Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Order of Odd-Fish Contest

The Order of Odd-Fish's mission is to research an appendix to an encyclopedia.

"It is an appendix of dubious facts, rumors, and myths. A repository of questionable knowledge, and an opportunity to dither about," explains Colonel Korsakov. The appendix holds information that is "unreliable or useless."

To this end, each knight of the Odd-Fish specializes in an area of research.


Sir Oort studies discredited metaphysics.
Dame Isobel--usual smells
Sir Alasdair--unlikely musical instruments
Dame Delia--absurd animals
Dame Myra studies improbable botany
Sir Festus researches ludicrous weaponry.
The main character's father studied imaginary languages.
Her mother studied obscure cults.

You get the idea.

THE CONTEST:

1. Describe your own Odd-Fish specialty.

2. Write a short proposal describing how you would go about pursuing your line of research.

3. Funny is good; absurd is better.

James has agreed to assist me with the judging. In the event of a disagreement, The Wife (mine) will cast the tie-breaker. (I'd ask Vice President Biden, but he's busy spreading mass panic.)

Contest runs through Sunday night at 9 p.m. EST. Any entry after that will have to be really good to win.

The winner will receive the following:
  • A personalized, hardcover copy of The Order of Odd-Fish, straight from James Kennedy's very own library.
  • The Order of Odd-Fish soundtrack, which can be heard here.
  • James has offered to critique your work-in-progress (or finished novel in a drawer-- whatever). He would like me to relay that he has never taken a single writing class. He has, however, promised to do a "diligent, careful, and supportive job." But let's face it-- anything he tells you is probably going to be more helpful than your Aunt Helen's feedback. He's got a high-powered agent, a book published with Random House, and he's extremely well-read, so at the very least he'll be able to give you his honest opinion as a reader and isn't that what really counts anyway?
Begin!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Order of Odd-Fish Week---James Kennedy Interview, Part Four

Before we get to the fourth and final part of the interview, a warning: Do not, under any circumstances, start reading The Stand any time soon. Unless, of course, you enjoy sleepless nights, paralyzing fear that someone in your presence will cough, and the possibility that life for us humans may be nearing its end. (I'll bet King didn't figure on pigs bringing us down, though.)

Today's interview questions have nothing at all to do with writing, so if you're looking for that sort of thing you should read the back issues. The following will enable you to get to know the real James Kennedy better than you probably realized you wanted to. You can know a person through his deeds. You can know him through his words. You might even make some accurate assumptions based on his shoes. But most of all, you can get to know a person by seeing how he refuses to be confined by a multiple choice format and instead gives whatever answer pleases him, thus rendering the title of this segment totally misleading.

Pick ‘Em:


90210 or Dawson’s Creek?

V.


Team Edward or Team Jacob?

Team Vulturi


Back to the Future or Indiana Jones?

Blue Velvet


Store-bought chocolate milk or mix your own?

I hate milk. (Editor's note)


Motley Crue or GN'R? (in their respective heydays)

I believe that the true heydays of both bands are still ahead of them. The true question is who would win in a fair fight: Dr. Feelgood or Mr. Brownstone?


Rappers: East Coast or West Coast?

What, no love for Midwest rappers?


Mario Kart or Simpsons Road Rage?

I bike or take public transportation.


Go for two or kick the extra point?

Switch the channel.


Cha-Cha Slide or Macarena?

Butoh


Best Jedi Perk: Mind-trick, telekinesis, or lightsaber?

Best Jedi perk is starting life as Ewan MacGregor and ending it as Alec Guinness.



And now, a reading. This one co-stars my daughter, who is two and a half. (Editor's note: The exploitation of Little One for the purposes of entertaining the readers of this blog was approved by The Wife.) As usual, Little One steals the show. However, because her diction is in the developmental stage, I have provided the transcript below. (Oh, and note the knife Little One wields. Pure happenstance, but it works, eh?)

Transcript:

In a flash of inspiration Ken Kiang barked "steak and eggs" and shoved the menu back at the waiter. Yes--steak and eggs must come with a steak knife! He could then kill the Belgian Prankster with the knife. It was a beautiful plan. Ken Kiang marveled at his own ingenuity. He was so clever it hurt.

"Actually, Mr. Kiang, it is fortunate you dropped by," said the Belgian Prankster. "There is some business I mean to conduct with you."

"Business!" cried Ken Kiang, standing. "There will be no 'business' between us, you mad Walloon, other than the business of vengeance!"

The Belgian Prankster snuffled merrily. "Still sore from my little joke, Mr. Kiang?"

"No man calls me a boobly-boobly-boo-boo and lives!"

"Oh, but Mr. Kiang, didn't you know?" said the Belgian Prankster slowly. "I am no man."




Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Order of Odd-Fish Week---James Kennedy Interview, Part Three

What are you working on now, and can you tell us anything about it?


I’m working on a science-fiction comedy called The Magnificent Moots. It’s The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy meets Ender’s Game meets A Wrinkle in Time meets The Royal Tennenbaums. There might be a graphic novel aspect to it. If it comes off the way I hope it does, it will be delightfully strange, much weirder and funnier than The Order of Odd-Fish.



Other than imagining humorless critics as parasites living in your fingernails, how do you handle bad reviews?


I actually write all my bad reviews myself, in the occasional drunken fit of self-hatred, and publish them under pen names. No actual, competent reviewer would ever give me a bad review. What could they possibly criticize? To ask such a question is to answer it.


