Thursday, March 30, 2017

Writing Tip: Levels of Conflict

I’ve read several stories lately where the author manages to create interesting characters and also string countless pretty sentences together. But they don’t seem to get the notion that nothing in a story moves forward except through conflict. 

A simple definition of conflict is: two dogs, one bone. Conflict is key, in every scene. If you write a scene that doesn’t have conflict, trash it, because it doesn’t advance the story, or at least not enough to make the reader wade through it. 

Little or no conflict means little or no movement, which means little or no interest. In a word: BORING.

A story is a metaphor for life, and to be alive, as the Buddha once stated, is to be in a perpetual state of conflict. Everyone is lacking something they want, and when they get it they soon want something else. Hence, every character in a story desperately wants something, and the story is what they do in attempting to achieve their desires. 

But it is not enough to just throw your protagonist into a pit of snakes as a way to add conflict to a story, or have the love of his life die. The best stories are complex stories, and what I mean by that is, they have conflict happening on three different levels at once. The three levels are:

1. Inner conflict
2. Personal conflict
3. Extra-personal conflict. 

If a story only has conflict of the inner kind it is basically an exercise in stream of consciousness. The basic movement of the story all happens in the character’s head. This is very difficult to pull off, and can get rather tedious after the initial rush wears off. 

If a story has all its conflict in the personal category, it is a soap opera or porn, where every character has a relationship with every other character. It’s all about who is sleeping with who. This is a mark of an immature writer. 

A story that has only extra-personal conflict is basically an action/adventure or horror story. James Bond is a perfect example. He has no inner conflicts, nor does the viewer mistake 007’s encounters with women as personal. For him they are sport.

It is only when a writer weaves conflict into all these levels that a story becomes truly complex and, in my opinion, interesting.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Excerpt: The Plain of Bitter Honey by Alan Chin

The Plain of Bitter Honey by Alan Chin
Published by Bold Strokes Books

This story represents a dramatic turn in Alan’s writing. It is a futuristic story of two brothers, one straight and one gay, who battle a corrupt government and each other. This is a tale of survival, of devotion, of love, of finding deliverance and atonement.

This novel is a finalist in the 2014 ForeWord Review Book of the Year Award in the Science Fiction and has received a fistful of Five-Star reviews.  This is what Bob Lind, the reviewer for Echo Magazine, had to say about it:
I've said in the past that Alan Chin is my favorite author, and that is still the case with this new book. It is best described as a sci-fi/speculative/political novel, so unlike any of his previous works I have seen, and he handles the genre with mastery. The story is action-packed, well-constructed and expertly told, with a diverse, developed cast of gay and straight characters working together in situations that risks not only their lives, but perhaps the future of this country. Bravo … five stars out of five.

Twins Aaron and Hayden Swann are fighting a corrupt government taken over by ultra right-wing Fundamentalist Christians in 2055 America. Each brother fights in his own way, Aaron with bullets, Hayden with words. Then one night their world is turned upside down when they are caught in a government sting and they must both flee north into the badlands between San Francisco and Canada, where the only safe haven is a place called The Plain of Bitter Honey, a refuge where heads of the Resistance operate. But the brothers don’t know that government agents are tracking them to the hiding place of the Resistance. Can they find the inner strength to survive?

The whine of hydraulic motors filled the compartment. The back door crept opened and the front began to rise.

Now came the dicey part. As trash spilled out of the container, they all had to fight their way to the top of the heap so they didn’t end up crushed under tons of garbage, and they had to do it silently—one scream and the armed guards in the cab would be on them. Thankfully, Gideon jumped to Aaron’s aid to help haul Hayden to the top. As the container’s angle grew sharp, the trash picked up speed sliding out the rear.
They rode the debris out, like surfing a wave.

The grade was steep and the brothers tumbled down along with the other freedom fighters. When they came to rest, Aaron still clutched his brother to his chest. Wet, putrid waste piled over them, enough to give them cover until the truck sped away.

Aaron waited until he heard the clang of the truck doors lock shut and the whine of the engine fade. He shook off the trash and pulled Hayden onto his shoulders.

Others scrambled to find the food and equipment scattered among the debris.

Aaron stumbled across a field of waste to lay his brother down in the shade of some cottonwood trees. He dashed back and dug though the rubbish to find his backpack, food and automatic weapon. He worked fast, knowing other trucks would soon show up to dump more refuse, and as soon as the trucks stopped for the day, the Caliban would arrive to scour the heap for anything edible. They had precious little time to gather the equipment and flee the area.

