Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Archive for the month “January, 2010”

iWhatever

It’s out. I drove past the Mascone Center in the heart of San Francisco the morning that Apple held their launch. During my lunch break, I surfed for a video about it. I have been waiting as have many.

Barnes & Noble brought out their Nook earlier than planned to get a head start. Amazon, home of the Kindle, announced that they are sweetening the pot for authors who publish with Kindle. Those authors, myself included, who have their ebooks published in multi-formats have been licking our lips in anticipation – well, drooling to be absolutely honest.

It’s no secret that the book-reading world is divided between those who see the Star Trek future, saving trees and waste, and those who still enjoy the feel, touch and smell of the printed page. Or as one woman in my LinkedIn group said: if I can’t take it into the bath, I’m not interested. Truth is, I’ve dropped a couple of books into my bathwater in my time and they don’t fare too well. Still they don’t cost $200-400 to replace either.

As previously mentioned, I’m on the fence. I love the new technology, but enjoy the sensual experience of the book. I also love my bookcases and feel they are a reflection of me and a statement to my children.

Still, I certainly desired a handheld instrument when it took me 28 hours to fly from New Orleans to San Francisco last weekend having just finished reading two great books.

Back to Apple. You just knew that they would raise the bar. The Nooks, Kindles and about a dozen other ebook pads are all very similar. The iPad, however, is more of a tablet computer, offering movie, photos and music options. Its touch screen is also a plus and there is an ergonomic touch keyboard. One negative comment that I have heard, thus far, is that the screen has a high resolution, necessary for movies, but possibly not so comfortable for book reading.

One last comment. J.D. Salinger passed away this week at age 91. I have to confess, I’ve never read ‘A Catcher in the Rye’ (it was never big in the UK where I grew up) but have read various articles about the author and the book. Over the last few days I have been asking friends if this was a coming-of-age novel for them. While the answers are varied, the fact is that people clearly remember reading the book, its story and where they were when they read it. I can think of no greater compliment for an author.

I’ve read that Salinger, though initially hungry for success as an author, had great difficulty dealing with the success and publicity that ensued. So many of us writers dream about achieving the level of fame that he reached. I doubt that many have given much thought to how we would cope with it.

If I had an iPad, Kindle or Nook, I could just download Catcher in the Rye and read it. As it is, I have ordered it from the library…electronically!

Good Writing,
Alon

http://www.alonshalev.com/

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From New Orleans to San Francisco

I am currently concluding a week of volunteering in New Orleans with students from our San Francisco Hillel. A lot has changed: my first time here we gutted as many houses as we could to allow the residents to received their insurance and begin the long rebuilding process. In my second year, we helped build drywall and roofs to those who could only afford the materials but not the labor. This year we have been helping to establish a community garden in the Lower 9th Ward, the hardest hit area. Whereas in the past we were helping to rebuild the physical, this year it felt like we were helping to heal a community.

One surprising aspect this time is that we keep meeting people living in New Orleans who were linked to the San Francisco Bay Area. I feel there is an indefinable link between two cities that just don’t comply with the American norm.

The piece below is from Unwanted Heroes. I wrote it after my first trip here.


Chapter 2: The Fog Rolls In

I love San Francisco. Yeah, I grew up in London with fog on the Thames, but I don’t recall locals stopping to admire it.

Other cities share similar traits to San Francisco; Rome has hills, London has immigrants and culture, and Paris the artistic mystique. But San Francisco has all of this and it’s not thrown in your face. It just is.

I lean over the rails on the Embarcadero and stare out at the looming Bay Bridge, gray and partially veiled by early morning fog. Next to me stands a metal woman, eighteen feet high, a creation welded from hundreds of recycled pieces of junk. She holds hands with a child about six or eight feet tall, and together they stare out to sea.

The metal woman lacks the elegance of the Statue of Liberty. That’s what makes San Francisco special; it works without pretentiousness. I’m told that the metal mother and her child stand at the Burning Man festival in the desert. Fire courses through her body and out of her hand into the child.

