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-fifth chapter, “Write The Book That Only You Could Have Written” You can find all previous chapters here. Enjoy!
Section V: How to Use Writerly Tricks to Gain Unstoppable Powers
Write The Book That Only You Could Have Written
Several years ago, I was facing a tough choice. I had finished a noir urban fantasy novel, which paid homage to Chandler, Hammett, MacDonald and even Spillane, but also recent stuff like Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim books. Everyone said I had a decent shot at getting a book deal for that novel, which was tentatively called The Witch-Killers. But meanwhile I had this other novel that I was halfway through writing, about a witch and a mad scientist who become friends, and maybe more.
I felt good about both of those books. But the more I thought about it the more I felt like All the Birds in the Sky was a better book to have as my major-publisher debut. There were a bunch of reasons for this, but it boiled down to my sense that All the Birds in the Sky was a book that only I could have written. And The Witch-Killers seemed like I was trying to rip off Kadrey, or Jim Butcher, or countless others.
When I look back at The Witch-Killers now, it’s clear I made the right choice. That novel feels more derivative than ever, but I’m also embarrassed by how much I let my love of noir push me into some terrible tropes. The main female character is half femme fatale, half damsel in distress, and the book already feels dated. All the Birds was clearly a way better introduction to me and my fiction-writing.
To be clear, I still steal liberally from my icons. Anyone who reads my stuff will see Chandler in there, mixed with Doris Lessing, Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, Kurt Vonnegut, and others. I wear my influences all over both of my sleeves, but I also try to make them my own. As with everything else about writing, this is totally subjective, and boils down to nebulous stuff like personality. My “personality” as a writer is not particularly noir, even if I dip into that mode from time to time.
These essays have been about the power of creative writing to help you deal with turmoil and anxiety—but when you escape into your own imagination in all the ways we’ve been talking about, you end up finding out more about your own mind. Making up stories doesn’t just help you save yourself, but also discover yourself. Because everything, from your characters to your themes to your narrative voice, is a reflection of who you are and how you think.
To this day, I’ll often find myself reading a book and think to myself, “God, I wish I could write like this.” I’ll find some perfect turn of phrase, or a gorgeous scene, and feel a mix of admiration and envy. And then I do two seemingly contradictory things: I study what that other writer is doing, so I can learn from it. And I remind myself that there are as many different types of good writing as there are writers, and it would suck if everybody wrote the same.
If someone else is experiencing success or acclaim writing stories where the only punctuation is semicolons, it’s easy to feel as if you need to copy them. That’s silly; semicolons are their thing; find your own thing.
Writing better means getting to know yourself
When I look back at the fiction I wrote years ago, I see the person I used to be. When I think about the stories and novels I want to write next, I think about the person I hope to become. I can’t separate my personal evolution from my development as a writer, and I wouldn’t want to be able to.
If I dig enough layers down, I can find the fiction I wrote when I still tried to live as a man. But also: stories about relationships that broke up long enough ago that those exes are hardly even exes anymore, just old friends. Fiction about the years I spent singing in church choirs, whole story cycles from when I was trying to be a buttoned-down financial journalist.
We talk about getting better at writing as if it’s a continuous process of improvement—like today, you’ll make a widget that’s slightly better than the widget you made yesterday, until you asymptotically approach the platonic ideal of widgetness. But my experience is that I have good days and bad days, and ups and downs, and every time I feel like I’ve “leveled up” as a writer, I get worse again (often the moment I start a new project.)
But the longer I go on, the more it feels as if I haven’t actually gotten better at writing—I’ve gotten better at spotting my own bullshit. I know that I have a tendency to go for the cheap joke instead of realness, for example. I’m sometimes quicker to spot when I’m screwing up, or taking lazy shortcuts. But also, I know my own strengths better, and I’ve seen those strengths change over time as I’ve developed as a person apart from my writing. Getting more aware of my own strengths and weaknesses has, in effect, made me stronger.
There’s more to it than that, though. The longer I write and have to make countless tiny decisions, from “what happens next?” to “who cleans the toilets in this world?”, the more I understand how my own mind works. It’s like a musical instrument that I’ve been tuning for years, and learning all the little quirks of. Every one of those decisions is a data point about my weird brain.
The other thing that happens after you’ve been writing for a long time is that you have to be more careful not to repeat yourself too much, or to repeat yourself in interesting ways, which also requires paying attention, and knowing how to play the same notes differently on that same old instrument.
Earlier, I said that when you’re figuring out what story you want to write, you should think about the stories you like to read, or wish you could read. But eventually, you can also think about all those choices you’ve made in the past, and how they add up to a personality, which gives you a lens through which you can view all those potential stories. (Though, just like in real life, your writerly personality can encompass multiple modes and moods: nobody is ever jovial or grouchy all the time. When I talk about your personality, I’m not saying you need to write the same thing, the same way, all the time. You can be all three-dimensional and shit.)
To paraphrase Jean-Luc Picard, the challenge is to improve yourself and enrich yourself, but also to discover yourself. Enjoy it.
Write the Book that Feels Close to Your Heart
For sure, part of the joy of writing is trying out different things. I’m always looking to stretch myself and find new challenges, and I actively try to develop the areas where I’m weakest as a writer. But meanwhile, I have also gotten more Marie Kondo about my writing projects: if something doesn’t spark joy, why am I spending so much tears and brainjuice on it? More and more, I try to work on things that feel like they have a direct line to the bottom of my psyche.
Like I said before, the themes in your work are usually a reflection of your life or your own obsessions. And just like actors, authors have to reach for the emotional truth of their own experiences to capture and convey something that feels real. You’re always going to be putting something of yourself into your writing, even if you just set out to copy someone else wholesale. But my happiest times as a writer have always been when I look at what I’m putting down and think, “this speaks to me, and for me.”
People throw around phrases like “write what you know,” which are easily misinterpreted to mean, “you can only write thinly-veiled autobiography.” But oftentimes, those phrases are really saying that you have to draw on your own experiences in your writing, even if you end up twisting them into something totally different. That shitty restaurant job you had during college can easily transform into the story of a hench-person working for a mediocre supervillain, for example, because those two situations are not dissimilar.
A lot of the most captivating writing is about hunger: for a world, or a character, or a feeling. All of the essays before this one have, in various ways, been about trying to connect with that hunger, and to feed it, so you can feel nourished even when the outside world is trying to starve you. So in this final essay, I want to leave you with the idea that creative writing isn’t just a way to survive—it’s a way to become more yourself, and to share more of yourself with the world.
Good writing is in the eye of the beholder, and you’ll never write something that leaves absolutely every reader saying, “this slaps.” But you can write stories and personal essays and novels and model-rocket instructions that feel uniquely yours, and that make you feel a little closer to creative realness. Try and foment a storytelling conspiracy between your brain, your heart, and your gut flora. One of the great benefits of being a creative writer is that nobody will ever tell you that you’re too self-absorbed (at least, while you’re writing. At the grocery store, you’re on your own.)
And last and most importantly, do not forget to have fun. Writing can be a slog and a pain and a huge source of anxiety and insecurity, but it can also be incredibly fun. Like, smashing-action-figures-together fun. Or cafeteria-food-fight fun. You get to write whatever you want, and stage ginormous disasters and explosions and chase scenes and dance numbers, and nobody can tell you to stop. Treasure those moments when you’re on a tear, creating something unique and unbelievable, and completely your own.
You got this. You’re going to make something that nobody else could ever have come up with. And when the bad times are over, you’re going to emerge with your selfhood not just intact, but emblazoned like a heraldic crest across the fabric of your brand-new creation. I can’t wait to see it.
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.