Monday, August 31, 2015

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.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Book Review: Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut

After two years of no book reviews, I came across a read that I want to shout about. So I guess I’m back into reviewing books. Please check this one out.

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: Europa Editions (Sept. 2014)
Pages: 370

This book is a fictional exploration of the life of one of Britain's finest novelists. It illuminates E M Forster's life in a way that makes you feel on intimate terms with Forster, knowing his thoughts and needs as keenly as your own. “Arctic Summer” is in fact the name of an incomplete novel written by E.M. Forster in 1912/13 but published only in 2003; and Galgut uses its title for his novel about the famous author. The story is well researched and much of the content, even word-for-word dialog, was taken from Forster’s diaries.

The first hundred pages or so explores Forster’s life growing up in England, showcasing his awakening homosexuality, his tormented and unconsummated relationships, and being constrain by proper English society. During this time he also meets the love of his life, an Indian student, Masood, much younger than himself. I had a tough time trudging through this section of the book. I found it well written, but it lacked action, and I found it exceedingly dull. I almost gave up on it.

Once Forester traveled to India, Egypt (where he had his first sexual affair), and again to India, my interest in the story skyrocketed. Beautifully woven into his travels are the details of his life that laid the foundation of his masterpiece A Passage to India. Galgut is a master at constructing realistic and compelling landscapes, from inhibiting England to war torn Cairo to exotically vibrant India. He gives these locations the same kind of fragile humanity that he gives Forester.

Galgut’s prose blends perfectly the spare and the lyrical, often letting gentle humor shine through. His pacing is flawless. I was swept up into his cadences, and was never overburdened with needless detail. My senses were awakened to sensory impressions that were visceral.

A lovely and interesting story, one of the most satisfying reads I’ve enjoyed in years. Anyone who enjoys a rich blend of romance, adventure, and exploring exotic locations will no doubt fine much to admire here.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Writing Tip: What Makes the Good Guy So Good? The Bad Guy!

Your hero is only as interesting as the foe s/he is battling. Any protagonist is just some ordinary shmuck until you put evil in his/her path. Then your hero is pushed into showing courage, nobility, compassion, etc.

Roger Corman hit the nail on the head when he said: “In science-fiction movies the monster should always be bigger than the leading lady.”

The antagonist needs to be a worthy opponent! S/he has to be stronger than the protagonist or you’ve got no story. A man swatting a fly is nothing anyone wants to read, unless the fly is 600 pounds and has fangs. I’m not saying all antagonists need to kill people with ray guns. Look at Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People. She was a strong, implacable, relentless opponent.

Your bad guy can’t simply be bad, s/he needs to always be taking action – plotting, planning, stealing, belittling, killing, lying, leaving the seat up on the toilette – as a way to show us how bad s/he is. S/he needs to be constantly making more and more clever moves, always upping the ante. Just when we think s/he’s down for good, s/he comes back with a bigger punch. If s/he is not doing this, then you don’t have much of a bad guy, which means you don’t have much of a story.

Remember that the protag and antag don’t have to be cross-town rivals. They can be husband and wife, business partners, man against nature, or patriot against his/her own country.

Just like your hero shouldn’t be 100% good, your antagonist shouldn’t be 100% bad. The Godfather was motivated by love for his family. In Schindler’s List, the commandant was being a good and loyal German carrying out his orders. If your antag is a terrorist who loves killing women and children, then make her also love Italian opera or fine wine or have impeccable manners, anything that the reader can connect with.

It is the villain’s job to push the protag into being a hero. By doing battle with a much more formidable opponent, the protag must reach inside and find inner strength or superior intelligence in order to overcome the evil one. And the more clever and evil the antag, the deeper the protag must dig to prevail.

Every good protagonist must grow, evolve into someone better (or at least different). That can’t happen without a bad guy. In Die Hard, John McClane is in a bad marriage and headed for divorce. His wife doesn’t seem to like or respect him anymore. Enter Hans Gruber. Hans give John McClane the opportunity to show his wife what he is made of, and of course, he also becomes a better person in the process. Without Hans, McClane is just another washed up cliché cop.

The bad guy should think s/he is the hero in your story. In the example above, Hans Gruber felt he was so clever and so slick in they way he mastermind the whole crime, that he was the star, he should be the one everyone admired. And why not, nobody was smart enough or had big enough balls to stop him. Yes, he’s stealing 600 million and killing hoards of people, but stealing from mega-rich-corporations to give to the poor (himself).

So once you’ve established the protag and antag, and they are doing battle, be sure to give them plenty of face to face time. They should come to know one another very well. And for the most part, the antag should have the upper hand, until the end, of course.

Keep in mind that your bad guy is the point on which your story pivots. Make him/her deliciously bad.

Monday, August 24, 2015

With Age, Friendships Become Dearer

I’ve found that as I grow older, I place more importance on the people and friendships I hold dear. When I get together with friends, I savor that time with them and do whatever I can to make the event wonderful for everyone involved. Likewise, when out-of-town friends come for a visit, I roll out the red carpet and place myself and my home at their disposal to ensure they have a lovely time in my city.

As so many other things in my life diminish in importance, friendships have skyrocketed to the top of my priority list. I was a loner for most of my life, but I’m learning that sharing life with like-minded people is one of the true, lasting joys in life.

I find that many people of my generation feel the same. A few weeks ago while Herman and I were visiting friends in San Francisco, some friends in the North Bay heard we were in town. They called to insist, insist!, that we drive up for lunch, which we did a few days later. One of the men, Tommy, recently immigrated to the US from Egypt. He single-handedly cooked an Egyptian feast for us, which must have taken him days.

