Confession I automatically thought “Do they mean Vyger” alla Star Trek: The Motion Picture. This is the stuff science fiction dreams are made of because its such a romantic aspect of space discovery. Isn’t that what we all think of in that brief moment we yearn to touch the stars and walk on the moon? Space and the technology we use to get there are both intrinsically fascinating subjects, reflecting the passion of our very human obsession to explore. These engineers have pushed humanity further and their dedication, love of their mission, and passion for the wonder that is technological space exploration are things more than worthy of praise. They are some of the best of us and they will be the ones who make our future homes among the stars possible.
If we’re very lucky the colonization of mars won’t remain a dream for much longer.
Genres are probably the most useful and arbitrarily frustrating aspects of books, films, movies, podcasts, art, or anything you could possibly make creatively. No creator really wants to think about where their products will go. Most of us just want to create and put something we love out into the world. Yet we all know the frustration of the customer, searching and searching through the weeds for the product they want to spend money on. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said “Why can’t I find that kindle category. It was there yesterday and I wanted to find more books there! Damn you Amazon!” While Amazon, Kobo, and other search engines are constantly tinkering algorithms and site design unless something hits all the standards of a genre we can struggle to find it.
Example? I love romance in my fantasy and I love romance in general AND I love fantasy in general. If I want to find a book where the romance is a central, but not the central aspect of the plot in a unique fantasy world with a plot arising not from the romance, but something else…I have to weed through so many shifter romances and random books. The core of what I want is a fantasy book with a strong romantic through line. In fantasy I can click romance or non-romance, but both rarely find me what I want.
The books I’ve found? Generally came from fantasy sections, but outside of Kushiel’s Dart most were still buried. This is most evident in ebook stores, but its always been a problem. As a self-published author, I have struggled with classifying my stories. However, my erotica/romances are relatively easy to categorize once I figured out how most readers did. The problem with Science Fiction or Fantasy is they’re loaded with useful sub-genres and then you have Science Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, Contemporary Fantasy, Contemporary Science Fiction, Space Opera, Magical realism, etc. etc. When a story crosses genres you’re pretty much left saying a hail Mary and hoping things work out.
So how do you find books you like? Fellow authors, how do you classify your books so people can find them, and know what they’re getting?
Experimental fiction is pretty self-explanatory in theory…except when it is not, and that is where I’ve found myself as I’ve begun a short piece that is totally unlike my usual fair. In the world of self-publishing being able to categorize and understand the possible audience for your story is key to unlocking marketing practices that most benefit you. Outside of that world being able to explain you story whether to potential readers, to workshops, to agents, or to yourself can be incredibly important in coming to understand what your fiction gives in terms of knowledge, entertainment, or even just understanding how it’s experimental. So not knowing what to call your story can be a real kick in the nards. So how do we come to begin unlocking what your story is? We start with a story. I’ll use my current work as an example, not because I am the authority but because you need to understand where I’m coming from first.
I didn’t intend to write the story, but somehow it spilled out of me when I had been experimenting with Written Kitten a site you can type stories into and assign certain goal posts to reward you with images of kittens or puppies (and one scantily clad 3D rendering of a lady someone accidentally tagged into the photo album the site uses)
Three hours later I had written the key components of a story that blurred science fiction with fantasy, and engaged in metaphysical visionary fiction. At the time I didn’t know if the last genre existed for certain, but apparently it does. It has it’s own wiki page and everything. I don’t know exactly where this story came from but as we speak I’ve taken a break from editing my CampNaNo novel to work on this book by writing this post. How does this help me? Well it’s more like how this conversation can help you?
How do we begin understanding our experimental fiction in order to begin learning how to describe it?
I tend to look at stories as integrated parts.
The Heart (the characters)
The Brain (the plot)
The Muscle (the obstacles surrounding those things)
The Skin (The set dressing/mood)
All of these come together in unique ways to tell your story, and how you begin to understand how they fit makes a difference in continuing to write your story, improve through edits, and enticing people. It is what you put down and how those things come together that define your story best.
The Heart of my story, Mind and Frost, are Daniella and Kenda, two Mentalists in a world were those with telepathic and psychic powers are viewed as suspicious especially Kenda whose powers have caused incredible heartache in the past. Their desires are mutual in one respect because they desire to be together, but what that means and how are constrained by the muscle and brain of the book. This aspect of the heart gives it a sweeter and more romantic edge…but how Kenda and Daniella interact is what has pushed me away from categorizing the book as a straight romance.
