Rebalancing the Scale When Life’s Boot Is On Your Throat

The subtitle of Better Strangers is “A Writer’s Life in the Balance.” (That might not show up on your smart phone, but it’s there…on the front page…I promise.)

The idea behind this weblog was to have a platform where I could share my own experiences trying to break into the world of the hybrid author (self-published [check] and traditionally published [working on that one]) while filling the roles of:

1) husband and

2) father to two kids, a bluetick coonhound, and a box turtle.

Okay, the turtle–King Bob–isn’t much of a burden.

Some of you might not think that’s very much of a challenge, me being “retired,” and all. And if I’m being honest with myself, I guess it’s not…especially with the kids in school all day long.

But shit just got real, y’all!

A few weeks ago I started a part-time job at the St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum working an average of five hours a day, four times a week. With a half-hour commute each way, that means I’m out of the house at least 24 hours every seven days.

Driving to and from the Ancient City, I can still work on my book thanks to the soundtrack I put together [How I Use “Soundtracks” To Help Me Write When I’m Not Writing], but there’s definitely no chance for putting pen to paper during the other 20 hours, so things are slow-going on the manuscript completion front. And soon I’ll also be giving tours at the museum which means I’ll likely be working more than just four days a week.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m NOT complaining. The extra money is something we certainly need, and working at the Pirate Museum is a dream come true. I haven’t had this much fun on a job since living at sea in the Nasty Nic (USS Nicholson) and Sammy B. (USS Samuel B. Roberts)!

Plus, while a tour guide at the museum has to know a lot about pirates, I would argue–after working there for a month now–the bloke working the floor in Ye Olde Treasure Shoppe selling tickets, t-shirts, and shot glasses has to know just as much as (more than?) the pirate “captains” giving tours.

Since 80% (just guessing) of the visitors are going through the museum sans guide, who do you think they ask when they have questions about what they just viewed when they come through the door at the end, back into Ye Olde Treasure Shoppe (it’s actually called that–more fitting than just calling it a “gift shop”)? That’s right. They ask the same person who sold them the ticket to get in, that’s who. And that means research.

Now, I know quite a bit about pirates from years of reading and occasionally writing about them [Yo-Ho-Ho and a Bottle of Rum], but my new job has forced me to revisit those old books and delve into some new ones, as well…and that means more time away from my true occupation of being an author.

“So that’s the boot on your throat?”

Not exactly. I imagine literally having someone’s boot…or shoe…or even a bare foot crushing your windpipe would be immensely painful. But working at the museum and rekindling my inner-student–especially studying something I love–puts a little more weight on the “life” side of the scale.

WritersLife

Now, add my yard to that side.

“What?”

This time last year, we reshuffled the deck and moved to Florida [Matt Frick]. We found a great house in a great area, and all was well. Except, along with the fantastic house in the fantastic community, we bought a not-so-fantastic yard. It could be described, with no arguing on my part, as the worst yard in the neighborhood.

I’m no green-thumb, to be sure, but I can’t say that everything I touch that has roots in soil automatically dies. No, our yard was on its last legs when we moved in. It was gasping for breath and dying a slow death all on its own. Precisely because I did NOT touch it.

Sure, I mowed the grass a few times in the summer, but aside from a few weeks of watering in the past 12 months, I did nothing to help it come back to life…until about two weeks ago.

Following the guidance of a lawn care expert we hired to eradicate the chinch bugs killing our grass and the fungus/mold choking out our shrubbery, my wife and I proceeded to cut and plant sod throughout our entire front yard and 3/4 of the back and side yards. That translated to anywhere from 9 to 11 hours of our lives (each), four out of five days last week, consumed with back-breaking, fingernail and toenail-blackening (it’s Florida–even yard work is done in flip-flops), sweat-inducing, dirty work.

After digging countless holes with that damn post-hole digger, I felt as if my arms and shoulders were popping muscles like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Predator. Alas, there is no visible evidence that such a transformation took place.

So add in completely unanticipated time-sucking manual labor, and the scale tips even further away from that writer’s life balance.

Yep. And the school year just ended yesterday.

“I’m bored,” has already started.

Time to rebalance the scale.

Rebalancing that scale between meeting life’s demands and realizing the dream of publishing a book is not an easy thing to do. But I think I know how to make it happen. More importantly, I believe I can find that balance again and actually make life more enjoyable–for me and my family.

King Bob (the box turtle) doesn’t care what I do, as long as he has clean water and meal worms.

The solution I came up with includes both internal and external elements, but each are really a matter of perspective and prioritizing to reduce stress and increase efficiency–and ultimately, balance the scale.

