Monday, May 4, 2015

Hello View, Bye Bye Silence


Under the category of Beware Of What You Ask For: Since the first day of moving into our lovely Palm Springs house, we have complained about our neighbor’s pine trees blocking our backyard view of the mountains. Hardly a week went by in three years when we didn’t wish out loud that those trees be cut down. We approached the owners during that first year, and they refused to spend the money, because it was their second home and they were only here several weeks out of each year. It was not worth it to them, even though we offered to pay half.

The good news: While we were away on our month-long vacation to South America, someone bought the house behind us and chopped down those trees. We now have an unobstructed view of the mountains.

The bad news: The new owners bought the place for an investment, not a home. They plan to convert it into a high-volume rental property, hoping to rent it three hundred days per year. Rentals tend to attract noise, partiers—usually two or three families crammed into one house, with most everyone spending their time whooping it up by the pool. So we’ll be able to enjoy the magnificent mountain views, but now we need to install a cinderblock wall between the two properties so the renters can’t see into our backyard through the hedge. It was never a problem with the previous owners because they were seldom there.

We just got the estimate—sixty-six hundred dollars.

$6,600 and noisy neighbors three hundred days a year. Those damned old pine trees don’t seem so bad after all…

Saturday, May 2, 2015

People In The Arts are the New Priests


I came across an interesting idea while reading about Joseph Campbell. In discussing the role of writers and artists, he said we are not mere mirrors of what is happening outside us (as most people are). We are rather transformers of the energy in the universe. The artists, therefore, must train him or herself to know “things as they are.” The outer universe must pour through his/her senses in a larger measure than with ordinary people. But then his/her mind has to come into play for s/he must interpret and transform, not merely reproduce, that energy.

As poet W.B. Yeats said, “The arts are, I believe, about to take upon their shoulders the burdens which have fallen from the shoulders of the priests.

What they are saying, obviously, is that writers and artists have become the interpreters of what is happening in our society and our universe, and we translate what we experience into the new myths. People crave these new myths, because the old religious myths have failed to evolve with a changing world and a deeper understanding of our nature.

We in the arts carry the burden of creating the myths that people will live by. It’s a huge responsibility, not to be taken lightly.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Writing Tip: Story Starter Questions


I recently talked to a writer who claimed that she simply started with a blank page and an idea for a character and began writing to see where the story would take her. She seemed amazed that I put so much work—premise statement, outline, character profiles—in before I ever write the first sentence. I’m not saying one way is better than another, but I do think there are some basic questions that need answering before a writer plows into chapter one. Below is what I consider bare minimum to flush out a story idea.


1.     Who is the protagonist?
2.     What is his clear and tangible external goal? You must be specific about this so that the reader will know whether or not the protagonist accomplishes his goal.
3.     What does the protagonist stand to lose if he doesn’t accomplish his goal and is it primal enough for the audience to care about the outcome? Here are some primal goals:
a.     Safety – shelter, sustenance, financial security and even life or death
b.     Reproduction – finding a mate, becoming pregnant or making someone pregnant (or adopting), protecting the children that you already have
c.     Identity – finding out who you are or how you became the way that you are, confirming your sanity or lack thereof
4.     What internal flaw or problem would make it particularly difficult for the protagonist to accomplish his external goal?
5.     What would a person be like who has the worst possible version of that internal flaw? This is your antagonist.
6.     What is the worst thing that the antagonist could do to stop the protagonist from accomplishing his goal? Can it involve exposing the protagonist’s internal problem or a secret the protagonist has kept hidden? Whatever this “worst thing” is, it will be the second plot point at the end of act two.
7.     What skill does the protagonist have that can help him accomplish his goal?
8.     What job and environment would both take advantage of that skill and also help the protagonist to avoid confronting his internal problem? This is the setup that should go in the first 10% of the story.
9.     What two things could happen to the protagonist to jolt him out of this comfortable environment and force him to begin pursuing his external goal? These are the catalysts at 10% and 17%.
10.  What event could occur that would force the protagonist to step outside of his comfort zone and begin to pursue his external goal? This is plot point one at the 25% point of your story.
11.  What event would raise the stakes enough to force the protagonist to commit 100% to accomplishing his external goal? This is the mid-point.
12.  Should the protagonist overcome his internal problem or not? Should the protagonist accomplish his external goal or not? What external forces are working against him to keep him from accomplishing his goal? This will be the resolution of your story.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

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 everywhere fine books are sold. You can buy it now, 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 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.”