Podcast

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Episode 19: Alienation and Identification

Listen to "Episode 19: Alienation and Identification" on Spreaker.Listen to "The Secrets of Story: A Screenwriting & Novel Writing Podcast" on Spreaker.
Hey, guys, check it out, it’s our first episode on the IFH Podcast Network! New Music! New Art! An Ending Spiel! And easily skippable ads at the very beginning and end! James and I discuss “Believe, Care, Invest” vs. “Connect, Care, Commit” and quickly find ourselves discussing the weightier topic of whether authors overvalue identification and neglect the value of alienation. And, of course, James adds an 8th and 9th “E”.

Update: An extra ad is playing two minutes into every episode, interrupting us, but I’m trying to fix that!

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Connect Care Commit: Sunset Boulevard

Our final movie! Next up: TV. I’ve realized that “Convince” doesn’t work because it’s referring to what the writer does, but not what the reader is supposed to do.

Why it might be hard to identify with Joe:
  • He’s miserable and maybe just doesn’t have what it takes. We believe Betty that he really doesn’t deserve the living he’s trying to make. In many ways, it’s only his self-deprecating voice-over that makes him sympathetic. Without it, he’d be pretty unbearable.
Connect
  • The details of the business are convincing: “Pretty simple to shoot, lots of outdoors stuff.”
Care
  • In the present, he’s been murdered. In the past, he’s broke and rejected by the world. He hears what Betty thinks of his script when she doesn’t realize he’s in the room. “It’s from hunger…A rehash of something that wasn’t very good to begin with.” When she meets him she says, “I’d always heard that you had some talent.” He replies, “That was last year, this year I’m trying to earn a living.”
Commit
  • He’s got a funny voice-over. He says of his own dead body, floating in a pool: “Poor dope, he always wanted a pool.” As he calls around for money, he tells us “I talked to a couple of ‘yes men’ at Metro. To me, they all said no.” He gets in a car chase to save his car (and livelihood), so that’s always likeable.
Five Es
  • Eat: No.
  • Exercise: No.
  • Economic Activity: He’s desperately trying to get a job.
  • Enjoy: No.
  • Emulate: He tries talking like a producer around the producers, to no avail.
Rise above
  • He’s desperate for any job. Even when he finally starts trying to get out from under his new boss, at the midpoint, it’s so he can work on a spec script with Betty. Only at the end does he decide to move back home and try to get his old reporter job back ...but it’s too late. 
High five a black guy
  • Nope
Kind
  • Nope


Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Connect Care Commit: Star Wars

Why it might be hard to identify with Luke:
  • We don’t meet him until 16 minutes in! (because his early scenes were deleted.) Then, when we do meet him, he’s whiny and petulant (though James Kennedy disagrees: 1, 2, 3)
Connect
  • The first 16 minutes are all about creating a thoroughly convincing world with its own bizarre logic and a wealth of detail. The grime and focus on economic activity is convincing (Wait, should the first C be Convince?? That’s worth thinking about!)
Care
  • We bristle for him when his uncle tells him, “You can waste time with your friends when your chores are done, now get to it.” We feel for him when he says, “If there’s a bright center on the universe, you’re on the planet it’s farthest from.” We agree with his aunt when she tries to tell his uncle that he should be a fighter pilot and not a farmer. Ultimately, we care the most when he looks off into the distance at the two suns with yearning on his face. That’s really a CCC moment.
Commit
  • In the deleted scenes he was the only one on the planet monitoring the action above (Knowledge of above and below is always likeable), but that’s gone. In what we see, he knows what’s wrong with the red robot. He does a good job taking care of the droids. We admire his wiliness in negotiating with his uncle.
Five Es
  • Eat: Blue milk!
  • Exercise: Not really. He jogs a bit back and forth to the robots.
  • Economic Activity: Tons of it.
  • Enjoy: In the deleted scenes, we got to see him hang out with his friends
  • Emulate: He plays with a toy plane.
Rise above
  • Subconsciously, he knows he's putting his job at risk by removing the inhibitor bolt to see more of the princess. He ditches out on his job to chase after R2, but that’s still just to keep his boss/uncle happy. He doesn’t really rise above his job until everybody’s dead.
High five a black guy
  • Nope
Kind
  • He shows empathy toward the robots.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Connect Care Commit: The Silence of the Lambs

