Tag Archives: Advice For Writing A Zombie Book

Hurricanes, Tornadoes, Microburts and Heatwaves: How Weather Can Add Texture To Zombie Apocalypose Novels

17 Dec

Rightly so, most zombie apocalypse novels concentrate on getting the zombie set pieces spot on, making them both mesmerizing and terrifying. However, in order to make a zombie novel truly riveting, there has to be more than that to them. There has to be good characterisation, there has to be conflict, there has to be landscape, and, finally, there has to be texture.

What do I mean by texture? Well, texture is all those extra additions which make a zombie novel seem real. They are little bits here and there that remind the reader that this isn’t just a fantasy story, but instead that it’s something which is happening in a real world, very much like the one they, themselves, inhabit.

One of the best ways I have found of adding texture is through the use of weather. In most parts of the world, the weather changes day by day, hour by hour, and, in some places, minute by minute, and by referencing this, you can give the reader a greater understanding of the mood of the story, and the characters within it.

Really, there’s three ways that you can use weather to add texture. The first is comparative weather. This is where the weather in a specific scene matches the feelings of the scene itself, helping to emphasize and amplify the internal mood of the characters and any conflict they are facing. This can be the use of rain or drizzle when the characters are feeling run down or depressed, sunshine when they are feeling happy or a sudden storm when their luck unexpectedly shifts. Comparative weather is very tempting to use, but it should always be used sparingly. If you use it too frequently, then it quickly becomes clichéd.

The second is contrasting weather. We’ve all experienced a time in our lives when we’ve been in the foulest of foul moods on the brightest of bright sunny days, or been unable to stop smiling, despite the fact that it’s pouring with rain, soaking us to the skin. These are examples of contrasting weather, and when used in a novel, they can really help to bring it alive. This is because while they’re at odds with the situation the characters might find themselves in, everyone can remember a time when they felt this way themselves, and this makes the characters seem more real. With contrasting weather, you can have characters breaking out into laughter in the middle of a rainstorm because they’re ecstatic at just having escaped from a dangerous situation, or downcast and depressed as the sun rises to reveal a clear blue summer sky because they have just lost one their number to the undead. Again, as with comparative weather, contrasting weather has to be used sparingly, or it will quickly become old.

The final way of using weather is perhaps my favourite, and it’s to use weather as an additional element that the characters have to deal with. Fighting off marauding zombies is one thing, but how much more scary is it to have to be fighting them off in the middle of a hurricane, when the characters also have to struggle against the storm as well? Or what about being attacked by zombies in a fog-filled forest, where you can barely see more than a few feet in any direction? That would be terrifying, wouldn’t it? You wouldn’t know if that blurred shape coming towards you was a friend or foe until it was almost too late. Then there are thunderstorms and tornadoes, which can unexpectedly tear down defences, letting zombies into otherwise safe encampments, or a ice-storm that abruptly turns the world your characters inhabit into a white hell and makes running away all but impossible. And what about heatwaves? Can you imagine being huddled together in a small, airless room with zombies hammering on the boarded up windows as the mercury in the thermometer hits 110 degrees? Or sweating away in quickly cobbled together zombie-proof armour on a scorching summer’s day as you try to both hold back a marauding horde of undead and not pass out from heat stroke? If used correctly, all of these possibilities would add to the tension of any given scene by providing that extra layer of information and visualisation.

These are just a few of the possibilities that are out there when it comes to using weather to add texture to a zombie novel, and with a bit of searching, you can always find just the right bit of weather for any given situation. There is the weird and the wonderful, things like weather bombs, or microbursts or white squalls. There are clouds of every different variety from wispy, feather-like stratus to the ever-threatening cumulonimbus or the out-right bizarre mammatus clouds that always make me feel like the end of the world is coming. There’s zephyrs, and breezes, and gale force winds. There’s sleet and snow and hail and rain (the Inuit might, or might not, have 47 words for snow, but here in Scotland we have at least twice as many for all the different types of rain you can get). Really, the options are endless.

Of course, as with any literary device, weather has to be use sparingly. After all, what you are writing is meant to be a zombie novel and not a weather forecast, but get it just right and it will bring a level of reality and believability to your story that you will find difficult to generate in any other way.

So how to you get it just right? Well, there’s no hard and fast rules here. What you are looking to achieve is having just enough references to the weather to paint the right pictures in the readers head without them ever consciously noticing what’s going on. This means that weather references need to be subtly woven into the rest of the story until they seem such an integral part of it that the reader couldn’t imagine a scene without it. This is not always easy to achieve, but if you can get it right, it can pay off big time because of the depth and the texture it brings to your writing.

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.