If you were to pretentiously start writing your autobiography tomorrow, what would you tentatively title it?


Iacocca: A Life.


The language in Odd-Fish is advanced. What is one word you really like that is NOT in the novel?


Let me see . . . nope, sorry, I got the words I wanted in there.


What is one thing that you have always and will always find hilarious?

This:



Finally, has the fire really been burning since the world’s been turning, or can we actually place blame on some individual, generation, or entire culture?


Billy Joel protests too much. I’m guessing he’s the one who started the fire.




Check back tomorrow for the following:

  • Unlike V.P. Biden, James weighs in on the Great Chocolate Milk Debate, and the answer will shock you!
  • The Order of Odd-Fish soundtrack
  • My two-year old "reading" from James's book. (This one's iffy. She's a fast learner and all, but just a tad strong-willed.)

And on Thursday night, be the first to enter The Order of Odd-Fish contest!

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Order of Odd-Fish Week---James Kennedy Interview: Part Two

Today's questions deal with the book, The Order of Odd-Fish. For some reason, not everybody has read it yet (although I'm sure you all plan to), so here's Booklist's brief synopsis:

The basic plot of Kennedy’s first novel is fairly standard fantasy fare—Jo, a 13-year-old girl who gets whisked off to a strange world, discovers that she is a child of destiny and must combat evil forces bent on the destruction of the world—but it’s so dizzyingly arrayed with Monty Python–inspired window dressing that one might not notice. Jo is a squire to an order of knights dedicated to “fiddling about” and studying such topics as “the philosophy of napkins.” Talking cockroach butlers, a Russian colonel who takes orders from his digestive tract, and a villain called the Belgian Prankster, who wants to either destroy the world or tell the worst joke in history, are just a few of the blatantly weird characters that veer the story into the ludicrous at nearly every turn. Some might find it difficult to sustain interest in such determined high jinks, but in small doses, this is quite hilarious, and readers with a finely tuned sense of the absurd are going to adore the Technicolor ride.
And here's my review:

It rules.

And now, part two of my interview with James Kennedy:

The plot is pretty wild. Was it planned that way or did you just write awesome scenes and then try to figure out some way for the scenes to further the story?


A little bit of each. When I started Odd-Fish my only goal was to move from one entertaining scene to another, keeping the structure open-ended enough to accommodate whatever goofy idea I had next. But then I got to the point where Jo and her friends woke up in the belly of a fish, and they discovered a mysterious building in its stomach, with a mysterious man in the kitchen. And that’s when I started to ponder what exactly the story was about. I stopped writing for a year to brood over it, and I came up with Eldritch City, the Order of Odd-Fish, the legend of Jo as the All-Devouring Mother—the meat of the book. I revised the chapters I had written thus far to make them consistent with the new direction I was taking. But even though it was now turning into a proper “story,” and not a picaresque set of adventures, I wanted to preserve the beginning’s carefree romp feeling. But now I wanted the romp to begin to deepen and transform into something scarier, with higher stakes.


My favorite parts of the book are things that probably aren’t all that critical to the story. Were there more things like this in early drafts that you were asked to take out, or did you add some of the stuff in subsequent drafts to serve as sort of comedic interludes?


Surprisingly, almost everything that I wanted to be in the final version of Odd-Fish actually made it into the final version. The stuff that got left on the cutting room floor was edited out before I ever found an agent or a publisher. I don’t rule out introducing some of that material in a sequel. There was a comical subplot about Dame Isabel (whose specialty for the Order of Odd-Fish is unusual smells) doggedly hunting various scents around Eldritch City. There was a scary scene in the eelmen’s neighborhood. The beginning was longer, especially the scene at the Dust Creek CafĂ©. But I like the book as it stands, and I wouldn’t change anything about it now. I’m actually surprised I was able to publish it in the form I had envisioned. And really, even some scenes that seem arbitrary at first—such as Ken Kiang tempting Hoagland Shanks with increasingly avant-garde pies at the illicit patisserie in Paris—do have a role in the story as a whole, even though when you first read it, it may seem just like self-indulgence. But isn’t the very act of presuming to write a book self-indulgent?


What I really want to know is this: What is the philosophy of napkins?


Only years of earnest study and unsparing self-mortification will yield such difficult truths to the heart that is pure and the body that is undefiled. Let us not pry too deeply into higher realities that, if trifled with, would only annihilate our fragile souls. And the higher reality will laugh at you, even as it annihilates!


The cast is rather large. Any tips for writers dealing with similar population density?


Make every character as aggressively themselves as possible. The reader should be able to know Aunt Lily or Colonel Korsakov is speaking without the tags of “Aunt Lily said” or “Colonel Korsakov said.” If you can make a different character say the same line without loss of meaning, then the line is probably badly written.

Also, establish a kind of hierarchy among the characters. Humans are social animals, and when we’re confronted with a large group of people our minds instinctively try to figure out who’s on top of the pecking order and who’s not. We’re geniuses at figuring this out very quickly, so the writer should exploit this inborn ability in order to make the characters distinctive. Who’s the bully in the group? Who’s the martyr? Who’s the scapegoat? Who’s the person everyone rolls their eyes at? There’s one in every group. Who dislikes whom, and why? It can be a subtle pecking order, or even a dynamic one where roles are always shifting, but once you figure it out, characters become very distinct very quickly.


Even if the cast is large, the reader can hold all the personal information in their mind—indeed, it’s a pleasure to negotiate these imaginary social networks. Listen to kids talk about all the different rivalries, loyalties, loves and hates in the Harry Potter world. It’s a rich, complex social system, with many different elements, but we can keep track of it because it’s our nature.


