Thursday, March 5, 2015

Writing Tip: Don’t Expose Your Offensive Prejudices

I just finished a novel by a new author. I enjoyed the first thirty or forty pages, but then I noticed a pattern developing. All female characters were shown as strong, intelligent, and resourceful. However, all (and I do mean ALL) the men were either lying cheating bastards, spineless buffoons, or drug addicts who couldn’t tie their shoelaces without some woman there to show them how.

It became clear to me, that this woman writer had huge emotional issues with men—the kind of woman typically called a “man-hater”.

I found her treatment of women vs. men characters sexist and offensive. It colored the rest of the story, making it impossible for me to enjoy the book, or to take her seriously as a writer. I did finish the story, but only because I had agreed to review it, and I can state I will never bother with another of her books.

I have no issue with someone writing a story geared for women. Neither do I take issue with flawed characters, male or female. In fact, flawed characters tend to be the most interesting. But I do resent authors who blatantly attack a group of people by portraying them all as flawed, with little or no redeeming qualities.

After my first novel, Island Song, was published, I read through the story and realized I had presented a Christian preacher as totally flawed, a very unsavory character. I was more than a little mortified to realize I had let my resentment of the Church so blatantly color my story.  In my second novel, which also had a clergyman, I went out of my way to make that person a sympathetic character.

The writers I’m most impressed with try to show a fine balance of empathetic qualities and flawed qualities in each and every character, for their heroes and villains alike.  I think it’s one of the key traits of good storytelling.

Monday, March 2, 2015

My Favorite Pix of Me with My Husband

Today I’m sharing one of my favorite pictures of me with my husband Herman Chin. Herman is the handsome Asian on the left.

This picture was taken in a restaurant in Bangkok, Thailand as we celebrated our 20th anniversary together.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Coming Home Is Not Easy

Herman and I arrived home a week ago, ending a three-month trek through SE Asia, where we visited Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), Vietnam, and Singapore. After a week of being home, we are still adjusting. It’s more than simply recovering from jetlag. It’s crawling back into the old routines.

Most people I talk with about traveling for months at a time assume that being away from the comforts of home for so long is hard on body and spirit. I agree it can be hard if you’re the kind of traveler who is running here and there, trying to see and do it all. Herman and I, however, have learned over the years how to pace ourselves. We stay longer in each destination and see the sights at a sensible stride.

For me, coming home is the hard part. Don’t get me wrong; I love my home. It is the place where I’m most relaxed, most happy, and most productive with my writing. But getting back into our three-mile sunrise hikes, the tennis scene, reconnecting with friends, and restarting my writing work habits are difficult, at least for me.

I’m much more disciplined at home, and it takes effort to reinforce those systematic habits. I’m experiencing that now. It’s great to be home, but I’m finding it a lot of work after a three-month absence.

Yesterday, Herman and I joined friends for a morning of tennis. We played several sets, and to my great surprise, our three-month absence from the game had no effect on our play. I was expecting to spray balls everywhere, being so rusty, but we both played well. I can only hope the same happens with my writing.

I have been writing every day since our return, but it’s too early to tell if it is any good. Normally I need to let it sit for weeks and then go back to reread. Still, I’m feeling good about the progress I’ve made in the last week.

It’s good to be home. I figure another week and I’ll be back in the swing of things. There is no place like it.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Writing Tip: Get Your Facts Right

With fiction, you want to absorb the reader into the dream, which is the setting, characters, and plot of your story. You never want them to pull out of that dream, and nothing will pull them out faster than reading something that they know is not true. It not only pulls them out of the story, but it undermines their trust that the author knows what the hell they are doing.

I started reading a novel the other night, and twenty pages into the story the protagonist flies to Bangkok, Thailand, a destination I’ve been many, many times over the past dozen years. I got excited because I love Thailand, and wanted to read this author’s interpretation of that setting.

The author described the protagonist muddling through customs, and then going outside and being smacked in the face with a wall of humid heat. I chuckled because that is so true any time of year.

Then the author described the protagonist seeing a line of tuk tuks waiting at the curb to take passengers into the city. I pulled out of the story and said, “No way!” There are hoards of tuk tuks in Bangkok, but one never, never, sees them at Suvarnabhumi airport, only taxis. That’s because it is a forty-five minute drive on an elevated highway into Bangkok, and tuk tuks never go on the highways, only surface streets. I shook my head, knowing this author had never flown into Suvarnabhumi airport.

Still, I continued reading. The author described the protagonist being taken to a hotel in Silom, the gay district. Then he described the tuk tuk driver pulling the protagonist’s suitcase out of the luggage compartment behind the passenger seat. “NO WAY!” I said again. Tuk tuks don’t have a luggage compartment, or a trunk, or anything other than a bench that customers sit on. The only thing behind the passenager seat is a license plate.