We could do with the fire right now. I shiver as I watch wisps of fog on the water.  It’s very early and I must open the coffee shop. Despite the cold, I love this hour of the day; the city slumbers, but is not asleep. It’s simply preparing itself for the onslaught.  In two hours, tens of thousands of people will spew out of the BART and MUNI public transport tunnels. Others will stubbornly drive in, searching for elusive and pricey parking spaces. The more enlightened drivers have recruited two passengers from the casual car pool pickup points scattered around the bay, thereby avoiding the bridge tolls and utilizing the carpool lanes. The passengers, for their part, get a free ride into town.

Walking down Mission Street, I see Clarence, a huge African-American, dressed in a shiny black suit. I can’t tell if he’s awake behind those big black sunglasses until he raises his saxophone to salute me. The shiny instrument gleams, even in our fog-filled streets, and Clarence lets rip a short riff to announce: The barista has arrived!

Clarence stakes his position very early in the morning. There are more street musicians than ever these days and, with only a limited number of prime spots, Clarence must claim his territory. But at this moment, he plays only for me and I feel like a king. Clarence knows I don’t have money to throw in his open sax case; perhaps he’d feel insulted if I did.

But later, around 9.30 when the herd is safely corralled into their office cubicles and Clarence’s muscles are aching, he’ll come and rest in The Daily Grind. When I think Mr. Tzu, isn’t looking, I leave a cup of coffee on Clarence’s table. I used to mutter under my breath that some jerk had changed his order after I’d already poured his cup and there’s no use in waste. After about the fortieth time, I figured Clarence had picked up on my ruse and I just put the steaming cup on his table.

No thanks, but I know the gesture is appreciated, just as I appreciate Clarence playing for me as I pass in the early morning. He’ll sit for an hour or so and then slowly move off. I know little of Clarence, but he’s part of my life; another strand that weaves this urban tapestry called San Francisco.

Two weeks ago, some students entered The Daily Grind, their clothes covered with ‘New Orleans’ insignia. They were excited and boisterous as they passed Clarence at his regular table. From the way Clarence eyed them, I thought that their intrusion annoyed him. But I was wrong.

“Hey! What’s with th’ shirts? Whatca y’all doing with New Orleans?”

A young woman, blonde, thin and tanned, excitedly explained how they’d just come back from a week helping to rebuild houses damaged by Hurricane Katrina. “You should’ve seen the damage that hurricane did,” she concluded.

“Ain’t no hurricane that did that gal,” Clarence growled. “Weren’t no nat’ral disaster. Don’t let ’em bull ya’. The hurricane would’ve done some damage, but if those levees had held, if those bastards had built ’em like they should, well, ain’t no one have died there. My grandma’s house waz swept away, broke her it did. Such a proud w’man.”

Clarence rose and moved heavily to the door, but then turned. We all watched him. He spoke now in a softer tone. “But I thank y’all for going down there t’ help. It’s import’nt y’all show ya’ care, that some’n shows they care.”

We saw the tears as he turned and left leaving behind a heavy wake of silence. I couldn’t stop myself. I nodded to Tabitha to cover for me and followed him out of the café.

He stood on the corner of Mission and Spear caressing his saxophone and let rip the most beautiful, soulful jazz I have ever heard. He wasn’t playing for me that time; he wasn’t even playing for San Francisco. I could almost see his tune rolling out of the bay along with the fog and making its way to the Gulf.

When he finished I approached, not knowing what to say. We stared at each other.

“I’m so sorry,” I whispered. “I-I’m so sorry.”

I spoke with Mr. Tzu, the coffee shop owner, later that day. I had an idea and from that week, every Friday at lunchtime, Clarence would play in The Daily Grind to a packed audience. Big jars were scattered around the tables with labels: All Proceeds to New Orleans Relief Projects.

And as the music touched our customer’s souls, the jars filled: because San Francisco has a heart, and that heart was bleeding for a sister on the Gulf Coast.


——————————————————————————————————

Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

 


Venting Emotions

I am part of a LinkedIn discussion group and found myself involved in a thread that has got quite emotional. Good. It shows we care. I want to share with you one of my responses – I didn’t mean to pour so much on to the page, but I think it is quite revealing.

