Saturday, December 3, 2016

The First Holiday Party of the Season

Last night, Herman and I attended the first Christmas party of the season, and it will be our only holiday party in Palm Springs this year, for Monday we fly to Thailand and then on to India, returning in February.

Last night’s party was a festive affair, set in a beautiful Palm Springs home, with plenty of scrumptious food and live music. The singer, a lovely woman who sang in the style of Billie Holiday, charmed us all night. We had a delight time chatting with friends and meeting new friends.

The only problem was it was a patio party, and the weather had turned bitterly cold. We were all clustered under portable heaters.


Many thanks to Greg and Frank for including us in their holiday celebration.




Thursday, December 1, 2016

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 second 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 few 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.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Where Love Gets Purified - An Excerpt From My WIP

I’ve been in Edit mode on my work in progress, and came across the following excerpt that I wanted to share:

He pulled a volume from the shelf and sat in a wingchair beside the piano. The book’s title: Dante’s Divine Comedy. Kalin rested the book in his lap and leaned close to read. Cord watched him become absorbed.
Kalin read aloud, “And of that second kingdom will I sing wherein the human spirit doth purge itself, and to ascend to heaven becometh worthy.” He slapped the book shut, lifted it from his lap and hit it against his forehead. “Fucking poetry. Why can’t they just say what they mean in plain English?”
Cord said, “That story is about descending into hell, and climbing a mountain back out the other side. It describes the seven virtues, the seven deadly sins, and the seven terraces of purgation. It’s about the nature of sin, and atonement for sins. I found it interesting that Virgil, a poet and philosopher, leads Dante up the mountain out of hell, but only leads him part way. In the last four cantos, Beatrice, who Dante loved, takes over as guide and leads him to earthly paradise. For me, it means that the intellect can only take you so far out of hell, but it takes love to lead you all the way into bliss.”
Kalin smiled. “I’ve read the cliff notes. They say it outlines the theory that all sin arises from love—either perverted love, deficient love, or the love of objects.”

“Funny, I never got that. So to Dante, impure love causes one to fall into hell, yet true love is the only thing that can lead you back out. So hell must be where love is purified?”

Thursday, November 24, 2016

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.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Excerpt for Buddha's Bad Boys

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 http://tinyurl.com/pfe7dnl

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.

Excerpt:
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, November 21, 2016

How You Can Thwart Trump

Wanted to share this piece I read recently about doing more than moaning about Trump. It's time for action, and this is, in my opinion, a good start.


How You Can Thwart Trump By Andy Borowitz
At a post-election show I did, an audience member asked me what he could do, in the next four years, to counteract the damage Trump will do to the country. I loved his question, because it reflected an eagerness to move past despair toward action. I don’t have a complete answer to it, but here’s a first draft. I hope it helps.
1. Political activism. Support candidates at the local, state, and national level who oppose Trump’s agenda of racism, misogyny and anti-Americanism. That means doing the hard, often boring work of political campaigns. (Note: changing your profile pic or sharing a hashtag is not political activism. It’s typing.)
2. Education. Help address our educational system’s decades-long collapse that has produced millions of people ignorant enough to vote for Trump. You can start by getting involved in your local school and school system to improve education from the ground up. If you are retired, or otherwise have free time, volunteer as a tutor. Help our children learn to read, write, and develop critical thinking. We get the politicians we deserve, and an uneducated, illiterate, ignorant nation will get more Trumps (or worse).
3. Information. Boycott the news outlets that pursued profits at the expense of their civic duty during the 2016 election. Are you angry with CNN for helping elect Trump by relentlessly creating false equivalencies between the two Presidential candidates? Don’t just be angry – unsubscribe. (I did.) We get the news media we deserve, too.
4. Set an example. Let’s say you don’t have the time to work on a political campaign or be a tutor. There’s still something else that everyone can do: starting today, ask yourself the question, “What would Trump do?” – and do the exact opposite. Trump wasn’t created in a vacuum; he is the inevitable product of a coarsened culture that rewards bullying over kindness, humiliation over respect, hatred over love. So, from the moment you wake up, be the anti-Trump in all you do. And if you have a child who is exhibiting Trump-like behavior, set him or her straight -- now. Otherwise, a narcissistic nine-year-old in your kitchen could someday be a narcissistic nine-year-old in the White House.
Those are my ideas. You probably have better ones. Please share them. And remember: no matter how depressed you have felt since the election, you are neither helpless nor hopeless. LET’S GET TO WORK.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Writing Tip: The Three Act Structure

