Minor Characters

Recently, in the circles that I’m in, more and more people are asking what to do about minor characters. They want to flush them out, give them their own backstory, their own story, understand their background, and everything that makes them tick, but should they do that? How much attention should we give our minor characters? To address this, let’s look at real life.

There are people you encounter every day that you know nothing about. You go to the gas station, fuel up, go inside to get a snack, and the only words exchanged between you and the cashier are:

“Hello, how are you today?”

“I’m great, thanks.”

“Your total will be $5.98.” A pause as the cashier accepts the cash from you, and then she smiles at you and hands you your purchased item. “Thank you, and have a great day.”

“Thanks. You too.” And you leave.

Now, you know nothing about that girl. You don’t know how old she is, if she’s in high school or college, if she’s married or single or has any kids. You don’t know what her talents are, her skills are, or her dreams. You know absolutely nothing, but you’re okay with that. Why? Because you have someplace to be, and getting stuck in a conversation may distract you from what you have to do.

So having characters you know nothing about is fine in a story. Now, another instance of minor characters would be those people you run into on occasion. You’ve seen them enough times you might know their names and greet them. For instance, my mother and I used to go to the park and walk every morning, and at the same time there was this older couple also walking the trail. Their names were Vic and Sid. We knew nothing more of each other except for our names, and we’d greet each other warmly each time we saw one another:

“Hey! How are you? Been a while since we’ve seen you.”

“Yeah, been busy—family stuff, but it’s nice to be back.”

“It’s great to see you again.”

“You too.” And we’d just keep walking, minding our own business.

Another way we may encounter minor characters in real life may be those people we see on a regular basis and may or may not recall the person’s name, but we have a fair idea of what their personality is like and maybe even their dreams. However, they like to talk with you at the most inopportune times, and you never really want to get too drawn into a conversation. An example of this is a cashier at Wal-Mart who has checked out your items on a regular basis. You can’t recall her name, so you have to keep looking at her tag, which reads ‘Jenny’. She remembers you though even if she doesn’t recall your name. You’re the person who’s published a book. In her eyes, you’re famous, and she likes talking with you in a loud voice. She tries to be nonchalant about your accomplishments, and every time she sees you, she tells you about her plans of making a movie. You encourage her, but really, standing in line at the cashier in Wal-Mart is not the best place for this conversation since there are other people in line waiting for their items to be checked through. However, you never see her outside of Wal-Mart, and every time you talk with her, she keeps saying the same thing, and it’s like she never takes any steps toward fulfilling her dreams. You don’t really have time to invest in this person, but you try to be nice.

Now all these are minor characters you may meet in real life. In stories, your characters will encounter similar characters, and you don’t have to flush them out thoroughly. Giving them a personality is always good, and sometimes minor characters will surprise you by actually contributing majorly to the story in ways you never expected, and that’s all right.

The main thing to keep in mind is, “Is this minor character important to the story? Does this character contribute to the story? Do they contribute in a small way or in a big way?” If it’s a small way, you don’t have to develop them too much. Yes, you as the author might know their entire life story and all their hopes and dreams, but that might not be important to the story you’re writing. It’d be very confusing if you have a story about someone who’s on the run from the law, and he checks into this motel where there’s this guy behind the counter who’s dream is to become a cowboy, and suddenly the story shifts to trying to let him accomplish his dream. Sure, there are ways of making the work, but what about the guy who’s on the run?

You’re not obligated it give every character major screen time. In someone else’s life, you are a minor character, someone who they merely passed by on the sidewalk. Yes, you have a lot of depth, huge dreams, and your own bag of troubles, but to that individual whose life you don’t impact, you’re just another face, and that’s okay.

So, when you’re writing a story, if you don’t know how much you should develop a minor character, look at the story, ask how important the character is to the story and how much they contribute to it. Go ahead and give them some personality or quirk to make them memorable to the reader, but then move on. You could have a memorable minor character, and this could be someone that you decide to come back to later and write his own story, but for the time being, don’t overwhelm your book with too many characters.

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The Essentials of a Chapter

A lot of writers ask, “Should I keep this chapter or not?” and “How long should chapters be?” However, before I address those questions, let’s identify what exactly chapters are, and this will help us answer those questions.

