It was Stephen King who first hooked me onto writing horror stories. My folks had a stack of his books at home and the best part were the author's notes. No one else really brought me into the world of sitting in their office, smashing away at a typewriter and getting thoroughly stuck half way through the story like him. While that was certainly cool for my fifteen year old self, the bit that really got me was how he described how horror allows you to be that universe's God. You weren't confined to reality. In fact, sometimes the further away from reality you go, the better.
Now, that might ring true for other genres, and certainly Dan Brown probably never allows himself to get stuck for more than half an hour, considering his frequent change of character motives and allegiances, but in most stories you still have to make the world mostly plausible. It's the characters who go a little off the rails.
Horror is different. The world is turned upside down and it's the characters who try to hold onto some sense of normality despite an ever changing environment. If you get stuck, no problem. Introduce a second bad guy and kill off anyone who seems a little too useful. Then kill off half their friends as well for good measure. If you get really stuck, resurrect your dead people and bring them to the bad guy's side. Then make the two former friends fight to the death. Whoever dies gets resurrected again, only now whoever survived has a nasty scratch on their arm and no one is willing to trust their friend in case they turn into one of them. If that isn't enough, introduce a carnivorous fog or a giant talking slug.
In short, people try to maintain the status quo while the world tries to literally eat them. Simple.
When I was eighteen I decided that, as much as I loved writing horror stories, I would never write something about vampires or zombies.
So without further ado I present my zombie book:
Oh, if only I could see the smug look on my younger self's face shatter the moment he realised that his feeble promises meant nothing to future him. He better get used to the sense of betrayal because I have a vampire story on the way as well. Muwahahahaha!
So why did I never want to write a zombie story? Because they're tacky and the bad guy isn't all that interesting. It's an idiot monster who lumbers about with no sense of identity. They can't toy with you, they can't talk back, their only real strength is that there's a lot of them. And, frankly, the idea that zombies could actually overthrow the world when there are a billion guns is pretty stupid. The problem is that I really like zombie films. Hell, I was even a zombie in a zombie film.
That's the back of my head from the 2003 film Undead. The wound has mostly healed over by now.
So while I liked watching a lot of crap, I didn't want to write one, in case it turned out to be even worse.
And then one day I had an idea. What if there's this guy who's backpacking through Spain, much like I did when I was 27? What if there's an outbreak of zombies while he's there, only it happens in as realistic a way as possible? What if thousands of people are running from a single zombie instead of one person running from a thousand zombies? The whole city gets evacuated, with scores of people crammed into the train station waiting to leave, only the trains don't move because there's a body on the train track and they don't know if it's alive or dead. One single zombie is responsible for all of this chaos. Except, what if this zombie was a diversion? While everyone is keeping it in sight the real nightmare builds behind them. What begins as a simple journal of some guy's travels through Europe quickly becomes a desperate story of being forced to flee from every scream and the ever present need to get back home becomes all the more impossible.
I wrote the first draft of Last Words fairly quickly, years ago. To my surprise I actually liked writing about zombies. I also enjoyed the idea that, in the aftermath of the apocalypse, someone finds this random guy's diary about the early days of the outbreak, only no one has any idea who wrote it or if he even survived. Would they be surprised that people are throwing end-of-the-world parties and getting drunk a lot? Or that you can spend months creeping through one infected city after the next only to come face to face with the militia who just shot your best friend for asking too many questions?
Last Words was edited and then quickly put on the proverbial shelf as I got to work on other projects. I got busy with work, life, writing, and I spent a few years getting the Kingston Raine series into a publishable state. I had grand plans for Last Words to be published at the end of 2015. The problem was Kingston Raine and the Lost Angel took forever to write and edit. I was so far behind schedule on that book that at one point I was still trying to finish the first draft while simultaneously editing it twice, letting my beta readers go over it, adjusting the writing according to their notes, and trying to fix any future problems that they were about to fun into. Guess what happened? The beta readers caught up to where I got to and instead of being able to edit 5,000 words a day I was lucky if I could manage 500. I was completely and utterly burnt out. I shelved the Lost Angel (which I always seem to stumble over as I'm convinced it's Lost Words or the Last Angel) and worked on something new to rejuvenate me. But there was no way I could get Last Words done in 2015. I adjusted my publishing goal to January 2016. Worst case scenario, it would be out in February. I am happy to say that it's now due to be released on 7th July. Yep, I got delayed.
It turns out, writing a book in the form of a diary isn't as easily accessible as I imagined all those years ago. It's very much a reactionary story. 'This happened today, I wonder what will happen tomorrow.' The manuscript came back to me full of red pen and lacklustre comments. The January deadline was never going to happen.
I was met with a nightmare of my own: how the hell do you save a book? Thankfully, Stephen King came to my rescue. When in doubt, remember that this is a horror story. Allow your readers to like your characters, give them some flaws and admirable attributes, give them a sense of humour, make the characters indispensable, and then make them suffer. The more suffering, the better. And you know what? Let's kill some of the main characters as well. Not the ones that deserve to die, no. That's too easy. Find out who your beta readers like the most and kill those characters, right when they're at their most useful.
The only problem is that this isn't really a horror story. It's more of an apocalyptic story. The other day my chief beta reader told me that while she's now read an apocalyptic tale of mine she still hasn't read horror. She wants something that will truly keep her up at night and make her shiver.
Last Words follows a 23 year old backpacker who tries to survive a zombie apocalypse and get home. There's some naughty vocabulary in there. You might even find several what-the-fuck moments.
Ah, England. The white cliffs of Dover. The overcast drizzle from a perfect summer’s day. The general attitude that everything is going to be a bit shite. How I have missed you.
Too bad I’m still forced to fucking miss you because I have yet to leave stupid Spain. The train was cancelled. There was a zombie on the track, heading towards us.
It's on pre-sale now for 99 cents. It'll be on sale 7th July. If you forward me your receipt for the pre-sale Last Words I will send you a free eBook of Kingston Raine and the Grim Reaper. You'll get two books for less than a cappuccino.