Thursday, February 26, 2015

Is the zombie genre worth writing in?

One of these zombies will be a success. The others will not be.
    Hey folks,

    A friend of mine asked me an interesting question. He's a burgeoning horror author and said that he wanted his book to be a success (don't we all?). He was a fan of The Walking Dead and asked me if I thought the zombie genre was a good place for him to begin his career. My response to him was awkward and ill-composed. Frankly, I needed time and space to frame my answer since it's a complicated question.

    The short answer?

    Kind of.

The success story all the zombie-philes want to imitate.
    The zombie genre, just like the vampire genre, is now a permanent part of the cultural landscape. What was once a very niche monster has exploded onto the screen, page, and art panels with a definite "no going back" sensation. The flesh-hungry dead, largely created by George Romero in 1968's Night of the Living Dead, have been repeatedly adapted til they're everywhere. Even so, it's taken awhile to get there and if you'd asked me in October of 2010 if I thought the The Walking Dead premiere would be a huge success, I would have said no.

    You see, the thing people are really asking when they ask if they should write in the zombie genre is, "Is it a magic bullet train to publication and success?" The magic bullet train is a prevailing myth in authorship and a constant quest for new authors who attempt to follow trends, genres, and patterns in order to make their big break. This has resulted in many of the trends we see in writing. If one were to study the history of writing we can actually see many periods of aspiring artists trying to create their own markets based on someone else's success.

    Harsh sounding, I know, but it's there.

The biggest success before TWD had the bright idea of treating the genre seriously.
    Having done a little study of the subject you can basically see some of these patterns in a cool little table: Sherlock Holmes clones (creating the mystery genre), Doc Savage clones, Superman & Batman clones (creating the entire superhero genre), Middle Earth clones (creating modern fantasy), spy-fiction of the James Bond variety or in reaction to it, the Western is a massive part of American culture created from about fifteen stories retold in different ways, Dracula & Carmilla, and so on.

    Now, this is where I'm going to surprise you. This is actually a very good thing. The entire idea of genre is, essentially, attempting to cater to a need from the audience for more of what they like. There's about a hundred entries on my blog related to zombie fiction because I like zombies and stories about them. The thing is, however, I'm conspicuously harder on zombie stories than I am on general fiction.

    This is, essentially, the trap of genre writing in that the more you're a part of it, the more you run the risk of being lost like sugar in water. As an author formerly contracted to Permuted Press, famed publisher of zombie fiction which has had its ups and downs, I literally know the plots to almost a thousand zombie novels. Okay, that's a lit. It's more like seven hundred. That's not including the movie, video games, and so on plots which raise the number back to the thousand range.

    What are the factors which contribute to making a book a success?

    The answer? There is none.

    There is no magic bullet train.

    I do know that trying to be The Walking Dead isn't going to get you much success, though? Why? Because fans of The Walking Dead already have The Walking Dead. If they want more after they've seen the television series, they can go buy either the novels or pick up the comic book series. Yes, every zombie writer benefits from having more exposure and respect from others' success but it's not something which automatically translates into an inescapable hunger for the genre. If I may make an example: fans of A Nightmare on Elm Street are likely to go see Friday the Thirteenth. They both love horror but they aren't likely to go see every horror movie made in their wake.

    This may seem like obvious advice and, if so, sorry for wasting your time but I do think it needs to be said: you should probably figure out if you have a story to be told in the genre first before you set about trying to conquer a piece of its market. I don't believe there's any original stories under the sun but there's new ways of looking at things.

A great series.
 Ex-Heroes by Peter Clines. That had the relatively simple idea of setting a zombie apocalypse in a superhero universe where they weren't powerful enough to prevent it from destroying most of humanity. The Justice League meets Land of the Dead wasn't new but you could see how it appealed to markets of both superheroes and zombies. It wasn't a specific story I'd heard yet.

   One of my favorite indie success stories is

    I also liked Tankbread by Paul Mannering which has had surprising success with the concept of intelligent zombies raising humans as food. Yet, even this isn't an absolute idea. There's nothing new about the The Becoming, Contagious Chaos, or Time of Death series in terms of plotting. They're "simple" zombie survival stories. The strong characterization and writing, though, make the books a success.

    One benefit of this way of doing things is it also side-steps another problem people writing in a specific genre may face. Specifically, that for all the attempt to follow in the footsteps of a successful franchise, you will never be alone in trying to do so. In an ideal situation, you aren't competing but growing the same audience but a lot of authors try to fight for the same audience rather than support one another. In other words, you run into all the people who want A Nightmare on Elm Street to be against Friday the Thirteenth than the two getting the same audience on different nights. If you try and do what everyone else is doing, you will be part of the latter group instead of the former.

    I'm also a great believer that writing comes from the heart rather than the head. I don't think you'll ever achieve success by sitting down to make a checklist of things you think will appeal to the public. The Hellblazer series of comics succeeded because, in the deep dank corners of the DC universe, no one cared what the authors did with the character and they had freedom to write about what they wanted. Attempts to adapt the character to a wider audience often fail because so much of the original's strength is diluted. What does this mean?
One of my favorite zombie books.
What did it add to the genre? A little dog and humor.

    It means on a simple level, write what you want to write. Your audience will find you if you create something you enjoy reading and will be more powerful for not watering it down. Now, maybe your audience won't find it but that's an entirely different essay. So what is my advice about writing a zombie story? Here's a simple question: Do you have a zombie story to tell? Is it pressing in the back of your mind more than most? Can you add other stuff you like to it and add your signature spin? If so, go ahead and write it. Just don't try and walk in the footprints of others, forge your own path.

    There's much good in the zombie genre to write about. There's metaphors for disease, natural disaster, breakdown in social order, and the slow onrush of death. There's stories about what people do in times of crisis and whether people's "true" selves are revealed during a calamity. There's even questions about what one must do in the face of a hopeless situation. Or, you might want to write about zombies who are just good excuses to beat up with nail-covered baseball bats while traveling with sexy companions. Zombies who have replaced humanity and nobody noticed because we're that pathetic. Zombies regaining their humanity or that inevitable zombie romance crossing the grave. Some of these stories have been told already but are just waiting to be reinterpreted for a new audience.

    Just make sure you're writing for the right reasons.


  1. Eh. Zombies don't really do anything for me. Now, the psychological horror of a less supernatural The Serpent and the Rainbow could make for some freshness in the genre.

    1. I admit, I love reading about zombies but I can't write a zombie novel worth a damn. I've done some stuff in the genre, though, plus know a TON of authors I asked before writing this article so I thought I could speak on the subject.