Now here is the critical part, and something I think people often forget in talking about genre, which is there are aspects of every genre in most fiction. People I know who say “I can’t stand romances” often still like romances in fiction, but they don’t like the manifestation of romance in the romance genre. A good friend of mine has told me he can’t stand science fiction books that lean towards the space opera genre, but he absolutely adores the use of technology and plot in The Windup Girl. The story is certainly not a space opera, but it has many of the same elements from warring factions to questions of humanity and survival. Yet for him the differences make all the difference just within that genre, and separate the two. How you use an element like romance and how the relationship is conducted should be useful in determining what your story is.
In my story, Mind and Frost, the couple has many theoretical conversations about the nature of existence, as well as, their own semi-imprisoned state and relationship to their doctors/caretakers. This goes beyond what is normally within the romance genre that readers have come to expect.Even in terms of language their interactions differ in basic ways. What is real to them is something outside of what you and I have been taught to conceive of. Time itself is different for them as in their dreams capes they struggle to differentiate between present and past.
While I’ll be sure to highlight the love story as a key component of the book I’ll avoid using the word romance to describe what Mind and Frost is for kindle marketing purposes. However, the key nature of their relationship is what drives the book, so I may in this blog and elsewhere describe the book as “Metaphysical romance” or “Romantic Science Fantasy”.
So what of the brain and muscle? By the time we meet them they’re in love, but Kenda is in a medically induced coma and their doctor fears her interacting with his dreams will cause him to wake up in a traumatic and destructive way. This forms the Muscle, and this muscle can be flexed melodramatically with Daniella weeping over their being apart; dramatically with her screaming at their doctor to have a heart and free him; or as I’ve chosen to handle it with a dry cynicism on her part. Kenda, not accepting of his fate now that he’s found love and finally realizing regardless the stories he’d told about freedom were lies, ceases to expect much but remains hopeful towards something else. How the heart responds to the muscle is what drives the actions of the brain. Random nerves fire between all these organs and the brain regulates it all by giving structure and guidelines.
In my work I have begun using questions to help guide thematic development once I’m past chapter two, which ultimately helps me understand what I am writing. The questions themselves can sit beside the short explanations of the plot as quick ways to tell you what your book should be about.
In Mind and Frost the brain is concerned with the question of both “what will you do to be free, and can you be free while bound by the customs and norms around you?” and “Can you be devoted to someone or something and still claim to free?” More simplified the brain is Freedom with a capital F. It isn’t in the context of just love or just a relationship. Because the relationship merely functions as a way to better understand those questions, I won’t call it’s genre primarily romance. Instead this makes it drift towards speculative fiction.
For your story the brain may be concerned with coming of age in a hostile environment, “Can we live a good life and still say we want to change”, or the meaning of privacy. It could simply be that you have two factions warring over territory and what it means to survive. All of this comprises the brain as you tie each scene together, coincidentally it also drives the heart and develops it thus forcing the other muscles–barriers, obstacles, incentives, and wants– to move as well.
Dr. Cohen-Sloane, Kenda and Daniella’s doctor and perhaps antagonist, function in ways deeply tied to questions of both spiritual and scientific importance. He questions his ethics, and so do his patients. The world is turning on Mentalists and he is responding to it while still trying to preserving his life and late-wife’s work, which forces this couple to respond. The brain, questions of spirituality/love/freedom, happen in the context of that plot. They get the muscles moving.
Much of the story’s design evokes some of what I loved about Ursula K. Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness in that the science fiction elements are grounded not with marvelous wonder or trepidation, but with the practical eyes of people we would recognize in our lives. In fact Le Guin, somewhat of an experimental via speculative fiction, manages to provide insight in a society without true gender and uses elements of psychology and social understanding to create not just science fiction, but truly speculative and feminist science fiction. The brain of Left Hand is distinctive, challenging gender and cultural absolutism within the context of this complex and rich relationship that is in this conflict ridden world where trust is hard to come by. The government officials using Genly Air and Estraven as pawns in a greater game are muscles, pulling and constraining, as much as the differences arising out of the heart(the character’s backgrounds and existences) are.
