“Ya Bilge-Suckin’ Dogfish!” or How the Writer’s Craft Helped Me Out-Pirate Jack Sparrow

The past few weeks have added some more obstacles in my quest of achieving that elusive balance between work(writing) and life which I so desperately seek. When I analyzed these challenges from multiple perspectives, however, I realized evening the scales wasn’t a matter of placing more weight on one side or the other this time. What I needed to do was recalibrate the scale altogether.

Pi-rate

There’s no scientific method or instruction manual I’m aware of for adjusting whatever scale one uses to measure work-life balance. Sure, there’s plenty of advice out there in books, journals, and the internet, but I came up with my own procedure.

Redefining “Balance”

First, I needed to decide what things I would put on each side of the scale. This meant re-labeling those sides (sort of).

This is why I needed to come up with my own procedure.

Calling the trays of the balancing scale “work” and “life” doesn’t exactly apply to what I’m trying to measure. In an earlier post [Rebalancing the Scale When Life’s Boot Is On Your Throat] I even had a graphic that clearly showed I was dealing with a “writing” and “life” balance issue. This might seem like splitting hairs, especially if writing IS my work, but I’ll tell you why it makes a difference in my case.

When I used to tell my wife and kids I was “going to work,” that meant getting in the car and driving 45-90 minutes in bumper-to-bumper traffic up U.S. 1 to travel 13.8 miles to my assigned cubicle at an office just outside Washington, D.C. I’d spend 9-10 hours (or more), 5 days a week, doing “important” government work that at times was quite satisfying–though mostly it was downright boring. And I was miserable.

Now when I say I’m “going to work,” one of two things happens: I either shut myself in my home office upstairs to read and write, or I drive 30 minutes down U.S. 1 with no traffic, dressed as a pirate, to work 4-7 hours, 5-6 days a week, at the St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum where EVERY day is more fun than I deserve.

So my work–as it stands today–isn’t really “work” at all…not in the vein of the mundane, tedious, clock-watching drudgery in cubeville it used to be. In a way, my “work” is also my “life.” And I have no problem with that.

As far as I know, neither does my family. (Maybe because I’m not as grumpy as I used to be.)<–my daughter might disagree with that last part

Thus, rather than “work” and “life,” I chose to focus on finding that “writing” and “life” balance.

“But you said writing was your life.”

True. Hence the need to recalibrate the scale. Where it used to be easy to separate “work” from “life,” that distinction is less clear now. Sure, driving kids to soccer practice, doing the laundry, or cooking dinner, can easily be binned as “life” on one side of the scale, but writing is a little more fuzzy.

Sure, this blog and the book I’m in the process of completing are clearly “writing” elements in the whole balancing act, but something happened last night that made me think there are more things than I was aware of that, on the surface, seem to lie squarely on the “life” side, but which in truth have all the hallmarks of writing.

I met Captain Jack Sparrow!

Okay. We’ve all seen at least one of the five Pirates of the Caribbean movies, right? So you know who Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is.

Well, last night there was an event in St. Augustine where a band of pirates took over one of the Old Towne Trolley tour trains and made their way through the Ancient City, eventually debarking said train and taking over historic St. George Street.

I was working the 11-close shift at the museum, a I missed all the shenanigans. But at about 5:30 p.m., through the Fort Alley entrance, none other than Captain Jack himself graced Ye Olde Treasure Shoppe with his presence (with Moon Mermaid in tow, no less)!

Mermaid-Jack.png

Okay, it wasn’t Johnny Depp, but aside from a slightly deeper voice, this man was every bit the same Jack Sparrow you saw on the big screen. From the moment he walked in the door, Captain Jack was nothing but. He NEVER broke character! Not when I sold him and his crew tickets into the museum, not whole he was inside viewing our over 800 authentic pirate artifacts (including “his” sword from Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl) and interacting with other museum visitors, and not even when he spent about 15 minutes looking through the treasure shop and purchasing a magnet from me.

He had every tattoo that the movie Jack has, including the East India Company “P” branding. Only, unlike Johnny Depp, this man’s tattoos were real (I know because we compared swallows on our forearms–my left, his right). Even the hair was real. By all accounts, this man was–is–Jack Sparrow.

