Thursday, July 31, 2014

Writing Tip: Screenplays vs Prose, the naked truth

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.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

How I Became a Published Writer – Part 3 of 7

An online magazine asked me to create a seven-part history of how I became a published writer. I decided to post them here first, one per week. Here is installment #3: 

Written by Alan Chin

It took a span of ten years after I received my Masters in Writing diploma before I started working on what would become my first published novel. You see, by the time I earned my degree, I had been promoted again to a much more taxing position. I worked a high-pay, high-stress, long-hour management job. My department was responsible for some of the most complex, big-budget computer projects in our brokerage firm. At the end of the day, at the end of the week, I had nothing left to give to my craft of writing. My job was all consuming, a black hole for my time, energy, and one sixteen-year relationship.

But by the end of the decade, I had accumulated enough company stock to live a frugal life without the overcaffeinated, sixty-hour-week career. So on April 1st of 1999, I happily skipped out of Charles Schwab & Co. for the last time. I will forever be grateful to Chuck Schwab, the company, and the people who work there, but I never want to see them again.

My partner, Herman, and I spent two years traveling the globe, visiting over forty-five destinations. We scuba dived the Great Barrier Reef and the Red Sea, tracked black rhino in the Serengeti, hiked over mountain trails in Nepal and Tibet, and dined in most of the capitals of Asia and Europe. It was during these travels that I began to write again, keeping a journal, which led to dreaming of completing a novel. I struggled to find a topic I cared about. I was not content to simply write some cliché romance story. It had to be good and it had to say something about me, about my view of the world. But nothing substantial came to mind.

Then, while enjoying a few weeks on a beach in southern Thailand, I read a book that changed my life—Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian. For the first time, I read a brilliant book of fiction where the author intricately wove Buddhist philosophy into the storyline (did I mention that I am a Buddhist?). The book presented everything I felt in my core, but did so seamlessly with the actions and dialog of his characters. Beneath the characters and plot, lay a subtext with a very profound message. At some point toward the end of that book a switch clicked on in my head, and I knew I wanted to write, had to write, my own novel with a similar subtext.

I picked through the short stories I had written in college a decade earlier and found a story I had written about gay bashing, and about fighting back. It was a story of outrage that I wrote after hearing of a murder trial in Phoenix, Arizona. You see, four high school students had pled guilty to beating a fellow student to death, simply because he was gay. All four bashers were on the school football team, and the judge let the boys off with six years probation, because he felt they were fine, upstanding athletes.

The rage I still felt ten years later drove me to pick up this short story and begin crafting a longer work about homophobia, gay bashing, and fighting back. I wanted desperately for my gay characters to pitilessly kick some basher’s ass. But it had to be more. It had to have a subtext of Buddhist ideals, which of course means passivism. That became the trick, to write about hate, vicious beatings, yet have an underlying message of passivism.

I believe I accomplished my goal, but you will need to read my first published novel, Island Song, in order to find out how. The novel took me two years to write, and another year to rewrite after fifty literary agents and publishers had turned the book down. But more about that in my next installment.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Kindness of Strangers Saved Me

A few days ago, it was 115 degrees in Palm Springs, so Herman and I decided to pack a picnic lunch and take the tram up the mountain where it’s normally 40 degrees cooler. When we reached the top we found perfect weather for hiking, so we took a 5.5 mile trail that led up to Mount San Jacinto peak, the second tallest peak in Southern California. It was a hike I’ve wanted to make for years, and we had a marvelous, yet arduous hike, clicking off mile after mile.

Three miles up the mountain we stopped for lunch. That’s when we realized that we didn’t bring enough water for such an arduous hike. But by then, we were only a few miles from our goal, and my stubborn streak kicked into high gear. I convinced Herman that we could make it if we took frequent breaks and rationed our remaining water.

We continued to climb. 

Another mile and we met a hiker on his way down the mountain. He told us there was a cabin near the peak for hikers who get stranded in bad weather. The cabin had sleeping bags and food. I asked if he thought there would be water, and he said “Probably not, but you never know. This place was not maintained by the Forest Service, but by local hikers.” I was hoping he would offer us some of his water, but alas, no. 

We continued to climb, thinking we were still okay. 