Creating Good Bad Guys For Zombie Apocalypse Novels

20 Oct

When writing zombie apocalypse novels, the would-be writers often concentrate on their heroes, reluctant or otherwise. They spend hours building them up, crafting their back stories, working out their relationships with the other characters – who they love, but cannot tell, who they get along with, who rubs them up the wrong way and why. This brings the heroes to life in the readers minds and mean that they care about whether they live or die.

However, every good story needs not only heroes, they also need something for the heroes to strive against. In a zombie apocalypse story, you might think that this would be the zombies themselves, but that’s not enough. While the zombies threaten the heroes survival, and create jeopardy, the one thing they don’t do is create conflict – and every good novel needs conflict of some kind. This is where the bad guys come in.

The bad guys are the ones who make life more difficult for the heroes: they get in their way, they ruin their carefully laid plans, they steal their supplies and ruin their defences. At their worst, they try to feed the heroes to the zombies just so that they themselves can escape. They’re the ones which have the readers booing and hissing (if only figuratively rather than literally) whenever they appear.

Now, you might think writing the bad guys would be easy; you just take every worst human characteristic you can think of and bring them together into one single character. The trouble is, if you simply do this, you end up with a two-dimensional stereotype who stands there twiddling the end of their moustache while cackling megalomaniacally, and that just doesn’t work for anyone. This is because unless your bad guys are believable, they will come across as being implausible and that breaks the connection between the story and the reader. Your bad guys need to be human, and to some extent, their actions have to be understandable, or at least consistent with their world view, because even bad guys stick to the rules – they might be a rather twisted set of rules that only applies to them, but they stick to them none-the-less. This, of course, doesn’t mean that they have to be likeable, but it means that they have come across as being real. You need to reader to be thinking, ‘I’ve met people like that, I know just how much trouble they can cause’.

Just as with your heroes, you need to spend time building up your bad guys. You need to flesh them out so that the reader understands what makes them tick, and why they act the way that they do. They also need to have some redeeming qualities, whether that’s occasionally doing the right thing, pitching in to help out when it’s really needed, saving the hero, or even just being nice to children and animals. Yes, these might just be ploys to lull the good guys into a false sense of security, but they still need to be there. They help build up the bad guy and turn them into something real in the reader’s mind. After all, real people are complicated, even the bad ones, and you need to make sure this complexity comes across.

It can be hard to get bad guys just right, and it’s a very thin line between being too dastardly to be believable and coming across as being too nice to do the bad things you, the writer, are making them do. Yet, if you get this careful balancing act just right, you’ll come away with the perfect bad guy – and that’s one who the readers love to hate.

In this respect, it’s worth thinking about The Governor in The Walking Dead. Yes he’s evil, yes he’s manipulative, yes he’s clearly completely bonkers and bordering on the psychopathically insane, but he’s a great character. As a viewer, you really hate him for what he does to Rick and his friends, but there’s part of you that enjoys hating him so much. This is because his character is well enough developed that you can see how his mind is working. You can see why he does what he does and how that fits with the way he sees the world. There’s also the subplot about his daughter that makes him come across as at least partly human and leaves you wondering whether this was what tipped him over the edge, and whether he might have ended up as one of the good guys rather than one of the baddies, if only his daughter had survived and he’d had something to live for. Does this explain the hatred that clearly burns deep within him? Maybe it doesn’t, but it’s an intriguing possibility which is raised by this little hint towards a potentially interesting back story, and this makes him all the more real.

So, when you set out to populate your zombie apocalypse story with characters, remember to put as much effort into building the bad characters as you do into building the good ones. Make sure they come across as three-dimensional characters who retain at least some of their humanity, even when they’re at their worst. Their actions might not be what you would do, but they need to at least be consistent with the way their twisted little minds work. It may take time to get them just right, but all your efforts will be more that repaid by the depth they add to your finished novel.

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.

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.

How To Kill Off Characters In A Zombie Apocalypse Novel

26 May

In a good zombie apocalypse novel, the reader should never be left feeling that any character is completely safe. After all, in a zombie-filled world, the threat is ever-present and attacks can happen at any moment, and this means that anyone could end up dead at any time. Indeed, it’s often the feeling of not knowing who will survive until the end of the story, and who won’t, that gives a zombie apocalypse story suspense and keeps the reader turning the pages when they should be doing other things, like getting up and going to work.

However, handling exactly how characters die can be a difficult balancing act. Death and destruction cannot be arbitary, and you cannot simply kill off a character, especially if it is one of the main ones, completely out of the blue. This is because readers have some level of expectation as to how a story will go, and you cannot build a character up and then have them die without some hint that this might happen.

On the other hand, you also cannot end up with a ‘men in red’ situation. This term comes from the original Star Trek series, where if you ever saw an unnamed character dressed in a red top, you could be pretty sure they’d die before then end of any particular scene they featured in. This means that you have to avoid having characters where it’s clear that the only reason they’re being introduced is to act as cannon fodder (or maybe, in this context, that should be zombie chow!).

