Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Writing Tip: Killing the army of ly

So far I’ve stayed away from tips on editing prose and focused on the larger issues of plot, developing characters and story structure. But this week, because I’ve been doing just this for two days, I want to focus on adjectives and adverbs, those pesky words that end in ‘ly’.

Adverbs and adjectives can bloat your prose and slow the pacing to a craw if you don’t keep a strict handle on them. They give the impression of giving your prose a lofty tone, yet they add very little to the content. And when overdone, they make the read difficult.

For the past two days I’ve performed an exercise on my work-in-progress. I’ve done a search on “ly “(ly plus a space.) So I’m going through the entire document evaluating each word that ends in ly to see if I can get rid of it, without effecting the meaning.

I’ve found that I have overused a number of words: finally, simply, suddenly, slightly, only, perfectly, really, etc.

And what I’ve found is that, 90% of the time when I delete these words, the prose becomes stronger, flows better. I wish I could stop myself from putting them there in the first place, but I can’t for some reason. But thank God for a text editor that can do a search. The difference is astounding (I first typed ‘truly astounding’, but then realized I was doing it again… And of course the word ‘truly’ adds nothing to the sentence.)

So a very simple way to improve your prose is to cut adjectives and adverbs to the bone, and cutting most of the words that end in ‘ly’ is a good start.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Getting Excited About Walking 500 Miles

Last year, my ex-husband told us he and his lover are planning to walk part of the Camino de Santiago, a five-hundred-mile pilgrimage that starts in southern France and winds through northern Spain. To walk the entire route takes thirty to thirty-five days, depending on pace and days off for rest. I was impressed that he wanted to try such an arduous journey, but had no interest in joining him.

But last week we had visitors here in Palm Springs, and one of them had walked this pilgrimage back in May, and could talk of nothing else. Herman and I became intrigued.  You see, Herman and I were already planning to visit northern Spain next spring. Our idea was to rent a car and drive along the coast for a week or two, then drop down into Lisbon. But then we started talking about how much more we would enjoy seeing Spain by foot. Of course there are hotels, hostels, restaurants, cafes, and facilities set up all along the way.

Following our friend’s visit, we watched the movie, The Way, with Martin Sheen, which gives a great overview of this pilgrimage. At that point, we were hooked.

Our friend completed the walk in thirty-one days by walking fifteen to twenty miles every day. Herman and I will, at our age, will take rest days in the larger cities along the path, giving ourselves a chance to see the cities and give our bodies a chance to recuperate. So we’ve begun planning on a thirty-five day trek.

Last year 237,000 pilgrims completed the journey. Today, hundreds of thousands of Christian pilgrims and many others set out each year from their front doorsteps or from popular starting points across Europe, to make their way to Santiago de Compostela. Most travel by foot, some by bicycle, and a few travel as some of their medieval counterparts did, on horseback or by donkey. In addition to those undertaking a religious pilgrimage, many are hikers who walk the route for other reasons: travel, sport, or simply the challenge of weeks of walking in a foreign land. Also, many consider the experience a spiritual adventure to remove themselves from the bustle of modern life. It serves as a retreat for many modern "pilgrims".

For Herman and I, it would combine out love for walking with the chance to see northern Spain in a unique way, and also hopefully be a path to self-discovery.

I can’t wait.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

How To Stop The Violence

When a person thinks of himself as gay or straight, Christian or Muslim, American or European, Republican or Democrat, or anything else, they separate themselves from the whole of mankind to identify with a subset of humanity. This simple act causes most of the violence in the world. It is a violent act.

Defining yourself by belief, nationality, sexuality, or race breeds violence because it creates divisions between humans, and those divisions will eventually cause strife, and often leads to discrimination, bullying, bloodshed, even war.

So a man or woman seeking to end violence in the world, would do well to start by abandoning all the labels that would demand loyalty to any country, political party, religion, sexual orientation, race, and simply concentrate on understanding and being a part of the whole of mankind. For that matter, don’t stop at just mankind, see yourself as part of this living eco system we call earth.

