Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Thought Thieves

Happy Wednesday, friends! Today author Chris Court is sharing an excerpt from his novel, The Thought Thieves, partially inspired by the movie Inception, in which a machine that projects your inner thoughts ends up in the criminal underworld. The author, Chris Court, is a web developer and writer. Enjoy The Thought Thieves!

The Thought Thieves
By Chris Court

Yuri was pissed. The brain-drain had been going on for over five hours and they were nowhere. No info. No names. And worst of all, the security codes were deep down in his limbic system blocked off by an impenetrable frontal lobe. Kessel’s brain was a harsh maze of trap doors, dead-ends and endless hallways. Whoever trained him did a hell of a job. They’d come to the end of the road. It was time to move on.

“Take it off him! Pack the truck up. We’re getting out of here.”

After the helmet was removed, for a moment Kessel felt victorious. The sensation soon abandoned him as the four men in long leather jackets gathered their things and packed them into the back of the white cargo van. With his arms and legs still duct-taped securely to the chair, he knew that if they left him there, chances are he would starve to death. The abandoned warehouse looked as if no one had been there in years. But he was resourceful. He’d snaked his way out of plenty of should’ve-been-killed situations before. He kept his hopes alive as he eyed the inside of the large room.

Yuri closed the back doors of the van then walked straight over to where Kessel was positioned. “Do you know who Gallagher is?” he asked him.

Kessel was quiet as he repeated the name in his head.

“He’s an American comedian,” said Yuri. “A prop comic to be more specific.”

Kessel narrowed his eyes trying to figure out where this was going.

“Yes I’ve never been a fan of that type of humor either,” said Yuri. “But it was the way that he closed his show that I enjoyed the most. And it’s where you fit into this conversation. Gallagher would tell the audience that he had this great invention called the Sledge-O-Matic that slices and dices and chops and peels all kinds of foods. But the thing was just a big wooden mallet that he smashed everything with. And the pieces of food sprayed all over the audience members. It was really kind of hilarious.”

One of the men in the leather jackets gave Yuri the wrap-it-up signal.

“Yes, yes. I ramble. I know. So short story - the final piece of fruit that he smashed with his Sledge-O-Matic was a watermelon. Today we’re going to reenact the Gallagher finale. And this is the best part. You get to be the watermelon.”

Kessel was silent. His eyes wide.

“We can’t get the data out of your head. So it’s pointless to keep trying. But we can’t leave it in there. So our only option is to destroy the evidence.”

Kessel was still trying to swallow the saliva caught in his mouth when he heard the large heavy door open thirty-or-so feet behind him. His heart drummed the inside of his rib cage as he watched Yuri look past him toward the sound of the heavy door and give a nod. Then his body shook when the sound of the metal head of the sledgehammer hit the concrete floor and echoed through the building.

“My comrades have weak stomachs and don’t even want to be around to hear this,” said Yuri with an almost heartbroken tone to his voice. “So unfortunately I won’t get to stay and watch. And on that note, I will be leaving you in the capable hands of Mr. Gallagher.”

Kessel finally choked down his swallow. “Please! Don’t do this! I’ll talk. I’ll tell you everything you want to know.”

Yuri stopped at the van passenger door. “Sorry my friend. You’re too well-trained. The data in your head is so protected, you don’t even know what’s real and what’s fake. You could tell us the security code is 1-2-3-4-5 and still pass a lie detector test.”

Kessel didn’t see Mr. Gallagher walk up behind him, but his panic reached stroke level when he saw his hands, covered with rubber gloves, grab the back of his chair. When the chair tilted back and began to be dragged away, it was all he could do not to scream like a girl.

“For God’s sake then, shoot me in the head at least!”

Yuri smiled. “What’s the point of killing someone if you can’t send a message to your enemies by scaring the hell out of them? If you had known we were going to do this, would you have agreed to hold the information?”

The door to the van closed and it drove outside and down the road. Kessel listened as the sound of tires on gravel slowly faded away in the distance – along with his hope. The chair stopped sliding backwards shortly after he was dragged into a small room. Before he could begin to plead for his life – or at least a painless death – Mr. Gallagher locked some kind of metal contraption around Kessel’s neck. He then tightened it like a vise until his head was immobilized. Mr. Gallagher was silent the entire time.