Last week I wrote about Plotting. Plotting and structure go hand in hand. You generally determine both once you define your theme, what the story is “about.” Whatever your theme is, the hero needs to deal with it at the end. His character growth is tied into that theme. It’s the foundation of the story.

Here’s a great description of story, from Writing to Sell by Scott Meredith:
“A sympathetic lead character finds himself in trouble of some kind and makes active efforts to get himself out of it. Each effort, however, merely gets him deeper into his trouble, and each new obstacle in his path is larger than the last. Finally, when things look blackest and it seems certain the lead character is finished, he manages to get out of his trouble through his own efforts, intelligence, or ingenuity.” [or in some cases, like Romeo and Juliet, he dies trying.]

It sounds too simple, and yet nearly all the movies and novels produced today follow this story line. Makes no difference if your talking about vampires or space aliens or Shakespeare. In fact, looking at this year’s Oscar nominations, both Hurt Locker and Avatar both apply this perfectly.

But what of this thing called a three act structure? You simple lay the above story line over a framework that has three basic parts – setup, body, resolution. Lets dissect this further. The following is a set of turning points within a three act structure:

Act I
Opening Scene: The opening scene usually has two functions: to introduce the protagonist and hook the reader. It often introduces other characters, and perhaps even hints at the theme.
Inciting Incident: This is the place where you introduce the problem that the protagonist will be dealing with. It sets up a situation where the protag is faced with a choice whether to deal with the problem or walk away.
Hammer: This is the compelling incident that makes the protag decide to solve the problem. From here on out, s/he’s caught up until the problem is solved.
Armature into act II: Once the protag decides to act, s/he sets a series of events in play – events that will blossom in Act 2.

Act II
Act II begins:
 Where as Act I sets up the conflict, Act II lets the conflict play its course, growing larger and more sharp. This is where the protag struggles to solve the problem, yet each effort creates a larger problem.

Midpoint: Stories, as well as characters, have an arc. The midpoint is when the story changes polarity. Many stories, from the protags point of view, move from positive to tragic. For example: Romeo goes to a party, see the girl of his dreams, woos her, and finally marries her. All positive. But at Midpoint, he fights and kills Tibalt. It’s all down hill from there. Now the lovers are parted, Romeo is banished, Juliet is promised to another, and in the end they both die. So it was positive unit midpoint, then all negative.
Other stories start off with the protag in serious trouble and it gets much worse for them until the midpoint, then things begin to get better, and finally end with the hero prevailing. Again, the midpoint is where the polarity changes. And at least for most screenplays, it actually happens pretty close to halfway through the story.
Armature into act III: The conflict between the protag and the antag continues to grow. This is the point just before the darkest moments. If the hero wins in the end, this is a place where s/he has a false victory. That is, they think they’re home free (but in Act 3 they have the rug pulled out from under them.) It is the lead into the final crisis.

Act III
Crisis: This is the place where the Hero is turned on his/her head. It looked like s/he was going to win, then they the rug was pulled out from them and it now looks like they are done for.
Climax: At this point in the story, when things look darkest for the hero, s/he uses his/her own efforts, intelligence, compassion or ingenuity to solve the problem and overcome the antagonist.
Resolution: The protag solves the problem and this is where s/he sees the fruits of that solution.

Of course, there are different variations on this particular structure. But you’d be surprised how many stories follow it to a T. Hopefully, I’ve explained it well enough for you to understand each turning point. It’s an interesting exercise to watch a moving, stopping it to consider how closely if falls into this structure.