Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Art of Accepting What Is

At the core of Buddhist teachings are four principles, the key one being that life is painful. I’m talking about emotional pain, the kind one suffers when events don’t go your way, or people don’t act the way you want them to. Every time life falls short of our expectations there is some degree of emotional pain. 

Everyone feels pain, usually on a daily basis. Some people experience that pain—as a mild disappointment or a gut-wrenching catastrophe—and then let it go, move on. Others wallow in their pain, blow it out of proportion, latch on to it for years or decades, and wrench every ounce of emotion out of it, worry it like a dog worries a bone.

Buddhism, simply put, is a method to avoid, or at least minimize that pain. And the principle way to avoid life falling short of expectations is not to create those expectations in the first place. If you fully embrace everything in your universe as if it is exactly what you desire, then there is no emotional pain.

That’s easy when we talk of losing a game of tennis, or even losing your wallet. It becomes more difficult when a loved one dies, or your job is eliminated. I’ve heard Christians deal with such pain by saying, “It’s God’s will.”

As a Buddhist, I remind myself of this lesson several times a day: accept what is. Not only accept, but be grateful, thankful for every failure, every disappointment, every thing that angers me. And once I accept it, then I work to improve the situation in whatever way I’m able. Acceptance does not mean you don’t “fix” things, it simply means you’re okay with it now while you work to improve it.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Writing Tip: Make the Protagonist Save a Cat by page 5

This has been on my mind the last few days because I’m reviewing a novel that has kept me at a distance from the protagonist. The result is, that after reading sixty pages, I’m bored to tears because I don’t care about the lead character and I don’t understand exactly what her problem is. And although the writing is beautiful, I will likely not finish it and I will certainly not review it due to lack of interest.

Here is an interesting description of plot, from Writing to Sell by Scott Meredit:
“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.”

I love this description, but the key element I want to focus on is “A sympathetic lead character…”

A reader doesn’t have to like or even find the protagonist sympathetic, but a read MUST be interested in the main character and understand what his/her problem is, and it is important that the reader somehow empathize with him/her.

Readers are desperate to attach to somebody from the moment the story begins, and you want them to attach to the protag, since it’s the protag’s story. It’s that attachment, that emotional connection, that deepens the reader’s interest in the story and keeps them turning pages.

But how does a writer establish that connection early on? By writing what Blake Snyder calls the “Save the Cat” moment. In the first few pages, make the protag do something nice (like saving a cat from a tree), or interesting, or funny – something that will push the emotional buttons of the reader so s/he can connect on a deep level with this character. You want to hook the reader on this character, and the bigger the emotional content, the deeper the hook is set. Saving a cat from a tree sets a smaller hook than rushing into a burning building to save a baby. The general rule of thumb is: this save the cat moment should happen the first time we meet the character, that is our first impression should be a positive and deeply emotional charge for the protag.

Once the reader has established this emotional investment in this character, then you can start lowering the boom on the protag. And when s/he get knocked in the head, the reader feels it, the reader cares, because you established that connection up front. The reader wants the protag to win, needs for him/her to win, and will stay hooked until s/he does win.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

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, May 26, 2014

Serving My Country

This day we remember and honor the men and women in our armed forces, those who have served to keep our people, our government, and our way of life what they are.

About forty years ago, as a nineteen-year-old fresh out of high school and looking for direction in my life, I enlisted in the US Navy. At that time (1973) Vietnam was winding down, but there was a strong possibility I would be stationed there before my enlistment was up.

I spent twelve weeks in boot camp, enjoying the warm days and cool nights of San Diego.  From there I spent three months in hot, humid Memphis, Tennessee learning the skill of aircraft mechanic. From trade school I was sent to VT22, a jet training squadron in Kingsville, Texas, where I completed the rest of my enlistment.

I never came close to Vietnam, or even left the continental United States. If fact, in the four years I served in the navy, I never once set foot on a ship.

My job was to repair the jet planes used to train pilots. I enjoyed the work because I worked with my hands, often times fabricating metal into parts for aircraft repairs. I had a good camaraderie with the sailors on base, and I even managed to find a few gay friends off base to spend time with.

