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!)

Fear Itself

With the upcoming Rapture, I thought today would be a good day to talk about something I’ve been thinking about for the past few weeks. As you all know, the face that symbolized “evil” to many Americans, Osama bin Laden, was shot in the head and killed. Like many Americans, I felt relief and a sense that justice had been done. And as someone who appreciates symbolism, the importance of this event, no matter how irrelevant overall it may be, is not lost on me.

The reason I’m bringing up this semi-old news is because the queries have started coming in. The ones about “life after Osama,” fictionalized accounts of the men who killed him, and the rise of a “new face of evil.” The hope, of course, is that the writers started these books before he was killed. Otherwise, that’s some pretty quick turnaround. Through all of these new queries, there are the ones I’ve been getting. Since I’m pretty vocal about my love of science fiction, I get a lot of queries for it. But some of them – the dystopian science fiction, specifically – suddenly don’t feel as relevant. It’s as if Osama’s death made them less threatening, the plots less enticing.

When science fiction is done well, it reveals more about the current realities of our society than any non-fiction work ever could. World Wars I and II, the space race, global imperialism, Roswell, and, yes, terrorism have all influenced science fiction. Yet it wasn’t until we entered our “post-9/11” world that we experienced a strong resurgence of dystopian novels.

But these are not Orwell’s dystopian novels anymore. And it’s not hard to see why. After 9/11, Big Brother didn’t feel so fictional, let alone like science fiction. The U.S. government took advantage of the fact that full-blown foreign terrorist attacks just don’t happen here. They exploited that panic to instill the likes of The Patriot Act and Homeland Security; they could monitor our online searches, and made racial profiling become acceptable. The stuff of science fiction – exotic new villains, conspiratorial leaders, widespread paranoia, and constant surveillance – was becoming our reality. So what was left to write about?

Enter the new dystopian. Now that Big Brother was practically a reality, our science fiction novels shifted into complete and utter destruction. The threats had to be bigger because old-fashioned government control was too close to home. To up the ante we invented other ways in which our world could be destroyed: mass floods, plague, humans taken over by a vampiric disease. The more elaborate the better because if those other sci-fi novels could become our reality, we needed to make sure the new sci-fi stayed fictional. The world as we knew it had to go, and it had to go in a big way. We were beyond paranoia. The only way to save our country, and the best way to save science fiction, was to rebuild our worldview and start over.

Teens especially have taken to dystopian fiction, which is interesting when you think of the fact that by the time they were old enough to read, 9/11 already happened. As far as their memory is concerned, we’ve always lived like this. They only know war and fear and distrust of government.The Hunger Games, the most popular to come out of the trend, has them literally battling each other. War was not something that happened “over there” anymore.

So where does Osama bin Laden come in? Well, his death by itself is fairly inconsequential. But in the same way that his actions allowed us to change the way we live virtually overnight, his death will allow us to slowly return to the world we knew. That gunshot erased the face that was given to the name, and soon, with time, it will reverse the Patriot Act, eliminate a need for Homeland Security, and allow us to, finally, stop being afraid. At least this is my hope.

When I get queries now about a government (or metaphor for government) that has gotten too much power because of one singular event, I think to myself, will this be enough anymore? It already sounds dated to me because I can foresee that in the two years it will take for that book get published, the world could look significantly different than it does today.

I’m not really sure where dystopian will go from here. I am ignoring the fact that the market is so saturated with it that it’s likely going to die out soon anyway. That’s because sci-fi never really goes out of style. This particular sub-genre will. At least for now. We brought it back when we needed it, and hopefully we won’t again for a very long time.

Where do you see science fiction going? Do you think the more supernaturally inclined disaster scenarios will continue? Or do you think the old standby of fear (whether of outside forces or of our own government’s power) will keep the genre as strong as it has in the past?

Hope you all enjoy your last day on earth! And if you’re reading this after the Rapture, sorry you got Left Behind!