Thursday, January 24, 2008

Why Is It So Complicated To Keep Things Simple?

I've gone through some serious blog withdrawals over the past few days. Tuesday was particularly difficult, but thanks to the Australian Open and the US National Figure Skating Championships and a time consuming lunch with friends, I've managed not to write anything and give you, oh beloved and running out of patience slowly gained readership, a much deserved break.

While my fingers weren't working, my brain was. I've solved any number of Possible Third Book problems, and created a few more in the process.

I'll start with a quick update on the great hanging/coal mine issue, which I'd mostly worked out on Sunday. It's still no no to the hanging and yes yes to the coal mine. Tyler and Caitlin go food foraging, Tyler sees food on a porch, goes to steal it, but it's a trap, and he gets caught. Porch Owner (it turns out) leaves food out there to trap human varmints, because the town offers a bounty. So Porch Owner takes Tyler in to town, Caitlin tells the troupe, and Jimmy (former lawyer, current accordion player) goes in to see what he can do. When he returns to the troupe, he explains (this is the short version) that he's made a deal- coal mines for Tyler and one of the girls in the troupe, instead of the hanging. Caitlin (who has every reason to believe this) assumes she'll be sent, but instead Jimmy tells Lyra (previously known as Sara- I was watching skating and thinking about Tanith Belbin and I thought, Who the heck is named Tanith, and dumped the 1000 most popular girls name list and created the name Lyra) that she's going. Everyone is shocked, since Lyra is the lead singer in the troupe, but it turns out Lyra's been coughing blood (in my first fab version Lyra was pregnant, but that turned out to be way too complicated), which she didn't realize anybody knew, but as Jimmy puts it, "We know everything." So Lyra was going to have to get dumped anyway, and this way at least she keeps Tyler from getting hung. And Caitlin, the understudy, gets the lead singer job.

All this happens very close to the end of the book. I don't seem to be working P3B chronologically. My guess is I never do, but this is the first time I've kept this kind of diary during the prewriting, so I can't be sure.

Meanwhile I keep creating all these governmental rules and regulations, tinkering with them and playing with them and polishing them so they're nice and shiny, and then I have to remind myself that nobody who reads the book is going to care, so they're all (or at least almost all) a waste of time. And then yesterday, to make things even more difficult, I remembered that the President was referred to a few times in Life As We Knew It, and apparently he was at best ineffectual (he's mentioned only in passing in the dead & the gone). All these wonderful rules and regs are most likely not federal anyway and why was I wasting my time inventing them?

Well, for fun, if you really want to know.

So my new mantra is, Simplify, Simplify. I'll try to give you a quick and easy example, using the beginning of the book (which has been one ding dang problem after another for me).

Okay. We need to establish who Caitlin is, how her world is, and get her to join the troupe, all in as few pages as possible (start as close to the center of the action as you can). I've consistently liked the idea of her joining the troupe to avoid a marriage. I've also consistently liked the idea that the thrust of the book is Caitlin's learning what the real world is like (she's been sheltered by her position as a dentist's daughter) and her gaining compassion for those less well off than she. Only if she has to gain compassion, we need to see her lacking it, and if she lacks compassion on page 1 or thereabouts, the readers aren't going to like her from the get go. That one was quite the headache, and I wasn't making things any easier on myself with endless (albeit delightful) rules and regs.

Then, for Caitlin to know about the troupe, she has to see the troupe, and why would she see the troupe if her father just died? Which I assumed he was going to have to do, because if he was sick and Caitlin left him to join the troupe, then she was a pretty unlovable kind of daughter, and the readers wouldn't like her from the get go for a whole other reason.

So I kept creating more rules and regs as a means of maneuvering my way through this situation. Pretty soon the good old US of A was resembling a cross between Nazi Germany and the Cultural Revolution. Don't get me wrong. I think this is quite nifty. But if P3B takes place a mere two or three years after the end of LAWKI/d&g, then that's a real change in how Americans act, and I just don't think they'd get that rotten that soon. Especially not with an ineffectual federal government.

So I've decided to go traditional. Caitlin's mother died pre-book, and her father has since remarried. Caitlin has, thank goodness, a wicked stepmother! Caitlin herself is sheltered, and perhaps unquestioning, but if there's any nasty to be done, wicked stepmama can do it, so the readers won't dislike Caitlin from the you know when.

Meanwhile, I simplified all those complicated marital rules and regs to one basic one- girls can't be married until they're sixteen. Caitlin's sixteenth birthday is just a few days away. Caitlin's father, her stepmama (who is probably all of eighteen herself), some guy old enough to be Caitlin's father, and Caitlin go to the performance of the troupe. Caitlin loves what she sees. At the evening's end, Guy Old Enough goes back with Caitlin's family and announces that he's satisfied, and will marry Caitlin on her birthday. Caitlin protests privately to her father, but she's told it's a done deal, and it's the only means he has of seeing to it that Caitlin will continue to live in a house with heating and get three meals a day. Besides, his wife says Caitlin has to go.

