Tis the Season for Christmas Movies

A couple of holiday seasons ago, shortly after I created my website, I wrote a blog post about one of my favorite Christmas movies, The Gathering. I started out the post by writing that I set aside time for all of the new holiday movies that run on a few cable channels. Since then, the number of holiday movies have expanded tremendously over a number of channels, as LMN, UP, ION and AMC has joined Lifetime, Hallmark and ABC Family in presenting a new Christmas treat once a week. In fact, Hallmark really gets into the spirit as it has been running holiday movies from previous years 24 hours a day with two new movies every weekend since the beginning of November. It is almost impossible to take them all in. After bingeing a few days over the Thanksgiving weekend, I began to start categorizing the holiday films in order to determine what makes a good Christmas film and which ones were missing the cut.

Holiday movies basically end well with a positive message and a good feeling. The biggest group of Christmas movies find this message through myth and fantasy magic. Many of this group works with the myth of Santa Claus, the jolly old saint who brings gifts to all of the good boys and girls on Christmas Eve. Kids are told the basics – Santa lives at the North Pole with Mrs. Claus and elves making toys leading up to Christmas. However, do not let those true believers watch too many of these Santa movies as it will only confuse them. After all, is Santa really hundreds of years old or is the job passed from father to son – or even daughter? Is the North Pole really at the top of the world in a rustic village or is it in Canada or Alaska with a modern day factory ramping up production? The best idea is to choose one good Santa movie to share with the children and enjoy the various other creative incarnations amongst the positive older fantasy lovers.

The next group of fantasy holiday films are the “angel” films. In this case, an angelic figure appears to help a main character find redemption or two worthy individuals to find true love with each other. Sometimes, this guiding figure could be Santa or one of his elves, but since the focus is on helping another individual during the season, I do not count these movies in the Santa group. Santa is only a supporting role in the story. Often the magic is gentle, giving a comic tone to the movie, but there are a few that are more dramatic and sometimes darker until the redemption comes. Dicken’s A Christmas Carol is probably the first and best of this dramatic type, which is why the original story has been filmed several times for movies and TV, and then re-imagined, modernized, and sometimes twisted with several versions with Scrooges of different cultures, careers and genders. A key component in A Christmas Carol is the element of time travel, which has become a common element in many other current Christmas films. Sometimes the character needing redemption is magically sent back in time and given a chance to correct a regret, and sometimes the character is placed into a possible future to prepare him or her for an upcoming defining decision, but the newest time twist is having the character relive the same day over and over, ala Groundhog Day, until he or she learns the right way to live the day and the rest of his or her life. It is only in these films where we see the appearance of snowfall as a moment of joyous redemption and not a dreaded moment of foul weather.

The next group of Christmas movies are the non-magical set, a more realistic storytelling that still embodies the redemptive and giving ideal of the holiday. As with all movies, these range from the dramatic to the comedic. The dramatic tales usually centers on a character or set of characters who must face a challenge to reconnect and redeem themselves, like my favorite, The Gathering, or on a character or family facing hardship who becomes the object of a community coming together to help them. The comedic movies generally are a nostalgic slapstick view of a family gathering or a light romantic comedy which makes Christmas into the second most romantic holiday after Valentine’s Day. A comedy with the interactive blending of multiple stories, like the modern classic Love Actually, is able to touch the Christmas spirit in many enjoyable ways.

Finally, I have a small set of films where Christmas is merely a backdrop or prop for a basic story. Many are romantic comedies like The Sure Thing, While You Were Sleeping, or even the best picture classic, The Apartment; however, even an action adventure film can find a little Christmas mojo. My prime example is Die Hard, which takes place during a Christmas party in a near empty skyscraper. In the end, a little Christmas tape saves the day.