Why it might be hard to identify with Clarice:
  • No reason. She’s very easy to identify with.
Connect
  • She moves through several layers of FBI headquarters and it’s a very convincing world. Lecter notes many oddly specific things about her. He sniffs her and says, “Sometimes you wear L’Air du Temps, but not today.”
Care
  • We feel for her when she has to ride in an elevator where everybody is taller than her, then when she’s ushered out of a room where they’re discussing Buffalo Bill. Chilton hits on her, humiliating her. She realizes that she’s been chosen because of her looks. Lecter insults her in lots of ways.
Commit
  • She runs past signs that say Hurt, Agony, Pain, Love It, which is pretty bad-ass. We admire that she stands up to Crawford and Chilton in little ways. We admire her for doing a good job sparring with Lecter. Lecter calls her slippery, which is a nice compliment. We admire her for admitting what Miggs said to her.
Five Es
  • Eat: Never
  • Exercise: She’s running through a rigorous ropes course when we first meet her.
  • Economic Activity: She’s never not working.
  • Enjoy: Not really. She seems to enjoy her work well enough, but she’s pretty serious about it.
  • Emulate: She’s trying to act like an experienced FBI agent.
Rise above
  • She’ll break orders halfway in, but only so that she can do her job better than her boss.
High five a black guy:
  • She does indeed high five a black girl we rarely see again. (We find out in the deleted scenes that it’s her roommate)
Kind
  • “You grilled me pretty hard on the Bureau’s civil right record in the Hoover years.”

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Connect Care Commit: Sideways

Why it might be hard to identify with Miles:
  • He’s a drunk, a liar and a loser. When we first meet him, he realizes he’s late, calls someone and says, “I’m out the door right now,” then sits idly reading on the toilet. Then he does the New York Times crossword as he drives down the highway! When he finally arrives, he lies about the freeway being bumper to bumper. Then he drinks wine with Jack while driving. Then we get to the big one: He stops by his lonely mother’s house just to steal her cash, then sneaks away before the brunch she planned!
Connect:
  • Okay guys, this has been brewing in the comments for a while, but I think it’s time to deal with it: There’s often a difference between Believe (the old version) and Connect (the new version), and I think they’re both valuable. The reasons we believe in Miles and the reasons we connect with him are different. Why do we believe in him? Well, for many of the reasons listed above. That wealth of despicable behavior creates a compelling and believable portrait of a pathetic person. (Boldly pathetic in some ways, which is oddly endearing.)
  • But it feels odd to say that any of these are reasons to connect with him. We don’t connect with these horrible traits.
  • There are some things he does that are less horrible that do make us connect. When he goes in to see his mother and signs the card and seals the envelope on his knee while he’s approaching the door, I thought, “Ah, I’ve done that, I connect with that.”
Care
  • Jack’s new father-in-law congratulates Miles on publishing his novel when he hasn’t actually sold it, then says: “I like non-fiction. You read something someone just invented? Waste of time.”
  • At his mom’s house, Miles is heartbroken to see that she still has a picture of him on his wedding day to his ex-wife. His mom then tells him: “You should get back together with Victoria. She was good for you. And so beautiful and so intelligent. I’m worried about you, Miles, you need somebody.” Jack tells him the next morning: “You have been officially depressed for two years now. You still seeing that shrink?” Miles replies, “I saw him on Monday. I spent most of the time helping him with his computer.”
  • He gives Jack an expert wine tasting lesson, then realizes Jack’s been chewing gum the whole time. We share Miles’s exasperation.
Commit:
  • We envy (and somewhat pity) his wine expertise. “I like all varietals, I just don’t generally like the way they manipulate Chardonnay in California, too much oak and secondary melolactic fermentation.”
  • I think the #1 thing that makes us like Miles is when he’s sniffing the wine and holds his hand up to his ear so he can smell it better. It’s so absurd that it’s endearing.
  • Miles has a somewhat healthier attitude towards hook-ups than Jack does: “It’s not worth it. You pay too big a price. It’s never free.” This causes us to commit to him, not Jack.
Five Es
  • Eat: He eats and drinks a ton.
  • Exercise: Not at all.
  • Economic Activity: No, we don’t even know he’s a teacher until later. I suppose stealing from his mom counts as economic activity?
  • Enjoy: He enjoys wine more than we’ve ever seen anyone enjoy wine before.
  • Emulate: Not that I can see.
Rise above
  • Well, he ditches out on his life for a week to go on vacation, but it’s not clear he had any way he would have been making money (He presumably has the summer off from teaching?)
High five a black guy
  • Nope
Kind
  • Not at all.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

