Zombies are hot. Well, technically they’re room temperature, but in terms of what they can do for your writing career, they’re red-hot.
Photo by David Cowles
Zombie novels are putting authors on the bestseller lists. Zombie fiction is helping authors—pros and first-timers alike—break through into mainstream, genre and young-adult markets. Since 2002, living-dead enthusiasm has spread like a pandemic, and there is no end in sight. (See the sidebar, "Dawn of the undead," below for a look at how the popularity of these creatures has spread in recent years.)You don’t even have to like zombies to get a career boost from them.
Zombies make perfect metaphors. George Romero used his horror films to make significant points about racism, consumerism, and the Reagan military build-up. Max Brooks’ novel World War Z speaks to our fear of a global pandemic and its mishandling by world governments. My novel Patient Zero is an allegory for the potential mishandling of bio technologies.
Over the years, I’ve discussed the zombie genre with many of the key players; each of them was willing to share his insights. “People like zombie stories because they like to be scared. I know I do,” Brooks says. “Zombies scare me. No, seriously, they break every rule of horror. You have to go find most other monsters, but zombies come to you—and not in ones and twos, by the way!”
“Zombies bring up the fear of becoming paranoid—having the ones you love turn up against you; and they bring up our fear of disease,” says James Gunn, screenwriter for the 2004 remake of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. There’s no other movie trope that works on so many levels ...”And Tony Todd, star of the 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead, observes, “Romero’s zombies represented the silent and often vicious majority. That’s still true. Zombies are a metaphor for the faceless, emotionless, destructive mob that seeks to destroy everything vital, vibrant and alive!”
The perfect threat
Nowadays, zombies offer greater storytelling potential than vampires. Before vampires were ever humanized and romanticized, they were the Big Bad, standing in for anything that we fear, don’t understand, and feel helpless before. But in recent years the vampires themselves have become the story. They are beautiful, tragic figures, and much of the writing is about them.
Not so with the living dead. Except in a handful of zombie tales, the walking dead do not possess intellect or personality, and therefore all the writer has to do is establish that they are the threat. Once that’s done, the story focuses on the humans who are caught up in that threat, and from a storytelling perspective that’s a pretty deep fishing hole.They’re mindless monsters, and there are a lot of them. Once we establish their presence in a story, the audience is encouraged to fill in the blank for whatever specific threat is most potent in their own lives. As a result, the writer gets to use the majority of the word count to explore the dynamic of ordinary humans facing a shared crisis and how that crisis impacts them.
Stress warps personality, changes the dynamics of relationships, allows hidden personality traits to emerge, and makes every character go through that process of change that is key to all good fiction. Zombies, in short, are good friends to writers. They allow, and even encourage, writers to dig deeper into the characters—their needs, their goals and their growth. Zombies help characters come alive.
They allow the fiction writer to create and sustain suspense. They are a constant and pervasive threat. Blood and gore, however, is not absolutely required. We don’t need to see a zombie chow down on someone to grasp how horrible that is.Zombies also allow us to address our fears in a way that gives us a measure of control. Brian Keene, the author most responsible for kicking off the current zombie-fiction craze with his novel The Rising, agrees: “Our daily lives are filled with real monsters and real horrors. Monsters fly airplanes into buildings. These are dark times, and people want an escape. People are scared of everyday life. Sometimes it’s good to curl up with a make-believe monster, rather than the one outside your door.”
Bring new life to your writing career
What goes into a good, salable zombie story?
Well, start with a good story. The thing that’s so delicious about the genre is that editors, agents and readers are looking for good stories. Sure, they want zombies in them, but they want to read a piece of quality fiction. And previous involvement in the genre—or in any specific genre—doesn’t really matter. It’s like the growing young-adult market in that way: The storytelling has become more important than the writer’s previous track record—and new voices are always welcome.Many of the most significant and successful zombie novels were first publications by the authors. Keene won the Best First Novel Stoker award for The Rising. The Zombie Survival Guide was Brooks’ first nonfiction; World War Z was his first novel. Play Dead was Ryan Brown’s first published work. The list goes on.
Think about that: a growing and lucrative genre that not only accepts first-time authors, but can make stars out of them.Getting sold in the genre doesn’t even require finding those elusive few agents who specialize in zombie fiction. Zombie books are landing on the mainstream shelves. A lot of agents who handle general fiction, and a whole lot of agents who handle genre fiction, are likely to want to take a look at a pitch for a zombie book.
I broke into the genre with a nonfiction work, Zombie CSU: The Forensics of the Living Dead. I wrote it as a guide to how forensic science works, and I wrapped the science around the premise: How would the real world react and respond to zombies? Researching that book gave me the idea for a mainstream zombie thriller. Were there any mainstream zombie thrillers at that point? No. Didn’t matter. I wrote it and my agent sold it to St. Martin’s Press in a juicy three-book deal. Since then, Patient Zero has sold to a dozen countries, and Sony is developing it for television.
I started doing zombie short stories, ranging from comedy to horror to a sensitive coming-of-age short story (“Family Business,” published in The New Dead). My agent used that story to land me the biggest deal (at the time) of my career for two zombie YA novels, Rot & Ruin and, a follow-up, Dust & Decay. Because of those books—and their zombie themes—Creative Artists Agency people scouted me and have now placed Rot & Ruin on the desks of some of the biggest producers in Hollywood. So zombies have been very good to me, and I repay the favor by doing my best writing. I could have written about vampires or ghosts. Or terrorists, or puppies. But writing about zombies allows me to write any kind of story I want, and to take risks that I might not otherwise take.
Venturing into zombie territory
There are three key things to bear in mind when you’re writing and pitching a zombie story:
The genre allows so much. And it is always hungry.
- Zombie tales aren’t about zombies. If you focus on the monster, you’ll kill off your audience. Zombie tales are about people in crisis, so focus on them and their experience.
- Try the short-story market. In a market where anthology sales are generally soft, zombie anthologies have real life. Getting into one, even one of the lower-pay books, can quickly bring you to the attention of the fan base. St. Martin’s Griffin and Night Shade Books are established big-ticket markets; Permuted Press and Library of the Living Dead are small but have often helped launch writers into the genre mainstream.
- Read the genre. Don’t assume you know what is good fiction in this genre; go find out. Read the books I’ve mentioned, then go hunting for more. The diversity of theme, expression, quality and presentation is remarkable, and very encouraging to writers of all kind.
Go on. Bring a zombie to life.