Why Write Dystopian Fiction?

Why write dystopian fiction? Why write about an imaginary culture were everything has gone wrong and all the good things have been taken away? Isn’t it very depressing? I get asked this a lot.

I have my reasons. I’ve loved dystopian fiction ever since I read George Orwell’s 1984 when I was thirteen, and didn’t fully understand what Winston and Julia were doing in that room for rent above Mr. Charrington’s curiosity shop. It’s taken me five decades to take the time to formulate the reasons.

First: I’m a member of an oppressed group myself. I’m a woman in a patriarchal society. I’m a transwoman and a Lesbian in a homophobic and transphobic society. Those things make it easy for me to sympathize with oppressed people, even though I recognize I’ve been lucky compared to some people with the same problem.

Second: As a student of history, I’m disturbed by some resemblances to a past era of history that came to a cataclysmic end. I’ll deal with the domestic aspect of it first, then the global aspect. My country, the United States of America, has been struggling with uneven success since 2008 to get out of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. (When I say “uneven success” I mean that President Obama’s policies have scored some real gains in all the important economic stats, but the new jobs pay less than the old ones that were wiped out by the 2008 recession.) Bitter partisan rivalries have paralyzed Congress and the President, preventing even a budget from being approved in four years. Every few weeks a new massacre of innocent citizens takes place.  Unwarranted government surveillance of persons not even suspected of a crime keeps getting worse and worse. Police officers kill unarmed private citizens (nearly always people of color) without even discipline, let alone prosecution for murder. Even though millions of Americans still suffer from patriarchy, class rule, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and religious bigotry, we are in danger of losing the rights we do have; most notably in the case of many states adopting various legal subterfuges to prevent people of color from voting. A dangerous demagogue named Donald Trump is now exploiting this volatile situation for his own ends. Because he has a net worth in the billions, he can finance his own campaign if he has to.

Third: The great recession of 2008 is global. Most of the industrialized world is handling it worse than we are. Witness the disastrous cutbacks Greece has been forced into by the IMF and German bankers. These cutbacks have made the recession worse, and even though the Greek people rejected the latest round of cutbacks in a referendum by an overwhelming majority, it didn’t matter. Bank profits come first, no matter how much suffering there is on the street. Religious fanatics have taken over a large part of oil-rich Iraq and Syrian. Calling themselves the Islamic State, they’ve made themselves notorious by their public beheadings and human rights violations. Now they have oil revenue which they’re selling abroad. They will be very difficult to stop without American ground troops, but as we saw from the 2003 Iraq war, American “boots on the ground” creates a fresh set of difficulties. The Islamic State is one of the consequences of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Fourth: In a nutshell, climate change. The icecaps are receding at both poles, and the danger of the major coastal cities of the world going underwater in decades to come is real. If all the water in the icecaps melts, the states of Florida and Louisiana will disappear completely. We could build a wall around Manhatten, but who’s going to build a wall around Florida?

In short, it’s a very dangerous world we live in. I mentioned a past historical parallel. What I had in mind was the 1930s, which culminated in fascism, world war, and genocide. And they didn’t climate change back then to complicate matters further.

In a nutshell, we live in a pre-dystopian world. After a series of wars, economic catastrophes, and natural disasters, it’s easy to imagine some demagogue marching into your town and saying, “So here’s the deal. I’ll provide basic security and make sure everybody gets enough to eat, and in return, you people acknowledge I’m the boss here, and don’t cross me.” If, in a desperate situation like that, would I agree? I like to think I wouldn’t, but I’ve never been tested that way.

The usual explanation for the popularity of Dystopian entertainment among teenagers is that high school resembles a dictatorship, and works like The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner, Shatter Me, Delirium, Unwind, The Selection, and so on are merely expansions of the high school experience to the whole society. I disagree with this, because it shows little respect for the young readers.

I think the teenage and twenty-something readers of Dystopias are smarter than that. They see all the disturbing trends I see. But I am 65 years old. Most of my life is behind me. The opposite is true for them. They’re justifiable anxious about the world they are poised to inherit.

