Stuck in the middle with you

As we enter the middle of the year, I thought it would be interesting to examine the middle of a story. For those that don’t know, most stories are split up into a three act structure. The first act serves as the introduction to the story, its characters, the world, and all the other elements that are needed to orient the reader. The first act also sets the plot into motion. The third act…acts… like you’d think an ending should. It ends things. Whatever conflict the main characters are facing will ultimately be decided and the consequences of those actions are played out.

three act structure
Three act structure, click to go to photo credit.

The second act is where things get real. Now that the reader is oriented in the world, the conflict can truly begin. Sure, Frodo and his friends may have left the Shire with the One Ring in their pockets, but that was just the beginning of their adventure. Act two of Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” starts with their trek to Rivendell where, along the way, they face some trials.

“The second act is really the heart of your book, the section in which your protagonist’s abilities and resolve are put to the test and his goal is most at risk,” Joseph Bates writes in his book “The Nighttime Novelist” and goes on to say that “It’s also the part of the book most consider the story proper.”

He lists Captain Ahab chasing Moby Dick, Dorothy navigating through the wonderful land of Oz. Frodo making that pledge to take the ring to Mount Doom.

If you’re planning out your novel and you’re stuck when it comes to the second act, here are some questions to ask:

  • What kinds of conflict will stand in the protagonist’s way?
  • What is your protagonist willing to do to achieve his goal?
  • What would happen if the protagonist fails?

Every good middle should have the following:

  • First Culmination, the midpoint of the story where the protagonist has his/her sights on the prize.
  • Darkest Moment, where the protagonist hits rock bottom and seemingly fails in his/her quest.
  • Plot Point Two, where the protagonist finds a new direction which then leads to Act three’s conflict and resolution.

Each conflict the protagonist faces should be harder than the last. This is what’s called rising action. Bates compares the second act to a roller coaster.

“A strong second act has the inevitable momentum of a roller coaster, something you white-knuckle your way through and enjoy the ride,” he writes.

Throw all of these ideas into your middle and you’ll have the good bones for your middle.

Take Marvel’s “Avengers: Infinity War” (2018) for example. For the purpose of this example, you’ll have to view Thanos as the protagonist. I know, I know, but trust me when I say that Thanos is the hero of this movie. Spoilers for those that haven’t seen the film yet, but come on that was two years ago.

The second act starts after Thanos sends his kids out to collect the rest of the stones. This begins the rising action. Stark, Strange, and Spider-man (all those S heroes) are attacked by Squidward (another S). The Guardians fight Thanos and Gamora gets taken. The midpoint is when Thanos finds out that Gamora has the location of the Soul Stone. That was the only stone that was truly hidden from the big purple dude and now he sees victory.

For Thanos, the darkest moment is when Scarlet Witch destroys the Mind Stone. This robs Thanos of his long sought quest for galactic balance. The audience believes (celebrates because who really wanted Thanos to win… certainly not me) that his quest is done and he failed to collect all the Infinity Stones.

“Now is not the time to mourn,” says Thanos and he’s right. This is where Plot Point Two comes into play when Thanos utilizes the Time Stone and reverses what Scarlet Witch did.

thanos gets the mind stone
This is what I look like when a Monday hits, by the way.

That leads into Act Three where Thanos gets his chest caved in by Thor, but it doesn’t matter because Thor didn’t go for the head. That’s another rant for another time.

That’s a summary overview of the middle part of a story. Having said all of that, you don’t necessarily have to do it this way. You’re a writer and rules are made to be broken. However, there’s a reason why most of books, movies, and other media utilize the Three Act Structure. It works.

Also, if you haven’t read Joseph Bates book, I’d recommend it. It’s a very good tool for those that can’t write for a living.

Am I Reading Too Much

As I sit at my home office (aka my bed) trying to figure out how to possibly write this week’s rant, I look over and see “Chain of Gold” by Cassandra Clare resting at the other side of the bed. I’m about 59 percent of the way through it. Picking it up, I marvel at how light the huge hardcover book is. Having never read any other books in Clare’s Shadowhunter universe, I definitely purchased “Chain of Gold” because of the beautiful cover. I know everyone saws don’t judge a book by its cover, but how ever actually follows that advice? Opening it up to the bookmarked position, I finish the section I’m on and replace the bookmark. I use a joker from a deck of cards because there’s no way I’m going to dogear a single page from this particular book.

The next thing I know, it’s a half hour later and all I have to show for it is a few pages down in by TBR (To Be Read) list. Which is always a good thing because I have a very large TBR List. To give you a frame of reference, I have an 18-gallon storage tub filled with books and my bedside table has 32 books resting upon it. Granted, most of the storage tub is an incomplete collection of Terry Brooks, but still there’s a lot.

