Thursday, March 23, 2017

Writing Tip: The Controlling Idea

Every good story has a single controlling idea. All coherent tales express this idea veiled inside an emotional structure we call plot. Once a writer discovers that idea, s/he should respect it. S/he should, in my opinion, never indulge in the idea that their work is merely entertainment. A story should convey meaning.

After all, what is entertainment? It’s the ritual of reading or watching a movie, investing tremendous concentration into what one hopes will be a satisfying, meaningful emotional experience. Anything else is just porn.

Plato once urged the city fathers of Athens to exile all poets and storytellers. He considered them a threat to society because writers conceal their ideas inside the seductive emotions of art, rather than present them in the rational manner of philosophers. Plato insisted that storytellers were dangerous people. He was right.

The same is true today. Every effective story sends a charged idea to our brains. Yet the idea is often not at all obvious. In fact, many writers, myself included, end up writing a great deal of a story before it dawns on them what that controlling idea is.

The power of this idea comes not only from the idea, but from the emotional charge that the story generates around the idea. Consider the movie Death Wish, whose controlling idea is that justice triumphs when people take the law into their own hands and kill the people who need killing. Audiences cheered as Charles Bronson stalked Manhattan, murdering thugs. Yet the controlling idea is totally vile.

So does a writer have a social responsibility to cure social ills or renew faith in humanity? I believe that the only responsibility the writer has is to tell the truth as they see it. So when you finish a story. Ask yourself, what is the main idea expressed within the climax, and then ask if that idea is true.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

★★★★★ Prism Book Alliance Reviews First Exposure by Alan Chin ★★★★★

Tuesdays are the days I showcase my own work on this blog. Today I’d like to share a review of my latest novel, First Exposure.


Publisher: Bold Strokes Publishing

Rating: 5 of 5 Stars

Blurb:
Straight, married Petty Officer Second Class Skyler Thompson battles homophobia from his navy buddies, the military, and his wife when he takes a job creating flower arrangements at a gay-owned florist. But rather than yield to pressure and quit, he refuses to give up the joy of creating beautiful arrangements, battling homophobia for artistic expression. His dream is to leave the navy and open his own florist shop.

Ezra Dumphy—his shipmates call him Dumpy because of his obesity—is a gay sailor who likes to dress in drag. He is shunned by his shipmates, tragically lonely, and uses drugs to cope with his solitude. What he wants more than anything is someone to share his life with.

Can these two men, opposites in every way, help each other achieve their dreams?

My View:
“Life, friendship, love, was a crapshoot.”
After just two chapters into this book, I had bought into this story, to Ezra and Skylar, to their lives, to this author’s writing.

On the surface of things, it may appear like these are trope-worn characters with trope-worn backgrounds, but this is not the case. Chin has given these people lives through their struggles and the crutches with which they try to deal with those struggles. He’s given to them talents and the joy they feel when they get lost in them. The level of emotional honesty is unavoidable, it’s so real.

Ezra and Skylar share a connection, though through different media. The result is a door that opens practically on its own.

To him, art was somehow sacred, the way you gaze up at a night sky and wonder if you’re standing on an electron that revolves around a proton in a series of infinite universes, and suddenly your mind expands and you experience your reality in a new and more significant light.

Anyone who has ever gotten lost while looking at a photograph or watching a playing musician or reading a passage in a poem, or anything of the like, will understand that feeling. There’s no turning back from it, either.

Desperation.

Fleeting joy.

Deep pain.

Strength.

Loneliness.

Wispy hope.

Sadness.

Unexpected chances.

This writer has a healthy comfort level with language and knows how to use it. It’s such an interesting juxtaposition, his use of what I can only call celebratory prose in writing about difficult things taking place in complicated, uneasy lives. The styles aren’t all similar but I got the same feeling from his writing as I do when reading Harper Fox or Edmond Manning. The words the words the words.

There are a few cases of what feels like overindulgence in that language, but when it’s this enjoyable, I let it go like a two-day old bagel.

At some point during all of this, I realized I wouldn’t be able to ever forget these characters. Beautiful, sweet, carrying their burdens, frightened, hopeful and working to survive. Again, it’s the writing. It brings inspiration and darkness to life.

“Flowers are more delicate, more ethereal than the plants they emerge from, and they have scent, which is amorphous. They are the bridge between the physical and the formless, body and spirit. Flowers are a metamorphosis of the plant in the same way spiritual awakening is to a human.”

