Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Just finished readying The Help by Kathryn Stockett, and I just wanted to say I loved it. Beautifully written. Wonderfully complex characters. A satisfying plot that kept me turning pages. 

The book is about the relations between white middleclass women in the south during 1960’s segregation and the black women who work for them. The story for me comes down to a quote from the book: “Wasn’t that the point of the book? For women to realize, We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I’d thought.”

In the postscript, Stockett added a quote from Howell Raines’s Pulitzer Prize-winning article, Grady’s Gift:
There is no trickier subject for a writer from the south than that of affection between a black person and a white one in the unequal world of segregation. For the dishonesty upon which a society is founded makes every emotion suspect, makes it impossible to know whether what flowed between two people was honest feeling or pity or pragmatism.

That quote kind of blew me away, because he describes such a large and important topic in such a beautifully succinct way.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Writing Tip: What Makes the Good Guy So Good? The Bad Guy!

Your hero is only as interesting as the foe s/he is battling. Any protagonist is just some ordinary shmuck until you put evil in his/her path. Then your hero is pushed into showing courage, nobility, compassion, etc. 

Roger Corman hit the nail on the head when he said: “In science-fiction movies the monster should always be bigger than the leading lady.”

The antagonist needs to be a worthy opponent! S/he has to be stronger than the protagonist or you’ve got no story. A man swatting a fly is nothing anyone wants to read, unless the fly is 600 pounds and has fangs. I’m not saying all antagonists need to kill people with ray guns. Look at Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People. She was a strong, implacable, relentless opponent.

Your bad guy can’t simply be bad, s/he needs to always be taking action – plotting, planning, stealing, belittling, killing, lying, leaving the seat up on the toilette – as a way to show us how bad s/he is. S/he needs to be constantly making more and more clever moves, always upping the ante. Just when we think s/he’s down for good, s/he comes back with a bigger punch. If s/he is not doing this, then you don’t have much of a bad guy, which means you don’t have much of a story. 

Remember that the protag and antag don’t have to be cross-town rivals. They can be husband and wife, business partners, man against nature, or patriot against his/her own country. 

Just like your hero shouldn’t be 100% good, your antagonist shouldn’t be 100% bad. The Godfather was motivated by love for his family. In Schindler’s List, the commandant was being a good and loyal German carrying out his orders. If your antag is a terrorist who loves killing women and children, then make her also love Italian opera or fine wine or have impeccable manners, anything that the reader can connect with. 

It is the villain’s job to push the protag into being a hero. By doing battle with a much more formidable opponent, the protag must reach inside and find inner strength or superior intelligence in order to overcome the evil one. And the more clever and evil the antag, the deeper the protag must dig to prevail. 

Every good protagonist must grow, evolve into someone better (or at least different). That can’t happen without a bad guy. In Die Hard, John McClane is in a bad marriage and headed for divorce. His wife doesn’t seem to like or respect him anymore. Enter Hans Gruber. Hans give John McClane the opportunity to show his wife what he is made of, and of course, he also becomes a better person in the process. Without Hans, McClane is just another washed up cliché cop. 

The bad guy should think s/he is the hero in your story. In the example above, Hans Gruber felt he was so clever and so slick in they way he mastermind the whole crime, that he was the star, he should be the one everyone admired. And why not, nobody was smart enough or had big enough balls to stop him. Yes, he’s stealing 600 million and killing hoards of people, but stealing from mega-rich-corporations to give to the poor (himself).

So once you’ve established the protag and antag, and they are doing battle, be sure to give them plenty of face to face time. They should come to know one another very well. And for the most part, the antag should have the upper hand, until the end, of course. 

Keep in mind that your bad guy is the point on which your story pivots. Make him/her deliciously bad.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Buddha's Bad Boys excerpt

I’m very pleased to announce that my latest book, an anthology of six short works called BUDDHA’S BAD BOYS, is available 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, October 17, 2016

A God With Qualities or Without Qualities?

I recently read that a Western theologian once asked Hindu saint, Ramakrishna, to talk about God. Ramakrishna replied, “Do you wish to talk about God with qualities (sa-guna) or without qualities(nir-guna)?”

