So, you’ve come up with a killer idea for a zombie apocalypse novel, you’ve got great characters in mind that you know people will love, and you even the ideal anti-hero to come good in the end and save the day. Then you sit down at your computer and all that happens is you end up staring at the cursor blinking away on the blank screen for several hours wondering where on earth you should start.
As any would-be writer quickly finds out, there’s a big difference between having the idea for a book and actually writing one. Often the biggest stumbling block isn’t getting it finished, but rather it’s getting it started in the first place. Why is this? I think it has a lot to do with the fact that you’ve got what you think is this perfect idea in your head and the moment you start writing it down, it soon becomes apparent that it’s not so perfect after all. The characters as a bit flat, the story arc doesn’t quite work and that amazing opening scene you envisioned in your head turns out to be a dismal failure.
At this stage, it’s easy to become disenchanted with the whole writing process and simply give up after drafting out the few chapters, but you shouldn’t. Not all writers like to admit it, but that everyone’s first drafts are like this. Sure, the first draft of your very first book’s probably going to be a lot worse than the one for your tenth, but there will still be plenty of room for improvement.
So how do you go about writing the first draft of your zombie novel without falling out of love with it, and indeed falling out of love with writing in general?
Firstly, you have to accept that your first draft is always going to be a bit crap, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It would be much weirder if you got your novel spot on in the first draft.
Secondly, you have to understand the purpose of your first draft. It’s not to have a finished novel by the time you’ve completed it, but rather it’s to erect the scaffolding around which your finished novel will be built during the editing stages.
Finally, you have to remember that editing is for afterwards and it’s not something you should be doing while writing your first draft. There’s always the temptation to go back and try to polish what you’ve just written, but if you go down that route, there’s a good chance you’ll never get beyond the end of the first chapter because there will always be something you can improve in it. Instead, what you need to be concentrating on is getting the broad-brush strokes of the whole story in place, all of it and not just opening scenes. Then you can come back and polish it until it sparkles and glistens.
While editing can be done in little blocks here and there, writing a first draft generally requires solid blocks of time which you can set aside just to write. You might think that you can just do half an hour every night, but for the first draft this is unlikely to work because you’ll have to get yourself back into the post-apocalyptic world you’re creating at the start of each session and then work your way back into your story. By the time you’ve done this, the chances are much of your precious half hour will have gone leaving little time left for the actual writing. Instead, I’d recommend setting aside blocks of at least a couple of hours at a time for writing your first draft, and ideally a day, a weekend, or even a whole week or month so you can do nothing but immerse yourself in your world and get the basic structure down on paper. Of course, few writers can actually afford to do this, because most have other jobs to support themselves, but putting aside a whole day once a week to write will almost certainly be more productive than spending the same amount of time on it spread across each evening of the week.
This leads onto the next issue. How do you actually write it? With zombie apocalypse novels, the main aspect of it is the apocalyptic events and the set pieces with the zombies. As a result, I’d always recommend using the first draft to sketch out the basics of the world which you’re creating, how the zombies will act and feel, where the different set pieces will fit in and how they’ll be linked together to create the overall story arc. This means leaving much of the character development and social interactions until later drafts. This is because you need to know that the world you’re creating will work before you start populating it with people. This means that often by the end of the first draft, you might find that you don’t particularly connect with your characters, and that you don’t really care if they live or die. This is okay at this stage, and indeed, it’s only to be expected for a zombie novel. There will be plenty of time to come back and add all the little conversations and back stories which make both you, and your readers, fall in love with the characters, later drafts.
I also tend to avoid working too much on the dialogue during the first draft and sometimes these sections will be little more than rough directions covering what will be discussed. Again, once you have the basic structure of your novel down on paper, you can go back and work out who says what to whom and when.
In general, I also try to avoid being too self-critical when I’m writing a first draft. The aim is just to get it finished, ideally as quickly as possible. There will always be bits which you don’t like when you come back to it, and again, that’s okay at this stage. Once the first draft is completed, you can set about changing what doesn’t work, and improving what does.
There is also the issue of whether you should show your first draft to someone else to get their input. I probably wouldn’t recommend this. Yes, tell people what you’re writing, discuss your ideas with them, even run individual scenes by them, but keep your actual first draft to yourself. After all, showing someone a first draft would be like showing someone a roughly hewn block of marble that’s only a fraction of the way towards becoming a finished statue. You, as the artist, might be able to see, using your mind’s eye, what it will look like in the end, but it’s likely they won’t. Instead, wait until you’ve completed a second or third draft before you start sharing it round. This way, you’re likely to get a much better response because you’ll have had the opportunity to clean up the messier bits and it’s more likely the reader will to be able to catch a glimpse of the finished work that lies beneath the rough and ready exterior of an early draft, and so give you some proper, and useful, feedback
Most of these points can be summarised as follows: The secret to writing the first draft of a zombie apocalypse novel isn’t to write well. Rather, it is to write anything so that you have something which you can later edit. It’s much easier to polish words once they’ve been written, and much harder to create something out of nothing in the first place (especially something good). This means that the sooner you get the first draft finished and out of the way, the sooner you can move on to the much more enjoyable task of turning your book into something that’s good.
