As National Novel Writing Month enters its final days, the next in our series about the novels that we started writing but, for whatever reason, never finished.
Sometime in 2006, I was lying in bed, kind of drunk and thinking about zombies, and I had a thought. In a world (the voiceover in my head went) in which both vampires and zombies existed, who would be forced to be humanity's friend? Vampires, because if all the people turned into zombies, the vampires would have nothing to eat. But in a world where both vampires and zombies existed, what's the worst thing that could happen? No, not vambies, dummy… ZOMPIRES.
Holy moses. I had just made myself a million dollars.
Early 2006 was post-28 Days Later, post-Dawn of the Dead remake, post Shaun of the Dead, but it was still pre-World War Z, pre-Zombieland, pre-Walking Dead. Zombies were swarming the pop cultural landscape, but the world was not yet apocalyptically overrun. This was also after the first Twilight book had been released but before the series went mainstream: for most of us, vampires were in a kind of post-Buffy, pre-Bella lull.
The next day, sober, I still liked the idea. For the next few months, all I could talk about was how I was going to write a novel called Zompires. It was an immediate ice-breaker at parties, a prompt for discussion every time a conversation dragged. I told my mom about Zompires, my friends about Zompires, all my crushes about Zompires. On my Facebook profile, under interests, I listed “Zompires.” Everyone was into it. Zompires! “Be careful spreading that around,” a friend said. “You don't want someone stealing your idea.” It would have been a pretty simple idea to steal, too, since it was entirely contained in that single word. Still, it was my idea. Mine. This may be hard to believe, but when I Googled “zompire” around this time, only six entries came up. Six. On the entire internet. The word, and the world, were mine for the taking.
This made a nice change. Not long before, I'd returned home from two years in Kenya with the Peace Corps. I was working as a nanny while I struggled to write sensitive, heartrending pieces about Africans living in poverty, and it was not working out. I came home exhausted every evening (the fact that I had usually been drinking until 3 am the night before didn't help) and sat in front of the computer, struggling to add a word or two to stories I'd been hacking away at for months. I wrote a line or two a night, at best. Usually, I spent most of my time deleting. Not only was everything I put down on paper terrible and false, but the stories themselves, and the process of writing them, bored the everloving shit out of me.
My soon-to-be novel Zompires, on the other hand, was not boring. It was endlessly fascinating. Before I put a word down on paper, I was writing it in my head. As I made macaroni and cheese for the kids, I'd zone out and imagine what if a zombie came in here right now, and bam, like magic, the first scene spooled itself out in front of me. After a week of daydreaming, I had my heroine: a 14-year-old babysitter struggling to protect her charge in a zombie-infested world; my hero, a twenty-something slacker who survived the initial wave of the apocalypse by hiding in his basement and eating food he'd stockpiled from Costco, and the villain/anti-heroine, a badass, zombie-killing vampire who takes the two of them under her wing and shepherds them to a vampire-run “safety point,” where humans would be safe from zombies, but forced to serve as a food source for their fascistic vampire overlords. I also had an ending, in which the dark attraction between the hero and the villain would result in her attempting, foolishly, to rescue him from a zombie bite by turning him into a vampire, thus creating the first nightmarish ZOMPIRE. Exactly how zompires would differ from vampires and zombies, and how one might go about fighting them, was a problem to be taken up in the sequel.
Once I had the basic plot in mind, I sat down to write the first scene. It was fun! It was really, really fun. Since I hadn't any fun writing since I first began to think of myself as a “writer” back in tenth grade, this was a revelation. All I cared about was the feeling of getting words on paper. Every time I started to worry, “Is this good? Does this make sense?” I told myself to shut up and keep going, because this was a zombie novel, so who cared if it was good? If I got bored with a scene, I ended it, because zombie novels weren't supposed to be boring, they were supposed to be fun. I included no character development, no humor, no filler, no flashbacks, just scene after scene after scene of people getting fucked up by zombies.
Despite my determination to write the fastest-moving, least-boring zombie book ever, I was still incredibly slow writer. It seems to me, looking back, that I spend hundreds of hours working on Zompires, and maybe I did, but I produced maybe fifty single-spaced pages in total. I also had absolutely no discipline about it. Having fun was supposed to be the cure for my writer's block, so I only worked on Zompires when I felt like it, most often as a form of procrastination when I was supposed to be doing something else.
