Please Don’t Write Bad Novels by Catt Dahman
To say I read a lot is an understatement; to say I read lot of well written material is sadly untrue. With the apocalypse/zombie craze going on, there are some good ideas but the execution of the writing is lacking; it’s lacking in a lot of the horror I read. I’ve recently thrown in my zombie tale as well and that got me to thinking about what some writers do that ruin their novels. Ever the helpful (okay, critical, jeez) person that I am, I came up with a few ideas of what to do and not to do when writing zombie (or any horror) tales.
This one is huge. Tell the reader what kind of weapon the characters use, but then, can you call it a gun and not have to give us specs each time you mention the gun? A full fifteen pages about the weight, sale records, and history of each gun is really boring and I stop reading. A scope. Tell us they use a scope, but really, you don’t have to share the brand and everything you read in the Wiki. (yawn) Some technical information is fun, but too much is boring. At least warn us in your description so we can decide if we are technical-information-loving people or just want a fun story. The authors I like never write a five page diatribe on the functions and specs of a grenade. Just saying.
Next, please spare us the sound effects. BAM, POOF, VROOM, POW and SPLAT are enough to drive me to ERRRPPP up my lunch. Yes, they are fun in a comic book, but in a mainstream novel, the bomb can explode without a BOOM and the brains do not need to go KERSPLAT. Alas, this means forgoing the PLING, THUMP, and the BANG as well.
Speaking of word choices, one of my editors and I have a running joke about “atrocious zombies” after having read that description in a book. “Atrocious” is one of those words that unless a character says it, it should be avoided. “Cantankerous” is another that bugs me. I find that many writers find a nifty word from their thesaurus, and then over-use it. If a word isn’t one you commonly hear or use, then skip it. Sometimes “feces” is a useful word as opposed to the more vulgar term, but above all, please, please, don’t use “poop” (as in the ‘zombie stepped in poop.’) Are you laughing? I have read these things! I see things and shiver. One of my favorites was: “The walking dead corpses were FUBARed”. Please don’t write “Ginger ran, her jiggly bits bouncing.”
I read a description of a book and the author promised none of the “boring character stuff but plenty of action”. ERRRK. This translates to a fancy-named gun going BOOM and POW a lot while people jump over poop. What’s wrong with strong character driven novels with plenty of action in a good story line? The Stand and Swan Song, both considered to be two of the best apocalyptic novels of all time are very character driven. It’s all about how you present these characters. A so-called “stereotypical character” (the prostitute with a big heart, the embittered soldier, the Goth teen) can all be presented well if they are a bit unusual (because of the stereotype) but still very normal. Don’t remind the reader a dozen times the soldier is bitter but let him show some of this while being perfectly normal as well. I read a super story from Lee Moan in which the characters are mostly African American, but after a few pages, they are not a particular race but just every-day people that Moan makes the reader identify with. The message after reading the book is that we all are alike in tragedy and that is how a writer succeeds. Bowie Ibarra, Kealan Patrick Burke, and Jack Ketchum are all scary writers who manage this well; they take a perfectly ordinary person, give them an interestingly strange background or a potentially stereotypical background, then let them behave in ways the reader can make sense of. Ibarra’s Mexican-American character transcends culture and is ‘everyman’.
The above writers, I mentioned, also allow every-day normal people to be the heroes and to suffer creepy situations the authors have devised. Yes, they may have a heroic, very competent police officer battling the evil, but the guy will skin his knee, have doubts, and make mistakes; that is what works.
A review (of an e-book) I saw said “I hate horror and thought it would be just a scary book so I gave it three stars instead of five.” Granted, there is a lot I could say about the reviewer. POW, BOOM upside his head! But my point here, and I do have one, is that some write kind of creepy stories while others are hardcore, like one of my favorites, Richard Laymon. I have heard Stephen King and Dean Koontz called hard-core horror and have to chuckle; have they read Edward Lee? Brian Keene? Tim Curran? Know what horror really is as a genre or you risk being atrocious, I say! The deal is, decide what the book is and remain true to it. If you write for Y/A, then keep it tame in language and gore. If you are into the splatter punk style, then own it. Throwing in a few obscenities and some gore randomly in the middle of your story for the ‘“R” Rating’ simply looks like you want the rating. Write in the style(s) you desire and remember you can’t and won’t please every reader.