And let’s wrap it up with one of the hardest and easiest aspects of figuring out just what the hell you’re creating…the set dressing and mood, which make up the skin in this analogy. The skin is an organ, binding everything inside like a nice package. For literature, this isn’t just the cover, but time period, the world you’ve chosen, the class/ethnicity/etc of the world’s characters, and also the style you’ve chosen to write with. Very few true romances begin with the same set up as a grisly murder in a romance novel. You can easily experiment with that, but that’s the general rule of thumb. What sort of skin does your story have?
Are the characters prone to brooding and the atmosphere echoes that? Do scenes often feature cramped corridors or evoke a sense of being trapped? Do you go into detail describing cotton fields and hot southern Louisiana summer days in the year 1910? How you construct the world of your story and the type of world you construct work with all those other parts to more clearly define what your story is even if it is experimental or an unconventional book or unconventional short story.
So often people will say that figuring out genre is the easiest thing in the world, but non-traditional or genre blurring stories don’t have it so easy. I’ve even been told by an experienced author that if a person doesn’t have a set genre they may as well put the book aside or publish it under an alternative pen name. Yet I think we can find a happy medium between saying “just experimental” and perhaps misnaming our book’s genres, but taking the time to dissect the body of our work. Ironically that may just give it the most life.
Disagreements? Questions? Comments? I’d truly love to hear your thoughts below.!
I wrote a lot of awesome ideas as a teenager. That wasn’t that long ago really, and though my teenage years felt like they lasted forever in retrospect I can’t help but realize how quickly they went by…and how with all that time I could have finished more than three or four stories! I was a chronic unfinisher, suffering from a dreadful case of “Great ideas and no execution” beyond a few powerful scenes. There’s so much I’d like to tell myself back then, and so much more I’d like to tell all the writers making the same mistakes. So here’s some advice that I wish I’d known and internalized back then.
Writing by the seat of your pants is great, but you will never feel accomplished until a story is done. You won’t. You’ll fill over 30 journals, teenage D, but you will always feel a touch incomplete. Some of those stories you’ll revisit in college and after, but you have to really want to finish them and if you do you can begin really engaging with your teachers and mentors as someone aiming at publishing and not just the idea of it. Stop putting stories aside because you hit writers block or lose interest even though you know you’ll be wanting to write the story. Keep trying to write even if its garbage. Write to an end point. Maybe not the one you planned by a point where it could end.
To write by the seat of your pants effectively you have to plot. Not bullet by bullet point , though that works for some people, but you have to write out the greater plot elements: Who is involved, what are their relationships, What events effect the over all plot, and why? Answer those questions succinctly from start to finish.
Don’t try to do this and end up writing an omnibus of lore instead of an actual book. Look, readers and younger me…I spent several months on a world building project for a story I never finished and developed not just basic elements, but the economic system over the last 200 years in the world. It was headache inducing…why did I do that? Because sitting down and writing seemed like a hassle and this seemed like it still helped my writing. It didn’t. It usually doesn’t. It can help you only if you’re writing at the same time. Now speaking of time…this next one is gonna take a minute…
Drama doesn’t = story. I’m sorry. I know I used to love Lifetime movies and melodramatic manga. They’re great, but they have story elements. It isn’t just scenes for the sake of scenes. The element that makes the drama in those movies and manga work is that the drama between characters is woven through their lives. Most movies, books, shows, and manga fail when their love stories are one of two things…horribly cliched or the story doesn’t connect on any real level. They just sort of sit there and happen because of romance cliches, because of drama cliches, because of mystery cliches. A series of dramatic events doesn’t inherently make for a story or a plot. You don’t have to follow classical plot structure, but you should write a story not just a series of events. I used to have a habit of having stories that went: Event 1; Event 2; Event 3; Event 4; Big Event and then so on for 12 more events. The story never really ended, but it never really began. The characters didn’t really get to know each other, and in some ways they weren’t so much characters as reactive puppets.
