"You knew I was a scorpion."

Writing with Joe Cabello, pt. 1 of 2

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Hello, Sternal Journalists!

Today is part one of a two-part conversation with my friend and sometimes-muse, Joe Cabello. After last week’s chatting about finding ways to be more productive in writing, Joe reached out and asked why I didn’t come to him if I was talking to people about productivity.

This is because Joe is the most efficient, prolific, productive writer I’ve ever met. One time, he found a job writing a tv pilot on Craigslist (unheard of) and they actually produced the damn thing and hired him to write two whole seasons basically by himself (inconceivable!)

His process of converting “I have an idea” into “I’m working on this idea” is frictionless. I realized we’d written things together and given each other notes on projects, but I’d never actually talked to him about his process and how he does what he does.

In part 1, we talk about amateur comic book lettering, a non-traditional route to full-time writing, and my favorite question: is writing a sickness?

Next week, in Part 2, I’ll actually try to steer the conversation towards practical productivity tips. Will I succeed? Stay tuned to find out!


JS: Last week, I only drank on Friday and Saturday. I’ve been trying to really cut back.

JC: Wow. For what reason?

JS: Because it was getting in the way of my day to day life?

JC: [Laughs] Sounds like your day to day life was getting in the way of it.

JS: [Laugh] Are we on the record yet?

JC: Uuuh? Yeah, we are.

JS: How many drinks do you have in a week?

JC: Oh gosh, who would keep count? How many do I not have in a week? That’s a shorter list.

JS: Um, well I guess the reason I ask is… I’m not sure what your understanding of this conversation is, but for me, it is that last week, in the Sternal Journal, I wrote a list of the only few productivity tips I feel like I have. And you responded with, “Good sir, why am I not on this discussion about productivity?”

And the reason I asked that is that you and I both know that you are one of the most productive, prolific creators I know. Is that why?

JC: Uh, no. I said that because you’re my friend, and you were saying you were having these discussions with your other friends about that. I’m like, “Well, not only am I your friend and want to help you, but I’m also one of the most prolific.” [maniacal giggle]

JS: I think there was also a misunderstanding. I wasn’t personally going through a time where I wasn’t able to be productive.

JC: Right. It seemed to be framed that way to me. And we see you.

JS: I appreciate that. And I’m curious to know, I don’t know if we’ve ever talked bout it. I have right beside me your Bottoms Up: Hard Liquor comics. You’ve written these comic books. These are some pins that came with it. But I think this is almost an outlier.

JC: Okay, I wasn’t sure. And I assume this is Sternal Journal, so it’s all gonna be text? Right?

JS: Yeah.

JC: So for the record, the way he’s presenting the comic books is not even for my benefit. He seems to be presenting them as if this will be shown later, like uploaded as a video. So while you’re doing that, I’m like, “Wait, is this a video thing?

JS: Right, I’m not even recording.

JC: I don’t know your process, if you’re just writing down everything we’re saying, or if you just lie about these interviews you’ve had on your Sternal Journal; they’re just your summation.

JS: [Laughs] Right. Emily Layden doesn’t exist. Samee has never seen Happiest Season. No, yeah, I guess I was being on a little. But I do wanna say these, which I’ll hold up again—

—for the benefit of everyone. They’re sort of an outlier. Because these are something you had an idea for, you started a Kickstarter, and then you made like eight times— How many multiples of what you were intending to raise did you raise?

JC: It was like four hundred percent or something.

JS: Four hundred percent! But the thing that’s different is that you had so much buy-in for this. People were basically counting on this to happen because they’d actually bought into it. Whereas most of the time you’re creating things that have yet to see the light of day, and you are able to still finish them as if you had someone saying “I’ll pay you a million dollars if you meet this deadline and if you don’t meet the deadline, you’ll never work again.”

But you’re still working that hard and that efficiently. Just like you show up on time to everything, while still being in some ways at least performatively one of the most degenerate people I know.

JC: [Laughs]. You gotta do it where it counts and fuck around everywhere else. That’s the key. Show up and time and then you can be loose.

JS: You show up on time to a fault. You show up on time to things where people expect you to be a little late. You’ve always knocked on my door exactly on the minute when you said you would be there.

JC: The party starts at four, you’re like “People will get there at five.” I’m there at four.

JS: Do you know how prolific you are compared to others?