Charles,
Thanks for the compliment. The thread has already mentioned the essential advantages of PoD, and I largely agree with them. I want to mention some areas not covered, and again, this is my personal opinion.

1. A writer needs to write. S/he needs to develop his/her craft. S/he needs to tell the other stories that s/he has to write. Once you have finished your novel, had it edited, and sent it out to 50-60 agents, you need to think there comes a point when you must move on.

You can then put that manuscript on a shelf to gather dust, or you can put it out there. On the shelf seems pointless to me – it gives you nothing and has you stagnating. I think it is preferable to PoD the book and gain experience in the inevitable promotion and marketing world.

If I had not Pod’ed Oilspill dotcom, I would not have begun to build my author’s platform. In the 6 months since the novel came out: I built a website that I am proud of (alonshalev.com), maintain a modest blog, have spoken at 8 forums, been interviewed/mentioned in 5 newspapers/magazines, entered 5 competitions … all while holding a full time job and being an involved father to young children.

I believe I am more confident, more professional, and building a reputation (in Northern California, at least) because of these actions – and I have learned a lot. A few weeks ago, I met with two people in the hope of addressing their group. One said that they couldn’t agree as they haven’t read the book. His colleague responded that he had read it and gave me a great verbal review. He had heard about my book from a friend who had been moved by my Veterans Day blog entry.

2. I am not convinced that placing my novel in every bookstore is going to result in sales, so there’s little point complaining about it. There are thousands of books in any store (100,000 in the average Barnes & Noble). I believe people often buy the author as much as his/her book (assuming they’ve never read anything from the author). If you are charismatic, funny, profound, whatever, you will sell. People want to take a piece of you home with them (please don’t tell my wife). If you have not published a book (no matter which way) you have nothing to sell them.

3. A final comment. PoD, ebooks, consignments, advances – the industry is in flux and will take a time to work itself out. I do not believe books are going away, but neither do I think we yet know where the industry is going. An author/writer needs to write, needs to develop. S/he cannot stand still and wait for the rest of the world. Furthermore, I believe (hope) that in the future, the fact that you have put yourself out there and have a fan base, will be a plus when a big publisher considers picking you up. Your website, blog, appearances etc. are testament that you can go the distance with the right backing.

4. A final, final point: You have to love what you do. If you are not proud of your website, blog, pitch at parties and spontaneous meetings and, above all, if you are not proud of your books, then maybe you shouldn’t be here. It’s okay to complain a bit (who doesn’t?), but if it is paralyzing your progress, you have a serious problem.

Sorry this is so long. Thank you for reading.
Good Writing,
Alon
www.alonshalev.com/

In Search of Golden Nuggets

Firstly, a big thank-you to the twelve people who offered feedback and helped me with my synopsis for Unwanted Heroes. I submitted my entry to the San Francisco Writers Conference Writing Contest and am particularly excited. This is the first time that I have shopped Unwanted Heroes and I am eager to see how it is received.

I also entered Oilspill dotcom for the Stanford University/William Saroyan International Writing Prize.

In helping prepare my synopsis, a number of friends asked why I am putting so much time into writing contests. In the 19th Century, people came to California in search of gold. In a riverbed of pebbles they sought the elusive golden nugget. The nugget in itself was of great value, but it also offered the hope that the discovery would lead to more nuggets nearby.

The world of literature has become crowded. The advent of the computer has shortened the discipline and time needed to create a book. As a medium of expression, it has become accessible to all and fills an important void to many. The expansion of publishing channels to include cheap and readily available models of publication has added to the amount of books being published. The e-book revolution is still in its nascent stages but will open more accessible platforms to publish a book. Weblit is another new idea catching on fast.

So how can a golden nugget shine among the pebbles? How can it find a way to catch the attention of the gold-digger (the reader) bending down over murky waters?

