Archive | February, 2013

In Praise Of The Short Story As A Form Of Writing

12 Feb

Sometimes it seems that the short story is a rather under-appreciated writing form. They can be hard to get published on their own (especially if you don’t already have a good publication history – but how can you get that if they’ll only consider stories from established writers?) and it’s almost impossible to get anyone to even consider a collection of short stories written by a single author (anthologies containing stories from a range of authors around a common theme are, on the other hand, a very different case entirely and can often prove quite successful). This means that many writers will concentrate on writing novels without even considering working on a short story or two.

I think this can often be a mistake. Despite being difficult to get published, short stories are a great way of developing your writing skills or keeping them sharp between longer projects. They’re also a good way to explore individual themes or to try out different styles (this is especially useful if you’re still developing your writing skills). Similarly, you can use short stories to test whether an idea you have might be worth taking further (you can often explore a basic idea in the short form and if it works, expand it out into something longer). For example, while I primarily work with post-apocalyptic fiction, I recently used a short story to explore an idea that hinged around the witnesses to a crime having prosopagnosia or face-blindness (a condition that would mean they’d be unable to recognise the suspect if they ever saw them again and they’d be unable to describe the person’s face to the police – I liked the idea of eye witnesses who’d be able to say exactly what happened but not necessarily who did it). It seems to work and at some point I may revisit the basic idea in a longer form.

Working on a short story can also be the perfect way of getting round a bout of writer’s block (or at least some of its more minor forms). When I’m working on something longer and progress grinds to a halt for whatever reason (and lets face it this will happen at least once during the writing of any novel) rather than bang my head against a brick wall, I often find that if I take a break and work on something else for a while, whatever obstacle was there will have melted away when I return to the project at a later point with a fresh pair of eyes. By working on a short story during such breaks, I don’t feel that the time off has been completely wasted (at least I have something I can point to and say ‘Look what I did today!’) and this really helps take the pressure off.

Similarly, many people who write (and this includes me) have to do other things to supplement their incomes so they can pay the bills. This means that making time for writing can be difficult. While a novel can take weeks or months before you feel like you’re getting anywhere with it, a short story can often be pretty much completed in a day or so (they might still need some editing but you’ll at least have most things in place). This means they are the perfect writing form for fitting into busy lives. If you can’t get even a day off every now and then to devote to writing, there’s other even shorter forms out there, including flash fiction (stories between about 100 and 1,000 words long), micro fiction (stories of less than 100 words) and even twitter fiction (a story told in just 140 characters or less). But be warned, just because they’re short it doesn’t mean that they’re easy to write. For those used to working on longer forms, it can be quite a challenge to successfully encapsulate an entire story in so few words.

Finally (this is a tip I picked up from another author recently and it’s one of the things that has encouraged me to revisit this writing form after many years away from it), short stories and other forms of short fiction are perfect ‘tasters’ for potential readers and future fans. By making short stories you write available for free (or at least some of them), people can get an idea of your writing style and the way you think, and this may well encourage them to part with their hard-earned cash when it comes to any full length novels you publish. After all, you’re much more likely to take a chance on a debut novel if you already have an idea of what the author’s writing style and it certainly beats having to give whole books away for free (even if it is only for a limited time!).

If you’ve never tried writing a short story before or if (like me) it’s something you haven’t tried in a long time, hopefully this posting will show you that there’s a lot going for it as a writing form. If it has, why not set yourself a short story challenge and see what it might be able to do for you.


If you’re interested, you can find some of my short stories here.

From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK, and available as an ebook and in print the US from the 21st March 2013. Click here or visit to find out more.

Do Zombies And Water Mix?

8 Feb

I’ve long held that one of the best defences against zombies is to put a large body of water between you and them. Yet, while I’d happily based my own personal survival strategy on this premise if I suddenly found myself in a zombie-infested world, I still have a niggling suspicion that I might be making a serious error of judgement here so I thought I’d explore this possibility here to see whether it holds up or not.

So do I mean by a large body of water? I’m not thinking a gentle little stream or a garden pond here. I’m thinking of something much bigger like the Amazon, or one of the Great Lakes, or better still a large expanse of open sea. Also, I’m not just talking about getting to some island and holing up there; I’m also thinking about using a boat to move around and perhaps even live on.