They have told me so. Once I was talking with a college-age young lady about my novel Discarded Faces. “What,” she asked, “is the premise of it?”

“Some time in the future, a group of kids about your age get together and help to overthrow a dictatorship.”

With complete seriousness, she said, “That may be coming up in our future.”

The young fans of Dystopian novels and movies are not stupid. When they read the books and see the movies, they see possible futures.


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My August-September-Wrimo

You need goals to keep you moving, no matter what your task is. The completion of a great task, such as a book length manuscript, is not the only kind of goal. To maintain steady progress toward the goal, you need supplementary goals at specific intervals. For a writer, this is a daily, weekly, or monthly goal.

This post is about how to set those little goals. Each benchmark gives you a manageable amount of work.

I write all my fiction on my computer, not counting a few paragraphs here and there that I write on my iPad, when I’m away from the house but waiting for something. Since modern word processors will give you a word count, you can get a precise estimate for what you’ve written. This means you don’t have to count your pages and multiply by 250 (for a double spaced page of pica typewriter text). I never print out a paper MS unless a prospective publisher requires it.

Ever since I left my last day job, I’ve maintained a spreadsheet of how many words I write per day. At the beginning, each worksheet represented a week. Starting on that fateful day, April 10, 2010, I wrote about 50,000 words, finishing the first draft of Mistress of the Topaz on April 24th. It was a performance worthy of a Nanowrimo contestant. This includes losing a day due to sickness and another time when I accidentally lost a day’s work by saving a different file on top of it. Over those same two weeks, I also spent two of three hours a day house hunting, picked out a new house, and signed the contract. I had a huge load of enthusiasm to discharge and knew exactly where I wanted the book to go.

I have never matched such productivity since.

Over time, I changed my spreadsheet so that each worksheet is a month, not a week. I found that I often could not keep a weekly goal, after which I’d start getting discouraged, and be even less productive. So I changed it to a monthly goal, or in other words, separate monthly worksheets. That works better for me.

My monthly goal is always in the 10000-20000 range. From the point of view of my fellow professionals, that sounds like not very much. I can only say I’m not the same woman I was five years ago. My wife and I both have health issues that get on the way of our creativity and other aspects of daily life, so we have to spend some time helping each other.

If I run ahead of schedule, I add to my monthly goal. This august, I added first 1000 words, then another 1000, and finally another 500. I exceeded all of those goals by a few hundred words, so I credited my account for the next month, so to speak, by subtracting that surplus. But my September goal is still higher, because I feel like I’m on a roll.

To me, writing is writing. The words of this blog post will go into my monthly total for September.

Happy writing to all, and good luck getting published.




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How I Respond to Getting One Star out of Five

It finally happened. By “it” I mean somebody didn’t like one of my books. Someone named Hannah that I’ve never heard of awarded Discarded Faces one star on Goodreads. That’s the lowest rating I’ve ever gotten on any of my books on Goodreads. Hannah did not attach any comments, so I have no idea why she didn’t like it. But if I were to encounter Hannah in real life or online, these are the things I would tell her.

(1) Thank you for reading my novel and taking the trouble to give feedback.

(2) Since I don’t know you either in real life or online, I assume that my efforts to publicize my fiction on Goodreads are starting to succeed. It’s frustrating to be a published author whose books are read by no one but her friends.

(3) I don’t mind that you gave me only one star, though obviously I would have preferred more. It’s impossible to please everybody. At least you were honest about it. That’s a virtue.

(4) Discarded Faces was my debut novel. If I wrote it over again from scratch, I would probably change some things.

A writer just has to be a good sport about some things.

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G’day, mates!

No, I haven’t moved to Australia, but I recently submitted Discarded Faces to HarperCollins Australia, which is accepting submissions in the genres I write in, but only on Wednesdays, though a form on their website. This is a part of my campaign to get mass market publication for my novels. The great thing about this is, submissions are unsolicited. No agent needed.

