Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Writing Tip #9: The Three Act Structure

Last week I wrote about Plotting. Plotting and structure go hand in hand. You generally determine both once you define your theme, what the story is “about.” Whatever your theme is, the hero needs to deal with it at the end. His character growth is tied into that theme. It’s the foundation of the story.

Here’s a great description of story, from Writing to Sell by Scott Meredith:
“A sympathetic lead character finds himself in trouble of some kind and makes active efforts to get himself out of it. Each effort, however, merely gets him deeper into his trouble, and each new obstacle in his path is larger than the last. Finally, when things look blackest and it seems certain the lead character is finished, he manages to get out of his trouble through his own efforts, intelligence, or ingenuity.” [or in some cases, like Romeo and Juliet, he dies trying.]

It sounds too simple, and yet nearly all the movies and novels produced today follow this story line. Makes no difference if your talking about vampires or space aliens or Shakespeare. In fact, looking at this year’s Oscar nominations, both Hurt Locker and Avatar both apply this perfectly.

But what of this thing called a three act structure? You simple lay the above story line over a framework that has three basic parts – setup, body, resolution. Lets dissect this further. The following is a set of turning points within a three act structure:

Act I
Opening Scene: The opening scene usually has two functions: to introduce the protagonist and hook the reader. It often introduces other characters, and perhaps even hints at the theme.
Inciting Incident: This is the place where you introduce the problem that the protagonist will be dealing with. It sets up a situation where the protag is faced with a choice whether to deal with the problem or walk away.
Hammer: This is the compelling incident that makes the protag decide to solve the problem. From here on out, s/he’s caught up until the problem is solved.
Armature into act II: Once the protag decides to act, s/he sets a series of events in play – events that will blossom in Act 2.

Act II
Act II begins:
Where as Act I sets up the conflict, Act II lets the conflict play its course, growing larger and more sharp. This is where the protag struggles to solve the problem, yet each effort creates a larger problem.
Midpoint: Stories, as well as characters, have an arc. The midpoint is when the story changes polarity. Many stories, from the protags point of view, move from positive to tragic. For example: Romeo goes to a party, see the girl of his dreams, woos her, and finally marries her. All positive. But at Midpoint, he fights and kills Tibalt. It’s all down hill from there. Now the lovers are parted, Romeo is banished, Juliet is promised to another, and in the end they both die. So it was positive unit midpoint, then all negative.
Other stories start off with the protag in serious trouble and it gets much worse for them until the midpoint, then things begin to get better, and finally end with the hero prevailing. Again, the midpoint is where the polarity changes. And at least for most screenplays, it actually happens pretty close to halfway through the story.
Armature into act III: The conflict between the protag and the antag continues to grow. This is the point just before the darkest moments. If the hero wins in the end, this is a place where s/he has a false victory. That is, they think they’re home free (but in Act 3 they have the rug pulled out from under them.) It is the lead into the final crisis.

Crisis: This is the place where the Hero is turned on his/her head. It looked like s/he was going to win, then they the rug was pulled out from them and it now looks like they are done for.
Climax: At this point in the story, when things look darkest for the hero, s/he uses his/her own efforts, intelligence, compassion or ingenuity to solve the problem and overcome the antagonist.
Resolution: The protag solves the problem and this is where s/he sees the fruits of that solution.

Of course, there are different variations on this particular structure. But you’d be surprised how many stories follow it to a T. Hopefully, I’ve explained it well enough for you to understand each turning point. It’s an interesting exercise to watch a moving, stopping it to consider how closely if falls into this structure.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Day of the Dead

Every year about this time, Chinese families in and around San Francisco, and I assume all over the world, gather to pay their respects to their ancestors. There is a two-week period when this happens, and on the weekends during this time window families flock to the cemeteries.

Today was the last day this year for this tradition, and my husband and in-laws all gathered at the grandparents house for breakfast, and then arranging flowers and food. After, we caravanned to three different cemeteries in South San Francisco.

I’ve always liked this tradition. It guaranties that the whole family gets together at least once per year and spends the day together. It’s a time of remembering and celebrating the family members who are still with us. We take food to the gravesites, burn offerings to the dead, light firecrackers, and there is always lots of bowing to the gravestones. It’s fun and a bit festive. It’s also nice to participate in traditions that have been going on for thousands of years.

The only problem is the traffic and parking around the Chinese cemeteries, which are pack with families all rushing to pay their respects before the time-window closes. It can sometime seem like a madhouse, but with everyone bringing food and flowers and burning offerings, it really quite a spectacle.