So, how do you get the death of characters exactly right? Well, there’s no firm rules on this and it will depend on your exact situation, but the following guidelines are likely to help.

1. Characters that die can’t always be minor ones: Most zombie novels have a core set of characters which the story revolves around, and often when authors are looking around for someone to die, they will reach not for one of these characters, but a more minor one. However, if it’s always minor characters that die, this will get repetitive and you will lose the element of suspense because it will quickly become clear that the main characters aren’t really under threat. Instead, you should always aim to kill off at least one of the main characters at some point within your story. This will give the reader that ‘oh my god, no!’ type of moment which helps keep them on the edge of their seat. It also leaves them wondering whether any other main characters might die, too, and it can act as turning points within the overall story arc, signifying that it will change direction from what has come before.

2. Don’t kill too many main characters: Once you accept that you have to kill off a main character, there can sometimes be a tendency to go too far in the other direction and turn the whole thing into a blood-bath with a never-ending chain of people being introduced and then killed off. Killing off a main character only really works if it is unexpected and beyond what the readers were anticipating. This means killing too many of them off will quickly become predictable. There’s nothing worse than reading a book and thinking, ‘oh here’s another character – they’ll be dead in twenty pages, just like everyone else.’ So, the killing off of main characters is something which must be used sparingly.

3. Don’t kill off any of the main characters too soon: If you are going to kill of a main character or two, or even three, you can’t do it too early in the novel. The reader will invest in the main characters and they will feel cheated if they’ve spent the whole first chapter getting to know a character only for them to die at the end of it. This leaves the reader feeling like they have wasted their time and that they are effectively having to start the book again when they get to chapter two. This is a great way to alienate them and they are just as likely to give up as carry on reading.

4. Main character deaths can neither be completely unexpected or completely predictable: Killing off a main character is a difficult thing to handle properly. It cannot come completely out of the blue, so that one moment they’re there, the next they are dead. However, it also can’t be completely predictable either (think about all those old movie clichés: the cop who’s one day away from retirement, the soldier showing off a picture of his girlfriend and kids back home before going into battle and so on). This means that you have to work up to the death of any main character, building suspense and anticipation as the reader tries to work out exactly what’s going to happen or who it’s going to happen to. Often this involves a series of seemingly unimportant decisions or actions which, with hindsight, the reader can look back on and think ‘if only they hadn’t don’t that, they’d have lived rather than died.’ This can be something as simple as forgetting a weapon, wasting bullets when they should have been conserving them or having to go after someone who has stormed off in a huff. Basically, think of The Butterfly Effect here and focus here on small, insignificant actions which have big, unexpected, but logically consistent, consequences later on.

5. Main character deaths have to be memorable and unique: There are lots of ways to end up dead in a zombie story, and many of the have been so over-used that they’ve become clichés. These should be avoided wherever possible, and when it comes to any of the main characters, their manner of death has to be both memorable and unique. This means you have to put a lot of thought into exactly how it’s going to happen. However, don’t confuse memorable with gratuitous. A character death needs to pull at the emotions, and no just turn the reader’s stomach with graphic descriptions of blood and gore. This usually means the death cannot be quick as there needs to be time for the other characters to see what’s happening and have time to react to it, or try to do something to save them. It’s also often useful to put the characters in a position where they have to make a choice of some kind which could lead to the death of either themselves or another character. For example, they might choose to close a door to keep most their group safe while leaving a straggler outside to be killed by a pursuing horde of undead. Similarly, one character might decide to throw themselves onto a zombie to save another character from being attacked, only to end up being bitten leading to a slow lingering death and feelings of guilt in the person they saved. These are the types of actions which make the reader stop and think about what they’d have done if they were in the same situation.

6. In real life, the good guys don’t always win: Zombie books need to feel realistic. This means that just like real life, the good guys can’t always win, and just because you like a character, that doesn’t mean they should necessarily make it through the story unscathed. In fact, some of the best twists in zombie novels come about when one of the good guys ends up dead just at the crucial point where the reader might have expected them to survive. While it’s widely used, the simple revelation that someone has been bitten by a zombie, and so is doomed, just when you think they’ve survived a dangerous, and possibly deadly, situation, is a great plot device. However, because it has been widely used in the past, it has to be handled carefully to make sure it doesn’t slip towards becoming a cliché.

7. Unlike real life, the bad guys should always get it in the end: Zombie novels need goodies and baddies, and while the unanticipated death of a good character can really add to the story, if a bad buy doesn’t get his comeuppance, then the reader can be left feeling cheated. This is because the reader expects the dichotomy between good and bad to be resolved, with the bad being punished, even if the good don’t necessarily win.

