Long-time visitors will notice that a lot has changed around here. I’ve completely rebuilt the site to be easier to use and to provide more information for those wishing to learn about my books. In addition the site allows me to blog some of my thoughts about my books and about the craft of writing. Check back often for new info!
“Calling Space Mummy… Space Mummy come in… the galaxy needs your aid once more… calling Space Mummy… Space Mummy come in…”
The signal rushed across the ether, bouncing off pulsars and rocketing past blue giant stars. The call that could not be ignored, the call for help!
When Space Mummy first heard it, he was wrestling with kelnars on a planet circling the star Arcturus. The kelnars were beasts, savage animals that were half lion, half insect, and all fury. Two of them had their massive jawparts clamped around either of Space Mummy’s arms while a third writhed on the ground under Space Mummy’s massive, bandaged heel.
At the sound of the call Space Mummy burst into action. He shook the two kelnars off his arms and kicked the other into a crater. “Sorry, pals,” he said. “I’m needed elsewhere!” With a great bound he leapt across the crumbling soil of Arcturus IV, back to where his starship, the Astro-Obelisk, stood straight and tall a thousand feet above the beast world’s plain. In the low gravity of that deadly world he jumped up into the ship’s airlock, a round door cunningly worked into one of the countless giant hieroglyphs decorating the Astro-Obelisk’s surface.
He hurried to the engine room, where his chief engineer was already warming up the ecto-reactor. “Beat Bones,” Space Mummy called out, lustily. “You know our next destination?”
The engineer was a human skeleton dressed in a black turtleneck and a matching beret. No one could work the reactor better, because Beat Bones had built it himself. “It’s a stone groove, Daddio,” the beatnik mechanic claimed. “We’ll blow this pop stand before you reach the control room!”
Space Mummy laughed and looked up at the tall ecto-reactor, which resembled a giant hourglass filled with the wailing spirits of the dead. Not for the first time, he wished there was some better way to propel a starship than by torturing the damned. Space Mummy was a man of great compassion. But the galaxy made its demands—what could he do but acquiesce? He climbed a long ladder toward the pyramidal control room at the top of the Astro-Obelisk. When he arrived Miss Death, his factotum and first mate, was already laying in coordinates.
She was wearing a black Chanel dress and a brooch in the shape of the wadjet, the Eye of Horus. Space Mummy took a moment to enjoy the way the colored lights of the control board flashed off her bare skull. He was secretly in love with Miss Death, though he assumed she was beyond all mortal concerns and would never return his affections. “You heard the call?” he asked. Then he grabbed for the side of his chair as the room shook wildly—the Astro-Obelisk was blasting off in a great welter of screaming ectoplasm!
“I have it up on the main screen,” Miss Death said, her eye sockets burning with white fire. One triangular wall of the control room lit up with the jackal face of General Anubis, dressed in his customary paratrooper’s uniform, complete with a bright red ascot and aviator sunglasses. The only being in the stars who could order Space Mummy around!
“You’re needed on Planet 13,” Anubis barked. “The King there has gone mad with power. Great injustices may be committed at any moment!”
“Understood,” Space Mummy said. “Miss Death—how long to Planet 13?”
“Traveling at just below the speed of light, the fastest speed allowed by the laws of Physics,” she said, running the calculation on her own, smaller screen, “about twenty-four years.”
“A blink of the cosmic eye,” Space Mummy said. “General Anubis—I’m on it!”
Planet 13 had been a lovely place, once, a paradise of forests full of tall trees and placid lakes. Now it was a hellscape of massive factories belching filth into the sky and endless concrete parking lots, despite the fact that none of the workers could afford to buy cars! The King of Planet 13, Viktor Markoz, had transformed the place in just a few short decades. He’d done it on the backs of his poor subjects, worked till they collapsed by a corrupt and decadent military caste.
“Ha ha!” they would laugh, as their leatheroid whips cracked across the spines of the workers. “Ha ha!” Propaganda posters of the King’s face hung from every building in the capital city, called Markoz after its master. Massive statues of the man stood in every plaza. Try as hard as they might, the sculptors never managed to portray their King with anything but a nasty sneer on his face. Maybe it was the result of the old dueling scar that ran from his chin to his temple, costing him the use of one eye. Or maybe it was the darkness that squirmed inside his evil heart.