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The Careers of Fictional Characters

Since I wrote in my last post about the importance of character in television series, I have been thinking about how critics have viewed characters on television in general. As I thought about it, a particular criticism which has periodically cropped up in broad opinion pieces by TV critics throughout the history of television kept floating up in my mind – why do many main characters seem to have the same types of careers, even though these jobs represent a small portion of the general population? I am sure many will recognize the questioning commentary that most TV series and their main characters seem to be lawyers, doctors, police officers, or private eyes, when the majority of the general population has jobs as construction workers, factory workers, sales clerks, or farm workers. The general critical discussion tends to tilt more to bemoaning the unrealistic impression that lawyers, doctors, police officers and private eyes are more important to society, thereby not giving enough credit to the value of these other clerical or labor intensive jobs to society and civilization. However, in considering this position, especially as it pertains to creating characters when writing, what I realized is despite the admirable concept of seeking a more equal view of all individuals, the art of storytelling and mythology throughout the history of mankind has focused on heroic characters that broadly lead or challenge society in general. From the beginning, the early myths, legends and fairy tales were stories of gods, kings, wizards and warriors.

Classic storytelling is built around conflict or challenge – not the everyday challenge of handling the daily grind of life, but the broad challenge of facing a major conflict or struggle. The sagas and myths explained why nature acted the way it did, gave praise to the triumphs of a tribe or civilization, and sought solutions to battle the monsters around us. It was the gods who created the world and the rules under which nature worked for and against man. It took kings to lead armies against enemies, to mediate among opposing forces, and to protect societies from disorder. It took strong warriors to protect lesser men from evil and destructive forces and to boldly explore new lands beyond the horizon. It took powerful wizards to create and project major spells to ward off evil monsters and deadly diseases. For ancient and medieval civilizations, these leaders guided and defended the common members of society during important challenges of war, growth, exploration, and death. With the advances in scientific knowledge and the rise of more democratic and republican governments within a more interconnected global culture, these characters may have faded from the modern story, but their roles have not. Within modern society, lawyers, doctors, police officers and private eyes take on these roles at the local level.

When a disagreement escalates between two parties, police officers would be necessary to help maintain order and try to resolve the issue peacefully, while lawyers become mediators seeking to define the rules around which the parties must operate peacefully. A lawyer can also represent a strong defender for the common client against corrupt forces, while a private detective can be the solitary hero uncovering the truth against an evil army of lies. Doctors cast modern spells of medical knowledge against disease, injury and death and explore the continuing mysteries and horizons of life. It is very easy to see that these jobs represent the mediators, explorers and defenders of society at times of conflict or challenge, so in a way, it is understandable that the somewhat heroic (or anti-heroic) major characters of television and movies would more likely take on these professions over the more common careers that maintain the steady drumbeat of life.

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A New Television Season – The Importance of Character

The Fall Television Season is upon us, so I once again attended the Television Academy panel of top television critics previewing the new season. This year, the panel of Robert Bianco of USA Today, Tim Goodman of the Hollywood Reporter, Brian Lowry of Variety, Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times and Matt Roush of TV Guide with moderator Cynthia Littleton, Editor of Variety, was held at the Paramount Theatre on the Paramount Studio Lot in Hollywood and the conversation was lively. It started off with the opening question of what was good and what was bad among the new shows which led Matt Roush to comment, “I never thought I would ever say it, but the network with the best new shows is the CW with Jane the Virgin and Flash.” However, because the CW has such a light schedule with the fewest number of premiering shows, the comment was really directed at showing just how weak this year’s batch of new shows across the broadcast and cable networks were. The discussion did ramble on a bit about the growth of fresh original shows from new cable (WGN) and digital (Netflix, Amazon) outlets during the summer which has created a more continuous year-round season, but the topic soon focused on an important feature of a good television series that the critics felt networks had lost sight of – characters and their relationship to the audience.