Of course, these guidelines are simply hints to help you understand what the reader might be expecting, and how you can play with these expectations to build the required suspense and anticipation to keep them reading. You can break one or two of them, or even all of them, within you own writing, but if you do, you need to think about it really carefully and make sure that you handle it appropriately. Yes, it’s different to kill off three characters that the reader was expecting to be able to follow through a whole book on page four, but there are good reasons why you haven’t read novel where that happens before, and that is because it will put many readers (and, indeed, agents and publishers!) off. Similarly, having the bad guy walk away unharmed while all the good guys die at the end may seem edgy and new, but it will leave the reader feeling that they’ve been cheated out of the ending they were anticipating.

Really the key take home message here is that the choice of which characters you kill, and they way you kill them, can make or break a zombie novel. Get it just right, and the readers will love it. Get it wrong, and the whole story will start to fall apart. Striking exactly the right balance of death and destruction always requires a lot of hard work, but it’s well worth the effort.

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.

Character Development In Zombie Novels

31 Mar

When writing zombie novels, there can be a tendency to concentrate on making the action scenes pop and fizzle with excitement and horror. After all, that’s where all the tension comes from and that’s what people are expecting from such a story. These are also the scenes that people will talk about and debate what they would have done in the same situation.

Yet, there’s another element which, if you don’t get it right, will mean that all the effort you put into your zombie set pieces will go to waste, and this is character development. Why is character development so important? Well, it’s quite simple: if the reader doesn’t care about what happens to the characters, the rest of the story, no matter how thrilling you try to make it, will fall flat. In fact, there’s nothing worse for the reader of a zombie novel than being presented with two-dimensional, stereotypical characters that come across as little more than place-holders in amongst all the action.

Sometimes as a writer, you will spot this for yourself, but often it is easy to overlook the need for character development. This is because, you, as the author, will have spent a lot of time with your characters, and you’ll have got to know them in your own head, what they look like, how they feel, what their hopes and fears are, and so on. Yet, if you don’t actually include the character development elements into your story, there’s no way the reader can do the same.

So how do you develop your characters? I think there’s three elements here. These are character description, character building and character arc. Character description is the descriptive elements which you use to set the scene when a character is first introduced. However, you need to be careful as it’s easy to go overboard and add to much information in the character’s description, which slows the action down. What you are aiming for here is not a detailed description of everything about the character, but rather you are aiming to capture the essence of how they look and act in a few brief sentences. For example: ‘He was a tall man and despite the salt and pepper hair, he still had the bearing of someone used to hard, physical work.’ Immediately, you get the impression of an older man, but one who is likely to be quite tough and the suggestion that he’ll be able to stand up for himself.

You can also use the character description to provide some initial back story which you can build on later. For example: ‘While Mark looked like an old hippy, he’d spent twenty years in the army before finally dropping out of society to live off the land, and this meant be was better prepared than most to deal with it when the world suddenly changed.’ This sets Mark’s character up nicely to be the type of survival expert who would be able to handle a gun, find food, and perhaps become the leader of a group of survivors.

Really, you can think of the character description as the foundation on which the rest of the character development will be based. This makes it all the more important to get it right, and you might find you have to re-write it several times before you get it spot on. Similarly, even though the character description will often come at the start of your book, you might find that you can’t really write it properly until you know exactly how your character is going to develop over time, and that means coming back and editing it in once the rest of your story is written.

Once you have the character description, you can work on the character building. This is where you can let the reader get to know the characters: their background, their hopes and dreams, their flaws and blemishes, and their fears for the future. There’s two main ways to build your characters. One is through conversations between the characters and the other is through their actions.

Conversations will usually take place between the action sequences (or during any lulls there are within them), and you can use them to gradually uncover the deeper elements of your characters to the reader. Effectively, this is where the characters get to reveal their emotions and what’s going on in their heads. You could just describe this in prose, but this tends to slow the flow of the story. Using dialogue instead allows you to get a specific point across while keeping up the pace.

In many ways you can think of these a the ‘cigarette breaks’ of the story, where your characters gather and chat while they take a break from the real work of surviving. If you’ve ever smoked, you’ll know you often learn more about your work colleagues in the length of time it takes to have a cigarette than in all the other times you spend working alongside them put together

Character-building actions are the second way to build your character, and these can take place either as part of conversations, or as part of action sequences. As with the dialogue, they will reveal some important element about a character. This can include positive elements (e.g. volunteering for a difficult or dangerous task and so showing they are brave) or negative elements (e.g. turning and running rather than staying and fighting). Often, it is the actions a character takes under specific circumstances which can make the difference between a character being liked or disliked, and in particular, the way they react to the threat of zombies, or to zombie attacks, can make or break them. Specifically, they need to react in ways that the reader can understand, and even sympathise with. There’s nothing that makes a character more likeable to the reader than when they are left thinking, that’s exactly what I would have done in those circumstances.