What makes this question interesting is not so much the answer, but the fact that it was asked as a way of creating a flash of understanding, to bring the theologian to the brink of enlightenment, that abyss that lies beyond all human knowing.

Hindus and Buddhists believe that the moment one begins to talk about God, one plummets into the realm of human concepts and categories—a human knowledge (or in this case, lack of knowledge), not divine. It is only in the wordless absorption of Samadhi (something similar to a state of Enlightenment) that one unites with the transcendent Source. In other words, God is beyond human understanding, beyond man’s ability to define and comprehend. God can only be experienced by merging with God, through that silent part of the mind that transcends language and human understanding. God can be felt, but not talked about.

Once one achieves this merging with the Source, with God, the experience can never be communicated to others. I’ve had some amount of experience with this, while meditating with monks in Asia. The one thing I can confidently communicate about my experiences is that this Divine Source, this energy, this God, permeates all life, binds everything together, and one can experience it, be one with God.

Please understand, my concept of The Divine Source has nothing whatsoever to do with the God worshiped by Christians, Jew, and Muslims.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

A Sad Day For All The World

My heart goes out to all the people of Thailand. Two days ago, Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world's longest-reigning monarch, passed away at the age of eighty-eight. His reign over Thailand lasted seventy years. 

I’ve spent much time in that wonderful country, and I’ve always been amazed at how the king was loved and revered. King Bhumibol Adulyadej was a man of peace and dignity and grace. He dedicated his life to improving the lives of all people of Thailand. He will be sorely missed by many across the globe.   

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Writing Tip: Don’t be afraid to get it wrong.

My husband, Herman, has taken several screenwriting classes with me and also participates in a weekly writing group of screenwriters. Last summer he outlined an excellent idea for a script, and then spent several weeks working on the first act. When he presented that first act, about twenty pages, to our writer’s group, they were somewhat critical but supportive. They gave Herman a lot to think about, including other options for where to start his story. It was all good feedback. 

The problem was, Herman is a perfectionist who hates criticism. He thanked everyone for the input, even agreed with much of it, and has not written a word on his script since then. He is so afraid to write something that others may feel is not perfect, that he doesn’t write anything. He keeps talking about his story, trying to work out the ideal set of scenes in his mind, but frankly, talking doesn’t get the baby washed. 

I believe it was Hemingway who said: “All first drafts are shit!” And he wasn’t talking about just his first drafts, he was talking about all writer’s first drafts. 

Good writing is rewriting and rewriting and rewriting. My first script teacher told me that the average script gets rewritten over twenty times before anyone takes it seriously. I usually make five to six passes through a manuscript before I submit my novel to a publisher.  

The idea is to get something down. Make it as good as you can, understanding all the time that you will need to go back and edit, edit, then polish, polish. Sometime you go back and realize that it’s just not right for the story, or drags the pacing down, or that it doesn’t add enough to justify being there. So you cut it. And that’s ok. Much better to cut something than end up with warts sprinkled though your story. 

So, bottom line for this week is: when you’re writing a first draft, have the courage to write it down. Even if you know you’re going to throw it way, get your ideas down on paper. You won’t know how good or how bad it is until it’s on paper. The worst thing that will happen is you toss it out and start over. And if you do that, I guarantee the next pass will be better. 

Have the courage to write everyday, even if what you’re writing is crap. If you do that, the writing will get better. And frankly, that’s the only way it gets better.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Prism Book Alliance Interviews Alan Chin

Tuesdays are the days I showcase my own work on this blog. Prism Book Alliance interviewed me, focusing on my novel, First Exposure. I’d like to share part of that interview here. You can read the entire interview at: 

Thank you so much for joining us today. I’m happy to get a chance to chat with you. Welcome to PBA. J What’s going on in your corner of the world today?

Thank you for having me. My corner of the world, Palm Springs, is having a typical summer, meaning, sunny weather with daytime highs in the 110-115 degrees range, and nighttime lows in the mid 90s. Summers are a productive time for my writing because I spend oodles of time indoors with the A/C cranked up, working on my stories.  Herman (my husband) and I take long walks, but only before sunrise and after sun set. It’s simply too hot to do anything else but swim in the pool during the day.

