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The Order of Oddfish

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Episode 2 of The Secrets of Story Podcast: The Easy Way!

December 8, 2016

Here it is, the second episode of a new podcast that I’m doing with Matt Bird, Secrets of Story. As Matt mentioned in his own post about this episode, most of it was recorded before the disastrous election, so consider its goofy, antic mood as a “relic of a happier world, before evil triumphed,” as Matt put it.

Now, I’ve already explained the nature of my friendship with Matt Bird and my connection to his “Secrets of Story” blog in a previous post. Basically, in this podcast we try to figure out what makes for good stories. Usually Matt brings up some advice from the storytelling advice book he’s written (called Secrets of Story: Innovative Tools for Perfecting Your Fiction and Captivating Readersyou should buy a copy right now!). I’m no story guru, but I am an author, and I sometimes disagree with his advice. I’m usually more practical and intuitive, he’s theoretical and analytical.

You can subscribe to the podcast here. Matt also put it up on Soundcloud, so you can listen to it above, too.

In this episode, we discuss Matt’s fourteen-point story structure and test it against the classic movie Silence of the Lambs. Every “story guru” has their own recommended story structure, from Aristotle to Joseph Campbell to Dan Harmon to FILM CRIT HULK. Matt’s fourteen-point structure shares some similarities with these, of course, but he also has his own twists that are entirely original to him. Some of them are quite brilliant . . .

. . . And some of them I disagree with intensely. One of them is a certain step of his fourteen-point structure. We debate it in this second episode of the podcast, and as far as I can tell, it seems I bring Matt around to my point of view. You can read more deeply about Matt’s fourteen-point structure in this series of posts on his blog (the posts are in reverse chronological order, though, so scroll to the bottom and read from the bottom up). Or you could just buy his book.

Now here’s something juicy. At the end of the previous episode, Matt and I launched a hopefully-recurring feature called “Free Story Ideas,” in which Matt or I “give away” story ideas that we’ve dreamed up, but that we haven’t had the time or inclination to actually write. Matt’s idea last time was a movie or TV show based on Laika, the Russian dog who was the first Earth animal in space in 1957.

Matt’s premise: what if, instead of Laika dying in space in the Sputnik-2 as we all concluded, she was picked up by aliens? And what if those aliens are watching all the planets with intelligent life, and the first time any planet sends a living organism into space, those aliens whisk away the organism (in this case, Laika) in order to test them, to see if that planet is worthy to be included in the Galactic Empire—and if they fail the test, the planet is destroyed? And so then Laika is put in the odd position of fighting for the life of the planet that only hours ago callously flung her up into space to die?

A view of Laika, Nov. 5, 1957, the female dog the Russians say is riding in outer space as a passenger aboard Sputnik II.  The Russians say the name is also the breed of a dog native to the far North, and is related to the larger husky and similar to the spitz or pomeranian.  The Laikas are known for their endurance. (AP Photo/NASA)

Well, unbeknownst to Matt, after he “gave away” his idea, I decided to do a writing experiment. I gave myself three days to scribble a not-necessarily-great, first-draft script of his Laika premise. I called it “Laika and the Blue Mouse” and it’s supposed to be an animated Adult-Swim sci-fi comedy in the tradition of “Rick and Morty” or “Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” You can download it here if you want to read it. Matt and I are going to go through the script in the next episode and he’s going to give his story-guru notes on it.

Not to protest too much, but the script’s not necessarily me at my best! But my role on the podcast is to represent the practical realities of writing, as opposed to Matt’s analytical theory of storytelling. So I wanted to open up the creative process, and give a look under the hood, and show how important it is not to worry about perfection, just to get out that crappy first draft, and not putting any ego into it. Polishing and editing can happen later!

Anyway, when forcing yourself to finish something within a deadline, you might find yourself coming up with crazy and fun ideas that you might not otherwise had if you’d taken a more deliberative approach. If you want to chime in about your own critiques of the script, head on over to Matt’s post and leave a comment.

