Ever wonder how people get obsessed with whatever it is they’re obsessed with? Well, you clicked “About The Site” so now you’re going to hear the story of my obsession.
It starts more than twenty years ago and takes the form, more or less, of Blake Snyder’s Hollywood Beat Sheet.
Prologue: Familiar Advice
There is a certain kind of message we get from graduation speeches, self-help books, and animated movies: follow your dreams, be yourself, and no matter what, keep putting one foot in front of the other. This advice, maddeningly, presupposes you have a dream, know who you are, and can see where you’re going.
Opening Image: HTML in Italy
Picture me sitting at a desk as an undergraduate on study abroad in Italy. I am teaching myself HTML from a junky old book.
Set Up: Clueless Undergrad
I studied linguistics and computer science in college. Why, though? Maybe I figured I could sell this odd combination of skills to some tech company, like Microsoft. (I tried. Didn’t work.) I’m sure my computer science classes taught me some useful thinking skills, but unlike languages, the required math didn’t come naturally to me, and I didn’t much like it. I liked HTML, though. What was I doing learning HTML? To be perfectly honest, I don’t remember where I got the idea. In spite of the dot-com bust, the web was still kind of new and trendy. Maybe I thought HTML was a job skill? Actually, I suspect I learned it because I wanted to create an online catalog of my book collection.
Theme Stated: My Gift to the World
Everyone has something to offer the world. I loved books. Shouldn’t I find a way to share that love?
Catalyst: Not a Student Anymore
In 2003, I graduated, worked one last summer job, and moved with my fiance to another state, where he started grad school and I started job hunting.
Debate: Someone Please Hire Me
While trying to break the vicious cycle in which you can’t get experience without experience, I played Caesar III, bought second-hand Pokemon cards on eBay, assembled a jigsaw puzzle of the Rosetta Stone, and did some babysitting. The day I got roped into a seminar about how to sell insurance, it snowed for the first time. The world looked beautiful but felt cold and empty. I applied to a temp agency, and they kindly arranged for me to spend three months in a windowless office filling in cells in a spreadsheet.
Break into Two: First Job
In 2004, I landed a job at an academic book publisher. I had a proper salary and a foot in the door of the industry I cared about.
B Story / Promise of the Premise:
Career and Personal Growth
I started in the sales department and learned about pricing, inventory, shipping, sales, copywriting, categorization, marketing, and publicity—most memorably when one of the new releases hit the NYT bestseller list. I transferred to the production department and learned a little about royalties, contracts, and acquisitions as well as project management, copyediting, indexing, typesetting, math typesetting, copyrights and permissions, illustration, book design, jacket design, and translation rights.
Meanwhile, my book collection ballooned. During college, I’d worked at a used, rare, and out-of-print bookshop and developed an appreciation for half-forgotten, well-cared for volumes. I’d learned to buy and sell books online, and I did a lot of online buying and selling. I also drove all over the state to patronize fundraiser book sales organized by schools, libraries, and churches. I got hooked on PaperbackSwap.com and started getting several books in the mail every week. I brought books home from work for free. I ran out of shelf space. I didn’t care.
I continued to teach myself web design and development. I played around with the heavily discounted Adobe software I’d bought while I was a student. I upgraded from Microsoft Notepad to Microsoft Frontpage. At some point I started using PHP and MySQL. I bought books about information architecture, user interface design, and SEO. I registered a handful of domain names—one ridiculously short at only four letters, and one ridiculously long at forty-three. I built a personal site which, naturally, languished in obscurity. After I discovered affiliate marketing, I added Amazon and Abebooks links to my fan site for children’s author Ruth Chew and built a page to encourage people to buy Zits comics books, but my web hobby was a long way from paying for itself.
Nostalgic for the days when other people would teach me stuff, I signed up to audit some foreign language classes. I made it through a year of Latin and a semester of German. Later I made friends with a Chinese national who wanted to improve her English. With her help, I learned learned the Pinyin pronunciation system and memorized a few Chinese characters.
Why Chinese? It always had a certain fascination. I’d opted for Japanese as an undergraduate with a non–Indo-European language requirement, and I regretted it in a way. I didn’t know, then, that in 2008 I’d be moving overseas to a country where people actually used Mandarin. After my husband and I (and all our books) landed in Singapore, I got a job as an editor for an online news portal. I spent over a year working with bilingual Chinese English speakers on books and articles about finance, economics, and real estate in China. I took some Mandarin classes. I got curious about content management systems for websites.