Internally, I’m trying to stop giving too much weight to the objects on the “life” side of the scale which I (and most folks) would consider a burden. (<==Note to wife: This does not include our family. I love y’all!)

Take the yard, for instance. Timing played a part in moving this project high on the priority list. When the company we ordered from dropped a whole palette of St. Augustine sod on our driveway, we were on the clock to get that stuff in the ground before it died.

I toiled like a madman Wednesday evening and Thursday morning before work…planting grass that had already started to shrivel on the palette. Then, while I was at the museum, my wife found out from the lawn care guy that we should water the pile of side…the giant pile in our driveway…at least three times a day. You know, to keep it alive before we cut it into plugs, dig holes, and plant it. (I told you I didn’t have a green thumb.)

When I got home from work, we proceeded to replace the dead sod plugs in half of our front yard. We only got half done because the sun called it a day, and it was too dark. *sigh*

But on Saturday, we had two soccer games in the morning, and I had to work at the Pirate Museum from 2 p.m. ’til closing. This is where the rebalancing started.

We decided our priorities did not include finishing the lawn that day (now that we knew the secret of watering the damn grass pile in front of the garage). Instead, we went to the kids’ games, and I went to work without a second thought about the worst yard in the neighborhood.

I had the next three days off, so we worked like a couple possessed, replacing the bad sod and finishing the rest of the yard. The whole yard. It was hard work, but I also counted that work as exercise (which it absolutely was), and I didn’t hit the gym (in our garage) for the whole three days. See a little change of perspective bought me some free time there?

Externally, I’ve focused more on practicing what I preach. I started this blog post while getting an oil change, and I’m finishing it while the kids are off taking a nap or playing with friends after my wife took them to the neighborhood pool.

Oh, I also went grocery shopping and returned 13 bags of unused top soil to Ace Hardware while they were swimming.

Efficiency.

My wife plays a HUGE part in this rebalancing, whether she realizes it or not. The whole “life” thing is definitely a team effort. She helps keeps the plates spinning when they start to wobble. And the show goes on.

Perhaps the most important part of trying to keep A Writer’s Life in the Balance is reminding myself how much I enjoy writing. I really do enjoy it.

And I also enjoy being a pirate…

work

…who does yard work.

Soundtracks Part II: Every Hero Needs a Theme Song

John Slade (Bernie Casey) knows where it’s at!

If you recall my earlier post about book soundtracks in the writing phase [How I Use “Soundtracks” To Help Me Write When I’m Not Writing], then you remember how I said I use “soundtracks” to help me outline a manuscript by setting a mood for each scene or chapter using the movie technique of background or accompanying music. I’m going to expand on that a little bit by talking about theme music for various characters.

I realized when I put together my first soundtrack for a book while I was brainstorming The Complicity Doctrine, that some of the songs I chose went beyond a single scene in the story, and they could actually be played throughout the book to set the mood I was looking for. Then it dawned on me.

These songs weren’t just mood setters, they were theme music for the character I was writing about. In the case of The Complicity Doctrine, these were theme songs for the main protagonist and everyman hero Casey Shenk. Songs like “Duck and Run” by 3 Doors Down fit not only the character’s personality but how he dealt with the conflicts and trials that were thrown his way.

Like John Slade said, “It’s my theme music. Every good hero should have some.” I couldn’t agree more.

Where most of the music on the “soundtrack” is for mood and thematic tension while I’m piecing together the story, theme song(s) help me focus on character development, particularly that of the main protagonist.

Take my current project for example. The main character, Frank Torwood, knows all about the evil that men do. As both a witness and participant of that evil for two decades, Frank is looking for proof that goodness and morality still exists in a world which seems to him no better than Hell itself.

In writing Frank’s story, I chose a couple of songs that help me get inside his head as I’m breathing life into him on paper.

The first is “Lead Me Home” by Jamie N. Commons. The second primary theme song for Frank Torwood is “This Old Death” by Ben Nichols.

If you clicked those links, you will get an idea that Frank is not in a good place at the start of the novel. (You may also notice that both of those songs are from “The Walking Dead.” I assure there are NO walkers [zombies] in this book.)

Now, just like the mood can change from scene to scene, in both books and movies, so too can a character’s theme songs.

As the story progresses, Frank is forced to face his demons and overcome one trial after another. It is unfair to think that these trials wouldn’t change Frank, even just a little, right? So along with Frank’s emotional and psychological development, his theme music also changes with him.

Later in the outline/book, we…I mean “I”…start to hear “Oats in the Water” by Ben Howard, and later, “Broken Bones” by Kaleo.