In a world of mass advertising, if you have the money to allow newspaper and billboard promotion, TV, web, and radio, there is a clear route. The only barrier is having a marketing budget the size of a house purchase. For the A-list authors, this remains the easy and obvious way. When Dan Brown’s new novel recently came out, we all knew about it, whether we follow his work or not. Someone spent big bucks getting our attention. My nurturing wife, ever sensitive to her family’s needs, planned the camping site during our summer vacation to be near a bookstore thus enabling my eldest son and I to purchase the final Harry Potter novel the day it came out – and we booked our trip about four months earlier.

But the mid-lister and emerging author both need to get creative. We need to find alternative ways to harness media attention, to plant our books into people’s consciousness and onto their bookshelves.

Book contests are one way of shining among the pebbles. The contest provides legitimacy to the level of the author’s writing, a stamp (or more likely a sticker) of authority and hopefully helps the media take note. When the consumer hears that a particular book is a prizewinner they are impressed. When approaching bookstores, speaker engagements and agents, it is a strong line on your resume.

Finally, it is imperative that the writer believes in his/her ability and this needs to be sustained and legitimized. Having your pebble remaining in the sieve when all others have been thrown back into the river of rejection, having a miner hold it up to the sun, bite it (did they really do that without dental coverage?) and whoop for joy knowing that this discovery might change their lives — what more can an author dream of?

Good Writing,
Alon
http://www.alonshalev.com/

Synopsis – request feedback

These are exciting times. As mentioned in my last blog, I will submit my new manuscript to the first of two contests over the weekend. I would appreciate any feedback to the synopsis which I have pasted below. Feel free to critique in the comments below or by email to alshalev at bigfoot dotcom.

It is also exciting to see that people are picking up Oilspill dotcom in its e-book format from both Smashwords and Scribd. The world of e-book is accelerating and I am so happy to be part of this wave. If you have read the book, please post a review on these sites and also Goodreads if you hang out there.

To all who follow my blog and my progress as an author – Happy New Year – I appreciate all your support and encouragement.
Alon
http://www.alonshalev.com/

Unwanted Heroes (80,000 words)

Unwanted Heroes (80,000 words)

Good coffee, vintage wine and the magic of San Francisco bring together an elderly, battle weary Chinese American war vet and an idealistic and pretentious young Englishman. But when repressed memories suddenly surface, they discover a more dangerous commonality where the key to release for each of them lies in an unlikely partnership.

Will Taylor finds employment as a barista at The Daily Grind in the Financial District of San Francisco and is inspired to write his breakout novel. Walking the streets of Kerouac and Ginsberg, Taylor discovers a beautiful city and cutting edge culture alongside the harsh underbelly of American society.

When his boss suddenly disappears, Will unravels an injustice he must try and help rectify before he loses his friends, his sanity and love. He needs all the help he can find and all the allies he can muster. A homeless professor, precariously balanced between intellectual pinnacles and mental abyss, offers advice and contacts. Taylor’s Goth girlfriend initiates him into the West Coast counter culture, while her Nob Hill father digs up his own military nightmares to help another haunted soldier in desperate straits.

The unique culture of San Francisco lends itself to the comical aspects of the novel, offset in a rollercoaster of emotions where comic follows tragic. When Will meets his Goth girlfriend’s parents for dinner at their home on Nob Hill, the only conversation piece he can offer is teaching them to toast in twelve languages. In the ensuing abrupt scene change, he is frantically searching a military graveyard at night, looking for his boss who has suddenly disappeared without his medication.

Unwanted Heroes confronts the issue of homelessness and, in particular, American war veterans who could never readjust into society. This novel is a tribute to a beautiful, unique and quirky city and its people, and yet highlights those who sacrificed so much to keep it and America free.

As such, Unwanted Heroes fits into a genre of novels written by authors who want to effect change in the world. Erin Brockovich, The Rainmaker, A Civil Action and The Appeal, are comparable works in this respect. In addition, the humorous scenes reflect the influence of Christopher Buckley and Christopher Moore.

But above all, Unwanted Heroes is a story of injustice, friendship and romance, as seen through the eyes of a struggling young writer from across the Atlantic, who brings more baggage than just his shiny laptop and romantic ideals.

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