What I Learned from Watching Two Homeless Men Fight

Fast FoodI wasn’t expecting a side order of excitement with my burger, but that’s what happened.

It was lunchtime at Jack-in-the Box and the place was full. A homeless man sat at a booth with his head on the table, likely asleep. Another homeless man walked the floor, holding a collection of ratty papers. He had gray hair and talked to himself.

Gray Hair then walked over to Sleeper and watched him sleep. I thought it odd, but I ignored them, sucking on my Dr. Pepper. Then I heard some loud noises and Sleeper yelled “My stuff! That’s my stuff!”

Gray hair was smacking Sleeper with an umbrella.

All eyes turned to the fight. No one ate.  The restaurant crew emerged from around the counter to see the ruckus.

A construction worker put down his burger and walked quickly and calmly over to the booth and grabbed hold of the umbrella.

“Sir, you need to step outside,” he said to Gray hair. He then pointed at the manager. “Ma’am, call the police.”

Gray hair stepped outside with the umbrella and Construction guy went back to his table to finish his burger.

Sleeper then said “But that was my umbrella.”

The kindly little manager replied, “I’ll get you another one.”

Everybody went back to eating lunch, but conversations turned to the event they just witnessed.

For me, the most extraordinary part of the story wasn’t the altercation itself, but Construction guy’s response.

Everyone else froze, wide-eyed and dumbfounded. Not him.  Totally unfazed, he was. The fight ended almost before it started because this dude acted instantly, maintaining his cool.

Best selling author Steven James says this about characterization: “Stillness, confidence, courage, and moral groundedness all raise status.”

All characters play out their “status” on the page.  James cites protagonists who smoke as a typical example of displaying status. The smoking gives the protagonist the opportunity to calmly drag on his cancer stick before answering questions. This raises status, shows he’s in control.

In real life, people also play out their status, one person being dominant or at least trying to be dominant.

In my story above, the construction worker had the highest status. He was in control. The people with “high status” are usually more relaxed, less fidgety than those of “lower status”.

I’d like to be like that.

 I want to be a person who thinks before reacting to criticism. I want to maintain my cool when people are in my face. I don’t want to be easily angered.

Often I’m too easily frustrated. I raise my voice and get worked up, but this only lowers my status.

It exposes my insecurity.

 Sometimes I get what I want when I throw a tantrum, but the person who calmly grants my demands provokes a feeling of shame in me. Even though I “win” the argument, I become the smaller person.

I should strive to be like the construction worker.

Who in your life can you look up to that has “high status”?

Balancing What You HAVE To Do with What You WANT To Do (or Why I’m Taking the Nanowrimo Plunge)

Untitled design-4“Sometimes I think all you care about is writing,” said the neglected family member.

While family and friends have been mostly supportive of my writing pursuits, they fail to realize the obsessiveness necessary to write a novel.

The non-writer may understand the difficulty of sporadic novel reading, trying to pick up in the middle of a book after a hiatus.

Who was that guy? And why does he want to blow up the cheese factory? And what about the unicorn? How does she fit into the conspiracy to murder Freddie Mercury’s ghost? They then have to reread portions of the book to jog their memory.

The non-writer does NOT understand how much more difficult it is to write a novel in a sporadic manner.

Not only do you have to “hold” all the characters and plot in your head, but also the voice, mood, style, etc. Once the momentum is lost, it may take a full reread of the manuscript before you ever write another word.

How do you then balance your obligations with your passions?

Or more simply, how do you balance what you have to do with what you want to do?

I’m all for following your dreams, but anyone who says you should do so without regard to the people in your life is dead wrong. What would we say about the father who abandons his family to become a hamster juggler with the circus?

While this rodent tossing example may be extreme, where do we draw the line when it comes to spending time with the real people in your life versus the imaginary people in your head?

The answer: Negotiate a schedule with your friends and family.

Explain what you are trying to accomplish and discuss the time you need to get it done.

This is exactly why I’ve signed up for National Novel Writing Month of November (Nanowrimo). If you’re not familiar with Nanowrimo, the idea is to write 50,000 words of a novel in one month. You can sign up at their website and have access to all their recourses and get encouragement from people pursuing the same goal.