The highpoint of my enlistment were the times I was able to fly with the pilots. In order to get flight pay ($46 a month back then) I was required to fly twelve hours a month. When an instructor would take students up for training, I would ride in his back seat (TA4J attack jets had two seats, one behind the other) while the student pilots flew their own jets. My favorite was dog fighting, although bombing practice was also fun. Dog fighting was like being in a roller coaster doing six hundred miles an hour. It leaves you breathless.

It was a fun and interesting time in my life—a stepping-stone from living with my family to living on my own, from boyhood to manhood. Had I been able to be openly gay while in the military, I might have made a career of it, but there was no way I could hide my sexuality for my entire life. 

Yes, I served my country, but to this day I feel (and have always felt) that the experience I gained during that time was priceless. I received so much more than I contributed.  Even though I’ve come to detest the idea of war, of the need for a military, I will always be grateful for that experience, which became a foundation for my entire adult life.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

How To Stop The Violence

When a person thinks of himself as gay or straight, Christian or Muslim, American or European, Republican or Democrat, or anything else, they separate themselves from the whole of mankind to identify with a subset of humanity. This simple act causes most of the violence in the world. It is a violent act.

Defining yourself by belief, nationality, sexuality, or race breeds violence because it creates divisions between humans, and those divisions will eventually cause strife, and often leads to discrimination, bullying, bloodshed, even war.

So a man or woman seeking to end violence in the world, would do well to start by abandoning all the labels that would demand loyalty to any country, political party, religion, sexual orientation, race, and simply concentrate on understanding and being a part of the whole of mankind. For that matter, don’t stop at just mankind, see yourself as part of this living eco system we call earth.

When every person on the planet sees himself or herself this way, then there will be an end to violence. Don’t wait for everyone else. Join the peace movement now.

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us

And the world will be as one
-John Lennon

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Writing Tip: Start as Deep into the Story as Possible.

There is a golden rule in screenwriting. Start a scene as late as possible and get out as early as possible. That is, don’t start a scene with a man strolling to work, walking into a building, riding up in an elevator, getting called into the boss’s office and then getting fired. Start the scene with the man already in the boss’s office saying “YOU CAN’T FIRE ME!”

This great advice goes for novels as well, both for each chapter and for the overall story.

This topic is heavily on my mind this week because I was reviewing a novel about a woman who, in 1891, leaves her husband in Boston, travels to San Francisco, boards a ship and sails to Hawaii. There she meets a lesbian and has an affair.

The real story is about the heroine’s love affair with this Hawaiian lesbian. The problem was that the novel slogged through 70 pointless pages before the heroine landed in Hawaii, and another 75 pages before she meet the love interest. After a 100 boring pages of what should have been back-story, I emailed the author to tell her I couldn’t give this novel a glowing review. She was adamant that my interest level would soon pick up and that the ending would be very satisfying. Hoping she was right, I read another 100 equally boring pages, which brought me to the book’s halfway mark. I emailed her again to inform her I would not invest any more time in her novel because I couldn’t recommend it.

She wrote back, again adamant that if I kept reading I would love the story. What she doesn’t get, is you can’t bore the reader with 200 pages of tripe before getting to the interesting part. You have to start with the interesting part. You have between ten and twenty pages to hook the reader. If you don’t grab their interest and hold it, you’re done for. And the way you do that is by getting to the point, quickly.

Start as late into the story as possible. In the example above, the story should have started with her seeing Hawaii for the first time from the ship. In chapter two, she could have given 10 pages of back-story telling why she left her husband and sailed to the islands. By chapter three she should have meet the love interest. There, 200 pages cut down to 30. And my point is, that 30 pages would have been much stronger with all the dull crap cut away.

In order to start the story as late as possible, the writer needs a clear understanding of exactly what the story is about. In the example above, the author clearly thought the story was about the heroine’s journey – NOT! The story was, or at least should have been, about the love affair.

So my tip for this week: Understand what your story is about, and get to the heart of it as quickly as possible. There are not many hard and fast rules in writing, but the cardinal sin is: BORING THE READER! Not for a chapter, not for a page.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Re-releasing a Wonderful Book

I received a wonderful email from Dreamspinner Press this week. They are planning a new imprint called DSP Publications that focuses on non-romance genres—science fiction, fantasy, historical, mystery/suspense, adventure, even horror. These books will be scheduled to receive approximately four months of promotion ahead of the release date, targeting the specific genre, as well as any editorial touch-up work deemed needed.

And the best news of all, they proposed republishing my novel, The Lonely War, in a new edition to promote it to mainstream historical readers. I am, of course, thrilled that they will be market my novel to a mainstream audience.

There then, is taste of this novel.


Like most war novels, The Lonely War envelops all that is unique to war, the horror of battle, overcoming fear, the cruelty of soldiers, the loyalty and camaraderie of men caught in a desperate situation. Yet, it stands alone in two important ways. First, it is a passionate story about a tender love developing between an officer and an enlisted man, revealing a rare and dignified portrait of a couple struggling to satisfy desire within the confines of the military code of conduct. Even more importantly however, it describes the heart-wrenching measures of how much one man will sacrifice to save the life and reputation of the man he loves.


Chapter 1

March 20, 1941
0800 hours

In the spring of 1941, the Japanese army surged across the border from China to extend their bloody campaign to all of Southeast Asia. As war crept south, the French, English, and Americans scattered throughout Indochina hastened to Saigon, where they boarded ocean liners bound for their homelands. Meanwhile, the Japanese army massed on the outskirts of the city, poised for another victorious assault. The city held its breath.

Andrew Waters pursued his father across a bustling wharf, still wearing his boarding school uniform and clutching a bamboo flute. The ship that loomed before him was a floating city—mammoth, with numerous passenger decks and topped by two massive stacks that muddied the sky with exhaust. It had been berthed at the inland port on a tributary of the Mekong for a full week, but Andrew saw the crew now scurrying to get underway.

The wharf trembled slightly, and he heard the rat-tat-tat of gunfire over the sirens blaring from the center of the city.

Andrew's father sported a tussore-silk suit of superlative cut and a Panama hat tilted so the brim hid his right eye. His tall figure marched purposefully towards the black-and-white behemoth, and his normally long gait lengthened with noticeable desperation.

Andrew, who was nearly eighteen, paused and panted from an acute nervy rush. He searched the sky for planes. They were still beyond his field of vision, but the drone of bombers echoed through the cloud cover. The rumble of explosions grew loud, and the air carried the faint stench of sulfur.

He hurried on, jostling through a mélange of beings— Caucasians dressed in fine western clothes (like his father), rich Chinese in their silks, merchants in long-sleeved jackets, coolies wearing only tattered shorts. Voices all around him shouted while the harsh twang of a military band playing "Auld Lang Syne" vaulted above that unbridled confusion of humanity.

Directly behind him trotted an aged wisp of a monk, who wore the traditional orange robes and held a string of wooden prayer beads. Each bead was the size of a marble and had the chalky gray coloring of Mekong silt. The monk's thumb deliberately ticked past each bead, one after another, like a timer counting down the seconds. Behind the monk came the porters carrying four steamer trunks.

At the gangway, Andrew's father told him to quickly make his goodbye then sprinted up the ramp with the porters in tow.

Surrounded in a press of bodies, the youth reverently embraced the monk. The old man wrapped his arms around Andrew and drew him nearer. The monk's breath tickled his neck, which helped to dissolves his anxieties.

Using the native tongue of South China, he whispered, "Master, I'll come home as soon as I can."

The old monk's face contracted, as if Andrew had posed a difficult question.

"Andrew, war and time will whisk away everything that you love. This is our farewell."

The youth wiped away a tear that broke free from his almond-shaped eyes and slid down his amber-colored cheek.

"Master, I will strive to apply everything you have taught me."

"No, Andrew. You will forget my lessons. Such is the nature of youth. But remember this—since you are American by birth, they will surely draft you. So, on the battlefield, resist the hate that is born from fear. Nurture only love in your heart, Andrew. To love all beings is Buddha-like and transcends us from the world of pain, for love is the highest manifestation of life. To experience love's full bounty is life's only purpose, so tread the moral path before you and sacrifice yourself to love. All else is folly, a dream of the ego."

Baffled, Andrew replied, "Master, I do not understand about sacrificing myself to love."

The old monk's eyes opened wide and his lips spread into a grin.
"Meditate on what I have said. Understanding will come when you are ready." He methodically bundled his string of beads into a ball roughly the size and shape of a monkey's skull and forced them into Andrew's left pants pocket. "Keep these beads to remind yourself of our time together."

The pressure against Andrew's thigh felt awkward, and before the monk pulled way, Andrew became distracted, thinking of how fortunate this man was to be wise and compassionate in the midst of the impending carnage. He realized it took impeccable courage to maintain one's morality during perilous times, courage that he himself did not possess.

He had always assumed he would live a quiet, studious and spiritual life under this old monk's guardianship, and eventually become the old man who stood before him. That image was shattered when war turned the world on its head. Now, all Andrew could think about was getting on that ship and sailing to safety, if such a thing existed.
The ship's whistle cut the air, long and terrible and loud enough to be heard throughout the city. The monk pressed his hands together in front of his forehead and bowed, silently, finally.

Another blast from the ship's whistle sent Andrew running up the gangway, leaving the earthy world of South China behind.

He joined his father on the first-class deck. Entombed in steel—heavy riveted plates of metal underfoot that curved into walls—he jammed together with the other passengers at the rail, peering down at the apprehensive faces. Their body heat added to the stifling temperature. Sweat dribbled down his neck, and he had to gasp to get enough air.
Lines fell away, and the gangway was hauled aboard. Tugs pushed the ship into the middle of the channel and withdrew, leaving the ship to the whim of the current.

Andrew stared straight down at the dense, opaque surface of the river. It reflected the cloudy sky, making the water seem gray rather than the usual brown, yellowish streaks of oil running with the current. The flat moving surface seemed strangely alive, carrying him along, muscling him downstream, as if it were an overwhelming force whose motives he could only guess at.

On the dock, Asian women held their infants over their heads for a last look. Handkerchiefs waved. The band played on.

He saw the first planes against the darkening sky, droning above the city. Explosions grew even louder, and from his perch on the first-class deck, he saw sections of the city erupting. He turned northeast towards his boarding school. Flames. That entire section of the city was engulfed in fire, as if hell had opened its mouth to swallow it whole.

"Clifford," he whispered.

A searing stab of regret lodged in his chest. He had been forced to abandon the object of his adolescent love, and he imagined himself dashing through the chaotic streets to reach the boarding school. There was still time, he thought. They could disappear into the forest. They could live on, together. He wanted to perform that fatal act of love, but he wondered if he could really muster the courage to defy his father.

Reluctantly—at least, it felt that way to him—he climbed onto the railing to dive overboard, because he realized the love he shared with Clifford wasn't a trifling adolescent crush at all but rather a deep and consuming love. A love that had somehow been lost in the joys of youth like water in dry sand, and was only now realized.

His father pulled him back, forcing him to stay and suffer what felt like an unquenchable loss. Locked in his father's embrace, he entered a narrow canyon of desolation, knowing the days and hours and minutes ahead would be heartbreaking, and that he might not be strong enough to endure it.

The ship's siren sounded three blasts for its farewell salute. The engines throbbed, and propellers chewed the river. The noise swelled to a din like the end of the world.

The passengers on deck could no longer hide their sorrow. Everyone wept, not only those people parting but the onlookers as well. Even the dockhands and porters shed tears.

The ship traveled downstream as the military band played "The Star-Spangled Banner."

To Andrew, the orange-robed figure crushed within the throng on the dock seemed at odds with the fires raging across the city. He now fully understood the monk's words— that war would steal everything he loved, that a way of life, their way of life, had perished. Pain flooded his whole being, like that of a baby prematurely ripped from its protective womb.

He pulled away from his father's embrace and staggered farther down the deck to cry without being seen. He positioned himself at the rail, one arm folded around a steel support beam and his face pressed against the hot metal.

People on the wharf seemed to hesitate, then regretfully turned and scurried away. He watched the smudge of orange, scarcely visible and standing at the edge of the pier, utterly still, quiescent, until the harbor faded from view and the land disappeared as well, slowly swallowed beneath the curve of the earth.