Podcast

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Manuscript Consultation

Hey, guys, I’ve had a couple of people ask “I see that your Manuscript Consultation post was in 2017- Are you still doing that?” So allow me to refresh it and say that yes, I am! And I’ve collected some of the unsolicited praise I’ve gotten:

  • “You, sir, are a freakin’ genius! I can see why my agent spoke so highly of you. Thanks so much for your really constructive remarks. Very insightful. Now that you’ve pointed out some of the problems, they seem so glaring and obvious. Your suggestions are really great, and have me pointed in the right direction. I now see better the book I wanted this to be but somehow lost sight of. Thank you! (Later email from the same author) “I’m happy (and very relieved!) to report that my editor really loved the manuscript. She and I are still currently going through the usual rounds of revision before publication in 2019 but even now I'm often reminded of how your advice helped improve the manuscript.”
  • “Thank you SO much for these fantastic notes. Your edit suggestions have me excited about this book in ways I haven’t been in a long while.” (Later email from the same author) “I just wanted to let you know that this book, under a new title, got picked up by Imprint/Macmillan for publications in winter, 2019. I appreciate your feedback and support a great deal, and will continue to promote your services. It was a huge help.”
  • “Your astute observations and clarity about plot are exactly what I was looking for and am so happy to have! You are the best! Thank you!” (Later email from the same author:) “I went out to new agents, including aspirational agents, ended up with three offers, and signed with my dream super agent. I’m hoping will go out with the book this fall, and I wanted to thank you so much for your really smart notes and affirmation.”
  • “I can read all the craft books I want, but to have someone with skills read and comment on MY work makes the suggestions and techniques really hit home. It will help with future work.” 
  • “As my first time going through this process, I have learned A TON! So, thank you. You've been great to work with and I’m far more equipped to write a great book than I was before.” 
  • “I got an offer of representation two weeks ago. I've really really appreciated your feedback and believe it has and is making this book a lot stronger.” 
  • “Holy shit these notes are amazing!” 
  • “Wow, Matt, this is so much more feedback than I'd expected. I can't thank you enough! Aside from my agent's initial response, yours is the first one that has given me real hope for my novel. You’re the best! My agent thinks you are ‘worth your weight in gold!’” 
  • “Thanks so much for the thoughtful feedback. It's exactly what I was hoping for: a great mix of quick, actionable edits and bigger structural issues for me to work through. I really appreciate the depth of your engagement with the text”

So here’s the deal:

  • You email me your manuscript (novel, screenplay, teleplay, etc.) in script format if it’s a script (pdf or Final Draft), or double-spaced 12 pt text (Microsoft word or rtf) if it’s prose.
  • You include an email telling me what you want to do with it and what sort of notes you’re looking for.
  • I read it and mark it up, usually about one annotation per page.
  • I then write you an in-depth editorial letter, about 4-8 single-spaced pages, with notes for pushing the manuscript in the direction you want it to go.

So what’s the price? $2.50 per page of your manuscript. So a 60 page TV pilot would be $150, a 120 page screenplay is $300, a 240 page novel manuscript is $600, etc. It’s not cheap, but it’s pretty comprehensive and my customers have mostly let me know that they’ve been eminently satisfied.

NEW: I also do documents under 20 pages, such as treatments, for a minimum of $50. And, by request, I now do phone consultations for $1.50 a minute.

My work has been about 50/50 between writers who have agents and writers who don’t (There are a few agents who sent their writers to me for notes.) It’s been tremendously gratifying to help some people hone their work until it gets them an agent and/or gets published (One author who took my notes got a starred review in PW when his book got published.)

So feel free to contact me at MattMBird@yahoo.com. Hopefully I won’t be too backed up when you get in touch.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

This Looks Cool

Hey guys,  I always considered turning my book into an app but ultimately decided it was just too much work.  Well, it looks like another group has done something similar that looks cool. They’re recommending my book and manuscript services to their clients, so I figured that I’d put in a plug for their app. Watch the video preview here:

Monday, April 22, 2019

Sorry about the lack of posts! And my obligatory MCU list!

Sorry about the lack of posts, guys! Things are in transition. Expect a re-design soon (Everyone loves redesigns, right?) In the meantime, I posted this in the comments of this article, got greyed out, then realized, “Oh, right, I have a blog that’s thirsty for content, why not just post it there?” So here you go. Sorry if it seems like I’m trolling you with my unorthodox picks. I calls ‘em like I sees ‘em!

