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 fifteenth chapter, “Revision Is the Process of Turning Fake Emotion Into Real Emotion.” You can find all previous chapters here. New chapters will appear every Tuesday. Enjoy!
Your Feelings are Valid—and Powerful
Twelve Ways to Keep the Fun of Writing Alive
I keep getting asked one question lately, whenever I do any kind of public event: how can we avoid writing burnout, when everything is a trash-volcano? Okay, two questions. People also want to know the best way to make tiny pro-wrestler costumes for their thumbs—because thumb-wrestling is getting seriously artisanal lately.
But that first question, about avoiding burnout, is a big deal. Especially when most forms of engagement with the world seem to turn into doom-scrolling. And when I keep saying, in these essays, that stories are a lifeline, and the worlds you create could help save your life (and maybe other people’s), that could feel like a heavy responsibility that must be Taken Seriously.
So here are a dozen tricks I’ve found to keep writing fun, and joyful—and most of all, irresponsible.
1) Change your reward structure.
This has been a big one for me lately. We tend to think of writing like jogging—how many miles did you chew through? Did you get a cramp and just keep going through the pain? But writing isn’t like that. It’s more like doing a jigsaw puzzle where we have to carve the pieces as we assemble them, and some of the pieces will turn out to belong to a different puzzle entirely.
So I’ve changed how I think about productivity. A good writing session can consist of all kinds of things, including rethinking, brainstorming, editing, and even just staring into space. I used to obsess about my word count—the raw number of new words I had added to the project—until I realized that some of my best writing experiences were ones in which almost no new words of story were added, but I had a clearer sense in my head of what shape the story should take.
I stopped beating myself up for woolgathering when I ought to be putting words down— because I realized that falling into a kind of trance is often the best way to find new ideas. And sometimes deleting 1,000 words was more valuable than writing 1,000 new words. Sometimes I just needed to spend some quality time going back and re-reading what I’d already written, to get the story fresh in my head again.
Especially during times when a flood of bad news makes it hard to produce piles of words, I’ve found it’s essential to stop thinking of myself as a machine that needs to crank out enough widgets. I still produce a lot of words—in fact, I’ve found that a day of rumination or reworking is often followed by a really prolific session, with just words on words. Recently, I had a lovely online conversation with The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue author V.E. Schwab, who showed off her chart of writing time—based on a goal of two hours’ writing time at a go, rather than a particular word count.
Oh, and the notion that you have to write every day, or you’re not a real writer, is just silly. Some writers write every day, others a few times a month. It’s all about what works for you.
And meanwhile, I’ve also thought more about the “rewards” part of my reward structure. I eat plenty of chocolate, but I also take dance breaks, or get up and take a little walk, or do something else physical. I have a friend who watches an episode of their favorite sitcom after 90 minutes of writing. I try to find rewards that are fun (so I associate writing with fun activities) and also help loosen me up, to avoid the dreaded stiff-neck syndrome.
2) Try some low-stakes, instant-gratification story-writing
I was always making up stories, long before I thought of myself as a writer. I invented over-complicated superhero universes when I was alone at the fringes of the playground as a little kid. My special-education teacher helped me to write a whole silly stage play, as a way of helping me get over my learning disability. And when I start to get sick of trying to Produce a Finished Product, I try to go back to just making up stories, without any goal or ambition in mind.
During non-pandemic times, I host a reading series where I invent fictional bios for all the writers, using a mixture of over-preparation and improv. But it’s just as much fun to make up a story on the spot, when I’m hanging out with friends. Sometimes we’ll hang out and play a storytelling game, like Slash!. Or do a role-playing game.
Basically, stop thinking of making things up as sacred, or some kind of challenge—making up stories is both easy and fundamentally silly. There was a fish that thought it was a rock. There was a woman who only sang in her sleep. If you have kids, make up stories to tell them at bedtime. Make those kids earn their unfeasibly sugary breakfast cereal. Do whatever you can to make story-invention a thing you just do, for fun as well as Serious Art.
Like Parliament says, “fun will take the longer way around.”
3) Cheat on your current project.
