Thank you from the League

As November draws to a close, and 2013 looms ahead, I wanted to say thank you for all your support and participation in 2012.  We've welcomed new people, said goodbye to a few, and we have so much more planned for you in the coming months.  Stay tuned for announcements and updates as things are finalized.

Happy Holidays!

An editor on being edited

I wanted to introduce you all to Amy McCulloch for several reasons. She has a special perspective from being an editor who is about to also become an author (at a different publisher). Also, her book sounds amazing. And we share some countries in common -- I've had some of my best travel adventures in Africa and New Zealand. I hope to meet her in person someday, but for now, I'm enjoying her words of wisdom here. – Lissa

I’ve been a writer for as long as I can remember, and for all that time, that title has had to fit in around other aspects of my life. I’ve been a writer-and-student, a-writer-and-waitress, a writer-and-gap-year-traveller, and now I’m a writer-and-editor.

It was while working in my current job (as a commissioning editor of SF/F for a major London house) that I announced my book deal for the debut YA fantasy I’ve been toiling away at since university. Naturally, the first question that I’m asked now is: What’s it like to be edited, when your day job is editing other people’s work?

When I first got the deal, I had to keep the answer fairly non-committal. I would say, “Oh yeah, it will be fine... editing is great!” But since going through structural and line edits over the summer with my brilliant Random House editor, Lauren Buckland, I can now answer that question for real: It is really, really hard – but that has nothing to do with the fact that I’m an editor!

The funniest thing is most people’s assumption that because I’m an editor, my work won’t need editing. Shouldn’t I be able to do that sort of thing myself? That being my job and all... but that couldn’t be further from the truth!

In other people’s work, I’m always looking for key things: character development, plot continuity, world-building... But for some reason, when I’m looking at my own work, the blinkers go on and I have trouble seeing the forest for the trees.

I always think that if an editor has done their job well, almost everything they say, the author will already know (even if that’s way deep down inside). That is exactly what my editor did for me: her notes drew out all the elements of the book that I knew needed work, and told me to focus on them. That was the hard part. Coming out of a long day job (and that goes for anyone who works and writes!) and engaging that problem-solving side of the brain, which is different from the purely creative side, was definitely a strain. And also making sure that the logic of the world still makes sense after changing, adding or adjusting sentences is a particular peril when writing anything with fantastical or magical elements! The experience also put things in perspective for me as an editor too: sometimes a little comment that can seem like an aside – like “how did these two characters meet?” – can start a chain reaction in an author’s brain about how to further develop the story! The trick is to figure out the balance between addressing the problem and creating a whole slew of new ones.

Yet ultimately, I know I’m lucky. Every day I get to be immersed in story – whether it’s my own, or somebody else’s – and that’s been my dream from the moment I fell in love with reading. Writers-with-day-jobs out there: how has your day job impacted your writing, if at all?


Amy McCulloch is a girl of many publishing hats: author, editor, and reader. Originally from Ottawa, Canada, she currently lives in London, UK. Other than books, she is addicted to travelling, running and Starbucks coffee.

Her debut novel THE OATHBREAKER'S SHADOW is due June 6 2013 from Random House Children's Publishers. Find out more on her blog or feel free to say hello on Twitter

The Oathbreaker’s Shadow SYNOPSIS

Fifteen-year-old Raim lives in a world where you tie a knot for every promise that you make. Break that promise and you are scarred for life, and cast out into the desert.

Raim has worn a simple knot around his wrist for as long as he can remember. No one knows where it came from, and which promise of his it symbolises, but he barely thinks about it at all - not since becoming the most promising young fighter ever to train for the elite Yun guard. But on the most important day of his life, when he binds his life to his best friend (and future king) Khareh, the string bursts into flames and sears a dark mark into his skin.

Scarred now as an oath-breaker, Raim has two options: run, or be killed.

A gripping YA action-adventure fantasy, the first part of a planned duology.

Advice for Young Writers: Live Life

I was recently asked what my best advice is for young writers. Beyond read (a lot) and write (a lot), my main advice is to live life.