My favorite scene in the book is the following:




You studied physics in college, so tell us this: is it really faster to run through the bag at first base than it is to dive headfirst into it? As a lifelong fan of Chet Lemon, I have my doubts.


David Lynch has an interesting idea about art called “The Eye of the Duck.” He says that, when you look at a duck, and grasp the relationship between all its parts, you realize that the duck’s eye is in precisely the right place on the duck’s body—that if the duck’s eye were placed on its abdomen it would get lost, or if the eye was located on its bill it would be too busy. There’s no firm reason, structurally speaking, that the duck’s eye should be where it is, in the center of the head—except that it’s perfect there and nowhere else.


David Lynch uses this to explain that in each one of his movies there’s a scene, which he calls the “eye of the duck” scene, which may be inessential to the plot and mechanics of the movie, but is absolutely crucial to the overall artistic effect of the movie. It’s the kind of scene a well-meaning editor (though, I hasten to say, not my editor) would want to cut in order to “keep the story moving.” But if you cut that seemingly extraneous scene, the entire work would suffer, though you couldn’t put your finger on why.


When Sir Oort explains to Jo the relationship of Eldritch City to our world, that’s the “eye of the duck” scene in The Order of Odd-Fish. It seems unnecessary, it doesn’t “move the story forward,” but it’s exactly where and what it should be, and in its own way it sums up the spirit of the whole book.


It’s also a kind of homage. When Sir Oort explains his crackpot cosmology of bugs on crumpled wads of paper to Jo, I’m referencing Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, when Mrs. Whatsit is describing tessering to Meg by asking her to imagine an insect crawling along a thread. I’m also referencing Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, when Ford gives Arthur a convoluted, ridiculous story of how the universe began. It’s a kind of loving send-up of those “explanation scenes” you often have in speculative fiction.

And Chet Lemon was the “eye of the duck” of the 1980s Detroit Tigers.


There is no Acknowledgements page in the novel. Care to acknowledge anyone?


I regret not including an acknowledgements page. It wasn’t because I’m not thankful to my friends, family, editors, and agents. It was just that I was sick of the egotistical, ludicrous ten-page long acknowledgements I’ve seen in other books. There was a hilarious takedown of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s self-regarding acknowledgements sections in Salon a couple years ago, and the effect of reading it made almost all acknowledgements sections seem pompous to me.


But that’s an overreaction. I now realize that I should’ve thanked my wife, my family, friends who had read the various drafts, my agents Lisa Bankoff and Tina Wexler, my editors Stephanie Elliott and Amalia Ellison, and my publicist Dominique Cimina.


But you know what? I’m sure none of them are losing sleep over it.

To be sure, I didn’t include an author photo, either. If one is going to go through all the trouble to create a fantasy world, why include anything that yanks the reader back into our world? As a kid I would read books by, say, Madeleine L’Engle or Isaac Asimov, and all I really knew about them was their queer, fascinating names. From that scrap of data, my imagination filled in a kind of ideal author for me. Is anything else really necessary?



Here's James reading from his book. Note his enthusiasm in contrast to my own rather drab performance above. Sorry, I'm tired.






Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Order of Odd-Fish Week---Part One

*Note--Please try to ignore any font or formatting issues that follow. Blogger hates me.

I first heard of James Kennedy through Jacqui's blog, where she linked to his post on the ALA Awards. I thought it was the funniest thing I'd read in a long time and so I vowed to buy his book, The Order of Odd-Fish. I finished it a couple of weeks ago. I liked it. A lot. It's the kind of highly imaginative book that I wish I could write. It's one of those books with parts crafted so deftly they demand to be read aloud (and I did, to The Wife). It is everything I like in a novel: smart, original, fun, and, most importantly, extremely entertaining. When I finished it I emailed James to tell him how much I enjoyed it. He emailed me back and offered to do an interview. I accepted, and because I went a little hog-wild with the questions, The Order of Odd-Fish Week was born.

I caught up with James through the magic of the Internet. Part one of my interview, in which I ask him some questions about writing and publishing, follows.


Complete this sentence: I write because…

I like my stories, and I think there should be more of them.



Tell us about the road to publication for The Order of Odd-Fish.

It took ten years, and it was a long, complicated, interesting road. I almost never worked on the manuscript full-time; years would go by and I wouldn’t look at it at all. In the meantime, I was busy teaching junior high school science, living and working in Japan and learning Japanese, writing other stories, traveling around Asia, working as a computer programmer, trying my hand at improv comedy, participating in music projects, helping my friends make a movie, throwing costume parties. All of those experiences contributed to what eventually became The Order of Odd-Fish.


When I finally finished the manuscript, I had a very hard time landing an agent. I didn’t have any contacts in the publishing world, so I just blindly sent out query letters to whomever I found in Publisher’s Marketplace. I got rejected by over a hundred agents. In my petty way, I logged them all into an Excel spreadsheet and saved all my rejection letters. When I visit schools for author events, I sometimes bring along a collage made of all the rejection slips I’ve ever received. The idea is to teach the students a lesson about perseverance, but when they see this big reject-collage, they just pity me. So I rarely bring it anymore.