Although character is important in all storytelling, the presentation of character is more important within the format of a continuing series on television. In a movie, the audience is quickly introduced to characters that become involved in a conflict. In the course of a few hours, these characters must address this conflict to a resolution for the audience, so the audience is given character traits in shorthand so they can quickly associate good guy/bad guy personas to the characters and move into the plot flow. Once the audience leaves the theater or turns off the television, there is no consideration about coming back and hanging out with the characters they saw in the movie. However, a television series does need its audience to bond with the main characters, so they will want to come back and visit with them again. The shorthand introductions to the main characters in a series premiere are more like first impressions that hopefully will draw the audience to want to learn more about these characters as they face a series or continuing story of life challenges. An engaged audience realizes that there are nuanced undertones to the characters and feels compelled to return regularly to see what is going on with their friends, to rejoice with their triumphs and sympathize with their setbacks, whether it is with laughter or drama. It is for this very reason that television series has been known more for being a writer’s medium than a director’s medium. It is also why television series work better with ensemble casts as it is easier to enjoy time with a group of friends.

So, why do these critics feel the networks have lost sight of this in the new season? Judging by the issues they noticed and expounded upon in the new season pilots, I sense the increased competition of more original programming over more networks throughout the year has caused network executives and show runners to use more shorthand storytelling, plot twists and visual creativity to gain the audiences’ initial attention, but this is at the expense of developing the characters to the point where the audience will want to come back and share time with their new friends. In a way, network executives have forgotten that television was the original social media site.

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ELL Summer Camp at 826LA

It has been a very busy July for me this year. I had just released my video book trailer for “Legacy Discovered” into the social media universe two months ago and have been building my Twitter following and joining Google+ communities to help get the word out. I have also helped a few friends out with some projects this month. However, an important part of my July was volunteering for the ELL summer camp for 826LA.

This was the second summer camp for which I have volunteered and it had a more creative mission for the elementary level kids who signed up than the afterschool tutoring and writing sessions done during the school year. For one thing, there was no school or homework assignments so the camp could fully focus on the creative writing projects it encouraged the children to take on. ELL stands for English Language Learning and the four week camp used theme weeks to get the children to improve their grammar skills and inspire their writing creativity. Each theme week was led by a different summer associate who devised the daily lesson plans and the week’s special clap, a special cheer the children would do after one of them has shared something he or she had written. Each day, each student had to come up with a word related to the current theme and write it with their definition on a note card to be handed in. The kids were grouped as teams at different tables with a volunteer or two to assist and encourage them as the program was presented. There were two sessions every weekday, the morning session for the younger children up to third grade and the afternoon session for the fourth through sixth grade kids. There were a couple of days during the camp period when both sessions were combined for a group field trip. I did not volunteer for the field trips, but my plan was to sign up for two days a week as a volunteer for the afternoon session with the older kids.

The first week was Food Week and the daily clap was two claps and a rub of the tummy while saying “Yum, Yum!” Early in the week, the room was turned into a cafe with horrible food like peanut butter and pencil shavings sandwiches, prompting the kids to write critical reviews. On another day, a food truck came to visit and thank you letters were written. These were some innovative ways to get the kids interested in food, but for many of the boys, good food was not all that exciting.

The second week was Nature Week and it started with a nature walk field trip, which I did not volunteer to join. However, Andrea, the summer associate responsible for this week, felt I could present something special to the kids. The Tuesday lesson plan was to introduce the Seven Wonders of the Natural World, which included the Grand Canyon. She asked and I provided her with a few of my photos from my visit a few years ago to the Grand Canyon, then she had me come up during the afternoon session to give a personal description and valuable information about this wonder protected as a national park. The writing project for the day was to create a travel guide for a real or imagined vacation place. I was able to provide picture and national park guides at my table to help our team. As kids read their guides, the others would cheer them with two claps and a chirp with our hands put together, flapping like a bird.

The third week was Space Week, which included the penultimate field trip to the California Science Center where the space shuttle Endeavor was on display. I did not volunteer for the field trip, but I brought in my photos of the space shuttle Columbia landing at Edwards Air Force Base in the 80s the day before the field trip to further enhance the kids’ enjoyment of the trip. The main writing project for the week was to write a story about saving the earth from an asteroid collision. Now this was a subject to get the boys excited about.