You might be thinking, “Shit, Matt, this book is going to be depressing.” Well, I will tell you there are definitely going to be some uncomfortable parts for folks to read (and for me to write). But Frank has some badass theme music, doesn’t he?

It’s not Isaac Hayes, but then, Frank ain’t John Slade either.

I’ll be letting y’all in on some of the particulars of my current project in future posts, so stay tuned if you want to learn more.

Start from the Middle: How One Simple Idea Just Changed Everything

I didn’t write ONE sentence of my current book project this week. Not a single word.

But man did I make some progress!

I told y’all how I like to outline the entire story in multiple levels of detail before I really get to writing a manuscript [Planning: The Importance of Outlining (for me, anyway)], so you probably don’t see anything wrong with that first-line declaration, given the fact that I’m still in the outlining phase. But that line is more attention grabbing than, “I didn’t add a single bullet point to the 30th scene of my outline this week.”

Go back to the second line of this post, though. How can I say that I made progress, on the outline or the manuscript, if I didn’t write a damn thing? Well, folks, that’s what I’m gonna tell you.

I read a short book this week by thriller writer James Scott Bell titled Write Your Novel From the Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pansters and Everyone in Between. Mr. Bell offers a new way of looking at writing a novel that, as the title states, will work for anyone, no matter which method an author uses to pump out a 120,000 word manuscript, regardless of where they are in the writing process.

His idea is really focused on that single moment in the book (the middle), where the protagonist comes to grips with who he/she really is, and who they want to be going forward. Bell calls this the “Mirror Moment.”

Bell uses the example of Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) in the movie Lethal Weapon as an example of a character having a “mirror moment.” I love Lethal Weapon, so it was easy for me to follow his line of reasoning when he points out that smack dab in the middle of the movie (Bell literally went to the middle of the film and, lo and behold, there it was), Sergeant Riggs has a moment of reflection–his mirror moment.

Standing by his truck after having dinner with his partner’s family, Riggs tells Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) about a time when he shot a guy in Laos (during the Vietnam War) from a thousand yards away in high wind. “It’s the only thing I was ever good at,” Riggs says.

Riggs finally called himself out. He’s a killer.

But now he has a partner, he had dinner with the family, met the kids…he’s not a loner anymore. Riggs has to decide if he is going to remain a suicidal killer who doesn’t care whether he lives or dies, or if he is going to change, because now his actions may affect not only his partner’s life, but his partner’s family’s lives as well.

Bell doesn’t pretend to know if the film writers were thinking of this portion of a scene near the middle of the movie as a pivotal moment in the character arc of Martin Riggs, setting the stage for the action to follow, but he does explain how that’s exactly what it was.

Write Your Novel From the Middle suggests that authors need to know that “mirror moment” for the main protagonist in order to keep the entire story on track. By knowing ahead of time when a character will make a crucial decision about where they want/need to be, the author can move the beginning of the story to that point.

The remainder of the story, and the protagonist’s actions after that moment, will then be justified because the reader will have experienced everything that lead the character to make the choice(s) he makes in that critical “mirror moment.” Because the author wrote it that way.

So how did this help me?

I was making great progress on my story outline. I knew the beginning. I knew the ending. I even knew most of the scenes I wanted to put in the middle.

Then I read James Scott Bell’s book.

I took a step back and looked at my outlines (<–note the plural there). Here’s what I saw:

Rubiks_Cube_oneside

I saw a story that looked good from one angle, but in reality, it was a disaster. Like the picture suggests, I only had one side of the three-dimensional puzzle figured out, and the rest of the story was an incoherent mess.

So how do I solve this?

(I don’t mean the Rubik’s cube. I gave up trying to solve that damn thing a long time ago. As “Dirty Harry” Callahan said, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”)

To sort the loosely-connected jumble of scenes I had written so far, and to put all the pieces together in a way that made sense, I started over. From the middle.

When I looked at my story’s main character through the lens of a “mirror moment,” everything changed. I saw that I needed more conflict, both internal and external, that would:

1) drive him to get involved with the story’s events in the first place,

2) flesh him out as a truly three-dimensional person whose struggles readers could relate to (and want to keep turning pages), and

3) allow for a more realistic or plausible story arc where everything happened for a reason.

I realized after examining the story outline this way, that my main character had it too easy. The background I created for him, and his resulting personality, were really thin. I didn’t think so when I developed it at the start of the project, but now, with a fresh look ala a “mirror moment,” I saw there was really nothing that would push him to the point of no return where he had to make life or death decisions–physical and psychological–that would affect not only him but everyone around him.

Bell calls those decisions, or the circumstances that inform those decisions, “death stakes.”