In a nutshell, what would you say First Exposure is about? I personally think this is a toughie, so we’ll get it out of the way first. :D

The reason this question is tough is because there are several themes interwoven into the plot.

I see it, principally, as a story about the loyalty of family and friendship. That is Skylar’s main reason for wanting to leave the navy, to spend more time with his family, and the thing that helps him down that path are the supportive friends he makes along the way. He never turns his back on them, and their benefit is the motivation for every action he takes.

Secondly, it is about following your dream, whatever that may be, and no matter how many people—even the ones you most love—want to keep you from doing that. This is a topic I’m infinitely familiar with.

Lastly, it is a story of overcoming ignorant hate, homophobia, and how animosity worms its way into people’s lives, and the damage it causes everyone. It also makes a strong point that when it comes to violence, the red-neck SOB with the big mouth is every bit as guilty as the person swinging the baseball bat.

What was the spark, the kernel that gave you the idea for First Exposure, for Skylar, Ezra, etc.?

Back in the 70’s I was a young petty officer in the US navy, stationed in Kingsville, Texas. My squadron trained jet pilots, and for years I worked on the flight line at night as an aircraft mechanic. That gave me tons of free time during the day and there wasn’t much to do in Kingsville, so I took a job at a gay-owned florist delivering flowers. This was long before I came out. The two florists taught me how to make flower arrangements and I loved the creativity of doing that. But, of course, a navy town is full of gossips and it wasn’t long before I became the target of homophobia just like Skylar does. So you see, this story is loosely based on my personal experience. And the characters Skylar and Ezra, are both facets of me while I was serving my country. This, more than any other story I’ve published, reveals who I was as a person in my twenties.

There’s a certain moment when Ezra cements himself as a man to be reckoned with, finally, in his own eyes. (It’s not the one you’re thinking of ;) ) I don’t want to spoil anything, but when you were writing Ezra, getting deeper into the story, how was that experience, how did it feel? He feels very important to me.

The point that Ezra became more than a character to me was that conversation with Skylar about the stars and space travel, when he said Stephen Hawking was the sexiest man alive. That was early on, and it both surprised and delighted me. I just have to love someone who believes that. After that, I wanted to keep delving deeper and know more about what made him tick. I wanted him to take over this story, to make it his. By the end, I felt a very close bond with him. Because of his side-story with his dad, he did so much to help me express my feelings about my own father.

Now Skylar. He has one of the most well written inner dialogues I’ve read. He’s wonderfully complex and yet wants the simple things in life that a lot of us desire. What about him surprised you when he revealed it about himself as you were writing?

He constantly astonished me. I had planned to base him on me, but he took on a personality of his own. What surprised me most was when he agreed to do the photo shoot. My outline had a different scenario.  It was at that point that I realized how deeply he loved Ezra, that he would agree to something so totally against his nature because he didn’t want to disappoint this friend he had come to love.

I don’t want to get too specific and give anything away, but the connection between Skylar and Ezra goes through stages and felt very natural to me. How much of yourself or what specific traits of your own are in both of these guys?

I’ve fallen in love several times with men who I knew were interested, but I also knew nothing could ever come of it because of circumstances. So this pattern, this low-flame relationship the keeps building against all odds, is something I’m very familiar with. That made this bromance relatively easy to write.

Hunter is fantastic, Miguel and Hollister simply made me happy when they were on the page, Mrs Collins is fantastic.  It feels like you really enjoy writing characters of all ages. Do you utilize supporting characters as a way of challenging yourself, your writing, by way of exploring them?

When I was reviewing gay fiction, I read tons M/M stories that had two well-developed characters, and everyone else seemed like stick figures. It always made the stories seem phony to me. I believe writing in-depth, secondary characters is what helps to bring a story alive, make it real. So yes, I try to make every character complex, make every one interesting. It is a challenging, time-consuming task, but it can really pay off.