You might think that having written a first book, that writing the first draft of the next one would be much easier. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Instead, you find you have to go from a well-polished piece back to the mess of poorly written dialogue and rough outlines of scenes, and start the whole process all over again. At that stage, it can often be difficult to see that one day, it too will become a final version which you can be proud of, and it takes a certain amount of will power to keep plugging away at it regardless until it’s finished and the polishing can begin again.
As an illustration of how rough and ready a first draft can be, below is the first draft (or to be honest, the earliest draft I could find and this means it might not be the very first version, but it’ll be close) of one of the scenes close to the start of my book For Those In Peril On The Sea, followed by the final version. As a spoiler alert, in this scene, the main group of characters encounter the zombie-like infected for the very first time, so if you haven’t read the book and are planning on doing so, you might want to stop here.
If you compare these, you’ll see the first draft version is really just a skeleton on which the final version was built. The dialogue is limited and generally unattributed. There’s little description of what the characters are doing as they are speaking, and there’s very little tension in what should be full of it. In the final version, these elements have all been fleshed out considerably to create a much more tense atmosphere. You might also notice that what was originally one scene has now been broken down into three linked scenes, each concentrating on a different individual element (the attack/escape, moving on and discussing what to do next). Finally, two of the characters have also undergone a name change (John to Jon and Jane to CJ) because the original names didn’t really work.
So here’s the original version of the scene from the first draft, spelling mistakes, poor grammar, wrongly used words and all (word count: 804 words):
We reached about three- quarters of the way back down the narrow concrete path, when a figure appeared at the end of the path high up on the hill. We could only make out the sillohette, but we could see that a large machette dangled from one hand. As one, we turned and ran for the boat, the figure running after us, screaming undecipherably at the top of its voice. By the time we lept into the dingy and cast off, the figure had reached where we had been standing when we’d first seen it. And still it ran towards us. John pulled on the engine cord, but the engine refused to start. We were only a few feet from the rock and well within range of anyone with a machette on the shore. As John pulled frantically at the cord, I grabbed the oars and started rowing as though my life depended on it. By the time the figure reach the shore, we were twenty yards from shore and well beyond its reach.
John finally got the engine started and we looked back as we motored back to the waiting boat. We could see it was a tall, black man, his white t-shirt was soaked in blood and he waved the machette at us and screamed. We couldn’t make out what he was screaming. Eventually, he stopped screaming and waving the machette, and sank to his knees. Despite the distance between us, we could now here him sobbing, and shouting at us to come back, and not leave him to die. John put the engine into neutral and we looked at each other. The man no longer looked insane and dangerous but broken and desperate for our help.
“Should we go back?”
“I don’t know. There’s still something very wrong back there. I don’t think we should risk it. What if its a trap? I mean, where did all that blood come from?”
We turned and looked back at the figure. He was just staring at us, pleading with eyes for us to come back. Suddenly, he lept to his feet and turned to stare back up the path. We followed his gaze to where a shape was sillohetted on the crest of the hill, or was it two. We couldn’t see whether it was human because almost as soon as we had seen the shape, it was gone. The next thing we saw was the man on the shore raise the machette and scream, while the bushes nearest to him started to shake violently. In a flash, two shapes flew out of the bushes and were on top of him. Despite his desperate flailing with the machette, his attackers kept up their onslaught and soon the man when down. We could hear the creatures tearing at him, we could hear his screams of pain and their guttoral growls and moans as they tore him limb from limb.
“Shit. What the fuck are those things?”
“I don’t know, let’s just get the hell out of here. NOW!”
We slammed the engine into gear and headed for the boat at full speed without looking back. We tied off the dingy and climbed onto the boat. Bill was standing there with the binoculars looking back towards the shore.
“I thought you were going to go back there for a minute. Just as well you didn’t.”
“Could you see what those animals were that attacked that man?”
Bill looked at me and said nothing, but handed me the binoculars. I swung them up and looked towards the shores. I could see two huddled masses crouched over what was left of the man. Suddenly, one stood up and I could see what it was. It was a young boy, no more than about thirteen years old. I could see the blood dripping down his face as his eyes stared straight down the binoculars at me. But his eyes did not see me, he just stared off into the distance with eyes so wild, so animalistic, and yet so human. He knelt back down and started tearing at the carcass in front of him again. I set the binoculars down and looked at Bill, while the others looked at me.
