Zombies, Characters, and Music: Todd Brown’s Life As A Writer

Welcome to Wild Card Wednesday, the day you never know what you’re going to get.  We have a special guest today.  Please welcome Todd Brown, who also writes as TW Brown.

Todd Brown is a jack of all trades in terms of writing.  Though he is probably best known for his two zombie horror series, DEAD and ZOMBLOG, Todd also writes in other genres and he edits.

For an overview of Todd’s work, check out his Goodreads author page or his Amazon author page.

In addition to the writing, Todd is a musician and just an all around nice guy.  He is straightforward, hardworking, and pragmatic.  Plus, he loves his dog.

Let’s get started.

Todd On Writing

Having read a several of your books, I’d say one of your greatest strengths as a writer is characterization.   Can you share some of the process you use to develop your characters? 

It really varies. In some cases it is almost like possession. The character forms so vividly in my head that he or she almost speaks to me. A real example of that is Meredith in the Zomblog series. After a while, it was almost as if I was no longer writing, but being dictated to on what she would and would not do in any given scenario.

In many other cases, there may be an aspect of my own personality that pushes the character’s actions. Dakota (from the book Dakota) and Kevin from the Geeks’ story line [in the DEAD series] are real good examples.

Then there is Garrett. He is actually a composite of somebody that I met in real life. Some of his actions were inspired by things this person said. If you have never met a true sociopath, it is a terrifying thing. They have no concept of wrong. It is all about satisfying some need or another.

Garrett has been called “pure evil” but I don’t think that really describes who or what he is. When I wrote scenes involving Garrett, that was all I could do that day. I had to put on certain music and shut out the world. The hardest part was to NOT filter anything that came in those sessions.

Your DEAD series has several unrelated storylines happening at one time.  I admire your ability to make each storyline addictive.  Are you a plotter, a pantser, or both?

Things in the DEAD series started as one thing and became another by the end of Dead: The Ugly Beginning. Initially, I wanted to take the George R.R. Martin idea from his Song of Ice and Fire series and borrow some of the format. I initially intended to have Steve and the Geeks. The Vignettes were supposed to be like snapshots of what was happening all over to give the reader a chance to see the global scale. However, several of the characters (Juan more than any of the others) had more story than I realized.

I never use an outline when I write. There have been many occasions when I am just letting the story tell itself and then end up someplace that I never planned. Cary in the Geeks’ story line was a perfect example. I actually intended Kevin’s idea to run for the Dakotas to work. That was supposed to be my “safe” story that readers could fall back on when everything else was falling apart. The thing is, events take a much more harsh twist when “reality” is fused into fiction.

Fans of zombie fiction like to think they “have a plan” if the event were to ever really happen. That was supposed to be what I illustrated with The Geeks. Only, problems popped up and the “best laid plans of mice and men…” have a tendency to get sand in the gears.

That is also one of the reasons that “main” characters don’t always get to the next chapter.  I don’t let anybody wave a magic wand to escape a bad situation. If it happens to derail an idea that I “thought” I was going to expand on…that is the way things go. Just like life. I have found that it keeps readers on their toes if there is no safety net.

I’ve seen you write from both the male and female point of view…and do it well.  What’s your secret?

I talk to women. Then…I listen. I spent years as a waiter and bartender. People don’t even register them as a person sometimes when they get into a deep conversation. If you listen, you can learn a lot about the differing versions of the thought process. It also helps to have daughters.

What was the single hardest aspect of writing craft for you to master?

Hmmm…I doubt that I will ever master any. That might be what works for me. I spend a lot of time reading. So I try to learn from everything I read—good and bad. The bad I use as a cautionary tale for what not to do. The good, I try to emulate and create something of my own.

I will say that the hardest thing to do in my opinion is to really draw somebody in so that they are immersed in your book. You have to create people that are not cardboard cutouts. They have to be real…flawed…and relatable. Readers should say, “I know that guy/girl.”

Do you have any writing craft books you recommend? 

You could do worse than King’s On Writing. But really, I think it is something inside the person.

For instance, I play football. I am a good linebacker. But I will never be Ray Lewis. He has a talent that he was born with that made him better than anybody else.

I play guitar, but I could practice my whole life and learn the Stevie Ray Vaughn catalog. But I will never play it like him. That instrument was in his soul. He felt the notes. Just because you are able to do something does not always mean you should.

And by the same token, I have read some stuff in the Indie scene that shames what is coming out of “the Big Six” pipeline. Much like a person’s faith or spiritual belief, I think that it has to come from within. Mechanics can be learned…story telling is a gift.

