Monday, July 27, 2015

Let's Go Camping!


Herman and I are staying in San Francisco this week, visiting family, friends, and catching up on all our favorite Asian restaurants. We are staying with our wonderful friend, Ben Wong, and making the rounds. We’ve been away too long.

On Thursday, we strike out for the mountains in Northern California. It has been almost three years since we’ve camped. I am so looking forward to being away from everything, losing myself in the solitude of nature. I need this.

Several days near Lassen (we’re praying there is water in the North Battle Creek Reservoir, and then we across to Jackson Hole, the Tetons, and Yellowstone. I assume that will take five to seven days. After that, we wander down through the Utah deserts, working our way back home (with a stop in Las Vegas) We have no plans for Utah, preferring to play it by ear and take each day as it comes, which is how I like to roll.

I hope to take mucho pictures for posting on Twitter and FB, and also find time to study my Spanish lessons. I will probably not spend any time writing. At this point, a three-week break is welcome. My characters are just getting the island, and so this is a good place to pause and ponder. I’m taking three books with me—Early Auden, The Line Of Beauty, and The White Plague—but I don’t know how much time I’ll devote to reading.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Writing Tip: Your Protagonist Should Arc

Most, if not all, of your main characters should have some sort of arc, but let’s focus on the protagonist, because that’s who your story is about, and who should have the most dramatic arc.

What is an arc? It’s how a character changes from beginning to end. Stories are usually about a protag’s journey through a set of circumstances that are so powerful that they change him/her in some deep and meaningful way. In Lawrence of Arabia, Lawrence starts with a passion to avoid bloodshed; later, he comes to enjoy killing. In Casablanca, Rick steadfastly refuses to stick his neck out for anyone, yet by the end he risks his life and gives up the woman he loves in order to help the resistance.

The character arc is really what’s at the heart of a good story. What it takes to move the character from point A to point B is the story. If the character doesn’t change, you have no story.

Likewise, if you have other characters who have a more dramatic arc than your protag, they will overshadow the protag. And perhaps it’s really their story and you’ve chosen the wrong protag?

There are some famous characters who never arc. James Bond, for instance, never really changes from beginning to end. The same is true for many well-known detectives like Sherlock Holmes. That is one reason I’ve never warmed up to mystery novels. I think they’re boring. If the situation the protag battles is not somehow life-changing, then why bother? If it doesn’t affect them enough to change them in some meaningful way, why should it mean anything to me, the reader?

There is one gay mystery writer, whom I will not name, who writes a series of books, all with the same characters who never change. I’ve read several, and though he writes beautiful prose, the stories are dead boring. The protag solves the puzzle and that’s it. His protag always stands outside the story looking in, not really involved and has no person stake in the outcome.

Yet, I’ve read several mysteries where the detective does have a huge personal stake, where s/he is pulled into a life-threatening position and goes through an arc while solving the mystery. So it can be done, and it makes for a much better, IMHO, read.

Most readers want someone who is involved, who has a huge personal stake in the outcome, so much so that it changes how they see and interact with the world.

Character transformation is critical. Readers want goodness and justice to triumph, but we also want the characters to figure something out about themselves, become something they were not at the beginning (hopefully something that makes them a more complete person.)

I know some very talent writers who first determine how they want their main characters to be at the end of their story, then they make them exactly the opposite at the beginning, and try to figure out what must happen to change them so dramatically. Scrooge is the classic example of this. It took three ghosts and some hair-raising insights to turn him from a miserable miser into a generous and joyous person. But he arced from totally opposite poles within the span of the story.

These changes are internal, and to understand how your protag changes, you must have a very clear and detailed idea of their internal makeup at each point of your story. That means knowing your protag inside and out, and how each different adventure affects him/her. For me, that means creating comprehensive character profiles, not only for my protag, but for all my main characters. That takes work, but then, nobody ever said writing was easy.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Art of Accepting What Is


At the core of Buddhist teachings are four principles, the key one being that life is painful. I’m talking about emotional pain, the kind one suffers when events don’t go your way, or people don’t act the way you want them to. Every time life falls short of our expectations there is some degree of emotional pain. 

Everyone feels pain, usually on a daily basis. Some people experience that pain—as a mild disappointment or a gut-wrenching catastrophe—and then let it go, move on. Others wallow in their pain, blow it out of proportion, latch on to it for years or decades, and wrench every ounce of emotion out of it, worry it like a dog worries a bone.

Buddhism, simply put, is a method to avoid, or at least minimize that pain. And the principle way to avoid life falling short of expectations is not to create those expectations in the first place. If you fully embrace everything in your universe as if it is exactly what you desire, then there is no emotional pain.

That’s easy when we talk of losing a game of tennis, or even losing your wallet. It becomes more difficult when a loved one dies, or your job is eliminated. I’ve heard Christians deal with such pain by saying, “It’s God’s will.”

As a Buddhist, I remind myself of this lesson several times a day: accept what is. Not only accept, but be grateful, thankful for every failure, every disappointment, every thing that angers me. And once I accept it, then I work to improve the situation in whatever way I’m able. Acceptance does not mean you don’t “fix” things, it simply means you’re okay with it now while you work to improve it.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Kindness of Strangers


Three and a half years ago, Herman and I sold our home in San Rafael to a lovely couple and their two kids, who had spent the last ten years working in China. We only met them briefly, but told them one of our regrets in leaving that house was missing out on the plum tree in the backyard, which produced the best-tasting plums, and made scrumptious jam.

