It’s surprising how often people arrive at this blog having typed the title of this article (or something similar) into Google. Obviously there are a lot of would-be zombie writers out there looking for help so I thought I’d put together a brief guide based on my own experiences. This is quite a long article and if you’d prefer to read it offline, you can download a PDF from here.
1. Come Up With A Good Idea: Sorry to have to say this, but if you don’t have a good idea, then there’s really not much point in writing a book about zombies, or indeed anything else. Yet, coming up with an idea that’s good is probably the most difficult thing you will have to do; that’s right, coming up with a good idea for a book is more difficult than actually writing it! So what do I mean by good? I’m mean something that’s new and original, and adds to the genre rather than just mimicking the work of others. The trouble is that with the wealth of zombie books and films out there, it can be extremely difficult to come up with an idea that hasn’t already been done to death (if you’ll pardon the pun!). If your idea can be described with phrases along the lines of ‘It’s like … but set … instead’ or ‘It’s like … but with more/less/a female/male …’ or ‘It’s a cross between … and …’ then your idea probably isn’t original enough to be distinctive.
If your idea passes this first hurdle in your own mind, the next thing to do is to run it past other people to see what they think. If their responses are along the lines of ‘Oh that sounds just like …’ then again it’s probably not a very original idea and it won’t stand out from all the other zombie books that are already out there. However, there’s a caveat here, just because an idea is original it doesn’t mean it’s automatically literary gold-dust. There could be very good reasons why there isn’t an existing book or film with your particular premise and that’s because it just won’t work. Again, talking to other people about your idea will help you determine if your idea is actually any good (even if it is original).
If you don’t have anyone who you can run your idea past, you can try one of the zombie forums such as Home Page Of The Dead, Zombie Squad or the Permuted Press one. Most of these have sections on writing zombie fiction and allow you to run ideas past other forum members to see what they think. If you get enough people responding positively to your idea, then you’re probably onto a good thing; if not then you need to put some more work in. This doesn’t necessarily mean you should throw it away; you may just need to tinker with it a bit here and there until you have something that’s worth taking further.
2. Decide On The Rules For Your Own Personal Apocalypse: While everyone is familiar with the concept of a zombie apocalypse, each one is unique. Think about it for moment: the zombie apocalypse in The Walking Dead is different from that in Dawn Of The Dead, which in turn is different from 28 Days Later, I am Legend and The Day Of The Triffids (okay those last two aren’t technically ‘zombie’ apocalypses but you get the idea). If you don’t have a clear framework for your particular zombie apocalypse before you start writing, the chances are you’ll end up with glaring inconsistencies which will confuse and annoy your readers. After all, there’s nothing worse than reading a zombie book where the rules seem to change from scene to scene.
These rules for how your zombie-filled world works need to cover things like how it started (a virus? Radiation? Chemical contamination?), how fast it spreads (is it a slow build drawn out over weeks or does it happen over-night?), what type of zombies will roam your apocalyptic landscape (will they be the dead risen to walk again or zombie-like infected living humans?), how your characters end up where the readers join them at the start of the story (were they locked in a military bunker, or holed up in a school or maybe they were in space and returned to Earth only to find it infested with the undead!), how do people become zombies (is it an infection passed on through a bite or does everyone become a zombie when they die?) and, most importantly, whether your zombies be Romero-esque and slow or the more modern fast-moving type or some sort of mix between the two. Added 25/07/2013: You can find a copy of the rules for the post-apocalyptic, zombie-filled world of my book For Those In Peril On The Sea here.
3. Build Your Characters: A good zombie story isn’t just about blood and gore as people get ripped to shreds by hordes of flesh-munchers (I admit it’s an important part but there has to be more to it than that if your book is going to be any good). You also have to have compelling characters so your readers care about what happens to them. After all, it’s all the more gut-wrenching when a well-liked character falls victim to the undead. Similarly, there’s nothing better than seeing a hated character finally get their just desserts. What you don’t want to do is leave your readers not caring whether your characters live or die or, worse, cheering for the zombies (unless that’s your particular twist – but that might be a prime example of an idea that’s original but not good!).