But here is why I said I “out-pirated” the good captain–and how this made me realize that sometime elements of my “life” could just as easily be labeled “writing.”

Meet Smilin’ Matt Blackheart

Blackheart

Yes, that’s me. I was wearing this same outfit the night I met Jack Sparrow. I can’t tell you enough (or more than I already have) about how well the man who came into the museum last night played the part of the character Johnny Depp made famous. He is by far the best “Jack Sparrow” I’ve come across. But how do I know he was playing the part well?

Because I’ve seen the movies.

I suspect that’s pretty much how “Jack” got so good at the speech, dress, mannerisms, etc. of Johnny Depp’s character. He watched the movies…probably A LOT of times.

He’s good. Very good.

But what about the guy who has a raspy voice, or an uncontrollable eye-twitch, or *gasp* no tattoos? Right off the bat, we’d say, “meh, he’s alright, but he’s not ‘the’ Jack Sparrow.”

And why is that?

I’ll tell you why. Because we ALL know what Jack Sparrow looks like–from his hair and tattoos, to his mannerisms and slightly tipsy gait (or speech for that matter). We don’t REALLY need to know anything about Jack Sparrow except what we saw in the movies.

If our nighttime museum visitor sticks to the script, I doubt he’ll ever be called a phony.

But what if you asked him something about Jack’s past that wasn’t in the movies? What if someone asked him the same question an hour–or a week, or month– later? Would he give the same answer?

Maybe. (He WAS pretty darn good.)

But I don’t have the luxury of watching five movies (or even one) about Matt Blackheart. No sir. Everything I know about that sea-dog I had to invent myself. But remember, I work at the Pirate MUSEUM (i.e. we have REAL pirate stuff–all kinds). And I’m all about realism…especially when it comes to pirates!

Jack Sparrow is a fictional character with a fictional background who “lives” in a fictional world.

Smilin’ Matt Blackheart is also a fictional character, so I get to choose his mannerisms, and the way he dresses, etc. But I got to WRITE his backstory. And it took me days to find the right pirate(s) at the right time(s) to develop a plausible background that would allow me to engage museum-goers on more than just a superficial, hand-waving, slurred speech, swaying level. In other words, I get to teach history, not just remind people of the great time that had at the movie theater.

So when someone asks me about my (Blackheart’s) past, I get tell them all about the Pirate Round, Thomas Tew, Henry Every, and the battle with the Indian Grand Mughal’s fleet in the Red Sea in August 1695.

(Oh, and because Blackheart is fictional, I get to choose his mannerisms, the way he talks, the way he dresses, etc. I also get to yell at customers who are abusing the toy pistols and rifles in the treasure shop in a loud piratical voice, “ONLY TWO CLICKS ON THOSE GUNS YA BILGE-SUCKIN’ DOGFISH!! –or– …YA MANGY BILGERATS!! –or– …YA SLIMY PLANK-WORMS!! “Jack Sparrow” would never get away with that 🙂  But I got promoted to manager for it….I love my job!)

Here’s a one-pager on Smilin’ Matt Blackheart’s background. Feel free to read it or not. Either way, thanks for stopping by!

Matt-Blackheart-Bio

“But I Wanted To Tell That Story, Too”: When A Sub-Plot Is Really Just Another Plot (Lesson Learned)

Four thousand miles to the east, a new day was beginning. With
each passing minute, the sun’s rays heated the equatorial waters of
the Mauritanian coastline and generated an oppressive blanket of steam
that covered everything. The only relief was the relative breeze created
solely by the forward motion of the fishing boat. Sofiane Belmokhtari,
an Algerian and ethnic Moor, stood at the bow of the vessel looking aft
toward the pilot house. He was not a fisherman, and he was thankful of
that fact the more he observed the condition of the boat he was on. The
boat was an even blend of white and rust. Sofiane was keenly aware of
the smell of hake that permeated the entire boat. The fishing nets, lines
and floats reeked of fish. It was evident that this boat was used often and
recently, though today the lines remained coiled, the nets neatly piled on
the fantail. They were not fishing today.

So begins Chapter Five of my first novel, Open Source, and the beginning of a sub-plot that could just as easily have been left out.