The Podcast is Updated!


Have you ever thought, “I love the Secrets of Story Podcast, but I wish it had ads”? Well, good news, now your dream has come true! But don’t worry, it’s just two 30 second ads at the beginning and two at the end, all easily skippable!

Don’t worry folks, this is good news for you. The ads are there because we’re now members of the IFH Podcast network. You may recall that I was recently a guest on Alex Ferrari’s “Bulletproof Screenwriting” Podcast. We got along great, and decided to pool our podcasting resources!

So how does this benefit you? Well, for one thing, Alex is going to want us to post more often, so you’ll get more of the podcast. Second, James agreed to go along with this plan on two conditions: He wanted new art and new music. Well, now we have both!

If you were reading last week, you saw my lame attempts at art, and then you saw in the comments that a commenter named Jessica Friday offered help. I shared the first art she did, which we loved, and which started a conversation. I can now share the art that ultimately resulted, which I am happy to announce is the new (and retroactive) art for this blog. We love it!

But wait, there’s more! How many times has James complained on air about our old music? I’ll tell you: It’s five times. I know because I just had to cut them all out, because I removed that music from all 18 podcasts and added our new amazing theme music. Big-deal composer Haddon Kime (who had already graciously donated a piece of music to my wife’s podcast) agreed to compose an original theme for us as well, and it’s great. Haddon asked what we wanted and James ambitiously asked for “John Williams meets Danny Elfman”. Well, Haddon was actually up to that monumental task, and knocked it out of the park.

Each episode now begins with two ads, then the “bump” announcing the podcast network, then us welcoming you to the show, then Haddon’s amazing theme! And each episode now ends with a final flourish of the theme and then a spiel about liking and subscribing, etc.

Oh, and if you listen to the bit at the end, you’ll see that I did get the show an accursed Twitter handle. We’re @SecretsOfStory1. Which I will probably never use.  Check it all out here:
Listen to "Episode 1: Channeling Master Thespian" on Spreaker.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Connect Care Commit: The Shining

Why it might be hard to identify with these heroes
  • It’s unclear who the hero is. We meet Jack and Danny separately. Jack seems insincere (but we all do in job interviews). He doesn’t seem to genuinely care if his wife or son will like living there. Jack enjoys telling his son about the Donner Party in a sadistic way. Danny, meanwhile, is five and lacks agency.
Connect
  • Danny’s imaginary friend Tony in his finger is fascinating and something we haven’t seen before. We’ve also never seen a family in this situation before, and the copious details of the job interview makes this extreme situation believable.
Care
  • We always feel sympathy for kids who are being forced to move. Then, of course, Danny has a flash of blood pouring out of elevators and creepy little girls, so now we’re terrified for everybody.
Commit
  • Tony knows that Jack is about to call and say he got the job, so we can see that he has magic powers, which we know will come in handy. We kind of admire Jack for quitting drinking, I guess, but for the most part we don’t trust or commit to him, which makes the movie alienating because he’s pretty clearly the main character.
Five Es
  • Eat: Jack accepts coffee in the job interview. Danny is eating a sandwich.
  • Exercise: Never for Jack. We eventually see Danny pedaling around the hotel on his Big Wheel, but not for a while.
  • Economic Activity: Jack is in a job interview.
  • Enjoy: Danny sort of enjoys big-wheeling around, but not much. He seems to enjoy doing the hedge maze with his mom. Jack never seems to enjoy himself.
  • Emulate: Jack is pretending to be a family man. Danny is pretending to be normal.
Rise above
  • Jack will eventually abandon his responsibilities in the name of a, um, higher calling.
High five a black guy
  • They eventually meet a friendly cook.
Kind
  • No, neither Jack nor Danny.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Connect Care Commit: Rushmore

