How original is that dystopia?

As I’ve mentioned before, I enjoy a good piece of dystopian fiction. At its best, it challenges people to think about the future and what they think humanity’s biggest priorities will be one hundred, five hundred, or a thousand years from now. Will racism be eradicated by then? What about sexism? Will we have corrected our contributions to climate change? Will we have reached out peacefully to other life forms?


This forward-thinking citizen is already on it.

But towards the less thoughtful end of the scale, there’s a lot of stories driven mainly by emotion, not by circumstances. I’ve read story after story where the external scenario (a war, an oppressive regime, a natural disaster) consistently fades into the background, and the internal struggle (forbidden/unrequited love, family dynamics, self-discovery) takes center stage. I’m all for internal struggles. I love how they add a third dimension to a story and really make characters pop. But I’ve found those struggles most poignant and engaging when they’re a foil to whatever else is going on — not the other way around.

Earlier this quarter, I picked up a new YA dystopian novel from the library, just for something to read on the bus. On page 199, I came across this line, and I had to stop and grimace — it was such a perfect summation of so many protagonists I’ve come across:

“It’s so frustrating to have logic thrown at me now. It’s making all my plans seem so hopeless.”

That’s it, that’s the state of modern teenage female protagonists in a nutshell. Go away, Hermione Granger. Move over, Sally Lockhart. It’s time for narrators characterized mainly by high emotion and indecision.


I call this phenomenon the Rise of the Waffling Narrator, and if you’d like to turn that into a comic book, here’s your first character for free.

This latest foray into dystopias started me thinking about the patterns and tropes that many of them include. Below, I present for your amusement a metric for modern YA dystopian fiction.

Instructions: Measure the book against the following questions. For every question you answer in the affirmative, give yourself one point.

  1. Is civilization physically divided into separate groups or clans, with strict injunctions against mixing?
    BONUS POINT: Does the protagonist below to one of the lower-class groups?
    SUPER BONUS POINT: Is the protagonist initially in the lowest-class group, but then there turns out to be a hidden group that’s even lower?
  2. Is the protagonist at least half an orphan?
  3. Has the protagonist always felt different and/or misunderstood?
    BONUS POINT: Is this because the protagonist is really from another class but was swapped/smuggled in at birth?
  4. Does the protagonist eventually fall in with a different band of people?
    BONUS POINT: Is the protagonist then dazzled by the food and/or clothing they offer her?
    SUPER BONUS POINT: Is this new band kind of evil but the protagonist decides to cut them some slack based on said food/clothes?
  5. Is the Internet mysteriously missing from this civilization?
    BONUS POINT: … but does medicine border on the miraculous?

    "All right, I'm willing the tumor away now ... done. I also cleared up your gingivitis. You're good to go."

    “All right, I’m willing the tumor away now … done. I also took care of your earwax and the heartburn you were going to have tomorrow. You’re good to go.”

  6. Is access to books extremely limited?
  7. Does the protagonist encounter some long-lost technology (which is conveniently very well known to us, thus sparing the author from having to come up with something new)?
    BONUS POINT: Does this technology play a role in Saving the Day later on?
  8. Is there a Secret Rebel Alliance that has been operating behind the scenes this whole time?
    BONUS POINT: Do they, for reasons we can’t fathom based on our knowledge of the protagonist, choose to reveal themselves to the protagonist?
    SUPER BONUS POINT: Has the protagonist been The Chosen One all along, the rebel alliance’s only hope at pulling this whole rebellion thing together?
    EXTRA BONUS POINT: Is this because of the protagonist’s true parentage, which has been kept from her all along?
    WILDLY EXTRA BONUS POINT: In the end, does the rebel alliance actually turn out to be evil/infiltrated, forcing the protagonist to form a splinter group?
  9. Is there an irritatingly handsome, inexplicably single young man floating around making things difficult for the protagonist?
    BONUS POINT: Does he actually turn out to be a member of the Secret Rebel Alliance, making it A-OK for the protagonist to fall in love with him because Nobody Else Understands?

    "Can we discuss the plans now?" "Not here. The horse can read lips."

    “I’m so glad I found you — rebelling against the status quo can get lonely sometimes.”                                                                  “Ssshh, not here. I think the horse is an enemy plant.”

  10. Does the protagonist save the day by Listening to Her Heart instead of basing a plan on logic or following the advice of older, more seasoned superiors?
  11. Are there two separate moments when the protagonist realizes that Everything She Knows Is a Lie, the first good because it confirms all her suspicions of society, the second terrible because she has to go back to square one and discover what’s really going on?
    BONUS POINT: Is the irritatingly handsome young rebel a major part of this second reveal?
  12. Is the person who guides the protagonist to the truth ultimately killed?

Point guide:

0–8 points: Well done, that’s an original piece of modern YA dystopian fiction you’ve selected. (Shout it out in the comments — I’d love to hear what it is.)

9–16 points: Sounds like you’re getting to know modern YA dystopian tropes pretty well. Would you like to branch out into other plots and devices? Try Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life As We Knew It, which scared my socks off and forever changed how I feel about grocery stores.

17–25 points:  So maybe Mark Twain was right:

For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily use by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral calibre and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing.

But that shouldn’t stop you from trying to find some new material. Have you considered reading some old-school dystopias that laid the groundwork for today’s works? Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt” and “The Sound of Thunder” are classics; for something more recent, try Lois Lowry’s The Giver.

What devices are you tired of seeing in books? What device do you keep hoping a writer will use, but you haven’t seen it yet?


