Tag Archives: writing

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!

Travelin’ Man

My girlfriend is going to Alaska next month. This is good news, for her, but only depresses me. Not that I regret her trip, far from it; I feel bad because I am grounded. This summer, this fall, this winter, I probably won’t go anywhere. It’s not only the lack of dough, which is a problem, it’s the much bigger fear of the airplane, the lines at security, TSA patdowns, missed dinners, and other miserable side effects of travel.

Yet most good screenplays aren’t written in Los Angeles. They are written on the train back from Redwood City, the biplane sputtering from Ankara to Istanbul, or the boat sailing across the ocean. Only through experience can writers get to the best parts of their imagination, right? Sitting at home thinking of something cool is one thing, but actually living those adventures is something else. Look at Easy Rider, Road to Morocco, or Mad Max. These are all road movies dreamed up or put to film in exotic locations.

Of course, as we learn by the end of The Wizard of Oz (another great road movie) there is no place like home. And for all of its monotony, being at home does give me the ability to write, to eat food I’m comfortable with (read: frozen pizza), and fall asleep watching Netflix. However entrancing the idea of a long adventure sounds, it probably is best I stay at home, financially and otherwise.

It’s a shame, too, because I really could use a vacation.

The Latest News…

Sorry I have been out of the loop this week. I have been hard at work on my first video piece for LAist.com! I have never produced anything “hard news” before, so it is a little rough, but I think it turned out OK.

I am getting more interested in documentary film making, so I am starting to consider this a first step. From here, who knows, right? And the workshop is pretty cool, too. If you are in LA, and are a filmmaker, you should check it out.

Here’s the article itself.

Tell me what you think in the comments.

Short Stories

“Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short”
-Henry David Thoreau

It is one thing to write a novel of a screenplay, but it really is something else to write a short. I am writing “Broadway Sketches,” a series of vignettes, to hopefully direct and produce sometime this year. So far, there are about eight story lines and only nineteen pages. Every line of dialogue has to count. Every action should have a thought behind it—and all of these elements have to be concise.

I take a great deal of inspiration from some of the story-songs from older popular music forms, like blues, rhythm and blues, and country. Merle Haggard is a master story teller, so are Johnny Cash and John Lee Hooker. Whatever you feel about country, there is a lot to be learned about telling detail from a three-minute song.

Here’s Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash

I aint seen the sun shine since I don’t know when.
His character is stuck in prison, probably solitary.

I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.
This guy is an unrepentant killer, probably insane.

I bet there’s rich folks eating in a fancy dining car…those people keep a’moving and that’s what tortures me.
Understanding that escape is a fantasy, the man’s final resort is his imagination, which ultimately does him no good.

All of this can be gleaned from a two and a half minute song. Not bad for brevity.

I’ll end this post with a song from blues singer Ted Hawkins, “Sorry You’re Sick,” featured on this Sunday’s This American Life and inspiring me to write this post. In the space of a couple of minutes we learn that the narrator’s lover is sick, that the sickness could be terminal, that the man is in love, too, and that, tragically, his attempts to help her are futile. Or in the words of Jesse Kornbluth on Head Butler, “Something tells me that the patient in this song is in no danger of getting better — and that Hawkins is getting the right medicine for her.” Take a listen—that mournful refrain speaks volumes more than any long explanation.

Fearless Filmmaking

Write what you know.

You hear the phrase all the time in writing workshops, creative writing handbooks, and by interested strangers. Or at least I do. And most of what I write is what I know. In fact, stepping outside of that comfort zone: mid-twenties, screenwriters, Los Angeles really kind of scares me. I want my work to be honest. I want it to bleed authenticity—and I don’t know how good I would be writing from the perspective of a Toronto bike messenger or a Chilean donut baker. Do they even have donuts in Chile? I really don’t know.

Yet I admire those writers and directors who are able to take on completely strange subject matter. T.C Boyle never stayed at John Kellogg’s Battle Creek retreat before writing The Road to Wellsville. Lars von Trier never set foot in the U.S. yet directed Dogville (set in a small town in Colorado).

That said, writers, generally journalists, who do venture outside their comfort zone get my greatest respect. VBS.tv, a division of Vice magazine, is a favorite. Their far-flung correspondents form an odd counterpoint to the hipsteriffic publication the brand is known for. Since the website’s creation in 2007, they have sent correspondents to Libya, North Korea, Pakistan, and other world hot-spots.

This doc was spun-off from a VBS.tv report

Sure, the commentary never feels like CNN—“Moammar Kaddafi is a total nutbar” Shane Smith reports during a 2010 Libyan youth conference—but I really like that. There is no political slant, either. Or if there is, it feels idiosyncratic—neither right nor left, and certainly not middle of the road. I learned a great deal during a twenty-minute report on the Taliban in Pakistan (correspondent Suroosh Alvi: “there’s a pretty heavy vibe here”) than I could reading the AP. It’s travel journalism, but the kind that takes you to places you would never in your life visit. And I like that. I appreciate their confidence, their ability to see the world—all of it. I just wish some of that would rub off on me.