I quit my nannying job and got a cushy job in an office. It was the kind of job where I could have gotten away with devoting most of my day to Zompires. Instead, I told all of my co-workers about Zompires and then, that accomplished, spent my free time reading the internet and applying to grad school. Once I started school, I told all of my fellow students about Zompires and then left the manuscript untouched for more than year. Mostly, I enjoyed what I smugly felt was the cognitive dissonance of being a PhD candidate in English who was working on a zombie novel. Occasionally, when I was feeling particular anxiety-ridden about grad school, I would skip whatever it was I was supposed to be doing and work on Zompires, imagining that publishing the book would rescue me from academia in time to keep me from failing my fields exams.
As the years went by, and the novel remained unfinished, I stopped telling the Zompire story at parties. Zombies were not only everywhere, they belonged to everyone. People were writing smart, ironic zombie novels like World War Z, smart, serious zombie novels like Zone One, semi-smart, silly zombie novels like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The slacker bartender character's unfinished zombie novel has since become a running joke on "The New Girl," a gag that still stings me a little every time I hear it. Meanwhile,Twilight took over and the fact that my book had a vampire in it started to seem way less cool and a lot more embarrassing.
When I sat down to write, which occurred more and more rarely, I could hear all of these other zombies and vampires rustling around in my head, and they made me feel imitative and dull. I looked over the pages I had written so far and realized that, you know what? Novels—even zombie novels—actually do need the “boring parts,” or they seem eerily gap-filled and empty. Absent those scenes, Zompires wasn't a book, not even a bad book. I went back and tried to shoehorn in some character development, but then I lost the draft in which I'd done that work, and, unwilling or unable to recreate it, I was left with a manuscript that now seemed irredeemably hollow and stupid to me.
Meanwhile, the number of Google hits for Zompire climbed into the hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands. At some point, I realized that I was never going to finish Zompires, and I moved on to other fiction projects, all of which also remained incomplete. The pattern inaugurated with Zompires, in which I start a book with great enthusiasm, barrel forward and a write a bunch of joyful, free-flowing pages before a mixture of boredom, self-consciousness and the desire to write something else sets in, has repeated itself, oh, at least a dozen times since then. I was 25 when I first conceived of Zompires. I'm 31 now. I have written unfinished romance novels, unfinished mystery novels, unfinished thrillers, unfinished short-story cycles, unfinished memoirs, and unfinished fan fiction (seriously). I'm still working on one unfinished dissertation.
I don't regret the time I spent writing Zompires, or any of those other unfinished manuscripts. It's hard to say for sure since I'm the only one who reads it, but I think my fiction has gotten better as I cruise towards those 10,000 hours, or however much practice-time Malcolm Gladwell says you need to put in before you become actually good at something. Certainly, the practice of writing has gotten easier: where I once spent hours self-consciously agonizing over every miserable word, writing has now become a kind of pleasant fugue state in which, if I'm not careful, I can spend six hours in front of my laptop, forgetting to pee or to eat. That's got to be a good thing, right? My most recent unfinished novel, a noir-ish thriller set in Kenya, where I did my Peace Corps service all those years ago, is at 50,000 words and counting. Part of me thinks I might even finish it, although past experience has taught me not to be too optimistic.
At the same time, my reason for giving up on Zompires—that it sucked—now seems heartbreakingly stupid. So what if it sucked? Most zombie books suck. Most books suck. Seriously, go to the library sometime and take a random title off the new books shelf. Odds are, it sucks. Nonetheless, the person who wrote it is a published writer, and I am not. Maybe if I'd finished Zompires and gone back and edited it a little, I would be. There's not really much more to it than that.
In preparation for writing this essay, I Googled "Zompire" for the first time in a while, and discovered that what I'd been waiting for had finally happened: someone had taken the Zompire concept and made something of it. There were probably hundreds of people kicking around that same idea at about the same time as I was, but none of us did anything about it until—if I'm reading this webpage correctly—2011. In that year, zompires entered the world of published fiction via the Buffy the Vampire Slayer comic book series Freefall, in which Buffy and Xander have the following exchange:
Buffy: "Everyone who's turned since the Seed was destroyed is a zombie vampire."
Xander: "Zompires! I've named them. My work is done here."
That's what I thought, too, Xander! That's what I thought, too.
Previously in series: An Unexpected Masterpiece
Kristen Roupenian is a writer whose work has appeared on The Hairpin and elsewhere. Zombie head featured on cover comes with your Dismember-Me Plush Zombie.