Writing

Beginning a New Job

I have been hired!

It’s been about a month and a half of unemployment, which has been frustrating, but thankfully the search is over. I will begin my new job on Monday next.

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The great thing about customer service is that each customer has his/her own questions and personalities I’ll be navigating. With that comes many, many stories. I’ll be happy to share my experiences here with you when they start rolling in.

A couple years ago I was working customer service. An angry woman called in and said, “Pardon my French, but this is a load of bullshit!”

Well, honey, I speak French. And I told her that. In French.

I said the equivalent of “I’m sorry, that’s not French. I hope your grandmother is on fire.” Mostly because I could, not because I wanted her grandmother to burn. And because it is offensive to say that swear words are the same as the French language.

She responded with, “Don’t play with me!”

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Well, I kept talking to her, I got to the bottom of her troubles and sorted her out. By the end of the conversation she was laughing and apologized for being so abrasive at the beginning of the conversation.

I’m hoping to bring these skills with me to my new position. Not the part where I tell people I hope their grandmother is on fire, because I don’t wish that on anyone’s grandmother. I want to take the part where I bring people from a place of frustration and confusion to a place of understanding and peace.

I try to do this in my writing by setting up a conflict for my protagonist. The difficulty I have with it is that I see the misunderstanding from the beginning and try to steer him away from the blunder. I have him stumble upon another character who will explain the confusion before it becomes a problem.

This is a bad thing to do. Because if I keep allowing my protagonist to have an easy time of it, my story won’t go anywhere. At the same time, when I see my character making stupid decisions even after I tell him not to, I get angry at him.

“Well, you got yourself into this pickle, you can get yourself out!” I scream at my computer. Other patrons at the coffee shop are kind enough not to stare at me directly, but I catch their fleeting glimpses.

At an annual review, my supervisor told me that one of my biggest weaknesses is that I’m too kind. I let the clients do whatever they want to do when we have goals to work on, effectively getting zero work done. I wasn’t sure if that was a backhanded compliment or underhanded insult. I’m seeing it come through in my writing. I’m too nice to my characters, allowing no room for productivity.

As I begin my new job I will be as nice as production allows, provide the information that I can, and speak as much French as possible.

Image Credit: TMCNet

Image Credit: Jon Oropeza

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The Study

I awoke with a start. I must have dozed off with my paper. The pipe in my hand was still warm, but the smoke had stopped sifting out of the bowl. Striking a match, I inhaled the comforting cloud into my lungs. I relaxed. My Newfoundland, Rufus, was sleeping at my slippers. He sneezed in his sleep.

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I returned to the article I had been reading about a new Boeing 747, but realized the article had been the cause of my drowsiness in the first place. I shook my head and set it back down. Reaching for one of the many antique books lining the cherry wood shelf next to my chair, I cracked it open to the middle just to fill my nostrils with the scent of old book. Withdrawing it from my face, I realized I had selected Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray. I’ve always felt bad for Basil Hallward. Throughout the story he held onto the hope that there was still good in Mr. Gray. It did not bode well for Mr. Hallward in the end.

As I was reading, there was a soft knock at the door. There was no need for words in that study. I looked up to see Ilsa, my beautiful wife, walk in with two glasses in her hands. Written on her face was a look of contentment. Her favorite time of the week was when we retreated to our safe haven, and it was finally Sunday, the day we set aside for the study. She smiled at me and closed the heavy wooden door behind her. She stepped to the wine rack and selected two bottles of our favorites: Pinot Noir for me and a Chardonnay for herself. She handed me my glass, leaned in for a kiss, and pulled the cord on the brass lamp above my head.

As always, I could hear my father’s voice telling a younger version of me, “Reading in the dark causes unnecessary strain on your eyes.” He’s been gone for eons, it seemed, but never have I met a man I more deeply respect.

The lamp-shade was yellowed from age and years of tobacco smoke dancing in its illumination. The bulb hummed lazily. Satisfied, my wife retired to her spot on the couch and opened to her favorite chapter in an old Louisa May Alcott novel.

How long had we been keeping up this routine? Five years? Fifteen? More? Every Sunday evening we climbed the rickety spiral staircase to reach our sanctuary of solitude.

Early on in our routine I considered whether an elevator was in store for us. Even then I wasn’t sure how much longer my tired legs could struggle up those wooden steps. My feet were like gears turning without enough grease, whining with every step.