 Todd On Editing

You let me do an editorial on your blog about the state of editing in the indie writing community.  Now it’s your turn.  Let it fly.  Tell me the problem as you see it and what, if any solutions, you suggest.  

First, I won’t ever claim to know it all. However, one of the things that I pride myself on is the quality of editing. You can find errors in every single book you read. Nobody can catch everything. And there is no magic software to save you from “were, we’re, where” or “there, they’re, their”.

That said, if you can’t even bother with a basic spell check…stop wasting people’s time. I know that not everybody can afford to hire an editor—“professional” or otherwise—but you should at least have a basic understanding of grammar.

The indie scene is its own worst enemy. With the advent of the ease regarding self-publishing, it seems that everybody has a book now. This goes back to the previous question. Just because you can does not mean that you should. (One of my favorite Ian Malcolm quotes from Jurassic Park.)  It is a lot of hard work. That is perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions about writing.

There are so many crazy rules to writing that people don’t even know exist. Dialog comes to mind. That is where reading becomes your best friend. When I am editing, I usually have a dozen or so links to various grammar sites. However, I also keep a few actual books handy.

If anybody takes anything from this, I hope it is the following. SLOW DOWN. Take the time to research some basic rules of grammar. And if you can hire somebody, super. If not…Strunk & White is you new bible.

That should put a few more welts on the dead horse.

You’ve commented that you are editing now.  Please tell us how you got started. 

It started in high school. I found that I had a knack. Very similar to history, I found that I had a love for English. I was a bit of a grammar geek. It came easy because I enjoy it so much. Pretty soon, I was helping friends. I was actually given my first copy of Strunk & White when I was fifteen.

The thing is, I still didn’t know enough. When I decided that I was going to edit my first anthology (Eye Witness Zombie), I knew that I had to up my game a bit. I’d read a handful of anthologies coming from one of the small presses and was appalled at the amount of what I considered obvious errors. So, I studied. And I still study. I still learn new things. In fact, I have returned to some of our older titles and re-edited them after learning some “new” rule. I now have over thirty titles that I have edited including over twenty anthologies.

When I read reviews and they mention how well-edited something from the May December catalog is, I feel great. And if they are critical of the editing, I go back and find out why. (That is how we discovered that the wrong version of Zomblog: The Final Entry was out there—talk about embarrassed!). It just so happens that other writers were reading the same thing.

Mark Tufo hired me for his newest release after sending me a short story that I edited as an audition. I am now working on his back catalog. A short time later, John O’Brien asked Mark who was doing his stuff. That was my first recommendation and I am now working on John’s material as well.

The bottom line is that I am one of those people never satisfied with his work. That drives me to learn more, which, in turn, makes me better.

Are your services for May December authors only or are you offering your services to the public?   If you are offering to the public, share a fee schedule and your contact info so my readers who are interested can get in contact with you.

Honestly, I tend to negotiate with the individual. I just took a client on a reference. The individual is like a lot of writers…broke. The person was ready to sell a family heirloom to pay me. I told that person absolutely not. I worked out a payment schedule.

What I don’t do is re-write a story. I fix grammar. I try to ensure continuity (like when a character changes names three times in two chapters). I will make suggestions if I come across something that I feel is muddled. However, I believe that taste is very subjective.

I think that is one thing the Indie scene has above traditional publishing. Writers are telling their stories. (Can you imagine a traditional publisher allowing Garrett?) When a book leaves my hands, it is a clean read. My goal is to be perfect, and I know I won’t hit that bar, but I sure come as close as possible.

What is your editing pet peeve?  By that, I mean what error makes you cringe and curl your toes?

Dialog. Some examples: “What is wrong John?” (See the problem?) Try this: “What is wrong, John?” or “Get out!” He screamed. Versus “Get out!” he screamed.

I spend more time fixing dialog than I spend on anything else.

If I had a second, it would be the use of a $50 word when $1 works fine. Just because you have a synonym tool in your word program does not mean you need to use it all the time.

Todd on Inspiration

You’ve talked on your blog about how much you like THE WALKING DEAD (TV show).  Does it inspire you or do you have to struggle not to use ideas you see there?

I have been a fan of the graphic novel for years (I was actually nervous when I heard that it was being converted to the screen.). I laugh when somebody makes a comparison between my stuff and Kirkman’s. I think the only thing we have in common beyond zombies is that we rely on the characters to drive our stories instead of the zombies.

Still, when I watch that show, it inspires me a great deal. Not to pluck the ideas, but that the zombie genre can be mainstream if you make it appealing.