JC: Yes and no, I guess. Because I just assume that everybody’s doing that. And that when they say they’re not doing that, that they’re actually doing that. So I don’t wanna be thrown off my game. It’s a problem too because I feel uncomfortable if I’m not doing something. But I enjoy it, and I try to diversify it so I’m not just writing a screenplay, because that can be difficult to do at all hours of the day.

But I go on Twitter, Facebook, whatever, and you have people who are like, “I’m doing a show,” and another person’s like, “Hey, I’m doing a short story,” and another person’s “I’m doing this.”

To me, that’s all one person that did all those things. And they’re doing it every week. So that’s how I see it. So I’m like, “I will keep up.”

JS: So you’ve almost turned yourself into one of your characters, and it’s just Joe versus the world. [Laughs]

JC: Right. A false enemy and it is the world. It’s been that way for a while. I think part of that’s an internet thing. Having so much data, especially following creative people. So like my Kickstarter ended, and I see several other people start one and I’m like, “Fuck, it’s time to start another one because these guys are grinding harder than me.”

It might be one they did two years after their first one, but I’m like, “No, this guy’s doing them all the time.” I gotta get ‘em.

JS: So you’re getting a little bit to the idea I think we’ve talked about: is writing a disease? I was hanging out with a friend from high school and she said, “It’s cool that you’re doing things that aren’t for a job that’s paying you.” And I texted you about it, and you said, “She doesn’t understand that I feel nothing if I’m not doing it.”

JC: [Laughs] Yeah, it’s a sickness. I forget the wording. And I’ve had long periods of time where I wasn’t doing much and I look at those as lost years in a lot of ways. So I’m actually trying to run away from an experience I already had.

JS: Do you actually think they’re lost years. Like do you think you had any—[Laughs]

JS: And [Laughs] I’ll say to readers that, while you’re thinking about this, you have just pulled a bubbler and lighter from literally out of nowhere and taken a hit, and blown smoke into the screen.

JC: [Laughs] You know. We’re here. We’re in the environment. You knew I was a scorpion. Um, I think so in some ways. Not that there was nothing valuable in those years. But I feel like they were lost creatively. And as much as this creativity stuff in COVID is a topic, I do understand if people don’t wanna do anything in it, and I think that was the situation I was in in my early 20s. Just a bit lost for different reasons.

JS: I know that you will take on a job writing a feature length screenplay for two hundred dollars.

JC: That’s been years, and because I did that, now I get paid incredibly well to do my jobs.

JS: How incredibly well?

JC: Uh, I got paid recently and was able to pay two months rent right now without really affecting me.

JS: Are you a full time writer now?

JC: Yeah. I’ve been a full time writer since COVID started. Creative writing. I still teach martial arts, but I don’t need to. I really enjoy that job, but I’m quitting in June because it’s taking too much away from my writing stuff. It’s still a lot of energy.

JS: How many hours a week are you writing?

JC: It’s hard to say because my job now is super involved and super fun, so I don’t mind spending a lot of time writing for that. And it feels almost personal.

JS: Do I know what the job is?

JC: I’m writing comics for a kids education game. So kids get comics of the characters as they pass levels. So it’s very fun, and I get to letter comics. I get to hire artists and manage their work. So it’s pretty much what I was doing for Bottoms Up, and my other comics for myself. But I get to get paid.

JS: So you predominantly right now are a comic book writer.

JC: Yeah, that’s what my job is now. It’s a weird comic book job too. It’s not like, “You’re doing a 3 issue run with Marvel,” but I might even be getting paid better than if I was. I always find the weird jobs that actually wound up being pretty sick.

JS: Do you think that’s your secret? That you’ve actually been able to find the jobs that pay well? Because it’s always felt like you’re someone who will create at such a fast clip no matter whether you’re getting paid.

JC: Yeah. That’s why it’s hard to say “How much are you writing?” When I was teaching martial arts thirty hours a week, it was easy to say, “Oh, I only wrote five hours this week because I got off at six and made dinner.”

Now, it’s so weird, I can’t even calculate it. But my work stuff’s my work stuff and then I’m working on my own projects. I would say I usually work til eight or nine. And I make sure I’m not just writing screenplays or working on my spec. Because that would be really annoying.

I have stuff where I’ll like letter my comic. I’ll letter Bottoms Up. That’s not really writing, but I have to do that, and there’s a little bit of rewriting.