About a half mile from the peak, we had become so dehydrated that we were both dizzy and began to stagger.  One minute we seemed fine, the next we were in serious trouble. We sat in the shade, trying to recover our balance and talked about our options. We could: 1) wait for other hikers to come by and beg for water. 2) Start back down the mountain and pray we could make the five-mile trek without fainting. 3)Continue climbing and pray there was indeed water at the cabin near the peak.

We continued to climb, with reservations on Herman’s part.  For my part, I didn’t believe we could make it down without more water, and I didn’t want to simply sit there praying someone would come by. 

We managed to totter to the cabin. It was a beautiful stone building with a wooden roof, about the size of a kid’s bedroom. I unbolted the wood door and lurched inside. There were two sets of bunk beds, a fireplace, and a storage box marked emergency supplies. I opened the box and there were two, lovely plastic bottles of purified water, unopened.

Between the two of us, we drank half of one bottle, saving the other half for the march down. The water revived us within minutes.  We left one water bottle untouched, and started our descent. 

Had it not been for the kindness of the people who left that water there, I’m not altogether sure what would have happened, as we passed nobody coming up as we descended. 

This week we are planning another climb to the peak. This time we will take plenty of water for ourselves in addition to an extra two bottles to leave at the cabin for others who may be as reckless as we were. From now on, each time I make that climb, I shall take one water bottle to leave at the cabin.

Whoever you are that left that water, you have my deepest gratitude. 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Writing Tip: The B Subplot Must Influence Your Storyline.

In most novels and movies, there are at least two stories going on – the A story (main storyline) and the B story (a subplot). There is sometimes a C, D and E subplot as well, but lets keep this discussion simple by focusing on just two.

Strangely enough, with most love stories, the actual love plot is normally the B story. For example: one of the great love stories was Casablanca. The main story was what was happening to the letters of transit. They were the only way out of a horrid situation, and people were dying to get them. The love story between Rick and Ilsa was the B story.

In writing a plot, the A and B stories wander along in parallel, like two trains going down different tracks, yet racing in the same direction. But at some point usually near the end, the B story must collide with the A story, and affect it in such a way that neither story will ever be the same. 

In the example above, Casablanca, the letters of transit fall into Rick’s hands, yet Ilsa desperately needs them so that her husband, Victor Lazlo, can fly to freedom. Ilsa sacrifices everything, promising to abandon Victor and stay with Rick, if he will only give up the letters. Rick, of course, sacrifices Ilsa and gives her the letters out of love, and loyalty. Ilsa and Victor fly to freedom, Rick joins the freedom fighters. 

Another example: To Kill a Mockingbird, the A story leads to Tom Robinson’s trial and the hatred of Atticus Finch by Bob Ewell. The B story is Jem and Scout’s developing relationship with Boo Radley. At the end, the A and B stories collide when Ewell tries to kill the children and Boo stabs Ewell to save the kids. 

If you have a B story that doesn’t significantly affect the A story in the end, then rewrite it so that it does, or cut the B story. It’s only function is to boost the A story. If it doesn’t, then it’s dead weight.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Job I’m So Glad I No Longer Do – Until Now

My novel, First Exposure, is being released on Aug. 9th, so I thought it would be good to update my website with the information and links about this new book. I maintain the site myself because I spent twenty years in the IT industry, and know just enough about HTML to get myself in trouble, not to mention frustrate myself to the end of my rope.

When I checked the website, I found it needed much more than added information. It needed a total facelift. It became all too clear why hoards of readers visit my site, yet so few of them actually buy my books. The site looks sloppy and amateurish, something that was fine in the mid-90s, but not right for now.

So this job will take several days of my devoted time. Hopefully, once I’m done, it will become a site that readers will feel comfortable browsing.

Doubtless I should pay a professional to build me a really snazzy site, yet I make so little money off my book sales, I can’t justify pouring thousands of dollars into making my site pretty, even if means a modest bump in sales.

So hopefully you’ll give me to the end of this week, and then check out my new site. I welcome any feedback.

Monday, July 21, 2014

How I Became a Published Writer – Part 2 of 7

An online magazine asked me to create a seven-part history of how I became a published writer. I decided to post them here first, one per week. Here is installment #2:

Written by Alan Chin 

My years attending the University of San Francisco, working toward a Masters in Writing degree were both amazing and frustrating. 