  1. Iron Man (Practically perfect in every way)
  2. Black Panther (Plot problems, but inspiring and deep)
  3. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Kicks all kinds of ass, but awkward yoking of Hydra story to the Winter Soldier story)
  4. Guardians of the Galaxy (Just delightful)
  5. Avengers: Infinity War (Deftly plotted, wildly thrilling)
  6. Iron Man 3 (Fantastic action, but a step down from the top 5)
  7. Captain America: The First Avenger (aka The Rocketeer Part 2, which is a compliment)
  8. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (Underrated, big emotional punch)
  9. Doctor Strange (Amazing, but I wish he wasn’t a jerk anymore after his spiritual journey, like in the comics)
  10. Avengers: Age of Ultron (Underrated, admirably complex)
  11. Captain Marvel (A little too jokey, but a lot of fun)
  12. Spider-Man Homecoming (Disposable fun)
  13. Thor: Ragnarok (Massively overrated. Huge tone problems. A horrific tragedy with a chuckleheaded tone. Still a fun time at the movies)
  14. Thor (Plot problems, but a great cast)
  15. The Incredible Hulk (Underrated. A fun slam-bang action flick)
  16. Thor: The Dark World (Underrated. I’d rewatch it anytime. The only reason I ranked it so low is that the MCU is so damn good.)
  17. Captain America: Civil War (Ludicrous villain plan, murky theme, forced conflict, it makes no sense who signs up for each side, etc.  Great action, though)
  18. The Avengers (Massively overrated! Nonsensical plot, awkward chemistry)
  19. Ant-Man and the Wasp (Forgettable. The first on this list I wouldn’t rewatch.  The Wasp in the comics is a ray of sunshine!)
  20. Ant-Man (Considered turning it off, finished out of complete-ism)
  21. Iron Man 2 (The only genuinely bad movie they’ve made.)

Thursday, April 11, 2019

How to Write a Memoir: Have a Skewed Point of View

As with all prose writing, memoir writing really comes down to voice. You are asking to be invited into your reader’s home. Will they be happy to hear you talk for several hours?

Yes, they want to hear about amazing events, but no memoir has ever sustained itself by just being a series of events. What they really want to know is, even if there’s nothing extraordinary going on, will you have a unique perspective on everyday life? Do you have a properly skewed point of view, showing amusing and perceptive insight that surprises us, but instantly seems right?

Of course, one question that Trevor Noah had to ask himself when he sat down to write his life story was how angry he wanted to be on the page. He’s writing about horrific historical injustices, and the last thing he wants to do is trivialize them, but he does want to make light of them, and that’s a tricky line to walk.

The solution is to look back at injustice with an amused and amusing point of view. The whole point of this book is that Noah, being one of very few biracial South Africans, is never entirely welcome in any community outside of his own home. This means that no historical perspective is “his story.” He looks upon both blacks and whites from the POV of a somewhat-cynical outsider, which allows him to take his amusement where he pleases, neither approving of nor judging those who had to make terrible decisions. For instance:

  • The white man was quite stern with the native. “You need to pray to Jesus,” he said. “Jesus will save you.” To which the native replied, “Well, we do need to be saved—saved from you, but that’s beside the point. So let’s give this Jesus thing a shot.”

Or:

  • If you’re Native American and you pray to the wolves, you’re a savage. If you’re African and you pray to your ancestors, you’re a primitive. But when white people pray to a guy who turns water into wine, well, that’s just common sense.

We just like hearing this guy talk. Another form of skewed point of view that early-childhood memoir writers can and must avail themselves of is child logic. We all remember, with some embarrassment and some wonder, the bizarre logical inferences we made as a kid, looking at the world with unschooled eyes. The ability to capture this way of thinking, and show its wisdom, is a big part of memoir writing:

  • But at black church I would sit there for what felt like an eternity, trying to figure out why time moved so slowly. Is it possible for time to actually stop? If so, why does it stop at black church and not at white church? I eventually decided black people needed more time with Jesus because we suffered more.

A great storyteller doesn’t even need interesting material.  They can make anything amusing.  Of course, if you start with an amazing life, and then add a great voice on top of that, you’ll have it made.  