Kessel’s mouth was wedged shut by the metal plate under his chin. He knew this was it. He tried desperately to make his last thoughts pleasant ones. His parents. His wife. His daughter. But try as he may, he could not conjure up their images in his head. Only one thought kept running through his mind: This was all Mike Barton’s fault.  Kessel hoped that if they ever found anything left of his smashed brain, they’d be able to pull out this last piece of data from it:

I hope they kill you too Barton!

Friday, August 24, 2012

"Is This A Kissing Book?"

Note: This post is *not* about romance novels or subgenres of romance (e.g. paranormal romance, romantic suspense, other genres containing the word romance). Romance, by definition, revolves around two characters getting a happily ever after. This post is about love interests in books that are *not* romance novels.

Despite being a romantic, I'm incredibly bored by actual romance. I don't represent romance as a genre and it would be difficult to find a love story in books I represent that isn't at least a little bit nontraditional. Don't get me wrong; there are plenty of people who love cute, uncomplicated romances (and plenty of agents who represent them). I'm just not one of them. Why am I so heartless? 

Well, I'm not. I just need more convincing that these characters belong together. Romance readers (including the agents and editors who work with romance novels) have the ability to get swept up in the characters' obvious devotion to each other. When we say "publishing is subjective" we mean it because the same way not everyone can suspend their disbelief for fantasy novels, I find it hard to suspend mine for romance. What I do love, though, is rooting for two characters to get together. Like tiny Fred Savage in The Princess Bride, I need to be tricked into liking romance. But once I'm hooked, I will shout for the main characters to just kiss already!

When I'm reading a novel and it's clear love interests are starting to form, I prepare myself to ask the following questions:

1. Who are these characters outside of their attraction for each other? Do we see them do other things, have other friends, and have independent lives before the other person enters the picture?

2. Do they maintain that independent life even after the other person enters the picture?

3. Is the main plot of the novel (i.e. not their romance) strong enough to stand on its own?

4. Is it clear why they love each other? Is the writer showing me something deeper than an appreciation for good looks? 

5. Are the characters falling in love while they're doing other things? Or do they just gaze at each other and call it love? (coughTwilightcoughcough)

Sorry I had something in my throat. Moving on.

If I can't answer those questions then that type of romance is probably not for me. I don't want to be happy the main characters got together because I was told I should be. I want to know it's deserved and that they've both experienced life enough to make a real decision in the end. So that when Logan tells Veronica they should have been epic, I melt. Or when Jordan finally holds Angela's hand, I feel her excitement. And while, yes, both of those scenes involve high school students, let's not forget how we all feel right before a first kiss with a new person who just might be The Person. We're all teenagers in that moment, and if you're not you're doing it wrong.

I'm a person who loves love, but I hate blind love. Give me two whole people coming together to share something because there's no one else they can share it with, not because they need a second half. You characters deserve to find happiness on their own terms, and your readers deserve to feel satisfied by their decision.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Perfectly Broken

Hey everyone. I missed yesterday's post, so I hope you'll forgive the lateness. I'm happy to bring you a repeat author for today's publication! You may remember Amber Mauldin from her YA fantasy excerpt a few months ago, Unyielding. Today she's sharing an excerpt from a new project, the ever-rare YA memoir, which she titles Perfectly Broken.

Perfectly Broken
By Amber Mauldin

Survival


I know at any moment he’ll kill me. His scorching breath is on my neck; his odor imbedded in my nose. It’s only been minutes since he crawled off me, but the rape keeps replaying in my mind, torturing me over and over again.

My head is twisted in an impossible headlock and he’s holding me so tight I can barely breathe. I could probably see down my back if only my eyes would open, but they aren’t something I control anymore. Instinct has taken over, shielding me the only way it can- by keeping me from seeing what this man has done to my body, and no doubt what he intends to do next.

