Moving on Up: www.alternatewrites.com

The short version of this post: I am moving to http://www.alternatewrites.com, please update bookmarks accordingly.

After two plus years, I’m breaking up with wordpress.com. There are a couple of things that rankle me, but highest on my list are the ads they recently introduced on my site. Sure, I don’t mind harmless commerce, I even understand why it is necessary, but if it’s my name and my site, I want a cut. Plus, let’s face it, they’re kind of annoying. Little adsense blips are one thing, but these take up too much room.

I love writing each week, and even more so, I love the community of writers, screenwriters, and friends I have discovered through the site. There are few better feelings than checking my Blackberry on an otherwise drab and depressing Monday and reading through a new comment. It’s the internet equivalent of a shot in the arm.

I am still working on the site this week, and I have a few friends who have already offered advice. If you have any tips on the crossover, they would be much appreciated. The new website has all of this blog’s content already, but I am still working on the design.

So please bookmark:

www.alternatewrites.com

And expect updates…

Movies and Memory

It’s funny how I care more about the study of history some two years after majoring in it. But now it’s the kind I stumble upon, the detective history, which fascinates me.
For example, long before e-books, and back even before the days before barcodes came to libraries, books had to be checked out by hand, usually by a librarian with a big black stamp. I picked up LA local John Fante’s Full of Life from the library the other week, and was happy to find these stamped inscriptions hidden in the back of the book. My amateur detective’s mind went into overdrive—why was this checked out between January, 1991 and February, 1992? Did a high schooler need it for a paper? Was it a recommendation from a friend? Did a careless librarian stamp in all the wrong places one long winter?

I think screenwriters are essentially amateur detectives. A good screenplay doesn’t take any detail for granted. Writing a screenplay, my first thoughts always are: Where are we? What’s the mood? Who are the characters and what’s their story? Without knowing these things, however great the action, I can’t write the story. Maybe it comes from that history major in college, but the way I tell stories always begins with the background.

I try to keep an eye out for the unexpected. I may have walked on the same sidewalk a thousand times before I noticed this inscription:

According to Wikipedia (one of my best friends), the Janns Investment Corporation once owned all of Westwood. Soon enough they sold it to the city of Los Angeles, which bought it in order to form their own university branch—UCLA. While the company no longer exists, the name adorns certain steps, buildings and the occasional sidewalk panel.

Just as I don’t know how you could live in Los Angeles without being curious, I don’t know how you could write a story without doing some detective work. Living in a world, either real or imagined (and oftentimes both), means understanding that world and its curious meanings. Memory is what makes us human. In a world that values novelty over all, I hope I don’t forget that.

Saying Goodbye to Borders

Today was not a good day. I made my last purchase at Borders, well, Borders.com, using up the balance on a gift card my girlfriend gave me.

As I navigated their unwieldy website, I couldn’t help but remember my first times at the store, and how regretful I am at its closing.

[Cue Corny Flashback Music]

I remember shopping at the Borders in the White Flint Mall in Rockville. You took an escalator to the second floor, which deposited you right on the shop floor. When I was a kid, that escalator ride felt magical. I was a nerd, and I liked reading. Plus, my mom was particularly indulgent when it came to books. Any book I wanted I could get. They were always the same young adult paperbacks, George Selden, E.B. White, Jerry Spinelli, that sort of thing, but to me each one was a discovery. I remember waking up before school to read The Egypt Game in bed, feeling at peace paging through the paperback’s pulpy newness. I may have been uninterested in the books on my school’s curriculum, but the books I bought at the Borders I carted around like treasure.

Soon, I migrated out of the young adult stacks to literature, and by seventh grade I got involved with the Russians. I probably read more Dostoevsky than was healthy at that age, or any age. This led me to a community college class in Russian, just one of the many eccentric moments of my middle school career.

Sure, I shopped at other bookstores. But Borders didn’t have the moldy smell of Second Story Books in Rockville, and wasn’t always deserted like the Waldenbooks. Not to mention Barnes and Noble, and the armed guards they hire to hassle patrons—or the large Nook kiosk they ironically set up at their entrances.

I remember my aunt taking me to the Borders in Farmington Hills on my birthday and buying me all sorts of classics that she said I had to read immediately in order to be considered educated. I never did, but the Herodotus did look pretty nice on my bookshelf.

Of course, by college I had moved on, and was more interested in college bookstores than anything chain. Only when my mom moved to Ann Arbor a few years ago did I really start to reconsider Borders. Located in the center of town on State Street, “Store #1” felt like the beating heart of a book-hungry town. Where else but Ann Arbor would book vendors set up in the middle of the night on East Liberty to hawk paperbacks? Sure, you could notice signs of decay, but why look? I wasn’t buying as many books, but I did try to spend a few hours there every time I visited home.