JS: What is lettering?

JC: That’s putting the bubbles and the text in it. I just get the image from the artist, and then speech bubbles, text, I do all that.

JS: Oooh, that’s interesting.

JC: To be honest, I’m a pretty amateur letterer. I think I’m pretty good given my experience, but I’m still learning with that stuff. My first comicbook was lettered horribly. I look back at that one, and it’s embarrassing. Look at Robot. Blackbelt. Champion compared to Bottoms Up. There’s some cool things I did in that, but the bubbles suck. Euh.

JS: Now wait, the decision to give—

this one [on the left] sort of rounded edges, and the one on the right corners. How did you decide rounded versus more geometric?

JC: If the person’s more argumentative or closed off… one of the lines, I think she says “I can be [quiet].” That one’s a straight up square because it’s kind of a brick wall of a statement. Some are more jagged, some have sharp points, but are circles with sharp points. Sometimes it’s space, but other times it’s-- what is the intent behind the person speaking? And what kind of conversation is it?

And I love doing that because it’s writing, I believe, because you can really change the scene with it. But it’s a totally different type.

JS: Is that something you’ve picked up in comics you like reading?

JC: I definitely pick it out in comics. Especially because I’m insecure about mine, I’m definitely more hyper aware if I don’t like something. But I’m kinda borrowing from everywhere. A lot of it’s manga-based stuff.

It’s not exactly manga lettering. But manga letter is odd because Japanese text is usually so vertical, and it changes the bubbles so that when it gets translated, it still retains that shape but with English words.

JS: I’ve never thought of lettering before at all. It’s almost like being a DP for the way the words are gonna look.

JC: Yeah, that’s what makes comics comics. That’s the thing they have in storytelling over film. Film has sound and motion. Comics, you get to have this added lettering. So I think it’s really cool, and I hope people do like the lettering in Bottoms Up.

Because I redid it like three times.

JS: [Laughs] Do you think… would subtitles be better if there was a lettering approach rather than just, “We’re gonna put the text at the bottom?”

JC: I think it’s probably not worth it. There’s no commerce in that. That’s why they stopped doing Special Features too. They were like, “let’s stop spending so much money on this thing that only increases sales like 1%.” So I think that would be the biggest challenge with it, but it would be an interesting thing to try.

JS: Is that a Farts Awakens poster over your left shoulder?

JC: No, it’s regular Star Wars.

[Ed Note: Farts Awakens is the Star Wars parody Joe wrote in four and a half days]

JS: Okay. Do you feel like a full professional? Especially in LA, or maybe it’s just my perception of it, there’s this idea that you can’t be a professional until you’re co-signed by an institution, and that’s because a lot of the sort of industries that culturally are most prevalent in LA are run by these institutions that require you to be co-signed by a studio or agency or whatever.

But you’ve made your way to this point where you’ve got a well-paid job writing comics. Do you still feel like you have that amateur sensibility more so than someone who gets staffed or whatever?

JC: I think it depends on what I’m doing. Lettering, let’s drop that because I’m definitely an amateur at that, but as far as a writer? Yeah. I’d say. Enough people have hired me and I’ve done enough work at a professional level.

At my new job, they’ve hired me because I know what I know. And they need that desperately. You know when you still have that fry cook mentality? “Oh, they hired me to just do this thing that anybody could do.” But no, they’re like, “Oh, we hired you because we have no idea what to do in this sector and you seem to.”

And you’re like, “I guess I am a professional.”

Continued next week!


Big Paper. DJ Khaled ft. Cardi B. Look, DJ Khaled dropped a new album on Friday and I was planning to finally do “What I talk about when I talk about DJ Khaled.” But then this Joe idea came up and he, of course was game, and I, of course, am milking it for two Journals, so you’ll have to wait 2 weeks, but for now, enjoy the best song off of the album.

High Hopes. film. This 1988 Mike Leigh movie is wacky, wild, tragic, and relevant as hell.

Another Round. film. Also wild, wacky, tragic, this movie that just won best international film at the Oscars is about four teachers who decide to try to maintain a BAC of .05 in pursuit of happiness. For some damn reason, they’re remaking it with Leonardo DiCaprio. This is practically in English. Just watch it. Mads Mikkelsen is in it! We all like him!

Okay, I think that’s all for now! Goodnight and good week! Love to all!