Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Buddha’s Bad Boys Goes To Print

For the last five days, I’ve been proofreading the final galley for my anthology of short stories, Buddha’s Bad Boys. I submitted these stories to Bold Strokes Books back in March, and they plan to release the book in February. I’m excited, because this is my first anthology.

Normally, the process for Bold Strokes Books is that an editor goes through the book making edits, and then the edited manuscript is sent to me with all the edits highlighted. I get the opportunity to approve or reject each edit. Once I send the approved manuscript back to BSB, the process is repeated with a different editor. When we’ve been through two rounds of edits, they send me the final galley for one last proofread before it goes to print.

This time, however, they didn’t send me the edited manuscript. I only received the final galley. I emailed my editor to ask why I was left out of the editing process, and was told that they didn’t make any wording changes, just a few spelling corrections and some commas here and there. The original manuscript was so clean they didn’t feel the need to bother me with minor punctuation changes.

Wow, that is a first for me. In the past, there was normally more red ink on the pages than black when I received their comments. Looks like I’m finally beginning to get the hang of this writing stuff.

I actually wish they had included me in the editing process, because while proofreading the final galley, I found areas where I dipped heavily into melodrama, and also repeated myself. The editors chose to let that pass. If I’d had a hand earlier in the editing process, I could have corrected that. It’s funny how clearly those problems stand out to me now, but I didn’t see them a year ago when I was writing these six stories.

Still, I believe these stories are well plotted and have likable character who have genuine depth. I hope readers will overlook the flaws and appreciate the stories.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Characters I Write

My career as a writer had been occupied in writing about characters who don’t fit into the social patterns. Most of my protagonists are gay men, but not all. These characters are very varied; some don’t fit in because of sheer defiance, some because they are terrified of society, some are simply scandalous. There are some, however, who have such a high degree of integrity that they don’t fit in anywhere in a world tainted by corruption.

The one thing they all have in common is that they are outsiders. They have many voices, and all sing, some loudly and some whisper, against the social norms. They are people who have few friends, yet value absolute loyalty to the personal relationships they find; they cling to those relationships as the plot darkens and they must fight to save themselves and the people that matter to them.

E.M. Forster once said: “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” This, I believe goes to the heart of my outsider characters that I try to create. I’ve always regarded loyalty to friends and loved ones as going beyond admirable to heroic. It represents the best qualities of the outsider.

I write about outsiders because I believe the outsider is, should be, really, one of the most socially valuable people in the whole community. Because he/she often, more often than not, challenges the social norms, doing what he/she thinks is right, rather than what’s accepted or easy.

Admittedly, I’ve always felt myself to be an outsider, and not by choice. So that by creating these characters, I’m questioning my own experience, what I am and what I am becoming. I create these characters and plots to find out if there’s meaning in the external world for me, and then, I suppose, if I decide that there isn’t, to impose a meaning of my own.

There are as many reasons to write and create characters as there are writers, but I’m explaining what I feel motivates me as a writer, and that is my own experience. I take those different experiences and mold them into a real constructed, contrived novel or short story which has a plot played out in action and also a philosophical plot which either proves or disproves a question, which it the story’s main theme. It has motifs as in a symphonic work, and it comes to a conclusion. But at the heart of that plot are the main characters, and I tend to paint a detailed portrait of these characters. And within the heart of these characters lies the soul of the outsider struggling against society for ideas they believe are truth and just. 

Friday, December 12, 2014

Writing Tip: Unlikeable Protagonists

Many writers, and I’ve done this myself, spend a great deal of energy making their protagonists jump through hoops in order to make them likeable. And admittedly, many readers demand that the protagonist be sweet and charming, or at least someone they can adore. 

Yet, many of literature’s most interesting and often most beloved characters are despicable rogues. One of my favorites is Hannibal Lecter in the Silence of the Lambs series of films. He’s a coldblooded killer, with no remorse at all. Yet, he fascinated me. Without Lecter, those movies would have been unbelievably boring. His dark character brought them to life. He stole the show. Look at any movie directed by Quentin Tarantino. I’ve never seen a likeable character in any of his films. 

So what makes us cheer for a contemptible character? As a fellow writer, Damon Suede, put it: “Unlikeable behavior is not what makes a character unappealing, but rather the context of that behavior. We often want these characters to behave awfully, and take pleasure in the wreckage they generate. So I don’t think it’s actually likeability that’s the issue.”

What readers need is a way to interface with a character. Hannibal Lecter, for example, was in fact a ruthless killer, yet he became very protective of Clarice Starling. That protectiveness was a thread the reader could relate to. He also was a competent artist and loved classical music, two more threads. When talking to Clarice, he had impeccable manners, another thread. He was not at all likeable, yet he had elements that most viewers could relate to. The writers gave him traits that viewers found accessible. 