Photo credits: UFO parking sign from MartinStr, massage from Olof, couple and horse from gpalmisanoadm, waffle vector from Nemo on Pixabay.


The First Annual Poetry Spam

A few weeks ago, I tinkered with having a comment policy. It included this statement: “Interesting or funny spam will be preserved for posterity.”

I’m pleased to say that the spambots rose to the challenge. Here are three gems that have lately tickled my funnybone:

amazing spam

“One cannot ever go wrong with ethnic attire. […] The men are left pleased.”

Two very important priorities. Well done, spambot.

amazing spam ii

Quoting Auden? I’m impressed. Clearly this isn’t your average bot. Where do you reckon it went to college? Spamford? Spamherst?

(I’ll show myself out.)

amazing spam iii

“Cactus is not a kitchen ventilator.”

Pure gold. It’s like something I’ve heard at poetry groups, usually read aloud by someone who is either (a) still hungover from the night before and thus still half-convinced that Erato and Calliope appeared and handed down these words, or (b) slowly realizing, as he’s reading, that this did not in fact happen, and what used to sound brilliant now pales in the faces of his sardonic peers.

I’ve been there. I think we all have.

My point is, apparently we’re reaching some sort of Spam Renaissance, its quality increasing to balance out the decreasing standards of pop lyrics. If this trend continues, I predict spam in iambic pentameter within six months.

But why wait? Let’s set this ball rolling with some highbrowed spam of our own. Here’s the challenge: Look through your spam filter and pick out three juicy selections. Using only the words found in those messages, create a poem and post it in the comments below (or on your own media, with the hashtag #poetryspam). Bonus points are available for iambic pentameter.

I’ll start:

My clingy cactus cannot feel or sing;
Terrific radiation is my brand.
To run from kitchen offers is to block
An inspiration never pleased with fits.

The bar is set extremely low, my friends. It’s your turn now.

NaNoWriMo: A Summary.


“‘But I don’t want to go among mad people,’ Alice remarked.

‘Oh, you can’t help that,’ said the Cat: ‘We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.’

‘How do you know I’m mad?’ said Alice.

‘You must be,’ said the Cat, ‘otherwise you wouldn’t have come here.'”

Book Chatter: Bird by Bird

Widely regarded to be one of the best writing books out there, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life has a special role in my life.


When I first read it, I was in college, involved in a writing group. Now, there are several flavours of writing groups. Some are more about tea and chatting, and then in the last fifteen minutes they might get around to discussing their latest pieces. Others are very focused on Getting Published, and if they don’t have charts tacked to the wall detailing the progress of everyone’s query letters, it’s because their memories are doing the job perfectly well.

And then there are the groups that are all about being honest. These can be tricky. They can be super helpful. They can also completely crush your spirits and make you believe you will never write anything good again, not even a Facebook status or an inter-office memo. Probably even when you buy a new car and try to create a good license plate number, you will crash and burn because your ability to string symbols together is not to be trusted.

"Poor guy --- thought he could play Scrabble."

“Poor guy … thought he could play Scrabble.”

The trick to dealing with these groups is to choose very carefully what piece of writing you bring to them. You can’t bring something you’re too attached to, but you have to care about it enough to value the criticism you get. It’s a delicate balance.

It can also be a little tiring, and several weeks into the group, I was talking with a writing friend who wasn’t in the group. She’d heard about the dynamic and, in sympathy,  told me to read Bird by Bird. It turned out to be exactly what I needed — Lamott knows how to push her readers into writing more, writing better, but she does it so gently that it’s a delight to be challenged. She talks about perspective, about plot, about character development, about writer’s block, and all throughout the book her voice is encouraging, calm, and humorous. Wherever you are in your writing journey, whatever kind of setting you’re writing in, Bird by Bird is a resource that is well worth your time.


Photo credit: Book cover from Better World Books; fire from tpsdave on Pixabay.


Six tips for NaNoWriMo success

Two days left, folks! Who’s excited? Who’s eager to get started? Who’s wandering around their house with a glazed look in their eyes, mumbling, “What the heck have I gotten myself into?”


Thirty days of happiness and joy!

Writing every day, especially 1,667 words a day, can be tricky. I get that.

But if, despite that, NaNoWriMo is still something you’d like to do, fear not: It’s totally within your grasp.

Below I’ve collated some tips that have seen me through two NaNoWriMos and two bouts of Camp NaNoWriMo. Seasoned WriMos, please feel free to pile on with your own advice. Let’s get our new colleagues abundantly provisioned on the trail to success.

"We do not need to stop for directions, Edith."

“We do not need to stop for directions, Edith.”

1) Make the commitment.

Tell people. Tell your friends and family. Tell your work colleagues. If you know people are likely to ask you about your novel periodically, you’re much more likely to stay on track with writing it.

Something else that might help you focus is writing your own Ten NaNoWriMo Commandments. When I did this my first year as a WriMo, the list included predictable items like “Thou shalt not prioritize TV over writing,” but also a few like “Thou shalt not prioritize writing over exercising or talking with family.” It’s all about balance.

Speaking of which …

2) Make writing a natural part of your balanced life.

If you usually watch an episode of Scandal or Bones in the evening, consider replacing that with writing 1,667 words, and an episode of a YouTube-based series if you have a few minutes left over at the end. If you usually listen to an audiobook while jogging, turn it off and spend your run mapping out the day’s scenes. If you usually spend your bus commute tapping away at Candy Crush or a sudoku, pull up your NaNovel and write instead. You don’t have to write your daily words all at once. It can be a paragraph here and there throughout the day — whatever works best for you and the time you have available.