I got so curious, in fact, that in 2010, I quit the editing job and went to work at a web development start-up. Cue the pizza, beer, Nerf guns, and endless scramble to satisfy clients. I became somewhat familiar with WordPress, but after about a year and a half I decided the breakneck pace wasn’t for me and judiciously pivoted back to the humanities.
In 2012, I became a phonics and English enrichment teacher. I taught small groups of up to eight native speakers of English ages 3 to 8 years old in ninety-minute weekly classes. I’ve always enjoyed being around kids, and if there’s any cause I can get behind, it’s literacy. I made such a plausible phonics teacher that my boss asked me to join the curriculum team. Not only did I write materials myself, my knowledge of project management for books came in handy: in my curriculum development role, I worked with a graphic designer and other writers and teachers on materials for twelve different levels of classes.
Midpoint: New Aspirations
Was this, then, my gift to the world? Curriculum materials for teaching reading and English? Maybe. But maybe I could write other stuff too!
I joined the Singapore Writers’ Group, having decided I wanted to write and publish a children’s fantasy novel with, like, my name on it and everything.
Good writers read a lot, but just reading doesn’t give you writing skills, and neither does just writing, if you don’t know what you’re doing. Somehow or other I got my hands on a book called Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder. It’s about screenwriting, but it taught me what a good, mainstream commercial plot ought to feel like. I read the book twice. Not only that, I wrote summaries of several dozen movies using his beat sheet method and posted them on my personal site.
Despite feeling like reading was not a social activity, I joined a book club that met once a month to discuss a book chosen by the group’s founder from among the world’s classics. I started a column on a friend’s blog about classic books written in or about Asia.
Bad Guys Close In: Falling Short
What good came of all my striving? Years later, I only had 25% of a first draft of a novel; a far cry from a publishing contract. While my knowledge of European languages quietly faded away, my progress in learning Chinese had come to a standstill. Book club was great fun, except when it wasn’t. My personal site started to get a few more hits thanks to the movie summaries, but my web empire still wasn’t making money. After I’d spent almost fifteen years as a trailing spouse, my marriage ended in divorce in 2019. My job had always mattered, at least in theory. Now it mattered in practice, if I wanted to be able to pay my bills—or even remain in the country that had been my home for over a decade.
All Is Lost: Thanks, 2020
“Global pandemic strikes” is a hell of a plot point. Covid-19 has wreaked havoc on lives and economies all around the world. I gratefully acknowledge that I’ve been relatively lucky. Still, the virus robbed me of my last grandparent and kept me apart from my long-distance boyfriend a lot longer than either of us would have preferred.
Dark Night of the Soul: Lockdown Blues
I spent a lot of time alone inside my own four walls. My cooking skills reached hitherto unimaginable heights. I watched a lot of movies. I asked myself what the point of anything even was.
Break into Three: A New Revenue Stream
In the spring of 2020, there was an uptick in the number of people clicking my affiliate links to buy copies of The Count of Monte Cristo, maybe because if they were going to be cooped up avoiding Covid, they wanted to be cooped up with something long and fun to read. The links were in a post I’d written when researching which translation to read for book club. Encouraged, I wrote a similar post about Crime and Punishment and put it on Medium, where it rapidly accumulated more views than anything I’d ever posted before. Fast-forward to December 2020: sales of the Russian classic outstripped my most optimistic projections.
Finale: If You Build It, They Will Come
Medium exposed me to dozens of articles with titles like “How I made [large amount of money] in [short time period] on [platform] as a freelance writer.” You know what Step 1 always is? Find a niche. No niche, no raison d’etre. And it has to be a niche with some sort of value proposition that causes people to spend time or money or both. Welp, I finally found a niche: posts that list and describe different English translations of world classics. It was time to register yet another domain name. I decided on We Love Translations, and here we are.
Conclusion: The Beginning of Wisdom
They say we walk backwards into the future; we can only see the past. There’s no telling what will happen next, but I’m hopeful because this site just fits me, you know? Like my life, it’s somewhat about writing, programming, and foreign languages but mainly about finding and reading good books.
Final Image: WordPress in Singapore
So it’s not 2002 anymore, and I’m not in Italy fumbling around with code from an old book. It’s 2021, and I’m settled behind my desk, building my website, millions of words yet to write, and thousands of books still to read.
Call to Action: You’re Part of the Story Now
Help me make this place a beacon for others like us. Send me your ideas and feedback. Comment on the posts. Share them in the online spaces where you spend time.
Walk backwards with me into the future—because you and I, we love translations. 🙂