Before we get started, you should know the difference between a ‘scene’ and a ‘chapter’:

Scene: is contained within a chapter. You cannot have multiple chapters in a single scene.

Chapter: may contain one or more scenes

Scene: separated by white spaces or paragraph breaks

Chapter: separated by titles such as ‘Chapter 1’, ‘Chapter One’, etc.

These differences may not seem like much, but I don’t want you to be confused by the terminology. Scenes aren’t usually an issue, but they are part of a chapter, so I mentioned them. Our primary focus is on chapters, so let’s discuss some questions that accompany that.

How long should a chapter be? This is a common question, but, as it always is with writing, there is no written rule for the length of chapters. It is recommended for chapters to be more than a few paragraphs long—at the very least a page long or 1,000 words long. As for now long it should be, chapters can sometimes go up to 6,000-8,000 words long. However, the longer you make the chapter, the more you run the risk of losing your readers.

How do you know when you should end the chapter? This is when knowing the point of the chapter is important. Each chapter moves the story along. If you could remove the chapter (or even the scene) from the story, and this does not affect the story at all, that chapter is unnecessary. If the chapter has already accomplished its purpose yet you keep writing more and more and more, you may want to consider looking for a natural breaking point in order to end the chapter and begin a new one. Otherwise it can be longwinded and a huge distraction from the rest of the story. So, as you’re writing a chapter and if you see it’s becoming lengthy, ask yourself what is the purpose of the chapter, and have you already accomplished it? If the chapter hasn’t done what you intended for it to do, step back and determine what’s getting in the way (it could be that the story wants to go a direction different than you planned). If you find a lot of meaningless though fun conversation between characters, consider cutting back on that and getting to the point. Or it could simply be that’s how the chapter is supposed to play out.

One last thing I will say on the topic of chapters is this: if the main purpose of the chapter is character development, this is a weak purpose. I once attended a workshop taught by a screenwriting agent, and he said if a scene in a script was only about character development, they would cut that scene altogether. This applies to stories as well. Characters are developed through conflict and whatever it is they encounter. Merely introducing two characters and having them sit down and chat for the sake of backstory isn’t the reason for a chapter. Yes, that backstory may be important, but you can hold off on revealing vital information until it is absolutely necessary.

One way to do this is to get your characters into a situation where they naturally ask the questions the readers are asking. For instance, let’s say you have a character, Eleanor, who’s adopted, and she suspects it’s her adopted brother who’s behind the recent attacks in town although she has no way to prove this yet, and she knows she can’t say anything because people in the town are very loyal to him. If she’s right, and if he gets winds of it, she might be his next target. So you, as the writer, knows this, but the readers don’t know this yet, and neither do the other characters. But you introduce a new character, Hector, a detective who’s investigating the attacks. Eleanor has been tagging along with his investigations, claiming to be a reporter (maybe she actually is), and she ends up being helpful, so Hector ignores her but lets her in on the case. Then one evening, they’re sitting at a bar, sharing drinks. Not much is happening, so they’re just talking. Someone who wants mere character development as the plot for the chapter might have Hector ask Eleanor about her background and her family, and Eleanor would just spill all the info. However, Hector doesn’t know that he should be curious about her family. He doesn’t know that’s where he should dig. He’d likely just ask what her job is, might ask about her family, but Eleanor would likely skirt the issue. This makes things intriguing. If the readers know about Eleanor’s suspicion of her adoptive brother, they would be yelling at Hector to ask about her brother, and they’d get frustrated when he moves on with the conversation to another topic, but you have to understand, he doesn’t know. You have to keep the conversation natural for him. If the readers don’t know about her suspicions, they’d likely suspect something as well but wouldn’t know where to dig either, so they’d go along with it.

As you can see, this conversation cannot be the main point of the chapter. Yes, it’s good information, but it can be very shallow. There needs to be something that happens that pushes the story forward. It could be that in that moment Eleanor’s adoptive brother, Ryan, walks into the bar, and the entire atmosphere changes. He could approach them, tease her like brothers do, but then he could say something that’s a veiled threat. Eleanor would get the message immediately, but Hector wouldn’t completely understand though he’s wary of something. As soon as Ryan leaves, Eleanor could make an excuse saying she forgot she had to be somewhere, and before Hector can stop her, she’s out the door. A moment later Hector just can’t shake a bad feeling, so he follows after her, and who knows what happens after that?