I’ve done some research on Australian book publishing, and I’ve discovered that the book reading public in that country is rather small (the total population being only 22 million ). This leads to exportation of Australian-published books to other English speaking countries. So we’re talking about global distribution here!

And the HarperCollins global HQ is in America. So if the Aussie publication sells well, American publication, mass market this time–and print, not just ebooks–will not be far behind. And after DF, there are other books I can send them: both of my World-Queen novels, and the two sequels to DF, which will form a trilogy known as the Danallian Chronicles. But first, the good folks at HC Australia have to accept it. I expect a response in a few weeks.

So my fingers are crossed.

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A Post for NaNoWriMo Participants to Read on December 1.

NaNoWriMo starts in a few days. Thirty days later, it will be over. Once you’ve finished your first draft, then what?

This blog post is for those brave souls who have completed their first draft and face the daunting task of transforming this rough draft into something that someone else would want to read.

Let me state that I’m a novelist by inclination, not a short story writer. Therefore, these items are drawn for my novel writing experience. For revising a short story, some of my advice will apply and some will not. It is obviously true that the longer a fictional work is, the more revision it will require.

  1. Put down your manuscript for a day or two and do something else. Anything else, really. Make a costume for next year’s cons. Organize a closet. Go shopping. Clean house. Read a novel or short story anthology, not necessarily in the genre you’re currently working in. Or even work on another story or novel. The point is to make yourself forget about the work for a couple of days, so that when you begin revising you can take a fresh look at it.
  2. Over time, you’ll learn what you tend to omit from first drafts. In my case, it’s what my characters are feeling. When I revise, I’m careful to put those feelings in.
  3. Use the notes you took during your first draft. When I say this, I mean you should create a file of notes summarizing all the things that you suspect will need fixing in revision. If you’ve just finished your first draft and haven’t done that, read your first draft again without changing a word, just to accumulate those notes. I keep a Revision Notes file for every draft of every novel I write. I don’t have to fix all of them in every draft I write. During the course of revision, I not only cross out notes, I also add new ones, so my Revision Notes files grow and shrink throughout the revision process. I said “cross out,” not “delete.” I use the MS Office Word strikeover feature to document the notes I’ve fixed. This way, I don’t waste time thinking I need to change something I’ve already changed.
  4. Revision is also a good time to revisit what characters you’re going to need. Your plot tells you what characters are necessary to move the plot. Therefore, if there is a character that has little (but something) to do with the plot, delete all scenes with that person except those that deal with the plot. For instance, if you’re writing a fantasy where there’s a hunter who helps your party of adventurers navigate a perilous mountain trail, and if at the end of that journey he either dies, gets eaten by orcs, or emerges unharmed to bid the adventurers farewell, then you don’t need any more chapters about him. Don’t waste the time of future readers with his backstory or how he gets along with his wife and children.
  5. Revision is a good time to revisit the names of your characters or of fictional places. This is especially true of minor characters, which I don’t even have names for at the beginning. My early drafts are full of minor characters with names like ROOKIE-COP-IN-CHAPTER-2 and place names like PROVINCIAL-CAPITAL-OF-UPPER-ZAMPO. As a part of my Revision Notes file, I mention all the characters and places that need a name assigned. Once I create a name, I use find-and-replace (the writer’s best friend) to replace them.
  6. Keep your eyes open for plot holes. If the ending you want to have doesn’t necessary follow from your character’s actions, then you’ll have to change it. Some plot holes can be fixed with a single sentence. Others involve rewriting the climax of the plot. Some involve altering the limits of your character’s magical powers (in a fantasy) or revising the capabilities of some future technology (in science fiction). One thing that often happens is that there’s a much easier solution to the plot than the one which the author has chosen, because one of the characters is too “high powered.” As a result, logically speaking the story should be over in a few thousand words, leaving no need for a novel. Revision is the time to fix that sort of thing.
  7. You probably will have to do more than one revision. That’s okay. My first book, Discarded Faces, took more than twelve end-to-end drafts to finish. I say “more than” because I lost count after twelve. My subsequent novels have needed about six or seven drafts,
  8. How many revisions do you need? I used to wonder about that, but the answer is quite easy. You revise until you can’t think of anything else to revise. Then you turn it over to a critiquing buddy, or hire a free-lance editor to read through it. If they want money for it, it will be worth it, because having another person look at it is invaluable feedback. As a result of the feedback, you’ll need to do more revising, but it’ll feel like a fresh start because your critiquing buddy will give you things to think about.

