Are You Writing a Dystopian?

This post has been a few months in the making and I haven’t got around to it for a few reasons. The topic started as a joke with me, HarperCollins editor Sara Sargent, and literary agent Hannah Bowman. Important note: we were not making fun of dystopian. Personally, I love it. But like with any genre, there are certain conventions you can’t avoid when writing it. The reason I didn’t write this post earlier is because I figured no one is even publishing or submitting dystopian anymore. Sure, there are still some stragglers – some established authors finishing up trilogies or the rare debut that manages to be the needle in our haystack of queries. For the most part, however, the dystopian trend has slowed to a stop to make way for whatever the next thing will be.

Like I said, I love dystopian, but writers often confuse “personal preference” and “what agents are able to sell.” My love of dystopian needs to take a backseat in the post-Hunger Games market. The stakes for what makes a stand-out, original novel have been raised and there just isn’t room for 95% of them right now. The market won’t be ready to take a chance on a more traditional dystopian – especially in YA – for a few more years. (“Traditional dystopian” means a story that stays within the genre and doesn’t try to reinvent it.) Hence, not feeling the need to write this blog post. Then I noticed a recent increase in dystopian submissions. It’s obvious writers who were told to shelve their dystopian manuscripts waited a month or two, and are now re-submitting under the guise of other genres. The general premise and genre elements of dystopian are still there, but writers are labeling it “sci-fi,” “futuristic fantasy,” and “dark contemporary with sci-fi elements.”

If you’re wondering if what you’ve written is a dystopian, here’s a quick checklist. More importantly, this is how agents and editors know what you’ve written, regardless of what you call it:

1. Everything Has Generic Name
Your character lives in District or Zone [number], New [name of old town], or, if they’re rich, “Capitol City.” The government that controls everything is called The Corporation, The Agency, or simply The Government. The people fighting against them are The Resistance or The Rebels.

2. Story Begins with The Government Entering the Main Character’s Life
This main character is often a girl who’s either super pissed or super scared. She might even sass one of the guards before she goes with them willingly to a place where her destiny awaits.

3. The World Totally Sucks Now – Doesn’t Matter Why
To be dystopian, the modern/contemporary world needs to be destroyed. Sometimes there are references to “the old world” and other times we’re just placed in the middle of What Happened After. Usually this thing is a natural disaster or a virus, both of which are probably government conspiracies. Whatever it is, we don’t get to see the transition into dystopian society. It just exists.

4. Teenagers Matter A Lot.
Props to Hannah Bowman for making this point. Obviously in YA (which is where most dystopian novels live), teenagers need to be the focus, but rarely is it explained why society focuses on them. (Presumably there are more children and adults than teenagers in any given world, right?) Teens are the ones chosen, left behind, arranged into marriage, or sold into slavery. If you’re between the ages of 14 and 18 in a dystopian world, you’re pretty much screwed.

5. No Matter How Bad Things Get, There is Never a Shortage of Pretty Dresses
OK, this last one is kind of a joke. But seriously – why are so many dystopian heroines given beautiful gowns and why do we spend so much time reading about what they look like?? (You’re not above this, Katniss!)

There you have it. Keep in mind this list is a bit tongue-in-cheek. If your novel has all of these elements, it doesn’t mean it’s unoriginal, poorly written, or won’t get published. It just means it’s a dystopian. You should put just as much effort into making it perfect as you would any other project. Just be prepared to hear a lot of “I’m not taking on dystopian right now” or “Dystopian is really hard to sell…” comments from agents and editors. We like you and we like your book and we like all those fun, now-expected dystopian elements. Most of us are just taking a break from it, so query with caution, but query correctly. (I’m looking at you, “dark futuristic fantasy with romantic and sci-fi elements” people!)

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What Gets Me (And Publishing) Excited: Part II

Last year, I went to BEA and noticed that all of the books that made me excited dealt with the power of human nature. This year was a bit different. But first, let me tell you what was definitely not buzz-worthy this year, in contrast to last year – no dystopian and no vampires, werewolves, or zombies. (Note: This is not counting new books that are part of an already established series.)

Now, on to my Top 5 Buzzworthy Books, as per the YA and Adult buzz panels:

1) Birds of Paradise by Diana Abu-Jaber (adult): A 13 year old runs away from home and returns to her family five years later as a different person. While the focus of the book seems to be Felice, the young runaway, the rest of the family is just as intriguing. I can’t wait to read this book to get to know them and watch them come to terms with what Felice’s return means.

2) The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (adult): I’m especially excited about this book because it seems to combine two of my loves: literary fiction and baseball. And it’s a debut novel! Surface-wise, this book is about a small town kid whose chances of making it to the majors are destroyed when a wild pitch has disastrous results. But underneath the plot, there’s a story of ambition and youth and heartbreak.

3) Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor (YA): After reading last year’s Lips Touch Three Times, I knew that I’d be interested in Laini Taylor’s new book. Daughters of Smoke and Bone features winged strangers, star-crossed lovers, an ambiguous main character, and… teeth? I must know what it means! This book also accomplished the near-impossible, which was to get me interested in (gasp!) a book with angels. 