The final week of camp was Future Week, but for me, it was about trying to schedule my volunteer time with potential jury service and two Television Academy networking events. My deal with the 826LA team was that I would not sign up on the schedule, but rather just show up if I was not needed for jury service. I was able to show up on Monday and Tuesday to help the kids write letters to their future selves, but I really had my fingers crossed to be available on Friday for the book release party. The best stories were being gathered and published as a book for the 826LA Time Travel Marts and Friday was the day the kids got to read their best works to the group. However, the LA County Courts did need me to show up for jury selection in downtown Los Angeles on Friday. My name was not selected for three potential juries, but time was ticking away. Suddenly, by mid-afternoon, the remainder of us in the jury room was informed that we were no longer needed and I rushed off through early afternoon rush hour to be able to get to the party in time to hear many of the stories being read. I walked into the party with my jury certification raised over my head to the cheers of all of the kids. I was glad I made a difference in their lives.

For more information about the 826 organization, you can go to 826national.org. Los Angeles residents can check on the happenings of the two local centers by going to 826la.org.

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Primetime Emmy Nominations 2014

It’s that time of year again when Television Academy members like me vote for their nominations for the 2014 Primetime Emmy Awards. There have been a few changes since I wrote about the nomination process in a blog post last year. First, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences announced that it will now be called simply the Television Academy. All members have now received new membership cards with the new moniker and logo. The reasoning behind the official name change is to align itself with the basic perception of the general public, which sees the Emmy Awards as being presented by the Television Academy, and bring the organization out of the “ivory tower” that the title Academy of Television Arts and Sciences seems to present. Second, it was announced that voting will now be online. No more number bubbles to fill in on a paper ballot to be mailed off to Ernst & Young in a green envelope. The twenty-first century had arrived and academy members will be going to their computers to vote, except for those members who specifically requested to receive a paper ballot. However, I am ready to go online and put in my nominations – after I view a few more DVDs.

In last year’s blog post, I wrote about the general process of the nomination vote and my personal preferences in considering what programming should be considered for an Emmy. I feel I do not need to repeat myself, so I refer interested readers to go back to this post for those general thoughts. I am going to just write about a few highlights from this year’s programming.

In comedy, my favorite series, The Big Bang Theory, had another good year. There were still many episodes that were written more as fillers to help extend the life of the series, now that it has been given an additional three year commitment by CBS. However, the characters continued to grow as Penny and Leonard’s relationship solidified and condescending Sheldon faced a crisis in faith over his genius abilities as the current season ended. IFC’s Portlandia was the only other series I sought out during the season, but its skit based premise allows me watch it irregularly. It was when the DVDs began to arrive that I finally had a chance to check out NetFlix’s Orange is the New Black. The series is about a woman who agrees to plead guilty for a ten year old drug smuggling offense and accept a short sentence in a women’s penitentiary, but she discovers life with her fellow cellmates was not what she expected it to be. The comedy is low key as the naive main character begins to learn how to adapt to her off-kilter fellow inmates and the hands-off prison staff. I’ve watched two episodes and do not feel in a hurry to watch more. However, these first episodes may be spending more time setting up characters and premise and it will require more episodes to be viewed to get into the rhythm of the series, something that NetFlix’s batch viewing model may be dependent on. I have a few more days to consider a few more episodes.

There appears to be more series of interest to consider in the drama category. I am already enthralled by the second season of BBC America’s cult clone series, Orphan Black, as Sarah and her clone sisters continue to unravel the secrets of their existence while trying to defend themselves from the evil corporation that created them and the extremist cult out to erase their existence. For me, character, redemption and growth is important, and Tatiana Maslany is amazing in displaying these aspects in not just one role but in six – no seven – oh, who’s counting, since she is handling the multiple roles beautifully. A new series I was able to check out from the DVDs has been Showtime’s Masters of Sex, the somewhat true story of how Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson came together to conduct their seminal research on human sexuality. It was interesting to see how the characters try and is sometimes unable to tamper their own humanity while trying to dispassionately research that very humanity in their subjects. Definitely a series to consider.

