Saturday, August 31, 2013

Book Review: Jack Holmes and His Friend by Edmund White

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Pages: 400

Edmund White has laid out an ambitious tale that chronicles the shifting sands of the sexual revolution—as seen from both straight and gay viewpoints—from the early ’60s until the start of the AIDS years. White presents the gay perspective through the eyes of Jack Holmes, a man who realizes he is gay when he falls for his straight fellow journalist and work-buddy. The straight point of view is seen through the eyes of failed novelist, Will Wright, Jack Holmes’s love interest.

The first third of the story is a cliché coming out story where Jack anguishes over his unrequited love for Will, while struggling to deal with his ‘illness’ of being gay. The story shifts to Will’s point of view, where Will experiences the cliché “straight-man in mid-life crises”, while Jack goes on the prowl every night for sex, both characters becoming the liberated sexual animal that was common during the ‘70s. The story switches back to Jack’s POV as they enter the AIDS epidemic and both characters are forced to make adjustments to their relationship and their lifestyles.

On the surface, this is gay/straight friendship with all it s highs and lows, the kind of story that’s been written a dozen times or more. Dig down a few layers, and the reader sees the progression of the gay movement by two self-absorbed characters dealing with the changing times and changing attitudes.

White is a master at eloquent prose, and I applaud the ambitious scope of this story. I did, however, find this a difficult, often boring read. Neither Jack nor Will are particularly interesting or likable. I often felt that Will was merely a mouthpiece to spout every straight cliché attitude of the times. Once the story switched to Will first-person point of view, the story looses what little momentum it had, and was never able to recover it.

White’s flowing narrative and social observations, however expressive, is chocked full of tedious description. It occasionally felt like wading through molasses. His articulate prose, however, was the bright star of this work—at times lyrical, other times gripping.

Admittedly, I’ve never been a huge fan of Edmund White’s work, and this novel did little to alter my opinion. 

Friday, August 30, 2013

Goodbye Summer Heat

 Here in the deserts of Palm Springs temperatures rise above 100 degrees by May, and stay in the 105 to 110 range through the summer. For a few weeks every year the temps spike up to 115, and this year we experienced a few 120+ days. Despite the heat, summer continues to be a favorite time of year for me.

I spend my mornings in my office writing, and my afternoon by the pool reading and swimming. Because so many residents flee north to escape the heat, and shop and restaurants close, June thru August tends to be very quiet in this city. It’s like the town goes into hibernation. It’s a very productive time for me with my writing because there is little else to do.

I’m a person who likes to walk, but during the hot months I restrict my walking to early mornings or after the sun drops behind the mountains. It’s simply too easy to suffer a sunstroke by walking in the heat of day here. I honestly can’t understand how the gardeners in this town are able to work through the afternoon heat.

This week the temps dropped into the high nineties, and it looks like a cooling trend is upon us. I’m just finishing my second summer here. Although part of me is sorry to see it go, I feel a bit of relief that the extreme heat is over for another year.

Now the town will return to normal, shops and restaurants will open back up, residents will return, the Canadians will soon flock down to escape the cold. The social scene will revive and the dinner parties will start up again. I’ll be able to get back out on the tennis court. I’m ready for all that to happen. Change can be good.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Writing Tip: Elements of a Romantic Comedy

For the past three weeks I’ve been trying to finish everything on my plate so I can focus on a new screenplay that my script-writing partner and I have begun. I’m almost there. And because the script we are writing is a romantic comedy, one of the things I’ve been doing in my spare time is researching what makes romantic comedies different from other types of stories. And although I’m focused on screenwriting, the principles apply to novels and short stories as well. 

So far I’ve found six distinguishing elements that separate romantic comedy from the rest of the field. They are:

1) The main character (Hero) must pursue some sexual or romantic interest. This sounds like a no-brainer, but a writer could decide to have the love interest be someone other than the hero. However, as with all successful stories, the most important character is the hero, with whom the reader or audience most strongly identifies with, and in romantic comedies it must be this character who is pursuing (or being pursued by) some compelling romantic desire. That’s what makes it a romantic comedy – the hero must desperately try to win (or win back) the affections of another character. 