Travel (even if it’s just to the next town over), meet new people (even if it’s only Starbucks employees), run (even if you can only do it for a hundred yards), fall in love (even if the other person doesn’t love you back), knit a sweater (even if it turns out hideous), do stuff that scares you (even if it’s only doing any of the things on this list so far). 

The point is, by expanding our life experiences, we can make our stories and character interactions richer and more authentic. And even if you never finish your novel (or find an agent or a publisher), at least you lived life to the fullest you could.

Creativity Advice from

So, I was cruising through my Google Reader feed last night, and I came across this article on "5 Workplace Annoyances That Can Boost Your Creativity." It's well worth a read. Although it is on Cracked, so expect some mild profanity and puerile humor. If that sort of thing offends you, don't click through. (Actually, if that sort of thing offends you, it may be best to stay off the internet entirely.)

It struck me that these apply to writers, too. So here's my reinterpretation of the five workplace annoyances as applied to writing:

5. You're more creative when you're tired or drunk

I once heard that Jack Prelutsky wrote all his poems in the middle of the night. It makes sense now. And all those legions of alcoholic writers? Now I get it. And resemble it.

4. Sarcastic people can help you generate ideas

The snarky main character has become such a fixture in YA that she's almost a cliche. Now I understand.  Sarcasm boosts creativity, writers need to be creative, therefore writers are more likely to be skilled with sarcasm. And to pass on this skill to their characters.

3. Constant annoying background noise helps you focus

Can we finally put the mockery of the coffee shop writer to rest? Silence is deadly--to creativity.

2. A sex-free mind is a creative mind

It turns out that thinking about sex activates the analytical parts of your brain, while thinking about love activates the creative parts of your brain. (Cracked cites this fascinating study.) Maybe there's a scientific explanation for what I always thought about during math tests. On the other hand, two words might explain my math-class daydreams just as well: teenage boy.

There's a wealth of incredibly moving YA literature focused on love. Whereas the few YA novels I've read that focus primarily on sex have left me, well, cold. Perhaps this study helps to explain why.

1. You're more creative when you don't get paid

Note to anyone from Tanglewood Press who reads this: I'm pretty sure I'm the exception to this rule. The more you pay me, the more creative I am.

Now that we've got that out of the way, what the authors of the study Cracked cites found was that art students who were intrinsically motivated did far better in their careers than those who were extrinsically motivated. The same is no doubt true among novelists. If you're in it primarily for the money, you're never going to make it through the inevitable rough patches--the years of trying to write a decent novel and sell it, for example.

On the other hand, I'm a little suspicious of authors who say they write only for themselves. Why put yourself through the flesh-wringing agony of trying to get published if you're only writing for yourself?

If you haven't yet, read the Cracked article--it's well worth your time. What boosts your creativity? Let me know in the comments please.

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League readers, today’s guest blogger is Jennifer Rush. I read and blurbed her terrific, fast-paced YA debut Altered, which releases January of next year.  Learn from her advice on pacing – Lissa.


I started writing Altered before I really knew what it was I was writing. I knew I wanted to write a Jason Bourne type novel for YA readers, with lots of action, but with quieter moments interspersed throughout. It wasn’t until my agent went out with Altered that I learned it was technically a thriller. Up until that point, I’d always pictured thrillers as being a mix of Robert Ludlum and Michael Jackson’s zombie music video. Thriller was a genre I had little experience with. And one of the biggest characteristics of the genre is fast pacing.
As my editor said, “…the pacing is expected to be tightly-wound.” And before I started working with her, I had no idea how to tightly wind anything. It was only because of her, and her brilliant editing skills, that I was able to make Altered a better thriller. So, I’m going to share with you my top three tips for upping the pacing in your novel.
1. Never a Dull Moment

As my editor pointed out in my first revision letter, a large part of my action sequences were in the last third of my novel. She suggested I either move some action scenes closer to the beginning, or add new ones. Since I’m a visual learner, I used the notecard method and wrote out each chapter on one notecard. I also used different colored pens for different types of scenes. So, for example, action sequences were written in green.

When I spread the cards out and stepped back, it became immediately clear that my editor was right. There was a lot of green near the end, but far too much blue (what I considered “quieter” moments) in the beginning.

