Tag Archives: Writing tips

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 Working With An Editor Can Improve Your Writing

23 Jan

Writers write. This is hardly Earth-shattering news, but it can led to challenges. In particular, as a writer, you will often be too close to a piece you are working on to be able to look at it in an objective manner. Yet, this is important if you are to be able to refine your early drafts into the final polished article. This is where an editor comes in. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a trained professional, it can be fellow writer, or a friend you trust to give an honest opinion. Their job is simply to give that objective opinion which you cannot give yourself.

However, working with an editor can be difficult, especially for the uninitiated. This is because you need to give up some of the control you have over you piece, and this is something most writers will fight against. After all, you’ll have poured your heart and soul into your work, and you will often feel as protective of it as if it were your own child. While this is understandable, this is something you need to get over if you’re going to succeed as a writer. This is because, in almost all cases, the editor, with their more objective frame of mind, will be right. If they say that a character has to go, them it’s almost certain they will have to go. If they say a scene isn’t working, or isn’t needed, the chances are they’re right. If they say the dialogue isn’t working or the plot is flawed, then this is what others are likely to think too. In short, while the editor’s job is to give an objective opinion, yours as the writer, is to listen to them.

There will be many times you will want to disagree with them, often vehemently (and occasionally even violently!), but you should bite your tongue. Pick your battles and only go into bat for the one or two suggestions you really feel you cannot live with. Even then, you’ll still have to work out why a specific scene isn’t working and then try to fix it; yet in the end, you’ll often find yourself coming round to the same opinion as the editor.

So, when should you use an editor? There’s probably three stages of any project where having input from an editor is most useful. The first is right after you’ve finished your first draft. Here, they can give you their thoughts on the broad outline: Does the plot work? What about the characters? Is the story arc complete and consistent with itself? The second is after you’ve fixed all the major problems with the first draft (and there will always be major problems with the first draft!). Here, they will concentrate more on the language your using, check that the dialogue is working, look at how the characters grow and develop throughout the story, make sure than you don’t use the same words and descriptions too frequently, and so on. As writers, it’s easy to slip into fixed patterns and continually pluck the same words or phrases out of the air, yet such repetition makes your text rather boring and flat. While you can go through and weed these out yourself, an editor will do it quicker and better.

The final point at which the input from an editor is extremely useful is right at the end, just before you publish or submit your manuscript. Here, they will concentrate on the nitty-gritty, ensuring that the grammar is correct and that all the commas are where they should be, that the spelling is right and that all the words are in the right tense.

While you might be able to write a complete novel without using an editor, it is almost certain that you will have a better final product if you work with an editor. In addition, you’ll often find that it’s quicker and easier to finish your book with an editor’s help. This is because they can often spot how to solve problems which you know are there, but that you can’t quite work out how to deal with on your own.

I suspect that some writers, especially those just starting out, feel that working with an editor is somehow cheating, since it can sometimes feel that a project is no longer all your own work. However, all writers need editors, and even the most famous authors need this type of external input in order to complete their work. They, too, will often find themselves arguing with their editors over decisions, and just like the rest of us, they’ll eventually realise that their editor is right and they are wrong.

So, working with an editor is a good thing, and it can only improve your writing, but one question remains: where do you find an editor to work with in the first place? This is a tricky question to answer. If you’re lucky, you will have friends or fellow writers you can turn to, especially for the first or second read-throughs (this is what I do, and I only use a professional editor for the final read through). If not, it can be a bit hit and miss. This is because there are many free-lance editors out there, and it can be difficult to find one you are happy to work with.

There are professional associations which you can use to help you find a reputable editor, and you can always ask for examples of pieces an editor has worked on before you take them on. Employing a free-lance editor will not necessarily be cheap, but it can make the difference between your novel popping and fizzing with action, or just coming across a little flat. This is particularly true for the final read through, where varying the punctuation marks can make all the difference to how the story comes across, and let’s face it, does anyone beyond a professional editor really know all the rules for the correct use of some of the more exotic punctuation marks that are out there?

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 End A Zombie Apocalypse Story

28 Oct

As is the case every now and then, the inspiration for this post has come from search terms which people have used to find their way to this blog. In addition, one of my most popular posts is my article on How To Write A Zombie Apocalypse Novel. Taken together, these two things suggest there are quite a few people out there who are both interested in writing zombie stories, but who are stuck when it comes to working out how to end it. This perhaps isn’t too surprising because ending a zombie story in an effective way can be difficult.