After fifteen years of tagging along with my husband on these cemetery days, I’ve noticed that every year the number of family members showing up grows smaller each year, and the time we spend at each grave is shorter. It’s kind of sad that the grand kids and great grand kids are not interested in keeping the tradition. And this year several of the adults were not present. Today, as we moved from grave to grave, I kept thinking that once the current grand folks are in the ground, this tradition will die out. And when it does, I will miss it terribly.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Writing Tip #8 Plotting

There is a story of a man in a rooming house who took off his shoes every night and dropped them on the floor one at a time, with a pause in between. The lodger below had complained about this many times. One night, after dropping the first shoe, the man suddenly remembered the complaints and put the second shoe down gently. Twenty minutes later, a cry came up from the floor below: "For God's sake, drop the other shoe!"

Every plot sets up a series of expectations that makes the read wait for the other shoe to drop. We wait for the resolution of a conflict, or the solution to a puzzle, or the explanation of a mystery, or just the completion of a pattern, and it is this anticipation, as much as anything else, that makes us read on.

A plot, then, is the structuring of events to create anticipation, either in the form of anxiety (in a story of conflict or mystery), or of curiosity (in a puzzle story).

In a well-structured story, the ending may be a resolution, a revelation, a decision, an explanation, or a solution.

Resolution is the end of a conflict by the victory of one side or the other.

Revelation is the exposure of something previously hidden.

A Decision story ends when the protagonist makes up his/her mind about something important and difficult.

Explanation, obviously, resolves a mystery.

Solution provides the ending for a puzzle.

A successful plots rests on five pillars.

1. a believable and sympathetic protagonist;
2. his/her difficult problem;
3. his/her repeated attempts to resolve the problem, which continually fail and make his/her situation more desperate;
4. a crisis point, his last desperate chance to win;
5. a resolution, brought about by means of the protagonist’s own courage, love or ingenuity.

The reverse of this plot is the story in which the central character is the villain; the story ends with his/her defeat rather than with a victory.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Book Review: Hidden Conflict: Tales from Lost Voices in Battle.

This quartet of novellas explores different perspectives of gay soldiers affected by war and violence. Four stories told by four different authors. Each story depicts a unique situation in a different historical setting, and each is told with a distinctive voice. These stories are not romances, although some have strong romantic threads. They are an interesting study of the issues gay soldiers and their loved ones face while serving in a military that blatantly discriminates against them.

My favorite of the four was Blessed Isle by Alex Beecroft, only because I’m a sucker for well-told sea stories. And sea tales set in the Age of Sails, like this one, are a particular favorite of mine. This yarn chronicles the last voyage of the British ship Banshee, which goes horribly wrong and ends in a mutiny. The result lands Captain Harry Thompson and his Lieutenant Garnet Litteton on a deserted island where a romance blossoms. Not a small thing considering the penalty for such relations was hanging from a yardarm until dead.
Even though the author’s rich descriptions and concern for detail often slows the pacing, the author keeps the story interesting while staying within the bounds of historical accuracy. Beecroft uses a rather cleaver device to alternate between two men telling the story, both in first-person. The contrasting personalities vying to tell the story adds interest and humor. These two characters are brilliantly drawn and kept me turning pages.

Mark R. Probst’s Not To Reason Why is set within Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Cavalry on the eve of their fateful rendezvous at the Little Big Horn. Corporal Brett Price and Sergeant Dermot Kerrigan serve together in the same unit. Brett develops a crush on his married sergeant, and the hardship of trailing the Sioux renegades brings them closer together – close enough for Brett to confess his feelings to his friend. He is rewarded with a single kiss of loving friendship, but in return must promise to care for Dermot’s wife should something terrible happen during the upcoming battle.
From the first few pages of his tale, the reader knows where it is going and what will happen. But regardless of knowing the outcome, this extremely well-written story kept me engrossed. It is a tale of comradeship, of two men with different kinds of love for each other, of the camaraderie between men trapped in a desperate situation. It blends touching intimacy with soldiers’ horseplay and horrific battle scenes. And believe it or not, the ending is both surprising and uplifting. My one trivial complaint is that the minor characters could have been more fully developed. That aside, the tight descriptions and vivid prose make this a touching and gripping story.

Two British soldiers on the Western Front of WWI are trapped in a bombed out cellar in Jordan Taylor’s No Darkness. Lieutenant Darnell is straight as an arrow, while the injured Private Fisher is gay. While waiting for a rescue which never comes, the two men pass the time by swapping stories of their past. There is no trace of romance between these two, but the private’s sexuality is made clear and they come to an acceptance, and eventually even closeness. They form a tenuous bond while digging their way to freedom, but of course, for some there can be no freedom. This is a dark, and yet fascinating tale.
In many ways I thought this the most powerful story of the four. I was fascinated by their gripping situation. Yet, it had a particularly fatal flaw. With both men trapped in darkness for most of the story, there was little chance for the author to describe the surroundings, or for the characters to have much action. The result was mostly dialog. Because of that, I felt the tension between the characters often fell flat, and the emotional connection just didn’t ring true, or at least it was completely overshadowed by the desperateness of their situation. Still, I couldn’t put it down.