You see how that one moment pushed the story forward because without Ryan stepping in and prompting that response from her, the story wouldn’t have moved forward. This is what I mean when I say that you need to make sure each of your chapters have a purpose to them.

Co-Writing

Co-writing—there are numerous of ways to co-write a story. Some people co-write by swapping chapters while others take turned of one person writing one page and the other person writes the next page, or maybe both writers have a their own main characters and write from their POV’s. I cannot list all the different ways you can co-write because I simply don’t know all of them. However, in this post, I’m going to focus on the co-writing style I have found works best for me and is extremely easy for anyone to do, and this style is Roleplaying Co-Writing.

With Roleplaying Co-Writing, each author gets a set of characters—usually one main character for each writer, and then choose the supporting characters. While it is possible to share a character, it’s simply easier and less stressful if one writer to have possession of the character rather than being concerned with the other writer writing the character wrong.

Once the characters have been spread out evenly between the two writers, you then put the characters in a scenario, and each writer writes the dialogue and action of their own character. This is where the fun begins. Although you know what must happen in the scene, you don’t know how it happens, but you let the characters be themselves while you slowly steer them in the direction of the purpose of the scene. What exactly is exchanged and occurs in these scenes are completely unpredictable, and sometimes it can change the entire course of the story, but that is where the fun lies. Here’s an example I co-wrote with Nan Sampson Bach. She wrote Juan’s character while I wrote Julianne. The bold are hers. The italics are mine (Note: this is the actual raw version of this scene prior to smoothing out the two styles of writing with any editing):

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When he stood, he leaned heavily on her, but Julianne didn’t mind. She just looked up at him concerned. “Are you okay?”

“Estoy bien. Sólo necesito un poco de agua.” He shook his head, tried again. Was he slurring his words or was the spinning room now affecting his ears? “I meant to say, I am fine. I just need a little water, that is all.” He tried to push away from her but stumbled and went down on his knees. “Maldición!” God help him, it had never been this bad before. He needed his Gate. He needed to tap into the energy there. He sensed Julianne next to him, trying to help him up and his face burned with shame. He pushed at her feebly, but he had no strength left. “Leave me, Dona. Por favor. You do not need to see this.”

But Julianne insisted. “What is wrong? What do you need? Tell me!” Her heart raced with sudden fear because she sensed this wasn’t simply exhaustion.

His vision was graying. “I need the Gate. I need to make a sacrifice to the Gate. For the energy.” He tried to focus on her face, tried to smile. “I have used it too much, spent too much. It is like a drug, Dona Julianne. It takes its toll.” He shook his head. “You should go. Fetch your Mage Prince. He must know what I know of The First. If I am unable to do this thing, then he must.”

Sasha’s words spun round in his head as he collapsed onto the floor. “The more you use it, the more you need it, Juan-Carlos. And the more you need it, the more it sucks the life out of you.” And then the crafty Macedonian laughed.

Julianne realized he needed power. She had forgotten the magic of the Gate had sustained him, and she sat back briefly before thinning her lips and coming to a decision. “You need power. Does it have to be from the Gate?”

She was speaking, but he was having trouble understanding the words. If only she would speak in Spanish. Damn the English – how had they managed to take over the world?

Julianne decided not to wait for an answer. She was the creator of this realm, and in that way, she was the most powerful person present. Taking a deep breath, Julianne turned him over, so he was lying on his back. She hesitated but then bent over and kissed him.

However, it wasn’t a simple kiss. As soon as their lips touched, Julianne reached onto his mind and the close connection they had, and she poured as much power into him as she could. She sensed his strength returning.

After a moment, she finally pulled back and winced, bringing a hand to her head. “Ow—why didn’t anyone ever say those fairytale kisses leave people with headaches?”

It took him a moment to process what had happened. “What… what did you do?” He assessed himself, found his energy had returned, almost at full force. It was not the same sort of juiced up buzz he used to get from a sacrifice to the Gate, but he felt refreshed and the weakness and exhaustion that had plagued him for months was gone.