However, when you think about it, there’s five basic categories of endings for zombie apocalypse novels. These are:

1. Fade To Black: A ‘fade to black’ ending is where either all the characters or, in the case of a first person narrative, the narrator of the story dies, usually at the hands of a zombie horde. While this type of ending can be effective, there’s two potential problems. Firstly, it’s very bleak and most readers want there to be at least some glimmer of hope when they reach the end (this is something the editor I work with from time to time is always saying to me). Secondly, it’s a very final ending and doesn’t really leave any room for a sequel. This is not necessarily a problem, but rather it makes it much more difficult for you, as the writer, to revisit the world you’ve invented, and you may find at some point you might want to do this (this something I find quite common amongst zombie authors). This is pretty difficult to do if you killed everyone off the first time round. However, I’ve found the ‘fade to black’ scenario can be very effective as the ending to one-off short stories. If you do decide to use a ‘fade to black’ ending, you need to be careful how you do it. In particular, you can’t simply have the character(s) die completely out of the blue on the last page. Instead, you need to build up to it slowly so that the reader is aware that this is how the book might end and can prepare themselves for it. If you do it suddenly, and with no advanced warning, your readers will most likely feel cheated because it wasn’t the ending they anticipated.

2. Victory: A victory ending is where all the zombies have been killed or have disappeared leaving the remaining survivors to start putting the world back together. This is not a common ending for zombie stories (although World War Z uses it very effectively) , and I suspect this is because most zombie book readers are looking for something more dystopian meaning that victory over the zombies just won’t cut it. In addition, most zombie stories focus on a small group of survivors, and there just isn’t any way for such a group to actually defeat the millions of zombies which are required to infest the world of any zombie apocalypse novel. This raises another issue with a victory ending, it need to be plausible within the zombie world you’ve created. This means you can’t suddenly find a cure or have all the zombies disappear without having developed this as a plot line.

3. Co-existence: The main focus of a zombie apocalypse novel is often the struggle to survive, especially in those which focus on the initial outbreak and its immediate aftermath. Stories with such a focus often finish with a co-existence ending. That is, an ending where those who have been fighting for their very lives throughout the story find some way to be able to live in a world filled with zombies. This often involves finding some sort place where the survivors can safely hole up either temporarily or for the long-term. This can range from a place which is still zombie free (like an uninhabited island or a remote mountain valley which is inaccessible to the undead) to a community which has somehow managed to keep the zombies at bay. Co-existence endings have the advantage that it makes it easy to revisit the characters at a later date if you so wish. However, as with other types of endings, you need to develop the storyline throughout your story and you cannot simply have your characters finding a way to co-exist with the zombies in the last couple of pages. In addition, the co-existence ending has to be consistent with the rules for your particular zombie apocalypse, otherwise you will leave your reader feeling cheated of the ending they were expecting.

4. Departure: A departure ending can be view as the opposite of a co-existence ending. Rather than ending with the survivors finding a safe place, a departure ending involves some or all the characters having to leave a place which they had previously felt safe and which they viewed as their new home. This departure is often initiated by one of three things: The safe place being over-run by a swarm of zombies; the safe place being over-run by raiders; the development of a rift between the survivors which means some of the group (often those who have been the main focus of the story) have to leave. Again, departure endings allow you to return to the characters and the world again if you so wish. However, as with co-existence, this ending has to be consistent with the rules for the world which you have created for your book.

5. Cliff Hanger: A cliff hanger ending is never a good way to end a zombie novel. Your reader expects resolution and you need to give it to them or they will be annoyed. This doesn’t mean you need to resolve everything, as you might want to leave some things open as the starting point of a sequel, but at the end of a story, you have to give your readers some sort of closure. While they may not to be to everyone’s taste, one of the best examples of this J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. While there’s a common thread and storyline across all seven of these books, each one has a well-defined ending where individual storylines from each book are wrapped up and concluded. In this way, the end of each individual book is closer to a departure ending rather than true cliff-hangers.

As you read through these categories of endings, you’ll have probably noticed two commonalities across them. Firstly, your ending cannot come out of the blue. You may think it’s edgy and different to have your main character died suddenly and unexpectedly in the final paragraph, but it’s not. Instead, it violates the expectations you have built will your readers and they will left feeling cheated and unfulfilled. Secondly, the endings have to be consistent with the rules for your world which the reader have inferred from what has come before. For example, you cannot have your characters find a zombie free island where they can live safely and happily if you haven’t introduced this as a possibility earlier in the book. Similarly, you cannot end a story with someone finding out they’re immune to the zombie virus unless you’ve already made it clear that such immunity is possible.