4) The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin (YA): When I listened to the editor talking about this book, I became frantic that I wasn’t going to be able to get a copy. Sadly, I was right. Michelle Hodkin is a debut author, and this first book sounds dark and twisted and just plain eerie, all complete with a mysterious main character and a hot boy. Basically, it’s completely my style.

5) We The Animals by Justin Torres (adult): This is another debut novel and another book that focuses on a family, particularly of three brothers. What was touted most about this book is the writing style, which is supposed to border on the magical and lyrical, so I am very excited to read this. (Sadly could not get a galley!) What else interested me about this title was its coming of age plot, its simple, child-like cover art, and its shorter length (about 150 pages). This book was on the adult buzz panel, and I wondered what would happen if they marketed it as YA. The brothers do, in fact, grow up, bringing the book into adult territory, but what appeals to me here is its crossover characteristics. I’ll be interested in seeing where/how it is reviewed when it is released.

5a) OK, this one is more like a special shout-out – Fracture by Megan Miranda (YA): This book wasn’t on any buzz panel, but I picked it up at the Walker/Bloomsbury booth and was instantly hooked just from reading the back copy. Here’s a taste: “It only takes three minutes without air for loss of consciousness. Permanent brain damage begins at four minutes. And then, when the oxygen runs out, full cardiac arrest occurs. Death is possible at five minutes. Probable at seven. Definite at ten.”

The main character gets pulled out of the icy water she’s drowning in after eleven minutes. The story is seemingly told from her perspective while she lays in a coma. I’m not entirely sure if that’s the case since I had to force myself to stop reading after the first page because I was getting in everyone’s way.

I’ll probably buy Fracture when it comes out even though I have the ARC because the cover wasn’t final and I like when books look pretty on my shelf. It’s also a debut novel, which I always love to support, monetarily if possible. (From an indie store, of course!)

So, there you have it. The books that got me most excited at BEA this year. There were others, of course but blog posts can only be so long. While I mentioned that last year the draw for me was human nature, this year was packed with intricate plots, tons of emotion, and characters who leave you with questions.

The takeaway is that paranormal is dwindling, but not dying, and the paranormal that is still coming out sounds spectacular. Gone are the days of “girl loves boy. boy is not human. conflict ensues.” No, these characters are complex and the plots are twisted, dynamic, and – to borrow a buzz panel word – “un-put-down-able.”

The stakes are as high as ever for paranormal, and the stakes are just as high as they’ve been for contemporary/realistic/literary. If there’s one lesson I learned from BEA this year it’s that only the strong survive. But, there seems to be a whole lot of “strong” going around – debut fiction included.

Fun With Lists!

Friends of the blog know that sometimes I like to make lists. (See: Things to Avoid and Non-literary Characters.) I make lists in my real life too. Pros v. Cons lists, Things to Do lists, Amazon Wish Lists, and I only evaluate my “favorite” of anything in the form of a Top 5 List.

So, it should come as no surprise that I love Flashlight Worthy Book Recommendations, a site devoted to presenting you with the best books for pretty much any occasion or reason. I particularly enjoyed the recent “Most Challenged Books of 2009” list, in which three of my favorite books appear – The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Catcher in the Rye, and To Kill a Mockingbird. (I should say that with books, I do not have a Top 5 List, but rather I break them up into multiple Top 5 lists based on genre, nostalgia, cultural relevance, etc. Yes, I have issues.)

Anyway, Flashlight Worthy Book Recommendations has inspired me to create a new list, but unlike the professional list-makers, I won’t be focusing so much on “the best” as I will on “my favorites.” So, I present the Top 5 Books I Find Flashlight Worthy:


1) Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H. P. Lovecraft. This is a huge book. Not one to travel with or take on the subway. But it is the perfect book to curl up with under a sheet in the dark and scare the pants off yourself! H.P. Lovecraft did literary horror first, and arguably the best (funny how that usually works out, isn’t it?).

2) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Yes, it is one of my favorites, as I mentioned above, but I assure you I’m not being biased. This book still works for the purposes of this list. The creepy mystery behind Boo Radley is certainly flashlight worthy, but there are also the many layers behind the plot and characters to unravel in the dark.

3) In the Woods by Tana French. Like Mockingbird, this book has multiple layers of mystery going on. (See also: The Likeness). Not only does French offer a page-turning whodunit, but she also slowly reveals an eerie mystery within the main character.

4) Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz. OK, this one seems obvious, but with a combination of nostalgia and a self-explanatory title, I defy you to find me a more flashlight worthy book. If you haven’t read this since childhood, go revisit. Or, read it in a pillow fort with your own kids. I used to be convinced that the girl with the ribbon around her neck was one of my sister’s friends (because she said she was), so I can no longer think of this book without thinking of how much my childhood was traumatized by it.

5) Pretty much anything by Stephen King. Seriously. There’s a reason Joey Tribbiani keeps his copy of The Shining in the freezer.

What do you all think? As you can see, I went with mystery and horror when I think of flashlight worthy books, but I guess that doesn’t always have to be the case. What are some of your favorite books to read in the dark?