I tried to escape at first, I fought like hell, but he was too strong. As soon as he got his death grip on my head, he’d won the battle. When he growled, “One more move and I’ll break your neck.” I believed him.

There is a professional way about his strength. He knew exactly how to subdue me, and quickly, like he’d done this before. With just one hand on my head, he’s managed to lock me in place. My entire body is stiff, laid across the front seat and he’s driving with his other hand as if this were easy. Methodical, calculated, professional. Military crosses my mind.

He has had me in his clutches for at least an hour. Or maybe it has been ten minutes.

Time seems to stop right before you die.

Why am I still alive? He’s already raped me, what more- I stop myself. I won’t go there. I won’t think about how he plans to kill me. And besides, I refuse to die in whatever way he has chosen. I am certain I won’t live much longer, but there is one thing I can do, if escaping is out of the question. I am ready. I will not be going home to my family tonight, but I will send them my killer, my rapist, or rather his DNA buried beneath my fingernails when they find my dead body. I am prepared to strike at the first sign he is done with me. I know the moment I claw his face off he will end my life. So I wait, patiently, for him to try to kill me. I will put up one last fight; one he will not easily walk away from.

The car stops. This is the moment.

He lets go of my head and snarls, “If you tell anyone, I’ll kill you.” Then he reaches across me and thrusts open the door.

I see my escape and move so quickly I topple out backwards onto the curb.

Daylight is almost gone, granting me just enough luminescent to see my surroundings. I’m stunned. I can’t believe he let me go. His eyes are on me as if he’s waiting to see what I’ll do.

Rocketing up, I bolt in the opposite direction like my feet are on fire. Not once do I look back. I have no idea if he’s driven off or if he’s pursuing me. All I know is this isn’t the movies and I’m not going to be that stupid girl who looks back and trips. I just run. I had ran cross country all summer to prepare for sophomore, varsity soccer. Running is one thing I do well. There is no way he’s catching me.

I don’t know if I’m bleeding or if bones are broken. Everything is numb. It’s probably for the best. I can’t even feel my feet hitting the sidewalk, but I see the world flying past me so I know my legs must be working.

There’s no telling where I am, I don’t recognize anything. The closest house is a small sky-blue ranch, with concrete steps. I barrel up the stairs like my life depends on it. I pound my fists into the door. “Please-,” I whisper, my eyes flooding. Seconds feel like hours. Why isn’t anyone opening the door?

Terrified to be still and so vulnerable, and needing to know where he is, I dare a glance. I just know he’s gotten out to chase me and I will have to abandon this attempt at a rescue and flee to the next house.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Should You Publish Your Memoir?

There have been some good posts about memoir recently - I'm thinking specifically of Janet Reid's post on querying a memoir and Rachelle Gardner's on when to write your memoir. I've noticed an increase in nonfiction queries lately, and have met with a few writers at conferences who are trying to get theirs published. I like memoir and personal essay collections a lot and don't read them nearly as much as I used to. (Note: Not because I stopped liking them. It's mostly because I don't have the time.)

Creative nonfiction reminds me of why I wanted to be a writer. My expectations and fantasies of New York were formed when I read E.B. White, Joan Didion, and David Rakoff in college. I went head-to-head with writers like Nick Hornby and Chuck Klosterman in my obsession with pop culture analysis. I commiserated and laughed with David Sedaris over our crazy families. Through writers like Jennifer Finney Boylan, Leslie Feinberg, Mary Karr, and Joyce Johnson I formed my ideas of feminism and civil rights and shared in their experiences even though their lives couldn't have been farther from my own.

I expect a lot from memoir writing and essays, which I think is why I haven't found anything I'm head-over-heels in love with yet. I'm looking, always looking, but it's hard. I need to be inspired, awestruck, unable to put down the book even after I finish it.

Reactions like that are harder to come by these days. I'm no longer the idealistic youth I was when I first discovered creative nonfiction, but I am still a romantic at heart. The difference now is that I'm a tougher reader, a stronger editor, and even if a story gives me that jaw-dropping reaction, I'm forced to look at it from a business angle. Can I sell this? Is there a place for it in the current market? Do I know the right editors to send this to? The same questions that go into whether I offer representation on a fiction project go into nonfiction projects. But, there's an added question when it comes to nonfiction. Even though memoir writing is pitched to agents the same as a novel would be (see Janet Reid's post linked above), the word "platform" looms over even the most literary and story-focused nonfiction writer.

