Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Writing Tip: The B Subplot Must Influence Your Storyline.

In most novels and movies, there are at least two stories going on – the A story (main storyline) and the B story (a subplot). There is sometimes a C, D and E subplot as well, but lets keep this discussion simple by focusing on just two.

Strangely enough, with most love stories, the actual love plot is normally the B story. For example: one of the great love stories was Casablanca. The main story was what was happening to the letters of transit. They were the only way out of a horrid situation, and people were dying to get them. The love story between Rick and Ilsa was the B story.

In writing a plot, the A and B stories wander along in parallel, like two trains going down different tracks, yet racing in the same direction. But at some point usually near the end, the B story must collide with the A story, and affect it in such a way that neither story will ever be the same. 

In the example above, Casablanca, the letters of transit fall into Rick’s hands, yet Ilsa desperately needs them so that her husband, Victor Lazlo, can fly to freedom. Ilsa sacrifices everything, promising to abandon Victor and stay with Rick, if he will only give up the letters. Rick, of course, sacrifices Ilsa and gives her the letters out of love, and loyalty. Ilsa and Victor fly to freedom, Rick joins the freedom fighters. 

Another example: To Kill a Mockingbird, the A story leads to Tom Robinson’s trial and the hatred of Atticus Finch by Bob Ewell. The B story is Jem and Scout’s developing relationship with Boo Radley. At the end, the A and B stories collide when Ewell tries to kill the children and Boo stabs Ewell to save the kids. 

If you have a B story that doesn’t significantly affect the A story in the end, then rewrite it so that it does, or cut the B story. It’s only function is to boost the A story. If it doesn’t, then it’s dead weight.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Victor Banis Reviews The Plain of Bitter Honey by Alan Chin

Tuesdays are the days I showcase my own work on this blog. Today, I’d like to share Victor J. Banis’s review of my latest novel, The Plain of Bitter Honey. Enjoy

The Plain of Bitter Honey by Alan Chin
Reviewed by Victor J. Banis

Rating – 4 ½ stars out of 5

Before anybody jumps up and starts hollering, let me say that the author based this novel somewhat loosely upon my own futuristic novel, Angel Land. Yes, he asked permission before doing so, and yes, I gave him my blessing. How could I be anything but flattered that an artist of such prodigious gifts thought anything of mine worth emulating?

Truth to tell, however, the two books aren’t very much alike. Alan borrowed the basic plot idea – a future America ruled by a corrupt church, and a ghetto in one-time-San-Francisco-now-Angel Land (in my version)  in which gays are held as virtual prisoners. But my story focused on those living in the ghetto; only in a brief epilogue did I show a small band of them having escaped from the city.
Alan’s version is almost the opposite, following as it does a band of refugees heading north from San Francisco, trying to reach The Plain of Bitter Honey, where the leaders of the Resistance movement dwell, and only briefly glancing back into the ghetto.

Oddly, I did find this distracting at times. Whenever our story arcs crossed, my writer‘s curiosity compelled me to look at how he and I had handled the same material. But that is of little consequence to other readers.

I am a longtime fan of this author’s work, but I am also fully aware that for the last few years he has been trying on a number of different “writer’s hats.” In general, I think this is a good thing for a writer to do – the more varieties of material he masters, the better overall an author can manage his craft.
Of course, not all those hats will be equally becoming. This writer’s forays into melodrama are evidence enough that this is not his strong suit. And, when I first approached this work, obviously an action-adventure, I half feared that it would be another example of a hat that didn’t fit.

What lifts this far above that – or any - genre, however, is his lead character, Aaron Swann, a protagonist worthy of the best in literature. Aaron is a tragic figure, and as with all great tragic figures – Macbeth comes to mind, certainly – the ills that befall him throughout the story all spring directly from his own flaws and weaknesses. The very best writers – the very best students of human nature, if you will, since they are the same thing – know that there is not much of value that you can teach another – one’s weaknesses reveal themselves in due time, and one’s strengths no one – not even he who possesses them – can know before he is called upon to use them, and beyond these, not much matters in a person’s character.

