Earlier this year when the possibility of a pandemic was not foremost in my mind, I received an invitation to contribute to the New York Times bestselling BLACK TIDE RISING series by John Ringo.
The mainline books have chronicled the rise and fall of a zombie apocalypse, and there have been some anthologies set in between to further flesh out the events of the world. I spent those early weeks of 2020 writing the story which will now appear in the forthcoming WE SHALL RISE anthology, which will focus on the aftermath and the question: where do we go from here? A good question, and one not limited to zombie apocalypses.
Doing something unique with the zombie subgenre is challenging. As usual, I started things off by brainstorming a setting. I knew immediately that I didn’t want to focus on America or Great Britain, as those geographic coordinates have been covered. I settled on one of the more intriguing places I’ve visited in my life: the caves and countryside of Umbria. To say more would spoil the fun, so I’ll leave it at this for now: my story is entitled “Descent Into the Underworld”, and is set in Italy after the zombie apocalypse has begun to die down and the remnants of civilization are attempting to rebuild what they can.
I’ve talked about research before, and I’ve offered my single piece of advice for aspiring writers. But what about the top-to-bottom writing process itself? How does a story go from idea to finished product?
This varies wildly from writer to writer. Some are inspired by dreams, or people they know, or headlines, or a painting. For me, a story’s life cycle begins with a setting.
It could be a cafe on a rainy day (inspiring “The Memorybox Vultures”) or an aerostat colony on Venus (“An Incident on Ishtar”). More than an idea or character, I like to know where a story is taking place, as that environment suggests the type of action, culture, characters and plot that will later develop. The setting is the substrate. It’s the soil. I also like to mix things up: if one story was set on a dry desert world, the next one should be in a lush tropical setting or deep under the sea. If I’ve been writing about the far future, I’ll look for settings that are closer to now… or are in the past.
The characters come next. Maybe it was the rain sliding down the bookstore window that decided me on a noir detective for the lead of “The Memorybox Vultures”. There’s an old cemetery nearby with graves dating back to the pre-Revolution. Is the main character investigating a murder? Nah, that’s been done and done. Maybe she’s meeting someone on this rainy afternoon?
Maybe she’s meeting someone who’s dead.
With the idea gestating, I won’t immediately sit down to write it. I let it simmer, rolling it around in my head, seeing how the story might grow. I don’t need to know the ending, but I usually want a general sense of trajectory. There are exceptions: I didn’t have the slightest notion what would happen with my character James Porlock, the man who ends up working as low-level secretary for the Illuminati (in “Distant Gates of Eden Gleam”). In that instance, I was so enamored of the bizarre setting that I dove in headfirst, without a clue as to where it was going.
I’ll also use this time to do research. As I’ve said before, researching while writing is exactly the wrong time to do research. I’ll crack open books, read reputable links, find people to talk to, go to museums or submarine bases or quarries, take a glass-blowing class, or spend a day job-shadowing a certain profession. Ideally I’ll be writing one story and, during my off-hours, will start researching another to soften the beachhead for the story to come. Again, I consider what I’ve already written, and where new ground might be broken.
When it’s time to do a first draft, I write fast and furious. Screw spelling. The hell with perfection. I know too many writers who get anxiety attacks over their first drafts because they try making it perfect from the word go. Aside from setting your computer on fire, I can’t think of a better way to not write. First drafts should be messy. My aim to is to get the bones of the story down. The beats. The transitions. Half the time I barely know who the characters are when I start a first draft. That’s okay, they’ll develop. The worst part of composition is starting, so I focus on writing sprints to have something to work with.
The second draft is where the characters take shape. After all, they have an environment to interact with now. I assemble the scenes into an orderly chronology. I might act out the action scenes (within reason) to consider the pacing, light source, and spatial dimensions. That could mean walking around a soccer field to time out a fictional conversation, or pantomiming a fight scene that ranges from basement to attic to the walkway below.
Third draft takes on dialogue, which dovetails with further character development. Their “voices” become distinctive. The theme materializes. I tighten the overall language. I mind the story’s timer. “Death on the Nefertem Express” takes place in just over 30 minutes, while “Jackbox” runs in less than five, so pacing must be meticulously managed.
Fourth draft is the penultimate stage. I run through the manuscript from top to bottom, polishing and spot-editing as I go. If I’m going to send it out to first readers, this is when I do that.
Next? I step away from the story.
I make a sandwich, grab my backpack, and go for a hike. I spend time with friends, play tennis, play pool, watch films, attend a lecture, hit a bar, go rafting, learn how to indoor skydive. This is the “letting it cook” phase and every writer I know does this in one way or another. Time away is essential. This can be up to a month, but it’s usually about two weeks.
Then I return to the story with a fresh perspective, turn it into a final draft (which might incorporate feedback from first readers) and submit it. As for the submission process itself, notes on the literary marketplace, and the business of writing, these are things I might address in a future post.
“Someone stole our only shuttle!” He pointed to the dusty outline on the floor where the mining camp’s sole means of off-rock transportation had been securely docked. “We’re marooned!”
This month, my story “Theft, Sex and Space Pirates” is published in Third Flatiron’s Brain Games anthology. This is another Jolene Fort mystery, featuring my popular space pirate (“Never proved… never convicted”) tackling a most peculiar case of Grand Theft Shuttle.