Scott Sigler: Five Things I Learned Writing The Infected Series

To some, Doctor Margaret Montoya is a hero — a brilliant scientist who saved the human race from an alien intelligence determined to exterminate all of humanity. To others, she’s a monster — a mass murderer single-handedly responsible for the worst atrocity ever to take place on American soil. 

All Margaret knows is that she’s broken. The blood of a million deaths is on her hands. Guilt and nightmares have made her a shut-in, too mired in self-hatred even to salvage her marriage, let alone be the warrior she once was.

But she is about to be called into action again. Because before the murderous intelligence was destroyed, it launched one last payload — a soda can–sized container filled with deadly microorganisms that make humans feed upon their own kind. 

That harmless-looking container has languished a thousand feet below the surface of Lake Michigan, undisturbed and impotent . . . until now.

Part Cthulhu epic, part zombie apocalypse and part blockbuster alien-invasion tale, PANDEMIC completes the INFECTED Trilogy and sets a new high-water mark in the world of horror fiction.

DESTROYING THE WORLD IS HARDER THAN IT LOOKS.

Well, that’s not entirely accurate: destroying the world and returning it to relative normality is harder than it looks. If you want to lay waste to the planet and sweep civilization under the rug, then tell your tale about roads and/or passages and/or stands, that’s one kind of story. You blow things the fuck up, you show characters trying to get by in a post-apocalyptic world, someone finds a bottle in the ruins (because there’s always a bottle), and life moves on. Another kind of story is showing the world on the brink of collapse just before the demure heroine (who is also a sixth-degree black belt that can knock-out the eff out of heavyweight boxers) snips the blue wire and the countdown clock stops at 0:01. And yet another kind of story shows that same clock hit 0:00 and everything goes to hell, but in a way that the civilization could rebound.

Sadly for me, I chose the latter. Probably because I like to hurt myself.

All of my books are in the same interlinked timeline, a thing known as the “Siglerverse.” My next  modern-day book will take place in that same timeline; if I end the world with a cataclysm from which there is no return, then my following books are going to a look at lot like the TV show REVOLUTION or “The Change” series by Steven Boyett. To keep telling stories that are largely about people like us in a world like ours, I had to bring things back to normal. That meant I needed to end PANDEMIC in a way that gives the reader the thrill of the disaster, yet structure that ending so that humanity could rebuild.

And doing that is some tricky business. Far trickier than I thought it would be.

To accomplish that goal, I used a combination of real-world calamities that civilization has already survived. In PANDEMIC, the nukes don’t just serve as a ticking-clock accessory, they go off. A titular “pandemic?” It doesn’t stay in the BSL-4 lab, it gets out for a nice walk around the block. Slavering hordes spreading through major cities and the countryside as well? Got that, too. To use these storytelling tools and set the world up for a logical recovery took a lot of help from my scientific and military consultants.

REAL SCIENCE IS GODDAMN TERRIFYING.

The supernatural is some spooky shit. For sure. Know what else is spooky? Real life, particularly when you get down to the cellular level.

The entire INFECTED series is based on an intelligent pathogen, a disease that can re-program your body to make new parts. These parts assemble into microorganisms that tap into your bloodstream, harvesting nutrients in order to grow larger. The little boogers also tap into your nervous system: eventually, they send tendrils into your brain and can read your memories as if you were their own walking Wikipedia. And, of course, they can talk to you by hacking directly into your vestibulocochlear nerve (that’s a big word for me, but I’ll balance the scale by using a crass fecal euphamism somewhere below). Why would these creatures want to talk to you? So they can tell you that you need to kill people. Duh. Honestly, reader, sometimes your questions exasperate me.

Writing this series involved some hardcore research into biotech, epidemiology, genetic engineering, neutrotranmitters (and the results of massive neurotransmitter overdoses), biologically hacking the cellular reproductive process, “cellular suicide” and — the spookiest thing of all — the ability of parasites to manipulate their hosts so efficiently that most people would describe it as “mind control.”

Almost everything in the INFECTED series scares the big brown (euphamism score!) out of me because most everything is real. I mix things up and combine things in different ways, but almost every element of the biology in this series is not only possible, it actually happens in nature. Writing with real science is difficult and puts major constraints on your storytelling freedom, but if you pull it off it creates a different brand of chill. Well-done vampires terrify me, and you’ll be hard pressed to get me to watch a possession movie. Those thigns are their own flavor of fear and they affect me in different ways. Hard science is yet another flavor, and I learned that — for me — it is the scariest flavor of the lot.

DEVELOPING AN HONEST RELATIONSHIP WITH YOUR EDITOR PAYS OFF.

I am difficult to work with. Now, I can give you the reasons why (such as I want the product to be as close to perfect as it can be, and that I consider the time and the money of my readers to be sacred and that to waste those irreplaceable resources with lazy storytelling is an unforgivable sin), but the end result is that — when it comes to telling a story — if I think I’m right and you don’t, then you’ve got a fight on your hands.

I am one of the lucky few in this business who has had the same editor for my first five books. “Tha Shiv,” as I call him, was instrumental in me landing my deal with Crown in the first place, and has been there for every book I’ve done for that company. But sometimes? That cheeky bastard has the audacity to ask me to change things, or even — and I’m not making this up, here — to cut things. The gall. It’s shocking.

He and I rarely see eye to eye, but he wants the same thing I want: to make the best product possible. He’ll fight for what he thinks is right, same as I will.

In our first book together, INFECTED, I worked hard to create an honest relationship. I’m a bull in a china shop, true, but I am also open to hearing any and all ideas; I couldn’t have him beating around the bush with an idea or trying to phrase things in a non-confrontational way. I’m not a delicate flower and I don’t need kid gloves. The fastest way to say something to me is to just say it. The fastest way to call bullshit on me is to just call it. Getting him to understand that took some doing (he’s extremely polite), but eventually I convinced him that, when in Rome, you spit and scratch and curse like the Romans do.

