Love and hope and the better parts of human nature aren’t the first things people think of when they think of dystopia. But I believe they can be an important component of the genre – and, if done right, these things can come across more strongly in dystopian fiction than in lighter and happier stories. Today I’m over on Justine Graykin‘s blog talking about hope in the midst of darkness and what makes it so powerful. Come read the post and share your thoughts!
It’s been a week since The Torturer’s Daughter was released, and I’m still having trouble processing it. It’s hard for me to believe that I really do have a book out there for people – people who don’t even know me – to read. I know eventually I’ll be used to this; I’ll take it for granted. I won’t get a chill every time I see my Amazon page, and start giggling like a little girl whenever I see that someone else has bought my book. But for now, I’m savoring the newness of it. The surreal unfamiliarity.
When I first started thinking about self-publishing, back when I was only going to do it under a pen name for a project that didn’t pan out, I knew I wanted to do it seriously, professionally, rather than just for fun or just for the heck of it. The lines get murky when it comes to self-publishing, I know, but there’s a difference, at least a psychological one, between self-publishing with the intent to start a professional writing career and, say, posting a story on fictionpress.com. There’s nothing wrong with the latter, but it’s not what I wanted. But like I said, the lines get murky – so I had to figure out where that line was for me, draw it out inside my head. And that line was having a stranger pay for something I’ve written. I didn’t know how long it would take me to cross that line when I published The Torturer’s Daughter, but I had faith that I would.
I crossed it the first day it came out. Then crossed it twice over. Then again, and again, and again. I don’t know whether dreams are fulfilled at a geometric or exponential rate, but by either count I ended up far ahead of where I thought I would be.
The day The Torturer’s Daughter came out was one of the three best days of my life.
The sales I’ve gotten so far would look like nothing to someone who’s been doing this, and doing well at this, for a long time. But how I felt that first day wasn’t about numbers. It was about crossing that line, crossing it and leaving it in the distance. It was about reaching something I’ve been aiming towards for so long that the aiming itself was one of the threads my life was woven out of. The giddy bemused disorientation of looking at that thread and realizing it no longer belongs, and that something else has taken its place.
This is what it feels like to fulfill a dream.
A couple of years ago, a friend mentioned to me that when he got married, changing his Facebook status almost made it feel more real than signing the official documents did.
I thought back to that last night, when I told Microsoft Word to start using curly quotes.
Several years ago now, when I was first starting to think about getting published, I was researching manuscript format and learned that if you’re going to be submitting manuscripts online, you need to turn off curly quotes in Word. Otherwise the formatting could go wonky on the agent/editor’s end. I dutifully told Word to stop using them, and I haven’t seen a curly quote in any of my manuscripts for years.
But I’m not submitting anywhere now. And the things I’ve read about ebook formatting say that you should make sure curly quotes are turned on, so that they appear in your final book.
So I turned them on. Because that’s what I’m doing now. I’m not trying to get published; I’m creating ebooks. It took about thirty seconds to change the setting… but it felt surprisingly momentous.
Sometimes it’s the little things that make something feel the most real.
I’ve been feeling strangely nonplussed by the romance subplots in most of what I’ve been reading lately, and for the longest time, I couldn’t figure out why. It’s not that I’m an unromantic person. I love a good intense love story. And it’s not that the books I’ve been reading have been bad – far from it. (The Hunger Games is a perfect example. I loved those books. But the romance aspect… that part did nothing for me.) So what’s going on? Why haven’t I been able to get invested in these relationships?
It took a while, but I finally figured out what the problem is.
I just don’t like love triangles.
I’m not saying books that involve love triangles are bad, and I’m not discounting the possibility that I might write a love triangle someday if it suits the story. But in general, it’s just not a concept that does anything for me. Part of it is that a lot of books have the heroine choosing the mysterious alpha-type when I’m usually rooting for the sweet best friend… but mostly it’s the triangle itself.
What I like is a romance subplot where the main character has one person they’re drawn to above all others, one clear choice. I like soulmate relationships. I want these characters to feel differently about each other than they do about anyone else, to have a connection that nothing else can match. Those are the relationships that draw me in; they’re the ones that have me tensing up as I turn the pages when it looks like they’ll never be able to be together, the ones that can make me forget that a happy ending is all but assured as I read faster to find out whether everything will work out against all odds, the ones that have me bouncing in excitement when the final obstacles are overcome.
