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Setting Times stories to music: From Rick James to Soup Dragons

August 24, 2013|By Kari Howard

After Elmore Leonard died this week, his 10 rules of good writing were passed around like a favorite memory at a wake. He called this his most important rule: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

The word “sounds” there is key, because Leonard was a master of the rhythm, the musicality, of language. Does it sound like something you would actually say? Good. Does it sound like you’re showing off? Not so good.

A few days later, I came across a list of the “25 Things Editors Need to Remember When Working With Writers.” I agreed with almost all of them, but two are things I absolutely do. And I bet Leonard did too:

13. Suggest that your writers read out loud to themselves. (In a newsroom setting, this can be done internally, without moving lips.) Help them find the rhythm in the words.

14. Do the same yourself when editing.

So I’m trying to think, what song sounds the most like Elmore Leonard had written it? My first instinct was Elvis Costello’s “Watching the Detectives,” both for its theme and the noirish rhythm of the language. And then I realized that no Brit songwriter, even a brilliant one, could write the Elmore Leonard song. Has to be American. Has to be Springsteen. And although it’s one of my least favorite of his songs, has to be “Jungleland.”

Anyway, in these roundups of the week gone by, I’d like to offer the first paragraphs of each Great Read (or, as they’re known in print, Column One) -- maybe they’ll buy your eye and you can settle in for a good weekend read. And you’ll also get the songs that inspired me while editing the stories, or reading them later if my fellow editor Millie Quan ushered them through. A story-song combo!

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Monday’s Great Read:

Becky G dreams of being the next Jennifer Lopez

Becky G vividly remembers what she calls “my little mini midlife crisis.” It happened seven years ago, when she was 9.

At the time, her family had been forced to move into her grandparents' Inglewood garage after losing its Riverside County home. Money was tight. Her dad was stressing out. And her mom was “really scared.”

That's when Becky had an epiphany.

“I did have this moment of realization of, 'Oh, my God, what am I going to do with my life?'“ she says. “Just feeling like I had to get my act together, even though there was really nothing to put together yet.”

Today, the biggest challenge facing the preternaturally ambitious Mexican American teen isn't getting her act together. It's deciding which part of it -- rapping, songwriting, acting, modeling -- to focus on as she strives to turn herself into a one-woman entertainment juggernaut.

With a major-label record contract, a new deal with CoverGirl and A-list musicians and producers clamoring to work with her, Becky is an avatar of a new L.A. urban sound: young, female, Latina, bilingual and fiercely aspirational.

#storysongs combo: “I Want It All,” by Queen. “....And I want it now.”

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Tuesday’s Great Read:

Washington bar's patrons with pot are living the high life

Tavern owner Frankie Schnarr takes a long draw from his bottle of Coors Light and scans his sports bar, listening to billiard balls rattle and a pinball machine explode with points.
Suddenly, there's that smell: musky-sweet, skunky yet somehow pleasing, an odor traditionally fraught with illegality.

Three men in jeans and sleeveless shirts shooting pool nearby fire up a small purple pipe packed with pot. They inhale deeply between shots, laughing, passing the bowl, mellowing their buzz with an occasional swig of beer.

Marijuana. Being brazenly smoked in public, right there under the bar owner's nose.
Schnarr smiles.

“You get used to the smell — it's like the mold at your Mom's house,” he says, motioning for another Coors. “It's strange at first, but later you realize, 'Oh, that's what that is.' Some people walk in here these days and go, 'Oh, wow.' But most walk in and say: 'Oh, wow. This is cool!'“

At Frankie's Sports Bar and Grill, firing up a “fatty” or a “blunt” is not only condoned, it's welcomed. Last fall, Washington state legalized recreational marijuana use, allowing people to smoke the drug in private, but not in public places such as bars. Schnarr, 63, has found a way around that: He's using a space in his bar he says is private, not public.

Now the second floor of his sports bar — a mammoth room with TVs, card tables, 10 pool tables, four shuffleboard tables and rows of booths — is the only pub in the state to allow the practice. It's a rarefied realm where patrons burn joints and bowls of greenish weed in a free-for-all fashion that's still unknown in most of law-abiding America.

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