Another great example is Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind. Selfish, conniving, ruthless. But going from riches to rags and living through the devastation of the war, we understand her perfectly. We connected, and we even sympathized. 

So go ahead and make your characters all assholes. Just be sure that within the context you place them, give them traits that will be accessible to the reader. Place them in mounting conflict that explains why they behave badly. And it always helps to make the villains more despicable than the protagonists. :-)

If you find that your characters have become annoying rather than enthralling, then revisit how the context, stakes and escalating conflict affect their values and behavior, rather than trying to make them more likable.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

An Inch Short of a Hat Trick

When I entered my novel, First Exposure, into the Rainbow Awards competition this year under the Contemporary Fiction category, I envisioned pulling off a hat trick because my two previous entries (The Lonely War in 2010 and Match Maker in 2011) both won in their category.

But even though First Exposure was awarded an Honorable Mention, in the final count it came up and inch short, being awarded Runner Up.  Congratulations to A.J. Thomas for winning the category for his novel, Sex & Sourdough.

Sex & Sourdough is now on my To-Be-Read-List. This better be good. lol

Saturday, December 6, 2014

God’s British Accent???

Herman and I just saw the movie, Exodus: Gods and Kings, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Christian Bale. I must say I usually avoid movies with biblical themes, but I recently read Herman Wouk’s This Is My God in which he gave a brief history of the Jewish religion, and that got me interested in the character of Moses.  According to Wouk, the Jews revere Moses because he was, according to legend, the only person whom God conversed with.

I would be generous in giving this movie three stars. I felt both the writing and the acting were lacking, and there were scenes (like exploding buildings) that were so off the wall we laughed out loud. The plot was lacking, too, but I understand the need to keep it close to the biblical myth.

I do give the film a thumbs-up for trying to make almost all of the miracles seem like naturally occurring phenomenon.

There were few surprises with the storyline, but I do question why the director chose to portray the character of God as a petulant, Caucasian, seven-year-old child with a decidedly English accent.  I mean, I get why they showed him as a petulant child, God often acts like that throughout the pages of the Old Testament. I even understand why they made God white. Lord knows the bigoted Christian in the U.S. would boycott the movie if they’d had the nerve to make God brown like the people he ruled over. No, we mustn’t unsettle the faithful with something so appalling as a brown-skinned God. What struck me as odd was that they chose someone with an English accent to play God. Was that an attempt to make him even whiter? Or was that a way to make a child seem wiser (research suggests that American’s think spokespeople with British accents have more credibility, are wiser.) I honest can’t think of any other reasons. I found it quit jarring. If it was to make him seem wiser, it failed.

I can’t recommend the movie. But as I’ve already said, I have a certain biases against biblical themed movies. This movie, once again, shows a god only interested in saving the tribe of Abraham, the Hebrews, which, to me, is simply a form of self-glorification by the people who follow the religions that sprang from the Hebrews.

As far as I’m concerned, the fact that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all created a god who only looks after their own tribe, and to hell with the rest of humanity (not to mention all the other living creatures,) only goes to reinforce my believe that man only worships two things: himself and money, and money, of course, is only another means of self glorification. 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Writing Tip: Too Much Dialog Can Spoil the Soup

I love dialog. It brings one close to the characters, lets the reader know how the character’s mind thinks, reacts, persuades and complains. Dialog is one of the most powerful tools in a writer’s toolbox. I am of the opinion, that when it is overused, it tends to lose all its power. 

I’ve recently worked with two other authors, giving them suggestions on how to punch up their stories. In both cases, I felt they were doing too much with dialog. 

The first author started his murder mystery at the crime scene, but within a few pages, his team of detectives gathered in a room at the police station where they proceeded to do nothing but talk to each other for twelve pages. All the backstory was told through dialog during those pages. I can’t explain how excruciatingly BORING those pages were to read. My advice to this writer was, if he must use dialog to bring out these facts, then do it at the crime scene while the detectives are looking for clues. That way, they are doing something. There is action going on while they are talking. 

The second author did something similar, trying to tell the story mostly through dialog. I’m sorry, I told him, this simply doesn’t work. You’re not writing a play, you’re writing a novel. You need action to move the story forward.

Dialog should not be used to tell the story. It should be used to punctuate the action in a story. Think of dialog as TNT. You want small controlled detonations in your prose in order to highlight certain ideas or actions or character traits. 

In short, try to tell the story in the narrator’s voice. Don’t make your characters tell the story. 