And boy-howdy, did that pay off.

Without a doubt, Tha Shiv’s help with NOCTURNAL (2012) made it the tightest, strongest book I’d written to date. He then forced me to up my game by giving me honest (read also: “brutal”) feedback on the first draft of PANDEIMC. We got into it. There were mean words. There would have been a knife-fight, but he’s in New York and I’m in San Francisco. Once again, the Rockies save lives.

Maybe Tha Shiv doesn’t work that way with his other authors (I often envision him sitting with the Ivory Tower sort, pinkie extended, sipping tea and speaking eloquently about how to adjust a novel’s neoclassical subtext), but a street fight the formula I need to understand the difference between him just making a suggestion and him digging in his heels.

You never know if you’ll get the same editor, but every time you start with a new one it’s best to clearly establish your communication style. If you need those kid gloves, that’s fine, just say so right away. If you want your editor to call you a motherfucker when you’re being a motherfucker, come out and say that, too. Because this business isn’t about feelings or pride or ego, it isn’t about the editor, and it isn’t about you — it’s about the story. Whatever tool you need to get the story right, that’s the right tool.

OUTLINES BREAK.

I think this is a T-shirt opportunity that only writers could understand: the penmonkey’s version of “shit happens.”

When I started writing PANDEMIC, I created an outline so detailed it could have doubled as relaxing sleep aid for the mega-OCD. It had everything, I tell you, all lined up in nice little rows. I shared the outline with Tha Shiv: he agreed, it was a work of perfection unto itself.

Then, I started writing the first draft. Shit broke.

I should have known that was coming. Every outline I’ve ever done has collapsed under the weight of research-based facts, characters turning into real people and making their own decisions, and/or from hidden plot holes that pop up and kick you in the ass when your back is turned. It happens.

So, I already knew that outlines break. But with PANDEMIC, I put weeks into the outline and thought I had that puppy whipped — I had it that time. Right? Right? Wrong-o, fish-breath.

What I learned from PANDEMIC was outlines always break, even the bestest ones ever. You can get mad and stomp around all you like (which I do quite a lot), but that doesn’t fix anything. Take a step back, re-tool the outline to accommodate the changes, and continue to use it as the framework that guides your story.

YOUR BRAIN IS CONNECTED TO YOUR BODY.

Okay, maybe you knew that one. Or did you … ?

I’m getting older. You are, too. Deny it all you want, whippersnapper. My job involves me sitting in a chair for ten to twelve hours a day (more like fourteen to eighteen when I’m in danger of letting a deadline slip). This is not conducive to a healthy lifestyle. What did PANDEMIC teach me? That getting in better shape makes you a better writer.

During the first-draft process, I started stretching every morning. No big deal, just four minutes and forty-five seconds as soon as I get up. That time happens to be the length of NPR.org’s hourly newscast. Hit “play,” start stretching, when it stops, you stop (more on my fast-and-simple stretching routine at this link: http://scottsigler.com/new-years-writing-resolutions/).

I found a lot of the pain in my lower back eased off. More importantly, my hunched-up-shoulders (because I write with the posture of a cackling mad scientist) have relaxed immensely. Less back pain, less shoulder pain and tension, less neck stiffness. I didn’t know it, but all of these things were affecting my writing by leaching concentration and by making my time in the chair miserable. Now I hurt less, and, as a result, I write better.

During the second draft, I up-leveled by going to the gym. I know this is a luxury and not everyone has the schedule flexibility, but as part of my job — I repeat, as part of my job — I get up, stretch, hit the treadmill for thirty minutes and then lift for thirty minutes.

I won’t be trying out for the Olympics anytime soon, but I feel better and I retain my concentration for longer. I have less mid-day fatigue. I’m just flat-out sharper when it comes to the writin’. You only have so many hours of writing available to you each week: making those hours as productive and efficient as possible makes your work better.

PANDEMIC is the final book of the INFECTED trilogy, and is out Jan 21 from Crown Publishing. 

Scott Sigler: Website | Twitter 

Pandemic: Trailer | Amazon | B&N | Indiebound

9 comments

  • This line, really made me laugh: “I write with the posture of a cackling mad scientist.” That’s my writing stance too. As well as the gym, sitting on a Swiss ball helps – phnark. (Google it).

    Cheers

    MTM

  • I really enjoyed reading this. Informative, funny and very helpful. I am writing my first novel (science fiction) and it is so encouraging to know that the phenomenon of outlines breaking is the norm rather than the exception! It is also good to know that it’s okay for the science stuff in the novel to reflect real life. In my outline I came up with some really crazy ideas only to find out as I did research that many of those ‘crazy ideas’ have actually happened in real life in one form or another! Thank you so much for sharing your writing process. Pandemic sounds like just the kind of book I would thoroughly enjoy reading!

  • Outlines and bodies break.
    I sit for my job as well, but what has changed my life is a ‘standing desk’. I have a high, bar size chair, so I can sit or stand and do so intermittently and it has helped me tons. There are tons of expensive options, but DIY is the way to go. I got a huge IKEA table with legs that expand to 45 inches or so.

  • You! You sir, terrified the piss out of me with the cover of infected, it gave me nightmares. Then I read the book…
    Now you’re here giving great advice annnnnnd I’m going to have to face the fear and finish the triology and learn. Boy will I learn.

  • Thank you for this honest, common-sense and realistic description of what a top writer goes through. This thoroughly describes the necessary dedication it takes. All beginning writers should take note.

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