I am currently at that very exciting but very daunting stage of planning a new novel. I’m using the word ‘new’ in the loosest sense, because it’s actually going to be based on a novel I wrote about five years ago. It was rejected by publishers at the time and of course with the benefit of some distance I can now see why it was rejected (so annoying when that happens). The novel is set in a dystopian world, and while the idea at the heart of my alternative society is strong, my imagining of the full implications of how this would work is sketchy at best. Somehow this makes the exciting/daunting planning stage more important than usual as I know that this new version of the story will pass or fail on the believability of the world itself.
So, with this in mind, here is my three-step guide for re-imagining a dystopian novel that you previously didn’t think through well enough but are convinced the basic idea is strong enough to give it another shot:—
Firstly, go back to the young adult novels you love that have a dystopian setting. Books like Noughts and Crosses, by Malorie Blackman (a world where the power of race is turned on its head), The Knife of Never Letting Go, by Patrick Ness (the characters can hear each other’s thoughts so keeping secrets is almost impossible), and How I Live Now, by Meg Rosoff (the country is at war, civilisation is in chaos and the children are alone).
Notice that one of the things these books have in common is how the changed world can be summed up in one concise sentence. This simplicity of idea is at the core of each story, so mull this over and make sure that your vision is equally one-sentence-worthy.
Secondly, just because your idea has the pithy precision of a surgeon’s scalpel, it doesn’t mean the world itself should be equally pared back. In fact, this is where the work really lies and dipping into a couple of the world building websites will show you just how much there is to think about. But beware, while these websites are a valuable resource for writers (not only those writing sci-fi or fantasy), they are also a potential minefield. There is just so much information, so many possibilities, so many things to consider when creating a new or re-imagined world, that it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer size of the task. Only a couple of sentences into the first point of this article and my mind was buzzing with ideas from which I wrote over a page of notes. Basically, if you’re one of those people easily drawn in by Facebook/Twitter etc, be afraid… be very afraid. The key here is discipline and focus, so keep an eye on that one-sentence idea that brought you there in the first place, and leave as soon as you can.
And thirdly, once you’re satisfied the world itself is fully developed (or you’re so deep into it you’re convinced the world has actually changed and you’re scared to leave the house), you can now let your characters loose to run around in this world, making sure none of this hard work shows in the writing itself. Of course it will be there, a kind of undercurrent that bubbles to the surface of the tension, prodding and bothering your characters, but you’ll be working hard to make sure it’s the characters and their situation that drive the story, not those long lists of ‘what if?’ questions you’ve got pinned to the wall.
Incidentally, if you find those notes and spider diagrams and mind maps spread to an entire wall or even an entire room (I’m thinking Carrie’s room in Homeland here), it’s probably time to go out and have a coffee, maybe meet up with a friend or go to the cinema, just to remind yourself that there is still a real world out there, honest.