Thursday, February 28, 2013

Volume vs. Quality

Several days ago I exchanged emails with a writer I both like and admire. He talked about a fellow writer who he claims told him, “I’m not interesting in improving my craft. I’m only interested in churning out stories.”

This statement has stuck in my head, nagging me to the point of being annoying. I’ve read three novels from the writer who made that statement, and I feel there is ample room for improvement, even if he doesn’t. I felt after finishing each of his stories that they were creative and engaging, yet somewhat disappointing. I felt that had the author spent another four or five months refining the plot and the story structure, and polishing the prose, they would have been awesome reads, rather than being merely entertaining ones.

Please don’t mistake my meaning; I’m not suggesting that I am a better writer. I have my own issues I struggle with. And I’m sure that he sells many more books than I do. What I’m suggesting is that writing, for me, is a craft where one is always striving for perfection, always experimenting and learning more, delving deeper into the human experience and finding fresh ways to express ideas. Writing, for me, is like tennis. Even the top players spend more time on the practice courts than they do playing opponents. They never stop trying to improve.

Admittedly, this philosophy of striving for purity rather than merely for more carries into every aspect of my life. It’s an attitude I’ve learned through thirty years of practicing Buddhism. I am constantly trying to refine whatever I’m doing, and I find great pleasure in that. I look at life as art that is never finished, never perfect.

It’s often a downer never quite being satisfied with one’s work. It is enough compensation, however, when I look at the body of my work, and realize that I’m slowly improving my craft. That, to me, is the most important goal.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Writing Tip - Three Kinds of Feelings a Reader Experiences

I read in a book (Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias) that there are three kinds of feelings a reader can experience while reading a book—boredom, interest, and WOW! Funny enough, with many books I experience all three over and over again. It is a rare book that can WOW me on every page, yet that is what we writers try (or should try) to do. In fact, I find it much more the case that most books bore me on the majority of pages, with a sprinkling of interest scattered through the book.

Some stories wow me because the prose is unique, poetic, and fire my imagination. I mean, some writers can paint portraits or landscapes with a few well-chosen words, like Zen brush strokes. Sometimes the wow comes from brilliant and valuable insights, which is difficult to put on every page. For the most part, I think the wow comes when the story engages the reader emotionally through drama.

As Cordon Lish said: “It’s not about what happens to the people on a page; it’s about what happens to a reader in his heart and mind.”

That, in my not-so humble opinion, is what a writer should strive for on every page, to touch those emotional buttons within the reader, sometimes gently and sometimes brutally. That’s why people read fiction, to ride an emotional rollercoaster. They want to feel something. They put themselves into the characters skin and feel the joy, sorrow, pain, bewilderment, and tension that the characters feel.

Emotion means “disturbance” from the Latin “to disturb or agitate.” The writer’s job is to disturb the reader, move their hearts and minds by the words you string together on the page. It’s what the reader demands. It’s why the plopped down twenty bucks for your book. They want a emotional ride, and they want it on each and every page.

It’s important here to distinguish between a character’s emotions and the reader’s emotions. Sometimes, in a comedy for example, a character might be being dragged through hell but the reader’s response might be laughter. In a thriller, the protagonist is often calm and unaware, yet the reader is tense because he knows something the character doesn’t. Sometimes you want the reader to experience the same emotions that your characters are feeling, and sometimes you want the reader feeling something entirely different. A good writer focus more on the reader’s emotions than they do on the character’s emotions.

Bottom line: it’s not enough to write a well-structured plot where the protagonist follows the hero’s journey and changes his perspective at the end. It’s not enough to offer brilliant insights every dozen pages or so. A writer needs to reach into the reader’s gut on page one, and keep massaging those emotional buttons throughout the story. Easy Peasy right?

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Novel Beginnings

Tuesdays are the days I showcase my own work on this blog. Today, I thought it would be fun to post the first few paragraphs for each of my published novels. I love beginnings, they set the tone for the rest of the story. Here, then, are all my beginnings: 

Daddy’s Money
He rolled over and nuzzled his pillow. Through the thin membrane of his unconscious, he saw not the pillow, but mounds of coppery flesh, sweaty and firm, and appropriately stimulating. He could not see a face on this nameless form because he concentrated only on those luscious, satiny curves. His lips sought out that moist crevice he knew would bring them both the most pleasure. A smile creased his lips as he kneaded his face into white linen, kissing its softness, inhaling the fresh scent of a spring morning, but a noise drew his awareness up from the depths of his tantalizing vision. Beyond the borders of his dream, barely noticeable but growing louder, he heard the pulse of an alarm clock.

Butterfly’s Child
The musicians tuned their instruments for a Thursday night performance. A mishmash of sounds ascended from the pit, underscoring the audience’s expectant banter.

