That I may remain innocent of plagiarism, that title is a pun on a book called The 3 A.M. Epiphany, by Brian Kiteley. Basically it's a writing book. Its pages are littered with unusual but simple exercises (in the form of prompts) designed to work your writing muscles, stretch the literary tendons, push and shove your gray matter into nooks and crannies heretofore uncharted. I rather with I'd brought it with me to Korea, in fact. I've only ever given it perfunctory glances. Bought it new off Amazon and have hardly touched it, even though it looked like a kick in the pants. I intend to rectify that on my return to the U.S.
But in the meantime, I've been having some epiphanies of my own. Namely, how to ensure that my debut novel doesn't suck.
In hindsight, I'm almost glad I've let the novel sit around so long without trying to publish it. It's let me give it a good solid think. Inexorably, I've noticed inadequacies and imperfections. I'm ever so glad I didn't rush into publication and let those strident shortcomings slip under the radar. I'd like this dang thing to be perfect.
So, in idly thinking about what would make the book better—I've gotten to the point where the book is constantly simmering away on the back burner, and I can contemplate it and critique it almost subconsciously—I came to a realization. The book is boring. Flat. Dull. Thanks to my last rewrite, completed shortly before I left for Korea (late 2011 or something), the manuscript is no longer do disgustingly puerile. But it's still missing something. Oomph, I guess you'd call it. There's nothing in it that would hold interest. It's still somewhat shallower than I'd like. I must have subconsciously grasped this, and the matter must have been turning itself over in my head subliminally for months, ethereal and intangible, like the ghost of a rotisserie chicken.
Because, at 8 p.m. yesterday evening, I figured out what was wrong, and how to fix it. Was the book dull? Okay, spice things up a bit. I didn't have to think long about how to accomplish this. I'd bring in some of the characters I was saving for the sequels.
I cracked open my laptop during one of my free periods at work, and commenced a staff meeting with myself. These are the stenographer's notes:
Okay. How to integrate [Unnamed Major Characters #1, #2 and #3] into the story I've already got?
Excellent question. Are we including their backstories as well?
Whoof, I hadn't even thought about it. Seems logical to include Number One's cover story, and of course most of Number Two's tragic history, excluding the part she doesn't know about (that she's actually from the other universe). As for Number Three's...
I'm thinking we'd best leave his (and Number One's) for later. Drama bombs, good sir, drama bombs. Like Dresden in '44. Or was it '45?
No matter. Just enough to set up character. Now, are we confident that we've included enough? Are [the three aforementioned characters] going to be enough to sustain this story properly? Or are they too much? Character overload, so to speak?
Well, as Spartan as this story is right now (a protagonist, a deuteragonist, two antagonists, a few slavering beasts and and a boatload of war-crazed tribesmen), a few vivid characters couldn't hurt. They'd really help flesh it out.
We can at least give it a shot. If it doesn't work, we'll know it.
Glad we got that cleared up. Now the question is...how now, brown cow?
Now let's see...I'm thinking of pulling in some of the story elements from what I had planned for later books. Enrichening the story.
Is "enrichening" actually a word?
It is now. So. The story. We were originally planning the setting (after the cataclysm) in a fairly pastoral setting, with a few Babylonian and Akkadian cities scattered around, right? And the Babylonians and Akkadians running amok?
That sounds about right, yes. And our heroes caught up in the middle of it.
I should have listened to my gut from the beginning. That setting always struck me as somewhat...pedestrian. Bland. Unexciting. Static.
No need for reproaches, friend. What's happened has happened. Just be glad you're fixing it before you publish it. So, we need to spice up the setting a bit?
Right. Instead of leaving the place a wilderness, I think I'm going to make the landscape more recognizable. Really pull the audience into the story. Make them realize just what this story's about, and what actually happened during the apocalypse.
That sounds sound.
So...let's see here. What were the milestone civilizations after Mesopotamia? The Egyptians, right?
Yeah, them. And the Greeks, and the Romans, and the Arabs, the Carthaginians, and all the barbarian tribes up in Europe and whatnot.
Are the Etruscans in there somewhere?
Who the hell were the Etruscans?
No idea. Anyway, I think that's enough to go on. The chronological order of things isn't going to matter much, given the context of the story. Nor, really, will historical accuracy. We can play with this timeline as much as we like.
It's nice when you leave yourself an out like that, isn't it? Perhaps you were cut out to be a sci-fi writer after all. If you can learn to ignore the thunderous sound of Isaac Asimov spinning in his grave, that is.
It's getting easier by the day. All right, so we've got historical context taken care of. But I want to be sure of something. Whenever people write alternate histories, or even history-based science fiction (A.E. van Vogt was a whiz at it) there's a certain risk involved. I'm talking about clichés.
What, you mean like, whenever people write about savage backward Bronze Age cultures, or the Roman Empire, or some fictitious blend of the two, there's always some big fight scene in the grand arena? Against wild beasts and monstrous sword-wielding gladiators?
Yeah, that. Happens all the time. Star Wars (like, two or three times); John Carter; Riverworld; Gladiator (I suppose that was a given, though); and a whole bunch of other historical and sci-fi stuff. It's a lead-pipe cinch. Whenever you talk about ancient cultures, real or imagined, some mention of The Games always pops up.
Sure does. You want to avoid that?
Yes. I want to avoid it. And somehow, avoid it WITHOUT avoiding it.
I would like to work a nice big gladiatorial fight scene in there. Preferably with the hand of the love interest at stake.
Okay. We can do it. We just have to make it new and fresh. Or make it SEEM new and fresh.
At that moment, unfortunately, I noticed that I had three minutes to get ready for my next lesson. I hastily shut down the computer, snatched my textbooks and lesson plan, and hoofed it to class.
I think I got enough done. I was starting to digress, anyway. I didn't make any concrete steps toward figuring out where I was going to spread my hands and divide the plot—like Moses parting the Red Sea—and stick all this extra stuff in, but I've got all night to think about that. And tomorrow night. And possibly the three free periods I've got on Wednesday, too.
I'm tremendously excited. My manuscript, as it stands now, is a mere 58,000 words or so. That makes it pretty short for a novel. I'm not one to subscribe to the whole "longer is better" school of authorship which Douglas Adams poked fun at in So Long and Thanks for All the Fish, but I am rather pleased that this new material will double (perhaps triple) the overall length of this work. Makes it seem a little more legit, you know?
But beyond that, I'm excited to see the changes this will wreak on my manuscript. I think it'll really jazz it up. It'll transmute from bland sterility into explosive vivaciousness. It'll be punchy, hard-hitting, evocative, emotional, and just plain ol' fun. I'm looking forward to ushering it into that golden light.
I'll let you know how it all goes. And about my plans to publish it. I think I might be ready to try putting on the Kindle™...