Drama must have meaning. This is a big one. I love fan fiction, and began reading it years ago with Sailor Moon and Xena stories. After a decade reading some of the best and worst unknown and hobby writers one thing that almost all young writers seem to do is thrive on drama without weight and meaning. Stories of sorrowful and dramatic miscarriages that have nothing to them than sorrow and no real sense of what that sorrow means. Stories of couples hating each other then suddenly falling in love without sense of what that would take or why other than…because the writer wanted it. Couples betraying each other and then forgiving not because they’ve grown but because one is just misunderstood and its excused because the betrayal only serves to make the reuniting sweeter; also this happens over one chapter. Nothing that happens hold weight. What separates the good stories from the bad is a world with weight. Pride & Prejudice is remembered because it is a story about love and marriage in the context of the socio-political politics of the regency era. The drama of Legally Blonde is situated in the context of what the world sees in Elle Woods as a blonde, rich, attractive, and overtly feminine woman. The inherent drama of Call the Midwife, True Blood, or Warehouse 13(All very different shows) is situated not just on character drama but in a world where those character dramas are inherently impacted by and impact the worlds they inhabit. The drama has weight, and so it feels reals. Being a teenager is high octane emotional drama…but those moments in-between and those moments where we’re just responding to the world define our stories . Life builds to crescendos of emotional heat. The betrayal of a lover doesn’t vanish in a chapter spanning a week. It takes something climatic, it takes an awareness that one was hurt and regardless love must be rebuilt. When you don’t take the time to understand what your drama can/should mean for your characters then your drama will mean little and leave so little impact. Your writing will feel young, and like an “edge lord” trying too hard to force everyone to feel because its a story so full of meaning.
Don’t just try to impress people or mistake being edgy and dramatic for good writing. Edge lord, for those who don’t know, is slang for people who essentially try too hard to edgy. Some people tell funny off color jokes about, for example, assault as though to say “I’m a hard core person”. Others are constantly judgey. A desire to be edgy is very consistent in most teenagers writing. It is healthy and natural, and annoying as hell even to other teenagers. Teenage D agrees even as she loved sorrowful drama herself. You have to sit and think, and research. Read more about the world, think less about the drama and more about what those dramas mean because that will inform the feeling.
I wrote some damn good stuff as a teen, stories and scenes I’m proud of, but as you mature you learn to recognize the worst of your tendencies and that of others. These were just a few of mine and my friends. I hope you don’t take this too harshly, my teenage readers. Even if you do the things I warn against you can still have talent, but maybe my tips will help you mature your writing a little faster. Maybe you can be a bit further along than me by the time your my age as a result. I’m not old, but I definitely wish I could make more efficient use of my time and stories by going back and talking to my younger self. In the self-publishing world having stories published as quickly and as well as possible makes all the difference. If I started really focusing in on where to improve and how then I could have gotten in on the ebook boom of 2012. I could have had several books out and be comfortable saying I had some up for sale. With that said I’m comfortable where I am. My writing is better than ever and I spent a lot of time getting to where I am.
She ravaged the remains of the run down 7/11, ignoring the moths fluttering around her head and hand. The flashlight brought them to her, but for some reason it reminded her of death. Maybe it was all the moths she’d see on the boxes of VHS tapes in Blockbuster as a kid, or maybe it was the moth wings brought to mind images of the dance macabre. She suspected it went deeper, but she tried to ignore the thought as she sifted through a pile of half rotten and mashed packaged snacks. It smelled like maggots and rot. She felt crawling against and between her fingers, but her fears couldn’t survive in a dead world. So she buried them. She was so tired of potatoes and tomatoes. They grew so easily and could be so yummy.
She used to love them, but then again she loved a lot of things. Now she couldn’t keep the texture of tomatoes down. Her partner said her eyes looked sunken and urged her to eat. Last night she had her ration, four tomato slices with stale potato crackers. She didn’t make it past the smell before her mouth filled with bile. They took her plate, and told her man not to waste food. Even at the memory of sourness on her tongue her stomach growled. She’d tasted something that day and though it proved foul it’d been something. Hunger gnawed at her being. She wished they’d ration her more meat or that her man would have better luck fishing the rivers. He came home that afternoon with nothing but foraged mushrooms. She was allergic, but he tried to trade them. It’d been pointless, but a good man always tried. They wouldn’t ever give him what they were worth, and what they wanted to give was a quarter ration of potato.
Bottom line was waste, and she’d been waste. They did not like to feed her much and they only fed her man because he proved large and helpful. He knew science;medicine and botany. Once he planted a magnificent garden and they had so much basil they fried it and put it on top of pasta, pasta salad, grilled fish….
Drool escaped the side of her mouth, she slurped. Everyone knew she couldn’t go on this way. Her “halfie” child would have no milk even if she survived that long. But no she found this gas station outside the sanctuary. They didn’t like her white boyfriend anymore than the south valley supremacists had liked her, but at the very least they let her forage in piece. She never found anything, but today had to be different. Today she’d have coffee and tea and chocolate. A Hershey’s Special Dark with an Almond Joy on the side. Another string of drool escaped her, but she didn’t bother to pull it back.
Food. She needed real food.
Her hand plunged into the heart of the pile and then a sinking sharpness forced her to gasp and pull back. A squeak. A scurrying flash towards a corner. Rabbis. “Oh god”. She looked at her large belly, and felt a kick somewhere near her kidney. She swallowed, and followed the scurrying.
Orange. She raised a brow, peering through her smudged glasses. It was a large hamster covered in long angora like fur. Probably, she thought, the poor thing had once been a prize winning pet. She saw the small mound of dirt out back near the little house, and the tombstone marked with a crudely carved Islamic star and moon above “Mel”. Had it been a little boy or girl or? Did it matter?
Her arm stung, and she held up her light to see bright red drops forming perfectly circular pools between her index finger and thumb. She looked to the scared fur ball and remembered how she always wanted to try Peruvian style guinea pig. She flashed the light on the former pet and it squirmed. It’s hair fell revealing large brown eyes, like those of a plush toy. She swallowed. She used to like toys.
“Would you be my dinner?” she asked softly.
It stared back, eager as though it were waiting, wanting some big crescendo to their encounter. She felt the air thicken, an unspoken tension between two barely surviving beasts. She’d been a woman in her heart and in her mind and in her body. Now? They made her so weak she couldn’t be called anything vaguely human, but she smiled. To her surprise the little beast squeaked, and she jumped, which made it jump.
“Should I kill myself?” she asked “If you won’t be my dinner then should I end this.”
It turned it’s head and began sniffing a dirty aluminum and paper chips package.
“Oh…I see.” She coughed, and felt another kick that resounded through her as though the whole of her were a great empty amphitheater.
Food. That’s all she needed.
She returned to digging, tossing trash and junk aside as unclean insects rubbed against her skin and dirty mushy packages. Then she felt something slick and smooth, like a glossy mirror but bendy. She gently squished. It crinkled. She pulled back her hand and there she saw a 3 Mustketeers bar. The package almost glistened it looked so clean, as thought he gunk stuck to everything else. She examined it only to find it clean, and so she yanked off her gloves, tossing them aside. Then with gusto ripped it open. She devoured half, the overwhelming and once familiar sweetness made her eyes cross and her heard race. It tasted so perfect on her tongue. A movement caught her eye by her leg.
Orange. The creature squeaked and crawled over her legs and around her, over the garbage and then to her side. Big of goo were stuck in its fur, and now she saw how neglect had left its once beautiful fur unkempt and matted. It must have been here alone for a good year if not months, scraping by on whatever the family left behind in the riots between the Self-Abolitionist Movement and the Northern White Brotherhood. That’d swept this neighborhood up until…Well, supplies got short. It must have been so alone. And it must have seen the clashes between the Brithouse Gang with their west coast hippy anarchy, at least they’d given her food, and the DPD, who had given her nothing except advice to be self-sufficient. Darwin or Die. Fuck that noise.
What did the hamster think about all this bullshit? What did it think about its ruined life? Did anyone care? Did she?. He must have been depressed, lost, and drowning in isolation.. She looked at the candy bar. She slowly reached down her hand, and again her eyes met the hamster’s. It didn’t know humanity, but neither did she. She coughed. It jumped, but then it sniffed her chocolatey fingers and slowly extended its tongue. One lick, then two, then several. It climbed into her hand. Her stomach screamed at her, and she shoved the hamster deep into her pocket. She broke off a chunk of the chocolate bar and set it down beside the hamster.
Hunger was everything, but even in that hunger she could still give some form of kindness.
Luna. That is what they named the colony on SVX99, a robust planet known for its silver and grey flora which were the diets of equally robust fauna. Instead of insects as Earthborn knew them there were these butterfly sized birds with wings with as many colors as the human eye could see. They’d nip the pollen from the plants with snouts, tongues, beaks, or suckers of all kinds and would drop them as they went. There were actual butterflies and moths, massive, but Dr. BJ Martinez had proved they were mamlian and at the time had theorized they were simply a bird varient. There were seven legged exceptionally tall creatures with silver backs and black legs, which were somewhere between the noble elk and the adorably goofy giraffe. They had a habit of trying to eat human tints, and ate these lavender bushes that seemed to grow everywhere from the mountains to the snowyplains far down south. I’d see all of them during my stay, and I intended to see many more, but there was one I was quite fond of.
