Thursday, September 29, 2016

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, September 26, 2016

Hiked The Tram Road

This morning, Herman and I hiked up the road that leads from Palm Canyon Road to the Palm Springs tram station. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for months, but during the summer it was simply too hot, even at sunrise.

We began this 9 ½ mile hike just before sunrise, leaving Palm Springs behind on a stead 4 ¼ mile, two thousand foot elevation, climb. That is the equivalent of climbing 76 flights of stairs. To enhance the effort, I carried 9-lbs of water in a backpack. But we didn’t just leave Palm Springs behind, we also left all the noise behind. It was silent and gloriously beautiful as the sunrise colored the mountain a genital pink-orange. 

There were a dozen or more other hikers, and we spotted 4 Big Horn sheep. The round trip took 2 ½ hours. One of the most enjoyable hikes I’ve taken in years. We have vowed to make this hike once per week from now on.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Thai Cooking Class at My House

Last Saturday we had a treat at my house. For the first time, we held a Thai cooking class, with Thai chef Kayla. It started at started at 4pm with Kayla and three sous chefs. At 8pm nine of us—one Thai woman and eight gay men—sat down to a fantastic Thai dinner. We all enjoyed great food, great conversation, and lots of wine/cocktails. The main course included fried stuffed chicken wings, Larb, Panang Curry with chicken, Pad Thai, mushroom and coconut soup, and red and jasmine rice. It was truly a feast fit for the royal family of Thailand. I did not take part in the cooking, but I was up until midnight washing dishes because our dishwasher is on the blink, and it was so worth it. Kayla, you are welcome back in my kitchen any time, along with sous chefs Herman, Kevin, and Todd.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

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. 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.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Excerpt from 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

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.

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, September 19, 2016

Goals Happen More Easily with a Daybreak Habit

The sun peeps over the horizon, rays of light burnish a new day, a brisk wind holds the promise of a majestic day. What do you do with this time? Sleep through it? Drag your butt to the office with a twelve-ounce mug of coffee at the ready? Jog? Take the dog to the park? This time, in my opinion, is the best time to set the tone for the rest of the day, the best time to achieve success on an important goal.

If you have an ambition you want to accomplish (for me it’s completing a novel), this is the time to perform a habit that will help make that ambition happen. A morning writing habit will get the book done. Simply wishing for the book to write itself, or saying I’ll do it “tomorrow,” doesn’t make it happen.

If you have an important goal, try making a morning habit focused on it:
    If you want to lose weight, create a morning walking habit. Or morning strength training. Or prepare a healthy breakfast with fruits and non-fat yogurt.
    If you want to start a new business, create a morning session where you brainstorm new industry ideas over that first cup of coffee.
    If you want to become more mindful during your day, create a morning meditation habit.
    If you want to work on your relationship with your spouse, have a morning habit of talking about your relationship over coffee.
    If you want to journal or blog, make it a morning habit.

Why is morning a better time for important habits? Why not afternoons or evenings? I’ve found that time to be quieter, less chaotic, better for reflection and focus. I also feel that it sets the tone for the rest of the day.

My morning routine combines three of the objectives in the list above. Before sunrise, and first thing out of bed and after dressing, I enjoy a cup of coffee by myself. During that five minutes, I try not to think about anything. I simply let the enjoyment of sipping hot coffee pull me into the moment. As soon as that’s done, my husband and I leave the house for a brisk walk. We like to get out just as the sun makes its appearance, and we walk for five to six miles each daybreak. 

I use that walk as a form of communication with my husband, as we usually spend several minutes talking over the day’s activity list or some future plans; I also use that time for meditation, as I let the sounds and smells and visual delights of sunrise in Palm Springs pull me deeper into the present moment; and during that last mile, I use that time to plan out what I want to accomplish on my story that day.

By the time I get back home, I’m ready for a quick breakfast, and more importantly, ready for work. I have a plan and I’m excited to get started. That brisk morning walk sets a tone. It relaxes me, it charges my creative batteries, and it carries me on through the rest of the morning. I love it, rain or shine.

I know many people are night people and don’t function well in the A.M., but I’ve come to depend on my morning rituals to help accomplish my writing goals. For me, it’s become a religion.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Presidential Race Issue

Day by day it becomes increasingly clear to me that there is really only one issue being put forth in this presidential election. This election is not about the economy, jobs, healthcare, immigration, or even same-sex marriage. This election is all about race.

Many people (if not all) who support Trump say they want change, but from my viewpoint, what they really want is a return to white supremacy. They say they want economic opportunity, but what they really want is for minorities to stop taking jobs away from whites. They feel threatened by minorities taken control of the government and changing laws that strengthen the lives of all, which they see as weakening the laws for straight whites.

The lion share of Trump’s supporters neatly fit into a category called “uneducated white people”. They are people easily swayed by a corrupt media, and really only care about this single issue, keeping whites in power.

Trump supporters see their standard of living going down, and jobs going overseas, and they blame the government, rather than the corporations (like Trump’s businesses) that send those jobs overseas to cheaper labor markets. So now they are supporting the very people who took those jobs away from them.

I feel sorry for these people who keep shooting themselves in the foot rather than educating themselves with the issues. Their real problem is globalization, the fact that they are now competing with seven billion other uneducated people for jobs capable of being performed without a college education. And that problem will not change no matter whom we vote into office. The solution to the problem is simple, people need to educate themselves and learn new marketable skills.

But, of course, it’s much easier to simply blame Obama or the Democrats for giving all the advantages to minorities.