About James Scott Bell

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A Powerhouse Secret for Point of View

by James Scott Bell

Today’s post comes courtesy of a first-page critique. Here we go:

Tobias Martel walked from the sidewalk to the back door of an older, one-story house that screamed for basic repairs. One block east of South King Street in the historic district of Leesburg, Virginia, the run-down state of the property, which faced the Washington and Old Dominion bike trail, violated all the stereotypes of the richest county in the United States. Overgrown bushes and trees provided some needed cover for his operation, safe from the passing cyclists and runners on the W&OD trail.

The targets that lived in the house used the back door exclusively because the gravel driveway led right to it. The front and back doors were the newest parts of the house, along with the locks. Both were secured with Kwikset double cylinder locks, a grade 1 lock requiring a key to open from both inside and outside the home. It was designed to keep out a large majority of burglars, criminals, and thieves.

Martel was none of the above.

He was a fraction over six feet and weighed in at 220 pounds. His wrestling days in high school and college gave him a rugged physique that made it hard to shed any more weight. The gray hair, which had peeked through fifteen years ago, quickly accelerated because of the shock according to the doctors. It now covered his entire head, with just glimpses of his former color still visible. He kept his hair trimmed, never going more than four weeks between haircuts. Martel hated that shaggy look. Complimenting his mane of grey was a close beard. More like a five o’clock shadow. It made it easy to change up his looks or grow it back fast when needed.

Martel had eschewed any kind of tattoos. Besides easy identification, he never saw anything socially redeeming about sticking ink under your skin. His only visible identifier was a four-inch scar on his left arm, starting below his thumb and working its way at a jagged angle towards his elbow. It was the byproduct of an unfortunate decision made by a man with a knife. Martel had made sure the man had understood the consequences. He was dead certain this mistake wouldn’t happen again.

In three months, Martel would turn 48. He wondered if this was it—if this was how life would be until it was over. He had thought many times about taking the end date into his own hands. Stopping this perpetual madness before it overwhelmed his nightly thoughts. He argued with himself whether to stay in the game or not. The only issue would be how he exited —his terms or someone else’s.


JSB: Here’s what we have: the kernel of a good opening—an assassin about to do his thing. That would make a gripping scene. The problem is we don’t have a scene. We have description from a disembodied voice (i.e., the author’s).

So rather than going line by line, I’m first going to advise the author to re-write the entire opening chapter using no description at all. That’s what I said. Do this as a discipline to force yourself to write the action of the scene. Don’t put in any backstory, either (e.g., It was the byproduct of an unfortunate decision made by a man with a knife…)

Once you’ve done the re-write, then you can go back and marble in some descriptive elements, but only what is necessary for the reader to envision the scene. I’ll also allow you three sentences of backstory, which you can use together or spread out over the first 10k words.

But the big issue I want to talk about is this pesky thing called “author voice.” It means that as we are reading, we get the vibe that the author is telling us things in his or her own words. (Note: obviously we are discussing Third Person POV.)

It’s often subtle, but the way to tell is when the narration doesn’t seem like anything the character himself would say. A few examples:

Martel was none of the above. That’s the author telling us something, because it’s not what Martel would ever think about himself—at least not in those words.

He was a fraction over six feet and weighed in at 220 pounds. Again, not how Martel would think of himself.

Martel had eschewed any kind of tattoos. Would Martel ever use the word eschewed? I think not.

The reason this is so important is that readers crave intimacy with characters. When the author sticks his voice into the proceedings, that intimacy is diluted, if not lost altogether.

That’s why I advise a “powerhouse secret” that is simple to understand, but requires care and craft to pull off. Once you get it on the page, however, it will return massive dividends in reader engagement. Here it is:

Put all narrative in a form that sounds like the character would think or say it.

In other words, everything on the page should seem to be filtered through whoever the viewpoint character is. It should feel like this:

To illustrate, let’s compare a couple of passages.

Ernest Stickley put down his bourbon and went to the men’s room. He was tired of hearing the men around him talking and trying to sound like they were from the mean streets. He also thought it was a mistake to have made that call to Rainy. If the call had been about having a drink sometime, that would have been fine. But he shouldn’t have promised him anything.