“There,” he said, standing on the balcony of his palace, a fifty-story skyscraper in the middle of the city. He peered with his remaining eye through a spyglass and pointed at a polluted lake some miles away. “I own that!” He spun the spyglass around so he could see a strip-mine where once a rolling meadow had been. “No more wildflowers, not when I need iron for my weapons of war!”
His audience was the young Prince Kurt, his only child and heir. “Yes, father,” the Prince said, though not without a heavy sigh. Prince Kurt did not love evil, no matter how much he wished to please his—frankly insane—father.
“Do you see that massive prison?” the King demanded, pointing out across the blighted landscape. “Is that mine? Is it? It is! Ha ha!” he laughed, a laugh that echoed the brutal sadism of his evil soldiers. “And that—that—there…” his gloating drew to a sputtering stop. “What is that? Do I own it?”
Prince Kurt rushed over to the spyglass, though in fact he didn’t need it. A massive building stood on the far side of the central square, directly across from the skyscraper palace. It looked nothing like the other buildings—it was not stained with years of soot, nor was it covered in unnecessary spikes and gargoyles and leering bas reliefs of the face of Viktor Markoz. Instead it was a graceful square column, tapering gently to a pyramidal tip. Its surface was elegantly carved with ancient pictograms. “Why, father,” Prince Kurt said, in wonderment, “I believe that’s—I mean it kind of looks like, that is to say it’s—”
“SPACE MUMMY!” the King of Planet 13 screeched. “He’s here!”
Space Mummy had dressed for battle, in a kilt of hammered copper and a golden nemes headdress, the gear of an ancient Egyptian warrior pharaoh. He leapt down to the streets of Markoz City and just as he’d expected—and secretly hoped—was met by a welcoming committee. In this case, a cadre of huge goons wielding leatheroid whips! But these whips were even worse than the ones the soldiers used on the workers. These were electrified.
“Ha ha,” the soldiers laughed, and their whips sang a crackling symphony of pain.
Space Mummy wasted no time. He never did. He grabbed one of the whips even as it sailed toward his face. Yanking on it, hard, he lifted a soldier off the ground and spun him around like a wicked bola, knocking down all the rest of the soldiers one by one.
Next came machine gunners on motorcycles, with sidecars that also carried machine gunners. Space Mummy guffawed as the bullets tore through his bandages. They could not harm a man who had been properly mummified in the ancient Egyptian tradition! As the motorcycles roared ever closer he brought his hands together and whispered the ancient incantation. “By the names of Osiris and Isis, I AM POWER INCARNATE!” Then he slapped his hands together so hard the resulting shockwave sent the motorcycles spinning end over end into the air.
A walking tank came toward him, a colossus of armor in the shape of a man with a massive gun sticking out of his midriff. The gun whined as it charged up for a devastating powershot. But Space Mummy was ready. “Horus Punch,” he shouted, as he dashed forward, one fist curving around to land a thundering blow right in the solar plexus of the walking tank.
When the dust cleared the walking tank’s gun was bent at a comical angle. The big machine tottered on its metal feet and then fell backwards with a great clang.
A final foe moved to stand before Space Mummy. It was not a division of crack troops, nor an aerial bombardment by space planes. Instead it was a single soldier, a young man who had tried and failed to grow a goatee. He shook visibly in his patent leather boots and it looked like he might drop his saber at any moment. But he raised one finger and jabbed it in Space Mummy’s direction.
“You will not get past me,” the young man said. “Oh, you may have defeated all our other defenses handily. Oh, your strength may be immeasurable. And I must admit your cause is just. King Viktor Markoz is a dictator, an evil man. He does not deserve to rule Planet 13. Yet even saying as much—there is a question here, a question of planetary sovereignty, that must be addressed. What right do you have to come here and attack our King Viktor Markoz? What authority does General Anubis possess to send you around the galaxy, toppling governments and fighting cosmic horrors? What kind of freedom do you represent, if the people of a given planet cannot choose their own destiny? Even if they choose wrong, even if they make poor choices, that is their right. And so I will stand before you, alone and afraid. I will stand up to the greatest bully of all—yes! For that is what I name you, Space Mummy. That is what I—”
“Apep strike,” Space Mummy said, and delivered a single karate chop that knocked the young man’s head right off his shoulders.
