Book Review:  Never Say You Can’t Survive by Charlie Jane Anders

This is a slim volume consisting of a series of essays that first appeared on the website. Its premise is that writing fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy, can help you survive in the midst of the shit storm of the global pandemic. To remain sane despite the chaos, polarization, isolation, and death that COVID has brought to the world, you can create new worlds in your imagination. It’s a valid point, and Anders makes it well. Once this point is established, the rest of the book is a mix of writing advice and memoir.

Anders is an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer, and she dispenses her advice in a light-hearted and fun style. She goes into the nuts-and-bolts of plot, theme, structure, word choice, and so on, and suggests various writing exercises for beginners, but for me the most interesting parts of the book deal with the more motivational aspects of writing. For instance, she emphasizes that there is not some sort of special initiation or rite of passage that makes you a writer. You are a writer if you write; that’s all there is to it. And she writes about the dread imposter syndrome, a malady that afflicts almost all writers; this is the feeling that you are unworthy of being a writer and nobody will ever care about what you have written. Even famous writers become oppressed by imposter syndrome; according to Anders, one thing that helps you get past it is finding a community of like-minded people so that you can reinforce each other.

Another extremely important point that Anders touches on is that there are no rules in writing. None. And nobody should ever try to restrict you by saying that there are. You should write whatever you like however you like, and to hell with the nay-sayers. It reminds me of a time a couple of decades ago when I got fed up with rejections and decided to forget what I thought editors might like and write whatever I wanted. I composed a story that alternated between second person present tense and third person past tense and near the end shifted from fixed sentences and paragraphs into pictures and patterns comprised of words. I sold that story almost as soon as I sent it out, and for more money than I had ever received for a story at that time.

Anders goes into her method of writing a novel, and this is what I meant when I mentioned that part of the book is memoir rather than practical advice, because I don’t think that I could ever finish a book using her techniques. (Remember what I wrote above about there being no rules. Use whatever works for you.) Anders likes to quickly write rough drafts, jigsaw puzzle them together, and then add and subtract scenes and nuances in revision after revision after revision. That’s not how I work. I would make a mess of such a method and lose interest long before I was done. Instead, I go through all these permutations, but in my mind and in rough notes before I begin to compose the first and often final draft. I write a certain number of words a day, and the following day I go over the previous day’s work, revising and re-familiarizing myself with what I have done. By the time I am finished, I may make a few changes as I go through a final revision, but the story is usually fully formed. In other words, write however you want to write. That’s part of the fun.

Another section of this book that I found absorbing and helpful deals with writing about the cultures and experiences of others. This has become quite a hot topic nowadays, and Anders points out that as with other controversial issues, there is a balance. It may not be appropriate for you to write about another culture as if you were part of it, but it is certainly desirable to be inclusive when you select characters that appear in your story. Anders suggests using sensitivity readers to be sure you are getting things right. In my own situation, not long ago I felt the need for a sensitivity reader for a story I had set in the Deep South in the 1950s. Through Science Fiction Writers of America, I managed to find a well-known African American writer who assured me that the story was inoffensive.

All in all, this is a light, fun book full of interesting anecdotes and advice. The premise that writing or some other form of creative endeavor can help you get through hard times is certainly valid. One of the most important points, though, is that there are no rules. As far as the practical advice is concerned, take what you need and ignore the rest.

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