The frustration came in two flavors. The first was that I was struggling with a fulltime management job that often stretched into sixty-hour weeks. Heap on another thirty hours of classroom and homework, and there was no time for any social activities. Yes, I went almost two years without any kind of social life outside of work and classroom. For a man in the prime of life, that was a difficult sacrifice. 

The second frustration was that I attended each class with the same group of students—about twenty of us as I recall—and I was the only gay student. All my writing for classwork was focused on my experiences as a gay man, highlighting issues with family and my job from a gay perspective. The other students were not openly hostile, but none were supportive. Other students would present their work, and the class would gush out praise no matter how mediocre the writing. I would present my work to a wall of silence. Often, there would be not a single comment (keep in mind this was back in the early nineties.) The only encouragement I received came from the instructors, who focused on structure and writing and flow, rather than content. 

I didn’t realize it at the time, but being snubbed by my fellow students actually helped my writing. I was so intent on rattling their cages, that I struggled to become one of the better writers in the class. I was out to impress them all as a way to rub their bigotry in their faces. I freely admit now that my attitude was infantile, but I believe it did help me to take my writing more seriously. 

Fortunately, there were amazing rewards as well. Writing gave me a creative outlet to dig deep into my being and analyze my life’s issues, then present them in a fictitious environment and with made-up characters. I fell in love with that process, which is a form of self-discovery. At that time in my life I held a great deal of rage inside, tying my gut in knots. For me, writing turned into a vehicle to both recognize and work through what I believed to be the injustices in my life. 

You see, even today, every character I write about is an extension of me, and each character in my stories deal with problems that I struggle with myself. I believe all art is a form of self-discovery, and having tread down this path for so many years, I’ve come to feel that self-discovery is the most important thing a person can do in life. 

A good novel, like life, is a journey for the writer and the reader, not to a destination, but of transformation. As the characters in the novel transform, so do the reader and writer. 

So yes my college years were challenging, often overwhelming, but it was also a time of wonder as I delved into that grey matter between my ears and listened to the chaotic sounds my being sang. It was like learning to meditate for the first time, to open myself up to the universe and begin to understand my role in this incredible thing we call life.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

One Of The Hardest Lessons To Learn

I can, of course, only speak for myself, but in my years of practicing Zen, one of the lessons I have to relearn and relearn is that of choosing to stay positive.  Sounds easy, right? Oh so wrong…

We all have many choices to make every hour of the day. What to eat. Who to spend time with. What to wear. How to do our jobs. How we commune to work. Which movie to watch. The list is endless. Hardly a minute goes by without us making some kind of choice.
I’ve heard many people (especially couples who have children) say, “I have no choice but to work where I do, there are no others jobs available.” They complain that they have few choices because need drives every decision, and they must do whatever must be done for the children, or for this, that, or the other thing.
In my view, these people are making excuses in order to avoid taking charge of their lives. 
I am often amazed at how easily people (and I include myself in this) surrender the right to make choices that have a profound impact on their lives. They simply fail to realize that when they give up their right to choose they give up the opportunity to choose their life.
All of the choices that people give up, none is more devastating than giving up the choice of their attitude. Often people let other people and events determine whether they are in a “good mood” or not. Well, folks, “good mood” or bad, what you project looks a lot like an attitude to the people around you.
What I’ve learned is that I cannot control the attitude of others. I cannot always control the events that make up my day. What I can and must control is how I respond to them. THAT will determine my attitude. 
Here’s my choice, and it’s one I get to make multiple times everyday. Will my attitude be a thermostat that sets its own “temperature” or will it be a thermometer that reflects the temperature of those around it?
The most successful people understand this profound fact: No one and nothing can take my positive attitude away from me unless I let it happen. 
It’s my choice. 
The choice to maintain a positive attitude in the face of trying people and problematic challenges does more to improve the quality of my life than any other single thing I can do. 
Some days it is a battle to maintain that attitude, but I’ve found that it’s a war worth fighting because it gives me control of my life. One huge weapon I used in fighting that battle is forgiveness. It’s hard to have a negative attitude toward someone once you’ve truly forgiven them.

The alternative is to give up control and be carried along by swirling emotions caused by outside forces. The choice is always mine (and yours) to make.