As an agent, I end up rejecting queries from writers who have bravely shared their stories of abuse, drug addiction, war, divorce, cancer/fatal diseases, kidnapping, and almost every other painful or difficult thing you can think of. Because the thing is, these things are horrible, but they are also, unfortunately, common. There is a fine line between "relatable" and "boring." Agents and publishers need to see your story on a national scale, and while things seem unique and important to the writer, their stories don't always translate to a bigger picture.

That's where platform comes back in. It's an awful feeling to have to say to a writer "your story is beautiful, but not enough people will care." (OK, not that I've ever said that to a writer, but that is what it comes down to.) People care about celebrities because they think they know who they are and want to relate to them. The difference between Michael Douglas' cancer and your cancer is huge, I'm sorry to say.

I'm a big proponent of writing as a form of therapy. Treat your story like you are going to share it with the world. Get everything down on paper and then edit, edit, edit. Even if no one else ever reads it, EDIT. If someone outside of your family won't understand something, cut it. If your emotions are still too strong to view a situation objectively, cut it. I've done this with my own experiences and it really does help. Sometimes we just need to get things down on paper so it escapes our minds. That doesn't mean we need to publish it.

It's obvious why people write memoirs. Sometimes it's the only thing they can do. But, unless you are a celebrity or published author, ask yourself the following questions before you try to publish your memoir:

1. Can someone else write this story?
It's true, everyone handles situations differently and learns different lessons. That is not what we mean when we ask whether your story is unique. As I mentioned above, most people have gone through what you've gone through. Unless you are the only person who can write about that topic, your memoir will probably get overlooked by agents and publishers. Excellent writing can often change our minds, but you should know going in that even if you have an MFA from a top program and have crafted your memoir flawlessly, it will be tough.

2. Why does this need to be published?
Most people write memoirs because they think others can learn from their personal experiences. This can be true, but that's not a motive that interests me. I want to be told a great story, whether it's your memoir or a novel. If you set out to inspire people or teach a lesson, make sure you're not writing a self-help book instead of a memoir. Creative nonfiction means you employ the same techniques as novel writing, except the ideas come from real life instead of your imagination. The ability to tell a story and develop a character needs to be there in order for your memoir to get published.

3. Will this be more effective as a novel?
I give this advice to debut memoir writers a lot. If the story is interesting, but not particularly unique or exciting, I wonder why it's so important to the writer to publish it as nonfiction. Fictionalizing real life can be just as therapeutic and it allows for creative freedom to build an even more interesting story for your reader. The heart of your story remains, but you'll be free of platform-building. Not only that, your readers won't expect as much from you. Reading a memoir creates an intimacy with the author, but if that author is just some stranger off the street, sometimes readers are left wondering, "yeah but so what?" A novel, on the other hand, transports the reader into a fictional world that's far less demanding and just as real.

I tend to think of personal essay collections the same way I think of memoir, but I admit they are a slightly different breed. For one, you'd need to have a few pieces already published in some higher profile magazines or keep a regular blog that has a substantial following. Essays also, when done well, offer cultural or political analysis through a personal narrative, which is hard to convince readers of if you're not at least mildly known.

I'm rooting for you, creative nonfiction writers. Just be prepared for how much harder it can be to break into nonfiction as an unknown author - even harder than fiction, and those writers can tell you just how hard that world is to navigate. Readers love true stories and feeling like they aren't alone in the world, but more goes into memoir writing than being a regular person. Make sure you're trying to publish for the right reasons, and if your story is as funny, sad, wonderful, and inspiring to us as it is to you, we'll fight for it.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Six Days of Absolute Heck

Happy Wednesday, friends. Today I'm sharing an intriguing little piece from former journalist, Michael Seese. Michael has written a collection of ghost stories, Haunting Valley, as well as two non-fiction books Scrappy Business Contingency Planning and Scrappy Information Security. He invites you to "laugh with him or at him" at his blog after you read the short piece he's sharing with us today, Six Days of Absolute Heck. Enjoy!

