Friday, March 30, 2012

The Holy Trilogy?

So I’m in the middle of a series right now, and I’ve lost reading momentum. I really enjoyed the first book in the series, and expected that I’d be pre-ordering round three even before the release date. But now I’m pretty sure I won’t be. What happened? I was a lock for this author/series, but then they lost me.
Part of the issue for me is that the protagonist of book one earned her freedom, her happy ending. She suffered for two hundred and forty pages, and she earned her Act III—but all she got was a brief moment of seeming freedom before being tumbled into an even worse hell than in book one. And I strongly suspect that I won’t get a third act here either—that this is all a loooong round of rising action, before the not-even-released-yet conclusion.
            More and more the YA books I’m finding are planned trilogies, set up from the start to split the traditional three-act structure up across three books. From the outset, I know I am not getting a resolution out of book one—but I still want one. Am I conditioned from a lifetime of reading more traditional books which offer a conclusion by the final page? I like to think I’m a more flexible reader than that; after all, I really enjoy experimental fiction (I even teach a big unit on postmodern and experimental fiction each year in my AP Language class). I embrace neologisms, cracked-up timelines, and chapters written as Power Point Presentations. So why am I resisting the trilogy?
            I suspect there’s some calculation happening behind the scenes on some of these, which could be part of what’s getting under my skin. It’s a new and I’m guessing fairly successful model. Although, on the flip side, the Twilight series was a giganticus success, and it was in four parts. And judging by the YA sections of the bookstores I’ve visited over the past five years, if there was any sort of modeling going on, quite a few people were trying to patent the Meyer way. And, there are quite a few (highly successful) mega series, with six, seven, ten, fifteen books all featuring the same characters.
            So all this trilogizing is not the only way to market a YA book. But why so many three-parters, then? The three-act structure of a film or traditional story may, again, have something to do with this trend. But, for first book to work, it really can’t be just exposition, of course. Each book has to contain its own three-act structure. And I think that’s the other part that’s bothering me, beyond poor tired protagonists not getting the rest they deserve: some of the books I’ve read do not really end at all, but just set up the next round. In contrast, J.K. Rowling sustained the overarching story brilliantly over the course of seven books, but each one functions perfectly on its own. Harry goes on a heroic quest (with a conclusion) on each outing.
            That’s the thing about these stories—most of them are the same story, as Joseph Campbell observed. Someone’s going on a quest. But the real reason for a quest, as anyone who’s read Thomas Foster’s amazing How to Read Literature Like a Professor knows, is self-knowledge. The conclusion, the getting and finding, is so important not because of the magic thingy or the escape from the bad people, it’s the journey, what you learn along the way. By breaking up that journey in a (sometimes) artificial way, some of that resonance and power is lost, I think.
            I’ll still read trilogies, don’t get me wrong—I’m just not sure it’s always the best method to tell every story. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Five Minutes

I'm looking forward (counting the days, whatever) until THAT TIME I JOINED THE CIRCUS is released. Until then, I plan to blog about YA and other books, all the adventure surrounding my MS Word doc turning into an actual book, and maybe my book in progress (currently stuck on page 118 ;)
Until then, for my first post, here's a preview of the Adventure Barbie concept that finds its way into TTIJTC. This story is about Speed Dating, and it’s a little bit sad, and a lot snarky ;)

Five Minutes
They met during Speed Dating.  Jane did not particularly believe in either speed or dating; she distrusted moving quickly and events which disrupted her routine or her appetite. So much nicer to coast through the day without having to plan out what to wear, what to say—mostly what not to say—looking forward to an uncertain dining experience with an unknown companion.  Jane could admit to herself that she would prefer to make herself a nice meal and eat it in front of the television with her slippers on.
            But Speed Dating is what it had come to. At a certain point, everybody in the entire English-speaking world had finally determined that Jane should “put herself out there” and they would not be silenced until she did. Jane’s mother was of course, the leader of this brigade. But she had minions, and some of them were sneaky.
            Hannah was never a suspect in the conspiracy: that was the key to her triumph. Hannah had framed pictures of herself hanging out backstage with bands. Hannah was a vegetarian and had backpacked across Europe. She was the anti-Jane’s mother—how did they wind up on the same team?