The fourth and final story is E.N. Holland’s Our One and Only. Phillip spends a long weekend at the seashore with his lover Eddie before Eddie is shipped off to England during WWII. On the second round of D-Day, Eddie is killed. This story chronicles forty years of Phillip’s life after Eddie’s death, alone, desperately clinging to the memory of Eddie, and yet not being able to talk about that love to anyone. This story reveals Phillip’s depth of love, pain of loss, and the hardship of recovery. It also demonstrates the torment of having to keep all the grief bottled up inside. It is a moving, rather melancholy story. And although the story is depressing, it ends on a note of hope.
Although this is a compelling and interesting read that I highly recommend, I had two issues with it. The first is the author’s taste for minute detail, which often slows the pacing to a crawl. I felt that the word count could have been cut in half, and the result would have been a much more powerful story. My second issues was that, although Phillip gained my total sympathy early on, as the story progressed, decade after decade, I slowly became annoyed with him for not moving on with his life. Mourning for five or even ten years, I heartily sympathize. Fifteen or twenty years is pure self-indulgence. Forty years? I’m sorry, I lost all sympathy for him. I felt the author stretched a great idea too far. Still, I found the characters richly realized, the feelings genuine. I enjoyed the upbeat ending, and indeed the entire story.

Hidden Conflict is an intriguing exploration of gay men in the military. It is a book I will read again and again. I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Lambda Literary Awards Finalists

The Lambda Literary Awards Finalists were announced yesterday. For the second year in a row, I didn't make the cut. I do, however, wish the best of luck to all the finalist. I am proud to say that I have read a number of these fine books, and the ones I have read certainly deserve to be on the following list:

LGBT Anthologies
-Gay American Autobiography: Writings from Whitman to Sedaris, edited by David Bergman (University of Wisconsin Press)
-Moral Panics, Sex Panics: Fear and the Fight Over Sexual Rights, edited by Gilbert Herdt (NYU Press)
-My Diva: 65 Gay Men on the Women Who Inspire Them, edited by Michael Montlack (University of Wisconsin Press)
-Portland Queer: Tales of the Rose City, edited by Ariel Gore (Lit Star Press)
-Smash the Church, Smash the State! The Early Years of Gay Liberation, edited by Tommi Avicolli Mecca (City Lights)

LGBT Children's/Young Adult
-Ash, by Malinda Lo (Little, Brown)
-How Beautiful the Ordinary, edited by Michael Cart (HarperCollins)
-In Mike We Trust, by P.E. Ryan (HarperCollins)
-Sprout, by Dale Peck (Bloomsbury USA)
-The Vast Fields of Ordinary, by Nick Burd (Penguin Books)

LGBT Drama
-The Beebo Brinker Chronicles, by Kate Moira Ryan & Linda S. Chapman (Dramatists Play Service)
-The Collected Plays Of Mart Crowley, by Mart Crowley (Alyson Books)
-Revenge of the Women's Studies Professor, by Bonnie L. Morris (Indiana University Press)

LGBT Nonfiction
-The Golden Age of Gay Fiction, edited by Drewey Wayne Gunn (MLR Press)
-The Greeks and Greek Love, by James Davidson (Random House)
-I Am Your Sister: Collected and Unpublished Writings of Audre Lorde, edited by Rudolph P. Byrd, Johnnetta Betsch Cole & Beverly Guy-Sheftall (Oxford University Press)
-Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences, by Sarah Schulman (The New Press)
-Unfriendly Fire:How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America, by Nathaniel Frank (St. Martin's Press)

LGBT SF/Fantasy/Horror
-Centuries Ago and Very Fast, by Rebecca Ore (Aqueduct Press)
-Fist of the Spider Woman, by Amber Dawn (Arsenal Pulp Press)
-In the Closet, Under the Bed, by Lee Thomas (Dark Scribe Press)
-Palimpsest, by Catherynne M. Valenta (Bantam/Spectra Books)
-Pumpkin Teeth, by Tom Cardamone (Lethe Press)

LGBT Studies
-Metropolitan Lovers: The Homosexuality of Cities, by Julie Abraham (University of Minnesota Press)
-Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP's Fight Against AIDS, by Deborah B. Gould (University of Chicago Press)
-The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century, by Kathryn Bond Stockton (Duke University Press)
-The Resurrection of the Body: Pier Paolo Pasolini from Saint Paul to Sade, by Armando Maggi (University of Chicago Press)
-The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth Century America, by Margot Canaday (Princeton University Press)

Bisexual Fiction
-Arusha, by J.E. Knowles (Spinsters Ink)
-Holy Communion, by Mykola Dementiuk (Synergy Press)
-The Janeid, by Bobbie Geary (The Graeae Press)
-Love You Two, by Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli (Random House Australia)
-Torn, by Amber Lehman (Closet Case Press)