I know Borders is no mom and pop, and for most people, it was another link of a chain of strip malls stretching across America, but for me it remains meaningful. There just aren’t enough bookstores in the world for me to feel anything but displeasure when one closes. And I can’t help but think that shutting down those kinds of places where ideas thrive is a harbinger of bad things to come.

Google+ What?

When a friend sent me the invite for Google+ the other week, I was ecstatic. I saw the email on my handheld as I walked to my car, and as soon as I entered my apartment, I set up an account, friended a couple of fellow early adopters, spent some time browsing the site, and then went back to skimming Facebook.

Since then, I have checked back once or twice, like tonight, but I really cannot find a use for it.

Honestly, I like Google+ much more than Twitter. The only people who follow my tweets these days aren’t even people, they’re businesses, or towns. I count @Koreatown as one of my top followers. Sometimes I put up links to my articles, even more occasionally I interact with someone I have not seen since college, but most of the time, the site bores me.

And Google+ feels better than Facebook. With all of the friends I have accumulated, I don’t feel that the relationships are meaningful anymore. I can’t be friends with four hundred people, I have trouble enough keeping up with the ten or so friends I do try to stay in touch with. I am stuck with several hundred “friends” who I know a little too much about but can’t avoid checking up on.

Google+ modifies social networking nicely. I can choose whether my friends are part of “family,” “friends,” or “acquaintance” circles, which makes it less of a hassle to pick apart a news feed for content I really want to read. And these circles are a little easier to set up than lists on Twitter. I like that unlike Buzz it is opt in only. And unlike Facebook, I feel much safer sharing information on Google+, maybe because their sharing options are more straightforward.

Yet I haven’t really used it for anything. If no one updates, then that motivates me even less to try. My theory is that during this extended roll-out, the people who want to be on the site are on it, and sick of talking to other early adopters, and have signed off prematurely. Google+ needs to either open up to everyone or do a better job advertising itself. As of now, only one of my six friends uses the site on a more than weekly basis.

Like the forward-thinking Google Wave, if the company simply sits on this project, it will fail. Even if it is objectively a better social networking program, if no one uses it, then it’s no longer social. It will take much more than a beta test to determine whether people will switch networks to Google+. And at the rate people are using it, I don’t think they will.

Pershing Square: A Ringside Seat at the Circus

It’s Wednesday, and my blog post is late. I’m sorry about that. I have been pretty busy with different writing things, including my first published restaurant review: The Saffron and Rose Ice Cream shop in Westwood. Here is the link. I have stayed away from dining articles because I never considered myself a foodie, but I made an exception for ice cream.

I also took part in LAist’s Park a Day series. My park, Pershing Square, carried with it a very personal meaning. I worked downtown for a year and change and would walk to the park during my breaks or after I left for the day. While the USC Geography Department describes the park as an “urban desert” on this website, I disagree. For me it was an oasis. There was always a shady spot to sit. In the winter there was ice skating and in the summer concerts. And there were always people, whether confused suburbanites, transients, or workers on their lunch breaks, to provide entertainment.

I agree that it is designed poorly, and with all of the concrete and security guards, in many ways it resembles a prison. But it also has a garden, statues commemorating fallen soldiers, and a fountain—an ugly fountain, but nevertheless a fountain. Like Los Angeles, it is not one thing, but many things to many different people.

There is a quote about Pershing Square that I keep returning to in my thoughts. Not only is journalist Carey McWilliams decrying Los Angeles in this passage, he is also celebrating the city and its imperfect parks—and people. Nothing feels more fitting than that his half-tribute to the park engraved on the southern wall.

Thanks to the good people at USC for transcribing it.

In the center of the park, a little self-conscious of my evening clothes, I stopped to watch a typical Pershing Square divertissement: an aged and frowsy blonde, skirts held high above her knees, cheered by a crowd of grimacing and leering old goats, was singing a gospel hymn as she danced gaily around the fountain. Then it suddenly occurred to me that, in all the world, there neither was nor would ever be another place like this City of the Angels. Here the American people were erupting, like lava from a volcano; here, indeed, was the place for me — a ringside seat at the circus.

-Carey McWilliams

Lessons from a Legend: Robert Towne

Last night, screenwriter Robert Towne spoke in between a presentation of his two LA masterpieces, Chinatown and The Two Jakes. Disarmingly honest, funny, and quite wise, he shared his writing philosophy and answered some questions about the movies from the audience. Sure, the questions were fawning, and the answers were not always straightforward, but here are the lessons I gleaned from his talk.

