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!)