Space Mummy looked around the square. “Next?” he called.
But there were no defenders left. Planet 13 was defenseless!
Space Mummy focused his ka energy and hurled himself toward the skyscraper palace across the square. He didn’t even slow down as he jumped on the head of a giant bronze statue of King Viktor Markoz, denting it badly.
“So-called King,” he sang out, “prepare to be judged in the halls of the dead, where if your heart is found to be heavier than a single feather—”
“One moment,” a voice called out, echoing around the square. It came from a giant loudspeaker mounted on the front of the skyscraper palace. “One moment please, Space Mummy. I can see that you are preparing your famous Desert Oasis Burst, also known as the Attack of One Thousand Staggering Punches. I have heard stories of your great strength. I am sure it would level this entire building.”
“I possess the futuristic technology that built the pyramids!” Space Mummy called out. “I have studied the mind and body techniques of the ancient pharaohs, which have made me an unstoppable hero!”
“Unstoppable?” the voice from the loudspeaker asked. “Or perhaps… not?”
Space Mummy stopped in mid-air and just hung there, waiting to hear what the King of Planet 13 would say.
“I know you fight always for… gah, freedom,” the King announced, the word seeming to stick in his throat. “I know you are worshipped as a god on many worlds. But I know you would also never hurt an innocent.”
King Viktor Markoz stepped out onto his balcony. He was in full uniform, with a half-cape and a saber at his side. He held the hand of a small boy.
“If you attack this building, you will kill me, yes, but you will also kill Prince Kurt. Who, despite all my attempts at indoctrination, still possesses the clean, pure heart of a child.”
Space Mummy dropped lightly to the ground. He could see it was true.
“We have come, I think, to an impasse,” King Viktor Markoz said. “You cannot kill me. I cannot destroy you.”
Space Mummy lowered his bandaged head, his hands balling into fists at his sides. “You’re forgetting one thing, though,” he said.
“You forget that I possess the greatest weapon the cosmos has ever known,” Space Mummy insisted. “Time.”
He snapped his massive fingers. An airlock opened on the front of the Astro-Obelisk. Two members of Space Mummy’s skeleton crew emerged, bearing a solid gold sarcophagus, worked elegantly in the ancient Egyptian style. Space mummy pointed at the center of the square, at a spot directly below the dented statue.
“Wait,” King Viktor Markoz said. “Hold on. What are you doing?”
The skeleton crew sang prayers to Ra as Space Mummy opened the lid of the sarcophagus. It was no simple casket, but a weapon capable of wreaking untold devestation. Space Mummy climbed inside, adjusted the pillow under his head, and called out to his bony crewmen. “Close it up, boys,” he said.
“No! You cannot! I won’t—”
The King of Planet 13’s voice was first muffled, then silenced as the lid of the sarcophagus closed over Space Mummy’s bandaged face. Space Mummy adjusted the sarcophagus’ controls, setting the Master Dial for seventy-five years.
“Now,” he whispered, as he sank into the Sleep of Pharaohs, “we play… the waiting game.”
Seventy-five years later Space Mummy opened his eyes. It would have been impossible for anyone to know that, since his eyes were covered by rich linen bandages, and anyway, he was still in the sarcophagus. He yawned and stretched a little, then punched upward and sent the lid of the sarcophagus flying across the square.
He emerged into a Planet 13 changed beyond recognition. The city square now was a lush park full of medium-sized trees. Children laughed and played in a broad public fountain. The statue of King Viktor Markoz had disappeared, replaced by a monument to the hard-working people of Freedom City.
Space Mummy laughed as he looked around. He reached down one massive hand and took the hand of a little girl who smiled up at him with joy. “It’s Space Mummy,” she said. “Everyone! It’s Space Mummy!”
It wasn’t long before Space Mummy was joined by a young woman in robes of pure samite, with a slender diadem of silver on her brow. She smiled warmly and gave Space Mummy a polite bow. “I am Queen Vladina,” she said. “The benevolent ruler of Planet 13. It is good to look upon your countenance, Space Mummy.”
“What of King Viktor Markoz?” Space Mummy asked. “What came of him?”