Reality has now been split from two categories to three: reality competition, reality structured and reality unstructured. Reality competition is easy to understand; individuals or teams in competition within a structured  realistic environment. My favorite is still The Amazing Race. Nothing like the entire globe as the competition’s environment. The difference between reality structured and reality unstructured is basically the subject matter and how it is filmed. In a way, reality structured is a planned investigation or experiment within a realistic situation or environment. Mythbusters on the Science Channel represents a fun version of a reality structured series, while TNT’s Cold Justice, which has two professional investigators trying to solve cold cases, shows a more serious version of this reality genre. The reality unstructured category represents a docu-series where a film crew follows an individual, group or family within their everyday life or work. This is the one type of programming I have yet to find any love for. Sorry, Duck Dynasty.

Well, I have a few more days to check out a few more DVDs. If I have time, I think I’ll check out FX’s Fargo and HBO’s True Detective. It has been an interesting year in television.

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Viral Internet Calendar Myths

Last week, two of my Facebook friends shared an image that had originated from an India-based radio station. The image had the calendar page for upcoming August of this year with the following claim: This is the only time you will see this phenomenon in your life. August, 2014, will have 5 Fridays, 5 Saturdays and 5 Sundays. This happens only once every 823 years. The Chinese call it “Silver pockets full.” So: send this message to your friends and in four days the money will surprise you. Based on Chinese Feng Shui. Whoever does not transmit this message … may find themselves clueless … This is not fun at all. To me, the only clueless people were my friends who shared this, along with the one and a half million other individual sharers noted under the image. Except the friends who did share this I do not normally find to be clueless.

To me, it appeared almost immediately how factually incorrect this message was. This message had been appearing somewhat regularly the past few years as forwarded chain e-mail from a few other friends, only it referred to other months like March of last year. The key is that the phenomenon described applies to any month that has 31 days and begins on Friday, making its three extra days land on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Since there are only seven days in a week and a normal year’s 365 days divides into one extra day beyond 52 weeks, each month begins the subsequent day in the new year from the previous year. After taking into account leap years which will force each month to skip a day in its start day in the following year, it does not take a math genius to determine that any particular month will begin on Friday every five to eleven years, and there is a good chance that in any year, at least one of the six months with 31 days will begin on Friday, giving that month five weekends. This is a lot more often than the 823 years claimed in the myth. In addition, stating the origin of this myth derives from the Chinese depends upon the assumption that ancient Chinese calendars miraculously matched the current Gregorian calendar developed in Western European cultures.

So why did my friends and millions of other people immediately accept this omen and immediately forwarded the image to garner good luck? This is different from other coincidences that cannot be automatically discounted. It is a bald-faced lie that is automatically accepted at face value. Does it mean that for some of us, our lives have become so busy that we do not take the time to consider the information and act on what does it hurt faith? Or have some of us reached a level of frustration or despair that we accept any potential good luck charm to counter the rough patch? I’m not sure why, but I hope that these friends ask a few questions before blindly believing the next odd fact virally sent out into the Internet.

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Reader Ratings and Reviews on Book Sites

I was checking through the Goodreads Authors Group the other day and came upon a discussion thread started by a fellow Goodreads author who ranted about the readers who rated his book without adding a written review to the rating. To him, the review justified the rating and provided valuable feedback to authors, so he felt that Goodreads should require its members to add a written review whenever they rated a book, in much the same way that Amazon requires its customers to do when they willingly rate a product. As a fellow self-published author, I could sympathize with his frustration as ratings and reviews are an important guide in convincing readers to buy and read a book, especially with so many works being published in the digital age. However, I recognize that social sites like Goodreads were created for its members to connect with friends, to make new friends and to exchange discoveries and disappointments within a group that share common pleasures. On a site like Goodreads, authors are a small part of the whole. The focus is on the society of readers and the vast library of books available from the history of mankind. Although Goodreads gives current authors ways to promote their books (some for a price), its main mission is to cater to the social community of readers, which means it cannot nor should it attempt to force its broad reader membership to follow tight rules like adding reviews to all books on each member’s shelves in order to cater to the small community of Goodreads authors. It would actually drive readers away from signing up and using a site like Goodreads, which would undercut the very value that current authors get from the Goodreads readers.