Bisexual Nonfiction
-Byron in Love: A Short Daring Life, by Edna O'Brien (W. W. Norton)
-Cheever: A Life, by Blake Bailey (Alfred A. Knopf)
-Leaving India: My Family's Journey From Five Villages to Five Continents, by Minal -Hajratwala (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
-Map, by Audrey Beth Stein (Lulu.com)
-Vincente Minnelli: Hollywood's Dark Dreamer, by Emanuel Levy (St. Martin's Press)

-Bharat Jiva, by Kari Edwards (Litmus Press)
-Lynnee Breedlove's One Freak Show, by Lynn Breedlove (Manic D Press)
-The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You, by S Bear Bergman (Arsenal Pulp Press)
-Transmigration, by Joy Ladin (Sheep Meadow Press)
-Troglodyte Rose, by Adam Lowe (Cadaverine Publications)

Lesbian Debut Fiction
-The Creamsickle, by Rhiannon Argo (Spinsters Ink)
-The Bigness of the World, by Lori Ostlund (University of Georgia Press)
-Land Beyond Maps, by Maida Tilchen (Savvy Press)
-More of This World or Maybe Another, by Barb Johnson (HarperCollins)
-Verge, by Z Egloff (Bywater Books)

Gay Debut Fiction
-Blue Boy, by Rakesh Satyal (Kensington Books)
-God Says No, by James Hannaham (McSweeneys)
-Pop Salvation, by Lance Reynald (HarperCollins)
-Shaming the Devil: Collected Short Stories, by G. Winston James (Top Pen Press)
-Sugarless, by James Magruder (University of Wisconsin Press)

Lesbian Erotica
-Flesh and Bone, by Ronica Black (Bold Strokes Books)
-Lesbian Cowboys, edited by Sacchi Green & Rakelle Valencia (Cleis Press)
-Punishment with Kisses, by Diane Anderson-Minshall (Bold Strokes Books)
-Where the Girls Are, by D.L. King (Cleis Press)
-Women of the Bite, by Cecelia Tan (Alyson Books)

Gay Erotica
-Rough Trade: Dangerous Gay Erotica, edited by Todd Gregory (Bold Strokes Books)
-Impossible Princess, by Kevin Killian (City Lights)
-I Like It Like That: True Tales of Gay Desire, edited by Richard Labonté & Lawrence Schimel (Arsenal Pulp Press)
-The Low Road, by James Lear (Cleis Press)
-Eight Inches, by Sean Wolfe (Kensington Books)

Lesbian Fiction
-Dismantled, by Jennifer McMahon (HarperCollins)
-A Field Guide to Deception, by Jill Malone (Bywater Books)
-Forgetting the Alamo, Or, Blood Memory, by Emma Pérez (University of Texas Press)
-Risk, by Elena Dykewomon (Bywater Books)
-This One's Going to Last Forever, by Nairne Holtz (Insomniac Press)

Gay Fiction
-Lake Overturn, by Vestal McIntyre (HarperCollins)
-The River In Winter, by Matt Dean (Queens English Productions)
-Said and Done, by James Morrison (Black Lawrence Press)
-Salvation Army, by Abdellah Taia (Semiotext(e))
-Silverlake, by Peter Gadol (Tyrus Books)

Lesbian Memoir/Biography
-Called Back: My Reply to Cancer, My Return to Life, by Mary Cappello (Alyson Books)
-Mean Little deaf Queer, by Terry Galloway (Beacon Press)
-My Red Blood: A Memoir of Growing Up Communist, Coming Onto the Greenwich Village Folk Scene, and Coming Out in the Feminist Movement, by Alix Dobkin (Alyson Books)
-Likewise: The High School Comic Chronicles of Ariel Schrag, by Ariel Schrag (Simon & Schuster/Touchstone Fireside)
-The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith, by Joan Schenkar (St. Martin's Press)

Gay Memoir/Biography
-Ardent Spirits: Leaving Home, Coming Back, by Reynolds Price (Scribner Books)
-City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960's and 70's, by Edmund White (Bloomsbury USA)
-Deflowered: My Life in Pansy Division, by Jon Ginoli (Cleis Press)
-Once You Go Back, by Douglas A. Martin (Seven Stories Press)
-The Pure Lover: A Memoir of Grief, by David Plante (Beacon Press)

Lesbian Mystery
-Command of Silence, by Paulette Callen (Spinsters Ink)
-Death of a Dying Man, by J.M. Redmann (Bold Strokes Books)
-From Hell to Breakfast, by Joan Opyr (Blue Feather Books)
-The Mirror and the Mask, by Ellen Hart (St. Martin's/Minotaur)
-Toasted, by Josie Gordon (Bella Books)

Gay Mystery
-All Lost Things, by Josh Aterovis (P.D. Publishing)
-The Killer of Orchids, by Ralph Ashworth (State Street Press)
-Murder in the Garden District, by Greg Herren (Alyson Books)
-Straight Lies, by Rob Byrnes (Kensington Books)
-What We Remember, by Michael Thomas Ford (Kensington Books)