So what do we think about the new language? I’m kinda digging it.
Why it might be hard to identify with Max
  • He’s dorky. He’s an asshole to his only friend (and only really friends with him because he has the hots for the kid’s mother.)
Connect
  • We always bond with people when a vainglorious fantasy is contrasted with a humble reality. He imagines himself as a beloved math class hero, then wakes up to his unpopular status.  It’s always easier to believe in heroes with consistent tactics: He’s told he’ll be kicked out of the school if he fails another class and his friend asks him what he’s going to do. He replies, “The only thing I can do: try to pull some strings with the administration.”
Care
  • He’s naïve, with idealistic delusions of grandeur, which can be touching. He’s getting kicked out of his beloved school. He briefly loses his bluster when he weakly asks, “Couldn’t you just let me float by, for old times’ sake?”, only to hear “Can’t do it, Max.”
Commit
  • Only he claps for Mr. Bloom’s “Take down the rich kids” speech. We admire his drive: He’s part of a dozen clubs, most of which he founded or leads. He’s adorably precocious: He got into Rushmore in 2nd grade by writing a play, “a little one-act about Watergate.” 
Five Es
  • Eat: No.
  • Exercise: He’s on the track team and we see him running.
  • Economic Activity: He’s disconnected from economics.
  • Enjoy: He enjoys his clubs, but not wildly. He always looks a little stoic. He really enjoys the speech.
  • Emulate: He wants to be Herman.
Rise above:
  • Just the opposite: He considers himself above economics until late in the movie when he learns to respect that his father has to work for a living. (And realizes how valuable his scholarship was.)
High five a black guy:
  • Nope.
Kind:
  • Not really.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Connect Care Commit: Selma

Why it might be hard to identify with MLK:
  • He never really has that “I thought that person was waving at me but they’re really waving at someone else” moment. We never break through his monumental edifice. It’s hard to take a figure like King and say, “No, he’s just like us, folks!”, and the movie opts not to do that. It has to get us to Connect, Care and Commit without asking us to fully identify with him.
Connect
  • He starts out giving his Nobel speech, then we see that he’s practicing in a mirror and getting annoyed by his ascot. “Wait till the brothers back home see me like this, they’ll have a good laugh.” Prep moments always help us connect.
Care
  • He talks about his retirement but we know he won’t get to do that. We then get intimate glimpses of the horrors he’s fighting: We bond with four little girls talking about hair before they get blown up, then we experience the indignity of Annie Cooper being turned away from voting. (“How many county judges in Alabama? Name them.”) LBJ subtly belittles him. We get snippets of FBI reports on him. He gets cold-cocked as soon as he arrives in Selma.
Commit
  • He gives a hell of a speech. He bravely confronts the president and refuses to be cowed. We quickly realize that he’s much more cunning than he lets on. “Big speech lined up for these folks tonight, doc?” “We need to see what’s what first, big fella. We’re just here to test the waters.” After he’s hit, he slyly smiles and says to his lieutenants, “This place is perfect.”
Five Es
  • Eat: He lets LBJ pour him some tea or coffee, but he doesn’t drink it.  He later sits down for a good meal when he arrives at a volunteer’s house. 
  • Exercise: Never. I think it would have been good to see some, but it might have been ahistorical to include it.
  • Economic Activity: No, we’re never sure where the money’s coming from. We never see him preach to his own congregation.
  • Enjoy: We get to see from afar him playing football with his kids in his yard, but we’re with Coretta who is upset while watching them. I’d rather be there with him as he does it. Later, he calls Mahalia Jackson and asks her to sing to him, but he doesn’t really seem to enjoy it. We find out from Hoover halfway through King’s been committing adultery, but the movie never shows us that onscreen.
  • Emulate: He feels like he’s playing dress-up when he wears an ascot to accept his Nobel.
Rise above
  • His job is saintly, so it’d be pretty hard to rise above it! There’s certainly never an “I quit” moment.
High five a black guy
  • Not an issue.
Kind
  • He is goodness personified (or seems to be until we hear that tape), but there’s not really a moment of him doing a specific act of compassion to a specific person.