The key to character building is to carefully interweave it into your main narrative so that your characters are gradually built up throughout the story. It needs to be done subtly so that the reader is not left feeling that something has clearly been included just to develop a specific facet of a character. However, you also need to have enough of it to make your characters come alive in the mind of your readers.

The final element of character development is the character’s arc. This is how the character changes because of their experiences within the narrative and it’s needed to show that the characters are being affected by the events which they have been through. As such, the arc for each individual character will be influenced by the overall narrative of your story. For example, you might have the meek and timid character who is forced to step up and take control, or the hardened warrior who gradually reveals a softer, more caring side.

The secret here is to make sure that any changes that character undergoes are consistent with both the with the foundations of the character laid down in the initial description and with what is revealed as part of the character building. Of particular relevance to zombie novels is how the characters respond to killing zombies, from their first stuttering blows that leave them on all fours retching at what they’ve been forced to do to survive to becoming a hardened zombie hunter who can smash in the heads of the undead without batting an eyelid.

So these are the essential elements of character development, but when do you start incorporating them into your story? Well, different writers will do this at different points in the writing process, but personally, I find the best approach for zombie and post-apocalyptic novels is to first work out the overall plot and the major action scenes in the first draft, and then go back and work on weaving the various elements of character development during later re-writes. The reason I find this works best is that there are times when I don’t actually know how a character will need to develop until I have the entire plot down on paper. In addition, this allows me to insert the character development sections throughout the story in such a way that it doesn’t slow the pace of the action down too much.

However, this does often mean that in the first few drafts of a novel, I find that I don’t really have any emotional connection with the characters and that I don’t really care what happens to them. When I first started writing, I found this a bit worrying, but now I’ve learned that this is okay, and that once I go back and build up the characters, I’ll start developing the feelings towards them that I need to make the story really reach out and grab the reader by the throat.

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.

Useful Resources For Zombie Authors

27 Feb

You might think that writing a good zombie novel is as simple as coming up with a good idea and then getting it down on paper, but there’s much more to it than that. In particular, one of the most intriguing and spine-tingling aspects of many zombie stories is that they take place in a world not too different from the one the reader lives in, except for the zombies of course, and that leaves them feeling like it could happen to them. This means that you need to work hard to make sure that the zombie-filled world you create still feels real, and you need to make sure that you don’t have survivors doing the physically impossible, that you don’t have guns which can fire an infinite number of shots without having to be reloaded, cars driving vast distances without ever stopping for more fuel, and so on.

You might think you can gloss over the details, but you’d be wrong. It’s the little things that can make the difference between a story working really well, and it falling flat on its face. It doesn’t help that if you make even a minor mistake, someone somewhere will spot it (and there’s a good chance that, one way or another, they’ll let you know!). For example, if you have a character using a specific model of gun, you can guarantee that someone will be counting the bullets which it fires before the character stops to reload, and they will be quick to point out if it’s more than that specific weapon can hold.

So how do you get the details right? Well, sometimes, you can fill in the details about things from your own experiences (like how hard it is to kick a door down – much more difficult than they make it look on television!), but many other times you’ll need to do a bit of research to make sure that you get them right. This means you need to become an armchair expert in things as diverse as guns, car mechanics, geography, survival skills, medicine and first aid, epidemiology, and even human anatomy. For the first time writer, working out where to find all this information can seem daunting, but it’s not as hard as it might at first seem, especially in a world where you can google just about anything and come up with an answer. Of course, you also have to remember that just because it comes first in a search engine, it doesn’t make the information contained on a website right.

With this in mind, here’s a few resources which zombie authors are likely to find useful. I’ll start with two general ones:

1. Wikipedia: Wikipedia is often my first stop when looking for information on any subject, and it generally proves reliable (although not always in-depth enough). If you find it useful, or if you use it regularly, consider making a donation to keep it going, and advert free.

2. Google Earth: This is a great, and I suspect greatly under-used, resource for writers. You use it to check up on the layout of cities, to work out how long it would take to get from place to place, to plan out escape routes and search for great places to hide out. If you want to make sure that your zombie story fits neatly into an existing landscape, this is the resource for you.

Now for some more topic-specific ones:

1. Diseases: If you’re going down the route of having your zombies caused by a disease, you’ll need to make sure your disease plays by the rules. This means tracking down information about how diseases spread and how they affect people (especially if you’re going to base your zombie disease on a real disease). For this, I’d recommend checking out the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s website as it has lots of helpful information (although you may have to dig around to find just what you’re looking for). They also have a web portal of toxic substances which might also prove useful.

