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 eighteenth chapter, “The Unexamined Story Is Not Worth Writing.” You can find all previous chapters here. New chapters will appear every Tuesday. Enjoy!
What We Write About When We Write About Spaceships
The Unexamined Story Is Not Worth Writing
There’s a scene in the sixth episode of Netflix’s Babysitter’s Club that perfectly sums up my philosophy of writing. Claudia is displaying her Warhol-esque paintings of candies at an art show, and the judge startles her by asking her what her artwork means to her. What was Claudia’s motivation for painting Hubba Bubba? What was she hoping people would take away from them? Claudia can’t really answer. And at last the judge says, “I would urge you to ask yourself why: why this? Why now? Why me?”
Maybe that judge is supposed to be a mean jerk who’s crushing poor Claudia’s artistic dreams, but I found myself nodding and saying, “YES MEAN CAT-GLASSES LADY YES.” Because those are the questions I ask myself all the dang time. If I had to choose between a writing day where I produced thousands of words, and one where I found better or more exciting answers to those questions about the story I’m working on, I’d pick the answers every time.
I used to be surprised when a Theme would show up in something I was writing. I would be chugging along, and I’d notice that a particular idea kept popping up in different contexts. And meanwhile a bunch of events in the story would seem to be connected that went beyond just plot and causality. This felt like real magic. My story was becoming more than a collection of events and emotions and conflicts—it was about something.
Eventually, I started actively trying to make that thing happen. I started thinking about theme earlier in the process, and trying to think about what this story meant to me—without kidding myself that I could know what it would mean to someone else, later on.
Some people say that writers should never know what our own stories are about, that it’s up to readers and critics to tell us what our own work means later. But…how stoned do those people think I am? Okay, pretty stoned, let’s be honest. But still. I’ve gotten to the point where half the joy of writing comes from intentionality—and that means I endlessly interrogate what this story is about, and why I’m spending all this time writing this, instead of something else.
These days, I feel like my best stories are the ones where I had a clear idea in my own head of what I was exploring. And I kept getting deeper into it and finding more permutations and surprising myself with more complex answers. The more tightly connected the story’s meaning is to plot, and story, and the concerns of the characters, the more I feel like the whole thing is clicking for me. Likewise, as a reader, I get more wrapped up in a story that seems to be grappling with big questions or personal concerns. Or hopefully, both.
Stories that were written without a strong focus on intent often feel kind of mechanistic to me—things happen because they happen. People might have motivations and all that good stuff, but their inner lives are arid.
When we talk about theme, it’s easy to think of something dry and abstract. Or dreadfully pat, like a fifth-grade book report that finds the theme of Huckleberry Finn was “friendship.” (No shade to fifth-graders, or book reports.)
That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about something that grabs you by the throat, something that drills down into your hottest, most unprocessed emotions. Something that speaks to what you’re living through right now. A good theme springs up out of your personal obsessions and turns them into complex ideas, or thrilling actions, or both. If the plot is the bones and the characters are the heart and blood vessels, the theme is the guts and the brain.
And you may ask yourself, how do I work this?
If you could read any of the early drafts of my novels or stories, your eyes would bleed. But you’d also notice pages and pages of questions. And fumbling, confused answers. Any time I feel uninspired, I stop and give myself a gut-check. I try to identify the things that are happening in the story that seem to point somewhere. I also keep demanding, “What made me want to write about these people and these things in the first place?” What does all of this mean to me?
Every story idea has an infinite number of possible approaches. Not only would you and I write a story about vampire-hunting postal workers differently, but I would write that story differently on different days of the week. Like I said before, it’s not the basic premise, it’s about what I personally can bring to that setup. And the “best” story ideas are the ones where I have to tease out the implications and find my own meaning.
If picking a story idea is a matter of going on a lot of first dates, then finishing the story is an ongoing relationship in which it’s helpful to keep asking, “what are we doing here?” The same way a romance gets sweeter the more you communicate with your loved one about your hopes and anxieties, I’ve always found that I bond more tightly with my work-in-progress by taking it apart in my head and asking, “What am I getting out of this?” That way, I can home in on the juicy parts of the story.
And that’s the other thing: to me, this kind of ongoing self-examination is indivisible from brainstorming. That is, I figure out what comes next in the story, or what the characters are likely to feel and do, by drilling deeper into my own intent as the author. And vice versa: if I know for sure what’s coming next, I try to figure out why I landed on that, so I can make it count.
When I get stuck in the middle of a story, it’s often because I haven’t figured out what it’s about yet. And the toughest revisions, for me, are the ones where I lost my grip on the reasons for writing something, where I just kind of drifted.
I almost never look back at the pages and pages of notes I’ve made, including all those questions and answers. They’re there, if I really want to know, “what the hell was I thinking?” But the act of writing down these obsessions and inspirations is still super-valuable to me: it means the things that are in the back of my mind as I write are now slightly closer to the front of my mind.
This “gut-check” involves keeping an eye out for a few things:
1) The personal stuff that I might be trying to work through here. I obsess a lot about what real-life experiences I’m trying to capture (mine, or other people’s) in my fiction. I might start out with a cool idea about a party girl who goes into space, but realize that I’m actually writing about peer pressure, and friends who are bad influences. Or a fun/weird idea about someone who’s haunted by her own ghost might turn out to be about depression, and the ways that anger and depression feed on each other in an endless spiral.