I finally got my lucky break in 2006, after three years of rejections. Up until then, I had been only querying smaller agencies, because I figured the bigger agencies wouldn’t be interested in me. But after nearly everyone else had already rejected me, I figured, what do I have to lose? So I queried ICM—one of the biggest, most established agencies in the world—and I was shocked when I got a swifter, more polite, more professional response than any of the nickel-and-dime, dog-and-pony agencies that had rejected me before. And to my astonishment, ICM (through the agents Lisa Bankoff and Tina Wexler) wanted to represent me! It was a total up-is-down, the-world-is-insane moment for me. The mediocre agencies had said no, but the cream of the crop was saying yes!


But my trials weren’t over yet. Lisa and Tina landed a deal with a major publishing house—but the editor wanted to cut the manuscript’s length in half. I was aghast. The editor’s rationale was that “long fantasy doesn’t sell.”


Huh?


I realized I couldn’t work with this editor. Even though this was the only deal on the table, I walked away from it.

It was a difficult decision. Was I burning my only bridge? Was I walking away from the only deal I was likely to get? What if no other publisher offered to buy Odd-Fish? But I couldn’t conceive of putting out Odd-Fish in a mangled, truncated form. I stuck to my guns—and amazingly, through their mystical agent ninjutsu, which I can’t even begin to fathom, Lisa and Tina somehow got me another deal, this time with Random House’s Delacorte Press, with a fantastic editor, Stephanie Elliott, who is a great fit for my sensibilities.


So everything worked out after all. But it was a long wait, there were some risky decisions, and there were some harrowing moments.


What was a lesson you learned while writing your first book?

I learned that it’s okay to plan and structure the book in advance, which is something I resisted at first. When I started Odd-Fish in earnest, I wrote in a very improvisational style. The story went wherever the jokes went. I discovered that you can generate some good scenes this way, but I eventually also realized the story as a whole wasn’t hanging together in a larger sense. I had to do a lot of retroactive editing to previous chapters every time I finished a new chapter. I found out that without a good overall structure, even the best, funniest individual scene will fall flat.


I’d never taken a creative writing class, and I didn’t know where to start when it came to story structure. So I sat at bookstore cafes and read book after book on screenplay structure. I found them to be really helpful. The screenplay books had a no-nonsense, frankly mercenary tone that appealed to me. I didn’t follow them to the letter, but it was nice to learn what was conventional good structure. Once I had a clearer idea of story structure, I gained the confidence to go off on flights of weirdness without being afraid that the whole metabolism of the story would be disrupted. Structure gave me the freedom to be weirder.



Coming Up:

Tomorrow night: Interview Part Two: The Book (including a vee-log of me reading from The Order of Odd-Fish. And I know how much you all love the vee-log.)

Tuesday: Interview Part Three: About the Author (new pictures included!)

Wednesday: Interview Part Four: Pick 'Em--In which James makes a stunning revelation about chocolate milk!

Thursday: The Order of Odd-Fish Contest--Win an personalized copy of the book and a copy of The Order of Odd-Fish soundtrack!

Sunday: Contest winner announced

While you're waiting, buy James's book. Amazon makes it really easy.

Husband Fail

About a week ago The Wife gave me a new job. I did not apply for it. She said, "Murph, your job is to remind me to brush Little One's teeth before bed." I said okay, although I was pretty sure I'd forget.

Last night, The Wife attended a charity fundraiser (that sounds a lot cooler than it actually was), so it was left to me to put Little One to bed. I was very proud of myself for remembering to brush her teeth. I walked her into the bathroom and grabbed her tiny toothbrush. Then I looked for the toothpaste. I vaguely remembered that Little One used different toothpaste than Mommy and Daddy did. There was a tube lying next to our toothpaste so I assumed that was it. I grabbed it, squeezed some out on the toothbrush and went to work. Little One started gagging and I thought, "Oh, she's like me," because I gag easily. In fact, of all the scary things in a doctor's examining room, tongue depressors fill me with the most dread. I've considered hiding them before. So I kept brushing her teeth and things were going well. Except for the gagging business.

Then I went to rinse the toothbrush and the stuff was not acting like toothpaste. It was like washing butter off a knife. It got wet and smeary and I suppose some came off, but mostly it just spread and became real filmy.

Me: Hmm, this isn't right.

So I picked up the tube. DESITIN, it said.

Me: Oops.

I told Little One that I used the wrong toothpaste and quickly went to work scrubbing her teeth and tongue with a towel. I got most of it. Then we brushed teeth for realsies and I gave her a huge cup of water.

Me: Let's not tell Mommy about this one, okay?
Little One: Did you use the wrong toothpaste, Dad?
Me: Yeah.
Little One: I didn't like it.
Me: I'm not surprised.

Put her to bed. Checked the google to see how toxic zinc oxide is (not very, thank God). Waited for The Wife to get home, which she did minutes later. I fessed up for three reasons.

1. Little One would have told her anyway.
2. It was funny.
3. Chances are high I'll be banned from doing this job henceforth. And that wouldn't be all bad.

Friday, April 24, 2009

I'm Smarter Today

If you're anything like me, you have smart days and dumb days. I can usually tell what kind of day it's going to be pretty quickly. There are three primary indicators:

1. Words (good ones) and descriptions (original ones) come to me easier. In the shower this morning, I was thinking of how I'm going to introduce author James Kennedy for The Order of Odd-Fish Week (starting Sunday night). James is a talented fellow. He's done lots of stuff. And I think he's only 36. So I was running things through my mind and came up with this:

Like bags of schwag at the Oscars, Kennedy's thirty-six years have been jam-packed with good stuff.

Now I have no idea if that even makes sense, but I think it sounds pretty sweet. (And then, being anal about words and such, I googled "bag of schwag" and found this. But really, that is not what I mean.)