I’ll see you in space! The script is here!

laikaillustlo

Last Stop On Market Street, 2016 Newbery Medal Winner, Revised

December 2, 2016

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Everybody loves Matt de la Peña’s 2016 Newbery Medal Winning book Last Stop on Market Street. I love it too! I’ve read it to my girls countless times, they love it as well! What’s not to love? Why stop at a measly Newbery Medal anyway? Give that book a Caldecott! Wait, it won a Caldecott Honor too? Sure! Why not! While we’re at it, can we give Matt de la Peña an NCTE National Intellectual Freedom Award? Absolutely! What’s one more award! Can we get him a Congressional Medal of Honor as well? Why not throw that in too? Can’t hurt, can it? Everybody loves Matt de la Peña! I love Matt de la Peña! I met Matt de la Peña once at the Rochester Teen Book Festival in 2013, and discovered Matt de la Peña is tall! Like, really tall! Like, he’s twice my height! Everybody loves tall people! They deserve to be successful! It’s only fair!

The book was illustrated by Christian Robinson. I bet he’s tall, too!

But here’s the thing. I’ve read Last Stop On Market Street many, many times. And I do love it. What’s more, I’ve gotten a fair number of excellent movie submissions based on it for my 90-Second Newbery Film Festival. But something has occurred to me, on my umpteenth time through the story. Something that had been nagging me about the story from the very first time I read it. And now I can’t let it go.

It is this: the “nana” character, which everyone bends over backwards to praise for her gentle whimsical wisdom, is one of the most infuriating characters in all of children’s literature.

Luckily, Last Stop On Market Street clocks in at a mere 757 words. So I found it easy to make the necessary fixes. Just had to interpolate a few lines here and there. Heads-up to Penguin Books: for future editions of Last Stop On Market Street, you can just cut-and-paste what I’ve written below.

Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson: YOU’RE WELCOME.

CJ pushed through the church doors,
skipped down the steps.

The air outside smelled like freedom,
but it also smelled like rain,
which freckled CJ’s shirt and dripped down his nose.

He ducked under his nana’s umbrella, saying,
“How come we gotta wait for the bus in all this wet?”
“Trees get thirsty, too,” his nana told him.

“I’m not talking about the trees,
I’m talking about my reasonable physical needs.
I am wet and uncomfortable,” replied CJ.
But nana just kept going on about trees, pointing at one:

“Don’t you see that big one drinking through a straw?”
CJ looked for a long time but never saw a straw.

“This is the very definition of gaslighting,” said CJ.

From the bus stop, he watched water pool on flower petals.
Watched rain patter against the windshield of a nearby car.
His friend Colby climbed in, gave CJ a wave,
and drove off with his dad.
“Nana, how come we don’t got a car?”

“Boy, what do we need a car for? We got a bus that breathes fire,
and old Mr. Dennis, who always has a trick for you.”

“Why can’t you just be forthright with me
and admit that we can’t afford a car?” said CJ.
“There’s nothing shameful about not having enough money for a car.
But when you dance around the issue like this in such a transparent way,
You make me suspect that maybe there is something to be ashamed of.”

The bus creaked to a stop in front of them.
It sighed and sagged and the doors swung open.

“And this bus has never breathed fire once,” said CJ to himself.
“Plenty of exhaust coming out, though.
If you’re going to try to sell that as fire to me,
you have an uphill battle.”

“What’s that I see?” Mr. Dennis asked.
He pulled a coin from behind CJ’s ear,
placed it in his palm.
Nana laughed her deep laugh and pushed CJ along.

“I wonder if Mr. Dennis feels obligated to keep doing this,
or if he genuinely enjoys it,” thought CJ. “He’s done it like two
dozen times with me. We both feel that the trick has kind
of run its course, but nana seems really into it.
Still, how can he afford to be giving away quarters to
every kid who comes on the bus? It’s awkward.
I always feel like I’m taking advantage of him.”