1) Don’t be afraid to write more than necessary. Protagonist J.J. Gittes makes many allusions to Chinatown in the movie, but we never really learn what went down there when he worked for the district attorney’s office. Towne shared the subplot, something to do with a failed truce between rival gangs that he mediated, but even he wasn’t sure. Yet as moderator and film expert F.X. Feeney pointed out, “All of the stuff you write makes it into the movie in some form” and it’s true here. The story is richer for this complexity, even if it doesn’t affect this story. Gittes becomes an even more complex character, one we can’t help but wonder about.

2) It’s a collaboration. Without the sublime score by Jerry Goldsmith, this would not be the same movie. In fact, an earlier score made the film painful to listen to. Without the production design by Richard Sylbert, the sets would have appeared corny instead of classic. And without the influence of director Roman Polanski, the film could not have embraced the screenplay’s complexity and would instead forgo it. And let’s face it, no one could have played Giddes with the same charm and passion as Jack Nicholson. It’s an excellent script, but an even better movie.

3) Let the story take you. Towne alluded to the fact that at a certain point, writing Chinatown became like a dance when the partner, his script, takes over. The characters, story arc, background, all pointed to one way of telling. This metaphor feels apt. My best writing never feels like writing, it feels like taking dictation from a story I know by heart. This may rarely happen, but when the story takes you, let it. He compared his writing process to building inertia. It sure is hard to get started, but when things do start, let it roll.

4) Don’t be afraid of a second draft. I don’t remember the exact number of drafts that Towne and Polanski worked through (Peter Bart writes on this in his new book, Infamous Players) but there were a lot. Yet in the end, all of that work paid off. While Towne didn’t talk about it so much last evening, it’s true; Chinatown would not be the same movie if the shooting script were the rough draft. It takes time and patience to write a truly great story.

Guest Post: Writing the E-Book

This week, my good friend and author Liz Funk agreed to guest post. She has just written a great new ebook, Coming of Age in a Crap Economy, available here. I read an advance copy and loved it; Liz offers relevant advice and support to anyone dealing with fallout from the Great Recession. I have been very curious about e-publishing lately, and asked her to share her experience. So, without further ado, I turn the blog over to Liz.

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It made perfect sense that my next book would be an ebook.  At the risk of sounding annoying, my first book was a non-fiction look at how many of today’s young women attempt to emanate constant, effortless perfection in the form of nice clothes, acceptance to a brand-name college, and fancy jobs (even if they’re secretly anxious, self-loathing, and exerting an enormous amount of pressure on themselves to excel at everything they attempt).  It had a too-cute pink-and-yellow cover, it was published by Simon and Schuster, and they paid me a lot of money to write it.

My second book, Coming of Age in a Crap Economy, looks at how the bad economy has really hampered opportunities for young adults, and is a self-published ebook available on Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com.  In the context of what the book is covering, it makes sense that my book is an indie, DIY title without a big advance or a publicity budget or a team of people in charge of doing the stuff I didn’t know how to do, because my book covers how the recession has limited opportunities for young adults so young people need to create their own opportunities!

I had come up with the idea for a book about how the quarterlife crisis experience is different in the context of a recession in February 2010.  I actually articulated the idea in my head in the public bathroom at the beach in Santa Monica, CA, where I had taken a six-week working vacation (to Santa Monica, not to the ladies’ bathroom, of course).  I graduated from college in May 2009 and in the ensuring seven months, I was increasingly realizing that it was only going to get harder to support myself as a full-time freelance writer/author/speaker and I knew I didn’t want to be an English teacher or go back to grad school (which seemed like the two logical options for me and the two roads that virtually everyone in my professional network was choosing to avoid donning a Starbucks apron by day to write by night).  So I took a vacation and realized that I really wanted to write another book.

Alas, my editor at Simon and Schuster liked the idea, but the sales of my first book were modest and my editor also pointed out that it was hard to picture unemployed 20somethings freely purchasing shiny, new $15 paperback books.  I agreed.  Another publisher offered me a contract for the book, but it was a really shitty, almost exploitative deal, and I decided that, in the spirit of encouraging 20somethings to create their own opportunities—one of the main messages of Coming of Age in a Crap Economy—I’d do it myself.

It was a long process, especially because just after I decided to write the book and I gave myself a publication date (and told people the publication date!) so I’d stick to a self-imposed deadline, I got a big flux of freelance work that resulted in me working around 50ish hours a week on various writing/ PR consulting projects and trying to write the book in my free time (I ended up pushing back the book deadline a month, one week at a time). But still, I did it, and I wrote a 30,000 word ebook in about three months, plus did all the work that went along with publishing it.  Here’s what the process looked like:

1) Write book. It was little harder to find sources to interview for this book.  I found that people leaped at the opportunity to be interviewed for my first book but it was harder to find sources willing to dedicate about a half hour for a phone interview for an ebook.  So the book didn’t have any of the economics/ recession experts that I wanted to interview weighing in, but the book offers lots of candid anecdotes and advice from 20somethings and a small handful of psychologists who were happy to help. It was also hard to write at night and to turn down social invitations to finish the book, but I had that deadline!