Seriously, cheat like a husband in a Dolly Parton song. If you’re forcing yourself to keep pushing and prodding at your current manuscript in progress, and you’re not on an imminent deadline, then maybe just work on something else for a while. Or even better, multi-task, and keep going back and forth between different projects. I’ll often find that if I sneak off to work on my magical comedy of manners, I’ll come back later to my grimdark post-apocalyptic novel about murder-chinchillas with a fresh eye and a new understanding of where that story needs to go next.
Even better if your cheating is a fling—like, if you go off and just write some flash fictions. Or noodle on something that you’re not even sure is going to turn into a real project.
4) Make writing more of a communal activity.
The longer I keep writing, the more I think a lot of the best stories involve fictional communities, rather than just hard-bitten individuals against the world. But I also find it more and more essential to belong to writing communities, in real life.
Writing is usually kind of a solitary activity, involving a lot of staring at a blank screen or page, trying to make words appear. So it’s essential to find ways to connect with other writers. Join a writing group, and swap critiques with other authors. Go to a writing class, or join a structured workshop like Clarion, Odyssey, or Viable Paradise.
But also, read your work aloud every chance you get—at open mics, at curated events, or on Instagram live. Post excerpts or entire pieces online, to share them with other people. Join support groups, Discord servers, or Slacks.
Nothing has done more to improve my writing than getting feedback from other writers, and watching people’s faces as I’ve read my work to them. But also, I don’t think I’d still be here, and still writing, without my friends and that sense that we’re all in this together.
5) Find a routine. Or a ritual.
Just building habits and practices around writing is key to helping me keep going, when I’d rather be reading social media or playing video games. A good routine helps make the act of writing special, something to look forward to.
When I started out, I would get off my day job and walk over to the neighborhood Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf with my refillable plastic travel mug and fill it with turtle mocha, then write for an hour or two at home, in a sugary over-caffeinated haze. Later, once I was working from home, I found a different routine: after my paying gig ended, I’d walk a couple miles to clear my head, ending at a cafe where I’d write until dinner.
When all the cafes in San Francisco shut down their indoor seating, I had to find a new routine—and this was one of the main reasons I was struggling to be productive. I finally came up with a new schedule: write at my desk at home during the day for as long as possible, then exercise in the evenings and then crawl into bed with a blank notebook. Scribbling at bedtime helped me clear my head, and I could work on the secret project that I was cheating on my young-adult novels with. I’ve also noticed a number of writers on Twitter lately saying they’ve started waking up an hour earlier to write.
Anything you can do to separate your writing time from your grout-scraping time, or your paying-the-bills time, is useful. Light a candle. Listen to a particular type of music. Sit in your garden. Hang out with your pet(s). Wear your special writing shirt. Whatever. It sounds silly, but it really helps me, and a lot of other people I know.
6) Take time to read something you love (or think you might love).
When I talk to writers who are skating on the edge of burnout, one thing often comes up: they don’t have time to read anymore. And when I’m on a roll, or on deadline, I’ll sometimes go for a couple weeks without reading, but then I start to miss it a lot. I often feel like I can’t do good work if I’m not feeding my brain some excellent words from other people.
I usually try to read stuff that’s not too much like whatever I’m trying to write—and I’ll cheat on books I’m reading, just as much as the ones I’m writing. I graze a lot. I’ll have a superhero comic and a poetry book and a young-adult fantasy and a literary epic and an anthology propped open next to my bed, slowly sacrificing their spines to my fickleness. I don’t worry so much about other writers’ voices invading my own, especially when I know I’m going to go back in revisions and fix up the tone in my work.
7) Re-read something you wrote in the past that you’re still happy with.
This sounds egotistical, but it’s just plain logistical. The times when I’m like “ugh I can’t do this” or “I hate my writing” or just “I don’t know where the words go,” I go back and just read a paragraph of something I wrote in the past, that I still like. Could be something I wrote last week, or something I wrote a year or two ago. I find that this reminds me of my own voice as a writer, but also reassures me that I, at least, like my own prose just fine. No matter how new or insecure you are, I bet there’s a paragraph that you wrote and are proud of, and there’s nothing wrong with going back and just basking in it for a moment.
Works in progress are so lumpy and misbegotten, it can be invaluable to spend a moment with a finished product and go, “I made this.” This is another reason to try and find spaces to share your writing, and read it aloud.