Lesbian Poetry
-Bird Eating Bird, by Kristin Naca (HarperCollins)
-Gospel: Poems, by Samiya Bashir (Red Bone Press)
-Names, by Marilyn Hacker (W.W. Norton)
-Stars of the Night Commute, by Ana Bozicevic (Tarpaulin Sky Press)
-Zero at the Bone, by Stacie Cassarino (New Issues Poetry & Prose)

Gay Poetry
-Breakfast with Thom Gunn, by Randall Mann (University of Chicago Press)
-The Brother Swimming Beneath Me, by Brent Goodman (Black Lawrence Press)
-The First Risk, by Charles Jensen (Lethe Press)
-Sweet Core Orchard, by Benjamin S. Grossberg (University of Tampa Press)
-What the Right Hand Knows, by Tom Healy (Four Way Books)

Lesbian Romance
-It Should Be a Crime, by Carsen Taite (Bold Strokes Books)
-No Rules of Engagement, by Tracey Richardson (Bella Books)
-The Sublime and Spirited Voyage of Original Sin, by Colette Moody (Bold Strokes Books)
-Stepping Stone, by Karin Kallmaker (Bella Books)
-Worth Every Step, by KG MacGregor (Bella Books)

Gay Romance
-Drama Queers!, by Frank Anthony Polito (Kensington Books)
-A Keen Edge, by H. Leigh Aubrey (iUniverse)
-The Rest of Our Lives, by Dan Stone (Lethe Press)
-Time After Time, by J.P. Bowie (MLR Press)
-Transgressions, by Erastes (Running Press)

The 22nd Annual Lambda Literary Awards will be held May 27th, 2010 at the School of Visual Arts Theater in New York City. General Admission tickets to the Lammy Awards Ceremony, including pre-Awards reception, are $100.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Writing Tip #7 What Makes the Good Guy So Good? The Bad Guy!

Your hero is only as interesting as the foe s/he is battling. Any protagonist is just some ordinary shmuck until you put evil in his/her path. Then your hero is pushed into showing courage, nobility, compassion, etc.

Roger Corman hit the nail on the head when he said: “In science-fiction movies the monster should always be bigger than the leading lady.”

The antagonist needs to be a worthy opponent! S/he has to be stronger than the protagonist or you’ve got no story. A man swatting a fly is nothing anyone wants to read, unless the fly is 600 pounds and has fangs. I’m not saying all antagonists need to kill people with ray guns. Look at Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People. She was a strong, implacable, relentless opponent.

Your bad guy can’t simply be bad, s/he needs to always be taking action – plotting, planning, stealing, belittling, killing, lying, leaving the seat up on the toilette – as a way to show us how bad s/he is. S/he needs to be constantly making more and more clever moves, always upping the ante. Just when we think s/he’s down for good, s/he comes back with a bigger punch. If s/he is not doing this, then you don’t have much of a bad guy, which means you don’t have much of a story.

Remember that the protag and antag don’t have to be cross-town rivals. They can be husband and wife, business partners, man against nature, or patriot against his/her own country.

Just like your hero shouldn’t be 100% good, your antagonist shouldn’t be 100% bad. The Godfather was motivated by love for his family. In Schindler’s List, the commandant was being a good and loyal German carrying out his orders. If your antag is a terrorist who loves killing women and children, then make her also love Italian opera or fine wine or have impeccable manners, anything that the reader can connect with.

It is the villain’s job to push the protag into being a hero. By doing battle with a much more formidable opponent, the protag must reach inside and find inner strength or superior intelligence in order to overcome the evil one. And the more clever and evil the antag, the deeper the protag must dig to prevail.

Every good protagonist must grow, evolve into someone better (or at least different). That can’t happen without a bad guy. In Die Hard, John McClane is in a bad marriage and headed for divorce. His wife doesn’t seem to like or respect him anymore. Enter Hans Gruber. Hans give John McClane the opportunity to show his wife what he is made of, and of course, he also becomes a better person in the process. Without Hans, McClane is just another washed up cliché cop.

The bad guy should think s/he is the hero in your story. In the example above, Hans Gruber felt he was so clever and so slick in they way he mastermind the whole crime, that he was the star, he should be the one everyone admired. And why not, nobody was smart enough or had big enough balls to stop him. Yes, he’s stealing 600 million and killing hoards of people, but stealing from mega-rich-corporations to give to the poor (himself).

So once you’ve established the protag and antag, and they are doing battle, be sure to give them plenty of face to face time. They should come to know one another very well. And for the most part, the antag should have the upper hand, until the end, of course.

Keep in mind that your bad guy is the point on which your story pivots. Make him/her deliciously bad.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Up To My Neck

Ever find that you’ve bitten off much more than you can chew, and you sit there wondering what the hell you can do about it? That was my day.