Last weekend, I took a minute before starting a new book (“Camino Winds” by John Grisham) and pondered the question of “Am I reading too much?” Is that even a thing? At the time, I gave it only a passing thought before beginning the newest Grisham novel. I finished the book that same weekend, by the way.

It wasn’t until I read a quote Friday morning by novelist Ann Patchett that the idea came back to me. Patchett says that “Reading fiction not only develops our imagination and creativity, it gives us the skills to be alone.”

As an introvert and divorcee, my skills at being alone are already quite proficient. After my divorce a few years ago, I thought I had to find another relationship to be in. I tried a dating app, went on a few dates, quickly deleted the dating app, had one really horrible “hey I like you moments” which turned into a painful/awkward moment, and resigned myself to living and dying alone.

It wasn’t until Indiana’s stay-at-home order that I realized that I liked being alone. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s true. With night meetings canceled, for the most part, and no where to go with friends or family I had an enormous amount of free time. I rediscovered a love for an old video game, read 13 books, and stopped obsessively thinking about what people (in particular one certain person) thought about me.

Whenever I began feeling depressed, lonely, or when the real world became…a bit too real…I’d go outside on the front porch and read. Sometimes, I’d spend hours outside with a thermos of coffee in one hand and a book in the other. Sometimes, I’d substitute that book for an audio book, close my eyes, and enjoy the wind and/or sun on my skin. It didn’t matter if it was raining, sleeting, windy, cold, hot. I’d sit out there through all weather conditions. I guess you could call me a literary postman.

Patchett, in her quote, goes onto say that reading “gives us the ability to feel empathy for people we’ve never met, living lives we couldn’t possibly experience for ourselves, because the book puts us inside the character’s skin.” Which makes sense now why most of my 22 books read this year involve characters with romantic conflicts (Team Gale all the way).

My hope is that, since Indiana has entered Stage Three in the reopening plan and a sense of normalcy will be returning, I don’t lose my ravenous hunger for reading in the weeks to come. I don’t want to return to the depressed/lonely/obsessive version of myself before the pandemic.

Too much of a good thing can be bad. Eating too much pizza for example, I’m both guilty and proof of that. Drinking too much water can lead to water intoxication. Addiction to video games is another example, I’d like to say I’ve never experienced that one, but I’d be lying. When it comes to reading a book though, I guess I have doubts. On the one hand, if you are harming yourself or neglecting others because there’s a book in your hands, then okay I can see that. For me though, and I’m sure for others, reading provides that escape from the real world.

If that’s wrong, then I don’t want to be write. And yes, I meant to spell that right.

Why I Hate Writing

As you read the headline, I know what you must all be thinking: “But Jim, you’re a writer. How can you possibly hate writing?”

In reality, hate is probably too strong of a word. I love writing and there’s nothing I would rather be doing. I’m so lucky and blessed to be able to do what I love for a living. With that being said, there are some negative side-effects to being a writer. Take, for instance, finding plot in everyday life.

Lately, I’ve begun telling myself to “shut up, stupid!” There are multiple problems with this. The first problem is that it’s become, as of late, a sort of mantra. I’ll be thinking something, which will be discussed further down, and I’ll say out loud “shut up, stupid.”

That’s the one advantage to the stay-at-home order. Wearing masks in public prevents people from seeing me talk to myself. The problem though is when they think you’re talking to them and not yourself. Try telling yourself to shut up when there’s a six-foot tall linebacker looking type standing next to you in the frozen pizza aisle at Walmart. Luckily, I had an earbud in my ear. When he looked my way, I smoothly transitioned into talking to an imaginary friend over the phone via earbud. If this writing thing doesn’t pan out, I might have to consider a life in theatre.

I really don’t like using those three words so instead of not using them, like a sane individual, I decided to come up with different terminology to express myself. You know, a workaround.

Some examples include: “Be quiet, ignoramus” or “Silence, you son of a silly person” and others of the same ilk.

Because when you’re a fiction writer, you tend to overthink things. You tend to view yourself as the main character of a story. And when you start thinking your life is a story, then you start seeing objects, dialogue, life changing events, as elements of storytelling.

Or at least, I have that problem. I’m not sure if other authors/writers/creators have that problem. Maybe I’m just that self-centered. If that’s the case, and nobody except me experiences this, then that’s another problem for another rant.