Even the Weeping Angels couldn't stop this WriMo. What's your excuse?

Even a Weeping Angel can prioritize NaNoWriMo. What’s your excuse?

3) Don’t do it alone.

If your RL (Regional Liaison) is planning write-ins, word wars, or other general merriment close to you, consider joining in. Or find a few other WriMos from your social circle and agree that you’ll periodically check in on each other to cheer and console.

Also, online friends shouldn’t be underestimated. On the NaNoWriMo site, surf your Regional Lounge, Genre Lounge, Age Group, or the All-Ages Coffeehouse to find a core group of great people to commiserate and celebrate with. Post questions on the Reference Desk forum, and answer ones that ask for your expertise. There’s a beautiful, thriving community over there — don’t miss out.

4) Format can make a difference.

The NaNoWriMo site routinely promotes special “novel-writing software”. If that’s your jam, go for it. For my first NaNovel, I found it helpful to format a Word document like a book — landscape-oriented, with two columns per page, generous margins, page breaks for new chapters, and dropped capitals (Word tutorial here). It helped me feel like I really was writing something serious. It also made the pages zip by. If you’ll be writing on the go, consider using a Google doc so you can access it from any computer. Play around and talk with people until you find a method that works for you. (Again, the NaNoWriMo forums can be helpful for exploring options.)


Or you can try to replicate Shelley Jackson’s Ineradicable Stain project. (Good luck.)

5) Reward yourself for meeting wordcount goals.

When I first did NaNoWriMo, I stocked up on chocolate eyeballs, in-shell peanuts, and Polish graham crackers — but I couldn’t eat any of it until I’d written my words for the day. You could also try setting bigger goals. Maybe if you validate your wordcount by November 30, you can spring for a professional manicure. (If you’re on a budget, stay home and give yourself this nifty literary manicure.)

6) Have fun!

This is your novel. Nobody’s looking over your shoulder and pointing out what you’re doing wrong. If you get bored with your historical novel halfway through and need to throw in a talking yak, have at it. If your two leads need to spend five pages arguing the finer points of grammar, let them. (And if you need to inventory a wardrobe or write out a character’s lengthy grocery list to meet your daily goal, have no shame — we’ve all been there.)

Are you doing NaNoWriMo this year? What are your plans for success?


Comment policy: I heart feedback! Just please make your comments and links relevant to the post. Comments judged to be run-of-the-mill spam or generic web traffic solicitations (e.g., “Please follow me!” or “Read my blog!”) will be deleted. Interesting or funny spam will be preserved for posterity. Like my attitude toward beets, this policy may change at any time.


Photo credits: Rock climber and hikers from aatlas, angel from scrapbookingfanatic, tattoo artist from niekverlaan on Pixabay.

Diverse literature: How can we read authentically?


Two summers ago, I discovered a new writer: Shappi Khorsandi, the Iranian-born author of the hilarious memoir A Beginner’s Guide to Acting English. I was pretty proud that I was reading someone not many people had heard of. I was even more proud that she was Iranian, in the same way that a seasoned traveler is proud to “discover” Doha or the Caucasus.

I quickly realized my folly and resolved to enjoy Khorsandi’s writing purely on its own merit, not for any adventurousness it might represent on my part, but I didn’t realize the full danger of that mindset until quite recently. This year, a book club at my school is taking part in the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement, celebrating a broader spectrum of voices. In the process, I discovered Jabeen Akhtar’s splendidly candid essay “Why Am I Brown? South Asian Fiction and Pandering to Western Audiences”, from the Los Angeles Review of Books. It summarized a lot of assumptions I’ve made about diverse literature, and it gave me a lot of good things to think over — not just in my reading choices, but also in how I write diverse characters.

In response, Aarti from Book Lust wrote a reflection on how we can “read diversely AND authentically”, exploring new sources and realms of fiction while demanding a broader range of international viewpoints from American publishers. If you get a chance, look over one or both of these essays — they’re well written and worth your time. And if you’re looking for your next good read, I can definitely recommend Khorsandi.


Photo credit: jingobah on Pixabay.

WriMos, start your engines.


Again with a Poland story! I must be feeling nostalgic.

It was late October 2010, and I’d been in Poland for about a month and a half. I was learning a few new words every day, assiduously mapping out my lessons, and steadfastly ignoring how I felt about any of this.

Within a week of arriving, you see, I had realized something key: The Sonya who had landed in Poland was exactly the same Sonya who had boarded in the U.S., only a little hungrier, a little smellier, and a lot more tired. I hadn’t magically gained the ability to converse fluidly with strangers, or lead a group with confidence, or unequivocally love the company of children. I like kids. I respect them as the future of society, and I appreciate any initiative that tries to give them a good start in life. But it takes a special kind of person to work effectively with them, and as I greeted each new day in Poland, I was increasingly sure that I did not possess that particular superpower.

I know this face well.

I know this face well.

So after a month and a half of feeling like I was falling down a well, I realized I needed a parallel task, to reassure myself that there was something on this planet that I could accomplish. I opened up the document containing my bucket list and surveyed the items. “Ride in a hot-air balloon” — probably not an option here. “Go vegan for six months” — possible, but not very spirit-lifting. “Participate in National Novel Writing Month” — definitely not possible. I couldn’t take the time to write 50,000 words in a month. I had a job. I had Polish to study and people to meet. And besides, it was late October. If NaNoWriMo was a November thing like I thought, there was no way I could think up a novel-length idea in time.