By adding notes in the correlating pen colors, I was able to balance out the scenes on the index cards before even tackling the revision. This helped immensely. And, despite the fact that I absolutely hate the notecard method, I’ve used it for every major revision since then. It works!
2. Cut the Grocery Shopping

This is an expansion of tip #1. Grocery shopping is dull. And it wasn’t until my editor pointed it out that I had an unusually large number of grocery shopping scenes. I knew my characters had to eat, but buying the food didn’t help the plot at all, and it certainly didn’t help the pacing.
If you find your characters doing mundane every-day things---shopping, sitting in a classroom, surfing the Internet---make sure it’s absolutely integral to furthering the plot along. If it’s not, CUT IT.

3. Never Let Your Characters Relax

Even if your characters have momentarily escaped the bad guy, even if they’re holed up in a cushy hotel room, do not let them relax.
Put yourself in their shoes---if you were hunted by someone, or your life was in danger, would you be hanging out on the couch watching TV? Maybe, maybe your friends and family have no idea you’re in danger, but that doesn’t mean you’ve forgotten about it.

Make your character jumpy. Make them check (and double-check) the locks on the doors. Make them toss and turn in bed. Make them set up booby traps. Something to remind the reader that even though there’s nothing dangerous currently in the room, there could be something lurking just outside a darkened window.

Jennifer Rush began telling lies at the age of five and was immediately hooked. Fiction was far better than reality, and she spent most of her teens writing (about vampires, naturally). She currently lives in Michigan with her husband and two kids and enjoys eating ice cream in her spare time. Altered is her debut novel. You can find out more on her website at or follow her on twitter @jenn_rush

Do Catholics Have Sex?

I'm probably lucky that I got to the National Council of Teachers of English convention in Las Vegas on the last day. I'm pretty sure that if I'd been here longer, I would have gotten kicked out by now.

Not five minutes after I arrived on the show floor today (Sunday, September 18th), a woman asked, "Does this book have sex in it? I teach at a Catholic school."

Without event thinking about it, I replied, "I'm fairly certain Catholics have sex, too." Obviously not my most politic moment.

I've blogged about sex in YA literature before. I still don't get it. Are those who object to it afraid that teens will imitate what they read? Any kid who imitated everything he or she read would have died before becoming a teen while trying the stunts that fill our middle grade literature. I'm pretty sure that re-enacting any Rick Riordan novel would be deadly.

Maybe they're afraid that the more teens know about sex, the more they'll be tempted to experiment? In fact, the opposite is true. The more teenagers know about sex, the more likely they are to delay sexual activity and to practice safe sex. This brings up an important point: limiting teens' access to books that realistically portray sexuality, increases the chances that those teens will have early and unsafe sex. Censorship hurts kids.

Maybe they're raising pristine children, untainted by any hint of sexuality. If there's any family out there without a television, radio, or internet access; well, okay, fine. That family (and only that family) might find something in YA literature that their children haven't already seen in far more graphic form. The rest of us have no such excuse.

Am I missing something here? What rationalizations do you hear for objecting to sex in YA literature? Let me know in the comments, please.

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National Novel Writing Month: 4 Quick Tips for High Concept Drafting

Ok, so maybe you're insane enough to take on National Novel Writing Month, and considering how awesome it is, that's makes you crazy cool.  But I digress.  I've done and won NaNo the last two years, but this year I had to make the tough choice to back out in favor of meeting a tight deadline.  So I'm imparting my knowledge to you in hopes that you carry the torch forth and write some kick-ass, high concept science fiction this month.

The trick to NaNo is to dive in.  Sure, lots of people plan and outline for months ahead of time, but for others the sheer joy of just writing is what makes November special.  I fall into the latter category, so here's some tips for writing high concept when you have no clue what you're doing or where your story is heading.