“He died a few years after you entered your weaponized slumber. I believe he slipped and accidentally fell fifty stories off his balcony. Onto a terrorist bomb, which was buried under a pile of cavalry sabers. Which had been poisoned. It was a fitting end to such a horrible man.”
“And he was replaced by King Kurt, then?” Space Mummy asked.
“Briefly. Kurt turned out to be a weak and ineffectual leader, who was quickly ousted by a military coup. Which was in turn overthrown by a popular revolt by the Committee for Public Safety. Which grew corrupt and decadent and was then voted out of power by a coalition of workers. Who finally elected me their supreme queen. Planet 13 has entered a golden age under my rule, because there is no evil or greed in my pure soul.”
“I can see it in your eyes,” Space Mummy said. He considered leaning forward and kissing Queen Vladina, but then he remembered Miss Death, and the desperate longing he felt for her, always. “Freedom has come to your planet! As is true everywhere, people long to be free. They crave it. Most likely they were inspired by the sight of my sarcophagus where it lay here, in the central square, for seven and one half decades. No doubt every time they passed by my visage they were reminded of what they truly wanted, a just and fair society. I imagine they must have spent their whole lives dreaming of that which I represent. A free and happy galaxy.”
Queen Vladina blinked several times. She coughed into her hand, delicately. Then she swallowed and nodded.
“Yes,” she said. “It must have been so.”
The Astro-Obelisk raced across the spaceways again, pushing the speed of light as it blasted a path through the red clouds of the Crab Nebula. In the control room, Space Mummy and Miss Death sat on comfortable stools, sipping cocktails. Neither of them were capable of consuming liquids, of course, so their martini glasses were full of ectoplasm, the same raw stuff of dead souls that powered the ship’s engines. As Space Mummy lifted his glass to the light he could see a face in there, wracked with torment.
If only, he thought, there was a better way to make a Sloe Ghost Fizz. A way to make one without suffering. Well, what could be done?
“Time,” Space Mummy mused, “will murder all tyrants.”
“I’ll drink to that,” Miss Death said. The white flames that burned inside her eyesockets studied Space Mummy, his noble profile, his massive chest. If only he knew, she thought, how she longed for him, how she dreamed every night of her bones being crushed in his massive arms. Yet, it was impossible. She was one of Space Mummy’s skeleton crew. He would never fraternize with one of his staff—it was unthinkable.
“Have we received new orders from General Anubis?” Space Mummy asked, touching his glass to the bandages that covered his lips.
“Not yet,” Miss Death said. “Though I doubt things will stay quiet for long. Not in a galaxy like this!”
The two of them laughed, long and hard. But unbeknownst to them, the signal was already rocketing its way toward them.
“Calling Space Mummy… Space Mummy, come in… the galaxy has need of you once more…”
I want to share a story about one of my failures as a writer.
I intended, once, to write a short story about a woman working in an organ farm. A place where brainless clone bodies are grown in vats, so that their organs can be harvested to save the lives of people waiting for transplants. One of the clone bodies starts kicking the side of the vat, and the woman freaks out. It turns out that it’s just a loose wire–easily fixed–and the body goes on to save dozens of lives.
I thought it was a good, creepy image that I could turn into an unsettling little story. Then I actually tried to write it.
I realized after the first draft that the message of the story was very clear: it’s wrong to grow clone bodies in vats, even if it saves lives. It doesn’t matter why you do it, it’s terrible and awful and disgusting. There’s only one problem. I don’t think that. I honestly believe that cloning is going to lead to enormous advances in medical science. I’ve known people who needed transplant organs and couldn’t get them. They died, horribly.
I tried writing a second draft, changing some details. I added a scientist who comes in and gives a speech about how the clones could save lives. I added a coda where a little girl gets a new kidney and gets to see her tenth birthday.
The story, with the clone kicking the side of the tank, was still awful and nasty. The message was still clear.
A third draft didn’t help at all. The clone kicked the tank. Rhythmically. Mechanically. Like a robot. I couldn’t shake the fact that this little gesture, this meaningless twitch, made the clone human. Made its existence an atrocity.
Okay, why am I dwelling on a story I eventually decided not to even finish? Because there’s a point here about theme.