“What are they?” Jane asked.
I looked at Bill and he shook his head every so slightly.
“I think they were wild dogs. Just as well we got back to the boat when we did. A pack of them must have attacked the lighthouse keepers. We’d best report it when we get to Freeport.”
“No,” said Bill slowly, “I think we should head straight for Miami, get this trip over as soon as possible.” I didn’t disagree. We pulled the dingy onto the boat, lashed it down and headed out of the bay and up northwest Providence Channel.
And here’s the final version from the finished book (word count: 1,928 words):
We were about three-quarters of the way down the narrow path when a silhouette appeared on the skyline behind the lighthouse, a large machete clutched in its right hand. Instantly, we were both running, moving as fast as we could over the cracked and uneven surface. Glancing back, I saw the figure pursuing us, screaming indecipherably at the top of its voice.
We reached the stone steps and scrambled down to the dinghy. I fumbled with the rope that held it to the rock, trying desperately to undo it.
‘Come on, Rob.’ There was a sense of urgency in Jon’s voice I’d never heard before, not even at the height of the storm.
‘I can’t. The knot’s pulled too tight.’
‘Here, try this,’ Jon held out his Leatherman, the small knife already open. I grabbed it and started sawing frantically at the rope.
‘Come on! Whoever that is will be here any second.’ Jon’s eyes were darting nervously between where I was struggling with the rope and the top of the steps.
‘I’m going as fast as I can. Just get the engine started so we’re ready to go as soon as I’m done.’ I was about half-way through the rope already and I redoubled my efforts. I heard Jon yank on the starter chord. The engine shuddered, but that was all. He adjusted the throttle and tried again. Again it turned over, but it still didn’t catch.
‘Careful, you’ll flood it.’
‘I know what I’m doing, Rob.’ Jon never liked it when I gave him advice, but there was a hint of panic in his voice.
I felt the rope separate and I pushed us away from the rocks. Jon was pulling repeatedly on the chord but the engine still refused to start. My eyes flicked upwards. While I couldn’t see the path, I knew the figure could appear at any moment and we were still within range of a machete. As Jon continued to fiddle with the engine, I grabbed an oar and started paddling, making short, sharp strokes on alternating sides of the bow.
We were twenty yards out when the engine finally spluttered into life and a look of relief spread across Jon’s face. Back on the shore, I could see the figure standing on the rocks just above the steps. He was a tall, black man, his white t-shirt soaked in blood. As we motored towards to the waiting boat, he waved the machete and screamed something I couldn’t quite make out. Without warning, he stopped and sank to his knees, his shoulders heaving as he sobbed. Jon shifted the engine into neutral; the man no longer seemed insane and dangerous, just broken and desperate.
‘Should we go back?’ Jon asked hesitantly.
‘I don’t know. I don’t think we should risk it. What if it’s a trap? I mean, he’s covered in blood.’ While he no longer looked threatening, the man still frightened me.
All of a sudden, with a speed that was unsettling, the man leapt to his feet and sprang round to face the path. A new shape was outlined on the crest of the hill. I couldn’t tell if it was human or animal, or even if there was more than one, and almost as soon as I’d seen it, it was gone. The man looked desperately left and right, as if trying to decide which way he should run but, before he made his choice, two shapes shot out of the bushes. He flailed the machete wildly as they flew towards him but it made little difference. When they reached him, they attacked and, within seconds, the man was on the ground. Even from that distance, we could hear his screams of pain and the guttural growls of the creatures. He struggled frantically, trying to throw them off, but despite his size they were too much for him. His movements slowed and eventually ceased as the life drained out of him, but the creatures kept up their assault, tearing at his body, ripping him limb from limb.
‘What the fuck are those things?’ There was a look of abject horror on Jon’s face.
‘I don’t know. Let’s just get the hell out of here. Now!’
Jon slammed the engine into gear and we skimmed over the water at full speed, trying to resist the urge to look back. We tied off the dinghy and scrambled onto the catamaran. Bill was standing in the cockpit staring towards the shore with the binoculars,
‘For a minute there I thought you were going to go back. Just as well you didn’t.’
‘Could you see what those animals were; the ones that attacked him?’ I wanted to know. I wanted to understand how close we’d come to being attacked ourselves.
Bill looked at me and said nothing as he handed me the binoculars. I aimed them towards the shore and could see two huddled shapes crouching over what was left of the man. As I watched, one of them stood up and I could see what it was. It was a young boy, no more than thirteen. Blood dripped from his face as he stared straight at me. His eyes bored into mine, unblinking, so wild, so animalistic, and yet so human. He knelt back down and started tearing at the carcass again. I watched as he clawed at the man’s stomach, opening up his abdomen and pulling out his intestines. He plunged his head into the man’s body, reappearing a second later with a large piece of liver in his mouth. I lowered the binoculars and stared at Bill, not believing what I’d just seen. As I did so, CJ came out onto the deck.