When every person on the planet sees himself or herself this way, then there will be an end to violence. Don’t wait for everyone else. Join the peace movement now.

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us

And the world will be as one
-John Lennon

Friday, October 2, 2015

Writing Tip: Editing for a Specific Purpose

When editing a mss, I used to slush through it, line by line, with the general goal of making it better. But a tip I learned from screenwriting also helps me edit my manuscripts – editing for a specific purpose.

For example, a month ago I finished editing a mss and thought I had it perfect. But then I decided to run through it one more time with the goal of cutting away unneeded words, be it a single word in a sentence or the entire sentence. I challenged myself to cut a certain number of pages from the manuscript. I limited myself to editing 10 pages per day so as not to try and speed through it. It took over a month, but I was quite surprised and pleased with the result. I cut over 25 pages from a 410 page manuscript. That’s over 6% cut away, and the result is cleaner, more efficient prose.

Another example of editing for a purpose is to take a single character, and go through to edit only that character’s dialog. By focusing on only one character at a time, you better insure the consistency of that character’s speech throughout the story.

When editing screenplays I regularly only look at the action lines and skip all the dialog in order to focus on making the action as crisp as possible.

Another example is to look at only the verbs to insure that you are using the most appropriate action verbs.

By making multiple passes through the mss, each with a specific purpose, it keeps you focused on the goal.

Does it take longer to complete a mss this way? Certainly. But for me, having the best possible end product is more important than how much time it takes to get there.

And with that in mind, I’d like to add another editing tip. Reading aloud. I recently found that if I convert my MS Word files to rtf formatted files, my MacBook Pro will read it back to me aloud. The voice is slightly mechanical but is good enough that I catch a ton of mistakes. You see, when I proofread, I often see what I think is on the page rather than what is actually there. But by selecting pages and having the computer read them aloud, I hear what’s actually on the page. I love my Macbook Pro, but this ability to have it read aloud is what I love the most.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015


I’m very pleased to announce that my new book, an anthology of six short works called BUDDHA’S BAD BOYS, is available everywhere fine books are sold. You can buy it now, in paperback or any eBook format, at

Bold Strokes Books

Some of these stories are purely fictional, while others are based on real people and true events.

Blurb: There are many reason why Western men turn to Eastern religion—searching for inner truth, lost love, loneliness, fleeing the law, hopelessness, alcoholism. Some travel halfway around the world in an attempt to overcome their particular dissoluteness, only to realize that improving yourself is like polishing air. What they eventually discover, nevertheless, is one of the Buddha’s most significant lessons: enlightenment comes to those whose singular focus is on helping others less fortunate. 

Six stories, six troubled gay men trudging down the road to enlightenment. What they each find is that last thing in the world they expected.

The first story in this anthology is called Monk For A Month and is about two men, Reece and Doug, are almost done with the “Monk for a Month” program at the temple in Chiang Mai, where they have been living like Buddhist monks. But on the same night that Reece finds that Doug is having an affair with another Thai monk, there is a murder lose in the town. Reece sees the killer hiding in the temple and goes about trying to help him escape the police. In the process, a love affair begins.

I sat at the bar sporting saffron robes and a shaved head, sipping a Singha beer and listening to the bartender, who was clearly agitated. I couldn’t tell whether the man was upset over the recent murders, or because the hard rain was hurting his business, or if he simply didn’t like serving alcohol to a monk, even a Caucasian one.

“His name Somchai,” the bartender said. He spoke English, but with the usual Thai singsong clip that I had come to adore. “He kill American expatriate named Warren. Tony Warren.”

I had seen a dead body only once, a gruesome spectacle. It took an effort to settle my nerves as the bartender glared at me, as if, also being an American, made me an accomplice. I had never learned the invaluable art of staying detached in the face of tragedy, of not identifying with the victim. I had no way to shield myself from the reality of how brutal humans can be to each other, what ruthless lengths they will go, and the pain they are capable of inflicting on each other.