As far as I can work out the main thing that’s likely to determine whether this survival strategy would work or not is what type of zombies we’re talking about. If it’s living humans infected with some sort of disease or chemical agent that causes them to act like zombies (as was the case in 28 Days Later) then I think my strategy is sound. It’s unlikely such infected would be able to swim or to use boats or anything like that, and they are likely to drown during any prolonged immersion. This means any sort of body of water is likely to act as a barrier to such zombies getting to you. In fact, under these conditions, even a relatively small body of water might well be very effective way to help you survive a zombie apocalypse.

If, on the other hand, we’re talking about more traditional re-animated corpses, things could be very different. These types of zombies are dead already and so there are no obvious reasons as to why they couldn’t move through water in pretty much the same way they do on land. Even if they can’t walk along the bottom, they can float around and that means they could potentially be carried long distances before clambering ashore and attacking you. Even on a boat, you might not be safe. You could well wake in the middle of the night to find them pulling themselves up your anchor lines or dragging they’re rotting corpses over the side. This is certainly a scenario that was used in World War Z.

However, there’s still one issue. Being dead, these zombies will rot and fall apart, and any time spent in the water is only going to speed up this process. I’ve got no idea if any of the many creatures that would normally feed on flesh left floating around in the sea would eat zombies but they might. All this means is that while undead zombies can survive the occasional dunking unscathed, it’s unlikely they’d make it through any sort of prolonged period in water without, quite literally, falling to pieces. So using water as part of your survival strategy may well work even against the undead, it’s just that it’ll probably have to be a much wider barrier before it becomes effective. Therefore, if, come the apocalypse, you find yourself facing the walking dead, water may still be your friend. Just don’t go thinking about an island that’s only a few miles from the nearest shore; instead think about one that’s well over the horizon and well away from any human habitation.

So no matter the type of zombie you come up against, when they rise up and take over the world think good old H20 because (at least from my point of view) zombies and water really don’t mix. You just have to think carefully about exactly where you’ll go.

From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK, and available as an ebook and in print the US from the 21st March 2013. Click here or visit to find out more.

Could Genetic Engineering Create A Zombie Apocalypse?

5 Feb

Modern technology has reached a stage where genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can be created by almost anyone working in a biotech lab using fairly basic genetic engineering. Much of this involves either changing the way genes within an individual organism work or transferring genes from one organism into another. The organisms used in such work range from things as large as the cow to ones as small as viruses. A lot of genetic engineering is aimed at either modifying the organisms that cause infectious diseases or changing the way animals respond to them. As with any technological developments, there is always the possibility of unexpected consequences. With this in mind, I thought I’d ask myself a question: Could genetic engineering spark a zombie apocalypse?

Firstly, we have to consider the type of zombie that might be involved in any zombie apocalypse. There are two basic zombie ‘species: The traditional, risen-from-the-dead zombie and living humans infected with a disease that causes them to act like we’d expect a zombie to act (this type of zombie will be familiar to anyone who has seen the film 28 Days Later). There is no known disease caused by another organism that can cause the first type of zombie, and that alone makes it’s extremely unlikely (but not necessarily impossible) that a geneticist could engineer an organism do it. This is because bio-technicians, for the most part, only tinker with what is already available, such as turning off a gene here, modifying a gene there or moving a gene from one species to another, rather than creating anything truly new from scratch; so no existing template in nature means there’s very little they could do to create one.

The second type of zombie, a living human infected with a disease that makes them act like a zombie, is, rather frighteningly, much more feasible. There are many existing diseases and organisms that are known to get into the human brain and start influencing our behaviours. I’ve mentioned a few of them in a previous post that can be found here but top amongst these are diseases such as rabies and toxoplasmosis. There are also diseases and organisms out there that, while they don’t affect humans, can take control of other organisms in a variety of interesting, if gruesome, ways. This means that there’s loads of potential examples that a genetic engineer could use as the basis for creating something that would turn people into zombie-like infected.

So if it’s feasible, how could it actually happen? There’s two possible scenarios. The first is the intentional creation of a malicious disease agent. This would be where someone specifically sets out to create a pathogen that would turn living people into something that resembled flesh-eating zombies. You might think that bio-terrorists or so-called rogue states would be the biggest worry here, but lets face it the only people who really have the knowledge and tools to create such a thing are those in well-developed country with decades of experience in biowarfare. This means much more likely culprits are ones like the US, the UK, Russia and China. While these countries are bound by various international conventions, this doesn’t mean they, or someone working for them, isn’t dabbling around with such things. However, while they may be interested in creating an organism capable of turning humans into living zombies, it’s unlikely that they would intentionally make an infectious one (or at least one they didn’t have a vaccine for and you can’t make a vaccine without first making the disease). This is because there would be too great a risk of it causing ‘blow back’ as they’d have no control of it once it was released (this would be something any military end-user would consider to be very important). This means that while this may be the source of a few zombies here and there, it’s unlikely to be the source of a true zombie apocalypse caused by a genetically-engineered disease run amok.