What Nanowrimo has allowed me to do is tell the people in my life that for one month I am going to be live, eat, and breathe writing.

Just one month.

One month where I need to be left alone. One month of being locked in my office. One month where my facial hair may grow long and I might smell worse than usual.

After the month is over, life can go back to a more reasonable schedule.

The question is what will work for you. Maybe it’s Nanowrimo. Maybe it’s an hour blocked out every single day for writing. Maybe it’s a weekend.

Where is “the line” for you and your friends and family?

Common Mistakes in Crafting a Novel’s First Line

I just overheard a conversation that went like this….

Untitled design-3Guy #1- “I believe Andrew has a fatal flaw.”

Guy #2- “Oh, yeah. What would make you believe he has one of those?”

Guy#1- “Well….I feel a little awkward now. I don’t really like talking about people.”

Guy #2- “I don’t really want you to talk about people either. I just wonder what would make you say he has a fatal flaw.”

“Guy #1” knew how to come up with a compelling opening line. He had “Guy #2” interested. Heck, he had me interested and I don’t even know Andrew.

The first line of your fiction should be just as compelling. The reader should want to continue reading, but be ye forewarned: There are a couple rookie mistakes when creating a first line.

Mistake One- Not creating a compelling first line at all.

This may seem obvious, but much of our writing journey involves reading famous authors and learning from them. The problem is established authors get away with almost anything, including not having a good opening line. So before you push back with “such and such book doesn’t have a compelling opening line”, remember you’re likely reading a trusted author.

If you’re Brad Pitt and you want to pick up women, all you have to say at the bar is “Hey, I’m Brad Pitt” and you’d have women falling all over each other to get to you. Brad Pitt doesn’t have to have an opening line; He just has to be Brad Pitt.

Likewise, James Patterson and Janet Evanovich don’t need a gripping start to their novels. Their readers know they’ll deliver the goods. Unknown writers don’t have that luxury.

Mistake Two- Going Overboard with your First Line.

New writers will often start on a high note, then deescalate their prose with the second line. Imagine if “Guy #1” led with the juicy gossip about poor, unsuspecting Andrew rather than enticing us with the “fatal flaw” business.   He’d have nowhere to go. He’d tell the punch line and we wouldn’t care about anything that happened thereafter.

The goal of your first line is to entice us to read the second line. The goal of the second line is to entice us to read the third and so on till we are invested in the story.

The word for the day is entice.

You don’t have to start with an exploding building or a car chase to do so. Start with something that creates interest. Start with something that raises questions in the reader’s mind. Start building tension.

 

The Q4 Writing Pep Talk

Untitled designThe panicky Paul Revere of your mind is already calling out, “The holidays are coming, the holidays are coming!”

The house needs to be ready for judgmental Aunt Gertrude and her gassy new husband. Your company needs to sell 100 thousand more cheese wheels before January. Christmas presents need to be bought, but first the kids are whining about Halloween. You’re wondering where you’re ever going get a “Zombie Smurf” costume for little Billy.

Writing your novel has moved to the back burner or even the deep freeze of your priority kitchen.

It’s the final quarter of the year or “Q4” to you business types.

The “to do” list grows exponentially during this time and it’s easy to put off your dreams.

Don’t.

There’s a Biblical proverb that goes “Those who watch the wind won’t plant; those who look at the clouds won’t reap.”

 What does that mean?

For all you non-rural folk who live in the 21st century, it means if you wait for the perfect conditions, you won’t do anything of worth in life. It means your romanticized version of writing won’t happen, so you need to get started.

Stop waiting for the Zen writing conditions.

Carve out time for writing. Aunt Gertrude can squawk all she wants about the dust bunnies under your couch.

Put the kids to bed. Worrying about their costumes won’t get it done any sooner.

Clear out the spot in the pantry; you know the one, next to the silverfish-infested bag of rice. Set up that wobbly card table. Place that outdated HP computer on top. Close the door.

Like most things in life, it ain’t perfect, but you can make it work.

Start writing.