2. Military Hardware: if you’re going to have a strong military element within your zombie novel, you’ll need to make sure that you know your howitzers from your hand grenades. One of the best places to find out more about military hardware is through the Military.com equipment guide. It will tell you all you’ll need to know about almost any type of weapon you can imagine (and possibly a few you can’t).

3. Vehicles: Vehicles can be tricky. How far could you drive on half a tank? Would you really be able to take it off-road and keep it in one piece? How full could you cram it with people or gear or cases of spam raided from the nearest warehouse before it refuses to go anywhere? If this is what you need to find out, try the car specifications data base from Carfolio.com. They claim to have technical specifications on just about everything that’s ever been produced.

4. Vehicle maintenance: If you need to have your characters fix cars or cannibalise them for spare parts, you’ll need to know about mechanics. For specific vehicles, one of the best places to start is the relevant Haynes manual. This will show you how to take your vehicle apart and put it together again, and help you include just the right details when you’re writing about it.

5. Survival Skills: For years, the place to find out about survival skills was the SAS Survival Handbook, and I think I still have my old copy floating around somewhere from when I was a teenager. Nowadays, much of the same information can be found online. One good source of information is the Wilderness Survival Guide where you can find lots of handy hints about how to survive in the wild (although it doesn’t cover how to fend off marauding zombies – a bit of an oversight on their part if you ask me!).

6. Medical Skills: Writing about medical skills and procedures, and getting it right can be difficult. Generally, my advice would be to find a friendly doctor and ask their advice on anything medical, but if you don’t have that option, you can try The Wilderness First Aid Handbook for information about how someone with only basic first aid training might be able to deal with accidents and injuries in a realistic manner. If you need something that is a bit more technical, especially related to injuries likely to be suffered from guns and other weapons, and how characters might deal with them, you can try the Emergency War Handbook to see if it has any useful tips. It will also help inform you about what levels of injury are survivable and what aren’t.

7. Human Anatomy And Physiology: If you want to find out anything about the human body and how it works, the best place to start if Gray’s Anatomy (no, not the overly-schmulchy TV series, but the book which it stole its name from). For the last 150 years, it has been the book on what humans look like on the inside. Yes, it can be a bit technical in places, but it will have the information you’re looking for.

8. Military Strategy: Many zombie novels strongly feature military reactions and/or strategies in the response to a zombie apocalypse – either through the conventional military, or militias set up by survivors. Either way, knowing a bit about military strategy will help you to make things as realistic as possible. If you want a case in point, read Max Brook’s World War Z. Almost all the military strategies and set pieces he featured in that have been lifted straight out of real military history (it’s just that he’s applying it to fighting zombies and not badly behaved neighbouring countries!). A good starting point to learn more about military strategy is a books called (perhaps unsurprisingly) Military Strategy: Principles, Practices, and Historical Perspectives by John M. Collins.

9. psychopaths: Within zombie good zombie novels, the struggles between survivors can be just as important as the struggles against the zombies. Think, for example, of The Governor in The Walking Dead. Yet, getting the bad guys just right can be difficult. This is because it is too easy to slip into stereotypes and leave the villans feeling a bit one-dimensional, especially if you’re aiming to portray them as somewhat psychopathic. If you want to get these types of characters right, a good starting point is to read a book called Without Conscience: The disturbing World Of The Psychopaths Among Us. It’s written by Robert Hare, the world expert on psychopaths, and reading it will help you get your baddies feeling just right and true to life. I’d also recommend reading this so that you can learn to spot any psychopaths you may run into in your everyday life (and with psychopaths making up 1% of the population, this will happen more often than you might expect).

Finally, there’s the zombie forums. A lot of these have sections specific to topics like selecting a vehicle, what weapons would be best for killing zombies and how to survive. They offer the opportunity for you to ask questions about even the most unusual zombie-related subjects and get an answer back from people who really know their stuff. Some also offer you the opportunity to discuss plot ideas, and get feedback on your novel as it progresses, which can be really useful when you’re stuck on how to get a specific scene to work and you just can’t see a way forward on your own. Of those available, these are amongst my favourites:

1. The Zombie Squad Forum: A great forum with separate message boards covering everything from weapons to survival skills, bug out bags, zombie biology and zombie combat tactics.

2. Homepage Of The Dead: The HtoD forum also covers a wide range of topics, but probably of most use is the Fiction Discussion section where you can discuss all things to do with writing zombie stories as well as sharing ideas or asking for help with problems.

3. Post-apocalyptic Forum: Not directly zombie-related, but still post-apocalyptic in nature. One particularly board is called Apocalypse Now where people post photos and links to real examples of what the world might look like once the zombies take over. Always good for a bit of inspiration when want to really get into the visual description of life in a post-apocalyptic world.