Six Days Of Absolute Heck
By Michael Seese

I was hung over. Hell, I might have still been drunk. That rum sure packed a punch. Or maybe it was the punch, packed with rum. Maybe that’s where the term “punch-drunk” comes from. Maybe I shouldn’t be so focused on etymology or what caused my current state, but rather the current state itself. What exactly was I doing wearing a nun’s habit and a gun belt, strapped to the hood of an Isuzu Trooper doing 100 miles per hour over the I-480 bridge?

Not again, I thought.

Actually, it wasn’t a thought. I said it out loud, though “out loud” is relative when strapped to the hood of an Isuzu Trooper doing...well, I already covered that.

I knew the “why” and I knew the “who.” What I wanted to know were the “what the f-” and the “where.” To the zoo? No, they already did that...was it Monday? This past week had been one long, trying, hazy blur.

Yes, Monday was the zoo. They gave me a friar’s cut and locked me inside of the primate house. Unfortunately, it wasn’t my head which got “the treatment.” It was...um...the other end. And it wasn’t a cut. It was a Brazilian wax. Ouch-ie! I am so not looking forward to that hair growing back in. The baboons didn’t find it funny in the least.

Tuesday was karaoke night at the Ugly Broad Saloon. I had to sing Britney Spears’s “...Baby One More Time.” Worse, I had to wear the outfit she wore in the video: the grey sweater-ette, the midriff-baring white oxford shirt, the plaid miniskirt, and the grey hose. Thank goodness I didn't have to do any corresponding costume changes; I had no idea where to find a pink jog bra. And as if all of that were not bad enough, I had to mimic her dance moves perfectly, or oops!…do it again. It took me three tries to get it right.

Wednesday, I had to sit in a confessional booth, and just moan. With a German accent. For five minutes. They timed me.

Thursday? Oh yeah, on Thursday I had to don full monk’s garb--but with pink pumps instead of sandals--and stand on Public Square wearing a sandwich board that read “Repent! The End Is Near!” on one side and “Kick Me!” on the other. Every 15 minutes I had to cast it aside, yell “flash mob!” and try to convince everyone around me to line-dance. And, boy, did that flannel robe really itch, especially in the certain area that was still recovering from Monday.

But I think Friday was the worst. I spent the night in a movie theater passing a collection plate back and forth across the aisles. Had it been the local Cineplex, it wouldn’t have been so bad. But it wasn’t. Naturally, it was a theater where they show blue movies. I don’t even want to think about what the hands that put the money into the plate had been touching before they went fishing for their change. I did manage to collect $4.52, plus 26 tokens which (I later learned) are for the private viewing booths. I sure hope I can use them at the batting cages or Chuck E. Cheese. I don’t want to have to come back here to spend them, since spending them is one of the requirements.

So what will my next “adventure” be? I have no idea. I can only pray that it won’t permanently scar me. Thank goodness this is the last day. I hate “Heck Week.” Let me tell you, the seniors in seminary school can be real assholes.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Wolf Drawing

Up for a Southern Gothic fairytale retelling today? Of course you are! Today's story is the first chapter of a novel titled Wolf Drawing by North Carolina writer Wendy Wilson O'Connell. In addition to Wolf Drawing, Wendy has finished another YA called The Silver Panther Chronicles and is currently working on a memoir titled The Love Song of a Homeless Man.

Wolf Drawing
By Wendy Wilson O'Connell

Mama has to draw. I begged her not to go tonight. My face still stings from where she slapped me. She left a mark as bright as my name – Red. Her shit brown eyes glared defiance at me leaving the stench of her ignorant pride up my nose. I shouldn’t worry. She has more of a chance this year not to draw the paper with the wolf symbol. There are twenty more names in the drawing because of the high school graduates just turning eighteen. Next year, I’ll be eighteen and I dare this town ask me to go. I double dare them to lead me to the edge of those woods.