Friday, August 14, 2020

Connect Care Commit: Raising Arizona

Why it might be hard to identify with Hi:
  • He’s a loser. He’s a baby-stealer.
Connect
  • He’s got a scar, which always helps us believe in the reality of a character. He wears distinctive Hawaiian shirts. He has a unique, unexpected metaphor family right away, telling Ed, “You’re a flower, a desert flower.” Later he uses the unique word “motherscratcher.” He certainly has opinions, “Wasn’t easy with that sumbitch Reagan in the White House”
Care
  • Hi keeps getting arrested. We feel for him when an inmate snarls at him. When he falls in love, he can say he “finally felt the pain of imprisonment.” Even when he gets out and gets a job, he says “Most ways, the job was a lot like prison.” When he finds out he can’t have children, the gynecologist showing them female anatomy smiles at them, showing no sympathy for their pain. He says, “I preminisced no return of the salad days. The pizazz had gone out of our lives.” We share his exasperation and embarrassment when he can’t keep control of the babies. We feel for him when Ed tells him, “Don’t you come back here without a baby.”
Commit
  • During a robbery, he cocks a shotgun like a badass. We admire his brazenness hitting on Ed while she’s booking him. At his job, he’s drilling holes in sheet metal, which is always bad-ass.   
Five Es
  • Eat: Not at all
  • Exercise: Well, he runs into and out of stores.
  • Economic Activity: “Sometimes your career’s gotta come before family.”
  • Enjoy: Has a lot of sex with Ed.
  • Emulate: He tries to emulate a clean-living family man. He tries to take the place of Nathan Arizona.
Rise above
  • He decides to put family ahead of his crime career after all. “I couldn’t help thinking at a brighter future lied ahead.” “That ain’t me anymore.”
High five a black guy
  • He bonds enough with his cellie to hear, “When there was no meat, we ate fowl, when there was no fowl, we ate crawdads…”
Kind:
  •  He’s very caring towards Ed.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Connect Care Commit: The Fugitive

Yes, I’m trying out Connect Care Commit instead of Believe Care Invest, just to see how it feels! I can’t decide.