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

Rulebook Casefile: Unique Relationships in “Born a Crime”

So we’ve talked about how Trevor Noah creates the classic archetype of the scampish kid, and he also taps into the universal archetype of the indomitable bad-ass single mom. Each character has lots of specifics to make them come alive, but they’re definitely characters we recognize from other stories. But that’s fine, because, as I’ve said before, readers don’t actually crave unique never-before-seen characters. We like archetypes. But while we don’t demand unique characters, we do like them to combine into unique never-before-seen relationships.

Anyone who’s seen “Gilmore Girls” or other similar stories will recognize the idea of a single mom and child who interact as almost-equals, but never quite like Trevor Noah and his mom. Here’s their conversation from the first chapter of his book (It is always dubious, of course, when a memoir recreates this much dialogue, but readers are forgiving.)

  • “It’s the Devil,” she said about the stalled car. “The Devil doesn’t want us to go to church. That’s why we’ve got to catch minibuses.”
  • Whenever I found myself up against my mother’s faith-based obstinacy, I would try, as respectfully as possible, to counter with an opposing point of view.
  • “Or,” I said, “the Lord knows that today we shouldn’t go to church, which is why he made sure the car wouldn’t start, so that we stay at home as a family and take a day of rest, because even the Lord rested.”
  • “Ah, that’s the Devil talking, Trevor.”
  • “No, because Jesus is in control, and if Jesus is in control and we pray to Jesus, he would let the car start, but he hasn’t, therefore—”
  • “No, Trevor! Sometimes Jesus puts obstacles in your way to see if you overcome them. Like Job. This could be a test.”
  • “Ah! Yes, Mom. But the test could be to see if we’re willing to accept what has happened and stay at home and praise Jesus for his wisdom.”
  • “No. That’s the Devil talking. Now go change your clothes.”
  • “But, Mom!”
  • “Trevor! Sun’qhela!”
  • Sun’qhela is a phrase with many shades of meaning. It says “don’t undermine me,” “don’t underestimate me,” and “just try me.” It’s a command and a threat, all at once. It’s a common thing for Xhosa parents to say to their kids. Any time I heard it I knew it meant the conversation was over, and if I uttered another word I was in for a hiding—what we call a spanking.

(This is of course a trick that screenwriters don’t have, jumping in to unpack the hidden meanings behind one word.)

Both characters have unique voices and strong opinions. Together they have a complex, shifting power dynamic. Either character on their own could probably carry the story, but it’s their contentious but loving relationship that will really power the book. Compelling characters are great, but compelling relationships are even better.

Sunday, April 07, 2019

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Walk the Thin Line Between Rascal and Rotten

Up to a certain point, readers love rascally misbehavior. We’re happy to read a paragraph like this one, in the first chapter of Trevor Noah’s “Born a Crime”:

  • I was naughty as shit. She would send me out to buy groceries, and I wouldn’t come right home because I’d be using the change from the milk and bread to play arcade games at the supermarket. I loved videogames. I was a master at Street Fighter. I could go forever on a single play. I’d drop a coin in, time would fly, and the next thing I knew there’d be a woman behind me with a belt. It was a race. I’d take off out the door and through the dusty streets of Eden Park, clambering over walls, ducking through backyards.

Such paragraphs are joyous and liberating. They remind us of the freedom from consequences we used to feel, and long to feel again. They make us think that if we were a little more brave we could outrun those that hold us back. We admire the audacity of young Trevor for misbehaving, and of old Trevor for bragging about it so shamelessly.

But at some point, for me as a reader, I started to get a bit uncomfortable with how he related his memories.  Maybe, of course, this was a simple case of “white reader pathologizes behavior in black man that he would forgive in white people,” but I did find myself saying at times, “Uh, this guy might actually be a sociopath.” The most obvious tipping point was when young Trevor was playing with matches and burnt down a house. He describes his feelings after watching it burn to the ground:

  • I didn’t feel bad about it at all. I still don’t. The lawyer in me maintains that I am completely innocent. There were matches and there was a magnifying glass and there was a mattress and then, clearly, a series of unfortunate events. Things catch fire sometimes. That’s why there’s a fire brigade. But everyone in my family will tell you, “Trevor burned down a house.” If people thought I was naughty before, after the fire I was notorious. One of my uncles stopped calling me Trevor. He called me “Terror” instead. “Don’t leave that kid alone in your home,” he’d say. “He’ll burn it to the ground.”