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As you can see, this style is almost as if co-writing paragraph-by-paragraph, but it’s not quite. Sometimes one writer will write multiple paragraphs to show different thoughts and actions of their characters.

What did we use to write back and forth? Some people use Google Docs, but my preferred means are Facebook Messenger or email, and then I copy and paste what we’ve written into a document. It’s simple, consistent, and readily available.

So this is the basic idea of Roleplaying Co-Writing, but there is a lot of work that must be put into it in order for it to work. You can’t just randomly start co-writing with someone and expect a full-fledged story to emerge…okay, so you can actually do that, and a story will begin to form, but there comes a time where you need to pause and communicate with each other where the story should go. Here are a few things you need to know prior to actually co-writing with someone:

  1. Do you two have similar writing styles?
  2. What are the areas where you are weak but they are strong and vica versa? (are they better at writing fight scenes than you? Are you better at describing a medieval setting than them? Etc.)
  3. Are you both confident in your writing abilities and willing to improvise at a moment’s notice? (if one person is unwilling to allow their character to make a mistake or get hurt, it will be difficult to co-write with such a person.)
  4. Can you communicate well with your co-writer?
  5. Can you be completely honest with them? (if the two main characters are supposed to fall in love, but you feel your co-writer’s MMC is too wooden, your FMC won’t fall for him. So either change the story or delve into the wooden character to uncover unspeakable depths. The two co-writers must be completely honest and willing to work with each other, untangle any complications for the success of the story.)
  6. Determine and agree on goals for the story (Are you writing just for fun or to explore a different genre of writing? Are you hoping to publish the story one day?)

Now, before you begin writing, it is highly recommended the two of you outline the story. It could be a rough outline or a very detailed outline—whatever you want, but the point of this is agreeing on the events and direction of the story. If you can’t agree on that, you will spend a lot of time arguing and not writing. One of you may be more prone to outlining, so let that person pull together the actual outline, but brainstorm it together!

Remember, the outline is only a guide. If you follow it perfectly, fantastic, but rarely does writing ever go exactly how we planned, so you need to improvise and work with what is handed to you. ALWAYS COMMUNICATE. If a story is moving off track from the outline, communicate with the co-writer, bring it to their attention, discuss if you should stay on the outline or not, and if you opt not to stay on the outline, explore the possibilities of the future of this new direction. Once you’ve written an outline, this does not mean you’re locked into it. Stories have minds of their own and will unfold exactly how they want to or else they will give you Writer’s Block.

Now, one thing you should know prior to committing to co-writing using this style is that it is very addictive. You can literally write all day—and still get other stuff done although you might get irritated when there’s an interruption in your life that prevents you from reading what your co-writer sent to you. I co-write a lot on my phone. I go about my day, doing my usual work, then play fetch with my dog, wash the dishes, cook a meal or bake cookies, and converse with people, but then my phone chimes with a reply, and I look at the message, type a reply, and send it, and then I resume whatever work I was doing. It is incredibly fun—too much fun sometimes that it can actually become stressful because all you want to do is write! A solution? Set aside a time of day (an hour or two) when your co-writer and you will write. That way writing won’t get in the way of your real life, and your real life won’t get in the way of your writing.

Does this mean you can’t work on the story throughout the day until that set time? No. If there is a scene approaching where the only characters involved are characters you write, that is called a solo scene, and you may write it whenever you want. It’s good to write it ahead of time, so when the story finally gets to that point, your co-writer isn’t waiting around for you to write that scene. Rather, you can just send it to them once you’ve reached that point, and the two of you can progress to the next scene which you must write together.

So, this is merely one way co-writing. It is incredibly fun. To quote Nan Sampson Bach, whom I’ve been co-writing with recently: Co-writing is an absolute blast. You get a terrific feedback loop, that keeps the energy and interest high, and the level of spontaneity makes the writing feel real. It’s highly addictive.” So if you’re interesting in co-writing and just aren’t sure how to approach it, I highly recommend the Roleplaying Co-Writing style. Once you get a hang of it, you’ll have a blast. Hope you the best!

Grace Snoke’s Character Interview Review

This week I am currently running a survey based on readers’ preferences regarding which form of author/character interview they preferred–traditional or my more interactive style. Next week I plan to publish the results of that survey here, but in the meanwhile, one of my interviewees, Grace Snoke, blogged about her experience with the Character Interview, and she gave me permission to share it here. Be sure to read about her experience with the Author Interview.