Within twenty minutes, they had assembled a pile of backpacks, blankets, tin cookware, canned food and jugs of water. It only took a few minutes to divvy up the load and pack. Everybody shouldered his or her load while Aaron hauled Hayden onto his back again.

Aaron stared at his pack propped against a tree, realizing that he couldn’t carry both Hayden and the pack, and everyone else was already weighed down. He flashed on its contents—family pictures, mother’s jewelry, childhood keepsakes, a few cherished books Hayden had acquired on the black market, the false passport, and the three hundred thousand dollars. He picked up his rifle, turned and lunged away, leaving the pack. 

Gideon took the point, leading them single file toward the foothills below Mt. Tam. As they left the area, they crossed a well-used path. Beside the trampled grass, Aaron noticed a patched-together signpost that read: To Vancouver, 800 scenic miles.

Aaron wondered whether this was the result of well-meant, wishful thinking or whether someone was making a joke. In any case, the sign stood like a beacon, daring all to proceed at their own risk.
They moved fast and stayed under cover as much as possible, but hadn’t gone a mile before Aaron began to lag behind. The average weight of the backpacks was seventy pounds; Hayden weighed one-eighty-five. Aaron struggled with every step.

He realized he could not keep up.

It became a nightmare. His head bowed and body bent under Hayden’s mass, Aaron lurched over rocks and small obstacles. The pain of his pinched toes had become sharp. He was a fool not to have picked better-fitting boots, and he was paying the price for his stupidity. As he stumbled across the open country, the pain crept from feet to his shins, to his knees. Aaron was in serious trouble. He would never make Canada, but he could go on for a while longer. He would stumble on as long as he could, and just hope someone else would take Hayden when he was done in.

Occasionally he heard a grunt or a voice, but everyone trudged along silently for the most part. Having been raised in the city, amidst a constant barrage of noise from traffic and crowds, this silence was unexpected, and frightening.

Once he thought he heard footsteps behind him. He stopped and half-turned, his ears and eyes straining, but he saw nothing. He only heard his own panting and the sound of his heart pounding.

He hurried on, mindful of the uneven path. If he broke a leg now, it meant certain death. He fell further behind until Gideon stopped the others under the cover of trees.

Aaron struggled to catch up. When he collapsed in the midst of the group, they were deep in debate. 
“We need to move fast and hard,” Cooper said. “If Aaron can’t keep up hauling his brother, we leave him.”
Weary, Aaron could smell their fear. He checked to make sure Hayden was breathing okay, and crawled to his feet.

 “Nobody gets left behind,” Gideon growled. “Now that we’re away from the dump, we need to move carefully and with intelligence, not fast and stupid.”

Cooper shook his head and Maggie spoke for the first time, “Coop’s right. I’m sorry about what happened to Hayden, but right now he’s an anchor. I’m not risking my life to save him.” She glared at Aaron.
If it were anyone but Hayden, he’d be the one insisting they leave him behind.

“All right,” Aaron said between gasps for breath. “I won’t beg you to stay with Hayden and me. Anybody who thinks I’m putting them at risk can leave us behind, and best of luck to you.” On our own, he thought, we don’t have a prayer.

“Listen up,” Gideon said, peering at Aaron. “I’m sticking with Aaron. If you want to live, you’d better damn well stick with us.”

Maggie took two steps toward Gideon. He didn’t flinch as she said, “You have a map of how to get to The Plain of Bitter Honey. Make me a copy.”

How she knew that information, Aaron had no idea, but he was not surprised. She was the smart one, and did her research.

“Too dangerous. If the Caliban gets their hands on that map, Bitter Honey would be wiped out. I won’t take that chance.”

The Armenian raised his sidearm level with Gideon’s head and clicked off the safety.

“Give her the map,” the Armenian hissed, “or I’ll take it off your dead body.”

“One shot and you’ll draw everyone within five miles down on us.”

The Armenian took a step toward Gideon, bringing the muzzle to within an inch of Gideon’s head.
Everybody froze. Gideon reached for his inside coat pocket.

“Slowly,” the Armenian snarled.

Gideon produced a map and held it out. “If you even suspect you’re being followed, eat it. You cannot let the Caliban get hold if it.”

