Lauren DeStefano & Moira Young Share Advice on Writing Dystopian Fiction

By Maryann Yin 

Have you ever tried to write dystopian fiction?

We caught up with The Chemical Garden trilogy author Lauren DeStefano and the Dustlands trilogy author Moira Young to talk about the art of writing dystopian fiction. 

DeStefano (pictured, left) and Young (pictured, right) both have finished their second novels: DeStefano’s Fever (out today) and Young’s Rebel Heart (coming in October). We’ve included highlights from the interview below…

LD = Lauren DeStefano

MY = Moira Young

Q: What advice do you have for authors looking to create a story set specifically in a dystopian world?

MY: Read the paper, watch the news, think about the things that concern you about the world we live in today and what your concerns are for the future. When you come upon something that grabs you, that enrages or obsesses you or makes you go – what if? – pick up that thread and follow it.

I’ve not actually read very much dystopian or post-apocalyptic fiction. [I read] The Drowned World (Ballard), On the Beach (Shute), Brave New World (Huxley) and 1984 (Orwell), all many years ago, and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road when it first came out. When I started thinking about Saba’s story back in 2006, I made the decision not to read any books set in a dystopian or post-apocalyptic future.

Other people, I know, read everything in the genre. I’ve done well in sticking to my own rule, although I’ve had to break it twice. I’ve shared festival platforms with Philip Reeve and Patrick Ness and had to be in a position to talk with them about their work.

LD: I hesitate to give advice on any area of writing. Writing is a deeply personal journey, and the only voice a writer should mind is his or her own. I know that, as a reader, I seek out stories that are told with bravery and honesty, by an author who was more concerned with telling the story than anything else. Those things really shine through.

Q: Has your writing process changed for this second novel? How is it different from your first?

LD: My writing process for the second novel was different from anything I’ve ever experienced. Prior to Wither, I wrote several manuscripts that the world will likely never see. And the one thing they all had in common (Wither included) was that there was no promise they would sell. There was no waiting audience. There was no book deal. There was no pressure. I do my best work in solitude.

With Fever, the story had already sold, and I’d already had the pleasure of speaking with Wither‘s audience. It was difficult to find that solitude needed in order to write. I had to find a comfortable medium in which I was able to create while also engaging my readers. I had to overcome my stage fright.

MY: I’m writing full time now, which was not the case with Blood Red Road. I’ve also got deadlines, which are an unpleasant reality of the writer’s life. Because I’m so easily distracted working at home, I’ve got a work space up the road. A plain room without internet connection or windows to gaze out of for hours on end. I’m badly missing my window gazing just at the moment.

Writing is my job now. There’s no such thing as waiting for inspiration. That’s just another word for procrastination. I have to sit down at my computer every day and write. That’s how stories get told. It sounds dull but it never is. It isn’t easy. It’s challenging and strange and wonderful and alchemy comes into it somehow.

Q: What research did you conduct during the writing process for your second novel versus your first novel?

LD: A surprising amount of medical research. There’s a particular scene wherein a character is going through a medical text, and consequently I began doing the same. One thing led to another, and before I knew it, I’d spent hours reading about uncommon ailments. I also studied post-traumatic stress, which plants grow during which seasons, what causes muteness, incinerators, and carnival rides.

MY: I’ve gone back to many of the same sources that I used for Blood Red Road, as they form the spine of Saba’s story. But I’ve had to go into certain elements in more depth, particularly the psychological and political aspects of the story. Technically, Rebel Heart is a much more complex and challenging book to write. The middle book in a trilogy bears most of the weight of the story. My greatest enemy while writing Blood Red Road was me. This time, it’s my deadline.


Q: What do you think is the best way to self-edit?

LD: I don’t know that there’s a best way. I like to edit as I go. I can spend days on a handful of paragraphs, going over and over them, making sure they say exactly what I mean. I’m not sure if this is an editing technique so much as a way for me to bond with my characters and story. I hear a lot of ‘Give yourself a break, it’s only the first draft.’ But I’ve never responded well to that.

I believe it’s my responsibility to create the strongest draft possible before I turn it in to my editor. I’m always thrilled once my editor has read my first draft and gotten back to me with her notes. That’s a privilege I never had before I got my book deal; I love to hear her ideas for making the story stronger and learning new ways to bring it to life.

MY: I write in scenes. Every scene has to move the story on. I ask myself the following three questions about each scene: Does it move the story on? Is the main character at the centre of the action? Does it support the theme (e.g. will Saba find her brother)?. If not, I scrap it or rewrite it. I’m ruthless. Always ready to kill my darlings – that perfect word, that poetic description, that wonderful character – no matter how long it’s taken me. It can be painful, but if it doesn’t serve to move the story on, it must go.

As I rewrite, the story opens up and grows and the themes emerge so it’s a constant process of thinking, planning, writing, questioning, cutting and rewriting. I keep a huge file of cut scenes and every now and again, something gets reinstated. But that’s just me. Other writers do things differently.

Q: What can you tease to your fans who are waiting for your second novels with bated breath?

LD: If you want to know what the story is about, look at the cover. Everything means something.

MY: Chronologically, Rebel Heart follows hard on the heels of Blood Red Road. Although we follow the same core group of characters, it has quite a different feel and pace. It’s the second act of the opera, if you like. We meet some new players, go to some new places and discover a bit more about the world the characters live in. But they’re all asking the same questions that we do. The questions that we keep on asking throughout our lives – Who am I? What do I believe? How can I make my life meaningful? We come up with different answers as we get older, as we learn and change. You have to grow up quickly in Saba’s world.

Q: After the second novel, what do you plan to do for your third novel?

LD: The third novel, as of right now, is written and sitting on my editor’s desk. I can’t say much about that book without crying.

MY: Write the last book in the Dustlands trilogy. After that, I’ll take a long break to go on walks and stare out of the window.