Too many writers in this genre focus on the gore aspect. You need to care about the people above all else. And one thing that can really be tricky if you tackle a series…growth. If the character never changes in response to his situation and environment, then you have missed the mark.

You are a talented musician.  Does your music play a role in your creative process?

First…thanks so much. I was really glad to share one of the highlights of my recording sessions with you.

[Catie’s note:  Todd has been kind enough to send me some of his music via email.  If he ever offers to send you a song, say yes.  It’s worth your time.]

Music is very big for me. I always have it on when I write. I even have certain music for certain titles. But I use my playing as a way to clear my head. For instance, lately I am toying with “Icky Thump” by the White Stripes, “Are you gonna go my way” by Lenny Kravitz, “I got mine” by The Black Keys, “Surf Hell” by Little Barrie and “Slither” by Velvet Revolver.

Which authors inspired you to become a writer?  Please feel free to name specific books.

Hands down, it is Stephen King’s The Stand. I always had that itch as a kid, but that was the book that made me say, “I wish I could do that.” No other book has had near the effect of that one title.

When your creativity gets stuck, what do you do to get unstuck?

Take a walk. In fact, I got a Border Collie so that I would get outside more. Aoife won’t let me sit at my desk for twelve hours. She actually gets under my desk and pushes me out from it if I ignore her for too long.

Zomblog: Snoe and Why You Need to Read It

You’ve said that you never intended to write another Zomblog book but are doing it at the request of your fans.  While this is an awesome compliment, how difficult was it to come up with more material?

I won’t lie. At first I had no idea what to do. However, it was actually a fan, Vix Kirkpatrick, that had mentioned Snoe. I started thinking and then I took a few drives along Highway 26 just to see some things. This little voice started whispering, and Snoe started hitting me with all these questions. She developed slowly, but once I tuned in to her, she really filled out.

Is this the last installment of Zomblog no matter what?

This will be a three book arc featuring Snoe. But yes, this is it. I am humbled that I had fans who cared enough to want more. Still, I have some other stories that are tired of being told to wait in line.

Every time I mention zombie books or zombie shows, somebody always says, “I don’t do zombies.”  I always tell them the books aren’t really about zombies.  Can you talk about some of the universal themes a first time reader might expect to find in your Zomblog series?

I tend to peek into the dark corners of our society. I think that some of what I write has been—fairly or otherwise—criticized for painting society in a dark light. I am a watcher. I see how we interact.

Look at the social media. There are some wonderful things about it. But it can get nasty. People act out in certain ways when they have the safety of being anonymous. And look at events in our life like the South Central riots. When there is no order, no system in place to protect others, we can get nasty to each other.

I think I show some of what makes us great…and some of what makes us monsters. Just read the history books, and if you don’t read, watch Schindler’s List. There is a reason that they say “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I try to hold up a mirror. No air-brushing…just raw images.

Think of it as a giant reset button. We all fantasize about starting over or recreating ourselves. Tell your more “literary” friends that it is Lord of the Flies with some added danger.

I am still reading Zomblog Book One, so I’m not asking for spoilers.  But can you tell us a little about what to expect in Snoe?

It is almost twenty years after Sam first began his journal. It is told through the eyes of an eighteen-year-old girl who grew up with zombies as the norm…and malls were a thing spoken of in fairy tales.

One of the subtle things that I play with is the genetic inheritance of personality traits. Again, for the higher brow types, refer to the classic film and stage play, The Bad Seed.

Nature versus nurture. Are we the product of our parents, or of the environment? I have a daughter that I haven’t seen since she was two. I recently have been fortunate to start rebuilding that relationship.

She has some traits that I know for a fact that she did not get from her home environment. There are some things about her that are like looking in a personality mirror. Hopefully that should pique a few interests.

Where to Buy Zomblog: Snoe

On Amazon:

Ebook

Print Version

As a special bonus, Zomblog, the first book in the series, is FREE today on Kindle: Click here. 

Todd, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to chat with us.  

Readers, Todd has graciously agreed to stop by to answer your questions.  Ask him whatever strikes your fancy.

The e-book version of Snoe will be on sale later today.  Right now, the cover image goes to the paperback version.  Once the ebook version of Snoe goes live, I’ll edit the new links into this post.  

But for now…

Keep reading for a five page sample of Zomblog: Snoe.  

Friday, June 1st

 Five years ago, I received my mother’s journal. Now, at age nineteen, I think I have the discipline to begin one myself. Sure, I tried a few times in the past, but it just never took. I would forget, and then, once I remembered, so much time had passed that I would just give up and say why bother.