So how do you avoid falling into these potential pitfalls? Well, quite simply it’s careful planning and plot development. You need to introduce all the building blocks for your ending well before the actual end. This allows your reader to have that ‘Ah-ha!’ moment when they get to the end rather than ‘Huh?’, ‘Oh…’ or worst of all ‘Wait, that doesn’t make sense!’. In addition, it allows the reader to anticipate what is coming and this will help build suspense as they try to work out exactly how the characters will get to the ending they think is coming.

You can add unexpected twists and turns (such as exactly who lives and who dies) and you have to be careful not to sign-post things too much, but you cannot veer too far away from what you have led your readers to believe might happen. It’s a difficult balancing act, but it’s one which is worth spending time on because if you get the ending right, your readers will love it, but if you get your ending wrong, no matter how well they’ve liked the rest of the book and how well you’ve written it, your readers will turn against you in a heart beat, and this is something no writer wants to happen.

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 Importance Of Backing Up Your Writing: Options And Considerations

2 Sep

A few weeks ago, I had the mis-fortune to have both my laptop and a portable flash drive which I used to store much of my word die on me in quick succession. While I managed to recover all the files I needed from the laptop, those in the flash drive have proved unrecoverable. This has raised in my mind, once again, the importance of backing up my writing in a secure and sensible manner. I have to say, this is something which I am terrible at remembering to do and I don’t do it nearly as often as I should. However, it’s also something I realise is exceedingly important to do and it’s something every writer should give some though to. This is because there’s a plethora of options, some of which are better than others (and the best option might not be the one you’d think!). So here’s a quick run through a few of the currently-available back up options with some thoughts on the pros and cons for writers of each one.

Firstly, there’s those little flash drives which you plug into the USB port of your computer which are almost everywhere these days. They are cheap and easy to use, and it’s tempting to use one of these as your back up. However, any possible benefits are out-weighed by the fact that they are remarkably unstable, prone to failing suddenly and without warning, and very easy to mis-place. This makes them a very poor option for storing you back up files and it’s not an option you should rely on as your sole approach for backing up your writing.

Secondly, while external hard drives also plug into a USB port and may seem like larger versions of a flash drive, they save information in a very different way and provide a much better option for longer term and reliable storage. They are also quick and easy to use, making creating a back up of your work at the end of the day very fast and simple. The main issue with using an external hard drive to back up your files is not the device itself but where you keep it. A friend of mine recently had someone break into her house and steal her laptop. They also nicked the external hard drive she was using to back up her files because she kept it sitting next to her computer so it was always close at hand. The lesson here is that if you’re going go down this route for backing up your work, you can’t simply leave the external hard drive sitting on your desk beside your computer.

Thirdly, there’s the good old-fashioned CD-ROM, or the newer DVD-ROMs. It’s quick and easy to burn your files onto a disk, but they can be difficult to update. This means they are better suited for creating archived versions of finished pieces than backing up things you’re actively working on. In addition, while they are pretty stable in the short-term, they can degrade over a number of years, meaning they are not great long-term storage devices. There is also the issue of where you keep them. It’s simple enough to slip them into a bottom drawer and forget about them, but what would happen if there was a fire? Your back up files would simply go up in flames with your computer and all your work would be lost.

This brings us to the next option: backing up your data on a remote server. This is known as ‘cloud computing’. The idea here is that some company, either for free or for a small fee, allows you to store a copy of your files on one of their servers. This is often quick and easy to do through custom-designed apps, and for many it seems like a perfect option for storing copies of your work. Certainly this avoids all the potential pit falls associated with keeping a back up in your own home, but it does come with others which are often not very obvious. The first of these is that the company running the serve you use could, out of the blue, decide you are violating their terms and conditions and close your account. They have every right to do this (it’s right there in the user agreement that you ticked, without reading, when you signed up) and you’ll have little chance of getting your files back if the do so. Similar things can happen if the company suddenly decides to stop offering the service or goes bust.

Cloud computing accounts are also subject the same risks as any other computing system and this means they can get hacked, become infected with viruses and so on. This means you have to be careful with passwords and other information you need to access them. The problem with this is that you also need to remember all this information and there is nothing more frustrating that needing to access the files in an account only to not be able to remember the log on details you need to do so. There’s also the question of what the service providers can do with files you store in the cloud. If you read through the terms and conditions in full you’ll often find some pretty scary rules about what they can do with your files and their contents without asking. Finally, in order to access your files, you need internet access and you may find the one day you really need to get a hold of your files is the one day that the net is, for some inexplicable reason, down and you are stuck with no way of accessing them. These options make the cloud a rather poor option for creating useful and secure back ups of your work.