Across the street, four soldiers trudged along in the rain.

“When did Somchai kill Warren?” I asked, my voice scarcely a whisper.

The bartender didn’t know exactly, sometime at the beginning of the afternoon that had now come to an end. At the same time that he killed Warren, Somchai had also slain Warren’s Thai girlfriend. Both victims had been found two hours earlier at the apartment belonging to Warren.

The barroom was already dark, due to the lateness of the hour and another power outage. Candles flickered on the bar and at each table; their yellow light mingled with the blueness of the dying day.

The shower stopped as suddenly as it had started, as it often does in Thailand.

“How old was she? The girlfriend I mean,” I asked.

“Very young. Nineteen.” Regret passed over the bartender’s face. “A real beauty.”

“I would like another Singha,” I said, “but I have no more money. Can I buy on credit?”

The bartender’s look of regret turned to disgust. As he walked away, a customer two stools over ordered beers for me and himself, and also shots of cheap Thai whiskey.

The bartender prepared our drinks while the customer moved to the stool beside mine. He introduced himself as Ty Poe, and did not shake my hand, as it is considered disrespectful to touch a monk. Poe was courteous, offering the customary wai gesture of respect. He was somewhere in his forties, and had a smoking-induced cough. The polluted streets of Chiang Mai didn’t help his lungs any more than his chain-smoking, I thought. I gave him my name, Reece Jackson, and told him I was from America, San Francisco in fact.

“I overheard your talk about the murders.”

“Why haven’t they caught him yet?” I asked. “Chiang Mai’s a small town.”

“They have him trapped within the walls of the old city, but you should know how it is,” Poe grunted. “We’re talking about an American expatriate and his whore who got themselves killed by a homeless gay kid. I mean, there are limited resources available to the police department. The police force, as a rule, is not well trained. Officers have to buy their own uniforms, their own guns. They are poorly paid. Not much would be happening now except that this dead girl happens to be the daughter of an army major. The army is doing what they can but they do not know the town as well as Somchai.”

Poe was right, I thought. What could anyone reasonably expect of this situation? The unvarnished fact was that in this country, any given police station’s cases were ranked according to priority. And priority in Thailand had to do with wealth and status. Those on the low end of the spectrum were unlikely to receive much attention. And for a homeless gay kid with no family who happened to murder a bit of riff-raff, then it was probably the victim’s fault. Why bother figuring out all the sordid details?

I felt thankful that I came from a country where every death warranted respect, every victim merited justice, no matter how far down the social and economic ladder that victim might fall. At least I liked to believe that bit of hype.

The bartender placed the beers and shots before us. I lifted my shot in a toast to Poe and knocked my head back, taking the drink in one hot swallow. Poe stared at me in obvious surprise.

“I’ve never seen a monk do that,” Poe said.

“I’m not really a monk. My partner and I paid good money to enroll in the Monk-For-A-Month program here at Wat Phra Singh. He’s on some damned spiritual quest that I, frankly, don’t understand. Me, I’m just an IT geek along for the ride.”

“So you’re not alone,” Poe asked, exhaling a stream of smoke.

“Technically, no. But it often feels like I am.”

The bar stood only a few doors down from Tha Phae Square, which spread before one of the four main gates of the old city, and where two of the town’s chief avenues collided. The square was bordered by the city wall, built of ancient brick, and butted against by the city moat on the north and south sides.  The top of the wall was wide enough to walk on, and just then a flock of children scampered along the wet brick, heedless of the danger of slipping. Among them ran Archer, my adopted son, also sporting a shaved head and wearing the saffron robes. The children looked down on the tourists who gathered in the square, clutching their umbrellas in case the rains returned.

It must be between six and seven in the evening, I thought.

Another shower started and people in the square ran for cover.