They sat right up front.
The man across the way was tuning the guitar.
An old woman with curlers had butterflies in a jar.
Nana gave everyone a great big smile
and a “good afternoon.”
She made sure CJ did the same.

Which is what a psycho would do,
if you think about it for more than three seconds.
Has Matt de La Peña actually ever taken public transportation???

The bus lurched forward and stopped,
lurched forward and stopped.
Nana hummed as she knit.
“How come we always gotta go here
after church?” CJ said.
“Miguel and Colby never have to go nowhere.”

“I feel sorry for those boys,” she told him.
“They’ll never get a chance to meet Bobo or the Sunglass Man.
And I hear Trixie got herself a brand-new hat.”

“You’re a master of infuriating misdirection,” said CJ.
“I didn’t ask about whether you feel sorry for Miguel and Colby.
I specifically asked for the reason why we’re going to this place.
Once again you muddy the waters by talking about a bunch of
irrelevant things. Why can’t you give me the basic respect
of answering my questions in a straightforward way?
I’m a child. I want clarity and honesty.
And you’re going on and on about how Trixie got herself a brand-new hat.
No five-year-old boy in the history of humanity ever cared about whether
or not somebody bought a hat. None. If you listened to me and
engaged with me in a sincere and candid way, you would know this.”

CJ stared out the window feeling sorry for himself.
He watched cars zip by on either side,
watched a group of boys hop curbs on bikes.

A man climbed aboard with a spotted dog.
CJ gave up his seat. “How come that man can’t see?”
“Boy, what do you know about seeing?” Nana told him.

“Holy crap, you couldn’t be any more condescending,” said CJ.
“I ask a reasonable question and you shut me down.
Let me guess: you’re going to redefine ‘seeing’ in some
tortured, poetic way that only applies in this conversation.”

Nana went on, “Some people watch the world with their ears.”

“Bingo,” said CJ. “Called it.”

The man said, “If you really want to know,
I’m blind because of macular degeneration.
It’s the deterioration of the central portion of the retina.
I have what’s known as Stargardt disease,
which is caused by a recessive gene.”

“Really?” said CJ, warming to the topic. “That’s fascinating!
That’s real information! Facts that depend not on the whims
of whatever’s flitting through my nana’s head, but actual solid—”

Nana interrupted him.

“I said, SOME PEOPLE WATCH THE WORLD WITH THEIR EARS.”

The blind man and CJ shared a silent moment of understanding.

The man shrugged. CJ nodded in resignation.

“That’s a fact. Their noses, too,” the man said, sniffing at the air.
“That’s a mighty fine perfume you’re wearing today, ma’am.”
Nana squeezed the man’s hand and laughed her deep laugh.

“Amazing,” said CJ. “Once again, she finds a way to make it all about her.”

Two older boys got on next.
CJ watched as they moved on by and stood in back.
“Sure wish I had one of those,” he said.
Nana set down her knitting.
“What for? You got the real live thing sitting across from you.
Why don’t you ask the man if he’ll play us a song?”

“No wonder grandpa died early,” said CJ.
“Your disingenuous responses to my reasonable statements
would make anyone long for an early grave.
I’m just saying I wish I could listen to music on headphones.
I’m not even asking for it, or whining for it.
I’m just acknowledging it’s just a nice thing to have.
But you won’t even let me express my own desires in a plainspoken way.
Instead, you’re putting me in the supremely awkward social situation
of asking a stranger to play a song for me.
And is that really your long-term solution?
Instead of me getting an iPod, I should have this guitar dude
accompany me everywhere and play music?
Your feigned whimsy
and oblique way of never actually answering my questions
makes you one of the most insidious villains in children’s literature.
Okay, fine, Jesus, I’ll ask the guy to play, since you’re giving me that look.”