Cord Bridger settled into his usual seat, a mahogany desk and chair known as a libretto table. There were only six in the Metropolitan Opera House. They had no view of the stage, but rather crouched along the balcony walls, three to the stage’s right and three to the left. Each desk supported a low-watt lamp so the patron could read the opera’s score as the performance played out.

Cord wore his usual evening attire: black Brioni suit, black silk shirt, black tie, and his short black hair stuck out at rakish angles. Only his pale face, thin fingers, and fatally blue eyes stood out in the shadows.

Simple Treasures
In the faint flush of predawn, a Kenworth sixteen-wheeler topped a ridge, forty miles east of Saint George, Utah. With only a half load to hinder it, the rig barreled along the interstate at twenty miles an hour over the speed limit. The driver hoped to make Las Vegas in time for breakfast. The truck rumbled on, unrelenting.

Simple rode shotgun, staring at a dusting of lights that looked like a pocketful of stars cast across a vast and lonely mesa. The iridescent specks reminded him of flickering candles at a funeral, although he had no memory of ever attending one, and he wondered if that metaphor was some ominous sign of what lay waiting for him in Saint George.

He had stayed awake all night, too excited to sleep. His eyes burned, and his mouth felt parched. He wanted a drink, but his water bottle was stashed deep in the backpack that rested on the floorboard, between his feet. Outside, the crowns of cottonwoods, tinged pink with the coming dawn, appeared to be pasted upon a gunmetal-gray landscape. With his peripheral vision, he saw the rearview mirror reflect beams of pale orange light that now chased him across the mesa.

Match Maker
Connor Lin’s eyes grew large as the ball bounced short of the service line and sailed into his strike zone. He drew his racket back while planting his body in perfect balance; his arm swung, shoulders rotated, and his racket arched up through the ball and continued into a follow-through. The ball seemed to shriek from the impact as it sped bullet-fast toward the sideline. It scorched a pale mark on the green court a half-inch from the white line. But once again, it was the half-inch on the far side of the line. The lineman’s hand flew up, and he yelled, “Out.”

Connor dropped his racket and blinked at the mark, obviously not quite believing that he had lost another game.

The Lonely War
In the spring of 1941, the Japanese army surged across the border from China to extend their bloody campaign to all of Southeast Asia. As war crept south, the French, English, and American foreigners scattered throughout Indochina hastened to Saigon, where they boarded ocean liners bound for their homelands. Meanwhile, the Japanese army massed at the outskirts of Saigon, poised for another victorious assault. The city held its breath as the invaders prepared for the onslaught.

Andrew Waters pursued his father across a bustling wharf, still wearing his boarding-school uniform and clutching a bamboo flute.

The ship that loomed before him was a floating city, mammoth, with numerous passenger decks topped by two massive exhaust stacks muddying the sky. It had berthed at the port of Saigon—an inland port on a tributary of the Mekong—for a full week. Now, Andrew saw the crew scurrying to get underway.

Island Song
A full moon rose from the sea. Strands of light reached across the vast Pacific, caressing an old man’s face as he sat in the bow of an outrigger canoe. The old man studied the moon until it hovered above the horizon. He lifted an arm and signaled to move ahead.

Songoree, the young man in the stern, dug his paddle into the dark water, driving the canoe through the channel and beyond the mouth of Neue Bay.

A fresh wind drifted over the bay from the northeast. It whispered as it flowed over the canoe and fell silent as it swept back over the channel. The only other sound was the splash of the paddle.

The old man signaled to halt.

Hope you enjoyed these beginnings. 

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Year Of The Snake

I'm traveling around Asia, in Singapore at the moment. I've been enjoying the Chinese New Year celebrations that go on over a two-week period every year. There are some amazing sights to be seen during these celebrations, and some amazing food to be eaten. It's not to be missed.

This weekend is the last days of it for 2013, and here in Singapore they have the Chingay celebration, which is a two day mardi gras. This is my third Chingay, and it is awesome.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

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, February 19, 2013

Free Story by Award-winning author Alan Chin

Tuesdays are the days I showcase my own work on this blog. Today, I’d like to remind everyone that I am giving away a free story, Handcarved Elephants, on my Internet site at Simply press the ‘free story’ button and enter your name and email address. I’ll email you a pdf copy.

The story is a novella-length tale of a man at the end of his rope, fighting for survival, but only finds redemption by putting aside his own needs to help someone else.

It takes place on/near a beach in Thailand that I’ve been to many times, and I have tried to capture the sights and sounds of the Thai culture.


Monday, February 18, 2013

Happy Hokkien New Year

Happy Hokkien New Year (celebrated on the 9th day of the Chinese calendar). We took cover at Amigos Bar during a 90 minute torrential rainfall, then as the skies cleared, everyone hit the streets. Two plus hours of continuous firecrackers and fireworks. Never experienced anything like it. — at Lok Lok Chew Jetty.