8) Change up how you write.
Like I said above, a lot of my writing routine lately revolves around going back and forth between typing on my computer and writing longhand in a blank notebook. Those two modes of writing activate different parts of my brain, and feel like different processes—for one thing, it’s harder to go back and edit what I already wrote, when it’s in pen and ink. And writing in a notebook feels more personal, more like keeping a journal. Plus I can doodle. Doodling is magic! My story brain comes to life when I doodle, even if my art is generally not that great.
I’ve also been doing some writing—including bits of these essays—using speech to text, when I take socially distanced walks outside. If you’re in a rut, sometimes it’s worth throwing out your routine and writing in a whole other way.
9) Give yourself permission to just leave something broken for now.
This is a huge one. You can easily get stuck throwing yourself at the same problem over and over, until you get sick of staring at the same few pages. And sometimes that’s what you gotta do, if you can’t see where the story goes after this point. But sometimes you can just skip over the broken bit and trust that you’ll know how to fix it later.
Also, eat dessert first! If there’s a part of the story you’re excited to write, write it NOW. And then having that moment clear in your head (and on the page) will help you write everything that leads up to it. In the second book of my upcoming young-adult trilogy, I wrote all the climactic scenes early on, and then I could see exactly where these people were going to end up as I was writing the choices that got them to that point.
10) Just write some scenes, even if you’re not sure where they go, or if they’ll fit.
Whenever I’m working on a project, I have a separate document open which I call the “dump file.” It’s just a mishmash of cool moments, people speaking their truth, and actual poetry, that I hope I’ll be able to thread into the manuscript later. Sometimes I have a scene that I’ve already written down, but there’s a cool line in the dump file that I can add that just adds an extra spark. Sometimes it’s fun to just write a bit from the point of view of someone who hasn’t gotten a POV yet.
I often find that opening a new blank document and just free-associating is a great way to reconnect with the story I’m trying to tell, untethered from all the bones I’ve already laid down.
11) Never stop brainstorming.
The other reason I often open a new blank document is just to keep brainstorming and spitballing ideas for what’s happening, and what might happen next. The more outlandish the ideas, the better. Sometimes the worst ideas provide the fertilizer that lead to excellent ideas later.
I often think about the advice a friend gave me: “You can’t be too precious about any of your writing.” She meant that you need to be willing to change things up, in response to feedback or editorial direction, or “studio notes.” But I’ve started thinking of this as good advice in general: everything I’ve written down is temporary, up for grabs. And not being precious about it helps me to avoid taking it too seriously, which is a glide path to burnout.
Here’s a fun tip: When you quit writing for the day, write down a list of five things that could happen next, from most to least likely. Chances are at least one of those things will hit you in a new way, when you start up again.
12) Give yourself permission to feel crappy about your writing sometimes.
You’re going to hate your own writing sometimes. It’s not the end of the world—or your writing life, for that matter. Everybody who writes has times when they feel cruddy about their own work.
Writer’s block is a made-up thing that doesn’t exist, but there are all kinds of reasons why you might be feeling stuck or unhappy. This may sound counterintuitive in an article about how to keep the fun in writing—but if writing isn’t fun or you’re feeling bad about it, you should interrogate why. Don’t feel ashamed or beat yourself up, but step back and think about what’s going on. You could just be suffering from imposter syndrome or feeling overwhelmed by the state of the world, but there could also be something wrong with your story that you’re not letting yourself see because you want to push forward.
I treat bad feelings like a diagnostic instrument. Including boredom and malaise. They might not tell you what’s wrong exactly, but they can give helpful clues. You could be forcing yourself to write something you don’t really believe in, and your gut is trying to tell you. I have never felt such a sense of relief as when I’ve switched from pushing forward to trouble-shooting, and listening to my feelings. Hurting yourself in the name of momentum is not fun.
Writing should be your happy place—and hopefully the above tips will help you to make it that way. But it’s okay to feel bad sometimes, and acknowledging the bad feelings is the first step to getting your groove on again.
Charlie Jane Anders’ latest novel is The City in the Middle of the Night, which won the Locus Award for best science fiction novel. 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 short fiction has won Hugo, Theodore Sturgeon, and Locus awards. 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.