1.  Be generic - Sure interesting terminology is an essential part of worldbuilding, but maybe you don't know what title your villainous space overlord claims so you call him The Man.  No big deal.  Save that terminological soul searching for revisions.  The Man is fine for a draft (also I claim The Man because it's kind of cool).
2.  Throw in the kitchen sink - The key to writing an insane number of words in a month is to have fun!  Nothing kills your desire to write like getting stuck in boring scenes.  This month focus on the scenes you want to write.  Always wanted to blow up a space ship?  Do it.  Want an alien to speak in pig latin?  Why not?  You can reign it in next month.
3.  Pre-write - Want some basic writing advice?  Spend 5-10 minutes free writing thoughts about what you are going to write.  It sounds like a waste of time, but I can almost guarantee you'll see your word count go up.
4.  Don't get caught in details - Exactly how does a genetic mutation occur?  What exactly is string theory?  Is it possible to build an aquadome in the arctic?  Who cares?  Just write it.  Save all that (important) research for later.

So what's my basic thesis?  Just let go and write.   You may have a draft full of pig latin and space station invasions at the end, but I'll bet you have a lot of fun writing it.

Conventions: Think Outside Your Genre

Leaguers, meet Amie Kaufman, an Australian-based writer coming out next year with her YA science fiction debut titled THESE BROKEN STARS.

I’ve just come home from the inaugural GenreCon, an Australian convention for “anyone who gets their own section in the bookstore”. I met authors of romance, mystery, science fiction, fantasy, crime, horror, thrillers and more. It changed the way I see conferences and conventions.

Writers, editors, agents and the occasional reader (without whom we are nothing!) attended discussion panels at GenreCon on everything from “writing adult themes” (that one ran late at night, after drinks!), to research, career tips, world building and so much more. Multi-award winning authors taught workshops on everything from writing effective fight scenes to author platform. Teams lined up for a hilarious Plotters vs Pantsers debate. Sarah Wendell from Smart Bitches, Trashy Books gave us some live cover snark and introduced us to the were-platypus. International guest of honor, author Joe Abercrombie, admitted he’s just like the rest of us—he would totally sleep with Mr. Darcy to get Pemberley.

While the Aussies were having a fantastic time at GenreCon, half my Twitter feed was in Toronto at the World Fantasy Convention. All year I watch friends head off to WorldCon (the world science fiction convention) or the RWA Conference, or recently (to my intense envy!) LeakyCon – that’s right, Harry Potter!

There are lots of reasons to go to these conferences and conventions. You can improve your craft, meet your heroes, network like crazy to find anything from a critique partner to an agent, hear all the news that’s too hot to print, and remind yourself that although writing can feel like a solo sport, it’s anything but. I go for all those reasons.

But at GenreCon, I found something a little different. I took a workshop with award-winning historical romance author Anna Campbell - on how to research historical fiction. Incredibly useful for the steampunk book I’m tinkering with, and the romance authors in the room came at the question of setting the scene from a different angle to my science fiction brain. I listened to Aussie horror author Martin Livings talk about the visceral thrill of a horrifying moment, and what draws a reader to pursue it. I look for these moments in my work, but Martin has more experience than I ever will in this genre, and he knows his craft. I listened to Sarah Wendell talk passionately (and hilariously) about why romance challenges those who criticize it, and the strength of plots that empower women—a lesson that can go far beyond the romance world. I attended a world building panel featuring a fantasy author, a crime writer and a regency romance author, and heard three distinct points of view. I chaired a panel on researching your world, and heard from a historical author, a science fiction author and a medical/crime author—again, they all brought wonderfully different perspectives to the same question. They challenged the way I thought.

It was fantastic and different to mix it up with authors of crime, romance and horror, none of which are familiar to me as a reader or an author. I saw ideas through a new lens, found new plans of attack for old problems, and drew a new kind of energy from the discussion.

You know what was the same, though? The fact that no matter what genre you’re talking about, the genre community rocks. Everyone I met was warm, inclusive and welcoming, whether they were talking to a guest of honor, or an aspiring writer.

In 2013, I challenge you to look outside the box for conferences and conventions in your area—try something that’s not of your genre, and see what you learn! I guarantee you’ll find a new angle on your work.

Amie is the co-author of THESE BROKEN STARS, a YA sci-fi novel coming in 2013 from Disney-Hyperion. You can find Amie at her blog, on Twitter or on Facebook. Amie lives in Melbourne, Australia, with her husband and rescue dog, and this week she's reading her first ever regency romance.