The last option I’m going to consider probably the oldest: printing your work out in black and white and stuffing it into a filing cabinet. It’s old school and you can’t easily update it, but you can access it any time, even when the power’s down, and it does provide a permanent record of your writing. This means you’ll never find you can’t access your work just because the software package has been updated and the file format you used is no longer available or the type of disk you used is no longer read by any available disk drive (I still have old 3.5 inch diskettes floating around in the backs of various cupboards and no floppy disk drive to access the files they contain!).

So these are a few of the options available to writers for backing up their work, but which is best? Well, personally, while I might use cloud computing and flash drives because they are convenient, I recognise their limitations and do not rely on them a my sole back up option. Instead, they are only one of several I use. This means I also back everything up onto an external hard drive (not kept next to my computer) and when I finish pieces, I’ll burn a copy onto a couple of CD-ROMs, one of which will be kept in my house, while the other goes to a friend’s house for safe keeping. I also like to keep a paper copy of any final works tucked away somewhere as last resort. This means that while I might not back things up as often as I should, when do, I do it in away that hopefully minimises the possibility that I’ll lose the work I’ve back up, and this is something I’d recommend to ever writer.

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.

‘With One Leap Jack Was Free’ And Other Solutions To Impossible Situations

19 Aug

The title of this article refers to what’s generally considered sloppy story telling. Your characters end up in some seemingly impossible situation and then with no explanation beyond saying something like ‘and suddenly they were free’ they manage to get away unscathed. This is a really good way to annoy your readers as they’re left wondering what actually happened, but it’s an easy trap to slip into if you’re not careful. A similar situation arises when a character picks up an essential tool or weapon which has never been mentioned before, or suddenly reveals a key skill the reader never knew they had until the very moment they need to use it to escape.

So how do you avoid this in your writing? One obvious solution is not to let your characters get into impossible situations in the first place, but then you lose the tension such situations create and your story becomes dull and uninteresting. A better solution is to plant the seeds for everything needed for their miraculous escape earlier in your story, often as casual comments or passing references. This way, the reader is left thinking, ‘Oh, of course!’ rather than ‘Where did that come from?’. However, you need to be careful exactly how you insert these little ‘plotlings’ (the seedlings from which your plot will grow). If you’re not, you’ll find they end up jumping up and down in the reader’s mind waving their arms and screaming ‘PLOT DEVICE!!!’ at the top of their lungs and that just makes them seem clunky.

To illustrate this point, we’ll take a scene where two characters, John and Max, are being chased by a group of zombies. They see a cottage in the distance and decide to take shelter in it. They reach the front door, managing to get inside and get the door shut before the first zombie arrives. While catching their breath they look around and realise to their dismay that there’s no other way out, meaning they’re well and truly trapped. Meanwhile the zombies are now battering and the door and it’s threatening to give out at any second. How do they get out alive?

Well, they’re going to find a gun and shoot the zombies just as they finally break through the door, allowing them to escape unscathed. However, you can’t just have a gun lying around in the room they happen to have become trapped in, that would be way too convenient and reader just wouldn’t buy it. Instead, you could have them finding a gun at an earlier point in the story so that they are already carrying it when they become trapped in the cottage (which, for arguments sake, we’ll say happens in chapter 10). For example, you could introduce a gun when their search another house for food earlier in the day (maybe in chapter 8) with the line:

‘Just as John was leaving the room he spotted something, “Oh look a gun! That will come in useful if we ever get into trouble.” ’

Your readers now know John has a gun which can be used to help them escape from the cottage, but it’s not exactly subtle; you might as well reach of the page and smack your reader in the face with said gun and say ‘Remember this, it’s going to be important!’. A better approach might be something like:

‘Just as John was leaving the room, he spotted a bag which looked as if it had been hastily stuffed behind the couch. He pulled it out and glanced inside, finding it contained enough food to last them a week, two machetes and what looked like an old pistol. Before he could examine the contents properly there was a shout from outside telling him he only had time to grab the backpack and run.’