This means you need to think about exactly what each character looks like, where they came from, how they speak, what their strengths and weaknesses are, whether they’re the reluctant hero or just a trigger-happy gun nut, whether the reader is meant to like them, admire them, hate them and so on. The best way to do this is to write a character sketch for each of the main characters before you start writing. This way you can get to know them and also make sure they behave consistently throughout your story. These characteristics aren’t set in stone and you can come back and change things later if you need to, but it’s useful to have this written down somewhere so that you don’t find your characters acting inconsistently as your story develops. And of course, you’ll also need to work out how exactly you’re going to reveal this information about your characters to both the readers and to the other characters.
4. Practice Your Writing Skills: If you haven’t written before, don’t expect to be able to sit down and pen the next World War Z straight off. Even if you have written before, you probably haven’t worked in the zombie genre (otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this article). This means you will need some practice before you can find your voice and your writing style. One of the best ways to do this is to write short stories. These don’t necessarily take a huge amount of time and they are a great way to develop your skills and explore ideas that you might have either for your book as a whole or for individual scenes and characters.
Once you have written each short story, I’d suggest posting them somewhere for others to read so you can get some feedback. You can do this on your own blog, but it’s probably better to do this on one or more of the zombie forums. You can usually find plenty of people there who are more than willing to express an opinion on your work. However, be warned, not all of it will be positive but hopefully most of it will be constructive.
5. Get To Know Your Competition: If you’re thinking about writing your first zombie novel, the chances are you’re already a fan of the genre and will probably have read loads of different novels and watched lots of films. However, that was in your pre-author phase. You need to go back and watch/read them again (always fun!), but not simply as a passive onlooker. Instead, you need to study them with a more critical eye. Think about which bits are effective and which bits aren’t. Then try to work out why this is the case. This will give you insights which you can then take into your own writing. This is not to say that you should be ripping off the work of others, so don’t steal whole scenes or characters, rather you’re looking at the ways they made a scene gripping or memorable, or what they did that meant it just didn’t work for you. Once you have accumulated this knowledge, you are ready to apply it to your own work.
6. Get To Know Your Intended Audience: There’s not much point in writing a book if no one’s going to want to read it. This means you need to get to know your intended audience before you even start writing. One of the best ways to do this is by reading online reviews of as many other zombie books as you can (and don’t just read the reviews of books which got five stars, read the ones for books that have one star ratings too). Look at what people say they liked, and also what they said they hated about each one. If you find that there are certain things your intended audiences repeatedly complains about (such as too much gratuitous violence and not enough character development – a common issue with zombie books) then make sure you avoid making the same mistakes.
7. Avoid Clichés: In zombie fiction, there are many potential pitfalls but one of the most difficult to avoid is using the many clichés which abound in this genre: The little girl zombie that surprises someone at the beginning, the fact that almost anyone can pick up a gun and start popping off perfect headshots instantly even if they’ve never held one before, the baseball bat, the lone zombie lurking amongst the shelves of a supermarket which a character needs to go into against their better judgement because they really need something they can only find inside and so on. Avoid these like the proverbial plague as they’re one of the quickest way to alienate your would-be readers (well that and poor editing but more on that later).
8. Do Your Research: Writing a good story, even a zombie one, means you have to get your facts right, and in order to do that you need to do research. You may need to find out things like how many bullets a particular make of gun holds, what happens when you blow someone’s head off with a shotgun, and how far you can drive in a specific model of car on a certain amount of fuel. Depending on your story, you may also need to know how to reset a broken bone, what sort of antibiotics you need to treat an infection or how to amputate a limb that’s been bitten by a zombie. You also need to research the locations where your story is set to make sure that the events you are describing are feasible. Yes, you can take some artistic licence, but your story should at least be geographically possible.
The internet can be a great resource for finding out such things, as can be forums where you can ask experts questions. Google Earth is also exceedingly useful and you can use it to check out the layout of towns, measure distances to see how long it would take your characters to get from one place to another and map out how your zombie swarm will sweep through the city where your story is set. While you can write a story without researching such things, it will come across as being much more authentic if you do, and a good zombie story needs to feel real if it’s going to have any bite.