So now Caitlin is vulnerable and sympathetic. She slips away from the house the next morning, finds the troupe leaders (Derrick and Jimmy), who agree to dump the girl they'd selected to be the new understudy and take Caitlin instead, because she's healthier (although Caitlin may think it's because she can sing). Caitlin goes off with them, still sheltered and with a sense of privilege, but never having been shown as cruel or unfeeling. Thank goodness for a long and honorable tradition of eighteen year old wicked stepmothers.

Now all this may seem easy as apple pie to you, and you may well be thinking, "Why did Susan have to sacrifice that many brain cells for such an obvious solution?" All I can say in my own defense is, "I've been working on other parts of the book as well." That's true, and it leaves out the more obvious answers of, "I'm not as bright as you are," and/or, "Hey watching all that figure skating takes up a lot of time."

But I have been working on other parts of the book, in between split triple twists and twizzles. Not only do I have to figure out characters (pish tush- such a minor consideration) and governmental rules and regs, I've had to work out an evening of vaudeville, and which character does what. Not to mention actual action to take place in between Caitlin Joins The Troupe and The End Of The Book. I love the latter, by the way, more and more, although when I worked on it this morning, a whole new problem rose to complicate my fabulous solution. And between simplifying rules and regs, trying to decide just how much government there is in this post LAWKI world, and keeping the bleakity bleak to an acceptable level, working out the opening of the book has taken longer than it might ordinarily do.

But the important thing, for me at least, is that I love the stuff I'm coming up with. I still have a lot to decide (obviously). I'm hearing the book third person, in part because I can't come up with a justification why Caitlin would be writing everything down. And at first, I saw things in good old fashioned chapters (LAWKI is a diary, and d&g uses a diary format, only third person), but I'm favoring the d&g solution now. My first thought had been dates would no longer have meaning, but I think the troupe is on a specific schedule, and it's immensely important for them reach their destinations and give their performances within a three day framework; if they're late, they'll no longer be paid in food, which is how they keep going. So dates will matter big time after all.

Speaking of dates, I have one with the live streaming of the Junior Free Dance in a little less than an hour. Or is it the Senior Original Dance? Either way, it's time for twizzles.

Feel free to write the rest of P3B without me!


Marci said...

You know, this might seem obvious or not, but if the climate is so cold, why aren't there ice shows wandering the landscape as well. And why can't Caitlin and company come across one in their travels and why can't that ice show have a star named Brandon. And why can't Jon be at that ice show because his sister was such a huge Brandon fan, and why can't they all meet up at the ice show and talk about Miranda's turn on the ice with Brandon etc. Frankly, I think this is positively brilliant. Starving vaudevillians, starving ice skaters, starving Pony Express bikers....does it get any better than this?

Marci said...

And why can't I remember to use question marks when my brain gets going? M

Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Hi Marci and thanks for your comments-

Mostly I'm writing this comment because my word verification is "yenerd" and I think that's so funny I had to post something.

I will never address any of you as "ye nerd" ever.

Librarina said...

I think that Marci's idea is great, but I am mostly writing to comment on a name... Lyra is one of the main characters in Phillip Pullman's DARK MATERIALS trilogy. Did you realize that when you made your choice? I mean, it's fine if you did. I have no problem with the same name being used for characters in more than one book. It's just that I wasn't sure if you would be bothered if/when you realized you were sharing such a distinctive name with one of Phillip Pullman's characters... (Still super excited for P3B and crossing my fingers that I get to see it turned into 3B!)

Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

See, I told you it was complicated keeping things simple.

Until you hear otherwise, Lyra's name is now Lara.

But you may well hear otherwise...

Anonymous said...

I still think that Glen is a great name, even if it was for a girl.

By the way, I really don't like the thought of having food put out as part of a trap. Why waste a scarce commodity on setting a trap? And wouldn't animals be quicker to take something like that than people? No sir, don't like it. Stealing a pie from the window where it's cooling though because you can't resist the wonderful aroma though...

Just my two cents in a three cent world.


Jenna said...

First off, I want to say that I am *loving* this string of blogs about how this book is getting written. It's extremely interesting and is making me really excited for the book! I love how things change from day to day.

I have one thought you haven't addressed. It's about the gay couple. I very much prefer books that have gays where being gay is just part of who they are rather than a whole plot point and it seems that's where you're going here, based on previous comments. Which is fabulous. But (you knew there was a but) it also seems to me that this story happens in pretty much now, time wise. And right now, I can't see the American government, even a fractured one, being entirely and unquestioningly tolerant of a gay couple, especially one raising children. Had you planned to addrsss this?

Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Hello to Glen and to Jenna-

Let's see how coherent I can be after watching 11 hours of figure skating.