I pulled up the NaNoWriMo website to confirm the timing. Yes, it was scheduled for November, about a week away. And it wasn’t just a self-regulated, work-on-your-own thing … you could fill out a profile, and accumulate writing buddies, and enter your word total each day, and ask for advice on the forums …

"You will ask strangers to tell you about life on a dairy farm. You will wait eagerly for their response."

“You will ask strangers to tell you about life on a dairy farm. You will wait eagerly for their responses.”

So sue me, I signed up. (Show me a blank online profile, and I’ll fall over myself to fill it out.) And in the end, I did manage to find an idea that sustained me to 50,000 words with a minimum of plot bunnies. I also had a lot of fun getting there. But even more than that, I found focus and purpose. No longer was I plodding through each day, glancing at the clock every ten minutes. Now my classes seemed to zip by, powered by my knowledge that when I went home for the evening, I could rejuvenate with a cup of tea and 1,667 words.

There’s a lot of debate over the value of NaNoWriMo. I examined it a little myself when I finished Camp NaNoWriMo this year. But for me, it will always have a special place in my heart as something that saved me during an unpleasant period in my life.

NaNoWriMo: The protective dolphin to teaching's sharks.

NaNoWriMo: The protective dolphin for a new teacher’s sharks.

If I make it to 50,000 words this year, it will be my third win. If I don’t, it will be my third unsuccessful attempt. Either way, I’m planning on having fun. Right now, for example, I’m having a blast developing the characters and puzzling out the plot (… between a full-time class load and three jobs. Gosh. November should be interesting.). I’ve discovered that the best way to do this is to compile everything — all the plot brainstorming, all the setting development, all the town maps and social hierarchies and character rosters — in a Google Docs folder, so I can work on it from any computer.

A big part of this folder is character development stuff. I used to have a terrible time with this — my characters all felt like carbon copies of each other. Then I started sitting down with each of them in my head and asking them personal questions. Below is what I’ve asked my characters this year. If you’re a fellow 2014 WriMo, please feel free to use it — and if you’re found additional questions helpful, I’d love to hear about them.

His/her name

Physical description:
Fashion style:
Personality synopsis:
Room decorations:
Favorite social media site:
Celebrity crushes:
Religious beliefs:
General strengths:
General weaknesses:
Relationship status:
Educational background:
Strengths in this setting:
Dream job:
If not in this setting, s/he would be:
What s/he wants:
What s/he will fight for:


Photo credits: Bored student by PublicDomainPictures, pocket watch from BenjaminNelan, and shark from Taken on Pixabay.

Moffat Syndrome (or, The Case of the Female Puzzles)

Some disclaimers before we begin:

  1. As I’ve said before, I’m a big fan of John Green’s work — on the page, on YouTube, and in the world. I trust him to think critically and empathetically, and I’ll eagerly read whatever he writes next.
  2. I stopped watching Doctor Who after the 50th Anniversary Special. For all I know, that might have been the point at which Steven Moffat started cranking out female characters who did not fit the description below. Please feel free to inform me thusly.
  3. Here be spoilers.

Okay! Let’s get started.


So I just finished John Green’s novel Paper Towns, and I have to say it was excellent. The opening prank series was so riveting it sustained me through the comparatively low-key middle, all the way to the profoundly hilarious road trip at the end. John Green will never cease to amaze me with the way he develops his characters deeply and with great sympathy. I can see why he’s so popular with young adults — he takes their problems seriously. He knows it’s no joke being a teenager. He remembers how frustrating it was to be in a place where everyone is telling you to take more responsibility, but they won’t take you seriously when you try.


Also, between Paper Towns and Looking for Alaska, I’m beginning to take him seriously as a prankster. You can’t be that inventive without having some major practical experience.

But there was something in Paper Towns that made me stop and say, “Huh … interesting.” It came to me when I started thinking about how Paper Towns would be adapted as a movie (which it is, due out on June 15, 2015, and starring Nat Wolff and Cara Delevingne). I’m sure it’s going to be great. The road trip sequence alone will be worth the wait.

(Have I mentioned I’m a fan of the road trip sequence? It’s true.)

However, let’s stop and think: Throughout the book, Quentin’s focus is on Margo. She’s the reason he’s doing all this research. Is she an antagonist? an antihero? a catalyst? That’s up for debate, but she’s certainly central.

But how much does she actually show up? If the movie were filmed in strict chronological sequence, where would the parts with Margo be?

There’d be a big chunk at the beginning, with the eleven-part prank.

Then there’d be a little bit at the end, in the barn.

And that’s it. Margo is gone for most of the story. Her absence is what makes the story tick.

A map and a watch together? To discuss Paper Towns? Thank you very much. I'll be here all week.

Literal ticking + a map that might contain paper towns = thank you, Nebraska, you’ve been a wonderful audience.

This piqued my interest because it reminded me of another John Green book — his first, Looking for Alaska. It too has a central female character (Alaska). It too has a male narrator who is entranced by the central female and spends the book trying to figure out something about her. Perhaps most relevantly, it too revolves not around the female character’s presence, but around her absence.

Now, to an extent, we’re lucky: John Green’s female characters are still characters in their own right. They have personalities and preferences and quirks. We know them like we know our friends.

