Writing Lessons From Old Radio Programs: Lesson 1

For the bargain price of $29, I got a flash drive containing 10,000 old radio programs from the 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s. Except for the Lux Theater productions (which run a solid hour), none of these audios is longer than 30 minutes. A crash course on how to tell a story in thirty minutes—and in a way that’ll keep those listeners in their seats till the very last word. An excellent learning tool for us writers out there. Take an episode of The Great Gildersleeve entitled “Day Off for Peavey.” In the catalog, number 358, which celebrated the 30th anniversary of Richard LeGrand’s acting career. LeGrand played Peavey, who was the proprietor of the only drugstore in Summerfield, where Gildersleeve and his family lived.

Episode 358 borrows its formula (rather heavily) from a Norwegian fairytale called “The Husband Who Was to Mind the House,” by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe. If you are unfamiliar with that tale, it relates the adventures of a husband who thought he could mind the house far better than his wife, with whom he so often found fault. The following morning, the wife goes off to perform the husband’s farming chores, while the husband stays behind to see to things domestically. Of course, all manner of disasters occur in the home, ending with the husband getting stuck in the chimney. His wife rescues him. Though the authors give no indication that the husband has learned, by experience, not to treat his wife so harshly, we at least get the satisfaction of seeing him proved wrong.

The same principal idea is in operation in Episode 358 of The Great Gildersleeve. Peavey’s drugstore is celebrating its 30th anniversary of operation. Thinking Peavey deserves a day off, Throckmorton Gildersleeve assumes management of the drugstore. After he has said some rather uncomplimentary things about Peavey to his nephew, Leroy, Gildersleeve brags that if he were in charge of the drugstore, he would have made far more of it than Peavey has. To prove it, he sets himself the task of outselling Peavey, whose lack of ambition, so Gildersleeve claims, has deprived him of the power of becoming a successful business man.

The first thing Gildersleeve does, upon taken temporary custody of the drugstore, is bully his nephew-in-law, Bronco into buying a lot of merchandise he doesn’t need. Later in the day, Bronco returns all the things he doesn’t need to the store, embarrassing Gildersleeve while he’s bragging to his friends, the judge and the barber about how good a salesman he is. When he attempts to enlist his friends as touts, they both suddenly have work of their own to do that they are shamefully neglecting. A hurt Gildersleeve takes some comfort, but not much, from Leroy, who stops in to see how things are going at the drugstore. Just when Gildersleeve is ready to throw in the thermometer, a crowd of people, having heard about the anniversary from a “man on the street,” come in the drugstore. Soon, Gildersleeve has more business than he can handle. He has to call his housekeeper to help him. The end-of-the-day receipts are more than twice what Peavey usually rakes in.

With what he believes is warranted pride, Gildersleeve shows off his earnings to Peavey. He is somewhat taken aback when he learns that the “man on the street” wasn’t one of his friends, who were too busy with their own affairs to help him, but Peavey himself who used his “free” day to drum up business for his store. Gildersleeve realizes, somewhat belatedly, that Peavey was a far more competent businessman than he gave him credit.

This story, boiled down to its most basic essence, is—armchair generals never win any REAL battles.  We might add that it is also easier to give advice to others than to follow it yourself.

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The Tenth Victim

If you like The Hunger Games or any similar death-game stories, you’ll love The Tenth Victim, a 1965 Italian film that ought to be a cult classic, if it isn’t already one. Marcello’s got a lot of problems with women, a wife he can’t divorce, a mistress he doesn’t want to marry, and a sexy blonde that he may or may not be forced to kill. This movie has all the excitement of The Games with a delicious froth of mod on top. I highly recommend it, even if it is, at times, a little too antiseptic to be believable. Where’s the blood?

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Sample Blurb: Vacation From Us

Here is an example of a blurb I made up for a contemporary gay romance:

After five years of marriage, even the happiest couple in the world can get a little tired of each other. Right?

While having a drink with some old high-school friends in a neighborhood bar, Calvin Ball meets a stranger, who invites him on a weeklong holiday in London. Without thinking, Calvin agrees. That night, he slips away from his sleeping husband, leaving behind a note that says, “I’m taking a little vacation from us. Don’t worry. I’ll be back. Love, Cal.”