This mystery still unsolved, Jane faced down the first pre-paid (Hannah had been extremely sneaky) evening of Speed Dating. The event was, of course, a bust, a disaster, a four-hour experiment in misery. Hannah would later make a comment about self-fulfilling prophecy, but since Hannah had already defected, the betrayal did not hold much sting.
            Speed Dating is essentially one long math problem; in theory, the speed dater is multiplying her chances. (Attempted) multiplication problem number 1:
            A man in his mid to late forties sat down. Jane admired his hair: sandy blonde, with just a touch of gray at the temples. He was wearing a gray v-neck sweater over a white oxford shirt, and charcoal-colored trousers. These trousers looked comfortable and new, and may have come from J.C. Penney. When he attempted a smile, his eyes crinkled a bit at the edges. Jane smiled back, hoping nothing crinkled.
            “Hi there. I’m Paul,” he extended his hand across the table. “What’s your name?”
            “Jane. Nice to meet you.”
            Awkward silence.
            “Nice weather.”
            “I like your pants.” These two comments collided in midair, and, like matter and antimatter on Star Trek, which Jane thought of briefly and wished she were watching just then, and cancelled each other out.
            The buzzer rang. Jane and Paul were not any good at dating, or speed.
Problem #2
            This man was younger than Paul, perhaps in his early thirties; he was wearing a black leather jacket over a pink oxford shirt. He was fairly good looking, with dark hair and brown eyes with dark circles under them. The pink oxford was coming un-tucked in the front. He sat down, saying, “Hi there, lady.”
            Despite Jane’s desire to be treated like one, Jane disliked being directly addressed as “Lady.” Perhaps because the man who used to own the company she worked for referred to all the women in his employ, interchangeably, as “Lady.”
            “Hey there, man,” Jane affected her best surfer-dude voice. The man just looked confused. “I’m Jane,” she added, in her normal voice.
            The man nodded as though he knew her name already. “Yep, I’m Gregory. Greg.  So, tell me, Jane, what’s your story? How did you wind up here?”
            “Well, my friend actually found this place, and she went ahead and gave them my name, and she actually pre-paid, so I…”
            “Terrific thing, friends. I don’t have too many myself, not since the last operation. Some people just get freaked out, you know. They don’t know how to deal with such heavy, heavy situations and…emotions.”
            “I’m sorry—are you…sick?” Jane arranged her features in what she hoped resembled a reassuring, sympathetic, pattern.
            “What do you mean, am I sick?” Gregory Greg asked, “What is that supposed to mean, anyway?”
            Jane made a fast decision. “I was just hoping we would have something in common,” she sniffed dramatically. “I have only two months to live. Dating at least twenty men in one evening was on my bucket list.”
            “You poor thing,” G.G. shook his head, “you’re real brave, you know. Real brave.”
            “I know,” Jane nodded. “I know.”
Problem #3:
            Star Trek came up in conversation, possibly because it was still in Jane’s head from the non-conversation with Paul. Bachelor number three was wearing a tie-dyed t-shirt. The sweaty and disturbing expression on his face as he went on a tangent about the green Orion slave girl from the pilot episode was more than a little disturbing. The buzzer interrupted his reverie, which in the final tally took up around ninety percent of their speed date.
Problem #4:
It should be explained at this point that the buzzer was rung by the presumably happily married capitalists who run the event. The eligible ladies were seated at their own tables. This was perhaps a well-intentioned but ill-fated attempt to foster an atmosphere of chivalry. It is the gentlemen (Jane resisted the urge to add mental air-quotes) who moved around the room, one quarter of the hotel’s ballroom. The gentlemen were given the option of ending a “date” (air-quotes essential here) early; there was a small bell on each lady’s table. In theory, the ladies could ring the bell as well, but Jane couldn’t figure how that worked, since they were stuck at the tables. It would be kind of like storming out of your own apartment after a fight.
Bachelor number four, a human male, sat down without preamble.
“Do you have a cat?”
Jane in fact had a dog, but something compelled her to lie. “Yes?”
The “gentleman” rang her table bell, several times, with gusto, on his way to the non-alcoholic bar.
“I think ONCE would have been enough.” Jane had had enough chivalry, and achieved more volume with this volley than she intended. Looking around her, Jane noticed she had briefly disrupted several “dates”.