4. Permuted Press Forum: The Permuted Press Forum (publishers of a number of zombie books), provides a number of boards of interest to zombie writers. This includes their board about writing and the publishing business. It won’t really help you fill in the details, but it will help you with your writing in general.

These are just the resources which I use while writing, and I’m sure that there’s many others out there too which would be of use to zombie writers. If you have your own favourite and it’s not covered here, feel free to post it in a comment on this article with a brief note about what it is and why you find it useful.

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.

How To Start Zombie Apocalypse Novel

17 Feb

A while ago, I did a post looking at the various ways you can successfully end a zombie novel. In this post, I want to look at how to start one. Here, the main issue is where along the time line of your particular zombie apocalypse do you drop into the lives of your character(s) and meet them for the first time?

There’s four broad possibilities here, three of which I think work quite well, each under different circumstances, and a fourth which doesn’t – or at least it’s very much harder to get it to work well. These are: 1. Finding the world has unexpectedly changed; 2. The descent from normality; 3. The zombie-filled world, and 4. The flashback. Each of these plays on slightly different aspects of the human psyche and will elicit different feelings and emotions in the reader.

1. Finding the world unexpectedly changed: In this option, a character, or group of characters, is somehow isolated from the world, and while they are no longer in touch with it, it changes in an unexpected manner (such as being over-run by zombies). Stories which start in this way feature the disconcertion and discombobulation of encountering a world which you both know and don’t know at the same time. Think, for example, of the start of 28 Days Later, where Jim wakes up to find himself in hospital, an unexpected enough event as the last thing he remembers is cycling along a road, but then as he progresses further and further from the bed he woke up in, he finds that he’s somehow been left alone in an apparently deserted city which should be teeming with life. The opening sequences are truly disconcerting for anyone familiar with London as they will never before have seen its streets so devoid of people. Indeed, this is the emotion which finding the world unexpectedly changed starts to play on, and indeed on the nagging worry in the back of people’s minds whenever they go to sleep that there’s no certainty that the world will be the same when they wake up. There is a similar nagging worry whenever you leave home, that there is a risk that it could all change in your absence. Really, I think that it boils down to humans struggling to deal with the fact that, in their absence, the world carries on without them and this means they are not the lead character – but rather just a bit player among millions on a larger stage.

The biggest problem with starting novels in this way is how you create a realistic and novel isolation scenario. The waking up in a hospital bed approach was done so well in 28 Days Later, it’s difficult now to use it without the reader instantly thinking you’ve copied the idea (even then, it wasn’t an original idea in that movie – it was ‘borrowed’ from the 1950s post-apocalyptic novel The Day of the Triffids). The Walking Dead also used this approach, and would invite further charges of plagiarism if you used it. Of course there are other possible scenarios which you could use: A prisoner being held in isolation, a group of people locked in a bunker for a military exercise, a spaceship returning to Earth after a long mission, or (and this was the scenario I used in For Those In Peril On The Sea), a boat coming back to shore after a long voyage. They key here is to make sure that your scenario can realistically explain why your character(s) don’t know what’s happened, such as a break down of some kind with the communication equipment.

If you do deploy this opening for a novel, you will need to fill in the back story as to exactly what happened at some point (because the reader will expect to be told). This is usually done through conversations with other survivors your main characters meet up with once they are over their initial shock at finding themselves in a world that’s suddenly changed. However, this has to be handled carefully and it cannot seem too much like a plot device to allow you to explain exactly what happened.

2. The descent from normality: In a descent from normality beginning to a story, you get a glimpse of what normal life is like for your character(s) before everything starts to fall apart. This can either be slowly (with little things just seeming a bit out of place at first, and then things getting progressively worse and worse – Max Brooks did this very well in the World War Z novel) or it can be very quickly, with everything going to hell pretty much in an instant (as occurred in the recent remake of Dawn of the Dead). Either way, the main emotion being played on here is the nagging worry that people have that, at some point , something will go wrong and their world will come crashing down around their ears. This means the reader can empathise with the characters as this happens, and wonder what they would do if they found themselves in a similar situation.

The descent from normality option is probably the easiest for the novice writer to attempt as it allows them to use a relatively linear narrative, and no need to have too much back story in conversation with others. However, care must be taken to make sure that you strike the right balance between having just enough of the non-action scenes before the start of the descent for the reader to get a handle on what the character’s normality is, and not so much that the reader is left wondering when the apocalypse is ever going to start (after all that is why they are reading a zombie apocalypse novel in the first place!).