But even within this personhood, Margo and Alaska still function partly as puzzles to be figured out, questions to be answered, anomalies to be understood. In their respective stories, this function makes sense — the girls embody the protagonists’ doubts and misunderstandings. They’re the yogis sitting on the mountaintop, waiting for the protagonists to figure out how to reach them so they can reveal something crucial to the protagonists’ growth.

"Sunscreen. That was that last item."

“I just know I forgot something … oh right, sunscreen.”

I won’t say I love this use of any character, female or otherwise. (EDIT: I should add that at the end of Paper Towns, Margo confronts Quentin about using her as this character. He’s relied too much on his idea of what she is, rather than trying to understand her true nature. “People love the idea of a paper girl,” she says. “They always have. […] It’s kind of great, being an idea that everyone likes. But I could never be the idea to myself, not all the way.”)

At least Margo and Alaska only have secrets. They aren’t wholly required to be secrets.

To see what I mean, let’s look at some of Steven Moffat’s major female characters.

There’s Amy Pond. Who is she? Well, she was seven years old a minute ago, and now she’s all grown up. Why is that? Oh, now she appears to be made of plastic — why? Where did her human body go? Let’s spend a few episodes chasing down those answers. No, don’t worry about how she’s coping after waking up alone and in labor in an alien prison, only to be forcibly sterilized after her baby is stolen — lots to do, Hitler to kill, come on, get with the program.

There’s River Song. Who is she personally? Well, she appears to know the Doctor very well, even though he’s never met her. Why is that? Let’s develop that plot point for a season or two.

And how about Clara Oswald? What is she like as a person? Well, she keeps showing up in the Doctor’s travels. That’s an interesting attribute. We should find out why.

All of these characters are exhaustingly backstoried, while still managing to be personally bland. Even the most nuanced of Moffat’s female creations, Mary Watson, still comes with a heck of a lot of mysterious baggage. The takeaway point for these characters seems to be that women are never what they appear to be — they’re always the figurehead of some kind of plot, and they should be researched and sorted out accordingly.

And listen, I get that women can be enigmatic. I understand that we can be weirdly mercurial. I myself had this thought just the other day: “Ugh, humans can be so stupid sometimes. Ooh, he’s cute. Is that cake?”


Humans might have had some stupid ideas over the years. Cake was definitely not one of them.

But the real world is made up of us real women, who are so much more than puzzles. Yes, we should present legitimate questions and mysteries to be solved. Yes, we should serve as catalysts in some situations. Yes, we’re sometimes at the forefront of conspiracies.* But in all cases, we definitely still have personalities and needs of our own.

I’m all for the embodiment of problems and doubts in whatever characters the writer sees fit. I’m certainly not campaigning for every protagonist to be female. But if we’re expected to trust or like or invest our time in any of these major characters, they need — like Margo and Alaska — to be more than mysteries. Whatever their gender, whatever their role in the story, at the end of the day, they all need to be human beings.**


*For example, I’m currently re-engineering the world’s lawn sprinklers to shoot out rainbow sprinkles instead of water. Don’t tell anyone.

**Unless they’re Silurian, Sontaran, Solonian, Saturnynian, or otherwise non-human. Then they’re free to be that.


Sources: The “women-as-puzzle” term comes from this article. This article describes the biggest reason why I gave up on the Eleventh Doctor. And for the Moffat fans, here’s a defense that gave me some good things to munch on.


Photo credits: Puzzle from libni, flamingo prank from tpsdave, map and watch from schaeffler, yoga pose from cheifyc, and cake from la-fontaine on Pixabay.

Seven dystopian pet peeves

For several years of my youth, the YA section of my public library seemed to purchase new books in only three genres: manga, high school romances, and dystopias. Since I find manga drawings hard to focus on, and most high school romances make my eyes roll of their own volition, I read quite a lot of dystopias during that time.

"Would Madam like the salad or the salad? It is completely Madam's choice."

“Would Madam like the salad or the salad? It is completely Madam’s choice.”

Despite this lack of variety, I still respect the genre — it’s kind of neat to see ten people sit down, consider the question “Where is the world going?”, and come up with ten completely different answers, from zombies to superviruses to satellite-based mind control.

I still think we should seriously consider the possibility that the future global economy will be pastry-based.

Not all answers are created equal, though. Below are seven things I would dearly like to say to future dystopian novelists — actually, all future novelists, come to think of it. I’ll draw in non-dystopian examples to make it more broadly applicable.

1. Go easy on the names … Yes, baby names have trends just like everything else. Yes, by the time the Great Soy War rolls around, we won’t still be called Emma and Olivia and Jacob. But your audience lives in the here and now, so consider treating unusual usage of punctuation and capitalization the same way you treat accessories: Put on all you want, then remove fifty percent before going public. You might fall in love with the name Tar’Yni!Aquj, but every time your readers see it, they’re going to stop and think, How on earth is that pronounced? Don’t do that to your readers. They have hard enough lives as it is. (Alternatively, if you do use an unusual name, try making it the only unusual name in the story, and apply it to an unusual character for dramatic effect. Or make it so outlandish that it pokes fun at an otherwise serious character.)

       Where this was done well: Tanith Lee’s The Claidi Journals, where the characters’ names are exotic and memorable, but still pronounceable.

2. … but not too easy. If you’re a new author, chances are you’re not going to have enough influence with your readers that you can make them shiver just by capitalizing a noun. Are you sending your protagonists to an uber-creepy cave where their fates are going to be decided? Don’t call it the Cave. Sending your intrepid band on a perilous mountain trail? Don’t call it the Trail. Your imagination is better than that. Borrow from other languages if need be — try calling it “the Cave” or “the Trail” in Manx or Yoruba or Tocharian B.

