Archive | June, 2014

Using ‘Easter Eggs’ When Writing Books

10 Jun

There’s been a subject which I’ve been thinking a lot about recently, and that’s Easter Eggs. Now you might think this is strange, given that it’s June, but it’s not that kind of Easter Egg that’s been on my mind. Instead, it’s literary Easter Eggs. This type of Easter Egg is an extra layer to an object, action, piece of dialogue or character in a story which may be hidden to many readers, but which provides those in the know with a little extra kick of pleasure because they’ve got the intended reference. They also provide additional layers to a story which readers might miss the first time they read a book, giving them something else to discover if they return to a story for a second helping.

Some Easter Eggs can have a relatively broad appeal, and so be ones which you’d expect most readers to get. Others may be incredibly subtle and may only be understood by a very small number of readers, often those who know the author personally. Similarly, some Easter Eggs may be self-referential, that is referring to other parts of a book, or books in a series, while others may be external references that link to specific aspects of a genre, or indeed to popular culture in general.

The trouble with literary Easter Eggs is that, just like the real thing, they can be addictive, and once a writer starts using them, there can be a temptation to go wild and include way too many. However, Easter Eggs only work if they are few and far between. Similarly, Easter Eggs have to be carefully woven into the story so that they’re neither too obvious nor provide a stumbling block for readers who don’t get the additional hidden meaning.

As with anything, an example with worth a thousand words, so I’ll use my book For Those In Peril On The Sea to illustrate exactly what I’m meaning by Easter Eggs. This is a particularly useful case study because it contains three intentional Easter Eggs (one of which is very subtle), and one example which some might consider an Easter Egg, but which was quite accidental. Such accidental references are remarkably common in literature and can cause readers to think that writers are much better at creating hidden references than they actually are!

For those not familiar with it, For Those In Peril On The Sea is a tale of survival in post-apocalyptic filled with zombie-like creatures referred to as The Infected. The first Easter Egg is the fact that the disease which creates the infected starts in Haiti. As any well-read student of zombie lore will know, zombies as we understand them in western culture originated in Haitian folk history, so starting the disease outbreak in Haiti (and indeed calling the disease the Haitian Rabies Virus) is a nod to this aspect of zombie tradition.

The second Easter Egg is another nod towards the wider zombie genre, and specifically the films of George R. Romero, who is recognised as the founder of the modern zombie movie. This Easter Egg is hidden with a piece of dialogue where one character tells another:

‘Given what’s happened, I’d much rather be on a boat at sea than holed up on land, cowering in my house, or in some suburban shopping mall, waiting for the food to run out or the infected to break down the doors.’

For those in the know (and I suspect most people will have got this), this refers back to the film Dawn Of The Dead, where the characters are holed up in a shopping mall during a zombie apocalypse.

The final intentional Easter Egg is one which I’d expect very few people to get. Despite the fact that the entire book is set on and around boats, none of the boats are refered to by name, and instead are referred to in terms of who each boat belongs to. This is except one, which, it is mentioned in passing, is called Gone With The Wind. For pretty much every reader, this will seem inconsequential, but those who knew me when I was out in Abaco in the northern Bahamas (where much of the second half of the book is set) will know that this the name of the sailboat I lived on a few years in the late 1990s.

What about the accidental Easter Egg? Well, one of the characters in For Those In Peril On The Sea is called CJ, and some might think that this is an homage to the 2004 remake of Dawn Of The Dead, where one of the lead characters is also called CJ. However, this was purely accidental, and it was something I only realised well after the book was published! Rather, this character’s name started out as Camilla, but this didn’t really fit with the flow of the book, so it was shortened to her initials, meaning Camilla Jameison became CJ purely because it didn’t disrupt the flow of the book as much.

So, these are literary Easter Eggs. Would I recommend other authors to use them in their writing? I think the answer here is yes, as readers generally love feeling that they’ve got some hidden meaning that others haven’t. However, you should only include them if you think you can do it well enough that it doesn’t ruin the story for those who don’t get it, and if you don’t do it too often within the same story. If you don’t think you can create a subtle enough Easter Egg, then don’t do it, and similarly, if you find you are starting to include one on every other page, then you need to rein yourself in.

If you want to try your hand at using Easter Eggs, and you’re worried that they won’t work, then get someone to read it over, but don’t tell them why. This will allow you to see if they spot your intended Easter Eggs, and whether they think it disrupts the flow of the story if they don’t. This way you can ensure that any Easter Eggs you create will be proper surprises for the well-informed reader and not simply MacGuffins that ruin things for everyone!



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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.

To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.

The Zombie Defence – Why The Undead Can Get Away With Murder In Our Legal System

4 Jun

When people end up in front of a judge, we usually only think there’s two ways they can plead: innocent or guilty. However, while they’re rarely used, there are other options, too. Probably the most interesting of these is what I like to call The Zombie Defence. It’s real legal name is Automatism and it means an act which is done by the body without any control by the conscious mind. There’s two versions of it. The first is insane automatism and is used when someone loses control of their body because of a mental illness. If this is accepted by the courts, they are generally locked away and forced into treatment.