Shakespeare’s genius, however, was not in the creation of Macbeth – after all, any number of writers through the years have penned tragic figures. His genius was in creating, in Lady Macbeth, a co-protagonist, if you will, worthy of the title character and, indeed, very nearly eclipsing him. So clearly do these two mirror one another in their greed and ambition that they might almost be one character – and surely no one else is necessary to the play. Indeed, the others who flit briefly across the stage are no more than reflections of the inner turmoils of the two leads. What is Banquo’s ghost, after all, than the personification of Lady Macbeth’s guilt and fear?

I wish I could say that Alan Chin has surrounded Aaron with a character or two worthy of him, but alas, with one exception, he has not. Well, it is hardly criticism to say that someone falls short of Shakespeare but it seems to me here that the author has fallen a bit short of his own considerable talent.

I paraphrase Oscar Wilde somewhat when I say that a writer may let his heroes develop in their own skins, but he must choose his villains very carefully. A villain who does not engage us, in whom we cannot recognize ourselves to some degree, however infinitesimal, becomes a cardboard cutout – as happens here with Elder Whitehall, the author’s “baddie.”  He isn’t scary because we simply can’t see ourselves in him – after all, nothing is more frightening than the beast within us.

Aaron’s brother, Hayden, offers some possibilities. Cyrus Hodger, another of the religious leaders, never did come into focus for me – I had no more idea at the end what was motivating him than I did at the beginning. Only the minor character, Logan, chief of the renegade tribe, the Caliban, seems to me real and vital, a man both tragic and noble, and on a par with the lead character. His role is small, though he imbues his few scenes in which he figures with a regal melancholy.

When the author is focused on Aaron, then, the story flows naturally and easily from his character, and especially from his frailties. When it shifts to the others, everything slows down, and the plot takes charge.

Fortunately, this happens only a few times, and well before the surprise ending – which I confess I did not see coming at all, though the author has been fair in planting the necessary signposts along the road – we are back to Aaron, and the story’s ending belongs to him, as it must.

So, this is a flawed work, but at the same time, it represents such a leap forward for the author that I can only applaud vigorously. Its flaws are noble ones, the flaws of a major talent coming to grips with itself, and for that I can fault no writer. It tells me that, without a doubt, this is an author on the verge of the greatness that he once or twice touches upon here.

 This is certainly not Alan Chin’s best work, which I am convinced is still ahead of him, but it does encourage me to think not so very far ahead.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Alan Chin Finally Enters The 21st Century

Yes, everyone, yesterday I became the very last gay man in America to own a smart phone. I held out for as long as I could, but my partner put his foot down, and dragged me into the 21st Century.

Herman drove me to Costco, where I spent two hours having a very cute salesman walk me through the setup and basic operation of my Samsung Galaxy S4. Yes, kids, over much protest, I did not get an iPhone. Being a diehard Apple fan, I kept asking why Samsung? Herman kept rolling his eyes, and explained in slow speech, as if I were a two-year-old, “Because this model has twice the functionality as the iPhone.” I wasn’t buying it. Then he said, “The battery charge last three times as long as the iPhone.” I still wasn’t buying. He finally said, “It has the best camera on the market. Much better pictures than the iPhone, that I can post on FB right from the phone.” Sold.

Why was Herman so insistent? I’m convinced there is a tracking app on this damn thing so he can know my whereabouts at all times. Actually, it’s because when we attend functions, I have a habit of wandering off in a daze. He wants a way to call me to find where I’ve wandered. Also, I’m thinking he’s feeling guilty that during dinner, when he’s surfing the web on his phone, I feel ignored. He figures I can now surf too. Fat chance.

I may use it to read books while he surfs. I’ve already got a Kindle app. I’ve also downloaded a Pandora app, so I can now listen to my favorite music regardless of where I am.