For most readers and consumers in general, seeing or hearing what a friend or trusted source feels is a better buy becomes very helpful in making decisions on where and how to spend one’s money. We depend upon others’ tales of happy adventures or woeful experiences to map out our next experiences. However, most of us are not all that eager to broadly record our own experiences with the products and entertainment we purchase. It is as if most of us are too insecure to believe that others truly would respect our opinions about the quality of the entertainment we experience. We would rather follow than lead. But stating your preferences or impressions is not leading the way. It is merely contributing to the group discussion. Any one opinion will not be the one thought to make or break the success of a book, movie or television program. Rather it is the general consensus that will determine the ultimate value of a piece. Opinions that go against the grain tend to fade in the background and are not usually held against the reviewer by the general public. However, until a general public develops around a work of creativity, a current writer must depend upon the first group of readers willing to contribute to the initial discussion in order to determine if the work will be accepted by the larger public.

As can be seen, there is no perfect answer to convince readers to rate and review, nor is there a perfect way to truly evaluate the ratings and reviews that are presented. After reading the discussion thread, I did a quick search in Goodreads for a more renowned literary work and came up with the following member information on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” 1,108,499 members took the time to rate the classic work for an average of 3.72 stars, but only 9,514 members decided to add a review to explain their rating. Looking through the reviews, I found the following one star-rated review: “I’m not sure what annoys me more – the play that elevated a story about two teenagers meeting at a ball and instantly ‘falling in love’ then deciding to get married after knowing each other for one night into the most well-known love story of all time, or the middle schools that feed this to kids of the same age group as the main characters to support their angst-filled heads with the idea that yes, they really are in love with that guy/girl they met five minutes ago, and no one can stop them.” If I have to hazard a guess, I would say this review came from a parent of a teen girl, and it only goes to show that there will always be someone that will have an issue with any literary work one chooses. As a self-published author, it shows me that I should be open to the comments I receive in the reviews I get, but not to be too overly discouraged with the occasional bad rating. Even the best get panned.

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Twitter: A Lesson in Social Media

Shortly after I self-published my novel, I realized that social media was going to have to be a big part of promoting it to the world, and I was determined to handle it on my own for financial reasons. My social media experience was limited to my personal Facebook account which I still keep restricted to people I personally know and my LinkedIn account which I created strictly to search for new employment; however, I felt computer-savvy enough to dive right in. I now have a Facebook page and a Google page for Legacy Discovered, as well as a more open personal Google account, a Pinterest account, a Tumblr blog, a Goodreads author account, an Instagram account, and – of course – the all-important Twitter account. Of all the means of social media on the web, Twitter is the most beguiling form of social interaction I have run across. In a message of less than 140 characters, it is a quick shout-out to the world among an ocean of shout-outs in the almost impossible attempt to get many to somehow see one among the millions, yet it appeals to that inner child that desperately seeks the attention of the world around it. It has also become a quick and simple way for businesses small and large to spread quick ads and promotions into the social sphere. I saw Twitter as a social game where I needed to walk in slowly, learning the rules and developing an understanding of the strategy for interacting among the many Twitter users. What follows is just a small portion of what I have learned.

One of the first things that my steady approach taught me is that it is okay not to truly follow the implied social etiquette for Twitter, because these rules are easily gamed. For instance, the implied social protocol is that if a Twitter user follows your account, then you should follow back; otherwise, the follower will quickly unfollow you for the snub. However, it didn’t take me long to see how this social rule is gamed. In one early extreme example, I got a new follower, a young woman just starting college in another state, who was following over 2000 users and had over 2000 followers of her own, even though she had yet to post one tweet. Without a tweet to judge her, I saw no reason why I should blindly return the follow, and after a few days, she unfollowed me, since I wasn’t following the rules.

