Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Next Time, I'll Just Count Sheep

I posted a comment, responding to other comments, in my entry about the ghost, where I mentioned that Life As We Knew It is about the mundane (which it is). If I were asked what its theme is, I'd reply, "Everyday survival in catastrophic times." I had a tenth grade teacher English teacher who was always asking us what the theme was. I resented it then, but as a grownup, I'm not so resistant to the concept. In fact, if you were to ask me what the theme of the dead and the gone is, not that you have or you will, I'd say, "Living on welfare in catastrophic times." Because basically that's what Alex and his sisters are going through, surviving on governmental and religious charity, while being required to follow their rules. Which is also a pretty mundane theme.

I mention all this because I lost a lot of sleep last night trying to work out the situation for the Possible Third Book (hereafter referred to as P3B). I haven't spoken to my editor about it since NCTE in mid-November. I haven't even given it much thought up until the past few days, devoting my brain cells instead to a YA that died aborning, and a middle group book that got written but stank. I think my brain returned to P3B because of the Junior Library Guild purchase of d&g. And it might have gotten pushed along by my editor's naive acknowledgement of her willingness to read blog reviews of d&g. That was all the encouragement I needed to send her a few, which meant I had to reread just about all of them, so I could pick and choose my favorites.

The last I heard, the earliest I would know if Harcourt will want the P3B is early fall, and even though it's sunny and sixty degrees outside, it's still January, quite a distance away from September. But my brain turned to the challenge of P3B, maybe because it's January, the same month I wrote LAWKI and d&g. Maybe my brain just expects to end the world when the days are so short.

This is the problem I've been wrestling with. LAWKI takes the most melodramatic of premises (The World Is Coming To An End! Yikes!) and asks, How do you do the laundry when the world is coming to an end. d&g starts with the identical premise and asks, How do you get by without resources when the world is coming to an end. Very mundane questions.

But when I spoke to my editor, lo those many weeks ago, the P3B would have dealt with brand new characters at a later time frame. Which is fine. Every single P3B (a sequel to LAWKI, LAWKI meets d&g, brand new characters) is fine. I'd be just as happy writing hundreds of books set at the exact same time, I had so much fun the first two go rounds. And I love the LAWKI and d&g characters, so I'd be delighted to find out what happens next to all of them.

But I have to work on the assumption (well, it's my assumption since I am very much queen of this particular universe) that further along, a year or two after LAWKI ends, things will be worse. It'd be nice if things were better, and frankly if I were devoting the rest of my existence to writing these books, I admit to being intrigued about what people would go through when things got better- if your childhood was spent under the circumstances I created, how would your adolescence be under improved circumstances. Never forget, I'm a sucker for consequences. But that would be a Possible Fourth Book, and I think it is extremely safe to refer to that as an Extremely Unlikely Fourth Book instead.

Back to P3B. If things are worse a year or two later, with diminishing resources, then any book would be even bleaker than d&g, which rumor has it, is pretty darn bleak (after all, my brother said it was, and he reads Scandinavian novels). And bleak is right around the corner from melodramatic, and once you turn that corner and start zipping down the avenue, it's hard to get back to mundane.

A couple of times I've come up with P3B plots. One I tried on my friend Christy and one on my editor. Both times they said, politely but firmly, Uh uh. Too ding dang dark. A couple of times I've come up with P3B plots that I've tried out on myself, only to think, Uh uh. Too ding dang dark.

And then there's the problem of the characters from LAWKI and d&g. I get e-mails from people asking what happened to the LAWKI crowd, Dad and Lisa, Dan, and of course Miranda. I hope I'll get e-mails asking me about the d&g characters, once more than a few dozen people have read it. If the P3B has none of them in it, then all those characters become gone, and there's a part of me that doesn't think that's fair. If I were going to read a third book, based on the premise of books one and two, I'd want to know what happened to the characters in books one and two. I even considered asking my editor if I could put at the end of P3B a character listing for LAWKI and d&g, you know, like, "Miranda got a full scholarship to Penn State," and, "Alex is now a United States senator." The thought flitted through my mind that we could have a contest, letting readers suggest what happened to the various characters, with the winning entry put in the paperback of P3B. I can be very ambitious in my fantasy life.

But last night, around 1 AM (sometime between the first and second sleeping pills), I came up with a setup for P3B that, at least on Jan. 8, I love. The way I see the post LAWKI world, things are very regimented. There's a limited amount of food and fuel, and the powerful people would see to it that they got the most of everything, followed by the people they need to make things better (scientists), followed by the support staff (doctors), followed by the laborers. A life support triangle, with the bottom two thirds desperately trying to become laborers, because otherwise they don't get food or shelter (I told you it was bleak).

Now what had been giving me grief was who to put into this plausible (to me at least) world. If I wrote about the laborers, then we'd be in bleakity bleak bleak bleak territory. Think conscripted coal miners (why should I be the only one to think it). Think Miranda doing all the laundry, but for strangers who are eating more than she is and who have the power of life and death over her. You think that's upsetting now? You should think about it at 1 AM, in between sleeping pills. And not only are such setups excessively bleakity bleak, they're also lacking in the mundane. Anyone can end the world and make things outside of our normal experience. The trick seems to be to end the world and still get the laundry done.