Also, words like "mollify" and "assuage" and "virtuoso" have popped into my head this morning. So, I can tell it's going to be a smart day.

2. What I say while teaching sounds better. Some days I stumble all over myself and say "uhh" more than the President. Other days, the stuff that comes out of my mouth should be flipping written down for posterity (or maybe a book on teaching). It's eloquent, at times poignant, at others humorous; sometimes it's damn near poetic. (These are the parts the students don't understand, but they make me feel like a smarty-pants and really, don't you want your child to be taught by someone who feels good about himself?)

3. Jeopardy--You know how some nights you'll watch Jeopardy and you know that you know the answers to the questions (or questions to the answers, but that's confusing)but your mouth can't extract them from your chaotically organized gray matter in the given amount of time and then some geek is saying the answer while you're all, "Uh, uh, wait! I know it!"?

I have those nights all the time.

But then some days, you have yourself convinced that you should be on the show, that you are the next Ken Jennings. You're answering the question before Alex is done reading it. You're mocking the stupid contestants for not knowing what you do, despite their fancy-schmantz Ivy League education, their frankly frightening knowledge of Romanian royalty, and the fact that the highlight of their life is apparently the time they said something kind of embarrassing to the woman they would eventually marry because the rest of their life has been spent in a library carrel learning everything there is to learn. I have days like that, too. Not many, but there are days. Today will probably be one, if things don't change.

But they might, and that's my question for you today (he says, as if he regularly asks you questions). I would really love to know what makes me smarter (and by that I mean, what makes my brain work faster). Yesterday, I was dumb. Today, I'm not as dumb. Why? Does it have to do with diet, or sleep, or exercise, or being visited by the smart fairy and her little bedazzled bag of pink dust in the dead of night? Is it just plain luck? Or, am I the only one who experiences this and should therefore check myself into an asylum? What say you, Murphblog followers?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

And Now, For My 100th Post...

Stuff my third graders have said over the years. I've occasionally had the foresight to write these things down.


From Dec. 12, 2007

Today, a water main in front of the school busted (as it does every year about this time) and our principal informed us that around two o'clock we would no longer have running water. This is a major sanitation issue at an elementary school that I’m quite sure the health department would frown on. He told us to tell our students to use the restroom before that time to help alleviate the unavoidable mess that would follow. I did not do this, thinking that a few rancid toilets may lead administrators to consider sending kids (and thereby yours truly) home the next time such a problem occurred. One of our second grade teachers did, however, make the requested announcement to her class.

A few minutes later, a girl blurted out, “Mrs. H.! Look what Leonard wrote!” Mrs. H. walked over and followed the pointing finger of the girl. There, on Leonard’s desk, lay a note on which he had written “1:30–POOP.”

Pretty good planning for a second grader.

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From November 29, 2006

So today I was teaching about the Pueblo Indians and a vocabulary word for the lesson was “elders.” To teach the word I used the following example: “When someone tells you to listen to your elders, what they mean is that you should listen to the adults in your life.”

Richard, a rambunctious boy who spends most days doing little but talking, blurted out, “I never listen to my elders!” I responded with typical sarcasm, “Really, I’m shocked to hear that, Richard.” He looked at me quizzically and I added, “That’s called sarcasm, Richard. Do you guys know what sarcasm is?”

Autumn, one of the brightest girls in the class jumped in. “Yeah, it’s when you say something, but you mean the opposite, like ‘Hey Mr. Murphy, you look great today.’” Then she smiled real big.

I laughed and told her that was a pretty good one. Sometimes, it’s the teacher who learns the lesson.

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From September 7, 2006

Richard and his teacher, Mrs. B., were swinging next to each other on the swingset. Mrs. B. is about 6 months pregnant, so she wasn’t going very high. This drew a comment from the third grader, and she explained that she had to take it easy on her belly. The boy responded, “I love to swing high. It makes my private area tingle.”

Ah, kids.

Monday, April 20, 2009

We Have a Winner!

Congratulations to Kelly, the winner of the Find a 20th Follower and Receive a Free Book Contest. (F2FRFBC, for short.) Kelly, because of your fine recruiting powers, you will now be the beneficiary of an awesome prize. First, you'll need to choose among the three books offered in the previous post. (I'm pretty sure my bro won't mind if you want Mr. T.) Second, third, and fourth, I'm throwing in other fabulous prizes that will be a total surprise. I'm doing this for one simple reason: Anita made fun of the prizes and I want her to feel bad about not participating. Also, I hope it really bothers her not knowing what the additional prizes are.

Welcome to Murphblog, slhastings. You are the 20th follower. Unfortunately, Murphblog legal staff, which is severly overpaid and underworked, has informed me that I am unable to offer you a prize due to the original contract language. However, I'm sure Kelly would be willing to share one of her incredibly-spectacular-to-the-point-of-rendering-one-speechless prizes.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Causes for Celebration

First, and most importantly by far, I have two new followers! Whoo-hoo!

Welcome to our humble community, Fragrant Liar (I like that) and Trisha. May you find the key to happiness here at Murphblog. (Hint: It involves exceedingly low expectations and healthy amounts of chocolate milk.)

For those keeping score at home, that now brings the total to 19 and with one more I'll have a nice little five by four rectangle over there on the right. If you're like me, that missing square in the bottom right corner is driving you nuts, so here's what we'll do: Whoever can recruit another follower to the blog gets a book. I'll even give you a choice. You can have The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, Rules, or Mr. T's autobiography. Here's how you win:

1. Convince someone to follow.
2. Have that person comment.
3. In that person's comment, they mention that they were referred to the blog by you.
4. I get your address and send you a book.