Thursday night I few back home after a four month trip to China, Thailand and Vietnam. During my travels, I managed to get some work done on my work-in-progress novel and two screenplays. I also managed to get a lot of reading done and reviewed several fine books. I still had four or five books to review, but that’s not too much to get excited about.

But then my next-door neighbor paid a visit. While I was away, every time someone delivered a box of books, he took them. Authors and publishers have sent me dozens of books to review. Some I asked for and some I didn’t. Now, instead of the five books to review that I knew about, I have twenty-five books to review.

It generally takes me one to two weeks to carefully read and review a book. That means I have six to ten months of work ahead of me. The good news is that there are some excellent books on the list that I want to read. The bad news is that I didn’t want to work that hard. I wanted to concentrate on my writing, not reviewing other writers.

So it’s been a somewhat depressing day. I did manage to log them all and prioritize them. Maybe I should look into a speed reading course?

Friday, March 12, 2010

A Chore Day

Today has been a chore day. I flew into SFO last night as the sunset. It was stunning. I’ve seen some impressive sights in the last few months, the Hong Kong skyline for instance. But none I enjoy more than seeing San Francisco from the air. This really is a special city, unique in so many ways.

Took about two hours to wade through customs and catch the airporter bus home.
Even though I was dead tired from a the eleven-hour flight from Hong Kong, I was also wired at being home, so not much sleep last night.

Been fighting jet-lag all day. Not much energy, getting confused easily, starting tasks and then forgetting what I was doing. Bottom line: it has not been a stellar day for me. Still, it feels so damned good to be home after four months of living out of a suitcase.

I did manage to get a few things checked off my todo list – something like three of the ten things I had planned to do. LOL.

Oh well, I think I’ll let myself off the hook and just go crawl back into bed for a half-hour nap. Naps are important, more so the older one gets, and I’m feeling pretty old today.

So I’ll wrap this up and try to post an update tomorrow.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Book Review: To Love and To Cherish edited by Beth Wylde and Lara Zielinsky

Reviewed by Victor Banis
Published by LoveYouDivine Press
Anthology, Various Authors, edited by Beth Wylde and Lara Zielinsky
Available in e-book and print format from www.loveyoudivine.com

I confess, when the idea first came up, of my writing a review for a collection of lesbian love stories, that I had some reservations—not about reading the stories, I felt sure simply by looking at the names of the authors that they would be of a high quality, but rather about my ability to do this important collection justice. I say important because all of the stories were donated by the authors, and all of the proceeds from the book are donated to Marriage Equality USA "which continues the fight in courtrooms around the country to secure civil marriage rights for GLBTQ couples across the U.S." So, important indeed, and surely, I thought, above my pay grade.

Of course, I had no sooner started reading than I realized the fallacy in my thinking. "Lesbian love stories" is, really, the wrong label to paste on this wonderful collection. They are love stories, pure and simple, and love doesn't know the difference. Which is, of course, the whole point of the project. Two women may make love differently from what two men or a man and a woman may do, but it is the height of absurdity to suppose that they don't love the same.

Love is what it is. Some abuse it, some shun it, and not a few have made careers of it, of one sort or another. Centuries of poets and philosophers have tried to define it. Unfortunately, we live in an age that tries to confine it. None of these efforts, it seems to me, have met with unqualified success. Outlaw love as you will, you cannot stop it from springing up in the human heart. There is nothing in the perusal of history to suggest that any social context, whether flagrantly liberal or crushingly priggish has ever significantly changed the numbers of those who are attracted to members of their own sex, though they may be more or less open about it according to the dictates of their society.

The idea of same sex love as somehow unnatural is another absurdity. We know now that same sex couples are commonplace throughout nature, in species too numerous to list here. Most animals don't attach much importance to it. Only humans seek to suppress it. Sadly, in this country, there are those who actively push to keep it outside the sanctity of marriage.

Well, this is a mighty push back, and as exuberant a statement on the beauty of woman to woman love as one is likely to find. There are fourteen heartfelt stories included in the anthology, too many for me to attempt to review them individually. They represent fourteen different points of view and are of varying degrees of erotic intensity—okay, saying it plainly, some of them surely do sizzle.

Setting the parameters, as it were, are two unique stories: Allison Wonderland pens a charming tale, The Felicity of Domesticity, of two little girls who knew already as children that they were destined to be wed. And in This Magic, Meg Leigh gives us a haunting and all too rare glimpse from an older sister's point of view, as she looks back through the mists of time at the love she knew.

But I don't mean to suggest that anything in between those two extremes is at all inferior. The characters here are a wonderfully divergent bunch of women--butch, femme, elegant, folksy, angry and serene, struggling to define their relationships, to come to terms with themselves and with family, and to explore their unique sexuality. The stories are charming, sad, sexy, slapstick funny. There are tales of paganism and wiccan and Native American rituals and the perils of cooking for those who can't, quite. There's hardly a taste in reading or a style in writing that isn't well represented here and I can confidently assure the reader who invests in a copy that she or he will close this book knowing that the money was well spent.

