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This is going to be a two-part post about the ins and outs
of dystopian writing. At least my take on dystopian writing. Part one is this
week; part two will follow next Wednesday.
The first rule is
there ain’t no rules
As most of you will realize, I stole that quote from the
movie Grease. You remember the scene;
Danny (John Travolta) and the slimly guy from the gang (I don’t recall their
name) are lined up for a drag race in the aqueducts of LA. That’s when our hero’s opponent leans over and gives Danny a rundown on the rules - the short
and simple rules.
Here’s what I like to do: tear society apart bit by bit.
Sounds easy, right? Maybe not quite that simple. I can do away with of
protection (Police and National Guard) but I have to give the reader a
believable scenario in which the protection disappears.
A good writer cannot and will not create something so
unbelievable that their audience immediately reacts with, “oh come on!” No, you
have to give it some forethought. Find a good, viable (and believable) reason
why the usual protectors of the people don’t show up to do their tasks.
In WWIV – In The
Beginning I took away all power, all communications, most running cars.
Gone was fresh water, delivery of fresh food, our most technical forms of
medical care. I didn’t say how (that comes in a later book), but I put the
entire world in the same boat.
Some folks figured this dystopian setting was caused by
solar flares; others – EMPs. Later, some will blame it on nuclear war, or even
God’s wrath. Here, the how was not overly important. Most people, to varying
degrees, believe this can happen to our world.
The important take away from this step: The situation was
Next: Begin the slow
crumble of society
History shows us this is an easy step; a simple leap for the
reader to make. Hurricane Katrina, the tsunami
that struck Japan, earthquakes, tornadoes, riots. What do these events all have
in common? The way that our society reacts.
Some people rise to the occasion. There are always a number
of brave, selfless people who shine during troubled times. They believe in the
good of all humanity, they are cheerleaders rallying the troops, believers in
the common good.My example was Bill
Carlson from Book One (mentioned above).
Bill didn’t let a little thing like The End of the World As
We Know It get in his way. No, immediately he set about trying to helps his
friends, his neighbors. When someone was frightened, he tried to be rational.
When someone was injured, his compassionate side shined. He was the
All-American guy next door. The neighbor we all wish we had.
Creating Bill did not come without its critics. Some readers
find him unbelievable, unrealistic. “Who would hang around 18 days while the
world crumbled around him?” one reader asked. Others found his “come-on let’s
hold hands and sign songs” attitude far beyond what their realism meters would
No matter what you think of Bill, and his actions, I believe
we can admit one thing – there are people like Bill all around us. Perhaps
they’re not your friends or neighbors, but they exist. Bill is real; in every
sense of the word (except for being a fictionalized character in a novel).
Then come the bad
How many times have you seen news footage of looters after
some catastrophic event? A lot, right? Too many times most likely. The bad will
always come to the surface during times of crisis. And sometimes, they will
grab the upper hand.
Imagine, if you will, a world without power and police. No
one can report any of your ill deeds to anyone. Absolutely no cavalry will come
in and save the day. Whatever you want to do, for the most part you can. And if
you’re stronger and better armed than the rest – too bad for them.
This is not to say that all of us will descend into
lawlessness, but some will. Perhaps many will. In my dystopian world, many do.
With no one to hold them and their dastardly deeds in check, they will do what
they do best – cause chaos. I’m mean, who’s going to stop them? The character
Bill Carlson I mentioned above? No, I don’t think so.
No one actually knows how bad the bad will be. How far
humanity will slide. Many believe that most honest law abiding citizens cannot
comprehend how far our world will fall. Bill Carlson didn’t know; thus, he was
shocked at what he witnessed outside his own cul-de-sac in Woodbury, Minnesota.
My summary statement for part one of this post is: Keep your
story believable. Give it some thought, a lot of thought. Look back on history,
do some research. Somewhere you will find a believable voice for your dystopian
Next week we will dive even deeper into dystopia. We will
explore what it is, and just as important, what it isn’t. Until then, have a
Okay, you got pen and paper? Or just a computer? Well then,
you are ready to get started. Really, it’s that simple. However, that’s where
the easy part ends.
You have a grand idea for the next Great American Novel.
Welcome to the club; a very large club at that. So many of us have the same
idea. We know we can create a tome that will go down in the annals of history as a creative
masterpiece. Thus, we begin.
How to Start Your Story
I like to let an idea fester like a bad sliver. And the
longer the better. All of my manuscripts have aged six, seven, even ten months
before I ever wrote the first word. As a note, I’m almost done with my sixth
such writing. All in the last 19 months. That’s somewhere around 650,000 words
in that time.
Where do these “ideas” come from? I really don’t know.