A few days ago, Mama Lindsay came back from her unit’s escort of the Rose Colony’s president out to the Ten Pacific Nations Confederated tribal lands, something to do with a renewal of a bunch of treaties.

Anyways, she sent a messenger for me to pick her up after her DECON certification. (Everybody who ventures out of the confines of a Safe Zone has to be tested before they are allowed in general population.) It seems she found all my old failed attempts at starting a journal when she was loading out for her trip. She didn’t want to bring it up until she got back just in case we had a blow up over it.

I should probably come clean with the fact that I supposedly have a hot temper. Mama Lindsay says it is proof of genetic influence on personality.

So I guess she decided to wait until she got home to have the big conversation about me keeping a journal. I think she was being a little silly. After all, it was just a little scribbling on paper. We have a rule…no arguing before a patrol. Nobody wants to have their last memories of a loved one be of some fight over something stupid. We started that rule after Mama Janie and her entire farming group were wiped out by a Mega Herd—some reports claim there were over twenty thousand undead that day. I was only five or six at the time, but I think Mama Lindsay and Mama Janie had gotten into it over something like taking out the trash or sorting the compost; basically they had an argument over something mundane. To this day, I’ve never had the heart to ask what exactly they had quarreled over.

Mama Lindsay says the only reason she didn’t kill herself in those rough days that followed was because of me. She said I was her sole reason to live for almost two years after Mama Janie died. A few days later, Mama Lindsay sat me on her lap and we made a pinky promise to never let ourselves separate if we are angry at each other. I am proud to say we kept that promise all these years,

When I met her at the DECON station, I could tell she’d had a tough run. Half of her weapons were either missing from their sheathes, or visibly damaged. Her eyes had dark circles under them and her forehead had those two deep creases that it gets when she is either exhausted or pissed.

I took her field pack and we headed to the supply depot for groceries. At first, she didn’t say a word. Since she had called for me, I knew she would get to it when she was ready. Finally she just stopped walking and turned to look me in the eye.

“Are you leaving?”

When Mama Lindsay asked me that question, I guess I was shocked. More than that, I realized that I guess I’d known for a long time that anybody who knew me, or better yet, knew my birth mother, waited to see if I would leave on some crazy journey.

That is the price you pay when your birth mother is famous for being a Traveller. By the way, that’s as close to an insult here as you can get. Here in the Rose Colony, a ‘Traveller’ is somebody who refuses to be a part of the community.

In the world we live in, not being a part of a community carries the same stigma as the Old World welfare whore. I learned in one of my history classes that there was a small sub-culture of women who had babies, lots of times by different men, and lived off of checks they got from the government. I came home from school with a lot of questions that day.

The problem with Travellers is that they don’t even try to help anybody but themselves. They scavenge the Old World and sell anything worthwhile to the highest bidder. Sure, they risk their lives—not many Travellers live past twenty-five according to the statistics—and usually have some amazing artifacts to show for it, but it all self-centered.

It hurt me a little that, after all these years, Mama Lindsay could think I would do anything like that. I was raised to be a part of the community effort. I can’t really remember much about Mama Janie, but the images I do have are one of a person who always helped others and worked very hard. I have one clear memory about how when she would come in from the fields, she would always have something from the garden hidden in one of her pockets for me to find when I helped take them for washing.

It is sad that I know more about the father who died before I was born and the mother who abandoned me than I do about a woman who loved me, told me bedtime stories, and taught me to read and write.

Seeing how worried Mama Lindsay was at that moment made it that much more nerve-wracking about what I had to say. When the words came out of my mouth, I was not sure how she would react.

“I want to join the Escort and Expedition Force.”

Mama Lindsay has been the commander of the EEF for three years. I still remember how proud I was the day that the colony president handed her the sword and crossbow. I knew on that day that I wanted to follow in her footsteps. I also knew that she wanted me to choose a safer profession.

I honestly believe that one of her biggest concerns over me was that I would get outside the walls and feel drawn to explore the world. After all, it is what made my birth mother famous.

That brings me to my birth mother. Meredith Gainey. She and my birth father, Samuel Todd, have the three best selling books of all time in the ZE (Zombie Era). You might think it is neat to be the daughter of two celebrities.

No. It’s not.

You see, there are a few different sorts when it comes to people and my parents. With Sam, it goes one of two ways; there are the creepy ones who see my father as some sort of demi-god, they get all weird when they meet me and it is actually kinda scary. And then there are the ones who have basically memorized his writings and feel the need to tell me about how “deep and philosophical” my father was as a writer.

