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Pep Talk from Charlie Jane Anders

photo of Charlie Jane Anders

Dear Writer,

Today is the day when everything changes—because you’re about to start writing a novel.

You have a story that needs to be told, and only you can tell it. You may find yourself facing ogres and tigers and other things with “grr” in their name, but you are fierce and mighty, and they don’t stand a chance.

You know why? Because you’re already a novelist, even if you’re just putting down your first few words. The moment you had an idea for a novel, the moment a world started taking shape in your mind, you became one of us.

Your job now is not to create a manuscript that a publisher will want to sell at lemonade stands all over the country. That comes later, once you’ve done a ton of revision and rethinking. For now, your task is to create a first draft. Or in other words, to make a glorious, beautiful, breathtaking mess. My first drafts, without exception, have always been messy as anything and I’ve tried to have as much fun as possible in the process.

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My secret for finishing a first draft? Not obsessing too much about the finished product, or getting intimidated by the idea of creating a thing that will have a spine.

I eat dessert first—like, if there’s a scene I’m dying to write, I’ll write it now and then try and write the stuff leading up to it later. I eat candy for dinner, as much as I can.

I change my mind about major stuff—like, I’ll decide the characters should have gone left instead of right, and instead of going back and changing it, I’ll just pretend that’s what always “happened.”

I’ll banish characters without mercy. In my very first novel, I realized that my so-called protagonist was dull, and meanwhile a supporting character was doing fascinating stuff in the background—so I tossed out the former, and promoted the latter.

I do whatever I can to stay curious about the characters and the world. That could mean creating mysteries for myself to untangle, or setting up problems I haven’t figured out how to solve, or finding ways to make my characters surprise me.

Just remember: you’re already a novelist, which means this thing in your head is a novel waiting to happen. The only person you have to entertain right now is you. There is a novel inside you—or many novels, I hope!—and I feel sorry for any beasties that get in your way.

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Graphic designed by Sandra Moore (our 100% amazing Fall 2020 Programs Intern)

Charlie Jane Anders’ latest novel is The City in the Middle of the Night. 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. Her short fiction has appeared in, 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 story “Six Months, Three Days” won a Hugo Award, and her story “Don’t Press Charges And I Won’t Sue” won a Theodore Sturgeon Award.

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