order of oddfish cover

The Order of Oddfish


Our New Yorker cartoon game

Alert! I have a short story in the Chicago Reader this week! It’s called “The Most Dangerous Beard In Town” and it’s whimsically illustrated by the very talented Jeremy Russnak.

Today, against my better instincts, I’d like to share with you a game I made up — or rather, an experiment. (If someone thought of this before me, I haven’t heard of it.)

If you’re like me, you regard the New Yorker cartoons with mild exasperation. Yes, some are funny, but too many are precious, random, instantly dated, or eye-rollingly New-York-y.

I wondered if cartoons of comparable quality could be generated by an algorithm. That is: might a random pile of cartoons, matched willy-nilly with a random pile of captions, stand a chance of being just as funny?

So I came up with a game for five or six people. Everyone sketches two New Yorker-style cartoons (with no caption) and writes two New Yorker-style captions (with no cartoon). Don’t show your work, and don’t try to make your cartoon and caption match. Mix the cartoons together in a hat. Mix up the captions in another hat. Then go around the table, randomly drawing out from each hat a picture and a caption. The resulting combination is your cartoon!

The results are more frequently passable than you might expect. I played this with family and friends over the summer a couple times, and also at Christmas. Here’s some results:

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

I feels this nails the head-scratching atmosphere of a New Yorker cartoon. It seems like it should be funny, there’s probably someone who could explain to you why it’s funny, but it’s just puzzling.

It’s unlikely you’ll get a really funny cartoon purely by random. But sometimes you hit the jackpot:

“This is my own personal 9/11.”

Over time we’ve deduced heuristics for cartoon-drawing. For instance, it’s good practice to include a character with their mouth open, so it’s clear who is speaking the caption. Also, instantly dated references to politics are unexpectedly good.

“I see you’re channeling Senator Craig.”

Absolutely mystifying, and thus New Yorker gold. That sound you hear? David Remnick furiously emailing me for more. But, my dear David, I’m quite unnecessary. All you need are some slightly tipsy friends and the laws of probability.

“He hasn’t been the same since he got that iPhone.”

Really, that caption might have fit any picture. But sometimes the randomly-chosen picture and the randomly-chosen caption fit together with a startling coincidence:

“It’s not all about you anymore, Grandma.”

In the Critique of Judgment Kant defines laughter as “an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing.” But in the above cartoon, Kant is refuted! The cartoon has all the necessary trappings of a joke; at a casual glance it seems like it must be a joke; but as soon as one looks closely — poof! One is left with nothing but empty air . . . and the only laugh is a nervous one, anxious that you’re not getting it.

“We truly live in a post-ironic era.”

Me: 2, Kant: 0

“I’m leaving you because of the pets.”

If enough players put talking animals in the hat, and enough people put “urbane banter” in the other hat, you can’t lose. This one would work equally well with the “post-ironic” or “iPhone” captions. Which only proves my point.

“I had always thought ‘yes we can’ was an overstatement.”

Biting social commentary? The reasoning mind is brought to a gentle halt.

“I can’t work under these conditions.”

I don’t know what the above cartoon means, and I don’t care. Somehow it is mathematically perfect.

“I wish I was taller.”

A pointless update of the old classic. The ratio of “it seems like a joke” to “hey wait, there’s no joke” approaches unity!

“Your day will come.”

This one almost makes sense. Or is this an old “Fred Basset”? Quick, Elaine, to my archives!

“Please don’t put this on your blog.”

Maybe I should’ve taken this advice.

Gingerbread Palaces! Masquerading Aunts! Fewmets Haiku!

The Belgian Prankster sign

In my last post I wrote about the amazing fan art I’ve seen for The Order of Odd-Fish. But what about fan art you can eat? Over the weekend, my niece Freya and nephew Theo, along their friends Georgia and August, pulled off a bold project: a gingerbread version of Aunt Lily’s ruby palace!

Gingerbread Ruby Palace

They populated the ruby palace with Odd-Fish characters. Below are closeups of Sefino fulminating about the latest Eldritch Snitch, Aunt Lily dancing on the roof, Jo wandering the garden, and Colonel Korsakov skulking under the eaves.

Sefino Aunt Lily
Jo Colonel Korsakov

Fantastic work — and delicious! Freya and Georgia showed me the gingerbread ruby palace on Sunday, after I did a reading and signing at Oak Park’s Magic Tree bookstore.

Reading at the Magic Tree Bookstore

Another mouth-watering surprise of the evening: our friends Jennifer and Jay’s chocolate chip AND BACON cookies.

Doesn’t sound like it should work, right? But it did. Like a dream of a dream.