Why would I do this for one follower? Because I really like symmetry. Symmetry rules. And because I like round numbers, probably because they're divisible by lots of other numbers, which is a kind of symmetry, right?
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The other cause for celebration is I am done with revisions. (Good thing too; they're due today.) Put the finishing touches on it this morning and will be emailing it to Agent Guy later this afternoon. It's all rather exciting, but the real reason this is cause for celebration is that Anita will no longer be able to insinuate that I really should be working on the book instead of writing awesome blog posts. Plus, I can now work on some other stuff, like my book about the alligator who thinks he's a crocodile but no one cares because they can't tell the difference, so the alligator/croc is having an identity crisis and having to deal with other animals' apathy toward his plight. It's a surreal, coming-of-age, allegorical tall tale. Plus, there's going to be a scene in which the alligator professes his love for symmetry. It's gonna be sweet.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Wisdom of Wife

Went to the Texas Roadhouse (or, as Little One called it, "Road Texashouse") for dinner tonight. As we were leaving, The Wife had some trouble seeing well enough to back out of our parking space because we were parked next to this honkin' thing.

Its license plate: SXYMAMA

The Wife: "Those who proclaim themselves to be sexy mamas, generally aren't."

The Wife is wise beyond her years.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Presenting.....(Wait for it) The Amber Lough Poop Award (AKA "The Poopy")

Okay, so that sounds bad. But actually, this may be the highest honor I can bestow. I heart the word poop. If there's a word that's more fun to say than poop, I challenge you to submit it in the comments and subject yourself to the subsequent ridicule that is sure to follow. My love of poop (Hrm, that doesn't sound right.) can be traced back to my childhood, where I penned the following poem:

I have some soup,
in the soup there is some poop.

True story. That poem currently resides in a cardboard box in my basement, sandwiched between a certificate I won for a free throw contest and an art project I made depicting a bespectacled Frenchman (he sports a beret) smoking a cigarette. (Bet that wouldn't be allowed nowadays.)

On My Post-It: Take picture of construction paper Frenchie to post on the blog.

Anyway, bottom line: I have a long and possibly unhealthy fascination with the word poop and therefore love any blog post that uses the word (or its many fine derivations) eleven times. (By way of comparison, I've only used the word five times and it feels like I'm dropping poop (six!) all over the place.)

And so, there is only one way I can honor such a heroic effort and that is to present the first ever Poop Award. For her blog post entitled The Girl Who Cried, "Poop!"*, the Poopy goes to Murphblog follower and all-around groovy gal, Amber Lough! (Thunderous applause; a few really loud whistles, probably from those people who jam like six fingers in their mouth; some obnoxious lout yelling "YEAH, AMBER! YOU GO GIRL!) Keep up the good work, Amber, and enjoy the award. I'm sure it would love lovely on your mantle.

Hey, Guys...

Even though I am an award-winning blogger, I do make mistakes. My fragile ego can handle it if you point out my typos and/or flagrant misuse of words. It's kind of like that age old question: Do you tell your friend if he (and let's face it, it's usually a he) has a booger hanging from a nostril? The answer is yes, because he'd rather hear it from you and experience a short moment of embarrassment than discover it on his own later and realize there was a good reason why no one could look him in the eye all day.

Next time I type "confouding" instead of "confounding," drop me a line. I'll even publish it.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Confounding John Green. Oh, and pirates! Arr!

So I think John Green has written something new. As far as I can tell, he's gone all Stephen King's The Plant on us and is releasing his new work a chapter at a time, for free, on the Webosphere. Unlike King, he is a.) not asking for donations of any kind and b.)making the reading of his new work rather cumbersome. You can read all about it here and if you know what the Helvetica he's talking about then would you please translate for the rest of us?

(Daily Affirmation: There is such a thing as too smart. Self, be thankful you are of middling intelligence.)

In other news...I have mentioned before how happy I am that pirates are making a comeback. I didn't know it was possible, but my happiness has reached a new level I shall call "near-euphoria." First, pirates, as a general rule, are awesome. (Yes, they would be more awesome if they at least tried to play the part by wearing eye-patches and saying "Arr" and possibly possessing hypnotic eyes that are somehow sleepy and intense at the exact same time, but you know what they say about beggars and choosing. Oh, and what's with the boats, Somali pirates? Can't you at least drape a jolly roger over the side?) But as far as I know it's been like 200 years since the U.S. got in on any pirate action. It's about time we had our turn. The U.S. navy versus pirates. You can't make stuff up this good.

Let's make this interactive, shall we?

Predict the next late-1600s fad to make a comeback.

I call "wigs that make men look like women."

Monday, April 13, 2009

Update

"Finished" my revisions for all but the last chapter today. Overall, I'm pretty happy with how it turned out. Here's what I need to do before sending it off:

  • Reread the whole thing in one sitting and note anything that needs to be fixed/added/deleted/you name it.
  • Read it aloud to myself to check for consistency of the characters' voices. This is great fun if you're around to listen. I'm no Hank Azaria, but I try.
  • Find areas where the writing itself can be improved. Since a lot of my changes had to do with what happens, I've been focusing on just telling the story. Now I'll go back and see if I can tell the same thing in a more interesting way.
  • Fix all the annoying stuff. (commas, mostly. Always commas.)
  • I have a couple of secondary characters that need more distinct personalities, so I'll look for places where I can reveal their characters without disrupting the story (and if I'm lucky, actually enhancing it)
  • Write that last chapter. Have I mentioned that I've developed a rather strong dislike for endings? Now I know why my students just slap THE END at the bottom of their papers.
It seems like a lot, but the heavy lifting is over. A few more lonely nights at the computer and she'll be all set to fire off.