Stickley soaped his hands from the dispenser and washed up. Then he looked at himself in the mirror. He looked pale and a bit solemn. In fact, he looked like someone else. He looked like the man he had been before that trouble in Jackson, Tennessee. Back then he had a hard look that helped him stand up to people.

There’s nothing distinctive in this narration. It’s a dry, objective recitation of facts.

Now let’s look at how Elmore Leonard did it in his novel Stick:

Stick left his bourbon and went to the men’s room. He was tired of hearing guys talk, guys wanting you to believe they were street, guys saying man all the time. He shouldn’t have called Rainy. Well, maybe call him and have a drink, but he shouldn’t have promised him anything.

Stick washed his hands with the fragrant pink soap that came out of the dispenser, washed them good and stared into the clear mirror at his features. Pale, solemn. Who was that? Like looking at someone else. Back in another life before Jackson he could narrow his eyes at his reflection––hard-boned but not bad looking––and say, “That’s it? That’s all you got?”

It’s obvious how much better this is. It is Stick’s voice we hear, his attitudes, his musings. It pulls us further into his character, rather than keeping us at arm’s length.

That’s what I want to see in this piece, author. So for your final exercise, after you’ve given us a scene with action, rewrite it in FIRST Person POV. This will force you to write in Martel’s voice.

Then…convert it back into Third Person!

Here’s what’s going to happen: when you re-read your chapter and compare it to what you have here, you will utter the word Wow.

You have the TKZ guarantee.

Two quick notes before I go. First (because this drives me bonkers) there is a difference between complimenting and complementing. You should have used the latter.

Second (from the shameless self-promotion dept.) I’ve written an entire book on the crucial subject of Voice

Comments are welcome.


Get More Done By Giving Yourself Less Time

by James Scott Bell

You’ve probably heard Parkinson’s Law articulated, even if you didn’t know its name. It was formulated by C. Northcote Parkinson, one of those appellations whose authoritative grandeur makes you stand at attention. He was actually an English naval historian and novelist, and quite prolific. So it must have been with some consternation that his most famous work turned out to be the little book Parkinson’s Law, which arose out of a satirical article about government bureaucracy.

In short form, Parkinson’s Law holds that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. As explained in this article, the adage…

…signifies that the more time we dedicate to a certain task, the longer it will take to complete it, even if we could have gotten the task done just as well in a shorter period of time.

For example, according to Parkinson’s law, if we’re given a week to perform a task that it can normally take us a day to complete, then we will end up unnecessarily stretching our performance of that task, until it takes us a week to complete it.

This is why publishing houses give writers deadlines. And why writers almost always find themselves massively stressed in the weeks before a manuscript is due. They could have been early with the book, but they aren’t because they’ve expanded the work all the way to the deadline. It’s almost magically perverse.

This is why it’s important for indie writers to establish SIDs—self-imposed deadlines. Otherwise, it’s just too dang easy to loaf about you manuscript, especially if it’s giving you some trouble.

The article suggests the following:

To account for Parkinson’s law in your work, you need to start each task by identifying its scope, and trying to determine how much time it will realistically take to complete it.

That is, don’t ask yourself how much time you have to complete a task. Instead, ask yourself how much time it should realistically take you to complete that task, and do your best to complete your work within that timeframe.

In other words, set your own deadline based on what you could realistically accomplish if you parked your keister in the chair each day and did your work!

Further, you can put time constraints on a micro level as well. Let’s say you have four months to write 70k words, and you know your writing schedule and daily quota can easily get you there. Don’t get cocky.

Instead, figure out what you can optimally produce per week, up that number by 10%, and make that your goal.

You can even go smaller. Every now and then I give myself five minutes to write 250 words. I’ll often use Dr. Wicked’s Write or Die for this task. Nothing jump starts the writer’s mind like forced, fast writing (with the possible exception of a double espresso).

Final bit of advice. Parkinson had another law, the Law of Triviality, which holds that members of an organization give disproportionate weight to trivial issues.

Might I suggest that this applies to individuals, too.