At that point I knew two things: 1. This author had never been anywhere near Thailand, and 2. The author didn’t take the time to do his/her homework.

So twenty-five pages into a three hundred page story, I threw the book in the trash, where it belonged. If the author couldn’t be bothered to do research, I couldn’t be bothered to read his novel. I was not about to get pulled out of the story every other page with more untruths.

So, take the time to research. Always know more than your reader does.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

My Inspiration For Buddha’s Bad Boys

Now that I’m back from my three-month trek through SE Asia, I’m back on my weekly blogging schedule, which means Tuesdays are the days I showcase my own work.

Bold Strokes Books recently published my first anthologies of short works, Buddha’s Bad Boys. Each story is about fifty pages in length, so they have a bit more red meat on them that the average short story.

The idea for these tales came from the main temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand, Wat Pra Sing. The first time I visited the Wat I saw a sign that read, Monk For A Month Program, where for a cost of $350, tourists could shave their heads, don orange robes, and live the life of a monk for thirty days. I was intrigued, but was only staying in town a week. When I went back a year later to enroll, they had discontinued the program. But the idea took hold, and I began writing about Western men, all clutching the end of their rope, who find wearing the robes brings about the last thing in the world they expected.

At first I wrote these stories as give-a-ways on my website, as a way to introduce people to my writing style. The response I received from readers who read the first two stories—Monk For A Month and Handcarved Elephants—was so overwhelmingly positive that I planned an anthology, which resulted Buddha’s Bad Boys.

I’ve been writing these monk stories and giving them away on my website for four years. Some are romance, some adventure, and there is a bit of high drama in all of them. Of the six stories, two are based on real people and real events. The other four are purely fictional.

I’m very pleased to have them all together, and I’m hoping my readers will enjoy them. I know this is a cliché, but they really are a work of love.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Ten Zen Dos

I follow the Zen path because I’ve found it keeps me balanced in a society that often feels insane. For me, Buddhism is not so much religious dogma, but a philosophy that promotes wellbeing. The following list is what I try to incorporate into my daily activities.

1. Do one thing at a time, focus only on that thing,

2. Do it slowly, deliberately,

3. Do it completely before moving on,

4. Do less, simplify,

5. Develop rituals,

6. Designate time for important things,

7. Sit regularly, focusing on inner calm/wellbeing,

8. Smile with gratitude while serving others,

9. Turn ordinary tasks—cleaning,  gardening, cooking, walking, waiting in line at the store—into meditation,

10. Live simply, and appreciate every breath.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Writing Tip: Building Readership

I belong to several online writing groups where topics about writing/publishing are bantered around endlessly. Most of it is both entertaining and interesting. Yesterday a writer posted his frustrations about not being able to grow his readership. He explained that he writes in a variety of genres—contemporary romance, historical, steampunk, paranormal, etc.—and his readers who like one genre drop him like a stone when they read another genre by him that they don’t like. He posed the question whether he should focus on one or two genres while he builds his readership.

He received an avalanche of advice—everything from narrowing his focus, to publishing many more books faster, to writing a series where the same characters are featured in several novels. I didn’t offer my $0.02 because I’ve not done that great a job of expanding my readership. But the question has been percolating in the back of my head so I thought I would blog about it as a way to clarify my thoughts.

It seemed to me he is focused on the wrong issue. His focus is on how to get more readers. It seems to me his focus should be on writing high quality stories, something that will knock the socks off readers, regardless of what genre it follows.

Admittedly, you can gather what I know about readers into a thimble and you’d still have plenty of room for other things, but I think what readers (at least this reader) enjoys most is: a great hook, fascinating character development, impeccable prose, a captivating plot, and an unexpected yet satisfying ending. Easy peasy, right? (grin)

My point is, in my view most readers don’t care if it’s contemporary vs. historical vs. paranormal. What they crave is a gripping, emotional story with quality writing. They want their emotional buttons pushed, and they want to enjoy the prose while that’s happening. If you can deliver that every time, in my humble opinion, then your readers will not only stick by you, they will clamor for more and tell their friends in the process.

My advice: write the stories you feel compelled to write, but focus on quality. If it takes you three years to deliver a quality product, then take three years. One of my favorite writers, Alex Jeffers, has only written three or four books in the last ten years, and each one is impeccable. I don’t care what genre he writes in, I will read anything he publishes because I know it will be great work. He never releases anything until it is entirely thought out and polished to a dazzling sheen. I have no idea if he has a large following, but I do know that all of the readers I’ve talked to who know him are as devoted as I am to his work.

Please don’t misunderstand; I’m not suggesting that my stories are in the same league as Alex Jeffers and Felice Picano and others of that caliber. What I’m saying is my focus is on improving my craft so that one day, hopefully, I will publish the kind of superior stories of those writers I so admire.

Build a quality mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door, or so the saying goes.