An excellent tribute to a genre, a gender, a lifestyle, and a welcome addition to the literature of love. Well done, all.

The Loney War

Here's a video by Fausto Umanzor a fan of The Lonely War.

Links: YouTube Animoto

Writing Tip #7 – Don’t be afraid to get it wrong.

My husband, Herman, has taken several screenwriting classes with me and also participates in a weekly writing group of screenwriters. Last summer he outlined an excellent idea for a script, and then spent several weeks working on the first act. When he presented that first act, about twenty pages, to our writer’s group, they were somewhat critical but supportive. They gave Herman a lot to think about, including other options for where to start his story. It was all good feedback.

The problem was, Herman is a perfectionist who hates criticism. He thanked everyone for the input, even agreed with much of it, and has not written a word on his script since then. He is so afraid to write something that others may feel is not perfect, that he doesn’t write anything. He keeps talking about his story, trying to work out the ideal set of scenes in his mind, but frankly, talking doesn’t get the baby washed.

I believe it was Hemingway who said: “All first drafts are shit!” And he wasn’t talking about just his first drafts, he was talking about all writer’s first drafts.

Good writing is rewriting and rewriting and rewriting. My first script teacher told me that the average script gets rewritten over twenty times before anyone takes it seriously. I usually make five to six passes through a manuscript before I submit my novel to a publisher.

The idea is to get something down. Make it as good as you can, understanding all the time that you will need to go back and edit, edit, then polish, polish. Sometime you go back and realize that it’s just not right for the story, or drags the pacing down, or that it doesn’t add enough to justify being there. So you cut it. And that’s ok. Much better to cut something than end up with warts sprinkled though your story.

So, bottom line for this week is: when you’re writing a first draft, have the courage to write it down. Even if you know you’re going to throw it way, get your ideas down on paper. You won’t know how good or how bad it is until it’s on paper. The worst thing that will happen is you toss it out and start over. And if you do that, I guarantee the next pass will be better.

Have the courage to write everyday, even if what you’re writing is crap. If you do that, the writing will get better. And frankly, that’s the only way it gets better.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


I’m thinking a great deal about closure today. Since the first week in November I’ve been traveling around Asia, and today marks my last week before flying home. During this trip, I’ve been careful editing my work-in-progress manuscript, focusing on only 5 pages per day, judging each word, every comma, striving for perfection. I have seven pages left.

So in light of completing two major events this week, I’m overjoyed and saddened. Both events, as with most things in life, were fun and interesting, and both moved me further along that path I travel.

I find that, as much as I crave starting something new, I can’t help clinging to what I have now. I suppose that is human nature, that is, true for almost everyone. As a Buddhist, I understand that letting go is key, perhaps even THE key, to happiness. Yet, as simple as that sounds, putting it into practice is far from easy.

Is it fear of the unknown? That somehow sounds too negligible. I mean, I certainly know what it’s like to live at home. It’s a place I love. It allows me to work at a much greater pace, have home-cooked meals, take pleasure in friends and family. The truth is I enjoy being at home as much as I enjoy traveling. And as for finishing a story, I’m actually thrilled, after two years of work, to be able to put this one aside and starting with another set of characters, settings, and situations. You would think I’d be chomping at the bit to be home. Yet, I’m not.

I’m guessing here, but I think it’s just basic fear, fear of change, any change, and I think that is human nature. Unless we are in a horrible situation, our nature is to resist anything different, much as we tell ourselves we need something new. The funny thing is – I’m reaching into my Buddhist roots again – change is constant. Life is continuously changing around us. To fear change is to be, at some level, forever in fear.

The only cure that I can think of for this is to live in the moment. To spend no time worrying about what has already happened, nor what will happen. No thoughts of hopes or regrets.

I’m reminded of a Sunday school lesson that Jesus talked about walking a narrow path to heaven. He said there were thorns on the right of this path, as well as the left. I believe he was talking about time. The path is now, and the thorns on the right and left are past and future. Both Jesus and the Buddha basically said the same thing, focus on the path of NOW, and that leads to heaven.

Sorry, I didn’t intend for this to turn into a sermon. I’m simply trying to understand myself, in an attempt to make sense of my life. Which may in itself be a foolhardy endeavor.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Writing Tip #6 - Character Profiles

Do you know what’s in your protagonist’s wallet – how much money, which credit cards, pictures of who? How much do they have in their checking account? Will he wear socks that have a hole in the toe? Will she look into the medicine cabinet at her friend’s house? Do they check out online porn sites? What is their favorite song, flavor of ice cream, cocktail? What was her/his main fear growing up? Which parent did they love most? What is the main driving force in their life, the thing that burns in their belly? What is the thing they are most afraid of? Do they really believe in God or do they just give religion lip service. Who was their first love, their first sexual experience? What habit does their lover have that drives them up a wall?