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In other Murphblog news, I have become an interviewer. This past week I finished The Order of Odd-Fish by James Kennedy. Being a teacher and knowing how often I hear "Nice job" (rarely, to those of you keeping score at home) I went and emailed James and told him that I really enjoyed the book. He emailed back (nice of him) and volunteered to be interviewed for the blog (ever nicer). So in the near future I will be sharing the interview and heavily promoting Mr. Kennedy and his fine work during what I will be calling THE ORDER OF ODD-FISH WEEK (or something catchier if inspiration strikes).

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But then I thought that it somehow felt wrong to publish my interview with James without at least asking if Ben Esch, author of the groundbreaking book, Sophomore Undercover, wanted to do an interview. So I emailed him and he said yes too. So, I have two awesome interviews coming your way and I can promise you that you will learn things about both authors that you did not know before. (Sure, some of the things you probably don't care to know, but still.)

No clever way to end this, so...

THE END

(Yeah, you're right. That was sort of clever.)

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Happy Easter!

Now that Easter is upon us, I thought I would regale you with a particularly vivid memory I have of the holiday.

I was seven, and because church bored me to such an extent that I often found myself doodling rudimentary blueprints for a more aerodynamic Millenium Falcon, I was sent to the basement where, huddled around a small table with other easily-distracted children, I was to keep quiet so we could all hear the minister's sermon through the wall-mounted speaker near the tiny window that let in a meager shaft of natural light. There was a selection of used (and often chewed on) plastic toys and some coloring pages, and as long as we made no fuss Mrs. Lancaster would let us be. Even at my young age, I recognized a good deal when I saw one, so, not wanting to be sent back to my parents in the sanctuary, I would occasionally look to the speaker in an effort to prove my piety to the venerable Mrs. Lancaster.

Everything was going well until Darrell, a particularly loud and active kindergartener, dragged a chair over to the window and scaled it. Now, lest you think Mrs. Lancaster failed in her duties, let me assure you that she acted as quickly as any seventy-four year old woman with a bad hip could possibly be expected to. As our eyes turned to take in the sight of the precariously perched five year old, she pushed back from the table, sending the tiny chair she had occupied tumbling across the room. She stood (rather wobbily, if memory serves) and scolded, "Darrell! You get down from there!" To which young Darrell responded, "I see him! I see the Easter Bunny!"

After that, who could remember what happened? I am sure we all leapt to our feet and either begged Darrell a chance to see for ourselves or, quite possibly, some of the more aggressive youths may have attempted to dethrone the bunny-spotter, but whatever our actions we saw hide nor hare of the mythical creature. "He's gone now," I do recall Darrell announcing.

The bunny may have been gone, but our imaginations were just starting to hop. The Easter Bunny! Right here, at Riverside Presbyterian Church! Imagine the odds! Possibly due to the idleness our brains usually experienced while in His holy place, our minds soon reached alarming levels of activity. Making up for years of Sunday dormancy, we theorized, postulated, and hypothesized. What else could the Easter Bunny be doing at church but hiding eggs? Yes! There would be an Easter egg hunt following the service and the cunning bunny had just now concealed the colorful ova among the thistles, nettles, and occasional patches of grass on the church's East side.

Up the stairs! We pushed past Mrs. Lancaster, ignoring her beseeching cries of "Stop!" and "Come back here!" as we thundered up the stairwell. The full power of the sun's rays through the stained-glass windows nearly blinded us, but we soldiered on. Past the hanging coats, past the table of nametags, through the double doors and into the glorious day at last!

We stopped and scanned the grounds, still hoping for one fleeting glance of the elusive bunny, but it was not to be. As one, we deferred to the leadership of Darrell, the youngest of our excitable band, for he was the One Who Had Seen. "This way," he said. And we followed.

The grass was still wet with lingering morning dew and our breath hung in the air. We searched the lawn for a sign--a fluff of rabbit fur, a paw print, perhaps a pink or purple dropping--and found nothing. For three long minutes we searched. Under rocks, in the hedge, near the place where Reverand Rollins had buried the time capsule two years ago. Nothing. Not a single egg.

Mrs. Lancaster's voice cut the early spring air. "Get back in here!" she said menacingly, and so we trudged back over the lawn, dejected. My eyes were downcast in disappointment and possibly in shame. How would I ever explain this to my parents? Surely, they would henceforth enslave me to their not-too-close-to-the-front pew to be tortured by torturously long-winded sermons and off-key doxologies. How could I have been so gullible?

But then, just as one Nike-clad tennis shoe left a wet impression on the cracked concrete, a flash of color in the corner of my vision. The others were already disappearing through the church doors. Mrs. Lancaster waited, one hand planted firmly on her bad hip. I bent my head to get a better angle. Could it be? Over there, partially obscured by a unraked leaf at the corner of the church? I dashed for it. Mrs. Lancaster surely rebuked me, but if she did I didn't hear it. My focus was singular.

I reached the leaf and threw it off and there, gleaming and untarnished, sat a yellow egg, golden in the sun's rays. As I reached for it, I heard Mrs. Lancaster's now tremulous voice. "Have you found something?" she asked.