Visual Storytelling

Screenwriters may spend a great deal of time working with dialogue, but sometimes it’s best to step back and let the story speak for itself. You can spend your time studying silent films, the ultimate in visual storytelling, but there are some great contemporary films that also work well as learning aids. One of my favorites is The Little Matchgirl, directed by Roger Allers and released in 2006. Hans Christian Anderson’s timeless tale of a child selling matches on a winter’s day works as a story as well as a wider meditation on loss and empathy (or the lack thereof).

How does Allers accomplish all this without words? Watch that first minute, because a great deal of information is communicated. The exposition is told in simple contrasts. The match seller lives in a bustling square, but is entirely neglected by the passersby. She watches a rich girl accompanied by her parents, and a careless troika driver doesn’t watch for her. The match seller is observant, the people are rude and dismissive.

Allers adds some strong color contrasts to emphasize his message. The warm reds and oranges of the matches oppose the cold light of the snow. Matches are home, security, and safety; the snow is the haphazard dressing of the public square. By setting up such strong opposites, Allers foreshadows an unhappy ending—between the light of a match and the deluge of a winter storm, does the girl even have a chance?

Watch the transitions, the composition of each shot, the seamless way these seven minutes are storyboarded. No moment is wasted and no note of the Borodin score is ignored. In many ways, this short contains more depth than many two hour features I have sat through.

Sure, a great many of those details were worked out after the script, but without a strong textual basis, none of them would be possible. Find ways to tell the story beyond a couple of characters talking and remember to visualize your script. It’s advice I’m still trying to follow.

An Idea

Fantasy--Not My Strong Suit

So, I am working on a new screenplay, I just haven’t written anything yet. I mean, I jot down notes just about every day in a Word document, sometimes in a journal, but I haven’t written a line of an actual story. I’m sort of afraid to start. My last screenplay, Rolidet, went nowhere. I got to about page fifty, couldn’t think of a satisfactory second act, and gave up. This was only after I had workshopped it with my writers group and they had read several drafts of the first ten pages. I am going back to my old habit of never talking about anything to do with the screenplay until I have a draft in hand. It’s a superstition, sure, but it works.

Rolidet was a fantasy screenplay, which meant pretty much anything goes in the story: griffins with wigs, talking chimps, magical fruit, but somehow, I couldn’t focus it down to something manageable. I was kind of overwhelmed by the plethora of options and gave up.

For this new screenplay, I have an ending and I even have a beginning. There’s a strong concept and even a protagonist. It’s the middle I’m afraid of—the actual plot that keeps me up at night wondering what to write. I wonder if my high concept is just too high concept. I worry that I’ll let it down somehow, that my story won’t live up to my expectations of the story. I worry that I don’t know what the story’s tone is. I worry that I won’t be able to complete it. I worry that people won’t like it. I worry that I’ll send it out to contests and no one will read it. And this worrying takes up too much of my writing time, which worries me in turn.

I guess I just need to find the motivation to write, to stretch my imagination and hope for the best. I tend to lose interest in stories after a couple of weeks anyway, so if I don’t start writing now, I probably won’t write anything.

So how do you get over the hump of not-writing and begin writing? I need help!

Freedom to Film

I watched Dazed and Confused last night after checking out this little video by  A.O. Scott on the NYTimes’ ArtsBeat Blog.

I fell in love with the film for obvious reasons. While the story is at first look rambling, it makes sense for director Richard Linklater to not tack on too heavy a plot. There’s something much more genuine about teenage boredom. Whether a merit of the acting or the direction, when the characters have nothing to do, they really have nothing to do. And when they do, the emotional fireworks are intense. Similarly, the football players are not morons, nor are the geeks that bright either. It’s high school after all and it feels, well, real.

From a technical viewpoint, Linklater’s fluid control of camera also gets me. At the final party scene at the Moon Tower, I felt like an engaged observer, moving between cliques, conversations, and subplots. The camera is patient, following the characters, pulling back at certain intense moments, and refusing to shy away at other awkward exchanges. Also, the way Linklater uses music at certain points in the movie adds a level of pathos and believability to their stories—because, really, how else could you talk about the last day of school in the seventies without Alice Cooper?

The best movies are what they call in the industry “clean.” Things feel seamless, transitions tight, edits sensible, and acting believable. They capture the reality, the mood, and the essence of the story and characters. But those are also the hardest movies to make! There are a million great movie ideas but only a handful of really good directors who could pull them off.