Sandee and Marissa

As you can see, my own family is not to be outdone. At Thanksgiving, my aunt Sandee and cousin Marissa dressed up as Aunt Lily and Sefino and did a dramatic reading from Odd-Fish. It was a hoot! (I never before realized how similar Aunt Sandee is to Aunt Lily.)

They were going to perform this as a surprise for my book release party (with Sandee’s friend Frank as Colonel Korsakov) but had to cancel because of an emergency. I was tickled to finally see it. I’m lucky to have such an enthusiastic and creative family!


The last week or so has a whirlwind of readings, including the fun Proximity magazine release party and an appearance at the St. Joseph County Public Library in South Bend. The above picture is from Lindsay Hunter and Mary Hamilton’s hilarious Quickies! reading series at the Innertown Pub. The premise is that “each reader has five minutes to read a complete work of prose. No poetry. No excerpts. No cheating.” If you read for over five minutes, Lindsay and Mary whistle you off the stage; if you persist, they physically remove you.

Long story short: I played to lose.

A Wind In The Door Cover

Another fun event last week — I got to judge a haiku contest! It was for Jetwit.com, a website for JETs who are writers, interpreters, and translators. (They ran an interview with me back in November.) Contestants were required to use a special word of my choice in their haiku. The prize was a copy of The Order of Odd-Fish.

I chose the word “fewmets,” a term which should be instantly familiar to any Madeleine L’Engle fan. Rusty? Take out your copy of A Wind In The Door, then, and turn to the scene in which Charles Wallace shows a mysterious feather to his eleven-year-old twin brothers Sandy and Dennys:

“Hey, this is most peculiar!” Sandy touched the base of the feather. “I don’t think it’s from a bird.”

“Why not?” Charles Wallace asked.

“The rachis isn’t right.”

“The what?” Meg asked.

“The rachis. Sort of part of the quill. The rachis should be hollow, and this is solid, and seems to be metallic. Hey, Charles, where’d you get this thing?”

Charles Wallace handed the feather to his mother. She looked at it carefully. “Sandy’s right. The rachis isn’t like a bird’s.”

Dennys said, “Then what –”

Charles Wallace retrieved the feather and put it back in his pocket. “It was on the ground by the big rocks in the north pasture. Not just this one feather. Quite a few others.”

Meg suppressed a slightly hysterical giggle. “Charles and I think it may be fewmets.”

Sandy turned to her with injured dignity. “Fewmets are dragon droppings.”

I always loved how Sandy doesn’t miss a beat, that he just automatically knows what the word “fewmets” means (not to mention “rachis”).

Wikipedia teaches us that the strict definition of fewmets is rather broader (“the droppings of an animal by which the hunter identifies the prey”), but that is only quibbling. I received many exquisite haiku about dragon poop, and after sifting and considering I finally chose a winner and two honorable mentions. You can read the winning haiku here, along with my commentary.

Finally, I must note some of the fabulous notices The Order of Odd-Fish has been getting! I woke up today to this marvelous review by Veronica Bond in Gaper’s Block. A review like this is, frankly, a writer’s dream come true. More great reviews came from Leaving Shangri-L.A. and Curled Up With A Good Book. I’m delighted, honored, and humbled!

Sometimes these reviews can lead to friendships. About two months ago author Laini Taylor wrote a great review of The Order of Odd-Fish. After reading Ms. Taylor’s review (and exchanging some emails), I got hold of her excellent first novel Blackbringer.

Blackbringer Cover

What a treat! Magpie, a faerie girl, travels the world hunting devils with her posse of squabbling, coffee-drinking, cheroot-smoking crows, collecting and preserving the scattered scraps of the world’s fading magic, but she gets in over her head when she discovers an unholy darkness that is unraveling the very tapestry of reality. The story is strong and satisfying, but what put this book over the top for me were the details: for instance, the way Magpie wheedles the most powerful god in the universe not with some unthinkable sacrifice, but by making him his favorite whimsical cake. Or the fast-paced, nail-biting devil-fighting scenes, which are cinematic in the best sense. Or her world’s carefully worked-out creation myth, which I must not ruin for you, but is tied very cleverly to Magpie’s own origins and the gripping, oh-my-god-how-is-she-going-to-get-out-of-this climax. Best of all, there’s a sequel on the way!

Laini Taylor also has awesome pink hair, updates her blog more often than I do, and creates her own line of faerie-inspired crafts. It’s nice to be friends with another YA fantasy author, but frankly, she makes me feel lazy.

Very well, Ms. Taylor. My new year’s resolution: to step my game up to Laini level.