The woman seated at the table to Jane’s left had been similarly abandoned by the Cat Hater. “Maybe he’s allergic?” she tried to smile at Jane.
“Maybe it’s fatal,” Jane had no trouble smiling back. “If only I knew a place nearby to find a really big cat.”
The woman looked as though she disapproved of Jane’s bloodlust. The master buzzer rang again.
At this point in the proceedings, details began to blur. The process called for a sixteen more human males to park themselves briefly at Jane’s little table.  Later, when recounting the evening, in detail, to Hannah—after all, she had paid for it—Jane will only recount the most memorable of the sixteen.
“I diagnosed number six as narcoleptic. He fell asleep.”
“I thought the dates were only five minutes long.” Hannah leaned forward for more popcorn. She had required a great deal of junk-food sustenance to make it through the recap so far.
“Yes: clearly a medical problem. Unless we wish to suppose that less than five minutes of my conversation has the power to put a man to sleep?”
“Disease. Definitely. How about number seven?”
“I have either repressed or erased the number seven file. The next one I remember was somewhere around number thirteen.”
“Not even going to ask. Okay, so like six or seven to go. What else you got?”
“The next to last guy; he was pretty interesting.”
“Define interesting.”
“Apparently he was a little nervous about how much information I would be able to get out of him. Someone had put sodium pentothal in his 7-Up.”
“Like, truth serum? Someone?”
“Yes, the CIA. They were after him.”
“What did he do?”
“According to the blurb on his info-card he worked at a bank. As a teller.”
“I think he works at my bank!” Hannah sat up, spilling kernels all over Jane’s couch. “Did he have, like, really long sideburns?”
“How could you possibly know that?”
“He cashed my alimony check for me last week. Warned me about the bank security cameras and told me he knew where they kept the tapes, in case I needed to destroy them.  So that’s it, huh? Nothing? No one interesting out of twenty guys? Are you sure you’re not being too p…”
“If you say “picky” I will kill you. I know a guy who knows a guy.”
Hannah laughed. “So you’re not going to try again?”
“Um, yes, I am. I collect weird men. Five more and I get a free pizza. Why would anyone ever do that a second time? Deliberately?”
“How else are you going to find someone? Accidentally? You have to try.”
Jane felt herself frowning as she picked at a loose thread on her old sofa. “Easy for you to say. Your boyfriend has a six-pack. And he was on a soap opera. And he followed you home from Barnes and Noble just to get your number.”           
 “Just because I’m happy doesn’t make me the enemy.” Hannah’s voice got quieter. “I just want you to be happy too.”
“I know it,” Jane sighed, “but clearly speed dating is not the way to go.”
“Will you just try it one more time? I have sort of a feeling about it.”
“I have several feelings about it.”
“I’m serious.”
Jane sighed once more. “Yeah, you seem to be. Okay—one more time. But if that narcoleptic guy comes again, I’m throwing my nada colada on his head.”
It was a long week for Jane, dreading round two of Rapid Courting. Fast Social Interactions with Potential Life Partners? Jane was for some reason, disturbed that there seemed to be no valid synonym for “Speed Dating.” It gave the process an air of inevitability that depressed her.
On Wednesday, Jane made her weekly call to her parents. This one promised to be one of the more challenging ones, as Jane had not opened the mail she received from her mother earlier in the week, yet she knew she’d be expected to be familiar with the contents. Jane no longer opens mail from her mother, not since the time her mother sent her a three-page typed diatribe about the fact that her daughter was too picky and was going to end up alone, and needed to get on the stick, and out the door, and many other prepositional directives.  There was also the time that a pamphlet arrived with no note, a pamphlet providing helpful information regarding the unlikelihood of conceiving a child past the age of thirty- five. Considering the timing of its arrival, this was, perhaps, a thirty-fifth birthday greeting?
Now, Jane has one of her best friends open all such correspondence. Her best friend Allie just moved away; now Hannah has this thankless task. But Jane still felt too jerky about their last Quick Woo conversation, and had simply put the letter on a high bookshelf, unopened.  Jane was just hoping that an elderly, unknown relative had not passed on—news that a daughter who read her mother’s letters would know. Jane decided to adopt a defensively somber tone on the phone just in case.
            “Hi Mo…I mean, Hello, Mother. How are you doing?”