With a proper knowledge of what those death stakes are for the character, the author can decide how that character will respond to trials and conflict in the remainder of the story. For Martin Riggs, he chose to put his suicidal, “don’t care if I live or die,” killer persona back where it belonged–the past. Instead, he decided there was much left to live (and fight) for–his partner, his partner’s family, putting the bad guys away (without just wantonly killing everyone he comes into contact with), etc.

For the main character in my work-in-progress, I didn’t have any death stakes. Well, I sort of did, but they weren’t near as defined as they are now. I also looked at those stakes with an eye toward believability. Would the reader believe the main character was really dealing with stakes so high he had no choice but to respond the way he does? Or were the choices I put in front of him merely boilerplate drivel that weren’t choices at all, but merely props to move the story in the direction I wanted it to go?

Now, after re-examining my outline, I’ve given the protagonist more flaws (with compelling explanations for those flaws), created more conflict in the story, and raised the death stakes, not only for him, but for everyone he grows to care about in the story.

In short, I have a more complete story now. It’s not done, but I’m almost there.

Rubiks_Cube_solved

Perhaps Mr. Bell will write a book on solving a Rubik’s Cube that is as simple, compelling, and spot-on as Write Your Novel From the Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between. Then I might be able to solve that stupid cube once and for all…or not. I know my limitations.

 

I Hate Confrontation or, Why I Won’t Go to Buffalo Wild Wings to Watch the Game

I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. My father was born and raised there. I bleed Falcons red and black…and Braves red and blue. (I banged my shin all to hell on a box-jump-gone-wrong in my home gym/garage last week, and those were the colors that pooled up on the floor. It looked pretty gross.)

When I was living in Georgia, there was no question what team you cheered for: the Braves during baseball season, and the Falcons during football season. It didn’t matter how well or how bad either team was playing, they were the home town heroes and that’s who I rooted for. That’s who everyone rooted for.

MyTeams

My allegiance to these teams was born out of necessity–the mood in our household, driven primarily by the mood of my father, depended on the outcome of the day’s sporting event.

But that changed when I joined the Navy. You see, when you’re in the military, stationed far from home (as I was for nearly my whole career), your hometown teams become part of your identity–sometimes whether you like it or not.

This was when I really started following the Braves and Falcons. The Braves were easy. With 14 division titles and one World Series championship (1995) from 1991–the year I graduated high school and entered the U.S. Naval Academy–through 2005, they were a winning team, and I was proud to claim them as my own.

The Falcons were your middle-of-the-road team during that same time frame, with a short period in the spotlight: a couple of playoff appearances and trip to the Super Bowl in 1998. We lost.

During all that time, when my teams were winning, I never once talked trash to anyone who supported the “other” team. But when we were losing, I sure heard a lot of trash talking from the “other” folks. I just didn’t get it. I still don’t.

[Full disclosure: I’ve been known to make Power Point flyers and pin them up in my cubicle–when I worked in a cubicle–that may be considered trash talking, but they were not directed at any specific person, er, any specific fan of the “other” team.]

ToughLuckNats

That’s not so bad, is it?

A few of them were less pointed, and maybe a little self-deprecating. Like this one:

TeePeeChat

See, I’m more like the guy from “The Weight” by The Band… “I’m a peaceful man.” I don’t like confrontation.

Don’t get me wrong, I won’t just stand by and let someone walk all over me when I’m being wronged, or when I see someone else getting the shaft. I used to be that way, but not anymore. Not when it matters.

It’s just a game, right?

I bleed Falcons red and black…and Braves red and blue. But I won’t argue with you over whose team is better. After all, it’s just a game.

Oh, hell yeah, I punched the sofa, cussed like a sailor, threw my hat at the TV, and even shed a few silent tears after Super Bowl LI.

So the games do matter to me. For over two decades, the Braves and the Falcons were my lifelines back to the place I grew up. But in the weeks heading up to the big game this past February, I never said one cross word to that guy at Publix with his Tom Brady jersey on, or even the guy at Ace Hardware rocking the Aaron Rodgers gear the day of the NFC Championship.

I don’t like confrontation. And when it comes to sports, I will only watch a game where everyone in the room is rooting for the same team, i.e., my team. Not because I don’t like fans of the “other” team, I just don’t trust them to not give me, personally, a ration of their “in your face” BS when my team is losing. (Is that bad?)

I will always support my teams. No matter what.

I feel great about the Falcons’ chances to win it all this year. And I will tell anyone who asks that, yes, they are my team.