‘What’s going on?’
‘Don’t know,’ Jon shot back at her as his eyes shifted from Bill to me and back again. ‘Can I get the binoculars?’
I passed them to him and watched as he raised them to his eyes.
‘They’re eating him.’ Jon was appalled.
‘What d’you mean they’re eating him? Who’s eating who? Give me the binoculars,’ CJ held out her hand but Jon didn’t give them to her.
‘Trust me. You don’t want to see.’
CJ scowled at him but there was something in Jon’s voice that suggested he was right and she didn’t push it.
As we pulled the dinghy out of the water and hauled up the anchor, Jon told Bill and CJ what we’d found up at the lighthouse. He sounded almost excited but it was probably just the after-effects of the adrenaline from his body’s fight or flight reaction. I was certainly feeling a little shaky for the same reason.
Jon was just finishing. ‘Jesus, there was blood everywhere … I mean, a lot of it.’
I felt the need to say something. CJ had a terrified look on her face and Jon needed calming down.
‘There wasn’t that much really. I mean maybe it was all from one person …’ Even as I said it, I knew in my heart it wasn’t true.
Once we were underway and had put some distance between ourselves and the lighthouse, we gathered in the cockpit. We were all badly shaken by what we’d witnessed and for a while none of us spoke, each lost in our own thoughts. It was CJ who eventually broke the silence.
‘Very good question.’ Bill sat there thinking for a few seconds before continuing. ‘No matter what happened back there, there’s nothing we can do about it. In fact, I think you guys were very lucky to get back to the dinghy when you did, otherwise … ’ I didn’t want to think what the otherwise might have been.
After a moment Bill carried on. ‘We’ll need to report it, the only question is where. As far as I can see, we’ve got four choices.’ He counted each of them off on his fingers as he spoke, ‘There’s a small village marked on the chart just up the coast, but there’s no guarantee it’ll have a police station. Even if it does, it’s going to be a small one and I’m not too sure they’d be able to deal with this sort of thing on their own.’
Given what we’d just seen, I was amazed at how calm Bill was, at how clearly he was thinking. My own mind had frozen, able to do little more than replay the same shocking sights over and over again, yet Bill was able to think logically about what we needed to do next, just as he’d done in the storm. These were the times I was so glad it was Bill who was in charge and not me.
‘Two, we can sail south and report it in Nassau. Or three, we can continue west and report it in Freeport on Grand Bahama. They’re both pretty big cities, at least as far as the Bahamas are concerned, and both will have sizeable police forces. But it’ll take time for them to get themselves together and get over to Hole-in-the-Wall.
‘Four, we can carry on to Miami, and report it from there. The important thing to remember is that, no matter where we report it, it’s going to raise a lot of questions.’
Bill was silent for a second or two. ’Frankly, I’m not too sure people will believe us. We could get tied up in the investigation for days, even weeks. There’s nothing we can do for that poor sod back there, so if the rest of you agree, I’d rather report it in Miami than in the Bahamas. That way we won’t be stuck in a foreign country while this thing is looked into.’
‘It mightn’t be a foreign country to you …’ I was concerned Bill had forgotten we weren’t all Americans.
‘Good point. But I think you and CJ would still be better off in the US than in the Bahamas. Whatever went on back there, it’s going to cause a big stir when it comes out. At least in the US you’ll have less of a chance of getting dragged into it. We all will. What do you think?’
Bill looked around at the rest of us.
Jon nodded his agreement, as did I, but with more hesitation. My mind was finally starting to work again and while I could see Bill’s point, I still didn’t like the fact I might get stuck in an unfamiliar country, far from my boat, while any investigation took place.
‘Oh come on, Cammy, make a decision for once; not that it really matters what you think.’ Jon sounded irritated.
‘Shut up, Jon, that’s not helpful.’ I couldn’t stop myself snapping at him. It annoyed me that, despite what we’d just witnessed, Jon still couldn’t resist needling CJ. It incensed me just as much that CJ made it so easy for him. Glancing over at her, I saw the resentment and anger that had been building up within her towards Jon throughout the voyage start to bubble to the surface.
Bill must have seen this too because he sat down and put a reassuring arm around her.
‘CJ, it’s important that we all agree on what we’re going to do.’ Bill’s voice was calm and comforting, ‘What do you think? Are you happy with us carrying on to Miami?’
‘I guess Miami would be okay.’
Jon opened his mouth to speak, but Bill held up his hand and Jon thought better of it.
Bill looked round at each of us again, ‘Right, Miami it is then.’
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.