That’s what I have to say about revising novel manuscripts. Good luck to all writers who read this.

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What happened to betty-cross-author.net?

I’ve decided to give up my author website, and move all information about my writing to my blog here at wordpress. This is bettysrants.wordpress.com, the blog of science-fiction and fantasy author Betty Cross. There is also a bettysrants.blogspace.com and a bettyrants.blogspace.com. Neither of them is mine.

Www.betty-cross-author.net will disappear on July 28th or thereabouts.

I have also sworn off visits to Facebook. That particular type of social networking has eaten up way too much of my time. My main priorities are writing, taking care of my wife Helen (whose health has been a bit shaky of late), and driving her to medical appointments. Four or five hours a day on Facebook–yeah, it was that bad–got in the way of these.

Those of my friends on Facebook who wish to keep in touch with me can email me at betty-bator@yahoo.com. Bat-or is Hebrew for “daughter of the light.” Or as Master Yoda once said, “Luminous beings we are, not this cold matter.”

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How I Came to Write “Discarded Faces”

Recently a reviewer of my YA novel “Discarded Faces” asked what inspired me to write it.

The story begins in the late 1970s, a period of rising racial tension, sluggish economic growth, and painful increases in the cost of living. Gays and Lesbians were coming out of the closet, and making their faces known, but facing intense resistance. It was still a crime to commit an act of gay sex in those days. I was drawn to the feminist and gay rights movements immediately, though I was still living every day as a male. There was more to it than sympathy for the oppressed. There was a major aspect of my personally that I was still hiding from everyone, but i identified with women and LGBT people in a deep way that I was struggling to ignore.

In addition to all of this, in November 1979, Iranian militants occupied the US embassy in Teheran, the capital of their country, and made hostages of the diplomatic staff. This provoked a vicious backlash in America against people who “looked Iranian.” Most people didn’t know what an Iranian looked like, and all sorts of non-Europeans were suspected. I knew a college student from India who lived I terror until he special ordered a tee shirt with words “I am from India, not Iran.” I heard of an Israeli graduate from Auburn who went to an Auburn home football game and was beaten for it, in retaliation for the hostage incident.

In the 70s I belonged to a radical leftist group whose is best forgotten. When I left the group, a few months before the embassy incident, I gradually evolved into a left wing reformer. But at the same time, I began reading lots of science fiction, and discovered “The Dispossessed” by Ursula Le Guin. I realized that it was possible to communicate a political perspective through fiction, which could also be entertaining and inspiring, provided the narrative moved well and the characters were interesting. I figured I could reach people through fiction that I could never hope to reach by passing out leaflets at demonstrations or peddling a weekly newspaper door to door.

Early on I conceived the names of Peb, Zel, Kanath, Kanath’s widowed mother Hessi, and Hessi’s boyfriend Pappek; but as characters it took many drafts for them to become clear to me. In my early drafts the dialogue was stilted, the plot was driven by a series of awkward coincidences, and at times the narrative came to a complete stop while one character or another explained the political meaning of recent events. In short, i didn’t know how to write fiction at the start. “Discarded Faces” was my apprenticeship. It was a long apprenticeship. Starting in July 1979, the book reached something very near its current form in September 1997. If eighteen years seems like a long time, there were long periods (3 months here, a year there) where I put the work aside, resolving that some day I would finish it.

One of my biggest problems was figuring out which characters to highlight. There were four point of view characters, then five, then two (Peb and Kanath), and finally just Peb. Following a friend’s advice that the people’s victory would have to be “paid for” by some real suffering, I had Peb suffer a serious injury at the climax of the book, which leaves her w/ a lifelong disability.