Here the gun is only mentioned as a possibility along with a list of other items and items like the food might be more critical to the plot at that specific moment in the story (since that was what they were looking for in the house at the time). Thus, the ‘plotling’ is planted but without drawing too much attention to itself. This means when you first write the cottage scene in chapter 10, you might have them being pursued by five zombies and have the following to reveal how the gun will be used in their escape:

‘Suddenly, John remembered the pack he’d found when they were looking for food; hadn’t he seen a gun in it? He frantically rummaged through the bag until he found what he was looking for. It was indeed a very old and very dirty pistol. John had no idea whether it would still work, but he knew it was their only chance. In a single movement he pulled it out and slid it across the room to Max just as the door finally gave way.’

Max grabs the gun, shoots the zombies and hey presto, your characters are finally free to leave the cottage and your readers are left thinking ‘lucky he remembered the gun when he did or they’d never have got out of there in one piece’ rather than ‘where’d that gun suddenly come from?’ or ‘finding that gun there just when they needed it was a bit too convenient’.

Of course, sometimes you’ll find that as you edit your story, you need to go back and change these little ‘plotlings’ to keep everything consistent. If we go back to the example above, the reference to an old pistol could be taken to mean a revolver, which would have a maximum of six bullets in it (assuming it was fully loaded). However, when you come back to edit this scene, you might start thinking that five zombies isn’t really enough to build any real tension, and you up the number to ten. Except in order to be able to kill them all, the gun would need to reload at some point and you’ve not explained where the extra bullets came from. This is when you’d go back to the scene where John finds the bag while looking for food and change it to:

‘Just as John was leaving the room, he spotted a bag which looked as if it had been hastily stuffed behind the sofa. He pulled it out and glanced inside, finding it contained enough food to last them a week, two machetes, a half-full box of bullets and what looked like an old pistol …’

It’s a small change but now the bullets are mentioned in passing along with the gun as part of the list of newly-found things, so you are free to use them in the cottage scene. Of course having to reload the gun half way through a zombie set piece also allows you to rack up the tension with things like:

‘With the first four zombies down, Max pulled the trigger again but it just clicked. He looked at it for a second before he realised it was empty. As John fumbled in the bag, trying to find the box of bullets he’d seen earlier, Max leapt backwards as the remaining zombies surged towards him. After what seemed like a life-time, John found the bullets and threw them to Max before pulling out one of the machetes …’

This has the advantage that you are now also using one of the machetes the reader knows was also in the bag. If these had never appear in the story again, your reader might end up wondering what ever became of them. This, of course, is the flip side of ‘plotlings’: you can’t introduce something such as a weapon, if your characters never make use of it. If you do, you’ll leave your readers wondering why you ever mentioned it in the first place. You don’t need to use everything mentioned in a single ‘plotling’ for the same escape scene, but you do need to use everything you mention at some point, even if it’s just something like (maybe in chapter 9):

‘In his haste to climb onto the tree which lay across the ravine, John flung the bag over his shoulder, sending one of the machetes clattering onto the rocks below. John cursed his stupidity, knowing they wouldn’t have time to retrieve it before the zombies arrived …’

This tells you one of the machetes has been lost and will play no further part in the story. The other, however, remains in play (to be used by John later when Max runs out of bullets in the cottage in chapter 10).

However, you still have a bit of a problem. Max has managed to grab a gun off the floor and shot four zombies with a maximum of six shots (which is pretty good going for anyone!), and you can’t have a character popping off perfect head shots like that without explaining how they know how to shoot (well you can, but it’ll probably annoy your readers!). This means you also need to mention this somewhere before the cottage scene. This can be quite subtle, with something like this placed in chapter 3:

‘As the night closed in around them and they reached the bottom of the whisky bottle, they started to reminisce about their lives before the zombies. Max took another mouthful and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, “I sure as hell won’t miss my old man. He was a mean drunk, forever wailing on me. When I was young I’d sometimes sneak his gun out of the bedside table when he was out drinking and use it to shoot tin cans off the fence in the back yard just to get my own back on him. Only one time he came back earlier than I expected and caught me. He beat me so badly that day I couldn’t sit down properly for a week. He’s one son of a bitch I’m glad I’ll never see again.” There was a brief pause as he took another slug from the bottle, “I’ll miss my little sister though.” ‘

Here the ‘plotling’ seems to be more about Max’s relationship with his (presumably now dead or zombified) family; yet it also serves to introduce the idea that Max knows how to shoot and would be capable of picking up a pistol that had just been slid across the room and scoring direct hits on the zombies as they pour through the cottage door.