2) Design book cover. I was going to hire someone but ended up doing it myself.  I searched around the web for stock art of a graduation cap and then added the text for the cover by using the postcard maker at Vistaprint.com. Then I saved the mock-up images of the postcard to my desktop and then changed them into jpegs.

 

3) Buy ISBN Expensive!  I bought 10 for $250, instead of one for $125, because I figured that I’d probably do more ebooks in the future. If anyone wants an ISBN, email me through my web-site and you can have one of mine!

 

4) Kindle formatting This is the second least favorite thing I’ve done in the course of my career, namely because I didn’t know how to do it.  Now that I know how to do kindle formatting, I think I’d see it as a much less miserable, if tedious, task if I had to do it again.  Again, if you want to do an ebook and need help with the formatting, email me and I can give you a quick rundown.  Regardless of how not-fun it was (my drunk, 2am tweets as I worked on the formatting as evidence), I ended up being glad that I didn’t pay a professional to do it, because it was do-able.

 

5) PR The really fun part!  Writing press releases, emailing the reporters I know, hitting up my friends to let me guest blog!  The book got a front-page mention in the business section of Albany, New York’s daily newspaper on Sunday (I live in Albany) and it was crazy to think, That’s an ebook!  I did literally every part of it!

Other notes on doing an ebook:

 Get friends to help you edit. My best friend sat at my dining room table with me one Friday night last month and went through the manuscript line-by-line with me and one of my longtime writing partners did a really thorough line-edit for me.  Check ten times for typos; it’s crazy how they slip by you.

I don’t recommend using Smashwords. If writing an ebook can feel a bit anti-climactic, Smashwords definitely makes it worse.  The first night I uploaded my book to Smashwords, I was so pumped to be self-published that I was awake at 3am on a Saturday morning ready to make the final version of my ebook go live.  Yet each time I uploaded the book, it didn’t look right. To the best of my knowledge, Smashwords doesn’t have the functionality to let you work on the formatting so you can see exactly what you need to do to make the book look right in their sample pages; it’s all trial-and-error, and you have to upload your book over and over again until you blindly guess the right way to fix it. After six attempts and still not getting the formatting to look like what I wanted it to look like, I was frustrated and I finally went to bed. 

The next time I tried uploading a version of my manuscript with corrected formatting, two days later, I saw that there was a queue to have your manuscript uploaded—and I was number 761 in that queue.  I did about five hours worth of work and finally I was number 200 in the queue.  It was like trying to connect to AOL circa 1997, when it was horribly slow and thus best to try to get online around 1am. 

(To my embarrassment, I clicked on the customer service box at the top of the Smashwords screen and fired off a curt message complaining about how unsophisticated the Smashwords technology was, especially given the significant commission that Smashwords collects on the books that they publish and distribute. The next day, I saw I had a surprisingly polite response from the CEO of Smashwords in my inbox.  I was too embarrassed to respond, but I do maintain that Smashwords takes too large a commission for simply converting your ebook into a clunky format. But I wish I had calmed down a bit before airing my grievances).

The funny thing is, when I figured out the kindle and epub formatting and finished it, every minute of it was worth it.  And ebooks are worth it.  There is something so satisfying about knowing that you—YOU!—have the agency to write something, publish it, and have it sold on a national online retailer’s web-site and it can happen as quickly as you can make it happen.

Before, the road to a published book was a long one with several steps—pitch agents, pick agent (and pray you picked the right agent if you had more than one offer), agent pitches publishers, you go to church more often than usual while publishers consider manuscript, you get offer, agent negotiates offer, you sign contract. And there are predators the whole way—scam agents, scam freelance editors who offer to spruce up your manuscript, scam vanity publishers.  Even when the book is published, you still relinquish a lot of control over the book.

Today, the process is much more fluid; write book, do the formatting, publish your book. The biggest reward is that those who write ebooks today are really the ones blazing the trail for the future of publishing.  Obviously ebooks are a part of today’s publishing landscape, but it’s still largely a course of trial-and-error; the big publishers can’t figure out how to price ebooks so they make a profit without turning readers away because of the price over five dollars. I sense that the main struggle for indie authors is figuring out how to reach enough people so they can capitalize off of having an ebook priced attractively under five dollars.  The cool part is that the only way we’ll figure is out is with more people writing ebooks and figuring out what works!