The menu was:
Fried Eggplant,
Stewed Eggplant,
Green Lentil Salad,
Fried Poblano Peppers,
Foul Madamas,
Egyptian Potato Salad,
Pita Bread (Yes, he makes his own hummus and Pita bread)
Strawberry Shortcake,
Decaffeinated coffee.

All during this fabulous meal, I kept wondering how soon I could lure them down to Palm Springs so that I could return the favor. I have no idea what Herman and I will do to match the time and effort that went into this lunch, but I’m sure we will create something special, not as a competition, but because we simply want to treat them to something unexpected, something given with love, which is what they did for us.

The moral in this post is a life lesson that I have to keep reminding myself of—that paramount joy comes from giving others something heartfelt and loving. Happiness grows best in a field where much love has been spread.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Men Who Flirt With Married Men

I had an interesting experience yesterday. A friend who lives in L.A. visited, and told me one of his L.A. buddies (a 33-year-old screenwriter) saw my picture on an FB post and now has a crush on me. I must admit, that sort of thing hasn’t happened in a very long time, so I found it amusing and laughed it off. The next thing I know, I received a friend request from this guy, who I’ll call Bob, on FB.

I accepted Bob’s friend request, and within minutes he responded by messaging me. His opening dispatch thanked me for friending him, and told me he thought I was hot. Again, I laughed off the complement, telling him to wait until he saw me in person before making any kind of judgments, also reminding him that I was thirty years older than him.

We had a lengthy chat session about writing in general, but with each response, he kept flirting. Early on I let him know I am married, and chose not to encourage his flirting, but he kept going until he asked if Herman and I are monogamous. I told him we have been monogamous for twenty-one years, and plan to stay that way for another twenty-one years. He responded with, “That is so hot!!! When can I meet you?”

My first impression, I’m sad to say, was to judge him; I found him vexingly shallow. But then I remembered that I was much the same at his age, and needed to cut him—and myself—some slack.

Please don’t misunderstand, I’ve been around the block too many times to be a prude. What Bob or anybody else chooses to do with their lives is none of my business. They are welcome to whatever lifestyle they enjoy. And before I settled down with Herman, I was a big flirt myself. But I’m done with that, and I found Bob’s aggressiveness annoying, rather than flattering.

I guess my reaction to Bob is a combination of old age combined with being wholly contented with the man I married. Not only do I not need all that sexual tap dancing, I find it a waste of time. And believe it or not, I’m grateful to have reached that point in my life where I have no interest in flirting.

I found the following pic on FB, which seems to sum up this post: 

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Writing Tip: Don’t be afraid to get it wrong

My husband, Herman, has taken several screenwriting classes with me and also participates in a weekly writing group of screenwriters. Last summer he outlined an excellent idea for a script, and then spent several weeks working on the first act. When he presented that first act, about twenty pages, to our writer’s group, they were somewhat critical but supportive. They gave Herman a lot to think about, including other options for where to start his story. It was all good feedback. 

The problem was, Herman is a perfectionist who hates criticism. He thanked everyone for their input, even agreed with much of it, and has not written a word on his script since then. He is so afraid to write something that others may feel is not perfect, that he doesn’t write anything. He keeps talking about his story, trying to work out the ideal set of scenes in his mind, but frankly, talking doesn’t get the baby washed. 

I believe it was Hemingway who said: “All first drafts are shit!” And he wasn’t talking about just his first drafts, he was talking about all writer’s first drafts. 

Good writing is rewriting and rewriting and rewriting. My first script teacher told me that the average script gets rewritten over twenty times before anyone takes it seriously. I usually make five to six passes through a manuscript before I submit my novel to a publisher. 

The idea is to get something down. Make it as good as you can, understanding all the time that you will need to go back and edit, edit, then polish, polish. Sometime you go back and realize that it’s just not right for the story, or drags the pacing down, or that it doesn’t add enough to justify being there. So you cut it. And that’s ok. Much better to cut something than end up with warts sprinkled though your story. 

So, bottom line for this week is: when you’re writing a first draft, have the courage to write it down. Even if you know you’re going to throw it way, get your ideas down on paper. You won’t know how good or how bad it is until it’s on paper. The worst thing that will happen is you toss it out and start over. And if you do that, I guarantee the next pass will be better. 

Have the courage to write everyday, even if what you’re writing is crap. If you do that, the writing will get better. And frankly, that’s the only way it gets better.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Tehachapi Mountain Festival Quilt Show

Herman and I decided to leave Palm Springs this weekend to escape the extreme weather (120 degrees heat, 55 percent humidity.) We drove northwest for three hours to Tehachapi where our friends live in the hills. As luck would have it, the town was having their annual Mountain Festival, complete with carnival, antique car show, rodeo, parade, and, of course, a quilt show.

It was a small town affair, decidedly quaint, but that enhanced the fun and charm. We had a ball checking it all out. The people were small-town friendly. The highlight was the quilt show, since the friends we were staying with are into quilting.

Quilts are something I’ve always love, both from an artistic point of view, but also from a love point of view. My mother used to quilt, and I know from watching her how much care and work goes into each quilt. To me, they are all works of love, enjoyed by the lucky person who owns one, but quilts are passed down through generations, so that many people over many generations can wrap themselves up in this colorful artwork.

My mother has given me two quilts, and I cherish them both. I even have them in my will, indicating which of my sibling’s grandkids will inherit them.

We had a funny experience walking into the quilt show. It was inside the local high school gymnasium, and at the door were three women seated at a table charging a $7 admission fee. The sign behind them said, Admission $7, husbands and kids are free. We were three gay men, and when the women at the desk saw us, they looked at each other in surprise and didn’t know whether to charge us or not. They had a quickly whispered conference and then waved us through without charge. I guess they had never encountered men, gay men, who were interested in home crafts.

There was approximately 150 quilts on display, in all shapes, sizes, and designs. I took a few snapshots of some of my favorites: