Ever had a story that you were dying to write, for years and years? And then you finally had an opportunity to write it, and… you couldn’t make it work at all. This happened to me a while back.
Back in the mid-2000s, I was writing a series of first-person short stories about queer and trans communities in San Francisco, many of which had a slight autobiographical element. Most of those stories took place in the present (which is now the past), but a few took place in the near-ish future, including a San Francisco that is being threatened with flooding and otherwise ravaged by climate change. (Though back in like 2005, I wasn’t thinking about wildfires yet.) And I wanted to end that story cycle with a story that took place further in the future, when San Francisco has become an archipelago, with most of the current city underwater.
I thought about that “drowned San Francisco” story for a long time, but never quite got around to writing it. And meanwhile, I abandoned that story cycle at some point, for a bunch of reasons. (Including that my writing had progressed a lot since I wrote most of the stories and it would have been a huge boondoggle to get them up to a good standard. I’d still love to do something with those pieces at some point.)
Anyway, the idea of writing a story about a queer community in an underwater San Francisco kept rattling around inside my head, even if it wasn’t going to be part of a story cycle anymore. And then Jonathan Strahan asked me to contribute to Drowned Worlds, a book of stories that take place after climate-related sea-level rise. (The image above is a detail from the Drowned Worlds cover.) Here at last was my chance to write that story! I was so excited to dive in and write all that good queer post-climate change action, and then… I got stuck. I hit a roadblock, and just couldn’t get anywhere.
I realized at some point that I was thinking of this as a post-apocalyptic story, because it would be taking place after a huge calamity that had brought civilization as we currently know it to the end. And my mind was going to a Mad Max place, or maybe a Day of the Triffids place. In any case, all of the story tropes that were coming to mind were nasty, brutish and long. And I wasn’t in a frame of mind to write a grim story, full of bad hair and the survival of the most vicious.
I was talking to Annalee about this, and they asked, “Why does it have to be a dark post-apocalyptic story? Why not a hopeful story about people rebuilding and creating community?” A lightbulb went on over my head and I was able to write “Because Change Was the Ocean,” which you can read online.
A similar thing happened to me with one of my unpublished novels — I wrote a noir urban fantasy, in the mode of Richard Kadrey or Jim Butcher, and then made the reluctant decision to put The Witch-Killers aside so I could publish All the Birds in the Sky as my debut novel instead. (I talk more about that choice here.)
When I looked back at The Witch-Killers a couple years ago, hoping to rework it into a novella that I could publish (the way I did with Rock Manning Goes For Broke) I found that it needed a lot more work than I had realized. And a lot of that was because I had let the noir stuff push me in an unfortunate direction: my protagonist is a hard-boiled tough guy who’s wrestling with his conscience and recovering from substance abuse, and the main female character is half-femme fatale and half-damsel in distress. There is a lot of really fun stuff in there, which I really want to rework at some point when I get a moment. But I let my love of noir push me into some terrible places.
And finally, I’ve been stuck recently on a project, and I’ve decided it’s more of the same thing — I let myself get drawn into replicating some unfortunate tropes (in this case horror tropes) rather than writing the story that’s gnawing away at me, the one I’m actually dying to tell. I find this is one of the most common reasons I get stuck, in fact: I get psyched out by all the expectations and baggage that come with my chosen (sub)genre, to the point where the proverbial cart is dragging the proverbial horse around.
I think this is one of those cases where being aware of the problem is half the battle — and for some reason, that’s harder than it should be. (Witness me writing a whole novel full of shitty tropes and not fully recognizing that until a few years later.) We spend so much time consuming genre stories, we start to take for granted that of course your spy thriller is going to have a ticking time bomb or a heist or a chase scene at exactly the same point in the story, every time. It’s hard to take a step back and say, “I’m going to only use incidents and world-building that serve the story I’m trying to tell,” because we get kind of brainwashed by the media we’ve consumed before.
Getting pushed around by your genre isn’t always as problematic as my sexist urban fantasy was — sometimes it just results in something that will bore your reader, or you. Giving people what they expect is never a great strategy for holding their interest, and a lot of the fun of writing is surprising yourself and coming up with something you’ve never seen before.
I’ve started thinking of genre primarily as a tool for focusing intent. In other words, you have the story you want to tell, but it’s an amorphous blob of feelings and situations and random disconnected moments. Genre is part of what gives a shape to that blob, and enables you to figure out exactly what story you’re really trying to tell, and the best way to tell it. Which means in turn that you might need to do some soul-searching so you know why you’re writing this particular story and what it means to you. Part of why I’m so passionate about mashing up different genres, in fact, is because each genre or subgenre has its own toolkit that you can pick and choose from — maybe you want the chase scene from a spy thriller but also the makeover montage from a zany teen romcom. You can have both of those things!
The most important thing to remember is that genres work for you, not the other way around. So don’t ever let a genre boss you around.
I actually put a note in my calendar to remind me when Doomin Sun, the debut album by Bachelor, was coming out — and I was so excited to finally purchase it on release day. Bachelor is a collaboration between Jay Som and Palehound, and it’s got a kind of 90s-influenced college radio pop feel to it. I was already a huge fan of Jay Som, ever since I heard her song “Baybee,” and this new album is just so great. Full of longing and complicated feelings and everything.
“A Quiet Little Certainty” by Isabel Yap — I’ve been thinking about this ever since I read it a few weeks ago, and it’s part of why I’m glad I’m taking a Twitter hiatus.
Michael Chabon arguing for “decisive action on behalf of the civil liberties and human rights of the Palestinian people” (Washington Post)
“It Turns Out All Those ‘Woke’ White Allies Were Lying” by Michael Harriot (The Root)
“Why the YA Dystopia Craze Finally Burned Out” by Bashirat Oladele (Polygon)
On Weds at 5 PM ET, I’ll be on Instagram live with Isaac Fitzsimmons. You need to be following both me (@charliejaneanders) and Isaac (@IsaacFitzBooks). We’ll be talking about one song that reminds me of an important time in my life.
On Friday, I’ll be on a couple of panels at the Nebula Awards conference.
Also on Friday at 1 PM ET, I’ll be on a panel at the Cymera Festival in Scotland, talking to SM Wilson.
Also on Friday at 7 PM ET, I’m taking part in a panel for the start of Pride Month with Out Metrowest, along with A.S. King and Rebecca Kim Wells. It sure would be nice to see some of y’all at any of these events.
Meanwhile, my young adult debut, Victories Greater Than Death, is available wherever you buy books. Wired Magazine just called Victories “an epic space opera full of impossible missions, weird ancient technologies, and fascistic villainy… perfect for both teens and her devoted adult followers.”
I have another book coming out in August called Never Say You Can’t Survive: How to Get Through Hard Times by Making Up Stories, and it’s already available for pre-order!