That same cocky defiance started to curdle for me. Did he really have to say “didn’t feel bad about it at all”? What sort of adult defends burning down a house?  In the next paragraph, I got even more uncomfortable about his imperviousness to consequences:

  • My cousin Mlungisi, to this day, cannot comprehend how I survived being as naughty as I was for as long as I did, how I withstood the number of hidings that I got. Why did I keep misbehaving? How did I never learn my lesson? Both of my cousins were supergood kids. Mlungisi got maybe one hiding in his life. After that he said he never wanted to experience anything like it ever again, and from that day he always followed the rules. But I was blessed with another trait I inherited from my mother: her ability to forget the pain in life. I remember the thing that caused the trauma, but I don’t hold on to the trauma. I never let the memory of something painful prevent me from trying something new. If you think too much about the ass-kicking your mom gave you, or the ass-kicking that life gave you, you’ll stop pushing the boundaries and breaking the rules. It’s better to take it, spend some time crying, then wake up the next day and move on. You’ll have a few bruises and they’ll remind you of what happened and that’s okay. But after a while the bruises fade, and they fade for a reason—because now it’s time to get up to some shit again.

Reading the book made me admire Noah’s personal bravery and his skill at telling his story, but it also confirmed some of the vibe I’ve always gotten off him.

I think of his joke at the Oscars this year. As CNN summed it up:

  • “The Daily Show” host introduced the best picture nominee Black Panther and had some fun with the idea that people think the fictional setting of the country of Wakanda is real.
  • Noah, who is South African, joked about knowing the movie’s main character, T’Challa, played by Chadwick Boseman.
  • “Growing up as a young boy in Wakanda, I would see T’Challa flying over our village, and he would remind me of a great Xhosa phrase,” Noah said. “He says ‘abelungu abazi uba ndiyaxoka’ -- which means, ‘In times like these, we are stronger when we fight together than when we try to fight apart.’”
  • But those who speak Xhosa got a good chuckle, because what Noah actually said is: “White people don't know I’m lying.”

On the one hand, this was really funny to find out about the next day, but thinking back on it, knowing what he was actually saying, there was something sorta creepy about Noah’s beatific smile as he said the words in Xhosa, looking into the eyes of hundreds of people who didn’t know he was mocking them.

Noah has been through a lot. His very existence was criminal until the age of five. His mom threw him from a taxi to escape would-be rapist/murderers, who were never arrested. His stepdad shot his mom in the head and the police didn’t care. Police ended his teenage DJ career by shooting his computer dead. Whatever qualities that may have resulted are understandable. And he deserves credit for writing honest and forthrightly about his life and emotions.

As I read his book, maybe I was supposed to revel in his earlier misbehavior and then feel chilled when I saw how far it went. The book made me trust him very much as an honest, self-aware person.  That paragraph shows that he’s admirably grappled with his own psychology.  But it certainly kept me from bonding with him 100%.

Thursday, April 04, 2019

How to Write a Memoir: Digress Deftly

There are a couple of ways to tell a complex anecdote from your childhood when you’re talking to your friends. Sometimes you start with the incident in question, then find yourself having to stop several times and say, “Wait, I forgot, I have to tell you about something else that happened before I go on...”

Or, you can keep all your ducks in a row, and start out with, “So there was this funny thing that happened to me as a kid, but before I begin, let me tell you about three other things that will be important to this story…”

Both of these approaches are frustrating for the listener. The first is too confusing and the second is too boring.

Yes, it is inevitable that telling any one story from your childhood will probably need you to add some background, either before you begin or interspersed, but there are more elegant ways to do it, and that’s a big part of memoir writing.

