Before my day job, the apocalypse

Writing apocalyptic fiction before work, every day

I was on my honeymoon when I decided to write a novel about the apocalypse. I’d always wanted to write something novel-length but doubted I could. As we drove along on our road trip, ideas on structure, character, and plot kept bubbling up. It felt right. And I spent many hikes stumbling over rocks and tree roots while typing notes into my phone. When we got home, I started writing.

I’ve signed a contract with myself to write at least 1,000 words a day and to keep a daily writing log. I’ve also decided to share my writing log on a weekly basis. This is the first one, here we go!

Thoughts from the first 21,647 words

Ok, I didn’t start keeping a log until the end of week two, when I’d written over 11,000 words. And I didn’t decide to share my logs until last week, so this log dump represents 12 days of writing rather than seven.

Madness induced by language

I talk and write a lot at work. Sometimes I have to argue about words or particular stylistic choices. I hate those arguments because they’re hard, not because they aren’t worthy.

Some nights after work, I feel possessed and defeated and like a different person because of all the reflection on language. So I’m using those experiences to work with a little-explored type of viral apocalypse. This one uses a linguistic virus that someone can either stumble upon by accidentally conceiving of and speaking an infected utterance, or by being exposed to the infectious language from someone who’s already crazy. The only other occurrence of this type of viral outbreak that I’ve encounter is in the incredible film Pontypool, written by Tony Burgess.

I love zombies and apocalyptic fiction, but I’ve always hated the notion that some folks might find safety for a time in a hidden bunker. I like that a linguistic virus can crop up anywhere, even at a billionaire’s hideaway on New Zealand.

Using a dream journal for structure and detail

I often dream about the apocalypse and I absolutely love it. I can’t get enough of those dreams. And usually, they last all night long, even if I have to interrupt them by getting up to pee. It’s great.

I’ve found that writing my dreams in a journal makes them more vivid. And even if they aren’t about the apocalypse, the details and strange stories are a mine of inspiration. I definitely don’t use everything in my dreams, but when I need to find just the right detail for a particularly strange moment, my dream journal always comes in handy.

Writing dialog when your character is mostly alone in the apocalypse

Dialog is not my strong suit. I’m not known for my great conversational skills, except for when I’m drunk or otherwise inebriated, and even then I’m probably not great at it. So I wanted this novel to help me exercise my dialog muscle and see if I have what it takes to write good dialog and maybe even improve my conversational abilities (I’m a conversational designer, after all).

But dialog is hard though when your character is always alone. He doesn’t have anyone to talk to. So, I’m leaning on a few devices to get my dialog in there:

  • Write internal thought that sounds like dialog or has the stylistic freedom to roam like dialog might

My left leg swollen like a pig stuck under a fence. A dead pig. Those dogs digging holes under every damn thing. I miss that. Dogs, I’ve always had something against them. Nothing, though, no words or thoughts will rival the sound of every dog in the world howling without control. Not a howl of yearning or protest or mourning, but of a heavily weighted lunacy.

  • Build out the world pre-apocalypse so that there are still living and friendly people to chat with. My favorite parts of apocalypse fiction are just before the end, so this works well for me
  • Make your character hallucinate so that even animals and inanimate objects can talk. This works into the mechanics of the linguistic virus, which I like, but it gets into anthropomorphic territory that I despise
  • Write two characters and have them eventually meet!

Sticking to limited first person point of view

I’ve been using “sensed” a lot to remain true to the limited first person point of view. Rather than saying, “I looked at him as he mulled over his options” I say “I get the sense while looking at hime that he was mulling over his options” — I’m trying to avoid this by using italicized thought language, but only rarely because it gets old fast. For instance, “Maybe he’s just caught a glimpse of how absurd his options are”. But more than that, I’m trying to focus on showing action and dialog more than on a narrative summary.

Dialog beats

Started using beats as well as direct attribution to vary the rhythm and pace of my dialog. So instead of saying, “she said” before or after a character speaks, you describe a physical action they take before, after, or while speaking.

Beat: Armand pulls at the skin around his left forearm as he recalls the experience. “Then I turned to face my mother and screamed…”

Attribution: And Armand said, “Then I turned to face my mother and screamed…”

The logs

August 7th — August 18th

August 7, 2019, 8:45am

First day of the log.

New words: 800

Manuscript length: 11,876

  • Expanded “I love Florida” chapter to 1,115 words. The entire chapter grew from a chunk that I wrote while on honeymoon:

I love Florida. I’m willing to say that now. But before the end, Florida was a joke to the people I knew. Florida was the kids in the back of the classroom. It was the strip mall security guard who took himself too seriously. Old folks retired there. My cousin Dwayne overdosed on pain killers there and died sprawled out on the hood of his 1985 Camaro. He gave me a bag full of toys from Toys R’ Us for my birthday one year and I loved him for it. He was a good cousin.

  • Introduced the mechanic of inanimate objects having dialogue, at least from the first person point of view of one of the characters
  • Alluded to all of the terrible things that happened in past 4 weeks

August 8, 2019, 10:00pm

Weird display settings error in Scrivener today. Fixed it.

New words: 855

Total length: 12,731

  • Wrote about getting into Lawton. Did some research on the town and didn’t find any inspiration. Need to figure out how to research places I haven’t been for setting development.
  • Got into a groove (maybe too much of a groove?) with the inner dialogue. Being half constructed and thought-like. Don’t go overboard because you probably sound like you’re ripping off some writer you can’t think of.

August 9, 2019, 8:15am

New words: ~310

Total length: 13,041

  • Feeling stuck. Wrote about outside Lawton. How to inspire action? What’s the fucking story here? No idea what I’m doing.

August 9, 2019, 9:00pm

Total length: 14,242

  • Expanded scene in Lawton.

