[I have no idea why this post has such wonky formatting. I’ve tried to look at it in visual and text mode, and I can’t figure out why it’s not doing what I’m telling it to do. ]
Following the Cybils, I was thinking about what I’d like to see more and less of in books in 2013. What am I burned out on? What have been wishing for? What would I like to see more of, all the time? I’ve been picking away at this post for weeks, so it’s probably time to put it out there. In the interest of not making anyone think that I’m talking about them, I’m going to try to keep this focused on the wishes side of things as opposed to things I’m tired of. (I’ve read almost 1,000 books and manuscripts in the last three years. I’m not talking about you, I swear. Even if you recognize something that feels like it is or could be about you, it’s STILL not. I’m talking about general, blurry impressions from the entire pool of things I’ve read, including adult books, periodicals, picture books, and so on.)
Outstanding Historical Settings
I love it when I get swept into another time. I love it best when that time has been carefully researched, and deviations from the real are carried out with careful consideration. Bring to life 1920s Chicago or 1910s San Francisco or Russia during the 18th century. That’s one of the things that made me love Code Name Verity so much this year. The other reason is…
I wish for more books that put relationships, especially friendships, at the forefront. The friendship in Code Name Verity made it the book I bought in bulk to give to people this last year. But, really, this wish could be extended to other kinds of relationships–siblings, cross-generation, adversaries, and so on. I mean, How to Save a Life was an awesome read from the last year(ish) as well. (I’m not going to look up the publication dates of books I bring up in this post.) And a P.S. to this: I dislike when in the first few chapters of a book, a woman or girl talks about how she doesn’t have any friends who are women or girls, and they’re all [insert word I say, but not on the internet], which is usually followed by some explanation that all of the other women are out to get her man. It’s perfectly okay for a woman to feel disconnected from such friendships, but I implore you, please let it be for more complex reasons and more specific to that character, rather than making me think it’s a shortcut or a way to avoid developing other characters.
Smart Fantasies with Carefully Developed Plots and Worlds
Bring me more like The Girl of Fire and Thorns/Crown of Embers, Seraphina, Vessel, Grave Mercy, and one of my all-time science-fantasy favorites, Incarceron. No hand-waving. No magic in the machine; no magic without consequences (unless it truly has no consequences in the story and is only window-dressing). Bring me worlds that are nothing like my own. Bring me whimsy and darkness. And once there’s a world, build a worthy story inside it with a plot that grips me and precise, careful writing and characters that I want to stick with for, gulp, 400 or so pages.
Harder Science Fiction
It’s not that I don’t like “soft” SF, meaning the sorts of books that Wikipedia describes as often being about “anthropology, sociology, psychology, political science, and so on.” I do like it. I’d characterize the thought-provoking Every Day as soft SF, for example, as well as the brilliant Unwind and sequel(s). Anthropology, sociology, and those sorts of things can pave the way toward wonderful, terrible dystopian stories. (But: I am completely burned out on stories where women and girls are kidnapped, imprisoned, and impregnated, unless it’s one of a very small set of series I am already reading, including Glow and/or Bumped. Really, I understand that there’s a certain zeitgeist, but it’s grossing me out to no end, unless there’s a compelling commentary underneath it all.)
Anyway, I meant to say: I would like more books like Insignia and Planesrunner and Adaptation and The Way We Fall. Bring me military SF and sciencey SF. And bring me dinosaurs and volcanoes, earthquakes and meteors, viruses and genetic engineering, space, aliens, and time travel…and bring me the versions of those stories that were inspired by Scientific American. Bring me chemistry and math and evolution (oh dear, I am suddenly reminded of how scary Fragment was, and now I have to go hide under the bed).
Diversity, Many Ways
That’s a little vague, and it might be even more vague if I say I want diversity along many axes without it always being an “issue.” Let more kinds of people be in more kinds of books playing more kinds of roles, including main roles, okay? Let there be more explorations of our differences and similarities, with subtlety and love. The books on my mind right now are only science fiction and fantasy examples, so I’ll skip naming good names this time because I mean it, all books, all around. I’m not going to kid you; there are still barriers for these books to be embraced widely–but so what? Go there. Bring it. Mirror the real world.
Two Steps Away, or One Good Twist
I am not up for any more books where I have the feeling that someone thought that it would be a good idea to take someone’s actual religion, race, or culture and decide that it would stand in for magic in the story. Please don’t. Please make magic broader–open to all cultures/religions/people–or narrower (just that one person). Tip: some of those religions and myths that seem ripe for “magic” are, get this, actual religions. Tread carefully.