For many, the true game is to get followers, as many as possible, to gain credibility in the Twitter-verse, which many believe will lead to more dedicated followers. As I gained a few more followers, I soon uncovered a more underhanded way to gain followers – click farms. About six months after creating my account, I got a sudden bump in followers, but was surprised to see that despite the different profile photo, header bio info and global location of each account, all the accounts miraculously were posting the same series of tweets. The tweets led to a site that promised to provide 10,000 followers for $10, plus other cheap deals for groups of 100,000 followers. A quick Google search of “false followers” led me to blog postings about these click farms and how they have been used to boost follower stats for many political and celebrity Twitter accounts. To me, quality means more than quantity and I refuse to follow or buy any false followers. As these click farms become more known, it will be harder to use Twitter follower stats to prove credibility.

One of the most important concepts about Twitter to understand is that every post is public to the entire Twitter-verse, not restricted to your followers. The difference is that followers receive your tweets in a feed, while other Twitter users must search for your tweets. It was Twitter that introduced a quick means to make a tweet more searchable, by use of the “hashtag” (#) which old typists know as the number sign and recorded telephone menus refer to as the pound sign. In essence, placing a hashtag before a key word or phrase with no spaces “tags” the word or phrase making it more searchable. However, when a hashtagged word or phrase is searched for, how many followers a tweet was sent to is one of the determinations of where the tweet will land in the search results list, so tweets that are retweeted become more discoverable in searches. This leads to another social protocol that retweeting others makes you a good follower. This protocol convinced many users to take advantage of a web app called RoundTeam that automatically retweeted specific hashtags requested by the user. However, I realized that once I uncovered a RoundTeam user and figured out the hashtag phrase they were retweeting, I just needed to incorporate that hashtag in a few of my tweets to get an easy retweet. I was able to game the gamer.

After a year of promoting through irregular tweeting, I began to realize that successful promoting required tweeting throughout the heart of the week at times that were not available to me. In a fellow indie author’s blog, I discovered a web app that solved my dilemma – Twuffer. Through Twuffer, I was able to write my week’s tweets over the weekend and schedule them to be sent throughout the week. Twuffer is not perfect. A scheduled tweet would tend to fail if it was over 130 characters and it forced me to learn and use in my Twuffer tweets the tiny URLs that Twitter created for my standard weblinks. Still, it became a very helpful tool to improve my Twitter presence. Recently, I came across another potentially useful web app at JustUnfollow, which analyzes my followers and following lists, allowing me to seek potential users to increase my following list and in return my followers list. However, I will be exploring another website that has been mentioned in skill requirements for social media jobs – HootSuite. This is an app site that allows users to handle multiple Twitter accounts, schedule future tweets, and creates its own tiny URL base. According to its homepage, it is free for users with less than five accounts. There is still a lot for me to learn in working with Twitter and social media.

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A Year with 826LA

It has been a little over a year since I started volunteering for 826LA, the Los Angeles chapter of the national non-profit organization dedicated to helping elementary to high school kids with tutoring assistance and projects to enhance their literary creativity. My volunteer work has focused on the afterschool tutoring sessions for elementary students, scheduling my time for the Tuesday and Thursday sessions during the school year. I also volunteered the same two days a week during a four week summer camp in July which focused on group writing with theme weeks. When I first started with 826LA a year ago, the basic process was very flexible. Volunteer tutors would spread out among the various tables, and then students would seek out open spots as they came in. When homework was done and a student was encouraged to write a story for the upcoming chapbook, the story was written, revised and approved for publication on the same day. However, in the course of the year, staff evaluations, parent/staff meetings and volunteer feedback helped design a more organized process that was more beneficial in guiding the students. Within each six week publishing cycle, students were assigned to a specific seat, as were regular volunteers, separating students that tended to distract each other and allowing students and tutors to bond over a longer period of time. For the first four weeks of the publishing cycle, students were encouraged to write stories based on a theme, reflected in the written prompts on the blackboard and put them back into their binder. In the fifth week, the student was to select one of the stories he or she had written and work with the tutor to edit, revise and expand it for final publication. Tutors were encouraged to be more critical before approving it to be shown to the staff coordinator. Tutors were also asked to be more detailed in each student’s daily homework log, providing detail on the student’s work habits and emotional disposition, giving the staff valuable information during parent meetings. A little structure has gone a long way in providing guidance to these students.