I’m a firm believer that every story is really about something in the author’s own life, or the lives of people the author is close to. Not that we have to turn our friends into fictional characters with the details changed slightly—I haven’t done that, at least consciously, in years—but that we capture the emotion and the visceral experience of living through something by projecting them onto something else. Sort of like the objective correlative.
At the very least, plugging into all that real-life emotion will help you bring some extra fire to the furnace.
2) Things that keep happening, or seem connected beyond pure causality.
If something keeps happening in your story, you have two basic choices: you can tweak things to make them less repetitive, or you can double down and make it a motif. Obviously a lot depends on what we’re talking about, but the “motif” thing is often the better choice. As long as the reader can tell you meant to do this, and it’s either a feature of the world or a set of parallels that you’re creating consciously, then they’ll go with it.
Like, this is a world where it’s common to get kidnapped and put into cryo-sleep, because there are gangs that make a lot of money collecting cryogenic ransoms. Or the fact that two different characters get cryo-napped comes as a result of the choices they made, in which they consciously chose to risk cryo-napping. And the differences between their cryo-napping experiences reveal something about who they are as people.
3) The characters’ own obsessions
This is often the richest vein, for me. The things that float to the surface of the characters’ internal monologues are an important part of the story’s fabric. We care about protagonists who care about stuff—who crave answers to their questions, or who need to resolve an identity crisis. Anything the characters keep arguing about or trying to make sense of automatically comes to be at the center of the story’s “tag cloud” of meanings.
You probably won’t ever find The Answer as to what a story means and what’s making you write it—but a lot of the fun of writing is trying to figure it out, for me. You can have a lot of fun wrestling with what this story is saying to you, and how to make it speak louder.
How aware should the reader be of a theme?
I’m a big believer that themes and ideas and personal inspirations should be foremost in my mind as I write. But they don’t necessarily need to be signposted in big letters for the reader. Often, the subtler the better, especially if you’re trying to avoid a capital-A Allegory. It’s just like worldbuilding, characters’ backstories, and a lot of other stuff: most of the work you do is under the surface, and maybe 10 percent of it is fully visible to other people.
That said, I’m a big fan of books that have something on their mind. As a reader, I like a book where people talk about ideas and debate concepts. When characters have a spirited discussion about their beliefs, about politics, or about human nature, I get pumped and start paying more attention. If two characters have a running debate that crops up every time they get together, so much the better. As a geek myself, I like characters who geek out. I also like characters (and narrators) who throw out aphorisms and big notions—and judging from the popularity of discursive authors like Terry Pratchett and Robert A. Heinlein, I’m not alone.
Seriously, look at any list of the top Pratchett quotes, and you’ll find words to live by.
But for me, the authorial obsessions underlying a piece of fiction come out in a bunch of ways: like, what inanimate objects the author chooses to describe, and how. The plot devices and bits of worldbuilding that feel most solid. The mistakes the characters make, and the dubious lessons they learn from them. A million little choices that shape the structure, but also the texture, of the narrative.
Often the theme intersects with the big plot question on a regular basis, but doesn’t follow its track too closely. A story where plot and theme go on exactly the same lines tends to be overly simplistic, but a story where the plot keeps darting in and out of contact with the theme can feel rich and complicated. Like, there are moments that feel thematically loaded, in between moments of just trying to get someplace or deal with something.
And like everything else, signifiers and symbols tend to get less powerful the more of them you have.
You can’t control what your reader cares about, or what meaning they decide to take away from your story, but you can control what you put energy into as a storyteller.
Like Ken Liu said recently, I work hard to find the emotional core of the story and stay close to it. That’s the thing the characters care most about, and the thing that I hope the readers will care most about, too. Often, that’s one relationship or cluster of relationships. Or one set of stakes that the characters will live and die for. It’s the thing that the whole story revolves around—and its high-voltage charge can help to light up all your obsessions and preoccupations underlying the story, when they come to the surface.
For example, in the wonderful Legendborn by Tracy Deonn, Bree is obsessed with finding out the truth about her mother’s death, but over the course of the book this turns into a larger quest to discover who she is, where she comes from, and which world she belongs in. Bree’s obsessions power the book and keep her pushing forward through countless trials, battles, and microagressions. And as her quest for answers becomes more of an identity crisis, it illuminates the book’s ongoing preoccupations about privilege, and Arthurian lore, and secret societies, and the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, and a few other things. These concerns come out of character and story rather than ever feeling imposed from above, and it’s beautiful.
My favorite thing when I’m writing (or reading) is to feel like the story is slowly getting deeper into a particular set of ideas and revealing more as the layers pull away. There’s often a moment where a story gets deep enough into a running discourse to reveal that things aren’t what they appeared: opposites aren’t really opposites, an insoluble question has a loophole, you can see the deeper connections that unite what seemed to be disparate threads. I live for that shit.
And if you’re worried about accidentally writing a dumb allegory (or a fifth-grade book report about friendship) instead of a living, breathing story, then I’m pretty sure a conscious focus on your own intent and preoccupations will help rather than hurt. Being aware of the things you’re drawing on, and consciously trying to weave these obsessions into your story, will make you less likely—not more—to produce something that shoves its capital-T Theme in the reader’s face with the subtlety of a neon-bright banner.
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.