I’m going to seem like I’m contradicting myself, a little, next. Though I value diversity, I’ve come across quite a few books in the last couple of years that add to the diversity column, but that aren’t really representative of the cultures/races/religions/genders/sexualities/(many other things) that they are attempting to represent. Sometimes, it’s not knowing what you don’t know. Sometimes, it’s an outsider perspective that supports stereotypes, or that isn’t balanced fairly by insider perspectives on the bookshelves. Sometimes, it’s just clumsy, and it sounds like or looks like something, but to those who are the something (that you aren’t), it just looks like you just made stuff up and didn’t care enough to study the conventions of language, place, customs, beliefs, attitudes, society, and so on. So here’s where I say that it’s okay to take two big steps away from the original. If you’re inspired by, say, the way a particular city has a particular layout of roads, and there’s a particular meaning ascribed to that layout that isn’t working for your story, take two steps away. Create a city that has a unique roadmap, and determine if it will have–or not have–an underlying, different meaning for that layout. Or go two steps in a different direction, and decide that a handful of people in your story use maps to tell a city’s fortune. Or maybe there are city planners tasked with having roads built in a way that does…something. Gives the city good luck, or good health, or prosperity. (And, ooh, what if the city planners are corrupt, and what if it’s all a big lie in the first place, and what if it isn’t?)
The other option that can work is the quarter-turn. My example for this is Jessica Spotswood’s Born Wicked, wherein religion and power in the colonial United States went juuuuuust a little differently from how it went in reality, and girls with magic are in danger. Here, you can see where history (and magic) took a left turn, and how that skewed other aspects of the setting. For this to work, I think, care has to be taken in what is changed and the implications; there are still pitfalls, particularly when you’re writing from a position of relative power.
A quarter-turn that is very hard to pull off is the self-insert time travel story; I think that inventing a character in the correct time period is more likely to succeed.
Love in New Shapes
Ah, the love triangle. Ah, no. I think of all my unrequited loves and all of the students (and grownups) I’ve known with crushes unappreciated. How likely is it that you’re going to love someone at the same time they love you? I’d love to see some ships passing in the night, some fragile first loves, some fumbly slow-growing romances. I’d love to see some squares: he loves she loves she loves he loves and maybe they both love, reciprocated or not. I’d love some loves that don’t need labels, though this last bit is only personal preference.
Again, I don’t want anyone to think this is about them, so I’m going to have to be vague. I have been seeing a lot of the same voices. The narrators, all POVs, all sound alike (and, frequently, like everyone else in the book, except for the adults, who call everyone sweetie). A lot of them don’t sound like teens or tweens or children, even the precocious young person necessary to pull off the story–because, after all, we want to read about people doing neat things that we aren’t doing. On occasion, I’ve seen the “sockpuppet teen,” where the whole time I’m reading, I have this mental image of the author wanting to say something, so they put this tube sock on their arm and draw a smiley face and…it’s rare, really, but be aware of it. Compare this sockpuppet or unoriginal voice to something like Chime or Bleeding Violet. And can I get a wave for the unreliable narrators? The ones that hold back and don’t spill their darkest secrets on page one? The ones that save everything up for one perfect line? That put it all out there but don’t tell me what to think?
If You Must Retell…
Fairy tales are attractive. I think they’re most attractive as oral stories. I tend to find many retellings too direct; why not interweave a plot more subtly? Do I even have to know where the inspiration came from? (If I could go back in time, I’d tell early-2000s-writer-me to take this advice.) Lately, I’ve enjoyed For Darkness Shows the Stars, A Curse Dark as Gold, Toads and Diamonds, Lips Touch: Three Times, White Cat, and others that took two steps away from their originals.
Girls with Agency, Boys with Wide Worldviews, and Acknowledgment of Other Genders
Just what it says on the wrapper. Please: more girls whose primary life complication isn’t societal oppression. Please: more boys who do things that “typical” “macho” boys don’t do. Please: acknowledge gender identities outside the binary. Please: make worlds that offer everyone opportunities to take part in everything.
Maybe the guy doesn’t get the girl (or, heck, want the girl). Maybe good and evil aren’t so far apart. Maybe the character runs away and doesn’t take up the quest and has to deal with those consequences. I don’t know. I do know that a couple of times in the last couple of years, I’ve read books that went in odd and unexpected and engaging directions and stopped at heart-squeezing moments…and then they turned out to be the first in a series, rather than the memorable standalones I thought they were!
Not everything has to have sequels. I mean, people are always wishing for more, but sometimes, one book is the right amount of story, and the right amount of imaginative and memorable. I’d like to pick up a book, be immersed, and have a whole reading experience, not 1/3 of a reading experience, next books to come out years from now. Not that series are awful! I’d just like more single titles.
Mature Themes with Maturity
And one from a friend: treat mature themes with maturity. If it’s a big deal, and it’s serious, and it’s seriously going to change the life of a character, maybe it should be a serious thing in a book (unless, of course, your book is all about the humor).
That One Book I Hope You Wrote
Dear author: We met at RMFW in 2010; we both joined the random lunch line, and were seated with two other aspiring authors. You were writing a fantasy book about a girl, a horse race, and a terrible choice. I was a complete creeper and followed you into the bathroom to tell you that I hoped you’d write it–and it was the best idea I’d heard all weekend. Did you write it? I’ve been wondering about it ever since.