The first few heady days with his new lover are all that Calvin could ask for. That is, until he sees his husband in London with another man of his own, one far younger and handsomer than Calvin.

For the first time, Calvin realizes what his little vacation might cost him? But is it too late to get his man back? Or is this weeklong holiday about to become a permanent vacation?

Before writing this blurb, I determined what tone I was going for—light and somewhat comedic. That would be the only way to give a story like this a sufficiently satisfying HEA. Without intending to, my protagonist, Calvin has lately lost some of his enthusiasm for his partner, Julian. I won’t spoil it—I don’t intend to write this book—by telling you that the betrayed husband has arranged this little holiday for Calvin, even going so far as to pay his “escort” for the trouble of entertaining him. To make Calvin jealous, Julian shows up in London, purportedly on business, with a handsome male model as his own escort. In this hypothetical story, Calvin will spend the rest of his holiday in London, endeavoring to win back Julian. When he at least succeeds, Julian will come clean, the book ending with the line, “next time we take a vacation from us, let’s do it together.”

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Another Think

This mistake is now so ubiquitous, we may have to accept it, even if it’s bad grammar, but it’s another THINK coming, not THING. THINK about it.

Dick said, “I’ve put up with Harry’s shit long enough. If he thinks he can stay another month rent-free at my apartment, he’s got another THINK coming.”

Harry’s first think on the subject was decidedly unsatisfactory to Dick. Harry’s got to think again. Things never come into the picture.

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Who Is He? An Identity Crisis

So it’s clear who a pronoun represents, a writer must make an introduction first.

“Dick ate a slice of chocolate cake, then he helped himself to a scoop of cinnamon ice cream.”

The “he” who helped “himself” to ice cream is clearly Dick, because no new “he” has come between the chocolate cake and the ice cream.

This is easy enough to follow, when you’ve got a sole “he” to manage, but what happens when you introduce more than one character into a piece of writing.

“Dick wished Jane a Happy Birthday. Harry went to the table to fetch the first gift she was to open.”

The identity of “she” is easy to guess. Jane is a girl’s name. Begging the pardon of any boys bearing it.

What about this sentence?

“Dick gave Jane a Mickey Mouse watch for her birthday. Harry gave her a stray black kitten he found in the alley behind his house.”

Since Harry is the person introduced at the beginning of that sentence, it’s assumed that the “he” and “his” identify him.

If we add a third sentence, “He said it had fleas,” the reader would naturally assume that it was Harry who pointed out the kitten’s defects. To make it clear that Dick mentioned the fleas, the writer would need to reintroduce him. “Dick said it had fleas.”

While we’re on the subject of clear identification, the “it” that has fleas might just as easily be the house as the kitten, though it is far more likely that kittens have fleas than that houses do. Nonetheless, it would be just as easy and far clearer to say, “Dick said the kitten had fleas.”

There are times, however, when reintroducing a “he” makes the sentence awkward—worse, unnatural. And any unnatural syntax is going to draw readers out of the story they are reading. You don’t want that.

Here’s an example from a short steampunk story I recently read. I have changed the names to conceal the story’s identity—and shield the writer, who, for the most part, wrote a good story.

“It was always Dick’s job to bring meals down from the kitchen, and every time he climbed the stairs he made a point to secure Harry by turning it off and leaving it lying on its back, on Dick’s cot.”

In this particular story, Dick is a boy and Harry is an automaton he made from scrap metal. Since the reader knows Harry is only a mechanical toy, it is easy enough to guess the cot belongs to Dick, not Harry.

“It was always Dick’s job to bring meals down from the kitchen, and every time he climbed the stairs he made a point to secure Harry by turning it off and leaving it lying on its back, on his cot.”

Grammar rules were invented for clarity. If the meaning is clear already, there is SOME wiggle room. However, if violating the pronoun-introduction rule is just too much for the writer to personally overcome, he or she (sorry, but I still think the blank-check “they” is lazy writing, even if it is more polite) ought to reword the sentence.

“Any time Dick left the cellar, he made a point to secure Harry by turning it off, leaving it lying on its back on his cot.”