This takes place in Penang, Malaysia.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Book Review: Fadeout by Joseph Hansen

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: The University of Wisconsin Press
Pages: 187

Dave Brandstetter is an insurance company investigator in charge of looking into difficult claims. When radio personality Fox Olson’s convertible plunges off a mountain road into a river, Brandstetter is called in to determine why nobody can find the body. Was it an accident? Suicide? Murder? Or is Fox alive and in hiding? And how does all this relate to the sudden reappearance of Olson’s war buddy.

Brandstetter has his own demons to fight. He has recently lost his lover, and this is his first case after coming back onto the job after a number of months off to get over what he can’t get over.

Olson lived in a small western town, one where everyone seemed to love him, and also where everyone has secrets. Brandstetter must expose all those secrets in order to uncover the truth and solve the case.

In 1972 Joseph Hansen published the first of what would grow to twenty-five novels, twelve of which feature Dave Brandstetter as the hard edged, openly gay, thinking man’s investigator. Brandstetter was not the first gay sleuth, but he was the first healthy, gay detective that was utterly comfortable with his sexuality. He is as real a person as a novel character can be.

The writing and pacing are superb. Hansen has been compared to Hammett, Ross MacDonald, and Chandler, and for good reasons. Although there are some plot twists that are obvious, there are plenty of surprises that keep the reader guessing to the last few pages.

It is a moving, interesting, sure-handed book on every level. 

After four decades, every aspect of this story and the writing holds up. Hansen’s work is destined to be deemed classic. This is a story I can highly recommend to all readers who enjoy a good mystery.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Writing Tip – Dialog Is About Attitude

Yesterday, I was having coffee with James Dalessandro, a noted screenwriter, and we mostly talked about dialog. He said, “Dialog is the characters passing information to the reader, with attitude. And attitude is more important than the information.”

The best example he gave was a prison movie where Clint Eastwood, a prisoner, was meeting with the warden:

Warden: “What was your childhood like?”
Eastwood: “Short.”

The subtext, of course, is that Eastwood’s character found himself on the streets fending for himself at a very early age. But more important, is the attitude that comes across with that one word answer, which says: “Screw you. Why are you asking me these bullshit questions? Mind your own f*&%ing business!”

That is a lot to say with just one word. It speaks volumes about the character, yet it is just one word, five letters and a period. Brilliant.

So, when thinking about what your character will say, give even more thought to how s/he will say it. What are they feeling, what are they trying to get at that moment. It’s all about attitude and impact. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Daddy’s Money Cast of Characters

Tuesday's are the days I showcase my work on this blog. Today, I like to give readers an introduction to the characters in my latest novel, Daddy's Money.

Daddy’s Money
Cast of Characters

LOGLINE: Imagine that you finally meet your lover’s parents, only to discover that his father is the sugar-daddy whose been paying your way through medical school.

SAYEN HOMET (HOM): Handsome, medical student, and Muslim. He is exotic, gay, and devout. Sayen was brought to this country by his mother, and she has passed away, leaving Sayen to fend for himself. He is determined to be successful, and he’s willing to use people to get what he needs. He has a sugar daddy who pays for his schooling in exchange for sex. But then a rich young student, Campbell Reardon, promises to give Sayen everything he has ever wanted. He reaches for the brass ring, thinking it’s golden.

CAMPBELL REARDON: Fresh, young, Stanford medical student holds all the promise of youth in love. Campbell has been in lust with Sayen for some time, but only recently had the guts to go after him. Between Campbell’s charm and his family’s considerable money, he manages to snare Sayen into a relationship, and love blossoms. He can’t wait to share his happiness with his family, and decides to take his lover home and introduce him to the folks.

BLAKE REARDON:  Campbell’s father, is a man of secrets. He loves his wife and children, he loves his position in society and the benefits his wife’s fortune brings him. He has hopes of running for high office, perhaps someday even the presidency. Yet, he is a gay man deep in the closet. He fell in love once in the Peace Corp, but that relationship ended badly. He found love again, and pays for the privilege of seeing this man once each week. Little does he know that his son, Campbell, is also in love with this Muslim man.

MARILYN REARDON: Campbell’s mother, is a woman of means. She writes children’s books and maintains a cool aloof exterior. She is the power behind the Reardon household, and demands that everyone march to her tune. She always knows what’s best, and will protect her family’s image at all costs.

HALLE REARDON: Campbell’s Goth, teenaged, pregnant sister. She loves her brother Campbell more than anyone, but she has issues of self worth. She is high-spirited, rebellious, and speaks her mind. She will not go with the flow simply to please everyone. She will stir the pot whenever possible. Once she sets her mind on something, she goes after it with unwavering determination, and what she sets her mind on is her brother’s boyfriend, Sayen.

JET: Halle’s best friend. He is super cool, an artist, and gay. He likes older men. He is Chinese, wear’s leather jackets and has his long hair in a ponytail. He will do anything for Halle.