Friday, September 24, 2010

Ode to a Mentor (or Letter from the Grave)

Peter Dean Lakin

This morning I’m remembering the life of Peter Dean Lakin, the guy who inspired my career in broadcasting more than 40 years ago. Pete died suddenly of a heart attack recently. He was only 68.

At the time of his death, Pete was the news director at Magnum Broadcasting, a consortium of 10 radio stations in central Wisconsin.

I met Pete Lakin 50 years ago when he was at the beginning of his radio career and I was still a prepubescent kid whose voice had yet to change.

In about 1960 or maybe 1961, Pete was the new, hip DJ on WLCX radio (AM 1490) in La Crosse, Wisconsin. His show, "Nightbeat," was on from 9 to midnight. One afternoon after school when I was 10 or 11, I was riding bikes with one of my buddies, Jim Davison (who later became an ophthalmologist). We decided on a whim to stop at the WLCX transmitter on Lang Drive by the La Crosse River, knock on the door, and see if anyone would show us around.

To our astonishment, Pete Lakin answered our knock. We were stunned. Here was our hero standing before us. He didn't look at all the way he sounded. I'd pictured a skinny, 40-year-old guy with a long neck and a huge Adam's apple. Instead, we were greeted by a handsome, 20-year-old kid with a pompadour of dark, slick hair piled above his forehead.

Pete had a big smile and rosy cheeks. As I remember, he wore a short-sleeved red shirt. (This was a pivotal day in my life, so I guess my memories are more vivid than I thought.) Anyway, he invited us inside -- my first glimpse behind the scenes of a radio station.

The place was a dump, but I was enthralled. The entryway doubled as a studio from which "Vox Pop," - a political call-in show - was broadcast. To our left was the room where a clattering UPI teletype machine unscrolled the news of the moment. (To watch was a mesmerizing experience.)

Pete was there alone running the board. He took us into the control room -- a surprisingly cramped, dimly-lit, inner sanctum where all the magic emanated. Back then, it was block programming, so he was spinning what are called MOR (middle of the road) records like Montavani -- sugary-sweet easy listening music.

Jim and I stood behind Pete, watching over his shoulder as he potted down the audio of the turntable as the song was ending, cleared his throat elaborately, then flipped a switch that keyed his microphone. Then he spoke in the honey-familiar voice we all knew so well -- but this time I was WATCHING. Amazing!

Jim and I must have stayed at least half an hour - maybe more. We wrote down several musical requests which Pete read over the air later that night on "Nightbeat." It was the first time I'd ever heard my name on the radio.

For the next several years, I was a regular visitor to the studio. I'd call first and ask if I could come and watch him work. He taught me all kinds of little broadcasting tips. The one I remember best: "Always have something cued up." (It's also a metaphor for living, I've discovered.)

Pete was always generous with his time and encouraging. On two occasions, he allowed me to be a "Guest Teen DJ" on "Nightbeat" -- reading commercials, giving the weather forecast, introducing records.

It changed the course of my life.

Until that time, I was seriously pursuing a career in law. My dad was a lawyer and we were going to go into practice together, then my plan was to use law as a stepping stone into politics. But radio was always my passion -- and remains my first love. Gradually, however, partly because of Vietnam and Watergate, I became cynical about politics, and was drawn more toward journalism, where, 40+ years later, I’m an editor on CNN’s “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer” in Washington, D.C.

Pete and I remained in touch only sporadically through the years. I would have liked to have kicked back and had a couple beers with him and gotten to know him adult-to-adult instead of from the perspective of idolizing kidhood, but it was never to be.

Yesterday morning, when I was purging an accumulation of e-mails from an address I hardly ever check, I came across a lengthy note from Pete written to me two months before his death.

Here are excerpts:

“Whenever I see a picture of you, or read something you have written, I'm always reminded of the great times we all had back in the early 60's at the swamp...on Lang Drive.

“I remember when your mom would drop you off early in the afternoon...usually on Sundays...and you'd stay until around 5 until she'd call and say she was on her way to get you. I remember that my Sunday shift ended at 6 and you always tried to get her to let you stay that extra hour. I don't think you ever came out on top in those discussions….

“You were always my favorite….I have kids ask me from time-to-time how they can get into radio….I ALWAYS tell them about you and that path you took to a highly successful job at CNN...starting just hanging out at a local radio station in La Crosse and watching the local DJ and then moving forward from there….

“Actually, my news center in Poynette is filled with pictures of my favorite people and three of them are of you….You're one of the success stories I share with kids who want to get into broadcasting….

“I still feel badly about not being able to get together with you when you were in La Crosse a dozen, or so, years ago. I've never had anything bother me for so long....I've shared my feelings of guilt with my son probably 50 times. I do hope you understand.