For writers this might mean that when you sit down to write you first check your social media or email, or rearrange your desk, or finish that Sudoku you’ve been working on.

Indeed, there even seems to be a new corollary at work today: the amount of available triviality on the internet exponentially expands our desire to experience it.

Which leads to another law: Every “peep of steam through [your social media] whistle — Listen to me! Listen to me! — [reduces] the boiler pressure … needed to write another novel.”

Solution: Practice digital minimalism, set your own strict time limits when you work, and write!

Does Parkinson’s Law resonate with you? Do you find yourself filling up all the time you have for completing things?


When Writers Hit The Wall

by James Scott Bell

Early in my writing career I noticed something happening when I got to around the 30k word mark in a manuscript. It was like I hit a wall. It’s not that I didn’t have ideas or know the direction of my plot. It was just a strange feeling like I wasn’t sure what to write next. I’d look ahead at the 60k or more words I had to write, and got the heebie-jeebies. What the heck was going on?

Luckily, I found out I wasn’t alone. Lawrence Block reported the same thing in his book Writing the Novel:

One thing I’ve come to recognize is that I tend to run into a wall at a certain point in all of my books…. I find myself losing confidence in the book—or, more precisely, in my ability to make it work. The plot seems to be either too simple and straightforward to hold the reader’s interest or too complicated to be neatly resolved. I find myself worrying that there’s not enough action, that the lead’s situation is not sufficiently desperate, that the book has been struck boring while my attention was directed elsewhere.

I got to thinking about “the wall” again while reading Kris’s post on settings and Game of Thrones. It put me in mind of the current plight of author George R. R. Martin. Now, I’m not an epic fantasy reader. I’ve never made it past the halfway point of The Fellowship of the Ring (stop with the singing already!) But I am definitely an admirer of those writers who excel at the genre. Especially Martin, whose page count and popularity I look at with awe. He is, at the moment, in the midst of a long patch of writer’s delay involving the next book in his series. Last year, he talked about it:

I know there are a lot of people out there who are very angry with me that Winds of Winter isn’t finished. And I’m mad about that myself. I wished I finished it four years ago. I wished it was finished now. But it’s not. And I’ve had dark nights of the soul where I’ve pounded my head against the keyboard and said, “God, will I ever finish this? The show is going further and further forward and I’m falling further and further behind. What the hell is happening here?”

This sounds like the wall and is completely understandable in light of the complexity of the books, not to mention the TV series running ahead of him!

Patrick Rothfuss, another popular fantasy writer, has also been in the midst of a very public delay for the third novel in his Kingkiller Chronicle (the second book was published back in 2011). Fans have expressed their displeasure—some going way over the line.

In an interview Rothfuss said something interesting:

“But I am moving forward. More importantly, I’m finally getting my life sorted out so that I can go back and approach my writing and my craft with the joy that I used to feel back in the day, when I was just an idiot kid playing D&D or working on my unpublishable fantasy novel.”

I think most of us can relate to that. When we first sat down to write a novel, we felt the joy of creation, the pure fun of making stuff up (see Jordan’s post on the “fun mojo” of writing). We shouted Huzzah! when we typed The End (or something that sounded like Huzzah. Maybe it was just Whew.)

But then we got the stunning news that what we had written didn’t work. We had to figure out why. We had to learn the craft. We had to work.

Then some of us got contracts and had to finish books with the cold, merciless wind of deadlines blowing across the backs of our necks. That chill was even more ominous if we found ourselves at a wall in our manuscript. So I developed some strategies to prepare for that dreaded moment.

1. The 20k Word Step Back

At 20k the foundation of my novel had better be strong. There’s a whole lot of words to write, characters to flesh out, plot twists to justify. So I stop around 20k to assess my plot:

A. Is my Lead compelling enough? Will readers care about his plight? Is he likable? Does he have qualities with which readers can empathize?

B. Are the stakes death (physical, professional, or psychological)? What can I do to ramp up the stakes?

C. Has my Lead been truly forced through the Doorway of No Return (when the book plunges into Act 2)? [Note: if your Lead isn’t forced into Act 2 by the 20% mark of your novel, the readers will feel it dragging.]