When there’s more than one prospect – when the main character could conceivably have that sort of connection with a couple of different people, and could turn away from a connection like that because she likes somebody else better – the romance loses its magic for me. How can they be soulmates if it’s possible for her to choose somebody else? I know that’s not necessarily how it works in real life, but it’s how I prefer my fictional relationships – and after all, it’s not like you always have two guys fighting over you in real life, either.
I mentioned The Hunger Games as an example of a book that I loved, but that didn’t have a romance I was invested in. Granted, romance is a very minor part of The Hunger Games – but I suspect that if it hadn’t involved a love triangle, I would have felt a lot more strongly about that aspect of the trilogy. I could easily see myself getting wrapped up in the relationship between Katniss and Gale, or between Katniss and Peeta. But when she has feelings for both of them? The magic is gone.
In contrast, the romance in Delirium, by Lauren Oliver, drew me in a lot more than I thought it would. I didn’t expect it to, since I hadn’t been having much luck with love stories, especially in YA. I mainly picked up Delirium because I was snapping up every dystopia I could find. But I found myself believing in the romance much more than I thought I would, and rooting for the main characters to not only escape the tyranny of their dystopian world, but for them to be together. I didn’t make the connection at the time, but Delirium, unlike the majority of YA out there these days, didn’t involve a love triangle.
The love triangle is a staple these days – mainly in YA, but in other books as well. And I don’t think it’s going to stop being popular anytime soon. But knowing that I don’t like them, and knowing why, may make it possible for me to enjoy those books more. If the romance subplot does nothing for me, I’ll know it’s not because of the way the characters are written or because there’s something wrong with the book; it’s just because love triangles don’t enthrall me the way soulmate relationships do. I can thoroughly enjoy the rest of the book, accept that the romance subplot probably isn’t going to interest me, and move on. And if a book looks like the main plot will be centered around a love triangle, I can pass it by, knowing it’s probably not my thing.
It’s not a bad thing that authors are writing love triangles, after all. A lot of people like them. (Clearly, or they wouldn’t be so popular.) They’re just not for me.
What kind of romance do you prefer in the books you read? Love triangles? Soulmates? Star-crossed lovers? No love story at all? What do you think of the current ubiquity of love triangles in YA – do you love them, or are you ready for something different?
From The Child That Books Built by Francis Spufford:
The part of thinking that’s easy to handle is the part that works by analogy with speech. Thinking in words, speaking our thoughts internally, projects an auditorium inside our skulls. Dark or bright, a shadow theater or a stage scorched by klieg lights, here we try out voices, including the voice we have settled on as the familiar sound of our identity, although it may not be what other people hear when we speak aloud. But that is the topmost of the linguistic processes going on in the mind. Beneath the auditorium runs a continuous river of thought that not only is soundless but is not ordered so it can be spoken. For obvious reasons, describing it is difficult. If I dip experimentally into the wordless flow, and then try to recall the sensations of it, I have the impression of a state in which grammar is present – for when I think like this I am certainly construing lucid relationships between different kinds of meaning, and making sense of the world by distinguishing between (for a start) objects and actions – but thought there are so to speak nounlike and verblike concentrations in the flow, I do not solidify them, I do not break them off into word-sized units. Are there pictures? Yes, but I am not watching a slide show, the images do not come in units either. Sometimes there’s a visual turbulence – rapid, tumbling, propelled – that doesn’t resolve into anything like the outlines of separate images. Sometimes one image, like a key, will hold steady while a whole train of wordless thoughts flows from its start to its finish. A mountain. A closed box. A rusty hinge.
I was very happy when I read that passage; apparently I’m not the only one who thinks that way after all. I keep seeing things about thinking in words vs. thinking in pictures; every time, I hope there will be some mention of the type of thinking that is neither words nor pictures, but words and pictures are always presented as the only two types of thinking, as if there can be no other option. But to me, neither of those are entirely natural. I can translate my thoughts into words, or into pictures, but that’s not the way they start out.
I used to assume everyone thought this way – that when people’s thoughts were in the form of words or pictures, they had been translated into that form. But the more I read, the more I think I’m wrong about that, and my type of thinking is fundamentally different from the way most people’s minds work.
