As I've mentioned before, I love that genre, and am fully aware that the market is pretty saturated with stories of zombies, plagues, vampires, Earth-bound asteroids, armies of Sta-Puft Marshmallow Men, and so on and so forth.
But THIS idea.
This was a twist on the genre I hadn't seen yet out there.
I talked to my agent, my first readers, and my wife about it. They all seemed excited by it. I worked on the outline, set out the major plot points. I did have a bit of a hard time deciding on what the main character's ultimate quest would be, but I didn't worry too much about it. The idea was so damn good, I figured it would work itself out (see where this is going?)
So I got to work on the manuscript in December. And wrote and wrote and wrote. By the end of April, I had myself a complete manuscript, nearly 100,000 words in length. I was pretty proud of myself.
I took a week or two off from it, did a couple pass-through reads to clean some things up and shipped it off to my readers.
While I waited for them to get back to me, something started to nag at me. Something felt wrong. The story didn't pop out at me. I compared it to The Jackpot, which had a very simple, very clearly-defined quest -- Samantha working to return a stolen lottery ticket back to its rightful owner while resisting the temptation to keep it for herself. It's the narrative thread. But what was this book about? Why did it feel so flat?
The first reader got back to me with his notes: He liked the premise a lot, but, uh, um, what's it ABOUT?
My second reader came back with his notes: "The writing is really good, but I'm having a hard time rooting for the main character." To me, this is very similar to my first reader's note. Guess what my agent said when she read it?
I read through it again. They were right. One hundred percent right.
The book was sick. Very sick. I rushed it into surgery and began looking for where things went off the rails. Early, it turns out. Very early. And the infection spread rapidly throughout the rest of the manuscript. I made the fatal mistake of confusing a good idea with a story. I didn't know what the main character was pursuing, what his ultimate goal was, who he even was, and the novel is fatally flawed because of it. The main character does pursue something, but he was backed into it by circumstance, not because he was actively trying to solve a problem that affected him directly. That's not to say that there aren't novels that succeed in this paradigm -- it's just that mine doesn't, because this quest he's on isn't clearly defined. He doesn't even know what it is until the last 20 pages of the book.
As Gertrude Stein famously said: "There's no there there."
Fixing the book isn't going to be a simple matter of revising a few sections, adding some character depth or anything like that. It's going to require a complete re-write. I'll have to throw out some 300 pages.
So there it is. I forgot the key storytelling principles. What is the book about? What does the main character want? Why does he want it? And how will your main character's true nature drive his or her approach to pursuing the goal?
I think about my three favorite books, and how simple the stories are at their core. The Stand is about our heroes' quest to defeat Randall Flagg. Mystic River is about Sean Devine's quest to find Katie Marcus' killer. Lonesome Dove is about Woodrow and Gus leading the cattle drive north from Texas. In all of these books, it's character that drives how each of the quests is pursued.
If you don't, you could find yourself in the same pickle as me. And believe me, it ain't a fun place to be.