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 fifth chapter, “Don’t Be Afraid to Go on Lots of First Dates With Story Ideas”, which begins section 2, “What’s A Story, and How Do You Find One?”—you can find all previous chapters here. New chapters will appear every Tuesday. Enjoy!
What’s A Story, and How Do You Find One?
Don’t Be Afraid to Go on Lots of First Dates With Story Ideas
One of the biggest sources of shame and anxiety for writers, especially newer writers, is the “failure” to finish a story. What if you start a dozen stories, and never quite find your way to the end of them? This might seem like a lack of follow-through, and even a reason to beat yourself up.
But maybe don’t think of it as “failing” to complete something. Instead, try thinking of it as going on a bunch of blind dates—that don’t happen to lead to second dates. No harm, no foul.
It’s easy to get infatuated with a brand-new story idea. Check out that sexy elevator pitch, and all of those dazzling implications. This story idea is both rich and beautiful, and you want to get to know it a lot better. But then you spend a little more time together, and…the chemistry just isn’t there. Turns out that elevator pitch only lasted a few floors, and all the cool little notions that came with it just aren’t panning out.
So just like with all the attractive singles in your area who are on every dating app ever, you might need to have one glass of merlot at a lot of wine bars before you find the premise you’re ready to hang with.
There’s no shame whatsoever in writing five sentences (or five pages) of a story before deciding that it’s not going to click after all—you’ll know you’ve found “the one” when it keeps popping into your head, and you keep thinking of more places you could go with it. Plus, sometimes you’ll come back to one of those stories you started, and suddenly have a great idea of how to finish it. I’ve put plenty of half-finished stories aside, only to come back years later and find my way to the end of them.
I’m a stubborn cuss, so I have a hard time admitting that something isn’t working and it’s time to try something else. I used to try and force myself to keep going.
But lately, I’ve been realizing that I haven’t actually gotten any better at finishing the stories I start. Instead, I’ve just gotten quicker to realize that something’s not panning out, and it’s time to jump tracks. When I was putting together my upcoming short story collection, I went back and looked through all the stories I wrote when I was starting out—and somehow, I had forgotten that for every story I finished, there were five or six that I didn’t. And I found tons of notes and other evidence of me banging my head against the same wall over and over.
I had to learn to stop thinking of leaving a story unfinished as an admission of defeat, or thinking that it reflected on me as a writer. I had to give myself permission to move on.
Of course, sometimes there’s a story idea that I know in my bones is meant for me, and worth the effort, and I keep getting pulled back to it even though I can’t bring it to life. That definitely happens on a regular basis, and we’ll talk in later chapters about how to deal with getting stuck when a story is both compelling and not working. But most of the time, I’ve found putting a story on the back burner is the right choice—my subconscious can keep poking at it, while I do other stuff. (And if I stop thinking about it at all, there’s a sign that it was not meant to be.)
Another important lesson I had to learn: there’s never any shortage of story ideas. They’re easy to come by, and there’s no need for a mentality of scarcity. If you can start thinking of story ideas as abundant, leaving stories unfinished will feel a lot less wasteful, and more like writing exercises, or good practice.
To return to the dating metaphor, you don’t just want to find a story idea—you want to find the story idea that you’re going to want to commit to. And there really are plenty of fish in the sea.
Why is it so hard to believe that story ideas are easy to come by?
Part of the mystique of writing is that story ideas feel kind of magical and miraculous. We’re all used to falling in love with books based on the two sentences on the back cover, and the right idea, in the right hands, can feel electrifying. It’s easy to believe that ideas are the key ingredient of great storytelling, and hard to accept that ideas are easy to come by.
But once you realize that ideas are an endlessly renewable resource, then you can be more relaxed about trying out lots of them. And maybe this knowledge will also make it easier for you to come up with more of them. Instead of being precious about any one idea, you can just keep brainstorming endlessly until you have a bunch that you like.
The universe contains a billion layers of miracles, outrages, and strange phenomena, and if everybody on Earth wrote one story per day for the next hundred years, we’d barely tap a tiny fraction of that potential. Every random subgenre and plot device has a limitless number of stories that have never been written—like a playground that goes on and on forever. Every issue of New Scientist contains a ton of science fiction story ideas, and you can get tons of ideas from just taking a walk and people-watching (don’t be creepy). Or just try to imagine one thing in the world changing drastically, or the weirdest thing that could happen to someone. Or get into a fight with a dead author.
Lately I’ve been speaking to high-school classes, and I have an exercise that I like to take the students through. I get people to come up with random items or concepts, like “potato!” or “umbrella!” or “running late!” We pick one of those, like “potato!”, and then we spend a few minutes coming up with twenty things that could happen to a potato. Maybe the potato gets married. Maybe it grows legs and learns to walk. Maybe the potato runs for president.