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(Originally published on Grace Snoke’s blog here: Character Interview with Kelly Blanchard)

A two part interview process, last week I reviewed the author interview Kelly had with me two weeks ago. This week I follow that up with a review of my character interview with her.

Much like the first interview, it’s much like writing a story together, except instead of her setting the scene for it, I set the scene of it, taking on the role of my previously un-named pseudo-antagonist. He’s sort of an antagonist but as the story goes, we’ll quickly learn he’s not the real antagonist – that wasn’t revealed to me until I did the interview with Kelly.

The character, named Marcus Diehl, is an entertainment lawyer who is also a werewolf. Marcus has been a thorn in my side for a while, not really telling me much about himself and I used this interview to help figure out the details by, literally, taking him on as a role and answering the questions she had as him.

In doing this, the character opened up and let me – and her – know a lot more about him than I had previously known.

Outside of the first chapter and preview of my book and me letting her know that he was the antagonist (sorta-antagonist), she knew relatively nothing about the character and this allowed her to ask questions that made me think and figure out the answers about him (or made him reveal them to me).  I’m often of the opinion that my characters write themselves – they often do – just sometimes they need outside help to make it happen.

I have to say I was very pleased with the interview and it has helped me move forward and add chapters into my book now that I know what is going on a bit better.

For examples of other character interviews, check these out:

My interview won’t be available until sometime in January.

Kelly is offering character interviews outside of these that she’s currently doing for $25 an hour of $50 for two hours. If you have a character that just isn’t talking to you, I suggest looking into her offer. It will be money well spent.

Writing Physical Action

Writing physical action in stories—how do we do this? When you’re writing, you write multiple kinds of sentences—narrative, dialogue, description (when it comes to the setting and the environment), but also physical action. How much of this action should you include? When and how often should you include it? Why should you even include it?

Let’s address the ‘why’ first. Our characters are physical beings—they may not be human, and sometimes they may be supernatural, but they still possess the ability to move and interact with their environment and others around them. This interaction then moves the story onward, but it also reveals something about each character. Their mere action can add immediate depth to their personality.

When should this action be insert into a story? Well, my question to you would be: when does the character move? I’m not saying you need to record every little physical movement they make, but there are subtle ones which speak volumes of an individual in any situation. For instance, let’s say you have a character who reluctantly committed a crime, and the police as questioning him—not quite realizing he is the criminal—and they ask a specific question that makes him uncomfortable, so he reaching up and rubs the back of his neck as he shrugs and offers an answer. That mere movement says tells us he’s uncomfortable—that there’s something more beneath the surface. Any eagle-eyed detective would zero in on this and try to slowly corner the man into revealing what makes him so uneasy. Further body language such as nostrils flaring and eyes narrowing indicate to anger while increased blinking hints at something they’re trying to keep hidden. Shifting eyes are uneasiness with the situation while sudden stillness in their bodies and eyes deliberately locking with the detectives and calmly answering each question could be an indication of lying. All of these little physical actions build character. You need to determine who your character is and what he’s feeling at that moment. Is he frightened? Angry? Upset? Nonchalant? All of these will have different body language, and when you use these actions in a scene, the reader will pick up on it, probably not completely understand the exact meaning behind the movement, but they know something is up and can come to conclusions.

So, one good place to put these small physical movements is during a conversation. As an experiment, remove the dialogue tag (said, answered, asked, replied, etc) and insert body language because dialogue tags are redundant as I explained in a previous posts (here and here), but the body language captures the personality of the character, and this is vital for a story.

