Thursday, October 31, 2013

Volume vs. Quality

Several days ago I exchanged emails with a writer I both like and admire. He talked about a fellow writer who he claims told him, “I’m not interesting in improving my craft. I’m only interested in churning out stories.”

This statement has stuck in my head, nagging me to the point of being annoying. I’ve read three novels from the writer who made that statement, and I feel there is ample room for improvement, even if he doesn’t. I felt after finishing each of his stories that they were creative and engaging, yet somewhat disappointing. I felt that had the author spent another four or five months refining the plot and the story structure, and polishing the prose, they would have been awesome reads, rather than being merely entertaining ones.

Please don’t mistake my meaning; I’m not suggesting that I am a better writer. I have my own issues I struggle with. And I’m sure that he sells many more books than I do. What I’m suggesting is that writing, for me, is a craft where one is always striving for perfection, always experimenting and learning more, delving deeper into the human experience and finding fresh ways to express ideas. Writing, for me, is like tennis. Even the top players spend more time on the practice courts than they do playing opponents. They never stop trying to improve.

Admittedly, this philosophy of striving for purity rather than merely for more carries into every aspect of my life. It’s an attitude I’ve learned through thirty years of practicing Buddhism. I am constantly trying to refine whatever I’m doing, and I find great pleasure in that. I look at life as art that is never finished, never perfect.

It’s often a downer never quite being satisfied with one’s work. It is enough compensation, however, when I look at the body of my work, and realize that I’m slowly improving my craft. That, to me, is the most important goal.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Writing Tip: Levels of Conflict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

What Makes Bitter Honey Special

Tuesday’s are the days I showcase my own work on this blog. Today I’d like to talk about my latest novel. In a recent interview by Bold Strokes Books, I was asked what made The Plain of Bitter Honey special, at least to me. My answer is below the blurb:

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

My Interview Answer:
The Plain of Bitter Honey is my first attempt to abandon the romance genre. It is also my first futuristic novel, so as you can see this book is the result of me breaking out, escaping the barriers I’ve been a prisoner to for the last decade. It represents a new and bold direction for my writing.

I believe it is my most creative and daring work. The premise was partly influenced by Andrew W.M. Beierly’s groundbreaking novel, First Person Plural, where two brothers—one straight and one gay—share the same body, which has two heads and two minds. Each head has it’s own personality, but they can’t get away from each other. They must learn to compromise, understand each other, and grow emotionally.

In Bitter Honey, I have twins who were born joined at the head, who after surgery to separate them, still have one consciousness that is split, one straight and one gay. They, of course, are able to live separately, but are still connected mentally even over great distances. The brothers must find their own identity by helping the other brother through the hardship and danger of fighting a revolutionary war.

This story made me stretch my imagination and my writing in ways I could not have predicted at the start. It also delves deep into my personal philosophies. It has forged a new focus in my career, and has reenergized me at a time when I had begun to lose interest.

An Excerpt Describing the Brothers:
Aaron and his brother were identical—the same shoulder-length, burnt-coffee-colored dreadlocks, same six-foot-two athletic frame and strong-boned facial features, and because they were mixed race, their skin tones held the warm color of old copper. Twins, their only physical difference was Aaron carried a bit more weight and definition from martial arts training, and Hayden’s blue eyes had tiny specks the color of emeralds gleaming in bright sunlight. Yet on the inside they were earth and sky. Aaron was serious and stoic--Hayden was a dreamer. He had uncommonly quick reflexes while Hayden was only quick with a smile. He was a fighter, Hayden’s only weapons were words and ideas.

It’s why I love him so. He’s almost everything I crave to be—what I would have been had we lived in a different time.

Aaron made the stipulation almost everything because Hayden was gay. Aaron accepted his brother’s sexuality, but he preferred the company of women in his bed.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Signing Books at Palm Springs Pride

I’ve pleased to announce that, for the fourth year in a row, I’ll be signing books in the Authors’ Village at the Palm Springs Pride Festival this weekend from 2pm to 5pm on both Saturday and Sunday.

The Authors’ Village is sponsored by Q Trading Bookstore located in Palm Springs. There will be a number of excellent authors to chat with, including Jeffrey Luscombe and Kage Allen, and plenty of books to purchase, so please, join the fun and bring your checkbook.

There will also, of course, be live bands, tons of greasy comfort food, and plenty of hot guys with no shirts. It’s always a fun time and a great place to meet new friends.

I hope I see you there.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Book Review: Missing by Drake Braxton

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: Seventh Window Publications
Pages: 214

While attending a 20th high school reunion in Alabama, Blain Harrington’s husband disappears. The police are no help. Blain sets out to find the love of his life, only to discover that everything is not as it seems. What starts as a search to recover his lover, morphs into a hunt to find himself.

The first half of Braxton’s debut novel is a bit difficult to read, because the protagonist quickly turns into a whiny, self-absorbed, unlikeable fellow. At the halfway point, the author turns the plot on its head and the reader discovers everything that came before is not what it seemed. That’s when the book becomes interesting.

The story follows Blain’s journey of grief, drugs, booze and sex all the way to the bottom, and then the long climb back up. I’m not sure Blain becomes any more likable in the second half of the book, but the reader understands the character’s motives and hardships. Helping Blain along his journey are two close friends, one a saint and the other a devil, who seem to mirror the battle going on inside Blain’s head.

There are sections of this story that are extremely well written, although sizable portions of it are told through tedious dialog.  Also, I feel the plot lacks imagination. All in all, however, Missing is an interesting read that I can recommend.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Dharma of Writing

This cartoon may not seem all that funny, but it is a lesson I need to keep reminding myself of, so I keep in on my desktop.

You see, when I started writing, it was all about me. I wanted to be a good writer. Then I became really egocentric and wanted to be a great writer. It took a few years before my Buddhist training kicked in and I understood my error.

Writing stories is not about me becoming anything! It is about crafting the best stories possible. The focus is on the stories, the characters, and the craft of writing. The focus is on the day-to-day process of creating, which becomes a form of meditation.

That process, that meditation, is not about becoming a better, wiser, holier person. It’s not about becoming anything. It is all about the joy in experiencing the process.

So every once in a while I need a little nudge to help me focus on simply writing stories, without worrying about how good I am.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Writing Tip: The Controlling Idea

Every good story has a single controlling idea. All coherent tales express this idea veiled inside an emotional structure we call plot. Once a writer discovers that idea, s/he should respect it. S/he should, in my opinion, never indulge in the idea that their work is merely entertainment. A story should convey meaning.

After all, what is entertainment? It’s the ritual of reading or watching a movie, investing tremendous concentration into what one hopes will be a satisfying, meaningful emotional experience. Anything else is just porn.

Plato once urged the city fathers of Athens to exile all poets and storytellers. He considered them a threat to society because writers conceal their ideas inside the seductive emotions of art, rather than present them in the rational manner of philosophers. Plato insisted that storytellers were dangerous people. He was right.

The same is true today. Every effective story sends a charged idea to our brains. Yet the idea is often not at all obvious. In fact, many writers, myself included, end up writing a great deal of a story before it dawns on them what that controlling idea is.

The power of this idea comes not only from the idea, but from the emotional charge that the story generates around the idea. Consider the movie Death Wish, whose controlling idea is that justice triumphs when people take the law into their own hands and kill the people who need killing. Audiences cheered as Charles Bronson stalked Manhattan, murdering thugs. Yet the controlling idea is totally vile.

So does a writer have a social responsibility to cure social ills or renew faith in humanity? I believe that the only responsibility the writer has is to tell the truth as they see it. So when you finish a story. Ask yourself, what is the main idea expressed within the climax, and then ask if that idea is true.

Tuesday, October 22, 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 novel. 

Reviewer: Jennifer Lavoie
Publisher: Bold Strokes Books (June, 2013)
Pages: 264

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

There are some books that are really easy to write reviews for. And there are others that are difficult. Not because they’re not great books, but BECAUSE they are great books. This is one of those. I cannot write my typical spazzing out sort of review for this book because it just wouldn’t do it justice. And this book deserves a lot of careful thought.
The Plain of Bitter Honey takes place in the not too distant future. The America that is painted for readers is very grim. At least for some. For some people, they might like the fact the Christianity has taken over and the States have become a Christian nation. However, it is hell on Earth for many people in the book. If you do not agree with the views of those in power, or if your life and loves are different from what they think it should be, you are placed in ghettos.
I’ll flash back to history here, because what the author has done is draw on the Holocaust. There are many allusions to what happened in Nazy Germany during World War II. It is done masterfully, because it shows just how horrific the world has become.
Aaron and Hayden Swann are identical twins that are part of the resistance. At least Aaron is. Hayden, it seems, is off in his own world of literature. As a gay man, he has to hide the fact that he loves his boyfriend Julian, for fear of either being placed in the ghetto or being treated. While Aaron is very hard and driven, Hayden seems so carefree.
Looks can be deceiving.
What follows is an incredible journey to save the twins, the reistance, and everything they hold dear. There were times when I thought for sure all hope was lost, but the beautiful thing about how is that it’s always within reach if you just keep believing.
The author also weaves in some beautiful moments of magical realism as well, such as when Aaron is training with Twig and he learns to blend into the trees and become a part of them.
The conclusion of the novel is ultimately heart-breaking and beautiful. It is full of hope and you want the characters to succeed. I stayed up past one in the morning to finish because I couldn’t stop, and when I finally came to the conclusion, I put the book down, curled up in the fetal position on my bed, and just cried.
Such a wonderful novel from Alan Chin. He has a way with words that will leave you thinking and praying that this is not the future that we are headed towards. Frighteningly enough, with the current state of our country, it at times feels that way.
I look forward to many more books from this author.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Writer’s Depression

I’ve been writing fiction for over a decade, and have published seven novels. Over the years, I’m met many writers who have complained of how they fall into a funk after finishing a story they really get wrapped up in. I’ve never once experienced this phenomenon called writer’s depression, until now.

Last week I completed the final edits on a manuscript, First Exposure, that I’ve been working on and off on for two years. I’m very proud of this story and the characters who lay their souls bare in the telling. I did get overly wrapped up in these characters, feeling their joy and pain and confusion and hope, but then I do the same with all my novels. And yes, within hours of finishing the manuscript, I began freefalling into depression.

I’ve always been happy to finish a story because I’ve always had new stories to jump right into and take off running again. Beginning new stories is one of my favorite tasks of writing, starting with a blank page and shoving off in a new direction with new characters where anything is possible. I love that. It is such a creative high for me. And even this time, I’ve got two short stories outlined that I’m raring to go on, yet I can’t shake this gloom of not wanting to let go of First Exposure. I haven’t felt this down since losing my dog Smoky four years ago.

Today I’ll begin work on a monk story, in hopes that I can shake these blues, but I’m not holding out much optimism. I can only hope that I can shake this depression quickly, because it’s making me want to stop writing altogether.

First Exposure is a touching story of a straight man, Skylar Thompson, who is a petty officer in the US Navy. He, his wife, son, and grandmother are barely scraping by, and when it becomes clear that Grandma needs fulltime care, something must be done. He takes the night shift at work so that he can work a second job delivering flowers during the day. Problem is, the two men who own the Happy Poppy flower shop are a gay couple, and as Skylar is seen around town with them, word starts traveling through this navy town that Skylar must be gay as well. In trying to provide for his family, Skylar becomes the target of homophobia. 

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Book Review: Desire: Tales of New Orleans by William Sterling Walker

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: Chelsea Station Editions
Pages: 169

This collection of short fiction delves into the gay demimonde in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina. A variety of interesting characters—lawyers, supermarket clerks, drifters, painters and musicians, cabaret singers and writers—alternately dominate the pages and then fade into the background to let the main character, New Orleans, take center stage.

A litany of the city’s bars and restaurants and hangouts have a visceral hold on these men; even when they are far away from this magical city, the memory of it haunts them.

William Sterling Walker writes with wisdom and compassion. His vividly imagined characters seem to embody the ravenous spirit of the city they inhabit. These stories are intelligent and real. They are vibrant and written with carefully chosen words to evoke a mood, and also to touch something deep in the soul of the reader.