Actually, I’m already liking it. I’ve started managing my email and FB from the phone, which means a lot less time sitting at my computer. This phone seems to have as much functionality as my laptop, and will take months to figure out all the different apps. I just hope I don’t turn into one of these people that if you ask a question, they whip out their phone and surf Google for the answer.

Yes, the 21st Century is looking pretty good so far. 

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Book Review: Band of Brothers by Stephen E. Ambrose

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Pages: 312

From years of research and hundreds of interviews, Stephen Ambrose pulls together the story of one of the most famous (and respected) rifle companies the world has ever known, the Screaming Eagles of E Company, 101st Airborne Division.

They came together, citizen soldiers, in 1942, drawn by the $50 monthly bonus and a desire to be the best. They were rough-and-ready guys, battered by the Depression, mistrustful and suspicious. The ones who survived the rigorous training in Georgia went on to fight the fiercest European battles of WWII—Normandy on D-day, Holland during the Arnhem campaign, holding Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge,  spearheading the final counteroffensive, and finally capturing Hitler’s Bavarian outpost, the Eagle’s Nest. Combat taught them selflessness, and they discovered that in battle, men who loved life would give their lives for them. It during those times under fire, that found the closest brotherhood they would ever know.

This is a story of men who fought, of the martinet they hated but who trained them to be the best, and of the captain they loved. E Company went hungry, they froze, and they died for each other. They took 150 percent casualties. The Purple Heart was not a medal to the men of Easy Company, it was a badge of office.

I became interested in Easy Company’s story because of the HBO miniseries by the same name. I found the miniseries fascinating and inspiring, and I wanted more information about the men and the battles they fought. This wonderful book is the perfect companion to the miniseries, in that it delves into the details.  The miniseries focuses more on individual men in the company, where the book fills in the missing data about the battles.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Writing Tip - The Real Work of Writing—Editing

I completed the first draft of my latest novel, First Exposure, earlier this year. It’s a story I’m a bit wild about, and now I’m slogging through the trenches, doing my least favorite writing task, editing.

For years I hated editing, but I’ve come to enjoy it. I love playing with words and the rhythm they make. I make a game of seeing how many words I can delete without negatively impacting the story. So even though editing is not nearly as fun as creating new prose, it’s still enjoyable.

My process for editing starts by putting the manuscript down for at least a month, usually two to three months, while I work on something else. When editing, I want the story fresh, as if I’m reading it for the first time. It takes time to get that story out of my head.

Next, I read each page, slowly and carefully, three times before going on to the next page. I look for words/sentences/paragraphs to cut, different ways to say the same thing, places I’ve repeated myself (I seem to do that a lot), cut out most words ending in ‘ly’,  turn passive verbs to active, and insure I have a good mix of sentence structures and that the prose flows effortlessly. Why read each page three times, you ask? Because it’s amazing how many things stick out on the second and third pass that I gloss over on the first one.

When I finish a scene, I examine the scene as a whole. I actually have a checklist I follow for each scene:

1. What are the emotions the reader should feel? (which is different from what the characters are feeling)

2. Whose scene is it, and what do they want from it?

3. What can you show that is now in dialog?

4. How can you punch up the dialog, give it more attitude!

4. What can you show that is now told?

5. What can you cut, is it all needed? What purpose does it serve?

6. Cut the melodrama, telling internal dialog, metaphors. Just tell the story in plain English.

7. Most importantly: Where is the conflict leading to emotional growth in each scene?

Following this method, I strive to edit six pages per day. The next day, I start out by reading those six pages once more before moving on to the next six pages. When I finish a chapter (usually about 10-15 pages) I have my computer read it back to me. It’s amazing how many errors I catch by having the computer read it. I keep having the computer read it out loud until I can make it through without making any changes (normally 3 to 4 times.)

So for each editing pass, I read each page a minimum of six times, sometimes as many as ten times. Then the process begins again. I put the manuscript away for a month or two, and repeat. I normally make three to four editing passes.