Archer hopped down the wall steps and dashed across the road like a fleeing deer. He entered the bar and huddled against me, giving Poe a cautious glance. Archer was a handsome seven-year-old with a round face that gave way to a large jaw and a brilliant set of teeth. He had an impishness and good humor in his eyes, and was strong for so young a boy. But what I admired most about him was his gentle and trusting disposition. Unlike most boys, he was incapable of hurting anything. His only flaw was that he was fathered by two gay men, which made him an outcast back home, someone to be pitied, stared at, whispered about, laughed at, and occasionally beaten up by his peers.

Strokes of lightning lit the sky, coming so close together that they seemed like a ceaseless illumination. The thunder was continuous. The noise burst like metal fireworks, and then would immediately rise again; its modulations grew less and less defined as the shower let up, until there was only the sound of rain striking paving stones.

“This rain will last all night,” Poe said, lighting another cigarette from the butt of his previous one.

Moments later, the shower stopped. Poe left his stool and pointed at the leaden sky, patched with massive blotches of somber gray so low that it seemed to brush the rooftops. “Don’t let that fool you.”

Monday, September 28, 2015

Killer Heels - An Art Exhibit

Our good friends, Ben and Ervin, are in town, staying with us. We took them to the Thursday night street fair, and also the Palm Springs Modern Museum, which had a wonderful exhibit of women’s shoes called, “Killer Heels.” We all loved the exhibit. I must say, I’m all for fashion, but most of these shoes look so uncomfortable, I’m surprised women want to wear them.   

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Writing Tip: Screenplays vs Prose, the naked truth

I’ve been struggling to complete a screenplay these last few weeks, and I’m almost there. It is my third screenplay. And with all the work I’ve put into this story, I’d like to focus this tip on some misinformation that led me down the screenwriter’s path to begin with. 

A dozen years back, after the publication of my first novel, Island Song, I felt dissatisfied with writing novels for two reasons. 1) A three-hundred-plus page manuscript took me four months to write the first draft, and another dozen-plus months to edit and polish. The time involved hardly seemed worth the payoff. And 2) Like most unknown authors, I was on my own when it came to marketing my novel, which is something I suck at. 

So I began taking classes in writing screenplays. I thought writing screenplays would be easier and faster, since a typical screenplay is only 120 pages or less (general rule is one page for every minute of movie). And the way the pages are formatted, there are half as many words per page. Simple I thought. I also like the idea of turning my finished baby over to a production company and letting them deal with promoting the movie.  

I now look back and realize that I was soooo naive. I can say with some authority that, at least for me, writing a 110-page screenplay takes more time and thought and effort than writing a 400-page novel. 

In a novel, you delve inside the characters’ heads to help tell their story. In most novels, the characters tell their own story with their thoughts, opinions and judgments. Where as a screenplay has only action and dialog to tell the story – everything must be shown, everything – and that, ladies and gentlemen, is a very difficult task to pull off. If you can’t see it or hear it, it doesn’t go on the page. 

The other thing that makes it especially challenging, is that you are still dealing with a 300-plus page story, but you have to find a way to cram that story into 110 pages. Every page is considered very expensive real estate, and every word has to fight in order to survive and take up its allotted space. You need to trim everything to the bone, and then find clever ways to trim more. The description of a scene takes one line. The description of a character, no more than two lines. Imagine trying to cram Yeats into a five-line haiku poem, and you begin to sense the level of difficulty. 

Then there is the marketing aspect. It may be true that the writer doesn’t participate in marketing the movie, but before the screenplay is made into a movie, the writer must market it to the studios, directors, actors, or anybody that knows anybody in the business. Trying to get a movie contract is a hundred times harder than getting a book published, because it is a very tight community, and if you don’t know someone on the inside to make things happen, you’re basically screwed. 

So, am I sorry I went down this path? Hell no. I love writing screenplays. It is a fantastic challenge and it’s even improving my prose writing. I think I’m actually getting reasonably good at it, considering my limited experience. But if you’re a writer looking for an easy path to get your stories out there fast, run, don’t walk, away from screenwriting.