That wolf should be coming after me, not Mama. She’s all I’ve got, and being alone is the only thing I’m afraid of. I shouldn’t be here, but when have I ever done anything I’m supposed to do? My body presses further into the tree behind me. The night air is supposed to numb me to what’s going on in that big white Plantation house on the hill, but it doesn’t.

My awareness has made me warm. You could even say it has made me wolf-like. It will soon enough. It’s dark, and the full moon passes behind the roof. Its six large windows on both floors make it look like a real mansion, but close up you can see the paint peeling, just like this town and all of its traditions built out of fear and superstition. The woods stay behind me, funny how I feel safer out here with a possible wolf than inside with them. A single flickering candle blurs my view of Mama and the other people in the room.

The need to find her causes my hands to shake. I go to run them through my hair and remember I chopped that mess off the other week, dyed it carrot-top red, needed a change and to be stronger. I’ll need that if Mama draws the wolf paper. They’ll take her to the town diner for a last meal and, then to the woods where the kids will line up and watch as she’s led into the darkness. Sweat trickles down the back of my neck. She’s all I’ve got. It’s so cold out. How can I be warm, but I know why.

There must be over two hundred people gathered in that one room, but the shadows remain still against the candlelight. Finally, Mae Fleetwood glides to the center of the room. Even from the distance, from where I stand, I know it’s her. She was my grandmother’s best friend. For many years we had teatime with her on Wednesday afternoons. Her shape is forever memorized in my mind. She’s paper-thin and bent like a parsnip and she gestures with her right hand. Her mouth barely moves no matter what she pronounces. She’s old, and hard to understand and on top of that she drinks, but not tonight. She’ll stay sober in case her name is drawn. Of course, they all stay away from booze until they know whether or not their names get pulled.

Mae adjusts a pair of glasses on the bridge of her nose and faces the crowd of people in the room who wait for the wolf drawing speech. The speech and drawing is treated like any other order of business in town with the exception of Mae residing over it and she resides over it only because she owns the plantation home and throws one big party afterwards. She begins the speech, the one I have forever in my head. I don’t have to hear it.

“Ladies and Gentlemen of Hartsville, SC, we are gathered here together as family to protect each other and to offer up a sacrifice of one of our own. Many years ago a wolf ravaged this town. A young boy dressed in a red cloak offered himself as sacrifice and thereafter every year the sacrifice of one has been made for the lives of the many. This is written in the true original tale of Red Riding Hood. The tale no one tells you about. Now, let us bow our heads and pray for the soul chosen to meet the wolf tonight. Pray the pain is quick.”

The shadows of the men, and women go down, and then lift. Mae picks up the box, and carries it to each row where everyone has a chance to open the paper to see if the sign of the wolf is on theirs. Mama is sitting on the back row. I’m going to have to wait awhile before she gets to her. My stomach flips. Hunger and nerves are not a good combination. Usually my appetite can just about make me forget anything. A stocky man opens his paper next, Mayor Green. He doesn’t get the symbol.

He sits with his legs crossed and his hands the same way. He always rocks when he’s nervous. He’s still in motion even when finding his paper blank. I suspect his wife and son haven’t drawn yet. They are all tense now, but later they will be relieved and the sounds of their laughter will be mixed with the blood curdling screams of the poor fool whose name will be drawn. The adults will pretend they don’t hear, but the children will listen. They will be made aware, as always. Fear makes them afraid and makes them carry on the tradition.

My stomach twists in anger and hunger. Every year I come out here intending on stopping this and then I don’t. Mama reaches her hand in the box, opens it – no hesitation. Mama won’t show fear to the others. Her unshaken hand goes to the back of her neck and that’s how I know she doesn’t have it. I can breathe. She won’t meet her fate this year. Who will it be? I wait. Soon the mark is shown. My body jerks. Who? They turn the lights on and the red hooded jacket is placed on him. This is a small town. I must know him. My heart hammers. He moves awkward like he has a limp. This boy has a clubfoot and they are sending him to outrun a wolf. Isn’t there a rule about the sick and injured? Wait. I know him. He shouldn’t be here. He’s protected by the reservation. He’s not from our town.

