Though I wasn't working on The Total Manageability of Everything, I still had the compulsion to write. Goldberg talks about that cresting point, where writing goes beyond something you must make yourself do and becomes simply something you must do. I had resolved not to read, write, or think about my current book, but that didn't prevent me from starting work on another one.
I was listening to a lot of Invisibilia at the time, and one episode struck me with inspiration. The Secret History of Thoughts tells the story of Martin Pistorius, a man who lived in a persistent vegetative state for ten years before finally being able to convince his nurses of his sentience. It was a scary case, because as a child, Martin was bright and healthy until he one day stopped eating, then stopped talking, then stopped moving on his own. His parents were very attentive and took care of him through an extensive treatment plan that included his father waking up every two hours to turn him in the night and long stays in a special care facility.
For the first few years, Martin was completely absent, but he eventually came back to himself and, though he still couldn't speak or move, he was aware of his surroundings and his predicament. He spent six years in this state, with nothing but his thoughts and the actions of those around him to occupy his time.
Through sheer force of will and some unknown biological miracle, Martin worked diligently to convince people he was still there. His methods of communication grew more sophisticated the more he worked at it, going from just moving his head to being able to manipulate a computer to speak to his family. He eventually wrote a book, which I highly recommend, called Ghost Boy, detailing his experience trapped inside from start to finish.
I was captivated by his story, I couldn't stop thinking about how he kept his sanity, his faith, and his optimism while he was trapped, isolated from everyone around him, removed from willful interaction with his environment. I read his book to understand the way he spoke to himself, his outlook on the day, and how he kept going despite endless days and weeks of immobility and silence.
Then it hit me: what if that's what it's like to be a zombie?
I've always had a soft spot for zombie movies, and I absolutely loved Max Brook's World War Z, so I started thinking about what it would be like to be bitten by a zombie, lose control of my body, and then be powerless to stop my reanimated corpse from attacking and devouring other people, and powerless to leave my front-row seat to all of the grisly action.
Writing starts with that itch, that question, "what if?" that becomes a grain of sand in the center of my brain, irritating and inflaming it until I have to find the answer. With thirty minutes of journaling and thirty minutes of creative writing each day, there must be some way to draw out this story of a zombie who was actually still a person trapped inside, just like Martin.
I went for a long bike ride to clear my head and see how the story would unfold around this little irritant, this "what if?" I had cooking. I biked all the way to the river bank and sat down on a wide driftlog to write a synopsis of how I could get from point A to Z, how to introduce a zombie apocalypse and a zombie protagonist who could speak.
Since I've already seen all of the zombie clichés and tropes in popular media, I wanted to try a different take. Nobody in zombie movies sees the monsters for what they are, they have to discover the rules and learn through experience. In my story, I wanted zombies to be part of popular culture, just like real life.
In fact, I wanted some nutjob who spent a fortune building an impregnable fortress to be laughed off by everyone around him because of how silly they thought the notion of actual zombies actually happening was. Then I wanted him to be one of a handful of survivors, all of his worst fears validated but nonetheless accounted for.
The world would be taken by surprise, because no one wanted to admit that zombies had moved from the screen to the street, and the only people left would be well-prepared, ruthless, or just lucky.
One character does not a story make, and I still needed to introduce my zombie, so I created a woman, fiercely independent, who finds our survivalist (quite by chance) and realizes the opportunities presented by a facility such as his. You see, she was a med student, finishing up her residency when the outbreak hit Portland. She's hell-bent on finding a cure or dying trying, so she jumps at the opportunity to hold up in a safe space where she can study the disease without constantly fighting for survival.
I had to do some research into different viruses, bacteria, and parasites to create my own version of the plague, complete with breadcrumb clues about its nature for my med student to discover. All she needed was a subject, and that brought our zombie onto the scene.
Despite being unable to control her behavior, the person trapped inside the zombie can blink a single eye, if sufficiently starved. Using an alphabet board, the med student and the zombie collaborate on understanding the outbreak and finding a cure.
To get my characters into the same place and bring their interaction to a satisfying conclusion, I wrote out a plot sketch accounting for their backgrounds, the necessary beats of bringing them together, and the outcomes of all of their choices. I had a new novel to work on, and it kept me occupied during half of the time I spent away from my current book.
I'm pleased to announce that I'm halfway through the first draft of my second novel, and it's only getting more exciting the more I write. I look forward to sharing it with you when the time is right.