This is the first in a series of blog posts I’ll be doing called Beyond the Keyboard, in which I’ll share details about how I came to write each of my novels. The posts will vary in content but will include aspects involving background, development, process, and fun facts, with each post focusing on a different novel.
Since I’ve decided to go in chronological order of my professional bibliography, we’ll kick things off with my debut novel, Breathers.
Your Supernatural Roots Are Showing
In October 2002 I was thirteen years out of college and had spent all thirteen of those years working full-time jobs and writing in the mornings and evenings and weekends whenever possible in an attempt to make a living as a writer. At the time I was writing straight supernatural horror, as I’d been weaned on Creature Features and Saturday Afternoon Monster Matinees as a kid before consuming a steady diet of Stephen King, Peter Straub, Dean Koontz, Robert McCammon, and F. Paul Wilson novels.
By the fall of 2002 I’d written about four dozen short stories (ten of them published in small press publications) and three novels, the last of which I’d finished a couple of years earlier. While I’d landed an agent for my second novel and had a bunch of positive feedback on my third, I hadn’t been able to land a professional publishing contract and had earned a grand total of $500.00. Then my agent closed up shop.
Is That A Creative Crisis in Your Pocket…?
After pitching both of my novels to two different small press publishers at the Horror Writer’s Association conference in the early summer of 2002 and piquing their interest, I thought I finally had my first break. True, they were small press rather than New York publishing houses, but it was a start.
The problem was, when I sat down to polish the manuscripts before submitting them, I found myself hating what I was doing. Whereas for thirteen years I’d looked forward to sitting down at my computer to write, now I dreaded it. I hated the process. And I couldn’t stand what I was writing. I thought it was absolute crap. And I couldn’t make anything work.
In short, writing was no longer fun but instead had become a tedious, joyless grind.
So after several months of soul searching, I told both of the small press publishers that I would not be submitting my novels to them and decided to take a break from writing. It was weird because writing is what I was supposed to do, but when what you’re supposed to do stops being fun, you tend to question your destiny.
Wherefore Art Thou, Inspiration?
In October 2002 (which is where this whole thing started a few paragraphs ago), I read Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk while on a plane to Paris. I’d never read any Palahniuk up to this point (or been to Paris), nor had I ever read something that combined dark comedy, social satire, and the supernatural. And I found myself intrigued, as I’d written several short stories that blended similar elements. I’d just never considered writing them in novel length. And Lullaby gave me the inspiration and courage to change that.
A little over a year earlier, I’d written a 2,042-word short story about a zombie who attended Undead Anonymous meetings with other zombies titled “A Zombie’s Lament.” (That’s the original finished draft of it above on the right.) With the story relatively fresh in my head, the idea percolated for nearly a year before I finally decided to take that short story and do something more with it.
Congratulations! It’s a Book!
Not everyone has physical evidence of where or when an idea was born, but in October 2003 I was in the habit of journaling on a fairly regular basis. And I dated most, if not all, of my journal entries. So here, on October 2, 2003, is the first known journal entry where the idea for the novel that would become Breathers first appeared.
And below, dated October 3, 2003, is the first draft of what was at the time the opening chapter of Breathers: the Undead Anonymous meeting where we first meet Rita, Jerry, Helen, and the others; though Jerry wasn’t Jerry and Helen was a man named Andrew Whittle. Andy wasn’t even Andy Warner. His name evolved from Andrew Whittle. The only character who jumped from my short story to Breathers was Rita, though she was painted with broad brushstrokes.
It didn’t take me long to realize that I enjoyed writing dark comedy and social satire more than straight supernatural horror, although my roots are obviously still there. It was as though I’d been writing all those years in order to discover my voice.
Not Your Father’s Zombies
When I first sat down and started writing Breathers, I was intrigued with the idea of telling a zombie story from the POV of a zombie. The monster as protagonist. I wondered what it would be like if I was a zombie. But rather than your stereotypical Hollywood zombie, I was just a reanimated corpse with no rights who was gradually decomposing and I needed some serious therapy. How would society treat me? What would my parents think? Could I join a bowling league?
These were the questions I wanted to explore.
But I also wanted to write a novel where the reader would sympathize and empathize with the “monster” rather than being repulsed or frightened by him. My hope was that by the end of the novel, if he started to do what zombies tend to do, the reader would be on Andy’s side cheering him on instead of carrying a torch with the rest of the angry mob.
As I continued to write the novel and the characters and the story developed, I discovered that Breathers was a metaphor for prejudice and discrimination. But more than that, at it’s heart, it was–and is–a story about finding your purpose in a society in which you have no purpose.
Third Act Rigor Mortis
As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t plot out my stories but discover the story as I write it. I’m a pantser. I write by the seat of my pants. I find that allowing the characters to tell the story allows for a more organic process and I just try to get out of the way. As such, I didn’t have a clue how Breathers was going to end when I started writing it. And more than two years later, in February 2006, I still had no idea how the novel was going to end.
Initially I had Andy getting involved in a big civil rights court case after his parents “disappeared,” but that just dragged along and felt dull and uninteresting and stiff. No pun intended. So instead I put Andy back in the SPCA where he faced a more immediate threat. When I came up with the idea for the media-driven frenzy about the poor orphaned zombie scheduled for destruction, the rest of the book just kind of took off from there.
I still had no idea who was going to live and who was going to die. Or, more technically, get destroyed because you can’t technically kill a zombie since they’re already dead. Undead. Whatever. But in my initial draft, while they still attacked the fraternity and were driven off in a S.W.A.T. van, there was no rescue party and no question as to whether or not any of the characters lived happily ever after. It was dark and it was final.
- The last sentence of the original draft was: “At least we won’t end up in a petting zoo.” The “If you’ve never…” phrase that was peppered throughout the novel became the last sentence after one of the members of my writers’ group said he was expecting the novel to end that way. I decided he was right.
- The opening chapter was originally the first Undead Anonymous meeting. The existing opening chapter with Andy waking up in the kitchen was added in rewrites, as was the chapter with Andy protesting out in front of his home and writing his Congressman, along with the chapter where Andy visits Ray by himself and is inspired by Ray’s philosophy.
- The original opening line to Breathers was: “My name is Andrew and I’m a survivor.”
- Before the first query was sent off to an agent, I’d edited the entire novel three times, then four more times over the next 17 months as I submitted the novel to 82 different agents, all of whom passed. By the time the 83rd agent said yes, the novel had been through seven revisions.
- At the time I wrote Breathers, I lived in Santa Cruz, CA, where the novel took place. While many of the settings in the novel exist, the granary where Ray lived was my own invention.
- Some of my favorite chapters include: when Andy’s mom calls him upstairs to help his father with the garbage disposal; when Andy goes for a walk and runs into Rita; the Thanksgiving chapter; the media frenzy chapters in the SPCA; when Rita and Andy hook up; and every chapter with Andy’s therapist.
- I started writing Breathers in October 2003 and finished it in June 2006.
*If there’s something you’d like to know about Breathers that I didn’t cover, please feel free to ask your question in the comments section. I’ll do my best to answer in a timely manner. Also, if you feel like sharing this blog post with someone you think might enjoy it, please be my guest.