Why I chose to include this sub-plot

Open Source is a book about an ordinary man’s brush with the world of illegal international arms deals and geopolitical intrigue with a backbone of modern piracy/maritime hijacking providing the glue that holds the story together. Casey Shenk is that “ordinary man.” A vending route driver from Savannah, Georgia, who blogs his way into trouble, Casey unwittingly finds himself the target of an Israeli assassin and the Russian mafia, putting him and his friends in extreme danger, when all they really wanted to do was drink beer and sing karaoke. But that’s life, I guess…or fictional life.

The main players throughout are Casey, the Israeli Mossad, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Russian gangsters, and a private intelligence consulting firm in New York City.

Sofiane Belmokhtari is an Algerian cab driver.

See, the book starts with the hijacking of the M/V Baltic Venture. It is a news report about the hijacking that catches the attention of Casey Shenk, the story’s main protagonist. Casey writes a blog about what he thinks might be the true story behind the ship’s mysterious disappearance and all hell breaks loose–for Casey, anyway.

When the Baltic Venture anchors off the coast of Mauritania to take on supplies, Sofiane is on the supply boat (described above). Only, he’s not there to deliver supplies, he’s there to take delivery of a package that is being smuggled on the ship. No one else onboard either vessel–the cargo ship or the fishing boat–know about Sofiane’s true purpose.

Sofiane recovers the package and begins a journey back to Algeria. The story of that journey, including the reason behind the Algerian’s mission, is told over 23 pages. The final result of his mission is revealed as reporting in five pages near the end of the book. So if you count those last five, the Sofiane Belmokhtari sub-plot is only 28 of 378 printed pages. That’s only 7.4% of the entire book. But was it necessary?

Not really.

You see, Sofiane’s final act serves as an impetus for our heroes to make one final play to get the truth out–about the hijacking, the arms deal,…everything. But the fact that Sofiane Belmokhtari, a taxi driver in the city of Algiers, was the one who sparked that action on the part of Casey Shenk and friends is immaterial.

BUT, Sofiane’s story allowed me to explore and comment on (through story narrative) Islamic terrorism and corruption in many of the North African governments–a full five months before the Tunisian Revolution and the start of the Arab Spring, mind you. This sub-plot in Open Source was fun to write, but it really didn’t do anything for the overall book.

I have only had a few comments from readers about the seemingly disconnected story of Sofiane since I published the book in July 2010, but those comments were either neutral or negative in the readers’ minds. After writing two more novels in the Casey Shenk series, I tend to agree with those folks.

Sub-plots that do not connect in a more meaningful way than Sofiane’s to the main plotline of the story, merely serve a distraction. In my case, the journey of a revenge-minded Algerian from through the northwest countryside of Africa merely served to disrupt the pacing of the story as a whole. And THAT is not good.

In hindsight, Sofiane’s story would have made a good (great?) short story, but it really had no place in the larger work of Open Source.

Lesson learned.

Backstory: The Most Important Sub-Plot You’ll Never Write

I suffer from one of the more visible ailments of the Florida tourist. While this particular malady can afflict anyone, regardless of age, race, or sex, a recent non-scientific study at [insert name of beach here] determined those most susceptible were white males over the age of 40.

While I am a match for three of the four descriptors of this largest group, I am no longer a tourist, having established Florida residency over a year ago.

The tragic, socially-alienating condition I am referring to is more colloquially known as “farmer’s tan.”

I am not a farmer, either, which makes my predicament that much more disturbing as both an embarrassment to my teenage daughter at the neighborhood pool and as a source of unwarranted conversation at the Flying J truck stop about how the drought is really screwing with the yield of crops I don’t grow.

So last week I made my first attempt to remedy the situation by doing yard work…without my shirt on.

Now I am dealing with the corollary condition to the farmer’s tan called “peeling”–the direct result of the sun baking my Nordic-white skin too long. And as anyone who’s experienced the same problem knows, with the peeling comes the itching.

Luckily I have a ready arsenal to deal with the irritation.

Backstory

A sunburned back can really affect the way you approach everyday situations. Showers are shorter and the pressure of washcloth (or that mesh “poof” thing) on skin is gentler. There’s no leaning back on the couch for a few days either…hmmm. So maybe sunburn can actually help your posture. Or not.