Don’t inject too much. Zombies, aliens, a government plot, a hidden ocean treasure, and an experimental mind-controlled chimp are way too much. If you are trying to fill space, maybe a short story or novella is a better bet for you.
It’s the rage to write a “new” zombie book, with a fresh take. I’ve seen a few and even fewer that managed to be good on top of being unique. In a sense, we are all reinventing Romero’s brilliance. As a huge fan of The Walking Dead , I find it perfect just the way it is, following the ‘Romero Rules’ and not offering anything shockingly different. What makes a good story go POW, BOOM and VROOM, is that the characters are fresh and the story is tightly woven. We can identify with the behaviours and the characterizations, cheering them on as heroes and commiserating when they show their feet of clay. Take the basic ‘rules’ and write a fresh story for your interesting, realistic cast; have them face new problems, try a unique location, and inject some real fears and phobias and you’ll have a winner.
Finally, decide the tone. Any tone will work if you stay true to it. Humor has worked well in the zombie genre but we aren’t all comics. Joe McKinney presents a rough tone that makes the reader feel the frustration and exhaustion his characters feel and it works well. Decide the tone and keep it. There is nothing worse than a tone that changes with the characters in a split personality so one chapter it is all cheerful about wasting zeds with the AK-47 while looting the local Wal-Mart and then, in the next chapter going too serious. Yes, it’s okay to change moods, but if you start out funny and then become dark and Gothic-Poe-ish in description, I am going to chunk the book out the window. (It will go WHAM).
Of course, this is just my take on writing zombie/apocalypse and horror genre. I am not a sci-fi kind of chick so I want my zombies to be horror-based. (I Am Legend). I want them gory, scary, and full of great characters with a story that follows at least a few of Romero’s rules. I don’t want a technical guide for survival of a zed attack, and I don’t want a medical tome explaining the zombies and scientists taking up half the book with microscopes. Please don’t bore me with the infallible, super hero, ex-CIA operative who, with the ‘beautiful, brilliant scientist, Ginger search for a cure. I ask for regular wording and not over-use of a thesaurus and no ten page speeches on how to clean a gun. I beg you not to inject aliens at the end to explain the zombie hordes.
Am I asking too much? No, because I manage to find some great horror writers out there and some well-done zombie/apocalypse books to enjoy on my down time. I am always on the look-out for new authors (or new to me) and have found many I enjoy. I think the problem lies in that family gets excited when their favorite son writes a zombie book and is just thrilled to see a book. Who cares about spelling/grammar, story, characters or anything else when we have (GASP) 90,000 words! Find a friend like me know who will tell it straight and let you know the gun descriptions are boring and your word choices make the readers want to punch needles through their own eyes.
I hate to say this, but not everyone has to write a book. For most of us, it doesn’t pay well and it’s a lot of hard work that is seldom appreciated. I always hear people say, “I have always wanted to write a book but never have the time and don’t know what to write about.” If you can’t find the extra time (if you work at another job) then that is a real problem; you find the time if you’re a writer. Writing seriously is a full time job of 8-10 hours a day. If you don’t know what to write, then that is a much bigger problem. Please just don’t write. Seriously. I have far more ideas what to write than I could ever get written. Write what you know. I know horror. If you don’t know anything, then I’m sorry but maybe some workshops and some classes might help. I learn everyday; I watch informative television, I read current events and anything I can find. I went to school and got a well-rounded education and I people-watch. Never stop learning new things because they will add to your deep well of knowledge. Let me also throw in that a class in psychology or sociology never hurt anyone for understanding people and how to develop characters. If you are writing just to imagine your own untamed dance of the grave of the world: don’t.
Disclaimer: research doesn’t mean use the Wiki; it means real books and articles and experts and a lot of time to learn about a topic. If my book is about giant plants chasing people, you can bet I am going to research plants for days and days so I don’t embarrass myself.
In short, before you release a book (in the horror genre since I don’t read the rest and don’t care), please find an honest person to read it and tell you the parts that are bad. We all have badly written sections, trust me. If they tell you it’s all great, they are not the right people; if they tell you some parts are beyond suckage and the stench is unbelievable, then you have a winner! Correct the mistakes and be glad you did, take the punches (POW, BLAM) and never again write anything…atrocious.
Fort Worth, Texas