Theme, what your story is “about”, may be the hardest part of writing. If you try to force it, you often come across as didactic or preachy. The usual advice is that you shouldn’t worry about it. Write the story you want to write, and theme will take care of itself. This is good advice ninety-nine times out of a hundred, and it’s how I usually operate.
At least… I did until I tried to write this story. Now I sit up nights worrying about theme all the time. Did any of my earlier books spread a message I personally disagree with? I’m not a huge fan of gun violence in real life, but I kind of fetishized Laura Caxton’s pistols, and the rocket launcher in Monster Island. By writing all those books about the end of the world, did I inspire people to think there is no future, that we don’t have to worry about climate change?
The unintended parable is one of the great risks a writer runs when they choose not to think about theme at all. I’m not saying you should write a book with the intention of sending a message–as well all know, that’s what Western Union is for. But maybe spare a thought, once you’ve finished your outlining, for what your story says. What it means.
You might save yourself a lot of regret later.
What’s the difference between a soap opera and a Greek tragedy? Both are fictional stories about the suffering of likeable, or at least attractive, heroes. There is an inevitability to their plots–they’re not necessarily formulaic, but everyone can pretty much see where things are headed. Neither of them promises nor delivers a happy ending.
Yet Greek tragedies are held up as being among the finest examples of literature. Soap operas are often derided as trash stories fit only for the most bored and jaded consumers.
I can tell you a soap opera is more dynamic and harder to write than a tragedy. They require bigger character ensembles, more modulation, better pacing. A tragedy is all about sustained affect, a car driving downhill as fast as it can. A soap opera is a rally race, where you need to plan for each stage, every sharp turn well in advance. So why do we roll our eyes when Laura goes into another coma, or Stavros burns down the children’s hospital… but applaud in respect when Oedipus realizes he’s married his mother and then stabs out his own eyes?
Both forms serve the same function: to make you feel pity. The downfall of the characters is unearned, or at least regrettable. The tone is somber, reflective, and bitter. Both forms rely heavily on mood and atmosphere. What separates them is focus.
The story of Oedipus is ridiculous and tawdry, but it’s one story. The play-goer or reader can’t get away from this one man’s journey. On the other hand a soap opera is crammed full of tales of woe. Every character has their own downward arc, and in the best soap operas no one story is valued more highly than any of the others.
When tragedy is singular, and rare, and highlighted, it feels real and strong and relatable. When tragedies are piled atop one another, they suffer from comparison to each other and they become melodrama. Another coma? Another burning hospital? Another husband hypnotized into sleeping with his wife’s younger sister? It becomes self-parodying, often farcical.
When you plot out your story you need to think about how the reader will react to each element, each beat. You need to know how far you can stretch their willingness to feel for your characters. Focusing in on a single character’s misfortune is a powerful tool. It’s tempting to give every side character and extra their own deep, sorrowful backstory, but all that does is dilute your protagonist’s suffering. If everyone is sad, no one’s sadness means anything. If one man is miserable while the world around him is singing in joy, the contrast alone is enough to make him sympathetic.
This isn’t to say that a character’s crisis has to be simple. Complications will arise from your inciting incident, the stakes will pile up, the plot will thicken. And it would be unrealistic to have everyone other than your main character be happy all the time. But focus in as best you can. Drill down on one person’s story at a time. The tighter, the more laser-like in intensity your plot becomes, the more powerful the drama.
Creating a rich and fascinating setting for your story is fun. It’s so much fun. And it can be rewarding, too. The more work you put into your setting, the more detail and depth, the more your book will come alive–if the backdrop seethes and breathes, your characters will feel more real, more anchored, and it’s also like you’re giving them another actor to play to. More business for them to do (“he picked an orange from the vendor’s cart and pressed it to his nose, inhaling the scent of far-off Valyria, while he ignored the viscount’s leading question”), more set-pieces to escape from, more, more, more.
And that’s the trap: too much setting. Setting requires a lot of research (or at least a lot of pondering) and when you learn something while writing a book, the temptation to tell your readers all about it can be overwhelming. You can spend whole chapters talking about the average humidity and rainfall that your Antarctic research station sees. Sometimes readers love this stuff, and eat it up with a spoon. Other times it takes them right out of the narrative. Your plot disappears and your book becomes about polar meteorology. Did you intend to write a book about polar meteorology? If not, well… now you are.
