Wednesday, October 31, 2012

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.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

I’ll Be Signing Books at Palm Springs Pride

To all my wonderful friends who will be in Palm Springs this coming weekend for PS Pride, please drop by the Author’s Village at the Pride fair and say, “Hi!”

I will be signing books at the Author’s Village on Saturday and Sunday beginning at 3p.m., so drop in and lets chat. There will be several other published writers there to check out. It should be a fun time.

Hope to see you there.

Monday, October 29, 2012

A Prayer For Our Brothers And Sisters In Sandy’s Path

I’m not a praying man. As a Buddhist, I don’t believe in a “man upstairs” who grants wishes if you’ve been a good boy or girl. But as a Buddhist, I strive to have compassion for all living creatures, and generally humans top the list because they are more needy of empathy that other, more advanced, creatures.

When I find myself in a position where I know tens-of-millions of people will face hardship, material loss, and some even death, my heart goes out to them. Of course it will be difficult for our brothers and sisters along the Atlantic coast. It will also be difficult for the rest of the country, who like me, must sit and watch and pray, without being able to lend a helping hand until after the damage is done.

It is times like these that I’m thankful for organizations like the American Red Cross and FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who jumped in to help prepare people for the storm, who will perhaps rescue people if need be, and who will rebuild communities and help people get back on their feet. Hopefully FEMA is better organized under Obama than they were during hurricane Katrina under the GWB administration.

I didn’t want to make this a political blog, but I will point out that Mitt Romney has stated that, if elected President, he will dissolve FEMA. It’s all part of the GOP’s Fuck-You-Needy-People attitude.

Oops, there, I’ve gone and done it. I’ve made this political. My bad.  

Saturday, October 27, 2012

For Colored Boys Who Have Considered Suidide When The Rainbow Is Still Not Enough Edited by Keith Boykin

Reviewer: Bob Lind, Echo Magazine
Publisher: Magnus Books, September 2012
Pages: 300

In the continuing flood of "It Gets Better"-type books, meant to give reassurance to gay youth, comes Keith Boykin's excellent anthology of forty-four essays or poems spotlighting diverse gay youth of color. The selections, from a variety of talented authors, cross a variety of social and economic levels, and deal with issues as varied as HIV, depression, racism, sexual abuse, as well as simple bigotry against LGBT individuals. It deals with religion and spirituality on several levels, as an area of support but occasionally an excuse for intolerance. The young people portrayed deal with difficult situations that should not be allowed, but manage to find the strength to overcome such adversity. 

The stories are actually relatable to most LGBT people, regardless of race, and most readers will find a favorite or two that especially hit a note with them (My favorite was "No Asians, Blacks, Fats or Femmes" by Indie Harper, which takes on the tiny bigotries that exist in our own community.) Absolutely worth a read, and five stars out of five. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Small Town Parade

Yesterday I was riding my bike downtown and came across a sizable parade on Palm Canon Drive, the main business street in Palm Springs. The unusual thing about this parade was that the participants were all young people, ranging in age from kindergarten to high school seniors. Many were dressed in Halloween costumes, many performed in the high school and junior high marching bands, and tons more participated in dance groups.

It was a high-spirited celebration of youth, with the parents, shop owners, and tourists standing at the curb and cheering as the children marched by. It seemed like every local kid and every school joined the fun because there were thousands of marchers.

I’ve been living here less than a year, but I have fallen in love with the small-town feel of this place I now call home, Palm Springs. I’ve never lived anywhere else where the entire town comes out to honor their youth by giving them the chance to express themselves through music and dance with the whole town cheering them on.

This place has a real sense of community, and I love being part of it.

You can check out our high school marching band here:

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Writing Tip - The Protagonist’s Gap

Your protagonist, indeed all your characters, at any moment in the story should take the easiest route, from his/her point of view, in the pursuit of their desires. It is human nature. But of course, what is the easiest route is relative to each character. 