I rose to consider this alternative to the worn brass handrails. Would I honestly disgrace my home by putting in an electric elevator? No. Back then and even now, I would rather have our son carry us up every week than to push a button to lift us to our hideaway.

I stepped behind my oak writing desk. Used strictly for handwriting, this tabletop had never felt the weight of a computer. Computers imply work or connecting to the outside world. That study was intended for escape. I had written many a letter to friends and family, yet never to businessmen or politicians here. I had written poems about happiness and loss, love and love-making, the earth and all her splendor. I had written stories about my son and my son’s son; about my travels, domestic and abroad. I had written out of joy. I had written to stay sane. I had written to remember and to be remembered.

I sipped the dark red liquid. An orange glow appeared on my wrinkled face from the singeing ash in my pipe. A large half-moon window stood behind the desk. Through it, I gazed up at the starry night sky and appreciated, as many times before, the wonder of the moon. Had it really been forty years since Ilsa and I moved into this house? It was late. Numbers meant nothing to me at this hour, whatever time it was. We had never put a clock up there. The study was intended for relaxation.

Just then I heard the door creep open. Rufus raised his head in curiosity. Sleepily, our grandson walked in with his blanket, rubbing his eyes.

“Papa, I can’t sleep. Will you read me a story?”

I glanced to Ilsa who looked as if her heart might burst with pride at the sight of our four-year-old grandson, Jack. She knew as well as I did that he had been trying not to sleep so he could sit on my lap and listen to my deep gravelly voice, and smell the sweet aroma of my Virginia leaf aflame within my pipe. Who was I to deny him his request? He brought with him his trusty blanket and the moccasin slippers we bought for his last birthday. He wanted a pair that matched Grandpa’s. While I read Andersen’s fairy tales to him, he slowly stroked Rufus with his foot and stared mesmerized at the smoke that lingered in the lamplight. I blew smoke rings just to see his eyes light up with delight. Did this remind him of his toys that lit up and sang to him when he pushed the circular button? Maybe his young mind was remembering the mobile that hung above his crib and the shapes, suspended in the air, that demanded the consciousness from his eyes. For his sake, I hoped these rings harbored similar magic.

Ilsa turned the gramophone down a notch while Etta James’s voice soothed Jack’s frazzled nerves. It must have been late. I couldn’t imagine what kind of willpower it took for him to keep awake until an opportune moment arrived for him to present his innocent request. I rewarded his hard work with a grandiose retelling of his favorite story.

Despite my theatrical execution, six pages into The Steadfast Tin Soldier, Jack was breathing slowly and steadily. His head felt heavy against my chest. I looked to my Ilsa for confirmation. Amused with my performance, she grinned and readied a makeshift bed for him on the over-stuffed leather couch. I laid him down and watched a mischievous grin appear in his sleep, almost to say how swimmingly he pulled off his deception.

I packed another pipe and surveyed my surroundings. A short book stand separated an identical leather, button-holed chair from the one I was occupying. Both were facing the davenport. On top of the book stand sat a thick, transparent cigar ash tray with the remnants of my previous smoke. Ensconced on the next shelf down was a large glass jar with a lid which caged the tobacco waiting to be burned.

In front of the chairs was a large redwood coffee table with a few of our favorite magazines and the Sunday paper. We subscribed solely for the crossword puzzles. Also, Jack loved to look at the comics. He would ask me to read the funnies to him, but I doubt he understood the irony of them. His laugh was a bit too contrived. The table legs swooped down like an old claw foot bathtub. They were intricately carved to give an essence of the stability of a kingdom tried by time. They stood their ground against any foe, natural disaster or conspiracy from within. For a coffee table, I assume that would translate to heavy platters, spilled drinks or perhaps the clambering a four-year-old.

Opposite the chairs was my wife’s favorite spot: the sofa. She was sitting on the end that was close enough to catch a bit of light from my hazy lamp. She pretended to read, but her book was upside down. She was rubbing Jack’s feet whose head was on the dark end of the sofa. Most likely, her thoughts were of what kind of man he would grow up to be. Perhaps we would have another Graham to admire. Jack’s father went above and beyond what any father could hope for. Our only son was a man of great character and honor. Would Jack follow his footsteps? Of course, though Ilsa prayed that Jack wouldn’t have to relive the hardships Graham had. When Graham’s wife died during childbirth, we thought he would come undone. But like a Phoenix, our boy rose up and grew into being the father I could only wish that I had been. The plush cushions of Ilsa’s couch enveloped her petite frame and cradled her as the worries of time passed out of mind. The study was intended for relief.