When it comes to literature, nothing is random. Any storyteller that is decent in his/her craft writes characters/dialogue/narrative/etc… into the story for a purpose. Unnecessary elements will eventually get weeded out in the editing process. It may seem to be a random or unnecessary element, but the writer (hopefully) is simply setting up for a bigger payout later on in the book or in a sequel. A few weeks ago in another rant I had mentioned Chekhov’s Gun.If you didn’t read my prior rant then I won’t hold it against you. It’s not like I’m obsessed with myself or anything. If you did read it, then you’d already know that Chekhov’s Gun is a foreshadowing technique that states that if there’s a gun in the first scene, then by the end of the final scene that gun will go off. That’s just one item to prove that nothing in literature is random.

There’s another problem with overthinking about one’s life and how something interacts with it. If you’re a Christian, as I am, then you know that God is the author of your life and that he’s got everything written out. If that’s the case, then nothing in life is random. Everything has a purpose, everyone is the main character of their own story/life. If that were the case, theoretically, you could try to guess what will happen next because every main character follows a character arc, a storyline, or is on some kind of quest. And there’s my biggest problem right there. Trying to understand God’s will. Of course, there’s the looming debate on whether or not humans have free will since God’s in complete control. I don’t have the space in this rant to possibly attempt to explore that issue. I guess you could view things like a character in a story. Does the main character know there’s an author plotting out his/her life? Nope, not at all (unless the main character purposely breaks the fourth wall).

Even if I were to attempt to guess at the next plot point, I’d be completely wrong. Every stinking time. Oh, I may be self-centered, but I’m not arrogant enough to presume that I understand God’s will. Nope, not gonna try.

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your understanding; In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths,” states Proverbs 3:5-6.

So I guess I should stop overthinking about a conversation I had a week ago or what a strange encounter might be interpreted as and just trust that my Author has got everything under control.

In other words… “Silence, unintelligent dummy!”

Hopefully reading

Ever since the coronavirus officially entered Indiana, the state I live in, I’ve been reading books that had a post-apocalyptic and/or world spreading virus theme. For instance, I’m a little under 200 pages left in Stephen King’s “The Stand.”

At first, I thought I was reading it out of sheer morbid obsession. Reading a book about 99.4 percent of the world dying from a super flu while the actual world is living through a pandemic with flu-like symptoms. But then I got to page 904. For those that don’t know, “The Stand” starts with a super flu that kills off most of the population. The survivors are pitted in a battle between God and Satan. The prophet that God has chosen to lead His people is Mother Abagail. Spoiler Alert: She instructs some people to travel to the heart of evil, Las Vegas, and stand up to Satan’s prophet, Randall Flagg.

Here’s the end of Mother Abagail’s instructions. “But he is in Las Vegas, and you must go there, and it is there that you will make your stand. You will go, and you will not falter, because you will have the Everlasting Arm of the Lord God of Hosts to lean on. Yes. With God’s help you will stand.”

Now, only one of those chosen four were religious. The other three were skeptical at best, but they all believed in Mother Abagail. And Mother Abagail believed and trusted God.
I’m sure it’s no coincidence that I’ll be finishing the book this weekend. For those that have lost track of the date/time (I know I have on several occasions), it’s Easter. For those that don’t know the specifics, here’s a brief rundown of events.

Beginning in the Bible, Matthew 26:47, Jesus was betrayed by Judas. He was arrested, taken to the high priest Caiaphas, accused of false crimes, condemned to death, mocked, beaten, and crucified. Here’s the thing, Jesus knew this was going to happen. He knew Judas would be the one to betray him and that he would be put to death. Knowing all of this, he didn’t fight the Sanhedrin physically or try to escape (I imagine he could’ve if he so decided).

Now, I’m not saying that the Bible and The Stand are equal in importance. If there was one text, I would advise reading it would be the Bible.

Both have a great moral story to them and teach a valuable lesson. In fact, in each text, it’s the same moral story. The moral is that if you trust in God and stand against evil, you will prevail. Even if your results aren’t what you desire, you’ll eventually prevail.

And that’s why I’m reading the Bible and The Stand. Not for the doom saying or the plagues or the death and destruction. Trust me, there’s a lot of that in each book.
But there’s also hope.

In this time, the Era of Corona, we could use some hope. That’s why Easter is such an important time for those that believe in God. Jesus died and in three days he was resurrected. If we trust in God and are faithful to His instructions, then we will also live again in Heaven. It is my hope that you find something to read that inspires hope. For me, I find hope in the Bible and fictional novels like The Stand.

I wish everyone has a safe and happy Easter. Remain faithful to God, trust in the Word, and do the only thing we can in this harrowing time.

Stand.

What to read in a time like this?