A few weeks ago, in the midst of this exhausting book tour for ASHEN WINTER, I saw this tree:

It's an old, hollowed out sycamore tree growing beside a stream in Fortville, Indiana. From the top of that seemingly dead trunk sprouts a vibrant young sycamore about six inches in diameter. I took a picture because the image plucked a chord within me.

Sometimes students ask why I became a writer. And I tell them it was the only job left after I got fired from every other profession I tried. I answer that way because it's funny, and I like to be extremely candid in my interactions with students--they can smell fakers from all the way down the hall.

But the truth is that I fired myself; I quit most of the jobs I held before I was a writer. I did a bit of everything: janitor, marketing executive, wine salesman, and remodeling company owner among others. In each job, I felt like that old sycamore tree, getting progressively more hollow as small daily iniquities rotted me and office politics gnawed my core.

Now, I feel more like that new tree, growing fast and proud from a base of failure. In another sense, though, all those abandoned careers were anything but a failure. Everything I tried informs my writing today. The new tree could not exist without the roots the old one put down.

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Storms, Impending Apocalypsies, and Preparations

Okay, so Sandy hit the East Coast last week, and I couldn't tear myself from the news footage. It felt like a different world, as I turned off the TV, went outside to the warmest end of October we've had in a long time (I didn't even wear a jacket), got in my car, and drove to work.

My life was completely and utterly different from what was happening just a thousand or so miles away.

I watched the devastation of a Staten Island woman whose house was literally picked up and moved, and she was finding pictures of her mother in a field. I listened as people ranted about needing help, and not getting it. Lots of pictures here, that I looked through, just sort of dumbstruck (scroll down to slide show).

I wanted to help them. Send them the food and water I have stored in my garage, donate the advance I just got for my third book. Whatever they needed. I just couldn't imagine living through that, and then having to pick up the pieces afterward.

And it got me thinking. I live in Utah, right along a major fault line. We're told here to be prepared for an earthquake at any time. We actually have emergency preparedness fairs, and drills, and all of the above.

I have enough food and water stored for me and my family for three months. Thanks to Mike's ASHFALL, I have bottles of ibuprofen and vitamin C. I have toiletries stored. I have a small stove, and the fuel to use it.

I know how to turn off the water and gas to my house, and I feel like I could evacuate with my 72-hour kit if I needed to.

But what if I didn't have a home to come back to? What if my carefully laid-up storage was swallowed by the earth, along with the rest of my belongings?

I find this equally frightening and fascinating to think about, because it's the root of dystopian fiction. A cataclysmic event happened, and society marched on. Just like the people out East, who will pick up the pieces, weld them back together, and move on.

So I know that even if the apocalypse happens this December (not that far away!), life will continue on. Whether we are prepared or not, time marches forward, and those who are alive will do whatever they can to survive.

Helping out before the locusts arrive!

As I write this a Nor’easter (named Athena by the Weather Channel) is dumping “waffles” (at least according to Jim Cantore) of snow on the Northeast—just a week after a hurricane named Sandy wreaked havoc there. My heart goes out to those who still don’t have power—or intact homes—in that area. You all have seen the pictures (or lived through it!): blocks of Queens burnt to the ground, boats on Staten Island in people’s houses, the Atlantic City Boardwalk in tatters, and homes on the Jersey shore destroyed. Now imagine it all covered in snow. As New Jersey Gov Chris Christie so eloquently put it: "I am waiting for the locusts and pestilence next."

In fact, excuse me while I digress a moment, the whole scene does remind me of a dystopian climate change novel—trilogy actually. As soon as I heard about the impending winter storm , I thought of Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy: Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below, and Sixty Days and Counting. In them, in the very near future, a major east coast city gets hit by a tropical storm, practically drowning the infrastructure, and then it gets covered with a near arctic winter. Sound familiar? Only, in the books, the city is Washington DC, and winter at least had the good grace to wait a few months.

Anyway. I’m guessing the denizens of the Northeast are going to be needing even more help to recover from Sandy + Athena and any locusts or pestilence that follow. You’re probably familiar with the major relief efforts, such as the Red Cross, etc. The YA community, as usual, also has at least one really good fundraiser ongoing. Check out YA Highway’s KidLit Cares auction for Sandy relief.