So in the example here, the reader has been armed with the knowledge that: 1. Max can handle a gun (mentioned in chapter 3); 2. John has what might be a gun along with some extra bullets (from chapter 8); 3. John also has a machete, again in chapter 8, having lost another one due to his carelessness – in chapter 9. Each of these elements has been inserted into the storyline in an appropriate place long before chapter 10 when these two characters become trapped in the cottage, with what at first might seem like little chance of surviving. This means everything is in place for the characters to make their narrow escape as the zombies finally break through the door.

Getting the knack of slipping in these ‘plotlings’ into stories can be quite difficult, and probably the best way to learn how to do it successfully is to look at the work of others. J.K. Rowling is one of the best authors for this. The Harry Potter books take place in a relatively complex world meaning it would be easy for escapes to appear miraculous. Yet, she always introduces just the right amount of information ahead of time so the reader is never left feeling cheated whenever the characters escape by the skin of their teeth through one magical means or another. Sometimes the ‘plotlings’ for specific dramatic events are planted several books before they are needed, making them particularly impressive. For example, a major plot line in book 6 revolves around a broken vanishing cabinet which we hear about for the first in book 2 where it gets broken as part of a seemingly insubstantial action, and then again in passing in book 5. Even if you’re not a fan of her books or their subject matter, they are worth reading purely from a technical point of view to see how well she does this.

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 Write A Zombie Apocalypse Novel

6 May

It’s surprising how often people arrive at this blog having typed the title of this article (or something similar) into Google. Obviously there are a lot of would-be zombie writers out there looking for help so I thought I’d put together a brief guide based on my own experiences. This is quite a long article and if you’d prefer to read it offline, you can download a PDF from here.

1. Come Up With A Good Idea: Sorry to have to say this, but if you don’t have a good idea, then there’s really not much point in writing a book about zombies, or indeed anything else. Yet, coming up with an idea that’s good is probably the most difficult thing you will have to do; that’s right, coming up with a good idea for a book is more difficult than actually writing it! So what do I mean by good? I’m mean something that’s new and original, and adds to the genre rather than just mimicking the work of others. The trouble is that with the wealth of zombie books and films out there, it can be extremely difficult to come up with an idea that hasn’t already been done to death (if you’ll pardon the pun!). If your idea can be described with phrases along the lines of ‘It’s like … but set … instead’ or ‘It’s like … but with more/less/a female/male …’ or ‘It’s a cross between … and …’ then your idea probably isn’t original enough to be distinctive.

If your idea passes this first hurdle in your own mind, the next thing to do is to run it past other people to see what they think. If their responses are along the lines of ‘Oh that sounds just like …’ then again it’s probably not a very original idea and it won’t stand out from all the other zombie books that are already out there. However, there’s a caveat here, just because an idea is original it doesn’t mean it’s automatically literary gold-dust. There could be very good reasons why there isn’t an existing book or film with your particular premise and that’s because it just won’t work. Again, talking to other people about your idea will help you determine if your idea is actually any good (even if it is original).

If you don’t have anyone who you can run your idea past, you can try one of the zombie forums such as Home Page Of The Dead, Zombie Squad or the Permuted Press one. Most of these have sections on writing zombie fiction and allow you to run ideas past other forum members to see what they think. If you get enough people responding positively to your idea, then you’re probably onto a good thing; if not then you need to put some more work in. This doesn’t necessarily mean you should throw it away; you may just need to tinker with it a bit here and there until you have something that’s worth taking further.

2. Decide On The Rules For Your Own Personal Apocalypse: While everyone is familiar with the concept of a zombie apocalypse, each one is unique. Think about it for moment: the zombie apocalypse in The Walking Dead is different from that in Dawn Of The Dead, which in turn is different from 28 Days Later, I am Legend and The Day Of The Triffids (okay those last two aren’t technically ‘zombie’ apocalypses but you get the idea). If you don’t have a clear framework for your particular zombie apocalypse before you start writing, the chances are you’ll end up with glaring inconsistencies which will confuse and annoy your readers. After all, there’s nothing worse than reading a zombie book where the rules seem to change from scene to scene.

These rules for how your zombie-filled world works need to cover things like how it started (a virus? Radiation? Chemical contamination?), how fast it spreads (is it a slow build drawn out over weeks or does it happen over-night?), what type of zombies will roam your apocalyptic landscape (will they be the dead risen to walk again or zombie-like infected living humans?), how your characters end up where the readers join them at the start of the story (were they locked in a military bunker, or holed up in a school or maybe they were in space and returned to Earth only to find it infested with the undead!), how do people become zombies (is it an infection passed on through a bite or does everyone become a zombie when they die?) and, most importantly, whether your zombies be Romero-esque and slow or the more modern fast-moving type or some sort of mix between the two. Added 25/07/2013: You can find a copy of the rules for the post-apocalyptic, zombie-filled world of my book For Those In Peril On The Sea here.