The other way too much setting can get in your way is with the tone of your piece. If your protagonist just lost their spouse, if their kids don’t love them, if they’re dying of some horrible disease… but they live in a land of sun and palm trees and scantily clad beach kids, well… the reader’s going to think maybe everything isn’t so bad, after all.
There is one great solution to both of these problems. Own them. If, during your research you discover a secret love for isobars and thermoclines and rain shadows, for the sake of all that’s holy: go ahead and write a book about polar meteorology! It’s probably a niche book, but who knows? If you can make it compelling, go forth and prosper. If your setting is at odds with your tone–make a point of that! Use it. Use the crash of the sundappled waves to let your character meditate on deep time, on the size of life. Or make them even more miserable because everyone around them is so happy.
There’s a big secret here, one you should have learned in Creative Writing 101, but probably didn’t. Stories change as we write them. The stories we want to tell change. But you should always stay in control. Know what kind of story you want to write, know what it says. Know that you want it to say that. Be ready to change everything on a moment’s notice–but always make changes you want to make.
What’s most important in your story? The plot? The characters (99% of the time, it’s one of these two)? Then setting should exist only and entirely in service to your plot or your characters. There’s an easy rule for this. Ask yourself, before you start to write, whether your story could take place somewhere else. Whether it would work just as well in Kansas. Or the third planet of Altair. Or under the sea. If so, then your setting isn’t necessary. It’s just there for color and flavor. Those are important things, but they’re not super important, and so your setting can be chopped up, mutilated, or safely ignored as you choose.
Was your answer no? Can your story only take place in one particular setting? Would it seem impossible someplace else? Is this literally the only place in the universe this story could happen? Then suddenly setting is super important. Still–you want to work with it. Not in it. Never, ever let it become more important than the people who inhabit it.
Setting is seductive. It’s incredibly dangerous. Don’t let it take over your story–instead, make it work for you.
Pacing might be the most important skill a writer can develop. Pacing is the tempo of your story, the sense of time passing, the sense of things happening in a smooth, organic order. Pacing is everything.
Pacing is crucial to plot. It’s how you build suspense–how you make your reader care about what happens, and how you get them to hang on every cliff with you. It’s how you make it feel like your characters earned their victories and how they climb back from failure, one painful inch at a time.
Pacing is crucial to characterization. A protagonist’s arc is entirely dependent on pacing. Go too fast and it feels like they couldn’t possibly have learned all those life lessons overnight. Go too slow and it feels like they’re spinning their wheels, willfully refusing to learn anything.
You keep the reader turning pages with pacing. Your ending only feels satisfying if the pacing was right. So how do you master this vital skill?
Well, there’s good news and bad news. The bad first: there’s no good formula for it. Ignore all the books about screenwriting that tell you what beat should happen at what minute of the movie. That only gets you so far. You need to get a feel for pacing, an intuitive sense of when to speed up and when to slow down. It take practice, and patience, and trial and error. I’ve always said the best way to learn how to write a good book is to write ten bad ones, and this is exactly what I was talking about. Good pacing comes from experience.
But I promised you good news, too. And for once I’m going to admit, there are two easy tricks that can really help with your pacing, and make your story a dozen times better, like, instantly.
The first is modulation. I see this going wrong all the time in bad books, and I feel it’s something that every writer should learn on day one. It’s super easy. Just never do the same thing twice.
If you have a scene (or a section, or a paragraph, depending on your form) of heavy action, the very next scene should be slow, quiet, and personal. Maybe the protagonist needs to go home and lick their wounds and talk to their besty on the phone. Slow it way down. Conversely, after a long scene of dialogue–do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars. Have something big and dramatic happen. Or give us a lush, stylistically beautiful scene of setting description, with no spoken words at all.
This gives your reader a chance to switch gears. Time to synthesize what they’ve learned. To catch their breath after the big gasp moment. It makes them feel like time has passed, even if plot-wise both scenes happen simultaneously. The tension drops, or mounts, at just the right time.