       Where this was done well: Look to the classics: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Once you’ve read them, I dare you to read the words “Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning”, “Ministry of Love”, or “Unwoman” without shivering at least a little.

“We do not merely destroy our enemies; we change them.”

3. Don’t forget about the characters … Yes, the world might be irrevocably different in your story. People could be living alongside beings from other worlds, eating synthesized goo and taking pills instead of sleeping.

Incidentally, one of the most traumatic events of my childhood was the time I read a Garfield comic where Garfield dreams about being transported to the future and lasagna is extinct.

Incidentally, one of the most traumatic events of my childhood was the time I read the installment of Garfield where he dreams about being transported to the future and lasagna is extinct. It’s just gone. Everyone takes pills instead of eating food. That was the moment I stopped trusting science to work unilaterally for the good of humanity.

But unless you’ve deliberately created a strain of unemotional humans (or put normal humans through some serious trauma), your human characters will most likely still have needs and reactions and emotional depths just like people do today. That’s what makes them relatable. You can’t kill off your main character’s family and have her just walk away saying, “Well, that’s war.” Humans don’t work like that.

       Where this was done well: Throughout the Hunger Games series, Suzanne Collins didn’t shy away from describing the emotional damage that the Games inflicts on its victors. She made it very clear that winning the Games wasn’t the fairy-tale ending the Capital marketed it as. The ending of Mockingjay hammered this truth home: Being involved in a high level of violence leaves indelible marks on one’s psyche.

4. … but don’t forget about your audience’s emotional attention span. While emotional and psychological reality are important, they should drive the plot, not be the plot. I once read a series in which the main plot was a love triangle between the female protagonist; a wealthy, kind, gorgeous guy; and a poor, selfish, rude guy. This “tension” played out for well over two books. It was the literary equivalent of an eye exam: you think everything’s obvious, and the guy in charge keeps changing one tiny detail of the situation and saying, “What do you think now? Come on, react.” Meanwhile, you want to beat him over the head and say, “Arrghh! Nothing is happening! Your tiny excuses for action are not changing my mind in any way!” In short: Love triangles are fine. Romantic tension is fine. Just consider making it a secondary or tertiary plot. You know, like love in the face of interplanetary war.

       Where this was done well: In Philip Pullman’s The Tiger in the Well, Sally’s love for her daughter drives the action and raises the stakes sky-high, but Pullman is always careful not to get melodramatic about describing it. He doesn’t need to — he counts on readers to know about that kind of love in their own lives, and he weaves that motivation seamlessly and consistently into Sally’s every move. Similarly, Pullman describes Sally and Daniel’s connection sparingly, but it’s all the more beautiful for that sparsity. We know the feelings are there, and we can see how they inform the action, but they never put the brakes on the main story.

“I know you’re trying to solve this mystery, but I really think we should pause for some superfluous canoodling,” said no good sidekick ever.

5. Overused trope #1: “The protagonist eventually realizes that the rebel alliance isn’t so great after all. The protagonist then starts thinking about a way to counter or undermine this.” We get it. It happens a lot. Please don’t make it the Big Reveal of your story.

       Where this was done well: Margaret Peterson Haddix provides a fresh, memorable spin on this trope in Running Out of Time.

6. Overused trope #2: “The protagonist becomes the best hope of the rebel alliance — much to his/her surprise, as he/she had previously considered him- or herself a simple shepherd/apprentice/dishwasher.” The Unwilling Hero(ine) is one of the oldest tricks in the book, so you might consider putting a new spin on it rather than using it as a convenient crutch. Also, please don’t use this as the Big Reveal either. The enemy is hunting for a prophesied leader of the rebel alliance? Who on earth could it be? Surely not the lowly servant boy who cleans the pool! The advisors are in a dither! Nobody knows for sure! … except the audience, who is rolling their eyes in unison, having guessed it three books ago.

       Where this was done well: Star Wars.

That awkward moment when you meet the hope of the alliance ... and he's still figuring out what toes are.

On a side note, I’d like to read a dystopian novel where the rebel alliance finds the prophesied leader … and he’s still figuring out what toes are.

7. Don’t forget about the details. We get it: your dystopian world is sparse and bleak, inhabited only by intrepid humans, cockroaches, and sentient Twinkies. (Incidentally, who’s up for forming a band called the Sentient Twinkies?) But there’s still room for some details in there, and that’s going to make your story vivid and unforgettable.

       Where this was done well: Did Foaly’s tin-foil hat dramatically affect the plot of Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series? How about the tech specs of the Hummingbird Z7s? No. But it’s those quirky little items that suck in an audience and make them want to come back. Also, anywhere the author used a rich tapestry of details to hide one or two incredible important things. (For example, did you remember Ravenclaw’s diadem from book 6? I sure didn’t.)

In conclusion: I love the questions that dystopian fiction raises, as well as the scope for imagination and creativity that it affords. In a market filled with dystopian fiction, it can be hard to write something fresh and engaging … but it’s still possible, and when done right, it’s absolutely worth the effort.

What tropes did I leave out? Is there a dystopian plot or detail you’d love to see in a bookstore near you?

[UPDATE, 12/11/14: The dystopian discussion continues here!]

Photo credits: Salads from PublicDomainPictures, cream puffs from la-fontaine, squirrel from shondarandolph060, lasagna from johanndoringer, road from Antranias, and baby from PublicDomainPictures on Pixabay.