What generally happens in life is that we take an action to achieve our desire or goal, while thinking: If I do this conservative action, the world will react in such a way that I will move a step closer to achieving my goal. And in life, if we’ve thought it out, we are usually right. This is how we want life to work, we think the problem through, we take action, and we get the desired results. But we NEVER want that to happen in our stories. 

In your story, you need to concentrate on the moments where the character takes an action, expecting a helpful reaction from his/her environment, but instead the action provokes an unexpected, more powerful response. That produces conflict, and conflict is what makes the story interesting. 

For example: I see a younger man in a bar. He looks my way, smiles. I think to myself, Cool, he likes older men. My desire is to take him to bed. I know my first action should be to strike up a conversation, so I walk over, smile and say, “Haven’t we met before?” – and he shouts, “Don’t you wish, grandpa.” Then turns his back to me. Suddenly, the scene is more interesting, because in order to get what I want, I have to do something more forceful than my first minimum action. 

When that happens, when the protagonist takes actions that s/he thinks will move him/her closer to an object of desire beyond their reach, and gets an unexpected reaction that pushes him/her further away from said desire, it creates a gap between the character’s subjective thought and their objective reality. This gap is where the story should focus. In fact, this gap IS the story. 

So what happens when a character finds him/herself caught in this gap? Simple, s/he has to regroup. The world is now different from before the character took the first action. The character must assimilate the change, then decide on a bigger, bolder plan of action to achieve the goal. Then they must take action again. But, of course, the same thing must happen. The world must react in an unexpected way to this new action, pushing the character even further away from the prize. Thus, the gap widens further, creating the need for even more dramatic action.

In our example: assuming I still want to bed the young man who insulted me at the bar, I might lay a hundred-dollar bill on the bar and say, “Let me buy you a drink.” And after the bartender brings a round of drinks, I tell him, “Keep the change.” So the young man knocks back the drink, then turns to me as says, “I’m no whore, old man. I can’t be bought.” Now the stakes are raised, I’ve gambled $100 without getting what I want, and what will I do next? At this point the reader should assume I’m wasting my time and money.

Two key things happen when the character takes this second action. 1) the stakes are raised and the tension level goes way up. He is doing much more than he originally wanted to do, but he is now committing himself. And 2) by committing himself, he opens him self up to risk. This is not only key, it is a pillar of good fiction. The second action MUST put the character in a position where it forces him to dig much more deeply into his human capacity, or stand to lose something valuable in order to gain what he covets. In short, the protagonist, now in a state of jeopardy, must risk something he already has, in order to gain the thing he desires. 

The measure of the value of a character’s desire is in direct proportion to the risk s/he is willing to take to achieve it. The greater the value, the greater the risk. 

So again, the protagonist must take a much more dramatic, risky action. And, of course, YOU NEVER GIVE THE PROTAGONIST WHAT HE THINKS HE WILL GET. You always want to keep that gap getting even wider with each action. Every time s/he takes action, the gap should widen, pushing them further from the goal, until the end when subjective and object collide head on. That is what keeps the tension in a story escalating. At some point, it should seem like the protagonist will surely lose what s/he has risked. But of course, they may or may not, depending on the story.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Excerpt from Handcarved Elephants

Tuesdays are the day I reserve for showcasing my work. Today I would like to give an excerpt from a work-in-progress short story that takes place in Thailand. Enjoy....

The humid sea breeze pounded my face as I staggered to the bow. I leaned against the railing where port and starboard forged a spearhead to cleave the cerulean plain, and with my back to the ship, I saw the immensity—sea and sky, and the sun hovering inches above the vanishing point. It silenced my racing mind and weighed on my chest with such force that I struggled to intake air. Shouts echoed from behind me, angry and belligerent, but they no longer mattered. Their rage was directed at me, but they would have to sort it out themselves. All I could think of now was how to lose myself in that gigantic yellow disk as it touched the water. I stared at the sun until my eyes burned and I had to look away, anywhere but behind me. Due east I saw a small and insignificant slash of color on the horizon that I knew must be the island of Phuket, Thailand. The passenger yacht under my feet dipped, plunging down then up, yet the island stayed its course, became the only solid, immovable point of reference in my world.

