Writer Lets Loose! Mike Sacks on Making Every Word Count

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Mike Sacks is a humor writer, editor, novelist, interviewer, and man of many literary talents.

He has written for Vanity Fair, Esquire, GQ, The New Yorker, The New York Times, McSweeney’s, and many others. He is currently on the editorial staff of Vanity Fair.

Mike is the author of Stinker Lets Loose!, Poking A Dead Frog: Conversations With Today’s Top Comedy Writers, and Your Wildest Dreams, Within Reason, among others.

I’m a crazy huge Mike Sacks fan, so interviewing him about Stinker Lets Loose!, and his humor writing experiences, was an absolute treat.

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Stinker Lets Loose! is a novelization, which you wrote under a pseudonym, of a zany 1970s trucker movie. This already sounds pretty nuts, but as far as I can tell, the movie that it novelizes doesn’t exist. So it’s like you wrote a kind of humorous tribute to the novelization. Which source material inspired you here?

No, the movie itself never existed although I’m hoping readers believe that it could have existed. I loved these movies as a kid. I love them now. Even more than Star Wars, truthfully. People look at me like I’m insane when I say that, but it’s true. I loved the Bandit movies. I loved “Hooper.” I loved all of that. Those movies inspired this book, as well as novelizations, which I also loved. I just re-read a ton of these novelization, especially the novelizations for 1970s trucking movies. I also re-read my CB Bible, which contains slang and technical terms. It’s the only bible I pray to.

I’ve recently seen some movies that I haven’t seen in a long while. It’s really like something from another world. So bizarre to think that these movies were the world’s most popular at the time. I mean, Burt Reynolds, number one movie star in the world. Not to mention the secondary actors, like Dom DeLuise. Or chimps who could flap their arms and give the middle finger. Specific movie influences would be Bandit, Convoy, Breaker Breaker, Over the Top, High Ballin’, White Line Fever. Also, my wedding video. Joking. I’m now divorced.

The writing in Stinker is wildly entertaining. The jokes are great, but the writing is often intentionally bad in hilarious ways, from misused words to esoteric trucker slang.

Favorite example: you introduce this antagonist to Stinker, Clarence MacLeod, and the description of MacLeod is bonkers; it just keeps going on and on, as though the author is an idiot. That part killed me. What’s your trick for writing intentionally bad prose, but doing it well, and making it funny?

Ha thanks! A lot of readers thought that my bad writing for this book wasn’t on purpose. They mistook the bad writing with how I actually write. Maybe not too different, I suppose. It was so fun to write under a character. It was like being an actor playing a very stupid character, I suppose. The margin for error was much greater. If I made a mistake, it worked. If I wrote poorly, it worked. Wrong words, bad writing, horrible details, everything worked. But with that said, it took longer than I thought it would. It had to be just the right level of very bad and that took some time: six months. The story had to be told, the characters described, the dialogue written, but not so bad that a reader wouldn’t want to read the damn thing.

The irony, however, is that these novelization (I mean REAL novelizations) are not easy to write. They were written in the 60s and 70s and 80s by very solid professional writers. And I love them. I own a ton. And I prefer them, really, to magazine short stories and “serious” literature. There’s no bullshit. Just a good story, solid characters, dialogue that moves along the plot. No fat. God, I did have fun writing this book.

I like this idea of writing a novel as a character. Do you view the author of Stinker as a kind of ersatz version of yourself: Mike Sacks if he grew up on CB radio, too much beer, and maybe a few paint chips? 

Who’s to say I didn’t grow up with CB radio, too much beer and a few paint chips? It’s definitely a version of me and not far off. You can get away with a lot more when writing as a character, both good and bad, and it all works if done properly. For this particular book, my character was a journeyman hack, living in a two-bedroom apartment in the Los Angeles area in the mid 1970s, trying to earn some extra dough by pumping out novelizations. 

The wacky idioms fly nonstop in Stinker. How do you come up with all the slang and turns of phrase? 

A lot I made up, some came from actual CB slang. It really was like another language. It reminds me of internet slang decades before the internet existed. But the great thing about it was that if I couldn’t find a real phrase or a real slang term, I just created something fictional and no one was the wiser.

It’s not like there are professors at Yale who are experts at CB slang and could complain if I was not completely accurate. That gives me an idea. Would love to become a CB Professor at Yale. Remind me in a few years to apply please, thanks.

I’m hoping you’ll say yes to the next question. Any plans to write another novel as a character?