To make Peb the sole POV character, all chapters featuring both Peb and Kanath were rewritten from Peb’s POV.

In making this a Peb-centered book, I had to remove one well written and emotional chapter centered on Kanath which my friends really liked. Peb wasn’t there, and therefore she couldn’t be the POV character, and it wasn’t really her story anyway. When Kanath and Peb were the two POV characters, this chapter was the first one, and it would have been a terrific first chapter. But it had to go, and will appear in one of the sequels as a flashback.

Whittling “Discarded Faces” down from two characters to one was not a decision I made lightly, but I had to do it because the novel seemed to be getting out of hand. I felt like I was losing control over it.

I chose Peb because Kanath doesn’t do anything in DF but suffer–because she’s sent to a concentration camp. Peb spends most of DF as an observer, as she changes her perspective and comes to understand the necessity of overthrowing the regime. But she finally acts.

I knew Peb was gay from the start, but closeted out of dire necessity. For many drafts, Peb and Kanath were lovers, but I decided it would be more interesting if they were just friends. I created a new character, Zel, to be Peb’s lover. Eventually it occurred to me that the oppressive regime needed to be personified in someway, so In later drafts the character Ruslee appeared. Balk entered the work as an unsympathetic character, but I liked Ruslee better in that role, so I reimagined Balk.

I originally imagined my Thwaasian minority as looking like Iranians, Egyptians, Moroccans and such; but readers of my early MSS automatically assumed they were African, so I created a black minority for Danallo as well, and gave them a different origin. There were now three ethnic groups–whites, Thwaasians, and Blacks. They have different histories, though all originally came from First Earth, which really is my home world though sometimes I have felt otherwise.

The religion of Danallo, Kadmonianism, was there from the beginning, but at the beginning of the writing it was all Hokus-pokus, hypocrisy, and opiate of the people. As I embarked on my own spiritual search, I made its social role more ambiguous, like real life religions.

From the start, I imagined the dystopian government would be a militaristic police state that imposed racist, misogynistic, and homophobic policies on its people. Its secret police units, the seventh and eighth secretariats, date back to the first draft.

DF reached its current form in 1997, though it has undergone stylistic revision since. If I had it to do over, discarded Faces would be a two-character work, with the removed Kanath centered chapter at the start, the vicious courtball tournament with Peb as chaper two, and the battle chapters at the end intercut with Kanath being taken to camp. But I’m content with the work as it is. It was, as I said earlier, my apprenticeship, and the rest of my writing career would never have happened if I’d never finished it.

Discarded Faces has been in print since October 2002, first as a self-published book by Steve Cross, then as an Ebook from Double Dragon Ebooks by Betty Cross, starting in March of 2010. I went full time as a writer and full-time as Betty at almost the same time. In the spring of 2012, I suddenly discovered the “Hunger Games” series thanks to the first movie, and through it the whole phenomenon of the Young Adult Dystopia. I’d known the word Dystopia since my teenage years, but suddenly I no longer had to explain to people what it meant. In 2010, I’d decided to market “Discarded Faces” as YA science fiction. Since 2012 I’ve marketed it as a YA dystopia as well.

Since DF was conceived and written well before the YA dystopia fad, it reads a bit differently from the typical a YA dystopia. It’s in the 3rd person, and the type of dystopia is closely modeled on 20th century fascism, American Jim Crow, and South African apartheid. The typical contemporary YA dystopia ranges much further afield, featuring societies that only vaguely resemble historical dictatorships. One of the things I like about “The Hunger Games” and its sequels is that the world of Panem reminds me of the Empire of Danallo in “Discarded Faces,” but even so, not very much.

So to summarize, here’s the history of “Discarded Faces.”

18 years to write
5 years looking for a publisher
8 years as a self-published work
4 years so far as an Ebook

I began to write it 35 years ago.

There’s a lesson here for beginning writers: Don’t give up.

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