Why Richard might be hard to identify with:
  • He’s dour socially, and that’s never the most likable trait. He’s naïve and hapless in dealing with the police. He gives a fellow doctor advice on his golf swing, which is kinda Trumpy. He’s mumbly and never shows a lot of verbal skill in the movie. His wife is rich and he has a maid.
Connect
  • He feels human when he says about himself in a tux: “I always feel like I look like a waiter or something.” When he realizes they’re accusing him of killing his wife, Ford gives a great, very human reaction of “How dare you?” (but a lesser actor could have given a bad reading of that line.)
  • When he comes home, and doesn’t know his wife is dying upstairs, he calls out, “Honey I’m home—Who won the game?” Always have them planning to have another conversation.
  • The way the 911 call goes down, we can see how it would naturally create the false impression that he did it. This is a believable miscarriage of justice.
  • I love that even though we get a quick precis of the trial, we see more than one prosecutor, which is how it would be with a major case.
Care
  • He has to work when he’d rather go home with his wife.
  • Always the ultimate “misunderstood” moment: He gets false accused, arrested, and sentenced to execution.
Commit
  • Just a bit. He certainly behaves heroically in the prison escape and train accident, but we don’t have much opportunity to commit before that.
Five Es
  • Eat: Not really. Gets some wine out of the fridge and brings it up to his wife.
  • Exercise: Not until chased, then nothing but.
  • Economic Activity: He’s at a work function, then he’s called in to the hospital on the way home. The news reporter tells us he’s a “respected vascular surgeon.”
  • Enjoy: He’s at a party, but doesn’t enjoy it. Nevertheless, he tells his wife, “You look beautiful tonight.”
  • Emulate: Not that I can tell. James?
Rise above
  • Well, he gets fired, but he never stops thinking like a doctor and relying on the hospital.  He pointedly never rises above his job.
High five a black guy
  • He saves a black guard’s life. “Give me a hand with this man!”
Compassion
  • He tries to save the guard. He lets another convict escape along with him, but he says, “Hey Copeland, be good.”

Saturday, August 08, 2020

Storyteller's Rulebook: Create a False Mystery

I haven’t mentioned it in years, but one of the two screenplays I got that won some money and got me signed by a big-deal manager was my biopic of Alan Turing. It had a lot of big fans in Hollywood but they said they couldn’t make it because Turing was gay, so my manager gave up on it. A few years later, social mores had changed, and another Turing script went out, which sold for a million dollars and won an Oscar. Oh, well.

When I was structuring the script, I decided to play a trick. My script covered many years and ended with my hero’s suicide, which is kind of a bummer. I decided to begin with the discovery of his body and have a government investigator suspect foul play and reconstruct the story of Turing’s life. In the end: Nope, it was just a suicide. But the false mystery provided more structure than the script would have had otherwise.

“Little Fires Everywhere” does a similar thing. The Richardson house has burned down and everybody naturally suspects daughter Izzy, who has disappeared.
  • “What’s so funny?” Lexie said.
  • “Just picturing Izzy running around striking matches everywhere.” He snorted. “The nutcase.”
  • Moody drummed a finger on the roof rack. “Why is everybody so sure she did it?”
  • “Come on.” Trip jumped down off the car. “It’s Izzy. And we’re all here. Mom’s here. Dad’s on his way. Who’s missing?”
  • “So Izzy’s not here. She’s the only one who could be responsible?”
  • “Responsible?” put in Lexie. “Izzy?”
  • “Dad was at work,” Trip said. “Lexie was at Serena’s. I was over at Sussex playing ball. You?”
  • Moody hesitated. “I biked over to the library.”
  • “There. You see?” To Trip, the answer was obvious. “The only ones here were Izzy and Mom. And Mom was asleep.”
  • “Maybe the wiring in the house shorted. Or maybe someone left the stove on.”
  • “The firemen said there were little fires everywhere,” Lexie said. “Multiple points of origin. Possible use of accelerant. Not an accident.”
  • “We all know she’s always been mental.” Trip leaned back against the car door.
  • “You’re all always picking on her,” Moody said. “Maybe that’s why she acts mental.”
  • Across the street, the fire trucks began to reel in their hoses. The three remaining Richardson children watched the firemen set down their axes and peel away their smoky yellow coats.
  • “Someone should go over and stay with Mom,” Lexie said, but no one moved.
  • After a minute, Trip said, “When Mom and Dad find Iz, they are going to lock her up in a psych ward for the rest of her life.”
  • No one thought about the recent departure of Mia and Pearl from the house on Winslow Road.
We already sense that Moody is, in some ways, smarter than his brother and sister, and he has his doubts about Izzy. Then Ng points out that nobody has connected the fire yet to the disappearance of two more people: Mia and Pearl. The implication is clear: Izzy probably didn’t do it, and the reader is invited to spend the book trying to guess the real culprit.