And that’s what always got me as a “screenwriter.” Why do directors get most of the credit? It was only after shooting short films did I realize that in the absence of one, the story breaks down. Because I knew nothing about sound design, my movies sounded crummy. Because I couldn’t light worth a damn, the images looked dark and dingy. And because I had no understanding of how to use the camera, the angles felt off-center and stagey.

And only after I made these short films did I realize why certain directors are good and others don’t know what they’re doing. Dazed and Confused is a short, modest film—one best remembered by a couple of great lines and a few awesome uses of songs. Linklater’s genius is to pull off a good, humble movie and make it seem effortless; something most directors can’t master. It takes a modest genius to make good, modest movies.

Here’s a great scene from the movie. Watch that tracking shot as the guys enter the Emporium. Awesome.

Two Bookstores

Metropolis (Left) and inside the Last Bookstore (Right)

Los Angeles has just about everything, but it doesn’t have that many great bookstores. Sure, there’s Book Soup in West Hollywood, and out in Pasadena there is Vroman’s. But if you live in West LA like me you’re hard pressed to find anything more than a storefront in a strip mall or a Barnes & Noble. I could rattle off a couple of independent video stores I like that are mere walking distance from my apartment, but as for books, forget it. It may be the wrong medium for this town, but I tend to get nostalgic.

There are two bookstores in downtown that reverse that trend, both one block between each other. They represent two business models, and their experience gives a bit of insight into the future of independent booksellers in this country.

Metropolis Books

This is a little gem of a store tucked away next to an abandoned movie theatre on Main. A refuge from the grit of the Arts District, it has all of the charm of a favorite aunt’s home—couches, fans, and a friendly dog resting near the entrance, not to mention very kind staff.

Metropolis has some specialties like mystery, horror, fantasy, and science fiction. It even has a nice young adult nook at the back that would make Judy Blume proud. There is a used bookshelf in the corner, but most of the stuff on sale are crisp hardbacks and paperbacks. Some of the titles are too expensive for my budget, so when I look through the stacks, I make a mental note to compare the prices to those on Amazon.

And that’s my problem, I love Metropolis Books, but I can’t quite afford its selection. This points to a larger problem in the bookselling community: I am not a fan of the e-book, but the prices do look good—seven or eight dollars less than the list. Call it a failing of my generation but we will always mentally comparison shop between bricks and mortar and whatever’s online.  I want great independent bookstores like Metropolis to exist forever, because they support great independent authors, but I wonder if the competition is far too intense.

The Last Bookstore

The Last Bookstore sits just north of Metropolis next to a quaint little restaurant, The Banquette Café. It just opened last year and has already won Best New Business from The Los Angeles Downtown News. And it does deserve a nod. The staff is friendly and the book selection (almost all used) is strong and eclectic. I could just as easily find a book on philosophy as one on food, or history. Unlike Metropolis, they don’t specialize in any genre, but they do have a great literature section. In fact, there’s an entire shelf in back devoted to local poets and prose writers.

The Last Bookstore, perhaps because it is run with such youthful enthusiasm, hosts a plethora of events. Almost every month’s art walk brings another reading or music performance. The shop is always busy, especially with young hipsters, and sometimes I can’t even find a seat at the table in back.

Yet, there are very few new books on sale. Their business model is good—used books can be bought at a fraction of the price and are easy to resell. Let’s face it, most readers aren’t sticklers for clean-looking pages. The Last Bookstore is not just a tongue in cheek nod to 1984; this is the last place books are sold. Authors and publishers make no money on the merchandise. I love the store, but I worry the name is a self-fulfilling prophecy: if there were only last bookstores, there would be no authors and no new books.

I spend more money at the Last Bookstore, by far, but I can’t help but think this isn’t doing much for the book buying economy. Secondhand bookstores will always exist; even in an internet economy they can do most of their business online because there still is a market for old or out of print books. And as much as I like the model, I can’t help but feel nostalgic for those places that weren’t the last, the places you come to find books first, the kind of stores that are quietly disappearing.

New Opportunities

So, the writing career is not entirely dormant in Los Angeles these days. I have a new writing gig—on Top Story! Weekly, a sketch show that takes place at the iO West in Hollywood each Sunday night. The writers tackle events in the news ala Saturday Night Live, but I think in many ways our show is funnier and often more topical.

Of course, I may be biased. The actors are top-notch, and it’s a real thrill to write something on a Wednesday only to see it performed on a Sunday. I think I’m hooked.

Here’s my first sketch, it’s a take-off on the Jersey Shore “contract negotiations.” I had another skit in last Sunday’s episode—“Elena Kagan versus the World,” a mash-up of Scott Pilgrim and the recent Senate supreme court confirmation hearings. I’ll post it when it becomes available online. Let me know what you think in the comments!