Since August I’ve been rewriting House of the Rising Sun, an effort undertaken after several months of tepid responses from publishing houses. You might think, when you’ve published four novels, it would be easy to sell your fifth…especially when the idea for the next one seems like such an obvious home run. But the thing you can’t ever forget, no matter how confident you are, is to ensure every scene and every page and in fact EVERY SINGLE WORD of your manuscript is the best possible product your mind can produce. Anything less is lazy and a recipe for failure.
When I first began to write this novel, I imagined an epic, post-apocalyptic tale of survival that would describe in detail all the ways modern civilization would be undermined if electric power and computer chips were fried by an electromagnetic pulse (EMP). I knew I wouldn’t be the first author to tackle this subject, but after reading several novels built around the same concept, I was confident I would be the most talented author in the space. I imagined I would introduce an entirely new audience to this very real possibility and do it with a polished prose style, with nuanced attention to character and emotion the other novels were missing. But while it’s important to be confident in your work and your chances for success, being overconfident can blind you to weaknesses in your project. It can make it easy to forget that EVERY SINGLE WORD should be the best work you’re capable of producing.
To give you an example of what I mean, the first draft of House of the Rising Sun totaled just over 201,000 words. I considered this enormous figure a badge of honor because of the effort it had taken to produce such a lengthy novel over the course of year. Excruciating detail was important, I believed, because most readers would hardly realize the immediate impact of losing all their shiny gadgets, of suddenly finding no food at the local market. Even when early readers (like my wife) expressed concern about the tedious minutiae of walking 30 miles under the brutal sun, I didn’t listen. For some reason, I believed my epic battle to write the manuscript should become the reader’s epic battle to read it.
But the product you imagine when you begin sketching a new novel is almost never what emerges at the end of the process. And by now you think I would have learned this. Somewhere in all your preparation and research and hours of concentration lies a good story, at least in most cases, and your job as the author is to unearth that story, to cut it and shape it and polish it until three of the four C’s (cut, color, and clarity) reach the highest possible value. Only when those are satisfied does the fourth C, carat weight, enter the picture. There’s no point in writing a long, epic novel so dull and clouded with overwritten prose that readers can’t make their way to the end.
What I most enjoy about House of the Rising Sun is how the EMP interrupts and redirects the lives of my characters, whether those characters are happy or depressed or lost or determined or sociopathic. I discovered Station Eleven after I’d written a couple of drafts of my novel, and I was impressed with how Emily St. John Mandel managed to capture the way a flu pandemic shapes not only the exterior world, but the interior lives of her characters. Stephen King’s The Stand successfully mines similar territory and pairs it with the supernatural. House of the Rising Sun, in my view, falls somewhere between these two stories. It’s a horrifying and hyper-realistic story of the end of the world…with a sprinkle of Philip K Dick to keep the reader guessing about the true cause of the pulse. And it tackles modern gender issues against the backdrop of a world that becomes more like 1819 than 2019. In the words of one character:
“Women haven’t spent generations fighting for equality just to watch it all wink out of existence along with electricity.”
Novels in the subgenre of post-apocalyptic fiction that focus on the EMP threat typically feature a survivalist (usually a man) who, through his dedication to family, faith, and weapons, secures a new, simpler existence in a world where modern convenience has vanished. There is often an unspoken judgment of the current state of the culture, how misguided and weak and reliant on technology most of us are. House of the Rising Sun features characters like this, but it also turns their worldview upside down by asking if even the prepared among us really want to live in a world without modern convenience.
The dad might be one of those preppers who had seriously contemplated the fall of Western civilization. I knew guys like this, men who approached survival like a video game. They acquired assault rifles and purchased supplies and preached to whoever would listen how, when the Fall came, they would be ready when others wouldn’t. While the rest of us easygoing city slickers lived paycheck to paycheck, buying food daily, never planning for emergencies, they were doing the hard and thankless work of survival.
Except I never saw it as thankless. Because what sane person would prefer this life to the one we had before? Even if that family somehow manages to reach their hypothetical cabin in the woods, even if their supplies last for weeks or months, do they really want to live like settlers on the frontier? And what will happen when hordes of starving people from Dallas and Ft. Worth pour into the countryside, parents desperate to save their children, to save themselves? The survivalist father no doubt believes he will sit on his porch and pick off these desperate souls with his arsenal of deadly force, but will he really? Will he possess the will to kill as many of his fellow humans as it takes? And if he can summon the will, has he stockpiled enough rounds of ammunition? Will his wife and kids be ready to take up arms while he sleeps? And if by some miracle this family manages to protect itself from the swarm of humanity, will they possess the strength to bury all the bodies? Will the children address their dad as Pa and their mother as Ma? Will they grow beans and potatoes and trade with other settlers for tomatoes and cucumbers? Will they honestly enjoy this new way of life, which seemed romantic while they were dreaming it in front of their glowing computer screens and television sets, or will they long for their earlier, pampered existence, when their children didn’t lose a leg from a rattlesnake bite or die from an infection that could have been easily cured with antibiotics?
I’ve melted nearly 70,000 words from the original manuscript, cutting and buffing and extracting the clearest possible story from my big, dull diamond. I’ve rewritten the final third of the novel to deliver the ending each character has earned. I’ve sweated blood over every single word.
It’s what you have to do if you want to produce your best possible work. And when it’s done, you hope that what’s left is a novel readers of all types will want to devour.