Since Harry is an “it” there is no confusion with the “he.” Also, by shortening the sentence, I put Dick closer to his pronoun. I’m not sure why the writer felt it necessary to point out that it was Dick’s job to bring down meals from the kitchen. Dick surely left the cellar more frequently than those times when he had kitchen duty. Since he secured Harry each time he left the cellar, it wasn’t necessary to tack the kitchen duty onto the front end of that sentence. After the writer established Dick’s habits, she (or he) could open the subject of that one time when Dick went up for the dinner tray and came back to find Harry—

Well, I won’t ruin the story for you.

If you have an awkward pronoun placement, the best way of correcting it, in most cases, is simply to rephrase the sentence.

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Oh Granny, What Big Eyes You’ve Got?

Occasionally, one of our side characters proves to be far more interesting to our reading public than expected. To capitalize on this, we may be tempted to give them a story of their own. Great–if we can do it without violating one of the cardinal rules of characterization. To thy own self be true!

Recently, I read a review of a fantasy novel, in which a past supporting character was given main billing. Unfortunately, the author was tempted–aren’t we are–to alter that character’s personality in radical ways. Worse, to make him a carbon copy of a lead character from another novel. Read below.

“The lead character in Y, X, was introduced in book 1 of the Z series as a somewhat dark, mysterious, knowing and worldly man. (Spoiler ahead – skip to the next paragraph to avoid.) When he reappeared at the end of that series, his character had changed, although it is only in retrospect that it becomes glaring that his back-story and character had not been developed until then, and was likely due to the author’s plotting out this book.

“Now that X has his own series, it is evident that X has lost the mystery, several years, and much of the apparent knowledge and wisdom with which he had been introduced. The only mystery left is kept as an unanswered question. It is so blatantly stated that you even know what the question is – it is just not answered. I find that that question alone is not enough to be interested in X, and I almost did not finish the book. Quite early in this book, I realized that the character, X, was the same in mannerisms, speech and thought patterns, as the lead character in the prior series, A. – In fact, I had to go back and double check that it was supposed to be a different person, and that I hadn’t been confused about the names! – A was ok for one series, but there isn’t enough meat in this plot to carry another him through it, no matter what his name is.”

If the author of this particular fantasy series wasn’t capable of developing heroes of various molds, he would have done his audience a great favor by sticking with a single hero. Making cheap copies of that hero can only disappoint and alienate his fans. But the real crime here is not self-plagiarism, but a failure to respect his audience’s intelligence.

I remember the outrage of a fan who’d read Hannibal (A sequel to The Silence of the Lambs), who claimed that Clarice Starling acted in ways in the book that weren’t at all true to her character.

Clever plot twists aside, respect your character. If he’s the shy, sullen type, he isn’t going to be the life of the party–without your readers asking why. And deserving a damned good answer!

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Character Study: The Engineer Who Married the Debutante

Arthur G. was a graduate of a New England engineering college who had led his class, had secured three United States patents before he graduated, and for whom a brilliant and successful career was predicted.

In his senior year in college he received the post possible offers from more than a dozen large concerns, and finally settled on one in Pittsburgh. For the first five years after graduation he applied himself almost blindly to his work and received promotion after promotion.

He did not seem interested in woman. This disturbed his parents who did everything they could to make a “desirable match” for him. Finally, as a result of giving in to his parents, he became engaged to a woman eight years younger than he was. She was of a socially prominent family, while his family was of ordinary social status; naturally this match pleased his family tremendously, especially since they had engineered it. She was not educated beyond the high school, except for a training course in manners by private tutors.

She was interested primarily in going to dance, card parties, the theatre; he was interested primarily in making engineering plans and in reading engineering journals and higher mathematics.

He was basically religious, she was frivolous in spiritual matters.

Both were considered good catches, she for her money and position, he for his accomplishments and great promise.

But was it a successful match?

Before his marriage he had been widely liked on account of his pleasant and agreeable personality. He was patient, modest, considerate. But within a year after his marriage he was irritable, lost his temper readily, became curt and impatient with his subordinates, became almost slovenly in personal appearance, and would sit at his desk dreaming idly rather than producing engineering results. There is little doubt but that this change, which lost him the vice-presidency in charge of engineering, was caused directly by his marriage.

Personality Health, Personal Analysis Bureau, Chicago, 1930.

How will you, the author, get Arthur out of this mess? Write a romance that gives Arthur a happy ending.