Also, if you’re interested in helping rebuild libraries in the New Jersey and New York area, check the ALA’s Helping United States Libraries After Disasters.

Please feel free to list any other publishing, library, or school-related fundraisers below in the comments.

Stay warm!

Extraordinary News!

Lots of fun and exciting news for the League this month!

Lissa's currently in sunny La Jolla (ack, I'm so jealous of her!) teaching at the La Jolla Writer's Conference. Give us a shout-out if you see her there!

And tell her thanks--she's also offering up a query crit for an auction to benefit Red Cross for the victims of Hurricane Sandy (and if you snag representation, she's also offering a follow-up!). More information on this tax-deductible auction--including links to lots of other auctions with crits from agents and more authors--can be found here.

STARTERS is taking over the world on country at a time and sold in Romania.

In the Netherlands, STARTERS has been nominated at Crimezone for Best YA Thriller: Shortlist Buitenland (non-Netherlands For voting instructions in English, please

Susanne has lots of cover news. First, she debuted the cover of her upcoming YA Thriller, IMPOSTER, which will be out July 11, 2013. Go here to read a full description.

And Susanne has a cover for the sequel to her debut, THE LIFE BEYOND! Click her for more details and a full spread of the dust jacket.

Lenore has exciting news for LEVEL 2--an excerpt of the US audiobook is available here!

And finally, I have a little news myself. I'm hosting a big contest right now in celebration of YA books--and the prize is fifty signed YA books! It's super easy to enter--full details are here :)

Moffat's Missed Opportunity

My husband and I are big Doctor Who fans. Recently, we were talking about one of my favorite recent episodes--Asylum of the Daleks, where Oswin is introduced--and the husband came up with a great theory.

(Spoilers ahead if you've not seen that episode)

See, in Asylum of the Daleks, Oswin is trapped in a Dalek prison. The Doctor tries to save her--but when he finally reaches her, he discovers that the Daleks have turned her into one of them. Through intense medical procedures, they've put her mind inside Dalek armor. She's no longer human. She's Dalek. But she's somehow been able to maintain her human soul and mind. It's with great sadness that the Doctor, at the end of the episode, has to leave Oswin behind as he destroys the whole planet.

Now, this episode was great. It had a twist ending and a tear-jerker surprise.

But Moffat missed an opportunity.

See, Oswin was human--on the inside. It was only her outside that was changed to a Dalek, the Doctor's long-time enemy. My husband came up with a great plot idea. What if the Doctor saved Oswin? What if he took her with him? He could make a hologram that would show her real body (to the audience and to the other characters), but there could come a time (say when she had to climb steps) that the hologram would fade, and he'd flinch to see her real body. He could be torn between loving her for who she is, and hating her for what's become of her. The plot could even revolve around the day Oswin loses her humanity and fails in the fight against the part of her that's being consumed by Daleks.

In talking with my husband, we both realized immediately how awesome such a story line would be. The Doctor's hated the Daleks for so long that having him actually fall in love (not even romantically, but as a friend) with one would be brilliant. It's the opposite of what anyone would expect for that character.

But Moffat missed that opportunity. He blew up the planet instead.

I'm sure many of you have seen the Pixar graphic of 22 Tips for Writers. Rule 12 is:
Discount the first thing that comes to mind. And the second, third, fourth, and fifth--get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
This is what Moffat should have done. The obvious thing is When the Doctor sees a Dalek, he hates it and kills it. That's classic. That's old. It's been done.

But how awesome would it have been to have totally turned that on its head? To have, instead, done When the Doctor sees a Dalek, he can't hate it. He can't kill it. He grows to love it.

That? That would have been brilliant.

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Living in Dystopia

Please welcome Eugene Myers as our guest blogger today! His debut, FAIR COIN, came out in March of this year, and the sequel, Quantum Coin, just came out this month.