2) The hero must pursue an additional goal. Simultaneously chasing two or more goals (often goals at odds with each other) adds complexity and originality to the story, and also accelerates the pacing.

3) The characters are desperate to achieve their goals, and fight apposing conflicts with tenacity. They should never think they, or the situation, is funny. It must be deadly serious to them. Strangely enough, the comedy grows out of the hero’s pain and loss. The plots of the most successful comedies deal with cheating spouses, disease, physical abuse, humiliation, unemployment, suicide and death. The humor arises from the way the hero overreacts to these situations. 

4) Although most romantic comedies almost never show actual sex, they are sexy. There is always lots of flirting, and the hero must confront his/her sexual desire. If the hero and love interest do slip into bed together, the audience must see everything leading up to that hot embrace before the bedroom door shuts in our face. 

5) The plot resolves around a deception. For instance, the hero is pretending to be someone he’s not (Mrs. Doubtfire, Tootsie, The Birdcage), or is lying to his beloved about his feelings or intentions in order to pursue the relationship. Dishonesty is a necessary element to increase the conflict and humor, and also to force the hero to confront his/her inner conflicts and deceptions. Only by facing the truth about themselves are they able to arc into someone better.

6) It must have a happy ending, or if the hero doesn’t get the boy, the reader feels that the resolution is the most appropriate or satisfying ending for the hero.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Daddy’s Money Cast of Characters, and What Makes Them Special

Tuesdays are the days I showcase my work on this blog. Today I like to share the cast of one of my favorite gay-romance books, Daddy’s Money.

Daddy’s Money
Cast of Characters

LOGLINE: Imagine that you finally meet your lover’s parents, only to discover that his father is the sugar-daddy whose been paying your way through medical school.

SAYEN HOM: Handsome, medical student, and Muslim. He is exotic, gay, and devout. Sayen was brought to this country by his mother, and she has passed away, leaving Sayen to fend for himself. He is determined to be successful, and he’s willing to use people to get what he needs. He has a sugar daddy who pays for his schooling in exchange for sex. But then a rich young student, Campbell Reardon, promises to give Sayen everything he has ever wanted. He reaches for the brass ring, thinking it’s golden.

CAMPBELL REARDON: Fresh, young, Stanford medical student holds all the promise of youth in love. Campbell has been in lust with Sayen for some time, but only recently had the guts to go after him. Between Campbell’s charm and his family’s considerable money, he manages to snare Sayen into a relationship, and love blossoms. He can’t wait to share his happiness with his family, and decides to take his lover home and introduce him to the folks.

BLAKE REARDON:  Campbell’s father, is a man of secrets. He loves his wife and children, he loves his position in society and the benefits his wife’s fortune brings him. He has hopes of running for high office, perhaps someday even the presidency. Yet, he is a gay man deep in the closet. He fell in love once in the Peace Corp, but that relationship ended badly. He found love again, and pays for the privilege of seeing this man once each week. Little does he know that his son, Campbell, is also in love with this Muslim boy.

MARILYN: Campbell’s mother, is a woman of means. She writes children’s books and maintains a cool aloof exterior. She is the power behind the Reardon household, and demands that everyone march to her tune. She always knows what’s best, and will protect her family’s image at all costs.

HALLE REARDON: Campbell’s Goth, teenaged, pregnant sister. She loves her brother Campbell more than anyone, but she has issues of self worth. She is high-spirited, rebellious, and speaks her mind. She will not go with the flow simply to please everyone. She will stir the pot whenever possible. Once she sets her mind on something, she goes after it with unwavering determination, and what she sets her mind on is her brother’s boyfriend, Sayen.

JET: Halle’s best friend. He is super cool, an artist, and gay. He likes older men. He is Chinese, wear’s leather jackets and has his long hair in a ponytail. He will do anything for Halle.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Recharged and Ready To Work

Two weeks ago, I was scurrying to finish a round of edits for my work-in-progress, a novel about homophobia in the military. That particular edit pass took almost three months, carefully crawling through page after page, taking it slow, polishing three to five pages per day. Editing is my least favorite task, but it takes the most skill and effort.  It also has the biggest payoff when I do it well.