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Character Study: Salesclerk Who Didn’t Like to Sell

Frances liked her working conditions, but she did not like the details of the definite job for which she was hired. She was hired to be a salesclerk. But the minute she came behind her counter in the morning she busied herself folding, straightening and neatly arranging the stock she was supposed to sell.

If an early customer came to the counter Frances hated to leave the stock. She talked to the first customer with a frosty voice that usually lost the sale. Whenever a customer disarranged her stock–and almost each customer did–Frances would neglect the next customer until the stock had all been neatly arranged once again, even though another customer might be waiting impatiently.

She was pleasant and agreeable, but it it was a forced agreeableness. She found it difficult to be naturally pleasant to a customer who was disarranging all of her carefully arranged stock. She kept becoming more and more irritable, and at times tried to keep customers from handling the stock.

Now here was a dominant personality trait which we might call neatness or orderliness. A trait which is generally desirable, but which was so marked in Frances that it interfered with her sales, which were below average for her department.

From Personality Health (1930), Personal Analysis Bureau, Chicago.

Can you think of a way to use such a character in a novel? Come up with at least five story scenarios for Frances–romance, comedy, drama, fantasy, mystery. Will the story end happily for Frances or only in frustration?

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Those Boots Need Polish

This morning’s writing tip of the day is brought to you by a run-and-gun military science fiction novel that could have used some more boot polish. Here is what one reviewer had to say about the book:

“The writer doesn’t really know what the story or the characters should really be. Instead it reads like a bunch of moderately disjointed story elements held together with spackle and duct tape. While it’s not the worst I’ve seen, it still had me wincing a couple too many times for me to keep going.

“Now if you’re not looking for an intense read there are still some interesting ideas lurking just under the surface so maybe your experience fairs better. But for me, this story really needed some more time to bake before being written because it’s too raw for my tastes.”

What do we take away from this? This book clearly was not ready for market. At least another edit was required for it to be ready for release. If its author is wise, he (name withheld to protect the guilty) will pull down the book and fix its faults, which are apparently not only in characterization but also in general plotting, A doesn’t naturally lead to B, etc.

Two ways to attack a poorly edited manuscript offer themselves here.

The author can sit down, write a carefully constructed bio of Johnny Hero, then review each scene to be sure that Johnny Hero and his supporting cast are all acting as might be expected under the circumstances. For example, is the timid girl or the selfish businessman really going to volunteer for what appears to be a suicide mission? And if one of them does, what’s her or his motivation? Maybe the timid girl wants to prove herself to the boy she secretly loves or the selfish businessman intends to flee at the first opportunity, leaving the others to die?

The other way to edit this draft is to carefully outline it. My guess is this author was a pantser. He went in without a clear idea where he wanted to go story-wise. He had gathered together some interesting story ideas and he just let them roll out, hoping all that running and gunning would cover up any inconsistencies/deviations in the plotting.

For anyone unfamiliar with what the reviewer means by story elements, they are: the characters, the setting, the plot, the conflict, and the resolution.

Review all of these carefully before releasing your novel onto the market. Make sure that space soldier is ready for battle.

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Show Her No Pity

Use Them and Lose Them, Ladies!

Women had it hard in Biblical times. Even an act of self-defense (or should I say other-self-defense) came with a hard punishment. An eye for an eye. If you’re a man. If you’re a lady, well, you might just lose a hand for getting a little too grabby.

In Deuteronomy 25:11 and 25:12, the punishment for grabbing a man’s junk is outlined.

11 If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she reaches out and seizes him by his private parts.

12 You shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity.

Grabbing a man’s junk for the hell of it. Bad form. Sure. But cutting a hand off for that seems, well, a bit much. Never mind losing a hand in defense of your man.

Just a guess here, but this may be a case of altered value systems. In the old, old days, a man’s junk was his life force. Hell (excuse the word), men in Biblical times used to swear oaths on their groin. Damaging a man’s pride was probably seen as depriving him of his manhood (in essence, killing him, for all intents and purposes). Any woman who did that was, so the theory goes, his murderer. Looking at it that way, the loss of a mere hand might be seen as lenient.

This begs the question: How did such a Biblical law ever come to pass? Was it common for a woman to manhandle her husband’s attacker or did one particularly flagrant offender bring this law into being? To that feisty lady, all I can say is–you go, girl!

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