Charlie Jane Anders is autograph a album 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 additionally abounding of memoir, claimed anecdote, and acumen about how to curl in the present emergency.
Below is the third chapter, “Embrace Uncertainty: The Joy of Authoritative a Behemothic Mess”—you can acquisition all antecedent capacity here. New capacity will arise every Tuesday. Enjoy!
I can still bethink the aftermost time I acquainted like a absolute abashed noob as a writer.
It was a brace weeks ago.
I had aloof amorphous autograph a aboriginal story, and accomplished that I still apperceive annihilation about how to alpha things. That bare white awning was cheeky me with its alabaster emptiness, and I couldn’t acquisition a way in. I had some accurate ideas, a ambiguous faculty of an aperture scene, a sliver of a capital character…but the adventure wasn’t alike accepting out of the gate. This happens. Like, all the time.
We talked afore about the joy of accepting absent in a story—finding a appearance you appetite to chase around, creating a apple that you appetite to animate inside—but the addition of that amusement is the ache that can appear from absolute confusion. Especially aback you’re starting a new allotment of writing, it can be intimidating: you’re authoritative the map at the exact aforementioned time as you’re venturing into the territory.
Even bodies who’ve been autograph for decades still accept agitation award their way into a new story, and accepting over that antecedent all-overs about accepting started. Afterwards a few drinks, best writers will acknowledge that they never absolutely apprentice how to address in general—they aloof amount out how to address this accurate allotment of writing, mostly by balloon and aching error.
We’ll allocution afterwards about what to do if you get ashore in the average of a allotment of writing, but this feels like a altered issue. Aback you’re at the beginning, aggregate is up for grabs—and that agency that arena is acceptable to about-face beneath your anxiety as you accomplish (and unmake) decisions. You’re apprenticed to accumulate alteration your apperception about your story’s characters and apriorism and setting, and the accomplished affair is activity to feel broken AF.
Especially during a time like appropriate now—when annihilation in the absolute apple makes any abuse sense, and the facts accumulate animate every day—it can be absolutely arresting to assignment on a adventure that additionally doesn’t accomplish faculty and contains ambiguous information.
As far as I know, there’s no way to abstain that faculty of abashing and doubt—but it’s accessible to get acclimated to it, and alike adequate with it. And alike admitting this activity isn’t as affable as falling in adulation with your characters and worlds, I absolutely accept that actuality accept with some artistic alternation can advice you to cope with actuality animate appropriate now.
In the addition to this article collection, I talked about how aback you address your own story, you get to ascendancy every aspect—and that’s true. But the accuracy is, autograph is slippery, and ascendancy is generally illusory. Your apperception is a apparatus for apprehension reality, but it’s abounding of bugs and glitches, and they tend to jank aggregate up.
When you try to actualize a adventure that makes faculty (in a way that absoluteness generally doesn’t), you’re activity to end up accomplishing a lot of brainy gymnastics—and like absolute gymnastics, they will advice you become added adjustable in general. Plus you ability aloof get to glimpse the means that your accurate academician is a little wonky at axis blobs of advice and acoustic detail into a bland narrative, which in about-face can advice you troubleshoot aback the absolute apple gets glitchy. (Is it your brain? Is it the alfresco world? Probably both. But it’s accessible to accept some faculty of the exact arrangement of each.)
You can amount out the means you’re acceptable to spiral up as a writer, and maybe spiral up a little better.
Or to put it addition way, aback you address a story, you accept to accord with a lot of uncertainty, which ability aloof accomplish you a little added able to accord with ambiguity in the absolute world. The hero of your adventure rides a aerial motorcycle—no wait, the motorcycle can’t fly, because again she could aloof zoom over the top of that barricade. Also, maybe she doesn’t ride the motorcycle—maybe it’s her friend’s bike and she sits in a little sidecar. Or maybe the motorcycle is a unicycle? Also, what if she has a behemothic arch and they don’t accomplish a helmet that size? And so on.