Now just how much of these physical movements should you include? As much as is important to the story. There is a delicate balance—much like any description in a story. I can’t tell you exactly how much or how little to use because you will have to determine that for yourself. There is no magic formula. However, a few things to keep in mind when trying to determine what physical movements you should include:

  1. the main character: their personality, their mood in that moment of the story, their connection to others in the current scene, and anything they may not want revealed.
  2. the other characters in the scene and their connection to one another
  3. the environment (physical setting)
  4. the atmosphere (mood of the setting/characters)

If you think too hard about this, it will seem daunting. Rather, try to imagine it like a scene in a movie. You can visualize it clearly in your head. Everyone moves at all times even if it’s simply narrowing eyes or taking a deep breath or clenching the jaw. Does this mean you should show every movement of all the characters? No. The ‘camera’ (the character through whom we’re viewing the scene) doesn’t focus on all the characters at once. Whomever we’re looking at is whose body language and physical action you should be concerned with. Now, say you’re focusing on one character but there’s another character behind the one you’re focusing on, so you can see both, but you’re not really focusing on the second character. However, that character in the background could wave his arms or silently start mocking behind the back of the first character. This would draw your attention, and you can show it, but it’s up to you whether or not you let the first character become aware of what’s happening behind his back. If you don’t let him know, that’s all right. It’s just a funny instance that reveals to your reader what that other character really thinks of that first character.

Basic things to think of when trying to determine what physical action to use:

  1. Does it reveal something about the character’s personality? (do they experience a flash of anger when they should be unaffected?)
  2. Do the actions arrange the characters in the room in a manner important for the following actions and scenes? (a character may enter a room and begin a conversation with the other character in the room but walk around to the window to look out. Several things could happen. a) the character at the window could be shot by a sniper, b) someone comes dashing into the room announcing there’s an emergency, so both character race out of the room, but the one furtherest from the door is a little further behind. An ambush could befall them, but because that one character a further behind than expected, he might be able to turn the situation on its head…or maybe he’s the one behind the ambush).
  3. Do the actions add and show necessary tension? (two characters agree to meet for a talk, but they don’t trust each other. They enter the room but then walk around each other—orbiting one another. Sometimes this may be obvious, but other times it may be more subtle as in one character going to the bookshelf in the middle of the conversation and pretend to skim over the book titles while engaging in conversation. The other character goes to the bar on the other side of the room and pours himself a drink. The character at the bookshelf then goes to the window, so the character at the bar moves toward the door.)
  4. Does the action add to the flow of the story or slow it down? (adding every single TINY detail will bog down the story whereas adding only the details important to show what the character is feeling in that moment leading up to the next big action pushing it forward.)

Of course there are many other things to keep in mind when writing this, but I can’t think of everything. However, throughout all this, one important fact to remember: this take practice to master. Don’t think about it too much. Don’t over-worry about it. Be aware of it and try to apply what I’ve said. The more you do it, the easier it’ll become for you, so be patient and don’t stress out. You will do well.

Writing in Chronological Order

The question has come up, “Is it best to write in chronological order or out of sequence?” To be honest, there is no absolute answer to this. For some people, it is best suited to write things in whichever order they want and skip around to different scenes as they see fit. It works for them, and that’s fine. Then there are others who literally go from beginning to end without skipping ahead. I am part of the latter sect, so I can’t vouch for the former. However, I have observed skipping ahead works for certain individuals, so I won’t disregard it completely. I simply can’t go into detail of how it works.

Now, going from beginning to end is simple because it reflects how life is lived. We can’t skip to our favorite parts in life. It is in those little moments, those moments when you don’t even think has any action or any thrill of any kind, that can actually be the most profound and developmental for us in life. Likewise in stories.

You may have a boring part, and then a fun part, and then three boring sections in a row before hitting an awesome section, and you may really, really, really rather not want to write those boring parts. After all, you’ve had a rough day. You want to write something thrilling and exciting just to release all the stress and tension of the day. There is nothing wrong with that. However, if you write all the exciting and fun scenes first, what will you be left with in the end? Boring scenes—absolutely nothing thrilling to look forward to, but you know you need to write those scenes because they’re important. In that case, you have to knuckle down and write boring scene after boring scene after boring scene without much light at the end of the tunnel except for the relief that soon you’ll be done with the book.

That doesn’t sound very appetizing, does it? Now, of course, those people who do skip around when writing have different methods and ways to do it that they may be able to combat this, but when people come to me and say they’re bored with their story, and then I discover they’ve skipped around, it’s very obvious that the reason why they’re bored is because they wrote all the fun scenes first.