D. Do I have enough of an orchestrated cast? Do my secondary and minor characters have enough uniqueness about them? Are they sufficiently in conflict with other characters?

2. The Joy Factor

I’ve quoted this before, but it bears repeating. This is from a 1919 text on fiction writing by a man named Clayton Meeker Hamilton:

In the great story-tellers, there is a sort of self-enjoyment in the exercise of the sense of narrative; and this, by sheer contagion, communicates enjoyment to the reader. Perhaps it may be called (by analogy with the familiar phrase, “the joy of living”) the joy of telling tales. The joy of telling tales which shines through Treasure Island is perhaps the main reason for the continued popularity of the story. The author is having such a good time in telling his tale that he gives us necessarily a good time in reading it. (A Manual of the Art of Fiction)

“For the first thing a writer should be is––excited,” writes Ray Bradbury in Zen in the Art of Writing. “He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms. Without such vigor, he might as well be out picking peaches or digging ditches; God knows it’d be better for his health.”

Finding—and keeping—the joy in your book is thus absolutely essential, not just to break through the wall, but to elevate the entire thing. For me that means:

A. Going deeper into characters. This is a source of originality and interest. Giving even a little bit of backstory to minor characters creates all sorts of possibilities. You’re more likely to feel joyful when your novel teems with the possible coming out of characters.

B. Make things even harder for the Lead! Stop being so nice. Keep asking: what could make things worse? Oh, yeah? How about worse than that?

C. Keep a novel journal. This not only keeps you in the story; you can look back at early entries to recapture what got you hooked in the first place.

3. The Skip Ahead

If you’re still feeling hampered or unsure at the wall, get a long pole, back up fifty yards, then run like mad and vault right over the thing. Land a few scenes ahead. Pick the future scene you’re most excited about writing. Then write it!

Now, turn around and look backward. You should be able to plot a way to get from the wall to the scene you just wrote.

So what about you? Do you ever hit a wall in your writing? How do you deal with it?


How to Come Up With a Title

by James Scott Bell

My favorite genre for pure reading pleasure is the pulp and mass market crime fiction of the golden age—roughly 1929 (the year The Maltese Falcon was published) to the early 1960s (when secret agents started to take over). Some of the titles from that period reach out and grab you by the lapels. A couple of my faves:

I Wake Up Screaming. This is a noir by Steve Fisher, first published in 1941 and made into a fine film starring Victor Mature, Betty Grable, and Laird Cregar.

Kiss the Blood Off My Hands. How’s that for a grabber? This was British noir by a writer named Gerald Butler. It came out in 1947 and was turned into a movie starring Burt Lancaster and Joan Fontaine. The novel itself is a dark but riveting read with a surprise ending. In form and feel it reminded me of The Postman Always Rings Twice. Speaking of which, where in the heck did that title come from?

In the preface to Double Indemnity, Cain wrote that the title comes from a conversation he had with the screenwriter, Vincent Lawrence, who spoke about the anxiety he felt when waiting for a postman to bring news about a submitted transcript. He would know when the postman arrived because he always rang twice. Lawrence described being so anxious that he would retreat to the backyard to avoid his ring. The tactic failed. Even from the backyard, if he failed to hear the first ring, he always heard the second. Always.

This conversation birthed a title that became a perfect metaphor for Frank and Cora’s situation.

“The Postman” is God, or, Fate who “delivers” punishment to Frank and Cora. Both missed the first “ring” when they got away with the initial killing. However, the postman’s second ring is inescapable; Frank is wrongly convicted of Cora’s murder, and sentenced to death. The motif of inescapable fate is also evident in the Greek’s initial escape from death, only to succumb to the second attempt on his life.

So let’s talk a bit about how to come with titles for your books.

As with any creative pursuit, the way to get a good idea is to get lots of ideas, then toss out the ones you don’t like. Thus, when you do title brainstorming, don’t edit yourself. Let the titles flow!

In How to Write Best-Selling Fiction, Dean Koontz talks about his method of title-storming. He uses the example of a story he was going to write about dragons. He just started listing titles with Dragon it them:

The Cold Dragon
The Warm Dragon
The Dancing Dragon
The Black Dragon
The Eternal Dragon

He went on to different variations, such as The Dragon Creeps and The Dragon Walks.