Hollister, one of the supporting characters and co-owner of the flower shop with his partner Miguel, says this to Skylar as they work on creating some arrangements for an event. This is one of many, many turns in this story for multiple characters. I have to say, as well, that in this kind of story, I almost don’t like to use the term “supporting”, as if they aren’t important all on their own. Believe me, every character in this book is meant to be there.

Unpredictable characters making unpredictable choices. I like that I didn’t always agree with those choices or that they didn’t always feel right for the characters. Whenever that happened, it forced me to reexamine my understanding of them. How great is that? Highly involved reading is the name of the game here. Love it.
There are all types of relationships explored in this story: friendship, co-workers, married couples, child/parent, long-time companions, lovers, and all of them feel very real. Real means emotional, relatable, they made me think, stayed with me, and I couldn’t wait to get back to reading about them each day.

“Honey, did you ever have a kite pull you right off the ground when you were a kid? If so, then you know the thrill I get when I work with flowers.”

There’s a nostalgic feel to this book. I’m not even sure how I can “prove” that, except that it does. Maybe it’s the overall style of the storytelling Chin has. I think that’s what it is. I want more.

This is not an easy read given the wide array of tangled, difficult subjects examined and experiences revealed. Despite all of that, I felt peaceful when I was finished. Looking back at everything that happened, everything these characters put themselves through, I never would have predicted peace being my final reaction. Just like the story itself, it was unpredictable.

This is a novel that, frankly, defies categorization. It left me utterly satisfied. It’s very personal. And that last scene? I still can’t find the words to adequately describe how it made me feel, all of these days later. I do know that I want more of Ezra’s story.

I could not recommend this book more even if ‘more’ meant… more. Read it.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Bold Strokes Books Cut Me Loose

A week or so ago, I submitted my latest manuscript to Bold Strokes Books. I’ve suspected for some time that they would reject it, not because the manuscript is not a quality, well-written story, but because the three books I’ve published with BSB have poor sales records.

And in fact, that’s just what happened. I received an email from BSB rejecting my manuscript based on prior sales data. They will continue to support/sell the three books I’ve published with them—Buddha’s Bad Boys, First Exposure, and The Plane of Bitter Honey—but they will not published any more of my stories. And they released me from their First-Right-of-Refusal clause in the contracts for all my future works. I’m now free to peddle my stories anywhere.

I’m not altogether sure why my books didn’t sell at BSB. I know it’s partly because I’ve become a lazy on the marketing front. But I also feel it’s partly that BSB focuses on paperback sales, and less on ebooks. I sold five to six times as many copies per book at Dreamspinner Press, and most of those numbers were ebook sales. Also, I had built up a following at Dreamspinner. BSB is predominately a lesbian publisher, and their audience, I fear, is mostly ladies who like to read about ladies. My books are not their cup of tea.

Yesterday, I sent a query letter to Dreamspinner Press, and I’m hoping they accept this manuscript because it is a sequel to a book they have already published—Butterfly’s Child. Also, I’ve always enjoyed working with the folks at DSP. They are competent and supportive. The only reason I switched to BSB from DSP was I was branching away from romance, and at the time, DSP only published romance.


I’m feeling good about this move. Like I said above, I was expecting this. I’m just hopeful Dreamspinner Press will give me a chance.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Spiritual Transformation According to Tolstoy


The three life-conceptions are these: The first—the personal, or animal; second—the social, or the pagan; and third—the universal, or the divine.

1) According to the first life-conception, man’s life is contained in nothing but his personality; the aim of his life is the gratification of the will of this personality.

The savage recognizes life only in himself, in his personal desires. The good of his life is centered in himself alone.  The highest good for him is the greatest gratification of his lust. The prime mover of his life is his personal enjoyment. His religion consists in appeasing the divinity in his favor. And in the worship of imaginary personalities of gods, who live only for personal ends.

2) According to the second life-conception, man’s life is not contained in his personality alone, but in the aggregate and sequence of personalities,--in the tribe, the family, the race, the state; the aim of life consists in the gratification of the will of this aggregate of personalities.

A pagan, a social man, no longer recognizes life in himself alone, but in the aggregate of personalities,--in the tribe, the family, the race, the state,--and sacrifices his personal good for these aggregates. The prime mover of his life is glory. His religion consists in the glorification of the heads of unions—of eponyms, ancestors, kings, and in the worship of gods, the exclusive protectors of his family, his race, his nation, his state.