Let’s look at the skillful way the first chapter of Trevor Noah’s “Born a Crime” is structured:

  1. He quotes the Apartheid Law that meant he was “born a crime.”
  2. He briefly tells us a bit about the civil war between Zulu and Xhosa that followed the end of Apartheid.
  3. He jumps into his main anecdote at the moment he gets thrown out of a moving car. He says it was on a Sunday on the way home from church.
  4. He jumps back to tell us about how South Africans embraced Christianity.
  5. He tells us about a typical Sunday with his mother and baby brother, attending four church services all over town. His description of each service is funny.
  6. He briefly reminds us that this will be a story about getting thrown from a moving car.
  7. He goes back to that morning, when the car was broken and he tried to talk his mother out of church, but she said they would take minibuses. The conversation ends with the threat of a spanking.
  8. He mentions that he would sometimes run away from spankings, and she would chase him.  He says they were both champion runners at his school’s sports day (where parents were allowed to compete). He tells stories of other misbehavior and his mom shouting to a crowd that he was thief when she couldn’t catch him.
  9. He briefly goes back to getting on a minibus to head out to church.
  10. He jumps back to tell us more about the civil war between Zulu and Xhosa. He talks about his mom walking through the violence to go back and forth to work. She was never scared.
  11. He talks about going from church to church that day, until they were stranded on a street late at night, looking for a minibus.
  12. He explains the nature of the conflict between minibus operators.
  13. Now we finally have enough info to finish the anecdote: They end being bullied into a Zulu minibus. The drivers find out his mom is Xhosa and threaten to rape or kill her. She throws Trevor out of the car and jumps out with her baby in her arms. Their running ability comes in handy and they get away. He tells her that this proves his was right about not going out, and they laugh about it.

A few of these transitions are awkward. Here’s the most awkward one:
 But the other eleven transitions are all fairly smooth. Here’s a good one:

He needs to include that little em-dash to make it clear to us that he’s jumping in time again, but he knows he has to ramp us up to jump us over the gap, so we don’t use that em-dash as an excuse to put the book down.

“Even when she should have been” ends that digress on a note of foreboding. We fear, correctly, that the anecdote we’re jumping back to will be a case where she maybe should have been more scared. He reassures us every time that he’s digressed from the main anecdote for a good reason, which will soon be readily apparent.

Almost getting murdered is a hell of a story, and he’s stretching it out as long as possible, threading in a lot of not-quite-as-interesting material that now become much more interesting when we know that it will come into play in this anecdote. He starts us off with just a little about the Zulu-Xhosa Civil War, but he works most of that information in once he’s telling a story about almost getting killed by a Zulu for being Xhosa.

Now we care: about his anecdote, his life, and his country. Smoothly interweaving wild anecdotes with less-interesting background details is a big part of memoir writing.

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

How to Write a Memoir: Establish that You Were in the Thick of It

There is nothing you can do that is more self-important than writing a memoir: “Hey, you! Hey, everybody! Stop what you’re doing and devote 10 hours to hearing every detail of my life! In return, I will not listen to a word of your life! Because I am so much more interesting than you!”

Trevor Noah has a bit more claim to our time than out last memoirist, Tara Westover: We’ve at least heard of him. We’ve maybe been entertained or edified by his TV shows. We might say “Oh, sure, that guy, let’s hear what he has to say.” But that only gets us as far as the first chapter. If he launches into chuckleheaded tales of celebrity shenanigans, we’ll check out quickly.

No, all memoirists ultimately face the same test: Once the reader is reading they’re going to ask, “What can you tell me that’ll blow me away? What about your life is remarkable or shocking or harrowing enough to be worth my time?” As veterans used to ask of each other, “Sure, you were in Vietnam, but were you in the shit?” Noah understands that even celebrity memoirists, if they want to reach beyond their hardcore fans, have to assure the reader: “I was in the shit.”

Luckily Noah has three historical horrors to power his story. His title lures us in by promising a tale of one of history’s great crimes, apartheid, which we’ve all heard of. But that turns out to be sort of a fake out, because Apartheid ends when he’s five, so, after getting us to pick up the book, he transitions us on the first page into another conflict, the subsequent civil war between Zulu and Xhosa ethnic groups. American readers are less familiar with this (and wouldn’t have bought a book that promised to be about this), so he has to get us up to speed, and convince us that this, too, is the shit.

So his first chapter is about a time that some Zulu minibus drivers almost killed him and his mom for being Xhosa, until they leapt from the moving vehicle to get away. And he makes it kind of funny, while still totally harrowing. It’s a great first chapter.

And lest that conflict run out of steam, he briefly mentions in this opening chapter that he’ll also be telling the story of his stepfather shooting his mother in the head! Noah is going out of his way in this first chapter to tell us, “It doesn’t matter if you love me or not, I have a hell of a story to tell.” He is holding himself to the same standard that Westover or any unknown memoirist has to meet: I will make you care whether you want to or not.