The corollary to this, though, is you can never let any element of your story disappear for too long. I’m sure you’ve read a story where the character opens the safe and finds a ticking time bomb… and then we cut to three scenes of the scientist talking to the president about string theory. What the hell happened with the bomb? Your readers will wonder if it blew up off screen. They’ll feel like you’re pulling a fast one on them, which breaks them right out of the story. No, modulation means creating a rhythm. It means alternating between two stories at once, maybe one quiet and personal, one loud and world-changing. Bad news again: even modulation, simple as it is, takes some skill and some finesse.
I promised a second trick, and it’s one it took me years to learn. When in doubt about pacing, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the answer is to slow things down.
It’s understandable. You want to get to the good stuff, right? You’ve got this amazing story to tell, you want to gallop right to the finish line and not look back. Which is good, it’s great that you’re so excited about what’s going to happen. But if you move too fast, your story will feel cheap. A book should never feel like just a bulleted list of events. This happened, then this, and then we learned that, which made the hero do this… you might as well be writing instructions on how to put together an Ikea bookcase.
If your plot feels mechanical and rote, like the characters are just going through the motions… or conversely, if your characters feel limp, like they’re too generic to actually have a sense of personality–pump the brakes. Take time to take stock, to explore the world you’ve created, a little. Let life flow into the story. Let it unfold naturally, and at its own pace, and it will reward you.
Just don’t forget to modulate. As soon as you blow the readers’ minds, give them a chance to catch up. Not for too long, though. That time bomb is still ticking down, the width of a scene away.
It would be impossible for me to overestimate the effect George Romero had on me, both as a writer and a fan.
I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The city was Romero’s muse–he would return to Pittsburgh time and again in his movies. He was everywhere when I was a child. Every Halloween the local television station would show Night of the Living Dead in prime time without edits. Every autumn my mother would take me for back-to-school shopping at the Monroeville Mall; all I could see was zombies roaming the big department stores, like they did in Dawn of the Dead. His vampire classic Martin showed the world what was happening in the Rust Belt in the 70’s. Even his lesser-known works, like The Crazies or Knightriders (you owe yourself to at least watch the trailer) gave us glimpses into a haunted, mirror-world version of western Pennsylvania. This was the world of my childhood, a place of deep, dark forests and crumbling cities, and no one would ever capture it like Romero.
My own career began with a zombie story, one that couldn’t have existed without those childhood viewings of Night of the Living Dead. My vampire series drew just as much inspiration from his work–it’s set in Pennsylvania, but a state drawn as much from Romero’s movies as from my own memories. I’m not sure if I could tell you where one begins and the other ends.
I never got a chance to meet the man. I wish it had been otherwise–if only so I could thank him. An entire generation of horror fans and creators mourns today, because we know exactly how much we owe this man, and how long his legacy will continue. Rest in peace, Mr. Romero. The children of Pittsburgh will always remember you, wherever in the world we end up.
Every character in your story should have a clear motivation. They need a reason to enter the scene, and something they want to accomplish before the scene is over. This goes for a walk-on character who only has one line just as much as it goes for your protagonist and antagonist. If a character has no reason to appear in a scene, then they shouldn’t. Give them something to do!
This might seem daunting at first, but it’s simpler than it sounds. There are only three main motivations: love, money, and death. These are the things that drive people, and attaching one of them to a character is all you need to get them moving.
This isn’t to say that character motivations can’t be nuanced. In fact, these three poles of motivation are what create character depth–and in fact, give your whole story dimension. Imagine, say, a character who feels like they’re not getting fulfillment from their job. That’s simply a character who is feeling tension between the fear of death (that their life will have no meaning) and the desire for money (hence the unfulfilling job). This character might be motivated to quit their job and find more interesting work (that’s a pretty good plot hook), or stick around for the paycheck and grow ever more miserable (which could inform the tone, or create conflict with other characters, or affect their relationships and therefore rope in the motivation of love…).
For most characters, and most stories, you probably want to stick with just one level of complexity here. Pick two motivations, tops, and put them at odds with each other. If other motivating factors come into play as a result of that tension, fine, but don’t dwell on them, or your story can lose focus. That’s for top-level characters, mind you–people who get a lot of lines of dialogue and are intrinsic to the action of the story. Minor characters are usually best given just one motivator. Someone who walks on page just to deliver a crucial piece of information, then never appears again, shouldn’t have a massive backstory. Maybe they’re just doing their job (money) or just wanted to help a protagonist they secretly love… you get the picture.