Behind her was the dark, cherry wood wine rack, half filled with half-filled bottles. The bottles were nestled in triangles that sat behind the bold frame of the hutch. It stood on the only end of the study that would allow for such a tall shelf. The ceiling swung down nearly to the floor on the opposing side of the study, but a short wall reached up to catch it just in time.

Looking back on our years in the study filled me with a sense of completeness. Yes, we had a hard go of it from time to time, but every Sunday we had the study to look forward to. Once inside, the rest of life seemed to dissipate from our thoughts. My Ilsa asked once if the world remembered we existed when we closed the heavy doors. “Yes,” I replied. “She just can’t find us right now.”

Rufus sneezed in his sleep again, returning me to the moment. Ilsa had put aside her book and joined Jack in the world of the sleeping. After all, that is what the study was intended for:

Safety to sleep like a child.

 

Image credit: Rinabobina

Extroverted Writers

I have been doing some research to find out if I am the only extroverted writer in the world. Obviously not, but a Google search of “Famous Extroverted Writers” will pull up thousands of hits about introverted writers. It feels like a lost cause.

During a vacation to Jamaica my wife and I took last spring, we were faced with the glaring difference of introverts (her) and extroverts (me). We were at a resort for 6 days. By the fourth, I turned into a moody brat. I walked around the gorgeous beaches with a scowl on my face. The rum punch couldn’t even help.

It wasn’t until that evening when we realized that I was socially drained. Not in the sense that I’d been around too many people all week, but in the fact that we had spoken to no one the entire time. Dana was having a blast, but I needed to talk to strangers if I was going to enjoy the rest of the trip.

We went and played drinking games with a few of the other guests that night, and my socio-meter filled. It was two-fold awesome, because I won all the games.

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I’m currently reading a helpful/unhelpful book. Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop TalkingI’m reading this mostly because I’m trying to better understand my wife’s preferred energy reboot. In the book, Cain talks about how introverts have the focus-power to deliberately practice his/her passion or skill. That’s why bestselling authors are able to write such masterpieces: because they don’t need people around for energy. They chisel out time in their lives to be alone, focus and be brilliant.

That sounds harsh on the extrovert. I would like to tout the fact that I deliberately practice my writing. I focus and write several thousand words per day. But that’s simply not the case.

If I choose to stay home, I rarely open my laptop. If I go to a coffee shop, I meet friends so we can “work” together. Also, since coffee shops are expensive, I’ve been finding myself at libraries instead. This doesn’t help because it’s quiet. I don’t have the social stimuli to rev up the creative juices.

Am I a lost cause? Will I ever finish my first book so I can start on one of the other 13 grand ideas I have simmering on the back burner?

No. I’m not. Sometimes I believe that I am, but I cannot fall into that trap. Ninty-eight percent of my favorite authors are introverts (I just made that number up. Maybe all of them are. I can’t find extroverted authors on Google), but I will work my hardest to become one of the few successful extroverted writers.

How? Focusing. Accepting my fate as a hopeless extrovert, and using that to my benefit. I will seek out bustling coffee shops to write in and invite my friends to join me there. It will take me longer to finish my projects, but that’s a sacrifice I have no choice but to make. Unless, of course, an editor needs 500 pages revised in three weeks. I’ll deal with that once I get a book contract.

I will also build on the platform that was created for introverts: blogs! Blogs offered an outlet for introverts to express ideas from the comfort of their own home. Cain talks about an introvert who would never raise her hand during a lecture hall class, but could easily go home and write a post for thousands of people to read. Blogs have definitely changed from their early days, but it’s still a huge venue for introverts and extroverts alike to spread ideas.

If you are an extroverted writer, perhaps you’ve felt the discouraging pressure. Being passionate in a field that lends itself to a personality type that doesn’t fit you makes you question if you should just give up. I’ve questioned it many times. But I keep going back to the fact that this is what I love. This is what makes me come alive. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life. Why should I turn my back on that just because I like people around?

Let me know if you have any helpful suggestions for me. I’m always looking for new motivation tools. If you don’t give up, I won’t either.

 

Prim and Proper

Spoiler Alert! I talk about end of series events in this post.

I think a lot of people focus on Katniss, Peeta and Gale too much. What about Prim? Who was that little sister, and was she really an important character in the Hunger Games series?