Even aback the facts of your adventure are set in bean and you accept a abundant outline, there’s consistently the catechism of what to accommodate and what to leave out, and how you’re activity to barrage this adventure into motion. It can be fun to spiral about with altered scenarios, but it can additionally be abundantly demoralizing to feel as admitting you can’t get any traction.
I generally acquisition the action of starting a new allotment of artistic autograph goes like this:
When I was starting out and wrote dozens of abbreviate stories, I would try to get about this botheration by introducing a battle or axial abstraction appropriate in the aperture sentence. Like, “The archetype egg assuredly started to hatch, but my amplitude cruiser was alone three account abroad from alarming up.” Like accomplishing a armament into the freezing water, array of.
I activate that the added of a bearings I could charge into those aperture words, the greater the faculty of drive I could create, that could backpack me through the blow of the story. (And again I had to go and backfill motivation, backstory, worldbuilding, etc., as the audacious hero was hasty to get the babyish archetype into an incubator, and off the exploding starship.) I still use that access sometimes; it’s how my adventure “Six Months, Three Days” begins, for example.
But that’s aloof one workaround, and over time I activate that it created some problems—like, sometimes the bearings needs to body up added slowly, or be beneath clear-cut. And you ability not appetite all of your belief to activate the exact aforementioned way. Plus of course, this doesn’t at all break the botheration of “oh, actually, the motorcycle doesn’t fly afterwards all.”
And like I said, the abiding band-aid is to aloof get acclimated to the assembling-an-IKEA-bookshelf wobbliness aback you alpha something.
And I usually feel like that affliction is account it, because you end up with article that’s realer, or at atomic added interesting, than what you started out with.
You can never absolutely ascendancy what your adventure is about, and that’s agitative as able-bodied as scary. You can accumulate accepting added into your ballad or award a bigger battle than the one you anticipation you had. Like, that exploding-spaceship adventure could aloof be about extenuative the babyish phoenix—or it could be about not activity accessible to become a ancestor to a bewitched amplitude bird. Or maybe you apprehend that the babyish archetype absolutely wants to get absolute up, so it can appear aback added powerful. Maybe the archetype is cannibal and wants to eat the capital character. There are added means this adventure could go than your bird has feathers.
This can be animating as able-bodied as upsetting, if you can apprentice to bacchanal in the active carelessness of your own storytelling.
So your academician is a adulterated apparatus for apprehension reality—but again you’re additionally creating article that ability end up actuality loaded on added people’s adulterated brains.
I acquisition it absolutely accessible to accept an abstract clairvoyant in my arch as I write. This is not the aforementioned being as your “inner critic”—that articulation that tells you aggregate you’re autograph is debris and you should abdicate now. Your close analyzer is a appearance of actor syndrome, like we talked about aftermost week. But your abstract clairvoyant is acrimonious up what you’re putting down. Sometimes literally.
Basically, your close analyzer is a jerk whose negativity gets in the way of your process, but your close clairvoyant is analytical and delighted, and wants to apperceive what’s advancing next. You should acquaint your close analyzer to go spiral themself, but your close clairvoyant can cull up a chair.
You can brainstorm hasty and delighting this non-existent added being with all the funny chat and amazing turns of contest you’re throwing into your story. Sometimes, it’s easier and added fun to acquaint a story, aback you accept a faculty of who you’re cogent the adventure to. Especially if you’re from a marginalized community, cerebration of yourself as autograph a adventure to, and for, added associates of your association can accumulate you from annoying ceaseless about what alleged “mainstream” readers will think.
Keeping an ideal clairvoyant in your apperception helps you anticipate about the promises you’re authoritative in the text, in the anatomy of hints, clues, dangling artifice threads, foreshadowing, and so on. Like, if I acknowledgment in the third book of a adventure that the capital appearance has a nemesis with a chainsaw neck, who tends to about-face up at the affliction accessible moments, again it’s like a little post-it agenda reminding me a chainsaw-necked fiend care to appearance up afterwards in the story. (And they’re activity to be in a absolutely bad mood, because accepting a chainsaw for a close tends to accord you a awful headache.)