My favorite was the Dalaxia, named for its discoverers Mia Dalan and Joon Xia, it resembled a moomin type creature. It’s medium sized hippo like body had large floppy ears on the side of its head and then another set of multi-directional hippo like ears on top. There round faces had many whiskers and their swatting tails were beaver like. They were the first creatures I saw, and though I’d been instructed to stay in the camp to merely document their habits before being escorted to Luna. Perhaps it was because we were the first ship in range, or perhaps it was because we’d brought food, but within 30 minutes the Dalaxia had begun inspecting the camp. They ate a whole canister of economy sized dried green beans, two sugar filled canisters, and one baby Dalaxia befriended Captain Edgar’s dog Maxine. The baby kept making these whimpering and honking noises until poor old Maxine had to indulge it and they ran around for what seemed to poor Maxine to be hours. The old girl kept looking back at me like “Are we done yet? This youngin is making grandma tired”. The sixty of us must have looked quite comical as we handled these creatures.
I could not put pen to paper, or pen to tablet of course…I was too busy laughing as Dalaxians began trying to sniff each of us, and mouth our hands. The beasts were almost unnaturally gentle, and reminded me of the seals make-a-wish took me to see before my miraculous recovery. The seals had surrounded me, and seemed to sense exactly the right amount of play I could endure. One simply decided to lay on my tummy, and another tried to share its frozen fish Popsicle with me. The handlers had laughed and said I must have a way about me. I didn’t know what that meant back then. Even on SVX99 I didn’t know.
Really I didn’t know why I was there, or why I had signed up for the four year long mission. There was no tragic backstory though plenty of my friends died on Earth, but that was to be expected. My first love died too. Maybe that’s tragic. We had the same problem, chronic asthma due to a degenerate environment. Earth’s atmosphere was too thick for our lungs and laden with fumes and particulates. As a little girl a breath for me felt like swallowing both cinnamon and broken shrapnel; lungs would be filled, corked, choked, and I’d imagine new holes forming, arteries being torn asunder. My chest would expand and I’d be ravaged by pain my childlike mind could not process. At 14 I still could not, and Dylan would sit in my room with me during my attacks and we’d be lost together. It was the best of the worst time. We weren’t the strong ones, and we couldn’t adapt. Maybe that was the sad or tragic part to some, but “that’s just been how its been” as my father would say.
My life was one of millions, and only significant in my sudden recovery from both the slow cancer discovered shortly after my asthma was diagnosed as terminal. I was just a glorified documentarian really; good at drawing, describing, and with some training in both anthropology and biology. Yet it didn’t take training to figure out the Dalaxians enjoyed head pats and side tummy rubs.
I stood in the center of a ring of sniffing snorting Dalaxians, trying to make sure snot didn’t get on my face as one unceremoniously sniffed my hair.
“Aren’t you friendly?” I laughed.
“They are very curious creatures,” Captain Edgar said, giving a large old Dalaxia a solid head pat. The Dalaxia had a large scar across its front leg, rather odd sense they had no known predators and we certainly didn’t intend on becoming any. “They’ve been watching the camp and colony every time I come back.”
The Dalaxia sniffing my head suddenly dragged its long tongue up my cheek, leaving sweet sticky saliva, and I shuddered. It must have been one of the ones to eat a sugar canister. Three small babies popped up from between their mother’s legs and began sniffing my knees and hands before I could wipe off the stickiness. I suspect the big Dalaxia who’d licked me used that act to signal I was ok because the youngsters began to gently butt my thighs.
“They want you to play with them,” Captain Edgar said.
“Do they now? Do they do this with everyone?”
“No, but they do it with people who meet their exacting standards like Maxine” He pointed to his dog, barking and yapping as an adolescent Dalaxian began to head butt the other before rolling onto the ground submissively at Maxine. Maxine licked its face and the Dalaxian licked back. MAxine’s tail wagged and the Dalaxian’s did the same.
“How can they speak the same language when they’re galaxies apart in development?”