I'll take Glen's food as a trap issue under advisement (actually, I guess Glen just advised me on same). Maybe it's a fake can of something. I do like the idea of the trap though (and I do like the name Glen. I knew a really nice guy named Dana a long time ago, and I borrowed his name for the heroine of Courage Dana, and he was very nice about it).

The primary reason Derrick and Jimmy are gay is so that I don't have to worry about their chasing after any of the teenage girls in the troupe (that's also why they're a couple, so I don't have to worry about them chasing after any of the teenage boys in the troupe). Sex is a really tricky problem in P3B, more so than in LAWKI (where Mom's practically carrying a shotgun to make sure Miranda doesn't have any) and d&g. So Derrick and Jimmy are my problem solver.

I don't think that by this point in the troubled history of the world (all those tsunamis and earthquakes and epidemics that we've come to know and love) that any government, federal, state or local, is going to care much about sexual orientation. If the Republicans are in charge, they'll care about tax cuts, because that's just who they are. But mostly the government as I envision it is focusing on food allotment and trying to make things better, at least for some level of society, by increased food and energy production.

If any of this is coherent, I deserve a big round of applause.

Anonymous said...

I think it would be cool if a roving pack of boy scouts showed up somewhere in the book; maybe a lord of the flies kind of thing, but a better civilization as, after all, they are scouts.


Suzanne said...

I was thinking about the troupe's visit to the village which was abandoned/filled with people dying of plague and came to the conclusion that they could have cholera. With electricity out water purification plants won't be working, and it's not a stretch to think that some water-bourne infectious diseases would be around. The troupe can pass through the village without getting it, as long as they don't drink the water.

Also, I think that some cooperative communities (okay, agricultural communes) would still be around and in fact, would be in a good position for survival.

Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Hello again to Glen and to Suzanne.

I like the cholera idea a lot, especially since I see water as a highly valued commodity (what with the massive drought I'm favoring).

The troupe can go to the town, see the bodies and see the water, so tempting, but possibly fatal.

It's not like any of them are doctors (although I admit, one reason Jimmy's name is Jimmy is so Derrick can say, "He's dead, Jim" at least once during the book. They won't know for sure if it's the water that killed everyone. Do they risk drinking the water? How devastating is it for them to turn their back on the water, which may be perfectly fine (maybe everyone died of food poisoning. Maybe it was a mass suicide).

You know, I'm really a very nice person. Almost everyone thinks so (and if they don't almost nobody tells me otherwise). And yet, I take such gleeful pleasure in knocking off millions and zillions of people, including characters I'm really very fond of.

Oh- speaking of characters, Sara/Lyra/Lara is now Lark. I like the name a lot, but I definitely need to give her a personality.

Mr. Cavin said...

I like the name Lark too.

Since you are taking advisements: I like the food trap idea as well, actually, though I agree with many of the logistic issues Glen came up with. But. I cannot for the life of me imagine why the town would be paying a bounty for kids/convicts just to go hanging them. Entertainment? It seems very much that filling the rosters at the mines would be the only reason for this scheme in the first place, meaning your lawyer is rather unnecessary as well as the addition of the extra troupe member’s sacrifice, etc. Of course, this problem ripples, moving you further from the hanging and resultant emotional and narrative climax of the book. In the long run, in might be better to move away from the traps instead.

Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Don't knock public executions as a form of entertainment. That's been one of their functions for centuries.

Actually my bounty reasoning goes as following- throughout the countryside there are rogue bands (no doubt of former boy scouts)- poachers, home invaders, and the suchlike. Young men mostly, a lot of them no doubt trying to avoid the coal mine recruitments.

These guys are a danger to society, since they steal food (and most likely rape, murder, and pillage while they're at it). So they're the ones there's a bounty on. This being America, they've got to be caught in a criminal act before they can be punished, so entrapment is actively encouraged.

Ideally, the troupe meets Jon and hears about the upcoming recruitment at about the same time the town does, so the townspeople are already trying to determine which of their young people will have to be sent off. Thus Jimmy's offer comes at an opportune time.

In case you're wondering, the troupe never leaves their cart unattended, and both Derrick and Jimmy carry firearms.

Mr. Cavin said...

Oh perfect. Entertainment doesn’t sell it to me, but the boy scout infestation really does (and clears the way for some alternate bogeymen to the bogeymen of civilization). I think this PB seems like it could be far more terrifying than bleak.

Dawn said...

Hi Susan,

I am really liking your thoughts for this possible third book. I have just delved into my ARC of D&G and I am really digging it. I like how different is is from LAWKI. Even making the narrative form third person changes the feel of the book. Very cool.

Ok, I am way behind on your blogs for the third book. I am pumped that you will have Jon show up but I am big of a character will he be? Also, any chance that other characters from LAWKI will show up? I have think sinking feeling that maybe mom didn't survive even with the influx of food. She starved herself for an awful long time. I am also dying to know if Matt made a full recovery. Not to mention Dad, Lisa and the Baby!

I am loving this blog. I sure hope the Harcourt people realize that you really should come to ALA in June!