After about forty titles he got to this: The Dragon Came Softly. And then he tweaked it to: Soft Come the Dragons.

And that was the title that set off lights for him—and sold.

So try this:

1. Create a list of single words related to your plot. Kill, blood, bomb, cop, detective, mother, father, child, darkness, kidnapping. Then spend some time riffing off each one, using them in several possible titles.

2. Come up with a word that is the potential theme of your book: Justice, revenge, love, hate, evil, good, God, the devil. Play with those. Mix and match.

3. Maxims or quotations might provide fodder for a title. There’s an Irish blessing that goes:

May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May you be in heaven an hour
Before the devil knows you’re dead.

That became the basis for one of Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder books, The Devil Knows You’re Dead.

4. Create a deep, dark secret in your protagonist’s life that you can work into a title. Example: The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris.

How to Title Series Books

A title hook for a series is a good idea if you can pull it off. In my first Ty Buchanan legal thriller, I came up with the title Die Trying. Turns out Lee Child used that for one of his Reacher books. Instead of chucking it, I tweaked it and came up with Try Dying. I liked that for a number of reasons, and found a place in the book for that phrase. (That’s another tip. You can give a memorable phrase to a character in the dialogue, then use that phrase for the title. The title of the novel that was the basis for the classic noir Out of the Past is Build My Gallows High. That’s something the protag says to the femme fatale in both book and movie.)

Then it occurred to me that Try could fit a series. So I wrote Try Darkness and Try Fear. I haven’t done a fourth, though many readers have asked me to. The reason is I feel Try Fear has the most perfect ending I’ve ever done and I am loathe to mess with it.

I do, however, have a list of a dozen more Try titles. I used to tell people that when I got down to Try the Veal I’d end the series.

Other well-known series hooks include the Prey books by John Sanford, and the color-coded Travis McGee books by John D. MacDonald.

Or use a character’s name. My current series features Mike Romeo, so it’s easy to do: Romeo’s Rules, Romeo’s Way, Romeo’s Hammer, Romeo’s Fight. When I get to Romeo’s Codpiece, I’ll stop.

Final note: Titles cannot be copyrighted, so you can use one that’s been done before, with the following exceptions:

1. Some titles are trademarked. You can’t use Chicken Soup for the Soul or Harry Potter, for example, without hearing from a lawyer.

2. Other titles are “effectively” trademarked. That is, they belong to books that are classics, or were such big hits that to purloin that title would cause massive blowback from fans and Amazon (which would not carry the book to avoid consumer confusion). So don’t title your book The Da Vinci Code or Mystic River.

But if all else fails, put Girl in the title.

So what is your approach to coming up with titles? Do you like to have a working title before you begin writing?


On Producing My Own Audiobook

by James Scott Bell

We all know audiobooks are booming. As reported by Forbes:

The publishing industry’s 2018 year-end results are here, and audiobooks did astoundingly well. According to the Association of American Publishers, which collects and reports on data shared by many publishers across the country, estimated publisher revenue for downloaded audio increased 28.7% over 2017. Downloaded audio was worth an estimate of 13.7% of publishers’ online sales.

Downloaded audio has long seen increases of this magnitude; the 2018 report reiterates this, estimating that publisher’s revenues in the category grew 181.8% from 2014 to 2018.

This growth, too, is continuing into 2019, which has already seen massive increases: in the first three months of this year, downloaded audio revenues increased 35.3% over the same period last year.

While the industry as a whole is seeing much more modest increases (or, in some categories, small decreases), audiobooks have a ways to grow, providing publishers with an exciting market for many months to come.

And an exciting extra income stream for authors. As many of you know, Amazon offers indie authors an audio platform called ACX. It’s like Kindle Direct Publishing for spoken-word books. ACX was developed by Audible, which was purchased by Amazon in 2008.

Thus: audiobooks created on ACX are sold on Amazon.com, Audible.com, and iTunes (which will soon undergo a transition).

