Zombies were never my thing. I’ve always been crazy for monsters, but the shambling undead were near the bottom of my list. Even now, I can’t muster much of a damn for the debate between fast zombies and slow. I liked 28 Days Later and its sequel, Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake was great, the I Am Legend movie did its own thing just fine, and Romero’s Land of the Dead was good times, but I don’t pay allegiance to any particular breed of brain-eater.
As part of my current focus-shift to fiction writing, though, I’m exploring ideas that I otherwise might not, just to keep me writing. One of my big problems as a writer is that I bore early. I start a lot of stories, and finish few. So I took a stab at flash fiction for a while, thinking it might be good to start small and work my way up to bigger things.
I found Ficlets through my cohort, writer/actor Wil Wheaton, who’s also trying to build up his fiction muscles this year by tackling his first novella. Whereas I’m coming into fiction from game and essay writing, he’s coming over from narrative nonfiction, next door, but it seems like we’re both struggling more with the shift to long-form writing than we are with the notion of imagining or lying on paper. Read any of Wil’s books and you know the dude can tell a story, but to do it over 100,000 words is a whole other thing.
(Wil is guest-starring in tonight’s episode of Criminal Minds, by the way, and the nervous is creeping up on him, so drop by his blog after the show airs tonight and let him know how he did.)
A Ficlet is a short-short bit of fiction, 64 to 1,024 characters long. You write it, you post it to the site under a Creative Commons license, and then other people read them, comment, and maybe write their own prequel and sequel Ficlets that build on yours.
For a while, I used Ficlets as a kind of writer’s batting cage. I’d go down there and warm up my arm with a few ideas before moving on to bigger projects, I thought.
Here’s one of the Ficlets I wrote:
It isnâ€™t like peeling an orange. It isnâ€™t like popping a walnut. Skulls are harder than Iâ€™d imagined.
How long do I have, now? Iâ€™m still here, enough to know this is wrong, but I love my wife and I love my kids and I want to hold onto those memories and for that I need a brain.
Someone is coming closer, hesitating, slack-jawed. I scream at him, meaning to send him words like, â€œFuck off! This is mine! I caught this one!â€ but I think all I holler is noise. Iâ€™m not really there. Iâ€™m in my fingertips, scouting over the surface of this slick and bloody head.
I get the jaw in one hand, the head in another, brace the whole thing against my chest, and pull. Something gives. But no go. His mandible waggles like a broken toy.
With his head in my hands, hair sticking to my bloody fingers, I drag him to the curb. I stomp. Something is cracked, beneath the skin. I nip at the skin like itâ€™s a cellophane wrap. I get fingernails into the crack. I pull. Fingernail breaks. This brain, and maybe Iâ€™ll remember my wifeâ€™s name.
Not long after that, I started to reconsider the value I was getting out of writing a Ficlet every week. As a writer, I hunger for feedback. It’s not enough for me to write, I have to know what you thought of my writing. Ficlets was a contraption that let me pull a lever and get a cookie, but it wasn’t really helping me a better writer.
Worse, I felt like I was sometimes using ideas that I could be doing something more withâ€”not because I was exhausting those ideas, but because once I show a bit of writing to someone, it feels somehow tapped. I got my cookie, on to the next one. I’m not saying this is reasonable, I’m just saying this is how it goes. Even if I wanted to write more about that zombie protagonist (and I was thinking that maybe I did), I’d already debuted it, so some vital new-ness was gone.
If I wrote more, that additional writing would have to succeed on its merits as actual writing, not as the quick suggestion of an idea, and that won’t do. That’s too much like work.
I was getting a quick dose of satisfaction from having shown some writing to some people, but I wasn’t helping myself build up the discipline to finish a novel. I was just wandering from treat to treat, placating myself with the empty calories of a quick fix.
I was a zombie in search of his next brain
A couple of months later, when he felt like he had written himself into a corner on his novella, Wil popped into Ficlets to get his swing back, saw my story, and wrote this sequel to it:
It isnâ€™t like hunting deer. Theyâ€™re smarter than deer. It isnâ€™t like hunting fox or rabbits. Theyâ€™re slower and more unpredictable. Hunting and killing the undead is harder than I imagined.
But I love my wife and kids, and I know that Iâ€™m all thatâ€™s standing between them and this monster.
An angry moan comes from inside the house, so I duck behind a burned out minivan and wait.
He crashes through the door, dragging a body toward the street, eyes wild, still intelligent. Heâ€™s only been undead for a week, ten days at most. This is when theyâ€™re the most dangerous.
I aim, and pull the trigger. I brace myself for the recoil and explosion of skull and brains.
I silently curse myself. I forgot to chamber the round! I get ready to run, but he doesnâ€™t look up. He doesnâ€™t even notice me, heâ€™s so intent on â€¦ oh god, heâ€™s stomping the skull against the curb.
I carefully open and close the breech. Itâ€™s ready.
He pulls a hunk of brain from the skull and begins to eat.
I hold my breath, aim, and fire.
With a POV shift I hadn’t expected, Wil put a bullet in a character I was thinking I might want to revisit. By letting that character out into the world too soon, I’d gotten him killed. I couldn’t see around that metaphor.
Yes, Wil’s ending left me a moment in time to work with to save my character… but someone else wrote another sequel before I got there. Blew my character’s head off before I could save him. The material was out there in the world, now. Out of my hands.
Someone else wrote a sequel. Then someone else. They kept coming, more and more branching bits of fiction. The stories spread quickly, shifting POV, introducing and dropping characters, like a cameraman careening through a zombie plague-zone, catching a glimpse and then running off again.
On one level, I guess this means my story worked. It got read and started something. That ain’t nothing. But I can’t decide if that means it’s done or if it means I should try to do more with it.
What am I supposed to take away from this? Did Wil’s story prove me right by capping my character, showing me that I shouldn’t be spending my time on little free doses that’ll be rapidly consumed and forgotten? Or does it field test the idea, showing me that it was good enough to be worth exploring further?
Looking for meaning in this may be tomfoolery. This may have nothing to do with learning to find a balance between instant gratification and the discipline to tackle a long-term goal. Some stories are about symbolic monsters and loaded metaphorical attacks, other some stories are about being straight-up scared that walking corpses will eat your brain. That’s the thing about zombies.