Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Feel Free To Listen While I Think Out Loud

I haven't heard back yet from my editor about the various ideas I came up with for What Was/What Is, but I've been thinking about the book, in between elderly mother emergencies and...Wait, there's nothing to follow that and. The past couple of days have pretty much been devoted to elderly mother emergencies (on Monday she fell into a parking lot pothole; we spent most of Tuesday in the emergency room, where she was diagnosed with a slightly cracked rib, for which there is no treatment, so technically the five hours in the emergency room were a total waste of time, except for the great idea for a TV series I got while there- Boring ER).

I told my mother I'm really looking forward to her 97th birthday so I can stop blaming everything on her being 96.

So my stress level has been pretty high, which I can tell because my left eyelid is twitching. Good thing I'm going to be on the radio and not TV (although if Oprah wants to invite me to talk about Parking Lots, The Elderly, And The End Of The World, I'll accept. The twitch is hardly noticeable).

Ending the world again isn't lowering my stress level any. It turns out ending the world is hard work.

When I ended the world in Life As We Knew It (and ended it simultaneously in the dead and the gone), there was a basic progression of disaster-tsunamis, run on supermarkets, high gas prices, blackouts, earthquakes, volcanoes, early and unending frost, food shortages, blizzards, epidemics. One disaster didn't end and another begin, but they flowed into each other, and when both books ended, while there was hope that Miranda and Alex would survive, there was no putting the world back in place. Things were still awful.

In the next six versions of the third book, I focused on the social ills, rather than the climatic ones. I didn't think about the why of that decision (a decision I made over and over again). I just figured out what interested me the most, and since I like social history, I was interested most in how society lived with overwhelming shortages.

But my editor has made it clear that she thinks the third book should be more similar to the first two, which involve a teenage character surviving in a world of unpredictable disaster (that's a paraphrase and a darn good one). And with upcoming book three starting right after d&g and while the LAWKI action is still ongoing, I have to both be true to what I've already written and top it.

This is tres tricky (I always knew that year of high school French would come in handy). There are some disasters I didn't really touch on in LAWKI/d&g: flooding, fires, ice storms, toothaches. But I'm reluctant to play Can You Top This. LAWKI works, in part, because the disasters, while logical to me, are unexpected to the readers. If I just pile on, there's a risk of ridiculousness.

On the other hand, if conditions are better where my heroine (still Sarah) lives, then LAWKI/d&g lose some of their impact. If people aren't suffering quite so much in Tennessee (or Arizona or wherever the third book is set), then Miranda and her family should have just packed up and moved south or west. But there's got to be food somewhere, or else the third book will start in February and end in April, with Sarah starving to death, and my editor none too happy.

Then my mind wandered over to Sarah's parents. As of the moment, her mother is a doctor and her father the producer of the local 10 PM news. Both jobs are really just because I want them out of the house the night the asteroid hits the moon. But it intrigued me to think of Sarah's father out of work. Millions of surviving Americans would be, because the jobs they had require electricity. It's hard enough to lose your job in real life. But to lose your job in the world I've created, with essentially no hope of ever working again, would be devastating.

Now while that devastation would be fun to write about (nice people don't end the world as gleefully as I), it's the devastation of adults, and my main character is a teenager. So while Sarah's father can be miserable and his marriage to her mother be under great strain, that can't be the primary focus of the book.

When I'm capable of coherent thought (twelve minutes on Monday, eight on Tuesday), I'm thinking that wherever I set the book should have a slightly different set of catastrophes than the northeast. I could move the setting to a coastal state, and have flooding be an issue. I could set things in Missouri, with its earthquakes. There are plenty of places where fires would be a continuous problem. Down south, the summer crops would have been harvested, so there'd be more food, but there would be problems with migrants. LAWKI/d&g are about loss of population; overpopulation would be a whole new horror to explore.

So there certainly are possibilities, and I really just need a relaxed brain to work out the ones I like the best. But for as long as my left eye is twitching, I'm going with The Horror Of Parking Lot for the story with the most punch!


Mr. Cavin said...

This is pretty great, I think. Your overpopulation idea would really set you off in another direction, and probably get you back around to some of the social ills you really want to be writing about, even while also fulfilling your publisher’s interests. Very canny work, Pfeffer.

“So while Sarah's father can be miserable and his marriage to her mother be under great strain, that can't be the primary focus of the book.”

Well, how about this: your Sarah is a real Ferris Bueller, used to her freedoms and popularity and such. Her first bratty moon-related catastrophe would be her father’s sudden presence in her life, cramping her style. I mean, neither parent has ever really been around, right, devoting so much time to stressful, successful, self-important careers. Sarah’s been raised by an immigrant au pair and now has to develop a relationship with her father. Oh, and that nanny. Where is she supposed to go, when everyone else is coming here? Now Americans are the immigrants, too.

“There are some disasters I didn't really touch on in LAWKI/d&g:”

Well, if there’s going to be lava, I expect someone to jump over it.

heather t said...

Kind of in the same vein - but imagine if you thought you had dodged a bullet during a worldwide catastrophe, only to find that the rest of the world is coming to YOU.

Personally, I'd rather see the next book pick up where the other two left off, vs another simultaneous adventure, but maybe there can be some glossing over the the disasters in LAWKI/d&g because they don't affect Sarah as much, but really focus on what happens next.

Lee said...

Sorry to hear about your Mother, hope she feels better soon.

Christine and I like your original idea for the third book - advancing the story, as opposed to telling it over again from another teen perspective. Sounds like your editor just wants to repeat the successful formula of the first book! :)

As readers, we're much more interested in what happens next (5 years on or so).

Also, if Sarah's Dad produces the 10pm news, he probably would be responsible for the 6pm news as well. The people in the TV department at my job are usually there for more than one newscast and are expected to update stories constantly (which is difficult if you end the world and therefore resources). Alot of TV personalities are real divas too, so that would make some interesting conflicts!

Librarian D.O.A. said...

I understand you have to work with your publisher and agent on this, but, as a reader...I want closure! I hate that word but I think it is accurate. If you were going to do a series of novels where the world itself is the "main character" then it makes sense to write more vignettes showing what life is like in various places and situations. If the third novel is the last, then I really want to know what happened to the characters I came to care about in the first two books. Issues of overpopulation of "safe" areas and other resultant problems caused by the initial disaster can be part of the story, and would naturally be, but...I'd like to see Miranda and Alex's stories play out.
Thanks for listening!


Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Hi to Mr. Cavin and Heather T and Lee and Librarian D.O.A.-

My editor is planning to call me later this afternoon to discuss the third book (her idea, but I was quick to agree). I sent her an e-mail a few minutes ago asking her to read your comments before we talked.

I'll write an blog entry update after I talk with her. I have a couple of other minor things to mention (okay, mention and brag).

Thank you for your thoughts and for taking the time to post them. This third book is a tricky one, and I really appreciate your input.

Linda Jacobs said...

How about having Miranda and Alex show up in the third novel as minor characters. That way we'd get some closure as "librarian" would like (and me, too!) but also satisfy your editor.

Never knew there was so much to writing a book! Thank you for taking us along with you on this journey!