So, how do you combat getting bored when writing boring scenes? How do you fight the temptation to skip ahead to the fun scenes? View each scene or chapter as a row of rocks and cookies. You may have a rock first and then a cookie after that and then two rock and after that three cookies, and so on and so forth. The rocks are the boring scenes that you just really want to throw because they can be so frustrating while the cookies are the deliciously fun scenes. So you come to a rock, and you have to work hard to cut that rock to reveal the diamond beneath. When you get done, you’ve accomplished something great and now have a gem where once that rock was, and then you look at the next scene and see it’s a cookie, so you gabble it up easily, and it’s sweeter now than it would have been if you didn’t work on that rock. If you eat all the cookies at once, you’re going to get sick, and you won’t feel like getting up and doing any work. To you then, the rocks will only be rocks in your eyes rather than you seeing the gems beneath the surface.

In other words, treat each fun scene as your personal reward for pressing through that difficult scene. It’ll fuel you enough to get through the next hard scene, but you know beyond that scene you have another reward awaiting you.

Now, if you’re the kind of person who must go back and edit what you just wrote and do this repeatedly, it may be hard for you to progress forward. See, when you write something and then immediately edit it, what you’re doing is one step forward and five mini-steps back, and then one step forward, and again five mini-steps back. You will be progressing albeit slowly, so the temptation to skip ahead to something more enjoyable will be great, so this is something to keep in mind. Also, remember, when you’re writing the first draft, it is a first draft—doesn’t have to be perfect. It just needs to be completed. You can always (and you will) go back to revise and edit once you’re finished.

So, should you write in chronological order or out of sequence? It’s totally up to you. If you write out of sequence but find you have a hard time completing a story, then try being patient and writing it in chronological order. Does that mean you have to outline the story? No—not necessarily. You may if you wish, but you don’t have to. You may have an idea of future scenes but you’re not quite sure how they’re connected, and that’s okay. Finish writing a scene, pause as though you’re a top of a hill and look out. You can see the future scene out there somewhere, but look down at your feet—what is the very next step you need to take? What is the next scene that is important that you need to write? Write that scene. Then write the next step, and then the next, and then you’ll see that awesome future scene finally drawing near, and you get excited because things are coming together! Then you finally get to write it, and it is epic! But then you find yourself atop another hill looking out again, trying to locate the next future scene you can see. Once you’ve located that, you then look at your feet to determine the very next step you need to take to get to that scene, and go from there.

Does this work all the time? In my personal experience, it has, but that doesn’t mean the story won’t change on me, and that’s part of the fun of writing. You just have to improvise. However, not everyone writes like this, but if you are struggling, this is a method you should consider. I hope it works for you.

Worldbuilding: Research, Common Sense, and Imagination

Worldbuilding. This is popular topic that I’ve been asked to write about, but to be honest, I’ve been wary of doing so. You see, I create whole worlds for fantasy stories or science fiction stories. I easily create entire means of transportation, technology, civilizations, and cultures, but I do not sit down and say, “Okay, so, if this planet is that far from the sun, the temperature of that planet will be this many degrees, and its days and nights will be this long while its seasons are that long.” Nor do I map out every single detail of everything in this new world. I’ve observed many such discussions in writing groups, and I’m always overwhelmed by all the detail (I totally applaud those of you who can go to such great depths of your story because I would get lost, but each person is different). There are a lot of great sites and blog posts that go more that direction. Here are a few examples:

Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions

Building Fantasy Worlds

Storywonk: Worldbuilding

Again, there are many more posts and sites dedicated to this subject. You’ll simply have to look them up.

Now, my own approach worldbuilding a little more simple. However, allow me to explain a few things. First of all, scientists in this world don’t know everything. Yes, they know a lot (more than me!), but they don’t know everything. There are minerals out there we’ve never encountered, occurrences on other planets or even moons we can’t explain. Yes, we do our best to apply what knowledge we have and make logical explanations, and this is good, but we will never really know unless samples are brought back to us for further studying or we go there to study. We don’t know what other worlds (even outside our solar system) are really like. We can do calculations, make careful observations, and explain things in a logical way, but we won’t know for certain if we’re absolutely right until we go there (I’m not really talking about Mars or the moon really but rather someplace further).