The reactions about my mother are, shall we say, a bit different. There are some who see her as this avenging warrior. Her battle with The Genesis Brotherhood is a very popular story. There are some who see her as one of the early pioneers who blazed some sort of trail. There are others who see her as a selfish woman who stands as a reminder for a lot of what was wrong with the pre-ZE society.

I just see her as the person who abandoned me right after I was born. Don’t get me wrong, I am thankful. I had two amazing mothers who loved me and devoted their lives to making me a good person.

I can still see the look on Mama Lindsay’s face. All of that relief that came first…then the typical “motherly” concern. No, her baby was not going to follow in her birth-mother’s footsteps. Yay! Instead, she was choosing the most dangerous profession in the colony. Crap.

Saturday, June 2nd

Jenifer came over today. I guess Mama Lindsay told her about my decision. Jenifer travelled with Meredith for quite a while. She got burned up real bad during the battle with The Genesis Brotherhood.

I guess it is okay to call her “Jenifer” in my journal. Everybody else calls her “Madame President.”

She wanted to congratulate me on my decision to join the EEF. By the big deal she made of it, I could tell she was enjoying Mama Lindsay’s annoyance.

Jenifer used to be the person Mama Janie and Mama Lindsay called when they needed somebody to watch me. I guess they went through a few sitters when I was two or three because I was “a hellion” according to the stories. In an act of desperation, they called Jenifer. I guess they thought a half-burnt young woman with most of her head unable to grow hair because of all of the scars, coupled with her shriveled raisin of a left eye, would scare me straight. Instead, it seems that I formed quite a bond with her.

I was with ‘Aunt’ Jeni when I killed my first zombie. We were out picking wild blueberries when one came out of the tall grass. Creepers are the worst. Missing their lower half, they get through the picket lines more often than a walker. This one had an even bigger advantage: it was a child.

He couldn’t have been any older than six—my age at the time. His clothing had long since deteriorated, and the years had taken their toll on the belly of the wretched thing.

I remember every detail about that boy. The way you could tell his hair had been curly, even though it was so caked and matted with filth, the piece of bone that stuck out from what remained of the left leg—which was missing from just above the knee. The fact that the entire right leg stayed intact and still had a leather boot practically grafted to the foot.

Jenifer gave me a spear and told me it was time that I learned how to put one down. I thought it would be easy. You hear about it or read my birth parent’s journals and think there is nothing to it. Pop it in the head and it’s done.

It took me three tries. The first time, I jabbed and my spear scraped down one side of its face. The second time, I stabbed it through the neck. I got so mad that I kicked it onto its back and stabbed it through the eye.

I remember staring at it for what felt like just a few seconds, but it was noticeably darker when Jenifer took my hand and led me home. I must have counted each of the nine remaining ribs a couple hundred times.

Anyways, it was sweet of Jenifer to come over and wish me luck. I am pretty sure she doesn’t do that for every single person who enlists in the EEF.

Sunday, June 3rd

My last day as a civilian—so to speak. I met with a few of my friends. (It is a bit creepy with how many ‘Sams’ and ‘Merediths’ I know.) We all went out to the corridor with crossbows, sat up on the barricades, and passed around a bottle of homemade blackberry wine while we took turns dropping shamblers with the crossbow.

The parents all hate it when we do it, but kids have been doing this for years. It is some sort of ritual. Nobody knows who started it, but for some reason, if you join the EEF, you come out here on the last day. You and a few friends drink a bottle and shoot the crossbow. The winner is the person who loses the fewest bolts. I remember something in my mom’s journal about her crossbow being fitted with the retriever reel. Of course, that is standard issue now. Nobody has bolts to waste.

I do have a guy that I like…but we already talked it over and decided that we will hold off getting serious until I finish my first tour. We almost ‘did the deed’ a few nights ago, but he was super sweet and it was actually Tim who put a halt to things.

That brings me to my sweetie, Tim Coatney. He was one of the kids rescued from that mansion where The Genesis Brotherhood had their base. He works the farms and is a very BIG boy. He has this baby fine blonde hair that I love to run my fingers through and arms that make the world disappear. I know that I am going to miss him, and I know that it is possible that some other girl will scoop him up when I leave on my first run.

As I lie in bed with my candle and this silly little book, I wonder if I will be able to keep it up. I actually lost it today…it was in the dining hall at the table where I ate breakfast. I am already wondering how my birth parents carried those damn things through all the crap they went through.