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.

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.

The Thankful Writer

As I write this, I’m sitting in the living room of my aunts and mother’s home. It’s mid-afternoon and we’re all waiting for Thanksgiving Dinner. My sister’s family and I piled into their van early in the morning to travel to Illinois where our aunt and mother live. It’s a rather short trip, just under three hours, and we were fortunate not to experience any kind of traffic. We stopped for gasoline once and I was able to refuel my caffeine tank while my brother-in-law filled the van’s. The dinner we had consisted of turkey, ham, potato casserole, cheesy broccoli, and some type of cranberry concoction. It was delicious. When we finished and washed the dishes, we had dessert. As tradition dictates, that dessert was pumpkin pie with whipped cream. While we devoured the pie, the Disney Plus movie “Noelle” played. That too was pretty good. Sure, it had a lot of product placement and a predictable ending, but the casting was great and the humor was flawless.

Overall it was a rather perfect day free of any kind of drama.

To say that I have a lot to be thankful for is an understatement. The first thing that I’m thankful for is my family. My family has supported me and has had my back even at my darkest, lowest moments. I count myself blessed to be apart of this family. Another thing I’m thankful for is my job. As an author, it’s difficult to find a job that grants the flexibility needed to actually get some book writing done. It’s also very fulfilling and entertaining. Covering the news, you will always get something different coming across your desk. Being able to help get the word out on various topics, organizations, and causes is something that I take pride in. I’ve also made many friends and acquaintances in my four and a half years as a news writer.

My faith is something that I don’t touch on very often during these times together. That’s something I could talk about later on, but for now let me just say that without God, I might’ve succumbed to the devastating depression that followed my separation and divorce. I’m so thankful for all the things that God has done for me, even if some of those things weren’t all that great.

One of the final things that I’m thankful for is… you. The reader. You’re the one that reads my weekly rants, my articles, and (hopefully) my books. Without you guys, I might not be here every week ranting about one thing or another. I’d most likely be working at a gas station on third shift. As a side note, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. I had worked third shift at a gas station in South Bend and I despised it. Working nights at a gas station in the south edge of a minor city in Northern Indiana was boring and soul-crushing. However, I did meet a lot of interesting individuals during those nights. An example was this one guy that was walking to Kokomo from Michigan because he was kicked out of the state.

There’s always one person on my Facebook feed that likes to remind their friends that this holiday was based on White people taking advantage of the natives. Whether that was the case or not, it really doesn’t matter much because the past is the past.

What does matter is that on Thanksgiving, we acknowledge the blessings that we have been given. We need to remember that not everyone has been blessed as we have. For me, I know that things could have gone a very different route if it hadn’t been for my family, my God, my job, and readers like you.

So, what I guess what I’m trying to say is… thanks.

The Curse of the Written Word

Keeping up with this month’s theme of the spooky and creepy, I want to share my feelings about one of the curses of the Written Word. Don’t worry, it’s not really one of those curses that’ll turn you into a frog, newt, or any other amphibian. I don’t have that power.

But I do have another power granted to me by the Written Word.

See, words have power. The power to create, to sustain, to build up, and to grant freedom. Take the United States Declaration of Independence for example. Written in 1776, this document explained why 13 colonies sought to free themselves from the Kingdom of Great Britain.

“When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

You can’t tell me those two paragraphs are simply a well-connected string of words and punctuation. Those words have meaning. They, and the entire document that follows them, contain a power that has created a nation, has sustained that nation for over 200 years, has built up other countries that have sought independence, and has granted freedom to an unmeasurable number of men, women, and children.

People say magic doesn’t exist. Whenever I hear that claim, I ask them if they’ve ever read a book.

With all powerful things, there are neglectful people that use it haphazardly. And, of course, there are evil people that use it for abusive practices. Look at Twitter to see some of those abusive practices.

You might be thinking, “Jim, who are you to accuse us of abusing the power of the written word?” Because, dear reader: I’m a horrible practitioner of the written word. If you’ve read my past rants, you’ll know what I think of both James Patterson and the State of Michigan. Unlike the Founding Fathers, I’ve never used my power for good when it came to those two subjects.

Recently, I’ve been using it without thinking of the implications. The true curse of the written word is that it’s hard to interpret a message from a friend. I remember when I was married, my wife accused me once that I didn’t love her. It was on a way home from work. She was sitting in the passenger seat of our van and I was driving. She was abnormally silent, and I knew something was up. You could always tell when she was angry about something when she was quiet. Silence, in this case, was deadly.
After spending some time coaxing her into talking, she responded that I hadn’t ended a text with “I love you.”

It didn’t help that I laughed when she said that. I couldn’t help it. I thought I’d accidently done something wrong. After a few more minutes of driving in silence (her anger had renewed and grown after my outburst of laughter), she informed me that when I had texted back “Sure, Taco Bell sounds good” and I had left out those essential three words, the message was interpreted that while I loved Taco Bell, I somehow didn’t love her. So, after that day, I’d always text back with those three words. Even when I was indisposed. Example: “I’ll be downstairs in a minute. I’m using the bathroom… I love you.”

It’s been my experience that I often text something I think it funny, but when others read it, they are offended, confused, or think I’m serious. That’s why if I ever text you, you’ll usually receive another text saying “lol jk.” For those that don’t know lol means laugh out loud and jk means just kidding.

It hits me hard when I hear back from people that I’ve offended them by something I’ve texted. I recently hurt someone close to me due to this. It’s painful for them, and it’s painful for me.

Texting someone is convenient, but we lose something in the translation between word of mouth and the written word. That’s the true curse of the written word.

As Uncle Ben once said to one of my favorite superhero’s: “With great power, comes great responsibility.”

Treat the power you have. Don’t trick people with it.