Book Chatter: If I Stay

Okay. This is going to be a first in the history of IWtSLtY: a book review that isn’t overwhelmingly positive.

It’s true. Stay with me.

"Clear blue ocean ... clear blue ocean ..."

“Clear blue ocean … clear blue ocean …”

I picked up Gayle Forman’s If I Stay with great excitement, given that it’s cornered a high number of glowing reviews from eminent sources. When I read that the protagonist, Mia, was a cellist, I was even more excited. I’m a cellist myself, and I don’t see a lot of my fellow players in mainstream media. There’s The Soloist, and A Song From the Heart, and … yeah, that’s about it.

Here’s what I liked about the book:

  • The plot is engaging. Mia and her family are in a car accident; she is left in an intermediate state to choose whether she wants to live or die. As she reflects on her life and tries to decide, she touches on a lot of good discussion points about the power of choice, the purpose of living, the importance of identity, true selflessness, and what it means to live well.
  • Mia’s family is so lovable and relatable — I fell in love with them more and more as the story went on. (If you’ve read the book, you’ll understand why this was a frustrating development.)
  • It was a nice touch for Mia to be a classical musician in the context of her family and boyfriend being hard-core rock enthusiasts. It could easily have been a cheesy Romeo-and-Juliet story, where their differences threaten to come between them, but Forman spun the story in a lovely, organic way that made those differences funny and down-to-earth.
  • Forman describes the family and boyfriend’s rock knowledge in a way that makes it clear that she shares this interest. She knows a lot about the rock scene, and her knowledge and enthusiasm shine through and make her writing vivid and engaging.

To summarize: There was a lot I liked about If I Stay, and I can see why so many people love it. Go, Gayle!

Here’s where I put on my Hat of Pretension and get nitpicky.

Available by searching "Kermit Tyrolean headgear".

Available by searching “Kermit Tyrolean headgear”.

As I mentioned, I’m a cellist. I started when I was 8; I went to cello camp during the summer; I played in orchestras from age 10 to 22. I will even admit that for a brief time, I played with a string quartet called Bach ‘n’ Rock.

(We played considerably more Bach than rock. Shocking, I know.)

So when I read this sentence on page 6 of If I Stay, spoken by the serious cellist Mia, my eyebrows went up:

“I’m also supposed to rehearse with some pianist from the college that Professor Christie dug up.”

This remark was a bit jarring. It’s the voice of a teenager who is bored with this whole classical music thing, not the expression of someone who has just auditioned for a place at Juilliard. Rule #1 in the world of cello recitals (and, I suspect, throughout the soloing world at large) is this: Your accompanist can break you so easily. You do not dismiss him or her as just another body onstage. You take each prospective accompanist seriously as you try to find a good fit, and when you do find the right one, you respect him or her as an artist in his or her own right and work tirelessly until both of you can bring the music to life as a seamless team.

But OK, maybe Mia was just tired when she said that. Or maybe she was being flippant as a joke. It’s just one remark. Let’s move on with the story.

Car accident … ambulance … ack, things are getting tense. What’s going to happen next?

Flashback to when Mia first saw a cello at school, at age 8:

“It was a fluke that they even had a cello; they’re very expensive and fragile. But some old literature professor from the university had died and bequeathed his Hamburg to our school. It mostly sat in the corner. Most kids wanted to learn to play guitar or saxophone.”

Hold on — I’m being jerked out of the story again. Fragile? I wouldn’t say that cellos are more fragile than any other instrument. And if the cello was a professor’s, I’m not really surprised that the kids weren’t attracted to it. I’m more surprised that it was in an elementary school at all — eight-year-olds are going to need half-size cellos, not the full-size kind that adults play.

(P.S.: Google “1/32 cello”. It’s freaking adorable.)

But OK, maybe a cello seems fragile to a sensitive sixteen-year-old. Maybe the Hamburg was there for the biggest students, or it was the professor’s half-size from way back in the day. It’s just a couple of small details. Let’s keep reading.

Three paragraphs later, more questions emerge:

“Rusty scales and triads led to first attempts at ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ that eventually gave way to basic etudes until I was playing Bach suites.”

Scales, then triads, then the Twinkles, then etudes? Here’s the Hat of Pretension in full form, but that’s an interesting skill progression. In my experience (Suzuki method all the way, man), the Twinkles would be first in that line-up. They’re a tune everyone knows, so students can hear their own mistakes; and the tune uses only three fingers, two strings, and one hand position, so students can get used to the basic mechanics of the bow and fingers. Scales and triads are a bit trickier — you can only play in so many keys before you have to learn half-position and extended first, which (again, at least in Suzuki) doesn’t happen until … hmm … the beginning of book 2? Help me out here, fellow Suzukis. It’s been a while.

But OK, the Suzuki method doesn’t rule the world. I get that. Different strokes for different teachers. Also, Mia is super talented. It’s plausible that she not only tackled scales right off the bat but was also learning thumb position by age nine (though, gosh, if she was, isn’t that medically unwise? Couldn’t it permanently disfigure your thumb at that age?).

"This is your brain. This is your brain on thumb position."

“This is your brain. This is your brain on thumb position.”

Moving on … how cool is it that Mia’s school has an entire music wing? Way to go, school. … Yo-Yo Ma concert? So jealous. …

Then, in another flashback, Mia brings her boyfriend over for dinner. Afterwards, they go up to her room:

“‘Play me,’ he said.


‘I want you to play me like a cello.’

