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 twenty-first chapter, “Find Your Voice and Make It LOUD”. You can find all previous chapters here. New chapters will appear every Tuesday. Enjoy!
Section V: How to Use Writerly Tricks to Gain Unstoppable Powers
Find Your Voice and Make It LOUD
The most important thing you can do to protect and nurture yourself, during dystopian times, is to nurture your own voice as a writer. Hone it, strengthen it, amplify it. Find your style, and your own way of stringing words together. Because this is another way of reminding yourself who you are, and that your voice, in particular, is vital and indispensable.
So much of storytelling is just a matter of finding the right words—the chains of meaning that carry the reader along from scene to scene, from image to image. Not the right words according to someone else, but the right words for the story you’ve set out to tell. Your own distinctive writing style is a toolkit, but also a constant reminder that you can do this—in fact, you already are doing this, and you’re acing it.
Like so many other things about writing, this whole notion of style and craft can seem very austere and serious. People talk about it as if they have to put on a heavy rubber apron and a faceplate and protective gloves, before they start welding and sanding and rasping and planing, and doing other things that we discussed in the shop class that I slept through. There will be exposed grain and you will be able to see your descendants from a thousand years hence in the whorls of the wood and…where was I?
But style is the most fun-loving, frivolous part of writing (at least when it’s working and you’re not screaming death-metal lyrics at a blank screen.) When we talk about craft, or voice, we’re talking about word tricks: games, metaphors, images…the music that you are playing. We’re also talking about doing the best job you can of getting the stuff in your head onto the page, in a way that represents you. And using each little word to create a sense of forward motion in your mind, and the mind of anyone else who reads your stuff.
I’m a big fan of wordplay, with an emphasis on “play.”
Different people will have different ideas about what a “good” writing style looks like. Some people adore prose that’s loaded up with lots of imagery, and liberally uses adjectives and adverbs and everything else. Other people think the only good writing is spare, with no ornamentation or unnecessary words whatsoever. Plus, what’s considered “good” changes over time: back in the day, everyone was supposed to write like Raymond Carver, the famous minimalist. Then Dave Eggers’ wry, confessional, loopy sentences became everyone’s role model.
People hate on adverbs, but I quite like them sometimes, actually.
But basically, any prose style that works, works. And by “works,” I mean that the words say what you wanted them to say, they don’t confuse or distract the reader from what matters, they keep the reader moving forward from sentence to sentence, and you can look back at your work and go, “Hey, I wrote that.”
Writing is the only machine where there is no distinction between gears and ornamentation. Everything you put on the page is doing work and hopefully looking pretty. And looking pretty will make the work go better, and vice versa.
I was a prize-winning dancer, so you should listen to me
I was a dance champion in high school, even though I was a horrible dancer.
I used to do a dance which involved moving my feet very quickly, and just kind of scooting around—I did not move any part of my body from the ankles up, but my feet were unstoppable. My friends used to call this my “space-clearing dance.” Maybe because people thought this dance was funny, or because I was clearly putting a lot of energy into it, I usually won a prize whenever they would have a dance contest at one of my high-school dances.
It wasn’t until I was a little older and started going to nightclubs, parties and concerts, that I started moving my hips and my arms and my shoulders, and basically my body.
I mention this because I feel like that’s a similar journey to the one that I’ve taken with my writing style. My writing style started out energetic but repetitive—there were lots of words, and some of them were very good words, and I was putting them down with a lot of excitement, but I was using the same few tricks over and over again. And also, even more than the music metaphor I used above, I do think writing is a lot like dancing: every dance move helps to tell a story, and a good dancer can make you feel the music as well as hear it. And all of that gyration and shaking adds up to something bigger.
My writing style got better as I learned to think in terms of scenes and capture real emotion. But also I expanded my repertoire of dance moves by experimenting and thinking more deeply about what I wanted my prose to do, beyond just make people laugh or scratch their heads. I feel like experimenting with prose style is the key to getting better and keeping things fresh.
Like, for a few years, I experimented with leaving out words that I felt weren’t totally necessary. For example, does the verb “to fall” really need to be followed by the preposition “down”? I worked hard to minimize my use of the verb “to be,” and to avoid having sentences begin with the word “It,” or “There was.” I tried to weed out dull turns of phrase that I’d seen a million times before, like “butterflies in my stomach” or “like a stuck pig.” (What did that pig ever do to you?) I have been amazed at how often I can take a whole rambly paragraph and boil it down to a few words.
But at the same time, I consciously tried to add extra words that I thought made my writing feel more conversational. Like, I have an addiction to the word “like.” And “even,” and “just.” I will often include little word-flutters, to try and make my prose feel a little bit more like human speech, and less like something coming out of a word machine. One of my goals for my writing was warmth and friendliness, which don’t necessarily come from stripping out every single unnecessary word to create some hard skeleton of verbiage.
Sometimes words can just add a bit of texture, rather than meaning. Also, sometimes using a word slightly wrong, or picking an obscure and strange word instead of the most obvious one, can just make the writing feel a bit more salubrious.
Here are a couple of experiments I tried in recent years. When I was revising The City in the Middle of the Night, I took any sentence that had a metaphor or any sort of imagery, and made it a separate paragraph. This forced every image to stand on its own, rather than hiding behind a wall of prose, and made it easier for me to see which fancy bits weren’t doing enough work.