I squeeze my eyes. He’s teaching me to fly a kite. It was a long time ago. He came to my grandfather’s funeral. He wore high waters and his clothes were wrinkled, but he had a joy like a firefly, has a light. I’m speaking of him as if he’s already gone. He’s not dead - yet. Maybe I should have found a jar for him back then. Maybe this wouldn’t happen, please not him – not Samuel.

When I open my eyes, he’s gone. They’ve taken him. My face is wet. The snow has started to fall again and the big house on the hill has turned all its lights on. The party has started. I have to stop this. The diner is within walking distance from here, and three of my friends will be there. I’ll think a little better on a full stomach – at least I won’t do anything un-heroic. I can’t, not this time, food first. Samuel, when did I stop thinking of him? Did I ever? The wind howls, urging me to run harder than ever never stopping until my heart leaps from my chest, or is ripped from it.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

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!)

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

The Hypocrite

Hi there. Want to read some flash fiction that reveals the judgmental side of human nature? Well you're in luck! The Hypocrite by Daniel Sullivan is about just that. The author, in his words, likes to experiment with different perspectives and address social issues in his work. He's currently getting ready to query a thriller, Uncommon Rebels. Check out his website or follow him on Twitter. Enjoy!

The Hypocrite 
By Daniel Sullivan 

The greatest thing about me is that I am one of those special eclectic persons who would never judge a stranger without getting to know them first. I’ve simply evolved beyond any desire to make the petty generalizations that define weaker minds. Certainly, the world would be a better place if everyone were so enlightened.

Take this lady for example. Here I am casually perusing the frozen foods aisle, ready to grab a bag of my beloved chicken tenders, when I encounter the common Grocery Store Lingerer, or GSL. Grocery Store Lingerers are individuals so obtuse to the outside world that they steal large amounts of your time by blocking off sections of popular food aisles.

This particular GSL has blocked not just one cooler door with her body, but also two additional cooler doors with her cart. She is having some serious difficulty picking out—looks like a bag of frozen peas or mixed veggies. I stand watching her as the seconds turn to minutes. Other shoppers notice my plight and give sympathetic nods. On several occasions, the GSL moves toward her cart as though making her final choice. In the cart goes a bag of peas. Then back out. And in goes a different bag of peas. Then back into the cooler. Sure, I could politely let this GSL know I’m waiting, but who am I to ruin her blissful existence.

You see, she’s the type of person oblivious to all things. She’s the same person who almost crashes into your car and doesn't notice, even after you blare your horn and flip her off. She's married to Bobby or Bill or Darrel. He cheats on her, but she refuses to open her eyes. Her teenage son Mikey shoots heroin in his room, yet she thinks he just likes to sleep. Her daughter, Cheree, a starter on the high school girls’ basketball team, is having an affair with the forty-eight year old coach. And this lady, surrounded by chaos, cheerily skates through life on a thin sheet of ice above a lake filled with monsters.

I bet she wasn't always a GSL. I bet she knew what it was like to live once. Then she fell in love with the false pleasures of society’s ideal life. Her plastic-covered dining room chairs, in a house filled with Tupperware and glass furniture, are trophies testifying to her perfect world. Yet happiness escapes her. Like most GSLs, hers is a life wrought with imaginary problems, like buying the wrong peas.

Meanwhile, her real problems lurk merely a breath away. The psychopath in me wants to plunge her into the pain beneath the surface of the cracking ice. Better, if this GSL slips just right … and flings her arms into the air ... and the strap of her purse gets caught on the edge of the cooler door ... and the purse strap accidentally entangles around her neck as she falls … she’ll hang herself in one eyes bulging moment of glory—a few frightful seconds of finding truth in death. At her funeral visitation, patrons will place bags of frozen vegetables and peas in her coffin as obviously they have great meaning in her life.

Finally, her precious selection complete, she scurries around the corner, never noticing her shortsightedness, or me. And I think, mmm … chicken tenders. I should probably get some ranch dressing too.