That’s one reason for imposter syndrome, in fact. And for various reasons, it’s sometimes easier to keep up that pretense when you’re in the middle, or better yet the home stretch, of a story that’s holding together somewhat. Starting a new work of fiction is scary precisely because you’re at your most exposed—but you also have nothing to lose, in terms of this particular work at least.
Basically, writing is one of the few areas where getting lost and confused can be liberating as well as terrifying. “No clue” can also mean “no fucks given.”
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. She is writing a Young Adult space fantasy trilogy, to debut in early 2021.