My eyes locked on that strip of land as I stepped back from the railing, spread my feet across the teak planks, and leaned into the wind. I raised my arms like angel wings, as if I were a second jib, balancing resistance against gravity until it felt like I was soaring above the ship’s mainsail, leaving my sordid past behind and vaulting over virgin territory. It felt epic, a sensation of freedom I’d never experienced before. My feet, however, never left the deck.

The island was not our ship’s destination, but at that moment I knew it held some power over me, a place that could either free or kill me. Perhaps in my case death was the only freedom. The unknown quantity of ‘X’ in the equation of existence.

Below decks, the incensed voices grew in volume. At the same time I heard the sandpaper scuff of deck shoes trundling toward me, and realized it must be the captain. I glanced over my shoulder to confirm what I already knew. Captain Mike MacDougal had a large handsome head, and his body was as stout and chunky as a Shetland pony. He was a swarthy man in his mid-fifties, affable and rapaciously lusty for someone his age. I knew that for a fact because I had shared his cabin—his bunk—since the day he hired me as first mate of The Wanderbird seven months earlier. He wore khaki cargo pants and a blue denim shirt unbuttoned to his belly, and just then, he was panting, sweating, and wildeyed. Captain Mike was black Irish, and when his temper was up, his face boiled a scalded red.

“Leave me the hell alone,” I hissed through clenched teeth.

“Corban,” Mike said with a level voice, “come below and tell all those miserable Christian bastards that this is all some mixup, that you never touched Jason Starling.”

“I said leave me alone, and for god sakes button up your shirt.”

“Corban, you can’t ignore this. Jason is underage. His father is demanding that we put in at Patong tonight so he can hand you over to the authorities. If you’re convicted, it means ten or twenty years in a Thai prison, and you can’t imagine what kind of hell that is.”

The ship steadily sailed closer to land, and Phuket began to take shape, the edges soft and muted, the colors more distinct. I realized Captain Mike had already made the decision to make harbor. Fear settled in my gut like fine silt. “Unlock the liquor cabinet,” I croaked, “I need a stiff belt.”

“That won’t do any good,” Mike said. “If you start drinking now, you won’t stop. It’ll be just like the last time.” He paused at the same time the voices below hushed. All I could hear was my heart recklessly beating in liquid gushes and the wind streaming past my ears. “If you won’t tell them, at least tell me. Did you fuck the kid?” When I didn’t answer he raised his voice for the first time. “Dammit, I need to know. Is it true?”

Was he playing the responsible captain of a third-rate cruise ship protecting his passengers or was he simply a jealous lover? Did it even matter which? I knew already that he and I could not go on as before. After feasting on ambrosia, how could I possibly return to the swill he offered?
The deck pitched and I had to seize the railing to stay on my feet. Mike grabbed hold of my waist, trying to steady me, but I couldn’t stand to have him touch me now, not after what had happened. I shoved him away.

A wail floated up from below, sounding vaguely like a wounded hyena. It had to be Mrs. Starling, Jason’s mother. That three-hundred-pound medusa could turn a man to stone with a single glance. Her voice ran up the scale until it was so high it could only be detected by bats.
“A drink, dammit. I need it to steady my nerves.”

Mike turned to one of the two Malaysian deck hands. “Noi, fetch a cold Singha, chop chop!” The boy took off along the deck.

Beer? I thought, might as well be mother’s milk. I needed something industrial strength to battle the demons that young Jason had whipped up in my chest, and the visions of Luke now circling my head. This was not a case of dabbling with a teenager, this was the weight of decades of mistakes crashing down on my shoulders, crushing me.

Mike clutched my arm. “Ten years I’ve be takin’ out parties, from Shanghai to Calcutta, and this is the worst thing that’s ever happened.” He obviously wanted to say more, but his voice gave out.

I saw Mr. Starling crawl from the hatch. Both he and his wife led a sizable congregation and also a Christian high school in the heartland of Oklahoma. Condescending assholes, both of them. The whole damned party, all eleven of them, were a football squad of pious, Republican bitches.

