Palm After The Storm

Best Magazine Articles of All Time

book review--Stewart Brand's "Whole Earth Discipline"

In his new book on coping with the global warming crisis, Stewart Brand changes his mind on at least three things he formerly opposed--genetically modified foods, squatter cities and nuclear energy. In taking us through these changes and honestly admitting his former prejudices and errors, he's reasonable, fair and non-panicky. He doesn't think the sky is falling but he suggests that if it ever does the people who will bring it down are ideologically driven environmentalists who can't or won't recognize that the earth is changing, the west is declining and that reasonably priced energy is a necessity for most of the world. No power source has no drawbacks whatsoever but nuclear energy runs all the time, in contrast to wind or solar. Nuclear energy, unlike wind or solar, doesn't require a lot of land area. Most of all, it's a lot better for the planet than the current alternative--coal generated power.

Mark Bowden's "Desert One Debacle"

Good clear straightforward writing by someone who knows what he is talking about. For someone who wasn't there, his detail is astonishing. I always regretted that the mission failed.

2007 National Magazine Finalists

Finalist--Best Feature Article of 2007

This is not so much a non-fiction short story as a great magazine article but it does illustrate one factor that makes any story great--an ethical dilemma. Also, the writer must be congratulated for his observations and interviews. One reservation, the writer gives his (strong) opinion on the matter at the end. Not only does it ring the first false note in this otherwise impeccable piece, it isn't necessary. We know the the writer's point of view long before we gets to the end. It's carrying coals to Newcastle to remind us again.

Best Magazine Writing of 2006

Halsey's Typhoon

This book has a great opening scene on Halsey's Court of Inquiry, spends far too much time on the hurricane and the terrible ordeal of the sailors who were forced to abandon ship in the teeth of one of the worst typhoons on record, and then lets Halsey off the hook (as a feckless Navy did itself). The book would have been far better if the authors' editor had cut the hurricane coverage in half. Strangely, the authors spend half a chapter on Nathaniel Bowditch's "Practical Navigator" apparently for the sole purpose of noting that Halsey's fleet meteorogist had a "well-thumbed" copy of the book on his shelf.

The Single-Mom Murder

Good story, well observed, lively writing, the author has a great eye of status details. Ending is a bit of a downer. The garbage man did it. (see follow up story)

Murder on the Last Turn

My most recent cover story for the LA Weekly (about Mike Goodwin, above, the alleged murderer of race car driver Mickey Thompson). It's a great story but hard to do. Everyone had an agenda and hardly anyone, I thought, completely told me the truth. Worst of all the story took me longer to research and write than any other story I've ever written. A teenage dropout flipping burgers at McDonalds wouldn't accept my hourly wage on this story.

trial update #1
trial update #2
trial update #3
trial update #4, Nov. 28, 2006, by John Bradley, Justice On Trial
trial update, Dec. 3, 2006, Court TV
trial update, Dec. 22, 2006
Goodwin Convicted

MY Recent LA Weekly Articles

More Than You Wanted To Know Perhaps

Don't Worry About What People Might Think. Just Write The Story.

I remember when I did my first major magazine article 35 years ago. It was entitled "Nazis Among Us" and was about a (pathetic) group of American losers who who professed to admire Hitler and the German Nazi Party of WWII. As even then my reporting technique was simply to report and not to condemn, I was afraid that Jewish Americans who read the piece might fail to discern what side I was on. So I included a long introduction which explained that even though I was writing non-judgmentally about Nazis I was really a good guy.

I need not have been so craven. My editor, Michael Parrish, realized what was going on and cut out the introduction entirely. It helped the piece enormously (and helped strengthen the waivering instincts of a young and more than a little unsure writer). I later discovered that Parrish had done precisely the right thing in cutting the introduction. A month or so after the article came out, Bnai Brith, parent organization of the Anti-Defamation League, held a large public meeting in San Francisco to discuss Nazism to which they invited Holocaust survivors, Jewish politicians and the public in general. In the meantime they'd made hundreds of copies of my article which they handed out to every attendee and publically thanked me from the stage for writing the piece. At the same time, if you dialed the White Power telephone number of the American Nazi Party in the month following the publication of my story you got a recording saying, "The National Socialist White Peoples Party as featured this month in San Francisco Magazine."