More interestingly, from the zombie point of view, however, is the second, called non-insane automatism. If someone uses this defence, they are claiming their body did something, like kill someone, but while they’re sane, they had no conscious control over their body at the time. Now, you have to admit a body walking around doing things without any conscious control, is pretty close to most people’s definition of a what a zombie is, and it has some pretty interesting implications in terms of how zombies, if they were ever to appear, would be viewed by the courts.

The recognition of automatism by the legal system means that it differentiates between the conscious being and the body which contains it, and it views only the conscious portion as being legally liable for anything it does. In contrast, the non-conscious part gets a free pass. Since zombies are basically humans (either dead or alive depending on your personal preference) without consciousness, it means there’s nothing a zombie can do, up to and including to killing and eating half the neighbourhood in a single sitting, which it would be legally liable for.

If someone enters plea of not guilty due to non-insane automatism, they’re admitting that they did whatever they’ve been accused of, but they’re claiming that they were a mindless, unthinking zombie at the time they did it. And the court accepts this, they will be acquitted of all charges.

So why, you might be thinking, don’t more people use this defence? Well, it’s a very difficult to defence to pull off. This is for a number of reasons. The first of these is that by far the most common reason that someone will enter an automatonic state is because of the excessive consumption of alcohol (drinking a mix of alcohol and caffeine is a particularly common way to induce automatism) or because they’ve taken drugs (like the notorious ‘Bath Salt’ zombie – although, despite the initial reports, it seems that this might not have been drug-induced after all).

From a legal standpoint, if you chose to take the drugs or drink the alcohol then you made a conscious decision to risk entering an automatonic state, and you’re still liable for all that you do while in it. The situation is a bit less clear if you consume the stuff without your knowledge, such as in a spiked drink, and technically you might get away with it, but rarely is this the case because many people who end up in this state had already started drinking or taking drugs of their own free will, and the spiking only increases the amount.

However, not all non-insane automatism is drug or alcohol induced. Sometimes, an automatonic state is caused by a disease (and again we’re shifting towards something which is very close some definitions of what a zombie is). For example, brain tumours can radically change a peson’s behaviour. If it happens to be in the part of the brain which is responsible for impulse control, it can make the person lash out or do things the wouldn’t normally do. The court’s view of this is that if it’s the tumour that makes someone do something, then they shouldn’t be held responsible for the actions of their body (as long as they get treatment to remove the tumour as soon as they know that it’s there – if they do nothing, then they are deciding to remain in that state and then they become legally liable).

So, could automatism be caused by an infectious disease? I think the answer here is definitely yes. In fact, this is just what diseases such as rabies do. If we had a zombie outbreak where the zombies were living people infected by a disease which caused them to attack and kill other people, and we found a way to cure them, under the current laws, they wouldn’t be legally liable for anything they did while they were in their infected state. If this was a widespread event which caused a lot of death and destruction, I think this would cause a huge uproar from those who’d lost friends and family. This is because while most of us like to think the legal system is about justice, when something happens to someone we love, we don’t want justice. Instead, we want revenge. This would create a massive amount of friction between those who’d lost people and those who were infected, and I’d guess we’d see a pretty fast change in the law which would do away with the defence of non-insane automatism, or at least it would be made much harder to use it. In many ways, this was one of the most interesting themes of the BBC TV series In The Flesh, although that involved dead zombies and not living ones infected with a disease.

By this point you might be wondering, does the zombie defence ever work? Well, it’s rare, but every now and then it does. Of these, the most common are in the cases of crimes people commit in their sleep. This is where we venture into the territory of sleep disorders including sleep-walking and night terrors. Usually when we dream, a switch is flipped in our heads which paralyses our bodies. This stops us physically acting out our dreams. However, in some people this switch doesn’t quite work and this means that when they’re dreaming about killing zombies (as we all do from time to time!), they act it out, and if there happens to be another person in the room (such as their partner) they can end up killing them. When this happens, they will wake in the morning and be shocked by what they’ve done. It can be hard to prove in court that this is what actually happen, but it has been done.

So, that’s the zombie defence for you, and you can rest safe in the knowledge that if you become a zombie, you’ll be safe from prosecution, no matter how many people’s brains you eat. However, if you’re reading this article and thinking that it’s a great way to get away with murder, then be warned, you’re very unlikely to get away with it!


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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.

To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.

Guns, Razors, MacGuffins And Other Useful Rules For Writing Zombie Apocalypse Novels

3 Jun

I’m not big on rules, especially when it comes to writing, and I think that sometimes would-be writers spend too much time trying to learn about the rules of writing rather than just sitting down and getting on with it. After all, the best way to learn to write is by doing it and then seeing if you, or indeed anyone else, likes what you’ve created. However, when it comes to zombie apocalypse novels, there are a few rules which, if remembered, can greatly improve your writing. They’re not hard and fast rules, but they’re always useful to have in the back of your mind. So what are these rules?