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I thought about doing a character sketch on the mother, but I don’t think there’s enough material there.

Prim. Primrose. Primmy Prim Prim. Primmerton. Primmethius. Say a word enough times and it loses its meaning.

Prim is an incredibly important part of who Katniss is. Prim is the driving force of Katniss – the reason to keep fighting another day. Without Prim, there really wouldn’t be a saving grace for Katniss’s character. And what I mean by that, is that Katniss is selfish. Throw the two boys in there, and she has no idea what she wants. There are times she treats them both like dirt because she knows she has them wrapped around her finger. She loves them both and doesn’t want to chose.

But with Prim, the opposite is true. Prim is the one in control of Katniss. What does Prim do with that power? She cultivates it. She loves her sister and does what is best for her. Throughout the series, Prim is a pillar of strength and gentleness. She does not allow her dire circumstances to sway her unending love of life. Not only her own, but for every living thing. Her mother, her classmates, her goat and cat. Prim is a healer, and it shows through her character.

Prim becomes a nurse in the final book. She looks death in the face and says, “Not today, sweetie.” The reader never questions if Prim is old enough to face the horrors of war, because it’s within her character to be intimately involved with the hurting patient. Prim is only 13 years old during the last book. Who in their right mind would send a child into a bloody war, regardless of how skilled she is at bringing life to the mangled?

She also loved her animals. She nursed her goat back to health when she first received it. Her cat was also near death when she first laid eyes on it. She always hated the fact that Katniss hunted due to her large heart for living creatures.

What about her faults? Was Prim the perfect character?

In some respects, yes. Prim doesn’t have any glaring character flaws that one hopes for in literature, but it fits her. She is only 13 by the end of series. She doesn’t have a lot of time to be jaded by the Capitol. Because of Prim’s strength and charm, Katniss has something worth fighting for. Katniss would never work that hard for her mother. Peeta and Gale are chop suey as far as Katniss is concerned (am I being unfair?). But Prim is something precious. Prim is fragile in Katniss’s eyes. Prim needs protecting.

Prim is also one of the few characters who can get away with telling Katniss how it is. Haymitch tries, and it usually ends in a fight. Prim rarely raises her voice to Katniss before she has Katniss’s undivided attention.

Prim doesn’t discriminate between Capitol people and District people when it comes time to heal. And that’s the best part about her. She doesn’t care who’s hurt, or whose side the patient is fighting on. She sees pain, and she does something about it. Unfortunately, that’s what takes her in the end. Her heart for the hurting. But I think it is worth it. For Prim, at least. She dies doing what she was made to do.

 

Developing a character is not a chore that most writers have to dig up from the bowels of the imagination. At least that’s what I’ve been told, and that’s what I’ve experienced. As long as I spend enough time with my characters, I get to know them. They tell me what things they’re going to say, or choices they’re going to make. As long as I’m listening closely enough to my characters, the job that really needs being done is to show up and type. Jackie Lea Sommers talks about “butt-in-seat, fingers-on-keyboard.” Just show up and write. Get to know your characters and listen to what they have to say.

If you decide to make the character do something because it would make the plot flow a little better, your reader is going to see a glaring point in which the character is out of character. Prim would never have allowed Katniss to drown her cat, even if Katniss had very logical reasons to do so. Prim would never have not dashed into the middle of a bombed square to keep herself safe. There were hurting people out there, and she needed to do something about it. If either of those examples had happened, Prim would have become a one-dimentional character. One that would not break our hearts.

It doesn’t matter if Prim was perfect or flawed. She was believable. Now go and write us a heartbreaking character with all the joy and sorrow of Prim.

Image Credit: The Hunger Games Wiki

Fifteen Minutes Could Cause an Aneurism

Shopping for car insurance can be a stressful experience to say the least. I updated our address with our current provider recently, and our premium shot up. When my wife and I originally got car insurance, I was a starving college student living off the meager income my wife was able to scrape together. We didn’t have a lot of coverage in the first place, and the amount we pay for our insurance is rather ridiculous. So we’re shopping. 

The forms one must fill out for a quote get tedious. But we must find the best deal with the most coverage. The deal we found is so much less than the rest of the quotes that we are nervous about what wouldn’t be covered. Our ship still hasn’t come in, though, so perhaps we should go with it anyway. God forbid we get into an accident and find out what is missing. 

I believe I will use this experience in a future book I will write – The Nationwide Tragedy of Progressive Farmers. It’s a working title.