            Her mother’s first word was, as usual, a hearty sigh. “Okay, I suppose. How are you doing?”
            “I’m good. Just been really busy, with work, you know. Ever since taking off to help Allie move, I’ve been kind of behind in my paperwork.”
            “You work too hard, Jane, and you know it’s true. All those extra hours you spend in there, and what does it get you? Now, if you got out more, out of that office…”
            “So true, Mom, hey, I almost forgot, would you like to have lunch on Sunday? One of my bosses gave me an Outback gift card.” Jane eats a lot of Misdirection Lunches.
            “Oh, that would be very nice…” Mom continued to expound upon the delights of The Outback, the drawbacks of working full time at her age, and the state of the union in general. Forty-five minutes later, Jane was off the phone, and standing in her closet, picking out something to wear to Rendezvous Express.
            Somewhere around her third nada colada, around the middle of the pack of dates, and directly following a man calling himself “The Brad”, a man came to sit at Jane’s table.
            The man was still sort of laughing under his breath, and turned briefly to wave goodbye to the girl at the table next to Jane’s. He seemed to have enjoyed his last date. He extended his hand to Jane, still smiling, “Hi there, I’m Will.”
            Between his really warm, genuine smile, and the fact that he was really cute, Jane forgot, for a nanosecond, just what her name actually was. “Hi, I’m Jane. It’s good to meet you. Seems like you just met somebody pretty cool.” Stupid, stupid, Jane; she immediately regretted reminding him of the girl at the last table.
            Will was still smiling, “Yeah, we were just swapping skydiving stories. She was just telling me about the time she…but, shut up, Will—I’m not here to tell you about Chloe—tell me about yourself, Jane.”
Terrific. Now was probably the time to lie, but Jane just didn’t have it in her. Now she got to tell adorably normal Will that she liked movies, and reading, and mostly other leisure activities which could be accomplished while sitting in a chair. He had probably just planned some kind of outdoor date, like bungee-jumping or white-water rafting, with Adventure Barbie. Jane had been raised on Easy-Bake ovens and Barbies with townhouses and hair salons. She didn’t want to fear for her life on weekend outings.
“I’ve never jumped out of an airplane,” she began, and cringed to hear the apology in her voice. Jane looked into Will’s interested brown eyes and decided, to hell with it, I’ll just be Jane. “I don’t really fancy flying. In ‘choose your superpower’, I never pick flying.”
“Me neither. I would pick…”
“TTiimmee ttrrraavvell.” Their identical answers collided in midair, but this time they didn’t cancel each other out. Jane and Will grinned at each other. 
“Have you ever watched the old Star Trek? There is this episode…”
“The City on the Edge of Forever,’ Will nodded. “That was a great one; even the title is great. And the ending is awful but awesome at the same time.”
“It so is! That’s the perfect way to put it. And the name of the time-travel, like, portal: ‘The Guardian of Forever’ Of course it looked stupid; it was like a big hunk of styrofoam with strobe lights behind it.”
“Terrible,” Will agreed. “So why do you pick time travel as your superpower?”
“I love the idea of going forward, knowing what the hell to do, what to try, so you won’t look back and have all these regrets.” Whoops, Jane thought: too much information for the first mini-date. Why couldn’t she shut up?
But Will didn’t look particularly freaked out, “I know exactly what you mean.” Just then, the buzzer sounded, and Will stood up—reluctantly?
Jane watched Will leave her table, and went through nine more dates, but it was like she was covered in plastic wrap: she couldn’t see anyone else clearly, and their words reached her, muffled and indistinct. When the session was over, Jane filled out her selection card, marking one more name on it than she had on her first round of speed dating. Will was talking to Chloe during the couple of minutes they waited for their completed comment cards. She thought she heard him tell her that he didn’t really skydive anymore. But Jane had been trapped by The Brad.  The Brad really did have kind of sad eyes, and had just told her about his fiancĂ© being killed in a car accident last year. Jane didn’t have the heart to ditch him just then.
Jane waited her turn in the ladies’ line for her card, her list of the men who wanted to meet her for an actual date. She looked around for Will after she got it, but could not see him. She began walking out of the quartered ballroom and down the hotel hallway, opening her card. When she saw the card, Jane stopped walking. Nearly every guy had checked her as a “yes”—eighteen out of twenty. Eighteen, but not Will. What the hell?—on the last round Jane had had five yes’s—she had never really been the girl to attract ninety percent of the men in five minutes. But why hadn’t Will?…Jane felt sadder than she should have after five minutes.