3. Build Your Characters: A good zombie story isn’t just about blood and gore as people get ripped to shreds by hordes of flesh-munchers (I admit it’s an important part but there has to be more to it than that if your book is going to be any good). You also have to have compelling characters so your readers care about what happens to them. After all, it’s all the more gut-wrenching when a well-liked character falls victim to the undead. Similarly, there’s nothing better than seeing a hated character finally get their just desserts. What you don’t want to do is leave your readers not caring whether your characters live or die or, worse, cheering for the zombies (unless that’s your particular twist – but that might be a prime example of an idea that’s original but not good!).

This means you need to think about exactly what each character looks like, where they came from, how they speak, what their strengths and weaknesses are, whether they’re the reluctant hero or just a trigger-happy gun nut, whether the reader is meant to like them, admire them, hate them and so on. The best way to do this is to write a character sketch for each of the main characters before you start writing. This way you can get to know them and also make sure they behave consistently throughout your story. These characteristics aren’t set in stone and you can come back and change things later if you need to, but it’s useful to have this written down somewhere so that you don’t find your characters acting inconsistently as your story develops. And of course, you’ll also need to work out how exactly you’re going to reveal this information about your characters to both the readers and to the other characters.

4. Practice Your Writing Skills: If you haven’t written before, don’t expect to be able to sit down and pen the next World War Z straight off. Even if you have written before, you probably haven’t worked in the zombie genre (otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this article). This means you will need some practice before you can find your voice and your writing style. One of the best ways to do this is to write short stories. These don’t necessarily take a huge amount of time and they are a great way to develop your skills and explore ideas that you might have either for your book as a whole or for individual scenes and characters.

Once you have written each short story, I’d suggest posting them somewhere for others to read so you can get some feedback. You can do this on your own blog, but it’s probably better to do this on one or more of the zombie forums. You can usually find plenty of people there who are more than willing to express an opinion on your work. However, be warned, not all of it will be positive but hopefully most of it will be constructive.

5. Get To Know Your Competition: If you’re thinking about writing your first zombie novel, the chances are you’re already a fan of the genre and will probably have read loads of different novels and watched lots of films. However, that was in your pre-author phase. You need to go back and watch/read them again (always fun!), but not simply as a passive onlooker. Instead, you need to study them with a more critical eye. Think about which bits are effective and which bits aren’t. Then try to work out why this is the case. This will give you insights which you can then take into your own writing. This is not to say that you should be ripping off the work of others, so don’t steal whole scenes or characters, rather you’re looking at the ways they made a scene gripping or memorable, or what they did that meant it just didn’t work for you. Once you have accumulated this knowledge, you are ready to apply it to your own work.

6. Get To Know Your Intended Audience: There’s not much point in writing a book if no one’s going to want to read it. This means you need to get to know your intended audience before you even start writing. One of the best ways to do this is by reading online reviews of as many other zombie books as you can (and don’t just read the reviews of books which got five stars, read the ones for books that have one star ratings too). Look at what people say they liked, and also what they said they hated about each one. If you find that there are certain things your intended audiences repeatedly complains about (such as too much gratuitous violence and not enough character development – a common issue with zombie books) then make sure you avoid making the same mistakes.

7. Avoid Clichés: In zombie fiction, there are many potential pitfalls but one of the most difficult to avoid is using the many clichés which abound in this genre: The little girl zombie that surprises someone at the beginning, the fact that almost anyone can pick up a gun and start popping off perfect headshots instantly even if they’ve never held one before, the baseball bat, the lone zombie lurking amongst the shelves of a supermarket which a character needs to go into against their better judgement because they really need something they can only find inside and so on. Avoid these like the proverbial plague as they’re one of the quickest way to alienate your would-be readers (well that and poor editing but more on that later).

8. Do Your Research: Writing a good story, even a zombie one, means you have to get your facts right, and in order to do that you need to do research. You may need to find out things like how many bullets a particular make of gun holds, what happens when you blow someone’s head off with a shotgun, and how far you can drive in a specific model of car on a certain amount of fuel. Depending on your story, you may also need to know how to reset a broken bone, what sort of antibiotics you need to treat an infection or how to amputate a limb that’s been bitten by a zombie. You also need to research the locations where your story is set to make sure that the events you are describing are feasible. Yes, you can take some artistic licence, but your story should at least be geographically possible.