I wrote another novelization that will be out first as an Audible audiobook in January 2019 and then will be published as a book under my Sunshine Beam Press in June 2019.

In September, I’m publishing a memoir that I “found” at a garage sale in Maryland. It’s about a 30-something named Randy who’s a bit . . . different. The book is called Randy!

Between Poking A Dead Frog, Here’s The Kicker, and your podcast, you’ve interviewed many comedic writers. Has doing all the interviews changed you as a writer? How?

Oh definitely.

There are overlapping pieces of advice that I’ve heard from a lot of writers for whatever medium. And that’s basically to write every day, keep producing, write how you want it to read and not how you expect a reader wants it to read, and just have fun. Too many writers are miserable. A lot of writers produce material for only money, which is fine and more than understandable. One has to eat.

But a writer will only be fully happy if they’re creatively fulfilled. That’s why one gets into writing to begin with. And one really does have to follow one’s own creative lodestar. That’s how the best work is produced. Be a good person. Network. Don’t seclude yourself. Don’t look at writing as a competition. Your writing (as well as your life) will vastly improve if you open yourself up to experiences and friendship and goodness. I sound like a Kung Fu master but it’s true. 

Have any broad themes emerged from all the interviews, in terms of habits, practices, or beliefs of pro comedy writers?

Just write every day, or try to. If not writing, network. Or research. Look where others aren’t. For instance, instead of watching the same TV shows everyone is watching, watch something that’s not being watched, such as an old documentary, a rare movie, a TV show that’s been forgotten. Instead of hitting a Barnes and Noble, hit a used store.

Experience as much of life and different cultures as possible. If you like comedy, don’t just watch or read comedy. Soak up everything. Drama, horror, poetry, Never stop. Don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s a long, difficult race.

I’ve always taken humor writing inspiration from unexpected places: philosophy, science, etc. Sometimes I think I need to read more poetry, cookbooks, gardening manuals, books that I don’t normally read.

Any other examples of reading something unusual to get a writing idea?

Just read everything. For instance, if your grandparents live in a retirement community and put out a newspaper or newsletter, read that. Read Russian propaganda from the 1950s. Suicide notes. Love letters. War letters. Read the bad, as well as the good. Sometimes it’s more important to know what not to write than what to write. Just any damn thing you can find. If you want to write humor, especially for print, this is a necessity. You never know when it’ll be helpful to you, whether through jokes or format or just knowledge. 

If you could give writing or career advice to your 30-year-old self, what would it be?

To not spend so much time attempting to please various publications and editors and agents, and to just write whatever the fuck you want to write, however you want to write it. Wish I knew this then. I know it now. Better late than never.

What’s a belief that you used to have that held you back?

That a writer had to be published in major mags or by major publishers to make a difference. I don’t think that holds true anymore, and that’s a good thing, especially when it comes to comedy and humor. 

Do you have any rules that you abide by as a writer? i.e. A personal code you follow.

Don’t be an asshole, either on the page or in life.

You’ve also written many short, conceptual humor pieces, published in McSweeney’s, The New Yorker, etc. Has writing short humor affected how you write longer humorous works?

Yes. Every word matters. If an idea is complete at 1,000 words, it doesn’t have to be any longer. If a book is done at 25,000 words, it’s done. This isn’t a homework assignment where it has to reach a certain number of words for you to get an A.

I sort of got burned out with the small pieces, though. There’s only so much that can be done. I now like 100-page books. And producing audiobooks. More can be done with it.  Not sure why authors are intent on producing 500-page books. No one has time for that. Too much stimuli anyway. Get to the point, accomplish what you set out to accomplish, move on. Pull the rip-cord and move on to the next project. I know some writers who work years and years on a project. It’ll either work or not and spending years on it won’t necessarily improve it.

Just keep producing and never stop. Keep on truckin’, motherfudgers!

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Check out these new books by Mike Sacks: Stinker Lets Loose! and Randy! (out Sept. 2018).

Mike also authored Poking A Dead Frog: Conversations With Today’s Top Comedy Writers, and  Your Wildest Dreams, Within Reason, a collection of his short humor pieces.

You can also check out Doin’ It with Mike Sacks, a podcast of comedy, interviews, gags, curiosities, etc.

Learn more about Mike Sacks at his website, and follow him on Twitter.

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Written by

Alex Baia is a humor writer and contributor to McSweeney’s and Slackjaw. He lives in Austin, TX.