The first is known as Chekhov’s Gun Theory, after the Russian writer Anton Chekhov who is credited with creating it. To quote Chekhov himself:

‘Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.’

This is a very useful rule when writing zombie apocalypse stories, and can be rephrased as follows: If you mention that someone has a weapon of some kind, then you are creating an expectation in the reader’s mind that it will be used. If it’s not, it will leave the reader wondering why. The same goes for other elements within the story, such as vehicles, scavenged objects and even characters. If they’re not essential to the story, you need to get rid of them, no matter how interesting or cool they are, or how much it shows how intelligent or well-read you are.

The second rule is related to the first and is based on Occam’s Razor. Occam’s Razor states that the simplest explanation which is consistent with available evidence is the most likely explanation. In terms of writing zombie novels, this means that your characters’ actions need to be as simple as the circumstances you have created allow. As a result, if you are going to have characters acting in complex or unexpected ways, this can’t just happen out of the blue as this will leave your reader wondering why they did it rather than something more simple or obvious. Instead, you need to change the circumstances to justify what the characters do and effectively paint them into a corner so their actions are the only logical ones available to them, even if they seem overly complicated. For example, if someone has to fight their way through a horde of zombies, you need to justify why they didn’t just turn and run away (which, let’s face it, is what most of us would do in the same circumstances!). The same goes for getting out of cars or other vehicles, going into buildings which may contain zombies and so on. This isn’t to say that you can’t have characters doing these types of thing, just that you need to tweak the circumstances to justify why they do them. For example, you can have a car run out of fuel so that people have to get out and walk, or someone develop an illness which means that a supermarket has to be raided to get some medicine or else they’ll die. After all, we all know never to enter a darkened building if there might be zombies inside – unless you have no other choice.

The third rule is to avoid MacGuffins at all cost. A MacGuffin is a plot device with little or no narrative explanation. In zombie stories, this can be things like introducing a character just to provide some background information, or so that they can get killed in a spectacular or gruesome way. Oddly, MacGuffins can work quite well in films (think of Twinkies in Zombieland or the briefcase in Pulp Fiction), but in prose, they tend to just annoy the reader. This is because MacGuffins violate Chekhov’s Gun Theory and Occam’s Razor as they are generally irrelevant to the main story or plot. This doesn’t mean you can’t have little throwaway lines, asides, or even the occasional ‘Easter Egg‘ (I’ll say more that particular subject in another post), just that they need to be worked carefully into the story so that they don’t stand out as something which needs to be explained. After all, there’s nothing worse than leaving the reader scratching their head and wondering ‘why on Earth did he mention that?’ or ‘what was the point of that character?’

The final rule I want to talk about here is foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is the introduction of elements into the story which prepare the reader for what will happen later on. In zombie apocalypse stories, foreshadowing can be really important and can cover things like how a character knows how to handle a gun or a specific weapon, where a weapon which will be used at a crucial moment comes from, how characters will respond to specific events and so on. They’re also really useful for setting the rules for your world and specifically how your zombies will act and how they are created. I’ve written about these before (where I called them plotlings) and they are the really important seeds that you need to plant in your reader’s mind before something becomes critical to how your story unfolds. If you don’t get the foreshadowing right, you’ll find the readers are left wondering how or why something happened, and the story will seem much less believable. It is particularly important to foreshadow major plot twists in some way, but you need to get just the right balance between providing hints as to what might happen and having your words jump out at the reader screaming ‘I’m a plot device: remember me, I’m important later!’.

As I’m sure you’ve realised by now, these four rules are all related and, indeed, can be viewed as variations on the same basic theme. This is that you shouldn’t mention things in a story if they don’t turn out to be critical, and you can’t use characters or other things, such as weapons, at crucial moments without introducing them earlier in the story.

Of course, it’s not only useful to know these rules, but also when to start applying them. I’d argue that it’s not when you’re writing the first draft, but rather when you’re editing it after you’ve got the basic plot and structure of your story down on paper. This is because you’re likely to change things quite substantially as you edit your story down, and if you start seeding your story with foreshadowing and Chekhov’s ‘guns’ too early on, you may find that they might turn into MacGuffins as you change exactly what happens within your basic framework. Indeed, in my own writing, the way I end up with MacGuffins in my early drafts is precisely because I’ve changed something as I’ve re-worked the story and I’ve failed to go back and remove related elements that were previously important for foreshadowing what was going to happen. This means that when you’re starting to bash your first draft into shape you need to make sure you’re thinking whether every character, every weapon or object mentioned, every line of dialogue and every scene really is needed or whether the story would work just as well without it. If it will – not matter how attached you are to a specific element you’ve created – leave it out. Similarly, you need to be thinking whether anything comes suddenly out of the blue and whether you need to go back and add a bit of foreshadowing to prepare the reader for it ahead of time. The time you spend doing this will be more than repaid by the improvements it makes to your manuscript and how well your story is received by your readers.


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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.

To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.