9. Write A First Draft: No book is perfect in the first draft. In fact, most are a mess of inconsistencies, poorly written characters and plot flaws, but the point of a first draft isn’t to be a perfect finished product. Instead, the first draft is about getting the basic framework of your ideas down on paper in some sort of narrative form. This initial draft is the first time you will be able to stand back and see your whole story. It’s not for public consumption; instead its purpose is to let you see whether or not your idea really works, whether it’s distinctive, and what you need to tweak and change to make it work. This means that you shouldn’t spend weeks or months editing and polishing the first chapter before moving onto the next. Instead, just get it all down on paper, you’ll do all that polishing in the next step.
10. Editing: Based on my own experience, only about 20% of the process of writing a book involves working on the first draft. To paraphrase Churchill, the first draft isn’t the end, it’s not even the beginning of the end, it’s only the end of the beginning. Once you’ve finished your first draft, you need to start the editing process. This is where you go back and clean up all the typos, the plot holes, the character flaws, the inconsistencies and weed out all the clichés that, despite your best efforts, have none-the-less worked their way into your story. You will probably spend three times as long editing your book as you did on writing the first draft but it’s the only way you will get it into a readable form. I would suggest a minimum of 10 complete drafts before you move onto the next stage (this means you’ll have read it through and made changes 10 times by which time you’ll know it inside out) but that’s just me.
11. Find Some Guinea-pigs: I’m not talking about the furry little things currently lurking in the corner of the room where I’m writing, rather I’m talking about finding yourself some readers. These are people who you can trust to give you an honest, warts and all opinion of your work. This means you probably shouldn’t use your relatives (who’ll tell you it’s perfect no matter how bad it is) or your partner (who won’t want to belittle your efforts); instead go for trusted friends who are zombie fans or try recruiting people from one of the zombie forums. Be clear that you want them to be honest and that you won’t hold anything they say against them (and make sure you don’t – after all, they’re doing you a favour!). Once they’ve read it, get them to tell you what they liked and what they didn’t, and make sure you listen to what they have to say. If you give a draft of your book to three people and they all tell you a specific scene doesn’t work it’s more likely that they are right and you are wrong rather than the other way round.
12. Repeat Steps 10 And 11: This is done until everyone is more or less happy with what you’ve written (I’d usually do this three times). However, you may find that you need to get at least some new readers for each draft just to get a fresh perspective on it.
13. Find Yourself A Professional Editor: It might be expensive, but a professional editor will help finish your novel off. Their input will be invaluable at catching any remaining holes in your plot, picking up spelling mistakes, cleaning up your grammar, sorting out pesky things like how to use a semi-colon correctly and so on. Just remember, they know what they’re talking about so listen to them, otherwise you’re splashing out good money for nothing. There are plenty of free-lance editors out there and a quick search of the internet will turn up a long list of names. Don’t just go for the first one you find though. Instead, look for one that’s a member of a professional organisation for editors or ask other writers for recommendations. You could also consider asking any potential editor to edit a sample of your work to see if you like their style and whether it’s compatible with your writing voice.
If you get through these steps, you should end up with a completed post-apocalyptic zombie novel sitting in front of you but your work isn’t done, not by a long way. You next need to decide what you’re going to do with it: are you going to submit it to an agent to see if they will represent you to a publisher or are you going to try submitting it directly to a publisher (although few accept unsolicited manuscripts these days)? Or you could go the self-published route and put it out through something like Kindle Direct Publishing. Whichever route you take, just remember that getting your book on sale still isn’t the end of it (although you’ll have finally reached the beginning of the end!). Once it’s out there, if you’re going to make any sales, you’ll need to publicise the hell out of it; and that’s a whole different ball game.
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 print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.
For Those In Peril On The Sea is one of only five finalists in the ForeWord Firsts Winter 2013 competition for debut novels. For more information, click here.
To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.