And any promises you accomplish to your clairvoyant are additionally promises that you’re authoritative to yourself. Knowing that you larboard a shoe aerial in mid-air can actuate you to accumulate writing, because you accept to get to the abode area it drops.
Of course, you don’t accept to allotment your autograph with any real-life humans, unless you appetite to. But alike if you’re the alone being who anytime reads your work, you can still accept an abstract clairvoyant in your head.
I alone fabricated it through autograph All the Birds in the Sky by accepting a connected active chat with the clairvoyant in my head, who capital to apperceive what all this magic-and-science fuss was about. That awe-inspiring catechism Patricia gets asked in the aboriginal chapter? Can’t balloon about that. The supercomputer in Laurence’s bedchamber closet? Probably gonna be something. In beforehand drafts of the book, Laurence starts out by affair some aliens who are operating out of a abundance alleged Jodhpurs & Jodhpurs, which alone sells lentils and benumbed pants. And these aliens adumbration at huge secrets, which I ample I would pay off later. The riddle and the supercomputer stayed, but the conflicting keepers had to go.
Even aback my fiction was actualization in abate markets and I wasn’t accepting abundant acknowledgment from real-life readers, I still kept an ideal clairvoyant in my head. I acquainted like I was in chat with this affected person. And as abundant as your characters can be your abstract friends, I feel like the clairvoyant in your arch can be one, too. And they can be a huge advice aback you’re in the trudging-through-squelchy-mud aeon of starting a new story.
The accomplished time I was alive on All the Birds in the Sky, I acquainted like I was authoritative a arrangement with that close reader—please adhere with me while I bandy in a agglomeration of witchy being and accessories and assassins and added awe-inspiring ideas, and in acknowledgment I will accumulate this adventure focused deeply on these two characters and their relationship. For every absurd artifice device, there will be a brace pages of emotional, personal, ashore stuff. I acquainted like that acquaintance of a abeyant clairvoyant helped accumulate me on track, because I acquainted like I was captivation someone’s hand.
My own claimed close clairvoyant is affectionate of a bad-humored abhorrent aberrant who asks too abounding inappropriate questions, but it’s nice to accept addition to allocution to while I write.
So aback I’m scrabbling for acquirement on the bend of a aboriginal allotment of fiction, and I accept no abstraction what I’m doing, I try to focus on the little capacity about the characters and the world, for clues about area things should go next. I pretend I’m the clairvoyant as able-bodied as the writer, and focus on what the argument appropriately far is cogent me. And sometimes I will bandy out way too abounding promissory notes, like a bashed prospector at closing time, in the achievement that some of them will atom something. Like the late, lamented Jodhpurs & Jodhpurs.
I feel like best of us accept no abstraction what we’re accomplishing best of the time, in activity as able-bodied as in writing, but we’re declared to pretend we do. That’s one acumen for actor syndrome, in fact. And for assorted reasons, it’s sometimes easier to accumulate up that pretense aback you’re in the middle, or bigger yet the home stretch, of a adventure that’s captivation calm somewhat. Starting a new assignment of fiction is alarming absolutely because you’re at your best exposed—but you additionally accept annihilation to lose, in agreement of this accurate assignment at least.
Basically, autograph is one of the few areas area accepting absent and abashed can be liberating as able-bodied as terrifying. “No clue” can additionally beggarly “no fucks given.”
Charlie Jane Anders’ latest atypical is The City in the Average of the Night. She’s additionally the columnist 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 alleged Rock Manning Goes For Broke and a abbreviate adventure accumulating alleged Six Months, Three Days, Bristles Others. Her abbreviate fiction has appeared in Tor.com, Boston Review, Tin House, Conjunctions, The Annual of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Wired magazine, Slate, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Lightspeed, ZYZZYVA, Catamaran Literary Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and bags of anthologies. Her adventure “Six Months, Three Days” won a Hugo Award, and her adventure “Don’t Press Charges And I Won’t Sue” won a Theodore Sturgeon Award. Charlie Jane additionally organizes the account Writers With Drinks account series, and co-hosts the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct with Annalee Newitz. She is autograph a Young Adult amplitude fantasy trilogy, to admission in aboriginal 2021.
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