Dystopia, Genre, and Finishing the First Draft

You may find yourself asking, where has Joe been? He hasn't been posting three times a day. That's night like you.

You may also find yourself living in a shotgun shack. You may find yourself in another part of the world.

If it's the former, December is when I have to work. And not just show up at the office, but actually work. If the latter, you have a beautiful wife, so congratulations!

So what's been going on with you? With me? On Friday I finished JEHOVAH'S HITLIST. On Sunday I began revising. I am into chapter 4 of 39 (technically 38 with an epilogue, but that's pretty much the same). I decided on voice (HUCKLEBERRY FINN is in first person, which is why its voice works when it bleeds over into the narration). I have to align later chapters with early chapters in that certain resources (like glass) were referenced early and then effectively removed due to their scarcity. At two chapters a day, I should be done in just over two weeks. Of course, Christmas is in there. But then, I hope I can manage more than two chapters a day. That might be difficult with the voice clean up, though. Lots of weres need to be changed to wases.

With all luck, by the time it's done, sent to beta readers, and revised again, I'll have an agent and won't need to query. But if I DO have to query (boooooo), I'll need to list the genre. And that's awesome because this work's genre is well timed.

Dystopian fiction is a thing right now. Because it's such a new subgenre1, there is still some debate over just what does and what doesn't qualify as distopian2. Here's the general breakdown

A dystopia is considered the opposite of a utopia, an oppressed existence usually caused by an overbearing state. Think 1984 or the United States in 20043. ;)

In JEHOVAH'S HITLIST, it began as a conceptualized post-apocalyptic world, but I reduced the scope because the main character had no reason or need to know what happened to the Asian coastal cities when the oceans rose, the ice age-like temperatures that killed Europe, the draught that killed the United States, or the middle east that killed itself. He knows the Nation, 53 avenues east to west. 53 states north to south. That is his world. It's a violent world with a lot of rules, none of them documented, all of them reinforced by the barrel of a gun.

Some might say that the absence of a government precludes the story from being dystopian, but I disagree. In fact, the utopia/dystopia comparison is overtly made by the existence of a platform city above the Nation. These are the people that drop a provisions box 10x20 once a week full of food, medicine, clothes, weapons, and ammunition. The urban jungle environment is propagated by the utopian society supposedly helping the refugees that live below it.

I enjoy this kind of dystopia more. There's some irony of the situation going on in that the character is oblivious to the larger menace of the regular insertion of firearms and ammunition in a limited-resource environment. His enemies are rival gangs, the Lawrence Park Jayhawks or the Manhattan Park Mongrels. Up Above doesn't really factor into it. The drop box has been the drop box his entire life. What cause does he have to question the positive or negative effects it has on his society?

If I spelled it all out, JH would be a dystopian, post-apocalyptic, alternate-history science fiction. Here's the trouble with that. Too many genres look like you don't know what you're writing. What is it? If you boiled it down to its essence, what is the genre of your book? With modern writing blending genres, it's easy to tell an agent you've written a young adult, dystopian, sci-fi thriller. But you look dumb when you do. Make a pie chart and pick the biggest piece of pie.

1 Sure dystopian stories have been around for a long time, but we've never segmented publishing into specific metadata for easy online searchability like we do now, so the subgenre is itself new.

2 Yeah right because age has anything to do with it. Epic fantasy is still being debated and it's been around for decades!

3 Yeah, I went there. I'm such a hippie4

4 Although in 2004, I was called a pinko commie because I didn't believe we should have invaded Iraq, so...yeah, I'm a contradiction.

Struggling with Voice

As I get older and make a more concerted effort to write professionally, I do not write with the abandon that I did when I was young. A younger me wrote phonetically and with dialects whenever I wanted to express an accent. An older me mentions the accent, but only touches a few key words phonetically. It came from a discussion whether such abstract spellings were the best way to communicate the differences in language. Given that so many of my old stories were the quality of an inexperienced writer, I chose to go the opposite direction.

That's not the only reason. I like to include minorities. I lived in St. Louis city (demographically 66% black) and hung out in areas where I could absorb that kind of culture. Not wholly, of course, but enough I felt comfortable replicating it in words. People seem less willing to accept that, and the further I am away from living in St. Louis, trading it for the predominantly white northeast, I begin to question my own recollection of what was St. Louis living and what was from "The Wire." So, if I avoid using phonetic spelling or dialect, I avoid being called a racist or being laughed at (while they think I'm being racist but don't say it--I hate that one too).

I recently added THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN to my nook. Mark Twain is one of my literary heroes and reading the novel reminded me how much I've given up by not writing my characters speech the way they speak. I've become too scared of criticism, justified it by saying I don't want to support wrong thinking with my writing or that a person just revises the text to what they understand anyway so I'm just adding a step. But when I read the way Huck and Jim speak, I get more than the words. I get the person. I get how they think. What matters. How they process things.

THE TRIAD SOCIETY has a variety of accents, none of which I properly explore. I relegate it to urban being "it is" and rural being "tis," what I feel now is a ridiculous copout.

There is a lot of talk about the author's voice on blogs. Characters and characterization are part of that voice, but not the entirety. What I've found is that why I can maintain the novel's voice during description, I lock up when I express character voice. This needs drastic and immediate attention. Time to write with a little more abandon.

(And call me racist all you want. Go to St. Louis Ave. and Grand on May 1 [the May Day Celebration] and you'll think you've walked into a video. I shit you not.)

(If you're interested in a great people watching place for St. Louis culture, try Captain D's on Kingshighway. It's amazing how much happens at that place--or at least happened when I lived in St. Louis. If you want a darker side of the city that doesn't put you in direct gunfire, head down to the river and follow the tracks. There's some grim living down there.)