ACX is extremely easy to navigate. For the overwhelming majority of indie authors it is a way to hook up with voice talent for audiobook narration. Here’s an overview of the process. There are two types of deals you can make with the narrator/producer: 1) royalty sharing; 2) cost per-finished-hour.

With the former, you share the royalty with the narrator. ACX pays out a 40% royalty (of the retail price), which you then split with the narrator. [NOTE: This 40% is if you are exclusive with ACX and not distributing elsewhere; if you go non-exclusive, the royalty drops to 25%]. You audition narrators via the ACX dashboard and there’s plenty of talent out there. Like a fellow by the name of Basil Sands who drops by TKZ on occasion.

With option #2, you pay the narrator/producer per finished hour (PFH) for their time and effort. In return, you keep all the royalties. This of course involves a hefty up-front cost. Let’s say you have a 10 hour book and the narrator charges $400 PFH. That’s four grand out of your pocket before you start selling. Just remember to think in terms of sales over years, not just months. You can certainly find excellent voice talent out there. One way to do this is to listen to audio samples on Amazon or Audible of books in your genre. When you find a voice you like go to the narrator’s website and make contact.

I opted for a third way—producing and narrating my own books. Why? Because I’m cheap. Also because I spent a good part of my early years developing my voice for stage and television commercials. Why let the pipes that once proclaimed, “What from the cape can you discern at sea?” in an Off-Broadway production of Othello go to waste?

My big hangup was the technical aspect. I didn’t have a recording studio or sound equipment. I could rent a studio and engineer, but once again…cheap!

So I did some research and found I could put together a workable mini-studio right on my desk. The two main pieces of equipment I needed were a good microphone and sound panels—that soft, foamy material that usually covers entire walls. I found a small, adjustable “sound shield” for under a hundred bucks and got a Blue Snowball microphone and a foam mic cover to go with it.

Next I needed recording software. I’m a Mac guy and thus already have GarageBand. But how to set it up with the right parameters for ACX was going to be a challenge. I was not at all sure I understood what the heck that entailed.

Fortunately, a gentleman named Rob Dircks has generously made available, for free download, his pre-set GarageBand settings for an ACX book. Thanks, Rob!

Finally, I started narrating Write Your Novel From the Middle and uploading the finished chapters to ACX. I created a cover image (the parameters are square, like a CD cover), and filled out all the metadata. When I was all done I hit publish and waited two weeks for the quality review. Frankly, I didn’t know what to expect. Maybe some technical issue I wasn’t aware of would require a re-work of the whole thing. Ack!

But I passed the inspection. And now Write Your Novel From the Middle is an honest-to-goodness audiobook.

As I mentioned earlier, I am exclusive with ACX because it hits the largest slice of the audio distribution pie and pays a generous royalty. I know there are indies who have gone “wide” via other companies, but that is beyond the scope of my current experience. (Anyone who has info along these lines, please feel free to share it in the comments.)

Is narrating your own books an option for you? Many “experts” warn that authors who are not voice trained shouldn’t make the attempt. I say, “Bosh.” (I don’t say “bosh” often, but when I do, I mean it.) ACX has a helpful video and other info for authors as narrators. It does get easier after you’ve done it once. I’m now prepping How to Write Dazzling Dialogue and it’s like an assembly line of audio chapters. I plan to press on and produce all my books in audio.

In traditional publishing contracts, the audio rights are always defaulted to the publisher, with a clause like: Publisher, at its sole discretion, shall have the right to publish a recorded audio version of the Work, for which the author receives 10-15% of net. I’m no math whiz, but 40% of retail sounds a tad more favorable. If you are going to sign with a publisher, you ought to try to reserve the audio rights and create the audiobook yourself. Especially since hard copies (CDs) of audio are rapidly becoming obsolete. In other words, you don’t need Barnes & Noble shelf space to get the most out of your audio rights.

Of course, retaining these rights is going to be tougher going forward because all publishers know audio is the growth area. Discuss this with your agent. Go for the rights; in the alternative, negotiate a higher royalty.

Just don’t put your head in the sand, because audio is a major part of the future.

So what’s been your experience with audio versions of your books? Have you ever thought about doing it yourself? Have you ever said “Bosh” in mixed company?


