Tuesday, September 30, 2008

My mentors

Great expression in Hollywood: Mentors get eaten by their young.

While there is certainly no shortage of that “All About Eve” type behavior, I must say that for myself, I would never be where I am today were it not for some exceptional mentors. It’s like I learned pitching from a staff of Sandy Koufaxes. (And by the way, happy New Year, Sandy) One reason I started this blog was to be able to give something back. I’m a big believer in “Pay it Forward”. So if any tips I share you find valuable you can thank these people.

Larry Gelbart, Jim Brooks, Allan Burns, the Charles Brothers, Gene Reynolds, Tom Patchett, Jay Tarses, Treva Silverman, and one name you’ve never heard – Bruce Anson. Don’t race to imdb to look him up. He’s not there. Even Googling him will yield no results. (There are others with that name but they’re not him.)

But Bruce Anson taught me more about the craft of writing than all my high school and college teachers combined.

I was a sports intern at KMPC radio in Los Angeles. Bruce was one of their newscasters. He was in his 60s, smoked and drank too much (which I think was a prerequisite for getting hired in that department back then). He had been a booth announcer in the early days of TV and prior to that, network radio. And now he was pulling part-time Sunday night shifts, writing and delivering news twice an hour in between public service programs the station was obligated to run. When he finished at midnight the station went off the air for maintenance. So not exactly prime time.

He’d show up in shorts, loud Hawaiian shirts, and flip flops. Other newsmen reported for work in suits and ties.

My job was to write the sports portion of the newscast. Essentially a rundown of the day’s scores. Northwestern beat Ohio State 23-10, Notre Dame edged Army 21-20, etc. The most creative thing I did was once write: LSU puffed Rice 34-14.

During baseball season all the scores would be final by 6:00. There was no Sunday night baseball. Not even in Texas. The shift was until midnight but most sports interns would write up three sportscasts that could be rotated and went home six hours early. I went to Bruce and asked if I could help write his newscasts. He said, sure, but it’s not as easy as I think.

He was right.

I’d take a story from the United Press International wire, rewrite it, and hand it to Bruce. I assumed he’d say, “Great job. Thank you.”


He said, “This sentence could be cut in half”, “There’s a better way of saying this”, “Use more descriptive words”, “This point should go ahead of that point”, “this phrase is a little confusing.” He’d then take a pen and start rewriting -- slashing words, replacing phrases, making it shorter, punchier, clearer, BETTER.

And so began a weekly pattern that lasted until football season. I would doggedly write story after story determined to just once please that son-of-a-bitch. Finally it happened. A house fire story. I don’t remember the details but I do remember I used the word “blaze”. It aired right before the vasectomy PSA. I was so proud.

Be ruthless. Always look to make it better. Have a little Bruce Anson sitting on your shoulder when you write. Ask him to put out the cigarette though.

I owe Bruce Anson a lot. I thank him for his time, his toughness, his talent. And if he were here today I'm sure he'd say "Isn't all the alliteration a little precious?"


Anonymous said...

"Have a little Bruce Anson sitting on your shoulder when you write."

I know exactly what you mean. In my writing station, there's a small bust of Charles Dickens that sits above the computer, looking down at my monitor, frowning, because nothing I write is up to his standard.

On the wall to my right is a framed picture of Patrick Dennis: he looks at me quizzically, head tilted askew, as though saying "Really? Don't you think that could be a bit better?"

And directly in front of me a framed picture of Sir Noel Coward regards me with gaurded amusement, his fist covering his mouth, as though saying, "Nice try, but honestly, who are you kidding calling your self a writer? Did I mention I wrote PRIVATE LIVES in three days?"

I also was lucky to have a handful of amazing mentors, and I've yet to eat any of them: "Sweet Dick" Whittington first and foremost, Larry "Seymour" Vincent, Al Lohman, Bill Hudnut, and a few teachers who made huge differences: Barbara Covey, Rosemary Stevens, Phil Haynes, and Dr. Jack Vaughn.

Thank you to all.

konberg said...

And now if people Google him, they'll find him.

Thanks for the inspiration, Ken. You make me want to be a good mentor.

Mary Stella said...