A lot of different types of relationships and issues are explored in this story: father/son, friends, spouses, longtime companions, enemies, loyalty, insecurities, growth. What scene surprised you as you were writing it? If it’s something you can at least hint at without spoiling, of course. :D

I think the most surprising scene was when Skylar first entered the flower shop. It was during that scene when Hollister, Miguel and Sosumi solidified in my head. There are times when a writer sits back, amazed at what’s pouring up from that black hole of creativity, and can’t believe how good it is. That scene was one of those times for me. I found it very funny, and I’ve always struggled with humor, but it came so easy with those characters. They really tickled me, and at the same time, punched all my buttons. I had the same reaction when Skylar first entered the gay bar.

This is probably an obvious question with an obvious answer, but I’m asking anyway. J Are there people in your family who have served in the military?  How has that influenced, not just what you write, but how you write?

As I said above, I spent four years in the US Navy, and this story and characters are loosely based on me and people I knew. Also, my father spent two hitches in the Marines. I do enjoy writing military stories because it generally involves environments heavily weighted to men, and few women. Not that I don’t care for women, but when I do write a character such as Rosa, she stands out like a bright light surrounded by a sea of men. It adds more weight to my female characters.

Do you use outlines, or do you write scenes and then put them together like a puzzle?

I always start with a high-level outline, and pretty much know where the story will end up. As the story develops, I work on the manuscript and the detailed outline, because as the story takes life, it begins to branch out in new, unthought-of directions. This story took me two years to write. During that time, many new ideas came to me while writing. You have to go with where the story wants to take you.

Did you ever live in the Northwest? If so, do you have a favorite place you like to recommend for those who plan on traveling there?  I have family in Oregon and I love it out there. Powell’s Books in Portland is a must.

Actually, no, I’ve never spent time in the Northwest. I place the story there because Everett, WA, is home base for the USS Abraham Lincoln, the ship where G.W. Bush made his historic victory speech.  I really wanted to include that speech to set the timeframe and mood of the story. Thank goodness for Google. It saved me a long drive.

Skylar and Ezra are fantastic names and fit both of these characters. How do you pick names for your characters? Any interesting stories about that process? J

Almost all of the names used in this story came from people I knew on base during that time of my military career. Skylar was the name of the first man, a fellow sailor, I believe I fell in love with during the time I worked at the flower shop. I say “I believe” because that was long ago and It’s hard for me to remember how deeply my feeling went back then. Nothing ever happened between us, but we were great friends and I’ve always regretted that nothing did happen. I still think of him, often. lol

Any fun or favorite line or passage that were edited out of First Exposure that you’d like to share? I have to think Miguel may have had more to say. ;)

I did a lot of cutting, but I don’t save copies of those older versions. So no, nothing comes to mind that I can share.

Ok, here are some fun, general questions. We can even be fancy dancy and call it the lightening round. J

Last book that really made you laugh: Christopher Isherwood diaries 1960-1969. Love his writing and he is very funny when he puts his mind to it. I find that I’m reading more non-fiction these days.

Recent book that you’ve been recommending to your friends because it’s just that good: All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. This book is a great modern western. It has everything, but mostly I just love McCarthy’s style of writing, which is to show everything and tell nothing. He’s poetic and brilliant.

Five characters, one each from five different books, with whom you’d love to share a meal and bend their ears:
Holly Golightly, from Breakfast At Tiffany’s (nobody creates better characters than Capote)
Sally Bowles, from Goodbye to Berlin
Sal Mineo, from Sal Mineo, A Biography
Christopher Isherwood, from The Sixties Diaries
Hassan Kadam, from The Hundred-Foot Journey (but only if he cooks dinner)

Ok, a few that aren’t at all book related.

Favorite dessert of alllllll time: Fresh fruit, which I have every morning and after dinner. I don’t have a sweet tooth, so I’m not overly fond of cakes and pies and chocolate candy.

Music or movies or tv, name a guilty pleasure: I love classical music, mostly opera, although I hate being labeled an opera queen. Herman and I enjoy streaming lots of movies, mostly dramas. The only thing we watch on network tv is tennis matches. One guilty pleasure I still love is playing tennis.

Ice skating or roller skating: I used to rollerblade in my younger days. The only thing I do with ice is chill the martinis.

Place you most want to travel to next: Herman and I travel four to six months every year. We’ve visited over fifty countries over the last twenty years. We plan to spend December through February in Thailand, Nepal and India. Next spring, Herman and I plan to walk 500 miles across northern Spain.