What Are We Missing?

by James Scott Bell

The other day I did an incomprehensible, dreadful, noxious, scandalous thing—something so shocking to the conscience that it threatens the gossamer social fabric that tenuously binds us together as a people and a nation.

I left the house without my phone.

I know, I know! But hear me, please.

My daughter was visiting us from Denver. As is our tradition on such occasions, we get a meal from that Southern California institution—the envy of hamburger lovers everywhere—In-N-Out. I looked at the clock and saw it was 11:15 a.m. On a Saturday. Which meant the cars would be lining up and I’d better get going to snag our grub.

I grabbed my wallet and keys and hopped in the car. As I pulled out of the driveway I patted my pocket.

No phone!

Naked came I from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. (Job 1:21)

Halfway down my street I thought, Should I go back and get it? Nay, I must go get in line! Also, In-N-Out is only five minutes away from my house. What could happen in that span of time that would necessitate communication? An earthquake? Possibly! This is L.A., after all. But that was a chance I was now willing to take.

When I pulled in behind a moderate line of cars, I wondered, Now what? I couldn’t check email, scan Feedly, or play a quick game of app backgammon. Why, I could not even tweet!

What to do, what to do? Well, here you are. In line. Waiting to order. Why don’t you try something different, like observing something? 

Good idea. What did I see? A parking lot. Wait … next to the In-N-Out building itself—three lovely palm trees.

One of the things I love most about my hometown is the palm trees. You see them everywhere, often in serried rows observable from the freeway. Nothing says L.A. more than a burnt-orange sunset with palm trees silhouetted against the sky.

Okay, so what else did I see? Nearby those palms was one of the ugliest eyesores of our current landscape—a cellular transmission tower. Is there any man-made thing on earth more opposite Michelangelo’s David or the Venus de Milo than one of these dull, gray snarls of protuberant antennae and parabolic receptors?

The symbolism was not lost on me. Here was a perfect metaphor of our hyper-connected state, the loss of appreciation of beauty due to digital pervasiveness.

There! I now had irony to go with my observations!

And soon I would have grilled onions to go with my cheeseburger. I observed the young man who was tasked with taking orders from car windows. During peak times, In-N-Out uses a real live person to speed up the ordering process. It’s the toughest duty in the whole operation, especially when the sun is beating down on the asphalt, as it was that day.

But the young man could not have been more pleasant. In-N-Out trains their people well. I have not met one sourpuss there. Unlike many other places these days.

I started to ask What if about this fine fellow. What if he took an order from a guy in a black sedan, and saw a gun on the seat? What if someone passed him a sealed envelope (and what would be in it)? What if a flying saucer got in the car line and a green alien asked for a Number 2 with a Diet Coke?

Story sparkers from observation. What a concept!

Which brings up the idea of a diary or journal. I have it on no less an authority than Ward Cleaver that this is a good thing for a writer. I give you this excerpt from a Leave it to Beaver episode called “Beaver’s Secret Life.” Beaver’s 6th grade teacher asks the class what they’d all like to be when they grow up. Beaver chooses writer. That evening, the subject comes up at dinner:

What made you decide to be a writer?

I think it’d be neat making up stuff and getting paid for it.

Sure, Beav. They got guys in the publishing company that fix up your grammar and spelling and stick commas in and junk. Some writers don’t even have to write at all, they just holler their whole book into a machine.

Gee, Dad, that’s really neat. Can you get me one of those machines so I can start being a writer?

I don’t think it’s quite that easy.

That’s right, Beaver. I think your first step should be to do what Somerset Maugham did.

Was he a writer?

With a name like that what do you think he was? A linebacker for the Colts?

He kept a diary, Beaver. He jotted down everything that happened, you know, people he met, interesting things he did.

Then when he was ready to write he had all that background he could get stories from.

Would you get me a diary so I can start making up junk?

Sure we will, Beaver.

So what about you? Do you keep a journal or diary to record interesting things and people?  

How are your powers of observation these days? Has your smartphone atrophied them?  

Do you feel naked if you don’t have your phone with you?