Sometimes I dream a certain sequence that I play with and mold into a story
idea, and later a plot develops. Then there are the times I see something
somewhere and I ask the famous “What IF” question. And of course, my favorite
is when I daydream an idea. That’s what happened with Book Two of my WWIV series – Kids at War.
One morning last summer, I was sitting at the cottage in Northern
Wisconsin, watching the sunrise. I was deep into my WWIV series having completed two manuscripts in The Smith Chronicles books. I asked
myself, “who will be most vulnerable in a post-apocalyptic setting?” I thought for a while, sipped my coffee, and
thought some more. Finally, an idea popped. From there I played with it and the
story started to develop.
How to Develop Your Story
I’ve seen all kinds of systems for story development. Some
like to storyboard the entire novel before beginning. They take note cards of
various colors, jot down scenes or plot points, and then pin them to a bulletin
board. From what I understand this is a great system with few drawbacks.
Others, like Stephen King, sit down and start typing or
writing. They know the general idea of the story. They also have the confidence
to allow the story to create a life of its own. This probably is not the best
option for you if this is your first or second manuscript. This method
requires you to use your brain, A LOT, and if you lose yourself – you story can
I like to outline when I write. But it’s not a strict, rigid
outline. It’s extremely flexible and allows much room for change. Usually, I
only plot out the first ten chapters or so. I might make some notes for further
chapters, but I know my writing style. I might get to chapter eight and
discover things are going a different direction. Or it’s going slower (or
quicker) than I had planned. My point is this – allow your story room to grow.
How to Write Your Story
Let me be as gentle here as I can.
Strap your butt to the chair and write. Write until you’re
out of ideas, and then write some more. Don’t feel creative on a given day?
Tough; write 500 words. Feeling super artisticand pop out 2,000 words? Come on, push yourself; write another thousand.
The moral here is to keep writing. The goal should be to get
the first draft done in three months. That’s 90 days; plenty of time. This past
February, I created the first (rough, very rough) draft of Book Four in the WWIV series in 28 days. Now, to be
honest it's not going to win any literary awards in its current state, but it’s
done. The book (actually a manuscript at this point) is on paper and ready for
the first round of revisions. I already have an extra scene to add, something to ratchet the pressure up a notch.
If you do all the pre-work, but don’t write – you’ll never
get done. No one will ever know your creative genius. People will never
discover you as the next Ernest Hemingway, Jane Austin, or George Orwell.
Please, if it is your desire, write! You will never know the rush of excitement
when you publish your first novel without putting in the time, and doing the
Until next time, enjoy fall this year. Get out and
appreciate nature in its changing beauty. And since the nights are getting
longer – grab a good book and give it a read.
You might ask yourself, "What brought lake to writing in the dystopian genre?" Great question. I believe this can be answered with a quick review of my top five favorite Dystopian Books of all time.
1. 1984 - George Orwell
I read this book in high school and it's stuck with me ever since. The world and society that Orwell so freely created was my first taste of the genre. Everything was so real to me in this novel; then and still today. I have read this dystopian book no less than five times.
2. The Gulag Archipelago - Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Again, a book I read in high school. And while not fictional dystopian I still consider it set quite squarely in this genre. I mean where else was more dystopian than the 1960s and 70s Soviet Union? Read this dystopian book; you will see how real life can be real bad.
3. The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
This, my friends, is a true classic penned back in the mid 80s. Taking place in the near future in the Republic of Gilead, the story is as dystopian as it gets. If you haven't read this dystopian book, I highly recommend it.
4. Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
This is the shiny side of dystopia when compared to 1984. The government wants you to be happy and gives you the ability to do so. Population is controlled with test tube babies. It took me a while to get into this book, but once there - I was hooked.
5. The Most Dangerous Game - Richard Connell
Here, we are probably looking at more of a short story than a full length book (although I do see it for sale on Amazon - all 25 pages of it). But I want it on the list, for several reasons. First, this 1920s classic will make the hair on the back of your neck go into perma-stand-on-end mode. Second, it more or less supports the myth that there are "no original writings" any longer. Some will claim that a very popular trilogy sprung from this writing. I'm fine with it either way.
Do You Have any Favorites?
Please add any that tickle you fancy in the comments below. We can even debate if dystopian and post-apocalyptic are the same. Or if one is a sub-genre of the other.
Unless next time, read one from my list. Any will get you hooked in the genre.
Here's the rub; I know how most of you will die. In a post-apocalyptic setting that is. And after I warn you about it below, chances are there'll be nothing you can do to stop this type of death.
If events occur, such as the scenario laid out in my WWIV series, death will most likely come to 50% of all people reading this within one year. Some experts say the entire earth's population could decrease by as much as 75% in a year. Please remember, these numbers are merely estimates; some based on math and science, others based on "intuition".