“Hey! Wait up…—Jane? Wait!”
Jane looked up to see Adventure Barbie chasing after her. “They gave you the wrong card! And I think you’ve got mine,” Chloe held out her selection card.
Jane looked down and smiled to see a card with just one checkmark. That was more like it.
Jane and Will went on three dates in one week, and none of them involved extreme sports. Jane learned that Will had been in the Navy, and now worked as a consultant. In addition to Star Trek, he loved basset hounds, really strong espresso, movies with and without subtitles, and trying a new restaurant every time he went out to eat. Jane called Hannah and told her very definitely, thank you, and, tentatively, that she was happy.
Then Will cancelled their fourth date, and he didn’t return her calls. Jane had been wrong, she had been foolish, all men were creeps; Will had just been a creep in a nice-guy suit.
Six days after the cancelled date, Jane received a phone call. “Is this Jane?” a woman’s voice asked. She sounded upset. Will’s wife?
“Yes,” Jane answered, waiting.
“Jane, this is Amy. I’m Will’s sister.”
 “Is he okay? I mean, what’s going on…?”
“Will didn’t tell you, I know. He wanted to….I know he would have.” There was a long pause. “Jane, Will was sick. He was probably hoping he was going to be all right this time, and he just wanted a chance, you know, to be happy for a while. You can’t blame him…” Amy’s voice cracked.
“Blame him? What are you trying to say to me?” Jane usually felt bad news in her stomach first, like a ferret had crawled in, filling it with fear and making her feel sick. Now she felt suddenly as though there were a whole pet store in there, and she couldn’t breathe.
Jane’s voice sounded far away to her own hears. “You’re not telling me that he’s…gone? Are you?”
There was silence on the other end, and Jane heard Amy take a deep and ragged breath. “ He got really worse, really fast. And no, he didn’t make it this time.”
“How did you know to call me?” Jane finally managed, as the ferrets crawled around her heart.
“Will left a list—things…parts of his life he didn’t want to leave unfinished. You were at the top of it.  Do you want me to read what it says?”
Jane swallowed, “Yes, please.”
 Amy made a sniffling sound, then took an audible breath, and read, “Jane: I’m so glad I met you. I want you to know that you are why I wanted a time machine—so I could have more time with you. But I don’t want you to want one. I want you not to look backwards. Love, Will.”
Jane was trying not to cry, but the ferret wasn’t making it easy, and neither was Will’s sister. But there was something Jane wanted to ask. “Why did Will sign up for Speed Dating? I guess he told you that’s how we met? It just seems…”
Amy jumped in, “Will loved the idea of Speed Dating. He said it was so great to be able to meet so many people in so short a time, to get to know them, hear their stories. He said meeting you was just the icing on the cake. Jane, I really am sorry to have to call you this way. But I promised my brother, and I thought you should know.”
“Thank you,” Jane managed, before she did cry.
            Six months passed, and Marshall and Janet, who ran Speed Dating for Singles out of the Hilton Grand, were checking people in for the evening’s session.  A man walked in, looking exasperated. “My brother paid for this for me,” he began. “I don’t really know what I’m doing here,” the man frowned. Jane, waiting in line behind the man, tapped him on the shoulder.
            “It’s virtually painless,” she smiled at him. “Just get yourself a non-drink over there, and try to relax. I can guarantee you will meet twenty new people tonight—that’s better than sitting at home in front of the T.V., right?  Jane held out her hand for her cards, “Thanks, Marsh,” she smiled and headed into the crowd of waiting daters.
            The man shook his head, smiling a little in spite of himself. “What’s with Cheerful Girl?”
            Janet answered, “Jane’s a regular. She’s a godsend, too, always puts all the new recruits at ease.”
            “She’s a regular, does this all the time, and never met anybody? How could she possibly be so freaking cheerful about that?”            
            Janet shook her head, “Jane says she’s just glad to have the chance to meet so many new people, and hear their stories.”

            The man paused a moment, then rolled his eyes and walked away, muttering, “I knew I’d meet only crazy women here.”