“Anyway, John....I'm delighted with your success as an author and at CNN and I'm proud to call you my friend.”

Rest in peace, Peter Dean Lakin, and thanks for everything.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Three Radio Interviews

Three Radio Interviews This Week:

Gig 1: Tuesday, June 1, 2010 – 9-11pm ET

“Chandler & Raea - WTF: Capitol Edition”
click on the "Listen Here Live" button on the homepage. If you have a MAC, listeners will have to download a plug-in.

Gig 2: Thursday, June 3, 2010 – 3:30pm ET

Dreamtime Radio on BlogTalkRadio with Julia Widdop

Gig 3: Saturday, June 5, 2010 - 3pm ET

Big Blend Radio

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Hope Can Spring from Tragedy

There's something personal I'd like to share with you: Several years ago, my sister killed herself. It was the worst day of my life. But hope can spring from tragedy. Dr. Reef Karim, a Los Angeles psychiatrist on the faculty of the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute, interviewed me about suicide -- a theme that runs throughout my mystery/suspense novel "Fast Track," drawn, in part, from my sister's suicide.

The interview is now available as a podcast sponsored by The Depression is Real Coalition, a group dedicated to helping people who suffer from depression. Here's the link to our conversation:

It's program #34. I hope you'll give it a listen.

Feel free to pass this along to anyone else in your life who you feel might be encouraged by the interview.


John DeDakis
CNN Senior Copy Editor
("The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer")

(hardcover: ISBN 1-59507-094-X)
(paperback: ISBN 1-59507-102-4)

web site:

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Whittling it Down: What to do When a Manuscript is Too Long

As usual, my thoughts about the writing process might also be relevant to living.

Case in point: What to do when a manuscript is too long (or a life is too cluttered)?

Answer: Whittle it down.

(These comments will be about writing; you decide how to apply them to your life.)

I recently got a manuscript to edit that was a whopping 141,000 words. The writer obviously had a lot to say. But, sadly, too much to say. An agent or a publisher would not be impressed.

Publishing is a business and most of us are unknowns with no book sales track record. Some 170,000 books are published every year in the U.S. alone (more in the U.K.). That comes to about 475 books a DAY. Many (if not most) don’t earn back the money a publisher spends to produce them. Therefore, it’s highly unlikely a publisher will agree to buy a bloated manuscript because its prospects of making money are too uncertain – but the certainty it will LOSE money goes up the longer the book.

Your goal should be to trim your manuscript to about 75,000 words. This doesn’t necessarily mean that what you cut will go onto the scrap heap. This is because publishers, if they like a manuscript (and the author), will want to know if you have any more stories up your sleeve. You’ll be able to say, “Why, yes. I do!”

Remember: This is a business.

My novel "Fast Track" went through 14 major revisions. At one point, it was a 150,000-word mishmash. One publisher rejected it because it didn't fit into an easily identifiable niche - it wasn't literary, it wasn't a romance, it wasn't a mystery. He said he didn't know how to market it.

So, I took the manuscript to the book review club that met in my neighborhood. They read the story and then let me sit in on their critique. By listening to their comments, I realized I had three subplots I could easily jettison. That was the tipping point. I whittled it down to a lean 75,000 word-mystery that netted me an agent and a publisher -- and some very enthusiastic readers.

Whittling really can pay off. See for yourself on Amazon:

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Dealing with Criticism: Some Suggestions

These are comments I made recently to a woman after I edited her manuscript. But I believe they could apply to life, as well:

A lot of my criticisms are my subjective reactions to what you've written. If I make a suggestion, it's only that: a suggestion. You are totally free to accept it, reject it, or come up with something entirely different.

-go through the comments and let them ruminate

-make decisions on how you plan to rework, revise, and rewrite.

-start making your changes

-TAKE YOUR TIME. Part of you will be impatient to give birth to your masterpiece, but as all good moms know, letting nature take its course is the wiser way. If you've been with the project for a long time (9 months or even 9+ years), it's only natural to want get it over with, but don't rush the creative process.

-Once you're done rewriting, find people who - because they love you - are willing to read the manuscript at no charge and give you their honest feedback. It probably won't be as nitpicky as a professional editor's, but - if it's HONEST - it'll help you know where the story is good and where it still needs reworking.

Writing a manuscript is like living life: We are all works in progress.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

You Should Write a Book

Most writers are motivated to write because of things that have happened to them. And the first instinct is to write it as a non-fiction autobiography because the experiences are so vivid and personally profound. Often, well-meaning friends who've heard you recount portions of the story exclaim, "You should write a book!"

But they don't realize just how hard that actually is.

One reason it's harder than most people think is that if you're writing non-fiction, your editor will need to know more of the facts and context of any given story than you - from your narrow and limited point of view - actually know. So, as you try to write FACTUALLY, you'll discover that you don't know nearly as many facts as you thought you did.