When I finished that pass, rather than turn back to page one and plow into another round of edits (hopefully the last on this manuscript), I did Herman and myself a favor. I agreed to take a ten-day vacation to the San Francisco Bay Area to visit friends and family.  During that time, I did no edits, no writing. Each day we lunched and dined with dear friends and family members. It turned into a great social getaway and a well-needed rest.

Now I’m back at my desk, looking out at a steal-gray morning, and ready to press my nose to the grindstone.  Why am I pushing myself? I’m under contract to deliver a novel by the end of this year and an anthology of short stories by March 2014.

Between now and the end of the year my Monday through Friday schedule will be: writing short stories in the mornings (shooting for 800 words per day), editing three to five pages of my novel manuscript in the afternoons, and trying to squeeze in time for Twitter, Facebook, and book marketing.

It will be a taxing schedule for me over the next three to four months, but I’m feeling relaxed and ready for the challenge. Time off to recharge is important, perhaps the most important thing a writer can do for themself.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Writing Tip: Flashbacks - use them sparingly

I’ve read two books in the last month that managed to capture my interest, get a good pace and story momentum going, and then introduce a number of lengthy flashbacks, which killed all forward movement, stalled momentum and introduced back-story that was not needed. When that happens I want to toss the damned book out the window. 

In my humble opinion, the last thing a writer wants to do is stop the story’s momentum in order to introduce back-story. There are good reasons for doing so, but if you’re going to do it, make sure that it is absolutely critical because 1) back-story is seldom as interesting as the current storyline the reader is caught up in so you risk boring the reader, and 2) once you’ve stopped the storyline action to give back-story, it is very difficult to jumpstart that momentum once you come back to it. 
So the question is, how and when to introduce flashbacks. 

Flashbacks are important. Generally, a writer wants to start a story as late in the action as possible. Sometimes s/he may want to start the story long after an event that is crucial to the storyline. So what do you do? You start the story later, but then have a flashback in order to present the needed event or back-story. But understand that you are taking the reader away from the story in order to give him/her background, and background is BORING, or at least not as interesting as the storyline.

So there are a couple of tricks to using flashbacks that help minimize the damage. First, flashbacks in the first half of a story are much less disruptive than the ones that occur late in the story, because at the beginning it is expected that the writer will present information with which to build the story on. As the story progresses, the pacing usually quickens, the momentum builds, and the reader wants to get to the end of the story to find out what happens. So if you halt the momentum near the end, you risk pissing off the reader. So always try to introduce back-story early. 

Another tip is to keep the flashbacks as short as possible. Remember, you’re taking the reader away from the storyline, and the reader wants to find out what happens in the storyline. The longer you drag it out, the more you risk having a dissatisfied reader. 

So my personal rules of thumb when it comes to flashbacks are:
1) Use them only to introduce information CRITICAL to the story.
2) Avoid using any in the second half of the story.
3) Keep them as short as possible.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Book Review: 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 a review of my latest book.

The Plain of Bitter Honey by Alan Chin
Posted by Cia

This story was full; full of danger and peace, hatred and love, bravery and fear. I want to go on and on about the story, but I absolutely refuse to post any type of a spoiler at all. To be honest, this book sat on my to read shelf for a while because I expected there to be a lot of philosophical treatise and political ranting.

What I found was an emotional tale with intriguing characters ... mixed with some philosophical and political ranting. However, it only came in when it was relevant to the story and to the character's motivations and personalities. I never felt lectured, I felt enlightened. The romance wasn't very prominent, but I found I didn't really need it.

That isn't to say that this wasn't a great, entertaining story just to read for fun. If you're fond of dystopian style plots, you'll love this. It doesn't have anything really 'new' but what the author chose to include in the story was very real. There was a great action theme and some serious suspense. With so many elements to include, the weaving along the plot arc could have become muddled, but I felt that it was seamless.

Now, before this appears to be all vague and general praise ... there were a few flaws. I found the minor protagonist's journey of self to have taken too abrupt of a U-turn. I also would have liked to have seen the ending of the story a bit more drawn out. It felt like the climax wasn't quite ... climactic. Still, I enjoyed this story immensely. I've already recommended it to several friends who have placed it on their to buy shelves.

A solid 4.5 rating from me, and I've definitely found an author I wasn't sure of to add to my buy list myself.