That’s my back story.

“Excuse me. What does that have to do with writing?”

I’ll tell you. Like a sunburn on your back helps shape the choices you make–do you really want to bear-hug your buddy knowing the pain that’s coming?–your fictional character’s backstory helps shape the choices he/she makes in your novel.

See what I did there?–[smile]

“You’re lame.”

All right. That was a lame transition, but if the opening lines of this post amused you in any way, then I hope you will forgive me…because the next part really is important to discuss if you’re a writer or reader of books, and/or a watcher of movies, for that matter.

At least it’s important enough to my own project that I spent a whole week on it just to discover that most of what I’d written so far (outline and manuscript) has to reworked.

In my first three novels, Open Source, The Complicity Doctrine, and Truth in Hiding, the protagonist, Casey Shenk, shares a lot of my own backstory. You might say that Casey IS me, and to a large extent that’s true.

Remember, those novels were first attempts at learning the craft of writing–primarily through trial-and-error–and they served as proof (to me, especially) that I could see an entire book project through from start to finish.

By making Casey Shenk a fictional version of Matt Frick, I didn’t have to think too much about the main protagonist’s background, personality, or decision-making process, because they were essentially the same as mine.

Frank Torwood, the main character in my current project, is a different story, however. Frank is not me.

Before I started outlining, I determined Frank’s birthdate, birthplace, where he went to school, his occupation, how he chose that career, and some of the things he’d done or seen that put him in the predicament he finds himself in at the story’s open. I had his backstory…or so I thought.

As I discussed in Start from the Middle: How One Simple Idea Just Changed Everything, I took another look at the plotting I’d done through the lens of a “mirror moment.” This point in the story is where the main character takes a look at his life and decides if he’ll continue down that road or change as the situation dictates around the midpoint of the story. The decision he makes affects how he will respond to conflicts and tension in the remaining pages.

I did that. And all was well. Until I realized I only knew half of what I needed to know. I knew what Frank would choose to become and how this would drive the last act of the three-act play forward to the end, but I didn’t know the first part of the “mirror moment.” If Frank was going to look back at his life and who he was before that all-important decision, I needed to know what he saw in that mirror. And everything I knew about Frank to that point was as deep as a Wikipedia bio entry.

What was Frank’s childhood like? Was it cushy and filled with love, or was it traumatic and filled with strife? What were his parents’ childhoods like? Did their own difficult upbringings affect the way they treated Frank or the home life they were able to provide or not provide for him? Did Frank have any siblings?

I needed to answer those questions–at a minimum–before I truly began to understand Frank as a person.

We all know or know of people who have overcome diversity and hardship to become successful in life. We may even know folks who grew up with a silver spoon only to hit rock bottom when they got older. One thing each of them have in common is that their background invariably shaped the decisions they made which led to their rise or fall.

And those situations aren’t just about monetary stability or social status. More often than not, it could be as simple as, “that person’s (an asshole, racist, saint, killer…whatever) because of (how their mommy/daddy raised them, the gang violence in their neighborhood, the time they spent going to church, their drug addiction, etc.).”

And that’s just part of the backstory.

There was likely a “mirror moment” at some point early on in these people’s lives that led to their rise or fall decision. Maybe they killed someone and went to prison. Perhaps they drank too much one night, hit a pedestrian–crippling that poor soul for life–and fled the scene. They might have jumped into a fast-moving river during a flood-rain and saved the dog of a billionaire widower who rewarded them with five-million dollars.

Or maybe they got married.

Whatever happened, however a person was raised, all of this defines who your main character is at the start of the book. As an author, I not only have to show the reader a believable and interesting/entertaining character arc through the pages of the book, I have to know why a character takes a certain action or makes a specific choice to get the story moving in the first place.

That’s backstory. And it’s the most important sub-plot you’ve got to have for your story to work. Your character won’t feel alive without it.

You may reveal some of that backstory to the reader (through dialogue, flashback, etc.), but you’ll never put the whole thing in your book–or at least I wouldn’t.

It is called back story, after all. And who wants to show off all that red, painful, itchy, peeling mess, anyway?

“You’re still lame.”

I know.

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.