Maggie snatched it from his fingers.  Aaron stepped closer, until he could see the drawing himself. It was indeed a map of the Pacific Northwest, done in pencil outlining the coastline with little triangles showing the mountain ranges. A compass sat in the top right-hand corner. At the top was a line and above it a word: Canada. But in the middle, within the triangles along the coastline near the California/Oregon border, was a small black dot with the words ‘Plain of BH’ under it.

She folded it back up and stuffed it inside her shirt.

Aaron couldn’t believe she was making such a stupid blunder. Leaving Gideon to go it on her own was madness. It revealed how scared she and the others were. It’s because we let them think they were going south, he thought. We should have let them know the minute we agreed to evacuate everyone who could have been identified. We sprung this run for Canada on them at the last moment, but they needed time to get used to the idea. It was too quick.

“Whoever is coming with me,” she said, “saddle up. I want to be on the other side of Mount Tam by sundown.”

With the Armenian continuing to hold his gun on Gideon, everyone except Liam and the Mexican girl shouldered a pack. Moments later, they trotted away at a fast clip, traveling due north.
“Thanks for sticking with us,” Aaron said, nodding in Liam’s direction as well, “but what the hell can we do without a map?”

“I don’t need it,” Gideon spat. “I’ve been there enough times. I made that stinking map to give to you in case something happens to me. Let’s move out. We’ll skirt around the west side of Tam. We hike single file. Walk in my footprints. No talking; we communicate with hand signals. We take it slow and we zigzag so it’s more difficult for them to trail us.”

“Are the Caliban as fearsome as people claim?” Liam asked. “I mean, I always thought that the rumors were government propaganda to keep us afraid.”

“I don’t know about you,” Gideon answered, “but I don’t plan to find out.”

Everyone nodded. Aaron asked Gideon why he chose to stay with him and Hayden.

“You risked your life to save your brother, and you wouldn’t leave him.”


“So you showed me you can be counted on. Out here that’s everything.”

Aaron didn’t ask why Liam and Juanita stayed. Sticking with Gideon was the smart move.

“What about the others?” Aaron said, looking up the trail they had taken.

“Forget them. They’re already dead.”

Monday, March 27, 2017

Palm Springs Desert Winds Freedom Band

A musical afternoon listening to the Desert Winds Freedom Band performing music from the world of dance...Opera, Broadway, Ballet and Jazz with guest vocalists at the Jewish Community Center Bochner Auditorium.

Saturday, March 25, 2017


I believe that all humans seek happiness, and I’ve come to think that attaining happiness is our purpose in life. Whether an individual is religious or not (and it makes no difference which religion one follows) we all strive to make our lives better, which means some sort of movement towards attaining what we imagine to be happiness.

Yet, achieving true happiness in today’s society has become, more and more, ill defined, elusive, and ungraspable. For many, those moments of occasional joy that life brings are fleeting, and bouts of happiness feels like something that comes out of the blue, and disappears just as quickly.

Yet, I believe true happiness comes from understanding one’s needs, and training one’s mind to develop and sustain happiness. It takes inner discipline. It takes knowing yourself. It takes a willingness to change your habits.

I believe this because this is how I created a life full of happiness for myself, after decades of striving to achieve it. For me that first meant meeting several basic needs: a quiet home environment where I could write, a loving partner, caring friends, basic food and material needs. But I needed more to be truly happy. And that more, I eventually learned, was a willingness to reach out to others, to create a feeling of affinity and goodwill, even in the briefest of encounter. 

The Dalai Lama once said, “My religion is kindness.” That simple statement had a profound effect on me. It seemed more compassionate than the old “Do Unto Others” I’d always tried to follow. After much thought, I made that my religion as well. Every hour of the day, I strive to show kindness to all living creatures.

It sounds simple, yet it was extremely difficult for me. And I’m still striving to make it a way of living. What is hard is crushing my ego so that I put others needs before mine, even people who rub me the wrong way. But with inner discipline, it can be realized.

I no longer compete with my fellow men and women. I put their needs above my own. Even when people are rude or insulting, I try to absorb those negative feeling and respond with kindness. When I hear political discussions where people are insulting one politician or another, I refuse to participate. Not that I don’t have my opinions on politics, I simply refuse to be rude to anybody. 

And what I’ve found over the last few years, is this attitude of kindness is the key ingredient for making my life happy. Call it karma. Call it anything you want. Being kind to others makes me feel good. It brings happiness to my fellow humans, and it brings a double measure of happiness back to me.

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

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.


Fleeting joy.

Deep pain.



Wispy hope.


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.