If you can’t answer these questions, then you don’t know enough about your main characters. Each character has a backstory that drives that character’s motivations and actions. You as a write must know that backstory intimately, even though 90% of it will not show up in the story you are writing. It is all these character traits that determine how your characters will act, what decisions they make, which way they will jump. It’s not enough to know John loves Adam. The writer must know what it is about Adam that attracts John, and why, and also what Adam does the burns John’s ass. To give a character depth, you must know them as well as you know yourself, and certainly better than they know themselves. You are their God, and you see all the way into their heart. Nothing can hide from you.

If you don’t take the time to know your characters – all your main characters – they will seem shallow, one-dimensional. Most readers quickly lose interest in shallow characters. The following is a starting point that I sometimes use in getting to know a character. I’ve known writer who write 30-50 page character profiles. I think that’s overkill, but each writer is different. For minor characters this will probably be enough. For key characters, you will want to add much more meat to the skeleton below. It takes me months to work out an important player, but the following is what I use to start that process.

Sex: Male
Age: 28 H&W: 6’2”, 185
Coloring: Black eyes, black hair, amber skin.
Posture: Dignified, slender yet somewhat muscular, meticulously groomed, stylish clothes.
Defects: none.
Heredity: American-Chinese, second generation.

Class: Lower – wore hand-me-downs until he was thirteen. Family works a farm in Lodi. Put himself through school on scholarships.
Occupation: Doctor.
Education: Just graduated medical school with honors.
Home Life: Lives in an apartment near campus with his lover, Campbell Reardon. He has very little money and depends on Campbell’s money to get by. He doesn’t keep in touch with his parents, who tossed him out because he was gay.
Religion: He is too preoccupied with his personal goals to think about a higher power. Although he has read books on Buddhism and is interested in learning more.
Race: American born Chinese. He takes after his mother in looks and temperament.
Community: He feels comfortable in the medical community and the gay community. He is not ashamed of his family’s humble life, but he is determined to be successful. He doesn’t like the limelight, and doesn’t like to be in groups.
Politics: Flaming liberal. Green all the way. Thinks Bush should be tried for war crimes against humanity for the Iraq invasion.
Hobbies: A voracious reader of detective stores, but he always reads the last five pages first, then reads the book. Plays tennis, which is how he met Campbell.

Character Type: Hero – He’s not perfect, but confident about his skills and takes actions without hesitation. He is the bright side of human nature.
Sex Life: Openly gay. He believes in monogamous relationships. He loves his partner, Campbell, and wants them to marry.
Morality: Anything goes, but there is no need to flaunt it or hide it.
Ambition: He wants to serve the community by being a pediatric doctor. Although he dreams about going into research and finding a cure for cancer or AIDS, he has a deep feeling of wanting to help children. .
Temperament: Fun-loving. He likes having fun and making other people happy.
Frustrations: The fact that Campbell refuses to come out. Winston wants to live in an open, loving gay relationship with Campbell, but Campbell is afraid of his family finding out.
Contradictions: He wants to support Campbell and his family, yet he wants Campbell to be open about their relationship.
I.Q.: Much higher than normal, but he consciously tries not to flaunt it.
Superstitions: Things always happen in threes. No such thing as luck – you get what you want by working hard for it. He wears a lucky coin his mother once gave him, but not for the luck. He also puts much faith in Chinese medicine, particularly Acupressure and Acupuncture.
1st love: His boyfriend, Campbell. They have lived together for months, and Winston wants to take it the next step: marriage.
Sanctuary: The pediatric ward. He loves spending his time helping the children.
Favorite Color: Blue, the color of Campbell’s eyes.
Favorite Music: Cool jazz, but also likes Italian opera.
Drug of choice: Gray Goose Vodka.
Ruling Passion: He will do anything not to hurt the people he loves, even if it means tremendous self-sacrifice.
Fatal Flaw: He expects the world, and especially his family, to revolve around him because he is doing what is – in his mind - right.
His Problem: He wants desperately to marry Campbell, but Campbell is going down a path that will tear them apart.
His transition: He comes to realize that he has the knowledge to expose Blake to keep Campbell from leaving him, but to do that, he will certainly hurt Campbell as well. He decides to give up Campbell rather than hurt him.

Six Key Questions:
1. Is he the protagonist? Yes.
2. What does he want? He wants to marry Campbell and live openly while treating children and helping the community.
3. Why does he want it? Because he feels he should have every right that straight people have, to marry the person he loves.
4. What happens if he fails? He will be crushed, but he won’t slink away to the closet.
5. How does he change? He realizes that living openly, and raising a family is more important to him than Campbell.
6. What is he most afraid of? Losing his integrity.