The summer air in Lawton, Oklahoma is a smothering fleshy thing. It tugs at my damp clothing. I’m chafed. Bugged. Bitten, that is. I smell alright, though. Can’t stop sniffing my forearm. Weird habit. Must look… weird, to anyone watching. But if anyone is watching, weird is what I want. Maybe it is. Thing is, I’ll say this, what I smell there on my arm, it’s less what I smell and more what I don’t. I get a hit of something with a light sniff but not enough to pin it. Then I give it a whomping hork and all I get is heavy salt and earth, some musk. Like I’m turning into a deer’s bed. None of that other stuff I picked up on the first time. It pinches my brain. If I could sort out what the smell was, I think, maybe I’d be getting to the bottom of something I should have remembered a while ago. Tough thought to convey but that’s where I’m at these days. This is why someone might be watching me sniff my own arm five minutes straight.

  • Dream sequence with barnacles under skin was hard to write — really grossed me out, made my skin crawl. I think that’s good.
  • Introduced a creepy character but it didn’t spook me as much as the dream. Feels like a dead end

August 10, 2019, 11:30pm

Total length: 15,345

  • Expanded scene in Lawton. Lawton, Lawton, Lawton!
  • I wrote this morning too. Struggled hard. Action sequences and shit I wrote the day before disappoint me. Action feels stifled, bloated, meaningless. The character feels shapeless, and worse, he feels like me.

It’s a steady downpour now and I’m laying in a torrent of water running underneath the minivan. In the white noise of the rain my brain hears everything. Voices conspiring. Footsteps running back and forth. The sound of blades striking the wet earth. Pulsating sirens and screams.

:(

  • Wrote scene where bike is stolen, finds himself in house, sees guy riding his bike, maybe wants to follow. How does this advance the story? Does he follow the bike and discover… what?

August 12, 2019, 10:00pm

Total length: 17,270

  • Introduced a possible mentor/false mentor. Based the character on someone I used to work with.
  • Feel good about my dialog!!!! FUCK! First time ever that I can say that. It really helped to imagine Dennis (not his real name), who the character is based on and his gestures and the exact way his voice sounds.

“Cute idea. I never cease to be amazed by some of the correlations people draw. IKEA furniture is not a chatbot.” He turns to face the developer and drums his fingers on the table. “But I’ll give him this, friction is not the nocuous beast you make it out to be. It ain’t always about getting from point A to point B as fast as possible. Seems to me this might be more facilitation than it is friction.”

  • Started using beats rather than direct attribution in my dialog
  • This is the first day that I’m writing with a more defined idea of characters and plot. I think that introducing the two main characters separately, both in first person, before winding them into the same time and place, creates some dynamics that, at least for me, feel like they trigger action

August 13, 2019, 8:00am

Total length: 18,534

  • I feel some momentum between the two main characters. Dennis feels like a dark mentor. I sense that he will feel like he’s falling into a permanent place in the story line, his valuable intellect and way with words an asset for the journey’s travails, but he’ll probably be one of the first victims when the outbreak hits

August 14, 2019, 10:28pm

Total length: 19,706

  • Wrote this morning and evening. 6am and 10pm
  • Continued and came close to finishing Owen’s Act I scene
  • Does the tension between coworkers feel real? Don’t know how to test this. I know when dialog feels off, but I don’t know when a scene feels real. Beyond that, I don’t know when it feels worthy of the story.
  • I think Dennis is going to invite Owen to his house to do something about his dog who has been howling for almost two days. We’ll get to see the terrifying close-up symptoms of what it’s like for a dog to die of howling. But this will come after E.’S Act I chapter.

August 15, 2019, 8:45am

Total length: 20,029

  • Finished first pass at Owen’s Act I chapter
  • Realizing that I’ve been taking notes in my manuscript draft space, which fucks with my word count and daily goals when I end up deleting the notes later on. Don’t do this!
  • On an editing note, I’ve been using “sensed” a lot to remain true to the limited first person point of view. Rather than saying, “I looked at him as he mulled over his options” I say “I get the sense while looking at hime that he was mulling over his options” — how can I avoid this, at least for repetition sake? Maybe by using italicized thought language? Maybe he’s just caught a glimpse of how absurd his options are. Or maybe I can focus on showing action and dialog more than on a narrative summary.

August 15, 2019, 10:23pm

Total length: 20,420

  • Very hard to get started tonight. It’s hot, I didn’t have much time. Wife is waiting for me to finish writing session so we can chill hard, which, honestly, is all I want.
  • The pressure to write makes me hyper critical of what I’ve written so far. This is probably good.

August 18, 2019, 3:33pm

Total length: 21,647

  • I wrote some yesterday, maybe 600 words, but didn’t record a log. I wrote about E.’S first act, feeling like a mailman on stilts and leaving for Florida.
  • Couldn’t hit my stride or see a good image of E.
  • Decided that I needed to focus on E.’S character development a bit before moving into action of Act I.
  • Struggling with using first person POV for multiple characters. It’s seriously difficult to develop voices that are well-defined enough to separate each character, even though I’m breaking them out into chapters. And then there’s tense across character chapters. Tense… 😦 🔫
  • Wrote entire mass hysteria in Point-Saint-Encre chapter. Used a historical account of mass hysteria in France as a foundation. Created a new town name and embellished firsthand accounts. Built in a bit of fake editorial facts, just like we do nowadays.

On one summer’s day in 1950, when Point-Saint-Encre had almost hit its daily stride, a young baker fell through the door of the town’s local physician and screamed that he could hear the sound of his children being crushed in a meat grinder. When the physician urged him to contact the authorities, the man replied by clawing at his ears and insisting that “they’re inside of my head, I can hear them being crushed inside of my own head!”

One of the many Jason Foxes. Content designer with Atlassian.

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