I try to find the humor in every situation I face. Somehow, if I can laugh about something it just doesn’t seem that scary/depressing/overwhelming/(insert emotion). I remember when I was hospitalized for a three foot blood clot and I had made a joke about it to my wife (at the time). She doesn’t share my humor for laughing in the face of disaster.

Maybe that’s why we’re no longer together. Hmmm…

Anyhoo, so for those that are self-quarantined, staying away from the public, or just simply an introvert here are some choices in reading material for this time of season. And please, just know that even though this list is themed toward pandemics, it’s simply a literary book list with some dark humor to it.

So for your reading pleasure, here is my 2020 Pandemic Book List:

the stand1. The Stand, by Stephen King. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention this horror classic. The premise of this ginormous novel is a detailed vision of the total breakdown of society after the accidental release of a strain of influenza that had been modified for biological warfare causes an apocalyptic pandemic that kills over 99 percent of the world’s population. It’s an amazing read about what happens to humanity and the good vs evil theme is quite page turning. I’m currently watching the television adapted movie and reading the uncut version of the novel. I’ve been sniffling and coughing up phlegm all the while.

Makes a man a bit paranoid, haha.

the-andromeda-strain2. The Andromeda Strain, by Michael Crichton. First off, I love when people call books a techno-thriller. It’s such a great name for a genre. So this novel handles the narrative differently. It documents the efforts of a team of scientists investigating the outbreak of a deadly extraterrestrial mirco-organism in Arizona.

Year-One-Nora-Roberts3. Year One, by Nora Roberts. Okay, so if you’re not that into Stephen King because of the length of books he writers, I get it. However, if you’re looking for a pandemic themed book that invokes King’s The Stand without the 1,000 + page count then this one is it. I’ll warn you though, it’s part of a trilogy so if you’re wanting a one and done read, then you may reconsider it. It’s a great read about a sickness that spreads suddenly and within weeks, everything starts to crumble. This is different than your basic pandemic. Where science and technology falls, magic rises and people start developing magical powers and turning into elves and other magical creatures.

world_war_z_book_cover4. World War Z, by Max Brooks. So, without getting into all the zombie fiction out there (and believe me there’s a lot) I’ll just offer this one beacon of light among the undead. This book, written by Director Mel Brook’s son, is a collection of individual accounts following the devastating global conflict against the zombie plague. For those that have read The Zombie Survival Guide, this is the same author and it’s equally well written. While the guide was written in a half-comical nature, WWZ is written in a serious tone that examines survival-ism, uncertainty, and the ineptitude of individuals and governments. It’s really a must-read.

As an additional note, I really disliked the movie simply because it was nothing like the book. In my opinion, it would’ve been better to make it a strict adaptation of the novel. And you can fight me on that.

dracula_book_cover5. Dracula, by Bram Stoker. Okay, hear me out on this one before I get an angry voicemail about how I need to “get my facts straight.” Dracula is about a vampire that travels to England so that he may find new blood and spread the undead curse. However, the good Count is defeated by a band of humans that wield science as a weapon. Sound familiar? It should because that’s the basic theme of almost all pandemic themed fiction. I once wrote a college paper about how Dracula was a metaphor for Cholera. It was pretty good paper inspired by a very good work of fiction. Check it out.

Well, that’s five pandemic inspired fictional works. While I hope you all don’t fall ill with the coronavirus, I do hope you read some of the books on this list. All have a soft spot in my literary heart and have earned a place on my Hall of Fame for books.

With any luck, I’ll talk to you all next week.

A Decade Remembered

For my work, I was tasked in combing through ten years’ worth of Starke County Leaders to find highlights from the last decade. It’s only natural, while making your way through almost 500 editions of a newspaper, that I began to think about the highlights from my own life.

Dictionary.com defines highlight as “an important, conspicuous, memorable, or enjoyable event, scene, part, or the like.”

I think it’s important to consider the fact that a highlight can include negative events as well as positive ones. After all, you can’t take the good without taking the bad. For example, look what happens to the Jedi Order when you don’t study the Dark Side of the Force. You end up on the bad side of Order 66. Nobody wants that.