To me that was the best result a writer could have hoped for. Jews and Nazis liked the piece equally, Jews because I exposed the Nazis in their own words and Nazis because I'd faithfully reported what they'd said without putting any slant on the ball at all.

Waiting For The Lede To Smile Demurely in a Neglige

Okay, you've been researching a story for weeks. You've tied up nearly all the loose ends. You can't think of anybody else to call or visit or any more tiresome records to plow through. You must be ready to write your story? Right?

I'm not so sure. Oftentimes, I've found, when I'm really ready to write my story (knowing my material well enough that I'm totally in command), the lede just pops into my head without warning. I'll be waking down the street (thinking of nothing in particular) when suddenly the lede arrives. Then it's time to write. Before then, you just spend a lot of time in front of the computer (or type writer or legal pad) spinning your wheels.

Another thing, you cannot will good ledes in existance (by lede I mean more than an opening sentence, I mean the whole beginning to your tale, the thing that implies everything else, that sets the story in motion). You have to wait for the lede to come to you. So walk around, try writing the story in your head (much quicker than using a pencil or keyboard), play with various modes of organization. Then one day when you're standing there watching the squirrels run down the power lines the lede will suddenly come to you as a willing maiden. At that point, the hard work is over. All you have to do is do the deed--write it down, polish the transitions, correct the spelling and submit the expense account.

Writing with attitude

There's a good reason why stand-up comics communicate so much better with their audiences than newspaper reporters do with theirs. They have attitude. Their stories have a point. They're just not sharing everything they've managed to find out about the life cycle of butterflies.

One proviso. While it's great to have attitude (by which we mean a passionate point of view), we don't want so much to hear your attitude as that of the people you're writing about. It takes a lot of research, but you'll know you've hit the jackpot when you can say with certainly not only what your characters did, but also how they felt about it.

Ragtime isn't a non-fiction novel but it easily could have been

Much of Ragtime is constructed and written like a non-fiction novel (and some parts, like the sections on Houdini, are almost completely non-fiction). The author, E.L. Doctorow, describes what people did and said and, unlike most novels, only briefly--albeit to great effect--goes inside their heads to say what they felt. The result is a novel that seems as if it really happened (a true story). The best part is that none of of what Doctorow does here is outside the reach of a non-fiction writer (though having his talent is a great asset) who is willing and able to do the reasearch.

When Even Good Stories Sink Like A Rock

Why good writing is sometimes not enough (assuming of course the writing was good in the first place).

Revenge of the Nerds

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The original "Revenge of the Nerds" (before Lorimar filched my title to make a movie)

Beheading on Mount Baldy

Click Part I to read the first part of the story
and then return to this page and click Part II
to read the second part.

He took her in for company. She took him out for good.

Don't Waste Your Time On Stories That Can't Possibly Work

Not every dramatic incident works as a non-fiction story. Here are some reasons why.

Nabokov on the difference between narrative and plot

Nabokov, it will come as no surprise, had the most illuminating remarks about narrative. Paraphrasing E.M. Forster, he wrote that "the term 'narrative' is often confused with the term 'plot,' but they're not the same thing. If I tell you that the king died, and then the queen died, that's not plot, that's narrative. But, if I tell you that the king died, and then the queen died of grief, that's plot."