I’m pretty sure the Braves won’t be winning any pennants this year. They are, as the front office tells us, in the middle of “rebuilding,” and at times, it is painful to watch. But that didn’t stop me from purchasing an mlb.tv “Single Team Package” so I could watch every Braves game this season…if I so choose. I only have access to Braves’ games, but that’s all I need. Because they are my team, too.

So if anyone wants to come over and have a few beers while we pray that someone will actually be on base the next time Freddie Freeman hits one out of the park, you are welcome to stop by. But if you are thinking about wearing your Nats ball cap and #34 t-shirt while we visit and watch the game together…better think again.

 

How I Use “Soundtracks” To Help Me Write When I’m Not Writing

“The Official Motion Picture Soundtrack.” How many of those do you own? I know I owned a few soundtracks on cassette tape when I was growing up. Some of these albums were a central part of the film for which they were recorded, like Purple Rain (which I wore out listening to) or [insert musical title here] (which I did not own…because I don’t like musicals).

Purple Rain

But most soundtracks were recorded to provide an audible background intended to enhance the movie by putting the audience in the right mood or frame of mind at just the right time, so they would experience the film the way the director intended.

Remember the title track to Jaws?….Of course you do….It works, doesn’t it?

For movies, sure, but what about books? They don’t have soundtracks. They rely on the author’s ability to put words on the page to set the mood or guide the reader’s frame of mind. There’s no help from an awesome John Williams score to prod the reader into seeing the point the author was trying to make or feeling the emotion he was trying to evoke.

That’s all on the back end, though, after the book is published. What about before that point? When the book is being written? Does an author have an “Official Printed Page Soundtrack” while he’s putting pen to paper or finger to keyboard, creating the next New York Times Bestseller?

I DO. I mean, I don’t have any delusions about getting on the NYT list anytime soon, but I do put together a soundtrack for each writing project.

Movies of the Mind

I talked about how I like to have to outline a book project on several different levels before I start writing in Planning: The Importance of Outlining (for me, anyway). I also mentioned in that post how the outlining process usually takes me a few months to get through. But for the outlining to work, I have to have an idea of where the story I brainstormed is going to go (how it will move from beginning to end…the middle part is always the most difficult, but also the most fun to develop).

Just as important as moving the plot along, though, is how the characters–particularly the main protagonist and antagonist–will develop throughout the story. At some point, these characters are going to run into conflicts, and they will need to adjust in order to overcome those obstacles. How they adjust to each new situation is tempered by their own personalities and abilities.

Sure, they will likely have to step outside their comfort zone, and they may even do things, or say things, they never thought they’d do or say. Sometimes the personal or emotional consequences are good–sometimes not so good.

And for each of these situations, in both the plot and character development progression, there is an accompanying song that plays in the background of the mental motion picture playing in my head. Those songs help me stay focused on the mood and emotion I want to convey to the reader at each point in the story when I do start writing–especially when I am in the scene-by-scene outlining phase. I like to think of myself as the director of a movie in my mind, and the music helps set the tone.

Writing without a Pen

This is where the book soundtrack really does its work.

Millions of people spend an average of 400 hours on the road commuting to and from work every year. (I just made that up…but at least I can admit when I’m pulling statistics from my hind end, unlike [DELETED BY DIRECTION OF WH COMM OFFICE].) Many people use that time in the car to “read” by listening to an audio book. I did that for years when I had a no-kidding full-time job in the Navy, and I was attending the National Intelligence University at night and on weekends. I got through mass quantities of possible research material for class papers that way.

I obviously wasn’t writing those papers while I was driving, but I was thinking about things I may or may not use as references as I listened. That’s what I do with the soundtracks I put together for each writing project.

For The Complicity Doctrine, one of the songs on my playlist was “Duck and Run” by 3 Doors Down. In that book, the protagonist, Casey Shenk, is the victim and witness to a bombing that killed several people and injured many more. He was eating an onion bagel when the explosion happened. That traumatic event could have caused Casey to say, “F— this, I’m outta here,” pack his bags, and move out of the Big Apple and back down to Savannah where life was much simpler. But he didn’t. Like the song, Casey refused to “duck and run,” because that’s not who he was…and the book would have ended around page 53, which wouldn’t do me any good.

That song helped me shape Casey’s actions in the subsequent chapters and scenes, as well. And that was just one of the 20-plus songs I put together for that book. I will listen to the book’s soundtrack every time I’m in the car–I burn the iTunes playlist onto CD(s)–and as I’m listening, I am picturing how the characters will act and interact as the plot unfolds. I am writing the manuscript in my head as the background music plays. When I get to where I’m going, whether it’s work or home or wherever, I’ll write down notes on whatever thoughts came to mind during my commute.

So even when I’m not writing, I’m still “writing.” Thanks to book soundtracks.