Here are some of the highlights from my own personal decade:
– I celebrated my one-year wedding anniversary on July 11, 2010.
– In March 2010, I wrote this joke: Q. What do you call a sleep walking nun? A. A Roaming Catholic. It was received with mild success.
– In 2011, I went back to school at IUSB. Instead of Computer Science, I began studying English.
– In December 2012, I wrote a 1,600-word paper on King Arthur’s court collapsing due Marxist Theory. It was pretty spectacular.
– My grandfather, James Norton, passed away on March 7, 2013. He was a great man, role model, and grandpa.
– Signed with Permuted Press to have my book series published in February 2014.
– Spent an amazing week in Seattle for the American Writers & Publishers (AWP) conference with fellow IUSB writing friends.
– In 2014 I got a mortgage for a home in Plymouth with my wife of five years.
– On March 2, 2015, I found out that Permuted Press cancelled the book contract.
– I finished my college education at IUSB in May 2015. It took me 11 years, but I did it.
– Left my job at IUSB and started work at the Pilot News Group, where I’m still employed and loving it.
– Found out I had a ginormous blood clot in my left leg. That was fun (sarcasm).
– November 2015 I signed a new book contract with Burning Willow Press for that series that was earlier canceled.
– In 2017 I became a published author. Since then I’ve published three books, four short stories, and a combined book with several other authors.
– After a two-year separation my wife and I divorced in 2018. This event ended nine years together.
– When BWP closed in 2019, my books were once again homeless. But only for a day when Random Evolved Media offered to pick them up.

There have been many other good and bad highlights that I won’t mention. From the list above, it looks to me as if my life has been filled with more bad memories than good. That might make some people feel depressed. Admittedly, there were times during the last ten years that I feel deep into depression. I still do sometimes.

Since I’m a nerd, I thought of this quote from the BBC show, Doctor Who. “The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things,” says The Doctor, portrayed by Matt Smith. “The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don’t always spoil the good things and make them unimportant.”

There’s no way of knowing what the next ten years will throw at us. However, as long as we cherish that pile of good things while learning how to overcome the pile of bad things, I’m sure I’ll be writing another decade rewrap. And hopefully you’ll be here to read it.

Goodbye 2010-2019 and hello 2020-2029!

See you all next year.

Books make the best gifts

Okay, so maybe books don’t make the best gifts. I’ll admit that I’d rather be given a Samsung Galaxy Note 10+ over a Stephen King book. One exception to that if the Stephen King book was a first edition signed copy. If my “Secret Santa” was looking to gift me one of those phones, then make sure it’s able to be on the Sprint network. Just saying. Now onto this week’s rant.

There are many reasons why books make the perfect gift. Here are some reasons why:

1. Books are easily transportable. You can’t take a 72-inch flat screen television with you to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and watch as you wait in line to renew your driver’s license. You also can’t take a Playstation 4 with you to a government meeting and play the new Star Wars game a few minutes before the meeting convenes. I’ve tried. You just end up with council members giving you weird looks as you try to plug an HDMI cable into the monitors. Books can be taken with you wherever you go. It doesn’t matter where you go: churches, meetings, the BMV, even the bathroom. All of those places and more, a book can be taken with you. Last detail about that: if you’re borrowing a book from the library or a friend, don’t take it into the bathroom. That’s common courtesy.

2. Books are cheap. If you’re like me, a writer, you can’t really afford to spend a bunch of money on Christmas presents. I mean, you could spend rent and bill money to buy that perfect, albeit expensive, gift for your loved one. You might be asking them for a place to stay while you catch up on bills, but whatever. Books are the perfect alternative. You don’t have to drop $400 dollars on a book unless it’s a signed first edition of Stephen King.

3. Books are personalized. Fantasy, Horror, Romance, Science Fiction, etc. Everyone has a preference when it comes to works of fiction. Or non-fiction. Choosing the perfect book for that person tells you that you know them enough to know what types of books they like to enjoy. Televisions aren’t personal like a book can be. Just make sure you take in deciding which book is right.

4. Books require no assembly. Unless you buy a book from Ikea, you don’t need to assemble anything the night before Christmas. Plus, they need no batteries. I can’t tell you the money I’ve spent buying batteries for gifts that didn’t include them.

5. Books make the perfect re-gift. When you’re finished reading a book, you can pass them on as a White Elephant book. If you’re like me, you wear a book out in the first reading. I typically crack a spine of a book more than I crack my own. If it’s a hardback, then maybe that’d be an okay book as a regular gift. However, if you bend the edges of the pages like I do, then maybe consider buying a newer version.

6. Books don’t hurt as much as other things. Have you ever stepped on a bunch of Legos? Have you ever banged your head on a television? Stepping on the edge of a book, a pointy hardcover, is a pretty difficult thing to do. I don’t think I’ve ever done that.
Literature is something that I’ve tried to purchase for my friends and relatives for birthdays and Christmas gifts. Personally, I like hunting for the right book. Sure, it may take time but that’s what makes gifts so enjoyable. Remember that old saying, “It’s the thought that counts?” Books personify that sentiment.

Happy hunting and merry Christmas!