Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Book of Ideas (and Tom Swifties)

Friends of mine know that I worked for six years at a trivia-book publisher. In fact, they’re a little too familiar with this, since all those years of copyediting stories about strange geological disasters, the building blocks of plastic, and people who died in the bathroom have made me an annoying party guest, the kind of person you wish would hurry up and go lose on Jeopardy.

One thing we did a lot at the trivia publisher was brainstorm ideas for articles and books. This being trivia, the ideas could be pretty much anything, from what makes a submarine float to the origins of the Beverly Hillbillies theme song. And because inspiration strikes at odd hours, I always kept a notebook at home to jot down topics that I thought of while in the shower or washing dishes. I’ve been gone from that job for five years, but I sometimes still leaf through that notebook and wish we’d done some of these topics. For instance, I’d like to read a short, concise article on the Tylenol poisoning scandal that rained down tamper-proof everything on us. Or all the things that follow right- and left-hand rules, like magnetic fields and pole beans and water going down the drain. Or a couple of pages of Fargo movie trivia*.

An occasional feature in the trivia books was Tom Swifties**, puns that play with dialog tags and are kind of an old-fashioned parlor game. We had a great time writing these, and any time I thought of one I jotted it in the notebook. Here’s the last batch I wrote, which didn’t make it into one of the trivia books because I left soon after.

            “I don’t do cocaine,” she snorted.

            “I am not making that dessert again,” she retorted.

            “That’s a Douglas fir, not a spruce,” she opined.

            “My next car will be a Chevy,” she said cavalierly.

            “What if these eggs don’t hatch?” she brooded.

            “I’m losing my hair!” she bawled.

            “That’s some sexy airplane,” she leered.

I see by a quick Google search that I’m not the only person who thought of the “bawled” one. Oh well.

When I started that job, it seemed like the sky was the limit: This was a place where I could learn/edit/write about anything under the sun!*** It was incredibly freeing and fun and inspiring to brainstorm all the time, and to see some of my ideas actually go into print. But, as with most jobs, it was a shit-ton of work, and not always fun. And for various reasons, after a while the work outweighed the fun and it was time to move on. But damn, I still want to know who came up with the “test sound” for the Emergency Broadcast System, and how hourglasses are calibrated, and what organs we can live without.

* For instance, the Hautmans, the rival duck-painting team mentioned in Fargo, are real-life brothers, friends of the Coen brothers who actually paint ducks.

** Tom Swifties are named for the Tom Swift young-adventurer books (1910–present), in which the authors famously went to great pains to avoid the dull dialog tag of “he said.” Instead they incorporated adverbs, stand-in verbs, and elaborate turns of phrase to spice things up. (“‘…he never uses it,’ was the lad's answer.”)

*** Much like this blog. When people ask me why I do this blog, since I don’t get paid for it, I always say it’s because it’s the one place where I can publicly write about anything I damn well please and no one can stop me.

1 comment:

  1. Keeping a note book along to jot down ideas that strike is a great practice. I do it and I advice the same to my kids and we can always get an insight from our own ideas.