Now, having said all this, when creating worlds, I don’t stick to merely what I know. Yes, there are essential elements every planet should have like gravity, but I’m not going to go and determine just how big the planet it, how close it is to the sun in order to determine what the gravity is like on that planet. Why? Because it’s not important. Not to my stories at least. If my characters are traveling from planet to planet, they have a task to do and something to accomplish, and it’s not studying a new planet (unless that is their job). If gravity is important to the storyline (since it could have an affect on fight scenes or such if necessary), then yes, I’d do some brief calculations, bounce some ideas off more scientific-minded individuals, and figure out what I need to know about the planet’s gravity hold. However, if the character is going to that planet to meet with someone, get information, and then get off, there is no need to spend all that time developing a world where your character will only be for at least a day or so.

Basically, if it’s not important to the story, I won’t worry about it. I’m not going to spend pages and pages describing every detail of the planet. My characters are moving from point A to point B, and what they see along the way is what you get to see too. If a character happens to tell a story about the planet’s past, then the reader gets to hear that too. Otherwise, I keep moving.

What about civilizations and cultures? Well, what do you want your character to encounter? You can look around at the different civilizations of the day (both modern, extinct, and mythical) and come up with something unique. This would shape their buildings, social habits, and even politics. Let’s say you want your characters to run into some Viking-like society, so do some research to understand their habits. However, because these aren’t the Vikings, you have the liberty to use your imagination, get creative, and make up stuff. Mix and match cultures to come up with a wild blend of your own.

It all boils down to a single point: what do you want your character to encounter and how is it different from everything else in all other books out there?

Now, it may sound like I’m completely dismissing thorough research in worldbuilding, but I’m not. You can’t just slap together some details and hope your readers understand the world you’ve created. No, if you want to create a strong image for them, a world they will remember, you need to take a moment and imagine what the world looks like—imagine it clearly, so you can explain it clearly.

For instance, I have this one country in a world that has unusual meteorologic occurrences. It is a desert climate, but during the day there is a thick cloud cover of angry clouds. It always looks like it is going to rain and be a terrible storm. However, as the sun is setting, the clouds begin to pull back, and there is a break in the clouds where the sun can shine upon the land briefly before it sets. And then at night the skies are clear—the stars are bright. However, the next morning, the clouds are back. It is the only place in that world that this occurs. I cannot explain it scientifically, but this is what the story wants, and I do not argue with the story. If I do that, it will fight back by giving me Writer’s Block. I can see it clearly in my mind, and I write it.

One thing I’d recommend everyone to do a bit more research in is the structure of the government (any government in any age). See how the lower class is treated by the middle class and higher class. Observe who creates the laws, who enforces the laws and how, and who might be the exceptions to the law. Note punishments and how justice is served. Look at the educational system—see how the children are raised to think or not think. I say you should study these because these are fundamentals in how a culture is run. You may study multiple cultures and take a little here and something else from over there and create your own system, and that is fine. However, it is important to have a good handle on these elements because your characters will likely run into people involved in these branches (they may get in trouble with the law of that world), and instead of freaking out and then spending hours on Google before you finally toss the question to your writers group of how things should proceed, you will already know and can move on.

Use common sense (for instance, what goes up must come down—if you’re someplace with gravity), but also use your imagination. Don’t worry about all the logistics and if the critics or experts will say, “That’s not even possible!” Because you know what? They may be right. It might not be possible, but your story is fictional, and you can make it however you want it. Go ahead and create mushroom trees and purple skies, but remember, you don’t want to bog your readers down with description after description. It’s best to show the world as your character is passing through it. You can find all my different posts on description here: Cinemagraphic Writing: Description

Now, the only exception to this entire idea is if you have a character who is a scientist—someone who can scientifically explain just about anything. If you have her in your crew, you will probably want to know as much as you can about anything because she will talk, and you want her to sound intelligent and accurate.

If you’re the kind of writer who must have ever detail of the atmosphere of your world figured out, that is fine. There is nothing wrong with that. I highly admire your determination to get all the facts absolutely right. However, if you’re the kind of writer who is overwhelmed by having to know ALL these facts, and you’re about to panic, take a deep breath. I’m giving you permission right now to not worry about all those details. Right now, focus on the immediate environment your characters are in (is it desert or mountain? Medieval or futuristic?), do your best to describe that, and move on with the story. Focus on the story. You can always go back and add more detail during the revision process.