“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

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.

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.