So let's grab some of these numbers that the "experts" have come up with and dissect them a little more.
Some of you will die from your current medical maladies. I, for instance, have a son with Type I insulin dependent diabetes. Without a fresh supply of insulin, his life will be tougher. Without a meter to monitor his blood, his death moves up years. But he's not the only demographic in trouble. Think of all the infirmed and elderly; dependent on oxygen and other daily supplies. No one will be delivering anything new for a very very long time (make that never).
The medical issue could account for a 50% mortality rate in the first year all by itself. Forget about the spread of disease as people start to die and go unburied. Or eating spoiled and tainted food, or drinking contaminated water. We have enough medical issues in the US of A to cause enough trouble alone. And that's before the Apocalypse ever comes.
War and Fighting
There's going to be the have's and the havenot's. And one of these groups is going to want some (perhaps ALL) of what the other group has - mainly food and water.
Yes, if times get desperate enough, people will kill you for your supplies. If the choice is either die from starvation/dehydration or kill someone so you can live, you'd be surprised how many people will be willing to make the otherwise unimaginable choice.
Now, these attacks may come at home. The place where you and your family have barricaded yourself as protection against the wandering hoards of marauders. In some fiction these people take the form of zombies or vampires, In my fiction, I just use your neighbors or people living nearby. So go ahead, arm yourself, lock you and your family inside. It only makes it more obvious to others that you have what they don't. And when your protection and ammo run out, so will your luck.
Or maybe you and the wife and kiddies take to the road. For that scenario, I invented road-scum. These are those nefarious members of society that quickly discover the easiest place to find what they need is traveling right down the road in front of their faces. They're not stupid, though many of the upper-crust believes the lower-crusts are, so they know what to do. And perhaps they have less rules than the rest of society. Perhaps their morals are askew. Or perhaps, just by bad luck and planning, they were the first groups to run out of fresh food and water.
Yep, some of us will run out of food, plain and simple. Look in your pantry; if it's anything like mine it's stocked with more goodies than you could eat in a year, right? Ha! Not even close. A family of four will wipe out their food supplies in less than a month; probably closer to two weeks.
The biggest error most people will make is not preserving a stock of food. No, they'll eat like kings and queens, then soon discover their food is low, mighty low. And if you're low on water you certainly aren't going to use the last of that precious resource to boil your instant potatoes or white rice, are you? Come on folks, remember the saying; three weeks without food and you could die. Three days without water and you will die.
This, I believe, will be the death of most people. The lack of clean drinking water.
In case of an emergency, the DHS recommends you have one gallon of clean water, per person, with a three days supply. For an average family of four that will require 12 gallons of water. Be honest, do you have that on hand? I don't, and I doubt you do either.
Further, most stored water has a shelf life of six to twelve months. It's not good forever you know. Stagnant water allows bacteria to grow. Bacteria that will kill you so quick, you'll never know. I use this as a rule of thumb - if my dogs turn their noses up at it, I'm not drinking it either.
I did a search of my house last night. If I'm lucky, and I mean really lucky, I can round up three to four gallons of water if the power goes out. If it's too dangerous to be outdoors, you are going to need to stick inside. So that's about two days of water for two people (and I'd be getting real creative at the end, like emptying the tanks above the toilet).
I have food for a while, weeks most likely. But water for only two, maybe three days. There's a problem. That means I'll probably meet my Maker dying from thirst, or disease from drinking bad water. Look up water on the internet and do some of the research about the clear odorless fluid. There's more to it than you think.
Roughly one to two weeks before anyone will begin to die of starvation, you'll most likely be dead from lack of clean drinking water. That's an ugly future, if it were to ever happen.
I'm not telling you this to scare you
I just want people to be aware that if there ever is a problem, it might be worse than you even imagine. You can fight off wandering hoards of ruffians; you can somehow keep your blood sugar in check; you can eat the family pets if you have to. But if you go beyond that third day without water - well, all your hard work will soon be for naught. I'm not advocating you stock up on fresh drinking water, no! Just educate yourself in case you ever lose your water supply for a week because of a flood, or an earthquake...or a large solar flare, or massive mid-level EMPs.
Hey, it could happen.
See you next week where I hope to have a more uplifting topic. Something perhaps that doesn't keep you awake at night.
This is being written in real time, deep in the heart of the
Chequamegon National Forest in Northern Wisconsin. I would call it Labor Day
weekend, but for me it began Thursday night and will extend until Sunday Night.
Thursday August 28, 2014
I arrived at the cottage at approximately 9:40 p.m. – alone.