CJ didn’t have to.
The guitar player was already
plucking strings
and beginning to sing.

“To feel the magic of music,”
the blind man whispered,
“I like to close my eyes.”
Nana closed hers, too.

When everyone had their eyes closed, CJ slipped off the bus
without anyone seeing him except Mr. Dennis.

But Mr. Dennis seemed to understand.

As the bus rumbled away, CJ felt a massive relief rush over him.

“Holy crap,” he said to himself. “It’s like getting out of jail.”

Here’s the first episode of Matt Bird’s and my new podcast, Secrets of Story

November 30, 2016

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Here’s some good news that I haven’t mentioned on the blog yet. I just started co-hosting a podcast with Matt Bird, author of the brand-new screenwriting/novel-writing advice book The Secrets of Story: Innovative Tools for Perfecting Your Fiction and Captivating Readers (which you should go out and buy right now).

For years I’ve been a fan of Matt’s storytelling advice blog. I’ve gleaned insights from it, recommended it to other writers, and even shamelessly cribbed from it for the writing classes I’ve taught. Now Matt has boiled down the essence of his enlightening-but-sprawling blog into a tight, super-useful, enjoyable book.

(I’ve commented a lot on the blog, too, and even did a series of guest posts about all the crafty techniques Star Wars employs to convince us Luke Skywalker is a great hero, and not “whiny” as some critics lazily characterize him. Here is part 1, part 2, part 3, and a final tangent).

What’s the podcast about? Well, it turns out that although I agree with most of what Matt says, we also have significant disagreements! Every week Matt brings up some storytelling advice from his book, I disagree, and then we argue and banter about it—entertainingly, I hope. Sometimes I’ll talk Matt around to my point of view. Sometimes Matt will convert me to his. Sometimes we’ll discover a new truth together. You can subscribe to the Secrets of Story Podcast here. Leave a review, too, if you’re so inclined!

The first episode has us disagreeing about one of Matt’s recent blog posts, Channel Master Thespian. Matt’s claim, as far as I can tell, is that to make your script as good as possible, you can’t imagine the best actors in the world are performing the roles you wrote, but rather the worst. He claims you need to make your script bulletproof by removing anything that could be characterized as “hammy.” I disagree with this, and try to persuade Matt that such obsessive self-doubt and perfectionism leads to timid, defensive writing. Matt argues that most audiences distrust what they’re reading or watching, and that the artist starts off at a disadvantage that s/he must quickly overcome; I don’t deny that the artist must work hard, but I feel that there is a natural amount of initial audience goodwill that can be capitalized on instead of denied. Anyway, you can hear the episode here on iTunes, or if you’re not an iTunes person, here it is on SoundCloud:

Question: how do I even know Matt? I met Matt through his amazing wife Betsy Bird, way back when The Order of Odd-Fish was published. Betsy is a children’s librarian and superblogger, and way back in 2009 she did a great interview with me on her essential children’s literature blog Fuse #8. She’s also the author of one of my daughters’ favorite picture books, Giant Dance Party, and she co-wrote Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature, which is an inside look at some of the unruly personalities and untold stories about the folks who write children’s literature (sometimes quite scandalous!). She also has a humor anthology for girls coming out in Spring 2017 called Funny Girl, with contributors like Raina Telgemeier, Cece Bell, Jenni Holm, Rita Williams-Garcia, Shannon Hale, and more!

Quite a couple, the Birds. Two blogs and four books between the two of them. They used to live in New York and were long-distance friends, but last year they moved to the Chicago area and Betsy now works with my wife Heather, both of them at the Evanston Public Library!

They say to hold your friends close, and your enemies closer. I’m of the philosophy that you should hold your talented and productive friends even closer than your enemies. So I’m glad that the paths of the Birds and the Kennedys have converged! May they never diverge!

Now go listen to the podcast, fool! Only fifty or so days left of America, so let’s listen to podcasts!

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