And in the end, we find out the culprit is… Izzy, working alone, who went around the house starting little fires everywhere, just as Lexie and Trip assumed. It was a false mystery, tricking us into reading avidly. 
 
But ultimately it’s fair, for the same reason my own false mystery was fair, because Turing ultimately was sort of murdered by a larger conspiracy, and lots more people were ultimately responsible for the complex chain of events that led Izzy to start the fires. It turns out to be worthwhile, in both stories, to closely examine the events leading up to this tragedy to discover the complex web of ill-will that led up to it. 
 
Both stories are fairly diffuse, and brought into sharper relief by beginning with a flash-forward and a false mystery. It’s a devious trick, but I recommend it with some stories.

Thursday, August 06, 2020

Believe Care Invest: Little Fires Everywhere

Why it might be hard to care for the heroes of this book:
  • First of all, because we meet a ton of characters in these ten pages and it’s not at all clear who will be the main protagonist …and even when the novel’s over, it will still be hard to say. This is a true ensemble novel, even more diffuse than “Game of Thrones”, because it puts us in more heads.
  • Then there’s the question of POV. We’re hopping into a lot of heads, but there’s another POV to take into account. When we meet Lexie, we jump into her thoughts:
    • She glanced at her brothers, at her mother, still in her bathrobe on their tree lawn, and thought, They have literally nothing but the clothes on their backs
  • …then there’s a comment: 
    • Literally was one of Lexie’s favorite words, which she deployed even when the situation was anything but literal. In this case, for once, it was more or less true. 
  • Who is saying that literally is one of Lexie’s favorite words? Lexie probably wouldn’t say that about herself, and she certainly wouldn’t say that she misuses it. So whose head are we in right here? Ng’s. As with Rowling and Vernon Dursely, we are meeting these suburbanites from a jaundiced point of view and that POV is the author’s own.
Believe
  • First she has to get us to believe in this world, with she does effortlessly with a wealth of odd little details. Ng grew up in Shaker Heights in the 90s, so she has fun facts readily at hand. (“All the notes Serena had written her since the sixth grade, still folded in paper footballs”)
  • Then she has to get us to believe in the Richardsons. This is tricky because, as I said above, we’re looking down on the judgmentally. On a certain level we’re supposed to scoff, roll our eyes, and say “typical suburbanites.” But they also have to seem real in very specific ways. 
  • It’s also hard because she’s pretty much introducing this six member family all at once. That’s always super-risky. I thought, “Oh no, I’ll never get these characters straight.” But I needn’t have worried. As with Martin, Ng is a master at lightning-fast fully-realized characterization. Every chance she gets to differentiate the family members, she does so: 
    • Last year it had paid for their trip to Martha’s Vineyard, where Lexie had perfected her backstroke and Trip had bewitched all the local girls and Moody had sunburnt to a peeling crisp and Izzy, under great duress, had finally agreed to come down to the beach—fully clothed, in her Doc Martens, and glowering. 
  • Or: 
    • Out in the driveway, she saw that Trip’s Jeep was gone, as was Lexie’s Explorer, and Moody’s bike, and, of course, her husband’s sedan. 
  • Then she has to get us to believe in The Warrens. Once again, we do so not by jumping into their heads, but by looking at them with jaundiced eyes, in this case the eyes of the Richardsons: 
    • They knew there was no Mr. Warren, and that Mia was thirty-six, according to the Michigan driver’s license she had provided. They noticed that she wore no ring on her left hand, though she wore plenty of other rings: a big amethyst on her first finger, one made from a silver spoon handle on her pinkie, and one on her thumb that to Mrs. Richardson looked suspiciously like a mood ring. 
  • The wealth of detail makes it easy to believe in the reality of all eight characters (and more to come.) 
So how does Ng get us to care?
  • Again, we’ll start with the Richardsons: We sense right away that these may be clueless, overprivileged white people, but hey, their house just burned down. As Lexie observes, everybody but her has only the clothes on their backs. We don’t know yet if they deserve this to some extent, and we suspect they might, but even so, it’s an outsized humiliation. No fair court of law would sentence you to have your house burnt down.
  • As for the Warrens, we meet Mia and Pearl though the judgmental eyes of the Richardsons and we sense that these judgments are unfair, so we’re inclined to feel for them. We then get a chance to bond with Mia in a way that we haven’t really bonded with anyone, when we jump into her head to share her fright at this freaky world.
    • Large motor scooters, each piloted by a man in an orange work suit, zipped down each driveway to collect the garbage in the privacy of the backyard, ferrying it to the larger truck idling out in the street, and for months Mia would remember their first Friday on Winslow Road, the fright she’d had when the scooter, like a revved-up flame-colored golf cart, shot past the kitchen window with engine roaring
But what about Invest?
  • Ng does an amazing job in these ten pages of introducing this world, these characters, and a compelling flashforward towards a climax that implies a big mystery, but she doesn’t have time to introduce a problem to be solved, so we don’t really invest in anybody yet. In a book with a large ensemble, we search for the character that wants something, but nobody wants much in these 10 pages. In the next ten pages we’ll get our first character who really wants something, Moody, who will come to want Pearl. But we don’t really invest in him either.
  • To a certain extent, this is not a book about the solving of a large problem. There will eventually be a unifying plot, but it will take almost a hundred pages for it to coalesce.
  • Ng’s Shaker Heights will ultimately have certain things in common with another nearby municipality: Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio.” The flashforward to the fire will give this book a lot more structure than that one had (or at least the illusion of structure), but they’re doing something similar: Putting us in a dozen Buckeye heads and inviting us to feel the weight of the modern condition.
  • In a Barnes and Noble podcast, Ng says of her book, “Everyone has thoughts about what’s going on, but nobody in the book has all the pieces, and I guess even when you’ve got all the pieces it’s not always easy to figure out what’s right.” That’s the goal of all truly-omniscient narrators, whether it’s George R. R. Martin or Leo Tolstoy or Ng. Ultimately, the large problem is life itself, and the only hero who can attempt to solve that problem is the reader, because only we have all the facts.

Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Podcast Art Question (And Big News!)

Big news: A great podcast network has offered to host and monetize us (in a non-annoying way!  Full announcement to come later). James said he was on board with the conditions that we finally change the music and the art, both of which he has long kvetched about. I have a great composer composing new music for us as we speak. As for art, James wants something that acknowledges his existence. As always, I thought I might involve you in the process! 

As you’ll recall, here’s the current art, which is just a square version of the cover of my book:

James worked this up at one point, which is fun, but I thought it was too busy:

So for this new opportunity, I starting working on a vastly simplified version of the above, and got as far as doing this:

But then I sighed in exhaustion. The artifacting around our heads just looks too amateurish, our necks end too awkwardly, etc. It’s just not good. James said he really wanted actual art, like this Harmontown art:

So, in a fit of desperation, I just drew this new logo in 15 seconds using my mouse in Photoshop:

And, wonder of wonders, James and I both kinda like it. It’s pretty ironic that this is the less amateurish version. But that’s its appeal, to a certain extent. So what do you guys think. Dare we go with this ridiculous version? Should we do this version with better art? 

But wait!  We have a new contender!  Commenter Friday whipped this one up!  What do you think?
Thanks for all of your input on so many things these past few weeks!

Monday, August 03, 2020

The Annotation Project: Little Fires Everywhere

Hi, everybody! It’s been a long time since we’ve done a new Annotation hasn’t it? Well, let’s not beat around the bush: I want a more diverse pool of examples for my book! So let’s explore some great authors, screenwriters and pilot-writers I haven’t covered, shall we? Let’s start with annotations for the first ten pages of “Little Fires Everywhere” by Celeste Ng. You can download these as a Word document here