“I suppose because they’re a lot better than we are. We can barely understand our selves let alone each other,” Captain edgar suddenly pulled a handful of edamame from his vest pocket and fed the Dalaxian. “I met this fellow when he was just a young bull trying to impress the ladies. He stole a whole canister and rolled it to lady after lady. The first simply wasn’t interested-”
“The second was probably insulted,” I said, patting the Dalaxians heads softly one after another, as though I were learning to play bongos. “No girl wants another’s bouquet. It’s like being an after thought…though personally for dinner I’d make an exception”
Part One End.
I love old descriptions of creatures and places. It’s a required taste, but its so exciting and adventurous even in the meticulous detail. I think I’ll try painting some of these scenes or at least drawing some doodles for next time. Also I love hippos…they’re great.
Dystopian fiction is the artistic expression of our fascination with ruin, of our societal/political/economic fears, and in a way an exciting coping mechanism that allows us to peer back at our world and question it. From Animal Farm to Hunger Games, dystopian fiction is almost inescapable. These days it may be the realm of YA fiction, but dystopian worlds have always been in our minds. To some it comes on judgement day, and to others it looms nearer the more we deny climate change. One thing all dystopias have in common is this…the world is fucked. For characters and stories to make sense and thrive writers have to know how to build that world. That is hard.
For the last few months I’ve been going through my old files, and found an a story I wrote a few years ago set in a world where the U.S government had broken down, the U.S had been attacked, and in the chaos civil wars and gang fights became normalized. The story is honestly loosely based on a “what-if” involving a lot of personal struggles and fears. Maya the main character and her husband Tucker are an interracial couple who moved from the east coast further inward to avoid conflict. They’re free of literally all their burdens after being separated from family, and as Maya jokes “hey no student loans”. But the question becomes what do they do now. As time goes on Maya wants a baby, and unfortunately they realize that where once common medical practice may have helped they are at the will of nature even more than man. The mundane truly becomes the desired, as they struggle to stay alive in a world where it wouldn’t be abnormal for someone to call Tucker a race traitor or for someone to barter for band-aids. As I was rereading my work I noticed a few problems but two hit me in the face with a baseball bat.
The vagueness of the world hurt the themes.
The mundane aspects of the world were what set it apart.
These realizations prompted me to revise the story and include it in my short story anthology Reality Echoes, which I will be self-publishing by the end of the year. With that said I am basically rewriting 90% of the story because it was weak, slow, and at points became dull. Some writers have a nasty habit of becoming so invested in the inner lives of their characters, and then flopping with anything that makes those lives interesting in the context of the world. As a teenager I wrote so many stories without story because of that fact. How many did I write? Well there’s a large cardboard box in the middle of my room at my mother’s house filled to the top with only my notebooks from ages 12 to 18. None of those stories ever got done. Why? Because they sucked. Well, they didn’t suck(I think. I hope.), but they weren’t exactly fleshed out stories. Even the best writer has to be able to give a sense of story even if that story is utter nonsense, and if you’re writing genre then you better make it clear where that story sits in the world you make.Over the years I’ve begun a studious practice of expanding my work, focusing on plot and world building.
But somehow I dropped the ball with this dystopia.
It wasn’t the vagueness of how it came to be that hurt the story though it didn’t help. The reader would be left wondering, as the workshop I wrote it for was, what makes life so difficult…and what makes everyone play into the system, try to maintain the old way of life, not be able to maintain the old way of life, etc. in order to contextualize what Maya and Tucker were going through. And that workshop group didn’t want paragraphs. They knew they didn’t need them, but they needed more world building for me to be able to successfully tell a character story.
Let’s talk about how to build some dystopian visions…
When building a dystopia you have to be able to explain to yourself how that world came to be, and why people allowed it. If conditions become so intolerable that people feel they have nothing to lose then they will revolt. We see this in every nation and every culture. So if you’re writing a world similar to the Hunger Games you have to make it very clear. Why do the citizens do nothing? Why do they let their children be taken? Because until the first movie they feared those who had left their districts in shambles from a past war. When you, in your story, detail that you don’t have to give a detailed explanation, but you have to make that clear. They feared the awesome firepower of the wealthy and their forces. When *SPOILER* a particular character dies after trying to just stay alive, after the world sees a child die in the hands of another child when they were once strangers…the people begin to see their conditions as intolerable. There’s nothing to lose because what little they have can be taken in a heartbeat. The personal life of Katniss and Rue’s untimely death are personal character arches the propel the world forward. While Rue’s death certainly had troubling racial implications her death served as a catalyst (it also gave a rare example of a black character being pure and innocent without being infantile). The world was given full and undiluted context of the level of sadness and violence that existed within it in one powerful moment.