The internet can be a great resource for finding out such things, as can be forums where you can ask experts questions. Google Earth is also exceedingly useful and you can use it to check out the layout of towns, measure distances to see how long it would take your characters to get from one place to another and map out how your zombie swarm will sweep through the city where your story is set. While you can write a story without researching such things, it will come across as being much more authentic if you do, and a good zombie story needs to feel real if it’s going to have any bite.

9. Write A First Draft: No book is perfect in the first draft. In fact, most are a mess of inconsistencies, poorly written characters and plot flaws, but the point of a first draft isn’t to be a perfect finished product. Instead, the first draft is about getting the basic framework of your ideas down on paper in some sort of narrative form. This initial draft is the first time you will be able to stand back and see your whole story. It’s not for public consumption; instead its purpose is to let you see whether or not your idea really works, whether it’s distinctive, and what you need to tweak and change to make it work. This means that you shouldn’t spend weeks or months editing and polishing the first chapter before moving onto the next. Instead, just get it all down on paper, you’ll do all that polishing in the next step.

10. Editing: Based on my own experience, only about 20% of the process of writing a book involves working on the first draft. To paraphrase Churchill, the first draft isn’t the end, it’s not even the beginning of the end, it’s only the end of the beginning. Once you’ve finished your first draft, you need to start the editing process. This is where you go back and clean up all the typos, the plot holes, the character flaws, the inconsistencies and weed out all the clichés that, despite your best efforts, have none-the-less worked their way into your story. You will probably spend three times as long editing your book as you did on writing the first draft but it’s the only way you will get it into a readable form. I would suggest a minimum of 10 complete drafts before you move onto the next stage (this means you’ll have read it through and made changes 10 times by which time you’ll know it inside out) but that’s just me.

11. Find Some Guinea-pigs: I’m not talking about the furry little things currently lurking in the corner of the room where I’m writing, rather I’m talking about finding yourself some readers. These are people who you can trust to give you an honest, warts and all opinion of your work. This means you probably shouldn’t use your relatives (who’ll tell you it’s perfect no matter how bad it is) or your partner (who won’t want to belittle your efforts); instead go for trusted friends who are zombie fans or try recruiting people from one of the zombie forums. Be clear that you want them to be honest and that you won’t hold anything they say against them (and make sure you don’t – after all, they’re doing you a favour!). Once they’ve read it, get them to tell you what they liked and what they didn’t, and make sure you listen to what they have to say. If you give a draft of your book to three people and they all tell you a specific scene doesn’t work it’s more likely that they are right and you are wrong rather than the other way round.

12. Repeat Steps 10 And 11: This is done until everyone is more or less happy with what you’ve written (I’d usually do this three times). However, you may find that you need to get at least some new readers for each draft just to get a fresh perspective on it.

13. Find Yourself A Professional Editor: It might be expensive, but a professional editor will help finish your novel off. Their input will be invaluable at catching any remaining holes in your plot, picking up spelling mistakes, cleaning up your grammar, sorting out pesky things like how to use a semi-colon correctly and so on. Just remember, they know what they’re talking about so listen to them, otherwise you’re splashing out good money for nothing. There are plenty of free-lance editors out there and a quick search of the internet will turn up a long list of names. Don’t just go for the first one you find though. Instead, look for one that’s a member of a professional organisation for editors or ask other writers for recommendations. You could also consider asking any potential editor to edit a sample of your work to see if you like their style and whether it’s compatible with your writing voice.

If you get through these steps, you should end up with a completed post-apocalyptic zombie novel sitting in front of you but your work isn’t done, not by a long way. You next need to decide what you’re going to do with it: are you going to submit it to an agent to see if they will represent you to a publisher or are you going to try submitting it directly to a publisher (although few accept unsolicited manuscripts these days)? Or you could go the self-published route and put it out through something like Kindle Direct Publishing. Whichever route you take, just remember that getting your book on sale still isn’t the end of it (although you’ll have finally reached the beginning of the end!). Once it’s out there, if you’re going to make any sales, you’ll need to publicise the hell out of it; and that’s a whole different ball game.

From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.

For Those In Peril On The Sea is one of only five finalists in the ForeWord Firsts Winter 2013 competition for debut novels. For more information, click here.

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

In Praise Of The Short Story As A Form Of Writing

12 Feb

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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