That’s just the start of the exercise. After that, we try to come up with a protagonist for the story. Is it the potato itself? Or the person who gets married to the potato? Or the potato farmer? We try to come up with a central conflict of the story—like, maybe someone has religious objections to potato marriage. And hopefully, we come up with possible complications, or unexpected turns the story could take. At the end of five to ten minutes, we’ve usually come up with 100 or so story ideas.
Part of the fun of writing science fiction and fantasy is that there are almost no limits. If you’re writing a murder mystery, you pretty much start out with the idea that someone is getting murdered, and the murderer will (probably) get caught. If you’re writing a romance, two or more people are probably going to fall in love. SF and fantasy contain hundreds of subgenres, in which certain things are probably inevitable, like a steampunk story probably needs to have some steam someplace. But still, when you start writing a piece of speculative fiction, that blank page can turn into almost anything you want to do.
Sometimes, a good story can start with a “what if,” like “what if vampires really craved wizard blood?” Or a character who just feels really compelling, whom you want to follow around, as we talked about previously. Or you can start building a world that you want to tell stories in. Or a particular setting that seems rich, like an old church or a generation ship. You could even start out with one particular scene that just needs to happen, and then the story grows around that one scene.
That’s the great thing about stories. Any part of the puzzle can be the first piece. (But just like with any puzzle, you can’t move forward until you find the connections between the different pieces.)
What’s the difference between a premise and a story?
Story ideas aren’t just a never-ending bounty, they’re also free in the sense that nobody can own them. And if a thousand writers all tackled the exact same idea at the same time, you’d end up with a thousand totally different stories—because what really matters, the hard part, is turning a premise into a story.
Like, take our vampires who crave wizard blood. You could tell the story of a wizard who’s on the run from hungry vampires. Or a vampire who’s forced to drink the blood of a wizard who healed her mother. You could tell the story of the last remaining wizards on Earth, and their final desperate stand against the vampire army. Or the reluctant vampire-wizard alliance against their common enemy, the anemia pixies.
The premise can go in any number of directions, and until you pick one of those directions, you don’t really have anything. That process of turning a neato idea into a proper, full-fledged story isn’t just about choosing a path forward—it’s about everything from compelling characters, to lived-in worldbuilding, to the hundreds of tiny details that turn a sterile idea-particle into a living, blooming, pollenating garden.
Put another way, “centaur bounty hunters” is a premise. “Centaur bounty hunters in love” is a story. “Centaur bounty hunters in love, but only one of them wants to capture the naiad alive” is an idea with legs. (No pun intended.)
So how can you tell if a story idea is worth your valuable time and attention? By trying to make it work and seeing what happens. There’s no diagnostic that works as well as just trying to do the thing, and seeing if it’ll happen—and being okay with deciding at some point that it’s not happening with this particular premise.
For me personally, I’ve often found that the more intriguing an idea is on the surface, the less likely it is to work for me. My hard drive is full of neat ideas that would make my ears prick up if I heard that someone else had written them—but they’re just not going anywhere interesting for me. Often, the ideas that seem more basic seem to give me the opportunity to find my own random spin on them, and the cleverest, smartest ideas seem to peter out the fastest for me. (As always, your experience may be different.)
I’ve started to think that something about the process of grappling with a concept, shaking it down until something interesting rolls out, is essential to my creative investment.
Maybe this is because the ideas that are coolest on the surface are also the ones that have the most clear-cut implications. Whereas, if it’s not immediately obvious who should be the protagonist, or how the conflict should play out, then I get more intrigued and want to keep poking at it. Plus if I’m absolutely sure about what’s going on in a story, before I even start writing, then I’m not going to be as fired up—because to me, part of the joy of writing is finding out what’s really happening, and what’s really at stake. (We’ll be talking a lot more about this soon.)
To return to the dating metaphor, you start trying to get to know a potential story from the first moment you “meet.” And just like in dating, it’s impossible to separate those two processes: learning more, and figuring out if this is going to work or not. Your storytelling gears start turning, even as you try to see if this is the right match, and the two things feed on each other. Is this a short story, a novella, a novel—or maybe just a piece of flash fiction? Is this something that’s going to keep surprising and intriguing you, or is it going to feel predictable and like you’re going through the motions?
I don’t want to run that metaphor into the ground—but getting drawn into creating a story really is a lot like falling in love. Frustrating, anxiety-provoking, confusing, a cauldron of pure misery—and also, the best and most fulfilling thing ever. So often, writing advice is all about mastery and “craft,” the idea of imposing your will on a lump of unformed narrative. But my happiest writing times are usually when I’m seducing a story, and being seduced in turn.
And just like love, you’ll know it when you see it. The best story idea isn’t the shiniest or most brilliant-sounding—it’s the one that keeps you obsessing and questioning and rethinking and wondering and excited to keep trying to make sense of all the chaos. Love is patience, but love is also having the courage to ask for everything you need, and not settle for less. You can tell when a story was written with love, versus when someone did their duty.
The only difference between love affairs and story-writing? You probably can’t put a potential romance on ice for a year or twelve and be certain that your date will still be excited to see you whenever you’re ready to come back.
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.