In Brave New World, the personal beliefs of that world are the reason for not revolting. People are built, and they are told they are valued without actually being truly valued as individuals. Everyone is given the same lie that life needs order only provided by a tyrannical system. In real world North Korea harsh generational punishments and constant propaganda about North Korea, about the U.S wanting to destroy the people, and misinformation keep the population in check. The revolting elements are seen as fruitless, but more so the alternative to dictatorship is an unknown with an enemy waiting for weakness outside the nation. Is that true? Not exactly, but it feels real. Dystopia isn’t the natural result of a society falling apart. Anarchy isn’t natural to humans. We build communities, families, hierarchies, and societies because that’s the best way for us to survive and find contentment. We come together to fight against that which threatens survival and that contentment both in our daily lives and as large groups.
So when you say your world is dystopian you need to understand and convey to your reader why it stays that way.
For worlds like in my story where society crumbles things can be more vague far more easily, but that doesn’t take the burden off. Truthfully, it is worse because you have to really dig into the darker impulses of humanity as a response to survival. That’s not saying every world should be gritty and dark. Ugh anything but. There can be marvelous diversity in environment. Yet you have to convey what people have done and will do to survive. What in this world makes your characters able to survive, or even thrive in a disorder wasteland?
In my world the country is messed up. In some places the government is still in some control, in other places militias have taken over, racial and ethnic hate groups aren’t in hiding, supplies aren’t able to cross country. This world is a result of spiraling events from a series of terrorist attacks, a surge in hate groups, a government whose heads of state and seat of government is left tattered, and coasts under threat from missile strikes. That is what takes a suburban black woman and her white husband to the heart of America to live on a farm, to sleep with guns under their heads, and an RV constantly at the ready if they need to leave. The sudden entourage of events gave them opportunities, and they both saw that they needed to least the east coast even though in some ways they were safer from militias. People were in a panic and did obvious things in their panic, while (and here comes the character development) Maya and Tucker did not obvious things. They stole an RV, they searched garages where they knew people had mowers and gasoline. They raided plant nurseries, libraries, and even school cafeterias before risking their lives in a mass loot of the nearest Wal-Mart. Why were they able to do this? The world descended so quickly and people didn’t know what to do…so they did what they’d seen on television and movies.
Because of how I’m clarifying the world through this revision I am better able to convey my characters’ skills, interests, and needs. The actions that characters take demand to be reflected in how they view the wastelands around them. What can they expect? What would be the worst possible scenario for your characters in this horrible environment? Is this their normal? Is it so close to before everything fell apart that saying “Well this is normal now” makes them want to cry? If yes, do you demonstrate why to your readers? If not then you may want to consider that in your revisions.
Now, some stories rely on ambiguity for how the world came to be, and that can be some powerful story telling. For stories like that…you still need to answer those questions. How did this world come to be? Why/how do people cope with it? Etc. Etc. Answering those questions will better enable you to convey setting, which is what these stories tend to do in place of explanation. Desolate landscapes covered in ice like Snowpiercer give us story and context to the everything that happens. We don’t see the U.N fighting over climate change resolutions. We don’t see the train being drafted and made, or the people who called the idea insane. Not because those things are uninteresting, but because for the story they aren’t necessary and the environment of frozen buildings and toppled lights only held up by packed snow tells you so much more. Thematically, the contrast between the cold outside world and the various interiors of the train cars evoke various levels of disconnect. It’s not an accident the back car residents seem to wear both thick and thin clothing. The heat of abusive industrialism and being packed like sardines is paired with the cold of the outside. Visually you question if there is really any difference between the back cars and the frozen Earth. Its subtle but there.
It may sound like a lot of work when you just want to tell a story, but even if you don’t share everything with your readers you have to answer world building questions. I didn’t do enough that, so now its rewriting a story I rather like. The exciting thing is I am discovering new ways to tell the story and make it so much more than it once was. So maybe take the time to outline major events in that world and the impacts on different groups of people. Maybe write out a small world history starting as the dystopia begins to rise to its inevitable existence. If you take the time to put together your dystopian vision beyond the surface and explore the world deeply you can push your story farther into greatness.
P.S got opinions, feedback, or want to talk shop? Leave a comment. I only bite if you ask me to 😉