The Thing About Zombies

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:

“Why I Eat Brains”

It isn’t like peeling an orange. It isn’t like popping a walnut. Skulls are harder than I’d imagined.

How long do I have, now? I’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, “Fuck off! This is mine! I caught this one!” but I think all I holler is noise. I’m not really there. I’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 it’s a cellophane wrap. I get fingernails into the crack. I pull. Fingernail breaks. This brain, and maybe I’ll remember my wife’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 with—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:

“Hunter and Hunted”

It isn’t like hunting deer. They’re smarter than deer. It isn’t like hunting fox or rabbits. They’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 I’m all that’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. He’s only been undead for a week, ten days at most. This is when they’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 doesn’t look up. He doesn’t even notice me, he’s so intent on … oh god, he’s stomping the skull against the curb.

I carefully open and close the breech. It’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.

7 comments on “The Thing About Zombies

  1. Bob Lock says:

    Hi Will.

    I’ve often juggled with this paradox. Do I put my ideas out there in the hope of getting some attention? Get some feedback, some recognition, but then also lose any uniqueness those ideas might have had? (stress…might have had!) Then I thought, well, no-one knows who the hell I am and unless I get my name fixed in readers’ minds, like an insidious meme or virus, then they probably will never know.
    So I still send off my short stories, flash fiction, poetry to whichever ezine or website that will take them, usually with no payment, but hey! They’re getting out there, people are reading them, some even comment too, like – this is a pile of crap – hmm, oh well back to the drawing-board :)

    And another thing, look at how many well known authors put their stuff out there for free, such as Cory Doctorow, Charles Stross, Neil Gaiman etc etc, so there must be something in it, surely?

    See? just blogging here made me go look at your site and now I know your name, likewise you know mine, we’ve just infected each other… *cough-sniff-cough* who knows, perhaps after this I’ll buy your book and you might buy mine…
    Hmm… that sounds too much like I’ll show you mine if you show me yours… oh well, you know what I mean.
    Enjoyed that zombie fliclet and Wil’s sequel was clever too.

    Bob (wannabe typhoid Mary of the writing world)

  2. Both ficlets were good. There are any number of ways to use them. You could use your ficlet as the intro to the story, then flash back for a while and lead up to that point, then end with Wil’s ficlet. Or, not necessarily end there, either. Because, now you have demonstrated what goes on in the mind of some zombies, you can introduce another character who tries to fight the urge to eat brains, and we know what he is up against because we have the example of the first guy. Or something.

    Nice to meet you, by the way.

  3. ps – To me, one of the best zombie films ever is Shaun of the Dead. Very clever and entertaining.

  4. From one admitted poor self-seller to another, hello, pleasure’s all mine, chin up, you’re doing capital, etc.

    I’ve always enjoyed flash fiction, both as a reader and as a writer. In some cases they work perfectly as a standalone piece and in other cases they serve as a seed for a longer project, or occasionally, like your example here, they could go either way. Will’s add-on was also tidy, but really only works as well as it does because he’s playing off of your lead-in. Bill’s suggestion is a good one, assuming you want to keep with this particular thread but I also see how you might wish to just chalk it up as practice since the ficlet sequels have already begun multiplying like undead cells in a beaker of infected blood.

    As for the bigger, double-edged sword question of using a site like ficlets where you can receive quick feedback but risk losing the story in some fashion–and obviously once you feel the idea is tapped, all the potential in the world won’t get you working on it properly again–I’m afraid I can’t offer much in the way of suggestions. I couldn’t do something like ficlets for the same reasons you feel conflicted about it. I would also feel weird re-writing something I’d already put out there for the open public, as if by posting it on a free website the words became frozen and I had an anthropological duty to leave them intact for future generations rather than risk extracting them…far from rational, perhaps, but it’s how my hamster wheel keeps the rust off.

    The result is that I sit on stories, drafting and drafting, and occasionally get friends to take a gander and tell me what they think. Of course, you have to weed out well-meaning types who will simply praise a work instead of offering anything constructive, but even a few people who enjoy writing or even just reading can accomplish the same end as something like ficlets, and without them reading it with a “what could I do with this story?” mentality filtering their reading. I hope this doesn’t come across as pedantic, and I again want to stress that ficlets seems cool in a lot of ways…maybe just not the best place to get objective feedback for potential longer or standalone projects. Granted, one often doesn’t know if it deserves to be longer or is complete as a flash until its finished but, well, no system is perfect.

    Finally, Bob’s point about getting your work seen is also valid, with, as he astutely points out, this blog entry being a perfect example. My tendency to not submit something until I’ve mulled over it, received a second opinion or three, and then mulled it again has done me no favors in terms of getting my name out there. Maybe there’s something to this ficlets approach after all….

  5. Anne S says:

    Have you ever seen I Walked With A Zombie the 1943 Jacques Tourneur movie. It is loosely based on Bronte’s Jane Eyre, but is an elegant take on the zombie theme.

  6. I’ve heard about I Walked With A Zombie. Directed by Val Lewton (Cat People) and written in part by Curt Siodmak (Donovan’s Brain, The Wolfman). Now I want to see it. I recently saw White Zombie, with Bela Lugosi, broken up in short increments on YouTube.

  7. Wayong says:

    I’m not hugely fond of the subgenre of zombies primarily because I find it tends to be rooted in more Christian concepts of fear, death and the other. Being from a minority background as well as being Jewish, I just don’t relate to zombie lore… much more into creatures like faeries, goblins, Japanese creatures (yokai, kami, changelings such as fudaki), werewolves and cryptozoology.

    That being said, I really like Bob Fingerman’s work as well as The Unblemished by Conrad Williams.

    I haven’t been terribly excited by most zombie flicks. 28 Days Later was ok, but didn’t really install fear in me . I found the most recent film of I am Legend, a bit goofy with the manikens. One film that I did think was more successful in really getting into the existentialist fear was the most recent adaptation of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, called The Invasion. The extra on the dvd of the director explaining the reasons why he made the film were very intersting and topical, from a current political and social perspective.

Comments are closed.