As a general rule, the more normal the character(s) lives and situation is, the less you need to reveal of their normality before you can start in with the zombies. This is done really nicely in both Dawn of the Dead (someone returning from work and going to bed) and in Shaun of the Dead, where we get a brief glimpse into a normal day in his life (so we can see he’s stuck in a rut so big, it will take nothing less than the fall of civilisation to jolt him out of it). However, if you are setting your zombie apocalypse story in a quiet different from the real world (such as some alternative future version of Earth) or with characters whose daily lives are more unusual, you may need to provide a longer lead in so that the reader becomes familiar enough with their normality that they can understand the effect of the descent upon it, and those who live in it, when things start to change. Indeed, this is probably the biggest mistake that people make when using the descent from normality opening as there is a tendency to jump into the zombie action too quickly (e.g. having the opening line of: ‘It was a normal day for Bob, until he saw the zombies swarming up the street towards him’ – a good opening line to a short story, but probably not for a novel).

3. The zombie-filled world: In this type of start to a zombie novel, you drop in on your characters in a world already over-run (or being over-run) with zombies, usually at a point when something has changed in their life. For example, it might be a new character arriving in a group, a safe house being over-run, being force to move to a new location because of some threat, or something about the zombies changing (maybe getting more intelligent, or the disease which creates them spreading in a new way). The emotions you’re trying to elicit within the reader here is thinking about how they would survive in a world which is very different from the one they live in, and one which they don’t have the experience or the skills to handle, and you’re doing this by throwing them in at the deep end of just such a world.

The reason you need to have this start at a point of change in the characters’ lives is simply so that you have a fixed starting point to work from. From this point, you can then move forwards and backwards to fill the reader in on how the world came to be the way it is, and what’s then happening with the characters. Although not zombie stories, this is used very well in Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel, The Road and the TV series Falling Skies.

The main difficulty which you will face if you wish to use this type of beginning is that you will have to make sure you build your world in your reader’s mind, and it can be quite difficult to explain the rules of how your world operates to them. In particular, you don’t have the luxury of having an essentially naive character who needs everything explained to them as you do in the first option.

4. The flashback: In a flashback beginning, you join a character during a tense scene or at a given point of action, often close to the end of your story arc, and have the character questioning how they ended up in that situation in the first place (this is also the emotional response which you are aiming to illicit in the reader, that of how someone can end up in a very bad place because of seemingly inconsequential decisions they have made in the past). This type of opening allows you to go back to the beginning and fill in everything that happened. This way you can show each of the decisions and why they lead the characters to end up where they did, hopefully with the reader screaming at them not to do something because they know that it will end up badly for the characters and they’d save if they just made a different decision.

This can be an effective ploy for a short story, but in general for a full length novel, it (in my opinion at any rate) can be very difficult to pull off successfully. This is because the reader will either have forgotten the flashback situation after a chapter or so, or will be aware that a specific point will be reached at sometime, and will be expecting it to be resolved with every turn of the page. This means it is difficult to integrate the reveal of what happens to end the flashback scene with the back story action. This can be done by moving back and forth between the character’s past and present, and it is often successfully done in movies. However, this is because you can use visual elements (clothes, hairstyles, locations etc.) to passively inform the viewer which time frame a given scene is in. When writing, you need some sort of similar ‘signpost’ for the time frame, but this often leads to the writing becoming rather clunky as it disrupts the flow.

So these are the basic options for starting a zombie apocalypse novel, but which one is right for you? Well this depends on your characters, your story arc, the world you’re aiming to create and what emotions you’re aiming to elicit from your readers. Really the key here is to pick one which works for your specific plot and fits with how you want to reveal your characters to your readers, but be aware that you shouldn’t try to shoe-horn a beginning to your novel which doesn’t fit with how the story will develop. Each type of opening promises the readers some very specific types of resolution and if they don’t get it, they will feel ripped off. For example, if you’re using the first option, you need to reveal to the reader at some point what happened to the world or they will quickly become frustrated at not being told. Similarly, with option 3, they will expect some back story to explain how the characters ended up in their new world and how they learned to cope with it, and if this is not done, they’ll feel cheated.

Personally, I like stories which start with the first type of opening, and that was one of the reasons why I chose it when writing For Those In Peril On The Sea. However, when I started work on the next book in the series (The Outbreak), which follows another group of survivors, I realised I could use this opening again without it feeling very same-y. For this reason, I’ve gone for a descent for normality option for this one, and it is likely that I’ll use the third option the for next book in the series because it will see the characters from the two books united in the pre-existing zombie-filled world. If I ever get round to a four book, I might be brave enough to try a flashback opening, but only because the rules of the world in which I’m writing should be firmly established by then in the readers’ minds, and it will use an existing character who is looking right back to the events which started my particular version of a zombie apocalypse. If I was starting a brand new series set in a very different world, I wouldn’t have these options and so wouldn’t even consider it.

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.