The amount of resources required to successfully genetically engineer anything also means that it’s unlikely that a zombie apocalypse could be sparked by a single individual working alone and especially in a basement home lab. The equipment needed would cost too much and the chances are you’d need a large team of people working over a long period of time to get any where. While not impossible, this means we probably don’t need to worry about the disenfranchised mad scientist with a grudge against humanity toiling away in his shed.

The last scenario is, to me, the really scary one; it’s the accidental creation and release of an organism that would cause a highly infectious zombie-inducing disease. While genetic engineers might not like to admit it, they don’t know as much about how genes actually work as they think they do. This is why the use of gene therapy in medicine has never really lived up to its much-hyped potential and it also means there’s a lot of potential for them to make changes to an organism’s DNA that has unforeseen and unexpected consequences.

Take, for example, rabies. While the rabies virus has the power to turn people into zombie-like infected, it’s highly lethal and kills anyone infected with it. It also spreads very slowly. This means that while it can kill you, it doesn’t really have to power to create a zombie apocalypse. But rabies is exactly the type of disease that some well-meaning genetic engineer might start messing around with, perhaps to try to create a better vaccine or something like that (and remember rabies still kills around 50,000 people per year so there may well be people out there interested in doing this). If this had the unintended consequence of making it less lethal, you could end up with people stuck for the rest of their lives in the extremely aggressive and violent pre-terminal phase that would leave them pretty much indistinguishable from a zombie. If it also made the virus faster-acting, so that it took people over in hours rather than weeks (possibly by travelling in the blood stream rather than creeping along the nervous system), then we could have the making of a true zombie apocalypse. This is the apocalyptic scenario I used in For Those In Peril On The Sea, and you can find a detailed consideration of it here.

You could easily imagine similar scenarios involving the prions that cause mad cow disease, or something like toxoplasmosis or even syphilis (which as a very similar pre-terminal phase as rabies – not surprising since the viruses that cause these two very different diseases are closely related). It would only take small changes to make these types of diseases apocalypse-inducingly dangerous.

There’s also another option for the accidental creation of an agent capable of creating a zombie apocalypse. This is the use of short strands of RNA to stop genes working within an animal’s body (this technology’s called short interfering RNA or siRNA for short). It would be easy enough for someone to create a strand of RNA that was meant to do one thing in humans but ended up turning off some sort of control centre within the brain, or indeed ramping up centres associated with rage or other similar emotions. While such an agent might not be infectious as such, it might be possible for it to be passed from person to person through exchanges in body fluids. This is probably not that far from the scenario behind the rage ‘virus’ that featured in the movie 28 Days Later (and after all, what’s a virus but a short strand of RNA?).

Finally, we should consider how any agent, once created, makes it out into the world because without the release there can be no apocalypse. While it’s possible that it could be let out on purpose, for example as part of a field trial of a vaccine, it’s much more likely that any release would be accidental. People working in labs are never quite as careful as we’d hope they’d be (especially when working with really dangerous organisms) and the systems meant to keep us safe from what they’re cooking up aren’t infallible. This makes accidental releases of bio-engineered organisms feasible. However, in labs associated with commercial biotech firms, there’s probably a lot more checks and balances than in university labs, and they’re much less likely to be staffed by over-worked or hung-over grad students who aren’t concentrating quite as hard on containment as they should. There’s also many more university labs around and they tend to do much more blue sky and truly novel work, so I would give them the highest risk of accidentally sparking a zombie apocalypse.

So, while it’s unlikely that bio-technology could accidentally cause dead to rise and take over the world, it’s much more feasible that it could cause a disease outbreak that would turn humans into zombie-like infected. Of the possible scenarios considered for this, ones associated with the accidental creation and release of some genetically engineered organism are more likely that those associated with the intentional creation of a zombie virus by some state-sponsored weapons program. Unfortunately, this also makes it much more likely, especially when you consider how many people all around the world are now working in this field, how little they understand of the potential unintended consequences of what they’re doing and how little real regulation there is on this ever-expanding area of technology.

The over-all chances of this happening might be extremely low but the costs to humanity would be beyond measure so even a small chance is probably unacceptable.

From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK, and available as an ebook and in print the US from the 21st March 2013. Click here or visit to find out more.