Another change was the addition of a “Barnacle” bag under each table that contained various school and art supplies to encourage the students, and I have been credited with the addition of one of the elements in this bag. After my first week of tutoring, I realized that demonstrating or having a student practice math or spelling with paper and pencil was not efficient, so I bought a dry-erase board and markers from a local drugstore and added it to my backpack. Lesson demonstrations were quickly presented, student practice errors were quickly erased and corrected, and the board also became popular for quick art projects when extra time was available. The value of the dry erase board was quickly noted and a couple of boards are now in each of the “Barnacle” bags with an erasable marker. However, the bags also have a set of permanent color markers for the color art sheets and I’ve noticed that some of the boards have been permanently marked by the wrong markers. Still, the boards continue to show students that errors will be made while learning, but they can be erased, corrected and overcome.

This past weekend, the “super volunteers” were honored at a party given by the 826LA staff in the rear of a West Hollywood comic book store. I was able to meet some of the other volunteers who help out at both the Mar Vista and Echo Park locations, assist the in-school programs and work on the field trip projects, all to promote the literary creativity of students from grades 1-12. In a presentation by the staff, we learned that 826LA serves more students than all of the other 826 organizations across the country, but many more students are on waiting lists to take advantage of the 826LA programs. It makes me proud to continue to provide my services to the deserving kids in the 826LA program.

For more information about the 826 organization, you can go to 826national.org. Los Angeles residents can check on the happenings of the two local centers by going to 826la.org.

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A New Year

The holidays and bowl games are behind us, and 2014 is fully upon us. So, as I do a quick audit of the past year, I wonder how was my 2013? Well, in the debit column, after a couple hundred resumes uploaded and positions applied for, a few phone interviews and attendance at several networking events, I am still unemployed with my unemployment benefits about to expire. My medical insurance and covering of my deductible for one medical procedure that confirmed I was perfectly healthy took up one third of my basic expenditures last year. A discarded newspaper that swept up into my radiator grill as I was going through the Sepulveda Pass on the 405 Freeway was all it took to cook my car’s engine and leave me without personal transportation for two weeks while a rebuilt engine was installed. My base savings account has definitely taken a hit. However, in the credit column, my retirement accounts are solid and have grown, my home is secure with good equity and a healthy emergency investment account is still at my disposal. My somewhat regular bike and walk schedule through the year trimmed thirteen pounds from my weight. I kept busy donating my time to a worthy education non-profit organization, 826LA, by volunteering as an afterschool tutor for 1-5 grade school students twice a week during the school year and a month long summer camp. The rest of my time was focused on promoting my novel by the expansion of my social media presence and by re-releasing it through AuthorHouse to increase the distribution outlets through which it would be available

One part of my promotional campaign was to connect with fellow independent authors, many of whom were reaching out to me. I began to buy and read from the selection of self-published works being presented to me over Twitter and several author websites. After reading, I would write an honest review and post it on Amazon, Goodreads and Shelfari, then announce the review on Twitter so the author would be aware. I realized that in the current online environment of book retailing a growing number of broadly and honestly received reader reviews were important to elevate a book to the recommendation level on Amazon and other online booksellers, and hoped that some of my fellow indie authors would find time to read and honestly review my book to add to my count. I was able to read 22 indie books in 2013, ranging from several murder mysteries, some character relationship dramas, a few sci-fi and fantasy opuses and some historical romances. There were flaws and issues with some of the works, but in general, I was impressed with the creativity and passion within many of the books I read. It makes one realize that the art of storytelling and emotional revelation is not limited to a few master writers in history, but appears to be an integral part of our collective DNA.

So where does this leave me for 2014? Basically, I have the strong hope that I have built a good promotional foundation for my book as more readers discover it. The job market appears to be improving, but maybe I will have time to focus on my next book. I feel the assistance I have provided to the students in the 826LA program will give them the foundation to be major contributors within their generation. And I hope I am prepared for the new challenges that are always around the corner no matter what year we are in.

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