I attended what was considered to be a “rough” high school, though it probably wasn’t any more dangerous than any of the other public schools in Yonkers. We had fewer knifings than some of the others, anyway. But the acts of violence got bad enough in my senior year that the school district could no longer ignore them, so they decided on “random” metal detector sweeps of classrooms to deter students from bringing weapons to school. One of the classes they selected was my AP American History class, which was basically filled with the top 30 ranking students; strangely enough, all the metal detector wands picked up were the 3.5” floppy discs most of us carried around to store their work, which were incidentally erased by the sweep.

That year, we had a new principal, who had either come from a notoriously troubled school, or had previously been a prison warden, depending on whom you asked. He implemented stricter rules as soon as he arrived, including mandatory student IDs. But many of the changes that were supposed to protect students only made our lives harder while enabling the administration to keep better tabs on us. Moreover, it seemed like a unilateral punishment of everyone for the actions of a few—making us all feel like criminals. The metal detector incident in particular gave me the impression that the school didn’t truly want to find any weapons, because that would require them to deal with the situation and the media attention that came with it.

It was unsettling, a warning sign of more changes to come, but despite some efforts to improve conditions through subversive articles in our independent (ie. rogue) high school newspaper, me and my friends let it go. We were going to escape soon, so it wasn’t worth fighting the system too much. And indeed, soon after graduation, metal detectors were installed at all the entrances, and the school more closely resembled a totalitarian police state.

I bring this up, even though it dates me and makes me feel old—all this went down circa 1995—to illustrate my theory that one of the reasons why dystopian YA is so popular is because many kids live in dystopias today. I’m probably not the first to draw this comparison; the closest I can find online right now are essays about high school in Buffy the Vampire Slayer being a literal hell, with graduation equating the Apocalypse.

But if this idea is new to you, think about it: In most cases, teens are forced (by their parents and city governments) to go to school every weekday, where they have no power and little independence. Their schedules are strictly regimented and school administrations make the rules, some of them entirely arbitrary, enforcing them by meting out punishments like detention, suspension, expulsion, black marks on school records, revoked privileges, and other “disciplinary actions.” Lately schools have even been implementing camera surveillance, RFID tracking of students’ whereabouts, and even monitoring of students’ activities through their laptops and tablets. Kids can be suspended just for drawing on their desks, and then there’s the rampant peer bullying that so often goes unchecked by the powers that be. For some kids, life at home may not be much better. No wonder that adults are so often regarded with distrust in fiction and in life.

Granted, this comparison paints a bleak picture of our adolescent years, and represents an oversimplification of the broad dystopian genre, but my point is that even kids at the best schools and the happiest homes can relate to many of the problems dystopian protagonists face—and share the same hopes and fears. There’s the anticipation of escape at the end of it all, that if you play by the rules you can lead a better life one day, as well as the fantasy of defying the rules and improving everyone’s lot. You hang on until graduation or until you’re eighteen, thinking that it will all get better once you’re out of your school, your parents’ house, your hometown, and on your own.

Though my YA books, Fair Coin and Quantum Coin, are science fiction, they are not dystopian. But the protagonists do visit some dystopian parallel universes, including an alternate contemporary world where the United States is at war with the U.S.S.R., China, and much of Europe. The biggest problems for teens living in this dark, but eerily familiar version of the U.S. are a mandatory curfew and the fact that all of them will be drafted into military service as soon as they graduate high school—which, by the way, is in session on Saturdays. In the midst of a war, the protagonists from our universe are most shocked to find that high school lasts all summer long. They don’t even get a senior prom. It’s more shocking still that the teens who occupy that universe simply accept all this as the norm; it’s the only life they know, and what choices do they have, anyway?

We all experience our own private dystopias every day, whether it’s a restrictive school, an oppressive work environment, or a bad relationship. By reading dystopian and young adult fiction, we can feel less alone and more hopeful; these stories offer not only a temporary escape from our problems, but they can help inspire and empower us to seek a permanent escape from the darkness in our lives.

What dystopian elements do you see around you?

E.C. Myers was assembled in the U.S. from Korean and German parts and raised by a single mother and a public library in Yonkers, New York. He has published short fiction in a variety of print and online magazines and anthologies, and his young adult novels, Fair Coin and Quantum Coin, are available now from Pyr Books. He currently lives with his wife and a doofy cat in Philadelphia and shares way too much information about his personal life at and on Twitter @ecmyers.