Robert Vare, the Nieman Foundation

E.B. White's "Once More To The Lake"

They don't get any better than this. The man's powers of observation are enormous, from the small waves chucking the rowboats under the chins, the eternal dragonfiles that land on the tips of the fishing poles, the road through the dusty summer field, the sagging net on the tennis court in the noonday heat, the shadows that "double the attendence" for a school of minnows in the lake shallows, the vertiginous feelings that sweep over White when he can't remember whether he's his father's son or his son's father, and eventually the reader's realization by the end that, in spite of early appearances, this is no nostelgic travel piece skipping and dancing down memory lane; it is rather a deeply moving evocation of loss, longing, aging and death.

Why Did He Cut That Man's Leg Off?

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Although this story is entirely non-fiction (as is everything on this website) it isn't exactly a non-fiction short story, as parts of read like a traditional magazine article.

Writing Resource List From the Poynter Institute

A list of books and articles on non-fiction writing complied by Poynter's Chip Scanlan.

Love in Venice

Lines in the Mud

An essay by Aaron Pope on creative non-fiction. Beware, he brooks no criticism of "Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas."

Eight Good Non-Fiction Books

courtesy of

Dispatches--a great work (of fiction)

Composite characters? Oh, say it ain't so, Michael.

"In Cold Blood"--a book by a great writer who didn't always tell the truth

"In Cold Blood" was Truman Capote's greatest achievement, catapulting him from a minor writer to a full fledged society star. But he made up parts of the book, including a famous cemetery scene at the end. Harold Nye, a Kansas investigator who worked on the case, walked out of the premier of "In Cold Blood," dismissing it as "a pack of lies."

Joy of ReWrites

when writing is actually fun

The Cop That Cried

I did this story originally for the Los Angeles Times. It turned out better than I expected so naturally my politically correct editor wouldn't run it--the cop, a decent kid, didn't turn out to be a feminist hero.

A Father's Obsession

Her disappearance gave him a purpose in life

How Can You Waste Your Time Writing About Murder While Ignoring Global Warming, Nuclear Proliferation and the Need to "Level the Playing Field?"

This is almost too easy. I know from having done this for the last 30 years that the best non-fiction stories are never about issues. That's just the fall-back position of writers (and readers) with second rate minds.

Is This A Good Candidate For a Non-Fiction Story?

If you're like me we both want to do the same thing--write powerful dramatic non-fiction stories that tear the heart, boil the blood, and turn into award-winning films that earn the writer fame, riches and the love of beautiful women. Now here's a LA Times news story that seemingly would work. Or would it?

"Ghost Town: A Venice California Life"

How long does it take to research a non-fiction book? Pat Hartman took six years to research hers (and she didn't waste a minute).

Out of the Universe of Non-Fiction Stories Out There How To Pick The Right One To Write About

You can't make a non-fiction story out of every article you see in the paper. You need some criteria to weed out the ones that will never work no matter how much effort you put into them.

Should a writing instructor ever sleep with with an attractive young coed who shows up on his doorstep with a bottle of Merlot in hand?

Absolutely not! Merlot is swill. Cabernets or Chardonnays are much better accompaniment to affairs of the heart. Of course, nothing compares to a good French Sauterne. Anyone who brings a good and properly chilled Sauterne to bed with her is a woman of character, intelligence and exemplary sensitivity.

Making the Story Happen

It's not enough just to send in a query letter to an editor. You have to fight to make the story happen and you have to keep fighting for it all the way, even when the editors, in their wisdom, decide they don't want the story after all.

Morons, Your Bus Is Waiting. How five short words changed Roy Peter Clark's life

I don't know how much it takes to change Roy Peter Clark's life but his recipe for inspired writing is about as appealing as a liverwurst milkshake.

Anne of the Shining Eyes

Writing about yourself in the third-person--a (fictional) story telling how to do it

Ditch the Tape Recorder

if memory serves

Unethical Reporters

It's not necessary to crawl in the gutter to get a story (unless you don't plan to live with yourself in the morning).

On Re-writes

Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear when men were ducks and ducks were men and duckmen were everywhere.

Nazis Among Us

"It doesn't matter what you say about us. Any
publicity is good publicity."