My eyes found Mike’s. “You’ve got to help me. Tell these mealy-mouthed twits that I’m a man of the cloth, ordained by the Catholic Church, and a servant of God himself. Tell them I could never do such a thing to an innocent boy.”

“Shit, Corban, you haven’t worn the collar in six years, and besides, Catholic priests lost their currency on that topic decades ago. Everyone knows you all diddle boys every chance you get.”

Noi ran up with an open bottle. I pressed it to my lips and tilted my head back, guzzling. Beer so cold my chest burned all the way to my stomach, but I kept swallowing until I tossed the empty bottle over the side.

“Why, Corban?” Mike asked, no demanded. “Why him?”

“Innocence, purity,” I said. “I love boys because they live outside the realm of cynicism and irony.”

“Christ, if you wanted chicken you could have had Noi or Pic, they’ve been wiggling their fannies under your nose since you came aboard. But no, you’ve got to chase after a paying customer, a lily-white, Baptist client. I mean, what the fuck!”

“Noi and Pic aren’t Luke. I saw something of Luke in this kid.”

“Right, that boy ruined you once, and you keep letting him drag you back down every time you stand up.”

“Perhaps I was seduced by Jason’s beauty. Surely that’s something you can understand.”
“Beauty is a whore, I like my freedom better. Once you’re rotting in a Thai prison, you’ll know exactly what I mean.”

I already knew. Two years in a Texas state prison, convicted of the same crime, had not only stripped me of my vestments, it had taught me a valuable lesson: that I was weak. I had barely survived Huntsville, and a Thai prison would no doubt kill me. I had been spiraling downhill for years, until taking this job, which I had presumed was rock bottom. I loved being on the water, but letting the captain slobber over my athletic, thirty-year-old body every night had made it a living torment. During sex, he was a pig at a trough, clumsy and often brutal. It wasn’t that much different than Huntsville. I had put up with this ill-treatment as a form of atonement, which at that moment seemed a ridiculously empty gesture.

Yes, I had thought this was rock bottom, the lowest rung of hell, but thinking of Thai prison, I knew there were deeper levels to fall to, more torment to experience before the freedom of death.

“Mike, don’t anchor until we can talk these folks down. We’ve got to stick together. It’s a test of strength between them and us, you know that don’t you? Don’t give in. Don’t let them win.”

Mike shook his head. “We’ve got to dock some time, and when we do those people mean to see you hang. Face it, you flew too close to the sun, my friend, and you charred your wings but good.”

“Would it really do any good to tell them I didn’t touch him?”

Mike looked past me, out over the vast ocean. “What’s got this whole ship rucked up is that kid is in his cabin bawling like a baby, saying how much he loves you.”

“So nobody actually knows anything for sure?” I asked, trying to see a thread of light through the darkness.

“Look, as long as that kid keeps sobbing, everybody has convicted you. Sooner or later, they’ll drag the truth out of him.”

Then I’m screwed. We’re all screwed. That last glimmer of escape dimmed. Why, why did foul luck chase me across the globe like a bloodhound on the scent?

Monday, October 22, 2012

A Gathering of Hogs

This past weekend, Palm Springs enjoyed its annual biker’s jamboree, and an estimated gathering of over 5,000 Harley Hogs filled the streets with lustrous chrome and the throaty roar of four-cycle engines.

The town blocked off Palm Canon Drive, the main business street, for an all-weekend street fair that included rock bands, numerous food vendors, and goodie stalls offering everything from Harley handlebars to leather chaps. Hoards of bikers looking like ZZ Top milled around, guzzling beer, eating Polish dogs, and groovin’ to some ’80 tunes. 

Judging from the elaborate paint and chrome jobs on most of these motorcycles, it’s easy to see that these bikers take serious pride in their sport, pouring tens of thousands of dollars into their rides to make them over-the-top show-pieces. Gone are the days of simply cruising down the highway to feeling the wind in you face and the rumble of power between your legs. Biking has turned into a competition to see who has the flashiest ride.