Chapter 7 of Danklandsaga is now up. This one is told from the perspective of River, a doormat of a guy who finds himself stuck in a dead-end job at the Smithsonian gift shop. He's exactly the sort of schmuck who gets called to work on his day off because his boss knows he doesn't have the willpower to say no.
Which is how he finds himself on the Metro when the apocalypse strikes. All he wants is to get home, have some dinner, and maybe watch the latest episode of Doctor Who, but instead he finds himself schlepping through a muggy, hot tunnel with a bunch of sweaty protesters and tourists. And his hell is only beginning...
Now I call this Chapter 7, but it is in fact the first chapter of the series I wrote. Indeed, in my initial conception, the whole story was going to be told from River's perspective. I got all the way through chapter ten with him when two things happened that derailed my plan.
First, River reached a point where he encountered another group of survivors, and my muse said to me, "Hey, you know, these guys have got an interesting backstory..."
"Oh, so I should give them a couple paragraphs of dialogue to explain how they got here?" I said, rather naïvely.
"More than a couple paragraphs, I think," said my muse.
I had a sinking feeling. This is how she got Homer. The Odyssey was originally going to be a short story, just a little bonus put at the end of the Iliad for the paperback release, but then she whispered to him, "Hey, what if Odysseus ran into a tempest on the way home?"
"So maybe a Council of Elrond thing, a big nested story-within-the-story?" I suggested. I knew the answer, though.
"Mmm, how about a flashback chapter?"
"An entire chapter?"
"I suppose," I conceded with a heavy sigh. "As long as it's just the one."
"I'm sure you can squeeze it all in."
I should've known better. Never trust a muse. They are fucking liars.
Next thing I know, this flashback chapter was 12,000 words, nearly twice as long as a normal chapter. But even worse -- the characters in the chapter encountered yet another group of survivors.
"Hey," my muse said, "you know, I think these guys--"
"Have an interesting backstory, too?"
"How'd you know that?"
"Well they do."
"And I suppose they need a flashback as well?"
"Oh, at least one."
"This is turning into The Saragossa Manuscript."
"And you know, Jan Potocki never gave me any guff. You could take a lesson from him."
"He committed suicide after coming to believe he was a werewolf!"
"Yes, beholding the full glory of your muse can drive you mad. But it is a small price to pay for genius."
"You know what, I'm done! I'm finished! This story was never supposed to be this long. When we started this, you said, 'Oh yeah, he'll be out of the tunnel by the end of chapter 1.' It took until chapter 6."
"These things happen. You know A Game of Thrones was originally going to be a single three hundred page book."
"Enough! I am done!"
"Well, if you don't want to write, there's nothing I can do. But, if I have nothing to do ... well, I have to pass the time somehow."
"...Henry the Eighth, I am, I am!"
"Please. Not that."
"I got married to the widow next door,
She's been married seven times before!"
"Okay! Okay! Whatever you want. We'll do the flashbacks. We'll do all the flashbacks you want."
"Good boy, but now that I'm thinking about it..."
"I don't think flashbacks are the best structure for the story."
"No. There are too many characters who'll need backstories."
"How many characters?"
"Nine? Oh no, wait, ten. I just thought of a new one."
"Yup. Ten POV characters."
"I've already written 80,000 words in first person."
"So we'll tell the whole thing in first person."
"Each chapter will have a different first person narrator?"
"Works for Nick Hornby."
"Nick Hornby writes romantic comedies."
"Love stories and apocalyptic novels follow the same basic structure. Terror, death, sex, you know, it works."
"Can I get a different muse?"
Around the same time I had this discussion, Donald Trump became President. When I began the first draft of River's story, back in 2015, it was set in the generic near present, next Sunday AD. This seemed a perfectly reasonable way to do things at the time. After all, the world doesn't change that much from year to year. Technology gets a little bit better, pop culture references change a little bit, but on the whole a story set in 2015 isn't much different from one set in 2013. And as I was writing River's story, there didn't seem to be any reason why a story set some time in the next decade would have to be different from 2015.
But by the time I had that conversation with my muse, it was 2016. Late December to be exact. And everything had changed.
Looking back through the early River chapters, I saw a number of things that needed to change to accomdate the new reality. Many of them were little details. The poster River sees on the wall of the Metro station was originally for Obamacare. Back in 2015, that had seemed like a perfectly normal thing to be advertised on public transit, something that wouldn't date the story very quickly. By the end of 2016, though, not so much.
Likewise, I originally put a group of protesters on the train because there are always protesters around the White House. In the first draft they were little more than a throwaway joke, with signs demanding polygamous rights -- "Mormons, Muslims, Polies Unite!" and "Traditional Marriage: If It Was Good Enough for Solomon, It's Good Enough for Us." In 2015 it made sense that people protesting in DC would be a bit doofy. The end of 2016...
Naturally, my muse had ideas for them. Big ideas. Indeed, this was the first major transformation she introduced to the story. Initially, the story was set on a lazy Sunday afternoon, with the Metro system nearly empty except for tourists and guys like River who had to work on the weekend. Indeed, one of the struggles I faced in the first draft was finding reasons for people to be on the Metro, which is why I put some protesters on the train in the first place.
But now my Muse decided demonstrators would become a major element of the story, with more than a quarter of the POV characters taking part in a massive protest on the Mall.
And so the story changed from a tale of one guy whose commute home is interrupted by the apocalypse, to a grand epic with a cast of thousands.
-by Sean O'Hara