And I slid the leaf back over the egg. "No, Mrs. Lancaster. It was nothing."

The breath she expelled made a cloud in the air and I, without a glance back, walked past her into the church. Who was I to crush years of her disbelief?*




*The above is quite possibly a total fabrication.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

My Advice to Literary Agents

So I guess this #queryfail thing has the agent/writer blogosphere all a twitter (pun most certainly intended). I didn't follow it real closely, but my understanding is that some agents tweeted (twittered?) as they received and rejected queries. Some writers liked the free advice, some were offended. (Shocking, I know.)

Enough were offended that there was talk of doing #agentfail, where writers would bitch vent about agents. You can read many of their complaints here, although, frankly, I wouldn't.

It's gotten to the point where some agents have felt the need to respond. (And yes, I'm sure the irony has been noted.) Nathan Bransford is running an Agent-For-a-Day contest (no, thanks), Janet Reid has been introspective and even somewhat apologetic, and Kristen Nelson thinks the hullabaloo is an unnecessary distraction that won't change a thing. (She's right.)

But what the agents should be doing is nothing. They should not be responding, reflecting, explaining, apologizing, defending, or any other thing that ends in "ing," and here's why:

Agents receive a ridiculous amount of queries, which means that there are a lot of people with manuscripts out there--far more than there are agents who could realistically represent them. That puts power in the hands of the agents. They are, in effect, bouncers standing in front of a very exclusive club that everyone wants to get into. Bouncers do not need a reason to keep you from entering, and, in fact, should not be giving reasons because doing so invites counter-arguments and complaints.

It reminds me of something I once heard Donald Trump say. Here's the quote:

"In fact, I fired somebody yesterday and I took 20 minutes to explain to him why he can do better outside of my company. I do it nice and easy. Of course, they wake up the next morning, they hate you anyway because they realize, hey, I just got fired."


And that's the point. These writers who complain about agents aren't doing anything to help themselves and the primary reason they're upset is because they haven't succeeded and they need to blame someone other than themselves. Every rejection and perceived slight becomes a personal affront. Agents, take my advice and take a page from The Donald. Quit justifying what you do and why you do it, because at the end of the day (hate that phrase), your rejection is still a rejection, no matter how nice you are about it.*


*Unless it's my manuscript. In that case, all the feedback you can muster would be highly appreciated because, as we all know, I'm far more important than other writers.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Defending Scholastic: Part Three

Note: My guess is that most of my followers really don't want to read the following as I've already brilliantly defended Scholastic twice and have thus converted the haters while at the same time reaffirming the beliefs of those already in support. However, according to some internal data, I've received a fair amount of hits on this blog via Google searches for "scholastic and ccfc" so I figured why not give the Google searchers what they want. Plus, I already had it written.

“It’s bad enough that so many of the books sold in Scholastic book clubs are de-facto promotions for media properties like High School Musical and SpongeBob SquarePants,” said Dr. Linn. Source


One of the problems CCFC has with Scholastic is their cozy relationship with large media corporations and their peddling of licensed character products such as Hannah Montana or High School Musical books.

And here is where I defend Hannah Montana and High School Musical books. (Hmm, there's something I never planned on writing.)

When I was a kid I did not love reading. I didn't hate it, either, but I certainly wasn't spending my recess huddled up against a brick wall with my nose stuck in Charlotte's Web. I liked baseball, fart jokes, Star Wars, and G.I. Joe. (So basically, not much has changed.) Left on my own, I read the Crestwood House Monster Books, biographies of famous baseball players, Star Wars movie novelizations with lots of pictures and a few stickers, and, because my dad recommended them, Hardy Boys mysteries. I'm sure CCFC would not have been pleased.

However, and here's where I defend Hannah and Zach, I read what I was interested in (wacky notion, huh?) and that reading made me a better reader. I learned that reading was okay (as long as it wasn't Laura Ingalls Wilder. Sorry, ladies) and so I read more. Eventually, I picked up Roald Dahl and Judy Blume and later on, Stephen King and Michael Crichton. The point is this: If it takes Disney or Warner Brothers to get my students interested in reading, that's fine with me. I'd rather have kids reading junk than nothing at all. (And besides, I thought the quality of literature was subjective. Give me Captain Underpants over Jennifer Holm any day.)

And while I'm on the topic, I wonder how CCFC feels about Harry Potter and The Golden Compass. Both started as novels, but have become huge multi-media franchises. Is it okay for Scholastic to sell the Harry Potter books now that the characters have been licensed? Can they sell the books, but not the stickers and pens? Is JK Rowling the devil for allowing her characters to be used to market everything from lunch boxes to underwear? Oh wait, the answer appears to be yes. (The linked article was written by the head of CCFC.) It's all a little ridiculous, is it not?

From washingtonpost.com:
In an interview last fall, Jon Scieszka, the Library of Congress' first national ambassador for children's books, was emphatic in his belief that parents embrace all types of new media and alternative books and stop demonizing them. "We need to acknowledge that TV, computer games and movies are different than books," he said. "But you can do all of those things. ... Reading is in all those formats."

I agree. Let's quit demonizing Scholastic for trying to make a profit and acknowledge that they provide kids with many options (just like we adults enjoy), and while not every child is going to pluck the latest Newbery winner off the shelf (although this year, they just might), many kids are able to buy what they want to read at an affordable price. More books in more kids' hands is a good thing, even if that book is Spongebob Squarepants.