3) According to the third life-conception, man’s life is contained neither in his personality, nor in the aggregate and sequence of personalities, but in the beginning and source of life, in God.

The man with the divine life-conception no longer recognizes life to consist in his personality, or in the aggregate of personalities (in the family, the race, the people, the country, or the state), but in the source of the everlasting, immortal life, in God; and to do God’s will he sacrifices his personal and domestic and social good. The prime mover of his religion is love. And his religion is the worship in deed and in truth of the beginning of everything, of God.

These three life-conceptions serve as the foundation of all past and present religions.

The whole historical life of humanity is nothing but a gradual transition from the personal, the animal life-conception, to the social, and from the social to the divine.

The history of the ancient nations, which lasted for thousands of years and which came to a conclusion with the history of Rome, is the history of the substitution of social and the political life-conception for the animal, the personal.

The whole history since the time of imperial Rome and the appearance of Christianity has been the history of the substitution of the divine life-conception for the political, and we are passing through it even now.

Christ’s teaching differs from pervious teaching in that it guides men, not by external rules, but by the internal consciousness of the possibility of attaining divine perfection. That is the goal, to evolve into divine perfection. And in man’s soul there are not moderated rules of justice and of philanthropy, but the ideal of the complete, infinite, divine perfection. Only the striving after this perfection deflects the direction of man’s life from the animal condition towards the divine, to the extent to which this is possible in this life.
Over and over Jesus stressed (as did the Buddha) that the external world means nothing, that to follow Him means to focus inward, and not give a thought for the external world.

Jesus said, “Therefore I say unto you, take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls or the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them.  Are ye not much better than they? Which of your by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow/ they toil not, neither do they spin: and yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall He not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? Or, What shall we drink, or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof (Matt. Vi. 25-34)

Sell that ye have, and give alms; provide yourselves bags which wax not old, a treasure in the heavens that faileth not, where no thief approacheth, neither moth corrupteth. For where your treasure is there will your heart be also (Luke xii. 33-34).

Go and sell that thou hast, and follow me, and who hath not forsaken father or mother, or children, or brethren, or fields, or house, cannot be my disciple.

Turn away from thyself, take thy cross for every day, and come after me.  My meat is to do the will of Him that sent me, and to do His work. Not my will be done, but Thine; not what I want, but what Thou wantest, and not as I want, but as Thou wantest. The life is in this, not to do one’s will but the will of God.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Writing Tip: The Reader Bond

The reader’s emotional involvement is held by the glue of empathy. If a writer fails to fuse a bond between reader and protagonist, the reader will soon lose interest and walk away. 

Involvement has little to do with altruism or compassion. Readers empathize for very personal reasons. Mostly because they identify with a protagonist and his/her desires in life. When the reader roots for the protag, s/he is in fact, rooting for his/her own desires in life. Through empathy, the reader vicariously links to the fictional character, and tests and stretches his/her humanity. That is the gift of storytelling – to enable others to live beyond their own lives, at all the various depths of their being. 

To establish empathy, therefore, is critical, while sympathy is optional. Sympathy means likeable – Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, or Tracy and Hepburn. We like and admire them. But empathy is more powerful. It means: they’re like me.

Many writers go out of their way to make their protagonists likable. But likable is no guarantee of reader involvement. We all know likeable people who are painfully boring. Rather, the reader identifies with deep character traits, with innate qualities revealed through the choices a character makes while under pressure. In this way, even the most unsympathetic characters can become empathetic. 

Macbeth is the perfect example. Driven by power-lust and an evil wife, he goes on a killing spree. He’s a ruthless killer, a monster, right? Not so. Shakespeare gave him a conscience – something we all have and can relate to. When Macbeth asks, “What kind of man am I?” the reader/viewer has most likely asked that question of him/her self. The reader understands what it’s like to be guilt-ridden. So this killer transforms into an empathetic hero.

So the key to forge an empathetic bond, is first to put your characters in a series of pressure situations, and the pressure should increase with each one, and then have the character make choices under pressure that reveals deep human character that readers can relate too. I find it best when an author focuses on one or two character traits, loyalty for example, and then continually bombards the character with situations that test that loyalty.
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Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Excerpt: 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 http://tinyurl.com/pfe7dnl

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.

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.”