I started to protest that this made no sense, but then I realized it made perfect sense. […] I ran my hands up and down the length of his torso, focusing on the sinews in his muscles, assigning each one a string — A, G, C, D. […] I reached for the bow and brushed it across his hips, where I imagined the bridge of the cello would be. I played lightly at first and then with more force and speed as the song now playing in my head increased in intensity.”


A couple of things.

  1. The strings on a cello, in order, are A, D, G, and C. (Perhaps she’s playing his sinews out of order as a metaphor for how their personal priorities and fates are also misaligned? It’s possible.)
  2. My very first cello lesson had four components:
    1. “This is the cello.”
    2. “This is the bow.”
    3. “Never, EVER let the bow’s hair touch anything except the strings and the rosin. Not your fingers, not your clothing, not the floor, not a tabletop, not your face. NOTHING.”
    4. “This is how you hold the cello and the bow.”

Note the priorities there: Proper bow care came before proper posture. So when I read about a cellist running her bow all over her boyfriend like the local luthier is having a “$50 off” special on bow rehairing, please excuse me if I go the tiniest bit ballistic.

(I have considered the possibility that Mia knew exactly what she was doing to her bow but decided that her boyfriend was worth it, or decided to play him with the back of the bow instead. However, you’d think that this thought process would be represented in the mind of a serious cellist, instead of the immediate conclusion that the proposed activity “made perfect sense.”)

See that bald spot? That's your bowhair if you get frisky with it.

See that bald spot? That is the future of your bowhair if you get musically frisky.

At this point, I gave up the idea that the author might play the cello. The small jarring points continued throughout the book until the fourth-to-last page, when I read this passage and emitted a short sob of frustration:

“He turns up the volume so I can hear the music floating across the morning air. Then he takes my hand. It is Yo-Yo Ma. Playing Andante con moto e poco rubato.”

(Just a warning: The Hat of Pretension is about to be joined by the Gloves of Utter Snobbishness.)

Technically speaking, this is a reference to a real piece. George Gershwin wrote it; Yo-Yo Ma has recorded it. You can listen to it here.

But that’s also a pretty vague way of referring to a piece. “Andante con moto e poco rubato” might appear across the top of that piece, but it could also appear across the top of any piece, or indeed at any point throughout any piece. That’s because it’s not necessarily the name of the piece; it’s just instructions on how to play it — in this case, “At a walking pace, with motion and a little bit of stretch in the rhythm.” So, saying “He’s playing ‘Adagio calando'” or “She’s playing ‘Allegro con brio,'” without any context about the composer or larger work, is not necessarily like saying “They performed ‘Who’s On First’.” It’s more like saying “His homework is ‘Use a #2 pencil’ through ‘Write full sentences.'”

This isn’t to say that these terms can’t be used as titles. They definitely can, as seen in pieces like Saint-Saëns’ “Allegro Appassionato” (another great cello piece, BTW). In general, though, the rule seems to be that if the piece has another title designator, then the Italian (or German, or French) text that appears afterwards is technically just instructions, to be used as a faux title in programs and during rehearsals. In this case, “Andante con moto e poco rubato” appears after the designator “II”, so I would argue that an accurate title for this piece would be “II. Andante con moto e poco rubato” for a formal concert program, “Three Preludes, No. 2″ for a more informal program, or, in casual conversation, “Gershwin’s Second Prelude” — but certainly not Andante con moto e poco rubato as a standalone entity.

I'm nearly done complaining, I promise. Enjoy this picture of a topiary peacock as a brief respite.

I’m nearly done complaining, I promise. Enjoy this topiary peacock as a brief respite.

Then I reached the afterword and this comment from the author, reflecting on the story’s early stages:

“I knew nothing whatsoever about the cello and not so much about classical music.”

Her honesty is refreshing, but it’s also kind of frustrating. If your protagonist’s life is going to be shaped by and centered on a particular discipline, and you readily admit that you’re not familiar with that discipline, wouldn’t it be wise to have your story’s details thoroughly vetted by experts in that discipline? I’m definitely no expert; as I’ve mentioned, some of the “jarring details” I named could be rationalized away by a cellist from a different background (or shrugged off as irrelevant by anyone with lower blood pressure). Still, it seems like a knowledgeable hand could have smoothed out some of the rough edges in Mia’s character and made her voice more trustworthy.

Beyond my interactions with the story, the frustration I experienced while reading If I Stay was a cautionary tale for my own writing. Like Forman’s people, my characters are diverse in their backgrounds and interests. As I strive to color my stories more richly, I’ve loved learning little bits and pieces about crab fishing and stained glass and convent life and cystic fibrosis. But as I do this, I have to remember that my “little details” are the crucial details of many people’s lives. They know these details far better than I do, and if I misrepresent their collective experiences, I’m alienating them as readers. It won’t matter if my description is technically true for some reader somewhere; I need to strive to be as accurate as possible for as many people as possible. It doesn’t mean I should write with my audience peering over my shoulder and arguing about my story’s details. It does mean I should try to never stop admitting my own deficiencies and striving to remedy them.

What book or movie has disappointed or distracted you with its inaccuracies? Do you think it matters how much research goes into a story?


You made it through my rant! You deserve a picture of a llama feeling fabulous.

You made it through my rant! You deserve a picture of a llama feeling fabulous.


Photo credits: Book cover from Better World Books; Kermit from LoggaWiggler, faces from RyanMcGuire, dog from DrSJS, peacock from skeeze, and llama from sebadelval on Pixabay.