The tough ones always teach us the most. The first time someone really ripped into an early manuscript almost broke me. When I got over the ego meltdown and really looked at what she'd said, I realized she was right on all counts. The experience made me a better writer and helped me develop a necessary thicker skin.

It's good to hear more writers talk about paying it forward and mentoring. Lots of people laugh about the romance writers, but we rock when it comes to educating and helping less experienced writers. This isn't limited to the writing craft, but also extends to the whole publishing business. More business-savvy writers make fewer bad deals and that ends up being better for all of us.

Anonymous said...

My father worked in radio for over 60 years. (In 1961 he briefly worked at KFWB as "Jim Kelly", though his real name was Jim O'Neill). d. mcewan, he was also good friends with Al Lohman, with whom he worked in Wichita, Kansas in the 50's.

I had the opportunity to work with my father on his last job in radio when I interned as a Sales Assistant at WSAI in Cincinnati. I volunteered to write spots for the Sales people, and gave my father a spot to critique that he was going to record. Well, I thought my prose was pretty lean, but he handed it back to me with several words crossed out. Of course his changes vastly improved rhythm and pacing, and I marvelled at his gift of pitch perfect "hearing" of words he saw on the page. Those "old radio guys" blessed those of us fortunate enough to hear or work with them with so much. Some day, if I'm a good enough writer, I also want to mentor.

Also, Ken, I've been meaning to tell you how much I enjoy your stories about radio and your childhood, because they bring back many fond memories of my father and my own childhood. I would be so happy if I could be 1/5 the writer you and your commentors are!

Kathleen O'Neill

Anonymous said...

"Mary Stella said...
The tough ones always teach us the most. The first time someone really ripped into an early manuscript almost broke me."

So true. About 25 years ago I got to meet Pauline Kael. She was very kind to me. I arrived with all of her books except her first. When she asked why I was missing that one, I said I'd been unable to find a copy. (The pre-internet world. One dodged tyrannosaurs) Two weeks later, a signed copy arrived in the mail.

At the time, I was trying to write Twilight-Zone-ish short stories, but had not succeeded in placing any (Though I did sell film rights to one. A long story there.) Ms Kael very kindly offered to read one and give me her critique. I gave her what I felt was my strongest one, and she took it away with her.

A month later she sent it back to me, with a critique that, in a bullshit-free way, tore it to ribbons. But no generalized "I didn't like it." crap. She was extremely specific about exactly what was wrong with it, which was, happily, more to do with story-structure than with the prose style or the humor.

I was crushed. A critic I respected very much had murdered a story of mine that I thought was good.

Except she was on-the-nose right about every flaw, and I learned a great deal from what she told me. (Including that this wasn't the type of writing I should be doing. That I was a comedy writer, and shouldn't be attempting to be the gay Rod Serling/Stephen King.)

And I recognized the fact that she had shown me the respect of being brutally honest with me, and not sugar-coating anything. If I wanted to play with the big boys, I had better come up to a higher standard.

I wrote back to her thanking her. For a very busy, extremely eminent critic to have taken all that time on me, was a gift which, while a bitter taste in my mouth at first, the high value of it I nonetheless deeply appreciated. It was a big step for me on the road to eventually becoming published.

Thanks again, Ms Kael. I miss reading new work from you.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Levine! You are incorrect. Google does, in fact, reap a small reward on the Bruce Anson front.

At this site, http://www.710kmpc.com/film.htm there is a promotional film and Anson shows up at about ten minutes in.

Thank you for answering the Friday question I had intended to ask, which was about writers that influenced you.

Mary Stella said...

d.mcewan said:
And I recognized the fact that she had shown me the respect of being brutally honest with me, and not sugar-coating anything. If I wanted to play with the big boys, I had better come up to a higher standard.

She wouldn't have done so had she not believed that your writing showed promise.

It took me a long time to realize that if someone really thinks writing sucks, they don't waste their time, energy, or expertise giving detailed, direct, cut-through-the-crap suggestions. Instead they say things like, "Your punctuation is flawless!"

Anonymous said...

Many years ago sportscaster Greg (I forget his last name) was reading the Sat football scores on KGO in SF. Somebody "larruped Rice".