And while I was revising my first two young adult novels, I started to rearrange my sentences to put the most important word last. (Partly because I knew people would be skimming a bit, and people always notice the final word in a sentence, but also for emphasis.) Like recently, I changed a sentence from:
“If she’s caught inside the Compassion’s headquarters, she’ll be lost in ways she can’t even imagine.”
“If she’s caught inside the Compassion’s headquarters, she can’t even imagine all the ways she’ll be lost.”
This puts the emphasis on “lost,” and feels more punchy and emotional to me—whereas ending on “imagine” feels more wistful.
I still fall into repetition and clunky constructions all the time, even in stuff that makes it all the way to publication. But at least I’m coming up with new and interesting ways to screw up.
You are sentenced to flow
The sentence is the basic unit of writing. And when we talk about the flow of someone’s writing, we’re usually talking about the sentences. You can create a rhythm by alternating longer and shorter sentences, or using a bunch of long sentences to lead up to a very short sentence, or breaking up the sentence structure entirely. Sometimes, I’ll try and mangle syntax on purpose. I’ll use a sentence fragment (a sentence without a proper verb, or even a noun) or a comma splice (two sentences smushed together, with just a comma between them.)
Ideally, each sentence will flow into the next, in terms of both meaning and music. You can tell how the end of one sentence sets up the beginning of the next, or how each sentence is kind of developing the same idea or telling you more about the same thing. But also it doesn’t feel as though the sentences are bumping up against each other in a weird or unpleasant way—which can happen if, for example, multiple sentences begin with the same word or similar phrasing. Or if each sentence feels like its own thing and you can’t see how they connect.
And I think a lot about tempo, as well as dynamics, in the musical score I’m creating, meaning that I try to speed up and slow down the pace of the individual sentences. For an action sequence, I might have a bunch of really short choppy sentences that keep you skipping from action to action. For a scene-setting or mood-evoking sequence, I might use more long, rolling sentences, that hopefully lull you into a particular state of mind. Also, a more action-packed moment might just require more emphasis on verbs and less emphasis on other parts of speech.
Next time, we’ll talk more about humor—but if you’re trying to write funny prose, then a lot of your sentences are going to be set up for a kind of sort of funny payoff. Not necessarily a “punchline,” but some funny twist that comes after you’ve built up a picture in the reader’s head. And meanwhile, if you’re writing horror, a lot of your prose is going to be about building up a sense of dread and anxiety, and leading the reader inexorably toward some image that’s going to freak them out.
Most of the time, you’re trying to get the reader to notice, or remember, one thing in particular. Could be a piece of information, an action, an especially good joke, an emotional beat or a revolting image. Whatever it is, all of the little mechanics of the sentence, and the interplay of what the sentence says, need to set it up and deliver it.
One of the things I struggled with the most was breaking up the rhythm of my sentences, without messing everything up. Like, if I decided I needed to add an extra moment or piece of set-up in the middle of an existing chunk of story, I couldn’t see how to split that chunk into two pieces so I could insert something. I got hung up on “this bit goes into this bit which goes into this bit.” I had to learn to find a fun rhythm but stay loose enough to be able to remix it, which mostly came from lots of practice.
Finding your own style
There are a bunch of ways to figure out your own writing style, including stuff I’ve already talked about, like using speech-to-text, writing longhand, and reading your work aloud to audiences. Talk to yourself, and really try to hear your own voice, because the way you talk can help to guide the way you write. A lot depends on what kind of stories you’re telling—not just genre, but content in general—and what sort of reaction you’re trying to create in the reader’s head. But also, keep experimenting and trying to push your writing in different directions. Write only using words with Latin roots, or Germanic roots. Write only short Hemingway-esque sentences, or nothing but endless Faulknerian sentence-sprawls.
I learned a lot about fiction writing from the editors I wrote for as a journalist, who always taught me to find the punchiest way to say something. Like instead of starting an article with “Deborah says the tourists have ruined her favorite spot,” start with, “Deborah blames the tourists for ruining…” But I also learned a lot from my econ professor, who forced me to write ultra-short executive summaries at the start of every paper.
But the thing that helped the most was ripping off other authors. It’s a paradox: I found my personal writing style, that is unique to me alone, by stealing other writers’ tricks. Read tons of different authors, and pay attention to the mechanics of their prose, and try copying them for a bit. Write a pastiche, even. Nobody will know, I promise.
A lot of writers seem superstitious about reading too much of a particular author, as if they’ll end up just writing like that person. And maybe that’s happened to somebody. But I always feel like I’ve borrowed a little bit of someone else’s mojo when I let their style sink in and influence me a bit, and I can always tone down the homage later. Plus if you read a ton of Raymond Chandler one week and a ton of Samuel Delany the next, they’ll both just be in the mix somewhere.
I used to be a very fast reader, but as I’ve tried to get better at writing, my reading has gotten slower and slower, because I often have to stop and really soak in a passage to try to get what’s going on there, on a word-by-word basis. How is each sentence helping to create a particular effect, and what words does this author emphasize? And how?
Your style is the sum of countless little choices that you make, over and over. It’s also the stuff you can’t help doing, even if you make an effort to shift to a noir sensibility for a gritty pulp story, or a more verbose chatty narrator. (We’ll talk about tone and POV and narration next time.) Style is the stuff that becomes habit.
And once you have come up with your own style, you can easily get locked into it. Either through force of habit, or other people’s expectations. So if you’re still in the stage of configuring your prose, enjoy the freedom to experiment and mess around.
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.