Or do other people just not notice the translation process? That’s a possibility, too. A lot of the time the translation is automatic; if I come up with a story idea, the idea will form itself into words almost as soon as I think of it, or if I’m wondering where a particular book is, I’ll see a vague fuzzy image of my bookshelf with one area seeming more important than the others. But the original untranslated thought is always there in the background. It could be that other people just don’t notice the process of translation, but I don’t tend to think that. I don’t have the right to contradict what other people say about what goes on in their own minds. They know their own minds better than I do. So if other people say they think in words or pictures, they probably do.
Why is the possibility of a form of thinking that isn’t words or pictures never mentioned, though? Is it really that unusual?
I’ve always been a writer. I’ve played with other forms of creativity – I dabble in 3D art, and I occasionally pick up a camera and snap a few photos – but those things are just for fun. Writing is more than that for me.
I write to understand.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt like an explorer in uncharted territory, an alien making contact with a new species. The rules and customs that other people learned instinctively left me confused. I’ve always been the one who says the wrong things, who makes the wrong assumptions, who doesn’t get the jokes or know when to read between the lines.
It’s a good place to be.
Like any explorer, I made a fool of myself many times; I learned to stay on the sidelines and make myself invisible. Like any good explorer, I started watching and listening… and found that my spot on the sidelines was the best place to see the stories. I saw people’s loves and hates and hypocrisies; I saw what was contradictory, what was absurd, what was admirable. And the more I saw, the more fascinated I became. How could I not want to write some of those stories down?
In doing so, I discovered that writing down those stories didn’t just let me record my observations – it also helped me make sense of them.
I write to connect.
I write myself into the heads of people who fascinate me – the ones I can relate to and the ones I don’t understand at all. I learn about people in order to write about them, and the more I write about them, the more I learn. In my writing I can get inside somebody else’s head in a way that’s impossible in real life… and each time I do, I understand a little more about all the different ways there are to see the world.
My stories aren’t just a reflection of others, of course. More than anything else, they’re a reflection of me. What matters to me, what drives me, my own complexities and flaws and triumphs. When I write, I combine my inner world with the world I’ve spent twenty-three years observing – and in addition to seeing the places where the two diverge, I can see the connections. And when I share my stories with others, they understand my world a little better, and see their world through somebody else’s eyes.
I write because I love stories.
Books have been a huge part of my life since before I could read by myself. I read to make sense of the world and to escape from it. Fiction is easier to understand than reality, and more forgiving; maybe that’s why I’ve always been drawn to it. I was the kind of kid who would rather sit inside with a book than go out and play, and I haven’t changed much since then – you’re much more likely to find me curled up with a book than out on the town.
I can’t do without stories; it’s like an addiction. Fiction is a way to see into other people’s lives, and to try out those lives for a while; it’s also communication, a completely different kind of communication than nonfiction. Stories – good stories, anyway – show the same things I look for when I watch the people around me: they show what people are made of, and what worlds are made of, and the horrible and wonderful things about humanity. It’s a conversation I want to be part of.
I write because I have to.
There was never a moment when I decided to be a writer. Other writers have stories of being encouraged by a particular teacher, or a certain novel, or a story idea that just wouldn’t go away; it wasn’t like that for me. It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t write novels.
Some writers talk about getting discouraged and giving up. I don’t understand that. It’s not that I think it’s wrong; it’s that the concept simply doesn’t make sense to me. I have days when I think my writing is about as pretty as the cat’s hairballs; I’ve had days when I couldn’t wring more than three words out of an uncooperative muse; I’ve looked at my stack of rejection letters and wondered if I’ll still be just as far from publication fifty years from now. But taking another path isn’t an option, any more than I could change the color of my eyes.
And my writing means something.
I don’t tend to think about my writing having any significance outside my own mind. After all, the only thing I’ve had published is a short story in a tiny local newspaper; most of my stories have only been read by a couple of friends. I tell myself that I’m only writing for myself, and that my writing won’t mean anything to anyone but me. But then I remember – I write to connect, too.
And I’ve had people tell me my stories have stuck with them years later. I’ve had people say, “Something happened to me today that made me remember that scene in your book.” When I put a story out into the world, even if I only show it to one other person, it creates ripples; an idea that once existed only in my head is now in somebody else’s. I may never be a bestselling author, but I’ve created stories out of nothing and made them come alive inside other people’s minds. I still don’t quite fit in this world, but when I write I add something to it that wasn’t there before.