Well, sort of alone. Bella and Norman have made the trip too. It was a trade
with my wife; I take both dogs and she’d have the four days to herself – just
as I. She knew I needed a creative getaway – badly. But she also knew that if I
just brought Bella (my dog, if you will), Norman (let’s call him her dog) would
pout all weekend and mope under foot the entire time. Thus, I relented and saw
the two travelers as welcomed companions.
All I did Thursday night was drive three and a half hours, unpack, in the pitch black of
the deep woods, get the cottage opened up, and went to read in bed by 11:00.
Friday August 29th
Arose at 6:30 to find damp dreary 56 degree weather. By 9:30
the rain came down hard and steady. Perfect writing weather.
By 9:45 I had written two future blog posts (approximately 1,550
total words) and 800 words in Book Three of my WWIV series. It should be noted – as I near the completion of this
manuscript, I still haven’t settled on the name. I love the first draft of this
story and have a grand ending all set for it. I just hope it all holds together
in the next 20,000 words or so.
My goal for the weekend is simple; get as much reading,
writing and fishing in as possible. From the sounds of things I, and the dogs,
will be alone all weekend long.
By the end of day one all I had seen of the outside was
rain. Mist at times, followed by swell after swell of heavier precip.
Mid-afternoon through the evening hour had periods of thunder mixed with the
By bed time the rain was so heavy the dogs refused to go out
for the last time. I pleaded and begged as best I could, but Bella just looked
at me like I was nuts. Norm was nowhere to be found; too much thunder. He
discovered a safe hiding spot deep in the closet.
The days total was almost 5,000 words.
Saturday August 30th
Guess what? More rain this morning. I was awake by 6:00 and
up creating by 6:30. The rain let up enough to get the dogs out once, but that
was all. Through 11:00 a.m. the rain continued.
I pumped out a little more than 1,000 words before
breakfast. If this weather keeps up I’ll get Book 3 done and have Book 4 half
edited by Sunday night. Not that that’s a bad thing, but there are several
chores I’d like to get done outdoors.
We have a large screen porch on the front of the cottage; it
overlooks the lake we sit on. Each fall we placed wood frames covered in
plastic over the screen openings in hopes of protecting the screens from the
harsh northwoods winter. But each winter at least a handful of those protectors
get damaged by the wind and falling branches. So the plastic on those frames
need to be replaced. Hopefully between writing and watching college football I
manage to get at least three of the six “storms” done.
It’s 8:21 in the evening now. I’ll have over 4,000 words in
Book 3 before the end of the night. I got the six storms fixed, so that was an
accomplishment. Rain has stopped but the wind picked up making the 60-degree
temp feel even cooler.
I’m pleased with my progress thus far. I know some will
think, “you’re alone, you can write all day, why haven’t you written more?”
There’s a simple answer for that. I have discovered that if I push too hard,
try to get words down for words sake, most of what I type beyond 3,000 or 4,000
is garbage. I once did an 8,000+ word day last winter. But I was on a roll that
day. And the story wasn’t as complex as the one I am working on at this time.
Thus, I’m fine with today’s tally. More will come tomorrow.
Sunday August 31st
I woke up just after 6:00 happy and refreshed. Outside I
watched as mist skittered across the lake and the sun turned the eastern sky orange.
Finally after 60+ hours of clouds and rain, I would have my sunny day.
I grabbed a cup of coffee and headed to the porch. Quickly,
I retreated to the bedroom and grabbed one more layer. It may be clear, but it
was certainly still cool. One quick check of the thermometer proved my point;
53 cool degrees.
I got to enjoy the sun for exactly 90 minutes. That’s when
the wind picked up and the clouds moved back in – actually sprinted back across
the sky. At least I was able to watch a nice sunrise.
Before I left to head home at 4:00 p.m. (it’s a three plus
hour drive back to civilization from here) I pumped out another 3,800 words in
Book Three of the WWIV series. To
date, that puts me over the 50,000-word mark. Two more strong weeks and the
rough draft will be completed. That will put me a week ahead of where I thought
I’d be done.
Of course, like any decent writer, I plan on letting it
sit – all alone is the confines of my hard drive – for at least four weeks
before I look at it again. And like any decent writer, I’m sure I’ll sneak a
few peeks at some of the earlier chapters before that time. I am, after all,
Totals for my three-day stay:
·Four blog posts completed (including this one)
·11,000 words in Book Three
·Only ate one of three rows of double-stuffed
·Read two small(ish) outdoors books
·Relaxed and napped more than I should
I’ll take it; the weekend that is. The weather wasn’t
perfect, but neither is life. Take the good with the bad, and usually they
balance out. It just means you can’t dwell on the bad (rain in this case) so
much. There’s way too much good in life to worry about things you’ll never be
able to control.
Until next week, have a great beginning to what most
consider fall. It’s really late summer - fall officially arrive on September 23rd