So what I came up with in the still of the night was a group of traveling players, sort of a cross between the actors in The Seventh Seal and a USO troupe. One of the great absurdities of America is the idea that in the middle of a battlefield a bunch of actors and singers should show up to entertain the soldiers. I pictured my little company as being mostly teenagers (the P3B is a YA, after all), four or five kids and an adult or two, traveling from place to place on a mule cart. They'd be legitimate laborers, with a schedule of performances for the upper level of the triangle, but giving shows on the road as well, for whatever food they're given and whatever supplies they can steal. One of the group could actually be a character from LAWKI or d&g, and certainly as my little band crosses America, they could run into someone from LAWKI or d&g (not too many, because that would feel like coincidence, but enough so that we can find out what became of at least some of the LAWKI/d&g crowd). We would see how things are in the US through the eyes of these kids, which would defuse the bleakity bleakness, and somehow (hey, the idea is less than 12 hours old), I'd pull off a mildly happy ending.

So that's where things are with the P3B. Whether it'll end up like this, or if it'll ever even exist, are unknowables. But I've always wanted to write a book about teen vaudevillians, and this would certainly be an interesting (to me at least) approach. And it just might keep the bleakity bleak monster from breaking down the door.

10 comments:

Paige Y. said...

Sounds great to me -- although I don't know how much my opinion counts as a librarian and not a publisher. Since it's cold and there should be a lot of ice, could the ice skater have a role in the show (I can't remember his name and my book is at school)?

If you do write this book (and I certainly hope you do), it will be really cool to read about it in its infancy.

Jen Robinson said...

I would certainly read that book, if that counts to the publisher at all. And maybe if they're read my reviews of the first two books, they like me a little.

Caroline said...

YES!!!!!!!!! YAY FOR P3B!! I hope it happens!!!

I really want to know what happened to Dan, Lisa, Miranda's Dad & Sami. Haha, I wonder if you already know what happened =P haha...

HipWriterMama said...

I like how you would have the characters from both books end up meeting in one way or other. Perhaps they are all trying to get the last bit of food or are holed up in the same shelter.

Good luck!

Anonymous said...

And I think they would have to encounter road gangs (which I was surprised weren't in the second book).

Personally, I would like to see a hero emerge from this, perhaps one of the troop who accidentally saves the day and then a legend grows around him and the troop.

That's how I'd do it, but you're the boss.

Glen Anon

Anonymous said...

I hope you do write the book! Two of the things I most wondered about after finishing LAWKI was what life would have been like for those people who took the option of traveling rather than staying put and whether things would have gotten better or worse for those who survived six months or so.

I like the idea of a traveling show. Orson Scott Card wrote a compelling version of this story (a family of actors traveling about in a post-apocalyptic U.S.) called 'Folk of the Fringe'. It would be really interesting to see your take on it - particularly with a character already developed in one of the earlier novels.

Nancy

Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Hi to paige y. and jen robinson and caroline and hipwritermama and Glen Anon (as opposed to anonymous glen) and anonymous Nancy. Every time I think about all the people who take the time to write comments, I start singing, "Have I told you lately that I love you?" and I don't even like that song. But if I haven't told you lately...well, I do.

I thought about a skating incident that very first insomnia wracked night (as opposed to the following two insomnia wracked nights). I thought about Miranda being in the show as a skater. I don't think I'll do that, but it's interesting paige y. and I both thought about skating as part of the act.

I also don't think I'll have a hero turned legend kind of character, simply because that's not what I do well. I like that theme, but it's not mine.

It's funny writing sci fi when you don't read sci fi. Very very early on in my career, when I was going through a prolonged spell of failure, I tried writing one book in pretty much every genre available. I did a sci fi, and sent it off to a publisher, who in his rejection letter wrote that it was the single most wrongheaded book he'd ever read, and if I ever wrote another, I should certainly send it to him.

I couldn't tell if that was praise or not, and frankly, decades later, I'm still not sure!

Marci said...

Well the classic Sci Fi/Fantasy solution is to set the sequel way in the future, so you don't have the realities of life to consider and catch up with Miranda and Alex's families in some artificially created setting several generations hence. This way you can invent things that were never invented or even move them to a companion planet. They can recount the stories of the original characters in passing to tie up those loose ends.

On the other hand, having Alex and Miranda meet on some epic quest in more or less real time is another good idea, but more complicated. Traveling bands of seekers may be a new reality in the post lunar orbit world. There are many possibilities.

As for telegraphy, it required wires and low levels of electro/magnetic energy, so while it doesn't require generators per se, it does require a wire network. And it transmitted code, as opposed to telephones which used similar energy to transmit voices. These did not require electricity wired into houses, but did require telephone wire. So telegraphy would be possible in a post lunar orbit world unless the magnetic field was disturbed by the lunar orbit change and caused some sort of static. This is more physics than I can muster up at the moment.

Bikes could work but not on permafrost. However, pedaled vehicles with snow worthy wheels could be cobbled from rusting industrial vehicles that can't operate due to gasoline shortages. Propane is an interesting idea that should be investigated. It can feed into houses under its own pressure and doesn't require electricity. It can power vehicles as well. But I don't know the process by which it is produced and distributed. The big issue is that it has very high explosive capabilities due to the pressure that it must be kept under, but it might be an interesting fuel source. And water can be gravity fed from large overhead water tanks (like in NYC) and laundry tubs and boards could make a real comeback.

Alice said...

I very much like the traveling troupe idea! Bicycles are surprisingly sturdy on snow, not so much on slick ice. Still, I imagine sleighs with drop-down wheels for snow/iceless places would work well. Everyone could wear cleats and pull the sled or something...? :P

At the risk of making a negative comment *squirm*, I don't like it when it's up to the readers to decide the fate of characters, whether it's after the book is complete or between sequels. Book characters are always somehow real to me, and if anyone but the author decides their fate, I feel as though it's not REALLY what happens to them... does that make sense? So if I came across the winning tale of what happens to them, I'd think, "Well, that's what THEY think happens, but what really happens?"

Jackie Parker said...

Dude. I SO want to read this.