The other thing I’d like to point out about dialog is the way most people speak. If you pay attention while people talk, you’ll find that most people use very short bursts of dialog, fewer than ten words, before someone else responds and takes up the conversation. So having your characters constantly making long-winded soliloquies may not be the best option. Again, in my humble opinion, short burst are more entertaining and more in tune with human nature, thus it’s more believable.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Influences In My Life – part 3

I have had three men in my life who have deeply influenced me, each one at a different phase of my development as a human being. The first was my father, who shepherded me into manhood. The second was my first lover, who I lived with for sixteen years, and who taught me the value of education, and infused me with the tools to become successful. The third is my husband and soul mate, who more than anyone, has taught me—through example—to be a compassionate human being. In all three cases, it was not their accomplishments that had an impact on me, but rather, the strength of their character that shaped that part of my life.

Today, I’ll complete this series by focusing on my husband. I met Herman Chin at the San Francisco opera about two years after my divorce with John Ahrens. At the time we met, we were very attracted to each other but Herman was happily married to Steve, and had been for twenty-one years. I met Steve, and found him to be a decent and exceedingly likeable man. Herman and I frequently met over coffee or dinners (I couldn’t call it dating, and we couldn’t really push it any further) for about six months, and in all that time I knew he was the man for me, yet I never thought he would leave Steve, and I refused to asked him to do so. Little did I know, early on, he told Steve he was falling in love with me, and the two often talked about them splitting up so Herman could live with me.

Things came to a head when Herman asked me to join him on a month-long vacation to Egypt, Italy, and France. He said it would be only us two, and we would be lovers, at least while on this trip. When he made it clear that Steve had given this trip his blessing, I jumped at it. We shared what turned out to be the most marvelous adventure of my life. At some point between climbing five-thousand-year-old pyramids and wandering the backstreets of Rome, we realized we were not simply lovers, we were soul mates—or to be more accurate, we were one soul split into two bodies. Within a few weeks of returning to the States, Herman moved into my house, and we have not spent a night apart in twenty years.

On that first trip abroad, Herman became my guide, both in foreign cultures and in love. He and Steve had traveled through Europe several times, and he knew the ropes of maneuvering an unfamiliar culture. It was during that first trip that our roles were defined—he the guide, me the follower; me the lover, he the loved. And during that time we began a project I call, Humanizing Alan. You see, by that time in my life I’d become a man driven by ambitions, first to climb the corporate ladder and later to become a successful writer. I had become a goal-oriented animal, an aggressive competitor, with little thought to the people around me. I had bought into the American dream of greed and achievement hook, line, and sinker.

Herman, on the other hand, owned a small dental lab where he and two employees made false teeth. He purposely kept his business small so he could supervise all aspects of his trade and keep personal relationships with his dentist clients. He was an artist, whose artwork ended up in peoples’ mouths, and he was content to live modestly, without striving to become more of anything. He and I were very different, as I had spent half my life striving to become successful, and I felt I had a long way to go.

It was Herman’s example of non-striving that convinced me to finally walk away from Corporate America and follow my dream of writing. He convinced me that I already had achieved everything I needed, was already everything I needed to be. So in 1999, after a year of serious discussions, we both took a leap of faith and retired from the world of business. He and I turned forty-five that year. I began to write. He began to travel, and of course, I followed.

It was during our travels that the Humanizing Alan project really kicked into high gear. There is nothing, in my humble opinion, that makes one reevaluate one’s own culture and beliefs more than immersing one’s self in foreign cultures. Contrast can be a very powerful teaching tool, and what is even more powerful is living in an environment where you’re the minority, the odd man out, the one children point and laugh at. Simply being in a country where you don’t speak the language, where you depend on the kindness of those not as fortunate as you, is a humbling and humanizing experience. At first you realize, really know, you are no better than them. Then you realize you are them. Soon, you begin to love them. And finally, you begin to love yourself.

Herman and I travel four to six months each year. In our twenty years together, we have visited over fifty different countries, and have twice circled the globe. We have dined in the best restaurants in Europe, scuba dived the Great Barrier Reef, rode elephants in Nepal and India, gone on safari in Africa, chanted with monks in Tibet, hiked the Great Wall, and trekked to ancient ruins like Angkor Wat and the Pyramids of Giza. This spring we plan to tackle South America for the first time.

Without Herman as my guide, I fear I would have never had the courage to leave the States. He has shown me the world, and how to love all the people in it. In the process, he’s made me a more compassionate person. I’m not quite ready for sainthood, but each day my ego dies a little bit more, and my empathy for the people around me grows. This, more than anything, is what Herman has taught me, not by lectures, but by example. I’ve literally seen him walk through the slums of Calcutta and embrace the people there, as he does in every country we visit.

These days I continue to publish books; I’m now working on number ten. But the idea of being a success is meaningless. I write because I am compelled to write, it brings great pleasure. I publish to see my words in print and to share my stories with anyone who chooses to read them. My only goal at this point in life is to make my husband as happy as possible.