Reader Friday: Hard Time

“Why shouldn’t you have a hard time? If it was easy, any little mug could chisel in on the racket, and it wouldn’t be any good for anybody. It doesn’t take brains, certainly, to be a freelance fiction racketeer… but it takes an ironclad intestinal tract.” — Jack Woodford



Mad Magazine, RIP

by James Scott Bell

Alfred E. Neuman

And so it ends, after 67 years. One of the great American institutions, Mad Magazine, is closing up shop. Gone but not forgotten will be the famous Mad mascot, Alfred E. Neuman, whose mysterious background is discussed here. So popular was he that he occasionally ran for president, with the slogan: “You could do worse… and always have!”

Along with my parents and my teachers, Mad played a major part in the formation of my young life. Its influence is with me still—and I hope it always will be.

My big brother bought Mad religiously, and thus I got the issues second hand. I learned about politics from Mad. I knew who Castro and Khrushchev were only because of the cartoon renditions within its pages.

In those years they had literate, educated satirists who were able to skewer sacred cows with a precise wit that appealed to adults, too. And the artists! Here I must call out two of my favorites—Mort Drucker, master caricaturist; and Don Martin, whose mind-bending cartoons blew right past the safe and predictable into uncharted realms of hilarity.

Of all the talent, though, my absolute favorite was the poet laureate of Mad, Frank Jacobs, who, at age 90, is still among us. Jacobs did the libretti for many of the Mad satires of famous movie musicals. I also have a first edition of his legendary collection, Mad For Better or Verse. The amazing thing about Jacobs is that his satirical songs always scanned perfectly along with the originals. He never hit a bad note.

Here’s an example. One of the first political pieces I remember from Mad is East Side Story, a send-up, of course, of the Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim musical. It was Jacobs at his best, along with the fantastic caricatures of Drucker (also still alive, also 90. Comedy is healthy!)

Remember how West Side Story begins with the “The Jet Song”?

When you’re a Jet
You’re a Jet all the way
From your first cigarette
To your last, dying day!

Well, East Side Story begins outside the U.N., with all the major Communists of the day, led by Nikita Khrushchev, snapping fingers and singing:

When you’re a Red
You’re a Red all the way
From your first Party purge
To your last power play!

When you’re a Red
You’ve got agents galore;
You give prizes for peace
While they stir up a war!

You set off a test,
And when you’re halfway through it–
You point at the West
And say they drove you to it!
That’s how you do it!

We are the Reds … With a punch in the face … Which we’re aiming today … At the whole human race … At the whole–! Ever–! Trusting–! Human–! Race!

That, my friends, is genius.

Some of the other satires I recall from Mad’s golden age include Who in Heck is Virginia Wolfe?, Voyage to See What’s on the Bottom, 201 Minutes of a Space Idiocy, Botch Casually and the Somedunce Kid, and my personal favorite, Hack, Hack, Sweet Has-Been or Whatever Happened to Good Taste? This was a combo satire of the films Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? It featured the following cast: Olivia DeHackhand, Bette Devious, Joan Clawfoot, Joseph Cuttin, Agnes Gorehead … and Greer Garson as a headless torso.

I ask you, what child soaked in such material could fail to grow up into a happy and productive citizen?

And whenever Mad turned its gimlet eye upon social structures, it skewered them with unerring insight. As in their 1961 send-up of the suburbs, titled “A Child’s-Eye View of ‘The Affluent Society.’ ” Look at the chapter called “The Lessons” and tell me it’s not still timely:

Children in the suburbs are kept very busy.
They are forced to take many lessons.
Lessons on how to dance,
Lessons on how to play musical instruments.
What does the suburban child learn at these lessons?
He learns that he is pleasing his parents!
Too bad he cannot take lessons
On how to be a child!

Suburban children must be a credit to their parents.
They must not lie.
They must not cheat.
They must not steal.
Poor suburban children,
They are so unprepared for the adult world!

So goodbye old friend. I shall remember you fondly. And whenever the kultursmog becomes thick with putridity, and the zeitgeist attempts another brain heist, I will bring to mind Alfred E. Neuman’s immortal words to live by:

“What, me worry?”

So what periodical was your favorite as a kid? How did it influence you?