Of course you can set out to find those missing details, but, as a journalist, I can tell you that the process is time-consuming, expensive, and fraught with all kinds of difficulties. And perhaps the biggest difficulty is that if you're writing things that are unflattering about a person, you could get sued for defamation of character. Even though what you're writing is true, if the person's not a public figure, you could lose a lot of money defending yourself in court.

It ain't worth it.

Not only that, but, publishers are less likely to want to make your story into a book because you're not well known, making it harder for them to sell the story of a nobody to the general public. Publishing is, after all, a business.


Here's what I suggest:

Use those personal stories as a way to inspire your imagination. Change some of the details of the events and characters so that the real people won't recognize themselves, then build a story that still conveys the deeper "truth" you want to communicate. If you have a vivid imagination you'd be on firmer ground going in that direction. That's because you get to "dream up" the facts, something an editor of non-fiction won't let you get away with.

That's how I dreamed up my first novel "Fast Track." The book got its start because of two traumatic experiences in my life: a car/train collision I witnessed as a kid, and my sister's suicide. But, instead of recounting what happened in the style of a just-the-facts-ma'am journalist, I made up an entirely different story - a mystery/thriller - that still highlights themes and truths surrounding sudden death and suicide. I used my imagination to create a story that would resonate with people who don't know anything about me personally.

If you're able to camouflage the true events that happened to you and create a compelling story that still conveys a deeper "truth," you may be able to write not just one book, but ten, simply by using what happened to you as your creative muse.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Ever Feel Inadequate? Some Thoughts on Writing - and Living

A woman sent me an email recently telling me she has a "yearning" to write, but wonders if she can really sit down and write a book. She asked, "Did you ever wonder if you could really do it?"

The short answer is, "yes." Here's my longer response to her - and if you substitute the word "living" for "writing," my comments might be relevant to you even if you're not a writer:

Yearning and self-doubt are both essential elements in the process. The yearning propels you to the keyboard; the doubts cause you to stare stupidly at it. The yearning is necessary; the doubts are inevitable.

At some point, it's probably valuable to look more deeply at yourself and ask why you have doubts. Chances are, your answer will revolve around these two inadequacies: I'm not smart enough and I'm not good enough. (Apologies to Stuart Smalley)

The first one -- not smart enough -- is probably true. I don't have to look very far to find someone smarter than me. But I know I'm smarter than some people, too. I am who I am.

My mom, who was a third grade teacher, refused to tell me my IQ even though she knew. "You're above average," is all that she'd say. She explained that if she told me it was high, I'd coast through life and wouldn't try very hard; if she told me it was low, I'd give up and wouldn't try, either. She always used to say, "It's not the IQ, but the 'I will.'" Throughout her career she saw kids who were oblivious to their low IQ thrive because they worked hard and tried.

As for not good enough - that's true, too. But that doesn't mean that you can't improve. First you try, then you look critically at the result to see where you need improvement.

Writing [living] is a process. The more we do it, the more knowledgeable and skillful we become. WHATEVER you write won't be perfect, but instead of being paralyzed by fear of failure, put all that yearning and doubting into motion. As you try to do your best, your "best" will steadily get better.

Hope that helps.

Just a reminder: I'll be speaking and leading some writing workshops this Friday and Saturday (April 23 and 24) at the Writers' Institute at the University of Wisconsin - Madison

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Change is Good

Not long ago, one of my writing students came to me, vexed because she was making so many changes to the story she was writing. Even though my response was tailored to writing, it applies to life, too.

Here's what I told her:

Change is a good thing. Get used to the idea of change because you will be making a LOT of changes throughout the novel-writing process.

Some changes will be huge and fundamental; others will be minor tweaks, but in almost every case, you will be changing your story and your manuscript for the better.


Because the act of writing puts your thinking down in an objectively observable form. Until you write it out, the ideas are merely elusive and ethereal images in your head. Often, it's only when you read what you've written that you can identify sloppy thinking, poor logic, or other problems.

Look at it this way: Writing is clearing your head; reading what you've written is the act of assessing if what was in your head was as good as you'd originally thought. More often than not, it isn't.

Look critically at what you write. By doing so, you'll often find ways to make it even better. DON'T FEEL AS IF IT HAS TO BE "RIGHT" THE FIRST TIME. FIRST DRAFTS SUCK. SO DO FIFTH DRAFTS.

So, take heart. You're a long way from having your manuscript [or your life] be what it should or will be. You're at the stage where you're putting a slab of unformed clay on the potter's wheel. The clay blob will only turn into a work-of-art as you form it and mold it as the wheel spins.

It's a process. You're at the very beginning. There's still a lot of creative fun ahead.

Are you having fun yet??