Now a FedEx box arrives about this time every year, chock full of ripe plums from that tree. A box arrived yesterday, and we were, once again, delighted.

This kind of thoughtfulness, unexpected and unasked for, reminds me that, in this world where there seems to be so much hate and violence, there is also love and bigheartedness. I wouldn’t trade that box of plums for a ten-thousand-dollar check, because the time and effort it took to gather and ship them shows true compassion for their fellow man.

And now, I feel compelled to pass on some similar act of kindness, so that others can experience the warm feelings I relish every time I bite into a plum. 

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Writing Tip: Write About Something You Care About

John Truby said: “Write a screenplay that will change your life. If you don’t sell it, at least you will have changed your life.”

I feel the same way about novels and short stories. If you are not writing about some topic you care deeply about, even if it’s hidden in the subtext, then why are you bothering? Because, frankly, if you’re not invested in the theme, why should anyone else be interested?

Writing is not for wimps. To be good, it takes immense mental and spiritual focus. It’s damned hard work. So before you begin, for God sakes, have something worthwhile to say. And if all you want to do is write some saucy exotica, with no real theme or plot or multi-layered characters, just so you can call yourself a writer, please do us all a favor and don’t. There’s already too much of that trash out there already. Rather, challenge yourself to write something significant. Something that taps into human problems, makes a statement about what you believe, about who you are as a writer and a person.

When I wrote my first novel, Island Song, I wanted to write a beautiful love story, but if that’s all that I had invested into it, I would have never finished the first draft, let alone rewritten it four times over a period of five years. But within this love story, I wove several threads that I cared about: gay bashing, alternative families, being open to starting over, loyalty to elders, the church’s ignorant stand on gays. I could go on. I made that story a soapbox to expound upon all these topics that meant something to me. So when the going got tough, I cared enough about the material to keep slugging away. And you know what? It did change my life in several positive ways. And because they were issues that touched me, they also touched many other people in positive ways. 

Same with my second novel, The Lonely War. I wanted to make a political statement about gays in the military and a slam against DADT. I did that, and in the process wove several other topics into the mix, again about family, loyalty, dignity, love. I didn’t mind spending three years writing and rewriting because it spoke a message I was totally invested in. 

That is the power of writing – to convey ideals, the writer’s ideals. Like I said, it’s damned hard work, but you end up with something you can be proud of. And something that not only changes you, it changes the reader as well. Maybe in minuscule ways, maybe in ways you as the writer didn’t intend, but they will be changed.

Monday, July 13, 2015

To Find Who You Are


Anne Lamott said, “To love yourself as you are is a miracle, and to seek yourself is to have found yourself, for now.”

The more I thought about Lamott’s statement, the more I pondered the best way to “seek yourself” so that you can truly “find yourself, at least for now.”

The problem with finding yourself, IMHO, is seeing through the facade that masks the uninhabited, messy, awe-inspiring person you were born to be. In short, you need to stop being who you aren’t.

And what makes up this fa├žade, this false persona we hide behind, or perhaps are imprisoned behind? I think it typically is made up of fixations on:
1) how people perceive us,
2) how to get more of the things that we think will make us happy,
3) zealously striving for whatever we label success as,
4) an obsessive need for power and security.

So to my way of thinking, finding yourself is a little like Michelangelo sculpting his “David.” He didn’t have to make or even alter David within the huge stone block; he simply had to know it was there, and then chip away everything in that block of marble that wasn’t David.

I know that sounds easy, and it’s not. One method for chipping away what is false is what Buddhist teachings call mindfulness. That doesn’t mean you spend all your time in thought or zoned out in meditation. Mindfulness is all about action, and it means that while you take actions, be it brushing your teeth or programming a computer or performing brain surgery, you are utterly focused on what you are doing, and more importantly, fully aware of why you are doing it. Being fully aware of the why means understanding your motivation for performing that action. If you are brushing your teeth, are you doing it for better oral health or are you doing it to impress other people with your dazzling smile? Motivations says a lot about you.

Every action is initiated by a motivation, and motivations reveal who you are, and more importantly, who you aren’t. Understanding your motivations is the first step in exposing (or finding) your true self.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Cuba Here We Come


This has been an exciting weekend, and it’s only Saturday. Herman and I booked travel to Cuba, starting at the end of this year. That’s only five months away. This is a destination I’ve wanted to explore for several years now, and we are finally doing it. The best part is, we’ll be joined by two traveling companions that we previously trekked with in France, Argentina, and Peru. They like to travel 1st class, eat well, and party hard. It should be a fun, fun trip. It will also be Herman and my first time on a gay cruise ship. We have no idea what to expect with that.

Our itinerary at this point looks like:

12/29/15 Palm Springs to New York, where we will spend two nights and be at Time Square to usher in the New Year.

1/1/16 New York to Montego Bay where we will board a gay cruise ship bound for Cuba.

1/1/16 Set sail for Cuba and spend seven days visiting three ports, with the last stop a two-night stay in Havana.

1/8/16 Havana to Montego Bay to spend two nights in Kingston, Jamaica.

1/10/16 Kingston to Miami, where we will hang out for five days taking in the beach, the Cuban restaurants, and finally renting a car to explore the Florida Keys.

1/16/16 Miami to Palm Springs, home sweet home.

This is a short trip for us. We normally travel for months at a time, but this year we’ve decided to spend most of the winter at home, and made a two-month trip to Europe (Spain, Portugal, France) in the late Spring of 2016. Still, two weeks in the Caribbean should give us a taste of that part of the world, enough to know if we want to return for a longer stay.

I’m over the moon with excitement.